The End (of Sequences)
This concludes the final sequence on Overcoming Bias / Less Wrong. I have not said everything I wanted to say, but I hope I have said (almost) everything I needed to say. (Such that I actually could say it in these twenty-one months of daily posting, August 2007 through April 2009.)
The project to which Less Wrong is devoted—the art and science and craft of human rationality—is, indeed, important. But the calculus of choosing among altruistic efforts is, in some ways, a calculus of who can take your place. I am more easily replaced here, than elsewhere. And so it has come time for me to begin pulling my focus away from Less Wrong, and turning toward other matters, where I am less easily replaced.
But I do need replacing—or rather, the work that I was doing needs replacing, whether by one person or by many people or by e.g. a karma system.
And so my final sequence was my letter that describes the work that I can already see remaining to be done, gives some advice on how to configure the effort, and warns direly against standard failure modes.
Any idea that can produce great enthusiasm is a dangerous idea. It may be a necessary idea, but that does not make it any less dangerous. I do fear, to a certain extent, that I will turn my focus away, and then find out that someone has picked up the ideas and run with them and gotten it all wrong...
But you can only devote your whole life to one thing at a time. In those ways I have thought to anticipate, at least, I have placed a blocking Go stone or two, and you have been warned.
At some future point, though, there must come a time when I turn my attention entirely away from building rationalism, and focus only on that other task.
So, yes, just to belabor the point—if there’s going to be a lasting community, and not just a body of online writing that people occasionally stumble across, it needs to set itself up to run without me.
The last explicit dependency left on me is promoting posts, and I’ve been mostly doing that based on user voting (though not entirely; my activation threshold is lower for posts I perceive as higher-quality). I plan to start trying to delegate that power to co-editors shortly.
For myself… I’ve been feeling rather burned out on writing, so I’m thinking of taking a short vacation and then studying math and working over the summer, before I go back to producing a book.
I’m no longer certain about the time-investment wisdom of trying to convert the OB/LW sequences into minibooks. The Wiki might accomplish a lot of the same purpose of making the info more accessible and organizing it. We’ll see how the Wiki develops (especially once my old posts are imported which should happen Any Time Now).
Now, while I’m on semi-vacation, is a good time to have me speak at your hedge fund. If you wait until after I write a book and it comes out, then, if things go remotely well, it will cost you a lot more money to have me speak (because the marginal utility to me of additional money will have gone way down, and demand gone up). Right now, though, additional money does have substantial marginal utility to me. So those of you who work at the hedge funds who were rational enough to survive: please request me for your speaker programs. I’m told that I give a wonderful, amazing, etcetera talk for audiences interested in rationality, considerably more than twice as useful as talks from big-name speakers who cost considerably more than twice as much.
If the rationality book is written, sold, and takes off, I may well vanish entirely off the face of the Earth, all purposes of publicity having already been served. That is the optimal and desirable outcome—it means I am allowed to specialize narrowly.
I would like to take this moment to confess, once again, that I have had ulterior motives in all this—as is right and proper to a rationalist. It is not the pure service of rationality that diverted my focus here… though I have served that overt cause as a thing in its own right, with its own integrity.
In the end, these 21 months were wagered upon your active response, not your passive possession of truth. Even those of you who are not moved to care about the thing that I protect, may still be moved to align their activities with Seasteading, or the Methuselah Foundation, or Givewell, or cryonics. And, perhaps, tell them that we sent you, so that they know that this “rationality” business is working to their favor; so that maybe they will say a thing or two about rationality. And someone who encounters the craft there, will read on it further, and eventually donate professionally specialized hours (in one form or another) to the Singularity Institute. What goes around comes around, I hope.
To the extent that you don’t feel moved to do anything in particular—even include a link in your signature, or link to apposite posts now and then in your blog—then I have lost my gamble of these 21 months. Or I have lost that part of the stakes which was about you and decision processes similar to you. (No, that doesn’t mean you should seize this opportunity to post about how I lost my gamble with you. You should know better by now, if you want any rationalist cause to get anything done ever, whether or not you are a part of it.)
And this advice: If there is some rationalist cause you have decided to help eventually, I advise you very strongly to help that cause now—even if it’s just a tiny amount. One of the regularities I have discovered, working in the nonprofit industry, is that people who donated last year donate the next year, and people who are planning to donate next year will, next year, still be planning to donate “next year”. The gap between little helpers and big helpers is a lot more permeable than the membrane that separates helpers and procrastinators. This holds whether you would help my own cause, or any of the other causes that have rationality as their common interest.
As for why Earth needs rational activists in particular—I hope that by now this has become clear. In this fragile Earth there are many tasks which are underserved by irrational altruists. Scope insensitivity and the purchase of moral satisfaction leads people to donate to puppy pounds as easily as existential risk prevention; circular altruism prevents them from going so far as to multiply utilons by probabilities; unsocialized in basic economics, they see money as a dirty thing inferior to volunteering unspecialized labor; they try to purchase warm fuzzies and status and utilons all at the same time; they feel nervous outside of conventional groups and follow the first thought that associates to “charity”...
And these are all very normal and human mistakes, to be sure—forgiveable in others, if not in yourself. Nonetheless, I will advise you that a rationalist’s efforts should not be wasted on causes that are already popular far outside of rationalist circles. There is nothing remotely approaching an efficient market in utilons.
Is all this inclusiveness a pretense? Did I, in the end, gamble only upon the portion of the activism that would flow to my own cause? Yes, of course I did; that is how the calculation comes out when I shut up and multiply.
But I have faithfully served the integrity of that pretense, because that inclusiveness matters to my own cause as well.
So I say to you now, on behalf of all our causes: Do, whatever you may find worth doing.