2012: Year in Review

The beginning of a new year is a customary time to take a look back and consider what has happened during the last 12 months. And while the time for doing so is admittedly rather arbitrary—after all, “years” do not really exist in the universe, just in our heads—it is useful and fun to review one’s accomplishments every now and then. And a time when everyone else is doing it gives us a nice Schelling point for joining in, so we can pretend that it’s not quite that arbitrary.

So what might be some noteworthy things that happened on Less Wrong in 2012 that could be worth mentioning?

Site upgrades

First, I would like to say “thank you” to all the people working on keeping this site running and helping it make increasingly more awesome! This obviously includes pretty much everyone who comments, posts and writes here, but particularly also the folks at Trikeapps, and everyone who contributes updates to the site’s codebase. There were several site upgrades in 2012, four of which were major enough to get separate announcements:

Less Wrong’s new front page was rolled out in March, thanks to work by matt. One can easily access a number of site features from the brain graphic, and there’s a convenient introduction under it, together with links to featured articles and recent promoted articles. Hopefully, this has made it easier for newcomers to get familiar with the site.

The “Best” sorting system for comments was introduced in July. The work was done by John Simon, and integrated by Wes. Whereas the old default sorting system, “Top”, favored old comments that had already floated to the top and were thus more likely to get even more upvotes, “Best” attempts to give newer comments a fairer chance.

In August we got the ability to show parent comments on /​comments. The work was done by John Simon, and integrated by wmoore. This change makes it far easier to grasp the context of things seen on the recent comments page, given that we now see the old comment that the new comments are replying to.

And finally, starting from September, we have been able to write comments that contain polls! Work on the code was originally began by jimrandomh, finished later by John Simon, and deployed by wmoore and matt. Although people had long been taking advantage of comment vote counts as a crude way of creating their own polls, this change makes things far easier.

Meetup booklet

In June, we published the How to Run a Successful Less Wrong Meetup booklet, which I wrote together with lukeprog, and which got its graphical design from Stanislaw Boboryk. Numerous other people also helped, both by providing advice and by contributing pictures to it. In addition to general advice on running a meetup, it contains various games and exercises as well as case studies and examples from real meetup groups from around the world.

Index of original research

Starting from October, lukeprog has maintained a curated index of Less Wrong posts containing significant original research. It contains numerous posts, organized under categories such as general philosophy, decision theory /​ AI architectures /​ mathematical logic, ethics, and AI risk strategy. Last updated on December 17th, it now links to a total of 78 different posts.

Who are we?

In November and December, Yvain continued his hard work in holding the yearly survey. Among other interesting details, around 90% of us are male, 55% are from the USA, 41% are students and 31% are doing for-profit work. See the 2012 survey results for many more details.

Most popular posts of 2012

On LW, people tend to judge the popularity of a post by the number of upvotes that it has. But this only reflects the opinion of the registered users who care enough to vote. For purposes of this article, we were interested in finding out the posts that had made the biggest impact on the whole Internet. Although it’s not a perfect measure either, we decided to measure popularity by the number of unique pageviews, as reported by Google Analytics.

Overall, in 2012 Less Wrong had over eight million unique pageviews and close to two million unique visitors (8,225,509 and 1,756,899, respectively). Of the posts that were written in 2012, the most popular ones were...

#10: Get Curious, in which lukeprog suggests that one of the most important rationality skills is being genuinely curious about things, instead of just jumping to the first answer that comes to your mind and leaving it at that. He suggests a three-step approach for actually becoming more curious: first, feel that you don’t already know the answer, then start wanting to know the answer, and finally sprint headlong to reality. Together with a number of exercises intended to make you better at these steps, this article made a lot of folks curious about Less Wrong and caused people to sprint headlong to the post 10,850 times.

#9: Being curious about things means that you genuinely want to know the truth. That makes it useful to have a good grasp of The Useful Idea of Truth. This article by Eliezer Yudkowsky starts the Highly Advanced Epistemology 101 for Beginners sequence by explaining what exactly it means for something to be “true”. In order to avoid spoiling the article’s “meditations” for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, I will not attempt to summarize the answer. I’ll only suggest that one definition for “truth” could be the correctness of the claim that this post was viewed 11,161 times.

