2021 Year in Review

Previous Year: [[2020 In Review]]

N.B: This is my annual retrospective post. It contains no special insights and is 100% skippable.

Summary

A good year overall. My economic situation continues to improve. My social situation is somewhat improved. Intellectually, I did not write anywhere near as much as I wanted and I didn’t read much. Still, my good habits (RSS feed aggregation, podcasts, pocket as a reading backlog) mean that I suspect my overall quantity of high quality reading has increased.

Writing

Total posts this year: 15 (+2 vs 2020)

Decent Posts

  • [[Why does tech debt exist]]
  • [[Avoiding problems is easier than fixing them]]
  • [[How far is technological progress deterministic]]
  • [[Fears and Thoughts on humanity moving towards a singleton]]
  • [[Against honouring allied bomber crews]]
  • [[80k podcast with Mushtaq Khan]]
  • [[Startup Idea – Children as a Service]]
  • [[Inefficient writing systems]]
  • [[Stupidity is a problem we should care about more]]
  • [[Ideas flow easily into empty vessels]]
  • [[Unrefined thoughts on some things rationalism is missing vs religions]]
  • [[Strength, not courage, is the second component of goodness]]
  • [[Inspired]]
  • [[Exploiting Crypto Prediction Markets for Fun and Profit]]
  • [[How my school gamed the stats]]

I’ve kept writing at a rate of at least one post a month. This is good but still I feel that both the quantity and quality of what I write is far below what I can achieve. I have dozens of decent ideas each quarter I never write up. In fact, I often write up ideas I think are less good while the "good" ideas languish on the backburner out of misguided perfectionism.

Main aim for this year re writing

write more often but also write a bit more carelessly. It’s better to write a post expressing a good idea poorly than to not write the post at all.

Reading/Listening

Total Books Read This Year: 9 (+4 vs 2020)

I continue to read three serials: A Practical Guide To Evil, Pale and Delve.

Books:

In terms of other content, I have 67 sources in the smart category of my RSS feed collections (? vs 2021) and 21 high quality podcasts.

I’ve finished my con study group and worked my way through principles of economics by Cowen and Tabarock.

main aim for this year re consuming info

I should do another study group. Mathematics sounds like a good next topic.

There are a few high quality sources that are paywalled. I have more money than I need. I should subscribe to

  • The diff
  • Razib Khan’s whatever
  • The private eye
  • Astral Codex 10
  • Dominic Cummings blog

$50 or so a month makes no difference to me financially and is a small price to pay for more knowledge. My avoidance of spending money is not rational, it’s a product of habits learned from when I was much poorer which are maladaptations in my present circumstances.

Money/Career

My economic situation continue’s to improve. I’ve gone from an annual income of 65k to one of roughly 110k. My net worth has gone from 54k or so to just north of 100k, largely due to saving but also due to strong investment performance. My savings rate continues to stay above 50% despite large one time costs for buying a house/healthcare. Money has strong compounding. Good decisions and bad decisions both have disproportionately large effects if made early in life. I’m thankful for my wealth and for having had the right sources of information and morals to make the correct decisions regarding it.

In the longer term, I don’t think I want software engineering to be what I do with my life. I miss philosophy and think I can make more of an impact there. I also look at a lot of arguments in the field and find them fairly weak, plus I love discussing it more than anything else. It’s worth trying out at some point. Along with other things like politics, a podcast etc… Still, that transition is years in the future.

Misc

My social life has improved a bit. At the beginning of the year I reached out to various people and scheduled one hour long monthly talks. These are going well and helping me keep alive/rekindle many old relationships. I have not met any new high-quality people, and that’s something I aim to work on a bit this year, especially once covid is over.

Why does tech debt exist

[[Software Engineering]]

(Raw and unedited. TODO: clean up a bit, use a better analogy. This could take half the space and say just as mutch)

Imagine you have a factory. In it workers stand on an assembly line and paint widgets. Different workers and teams paint widgets at different rates and in slightly different ways. Teams have only one output: painted widgets per week.

