Category Archives: rationality

The and My Future

“Why are you taking the 101? Can’t you see your iPhone 5 is lying to you? Its map was wrong in Santa Clara and it’s wrong here.”
“The 101 is the 280’s uglier sister. Clearly Steve jobs wanted us to take this route. Anyway now we can have a nice talk where you advise me on my finances.”
It’s funny how I’m the financial expert amongst my non-trading friends even though my opinions are almost certainly things no financial advisor would recommend to anyone.

When I first joined GETCO, I introduced myself to a new employee saying, “GETCO is my first job after MIT,” and the closest person I had to a boss interjected, “And your last.” At the time I sincerely believed and hoped that this would be true. In 2007, the company had 30 traders across 4 offices. Each trader did whatever they decided was optimal in a market that bloomed with opportunity: it was like the wild wild west- so much fertile terrain waiting to be conquered by a few explorers, populated only by some occasionally annoying but generally innocuous natives. I loved it. I never had someone telling me what to do, or really even anyone questioning what I was working on. I didn’t think about the future after GETCO because who would ever want to leave? The business was exploding, we were at the forefront of technology, and if you hesitated to size up your coworkers would make increasingly loud chicken sounds.

4.5 years later, after Singapore I went straight to my NYC desk to clean it out, then to Chicago to resign. I and everyone assumed I was going to stay in HFT because I’m a “world class expert in HFT,” plus headhunters were busy setting up lunches with billionaires with ambitions regarding their nonexistent/proto/growing/declining HFT operations. I was advised not to sign anything till the noncompete was up so I participated in some fantastic handshakes and told everyone I’d see them after my noncompete was over.

I’m not good at vacation so I viewed this year as a rumspringa world tour- I just got back from New Zealand and am writing this while jetlagged, thinking about how my paid vacation will be up in 2.5 weeks. This year I zoomed my head out of focus to see what everyone else is looking at. Let me tell you: Other People are looking at some pretty crazy stuff. I met Verner Vinge and Ray Kurzweil at the Singularity Summit. Compared to these impassioned singularity people, I feel like an ape for mentally shrugging when they bring up existential risk and AI. Nevertheless, my main impression is it’s cool these people are contemplating and perhaps helping decide a vision of mankind as a species. Most people never think about that kind of thing, as individuals or as a species. What is the destiny of mankind? Who even asks this question? Shouldn’t we wander blindly towards our fates like all other species? Aren’t we just dominant, blessed by god to be gods among animals? Anyway, the Singularity Summit led me to go to Rationality camp. This post was originally about Rationality Camp but I guess I’ll write about that some other time (sorry to leave you as irrational as ever, although I can tell you that I made $280+ from poker, won a prize despite not being the most rational (Dilip had the most points in the whole camp but somehow lost his prize to me. Yes! Plus I beat him at some kind of augmented reality game, which victories are documented photographically)).

This year has been upside down: I’ve been paid to not work, spent more time in CA than NYC, and I realized I’m old- I think I’ve aged relative to my non-finance peers. I’m 27 and I’ve started finding younger people annoying. Those fools have no idea how lucky they are. At my age, people are suddenly so hard to impress. If I were starting a company at age 17 people would say, “Awesome.” Now everyone’s like, “Whatever.” Too old to be effortlessly impressive, too young to shove offending kids off my subway seat, I’m at an age when I don’t really notice anyone else’s age unless they bring it up, whereas for years I was conscious of even a year’s difference. Looking back at my childhood, the hours reading in the grass, the biking with friends, my main impression is that an idyllic childhood is a colossal waste of time. Yes, even the priceless hours bonding with family had diminishing returns, and no one really needs to read the collected works of anybody- very few writers have anything to say after their first real book.

Sometimes I see flashes of myself 10 years in the future, so clear it’s almost a memory. This year I started seeing what future Nancy would be if I kept going down the trading path, and I didn’t feel excited. In fact I felt bored. Because it’s basically the same as always, except I’d need increasingly larger sums to get the same level of stimulation. For someone who lives so much in the future, I hadn’t really thought about what I’d think about the future after (if) it already happened. When I’m 40 will I see my 20’s and 30’s the way I currently see my childhood- objectively successful by most measures but privately viewed by myself as largely a waste of time?

I feel ennui regarding the kind of stuff people are supposed to do in their late 20’s, early 30s: the house and marriage stuff. My mom was in constant turmoil over the fact that she was too sick to see me “settled” in my NYC apartment. Prior to NYC, she had “settled” me into all apartments I’d ever lived in. Perhaps out of a desire to do what I thought she’d want me to do, I went out and bought my first furniture since she forced me to buy my mattress 5 years ago when I first moved to Chicago and needed a non dorm issued mattress. I ended up buying a $5000 coffee table made from a single solid cross section of a gigantic tree. Maybe I thought my mom would rest assured in my competence if I showed her this coffee table and other furnitures, that I was a grown up and finally handling this kind of stuff. I think I even bought a house plant of some kind, which never would have occurred to me to do in my youth. Mom just wanted me to be happy, which might not be what I want for myself. Now that I know what it’s like to have the perfect set of plates, I never want to own plates again. That stuff is all at my dad’s house now, completely out of place with his ornate, plasticky furniture.

I think I might’ve reassessed my trajectory sooner if it weren’t for the parents’ cancers. Cancer put me in a mental state of martial law where I was single-mindedly attacking obstacles without considering the problems of philosophy- who cares about higher ambitions when it’s life or death?

