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?).

Ideas flow easily into empty vessels

I remember a few events in college.

I went to a small liberal arts college in the Netherlands. The students were almost all left wing and anti-war/anti-us foreign policy. I was sitting in an extra curricular lecture on the Syria conflict organized by an American professor. She had invited the head of a pro-washington think tank to come in and talk about the conflict. What followed was 40 minutes of propaganda. Pictures of dead children. Descriptions of how the Syrian regime was barrel bombing civilians. Conspicuously absent was any mention of the various atrocities committed by the Washington/turkey backed rebels. At the end of the lecture the presenter passed around a letter and asked people to sign demanding tougher military action against the Syrian regime. Of the 60 or so left wing students, I’d say more than half were willing to sign. All it took to convince them to put their name to bombing a foreign country was a 40 minute lecture.

Another memory from university. I was the coach of the debating society. An older PHD student, a former successful Indiana lawyer, who attended our sessions asked me to attend an event with him. It was a show debate between me + him and another team formed of two students or professors. I can’t quite remember. This took place during the height of the refugee crisis. The motion was something along the lines of "Europe should not accept refugees". We were arguing in against accepting refugees. The audience was literally only sociology PHD students. Almost all were pro migration initially. After 20 minutes of speeches by me and my partner and a sound crushing of our opponents, more than half of the spectators were convinced of our side of the motion. Many literally came up to us afterwards and told us that we’d changed their minds on the issue.

Why is it so easy to convince people of things, even things that they strongly disbelieve? A few ideas.

One reason is that most people are empty vessels. If you read broadly, your mind is filled arguments and ideas. Whether the question is land reform, a war, a law or any other pressing issue you’ll at least see the outlines of the debate. Know roughly what the different sides say. That gives you an inoculation to persuasion. You can tell when a speaker is missing one side of the debate. You aren’t as easily swayed by one-sided narratives or surface level arguments. On the other hand, when you read almost nothing and know almost nothing any argument or theory sound appealing and persuasive. If you think I’m being too harsh, I’m not. Of the students I shared classes with, almost none read beyond their course readings. Those that did read at best a book or two, usually poppy stuff. This is the intellectual elite. Normal people don’t have even that.

Another reason relates to the wrong amount of trust/epistemic modesty. Rationalists talk a lot about epistemic modesty. That’s part of it. You shouldn’t be ready to sign your name to a letter asking for the bombing of a country, essentially taking sides in a civil war, after a 40 minute lecture. You should realize that you are fallible, ignorant and that there are people whose sole purpose is to persuade you and who are pretty good at their jobs. A more important part and one not as often discussed is trust. Ask any mentalist or stage magician and they’ll tall you how important the social proof of the stage and the role is. Something similar happens when people listen to arguments from someone they perceive as being high-status. If I walked up to those same students in either case on the street or after a class and gave them the same arguments, I doubt more than 5% would be convinced. But when you have a stage and a role, people’s minds turn into mush.

It’s scary how easily influenced most people are. Maybe it’s not as bad as I think. After all a high-ranked liberal arts college essentially means your selecting for people who are agreeable enough to sit through years of school work and homework and study enough to get good grades. A sociology PHD means the same + being willing to swallow mountains of bullshit. Still, I’m not hopeful. My experience of people at work or in high-school wasn’t better.

Unrefined thoughts on some things rationalism is missing vs religions

Rationalism seems somewhat like a proto-religion to me. It has norms of behavior very different from society at large. It has apocalyptic prophecies which it’s members strive to stave off. Still, what’s missing? I think a few things:

  • Rituals
  • Symbols
  • A community
  • Institutions around which to build a rationalist life
  • The normalization of rationalism as a central identity rather than a peripheral one or a non-identity

Rituals

Rituals come in many shapes and sizes. Some rituals are recurring and universal. Passover, Petrov Day or Eid all happen once a year at the same time for all believers. Others are singular and specific to the individual. A Bar-mitzvah, Hindu marriage or Irish wake all happen at different times for different individuals and mark transitions from one part of life to another. Some are happy. Others are sad.. Some are for the whole community. Think of Haj. Others are for friends and familly, think of a wedding. Others are for family alone.