The factory owner want’s to maximize production of widgets. From the top down targets are set which reward people at every level for producing more widgets and punish them for producing less. What happens next? Simple. People are incentivised to maximize their production of widgets and so they do so to the best of their ability.

Now let’s change the scenario slightly. Imagine that team’s use machines to paint the widgets. Each team has their own machine. A team can choose to use a special paint. This paint is easier to apply and will increase their rate of widget painting by 50% overnight. But the paint damages the machine and consequently will slow the team down by 3% compounding for each month it is used.

Would you expect teams to use the special paint?

The answer is probably not. Unless the incentive pressure is particularly harsh and the only concern is to survive the short term, any rational team should recognize that taking the drug will make them worse off in the long-term. It’s in their self interest to not use it.

(Not enough slack)

Now let’s change the scenario. Rather than each team having their own painting machine, instead imagine there’s a single giant machine everyone in the factory shares. The same scenario applies. Each team can choose to use a special paint. Using the special paint raises their productivity by 50% but slows down everyone by 3% compounding.

Would you expect teams to use the special paint?

The answer here is probably yes. It’s a classic collective action problem where a large private benefit and a socialised cost makes it individually rational for teams to do something that is collectively disastrous. Absent some kind of formal or informal control structure, output metric incentives will lead to people burning the commons.

This is why tech debt is such a problem in most low-mid tier companies. It’s illegible. Leadership pushes for more visible output (features/tickets). What they get is invisible tar which makes everything take longer and longer and longer as they’re left clutching their heads and wondering why.

(This is a partial explanation, there are other factors at play too. From not being able to not produce tech debt to bad individual incentives. I should write another article about the various factors that keep tech debt in check in good firms)

Avoiding problems is easier than fixing them

I think a lot about character, virtue and how to be a better person. One observation is that it’s far easier to avoid having problems in the first place than it is to overcome them once you have them. This applies to many of the more mundane aspect of life:

  • debt
  • addictive substances
  • poor health
  • bad people

The more in debt you get, the harder it is to get out as more and more money is eaten up by interest.

Once addicted to a substance, it’s hard to give up the addiction. Often it’s impossible to completely overcome it. Alcoholics famously say that you never stop being an alcoholic.

Once you let your health degenerate or a health condition progress, it’s often exponentially harder and costlier to treat. It’s harder to treat late stage cancer than early stage cancer. Ditto for most diseases. It’s easier to loose weight if you’re a bit fat than if you’re too obese to walk. (Although in fairness weigh loss is almost entirely down to diet)

The more you spend time with bad people, the more likely you are to be drawn into their problems/pathologies and to meet other bad people through them.

My general approach in life is to avoid these problems in the first place. I think one of the major causes of people making bad decisions in regards to various kinds of problems is conformity. Hence I think that by ignoring social consensus on something being "okay" and trying to decide for yourself if the risk tradeoff is justified, you can usually come to a better decisions. This is especially true of alcohol which is widely normalized but is actually a highly dangerous, highly addictive drug which causes health damage even when consumed in small quantities.

How far is technological progress deterministic?

Imagine an alternate 21’s century. Say the world diverged around 1900. Assume the same rough overall rate of technological development. No golden age, nuclear war, collapse etc… How different would their technological landscape look to ours? Would they have discovered most of the same tech’s we have or would we have vastly different technologies and progress in different areas?

This question is a subset of the more general question: how far history is chaotic vs path-dependent. Is our civilization like a river flowing through a canyon, one set path with only minor short-term diversions possible, or like water flowing over a plain where even small changes in initial conditions can carve out different channels?

