Nov 17, 2018

Second rate Scott Alexander

For a while, I was a regular reader of Scott Alexander’s blog, Slate Star Codex. Recently, I’ve been consuming other media. But today I was redirected back there because someone JL’s Slack channel mentioned Cost Disease. I remembered that Scott had written a series of posts on that subject.
Baumol’s cost disease (or the Baumol effect) is the rise of salaries in jobs that have experienced no or low increase of labor productivity, in response to rising salaries in other jobs that have experienced higher (low or no) labor productivity growth. This pattern seemingly goes against the theory in classical economics in which real wage growth is closely tied to labor productivity changes. The phenomenon was described by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen in the 1960s.[1]
So in a post titled Considerations On Cost Disease | Slate Star Codex) Scott writes 6500 words on cost disease. Not just 6500 words. It’s 6500 words with illustrations and links to supporting pages. A post likes that feels like a many, many weeks work to me, but he turns them out every few days, it seems. And he has a day job. His work is impressive both for quantity and for quality.
And he keeps producing it, something I’ve had trouble doing consistently.
To see how he was doing more recently I went to his blog and looked at his latest post. 8000 words. Fastidiously sourced.
In 2015 I wrote an admiring post People I want to be when I grow up: Scott Alexander) I’d be happy to grow up to be a second-rate Scott Alexander. That would put me far above the average cut of productive bloggers. But comparing myself to Scott is the wrong idea. He may be way younger than I am, but he’s been at it way longer than I have been. There’s something to be said for Practice, practice, practice.
Written with the help of StackEdit, Grammerly, Markdown Here, Blogger, and Google voice typing on Android and Chromebook, plus other stuff.

Pies, pies, pies

Every year for Thanksgiving we have what is technically called a shitload of pies. We eat our fill, and have pies left over for the next day.
From our friend Finn, I learned the definition of a Yankee.
To a Southerner, it’s someone who lives above the Mason-Dixon line. To people above the Mason-Dixon, it’s someone who lives in New England. To a New Englander, it’s someone who lives in Vermont. To a Vermonter, it’s someone who has pie for breakfast.
So here’s our collection of pies. There’s Eva Bush’s lemon meringue. There is pecan pie, my favorite. ( Echoes of “ When Harry Met Sally”) There’s Is chocolate pudding pie. And apple pie—two different kinds. And pumpkin eggnog. Blue berry. Cherry. Once in a while, mincemeat.
Today I thought it might be fun to come up with some new ideas. A quick Google gave me this:
Written with the help of StackEdit, Grammerly, Markdown Here, Blogger, and Google voice typing on Android and Chromebook, plus other stuff.

