Comment by Mo Nastri on Gravity Turn · 2021-08-17T09:49:53.633Z · LW · GW

It is worth remarking though, that even a nuclear rocket might learn something useful from practicing the gravity turn maneuver. Just because you have an easy time leaving Earth’s atmosphere and have no need of finesse, doesn’t mean your travels won’t land you on Venus someday.

I'm reminded of the career advice page on Terry Tao's blog. When I first found it many years ago as a student, I wondered why someone like Tao would bother to write about stuff like "work hard" and "write down what you've done" and "be patient" and "learn and relearn your field". Wasn't this for "mere mortals" like me who have to do the best we can with the (relatively) limited brains we've got, instead of prodigies who win IMO gold medals at 13 and get PhDs from Princeton at 21 etc? But for whatever reason this particular nuclear rocket practiced the gravity turn maneuver pretty seriously; and (at least in math circles) we know how he turned out.

Comment by Mo Nastri on Against "blankfaces" · 2021-08-12T07:33:28.054Z · LW · GW

This strategy reminds me of epistemic learned helplessness.

Comment by Mo Nastri on The biological intelligence explosion · 2021-07-26T07:23:02.386Z · LW · GW

Relevant: Gwern's the Algernon argument.

Comment by Mo Nastri on Compositionality: SQL and Subways · 2021-07-19T10:15:29.404Z · LW · GW

Great post. I don't have much to add, but here are some related reads:

  • On compositionality by Jules Hedges, where he claims (among others) that "the opposite of compositionality is emergent effects" and "interfaces are synonymous with compositionality"
  • The epic story of container shipping by Venkatesh Rao, which expands upon your last example awesomely
  • This quote from Brad Stone's book The Everything Store on the inspiration behind Amazon's AWS is a nice example of your last paragraph on advice for system designers:

At the same time, Bezos became enamored with a book called Creation, by Steve Grand, the developer of a 1990s video game called Creatures that allowed players to guide and nurture a seemingly intelligent organism on their computer screens. Grand wrote that his approach to creating intelligent life was to focus on designing simple computational building blocks, called primitives, and then sit back and watch surprising behaviors emerge.

The book…helped to crystallize the debate over the problems with the company’s own infrastructure. If Amazon wanted to stimulate creativity among its developers, it shouldn’t try to guess what kind of services they might want; such guesses would be based on patterns of the past. Instead, it should be creating primitives — the building blocks of computing — and then getting out of the way. In other words, it needed to break its infrastructure down into the smallest, simplest atomic components and allow developers to freely access them with as much flexibility as possible.

Comment by Mo Nastri on The Pointers Problem: Human Values Are A Function Of Humans' Latent Variables · 2021-07-12T07:33:15.019Z · LW · GW

My impression is that you consider this obvious, when in fact I found this an insightful framing. So thanks.

Comment by Mo Nastri on The Point of Trade · 2021-07-03T08:03:45.643Z · LW · GW

See Dagon's comment above.

Comment by Mo Nastri on More Dakka · 2021-06-07T16:42:46.368Z · LW · GW

In case you were wondering, the interviewee is Ramit Sethi, who was talking about what he calls "money dials".

Comment by Mo Nastri on Aphantasia · 2021-05-28T08:53:12.034Z · LW · GW

You may be interested in this essay by Blake Ross, cofounder of Firefox and ex-director of product at Facebook, on discovering he had aphantasia, an insight that explained a million little things about his own personal experiences that seemed amiss relative to others. Quoting some passages (attention conservation notice -- there's ~1,000 words below):

How do you write fiction if you can’t visualize scenes?

I “imagine” scripts conceptually as described earlier. It’s easier to write for characters that have already been realized on the screen, especially when so many of them share my dry, sarcastic personality. If you reread the Silicon Valley script, you’ll find it’s heavy on ideas (what if a lawyer had a clock that counted money not time? what if Erlich compiled interview questions while stoned?) and light on descriptive language. Same with the Theranos parody.

Overall, I find writing fiction torturous. All writers say this, obviously, but I’ve come to realize that they usually mean the “writing” part: They can’t stop daydreaming long enough to put it on the page. I love the writing and hate the imagining, which is why I churn out 50 dry essays for every nugget of fiction.   


And, suddenly, fiction clicks. Paty says I used to worry that “I feel like I’m doing reading wrong.” Descriptive language in novels was important to her but impotent to me; I skip it as reflexively as you skip the iTunes Terms of Service. Instead, I scour fiction like an archaeologist: Find the bones.

The slender, olive-skinned man brushed the golden locks out of his hazel eyes. He was so focused on preparing for the assassination that he burned his tongue on the scalding cuppa joe (hazelnut, light cream).

