Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Cheap entertainment and unmotivated young men

Thursday, November 24th, 2016


Prior to 1985, leisure patterns were increasing for both higher-educated and lower-educated workers. So–for both men and women. So, men were taking more leisure, usually by working less, in the 1960s and 1970s. Women were taking more leisure by working more in the market but working much less in the home sector. Kind of like we were talking about before–the increases in home production technology might have freed up some time for women to both work more and take more leisure. So, higher skilled and lower skilled–at least measured by education–higher educated and lower educated men and women were tracking each other very closely in their leisure time, up through about 1985. After 1985, that breaks. And when it breaks, it’s right around the same time period–people have tried to estimate it–that the skill premium started to change. And this isn’t my work but work by Larry Katz and David Autor and Kevin Murphy–a whole bunch of people show that the earnings of the higher educated have been growing faster. So, Mark and I have been puzzled: Do we believe that income effects or substitution effects are important in determining labor supply? What do I mean? If your wage goes up, do you work more or less?

It scares me how much of this I see in myself (the video games, not the education). I spend a lot of time online, and much of the entertainment I consume on a daily basis is dirt cheap. I think back to when I was single in Hong Kong and working on my startup – the very thing that allowed me to tolerate such low expenditure was the cheap/free entertainment. 80 hours of Skyrim, watching the entirety of Band of Brothers in a week.

Neal Stephenson on The Problem with Personalised News Feeds

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

From The Diamond Age:

That the highest levels of the society received news written with ink on paper said much about the steps New Atlantis had taken to distinguish itself from other phyles.

Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it. One of the insights of the Victorian Revival was that it was not necessarily a good thing for everyone to read a completely different newspaper in the morning; so the higher one rose in the society, the more similar one’s Times became to one’s peers’.

News has an important social function, and it’s often more important to read the same news as your peers than it is to read the news that is the most interesting to you.

Learning to accept unknowability

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Conspiracy theories and superstitions have the same origin. They are both attempts to deny the pervasiveness of randomness in life. People who become overly invested in a low-noise worldview are prone to late-life conversions to superstition because they are so invested in the idea that the world is predictable that they would rather switch hypotheses on the basis of noise (and hence overfit) than admit that the signal-to-noise ratio is that low.

Admitting Unknowability is much more terrifying than admitting Unknownness.

Board games

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

I have a friend who organizes board game night every few weeks (thanks LCH), and I try to attend whenever I can. Most of the time I find that game instructions often sound intractable but are in fact not all that difficult to get comfortable with if you forge ahead and just go through the motions.

Unlike computer games, there is nothing that guarantees that you are in fact playing a board game correctly. People learn to apply a set of correctness checks to the game – it can’t be that the first mover always wins, it can’t be that certain pieces are always ignored, and it can’t be that losing a small part of the game means you would never catch up. Whenever a game seems bad, the first thing that occurs is always that you’ve read the manual wrongly, and the response to that is to figure out some way to play differently so that the problem does not occur.

I’ve always found good social games to contain an equalizing dynamic, where those who are behind are provided with certain advantages that help them to catch up, whereas those that are ahead have to be wary of defending their lead. This is related to the fact that games differ greatly in the shape of their learning curves – in games like Go, with very steep learning curves, the chances of a novice beating an expert are pretty much zero, and there is pretty much no equalizer built in.

I ♥ good questions

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

I greatly enjoy talking to people who ask good questions. The best way to learn something is to teach it, and largely this is due to the possibility of you teaching someone who doesn’t know what you do but is able to ask really good questions nonetheless.

The better a question is, the more it helps to organize the underlying corpus of data, and help to turn a body of facts into knowledge. The person who is in actual possession of the facts isn’t the best person to synthesize it, simply because there is too much hindsight bias – if you have known something for too long, you lose the ability to differentiate the simple from the complex, and when you are unable to shun complex analyses in favor of simple ones you lose your sense of direction when engaging in critical reductionist analysis.

On the other hand, if you are able to, through interacting with someone intelligent but ignorant about the specific topic, communicate the entirety of your knowledge in a pithy way, then you know that you really do get it.

Fulfilling what potential?

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

This is a recycled post from a mailing list. Apologies to salon-chaos!

