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 Can you control the past? · 2021-08-29T08:46:37.209Z · LW · GW

This is probably too trivial a point to mention, but FWIW:

“Try, for example, to make the two whiteboards different. Imagine that you’ll get ten million dollars if you succeed. It doesn’t matter: you’ll fail. Your most whimsical impulse, your most intricate mental acrobatics, your special-est snowflake self, will never suffice”

I know you specified that both AIs are internally deterministic and have identical inputs (rooms, whiteboards etc), but if I were them I’d try and seek out some indeterminacy elsewhere. Eg go out of the door, get some dice (or quantum random number generator), and toss them to decide what to write on the whiteboard, and thereby get two different results. Or just draw the night sky on the whiteboard (which will differ if they’re light-years apart); note this doesn’t require any indeterminacy in the universe, merely a lack of universal symmetry to break the Twin Earth setup.

To which you’d respond, well let’s say the AI can’t do that (it can’t move, etc.)

(And ex hypothesi it can’t create indeterminacy within the room, eg by tossing the board marker, because the rooms are identically set up, including air molecules etc.)

ADDED: though maybe it could say something Basilisk-like that would (or might sometimes) persuade someone else to provide an indeterministic or night-sky-like input. But if its only means of communication or action is writing on the whiteboard, and only the first thing it writes counts (or it can only write once), that wouldn’t work.

Comment by bfinn on A Guide for Productivity · 2021-08-24T10:24:14.727Z · LW · GW

Thanks for this. Having read many productivity books I can confirm this is an excellent summary (and better than reading most of them). And includes some useful points I hadn't seen elsewhere (eg the idea of evaluating every subtask of a project after doing it, not just the whole project). So I hope more people will read it.

A few comments arising:

  1. You can also of course do a daily & weekly evaluation (possibly combined with gratitude for things that went well - as recommended to increase happiness). Also monthly & annual ones - the latter maybe lasting a whole day or two! At some point I will write up all my thoughts on how to do this.
  2. I strongly recommend the books of Mark Forster. Not so well-known (not apparently being a self-publicist, or in it for the money!), but a very good thinker with many apparently original ideas (not all of which I agree with). His methods have developed over time, so his latest book Secrets of Productive People is probably the best to read, though IIRC it doesn't include everything from his previous books, and goes into less depth on the reasoning behind his ideas.
  3. Re prioritisation, in addition to importance, timing and deadlines need to be considered. It isn't always optimal to do the most important thing first: if that can wait, but there is a less important thing with a tight deadline, that should usually be done first. So importance & timing need to be balanced, in ways that aren't always obvious. I wrote more about this here
  4. Re delegating, the consideration isn't just your area of expertise. That may be right for work, but as you should maximize leisure productivity too (as you point out), you can delegate some leisure things and do others even though you're not expert at them. (Eg sport, cooking, playing an instrument, childcare.) I think the correct consideration for whether to delegate is what is best use of your time - i.e. delegate things that aren't. In work the best use of your time is probably doing things you're expert at; but in leisure it's things like what you enjoy. So if you really enjoy cooking dinner for friends, and have time to, it can make sense to cook dinner yourself rather than delegating it to Deliveroo. Again, I wrote more about this in the above link.
  5. Maybe the reason your post hasn't had more upvotes is it's so long, so hasn't been read. I suggest you could produce a much shorter version, almost a listicle of tips with less explanation (and link to the full version for those who are interested). I know the Internet is full of junk productivity listicles, but yours would be a very good one.
Comment by bfinn on A Better Time until Sunburn Calculator · 2021-08-17T08:37:37.135Z · LW · GW

Interestingly there's a pill you can take which has sun protection effects - polypodium leucotomos extract. It reduces UV damage, equivalent to about SPF 4. So not a replacement for sunscreen, but a useful addition to it, as it protects spots you may have missed. Eg my girlfriend goes on long daily runs, for which it's hard to cover all exposed skin adequately with sunscreen.

It doesn't seem to be widely available, but I get it from Super Smart (order online from Portugal).

The recommended dosage is 1 x 500 mg first thing in the morning (as it takes 30-120 minutes to take effect). If you'll be out in the sun all day, maybe take another one mid-morning. And preferably also take one the day before sun exposure - so not a bad idea to take one (or two) daily all summer.

The lowdown on scientific research into it is here: This seems somewhat tentative, but in a more detailed (?subscription only) report elsewhere on the site they recommend it quite strongly.