Some thoughts on what makes a tech highly prevalent vs only existing in some possible worlds

  • The "distance" or leap needed to reach a new tech from existing tech. Whether the core discoveries that make the tech possible are incremental and linked to existing knowledge or areas of study or one-off, random insights. (I think the internet may be an example of the latter. Not sure thought. Networks between devices were always going to be a thing Maybe a global network of some kind would have arisen naturally even without the nuclear war proof distributed system we got)
  • Whether the tech is gated behind various understandings in many fields or progress or requires one field only
  • Whether there is a clear an pressing problem that the tech solves or if the uses of the tech only become apparent after it is developed, sometimes decades after
  • Whether a tech is politicized or not. (e.g: Eugenics/selective-breeding in the west. We could breed super-geniuses, we don’t because it’s taboo to engage in selective breeding, even if it’s not coercive)

It’s clear that certain technologies would exist in most non dark age possible worlds. It’s clear that some subset of tech would not. I doubt MOBA’s would have been discovered in other timelines as their creation seems to be just so accidental.

Why does this matter?

  • It determines how much low-hanging technological fruit may be lying around, open for exploitation if we engage in creative institution design or some other kind of reform/experimentation
  • It determines how far we should expect to be able to predict what the tech of extra-terrestrial civilizations will look like. Often people think of ET’s in terms of an overall level of tech development and how their level will compare to ours. A different view is that tech isn’t like a beachball but like a sea urchin. Different civ’s can have radically different levels of knowledge in different fields. Maybe there exist aliens with amazing materials science but no computers or AI or any kind. Maybe there exist civs with no mathematics but excellent biological spaceships made from pure intuition. (The more likely outcome by far is a dead universe or one filled with optimized AI ish life expanding at the speed of light)

Fears and thoughts on humanity moving towards a singleton

Robin Hanson writes about rot as a potential concern as humanity moves more towards a global government. I’ve often thought about the future of humanity and the merits of a multi-agent equilibrium vs a singleton. I intuitively understand why a singleton can be bad and my instinctive reaction is to fear a singleton. A single system encompassing all of humanity means no experimentation, no evolution. Worse, it likely means totalitarianism on a scale unimaginable today and the suppression of thousands of different ways society can be structured in favor of one specific way which happened to be chosen/most competitive at a specific point in history. With no competition comes no incentive to not trample on the lives and rights of the population. My mental reference point for a singleton is a global USSR or Nazi state.

Then again, I think a few intuitions/thoughts make me more sympathetic.

  • If the destructive capacity of humanity keeps on rising at a faster rate than our defensive/survivability capacity, then we could conceivably find ourselves in a world where an individual or small group can destroy the world/universe. Imagine if the average PHD at a mid tier university could create unstoppable self-replicating nanotech or an anti-matter bomb. Imagine that gpt-2 like algorithms advanced to the point where any person using them could create memetic viruses 10^50 times more contagious than Christianity or Islam. In such a world, the badness of even 1984 for eternity may be preferable to there being no humanity left.
  • If we look at life today, we have far more centralization but also far better lives. Civilization is a tiny part of human history, starting roughly when agriculture started. For most of human history there were countless small bands with extreme freedom. Today we live in far fewer, far more centralized entities with modern states exercising a great degree of control of everything from our shaping when we’re young (education and other forms of indoctrination) to how we can and cannot behave. Yet we have better, safer and I would argue freer (in the scope of action, not freedom from constraint sense) lives than ever before.
  • Competition between tribes/states/coalitions has often been violent. Nuclear war would be bad. Maybe future similar techs would be far worse and possibly they would have worse game theoretic equilibrium. Imagine the next-generation of nukes-equivalents is such that a first strike is always successful. In such a future ensuring there is no competition/war by virtue of there being a single hegemon may be the best option.

Overall I’m still undecided. I dislike the increasing degree of global centralization today. I worry it leads to less exploration of different ways of structuring society and consequently that we’re leaving a lot of low-hanging fruit lying around). I worry we risk Still, maybe a global singleton is the only way to prevent moloch from driving humanities’s destiny in the long-run.

Against Honouring Allied Bomber Crews

I saw a post today commemorating Bomber Command. British aircrews who flew raids primarily over German cities during the second world war. I don’t think they should be commemorated. Most flew missions attacking civilian targets. I expect that many new or suspected this was the case. That’s prima facia evil and wrong.