I think a major purpose rituals serve is to create/reinforce identity. I’m not sure how they do this, but I have a few plausible mechanisms in mind:

  • Getting members of the same community/faith to meet and spend time together
  • Giving people time to think about important questions and their faith
  • Triggering irrational mechanisms which make our brains recognize each other as being part of the same tribe. (similar to how marching in time or wearing a uniform in the army works)

Raemon’s ritual sequence has some good thoughts on what makes rituals work and failure modes of rituals., Ruby’s wedding ceremony has some of the best speeches/rituals I’ve read.

While certain rationalists do celebrate certain rituals such as Solstice or Petrov Day, these rituals are not widely celebrated (most rationalists I know don’t celebrate them) and are few in number. Importantly, they’re also only one kind of ritual. There’s no rationalist ritual to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. From life to death. From an individual to a family. I think most pieces of the puzzle are missing.

Symbols

A cross means Christianity. The Stars and Stripes means America. Every identity has it’s symbols. I think symbols are important. I’m not sure why I believe this. I know people in history Maytered themselves over symbols. Old faithers dying for the two fingers instead of three. Maybe symbols are a coordination mechanism. A way to stake out an identity in public, to make yourself visible to others in your group and those not in your group. To tell the world you as a community exist. Maybe they’re a personal reminder. Like a magic object that contains a part of your Self.

Community

If you’re christian, you will more often than not have a community of christians you can access. This often won’t be your only community, but it’s there. Through coordination mechanisms like services, Sunday school, baptisms etc… you’ll meet people and eventually have a network of acquaintances.

That’s not the case for rationalism. In most cases you’ll have some online forums and blogs and maybe a local meet up with a few people once in a while.

Thoughts on why this is the case:

  • There are too few of us. Hence most places have too few rationalists to form a stable community.
  • Rationalists are overwhelmingly male and 20 – 35. This isn’t enough for a community, at least not the kind of one a church or religion offers.
  • We don’t have rituals. Hence meetups are awkward to organize, often stilted and revolve around the discussion of readings or rationality problems or even just lack any structure at all. Contrast this to a church where you show up every Sunday, listen to a service and then make smalltalk or go to a picnic.

Institutions

The word institution is broad. Here I use it to mean a real, formal organization with rules, membership and goals. Rationalism doesn’t have enough of these.

  • We don’t have a church, whether centralized like Mormonism/Catholicism or decentralized like Protestantism/Islam. No one dedicates their life to rationalism. Maybe that’s fine. After all, in many religions priests are community members with jobs, not a separate caste.
  • No one spends real time, energy or effort evangelizing rationalism. There are some arguments for why this isn’t done more, but I think the reason we don’t proselytize isn’t that we find the arguments against proselytize convincing. Rather it’s that no one get’s around to doing it. it’s a shame. From outreach in schools and universities to free education on avoiding epistemic capture, happy death spirals and partisanship, there’s a lot Rationalism could give to the world. I doubt even 0.01% of people matching the intellectual profile of today’s lessWrongers have been exposed to rationalism.
  • There’s no rationalist education. CFAR is expensive, inaccessible, only open to adults and only processes tiny numbers. It also does not provided a rationalist education. Rather it provides a toolbox of things which may make you better at acting rationality. There’s a difference between instrumental rationality and rationalism. The former is about getting better at a skill. The latter is a systems of beliefs and values which includes reason and knowledge as one of it’s core aims. (The other being preventing the many apocalypses waiting over the horizon) I’m not sure how necessary all of these institutions are but I think at least temples/churches and some kinds of schools are necessary for a functioning religion/movement.

Rationalism as a "core" identity

People have lots of different identities. I can be an employee of my company, a software engineer, a partner to my girlfriend, a Serb, an Atheist etc… Still, some identities are more core than others. Very few people hold their love of strawberry yogurt to be deeply important, meaningful and something which undergrids their day to day life. Many people do feel that way about their Religion.

Right now I think that for many people rationalism is a peripheral identity and attempts to embrace it as a core identity are seen as cringe or culty.

