August 21, 2022

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics vs Quantifying Sacred Values

Original Twitter thread

Jai Dhyani’s Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says:

When you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it

The idea is, if you try to do something good, you will be criticized for it not being maximally helpful, even if it was better than nothing. And so people are incentivized to not even try.

This is illustrated well by the first example: In 2010, New York chose some homeless people to take part in a program, and tracked those not in the program as a control group… They were criticized for making guinea pigs out of the most vulnerable”, despite helping as many as possible while also trying to actually measure outcomes

I think this is a real and unfortunate phenomenon! However, I think some of the other examples in the post actually point to a different problem, which deserves a post of its own: our distaste for quantifying sacred values, even in consensual trades

The next example is: In 2012, some homeless people in Austin were given WiFi hotspots so they could offer SXSW attendees WiFi in exchange for $20 per day plus donations. It was labeled a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia…a completely problematic treatment of a problem”

In this case, I don’t think people were outraged because it wasn’t the maximally helpful thing. People were outraged because it feels demeaning to pay homeless people trivial amounts of money to provide WiFi to wealthy tech people. It’s trading dignity (a sacred value) for money

Another example given is when PETA offered to pay the water bills of poor families in Detroit if they went vegan for 30 days.

Again, I don’t think people were angry that this isn’t maximally helpful, they were angry because they perceive PETA to be taking advantage of someone’s misfortune to further their own agenda. That feels icky.

Philip Tetlock defines a sacred value as any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular values”

By our distaste for quantifying sacred values” I mean putting a number on them, giving them finite value, weighing them into trade-off calculations

I think the SXSW and PETA examples better support what is perhaps an implicit secondary claim in the post: if someone consensually accepts an offer, they believe the offer will improve their life, and we should support that even if it involves a sacred value”

In sum, I think there are two different observations in the post:

  1. It’s bad to get mad at people for doing something even if that something isn’t maximally effective
  2. It’s bad to get mad at people for offering a trade that involves a sacred value if it’s consensually accepted

I think both are valid points, but some examples better support (1) which is the stated Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics”, and some better support (2), which should ideally have its own name/post.


August 15, 2022

On Noble Lies

Original Twitter thread

Many institutions have been accused of playing 4D chess with public health advice around covid. Usually people point out that this is a bad thing because if you do it badly, it erodes trust in institutions - I agree with this

But I have been plagued by a nagging thought: What if institutions weren’t so bad at it though? Isn’t it possible that in theory, Noble Lies could lead to better outcomes? Can they therefore be justified?”

In the set of possible things an institution can say, there is: A (the truth), B (a partial truth), C (another partial truth), D (an outright lie), and so on. Of all of these, why should we assume A will generally lead to the best outcome?

Sure, if the pubic is reliably very smart and reasonable, we would expect that giving them accurate information would lead to better outcomes (setting aside weird game theory dynamics like hoarding goods). But most people don’t think of the public as reliably smart and reasonable.

But clearly institutions are bad at guessing how people will behave, and bad at 4D chess. It does seem like whenever they attempt this, it would have been better if they’d just been honest.

It feels like a Noble Lie involves messing with a complex, delicate system and if you try to interfere with one part it has all these second order effects and unintended consequences (kind of like messing with prices in a market).

If we assume that we’re very bad at predicting the ways in which the public will react unreasonably to our message, then we might as well model their unreasonableness purely as a noise term we have no control over, then the reasonable part of their reaction is the only part we can know how we’re affecting.

Given this model of public reaction as reasonableness + noise, accurate information will overall lead to better outcomes.

So while in theory, a well-chosen Noble Lie could have a better outcome, the chance that you will choose one that outperforms the truth out of all the options is very slim, so you would be much better off telling the truth and taking advantage of the small amount of reasonableness” in the system that tends towards better decisions.

In sum, Noble Lies are bad because:

  1. It’s almost impossible to predict which lie will work, whereas if you tell the truth you have the reasonableness of the system working in your favor
  2. In the very likely case a Noble Lie doesn’t work out, you damage institutional trust.

May 18, 2021

How to Not Kill Houseplants

I’m a serial plant murderer. Well, I suppose it’s actually plantslaughter, as they were all accidents. Regardless, despite my good intentions I never successfully kept a plant alive until 2020.

Instructions on how to care for plants often seem similar to me to recipe instructions: they assume a whole bunch of contextual knowledge that beginners don’t have (how much is a knob’ of butter?? What does frequent watering’ actually mean??)

But inspired by the plant-filled instagram-worthy Zoom backgrounds of my colleagues (shout out to Kemi), I resolved to make learn how to keep houseplants alive” my pandemic hobby.

After watching many YouTube tutorials, reading lots of blogs, and some messy trial and error that resulted in a few sacrificial offerings, I appear to now be succeeding 🤯💪

So, from one beginner to another, here are my tips for how to not kill houseplants:

Essentials

I think these two things account for 80% of my success. Master these first.

1. Plants Need Infrequent Gulps, Not Frequent Sips

Watering your plants, it turns out, does not mean going around with a watering can every few days and giving them a little sip, like pouring a dash of milk into a cup of tea. Oh no.

Watering a plant means absolutely drenching the soil all the way through, and then letting the excess drain out. This is because plants have roots all through the soil, and you need to reach them all with the water. If, like I was, you’re only giving them surface level sips, the water won’t seep all the way through and the bottom roots will die of thirst.

In my opinion, the best way to do this is:

  1. Take the inner plastic pot out of the outer pretty pot
  2. Bring the plant in the inner plastic pot to the sink
  3. Run it under the tap until it starts to come out the drainage holes (you don’t want warm water, but ideally it shouldn’t be super cold either)
  4. Try to make sure there are no dry patches in the soil
  5. Turn the tap off
  6. Wait until the water stops trickling out of the drainage holes (or at least, it goes from a stream to a very slow drip)
  7. Bring the plant back to the pretty pot and place it back inside
  8. If any water gathers at the bottom of the outer pot (or saucer), empty it. You don’t want the plant sitting in still water.

On average, plants seem to need watering in this way every 1-2 weeks (depending on the type, size, season, proximity to sunlight, etc). The best way to check if it’s time is to stick your finger right into the soil. If it feels like a moist, tasty cake, wait. If it feels like a dry, crumbly cake, water it.

2. Don’t Repot Your Plant After Bringing It Home

Instead, find a pretty pot that’s big enough to contain the cheap plastic pot the plant comes in, and simply place it inside. This has two advantages:

  1. Plants get stressed out moving to a new environment, and immediately repotting them makes it worse (new soil, new size, etc). They’ll be more likely to make it if you keep them in their current pot, at least for a while.
  2. The cheap plastic pot the plant comes in will have drainage holes_—_placing this inside another pot removes the need for a saucer to catch excess water.

The alternative to this is buying a home-ready plant that already comes potted in a pretty pot along with a matching saucer. This is actually quite a good option for beginners as it means you don’t need to worry about finding the right sized pot or anything like that, but it’s obviously more expensive.

Bonus Tips

After following the essentials, these can help maximize your chance of success.

Soil

If the soil of a plant feels like it’s packed together really tightly, that’s not good. Take a skewer or a fork or your finger and try to break it up a bit_—_this allows air to get in a bit more.

There’s probably optimum types of soil for different plants, but since you are following rule #2 and not repotting them, just leave them in the soil they come with. It can be helpful to have some generic expanding potting mix on hand in case you do need to top up the soil or repot them for some reason — just follow the instructions on how to mix it with water.

Food

In general, plants need more water when they’re in their growing season (Spring/Summer). Somewhat counterintuitively IMO, this is also when they need more fertilizer, AKA plant food (I kind of assumed they would need more food in the winter, as they aren’t getting as much sunshine, but apparently not). To be honest, so far my plants have been doing ok without fertilizer, so I haven’t really explored what the right kind or amounts are at this point.

Light

Often plants are supposed to be placed in a bright room but not in direct sunlight” — I still don’t really understand what this means — is bright sunlight just the window sill? Is it anywhere the sun’s rays hit? What if they only hit it for a short time per day, does that count? I haven’t worried too much about this, except to make sure that all my plants are in rooms with nice big windows, and the more desert-y the plant (e.g. cacti), the closer I put it to the sun.

Unless you don’t mind lop-sided plants, you’ll want to rotate your plants slightly every few weeks, otherwise they tend to grow towards the sunlight. However, you ideally don’t want to move them around too often, as apparently they like to get used to a spot and moving them can stress them out.

If your plant has big leaves, you may want to wipe the dust off them once in a while — this helps ensure they can absorb the maximum amount of light (though TBH I haven’t been very rigorous about this and they seem fine).

Air

Because plants apparently like air, you don’t want them to pack them in too close together. At a minimum, try to space them apart so that their leaves aren’t touching, and ideally a bit further. If one of your plants is looking a bit sickly, move it away from the others so that it can’t infect them.

Pets

If you have a pet, you’ll want to be somewhat careful about plants that can be toxic for them. Some websites let you filter by pet-friendly” which is helpful for beginners. Alternatively you can just google [name of plant] pet toxic” and see what the internet says.

However, just because a plant is listed as toxic doesn’t mean you definitely can’t have it. Some options:

  1. Keep your pet-toxic plants in a room your pet doesn’t go in
  2. Keep it high up (e.g. hang it from the ceiling) so it’s out of reach
  3. (Riskier, but it worked for me) Introduce your pet to the plant, let them sniff it, and see if they are tempted to nibble it. Observe them for a while and watch how they interact with it. If they don’t seem interested, you might be ok. My cat (Catthew) has eaten all my palm plants to death (they are cat-safe so it’s ok), so I was worried about getting any pet-toxic plants as I assumed he’d eat them too. But I really really wanted a nice leafy Monstera, so I bought one and resolved to keep it high up. But when I introduced Catthew to it he just sniffed it a bit and then ignored it — I guess he doesn’t like the smell. I’ve had it for a few months now and both he and the plant are as well as ever!

I would love to know if this helps you have any success. Or alternatively, if you’re a houseplant aficionado and you have any tips to help me take my plant game to the next level, ping me at rosie@rosiecampbell.xyz


March 23, 2021

Should People Pay to Opt-Out of Vaccination?

Herd immunity is a public good, but mandating vaccination could be seen as an infringement on liberties and autonomy.

On the object-level, I think a lot of people support the idea of mandatory vaccinations, but the meta-level principle the government should be able to force me to undergo medical procedures against my will’ seems problematic.

Getting vaccinated incurs a small cost on most people (the time and effort and discomfort of getting a shot). But for some people it might be a greater cost if they have strong religious, medical, or other objections for example (whether these objections are based in fact is beside the point).

But not getting vaccinated incurs a cost on everyone else in the form of a negative externality. If you don’t get vaccinated and I catch a virus from you, my medical bills and the opportunity cost of me missing work are literal costs you’ve imposed on me.

Could this be solved by requiring people to pay to opt-out of vaccination? For those who see vaccination as objectionable, presumably they would be willing to pay some amount to avoid it, and the money collected can go to covering the costs of those who got sick even though they were vaccinated.

For most people, the cost of opting out of vaccination would not be worth it, so lots of people would choose to get vaccinated without it being forced upon them. I wonder if this principle could also apply to face masks?


January 19, 2021

What I’ve Learned From Failing at My Goal of Publishing Everyday

Towards the end of December I set myself a challenge of publishing something everyday for 30 days - this was a big change from my previous habit of posting approximately never. I knew it was ambitious, but I really wanted to get out of a perfectionist mindset and put something out there even if it was short or imperfect.

I started on Dec 27 and kept it up until Jan 10, so despite technically failing, I’m actually pretty pleased - 15 days! A few reasons why I failed:

  • There is a global pandemic on, the hospitals here are full, I’m on the other side of the world from most of my friends and family, US politics are a bit much at the moment, I received some frustrating news about my immigration status, and we are going through some huge transitions at work… Needless to say, I’ve been a bit distracted! I may have been a bit unrealistic about what I could take on.
  • I usually spend a lot of my spare time reading and thinking, which sparks a ton of ideas to write about. In order to publish something everyday, I had to spend most of my spare time writing instead, which meant I didn’t have my usual inputs for inspiration. I simply found I had less to write about.
  • I do have a backlog of thoughts and ideas that I plan to write up more fully, so I tried to turn to them instead. The problem is, unlike a quick reaction to a podcast or article, they all felt like Very Big Things to write up and I just didn’t have the energy to dive in.
  • I had scheduled time in both the morning and evening for writing, but I just couldn’t get into my morning writing sessions knowing I needed to start work in an hour or so. I know people usually say to do creative work in the morning, but no matter how hard I try I seem to only be able to ease into it when I don’t have any other time-sensitive obligations for the day.
  • The problem is, that meant I was waiting until after work to do my writing. In general this is not too bad, but last week was a particularly intense week, so by the evenings I had no mental energy left - that’s when I broke the posting everyday” habit.
  • Another issue is that scheduling writing sessions in the evening meant that even if I had an idea I felt motivated to write about during the day, by the evening it just somehow felt less appealing. Again, with more mental energy I don’t think this is usually a problem, but when you’re tired you need that extra spark of motivation to actually do it.

Even though I failed to publish something everyday, it was a super useful exercise to attempt and I learned a lot. Some things I plan to do going forward:

  • One of my themes for the year is consistency, and part of consistency is not giving up just because you mess up a little. So I’m not going to beat myself up too much, and I’m still going to try to write frequently, even if everyday was too much.
  • I’m going to try to listen to my internal motivation a bit more, which means a) writing as soon as inspiration hits (if my calendar allows) and b) not feeling obliged to post everyday if I don’t have anything I’m particularly excited about writing.
  • I intend to prioritize my newsletter a bit more, and aim to send it more consistently (weekly), and perhaps focus more on curation. I’m hoping this will still exercise the consistency’ muscle while feeling a bit more manageable.
  • Although I was trying to treat my posts almost like tweets in terms of how much I needed to write and how formal they needed to be, writing a post still felt like a bigger deal than I wanted it to. I might experiment with other ways to share less-polished thoughts, perhaps through a weekly post that contains snippets of notes I made that week.

January 18, 2021

Can You Trust Productivity Creators to Try to Give Good Advice?

A lot of productivity creators tell people things like:

  • Unsubscribe from newsletters
  • Consume less content
  • Get off social media

Which is interesting, since many of these creators make money from their audiences through these very channels.

A useful thing to do when someone gives you advice is to think: Why are they telling me to do this? Hopefully, it’s because they genuinely care about your wellbeing and want to see you succeed. But it’s also possible that they might somehow benefit from you following their suggestions. That’s not necessarily a reason to disregard the advice, but it’s something to factor in.

So what’s going on with all the productivity creators apparently giving advice that goes against their own interests? Why are they giving away their secrets? Can I trust them to genuinely try to give me good advice? A few considerations I’ve been musing on in each direction:

Reasons a creator might be tempted to give bad advice:

  • In a zero-sum mindset, the more productive everyone else becomes, the more competition they themselves face.
  • If their advice works and their audience gets super productive, they might no longer need the creator and so will stop paying for their stuff.

Reasons a creator might want to give true advice:

  • In a positive-sum mindset, if the creator helps their audience become more productive, their audience can make more money which they can then spend on the creator, creating a positive feedback loop.
  • If the creator gives bad advice, people might notice and stop paying for it.
  • If there are creators out there giving suboptimal advice, a new individual can beat the market by giving genuinely helpful advice, so there’s a race to the top.
  • It feels rewarding to help people, and this outweighs any temptation to sabotage people for your own benefit (I suspect this is a big part of it for most people).

What have I missed?

Of course, many of these considerations aren’t unique to productivity creators - they likely apply in any teaching or coaching dynamic.


January 9, 2021

Win Probability vs Expected Margin

I really like how the New York Times had visualizations of not just the win probability but also the expected margin of the recent senate elections. I’m not sure if this is new or if I just haven’t noticed it before, but it’s so much more intuitive.

When I looked at win probability’ dials during the presidential election, even though I knew it was going to be close and even though I knew that win probability is not the same as the expected margin, I couldn’t help feeling like the very high win probability should result in a landslide. I wonder how many other people felt like this and whether that contributed to the anxiety a lot of democrats felt on that first night.

By visualizing both of these side by side, it’s much more obvious that a high expectation of winning doesn’t necessarily mean a wide margin.


January 8, 2021

The Most Irritating Thing About iOS

A few months ago, I got my first ever iPhone. Until then, my smartphones were always Android.

I don’t think either is particularly better than the other, but since I use a Mac and an iPad it does make everything a little bit smoother, and I’m now so deep into the ecosystem I can’t see myself switching back anytime soon. There were obviously some quirks to get used to on the new operating system, but generally I got used to it fairly quickly.

Having said that, there’s still one thing about iOS that irritates me every. single. time.

Why can’t I edit alarms and why can’t I choose my snooze length?!

This baffles me. It seems like such a basic user need. I never even thought about this when I used Android because it just seemed like obvious functionality for a smartphone clock app. When considering switching, it never even occurred to me to check this.

The result is that every time you want an alarm for a different time, you either have to delete your existing one and create a new one, or you just create a new one and end up with a messy ever-expanding list of alarms to manage.