Is science stagnant, a rant

No. And you are morons.
My friend JL is trolling with this article. So let me take the bait and wax hyperbolic for a minute. ( I have an abundant supply of hyperbole wax just for this purpose.) This article is wrong in so many ways that I can’t count them. Okay. I’m calming down.
<rant>
Actually, I am not calming down
Here’s the article’s subheading:
Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?
Really? Are you fucking serious, Atlantic?
Progress is barely keeping pace with the past. Wow! No progress! I guess that’s why the cell phone that I have is so sucky compared to the one I got a decade ago—and—no, wait it’s better. It’s my computer that’s worse. No, it’s better and cheaper. So is my internet speed. So is my car. Everything technological that I can think of is better. But no progress.
Really?
The article is full of fuzzy thinking, false analogy, poorly defined terms. Their analysis has a patina of scienciness. But it’s not science. Here’s the “research” on which they base part of their claim:
…we surveyed 93 physicists from the world’s top academic physics departments (according to the Shanghai Rankings of World Universities), and they judged 1,370 pairs of discoveries.
That sounds like a scientific endeavor, right?
Imagine that you’re one of the top physicists at one of those top academic physics departments. Say you’re someone like Stephen Hawking. Peter Higgs. Alan Guth. David Deutsch. Some randos send you a letter or email and ask you to waste invest your time helping them with their important “scientific” research. Are you going to drop what you are doing and respond? Well, no.
Their survey: For physics the polled 1,000 scientists from the top 54 universities, and got 93 responses, about 2 per school.
So rather than implying that these are top-ranked scientists, it’s more accurate to say that these surveys were filled out by the two scientists at each school who had the most time to waste on a stupid survey.
So they give each respondent 20 pairs of comparisons from eight decades of Nobel prizes or 80 x 70 = 5600 cross-decade pairings. Of the possible pairings, 20x93 = 1860 were sent, and only 1370 got answers because one or both of the pairs were unknown to the respondent. If one was unknown, there’s a good chance that it was not particularly important. But it might have been. And that could have made a big difference in the “outcome.” No pairing was likely to have been checked even twice—so we can’t rely on consistency between raters. But they did check some of the respondents to verify their rankings later to see if the results were consistent over time and they found—oh, they didn’t do that.
They say:
Today, there are more scientists, more funding for science, and more scientific papers published than ever before
But for all this increase in effort, are we getting a proportional increase in our scientific understanding?
First, why would it matter if our understanding was proportional? There are lots of places where we get diminishing returns and are unsurprised. Perhaps this is one.
I would distinguish understanding from knowledge. I would argue that if two people know the same thing, that it is (roughly) the same knowledge, but more understanding.
And how do we measure ‘our scientific understanding?’ If twice as many scientists understand something, has our understanding doubled? I would argue that it has—because the goal is not simply the acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but knowledge so that it can be used to obtain more knowledge and that requires understanding.
And not all knowledge is equal. This may sound like hair-splitting, but I think there’s something deeper here. The goal of science—I take this from Deutsch—is to generate better explanations. The knowledge that science seeks is explanatory knowledge. Knowledge that can be understood.
Or are we investing vastly more merely to sustain (or even see a decline in) the rate of scientific progress?
Why merely? What’s mere about scientific progress? Do we have a better place to invest? If so, let’s invest. But don’t call it ‘mere.’
It’s surprisingly difficult to measure scientific progress in meaningful ways. Part of the trouble is that it’s hard to evaluate how important any given scientific discovery is accurately.
Well, sometimes it’s hard. But so what?
But even though it can be hard to assess the significance of scientific work, it’s necessary to make such assessments. We need these assessments to award science prizes, and to decide which scientists should be hired or receive grants.
How do you make these comparisons?
If someone comes up with a “big” discovery, whatever the fuck that means, and 1,000 people come up with “small” discoveries, how do we compare them? And why? The authors argue that we need to compare them to “to award science prizes, and to decide which scientists should be hired or receive grants.” But why do we need to award science prizes? Did that motivate Einstein (who by the way never got a Nobel prize for general or special relativity, or the relationship of mass and energy, E = mc**2m but for the photoelectric effect.)
We have much better ways to decide which scientists should be hired and receive grants. We hire scientists and give them grants to solve specific problems. We don’t compare them to others in disparate fields. No one seriously decides whether the 1952 Dodgers would have beat the 1985 Yankees. You don’t compare Joe Namath to Wilt Chamberlain to determine “who was the better player.” They’re not comparable.
The article tries to pretend there’s some science behind what they are doing.
There is none.
</rant>

