Category Archives: Learn

Any thoughts to offer a 24 yr old who feels that time is passing at an ever accelerating pace?

Answer by Nancy Hua:

I heard that the brain mainly records new events and your perception of time is based on the number of memories. This makes sense to me because I’m not likely to remember every time I go scuba diving but I’ll probably remember the first time. If I have no memory of last night it’ll feel like last night didn’t happen, like time skipped from yesterday to today, whereas if I stayed up all night talking with a new person it’ll feel like a really long day. This could explain the phenomena you’re describing and prescribe a solution.

When you’re a kid, everything is new, nothing has ever happened to you before (which is part of why kids are lured by strangers into cars, etc: they don’t know what’s normal). Thus your first summer at camp might feel like it’s lasted a million years- you feel yourself changing because your brain is experiencing and recording a lot of new events, meeting new people, and learning new ideas. The fraction of stuff that’s newly recorded in your brain is high, and you feel like time has passed slowly.

As our lives progress, the rate of learning and new experiences tends to slow. As you age and begin a career, you don’t learn new things as frequently. You’re gaining expertise and your community is not changing as much. Furthermore the probability of some event being new to your brain is lower- a monotonically increasing fraction of experiences will map to an existing memory. Because your brain doesn’t record as many new memories, time feels like it’s passing more quickly.

Maybe if you want to make time seem like it’s passing more slowly, you have to get your brain to form a lot of new connections. To do this, you can try to learn a lot of new things, go to new environments, and gain new experiences, which is going to be harder as time passes for obvious reasons, but should be getting easier as technology advances. The amount of information accessible to any person is always increasing, connections between people are always increasing, and travel frictions are constantly decreasing.

The model of getting good at one occupation and doing it repeatedly might make time seem to fly by unless you’re deliberate about it. You could deliberately choose to keep a level of failure in your work and life so that your’e always pushing yourself to become more of an expert and learning new things. Your brain will form new connections every time you go to a sufficiently different environment, so changing locations will make you feel like time is slower and that more stuff is happening to you because you’re forming new memories. Engaging with sufficiently different types of people will also stimulate you.

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Rationality Workshop: Valuing Choices

There was a period when every day someone would ask me why there wasn’t another HPMOR.

“When is Eliezer going to publish the next chapter? It’s been ages!”

“Stop asking me. I don’t know any more than you do. Maybe he’s busy with his 3 girlfriends- sadly he’s apparently not working on HPMOR every moment of his life. I am not privy to Eliezer’s every thought and daily agenda.”

This person would then generally begin complaining about how there would probably never be another HPMOR while I would begin an internal monologue with my fist of death. Many will never know how I grappled against my dark side for their sake.

Anyway the last time I was in the Bay area I decided to drop in on a rationality workshop at the Center for Applied Rationality to see exactly what it was that Eliezer was up to instead of HPMOR.

My genius friends, even the ones I got into HPMOR, mocked me for going to the rationality workshop.
“They’re going to brainwash you into donating millions to their AI research.”
“Nancy, can I come too so I can rock the boat and mock them for their singularity ideas?”
“Nancy’s going to some rationality class that teaches how to rationalize your crazy beliefs.”

I didn’t know what to expect, because, as far as I could tell, self-described rationalists were not really getting anywhere particularly awesome in any arenas in life; instead according to Isaacson it was the reality-distortionists who were dominating.

But the class was actually totally awesome! The above is a photo of one of the lecturers talking about thought experiments, a topic I’ll write about later. Anna (not pictured) taught us about using numbers to help make decisions.

Anna gave the example of figuring out if you should buy a faster microwave that could shave off 2 minutes a day in cooking time over the course of the microwave’s life, say 2 years. If you value your time at $50 an hour and the cost of getting the faster microwave is less than 2 minutes per day * 2 years * $50 per hour, then you should get the microwave.

Another example is if you are researching airline prices and wondering how much more time you should spend looking for a better deal. If you think you could save $100 if you research for another hour and you value your time at $100/hour, then you should spend less than (probably much less than) 1 more hour looking for a better deal.

Because Dilip had remarked to me that young people shouldn’t think their time was worthless, especially if they planned to be rich, because then one’s time is worth a lot more in expectation, I asked Anna, “If you think you’re going to be making a lot more money in the future, then you should value your current time as higher in expectation?”