There are arguments on the other side. Maybe Social cohesion in war is important and honoring those who fight and follow orders improves cohesion. Maybe bombing civilians is fine if the alternative is a fascist takeover of your country. I don’t find either of those arguments very convincing. Social cohesion matters, but so does not committing atrocities or fighting wars of aggression. Honoring those who commit atrocities, assuming it is effective, also boosts the chance of soldiers agreeing to commit war crimes of of people being willing to fight in/support/see as glorious immoral wars. This is bad. How bad depends on the quantity of moral immoral wars and the difference in effect size honoring war criminals has on each kind of war. As for the second argument, I think doing a thing which has good consequences is only good insofar as your intentions are in line with the effects. I doubt many of the soldiers asked to bomb German cities thought through whether killing civilians was justifiable. I think they mostly just followed orders. More dammingly, I suspect that the vast majority would have done the same had their government been fascist and had they been attacking a democratic country in a war of aggression.

Thoughts on the 80k podcast with Mushtaq Khan

I recently listened to a podcast with Mushtaq Khan. He’s a development economics expert. He argued that productivity is primarily a result of knowing how to build good institutions (in the broad sense, this means businesses just as much as it means state institutions). He also argued that the traditional views of, and attempts to combat, corruption were hopelessly wrong.

His argument for institutions as being central to productivity is simple. Hospitals in developing nations are drastically less efficient not because the doctors are worse, most procedures are not hard and those same doctors perform fine when they go to the west, or due to equipment but due to bad organization. A particularly compelling part of the podcast was where he talked about wage differences and why they’re ultimately irrelevant. The productivity gap between a developing and developed nation can be 20 or 30x. Even for labor intensive goods, labor is only a minority of cost. Hence given the productivity differential no amount of wage lowering will make a 3rd world nation competitive. The real reason bangladesh won in textiles was not low wages, which every 3rd world country has but

  • A new protectionist agreement from the US excluding turkey/korea etc… from US markets but allowing LEDC’s like bangladesh
  • A korean firm essentially training a few hundred Bangladeshi’s and then those going off to build hundreds of businesses in Bangladesh.

When he talks about corruption he says things that resonate quite strongly with me, much more so than traditional narratives I see in NGO’s or university courses. Corruption is not the work of a small elite, It’s everywhere, everyone benefits and it’s essentially an equilibrium. Transparency doesn’t work. Everyone already knows who;s corrupt. Law enforcement and anti-corruption commissions don’t work. They become corrupted and worse are used to attack the enemies of the state. (Remember, everyone is corrupt. You have to be if you want a job. Hence anti-corruption drives and laws are just used to attack people who get on the wrong side of those with power or, ironically, who rock the boat and threaten to expose corruption).

What’s the solution to corruption? He’s less persuasive here and to be fair that’s expected. All states are different and changing the equilibrium from "everyone is corrupt and you must be too if you want to do business/not be killed" to "corruption is abnormal" is hard. His argument is that it happens when rules and law enforcement becomes in the interest of large organizations and when orgs can check each other. Being judged by your peers in a common law system. Korean firms requiring more reliable courts and legal systems as they grew and needed to be able to reliably make and enforce contracts with thousands or tens of thousand of suppliers. An argument he makes is that Korea’s success was not due to industrial policy, everyone did industrial policy and it didn’t work in most places, but due to Japanese colonialism wiping away patronage networks meaning the dictator was free to give out subsidies and then also to remove them, something that was not possible in other nations where firms had a great deal of political influence and would receive subsidies based on that influence, subsidies which could not be removed by leaders without risking backlash from the firms political network.

I’m a lot less convinced by his solutions than I am by his analysis of the problem. And I’m skeptical of problem analysis too. Broadly, I think there are a few problems I have with his views

  1. A persuasive sounding story != a true or complete story
  2. Incentives aren’t everything. Capacity also matters.
  3. There are many other factors.

First let’s talk one meta-level up. I’ve read mean books on development. More than a few of them focus on Asia and SK in particular but a few went further back and looked at the industrial revolution and European/American development. One thing is consistent among the good ones. They all tell stories that sound plausible but are absolutely incompatible.