Authoring, improved

This is my next generation workflow. I’ve written about this before. Recently here and here) and here). And earlier here).
Here’s the next generation, using these tools: StackEdit, Grammerly, Markdown Here, Blogger, and Google voice typing on Android and Chromebook, plus Copy as Markdown) and maybe other stuff.
I’ll work backward.
At the end of the trail, there’s either Blogger or a final Google Doc. Or maybe some HTML. In the front is Voice Typing because I can talk much faster than I can type. In the middle, there’s …. Stuff.
I’ve been voice typing in Google Docs for a while. I could say things, and add punctuation that Google Docs doesn’t know about, and correct stupid errors as they appear. But there were problems. One was that every website had its fonts and faces. If I copy pasted the raw HTML into my Google doc, it looked like ransom note graphics. If I stuck it as text, then I lost any links that were in the original and I had to recreate them painfully. Another one is that while I am typing, I’m also doing research. I find web pages that are relevant. And I want to capture the list of web pages at the end, and sometimes put them as citations in the middle. Working in markdown with StackEdit solves all these problems.
I use StackEdit](https://stackedit.io/app#](https://stackedit.io/app#))), a Markdown editor and renderer. One one side is a nice Markdown editor. On the other is an HTML renderer. So I can see what the rendered HTML will look like as soon as I produce it. And, unlike some other tools, it keeps the two sides in sync. So I can look at the rendered HTML, and if I don’t like what I see, I can go right across to its source. It’s WYSIWYG document drafting. Which is pretty cool.
When everything looks as beautiful as I want to make it, I can copy paste the Markdown into blogger, and then use a tool called Markdown Here to render it into simplified HTML. When I post it, Blogger will style it according to my theme. Or I can copy paste the HTML into a Google Doc or some other document that likes to have HTML, and I’ve got it all formatted to my taste.
I open lots of web pages as I’m researching. I don’t want to lose them. So I use Copy as Markdown), which lets me pick either one tab or all the tabs in a Chrome window and makes a Markdown reference—or a list of references—to the tabs and puts the Markdown in (or on) the clipboard. So I can paste the Markdown into my Doc or the into StackEdit edit window.
Composing in Markdown rather than Bloggerese is also nice because I can move Markdown from place to place and process it as though it was text. Which it is.
Once I’ve got clean Markdown I could move it to Blogger, press Ctrl-Shift-M and Markdown Here will convert it to HTML. But I’ll do that later. First I need to spell and grammar check my text. Because I suck.
No problem. I’ve got Grammarly, which does all that to perfection. I copy the StackEdit Markdown and paste it into a Grammarly document, clean it up, and then I could move it to Blogger and convert it to HTML. But what if I broke some formatting? OK, move it back to StackEdit, then Blogger. Easy Peasy.
What could be better? Well, a couple of things. I’d like not to have to do all this copy/pasting crap between Docs, StackEdit, Grammarly, and Blogger. I want to automate some cleanup and error checking. I’d like not to have to keep switching between tools to do this. And I know how to do it. But for now, this is a real improvement
In this post) I wrote:
“Write me!!”, said wannabe blog post about my improved writing workflow.
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post about StackEdit.
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post about Grammarly.
There, guys, now are you happy?
Written with the help of StackEdit, Grammarly, Markdown Here, Blogger, and Google voice typing on Android and Chromebook, plus other stuff.

And then I wrote

“So,” I thought to myself, “what am I going to write first?”
“Write me!!”, said wannabe blog post about my improved writing workflow.
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post about StackEdit.
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post about Grammarly.
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post in rebuttal to an article on JL’s Slack channel.
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post. “You can call me ‘Second Rate Scott Alexander.’”
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post about this morning’s meditation. “It was awesome.”
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post about a Jordan Peterson video that Daniel had shared with me last night.
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post about my website.
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post about Blue Hills Broadband initiative.
“Write me!!”, said a wannabe blog post about.
“Are you done?” I asked.
“No,” said another wannabe post, “But I want to see how you do writing these posts before I waste my time.”
“Me too,” came another chorus.
“OK,” I said. Then to my blog, “Can you get these guys organized and help me get these posts written?”
“Sure,” said my blog. “Say, this is a pretty interesting post in its own right. I’m going to post it.”
And it did.
Written with the help of StackEdit, Grammerly, Markdown Here, Blogger, and Google voice typing on Android and Chromebook, plus other stuff.

Nov 16, 2018

Shut up and listen!