That becomes: There’s an assassin.

I hurdle over paragraphs and pages, mowing down novels in one night because—while others make love to the olive-skinned assassin—I’m just fucking his skeleton. Some books are so fleshy they’re opaque: Lord of the Rings numbs. But Lord of the Flies gnaws, because I could meditate on the idea of society-gone-wild forever. Animal Farm is awesome. 1984. The splendor of Hogwarts is lost, but the idea of a dementor is brain fuel. And 2 + 2 = 5.

Nobody likes an author who shows off, of course. But friends tell me it is the written imagery—when done well—that delivers the very joy of reading. I can’t understand that, but I finally understand this: You really are annoyed with the actor in 50 Shades of Grey. It’s really not how you pictured him in the book.


I’ve always felt an incomprehensible combination of stupid-smart. I missed a single question on the SATs, yet the easiest conceivable question stumps me: What was it like growing up in Miami?

I don’t know.

What were some of your favorite experiences at Facebook?

I don’t know.

What did you do today?

I don’t know. I don’t know what I did today.

Answering questions like this requires me to “do mental work,” the way you might if you’re struggling to recall what happened in the Battle of Trafalgar. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t begin to answer. But chitchat is the lubricant of everyday life. I learned early that you can’t excuse yourself from the party to focus on recalling what you did 2 hours ago.

So I compensate. Ask about Miami and I’ll tell you, almost to a syllable:

I didn’t love it. It’s very hot, the people there aren’t ambitious at all. Also everyone is kind of angry, there’s like a lot of road rage. It’s fun to visit but I basically went as far away as I could for college, ha ha.


It was awesome getting to be there in the early days. I remember I would practically run to work in the mornings because I was so excited to share ideas with the team. There’s really no better feeling than seeing someone in a coffee shop using your work.

These lines are practiced. They are composites of facts I know and things I’ve read. I perform them out of body, with the same spiritual deadness that you might recount the Battle of Trafalgar.

And if you ask about my day, there’s a good chance that—having had no time to prepare—I’ll lie to you.

It is hard not to feel like a sociopath when you’re lying about how you spent your Monday and you don’t even know why. And there is a sadness, an unflagging detachment that comes from forgetting your own existence. My college girlfriend passed away. Now I cannot “see” So-Youn’s face or any of the times we shared together.

I have, in fact, no memories of college.

I once proposed to Paty that, since we were visiting my brother in DC anyway, let’s train over to the Big Apple and see Les Misérables. She said, we did that last year—for my birthday.

Often I ask my oldest friend to tell me about my childhood. Stephen and I joke that we’re the couple in The Notebook, but there’s an undercurrent of: Am I an idiot?

I’ve always chalked this up to having “bad experiential memory,” a notion I pulled out of thin air because “bad memory” doesn’t fit: I can recite the full to-do list of software I’m building. On a childhood IQ test, my best performances were on Coding and Digit Span, both memory-driven. Given an increasingly long string of random numbers, I hit the test ceiling by repeating and then reversing 20 digits from memory on the fly. My three worst performances were on Picture Completion, Picture Arrangement, and Object Assembly. I couldn’t put the damn images in order to save my life.

Perhaps none of this is aphantasia. But when I ask a friend how he how-was-your-days, he gives me a tour of the visualizations in his mind. The spaghetti bolognese; the bike ride through the marsh; the argument with the boss, and the boss’s shit-eating grin, and gosh how I’d love to punch him in the mouth, and can’t you just see it now? He says that looking back on his life is like paging through a Google Image search sorted by “most engaging.” He tells me that when he’s on the road, and loneliness knocks, and the damn Doubletree bed is a little more wooden than usual, he replays the time they tried to make sushi together—but the rice kept falling apart!—and we couldn’t stop laughing!—and did you know it burns when sake spews out your nose?—and that’s when she feels closer.

I wonder if it’s why I have such an easy time letting go of people.

Apologies for quoting all of that, and it's not quite an answer to "how do people with Aphantasia read texts and process while studying?", but what Blake wrote resonated pretty deeply with me -- I'm partially aphantasic, strong on conceptual imagination but a lot weaker than most on visual-auditory.

Comment by Mo Nastri on How concerned are you about LW reputation management? · 2021-05-17T03:01:57.496Z · LW · GW

Not an answer to your question, but Sarah Constantin's essay seems relevant. As usual it's hard not to just quote the entire piece:

But one thing I have noticed personally is that people have gotten intimidated by more formal and public kinds of online conversation.  I know quite a few people who used to keep a “real blog” and have become afraid to touch it, preferring instead to chat on social media.  It’s a weird kind of locus for perfectionism — nobody ever imagined that blogs were meant to be masterpieces.  But I do see people fleeing towards more ephemeral, more stream-of-consciousness types of communication, or communication that involves no words at all (reblogging, image-sharing, etc.)  There seems to be a fear of becoming too visible as a distinctive writing voice. ...