Comment by bfinn on Being the (Pareto) Best in the World · 2021-07-29T08:36:56.563Z · LW · GW

A v interesting analysis. That diagram is quite illuminating.

Recent editions of the bestselling careers advice book What Colour Is Your Parachute? have a long exercise on identifying your skills and brainstorming niche careers located at their intersection. Presumably there's a certain amount to be said from economic theory about careers that aren't at the Pareto frontier but are nonetheless near it. And possibly heuristics about identifying them, i.e. promising regions.

Me me me reading your analysis I realized how well it applies to me. I was a good programmer as a teenager, and a competent classical musician (though could barely have made a career of it as it's so competitive). And had absorbed entrepreneurial know-how from my parents. So I was above average, but not stellar, at all three. But (unplanned) I put them together to be a music notation software entrepreneur - of which there are only a handful in the world. Yet a niche big enough to be very successful if you're the best of that handful.

Comment by bfinn on DeepMind: Generally capable agents emerge from open-ended play · 2021-07-28T23:34:57.518Z · LW · GW

The game world could include a sign stating the rules/objective of the game in English. Presumably then (perhaps helped by GPT-3) the agents might well learn to find & read it, as the best shortcut to working out what to do. And figure out both the meanings of individual words (nouns, adjectives, verbs) and grammar (word order, conjunctions, etc.) so as to understand whole sentences.*

And thus make the leap from GPT-3 as clever spinner of meaningless symbols like R, E and D to those symbols having a real-world meaning like 'RED'. Or even 'Keep the red cube within line of sight of the yellow pyramid, but don't let the blue agent see either of them'.

Hence leaping from Chinese Room to something more mind-like?

(*Though they might need help, e.g. a pre-coded 'language instinct', as trial and error may take a v long time to figure these out.)

Comment by bfinn on DeepMind: Generally capable agents emerge from open-ended play · 2021-07-28T22:33:04.765Z · LW · GW

They do use context, surely - viz. the immediate verbal context, plus training on vast amounts of other text which is background 'information'. Which though not tantamount to meaning (as it's not connected to the world), would form a significant part of meaning.

Comment by bfinn on How much do variations in diet quality determine individual productivity? · 2021-07-28T14:47:14.471Z · LW · GW

It occurs to me glycemic load may be a factor. This is only a small study but it suggests an effect of high glycemic load (eg from poor diets) on depression and maybe fatigue. Also that these are worse for obese people, and poor diet causes obesity.

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-22T20:13:08.058Z · LW · GW

Cf very surprisingly, a few years ago Princess Anne, a noted horse-rider who competed in the Olympics, called for horses to be eaten so as to improve their welfare. (I.e. so those unsuitable, or no longer suitable, for riding still have a value.) She said this in a speech for the World Horse Welfare charity, of which she is president.

Comment by bfinn on The Utility Function of a Prepper · 2021-07-22T16:33:47.198Z · LW · GW

Indeed. I think it's pretty clear there are a few basic prepping things (such as water storage) which are well worthwhile whatever the risk, because they're cheap and potentially life-saving. And some useful halfway houses - eg re wilderness survival, buying a book (but not going on a survival course) is a cheap option.

Comment by bfinn on The Utility Function of a Prepper · 2021-07-22T15:17:44.768Z · LW · GW

Indeed, they sent fewer trucks as a result of correct planning. The predictions seemed to assume supermarkets wouldn’t plan.

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-22T08:59:06.635Z · LW · GW

I didn’t mean make them extinct. I meant not let them reproduce freely, and control their numbers by sterilisation and culling. If done to a severe extent (which may not be necessary in the case of food animals) I can see an analogy with genocide.

(Cf though I’m not an animal rights activist in any way, even as a child I thought there was something odd about the mass extermination of coypu in the UK merely because they ate crops.)

Comment by bfinn on The Utility Function of a Prepper · 2021-07-21T09:15:01.764Z · LW · GW

Societies have collapsed before. Plenty of data on eg civil wars presumably. So one could make a useful ballpark estimate of the annual risk of this. Which I suspect is surprisingly high even for rich countries; if we factor in covid as a near-miss. And things like the BLM protests/riots could also lead to local civil breakdown with resulting shortages. Oh, come to think of it it did - CHAZ. In which IIRC the protesters ran short of food and had to request outside supplies.