Strength, not courage, is the second component of goodness

I’ve long thought that there are three parts to being a good person

  1. Wisdom: Knowing what the right thing to do is
  2. Courage: Having the bravery required to do it
  3. Choice: Choosing to do it

All three deserve their own articles but for now let’s look at courage. My initial reasoning for courage was simple. Knowing is the right thing to do doesn’t mean anything if you’re too much of a coward to do it. When I was younger I would always imagine extreme scenarios when thinking about this virtue. Would I give up my life if asked to pledge to a false faith. Would I really choose death over giving up 5 innocent people to the secret police. As I’ve got older and stepped into the real world more and more, my experience has been that most people are essentially cowards and won’t even pay the most minor costs to do the right thing. Experiences I’ve had include:

  • A debating coach preferentially giving tournament spots to people she liked. Very few people in the club being willing to speak out, despite knowing this was happening and agreeing it was wrong, because doing so might loose them spots.
  • A consultancy lies on it’s timesheets, overcharging clients. None of the highly-paid, ultra-employable engineers besides myself are willing to go on the record and say to superiors that this behavior is immoral and literally illegal
  • A company made up of woke, socially conscious millennial being fine with defrauding the NHS by selling 1 min text chat’s between a counselor and child/teen as equivalent to full 40 min counseling sessions

Still, the problem with courage is that it describes only resistance to forces from the outside world. To be good, it’s not enough merely to be able to resist external pressure or social coercion. You also have to be able to master your own daemons. Whether it’s the urge to cheat on your partner, greed for the last cookie or biases against other peoples due to your upbringing, many character defects, irrationalities and compulsions can lead you to immoral behavior. Resisting these internal daemons is just as much a part of being a good person as resisting external daemons.

What word captures the ability to do what is right irrespective of both external and internal pressure? I think strength is that word. A person who is strong will do what is right even when doing so is hard. A person who is weak will cave, whether it’s to threats or to their own impulses. One issue is that whereas courage was too narrow, strength is a bit too broad. It can imply physical strength and also non-moral self-control. Still, I feel like capturing a slightly bigger area than I mean to is better than excluding half the area I want to cover.

Book Review: Inspired

INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love (Silicon Valley Product Group)

An interesting observation from four years in tech is that most orgs are absolutely dysfunctional when it comes to product. Teams don’t have autonomy and metrics to strive for, rather they’re feature factories who’s success is measured by how many epics they can pump out, irrespective of how much those epics actually contribute to the business. Products are planned out months in advance by managers rather than made and remade hundreds of times in response to user testing and feedback. Even on the technical level, most orgs and teams have to burn half their time fighting through technical debt and tangled systems to actually deliver value. I still remember working for a major bank where deploying code to production took months (not including the mandatory change review process), developers had to work on slow and buggy remote laptops and our software ran on windows server 2000s as any change to newer version would have had to go through a laborious security review. (For the non-technical, Windows 2000 is more than a decade old, is no longer supported or updated and hence has dozens of know severe vulnerabilities. Any hacker with two brain cells and a copy of metasploit can break into a windows server 2000). The core problem with the world is that most firms are dysfunctional and broken. And this is just from the highly selective sample I’ve had of large, successful companies with large tech departments and a willingness to admit that something was wrong. I assume the average level is far lower outside my bubble.

Inspired is a book which does something very important. It explains what good looks like in product. That is, what the correct way of doing product development is. It does this in a writing style akin to that of a smart 14 year old. It does it in short, bite-sized chapters that are absolutely clear. It does it without equivocating. It’s one of the best books on product development I know of and you should probably read it if the topic interests you in the slightest.

I think that roughly speaking, there are two kinds of people who will read this book and two different things you can take from it. If you work in a high-performing tech firm you’ll probably already know, at least on an intuitive level, what good looks like. In that case Inspired will not be a revelation. In fact, most of the things it talks about will seem obvious, trivially true and uninteresting. I still think it’s a useful read for a few reasons:

  • It will help you solidify your vague intuitions about what good looks like. You’ll go in with a rough feel for how product should function. You’ll leave with clear and precise concepts, organizational structures and processes.
  • It will help you understand why things work the way they do and why alternatives are worse
  • It will teach you at least a few things. Even in a high performing org, you won’t do everything well. Weather it’s product discovery, communicating product vision or any one of a number of sub-areas, chances are you’ll have a few useful takaways

On the other hand, if you haven’t worked in a high-performing org then Inspired is a glimpse into the promised land.

  • It can show you what good looks like. This is always useful. It means you can help move your team or org in the right direction. It means that when you look for jobs, you can choose the right orgs to move to.
  • It can show you the arguments and reasons for abandoning inefficient processes such as change boards or feature teams. Reasons you can use to help drive change at your workplace.
  • It can help you understand the fundamental problems behind product (e.g: How do we know what users want?). This is important because processes, even processes that are tried and tested, do not always generalize. Businesses differ greatly and it’s important to understand the core problems of product and why the processes in the book solve them so that you can adjust those processes to your business environment or potentially come up with different, better ways of solving the same problems.