Anna said, “Yes. That’s an error many college kids make, not realizing they’re going to be making 6 digits in a year or so and continuing to value their time as though it’s worth $10 an hour.”
“So if I believe I’m going to be a billionaire then I should value my time as crazily high in expectation and buy every new time saving device?”
“…Do you believe you’re going to be a billionaire?”
“Yes.”
“That’s kind of hard to do…”
“Maybe just hundreds of millions then.”

As a result of this particular lesson I now feel totally guiltless about owning 2 iPads, 2 iPhone 4S’s, and 7 kindles (each a different model) and extremely guilty about watching silly movies and getting manicures. So yeah, no more nail art and I still haven’t seen Madagascar 3…

Citizen of Facebook

After disappearing from the internet for the past few years for my post-college all-consuming job, upon emerging I used Facebook to reconnect and figure out everything that I’d missed (who knew non-traders have their own form of colocation except they call it peering?). I put up my new website and integrated it with Facebook, which turned out to be awesome because everyone can share and comment on posts using their Facebook identities.

During my years invisible to the internet, I considered myself elevated above those who were on Facebook hours a day (I have never owned a television and went years without internet in my Chicago apartments because

1) I was too lazy to get it installed and rationalized the diminishing returns of getting it installed because I would be moving to a new apartment in x days anyway (I moved every year). I use this rationale to get out of many annoying tasks, but incidentally used the same rationale to persuade (other) people to do tasks ASAP. Weird, huh?

2) I was always at work and hooked into the internet anyway, but not browsing for anything unrelated to work obviously. During my no-tv no-internet lifestyle, I mainly read my kindle constantly and used my phone for email, but it was a really old phone so I couldn’t download most apps onto it.

3) My computer was really old so I couldn’t download most things (like Chrome) onto it and my trader workstation had spoiled me for any inferior setup: I needed my ergonomic keyboard, my wireless ergonomic mouse, and eventually my gamer keypad controller. Interfacing with a flat laptop keyboard became intolerably suboptimal).

During those post-college work years, I viewed Facebook as a time sink and smugly considered myself superior for using it rarely, but now I think it’s a tool that makes it easy to connect with your friends, to share information and form groups. A lot of the tech innovations are like ways to waste time, but some of them also fundamentally have real value and we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that, which is part of why I started trying twitter etc.

When I got back to the world, I asked my friends to tell me everything I’d missed on the internet, and it turns out some stuff had happened without me noticing- for example, social games. I tried my first ipad/iphone social game DrawSomething at Yinmeng’s recommendation and played it a lot for 2 weeks before getting tired of the same words while moving on to sketch club as an outlet for my drawing needs instead.

After visiting Zynga I decided I did need to check out what this whole Facebook app thing was about considering it’s a bazillion dollar industry (this is the same reason if it’s ever revealed I’ve looked at porn or done anything otherwise questionable- purely for research and educational purposes), so in addition to testing some games I read The Facebook Effect, the contents of which are the topic of the rest of the post. Apparently while I was invisible online, Zuck was off executing on his vision of Facebook as a platform, an ambition that impresses me because he had this idea back in the day when few companies had that vision.

Although it’s possible that hindsight and the human instinct for narrative spins lucky randomness into deliberate strategic decisions, Zuck certainly talks and acts like a visionary, confident leader. He says, “We can make the world a more open place… Let’s build something that has lasting cultural value and try to take over the world.” Repeatedly refusing to sell the company, first for tens of millions, later for billions and tens of billions, Zuck comes off as passionate about the project, really believing his ideology, not caring about money, and thinking extremely long term.

Unlike some “serial entrepreneurs” whose goals are to create a company with the intent of getting acquired, Zuckerberg, an idealist (one anecdote that shocked me was that Zuck was found crying during a dinner with VC’s because he felt so guilty about considering their superior offer after giving his word to another VC- when was the last time you cried out of guilt? When was the last time anyone cried out of guilt regarding a business decision? Did he react like this because he was so young, such a crybaby, or such a dreamer? I think it’s got to be because he’s so idealistic, which is sort of unbelievable but somehow to me the most believable possibility), really does not want to sell and took time to conceive of a principled business philosophy and worldview. For example, he said he “wanted outside apps to help keep Facebook honest by forcing it to make its own remaining applications good enough to compete successfully.” Welcoming competition seems like a really big picture, long term, global-optima seeking view that I don’t hear many other CEOs talk about. Is it a necessary cognitive bias for a successful leader to be sure he’s working on something fundamentally good and world changing, or is a strong ideology what makes a leader successful in the first place?

