2019: Year 2 in Review


Total Posts this year: 39 (+1 vs 2018)

Decent posts this the year:

I still write far less than I would want. I should have written a review of kolyma stories, a sequence on identity and a whole host of other things that I didn’t get around to. My writing also seems to be skewing towards the topics which occupy most of my waking life, work and organizations, as opposed to ethics or the far future.


Total Books Read This Year: 24 (+1 vs 2018)

Decent Books:

I finally finished Kolyma Stories this year. It’s one of the best books I’ve read and one of the few I unconditionally recommend.

The year ahead.

I should continue to write and read. I should write more. I should try to write one long-ish sequence going in depth into a certain topic. Identity or an introduction to ethics would be good sequences to start with. I should finally get serious with that podcast and start interviewing interesting people, of whom there are many.

Minimizing slack is not a good long term strategy

TheViz has a post on slack, the concept not the app. Slack as applied to organizations and teams is interesting. In bad organizations managers act to minimize the amount of slack a given team has. If a team of engineers is delivering features comfortably, pile on more tickets or request more features. This is often wrong. It’s wrong because slack is important. Slack is important because teams who have slack have time to make improvements. To come up with better tooling. To migrate to new architectures as needs and scale changes. To improve their internal processes. Not all teams do this naturally but well-led, high performing teams do.

Optimizing for learning vs education

There are two competing objectives to education. One is to grow as a person. The other is to gain things of material value. Material value includes both pieces of paper and money making skills. The trade-off between these two values takes many forms. e.g:

  • Taking a course in an area you are good at VS taking a course in an area you are bad at. You get a better grade in the former but learn more in the latter.
  • Taking a course in a subject which is intrinsically valuable vs taking a course which will help you make money after university
  • Taking a degree in a more prestigious but worse at teaching university vs a less known but better at teaching one

It’s important to understand that this trade-off exists and to make it consciously. When I was in the education most people didn’t. Most people optimized for grades. Even those who didn’t spend a great deal of time studying spent at least 10 times more time reading and writing for their courses than for their own interest. It’s a shame.

Similar kinds of tradeoff’s exist in many domains in life. Trade-off’s between the short and long-term. It’s hard to give general advice about which side to lean towards. I’ve done both at different points in my career and I think the decision is highly context dependent. Still, I notice the short term seems to be addictive or something most people do too much. I wonder why that is. A few ideas:

  • Addictive feedback loops. You do well. You get to a good uni. You want to keep doing well. You get a good job. You want to do well in it. Your life passes you by.
  • People mostly don’t have their own goals. They adopt the goals of whatever structure they’re in.

Empirical facts can falsify moral beliefs.

I’ve usually assumed that moral beliefs cannot be disproved by empirical facts. That’s not really true. It’s true for my beiefs or those of most modern philosophers. It’s not true for belief systems which depend on empiricism. Moral beliefs with physical components. e.g: You believe that X is wrong because the world giant, who lives in a palace on the north pole, says it is wrong. You then go to the north pole and see that there is no palace. The empirical fact "the north pole is empty" changes your moral beliefs.

Two sides of rationality.

One approach to rationality is to seek nirvana. To be free from all desires, for one side or the other. To let your mind be like a feather on the wind. This is the approach most rationalists seem to espouse. Another approach is to treat it as a struggle. Not to avoid motivated reasoning but to engage in it intentionally and forcefully. To realize that you can’t help but be biased and so to force yourself to think of and fully inhabit the cases/worlds for both sides of a debate.

I don’t know which approach is better. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

Solutions to the problem of suffering.

Assume god exists.

If a just god exists, how is it that evil exists in the world. A better question. How is it that newborn babies suffer, that people are slaughtered by others stronger than them. Why the pain? Let’s call the existence of suffering, especially extreme and unwanted suffering, the problem of suffering. Is there a solution?

One solution is that some people deserve to suffer, but it often seems that good people suffer too and suffering is not in proportion to guilt or wrongdoing. Does a newborn baby choking to death deserve to die? The answer seems to be no.

Another explanation is that god cannot override free will, and so must allow suffering to happen. The problem with that answer not all suffering is a product of human choices. If a meteor strikes the earth in 3000BC and wipes out all life, is that really the fault of the people alive at the time.