#8: Having defined truth, we can move on to ask, what are numbers? And in what sense is “2 + 2 = 4” meaningful or true? Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Logical Pinpointing attempts to answer this question, partially through the cute device of conversing with an imaginary logician who understands logic perfectly but has no grasp of numbers. As they converse, they define the rules according to which arithmetic works. I’m going to skip the obvious pun due to it being too obvious, and only say that this article was viewed 12,606 times.

#7: Now that we’re curious and understand both the meaning of truth and of numbers, it stands to reason that we should Be Happier than before. Or maybe not, since Klevador’s article does not actually mention “understand obscure philosophy” as a way of getting happier. What it does mention is a big list of other things that have been shown to increase happiness. We first get a list of brief recommendations a few sentences long, and then somewhat longer excerpts of the relevant literature. There’s also a full list of references. Let’s hope that the 14,178 views that this post got made someone happier.

#6: Getting into more controversial territory, lukeprog advises us to Train Philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant. Philosophy is getting increasingly diseased and irrelevant, he argues, and the cure for that involves incorporating more actual science and rationality into the standard philosopher curriculum. If the discussion on Hacker News is any indication, this post got a lot of people incensed, which might help explain why it got 14,334 views.

#5: Now that we got started on calling whole disciplines diseased, let’s look at Diseased disciplines: the strange case of the inverted chart. Morendil’s post begins with a hypothetical example of numerous academics all citing a particular source, which doesn’t actually contain the intended reference… and then the intended source doesn’t actually have the data to back up its claim, either. But that’s just a hypothetical example, right? Well, not really, which helped this post get 17,385 views.

#4: Interestingly, our fourth-most-popular post isn’t actually an original contribution as such. Grognor’s transcript of Richard Feynman on Why Questions discusses the nature of explanations, and the fact that there are some things which simply cannot be adequately explained in terms of pre-existing knowledge. Instead, one has to learn entirely new concepts in order to comprehend them. Hopefully, at least this much was understood on the 18,402 times that the post was viewed.

#3: From physics to neuroscience: kalla724′s Attention control is critical for changing/​increasing/​altering motivation explores the effect of attention on neural plasticity, including the plasticity of motivation. It explains that paying attention to something can increase the amount of brain circuitry dedicated to processing that something, generally by repurposing nearby less-used circuitry. This also has practical applications, such as in helping to explain why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works. That earned the post 21,136 views.

#2: I should be writing this post instead of browsing Facebook. Fortunately, lukeprog has a post titled My Algorithm for Beating Procrastination. Based on the equation of Motivation = (Expectancy * Value) /​ (Impulsiveness * Delay), the algorithm involves first noticing that you are procrastinating, then guessing which part of the motivation equation is causing you the most trouble, and then trying several methods for attacking that specific problem. I guess that a lot of people shared this on Facebook where other procrastinators saw it, because the article got 38,637 views.

#1: And finally… the most read 2012 article on the site was Yvain’s The noncentral fallacy—the worst argument in the world?, where he defined the noncentral fallacy as “X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member.” Which sounds pretty abstract, but the political examples in the post should make it clearer. The politics probably helped contribute to this post’s achievement of 41,932 views.

Most popular all-time posts

In addition to looking at only the posts that were made in 2012, people might be interested in knowing which posts were the most viewed in 2012 overall. The top three ones were all written by lukeprog, and we can see that two of them were closely related to the top-scorers which were written last year.

How to be Happy is LW’s run-away favorite article and was viewed more than every page on LW except the home page and the discussion homepage. That is, 228,747 times! The Best Textbooks on Every Subject comes as a distant second at 98,011 views. And the third one is How to Beat Procrastination, at 66,587 views.

So I guess the take-home message is: people want to be happier, smarter, and more productive. Let’s keep becoming those things in 2013!