  • Bad Samaritans attributes S Korea’s success to industrial policy
  • How Asia Works attributes success to industrial policy + agricultural reform + export discipline
  • Other articles attribute success to genetics, specifically IQ
  • Lack of state dominance, e.g the democratic liberalism of the UK and US
  • geography & geopolitics
  • waterways and natural cost of transportation
  • climate
  • religion
  • culture Reading them in isolation, most of these theories can sound plausible but they can’t all be true. I’m very skeptical of my ability to tell which development theory is true based on how persuasive a specific author/thinker makes it sound.

Second, incentives. His whole shtick is giving the various actors in society the right incentives. The problem here is that incentives aren’t all that matter. Put an ardent communist in power and give them the right incentives to make the state effective, they’ll just try different variants of communism. Running a country means choosing from a near infinite variety of options. You’ll only consider a limited subset based on what is normal and what you think is likely to work. This is largely based on your ideology. Giving leaders good incentives is all fine but it’s not enough. There has to be an ideology of economics/politics which is decent enough to give them good options to choose form. This bleeds over into point 3, other factors.

The most damming criticism for me is the lack of steel-manning of opposing views. He talks a lot about institutions and incentive equlibriums. I think these things are important. I think other things are also important. Do you have hostile neighbors. Is the state strong enough to control it’s territory. Is there a common national identity or is your state just some lines on a map? Is the ruling elite educated or not? What’s the dominant ideology? What is the culture like? (Is China’s 1000+ years of Confucian bureaucracy really unrelated to their country running well despite having a billion+ people?).

All in all interesting to listen to but not enough to overcome my high meta-skepticism of anything I read/see/hear on development economics.

Also, I think it’s good to write things like this. The perfect is the enemy of the good. My main aim should be to write a lot because my main problem is not writing enough. Also, writing is a skill and a habit. The more I write, the more I develop both. (Also, no one actually reads my writing so there’s no risk of me misleading people by writing things that are wrong)

Startup Idea: Children as a Service

We generally hold that people have the right to have children and that neither the state nor society can stop people from having children. We tend to believe this even in cases where people are obviously parasites on society and will be unable to take care of their children. e.g: Drug addicts, habitual criminals, repeatedly abusive/neglectful parents. Why is this?

Two theories? For most people reproductive rights are sared or close to it and cannot be infringed on or traded away. For me it’s just a useful social norm. Even if I would be fine with an isolated case of stopping a unsuitable person from having children, I worry about the erosion of "The government/majority isn’t allowed to dictate who can have children" norm.

To the extent we believe that reproductive autonomy is valuable, I think we should probably believe it’s also valuable as a positive right, not purely a negative one. I care a lot about people not being sterilized or forced to have abortions but I also car about people not being infertile due to other, non-human causes. If having children is very important to many people, then it’s bad when certain people are unable to do it.

Why can’t people have children? One reason is infertility. Another, far more common reason is not finding a partner. I think this reason is under-appreciated by society.

In an ideal society, everyone would be able to have children much the same way everyone can order a $5 jar of peanut butter from Amazon. How can I move society towards this?

Advocacy for research into exo-wombs etc… is one avenue but not one I think is tractable.

Another idea is to create a business offering children as a service. The firm would maintain

  • a high genetic fitness sperm bank
  • a high genetic fitness egg bank
  • a bank of well-paid, healthy surrogates

Prospective parents with lots of money could essentially get a child as a service with no more effort than getting a house or car. They could either go with a fully outsourced package (sperm + egg + surrogate) or bring some parts in house as they wished, using their own sperm, egg or womb.