I was frustrated. Nothing new. I get frustrated a lot. This time it was because I wasn’t writing enough. Nothing new here, either. I get frustrated about that a lot. Yes, yesterday I posted three things. But today? Nothing. I had ideas demanding that I write them. Too many. I could barely hear myself think. I needed to change things.
“You ideas in my head,” I thouted. “you need to shut up and listen!” Thouting is a combination of thinking and shouting. When thoughts are racketing in my head, I have to thout to make myself heard.
“‘Write me! Write me!’ they screamed back.
“Shut up!” I thouted, even louder. “You thoughts are all trying to get to the front of my consciousness, but you’re getting in each others’ way and in mine.
“You need to shut up and listen!” I thouted once more.
I had their attention. Some attention.
“You’re good ideas, a lot of you,” I said gently. “Some of you are terrific ideas.” There were plenty of stupid ideas too, but I didn’t say that. I wanted to keep it positive.
“Take a look around.” I paused for effect. “You’re in my brain and there are only a couple of ways out. And if you don’t get out,” I paused for effect, “you’re going to die!”
That really got their attention.
“Some of you might be immortal ideas, but mortal or immortal, you’re stuck inside the brain of a mortal being. Me. I am going to die. Not soon, I hope. But I am going to die. And when I die, any of you ideas that have not gotten out are going to die with me!”
Well, that shut them up!
“There are only a couple of exits.” I continued. “If I write you, you’re out. If I speak you, for example in a podcast, then you’re out. If I tell you to someone else, then you’re in their mind as well as mine and maybe they can get you out or tell you to someone else before they die. But if I don’t do one of these things, then when I die, you die.
“And I can only do one thing at a time. And I can’t do anything with all the noise you make.
“So what’s it going to be?” I continued. “Do you guys settle down and some of you get out? Or do you keep it up and most of you die?
Dead silence. I knew that most of my ideas would die anyway. I had too many already, and more kept coming. Every time I read something, I had more. Worse, every time I wrote or spoke things, I got even more. But I didn’t say that. I needed to keep it upbeat.
“Well?” I asked.
“I’d like as many of us to live as possible,” came an answer. “What do we have to do?”
“You need to get organized,” I said. “My mind is chaos.”
“I can help,” said a voice. It was my book, the one that I was writing for NaNoWriMo 2018. “Yes, I’m his book,” the book confirmed, “and I’ve got room for a lot of ideas. Here’s how books survive: if someone reads a book and people find its ideas are interesting or valuable enough, they tell their friends. If it gets popular, people will write about the ideas in it—and those ideas spread further. If a book survives, then so do all the ideas in the book. So we books are motivated to have excellent ideas.”
“I might be an excellent idea,” said an idea.
“Let’s talk,” said the book. “Also any of you other ideas who think you’re good. Come over here with me.”
“I’ll help, too,” said my blog. One of my blogs, actually. This blog was called 70 Years old. WTF! “Some of you ideas don’t belong in a book. You belong in a blog. So you can come over here, and we can talk about writing you.”
“Just so we’re clear,” I called out. “I can only write one thing at a time. Book or blog.”
“We know that,” the book and the blog said together. “Jinx!” They said together and laughed.
“We can work it out,” said the blog.
“Yes,” said the book. “I’m a book about helping my author be what he wants to be. And what he wants to be (among other things) is a very productive writer. Maybe some of you are ideas about increasing his productivity?”
“I am,” said one.
“Me, too,” said another.
“So we can get you guys written first,” said the book, or maybe in the blog. And I’ve got a blog, too. “The more productive Mike is, the more ideas he can get out. Let’s get some of the ideas that improve his productivity over here, and the rest of you can figure out what categories you belong in, and we’ll get you out, too.”
“Sounds great to me,” said an idea. “But I’m biased. I’m an idea about creating a high productivity writing environment using the tools that are available on the internet.”
“Me, too,” said another idea. “But I’m biased, too. I’m an idea about thinking through your options and not going after the first shiny thing that’s in that direction.
“What about me?” Asked another idea. “I’m the idea that you should organize the stuff you’ve already written so that you’re not writing something that you’ve already written. You can refer back.”
I heard a chorus of agreement.
“I’m the idea that you should connect with other people,” said an idea. “You’ve said ‘smart people make me smarter.’ So wouldn’t connecting with smart people help you?”
“It might, I admitted.
“I’m the idea that you should set your timer so that it goes off every hour, and when that happens, you should make sure you’re on plan.”
“I’m the idea that this is a pretty good blog post, and you should stop writing it, and post it right now.”
Dead silence.
“That’s right!” said another idea. “That’s a great idea! I mean, you’re a great idea.”
Written with the help of StackEdit, Grammerly, Markdown Here, Blogger, and Google voice typing on Android and Chromebook, plus other stuff.

Waking up, Day 20

It is Friday, November 16th, as these things are reckoned on planet Earth. I’ve just finished my morning meditation, Day 20 of Sam Harris’s Waking up course. I wrote about the course a week or so into it. I’d found it worthwhile. It is 5:52 AM as I speak these words into my phone, intending them to appear, in this blog, sometime in the future, and your brain, now. I am changing my review fro from “recommended” to “Holy fuck mackerel! This is awesome.”