Zuck also expressed insights into the tech industry and its interplay with human psychology. He says [Facebook] is about people; Google is about data; Facebook is “a technology company. Myspace is a media company.” Insisting Facebook is a utility, “Zuckerberg… realized that Facebook wasn’t a tool for keeping track of news made somewhere else. It was a tool for making news.” Young men are always the revolutionaries- I’m very curious to see what happens as time passes and Facebook has even more success.

While “The Social Network” dwells on interpersonal dramas, The Facebook Effect doesn’t really talk about that, instead explaining some of the conditions and strategy surrounding Facebook’s success:
-“Facebook’s ultimate success owes a lot to the fact that it began at college. That’s where people’s social networks are densest and where they generally socialize more vigorously than at any other time in their lives.”
-“The Harvard connection makes a product less suspect.”
-Immediate popularity because “Harvard students are preternaturally status-conscious.”
-They were able to roll out iteratively and incrementally bc each college was its own network, allowing them to wait to make sure they had enough servers etc before rolling out to another school and taking on more users, thus assisting in avoiding getting Friendster-ed.
-They employed a peer pressure “surround strategy:” “if another social network had begun to take root…. thefacebook would open not only there but at as many other campuses as possible in the immediate vicinity.”
-To ensure demand, “When the number on the waiting list passed 20 percent of so of the student body, thefacebook would turn that school on.”

Because this book was published in 2010- forever ago in internet years, it doesn’t include some of the more recent developments, and a lot of questions remain to be answered. While “a trusted referral is the holy grail of advertising,” I want to learn more about how Facebook will revolutionize advertising beyond engagement ads. The tagline is that Adwords “fulfill demand,” whereas Facebook “generates demand,” so will the people who generate the demand (the other users) get incorporated into and paid by the model in a new way? What developments have occurred since 2010 that the book doesn’t cover?

Another question arises on accessing content. As more and more content becomes user generated with privacy settings, how will Google access, search, and distribute this information? Will Google integrate with Facebook and show different search results depending on which friends’ content is accessible? (Also, how can Facebook help resurrect Microsoft from obsolescence? I don’t dare short Microsoft while Facebook is on its team.)

Much of the author’s info comes from interviews, as evidenced by his erroneously calling a drug “Provisual” instead of “Provigil”- a mistake that would most likely occur from confusing the spoken word (Don’t ask how I know about Provigil, a drug I would not recommend to anyone since you still feel sleepy- you just can’t fall asleep, so it’s worse than useless for keeping your brain functional for higher order tasks). All of the remarks were positive about Facebook, so the book may be somewhat biased.

Nevertheless, you leave the work feeling impressed by the success of the company, acknowledging that it has already changed society and social interaction, and wondering what will happen next. Will Facebook’s currency take over? Will Facebook be the new basis for society and government? It also raises philosophical questions, like do you think it’s true that “a more transparent world create a better-governed world and a fairer world?”

Zuck says, “You have one identity… the days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers … are probably coming to an end.” While Facebook does allow you to only share info with people you friend, etc, Facebook does push transparency as a core value. Should transparency be a value? Is openness really optimal? Do people only have one identity? Demand for Linked-in would suggest people want to have multiple identities, but is that an outdated cultural idea, along with privacy? Will the single profile enter our collective consciousness and cause us to view work as just another attribute of our unified identities?

The internet is changing human relationships, intelligence, society, government, culture, and Facebook is determined to be a driver of that change. On the internet, we are all created equal (more so than offline at least), and if the most popular website Facebook has taken over the internet, then are we all citizens of Facebook? Has Facebook already allowed us to unify as a species and become truly global and we (I?) just haven’t realized it yet? Facebook started as a model of real life social relationships, and quickly evolved into a real world where social relationships are created and lived. I cannot wait for this Facebook IPO!