What might be going on here?

Of course, there are pragmatic concerns about reputation and preserving anonymity. People don’t want their writing to be found by judgmental bosses or family members.  But that’s always been true — and, at any rate, social networking sites are often less anonymous than forums and blogs.

It might be that people have become more afraid of trolls, or that trolling has gotten worse. Fear of being targeted by harassment or threats might make people less open and expressive.  I’ve certainly heard many writers say that they’ve shut down a lot of their internet presence out of exhaustion or literal fear.  And I’ve heard serious enough horror stories that I respect and sympathize with people who are on their guard.

But I don’t think that really explains why one would drift towards more ephemeral media. Why short-form instead of long-form?  Why streaming feeds instead of searchable archives?  Trolls are not known for their patience and rigor.  Single tweets can attract storms of trolls.  So troll-avoidance is not enough of an explanation, I think.

It’s almost as though the issue were accountability.  

A blog is almost a perfect medium for personal accountability. It belongs to you, not your employer, and not the hivemind.  The archives are easily searchable. The posts are permanently viewable. Everything embarrassing you’ve ever written is there.  If there’s a comment section, people are free to come along and poke holes in your posts. This leaves people vulnerable in a certain way. Not just to trolls, but to critics.

You can preempt embarrassment by declaring that you’re doing something shitty on purpose. That puts you in a position of safety.  You move to a space for trashy, casual, unedited talk, and you signal clearly that you don’t want to be taken seriously, in order to avoid looking pretentious and being deflated by criticism.  I think that a lot of online mannerisms, like using all-lowercase punctuation, or using really self-deprecating language, or deeply nested meta-levels of meme irony, are ways of saying “I’m cool because I’m not putting myself out there where I can be judged.  Only pompous idiots are so naive as to think their opinions are actually valuable.”

Here’s another angle on the same issue.  If you earnestly, explicitly say what you think, in essay form, and if your writing attracts attention at all, you’ll attract swarms of earnest, bright-but-not-brilliant, mostly young white male, commenters, who want to share their opinions, because (perhaps naively) they think their contributions will be welcomed. It’s basically just “oh, are we playing a game? I wanna play too!”  If you don’t want to play with them — maybe because you’re talking about a personal or highly technical topic and don’t value their input, maybe because your intention was just to talk to your friends and not the general public, whatever — you’ll find this style of interaction aversive.  You’ll read it as sealioning. Or mansplaining.  Or “well, actually”-ing.  And you’ll gravitate to forms of writing and social media where it’s clear that debate is not welcome.

I think what’s going on with these kinds of terms is something like:

Author: “Hi! I just said a thing!”

Commenter: “Ooh cool, we’re playing the Discussion game! Can I join?  Here’s my comment!”  (Or, sometimes, “Ooh cool, we’re playing the Verbal Battle game!  I wanna play! Here’s my retort!”)

Author: “Ew, no, I don’t want to play with you.”

There’s a bit of a race/gender/age/educational slant to the people playing the “commenter” role, probably because our society rewards some people more than others for playing the discussion game.  Privileged people are more likely to assume that they’re automatically welcome wherever they show up, which is why others tend to get annoyed at them and want to avoid them.

Privileged people, in other words, are more likely to think they live in a high-trust society, where they can show up to strangers and be greeted as a potential new friend, where open discussion is an important priority, where they can trust and be trusted, since everybody is playing the “let’s discuss interesting things!” game.

The unfortunate reality is that most of the world doesn’t look like that high-trust society.

There's more, do check it out.

Comment by Mo Nastri on The Steampunk Aesthetic · 2021-05-16T09:46:19.866Z · LW · GW

I wish you wrote more about the other aspects mentioned in your last sentence.

Comment by Mo Nastri on Moral Privilege · 2021-05-01T05:01:29.964Z · LW · GW

I know this isn't really what you're looking for, but I couldn't resist sharing Scott Alexander's satirical essay "Newtonian Ethics": It starts out like so:

We often refer to morality as being a force; for example, some charity is “a force for good” or some argument “has great moral force”. But which force is it?