Comment by bfinn on The Utility Function of a Prepper · 2021-07-21T09:11:40.108Z · LW · GW

Here in the UK many people did basic prepping against Brexit, by buying lots of canned food in case there were import shortages. (Not surprisingly these were Remainers, ie opposed to Brexit, so more inclined to believe doom-laden narratives about it.)

As it turned out there were no such shortages, nor indeed the predicted miles of food trucks from Europe held up at customs, because supermarkets had planned adequately.

There was also of course a lot of hoarding at the start of covid. A friend of mine bought a second freezer and filled it with a month’s supply of pizzas etc. He also made serious plans to (illegally?) decamp to another part of the UK (and asked me to join him) so as to be very near a major hospital. He researched which hospitals had the most available intensive care beds.

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-20T23:06:18.974Z · LW · GW

2 is similar to my reply above about 'right to reproduce'. Sounds like you mean the right not to go extinct (re which arguments for biodiversity would also apply); though it's not likely that cows & chickens would actually go extinct if meat production were banned.

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-20T23:02:48.632Z · LW · GW

Not sure what you mean by 'both uses can coexist' - i.e. a chicken treated as a pet then eaten? Unlikely.

You may have more of a point re people owning a hen as a kind of pet (i.e. well treated) in order to lay eggs, rather than be eaten; as some people of course already do. I can see that could become more widespread.

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-20T12:54:53.399Z · LW · GW

I'd split the first case into two:

  • (a) Current meat production: 1000 animals poorly treated and killed young for cheap meat
  • (b) My ideal: (say) 200 animals very well treated and killed, preferably not quite so young, for expensive meat.

Then if we call your 50 wild animals case (c), my claim is that:

  • b > c (as more animals, better conditions, and maybe not much shorter lifespan, but probably more total life-years anyway, and more happiness x years); and
  • b > a (assuming (a) involves conditions worse than, or not much better than, non-existence).
Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-20T12:40:29.246Z · LW · GW

My position is in the penultimate paragraph.

OK it looks like I didn't understand what people mean by 'right to life' - probably because I'm inclined towards consequentialism, so don't understand or believe in rights-talk.

However I think an analogous argument could be made along the lines of a 'right to reproduce' (which I suspect many might reckon exists). Non-existent animals don't have the right to exist per se, but their parents have a right to reproduce, which would make them exist.

Cf in the human sphere, mass forced sterilization (of an ethnic group, say) would no doubt be deemed a form of genocide - i.e. infringing something similar to a right to life.

Cf 'right to family life'

Comment by bfinn on Preparing for ambition · 2021-07-19T22:34:25.245Z · LW · GW

Well it's true you do feel perpetually under pressure, and maybe behind in that there's always far more you could do than hours in the day. (This only finally ended when I sold my first business.) So that is a level of stress, though not necessarily a very high level. Hence 'pressure' is perhaps the better term.

But failing is a different, far worse experience.

This is speaking from my own case. No doubt, as you mention, some people experience unwarranted anxiety/depression even when succeeding.

Comment by bfinn on Preparing for ambition · 2021-07-19T19:47:35.096Z · LW · GW

In my personal experience, FWIW, any startup involves a certain amount of stress due to all the work & uncertainty involved. But this is fine for a startup that's succeeding, and all part of being an entrepreneur; but a startup that's failing adds lots of anxiety & depression.

Which is kinda obvious - success is good though somewhat stressful, failure is just bad all round - but worth spelling out.

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-19T19:20:49.232Z · LW · GW

Re Stone Age suffering, as you probably know, violence has been in long-term big decline, and much higher in non-states than states:

Life expectancy at birth in Afghanistan is 64, which is 2 or 3 times in the Stone Age. Suggesting worse general health back then, with attendant suffering. (Infant deaths are of course a substantial part of the lower life expectancy, but by no means all.)

Indeed there's a wider ranges of potential causes of suffering now, but I'm not convinced they're worse overall. E.g. being shot is not clearly worse than being stabbed. People are rarely burnt at the stake now. Chemical pollution is fairly new, but there were plenty of other poisons before. Disease/death from air pollution is predominantly a problem of non-industrial societies (from cooking over open fires), not cars etc.

And of course modern medicine provides ways of alleviating suffering, via treatments and anaesthetics, mostly unavailable in the Stone Age (though at least to some extent available in Afghanistan).