Another interesting thing is the writing style. It’s very different from most business books in a few key ways:

  • It’s short and to the point. Whereas most business books have a single fairly simple core idea or gimmick they try to sell and complexify, inspired has dozens if not closer to a hundred ideas or best practices and spends no more time than necessary on each.
  • It’s comprehensive. Again, many business books focus on a single technique or strategy. [[Inspired (Silicon Valley Product Group]] instead goes through pretty much every facet of product from the top level down to the nitty gritty.
  • It doesn’t equivocate. Most business books are written by people who have risen through the ranks of large organizations. This creates a strong selective pressure for authors who are never too critical of others and will never specifically say "This thing that most people do is bad and wrong and a red flag" as that kind of openness and criticality is a quick career killer in most orgs. Inspired is nothing like that. Again and again good behavior and practices are contrasted to bad behavior and practices and the latter are often ruthlessly deconstructed.

Exploiting Crypto Prediction Markets for Fun and Profit

I believe that exploiting inefficiencies in crypto prediction markets is an easy way to make market beating returns. This guide is a step by step walkthrough of how to make bets on these markets. I think this is useful because the process is somewhat complicated and there are a few non-obvious mistakes which can wipe out your returns.

The payoff per trade is in the region of 3% with a roughly 30 – 60 day turnaround time. Because of various costs, it’s probably not economical to trade on less than 5k USD as the fixed costs will eat up your margin.

This is not financial advice. I may be wrong. The steps may be wrong. The specifics will become outdated over time. This is not zero-risk.

1: What are crypto prediction markets

Prediction markets are markets where people predict things, then the thing happens and then people either make or loose money based on whether their predictions were correct. The "market" in prediction market comes from the fact that rather than having a single agent set the odds and offer people bets, as is the case with a bookie, instead there is a supply of options representing outcomes which people bid on and freely exchange. The tokens are distributed in an initial auction. People can trade their tokens between the auction and the market resolving. Once the market resolves, those options can be redeemed for a fixed amount if they represent the correct outcome. Tokens representing the incorrect outcome are worthless.

There are various kinds of markets and formats but the simplest is a binary yes no question which resolves on a specific date. A few examples are:

  • "Will 100 million people have received a dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine in the US by April 1, 2021?"
  • "Will ETH be above $2000 on April 1st, 2021?"

The tokens for these markets typically resolve for 1$ if they’re correct or 0$ if incorrect, meaning the token price is bounded between 0$ – 1$ and converts neatly to a percentage.

2: Why should we believe we can beat the market?

On the object level because these markets are often obviously insane. At the date of writing there is an active prediction market asking if Trump will be president of the USA on the 31st of May, 2021. The odds are 0.95/0.05. Vitaliks post describing how he made money from the US election is another good example. On a more meta level, because prediction markets are far less optimized than other financial markets. Prediction markets today are small, shallow and inaccessible. Because of this they are not subject to the strong optimizing forces that work on larger markets such as those for stocks/bonds. Most of the money in prediction markets comes amateurs making bets with their personal money, not professionals and financial institutions whose existence depends on being better than you at making those bets.

3: How to identify good bets on prediction markets?

Intuition and common sense combined with basic research. To me it’s been fairly obvious when certain markets were deeply wrong. A few markets I think are insane at the moment:

While there is no structured method to identifying insane markets there are a few things that are good to keep in mind:

  • There’s a 2% trading fee on polymarket + around 0.4% from buying crypto on an exchange so bear in mind that a 5% return on paper is actually a 2.6% return after fees.
  • Many people trading on prediction markets use high cost ways of moving money in/out. That means that they often loose 3 % or so in fees.
  • The resolution criteria of the market determine which side is correct. It’s important to look at the resolution criteria, not just the question.
  • The listed spot price per option may not be the price you pay. The larger your investment relative to market size the more you can expect to pay an average price different from the spot price.
  • Time to return matters a lot. A 2% return in 2 months beats a 5% return in 6 months.

I realize that not giving a clear way to identify exploitable markets weakens the case for this. Still, I think it’s better to be upfront. There’s no magic formula, just intuition and reason. Even then there’s always the meta-uncertainty over your level of confidence in your predictions. If that’s too much of a risk for you, or if you think you’re not sufficiently well-calibrated, then you probably shouldn’t do this.