I used to always have a 20 minute snooze on my alarm. This was the perfect amount of time to wake up, then snuggle in bed for a bit while I let my brain boot for the day. Now I only have 9 mins 😩 — definitely not enough. Or I have to set two separate alarms 20 mins apart and remember to keep them in sync.

I can only assume that iPhone users are so used to this that it never occurred to them there could be a better way. Otherwise how have we had 14 years of iPhones and still be missing such obvious features?!

Or maybe everyone just uses a third-party clock app? I did try this but I couldn’t find any that weren’t full of ads or bloated or looked ugly or had other disagreeable features. I would be open to paying for a good one, though I kind of resent it since it feels like it should be built in… (Recommendations welcome)

The one possible benefit of all this is I think it might actually have made my sleep schedule more consistent: Changing the alarm time is just enough of a pain that I tend to just leave it as is, meaning that I started getting up at the same time everyday. Which is great I guess… but I still feel a bit weird about my iPhone tricking me into better habits!


January 7, 2021

How Surprised Would You Be If You Failed?

Ali Abdaal recently posted a video in which he shares his anti-wasteman” system for making progress on his bucketlist. A key feature of the system is asking the question How surprised would I be if I failed in this goal?” and then What are the top 3 reasons for this failure?”

It’s a form of Murphyjitsu, a technique taught by the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) based on Murphy’s Law:

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

The idea is to imagine whatever you’re planning has already happened, and that it went really badly (or really well), and then asking yourself what happened. You can make this visceral by thinking up scenarios like:

  • The day after launch, you open up a news website and see terrible (or fantastic) headlines about your product. What do they say?
  • You see your assistant walking towards you with a terrified (or delighted) expression on their face. What are they about to tell you?

And so on. You then adjust your plan to avoid these failure modes (or take advantage of the success modes) until you feel very surprised at the thought of the plan failing.

There’s something about simulating hindsight which makes anticipating consequences much easier than relying on foresight. Murphyjitsu is probably one of the most useful techniques I learned at CFAR, and has become something I use routinely in a variety of situations.

For example, when checking a job candidate’s references I always ask:

  • If I made this candidate an offer, and 6 months later I told you it worked out great, why would that be?
  • If I made this candidate an offer, and 6 months later I told you it hadn’t worked out, why would that be?

Of all the questions I ask, these always elicit the most insightful answers, and often even the referees are startled by the things that come to them.


January 6, 2021

Andrew Critch on Ai Existential Safety

It can be very confusing to talk about issues in AI and ML since so many of the terms are overloaded, or have both technical and general meanings, or have shifted in meaning over time.

Andrew Critch (with whom I used to work at CHAI) has written a comprehensive blog post that I think does a good job of untangling some of the terms related to responsible and beneficial AI.

Here are some definitions that I found particularly useful:

AI existential safety: preventing AI technology from posing risks to humanity that are comparable to or greater than human extinction in terms of their moral significance.

AI safety: getting AI systems to avoid risks, of which existential safety is an extreme special case with unique challenges.

AI ethics: principles that AI developers and systems should follow.

AI governance: identifying and enforcing norms for AI developers and AI systems themselves to follow.

AI alignment: getting an AI system to {try | succeed} to do what a human person or institution wants it to do. The inclusion of try” or succeed” respectively creates a distinction between intent alignment and impact alignment.

A system is transparent if it is easy for human users or developers to observe and track important parameters of its internal state.

A system is explainable if useful explanations of its reasoning can be produced after the fact.

A system is interpretable if its reasoning is structured in a manner that does not require additional engineering work to produce accurate human-legible explanations.

In the piece, Critch argues that AI alignment is necessary but not sufficient for AI existential safety, since we need to look beyond just one AI system being aligned with one human’ and think about how many humans and many AI systems interact in a complex multistakeholder environment.

Something that intrigued me about the piece is the connection he draws between technical research and governance, and also the importance of interpretability, fairness, and accountability research for AI existential safety:

The main way I can see present-day technical research benefitting existential safety is by anticipating, legitimizing and fulfilling governance demands for AI technology that will arise over the next 10-30 years. In short, there often needs to be some amount of traction on a technical area before it’s politically viable for governing bodies to demand that institutions apply and improve upon solutions in those areas.

Governance demands include pressures like AI technology should be fair”, AI technology should not degrade civic integrity”, or AI technology should not lead to human extinction.”

If the algorithmic techniques needed to meet a given governance demand are 10 years of research away from discovery–as opposed to just 1 year–then it’s easier for large companies to intentionally or inadvertently maintain a narrative that the demand is unfulfillable and therefore illegitimate. Conversely, if the algorithmic techniques to fulfill the demand already exist, it’s a bit harder (though still possible) to deny the legitimacy of the demand. Thus, CS researchers can legitimize certain demands in advance, by beginning to prepare solutions for them.

I think this is the most important kind of work a computer scientist can do in service of existential safety. For instance, I view ML fairness and interpretability research as responding to existing governance demand, which (genuinely) legitimizes the cause of AI governance itself, which is hugely important.

My current work primarily relates to accountability and governance, so it was nice to see a clear description of how this can ultimately benefit AI existential safety (though I’m biased of course!)


January 5, 2021

Rosie’s Newsletter #2

Hi friends,

Happy new year 🥂

In my last newsletter I said I wanted to publish more: I’m pleased to say I’ve posted something everyday since then! It was hard at times, but I’m really trying not to let perfectionism get the better of me. Like this newsletter, it’s a pretty eclectic bunch of stuff, both in form and content, but I hope you find something of interest.

Writing

Choosing a blogging platform

  • Having tried a bunch of different personal websites and blogging platforms, I wrote up my thoughts on the main options.

Actualism: When it pays to accept second best

  • Actualism vs possibilism is usually a debate in ethics, but I keep noticing it creeping in when I’m trying to make good decisions.

My 2020 annual review process

  • Much more light-weight than in previous years. My themes for 2021: Consistency and Playfulness 💖

Complementary habits

  • Possibly a way to successfully adopt more than one habit at a time?

Interstitial journal: first day back at work

  • Too tired to write a proper post but stubbornly clinging to my plan to publish something everyday, I shared my interstitial journal from my first day back at work after the Christmas break.

Cat poetry

  • I recently read some haiku that surprised me because it didn’t conform to 5-7-5 syllables. Curious, I started reading up on the art and learned there was so much more to it than I ever realized. I discovered I particularly like senryū: haiku-like poems that have a comedic twist. In a fit of whimsy, I tried writing some about my cat 🙃

A Question on My Mind

Is the placebo effect real?

More context at the link.

What I’ve Been Watching/Reading/Listening To

TV: Upload

  • I’m always excited about near-future sci-fi. I’m only a couple of episodes in, and while this isn’t quite on par with Black Mirror, it’s pretty enjoyable.

Podcast: Skeptics with a K

  • Having binged Oh No Ross and Carrie during lockdown (possibly my favorite ever podcast?!), this one also checks the funny people chatting about pseudoscience” box.

Book: The Vanishing Half

  • With rave reviews, I was expecting to be disappointed by this book, but I really liked it. A poignant intergenerational tale, it deals with themes of identity, family, belonging, and race.

TV: Murder on Middle Beach

  • A true crime documentary where a man investigates his own Mother’s murder. I am fascinated by scams, so was particularly intrigued by the involvement of a pyramid scheme. It’s quite unsettling watching him interview his family, knowing one of them might have done it.

App Recommendation

In my never-ending quest to find a good read-it-later workflow, I’m cautiously optimistic about Matter. It’s kind of a cross between Pocket and Twitter: you can save and highlight articles, but also follow writers and share comments. They’ve just added a Readwise integration, so you can export your highlights and annotations to Roam/Notion/Markdown/etc. I was lucky enough to get in the private beta, but they also have a waitlist you can join.

What is your read-it-later workflow?

Food Discoveries

  • My mind was blown to find out you can make an amazing salted caramel sauce by mixing maple syrup with miso paste in a 3:1 ratio 🤯
  • A handy visual guide to dented cans. I wasn’t sure if this was too boring to share, but there’s something about it I find very pleasing.

What’s Next?

  • When I decided to start a newsletter, I was pretty confused by the different options: why might you want to use something like Substack vs something like ConvertKit? I think I’ve got a better sense of this now - let me know if it would be helpful to write this up.
  • My friend Sara and I have been discussing strategies for cultivating deeper friendships, especially in a remote world. We’ve been trying some of them out ourselves, stay tuned for our findings.
  • I’m afraid I still haven’t finished the 100 tips” piece I mentioned last time… Turns out 100 is a lot…

I am always delighted to receive your reactions, comments, and pet pics. Just hit reply :)

Until next time,

Rosie


January 4, 2021

Interstitial Journal: First Day Back at Work

Yesterday I wrote about how I’m attempting to start a whole load of new habits in one go, but that I was nervous about whether they would stick once I was back at work.

I planned out a target day’ to make sure I’d be able to fit in the main habits I am trying to adopt as well as a full day of work. This was the plan:

  • 06:30 Wake up, do Tabata
  • 07:00 Make breakfast, do morning chores. Process emails.
  • 07:30 Write
  • 09:00 Start work
  • 11:30 Break for lunch. Take a walk. Listen to audiobook
  • 13:00 More work
  • 15:00 Break. Life admin. Read the internet / watch YouTube
  • 15:30 More work
  • 18:30 Make dinner. Eat dinner. Relax / watch TV
  • 19:30 Write
  • 21:00 Read, wind down
  • 22:00 Bed

I have never really successfully time-blocked my day like this before, but I actually really enjoyed it! I spent way less time procrastinating, I felt I had clear goals to accomplish in each block, I got my work done more efficiently, and I made progress on my personal goals/habits.

I didn’t stick to the plan exactly - but I was prepared for this. I knew I’d be tempted to throw out the whole thing once I deviated, so I consciously told myself it was ok to go off track and that I should just get back on as soon as possible, and document it in my interstitial journal so that I can get better calibrated at how long things take.

The main thing I miscalculated was how long I’d need to process my emails in the morning. I ended up not doing the morning writing session and instead spent the whole time getting my inbox and Asana tasks in order. In hindsight, I should have realized it would take longer than usual due to coming back after a break. Otherwise, I’m pretty pleased with how it went.

Here is my interstitial journal, lightly edited, demonstrating how I actually spent my day:

  • 07:04 Just finished Tabata, now doing emails. Tried sock bun in hair overnight - curls came out quite well, hopefully better with practice.
  • 07:52 Just finished processing emails
  • 08:10 Now planning my week in Asana / Google Calendar
  • 08:57 Got dressed, ate breakfast - peanut butter and grapes on toast. Tried to put articles into Read Later in Notion but looks like all my other ones have disappeared?! Need to investigate.
  • 09:50 Finished call with [redacted]. Responded to some emails. Quick break before cyber deep dive
  • 11:03 Just finished cyber deep dive. Some afternoon meetings have been taken down so I can stick to my walk and lunch schedule after all. Got half an hour now to get through some Asana tasks. Turns out Notion was down for everyone, phew!
  • 11:14 Just finished putting update in agenda doc for [redacted] meeting
  • 11:19 Just got back to [redacted] about mentorship
  • 11:27 Sent the AI summit invite to comms. Going to quickly check personal emails then have lunch / walk
  • 12:51 Just got back from walk. Listened to podcast. Bought groceries. Got fancy coffee from Starbucks
  • 13:05 Been looking at savory chicken soup’ flavor protein powder. Would that be good? Starting work again now.
  • 14:57 Just finished work block. Rearranged all recurring meetings so that I have 3pm onwards for deep work each day.
  • 15:02 On break. Took Beyond meatballs out to defrost. Opened amazon parcels. Hair dye arrived!
  • 15:38 Finished break. Ordered the savory protein powder. Watched some YouTube.
  • 16:15 Just finished reading some articles and drafting monthly email update
  • 17:26 Finished 1-1 with [redacted]. Going to start cooking dinner.
  • 18:40 Finished dinner. Watched Upload - quite good, like Black Mirror. Now going to tidy and relax
  • 18:52 Going to dye hair
  • 19:19 Just finished putting hair dye in. Now I wait. Going to work on my 100 tips” piece
  • 19:45 Going to wash out hair dye. Should leave it for longer really but I am impatient today
  • 20:32 It’s quite orange
  • 20:52 Too tired to finish 100 tips” piece. Looking through notes for other writing ideas. Ugh all feel overwhelming. Maybe I should just write about feeling tired and overwhelmed. Oh I could write about how the first day back at work went
  • 21:57 Finished blog post. Going to publish it, then bed.

January 3, 2021

Complementary Habits

Conventional wisdom on building habits warns against making too many changes at once. Generally, the advice is to pick one small thing first, and really focus on nailing that one habit before adding another.

This has generally been my approach in the past, but over the last few weeks I’ve experimented with adding a whole set of new habits that have never quite stuck for me before. These include:

  • Journaling everyday
  • Publishing something everyday
  • Going for a walk everyday
  • Doing a high-intensity workout each morning
  • Time-blocking
  • Not drinking alcohol

Although it’s too early to say whether they are going to stick for good, it’s already been more successful than when I have tried to adopt each of these individually. Why?

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear advocates for habit stacking’, where you tie a new habit you want to adopt to a habit you already reliably have, to help trigger you to actually do it.

I’m wondering whether there is something similar going on with my new habits, in that many of them complement each other in a way that makes them easier to do - a virtuous circle.

Journaling everyday gives me ideas for stuff I can publish (in fact, the idea behind this post came out of journaling). Time-blocking my calendar ensures I build in time for walking and writing. Blocking out the evening for writing means I’m less tempted to have a drink, and not drinking means I write more productively. It also means I sleep better so getting up for a high-intensity workout doesn’t feel as painful. Walking gives me time to reflect and listen to podcasts which in turn gives me ideas that I can then write about… And so on.

I’m super happy that this is working so far - but it also feels kind of fragile. If I give up one, will it have a domino effect on the others? I’ve been off work the last couple of weeks which has definitely helped me kick-start these habits, and I’m a little worried that it could all come crumbling down once my mind has to focus on work again… We’ll see!


January 2, 2021

My 2020 Annual Review Process

In 2018, I did my first proper annual review. I followed the process outlined in this document, and it took absolutely ages.

I followed the same process for 2019, and it was a little faster since I was mostly able to just describe what had changed since last year rather than having to start from scratch. But it still felt like a lot of work, and it felt silly to be giving all the different life areas equal attention when it was clear that some areas were going fine and others could do with more in-depth analysis.

So this year I changed it up - I didn’t follow a template and instead just wrote about whatever felt alive’ to me. This is the structure I ended up with:

What Was Good This Year?

Here I listed anything I felt positively about. This included:

  • Habits I successfully adopted
  • Quality of life upgrades (like moving house, getting laser eye surgery, salary increases, etc)
  • Skills I improved on
  • Cool experiences I had
  • Projects I completed (both work and personal)
  • Positive world events
  • Podcasts, books, blogs, etc that stood out
  • Positive interactions and relationships
  • etc

What Was Not so Good?

Here I listed any negative stuff that had been on my mind. This included:

  • Goals or habits I didn’t successfully achieve
  • Stuff that was stressing me out
  • Stuff that I felt anxious about
  • Stuff that felt unresolved or confusing
  • Negative world events
  • Challenges (both at work and personal)
  • Stuff I want to improve on
  • etc

What Did I Learn About Myself?

Here I listed any insights I had about myself. This included:

  • Changes in my values
  • Significant updates to my beliefs
  • Realizations about my personality, preferences, or tendencies
  • How I like to spend my time
  • Hypothesizing what my ideal life would look like given all of the above
  • etc

Reflections From Last Years Review?

Then I read through my previous annual review and wrote down any remarks as they came to me. This included:

  • Things that surprised me
  • Things I had forgotten about
  • Things that I had planned to do but didn’t/couldn’t (last year I had planned to host more parties in 2020… thanks covid)
  • Progress on any of the goals/habits I’d listed
  • etc

What Do I Want to Focus on for 2021?

This was a bit of a brainstorm about where I want to direct my attention for the upcoming year. It helps to look at the twelve life areas’ in this guide, to see which ones you’ve been neglecting, or where there is room for improvement. This year, mine were mostly focused around health, creative output, and friendships. I kept them pretty general, stuff like eat more vegetables” and publish more” - in the next section they get more concrete and actionable.

Concrete Strategies?

Here, I tried to think of concrete things I could do to improve on the areas of focus listed in the previous section, like make sure 50% of each meal is vegetables” and publish one thing everyday”. I tried to make sure they were actions within my direct control; more like habits or systems than goals.

Metrics

Here I collected key numbers like:

  • Finance metrics (e.g. income, net worth)
  • Health and fitness metrics (e.g. weight)
  • Books read
  • etc

Fun Things This Year

Here I listed fun activities that stood out to me, including:

  • Trips I took (not many this year!)
  • Dinners or social activities with friends

Themes for 2021

Finally, I picked 1-3 themes for the year ahead that I’ll use to guide my focus. This year my themes are: Consistency and Playfulness.