Freedom is an extremely relative concept. Relatedly, purpose is also extremely context-driven. The search for purpose, for realizing what you are, is termed eudaimonism. In this article, Wilkinson judges the concept to lack integrity.


The eudaimonist says that eudamonia is the aim of life and the ultimate end of practical reason. Eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” but it’s better understood as flourishing or functioning excellently as the kind of thing one is. Acting in accordance with certain virtues is thought to be both instrumental to and constitutive of flourishing or excellent functioning. Both Long and Vallier accept a version of the unity of the virtues thesis, according to which the content the virtues can be fixed only by reference to the content of the others.

Relatedly, there is no non-stupid natural fact of the matter about what it would mean for you to realize or fulfill your potential, or to function most excellently as the kind of thing you are. Our potentialities are relative not only to individual biological make-up, but to culture and technology as well. Potential for mathematical or hockey greatness is meaningless in a world without mathematical notation or hockey. It may be that the world in which you have the greatest chance for really meaningful achievement and fulfillment, given your particular endowments, is one that does not yet exist. Bummer. What is means to function excellently in the here and now depends on the possibilities for functioning given the current cultural, economic, and technological dispensation.


Thursday, April 26th, 2012

I’ve started using It’s a website that integrates your Gmail, Facebook and LinkedIn contacts, and allows you to write down notes and also set intervals at which to remind yourself to keep in touch. This addresses one of my shortcomings, which is the inability to keep track of more than five people in my head for any decent period of time.

I’ve given some thought to the idea of networking recently, and so far the most sincere interpretation is that it’s a form of marketing – you basically advertise what you have to offer, and hope that a chance to fruitfully trade comes up in the future. To network effectively, you must have something to offer (in my case I think of that as a technical orientation towards the world, and the desire to give advice / nag at people) that people will remember. Trade is a truly rewarding activity, but in lieu of that I’m pretty much willing to blabber on and analyze random situations as long as it entertains everyone.

How to Study

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

The veritasium guy talks about the importance of independent thought to learning. I think that often when you mention independent thought, people immediately see it in terms of creativity and expression and other artsy concepts. As Derek explains in this video, however, independent thinking has benefits that go beyond originality – it is also a great source of efficiency in learning, as constructing a coherent and consistent worldview in your head means that many things get checked and re-iterated every time you come across a new fact.

Truly impressive science education videos

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

If you were to ask people to name some science popularizers, they might name Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Veritasium impresses me a lot more.

The thing about the types of questions that Hawking or Tyson raise is that they are not the types of questions that people think of themselves as being able to answer. Yes I am made of stardust, sure, but knowing that fact doesn’t change anything I do in real life, and wasn’t something I thought I could answer in the first place.

The Veritasium videos, on the other hand, are full of simple surprises:

I’ve tried to amuse other people with these videos and been disappointed to find them un-amused. I suspect this is largely because to appreciate these things you need to have had expectations to begin with.

Children are easy to amuse because they are actively learning about the world, and have a constant cycle of assumption formation and surprise and learning going on; as people grow older, they come to accept that they can’t know about everything.

There are many different ways of not knowing, however. The attitude imbued by scientific training is a very constructive one, where ignorance is recognized as being transient and resources can be invested if a piece of knowledge is deemed valuable enough.

The most unfortunate attitude I’ve come across is cynical resignation and almost total lack of curiosity — such people are often also beset by what they see as injustices big and small as they are buffeted by the world in directions which, through their ignorance, they see as random and unchangeable. Many of them turn dualist / spiritual, and in an effort to avoid being wrong resort to beliefs that are not even wrong.

Intellectual Rigor

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer are riding a train through Scotland.

The engineer looks out the window, sees a black sheep, and exclaims, “Hey! The sheep in Scotland are black!”

The physicist looks out the window and corrects the engineer, “Strictly speaking, all we know is that there’s at least one black sheep in Scotland.”

The mathematician looks out the window and corrects the physicist, ” Strictly speaking, all we know is that is that at least one side of one sheep is black in Scotland.”

Why should you care about rigor? Two reasons:

  • There are many people who find rigorous arguments more convincing. If you learn to construct rigorous-looking arguments you will be able to more effectively convince such people.
  • Groups of people who share conventions of rigor have more effective ways of disagreeing and arriving at truth through discussion.