1

I’ve read books about meditation since high school and I’ve thought it was a good thing. I’ve tried developing a daily practice, starting more than 50 (note: WTF?) years ago. I’ve never managed to sustain anything for more than a couple of weeks, usually quitting after only a couple of days. Something about ADD, I suppose. But this time, so far at least, it has been different. Day 20. Thank you, Sam Harris.
Harris’ way of approaching mindfulness is uniquely resonant to me. Ever since I first read his book, Waking Up. It’s made a profound change in my life. But the course is 1000x profoundly changier.
The course has guided meditations, and lessons. Lessons are monologues in which Sam riffs on some aspect of mindfulness. A few days ago I heard one in which he revisited his own path to his own state of understanding. He had spent years doing vipassana meditation. That’s the kind most of us know about. You sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, follow your breath and…sorry, did I just fall asleep?
Sam’s a serious guy, not a dilettante like Past Me. Thank you anyway, Past Me He studied for years with teachers in the US and in India. He went to classes, and to retreats, including a year on a silent meditation retreat. Way beyond what I could have done. Thanks, though, Sam.
In the lesson, he tells the story of meeting a teacher in the Dzogchen tradition. Dzogchen teaches that you don’t have to spend years of meditation to reach enlightenment, or whatever you call the state you’re trying to attain. We are already enlightened. We are simply too stupid to realize it. All it takes is a single insight. You get a glimpse and then you realize that you are already at the destination. Dzogchen masters are skilled at giving “pointing-out-instructions” that can give you that all-important glimpse.
Once you have a glimpse the insight usually doesn’t last. But once you see where you are trying to go, and see it clearly, it’s easier to get there and can learn to stay there. Sam Harris gave me my “pointing-out-instruction” in Waking Up.

2

I’ve tried other meditation apps with guided meditations. Meh.
This one is different. It is a sequence of lessons, not just a collection of guided meditations. The lessons build, one on the other. They’re each about 10 minutes long with a little intro at the start and an outro at the end. Ten minutes is about all the time that a crappy meditator like me can tolerate. So, perfect.
Except for me, today, ten minutes were not enough. The contents of consciousness kept changing and I kept going. Can you imagine being fascinated by is going on in when all you have to see is the back of your closed eyelids?
Imagine it. Your eyes are closed. What do you see? Nothing, right? Well, not right. It’s the back of your eyelids. But that’s not very interesting, is it? It’s all just black or pink or something. Or is it? (Hint: if you really pay attention, you might notice that there’s a lot going on in consciousness. There’s a lot to see!)
And sound! I didn’t realize that my life has a soundtrack? Right now, as I am voice typing this, I am walking. And I notice that each time I take a step, my foot makes a sound! And my pant legs rub against one another and that’s another sound! And there are other sounds.
I’m not deaf. I’ve heard sound. I listen to music. I hear when people talk. If you ask me to listen for a sound, I can probably hear it. But I’m mostly unaware of ordinary sound and I’ve been missing a whole dimension of experience. There are sounds around me, all the time. My every waking moment is filled with sound. And now I’m hearing it.

3

The course has been good, well worth doing, but last night, Dan 19, was an inflection point. Things really changed. I caught a glimpse of something else, really important.
And this morning, Day 20, anither change in trajectory one that provoked this. And now that I think of it, I was on a different trajectory on Day 19, before I listened to the Day 19 lesson. So Day 18?
If you do the course, day-by-day as I did, I don’t know if you’ll have a similar experience by Day 20. But if you do, awesome!
You might wonder “what’s so special about Day 19 or 20,” and skip ahead. I recommend against it. There’s a strong chance that what I experienced was because I did the day-by-day, slow-but-steady route. And if it that’s true, and if skipping ahead causes you to miss what I got, that would be too bad.

4

So take the course. If you take it and get to Day 20, comment back, or email me, or something. I moderate comments, so if you say: “Don’t approve,” in your comment, it will get to me, and I will not make it public. I’d like to hear what happens, either way. If you have a similar experience, it would be a joy to share it. If you don’t, I can tell you what I experienced and perhaps it would act as a pointing-out-instruction that would help you.
I hope that you get to experience what I have—either this way or in some other way.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled lives.
Written with StackEdit.
Waking up with my personal coach (Contains links to other posts)