I chose consistency because I have always been terrible at sticking to stuff that takes a long time to pay off. Even though intellectually I know that compounding returns are a thing, if I don’t see immediate gains I start to think it’s not working. This year, I want to commit to consistency and stop focusing on the end result. It’s an experiment - if the consistency pays off and I see long-term improvements, I hope my brain will start to internalize this. If the consistency doesn’t pay off and I still don’t see improvements, I can stop feeling guilty about all the habits I gave up on.

I chose playfulness because I love being silly, but I’ve started to feel like I’ve been taking myself too seriously recently. With all that’s going on in the world it’s easy to just feel heavy and dark, especially when you can’t see friends to lighten things up. My work basically involves thinking about all the ways AI can be harmful and trying to put structures in place to mitigate this, and although I’m very grateful to be doing meaningful work it can also take quite an emotional toll. I find writing to be a great benefit to my mental health, but I’ve been nervous about publishing stuff due to worrying about what other people think. This year, I’m trying to take a more playful approach to everything, and to just get over it and publish stuff, even if it’s silly.


January 1, 2021

Things I’ve Changed My Mind About

  • I used to dismiss signaling as a way to explain behavior, now I think it has significant explanatory power for many aspects of human behavior.
  • I used to think flossing was pointless, now I do it everyday. I think this was case of confusing there’s no evidence this works” with there’s evidence that this doesn’t work”.
  • I thought Twitter doubling it’s character limit would be terrible, but now I think it was actually great.
  • I didn’t used to think comparing AGI to corporations was a particularly useful analogy, now I think the comparison between ruthlessly optimizing for an objective’ and profit-maximizing is very apt and that we can learn from the mechanisms we use to control corporations when it comes to building safe AGI.
  • I used to be very anti-drugs, now I am mostly in favor of legalizing most drugs.
  • I was brought up Catholic and I am now an atheist.
  • I used to think there wasn’t much point in reading the classics (because I had pretty much absorbed the storylines/messages from other aspects of culture, and because it seemed like a waste of time to read the same thing as everyone else), then I read some classics and now I realize there’s a reason they are classics.
  • I used to believe very strongly in the power of the placebo effect but now I am less certain or at least, I think the placebo effect may be much weaker than we thought, due to things like the Hawthorne effect and Simpson’s paradox. More here.
  • I feel much more favorably towards qualitative research methods than I used to.
  • I feel much more favorable towards markets as a way of allocating resources than I used to.
  • Covid-19 has made me more aware of the risks of some things I am generally very in favor of, such as:
    • High-density living
    • Open borders / increased travel / immigration
    • Relying on global supply chains
  • I used to be a big believer in Implicit Association Testing, I’m now much less confident it actually measures anything meaningful. Similarly, I used to be proponent of unconscious bias training, but it seems like that might actually be counterproductive.

January 1, 2021

Actualism: When It Pays to Accept Second Best

If I am trying to eat healthily, I know I should try to cook more at home. I also know that brown rice is more nutritious than white rice. I don’t like the taste of brown rice as much, but a lot of healthy-eating advice encourages me to choose whole grain foods like brown rice over their more processed counterparts.

So I buy brown rice. And when it comes to dinner time, the thought of eating brown rice is so unappealing that I reach for my phone and open DoorDash.

Two choices lead to three possible outcomes

If I am trying to build wealth, I know I should start investing some of my disposable income in an index fund. I’m a bit intimidated by managing my own portfolio so I think about signing up for a fully-managed service like Betterment. But I know that behind the scenes the funds are the same anyway and I will save money if I do it myself.

So I don’t sign up for Betterment. But the thought of trying to understand how Vanguard works and what all the different financial terms mean seems so overwhelming that I keep putting it off, and my disposable income sits idle in my bank account indefinitely.

In philosophy, there is a debate between possibilism and actualism. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Suppose that you have been invited to attend an ex-partner’s wedding and that the best thing you can do is accept the invitation and be pleasant at the wedding. But, suppose furthermore that if you do accept the invitation, you’ll freely decide to get inebriated at the wedding and ruin it for everyone, which would be the worst outcome. The second best thing to do would be to simply decline the invitation. In light of these facts, should you accept or decline the invitation?

Possibilism would say: Go to the wedding. You should be trying to achieve the best possible outcome, which is to go to the wedding and behave.

Actualism would say: Decline the invitation. You know what will actually happen if you go to the wedding, and it’s worse than the second best option of not going.

This seems to be a pretty common pattern in life: It appears like there are three options: the best (1), the second best (2), and the worst (3). Of course, you try to get (1), but you end up with (3). Little did you know, (1) was never really an option, so you should have just gone for (2).

It turns out there were only two possible outcomes

An important part of personal growth, I think, is to get good at predicting when you should think like a possibilist and when you should think like an actualist.

Sometimes, it really does make sense to shoot for the best outcome, even if there’s a chance you could end up with the worst. But I suspect most people err a little too much in the possibilist direction (that’s why those cash-rebate schemes exist: everyone thinks they will be the one who will actually mail in their receipts… and then they don’t). Taking a more actualist approach involves being honest with yourself about what you actually will and won’t do. Getting better calibrated at this is a valuable skill.

For the examples above, I now know that I should just accept the second best option. I buy white rice, accepting the slight loss of nutrients in return for a meal tasty enough that I’m not tempted by takeout. I have a Betterment account, accepting that I am leaving some value on the table in return for actually getting some return on my money at all.

You’ll often encounter people who just can’t understand why you’ve settled for the second best thing when you could have the first: But think of all the compounding interest you could be getting on the money you’d save by managing your own portfolio!!”. They think the choice is between investing via a fully-managed service or investing via a self-managed service. They don’t understand that the choice is actually between investing via a fully-managed service or not investing at all.

A parting thought: While it is valuable to be pragmatic about what you will and won’t actually do, you should also retain a growth mindset - just because I can’t handle managing my own portfolio right now doesn’t mean I never will - at some point I may decide it’s time to take the plunge. It’s helpful to occasionally run experiments just to see if you’ve reached a point where option (1) is in the running for you again. But in the meantime, a suboptimal thing you actually do is better than an optimal thing you don’t do.


December 31, 2020

Cat Poetry

Loosely inspired by Senryū/Haiku


Cat on my bed
A furry boulder
Where my feet should be


Sitting like a loaf
You eye up
My sandwich


Lounging on my keyboard
The cat says
prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,,,,,,,


December 30, 2020

Is the Placebo Effect Real?

Mike Hall from the Merseyside Skeptics says of the placebo effect:

Confirmation bias means patients are more likely to notice and report changes that they are expecting and ignore changes they aren’t. The Hawthorne Effect means patients may alter their behaviour, simply because they are aware they are being observed. Then there is the Observer-Expectancy Effect, Recall Bias, the Clever Hans Effect, improved compliance, selection bias, and more and more. All these effects and biases can alter the recorded data, even if they don’t change the condition of the patient. This makes the patients in the placebo arm look as if they’ve improved more than they have.”

Source: The placebo effect isn’t as real as we think it is ~ The Overtake

There are also some statistical paradoxes such as Simpson’s paradox, the Will Roger’s effect, and Berkson’s paradox that could distort the findings to make the placebo effect appear stronger than it is.

In general, placebos only seem to improve subjective outcomes (i.e. self-reported symptoms such as pain) rather than objective factors (such as blood test results). In some cases (like migraines), improvement in self-reported symptoms might be all that’s needed. But in cases where a disease is contagious or could degenerate without further treatment, it could be dangerous for someone to feel better’ if the underlying problem persists.

There is some evidence to suggest the placebo effect works even when the person knows what they are taking is a placebo. Presumably this is because people have heard of the placebo effect and believe in it? I wonder what would happen if you told someone who had never heard of the placebo effect that you were giving them inactive medicine, would you still observe the placebo effect? Is the placebo effect weaker in people who are skeptical of it, if they know they are getting a placebo?

Rather than being a separate thing with mysterious healing powers, people like Mike argue that the placebo effect is actually just a fuzzy name for a collection of cognitive biases and statistical effects that lead to the appearance of improvements.


December 29, 2020

Rosie’s Newsletter #1

Hi friends,

I’m Rosie, you’re receiving this because you signed up to my newsletter - welcome to the first issue! I’d love to hear how you came across me - was it my Roam videos? My Obsidian Publish? Something else? Feel free to hit reply - since this is the first issue I promise to read and reply to all messages 🤓

This newsletter is a bit of an experiment; I’m not sure yet what the structure will be or how often I’ll send it, but you can expect it to cover topics like productivity, systems, tools for thought, and anything else I find interesting.

What I’ve Been up To

After spending an embarrassing amount of my spare time tinkering with different blogging platforms, I appear to have (at least temporarily) settled on Ghost. Here’s my new website!

I’d actually been holding out for Obsidian Publish to support custom domains, with the intention of using it to power my whole site. But while it would be a breeze to maintain, I realized it would lack a lot of the features and flexibility you can get from a platform like Ghost. Let me know if it would be helpful for me to write up my thinking about this?

I plan to use my site for microblogging (sharing quick thoughts, quotes, and anything that resonates with me) as well as longer-form essays. I guess Twitter would be a more obvious place for some of this, but a) its good to control your own content, b) Twitter has problems, and c) I’ve felt weirdly anxious about posting on Twitter recently. I think it’s because I have such a random mix of followers that I feel obliged to include a ton of context in my tweets which is obviously not practical. Anyone else have this issue?

Writing

Anyway, I’m trying to start publishing more regularly, and due to being off work for the holidays I’ve managed to kick start this with a few items:

Question of the Week

How come firms in a market economy are centrally planned internally?

See the link for more context, and send me your thoughts!

What I’ve Been Watching/Reading/Listening To

  • TV: Killing Eve (available on Hulu in the US). I’ve already seen the whole thing, but it’s so good I’m watching it for a second time. It’s such a compelling drama, the writing is masterfully witty, and it has fantastic female characters. I want to be Carolyn Martens when I grow up. I found out recently it was written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag; which is also awesome), because of course it was.
  • Podcast: Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen. I’ve been fascinated by scams recently, and have been using investigative podcasts about them to bribe myself into going on walks so I can listen to them. Today I binged this one, and it’s really quite something.
  • Book: The Girl on the Train. My GoodReads is full of aspirational literary books I like to think I’ll someday read, but sometimes you just need a good psychological thriller. This one was certainly a page-turner, and I enjoyed the unreliable narrator’ aspect.
  • TV: Death to 2020. When people ask me what I miss most about the UK now that I live in California, my answer is always: crumpets and gallows humor. If you feel like you need to laugh at the horrorshow that was 2020, Charlie Brooker’s Death to 2020 really hits the spot.

What’s Next?

All the cool kids seem to be writing 100 tips to live better’ pieces (see here and here). I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while - stay tuned for mine, which will likely focus on becoming a competent and agenty human.

Thanks for reading - please feel free to reply with any reactions or feedback on the content, length, frequency, what you would like more of, etc - and if you know of anyone else who might like this, please forward it!

Until next time,

Rosie 🌈


December 29, 2020

Choosing a Blogging Platform

As I mentioned in my recent newsletter, I’ve been spending a lot of time during lockdown trying out different web platforms to host my personal website and blog.

The main factors I was interested in were:

  • Ease of setup and maintenance: I find it very easy to procrastinate on writing by tinkering with the technical details of my systems, so I wanted something that would need minimal effort and get me to focus on actually writing.
  • Pleasantness to use: Again, I wanted something that would encourage me to actually write and publish, so having a nice Content Management System (CMS) and user interface was important to me.
  • Ease of export / transfer: I change my systems like I change my socks. I wanted to know that I could export my content easily and not be locked in to a particular system.
  • Control and flexibility: Although I wanted something simple, I also wanted to have some degree of control and flexibility over my content, for example: a custom domain name, custom CSS, embedding arbitrary HTML, etc.

Stuff that I won’t go into much here:

  • Price: The options here range from free to a few tens of dollars per month. Most options have multiple pricing plans so it would be too complicated to go into them all here (though I’ve touched on it in a few cases), but you can easily look up pricing info.
  • SEO: My approach to SEO is to try to write good content, avoid weird hacks, and not worry about the rest. It’s possible that some of the options below will be better than others when it comes to SEO, but I didn’t really look into it.

Squarespace / Wix / Other Drag-and-Drop Website Builders

I’m getting these out of the way first as I don’t actually know much about them - I get the vibe that they are primarily aimed at absolute beginners who need a lot of hand-holding and are willing to pay for it. My understanding is that they are used for all kinds of websites (not just blogs), but are fairly limited in terms of customization.

If you need something more elaborate than a straightforward blog and don’t have any technical inclination, these are the way to go. Otherwise, one of the other options is likely a better bet.

Medium

Hands-down, Medium is the easiest way to get started writing online. It has a beautiful user interface (on both web and mobile), simple stats, and a built in audience. Medium is a joy to use.

However, it comes with some significant downsides:

  • No custom domains (currently): this is a huge problem for anyone who wants control and ownership of their online presence. However, there are rumors that custom domains will be reintroduced soon, which will make Medium much more appealing.
  • Very limited customization options: if you want anything beyond a blog, Medium is not for you.
  • Very little control - if you want to earn money on your blog you are limited to their monetization model, you can’t embed certain types of content (such as email sign up forms), etc.

If all you want is to write with the lowest barrier to entry possible, Medium is the way to go. It probably won’t be too tricky to transfer your content to another platform later if you need more functionality - though you might lose stuff like comments. For anything more, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

Substack

Substack is a blog combined with email distribution. It’s like Medium in that it’s super simple to start writing, but has the added benefit of allowing you to build up an email list and reach your readers in their inbox.

Like Medium, customization options are super limited. Until recently, they did not support custom domains, but it looks like they have recently added this for a one-time $50 fee. You also won’t be able to build out any kind of personal website beyond a blog - it’s primarily a tool for writing blog posts and distributing them via email.

Although the interface is a little less seamless, Substack is probably a slightly better option than Medium for most people who just want to start writing, due to having more control over your audience and domain name.

Wordpress

Wordpress is by far the most widely used platform and is likely the default option for people starting a blog. It’s fine.

You can either host it yourself using wordpress.org (free, though you’ll need to pay separately for hosting, and handle some of the technical stuff), or you can pay them to host it all for you using wordpress.com. The payment options for the hosted versions are kind of weird - on the cheapest option ($4 per month) it will still show ads on your site. The hosted options don’t seem like great value to me, but it will save you the work of setting up hosting separately.

Although primarily a blogging platform, there are so many plugins now that you can use it for a whole range of sites. It’s pretty flexible - I especially like the Shortcodes that you can use in posts to add functionality in a straightforward way.

Another good thing is how easy it is to post to Wordpress from anywhere: it has a mobile app, and lots of services have Wordpress integrations that allow you to share snippets to your site seamlessly.

Also, from a longevity and transferability point of view it’s a pretty safe bet - so many people rely on it it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon, and because of its ubiquity pretty much every other service has import from Wordpress’ functionality if you do decide to jump ship at some point.

The main downsides:

  • It can be soooo sloooooow. Although the writing interface has improved a lot, it still feels janky and laggy to me.
  • It is bloated. The number of plugins and possible customizations are overwhelming, and they make it easy to inadvertently make ugly and slow sites.
  • It just generally feels a bit behind the times - like MySpace once everyone had moved on to Facebook.

I actually think Wordpress is still a decent option for many people who want to play it safe, and want to have a reasonable degree of flexibility without having to get too much into technical weeds.

Webflow

Usually, graphical user interfaces for web development generate horrible bloaty code. Webflow has cleverly found a way to allow people to build complex custom websites using a visual interface that directly edits HTML - resulting in cleaner code without needing to write it yourself.

There is still a bit of a learning curve - but it’s more like the learning curve for Photoshop than the learning curve for programming.

The main downside to Webflow in my opinion is the clunky CMS. While Medium, Ghost, and even Wordpress now have pretty seamless writing experiences, entering content into Webflow is much more like data entry. If you’re someone who wants posting to be as easy as possible, this might get irritating. There’s also the fact that because your content is in this proprietary database, it’s much harder to export your content or transfer it to a different service.

However, the complex database system does make it possible to build elaborate custom structure to the website, for example if you wanted to have a blog, a portfolio, and ecommerce functionality on the site - you can make it happen.

Webflow is great for people who need something more than a straightforward blog, who are comfortable with a bit of a learning curve, and who want something very customizable.

Jekyll / Hugo / Gatsby / Eleventy / Other Static Site Generators

Static site generators are beloved by nerds. They load fast, provide tons of control and flexibility, and allow you to write your content in local Markdown files.

The latter item in particular is a huge plus in my opinion - being able to write posts in Markdown files is the ultimate in transferability. These systems are also very customizable if you know what you’re doing.

The problem is, you will absolutely need to be comfortable using the terminal, Git, Stack Overflow (for troubleshooting), and various programming languages to use these systems. If that’s not you, I’d give it a pass. Although you might be able to follow a tutorial to get something up and running, there will inevitably be something that goes a bit wrong, or something you’d like to tweak, and you’ll be lost. I have a masters in Computer Science and worked for years in web development, and even I find myself going down rabbit holes for hours tracing down dependencies, hacking things together, and then having all my customizations break when I try to update to the latest version.