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-19T17:38:41.698Z · LW · GW

Re your first point, indeed, though if one believes in deontology, hence in rights, you may also think there's something iffy about denying many sentient beings happy lives (ended by painless deaths), which is what I argue they should have. (And there is no plausible middle ground in which cows & chickens would be bred in large numbers and well treated but not eaten - i.e. get to live the lives of pets.)

Re your second point, I can envisage a scenario in which factory farming (i.e. conditions that make animals unhappy) is outlawed, and/or meat is mostly superseded by lab/plant products, but much smaller amounts of expensive happy animal meat are still produced, because (a) it tastes better (or has better texture etc.) to most people, or (b) to a few people, or (c) has sufficient cachet & signalling value (e.g. due to rarity/price) that it is treated as if it tastes better.

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-19T17:25:34.377Z · LW · GW

OK I guess this is the 'person-affecting view' I've heard slightly about - that nothing is lost by animals/people not being brought into existence. No doubt this is gone into far greater depth in population ethics etc (of which I know little), but my gut response would be that by not being brought into existence the potential animals in question are missing out, even though they don't know they are. As their potential happiness is being prevented. We might say, the world is missing their happiness.

If Stone Age people were happier than wild animals, that only strengthens my case. And I expect in the Stone Age they weren't happy at all, by modern standards, if we consider the least happy current country in the world (Afghanistan), whose people rate themselves 2.5 on a 0-10 scale, which is around 'barely worth living' (worse than death being considered below about 2). I assume levels of suffering from violence, disease, injury, cold and starvation were typically higher in Stone Age societies then in present Afghanistan, hence happiness lower. And wild animals' 'happiness' lower still.

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-07-19T10:21:36.269Z · LW · GW

There seems a big contradiction in the position of environmentalists who support animal rights (as almost all do). They say we shouldn’t eat meat because animals, and animal feed, contribute to CO2 emissions. But if we didn't eat meat, the animals we breed for that purpose wouldn’t exist.

Surely animal rights include the right to life. So denying billions of cows & chickens any life at all seems a strongly anti-animal position.

While meat production involves killing animals, at least they get some life. And if (a big 'if') they were well treated, so they'd enjoy the life they do get, that's a good deal for the animals. Because they'd be much better off than in the wild - a grim existence of starvation, disease, fear, and being torn to bits by predators. And they'd also be better off than not existing.

(The environmentalist assumption that life in the wild is good - because 'nature is good' - doesn't follow. Life in the natural state - e.g. the Stone Age - is nasty, brutish, and short. Human history is the struggle to escape the natural state.)

So, CO2 aside, my position is that meat eating is fine as long as the animals are well treated. Which would mean more expensive meat, and less of it, but that's OK. Happy cows are better than no cows.

(At this point some people object that 'the demand for meat is so high that it can't be met while treating the animals well' - but that ignores that demands don't have to be met; if supply is restricted by a welfare requirement, prices will rise accordingly, so only those who can afford to pay for happy cows will eat steak. It's like saying 'billions of people would want a private jet, so unless we ban private jets they'll all get one'. Well, they would if they cost $10, but not if they cost $10 million.)

Comment by bfinn on You are allowed to edit Wikipedia · 2021-07-10T08:07:20.141Z · LW · GW

Probably getting into too much detail on this specific case here, but the term (though recent) wasn’t invented in the WHR; I’ve also come across it eg in a book by Richard Layard, and I expect also occurs in various academic papers. But by draftifying the article the editor assumed that it’s probably wrong or unnotable. I reckon new stub articles, particularly coherent ones that seem to have been written by someone who knows the subject matter, should be given the benefit of the doubt (as was once the case), and assumed ‘probably ok’ until shown otherwise, rather than ‘probably not’.

Comment by bfinn on You are allowed to edit Wikipedia · 2021-07-08T08:32:12.546Z · LW · GW

That’s not my experience. These days I find innocuous edits to innocuous articles are very often reverted by someone who has appointed themselves the authority on the article in question. Only edits they really like will stay.

Comment by bfinn on You are allowed to edit Wikipedia · 2021-07-08T08:26:26.261Z · LW · GW

Indeed you can discuss edits on the talk page, but doing so does not prevent gatekeepers reverting anything at whim. So the position often is: your edit will not be accepted unless you’re prepared to spend an indefinite amount of time arguing the case for it.

This has always been the case and created problems at times, but the problem is now worse than ever. As, unlike before, your edit/article is now assumed guilty until proven innocent.