Consider the possibility that it is gravity. In statements like “Sentencing guidelines should take into account the gravity of the offense”, the words “gravity” and “immorality” are used interchangeably. Gravitational language informs our moral discourse in other ways too: immoral people are described as “fallen”, sin is a “weight” upon the soul, and we worry about society undergoing moral “collapse”. So the argument from common usage (is best argument! is never wrong!) makes a strong case for an unexpected identity between morality and gravity similar to that between (for example) electricity and magnetism.

We can confirm this to the case by investigating inverse square laws. If morality is indeed an unusual form of gravitation, it will vary with the square of the distance between two objects. 

Comment by Mo Nastri on Specializing in Problems We Don't Understand · 2021-04-12T04:33:29.448Z · LW · GW

I'm intrigued by your second paragraph -- perhaps write a post about it?

Comment by Mo Nastri on Transportation as a Constraint · 2021-03-12T14:21:44.879Z · LW · GW

I think you'd love the X-Seed 4000 then:

The X-Seed 4000 was a concept skyscraper.[1] The idea was initially created and developed by Martin Pascoe. Its proposed 4-kilometre (2.5 mi) height, 6-kilometre-wide (3.7 mi) sea-base, and 800-floor capacity could accommodate 500,000 to 1,000,000 inhabitants. This structure would be composed of over 3,000,000 tons of steel.

Comment by Mo Nastri on Seven Years of Spaced Repetition Software in the Classroom · 2021-03-07T02:02:36.191Z · LW · GW

In any case I'm glad you didn't bother to jump through the IRB's hoops; admittedly my impression of them is colored by Scott Alexander's

Comment by Mo Nastri on Useless knowledge; why people resist education improvement · 2021-02-28T13:03:18.265Z · LW · GW

As a footnote to your comment, there's Scott Alexander's Read History of Philosophy Backwards (example: What the Hell, Hegel?).

Comment by Mo Nastri on The World is Full of Wasted Motion · 2021-02-03T08:24:58.800Z · LW · GW

Your remark that "learning is a process of information compression", plus the math example, reminded me of an old post by Qiaochu Yuan written in 2009 on his blog Annoying Precision

A little after that, I started reading math blogs, which was probably the best thing that happened to my mathematical education all of last year. It started with the master expositors Terence Tao and Tim Gowers. As I read through their archives, I marveled at how they were able to summarize and generalize technical arguments in non-technical but still enlightening ways. Once I learned that there’s more to mathematics than rigor, I realized that what Tao and Gowers do mentally is something like an enormous feat of compression. Rather than memorize the details of the proofs of the important results in their areas, it is both more efficient and ultimately more enlightening to compress an argument into a few important ideas, and provided you understand the subject well enough, you can (in principle) rewrite the entire argument from these big ideas. And the great thing about focusing on these big ideas rather than on the details of certain proofs is that you can apply these ideas to other situations where the details are different but the big ideas are the same.

Comment by Mo Nastri on Taking money seriously · 2021-01-31T13:06:48.517Z · LW · GW

When I was younger, I used to be proud of my relative indifference towards money. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that resource acquisition is a convergent instrumental goal.

Comment by Mo Nastri on Lessons I've Learned from Self-Teaching · 2021-01-25T01:15:45.216Z · LW · GW

On using Anki for math, Michael Nielsen wrote up his own experience trying it in this essay: 

I was previously skeptical that Anki could be used for anything more complex than "basic facts" (whatever I thought that meant), but Nielsen's essay changed my mind. 

Comment by Mo Nastri on Collider bias as a cognitive blindspot? · 2020-12-30T05:03:49.973Z · LW · GW

Perhaps related is this classic post by Thrasymachus: Scott Alexander uses that post as a jumping-off point to discuss a variety of topics, from ostensibly conflicting results in happiness research to the problem of figuring out a morality that can survive transhuman scenarios: (Or maybe I'm confused and this isn't really related to what you're talking about?) 

Comment by Mo Nastri on What are Examples of Great Distillers? · 2020-11-12T15:54:37.770Z · LW · GW

Chris Olah for machine learning (I'm thinking in particular of his backpropagation essay), Qiaochu Yuan for math (I'd been following his writing on Math Overflow and MSE for years before discovering to my pleasant surprise that he's also a frequent LW poster) as well as John Baez and Tim Gowers (their blog posts are, to me the gold standard for research-level math exposition), Sabine Hossenfelder for theoretical physics.

Comment by Mo Nastri on Is corruption a valuable antidote to overregulation? · 2020-11-08T14:07:06.978Z · LW · GW

I'm reminded of Janus Dongye's Quora answer to "How much corruption is there in China?". It's long and informative, but his point is basically that corruption both attracts talent and gets people moving, and that rising in the CCP entails learning how to balance corruption, risk (to your reputation if things go south) and efficiency to get things done and win promotion.