I’ve tried Jekyll, Hugo, Gatsby, and Eleventy, and ultimately they are all pretty similar. Jekyll is the easiest to get something up and running due to the integration with Github Pages, but Eleventy is great for people like me who are more comfortable with JavaScript than, say, Ruby.

I got really excited about the idea of using Obsidian as the CMS for my Markdown files when I was using a static site generator. The problem is, the conventions for Markdown in Obsidian aren’t always compatible with the expectations of the site generator. For example, Obsidian uses double-bracket [[wiki-links]], whereas static site generators will generally expect traditional [Markdown](links). (Side note: There are some settings you can tweak to address this problem in particular but the point is you will lose out on many of the benefits of using something like Obsidian and may as well just use a normal text-editor). Some people have written scripts that take Obsidian or Roam Research vaults and turn them into static site content, but again you have to have a fair amount of technical savvy to use these.

Static site generators are great for people who have decent technical skills, love endless tinkering, and want the control and longevity of Markdown files.

Blot.im

Blot.im is a very underrated service. It allows you to write your content in Markdown files stored locally, and for $4 per month it handles all the messy stuff so that your site just works. You can choose from a limited number of themes, but if you know CSS you can do a lot of customization to the look of your site.

It’s built by one developer who is super responsive to emails. I used blot.im for a while and was very happy with it - it’s a great option for people who want the benefit of Markdown files without having to worry about the technical side of static site generators. For reasons I discuss below, I ended up switching to Ghost, however blot.im comes in at a close second for me.

Ghost

Ghost is primarily a blogging platform; some people think of it as a simpler, more sophisticated version of Wordpress - it has all the usual stuff you’d expect from a classic blogging platform; custom domains, RSS, scheduled posts, custom menu navigation, etc. Like Medium, the writing interface is a joy to use. Like Substack, you can build a membership and distribute posts via email. For me, it turned out to have the best balance of the stuff I cared about.

There are plenty of themes to choose from, but almost all seem to be clean and high-quality. I love the fact that I can use Code Injection’ to sneak in custom CSS and scripts without having to edit the theme directly (making it easy to update to new versions of the theme without breaking stuff).

The default configurations probably cover most use cases, but Ghost also allows for slightly more customizability through dynamic routing and a clever tag system. So while I currently value the simplicity of a blog, it’s nice to know that if I wanted to add a portfolio or other types of content it would be reasonably straightforward.

GhostPro (the hosted version) is pretty pricey at $29 per month, but Ghost itself is open source (and therefore free). I got a $5/month Digital Ocean droplet and host it there - it was surprisingly straightforward to set up!

The two main downsides to Ghost I’ve encountered so far are:

  • No built-in comment system. You can add comments to your posts using third-party services, but this is a bit of a hassle.
  • The only export option is to a single massive JSON file. This is a slight pain, but there are scripts that can convert the JSON file into a series of Markdown files, so it’s not too bad.

Ghost is great for people who want the functionality and control of a traditional blogging platform but with a more modern, sophisticated design and a delightful writing experience.

Notion / Obsidian Publish / Amplenote / Roam Research / Other Note-Taking Tools

This is kind of a wildcard option I’m throwing in - none of these are traditional blogging platforms or website builders - they were all built primarily as personal note-taking tools, but have the ability to publish or share notes. This opens up an exciting space for them to act as super simple yet powerful content management systems for publishing online.

As of writing, none of these support custom domains directly, though for some there are ways of hacking it together. They are also missing features you would traditionally want from a blogging platform such as RSS.

While people are starting to experiment with using these platforms as personal websites, I don’t think they quite meet the needs of most people yet - though I’m excited about the future.


December 28, 2020

Capturing Everything With Drafts

My first piece of advice to people who want to get more organized is:

Write. It. Down.

Everything. Your brain is a sieve; you think you’ll remember, and then you won’t. Sometimes you’ll remember that there’s something you’re supposed to remember but you’re not sure what it is, other times you’ll just forget entirely.

Write 👏 It 👏 Down 👏

But writing it down is no good if you’re never going to look at it again. You need a reliable inbox’ system to review and process your notes.

That’s where Drafts comes in.

I was skeptical of drafts at first. I didn’t get it. Its tagline is Where Text Starts” and it’s marketed as a way of you can easily sending text to anywhere (email, twitter, etc). Sounds fine, but it wasn’t a particular need of mine.

But then, suddenly, I got it. Its beauty is in the combination of seamless capture with a reliable inbox system.

When you have a thought, it can disappear, you can remember it, or you can write it down. But remember what I said earlier? You won’t remember it.

So you can let it disappear or you can write it down. I think the first option is underrated: most thoughts probably aren’t that great, and you should let them go.

I’m in the habit of asking myself, would I be sad if I never thought this thought again?” If the answer is no, let it go. If the answer is yes, don’t think ok cool, but it’s such an important thought that I’ll remember it!”

YOU WON’T.

So you need to write it down. But if there is even one iota of friction in that process - if you need to grab a pen, decide which app to open, find your phone… it’s game over.

For a while, I would use Asana to capture stuff. I use Asana religiously as a task manager, so I knew it would serve the inbox purpose of ensuring I revisited and processed the thought at some point. But away from my desk, the capture was not seamless.

I would have to open the mobile app, ensure I was in my personal (rather than my work) account, press add task’, type out the task, and make sure it was assigned to me so that it shows up in the My Tasks’ view.

It was… tolerable, I guess. Except when I didn’t have my phone on me.

I tried to configure my Apple Watch to listen for Asana commands. Sadly, Siri never quite got it, and my thoughts would be added to iOS Reminders instead, which I never checked.

Finally–thankfully–I revisited Drafts.

Firstly, it is so well designed for quick capture. As soon as you open it, you’re in a new note. It also records the date and time, so you can more easily piece together why you felt DO ROCKS HAVE ENTROPY?!?!” was a useful thought (oh, it’s because it was on Saturday at 9pm, an hour or so after eating those special brownies).

Secondly, it has an inbox and archive process. Friends, you know how much I love an inbox and archive process. I can see, immediately, which notes need to be processed - either turned into a task (in Asana), a journal entry (Day One), or a useful note (Obsidian).

I’m actually writing this in Drafts right now. I don’t know where it will end up. Hopefully my blog… (Editor’s note: Reader, it made it.)

Thirdly, the iOS widget allows you to see at a glance how many notes are in your inbox, so you can process them when you have a minute.

By process, I mean one of:

  • Archive it, if you just had to make a quick reminder that you’ve now acted on, or if it’s a note you might want to search for later but don’t need to do anything with right now
  • Move it to a relevant app, e.g. Roam Research, Todoist, Asana, Obsidian, etc
  • Act on it now

The iOS widget also allows you to immediately open text entry or dictation, so that capture is always just one tap away.

Finally, it has an Apple Watch complication! This means I can frictionlessly capture thoughts anywhere even if my phone is out of reach. You can set it up so it’s listening as soon as you tap the complication - making it a one touch move.

Sure, the audio transcription isn’t always perfect - I told it to buy soy sauce’ and I got Buy So he sauce’ - but that’s fine, it was enough for me to figure out what I meant, and later I made a delicious stir fry.

This is all aside from the snazzy sharing features and custom actions you can create. It’s also all available in the free version. If you want to get fancy, you can upgrade, but if all you need are these features, you’re set.

I cannot express how much less anxious I feel now that I have a single place to capture thoughts and a reliable mechanism for processing them so they don’t slip through the cracks. It’s so simple, yet it took me so long to find an app that could do this well 💖


December 27, 2020

Positive-Sum Does Not Necessarily Mean Win-Win

Epistemic status: I think this is right but it’s surprisingly hard to find clarification on this so I could be missing something

Positive-sum interactions means the total gains outweigh the total losses - i.e., the pie gets bigger.

A win-win situation means both parties come out better off - they both have more pie than they did before.

These terms are often used interchangeably but by these definitions: while a win-win must be positive-sum, not all positive-sum interactions are win-win.

For example, if we both start off with $10, and through some interaction I end up with $20 and you end up with $5, we’ve increased the total pie size from $20 to $25 (positive-sum) but you’ve ended up with less than you had in the first place (not win-win).

Using these terms more precisely seems like it could avoid troublesome miscommunications, especially when discussing things like the possible impacts of new policies. I expect most people would choose a slightly larger pie where no one loses out (i.e. a Pareto improvement) over a much larger pie where some people end up worse off - i.e., whether something is win-win is likely more pertinent than whether it is positive-sum.


December 27, 2020

Paul Millerd on the State of Work in 2020

I enjoyed this Twitter thread by Paul Millerd:

This particularly resonated with me:

Over the last few years I’ve realized how much I value novelty: I love learning new things, trying new experiences, moving from project to project. It’s why I’ve stopped trying to be a specialist. When I first encountered 80,000 Hours, one of the pieces of advice that most resonated with me was the idea of treating your career as a series of experiments to work out what you do and don’t enjoy, what does and doesn’t fulfill you. Similarly, the idea of a random walk is very appealing - it’s liberating to not have everything mapped out, and instead be open to the journey.

This one also struck a chord:

As someone who grew up in the UK, this has been one of the most jarring things about moving to the US. Thanks to the NHS, healthcare was never a factor in my employment decisions. Yet it’s something I hear regularly from my American friends; it limits their ability to take entrepreneurial risks or leave jobs that are making them miserable. It breaks my heart to think of all the wasted talent and innovation we are missing out on for no good reason. It’s ironic, too, that a country famous for the American Dream has inadvertently hampered the ability of many to pursue their own path to prosperity.

There are many more interesting observations and ideas in the thread.


December 27, 2020

How Come Firms in Market Economies Are Centrally Planned Internally?

In economics, the idealized free market’ allows people to trade goods and services for money. The claim is that the laws of supply and demand determine prices in a decentralized way, leading to an efficient allocation of resources without the oversight of a central planner like a government.

A key element of market economies are firms (for-profit companies). But it’s interesting that within firms, resources are not allocated to different departments or individuals via trade and the laws of supply and demand, but rather through a centralized budgeting process that is ultimately overseen by the executives. The marketing department doesn’t trade’ with the HR department, for example - what would that even look like?

What does this say about when central planning is and isn’t efficient? Have any firms experimented with creating an internal structure that replicates aspects of a free market? How might this work?


December 17, 2020

My Management Philosophy and Working Preferences

For my direct reports

  • I see the main responsibilities of a manager being to:

    • Shield their direct reports from nonsense
    • Champion them and their work
    • Help ruthlessly prioritize based on organizational, team, and personal goals
  • I like to use the Manager Tools techniques for management. The most salient things here are:

    • Weekly 1-1s (30-60mins as needed)
    • Regular, frequent feedback
    • However, I’m happy to adapt this based on your preferences!
  • I’d prefer you to over-communicate rather than under-communicate - you should never feel like you might bother me if you copy me in to emails or ask for clarifications etc (in the unlikely event that it got too much, I would tell you that as feedback)

  • I encourage my team to provide daily standup’ bullet points in Slack about what we are each working on that day. I think it’s great for visibility and for feeling like a team.

  • If at any point you notice something I can do to be a better manager for you, please let me know.

  • I don’t expect responses to email or slack out of hours so don’t feel pressured to respond even if I send something to you out of hours (sometimes I work at weird times). If there’s something really urgent I’ll text/call you.

  • Although I roughly try to keep to a 9-6ish schedule, I’m not super rigorous about it so I might take breaks in the day and then work later etc.

  • You should feel free to design the work schedule that suits you best - I’m less concerned with the hours you work than with the actual output.

  • Similarly, I am very pro making use of PTO as you need it, and will generally approve it unless there’s a very good reason why the timing doesn’t work (in which case we will work on an alternative).

  • Please feel free to approach me proactively with your ideas, e.g. if there’s a conference we should target, or a research direction you think is important to pursue. We can then work together to figure out if it makes sense to do.

  • I use Asana heavily for task and project management, however it doesn’t suit everyone so we can discuss other coordination methods if you prefer.

  • For anything that requires drafting, I use Google docs. Feel free to send me stuff for commenting/suggestions.

  • I find it helpful to keep a running Google Doc for 1-1s - feel free to add any items throughout the week that you’d like to discuss.


November 21, 2020

How to Throw a Party

Invite more people than you think you need / can accommodate. Many won’t be available, and many will drop out at the last minute. Parties feel way more lively when there are slightly more people than can comfortably fit in the space.

Have background music on. You could create a playlist in advance or use existing ones online. You could even have a collaborative one that people contribute to in advance or on the fly.

Tell people in advance what to expect - is it a small, chill gathering where most people know each other? Or will it be large and lively with dancing? What should they wear? What should they bring? What food are you providing - should they eat beforehand?

It’s a good idea to provide at least some food in the form of snacks. Try to accommodate a variety of diets. Examples of good snack choices are:

  • Hummus/dips with veggies
  • Crisps/chips and dips
  • Cheese and pineapple sticks
  • Nuts
  • Grapes
  • Cookies
  • Pizza

Ask people to bring a bottle (whatever they want to drink). It’s so much easier than trying to accommodate everyone’s preferences - plus people like to feel like they are contributing something.

Having said that, have some basic backup drinks: Water, juice, tea, coffee, wine, beer, soda (diet and regular), maybe some spirits. The last thing you want is for drinks to run out.

Acquire loads of cups.

Create ambient lighting. No bright lights - ideally lamps and fairly lights.

Create zones. Note:

  • People will gather standing up in the kitchen
  • If possible, have a loud, dancing area as well as quieter spaces for conversations - make sure the latter has lots of cosy seating options
  • If you have outdoor space and the weather is nice, use it!
  • If you have a big enough space, consider playing different music in different areas to create a variety of vibes

Have plenty of obvious places for people to put their trash.

Expect to spend the next day cleaning, no matter how well behaved your friends are. People generate mess.


August 1, 2020

My Thoughts on Veganism

I went vegan at the beginning of 2020. For years I’ve been horrified by factory farming (in the future I think it will be seen as one of the greatest moral horrors of our time) and had been reducing my intake of animal products for a while but never felt brave enough to fully commit.

I decided to try Veganuary in 2020 and have mostly stuck with it ever since. Some benefits I experienced:

  • I have way less cognitive dissonance between my beliefs and actions
  • I learned how to cook delicious vegan food to the point where I really don’t miss non-vegan stuff unless I’m eating out
  • I’m eating more balanced and nutritious food so I feel healthier and have lost weight

Why?

I’m vegan for animal suffering reasons. I don’t think a vegan diet is inherently healthier than other diets (though it has encouraged me to eat more nutritiously). I don’t think it’s inherently bad to use animal products (if I owned chickens I’d probably eat their eggs). I’m not even sure if it’s inherently bad to kill animals for food if they don’t suffer (I am still figuring out my stance on population ethics). A positive side effect of veganism is that it’s likely better for the environment, though that’s not my primary motivation. I’m very excited about the possibility of clean meat I have no ethical objection to eating a substance identical to meat that didn’t involve suffering (though I think we should be quite careful due to risks of prions diseases).


June 18, 2020

Roam vs Obsidian

(Original thread on twitter)

A thread on @RoamResearch vs @obsdmd (spoiler: both have a place in my workflow):

Roam is fundamentally a database. Blocks are atomic, and uniquely identifiable. This affords it outliner functionality and block-level manipulation. Behind the scenes, database metadata enables fancy features like block references, kanban boards, diagrams, etc.

As with many things, this strength (custom metadata for fancy features) is also a weakness. You can export to markdown, but if you’ve made a lot of use of proprietary Roam features, the resulting files may not be that useful (or at least, they’ll be messy and somewhat illegible)

Obsidian on the other hand is based on locally-stored markdown files. You have complete control; you can open them in any markdown editor without needing to export, so you do things like use VS Code to do a regex find&replace across all notes. Not (currently) possible in Roam

Because Obsidian is aiming to be as future-proof and standardized as possible, notes are pure markdown (no custom metadata). This limits the range of possible features, but is as close as you can get to knowing you’ll be able to read your notes in 50 years time.

(Side note: Backlinks are fantastic, but if you think they are the majority of the value of either of these applications, you’re missing out)
So where does that leave things? In my opinion:

Roam is best for creative idea generation, quick random thoughts, effortless entry, playful exploration, and making connections.

Roam is where I instinctively go to capture things quickly and search for them later, knowing I can use queries and filters to pinpoint precisely what I need. It’s messy and high-context. Roam is my day-to-day private thinking companion.

Obsidian is best for longer-form, more fully-formed, permanent’ notes. It’s where notes become essays and articles. They take on clarity and structure via markdown, and it’s motivating to seem them beautifully rendered.

Obsidian is where notes become legible to others and ready to publish. It’s also the system I use to preserve ideas for future Rosie, secure in the knowledge that they are in a standardized format.

Of course, both tools are under active development, so I don’t know how long these observations will hold true. It will be interesting to see whether they start to converge, or whether their current differences result in increasingly different use cases.