Key Value Proposition: Make getting a child as easy as buying a house

What about safeguards for the children? A few thoughts

  • Non identity arguments apple. Any existence is better than no existence.
  • If we’re overwhelmed by demand, we should priorities the best parents.
  • If we have more supply, we should offer our service to every parent who will create a net positive life for the child.
  • There are also positive externalities from this project, both in terms of eugenic effects and in terms of creating likely highly successful members of society

Inefficient writing systems

A phonemic language is one where how you write is very similar to how things sound. Essentially, if you know how to say something and you know the alphabet, then you can write/read the same thing. Serbian is an example of a phonemic language. A non-phonemic language is one where words are not written how they sound. English is a non-phonemic language. Non phonemic languages are harder to acquire literacy in. Children learning to read and write in the UK have to learn a host of complex rules, exceptions and individual word spellings. Finally a logogramatic language is one where the alphabet doesn’t represent sounds. Instead symbols usually represent words or ideas. Chinese is such a language. If you want to learn how to read/write it to any reasonable level, you’ll need to know at least 3000 characters.

The continued existence of non-phonemic writing systems is a suboptimal equilibrium. Such writing systems make learning to be literate in a language far harder than it needs to be. They also probably have very serious costs. They effect hundreds of millions of people and, given that even in first world countries between 10% and 25% of adults are functionally illiterate (remember that your bubble is strong), their costs in terms of lost productivity and individual flourishing are likely large. Still I’ve never heard anyone talk about language reform. Why is that?

One theory is elite blindness. Almost everyone in the elite is fully literate. You don’t get to be a journalist/professor/union leader/politician/NGO worker if you’re not literate or have a low IQ (which strongly correlates with literacy). Because our personal bubbles tend to be incredibly strong, most elites are hence surrounded by people similar to them or at most a standard deviation or two away in terms of IQ. Hence most people with power will not only never struggle with literacy themselves but they will also never meaningfully interact to the 10 – 20% of society which does. Hence the problem is essentially invisible to everyone who matters.

Another theory is sunk costs. Even if we did recognize the problem with bad writing systems, there’s a massive sunk cost in terms of how many people use the current language and how hard it is to shift that usage to a different form. It would take a national campaign, a large amount of resources and a huge political effort. The problem seems intractable, hence no one bothers to bring it up.

A third theory is that it’s not controversial/sexy. There’s no bad guy to point at. There’s no ideological struggle or way to tie language systems into larger political narratives. It’s a fairly dry issue that no individual or political faction can be blamed for.

(N.B: While I’m fairly convinced that having a non-phonemic language makes learning to read and write much, much harder than it needs to be that’s based on personal experience and conversations, not an any kind of systemic research. Maybe I’m just wrong. Epistemic Status: Reasonably high confidence)

Low intelligence is a problem we should care about more

In the past many things we today consider very bad were normal. Slavery, war, starvation, dirty water, oppressive governments. Many people realized that these things were bad but did nothing to try to change them. Why? Some of the reasons are obvious. Instinctive passivity. Collective action problems. Different/wrong morals. Still, I think one of the major reasons people didn’t do more is that they were essentially blind to these problems because they saw them as natural and inevitable. I think something similar applies to IQ today.

People have vastly different levels of intelligence. Some of this is due to culture and other environmental effects that take place after birth. From teaching rationality to reducing ambient lead exposure, there are things we do to try and alter the environmental influences of intelligence. Still, in developed nations most of the root cause of a person’s intelligence isn’t environmental, it’s genetic. IQ is highly hereditary and dumb people are usually dumb because they had dumb parents and visa versa.

The existence of stupid people is a problem. It’s bad for those people because they are less productive, easier to take advantage of and also less capable of thinking, reasoning and understanding the world. It’s bad for society because the stupider a person is, the less economically productive, more predisposed to violence/crime and less capable of voting well they are.

I find it strange that we aren’t shouting from the rooftops about how much of a problem stupidity is. I think it’s partly the assumption that it’s natural/intractable and partially social desirability bias. Normal people, even elites, don’t want to publicly state that they have high intelligence as it’s seen as immodest and insulting to others. I also suspect that because most people’s filter bubbles are so strong (what proportion of professors/engineers/doctors/lawyers regularly interact with a sub 85 IQ person?) most of us encounter an artificially narrow range of intelligence around us and so underestimate how big the real differences are.

A closing fun fact. Around 25% of people (IQ <= 90) literally can’t understand conditional hypotheticals(e.g: If X happened, would Y be true?).