4: How to participate in prediction markets

There are four basic things you need to do:

  1. Acquire crypto
  2. Get the crypto into the market
  3. Place the bet
  4. Redeem your winnings While these steps are in theory simple, there are a few non-obvious mistakes you can make that will wipe out your earnings or expose you to tail risks. This guide minimizes or eliminates most of these risks.

This guide assumes you’re going to be using polymarket. Polymarket is one of the largest and most reliable on-chain markets at the moment. Different markets may require different deposit methods or tokens to participate in so this guide won’t apply.

Acquire crypto

The first step is to acquire crypto. Polymarket accepts USD coin (USDC), a stable coin pegged to the US dollar. You’ll need to acquire X USDC, where X is the amount in USD that you want to bet. You’ll also need around 0.03 Ether (ETH) for transaction fees. The main risk in this step is incurring transaction costs. High costs usually arise from one of two mistakes:

  • Using a consumer rather than trader platform (e.g: using Coinbase means you incur a 1.5% fee on any buy/sell)
  • Using a debit/credit card to deposit fiat which usually incurs fees of around 4%.

Follow these steps to avoid that risk:

  • Make either a Kraken or Coinbase Pro account (Note it has to be Coinbase Pro, not regular Coinbase)
  • Verify your identity to enable trading
  • Deposit fiat via a free bank transfer method. (e.g: In the UK a CHAPS transfer costs £22 while a FPS transfer is free. Check the fees for your country and choose a free method)
  • Buy 0.03 ETH for transaction fees. Convert the rest of the fiat to USDC.
    • Note that if the fiat you deposited is not USD, you may need to do a conversion from your fiat –> ETH –> USDC. This will double your fees.

Done correctly, your total fee should be around 0.2 – 0.4% or less. There are volume incentives so going over around 50k will reduce your fees somewhat.

Get crypto into the market

The second step is to get your crypto into polymarket. There are two risks here: fees and loosing your crypto due to human error. We minimize fees by using metamask. Metamask is a crypto wallet. Its unique feature is that it allows you to give other apps permission to do things with your money. By doing a "metamask deposit" into polymarket, you avoid the fees incurred with a standard deposit where you transfer money from your exchange wallet to polymarket’s wallet. We minimize the risk of human error by saving backup access codes and testing that those codes work.

Do the following

  • Set up metamask
    • Download and install metamask
    • Follow the instructions to create your wallet
    • Remember to save your recovery phrase. I suggest write it down on two pieces of paper. Put one in your wallet and another in a safe location.
    • Test your recovery phrase.
      • Uninstall metamask.
      • Reinstall metamask.
      • Use your recovery phrase to recover the wallet you made.
  • Withdraw funds to metamask from your crypto exchange
    • Go to your exchange and navigate to the withdraw screen
    • Add your metamask wallet. (You can copy your metamask wallet address by clicking your account name at the top of the page)
    • Withdraw the USDC and ETH. If you’re withdrawing a large amount, consider first withdrawing $10 to make sure you’ve got the address right.
  • Go to polymarket. Make an account. Go to deposit and choose "Metamask Deposit". Deposit all your USDC.
  • In polymarket, use your deposited USDC to purchase options on a market.

Getting out of the market

Once the market ends you’ll be able to redeem any options you have. Redeem your options by clinking the button and withdraw them to metamask or a crypto exchange wallet. You’ll need ETH to do this but the total cost should be less than $40 USD or so. Alternately, wait a while for polymarket’s no withdrawal options to go live as they’ll have far lower fees.

4: Risks to consider

Following the steps above will minimize your fees. That being said, there are still a few risks to consider. These are:

  • You’re wrong about a given market being insane
  • USDC loses value for some reason
  • You make a mistake somewhere in the process resulting in the loss of your crypto. The most common error here is not writing down and keeping your recovery phrase but other mistakes include sending crypto to the wrong address or being pawned.
  • The prediction market you’re using fails. Decentralization protects against certain threat vectors such as insider attacks but flaws in the smart contract itself can still occur. See this link for an interesting write up of how such an exploit plays out.

How my school gamed the stats

I was reading the Slate Star Codex review of The Cult of Smart. Part of it discusses charter vs state schools and the allegations of fraud of various kinds undermining charter schools record of better achievement. Reading it, I realized that I took for granted that public schools engage in systematic fraud in a variety of ways. I don’t think this is something everyone understands, hence this post.