June 2, 2020

Fasting

My thoughts on extreme fasting (e.g. water fasting) for weight loss:

If your goal is only to lose weight as fast as possible, maybe it makes sense. But most people want to:

  • build muscle
  • minimize loose skin
  • not gain the weight back
  • put nutrients in their body
  • shift to better eating habits for the long term
  • not sacrifice too much of their social life
  • be able to continue with their responsibilities like work without being distracted or moody
  • not sacrifice their mental health

In which case, it’s likely that a slower, more sustainable approach (e.g. eating 500 fewer calories per day than you’re burning) is more appropriate.


June 2, 2020

Err on the Side of Taking Responsibility for Mistakes

People are often reluctant to take responsibility for mistakes where it’s not 100% clearly their fault.

I think this is a mistake for two reasons:

  1. I like people way more when they are quick to take responsibility. If you accept responsibility quickly, people tend to be a lot less mad. I think people think by trying to distance themselves they’ll get less of the blame, but usually it works the opposite way round.
  2. Accepting your role in a mistake helps you learn and grow so you improve for next time.

May 15, 2020

Laws Help Solve Collective Action Problems

Sometimes, people want to do something that seems silly to their peers. An example is the people who wanted to start social distancing early on in the COVID-19 crisis.

In these cases, people might accept I can’t come to your party because I don’t want to break the law’ more readily than I can’t come to your party because I’m starting social distancing’. The latter can lead to a debate about whether social distancing is even necessary, or even to being mocked for panicking. The former provides some cover it doesn’t reveal whether the person agrees or disagrees with the policy of social distancing itself they just don’t want to break the law, which most people think is pretty understandable.

I think the age of consent can work in a similar way: someone who is underage and feeling pressured to have sex before they are ready can claim that they don’t want to break the law, without revealing their true feelings and risking being called a prude.

(In some cases of course, people will still be mocked for caring too much about the law, but this seems like a less vulnerable position to take).

Sometimes, many people secretly feel the same, but don’t realize it because they lack common knowledge, and no one wants to be the one to admit it in the face of social pressure. But when a law is created, and the behavior becomes normalized, it feels safer to admit you actually do agree with the content of the law.


February 1, 2020

Because money has diminishing marginal utility above a certain income, at extreme wealth it is more of a status game than anything else. Since status is zero-sum, what matters is your position relative to others. So if extremely wealthy people are taxed in a way that doesn’t change relative positions, it shouldn’t have much effect on economic incentives. So it should be possible to have very high tax rates on the extremely wealthy.


February 1, 2020

Tips for Going Vegan

  • Do it gradually. Don’t cut out all dairy, eggs, and meat in one go. Start by replacing certain items with vegan alternatives, and just keep doing that until pretty much everything you eat is vegan.
  • If you see food as something more than just fuel, you’ll want to learn to cook, as vegan options at restaurants are often disappointing (except at dedicated vegan restaurants). Get good at making sauces and you can make pretty much anything delicious.
  • One of the best decisions I made was to subscribe to Purple Carrot, a plant-based meal kit delivery. This opened my eyes to loads of little techniques to make things more delicious, and taught me basic vegan skills like making a creamy vegan sauce (which I can then remix in other recipes).
  • Keep it simple learn how to make a variety of things from a few ingredients. Slowly figure out what your staples are that you keep coming back to.
  • Veganism is not about purity - sometimes you accidentally eat stuff that isn’t vegan. That’s ok.
  • Be pragmatic: I consider myself 95% vegan, which achieves most of the value but the 5% flexibility makes life much easier, and makes it much more likely I’ll stick with this diet long-term (and do more good overall).
  • Learn about macro nutrition to make sure you’re getting a decent balance of protein, carbs, and fats. This is actually pretty easy to do while vegan if you pay a little attention. Use Cronometer. But also take a B12 and D3 supplement.
  • Focus on whole foods where you can (they’ll make you feel more satisfied) but don’t stress too much about processed stuff.
  • There’s a lot of pseudoscience in veganism. Don’t fall for juice cleanses, raw food diets, fruitarianism, or any other overly restrictive diets.

January 1, 2020

Should Computer Scientists Be Required to Study Ethics?

I often hear the opinion that CS and engineering majors should be required to take Ethics 101, the idea being that developers should take responsibility for the effect their tech has on the society. As someone who has studied CS and Philosophy, I am very skeptical of this idea.

It first seems necessary to figure out whether:

  1. Engineers care about being good, they just don’t know how, or
  2. Engineers don’t care about being good, and ethics will help

If you already have moral inclinations, studying ethics can help you analyze your intuitions and give you tools to think through weird, counter-intuitive edge cases (see population ethics for many of these), but I doubt it is effective making people care about being good (I loved the Good Place, but this aspect grated on me).

Sitting through lessons on the Kant’s categorical imperative or utilitarianism is great for learning about different moral frameworks, but these can seem very far removed from day-to-day issues faced by engineers.

I suspect a lot of the harmful consequences of technology we’ve experienced are not a result of engineers lacking ethics education, but is more a complex mix of incentive structures, cultural norms, and institutional power.

I think it may be more effective for engineers to study economics, game theory, politics, sociology, as well as very concretely-tailored ethical case studies related to the kinds of dilemmas they may face.

AI
January 1, 2020

On Writing Effective Emails

  1. Think really hard about what you want to achieve by emailing someone. Can you achieve it another way and preserve their attention? If not, make it as easy as possible for the recipient to give you what you need.
  2. Ask specific questions rather than open-ended questions.
  3. Use bullets and whitespace.
  4. Put in the extra time it takes to keep it brief.1
  5. Be polite and friendly, but get to the point. — It’s usually ok to skip Hope this finds you well! How was your weekend?’ etc.
  6. Provide any necessary context as clearly and succinctly as possible (including introducing yourself or reminding them who you are or what the project is and why you are asking them specifically — remember it won’t be as fresh in their mind as it is in yours!)
  7. Attach or link to any necessary files, documents, or resources.
  8. Use bold text to draw the eye to important parts (e.g. due dates or actions).
  9. If it’s a short message to broadcast some info, put it in the subject followed by EOM (end of message) so people know they don’t need to open the email (also consider NNTR (no need to reply)).
  10. If asking someone to review a document, tell them which sections you most want them to focus on, and whether you are looking for minor corrections like typos or rephrasing, ideas for new points/sections, or are open to feedback that could result in needing to rewrite the whole thing.
  11. If asking for career advice, include your CV, and any thinking you’ve done so far. Include whether you are looking for connections (and if so, what kind), guidance, job opportunities, or something else.
  12. As a sender, consider offering permission to ignore your message. As a recipient, if you won’t get to the email immediately, consider sending a quick response letting the sender know when they should follow up with you.
  13. Unsubscribe from all marketing or irrelevant emails. Archive anything that doesn’t require action. Move anything that does into a task manager.

  1. I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one.” — Blaise Pascal↩︎


January 1, 2020

On Career Decisions

Many of these ideas are stolen from inspired by 80,000 Hours. Read all of their stuff.

  • Treat your career like a series of hypotheses. You don’t need to have it all planned out; find ways to test things that suit you and iterate towards things that fit.
  • There are a huge variety of jobs that you probably don’t even realize exist, especially ones that intersect multiple skills/areas, like research project management, that may be a great fit for you.
  • Too many people by default continue in academia. Almost everyone I know who has done a PhD had a really, really hard time, and many don’t think it was worth it. After your undergrad, consider doing some internships or getting a job for a while and then going back to do a PhD it’s usually fine to reenter academia to do a PhD; it’s much harder to do a PhD, leave, and then reenter.
  • There’s a lot of pressure to be a specialist. It’s taken me a while to feel comfortable accepting that I’m a generalist, or perhaps a temporary specialist, but I realize now that I’m too intellectually curious about too many things to be a specialist. I suspect specialist jobs are also most likely to be first to be automated, so it might even be an advantage to embrace being a generalist.
  • Most people I speak to need to err on the side of applying for more stuff even if they don’t feel qualified. Yes, your time is limited so you can’t apply for everything, but if there’s something you’re excited about and the only reason you’re not applying is because you think you might not be qualified enough, do it anyway. Or at least get a second opinion. Don’t get disheartened by rejections; sometimes it turns out you don’t have a shot if you don’t have a personal referral, and sometimes even if you aren’t a good fit for the job you applied for they might recommend you for a different role (this has happened to me and I’ve done it for others).

January 1, 2020

On Being a Competent Human

  • Be reliable. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you can’t, alert the person as soon as you realize this, and propose another solution.
  • Be friendly. Re-read emails to check the tone. If you’re asking someone for something, be appreciative, and ideally offer something in return (even if it’s an offer to return the favor at some point).
  • Have integrity. Own up willingly to mistakes. Take responsibility. Don’t try to cover up wrongdoings. Do the right thing even if you’ll get in trouble.
  • Model other humans. How might they react to what you’re saying? Are you assuming too much background knowledge or context?
  • Something that is underrated: literally closing your eyes and simulating different scenarios in your head. Do it for anything you’re anxious about: difficult conversations, interviews, etc. Also do it to help you make decisions.
  • Look for positive-sum interactions. If you can help someone out at a minor cost to you, do it.
  • Your brain is a sieve. If you want to remember something, write it down, and set a reminder to check it. (Related: Have an ops keystone’ habit; i.e. something you check everyday, without fail. Mine is currently Gmail and Asana.)
  • Learn some kind of partner dance, ideally Salsa. It’s good exercise, it’s sociable, you can dance better at parties and impress your friends. You can do it all over the world and it’s not weird to go on your own, so if you move somewhere new or are traveling alone you have an inbuilt fun activity that also let’s you meet new people.
  • Try Toastmasters.
  • Spend 10-30% of your time planning how you will spend the rest of your time.

January 1, 2020

On Applying for Internships

  • If at all possible, get someone to introduce you to someone who works at the organization. So much happens via referrals.
  • Write a really clear email that explains what you are asking for and demonstrates why you are worth their time. Things to include:
    • Demonstrate some knowledge of the domain (mention relevant papers you’ve read, events you’ve been to or projects you’ve done).
    • Describe your relevant skills (e.g. technical ability, academic achievement, info about your grades).
    • What career options you’re considering, and how they (and/or the internship) will help you make better decisions.
  • Write tailored cover letters and CVs. Try to find someone to review them and give feedback (use Google Docs and put it in suggestion mode’ so they can easily leave comments)
  • Read a lot of relevant stuff
  • Consider starting a blog. This can be great for demonstrating your thinking and getting your name out there but is more of a long term commitment.

January 1, 2020

Managers Should Champion Their Direct Reports

People leave managers, not companies”

In my experience, management is most effective when the manager sees their role as championing and advocating for their direct reports, and getting out of their way, rather than as figure that is policing the direct report and trying to optimize their output.

It’s much more about your personal rapport and relationship than anything else your manager should be someone you trust has faith in you and wants you to flourish even if they’re not the most relevant in terms of area.

Different people in the same role will click with different managers. To get best results, it may be best to let people choose their manager (to some extent this is kind of how academia works PhD students find an advisor in the relevant area that they get on with).

Performance-related feedback should be given from a point of view of this is how you can improve and thrive’ rather than you are letting the company down’.


January 1, 2020

Immigration Lawyers

  • API Law
    • Not used - recommended by Peter McIntyre:
  • EIG Law
    • Used for my PAI perm process, and partner’s O1
    • Pretty good experience, seem generally competent and responsive, but don’t have experience is some stuff like NIW green cards
  • Roberts immigration
    • Using for partner’s NIW
    • Y Combinator lawyers - know how startups work, lots of success with this kind of thing. Would generally consider them a very safe bet even if it takes a while.
    • Popular and busy so response times can be slow. Mostly work with associates though you can get calls with Peter directly.
  • Troy Law
    • Used for one of my H1Bs, partner’s E2
    • Nice to work with but noticed some errors - not great attention to detail
  • Erinna Delle Brodsky
    • Comes highly recommended from a former PAI colleague

January 1, 2020

Get Into an Inbox-Zero Habit

When people ask me for productivity advice, the first thing I tell them is to get into an inbox-zero habit.

  • Roughly, this means processing your email inbox at least once a day according to the following principles:
  • If it doesn’t require any action, archive it
  • If it can be dealt with in under a few minutes, do it, then archive it
  • If it will take longer, transfer it to your task manager (most task managers have integrations to make this easy), then archive it
  • If you need to follow up on it or need the information at a known point in future, snooze it
  • After finishing this process you should have zero emails sitting in your inbox!

For me, the main benefits are:

  • I’m more reliable: I know that if something is in my inbox I haven’t dealt with it yet, so I’m much less likely to miss important stuff or forget to take action.
  • I’m more chill: A cluttered inbox is distracting and stressful. A nice clear inbox gives me peace of mind that I’m on top of everything.

January 1, 2020

British Dark Comedy I Recommend

These ones have silly or surreal humor:

  • The Mighty Boosh - very weird surreal humor that I enjoyed as a teenager
  • Look Around You - A parody of science education” TV - season 1 and 2 are very different so definitely worth trying both!
  • Green Wing - surreal and silly sitcom set in a hospital - think it’s semi-improvised
  • Campus - very similar to Green Wing but set in a university
  • Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place - A parody of 1980s sci-fi/horror TV
  • The IT Crowd - A silly sitcom set in a computer support department
  • Toast of London - A silly sitcom about an aging actor
  • Nathan Barley - A sitcom about early hipsters
  • Feel Good - this isn’t really silly or surreal but it’s a very good and heartwarming sitcom about gender identity

These are really dark:

  • Brass Eye - a dark parody of current affairs news shows
  • The League of Gentlemen - very dark comedy horror about life in a small rural village in England
  • Inside Number 9 - Written by the same people as The League of Gentlemen but a bit more up to date - each episode is a different story
  • Nighty Night - one of the darkest comedies on this list… you’ve been warned!
  • I Am Not an Animal - dark animated series about animals escaping from a lab and living in the real world
  • Fleabag - you know how good this is!
  • Peep Show - a sitcom shot from a first-person perspective - where Olivia Coleman first came to fame!
  • Flowers - dark sitcom about a strange family
  • Monkey Dust - I’ve not seen this but Matt says it’s great but very very dark

These are really good dramas with comedic elements:

  • Years and Years - Follows a family over 15 years into the future - really interesting and a bit to real!!
  • Killing Eve - Amazing female-led cast and writing about a female serial killer/assassin
  • Black Mirror - near-future sci-fi that feels very real and darkly humorous
  • It’s a sin - very moving but also heart-warming and funny depiction of the AIDs crisis in London

January 1, 2020

Bias in Machine Learning

The term bias’ is used in many ways in Machine Learning, and I think this leads to a lot of people talking past each other.

Examples of how the term is used:

  • Bias/variance trade-off
  • Bias as in weights and biases
  • Algorithmic bias:
    • Bias in the sense of a result that doesn’t accurately reflect the real world (e.g. due to a poorly chosen training data set) possibly related to cognitive biases of programmers
    • Bias in the sense that the result does accurately reflect the real world but the real world is biased/unfair
    • Bias in the sense that the data used to train the model does accurately represent the real world, but the system learns incorrect proxies (e.g. a system that captions a woman at a computer as man sitting at a computer’)

Related:

AI
January 1, 2020

Aim to Convince People on a System 1 Level

When I am trying to persuade someone of something, it can be tempting to think of clever arguments to intellectually refute their points. Sometimes, people eventually acknowledge that you win’, and they can’t think of any good response/defence.

I consider this a loss.

If they seem disappointed, defensive, or down-trodden, they likely haven’t been convinced on a System 1 level, even if their System 2 can’t think of any further reasons why you’re wrong.

I guess this might be ok if your primary target is those observing the discussion. But if you don’t convince them on a System 1 level, all that happens is you win the conversation, and they go on with their life exactly as before.

If you can convince them on a system 1 level by really, really understanding their models and illustrating whether crux of the disagreement lies, they will internalize the new belief, change their behavior, and become a spokesperson for the new belief.

If you can’t do that, you may need to more fully internalize their objections, and consider whether you are the one who should update their beliefs.


December 8, 2019

How to Game Multiple Choice Questions

(Original twitter thread)

(These thoughts were inspired by Paul Graham’s post The Lesson to Unlearn)

Here’s an example of how I used to game multiple choice questions:

When did de Klerk become president of South Africa?

  • A. 8/89
  • B. 9/88
  • C. 9/89
  • D. 8/98

Without even reading the question, you can guess the answer from the configuration of options (try before reading on!)

You can immediately eliminate D because its year is the odd one out - all the others are in the 80s. Of the three that are left, you can see that B and C share a month and A and C share a year. A question designer likely starts with the correct answer and makes deviations in different directions, so the correct answer will be the one that has elements in common with the others. So C must be the correct answer!

Suddenly, multiple choice questions are more like IQ tests testing pattern recognition than testing the actual content.

Examples like this are why I’m worried about AI alignment and misspecified objectives: it’s so easy to fall prey to Goodhart’s Law and optimize for the target when it’s not the thing you actually care about (even as humans who should know better!)


November 18, 2019

Stuff I Recommend You Buy and Use

I used to rely a lot on star-ratings of products to help me decide what to buy, but I’ve found them to be increasingly unhelpful as an indicator of whether or not I’ll be happy with the purchase, presumably because there are now so many fake reviews and people trying to game the system.

