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Every Post I Couldn't Write This Year

Here’s everything I wish I could write, but never got to, or never figured out how to express properly.

Why don’t I just save the drafts and write these later? I could, but I would rather start fresh with a clean slate.

That also means that these are raw notes, and below my regular bar for quality. Read at your own risk:

  • The Use of Patent Data in Meta-Science
  • Notes on Penguin Highway
  • The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Starting Over
  • Learned Autism
  • The Cost of Criticism

Patent Data

A bunch of papers in the meta-science/economics of research/theory of innovation space cite patent data as a metric for good research.

As far as I can tell, the US patent office is just total garbage. Patent trolls run amok, anyone can get a patent for anything if they have a lawyer and some money, patents are constantly awarded on the basis of totally ridiculous things. Patents serve more as a excuse to sue other people than as an actual working mechanism for publicizing research and getting paid royalties when it’s monetized.

I realize that the patent data is just a proxy, but do we have any reason to think it’s a good one? Or even remotely acceptable? Is everyone already aware of this but choosing to ignore it?

Related.

Review of Penguin Highway

Penguin Highway is the best movie about independent research. It is also possibly the best portrayal of autism.

The protagonist often says “I did the math yesterday, and there are still 3,888 days before I turn twenty.” This is a silly autistic savant stereotype but then he continues “By then, I’ll be 3,888 days better than I am now. I can barely imagine how great that will make me.”

This was once true for all of us, but it doesn’t feel like I’m 3,888 days better. It doesn’t even feel like I’m 365 days better than I was at the beginning of the year. What happened? How did we all become such shitty adults?

In one scene, his sister comes into his room crying that their mom is going to die. He gets up, shocked and eager to help, but she shakes her head. Their mom isn’t in any immediate danger. What his sister has realized is that mortality exists at all. That their mom will die, far off in the future, but inevitably. This was pretty much exactly my own experience at the same age. On a related note, the film also features a somewhat Parfitian view of identity.

My only complaint is that the protagonist gets sick after a single day of fasting, which is your typical 3-meal-a-day propaganda. But at least he runs the self-experiment.

Because we live in an era of incredible abundance, this movie is just $3 to rent on Youtube.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Starting Over

US GDP growth is around 2% a year, with total GDP at 20 trillion in 2018. We’ve made immense progress.

What follows is a mathematical tautology, but it’s still worth saying out loud.

Let’s say you were able to restart a new country, build institutions from scratch, learn from our mistakes and do better the next time around. Let’s say you start with just 1% of current US GDP, but were able to increase the growth rate to 3%.

Under these conditions, your new country will overtake the US in just 163 years.

What if you’re able to double growth to 4%? 120 years. 8%? 60.

Is it really that hard to believe that we could grow at 8% if we were willing to abandon 99% of the economy? I’m not suggesting there’s any specific way to do this, but there are some obvious inefficiencies, and plenty of local maxima.

Take this blog for example. I started anonymously, which meant abandoning whatever status and credibility I previously had. It was painful to give that up, and a difficult decision at the time. But now subscribers are approximately doubling everything month, for 409600% annualized growth.

Obviously this is unsustainable, but I have no doubts I’ll quickly overtake what I could have had with a higher starting point (real life status) but lower growth rate (unwillingness to write on contentious topics).

What local maxima are you trapped in? Do you hate your career, but feel like you’re in too deep? You’ll advance faster if you actually care about what you’re doing. Do feel unfulfilled by your social group but worry if you move you won’t make new friends? You’ll form much deeper connections if you actually care about the people you hang out with.

In general humans have a horrible intuition for exponential growth. You are likely underestimating the value of making the leap and starting over.

Learned Autistic Deficiencies

Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman broadly argues that women appear inferior only because they are raised this way. I’m sure this was subversive at the time, but (hopefully) seems obvious now. If you don’t let women go to the best schools, you’ll find that very few of them end up well educated.

I wonder how much of autism is like this. In her interview with Tyler, Michelle Dawson says:

Well, there’s a huge literature in autism about how autistics judge facial expressions of emotion in other people. And what you have in the autism literature is, you haven’t only just turned autistic people into stereotypes and cartoons, you’ve done that to the typical population.

This is really at odds with the nonautism literature on facial expressions, which is much more complicated. In the autism literature, it’s assumed that you can just read people’s inner emotions and mental states. Mental states are not necessarily well defined, that it’s a simple matter, that it is sort of written all over somebody’s face, or even you can read it just from looking at a photo of their eyes.