Another explanation from the author of Slate Star Codex is that god creates massive numbers of parallel worlds. In each world there are slightly different versions of us. The me who suffered is a somewhat different person from the me who did not suffer. To allow all possible people to live, all lives which have value, god creates worlds which are perfect but also worlds where those lives/minds which are born from suffering exist.

The final explanation is simpler. There is no suffering. The moment a person is about to be tortured or to die or to suffer, they are lifted from the world and into a simulation. The simulation may be the afterlife or may be a near identical copy of their world. In their place remains their body and a simple non-sentient program which mirrors the responses they would have given, the ways they would have acted. There is no problem of suffering if there is no suffering.

Another variant. Maybe it’s all an illusion. Maybe we never suffer. Maybe any memory of suffering is fake, implanted by god. Maybe we live a life free from suffering, only remembering fake suffering enough to shape us into the minds we need to be but never experiencing it and hence never being harmed.

Finally, the pessimistic explanation. Maybe the problem of suffering isn’t a problem. Maybe we all deserve to suffer. Maybe our suffering is good, just. Most of us for most of history where violent, hateful, rapists, murders, cowards, monsters. If we’re not today, that’s because of our environment, not because we are innately are good. We all deserve to suffer. Even a baby deserves to suffer. It’s just as evil, just as optimized by evolution to maximize it’s genes chance of success and little else.

Brief thoughts on Bryan Caplan’s “Open Borders”

The book itself is good, but not great. It’s good because:

  • It presents the standard arguments for open borders well
  • It somewhat competently rebuts a number of common objections
  • It’s fun to read.

It’s not great because:

  • He weak-mans opposing arguments.
  • His arguments in a few key areas are pretty weak or use bad evidence.
  • There’s nothing here that you won’t have heard before if you’re somewhat interested in libertarianism/migration ethics.

His Case: Letting people move from poor, low productivity countries to rich, high productivity countries will make both the poor people and most people in the rich countries drastically better off. It’s also good because borders are morally arbitrary and unjust.

The objections he tackles:

  • Immigrants destroy our culture
    • They don’t tend to commit more crime than natives
    • Terrorism is a non-issue
    • They tend to converge to natives language proficiency/values over time.
  • Immigrants are a drain on resources
    • Migrants increase the supply of labour, but also increase demand for goods/services meaning they don’t reduce wages or increase unemployment.
    • High skilled migrants contribute more than they take.
    • Low skilled migrants do so as well provided they’re young.
    • It’s wrong to discriminate against net drain migrants because we don’t do that for net-drain citizen babies. (It’s a really weird attempt to conflate restricting reproductive autonomy with borders as both are stopping certain kinds of people from being citizens.)
  • Immigrants are low IQ
    • They converge to higher IQ’s when in rich countries.
    • Even assuming no convergence and the worst case estimates for IQ/GDP correlation, global GDP would still rise by 88% with open borders.

Some of the weak-manning:

  • Culture
    • The fact that immigrants integrate now does not mean that will continue to be the case when they form a far larger share of the population.
    • His evidence for immigrants skills is largely based on data from the USA. The USA does a particularly good job of integrating immigrants. He’s cherry picking evidence.
    • He ignores the real concerns and instead focuses on easy to rebut things like immigrants not learning english. The real concern is immigrants respect for basic liberal values like individualism, free speech, freedom of religion, secularism etc…
  • Drain on resources
    • It seems like a policy of accepting high-skill migrants and rejecting low-skill ones is a viable mid-point between open borders and the current system
    • The assumptions about additional labour not reducing the price of labour is uncertain. In a country like spain, which already has 30%+ youth unemployment, it’s not clear that the economy is constrained by labour supply and would grow if more were added.

I may write a more thorough, chapter by chapter rebuttal at some point later in the week.

Regulatory Experimentation

Late night thoughts. In England, when the government passes regulations those regulations almost always apply across the country. There are lower governments, councils and the like, which pass more local laws but all the most important laws, ranging from taxation to regulation of goods and services to policing, are passed at the national level. One problem with this is that we don’t experiment with different ways of doing things. We can only have one policy at a time and it’s decided by the national level convergence of interest groups, voter views etc…

What would a better world look like? It would have a consistent legal framework but would still allow for variations in regulation across different geographic regions. Some regions could be libertarian, some more statist. Some could be harsh on crime. Some more focused on rehabilitation. The advantage would be simple. More approaches tried meaning more information on what works and what doesn’t.