Instead I rely more on personal recommendations from people I know in real life or bloggers I trust. A while ago Sam Bowman posted a list of things he recommends people buy and use, followed by another similar post, and inspired Rob Wiblin to create one too. I found these really useful, so decided to create my own. I spend a lot of time researching purchasing decisions, so it seems worthwhile to share the ones that live up to (or exceed) expectations! While some of these categories are a bit niche, hopefully there’ll be something useful in here for most people.

Gadgets

Anker Wireless Vertical Mouse – $19.99

I cannot stress enough how much I love this mouse. I used to get really bad RSI in my right wrist from using a computer, but as soon as I started using a vertical mouse it disappeared entirely. I have one at home and at work, and I’ll take one with me if I’m traveling somewhere and expect to be using my laptop. If I forget to bring or use it, I’ll start getting pain after a few hours, but as soon as I go back to using it the pain completely evaporates. If you ever experience even slight discomfort using a computer, I highly recommend trying this.

Bluetooth Sleep Headphones – $19.99

You can buy official’ Sleepphones for ~$100, or you can buy off-brand for a fifth of the cost and as far as I can tell no difference in performance. I like these ones because they are comfortable to sleep in (the speakers are quite flat and the band is not bulky), they block out light pretty well when used as an eye mask, and they are bluetooth so I don’t have to worry about getting tangled up in cords as I toss and turn at night. I find listening to a podcast or audiobook helps stop my mind racing when I’m trying to fall asleep, and I seem to be able to fall asleep much quicker now that I’ve trained my body that putting on an eye mask means it’s time to sleep. The downside is of course that the speaker is pretty low quality — while they are fine for listening to audio while you fall asleep, I wouldn’t recommend them for listening to music or in situations where you don’t need to prioritize comfort. They aren’t good for blocking out noise (they don’t work well for flights, for example); for noise-blocking you would need in-ear or over-ear speakers, which would sacrifice comfort.

Popsocket – $9.87

I bought a Popsocket after it was recommended in Sam’s post, and I haven’t looked back. It’s so convenient for holding my phone one-handed, particularly for reading, and it’s useful as a stand to prop my phone up when watching stuff. Sam recommends buying off-brand, but I bought an original as I’d heard mixed reviews of the quality of the glue in non-branded versions.

Electric Scooter – $347

I’ve written in detail about my Xiaomi M365 electric scooter; I think it’s a great option for getting around a city. Although it doesn’t have the exercise benefits of a bike, it has a number of other advantages, like the fact that you can fold it up and put it under a desk or in the trunk of a car. Since I bought this a while a go there may be better options on the market now, but I haven’t tried them.

House Organization and Kitchen Stuff

Command Strips and Hooks – $14.30

These are so handy for putting stuff up on walls without causing any damage. I use them everywhere. I’ve linked to the variety pack, but they have lots of different kinds of strips and hooks so it’s worth doing some research to figure out which are best for your needs.

Mason Jars – $12.50

Mason jars are incredibly versatile; I use them for tons of stuff. Using a stick blender (see below) I will blend a smoothie in one of the 32oz jars and then drink it right out of the jar. I use them for iced tea. I use the smaller jars as wine glasses. I also use the small ones for making dessert pots and overnight oats. I use them instead of Tupperware. I use them as soap dispensers. And of course for storing dry food. I recommend getting the wide-mouth versions (as opposed to the regular ones), and getting a few different sizes (the lids are interchangeable as long as you choose the same mouth for all sizes).

Clear Dry Food Storage Containers – $36.97

Mason jars are great for storing dry food, but due to their shape they don’t fit neatly against each other in the cupboard, so a lot of space is wasted. I like using these square containers to maximize space. They are air tight and come with chalkboard labels that allow you to rub out the label and change it as necessary. Using clear containers to store dry food means it’s much easier to see how much you have of everything, and (at least for me) means you end up with far fewer half empty packages of things languishing at the back of the cupboard. I also bought some of these storage baskets and have ended up with what I think is a pretty Instagram-worthy pantry:

My recently organized pantry

Fridge Organizers – $27.50

As you can probably tell, I’ve been on a bit of a domestic-optimization kick recently, and what started it all were these fridge organizers. Our fridge was a mess, making it really difficult to find stuff, and hard to tell what was fresh and what needed throwing out. These organizers have made it so much better, and it inspired me to find ways to organize the rest of the kitchen.

Lazy Susan – $12.99

This is another great item for organizing — I have two in cupboards in the kitchen but it could also be used in the bathroom. It spins round so you can easily reach stuff at the back without having to pull everything out and without knocking stuff over.

Airfryer – $199.99

I’ve bought my fair share of kitchen gadgets that end up rarely used and tucked at the back of the cupboard. But the airfryer is one that has more than earned its spot on our counter. It roasts potatoes and vegetables much quicker than a conventional oven, and gets them nice and crispy without the need for much oil. It’s also good for frozen oven foods like veggie burgers. I use it almost every day.

Health and Wellbeing

Buckwheat Pillow – $44.99

If you struggle to get into a comfy position for sleeping, consider trying a buckwheat pillow. I love it so much. You can mould it into the exact position you want, and is particularly good for side-sleeping. It’s much smaller than a normal pillow, so you’ll need some new pillowcases. I find this pillow so superior to normal pillows that I now have struggle sleeping without it. Luckily, there is an even smaller version which is good for travel.

Pull-Up Bar – $27.99

Once you have a pull-up bar, you can basically do a complete calisthenics workout at home. This one is removable; it hangs over a door frame and doesn’t require any fixtures or fittings, yet feels very secure. Although I can’t do full pull-ups yet, I use this to practice hanging, negatives, and chair-assisted pull-ups.

35lb Kettlebell – $43.99

Kettlebells are a really versatile piece of equipment. They can of course be used for resistance training, but kettlebell swings can also be a great cardio workout. I recommend one with a coating (to protect floors and surfaces), and I find 35lb to be heavy enough to get a real workout while still being manageable for a range of exercises.

Sonicare Electric Toothbrush – $189.95

As far as I can tell, Sonicare toothbrushes are consistently the best toothbrushes. When I started using them, it felt like I was getting a dentist-level clean every time I brushed my teeth.

Crystal Deodorant – $5.51

I’m seconding Rob’s recommendation of crystal deodorant. The stick lasts for ages, it works well, and it doesn’t stain or leave residue on clothes. You can either use it straight out of the shower, or run it under some water to get it wet before applying. Another bonus is that, unlike other deodorants, it doesn’t count as a liquid so you can take it in hand luggage easily when flying.

Paula’s Choice Salicylic Acid – $29.50

This stuff has transformed my skin; I have far fewer breakouts, the ones I have are less severe, and my pores are much clearer. The active ingredient is salicylic acid, and in theory there are cheaper products with the same active ingredient, but Paula’s Choice is the only one I’ve found to work on me. It’s pricey, but you only need to use a little bit at a time. I prefer the regular strength version over the stronger one.

Hair Stuff

Microfibre Towel – $18.99

Using a microfibre towel instead of a regular towel to dry your hair helps to reduce frizz, and I also find it dries it quicker. I use this one (which comes with a free brush that I don’t use), but any microfibre towel should do.

Arctic Fox Hair Dye – $18.99

I use Arctic Fox Virgin Pink to color my hair pink. It’s a semi-permanent, conditioning, vegetable-based dye. It coats the hair, rather than using harsh chemicals that damage the hair like those found in permanent dyes. As far as I can tell it’s similar to Overtone (which markets itself as a color conditioner), but cheaper. If you can’t find Arctic Fox, brands like Directions and Manic Panic are similar. The downside of semi-permanent vegetable-based dyes is that they wash out much faster than permanent dyes. You can mitigate this by using cool water, and following the curly girl method (avoiding sulphates helps a lot). They also can’t lighten hair, so you can only ever go darker or tint your natural color.

Wet Brush – $9.86

I no longer brush my hair when it’s dry — only when it’s saturated with conditioner in the shower. The wet brush’ lives up to its name and is the best I’ve found for brushing wet hair; it doesn’t hurt or pull, and is great at getting rid of tangles. It’s also very light making it easy to travel with. I’ve also tried the Denman brush (which has a lot of fans in the Curly Girl community) but didn’t really get on with it — the stiff bristles are not ideal for detangling, and I didn’t get much additional definition (though it could be that I just haven’t found the right technique).

Jessicurl Deep Conditioner – $12

I love this stuff so much. My hair has always been incredibly thirsty for conditioner, I always had to use tons and it would soak it all right up. This Jessicurl conditioner can be used as a deep conditioning treatment, as a normal conditioner, or as a leave-in. It’s very thick and luxurious, and leaves my hair ridiculously soft and smooth. It comes in three scents: Citrus Lavender (my fave), Island Fantasy, or unscented (great if you’re particularly sensitive). It’s more expensive than I would ideally pay for a conditioner, but it is really good. To keep the cost down I’ll alternate using it with cheaper curly-girl-friendly conditioners like this or this. Jessicurl also make a great gel.

Black Orchid Diffuser – $16.99

Some say it makes your hairdryer looks like a weapon from Men in Black, and they’re not wrong. This giant diffuser is so much better than the little ones that usually come with hairdryers; you can fit way more hair in it, it holds curls and waves nicely, and shortens drying time. Although it’s adjustable, it’s not universal so you’ll need to check that it fits your hairdryer.

Shoes

Allbirds Tree Breezers – $95

I don’t expect heels to be comfortable, but I don’t see any reason why flats shouldn’t be. Yet it seems ridiculously hard to find smart yet comfortable flat shoes for women.

Recently, lots of innovative brands have been trying to fill this gap in the market with high-end solutions. I tried Rothy’s, darling of Instagram, but was distinctly underwhelmed — they weren’t particularly comfy, had no arch support, got dirty easily, and didn’t feel worth the price tag. I was ready to dismiss the whole trend as marketing hype, but found myself in the vicinity of an Allbirds store. I tried on their Tree Breezers flat and fell in love instantly. The insole is thick and cushioned, with the right amount of arch support. The upper hugs the foot securely. Like many of their competitors, they are machine-washable. I’ve been wearing them regularly since I got them and they look as good as new.

My main complaint when I bought them was the limited number of colors. They didn’t have a black option so I had to get the Marine color — a navy blue that I wouldn’t normally choose but has grown on me a lot. However, while writing this I checked their website and they’ve now got a limited edition version in black, so I quickly ordered a pair!

Jelly Shoes

A pitch I gate at Toastmasters that describes why I love jelly shoes: Have you ever had to pack for a trip and realized you need shoes for the beach, sightseeing, fancy dinners, networking, dancing? Taking different shoes for every occasion quickly fills up precious baggage space which if you’re flying can come at a premium. I’m here to tell you that the humble 90s jelly shoe is the answer! These days they come in many different shapes, styles and colors, so you’re bound to find something that suits you.

  • They are cheap (around $15)
  • They are comfortable
  • They can be washed
  • The wey don’t get worn down or scuffed
  • They can be worn on the beach and rinsed off when sand gets in
  • They can be worn in the rain
  • They can be worn dancing
  • They can be worn to work
  • They can be worn to formal events
  • They can be worn to go city sightseeing
  • I’ve even worn them hiking! I once spent a month in Thailand and only took one pair of shoes: jelly shoes. I didn’t miss having anything else. Recently, I got taken in by some fancy marketing and invested in a pair of Rothy’s shoes made out of recycled plastic bottles that are touted as the perfect women’s work flat you’ll see people wearing them all over SF. Despite their hefty price tag, for me, they are less practical and less comfortable than my standard jellies which cost a tenth of the price.

Misc

Automatic Cat Feeder – $89.95

(Only applies if you have a cat, obviously) I’d been toying with the idea of getting a cat for a while but had no idea what would be involved in looking after them. Then my friend Larissa told me that cats are slightly more work than a throw pillow’ and that swung it. I think she is basically right! This automatic cat feeder really helps. It’s great for ensuring consistent portions, and for feeding your cat while you’re at work or out. Our cat is a hungry beast and we can’t just leave a load of food out for him because he wolfs it down and then gets sick. We have found an even better way to slow him down by using the automatic feeder in conjunction with this interactive’ tray, our set up looks like this:

The food drops out of the automatic feeder on to the tray

Another benefit is that he’s learned to stop bugging us when he’s hungry, because he now associates the process of getting food with the feeder rather than us. When it’s coming up to feeding time he just sits near the tray and looks at the feeder very intensely, it’s pretty adorable.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf – $14.79

I love games that are small enough for me to pop in my handbag and bring to parties, and I’ve got so much use out of this game. It’s great for social events, particularly as an ice breaker. It’s fast: rounds last 5-10 minutes, and requires a mix of deductive reasoning and social bluffing. The difficulty can be dialed up or down easily for different groups by choosing which roles to include, and while the rules can sound confusing to first-timers, after one round people have usually got the hang of it.


October 1, 2019

My Approach to Personal Knowledge Management (Pkm)

Principles:

  1. Capture everything. Do not assume your brain will remember anything. Write it down asap. Use whatever will let you capture it quickest, whether that’s pen and paper or a digital solution.
  2. Review and process. Make sure you actually look at the things you wrote down regularly and organize it. If it was an idea you need to act on (e.g. a topic for a blog post, or a reminder to look up a particular concept), add it to your task manager. If it was a thought for reference, add it to your second brain’/note-taking/archive system, and add tags so you can find it easily later. Once processed, archive or delete the item from your capture system.
  3. Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”: There is a balance to strike between using as few tools as possible, and using many tools that are each specialized to do one thing really well (a tool that tries to do everything tends to do nothing well).
  4. In an ideal world, I would only use open-source, non-proprietary tools. But often commercial tools do a better job and/or have a nicer interface. In these cases, ensure that you can export your data at any time in a standard format (e.g. markdown, xml). Also, be prepared to pay a subscription fee - this helps keep the tool going!

What I Use:

  • For capture: Google Keep. If it’s a task, sometimes I add it straight to my task manager (Asana).
  • Info sources: I use Feedly to subscribe to lots of RSS feeds. When an article comes in that I want to read, I add it to my read later’. I also use the Save to Feedly board’ Chrome plugin to save any article I find on the web to read later’. The goal is to maintain inbox zero’ in my read later’ - I remove an item once it’s read, so I know that anything in there is unread/unprocessed. I use Goodreads to manage my books, and Castbox for podcasts. I’ve signed up for 3 libraries and can get free e-books and audiobooks. I also have an Audible account.
  • For archive, reference, notes, and high-level planning: Notion. I use it as a personal wiki. It is very flexible, easy-to-use, and has relational databases!! If the mobile app was faster it would replace Google Keep as a capture method for me. It could also in theory become a task manager (using the database feature) but it currently lacks some key features (like recurring tasks). FYI, you’ll likely need to subscribe to the pro version to get enough space. I think it’s worth it.

September 11, 2019

Thoughts On Is Market Failure a Sufficient Condition for Government Intervention?”

(My thoughts on this piece)

I agree that in order to justify government intervention, you would want some reason to believe that the intervention will be better than the market + failure.

It seems to me that the most likely way this could be false is that the intervention causes some unintended consequence, either in future or in other parts of the system. But something like Pigovian taxes seems like a plausible-enough government intervention that I would shift the burden of proof onto those arguing that it is a bad idea to explain what these consequences could be.

In this piece, the authors don’t seem to adequately criticize plausible government solutions to market failures, instead just falling back on the idea that government intervention needs to result in a better state than the market + failure.

In the section on natural monopolies, the authors claim that because of the existence of Bing, Google is not a natural monopoly, and because of the existence of other social media sites, Facebook is not a monopoly. Perhaps this is true in the most technical use of the term natural monopoly, but in practice, very few people use anything other than Google for search (at least in the West) and the network effects mean many people are drawn to use Facebook even though they’d prefer to use something else. Failing to acknowledge that many consumers really do feel restricted and concerned about market power seems somewhat disingenuous.

Moreover, many current government interventions that people use such arguments to justify were originally based on private, self-serving interests and not on the public good. Consider the supposed failure of the market for information in the medical field. As Milton Friedman argued, medical licensing raises the incomes of incumbent doctors at the expense of consumers. Economist Morris Kleiner has shown that this is true for many licensed occupations.

Less-than-virtuous motivations don’t necessarily discredit the utility of an action or intervention (e.g. many corporate responsibility programs are ultimately motivated by increasing profit by gaining consumer approval, yet still do good). The fact that some government interventions were motivated by self-serving interests does cause me to be suspicious of them, but it isn’t sufficient to discard them. The example given regarding medical licensing may well have given doctors higher income at the expense of the consumer, but it has also reduced the risk that consumers are harmed due to the actions of cowboy doctors. I predict that most consumers consider this a worthwhile trade-off.

I think it’s true that many people advocating for government intervention do so without a full understanding of the technical market failure terms and without deep consideration of the potential unintended consequences or other effects, so I’m glad that this piece helps lay these out. However, I would like to see more convincing arguments against specific government interventions that genuinely seem like an improvement on the market failure, rather than the general argument of but you don’t know if this is actually better!’