Now I feel like there’s more pressure. Maybe this is true for us as a species too- just as we’re most successful, there’s the most danger. Humans have accomplished a lot relative to other animals so the universe is ours to lose, plus we have to decide the extent of our future ambition. Similarly, as a kid the difference between working a little and a lot was the difference between an A- and an A+, whereas now there’s so much at stake- it’s now the difference between losing money and making money.

I’m acutely aware of being the writer of not only my writing but also of my own life. It’s exciting and scary and writer’s block-inducing to decide the next act. But from my life there’s just one thing I ask: don’t tell me how it ends.

Questioning Your Beliefs

Another thing we discussed at this CFAR alpha testing ages ago is that we’re supposed to question our beliefs. A way to do this is by hanging out with people with beliefs different from our own. My first reaction to this was that it’d be hard to do because 1) I don’t know any idiots, and 2) I don’t want to hang out with idiots.

The instructor gave an example of hanging out with vegetarians to understand what vegetarians actually ate and to help deal with the discomfort of thinking about the morality of meat. Another example was to hang out with grad school dropouts and people who were never in grad school to understand what the rest of the world thinks of academia and the importance of PhDs.

After some reflection, I realized most of my friends disagree with me on some things, but probably not on the big things, or if they do, we don’t talk about it because we don’t want to argue. I generally suck at arguing because I get annoyed and start insulting and punching the other person (figuratively…).

This idea of engaging with people who think differently precipitated my beginning to participate more in internet communities. People don’t hesitate to disagree with me on the internet, whereas they are often quiet in real life, I guess intimidated by someone as wise and serious as I am.

Some topics where I discovered my beliefs are very different from the beliefs of most people:
1) HFT.
2) Politics.
3) Money.
4) Diet.
5) My own greatness.
6) Charity.
7. Olivia Wilde.
8) Patents.

I haven’t really modified any of my beliefs yet so I don’t know if any of this is working to make me more rational. However, I think I am understanding the opposing beliefs better. So here’s my modest goal for now: be able to describe what others’ points of view are on all topics where I have abnormal beliefs.

Is Charity Ever Immoral?

What are top Pittsburgh high school students interested in math, science, and computer science doing in the summers?

Many of the smartest math, science, and cs people I knew from the Pittsburgh area when I was in high school during 1999-2003 attended programs like Andrew’s Leap and PGSS. Recently I learned these programs have lost funding and ceased to run and/or degraded significantly in quality/reputation. After devoting resources passionately trying to raise funds, I suddenly questioned if my behavior was optimal- have these programs simply been replaced by superior alternatives? Is my desire to fund these programs based on a personal bias? As silly as it might sound, this question disturbed me greatly and kept me up all night. I’ve decided that I want to do what helps the most students rather than what I remember most fondly because the goal is helping students, not keeping alive institutions I happen to have enjoyed. If there now exist better programs for talented Pittsburgh students, then I’d like to know about them so I can allocate my resources to best help the most students and support those programs instead.

Andrew’s Leap and PGSS are awesome programs that help people. The question is not whether these programs add value but whether they are the best allocation of resources. Suppose there was another program exactly like Leap except it helped 2x as many students and it was named Steven’s Hop. Should I fund Hop or Leap? What if I know about the existence of Hop but decide to fund Leap anyway because I simply feel more attached to Leap, since I happened to have attended Leap (Hop did not exist; Leap was my only option at the time)?

Suppose the 2 most talented kids in Pittsburgh are dangling off a cliff and I have my old faithful dog Yeller who has the strength to drag one of them off the edge. But then suppose there exists another dog Lassie who is really strong and can pull BOTH the children off the cliff. Lassie is happily smile-panting next to me, waiting for me to say, “Go save both those kids, boy!” But I don’t even glance at Lassie and instead only have eyes for Yeller because he’s my faithful, old dog who rescued me from a cliff when I was a kid. I tell Yeller, “Go save a kid!” Yeller drags a kid to safety and then lies down, too exhausted to move for the next few hours while the second kid eventually falls to her doom. If you were watching, would you say, “Nancy, you are a hero for saving that kid!” or would you say, “Are you nuts? Why didn’t you use Lassie so you could save both those kids!”

This is a question no one would actually ask in real life because in real life no one sees the 2nd kid dead in the ravine. All they see is the one living kid hugging Yeller.

Maybe that should be good enough! After all, I don’t know what the Lassie would be in the real world (Yeller is PGSS/Leap). But if I did notice Lassie, would I be morally wrong in deciding to allocate my resources to Yeller instead of Lassie? If my goal were to help the most kids then I should use Lassie instead. But if my goal includes using Yeller as much as possible then maybe I can just go ahead and use Yeller.

I did some preliminary googling and didn’t find any other programs. So the theory that these summer programs help kids be successful in life would predict that future Pittsburgh kids will not be as successful. Ways we could measure this: economic decline of Pennsylvania, decline of Pittsburgh kids going to top schools or having good careers or going into science/math/cs. If it seems like none of these things are happening, then it would suggest that these programs didn’t matter as much as I thought and even though I had a good time it doesn’t matter that they don’t exist anymore. Time will tell, I suppose! In this case the painful process of generating data involves waiting and seeing if Pennsylvania declines or not. Is that a process we’re willing to endure? In the meantime, I posted this Quora question and am awaiting data via that forum.

One might ask, “What about saving 5 kids in Asia or something instead of 2 Pittsburgh kids?” I guess the response is, “That’s a question for another analogy. Today we’re not asking about Pittsburgh kids vs other kids, we’re assuming it’s the Pittsburgh kids we’re looking at on the cliff and the question is if we want to use Yeller to do it or Lassie.”


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?”
“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…