Comment by bfinn on You are allowed to edit Wikipedia · 2021-07-07T12:27:36.349Z · LW · GW

Having created a number of articles and made numerous edits on Wikipedia over the last 15 years, I’ve pretty much given up now. Because these days any edit I make is likely to be reverted by a self-appointed gatekeeper of the article in question, regardless of merit. And even articles I create with citations are marked for deletion because the citations are deemed not good enough. (Eg I recently created articles on the WELLBY and WALY, units of subjective well-being used in happiness economics. Both were swiftly removed by someone who obviously knows nothing about the topic. Citing the UN’s annual report on world happiness, written by the leading academics in the field, was not considered adequate! And unlike other articles mentioned by other commenters, there is nothing remotely controversial about this.)

Once upon a time the assumption was that new articles were probably worthwhile and would be improved in due course by you or other people. Now it seems to be that any new article is assumed wrong and bad unless you jump through a load of hoops to persuade some anonymous ignoramus otherwise.

This is so off-putting to anyone who wishes to improve Wikipedia; you are treated with passive-aggressive contempt. And the reverse of the original idea, viz. to encourage anyone to write & edit articles. The powers that be should really change this.

Comment by bfinn on Chess and cheap ways to check day to day variance in cognition · 2021-07-07T12:13:18.147Z · LW · GW

I too play chess often and have had similar thoughts. But I wonder whether day-to-day variation in winning is mostly random, and any perceived correlation with other intellectual tasks is erroneous or self-fulfilling. You could do an experiment for a few weeks where you rate your ability on both each day - sometimes playing chess after, sometimes before other tasks - and measure the correlation. Of course it can’t be blinded so it may be self-fulfilling.

From another experiment I did on ways to improve sleep, I’ve found that self-perceived correlation between various ways to improve sleep (eg eating a banana before bed) and sleeping well turned out to be entirely illusory.

Also cf many years ago research showed that ‘form’ in sports (individual sportspeople going through extended periods of good or bad play) was almost entirely illusory and just random variation. Concurred by work I’ve been involved with on poker software - two identical computer programs playing each other can look like one is much better than the other for very long runs of hands.

Comment by bfinn on The Point of Trade · 2021-07-03T16:05:57.299Z · LW · GW

FWIW I read quite a bit of The Wealth of Nations some years back, then gave it up as a waste of time since (a) modern textbooks would probably explain it better (I assumed), and (b) (more importantly) a lot of W of N must be wrong, and I won't know which bits to skip or disbelieve, so better just to read a modern summary of the important bits.

Comment by bfinn on Burst work or steady work? · 2021-06-25T09:52:40.494Z · LW · GW

Also FWIW, in case others find this useful: there are various ideas about the optimum length of time to work before taking a break, e.g. the so-called 'Pomodoro technique' (a silly grandiose name for a small idea) which recommends 25 mins plus a short break.

In my experience 1 hour is just right. The kind of work I do is relatively intense intellectual stuff (e.g. programming, spreadsheets), and once I've got going I'm in a flow state which is inefficient to interrupt (as I'd just continue thinking about it during the break). So if I work until I notice I'm starting to flag, then check my watch, I almost always find I've been working for close to 1 hour. I find a break of roughly 15 minutes is about right - i.e. about long enough to make & drink a cup of tea. And it seems about the right kind of work:break time ratio.

This means that you can do about 3 hours intense work in a morning (3 hour-long chunks with breaks in between), and say 1-2 hours intense work plus additional semi-work (eg admin) in an afternoon. Assuming mornings are more suitable for intense work (as I suspect they are for most people). This totals 4-5 hours solid work - which as mentioned is my average.

Comment by bfinn on Burst work or steady work? · 2021-06-25T09:40:35.757Z · LW · GW

FWIW I sometimes do steady work averaging 4-5 hours solid, focussed work per weekday (excluding breaks and semi-work like admin), which I think is the most many people achieve, as so much of their 'work' time is spent on chatting, breaks, pottering about, admin etc.

And sometimes I do intense bursts of many more hours per day for a few days or weeks, which tend in practice to be followed by recuperation periods in which I do much less than normal.

As it happens I've been recording complete data on my work & other hours for the last 9 years, so should do an analysis of which of the above methods works out more productive. That said it's affected by the fact that the intense bursts will be on more motivating projects.

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!