Part of the argument seems to be markets aren’t perfect!’, and that we should be trying to reach some theoretical ideal. But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t at least try to improve them with the tools we have! It is true that political processes are not perfect either, but it seems very plausible to me that by carefully analyzing the ways in which both fail and strategically using them to counteract each others failures, we could reach something better than each could achieve in isolation.


September 2, 2019

Productivity Anti-Advice

I think I’m quite productive, but I often do the opposite of conventional’ productivity advice. Some examples:

  • I tend to do small, unimportant tasks first so that I can focus on important stuff without distraction (whereas common advice is to do the big important stuff first)
  • I don’t do pomodoros or time-blocking
  • I often multi-task
  • I check emails frequently
  • I don’t have a regular sleep or work schedule, and I suck at routines
  • I leave things to the last minute
  • I do deep work’ late at night rather than first thing in the morning
  • I don’t block distracting’ websites

I’m not sure whether I would be more productive if I successfully implemented the conventional wisdom, but I’ve tried in the past and it has never really stuck. I wonder whether the types of people who become productivity advisors also tend to be the kind of people for whom the conventional advice works well, and whether there are other types of people who are equally productive but less likely to evangelize their approach.

I think my problem with a lot of the conventional advice is that it often seems to be aimed at getting you to do something that you don’t feel like doing, whereas I seem to be more effective when I work with my motivation system rather than against it. If I’m getting distracted by small tasks, it’s better that I do them and get them out of the way, because then I feel much less aversion to doing the important stuff. And when a deadline is far away it feel actively unpleasant to work on it, but when it’s close my motivation system actually starts to want to work on it.


August 27, 2019

Apartment Life

I really like living in an apartment. It’s strange because I think people often think of dense housing as inferior to single-family’ homes, or at the very least, consider apartments a temporary stop-gap on the way to a big, spacious house. Even I still default to these assumptions even though I’ve lived in both houses and apartments and consistently feel that the latter suits me much better.

In particular, I like modern, functional apartments—the kind that people often think of as lacking character. It doesn’t bother me at all that all the units look the same, or that there are no period features. I like the fact that when done well, these apartments are optimized for modern living.

Things I love about where I currently live:

  • Open-plan living space, great for casual entertaining
  • Functional design that is easy to keep clean
  • Big windows that let in tons of sunlight
  • Small units that have been cleverly designed to make the most of the limited space
  • No loft or garage in which to hoard stuff, so forces me to stay reasonably minimalist
  • Gorgeous roof garden with amazing views, maintained by someone much better at gardening than me
  • A management team that are quick to resolve issues, and put on community events for the residents
  • Pet-friendly
  • Gym
  • Neighborly atmosphere, encouraged by the use of Slack, where residents can chat. Often gets used to organize board games nights, ask for pet-sitters, give away furniture, share recommendations etc.
  • Trash shoot, so I can get rid of trash at anytime and don’t need to worry about remembering which day to put the bins out
  • Concierge that receives my mail and packages so I don’t need to be home to get deliveries

Apartment life has significantly reduced the cognitive overhead of life admin’ for me. When I hear others complain about their packages being stolen from their doorstep or having a nightmare trying to get their boiler fixed, I am simultaneously so grateful for my current situation and baffled that it isn’t the default. My place isn’t cheap, but for all the benefits and convenience I have no doubt it’s worth it for me, and I can easily imagine more affordable versions that provide many of the same benefits.

I remember once mentioning I was surprised that there weren’t more building complexes that provided a kind of dorm-rooms-for-grown-ups’; a style of living closer to a university hall of residence, including a canteen that provides simple, cheap, healthy food. The reaction surprised me: people seemed morally offended at the idea of enabling adults to get away with not cooking for themselves. Personally, I don’t think not cooking is any more of a moral failing than not sewing your own clothes, but even if I did, the fact of the matter is that lots of adults I know live off takeouts or frozen meals anyway.

I’m excited about experiments with new forms of housing, like Starcity and Oppidan, where a single fixed monthly rent includes private apartment, all utilities, super-fast Wi-Fi, food essentials, living supplies, cleaning and maintenance, four hours of free car hire per month, community events and a range of lifestyle benefits”.

I’ve already heard these projects decried as some terrible symptom of late-stage capitalism where young people can’t even afford a proper” place to live, or as some kind of millennial rejection of responsibility, or as a manifestation of obscene hyper-optimized convenience-culture…

But I think it’s just a reflection of changing lifestyles and values. I move so frequently, it’s silly that I have to set up WiFi and utilities, move furniture, and acquire basic supplies every time. I love well-tended outdoor space, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to invest in maintaining it myself. More people are living their lives according to the gospel of Marie Kondo and valuing experiences over things, so have no need for expansive, permanent homes to store all their stuff. And co-living provides a tentative solution to the loneliness and isolation that is often said to plague city-dwellers. I don’t know if this style of living will suit me forever, but for now it’s ideal.


July 15, 2019

Possible Effects of Reimbursing Kidney Donors

Donald Trump recently passed an executive order which, among other things, will allow live kidney donors to get reimbursed for expenses like childcare costs and lost wages they incur during the donation procedure.

Hopefully, this will enable many more people to donate kidneys and is great news for the supply of kidneys in the US. However, I couldn’t help feeling immediately dismayed at the thought of donors having to go through a cumbersome bureaucratic reimbursement process.

I doubt I’m alone in having many negative experiences with reimbursements, from lengthy delays to getting denied based on technicalities. Because of these negative experiences, I’m extremely wary of using any service that requires me to make an upfront payment and get reimbursed later — and I will only do it if I’m sure I can cope if I don’t end up getting the money back. In the case of kidney donation, I imagine the costs incurred could be pretty significant, and I’d be very, very, nervous about going ahead based on the promise of a reimbursement, without knowledge of how reliable and efficient the process is.

But you might argue: Surely even an unreliable option of reimbursement is better than the current system where nothing (except travel) is covered?!

I hope so. But I have some concerns.

If I pay for something without any expectation of compensation, I don’t feel an injustice when I don’t receive a reimbursement. However if I pay for something with the expectation of a reimbursement, and then it never materializes (or the process is very painful), I feel resentful and angry.

Currently, the people who donate kidneys (presumably) see the costs they incur as part of their generous, altruistic action. I’m concerned that once a reimbursement option is on the table, if it’s not processed efficiently, they may end up feeling negative and resentful about something they would have otherwise given gladly (research suggests that when people are offered compensation for an activity they normally do for free, it changes their attitude and can taint the thing).

I hope that the negative effects of this are outweighed by the addition of new kidney donors who wouldn’t have participated if compensation wasn’t offered, but this also has an issue: if people start donating kidneys based on the promise of the reimbursement but the process is poor, they may experience financial hardship. As well as being a terrible experience for them, this could reflect badly on the whole system and make others wary of getting involved.

On balance, it still seems likely that offering reimbursements will increase the kidney supply (as Vox points out, donation rates in Israel quadrupled after a similar law was passed). And most of my concerns dissipate if the reimbursement system is implemented effectively and has the confidence of potential donors. I hope this works out and my misgivings are misplaced!


July 15, 2019

Bureaucratic Sludge in Expense Reimbursements

Having worked at a few large, public-sector organizations, I am intimately familiar with bureaucratic sludge (and why organizations like BERI are so valuable). One of things I found most frustrating was the process for getting reimbursed for business travel and purchases. Some of the pain points I’ve experienced include:

  • Difficulty finding options that are within policy limits (and either having to waste time finding a cheaper option, or accept that you will have to pay the extra out-of-pocket)
  • Having to find your employee/medical/membership ID number and other data
  • Filling out badly designed forms
  • Providing sensitive financial/medical data over insecure channels
  • Collecting receipts
  • Printing, scanning and/or mailing the necessary documents
  • Waiting for ages without getting a status update
  • Remembering to follow up to ask for a status update
  • Determining the right person/number to call to get an update
  • (If it’s a large amount) Financial hardship due to fronting the money and being out of pocket until you get it back
  • (If it’s a small amount) Feeling silly chasing up, or wondering if the cost of your time spent chasing is worth the amount you’ll get back
  • Anxiety while you wonder how long it will take or whether you’ll ever get your money back
  • The reimbursement getting denied due to a technicality
  • Checks getting lost in the mail
  • Discovering that the amount reimbursed was incorrect, and needing to follow up again to get it corrected
  • Giving up because it starts to not become worth the time/cognitive overhead, and just accepting the money as lost

I’m aware that some business models (like dubious cash rebate’ schemes) actually rely on the sludge of the process to stop people following through. This makes me sad. But in general, I don’t think the sludge is there to deliberately put people off (see Hanlon’s razor) — or at least if it is, it’s very short-sighted.

Consider a company that covers employee travel expenses. If the process is sludgy and bureaucratic, involving lots of forms and collecting receipts and printing things off and mailing them in, this takes a lot of employee time and cognitive overhead. I suspect in many cases the cost of the time of the employee plus the cost of the time of the processing department outweighs the actual amount owed to the employee. On top of this, it’s a terrible experience for the employee. I’ve known people who don’t even bother to submit expenses unless it’s a pretty significant amount. While this might sound like a win for the company, it usually results in low morale and resentful employees who leave to go somewhere else… Perhaps somewhere that provides a company credit card.

Perhaps things aren’t as bad in private-sector companies; it often seems that this kind of bureaucratic sludge is particularly common in public-sector organizations. In general, public-sector organizations are expected to be particularly responsible and cautious with their resources. The sad thing is that often the sludgy processes are more about appearing to be responsible and cautious than actually managing resources well, and I think the costs of this are often underestimated.

I think it’s possible to have a responsible expense system that is also efficient. In order of preference:

  1. Cover the costs upfront. If you’re a company that covers expenses, offer employees a company credit card so that they don’t need to front the money themselves. The spending can be easily tracked via online banking, and employees should be expected to explain any unusual expenses. They should also be responsible for paying back any unauthorized or out-of-policy usage.
  2. Provide a daily allowance. Rather than specifying an upper limit for each individual meal, allocate a daily travel expense allowance that employees can distribute throughout the day as they see fit and not worry about keeping track of individual receipts. It saves employee time and also reduces the processing overhead.
  3. Have a fast, efficient, digitized process. If you must stick with a traditional expense policy, ensure that the process is as painless as possible. Have a well-designed, easy-to-use online form that collects info automatically as far as possible (e.g. a form that automatically collects your email address and matches it against your employee ID, bank info, etc), and only asks for further information that it really needs. Accept photos of receipts. Use a service like Expensify that makes processing easy. Provide regular status updates and process the reimbursement within a few days.

July 13, 2019

90+ Useful Mental Models, Frameworks, and Concepts

Mental models can help us understand the world and make better decisions. I’m collecting a list (in no particular order) of the ones I find most helpful and use most frequently. The ones in bold are ones I find particularly useful or impactful.

This list is not exhaustive — it just contains the ones most salient to me. For more mental models, see this awesome list by Farnam Street.

Science

  1. The scientific method
  2. Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)
  3. Occam’s razor
  4. Falsifiability
  5. Correlation vs causation
  6. Confirmation bias
  7. If something claims to fix everything, it probably fixes nothing

Game Theory

  1. Prisoner’s Dilemma (competitive games)
  2. Stag Hunt (cooperative games)
  3. Nash equilibrium
  4. Coordination failure
  5. Common knowledge

Economics

  1. Expected value
  2. Efficient markets
  3. Market failures (including information asymmetry, externalities, tragedy of the commons, tyranny of small decisions)
  4. Diminishing returns
  5. Zero sum vs non-zero sum
  6. Mechanism design and incentives
  7. Trade-offs
  8. Economies of scale
  9. Marginal utility
  10. Network effects
  11. Opportunity cost
  12. Option value
  13. Compounding (related to positive feedback loops)
  14. Gresham’s Law: Bad money drives out good
  15. Private vs collective ownership, free markets vs planned economies
  16. Sustainable Competitive Advantage (structural factors that allow a firm to outcompete its rivals for many years)
  17. Pareto optimality
  18. Comparative advantage
  19. Value of my time
  20. Value of Information

Statistics

  1. Survivorship bias
  2. Regression to the mean
  3. Probability distributions (in particular: Long-tailed, Fat-tailed, normal, lognormal, power law, bimodal)
  4. Simpson’s paradox

Systems

  1. Leverage points
  2. Unintended consequences (Second-order thinking, Goodhart’s Law, perverse incentives, cobra effect)
  3. Bottlenecks
  4. Feedback loops
  5. Catalysts / activation energy
  6. Inertia / status quo
  7. Leaky abstraction (a term from software engineering, but can be applied in other areas, for example, a company that leaks its internal structure to its customers)
  8. Local vs global optima (terms from Math/CS that apply more broadly, for example: a nice city center apartment might be an accommodation local optimum for you if you live in a city, but it may not be a global optimum if you would be better off in the countryside).

Beliefs and Epistemics

  1. Bayesian updating
  2. The map is not the territory
  3. All models are wrong but some models are useful
  4. Ideological Turing tests
  5. Straw man and steel man
  6. Confidence intervals / calibration training / making predictions
  7. Foxes vs hedgehogs
  8. Sequence vs cluster thinking
  9. For all my beliefs, asking myself: What would change my mind?”
  10. Double crux
  11. Fermi estimates
  12. Epistemic modesty

Ethics

  1. Effective Altruism
  2. Importance, Neglectedness, Tractability
  3. Thought experiments
  4. Veil of ignorance
  5. Utilitarianism

Nature

  1. Natural selection
  2. Batesian Mimicry

Politics

  1. Overton window
  2. Voting systems and social choice theory (including Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem)
  3. Unilateralist’s curse
  4. Institutionalized discrimination and axes of oppression
  5. Values disagreements vs empirical disagreements

Productivity and Work

  1. 80/20 rule (AKA the Pareto principle)
  2. Generalists, specialists, t-shaped people, m-shaped people, temporary specialists
  3. Deliberate practice
  4. Maker’s vs manager’s schedule
  5. Sludge and bureaucracy
  6. Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” — Albert Einstein
  7. Optimizing vs satisficing: Sometimes it’s necessary to spend time/resources to achieve the best possible outcome. Other times it’s best to settle for a satisfactory outcome (even if it’s not the best) because it’s not worth the extra time/resources.
  8. Goal factoring
  9. I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one” (Writing short and clear things is harder than writing long things)
  10. Commander’s intent
  11. Maslow’s hammer: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail
  12. Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things” — Peter Drucker
  13. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority

Planning

  1. Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong
  2. Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law (related: the Planning Fallacy)
  3. Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion
  4. Plans are useless but planning is essential” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
  5. Gate’s Law: Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years
  6. Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns

Psychology

  1. System 1 and System 2
  2. Big Five personality traits (The only personality model backed by science)
  3. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
  4. Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity
  5. Signalling
  6. Hawthorne Effect
  7. Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Krueger effect
  8. The sunk cost fallacy
  9. Cognitive biases
  10. Chunking (for learning)
  11. Learned helplessness

July 12, 2019

Three Ways to Deal With Tab Overload

I’m always impressed by people who can have dozens of browser tabs open and still get things done. For me, more tabs means more distraction and anxiety, a slower browser, and a high chance of losing something important.

There are tons of options for managing tab overload, from saving them all as bookmarks to forcing them all to reopen if you close your browser. The problem is, a lot of them are just ways to ignore the problem rather than deal with it. Here are three methods I’ve actually found helpful — I use Chrome but I suspect there are similar options for other browsers!

  1. Use a browser extension to save tabs for later reading, and then close them. For articles, I recommend Feedly, Pocket, or Instapaper. For tabs that you need to take some action on, most task managers provide a Chrome extension that will save the current page as a task. For general reference material, Google Keep, Notion, and Evernote are good options. Whatever you use, make sure it’s something you’ll check regularly!
  2. Snooze your tabs so that they reappear at a more convenient time. Rather than just haphazardly dismissing them for your future self to deal with, try to actually choose a time that makes sense for them to reappear. Got work stuff open? Snooze it until you’re next in the office. Got a recipe open? Snooze it for when you’re about to cook dinner.
  3. Pin tabs you keep open all the time so that they take up less space. This is great if you have a load of tabs that you keep open all the time. In Chrome, simply right click on the tab and choose Pin Tab’. The tab will become smaller and snap to the left. You can pin multiple tabs, and whenever you start your browser your pinned tabs will open automatically. It also helps to differentiate at a glance between your regular tabs and the tabs you’re just using temporarily.

One final tip: Only save a tab if you are actually going to read/use it. Your time is limited: if it’s not that important, save yourself the anxiety and just close it!


July 12, 2019

Seeking the Perfect Rss Reader

With the rise of social media and pay-walled news sites, there is often talk of RSS becoming obsolete. For me however, it’s still an essential part of my information diet, and the numbers suggest I’m not alone. But I’m struggling to find an RSS reader that fulfills my (I think pretty reasonable) requirements.