I went to a state school in the UK. State schools are rated on a 1 – 4 scale from unsatisfactory to outstanding. My school was rated good, meaning a 3. A few memories which stand out. During my first week I saw one of the boys in my class who was 11 at the time held up against the wall in a corridor while a 16 year old put a shiv to his throat and robbed him. He handed over his wallet and keys. A year or two later and I remember seeing a small boy who struggled with depression held up by the throat against a locker and slapped in the face by a troublemaker from the same class in front of everyone just before we went in to the classroom. I remember classes which were filled start to finish with people shouting and talking. Neither of the first two events were common but they also weren’t uncommon. No one was surprised to witness them. It’s worth emphasizing again that my school was above average, in fact quite far above average, and in a middle class area. It’s also worth noting that I was mostly in top ability streamed classes, meaning my classroom experience was likely far better than average.

There were many ways in which the school and teachers gamed the system to boost their measured performance. One way was to do exams for students. I was on a bottom set language class for French. After two years I literally couldn’t speak a single sentence in french and maybe knew 20 words in total. I still passed my exams. How? We did the tests in class. Often the teacher would go through them with us. Literally giving us the test and then going through each question on the whiteboard and telling us what to write. A different year and a different teacher, this time the teacher would sit next to us and write the answers down. Why sit next to us? It was the bottom set so people often wouldn’t even bother to write down the answer if they were told it. This kind of thing was normal, so much so that I, and I think most people there, didn’t realize anything unusual was happening.

Another way schools game metrics is to cheat inspections. A major component of how schools are judged in the UK is through independent inspections carried out by an independent quasi-governmental organization called Ofsted. Now, you may imagine that these inspections would be unannounced, so as to best get a real image of how a school works. Not the case. They’re scheduled well in advance. Before every inspection, a few things would happen in my school:

  • The worst troublemaker kids would be taken aside and put in a special room where inspectors wouldn’t see them. Either that or they would just be told not to come into school at all on that day.
  • All of us were told in assembly that an inspection was coming and to be on our best behavior on that day. Often teachers would have conversations with less serious troublemakers and impress on them that they would behave on that day or face consequences afterwards.
  • Teachers would put a great deal more effort into their lesson plans than was normal. Classroom behavior management would also be far stricter. Because of these and other measures my school during an inspection was utterly different than my school on a normal day. On some level this isn’t surprising. If teachers’ promotions and management’s jobs depend on good inspection results and inspections are easy to game, people will game them. Incentives drive behavior. But it’s still sad.

Another way the stats were gamed was by not recording bad behavior. When a school gives a detention or suspends/expels a student, there’s a record of it. This is especially true of suspensions, students being sent home or expulsions. The more of these you have, the worse you look as a school. The solution then is obvious, don’t punish people or punish them in non-recorded ways. Again, in my school it was completely normal for students in lower sets to swear at the teacher, talk over them or disrupt the class for everyone else. It was normal for someone to be aggressive and abusive towards others and to face at most a 40 minute detention, but even getting a detention would be unusual.

I realize that one data point is not enough to draw solid general conclusions. My own perception is that this kind of fraud wasn’t specific to my school. My cousin went to a state school fairly nearby. He’s 4 years younger than me. During one of my winters back from undergrad we discussed his school and his experiences mirrored mine. His exact words regarding inspections were "I learned 4 times more that day than any other day that year. It was amazing". I talked to a few British students at university, although specifically the not middle/upper class ones who would have gone to public schools. They had gone to schools similar to mine in different parts of the country and their stories were similar and often worse. Two particularly funny examples from my friends’ experiences stand out. A teacher in year 9 walked up to a student who was talking, picked them up and threw them out of an (open) first floor window. My friend sitting in class noticed two boys making fun of him and then proceeded to get up in the middle of class while the teacher was talking, walk to their table, flip the table upwards to hit them in the face before going to sit down again when the teacher told him to. (Remember, my friend was a studious, sporty Asian kid and not a troublemaker. This kind of thing is normal in that environment). Comedic stories aside, my experiences in school, while not universal, seem fairly common in the UK and from what I’ve read of the statistics, bad US schools are far, far worse.

I’m unsure what my point here is. I think I have two:

  • Charters may cook their books in various ways. In the UK, State schools do too. I would be surprised if it wasn’t also the case in the US.
  • I think that I feel like a lot of commentators on places like SSC have fairly middle class experiences of fairly good schools and that bleeds into how their comparison between state vs charter schools. It’s just good to remember that it’s not those nice middle class schools that charters typically replace.