Why wouldn’t this be a good idea? A few reasons:

  • Unfairness. A rapist in region A may get 5 years. In region B they may get 2.
  • Noise. Regions differ. A lot of factors influence success or failure. It’s hard to narrow down the effects to a single policy.
  • Corruption. Firms could lobby local governments for favorable regulation and then base themselves there. Local governments may be easier to corrupt because they are smaller compared to large MNC’s. They may also be harder to bribe because they are closer to the people who elect them. (Although given how little people I meet know about their local gov’s, I doubt it). Conversely, more powerful local governments could rent seek more effectively from businesses.
  • Collective Action Problems. Races to the bottom in taxation or other kinds of regulation. Nimbyism.

It’s hard to know what works in the real world and what doesn’t. You can escape the need for empiricism.

The most important part of good writing is not being good at writing

When I did debating, I thought it was funny how most non-debating advice about public speaking focused on style over substance. How to speak, what tone to use, rhetorical tricks. How to say things instead of how to make sure what you’re saying is true and well-argued and understandable. Many books or blogs or pieces of advice on writing make the same mistake. They focus on the presentation, on how to write. This is important but it’s really not that important. Take a look at modern high literature and you’ll find shelves filled with books by people who know how to write very well, but can’t write anything other than neurotic, self-absorbed stories. It’s not how you write that matters, it’s what you have to say. Writing reflects the writer. The most important step to being a good writer is thus being a well-developed person.

Normalizing Dissent

One strange thing in the corporate world is how abnormal open dissent is. Almost never do I hear someone say "I disagree". Meetings, most meetings, are aimed at consensus. People won’t voice disagreement. People won’t clearly acknowledge that they do disagree and then drill down or double crux into why they hold the beliefs they do. Instead they’ll talk around the disagreement. They’ll both know they disagree but not how much or exactly where or why. It seems to be considered rude to go against the majority and hold up a meeting with disagreement. It’s rude to push too hard, to openly disagree instead of waffle around the topic.

It’s strange both how normal and inefficient this kind of epistemic culture is. It’s also strange how accustomed most people are to it. How few people generally are willing to openly go against a group of their peers. I think that being one of the few who is willing to disagree openly and honestly is valuable. Why?

  • You will likely bring up obvious problems that others didn’t.
  • Because you don’t have to engage in double think, you’ll be able to think more clearly.
  • You’ll contribute to creating a more open epistemic culture.

The first point is the most immediately impactful but it can be hard to understand if you don’t have experience of this kind of epistemic blindness. In short, most places ignore obvious truths, especially when those truths are not pleasant and hence no one wants to bring them up. A few examples to illustrate obvious problems I’ve brought up which no one else has in my less than 2 year career:

  • My firm has committed to getting b-corp certification, basically being an ethical company, yet still regularly works for gambling firms which build intentionally addictive products.
  • My previous employer employed a muslim girl on the grad scheme. Her managers kep trying to make her work with pork. She refused and eventually left. I only find out later and then talked to my manager but couldn’t do anything due to lack of evidence. No one else did shit, including her friends on the grad scheme who knew about it.
  • I spent 9 months with the graduate scheme taskforce. 6 of us designed, advertised and recruited for a graduate scheme. We hired 4 people. None were exceptional or particularly good from what I can tell. Dozens of meetings, hundreds of hours, thousands of pounds on career fairs. It was a failure yet no one else brought this up.
  • At my current employer, we bill clients on a time and materials basis. We were being told to lie on timesheets. To not put less than 4.5 hours per day even if we worked less. I spoke up about this. I was initially told it’s not lying as time we spend on other things like interviewing or [my company] meetings makes the firm better which indirectly helps our clients. I had to go to a whistleblowing charity and talk to our kinda head of compliance to get something done about it.

Groups like 80’000 hours write a great deal about maximizing impact. Most of their writing revolves around one-off choices rather than character. Which career to go into. What to study. The more I see of the working world the more I think that, for smart people who have followed the obvious advice, by far the largest way to make an impact is character. Choosing a fairly optimal career is good but once you’re in it’s unlikely you’ll be far smarter or better at the job than those around you. A competitive market means that you’ll probably end up roughly where your level of skill is normal. What you do have a shot at being better at is the things the market doesn’t optimize for. Having ethics is one of those things. Practicing good epistemic norms is another.