Here’s what would make the perfect RSS reader for me:

  1. Web and mobile versions
  2. The ability to subscribe to many RSS feeds
  3. The ability to save random articles from the web without subscribing to the feed (e.g. via a Chrome extension)
  4. The ability to see a list of all new articles, then save the ones I’m interested in to a read later’ list and archive/hide/delete everything else
  5. A count of how many articles are currently in my read later’ list
  6. The ability to archive articles from the read later’ list once I’ve read them (the idea is to maintain a kind of inbox zero’ but for articles)
  7. The ability to sort the read later’ list by publication
  8. The ability to reorder articles in the read later’ list arbitrarily
  9. Bonus: time-to-read estimates

Is that so much to ask?! The best I can find is Feedly, but it fails on (7), (8), and (9), and (6) on mobile. I’d be happy to pay for pro/premium versions if a solution exists, and I would also be interested in hacky solutions using (e.g.) IFTTT. Let me know if you have suggestions!


December 15, 2018

Six Months With My Electric Scooter: A Review of the Xiaomi M365

(This article contains affiliate links)

As I took a wobbly ride on a rented electric scooter earlier this year, my first thought was this is not for me…

I couldn’t figure out where to comfortably put my feet, and I found myself gripping tightly onto the handlebars as the tiny wheels struggled with the gravelly ground. I generally felt pretty self-conscious trying to weave between pedestrians and cyclists on the mixed-use path.

Fast-forward a few months, and I now use my own electric scooter almost everyday. I can’t remember how I coped without it!

The change occurred because I moved house; previously I could walk to work in around 30 mins, now it would take around an hour, entirely uphill. I wanted a convenient, fast and cheap form of transport for my commute, since I don’t own a car.

I considered a bike, but after a short trial I realized that I am just not cut out for a 3 mile uphill cycle ride first thing in the morning.

I considered an electric bike, but I live in Berkeley where bike theft is rife, and the idea of having to search for secure parking everyday and remember to remove the battery wasn’t appealing.

So I reluctantly revisited the electric scooter idea. After a short learning curve, I now absolutely love it and hope more people will consider getting one!

The Basics

My scooter of choice is the Xiaomi M365 Folding Electric Scooter, which at the time seemed like the obvious winner in terms of both quality and price. There may be other good options available now.

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Dimensions, upright and folded

It’s available for $499 on Amazon (this is how I got mine). It can reach speeds of up to 15mph and the battery lasts for about 18 miles. You charge it with a convenient charger that plugs into a standard power socket. I charge mine in my apartment overnight; I think it takes roughly 5 hours to get fully charged.

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Charging the scooter in my apartment

The Good

The scooter reduces my commute from ~1 hour to ~15 mins. And (once you get used to where to put your feet and learn to relax your grip) it is just an incredibly fun way to get to work. I literally look forward to it everyday.

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My sister on the scooter. Look how much fun she’s having!

It’s also reduced my Uber and Lyft usage, and made trips to places that previously felt somewhat burdensome into a breeze. I can nip out to the grocery shop, meet for coffee around Berkeley, and even get to medical appointments in Oakland with no problem. I once even went from San Francisco Embarcadero all the way over the Golden Gate Bridge, and almost got to Sausalito before it ran out of charge!

One of my favorite features is being able to fold the scooter in half and put it in the trunk of a car. This means I don’t need to plan out exactly how I will get home, since I can always scoot somewhere and then decide to get an Uber back if it is too dark/cold/far. This is one of the main advantages of a scooter over a bike — I used to cycle everywhere but getting home after an evening event was often a pain.

The folding feature also has the advantage that you can usually take it in with you wherever you’re going. You can pick it up and carry it for short periods, and it can easily fit under a desk or a restaurant table so you don’t need to worry about finding a secure place to store it. Having said that, one of its disadvantages is that there isn’t really a way to lock the scooter up in the same way you can lock up a bike. You can’t scoot somewhere, lock it up, and then go for a hike. You can’t scoot to a mall, lock it up, and then go shopping. You kind of have to take it with you, which isn’t always convenient.

The scooter comes with an app that allows you to configure certain things, including keeping the red rear light on whenever the scooter is on, which I use. I also enabled the setting that rings your phone if someone tries to use your scooter without permission, but I’m not sure if this would do much to deter theft since it’s not exactly hard to pick the scooter up and carry it away without even turning it on.

The built-in lights are really convenient — another thing that I found annoying about cycling was remembering to keep my lights charged. With the scooter, I never have to worry about this, the lights are there when I need them and they do a pretty good job of lighting my way. I do tend to go a bit slower when it’s dark as I can’t look as far ahead as I normally do, but it’s not a big deal.

One final advantage of the scooter is the ease with which I can hop on or hop off. I generally use the road when I’m on my scooter, but I can also walk it across pedestrian crossings, or dismount quickly if there’s a situation that looks unsafe.

The Bad

The main problem I’ve encountered on the scooter is dealing with poor-quality roads. Juddering along on an uneven surface is not particularly pleasant, and the small wheels even minor potholes pretty terrifying. Having said that, I have found that it can tolerate more than I expected. I’ve learned the hard way that unexpected holes in the road are not fun, but they haven’t thrown me off yet. It’s definitely easier going on familiar routes; I tend to go a bit slower when I’m not used to the road surface.

Riding one-handed feels to me much more difficult than it does on a bike, so giving arm signals to indicate a turn can be tricky. It would be great if there were some lights built into the ends of the handlebars to help indicate turns. Riding on the flat or downhill is a joy, and gentle uphills are fine when you’re on full battery. But anything steeper is difficult, and it’s noticeably worse when the battery is less than half full.

The image below shows the elevation of my 3 mile commute. The scooter handles the majority of it brilliantly, but I do need to give it a bit of a manual kick when I get to that final short uphill stretch. Of course, coming home at night is entirely downhill so that’s no problem at all!

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The elevation of my 3 mile commute

Another slight downside with exchanging a bike for a scooter is missing out on the exercise. I miss the smug sense of virtue I got by walking or cycling to work and getting my exercise in before the day had even begun. At least I still get to feel environmentally smug compared to cars…

Speaking of cars, I’ve found that they’ve generally been pretty good around the scooter, although I try to stick to Berkeley’s cycle boulevards’ rather than traffic-heavy roads.

As a not-quite-car and a not-quite-bike and a not-quite-pedestrian, it can be quite difficult to figure out what rules of the road you should follow on a scooter. I tend to behave basically like a bike, but there are occasions where it feels more appropriate to behave like a pedestrian. I’m looking forward to when these conventions are more firmly established, since I currently feel like I’m sometimes judged by other road users for not doing what they think is correct. Or maybe I’m just projecting my own confusion!

Although the folding feature is super convenient, it’s quite heavy so only suitable for carrying short distances. I’m excited about the possibility of future, lighter models.

And although it’s great for popping out to pick up a few groceries, it’s not really suited for a big shop as you can’t carry lots with you. However, one solution is to scoot to the store and then get an Uber home with all your shopping and the scooter in the trunk.

Another consideration worth knowing is that you’ll need to get a backpack if you want to carry anything while on the scooter; unlike a bike there isn’t any storage space via a basket or panniers. I’ve tried using a cross-body bag and it’s ok as long as it’s light, but you’ll be pulled off balance with anything substantial. Backpacks are the best solution, and I’d suggest getting one big enough to fit your helmet.

Finally, while this isn’t a problem where I am, you may want to check the legality of electric scooters where you are. In the UK, they are not legal anywhere except private land which is a huge shame. Given the potential of electric scooters to reduce congestion, get people breathing fresh air, reduce environmental damage, and give people a convenient, quick and cheap form of urban transport, I really hope lawmakers and city planners will start to take the benefits seriously.

Summary

If you often make short trips (< 5 miles) and the roads are of a decent quality, I’d highly recommend considering an electric scooter. It’s super convenient and a lot of fun.


October 29, 2018

Ai Newsletters

The fast-moving pace of AI can make it tricky to stay up-to-date with latest news and developments. While there are many popular newsletters run by organizations, I find the most helpful come from individuals working directly in the field. Here are a few of my favorites; have I missed any you would recommend?

Ai Alignment

This is a fantastic newsletter focusing on technical AI safety run by Rohin Shah, a researcher at the Center for Human-Compatible AI (where I work). It provides summaries of key papers and thoughtful opinions, and is highly recommended for anyone interested in technical AI alignment research. Although it covers a lot of papers, there is a handy highlights’ section for those short on time. Read past issues here and sign up here.

Import Ai

Jack Clark is Policy Director at OpenAI and his popular Import AI newsletter is invaluable for staying on top of AI capability development. Every issue also includes a delightful short sci-fi story inspired by current ideas and trends. Read past issues and sign up here.

ChinAI

Jeff Ding is the China lead for the Future of Humanity Institutes Governance of AI Program. His ChinAI newsletter provides critical insights into China, a key global AI player. As well as rounding up China-related thought-pieces from English AI media, Jeff painstakingly translates key Chinese news, opinions, and interviews, and offers fascinating cultural insights. Read past issues and sign up here.

EuropeanAI

Charlotte Stixs new EuropeanAI newsletter is a timely addition to the AI newsletter landscape. It is conveniently broken up into sections on Policy, Strategy and Regulation’, Numbers’, and Ecosystem’, to give a well-rounded picture of news and developments relevant to AI in Europe. Read past issues here and sign up here.

CognitionX

Although this one comes from an organization, founder Tabitha Goldstaub gives CognitionXs newsletters a personal feel. You can choose from multiple options tailored to a variety of AI sub-interests, including ethics, the future of work, climate change, and more. I particularly recommend the AI Weekly Roundup for a good overview of news about applied AI.

#AI
September 7, 2018

Basic Heuristics for Personal Finance

Financial information can be complex and overwhelming, but I think some relatively simple rules can get you the vast majority of the benefits for minimal effort. I’ve tried to boil down the most salient information I’ve learned from reading things like The Simple Path to Wealth, The Compound Effect, Mr. Money Mustache and various other sources. There’s nothing groundbreaking here; that’s the point.

I hope you find this helpful, but obviously I’m not a professional, so please seek expert advice if you need it!

  • The compound effect is powerful. Start saving as soon as you can. Building wealth is simple if you leverage time.
  • Cutting spending is usually more effective than trying to increase income. Consider minimalism.
  • Stocks are volatile but have higher returns (good for accumulation). Bonds are stabler but have lower returns (good for preservation).
  • When you’re younger, focus on accumulation (favor high risk, high return). When you’re older, focus on preservation (favor stability).
  • Because of opportunity cost, anything you spend today (that you could have invested) is effectively costing you 5 times as much in 20 years. Remember this when assessing if something is worth buying.
  • Your savings rate can be used to estimate the number of years until you are financially independent.
  • You are financially independent when you can live on 4% of your pot (the Safe Withdrawal Rate’).
  • Actively managed funds almost always underperform passive funds that track the market, and they are more expensive. Instead, go with index funds and robo-investing
  • Invest, then leave it alone. Don’t tinker. Don’t try to time the market. Don’t panic if the market dips, it makes stocks cheaper to buy and they will go up over time. Over a long enough horizon, the market always goes up.

Putting It Into Action

Do things in this order:

  1. Start tracking your finances. Tools like YNAB, Mint, Personal Capital, etc., can help.
  2. Cut your spending. You can probably live on less than you think.
  3. Pay off all debt except mortgages (and student loans if from the UK).
  4. Pay into your employer retirement plan. They often match your contributions (up to a point) and have tax benefits.
  5. Start another pot. Use robo-investing services like Betterment (US) or Nutmeg (UK). — Property is not as good an investment as stocks and shares. Don’t buy a house unless you really want to live in it.

September 22, 2017

Is Non-Virtuous Behaviour Necessarily Irrational?

Or, My Attempt to Justify Another Glass of Wine…

Present-me is often annoyed at past-me for drinking too much, eating too much or not exercising enough. Does that mean engaging in those behaviours was irrational?

I’m following an online course in Behavioural Economics, and one of lectures featured various academics answering the question:

Is irrationality damaging to welfare?’

A number of responses included arguments along these lines:

Yes, people frequently engage in behaviours that they know are bad for them such as smoking, over-eating and over-spending; this demonstrates that irrationality damages their welfare.”

This is a common argument that frustrates me as it fails to take into account the cost of virtuous’ behaviour and the utility of non-virtuous’ behaviour. People eat unhealthy food because it’s delicious, drink because they enjoy the feeling of being tipsy, and avoid exercise because they have other things they’d rather do with their time! The real question to ask is:

Does the value present-me gets out of engaging in this behaviour outweigh the cost to my future self?

If the answer to this question is yes, it might be perfectly rational to engage in these behaviours! To take an extreme example, I might know that exercise is likely to extend my life, but if the amount of time I must spend exercising approaches the amount by which my life will get extended, is it really worth it?!

So why then, even when I’ve performed a diligent cost-benefit analysis, do I end up regretting past decisions?

A plausible explanation is that we under-value our future-selves. It’s rational to discount our future-selves by some amount; most people would take $99 today over $100 in a month. However, we might not take $20 today over $100 in a month; that would be too much of a discount.

While I’m considering whether to have another drink, I’m fully aware of the risk of a hangover, but if I discount my future-self too much I incorrectly skew the cost-benefit analysis in favour of getting another drink anyway. Alternatively, maybe I over-estimate the enjoyment one more drink will bring, similarly skewing the result.

Is this evidence of irrationality? Not necessarily, if you take into account the theory of bounded rationality’. From Wikipedia:

Bounded rationality is the idea that in decision-making, rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make a decision.

Calculating the correct future-discount value or utility of the next drink is arguably subject to these limitations, so if we’ve given it our honest best guess, even if it turns out to be wrong, the decision was not necessarily irrational.

Having said all that, if your goal is to maximise your overall happiness/welfare/etc, it would be instrumentally rational to try and improve your ability to estimate all the relevant factors so that your cost-benefit analyses will generate better results.

To summarise:

  • If you often find yourself regretting past decisions, it could be beneficial to put effort into improving your ability to estimate things like your future-discount factor (I am bad at this and working on it!)
  • If you’re tempted to engage in supposedly non-virtuous behaviours, ask yourself if the utility to your present-self outweighs the cost to your (discounted) future-self. If it doesn’t, it’s probably best to hold off. If it does, it might be worth going ahead!

June 2, 2017

On Robots, Economic Unrest and Your Job

Rethinking Our Relationship With Productivity in the Light of Technological Acceleration.

Once upon a time, the privileged elite would flaunt their impractical clothing and untanned skin to show how little they needed to work. It was leisure, not labour, that was the mark of success.

These days, the trend has reversed. Those who don’t work are shunned and considered lazy, while constant busy-ness is a sign of importance. This is the lure of productivity: when our social value is equated with our economic output, who wouldn’t want to get more done?

The danger is that we could be on the brink of something that will disrupt our value system completely. If we properly prepare, this could be an escape from drudgery and an opportunity for human creativity to flourish. If we don’t, we could face a future of immense social and economic unrest.

I’m talking about technological automation. It’s no secret that technological progress is accelerating, and with recent advances in Deep Learning, we are finding again and again that computers are capable of performing abstract and creative tasks we thought unique to humans. The reality is that computers can perform faster, cheaper and with fewer errors than a human worker, and with businesses constantly looking to maximise prodictivity, it seems inevitable that more and more of us will be replaced by machines. And it’s not just truck drivers who need to worry; many white-collar industries such as radiology and investment banking are currently in the firing line. In fact, a research paper from 2013 suggested that 47% of American jobs are at high risk of being automated within 20 years.

What, then, do we do with all the people who are out of work through no fault of their own? Retrain them? Robots will soon come for their new job. Let them starve for their failure to contribute? I hope not.

This is where we need to rethink our relationship with work. Our current tendancy to so strongly equate a meaningful life with economic output causes people to assume that a life without work would be miserable and unfulfilling. But we need to realise that we can be productive in so many other ways.

Art, music, science, knowledge, altruism, family, friendship, travel and philosophy are all endevours that take time and effort and often have little financial compensation, yet are amongst the most valuable ways we can spend our time. If we are wise, we can shape a society where more people than ever have the resources to indulge in these activities, while a robot economy takes care of the menial tasks necessary for our survival.

So how do we get to this utopia?

  1. We need to explore different economic models that will sustain a society where machines do the bulk of the labour, such as Universal Basic Income. If society is more productive due to machine labour, by definition we should have more resources to support humans. However, we need to ensure these resources are distributed fairly and sustainably, and that the benefits are not only reaped by a privileged few.
  2. We need to stop valuing economic productivity above all other kinds of productivity. We need to realise there are many meaningful ways to spend time other than what we traditionally think of as work’. We need to stop using GDP as a proxy for a country’s success, and realise that it says nothing about important factors such as the distribution of wealth or happiness across citizens.
  3. Research suggests that once your household income is above $75,000/£58,000 (note this is household income, so far a working couple this would be a salary of $37,500/£29,000) there is no significant increase in happiness from earning more money. If this is you, you will probably be better off focusing your productivity efforts on all the other things that make life worthwhile, rather than chasing higher pay. If you’re interested in this, I highly recommend looking up the Effective Altruism movement.

As a techno-optimist, I believe that with a bit of wisdom and foresight we can use technological progress for the benefit of humanity. But we have a lot of preparation to do, and it starts with rethinking what we value about productivity.