2020 in Review

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

Summary

In terms of my material life, this has been a good year. My social skills continue to advance. My career continues to improve. My relationship with my girlfriend has also progressed. My physical health has also substantially improved.

Intellectually, the year has been poor. I’ve written far less than in previous years. I’ve read far fewer books and slightly more articles as a result of a gradually expanding RSS feed. I’ve also picked up a few good new podcasts, Ideas of India being the best.

Writing

Total posts this year: 13 (-26 vs 2019)

Decent Posts

Looking back, I think my writing voice is improving. Writing has also become easier since I’ve started using Obsidian, which is a non-hierarchical, bidirectional knowledge graph like system similar to Roam Research. My quantity of writing has decreased markedly. I think the main cause of this has been less time spent commuting. Whereas before I would write or read on the train, now I do not.

Reading/Listening

Total Books Read This Year: 5 (-21 vs 2018)

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

Books:

Money/Career

My financial situation has improved markedly. I began the year making £3.77k net per month. I ended it making £3.94k plus £0.5k – £5k of equity, depending on how the firm does. My saving rate has risen from 43% to 53% and my overall wealth has risen from £25k to roughly £54k. I currently have 26 months of runway.

My career is going well. I’ve learned a great deal about backend development and picked up or refined a few specific technologies and languages. My social skills have also continued to improve. I can increasingly pass for normal in most work interactions.

Misc

I began tracking macros for everything I eat. I’ve done this intermittently in the past, but this year I’ve done it more often and for longer periods of time. I’ve found it highly effective, both in improving the quality of the food I eat and making me aware of when I’m overeating.

Large Gains from Small Choices

Looking at my average day, I often think that I’m lazy and wasting most of my time. Usually I work for 8 hours, although probably only half of that time is productive. I go on a short walk, buy food and eat. After work, I mostly play videogames, do household chores and sometimes spend an hour or two talking to my girlfriend. I’m by no means a paragon of productivity. Still there are a few small things I do regularly that over a decade have compounded into substantial gains. These include:

  • Reading a good book a month (or trying to)
  • Using an RSS feed to stream high quality writing to myself daily
  • Subscribing to various good podcasts and listening to them as I go on walks. Usually summing up to 30 mins per day.
  • Going for a walk a day and doing weightlifting at least twice a week for 30 mins or so.

The more I look back, the more I think that being productive is not a matter of using every minute well or being busy all or even most of the time. Rather, I think productivity is a matter of gradually building high-impact, low-cost habits into your days. These habits don’t lead to magic changes in the short term but the small differences they do make compound over the days and years. After a decade the difference between the person with good habits and the person without them is night and day.

I don’t have anything more than plausible sounding arguments to prove this, but I think playing with a few numbers can help.

Let’s say you commit to studying one chapter of a textbook per week. I’m currently working through Modern Principles of Economics 4th Edition. It has 38 chapters. I think that’s a bit above average but let’s be conservative and assume that the average textbook has 40 chapters. Let’s also assume that you miss a few weeks a year. Instead of studying 52 chapters per year, you study 40. One year, one textbook. Over the course of a single decade you could get a grounding (a.k.a: know more than 95% of people) in economics, world history, criminology, law, philosophy, warfare, agriculture and four more topics of your choice. Would you be an expert in these topics? No. But the relevant comparison is not to the person who knows more than you but to the hypothetical alternate you who didn’t study a chapter a day and didn’t know about the green revolution in food production or that high housing prices are a result of constrained supply and increasing demand. It’s the difference between being oblivious and being able to recognize obviously wrong statements or at least somewhat understand the evidence for and against policy positions.

Let’s repeat the exercise for books. One person reads a book a quarter. Another reads a book a month. Over the course of a year the person who reads a book a month will have read 12 books. A difference of 9. Over the course of 10 years they will have read 120 books. A difference of 90. Assuming you’re choosing well and reading things that have meaning, think of the amount of knowledge those 90 books could contain. From a visions of 20 years in the gulag to a blow by blow account of the occupation of Iraq to the social dynamics of chimps to theories on technological stagnation. Whole new worlds opening to you, thousands of branching questions and thoughts. Just from a few hours a month.

These specific habits are just examples. There’s a large space of possible habits. I aim to write about a few I have found particularly useful eventually but don’t think that the habit’s I’ve stumbled on are particularly original. I think the most important point is not that habit X is effective but that self improvement is possible and really not that difficult, at least over the medium to long term.