And things are far more complicated than that in the literature, in the nonautism literature. For example, MIT — their affective computing group, Rosalind Picard did these fantastic studies showing that people smile in frustration, and those are real honest-to-goodness Ekman-type smiles. You have the whole facial action coding thing going on. Those are real, genuine smiles that people smile in frustration when they are genuinely frustrated. They don’t do it when they’re acting out frustration. And there are many other examples like that.

People smile for many different reasons, and that is acknowledged to some degree in the literature in the typical population, not in the autism literature, where things are completely simple. They’re just very caricatured and cartoonish. Now, what you find is that the typical population can decipher their way through this. They know what these facial expressions are supposed to represent, even if they don’t look like that in real life.

Autistics are — maybe because their experiences are quite complex with how people respond to them starting early in life, and I’m just wildly speculating here — but autistics are going to notice that things are more complex and uncertain than that. Again, it’s the considering more possibilities, and that will very much hamper their task performance if what you are looking for is this automatic certainty that these acted expressions are all there is, which is not accurate.

And that leads to many problems because we’re actually training autistic people to ignore the complex, real, important information in favor of the caricatured, stereotyped, simplified, probably wrong information, and we should really think about that. But that gives you an idea of looking at social deficits, thinking about how autistics process information, and also actually looking at the literature itself. [emphasis mine]

Dawson caveats this theory by noting that it’s speculative, but it certainly feels true to my experience. As I recall, early childhood education revolved entirely around a set of social rules that turned out to be totally counter productive. For example:

  • From ages 2-6, the importance of sharing and fairness was seemingly constantly impressed upon me
  • Then at some point, adults started saying things like “life is unfair”
  • Subsequently, I spent the rest of my life very confused about norms around fairness

Similarly:

  • I used to be very bad at making eye contact
  • I was specifically taught the importance of making eye contact
  • I was later often accused of staring
  • Subsequently, I spent the rest of my life very confused about norms around eye contact

Which seriously, is just an unbelievably difficult thing if you don’t have an existing intuition. Let’s say you’re at dinner with 4 people, you’re telling a story that isn’t directed at any one of them in particular. Who do you look at? Do you go around and make sure you’re making eye contact with each of them at least once? Do you pick one person and stare at them the whole time? Do you glance around as if making sure that everyone is still paying attention?

I think I’m somewhat good at this, but it’s also a very conscious process. I sometimes think that if I was never taught to do it, I would have picked it up intuitively, and eventually learned how to do it “naturally” without thinking. But now that I have been taught, and now that I am thinking, it is pretty much impossible to ignore that and just subconsciously do the right thing.

And to be totally clear, I’m not totally against obeying arbitrary social rules. If you told me “starting tomorrow, we’ve all decided to wear hats, and if you aren’t wearing a hat, it’s like being naked in public”, I would be totally fine! I mean seems dumb, but it imposes pretty much zero cost to me, and I’m happy to comply.

But if you said “some hats are cool, but others are like being naked in public, and we won’t tell you which is which”, I’m just never going to wear a hat ever again for fear of picking the wrong one.

The Costs of Criticism

Writing criticism just makes me really really unhappy. If you’re right, the world is a worse place than you thought, and it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to change anything. Matthew Walker still has a job, most papers identified as fraudulent by Elizabeth Bik don’t get retracted.

Meanwhile, you spend your entire time terrified that you’re wrong, and going to make a fool of yourself. Or even worse, that you’re wrong but people will think you’re right, and you’ll have harmed innocent people.

Then there’s the possibility that you’re right, but your truth isn’t worth telling. Maybe Lambda school is dishonest, but if the cost of pointing that out is that fewer students get a good education and we all have to keep going to 4 year colleges and accruing student debt… it’s unclear what good I’ve actually done.

In the meantime, you’re eviscerating your own credibility because you so clearly have an axe to grind. Either you have a conflict of interest, and are thus motivated to exaggerate, or you don’t and it’s even worse. If there’s nothing really in it for you in terms of upside, you’re not even a deceptive mercenary, just a crazy person with an irrational vendetta.

Note that this is all really different from friendly disagreements. Debate is important. I sent drafts of my posts to friends, and they consistently eviscerate me, prompting arduous rewrites before I can finally publish. This kind of exchange makes all parties better in a way that my rant against Lambda School does not.

To be clear, none of this is to say that criticism is bad. The job of criticism is to better the world, not the criticized. Even in the absence of direct positive impact, it’s role is to elevate epistemic standards.

Some people read Guzey’s Why We Sleep and felt sad that some popular science was fraudulent. Instead, I felt hopeful that we still had a functioning culture of criticism, and felt more confident believing other work that had not received the same treatment.

In this sense, criticism is a prerequisite for truth. Without the ability to be cynical, our belief is incoherent.

So someone has to take on this mantle, but it won’t be me.