Stephen Malina

This is my blog. There are many others like it but this one is mine.

My favorite random internet writing - A tier list

As someone who has and continues to derive tremendous value from writing on the internet, I’ve recently felt an urge to share some of my favorite semi-esoteric internet writing in part so that I have a post to refer back to instead of resending the same articles to friends over and over again. Since many of these articles resist easy categorization, I’m organizing this in the form of a tier list (inspirational examples: 1, 2). Like Richard (link #2), instead of just ranking things by how “good” they are, I’ve ordered them by how influential they were on me.

I intend to update this post over time as I discover / remember new / existing content that warrants addition to one of the lists.

S Tier: Major worldview influences

Fable of the Dragon Tyrant by Nick Bostrom: It’s rare for writing to evoke as much emotion as this post does for me each time I reread it. In it, Bostrom, who ironically is often criticized for seeming overly abstract and unemotional in his more well-known writing, uses a story about a dragon terrorizing a village as an allegory for our current and (hopefully) future approach to aging and death from aging. Not everyone will like this post but I think about it often and, given my view that aging is a scourge that should be eradicated, it easily qualifies for the S tier list.

The Replacing Guilt series by Nate Soares: As someone who struggled with feeling guilt for not doing enough and procrastinating for many years, this post helped me start to (still working on it) reorient my motivation away from a toxic fear of failure and towards achieving things out in the world. Combined with Fable of the Dragon Tyrant, this series played a big role in helping me summon the courage to pivot away from traditional software engineering towards computational biology and machine learning.

Meaningness by David Chapman: Meaningness is sprawling, incomplete, and marvelous but very hard to summarize. I’ll instead cop out and use Chapman’s description:

Better ways of thinking, feeling, and acting—around problems of meaning and meaninglessness; self and society; ethics, purpose, and value.

Similarly, it’s hard for me to point to specific Meaningness posts that influenced my worldview but in Chapman’s terms, I spent a lot of my life bouncing from eternalist solution to eternalist solution and meaningness got me out of it. For this alone, Meaningness deserves a slot in my S tier, but it’s also given me an interesting lens on societal dysfunction and individual development.

A Tier: Keep coming back to

Idea Futures by Robin Hanson: In this article and the linked paper, Robin Hanson proposes employing prediction markets to select policies that in expectation are most likely to achieve our (democratically-selected values). This idea, combined with Cory Doctorow’s Whuffies from Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, inspired our (my and Matt‘s) undergraduate senior thesis – that’s a whole ‘nother story – and showed me that there’s room for novel and elegantly simple ideas that improve institutions.

How Life Sciences Actually Work by Alexey Guzey: Another post in the category of “helped me decide to pivot my career”. After interviewing more than 60 people in the life sciences, Alexey goes into detail on how life sciences funding actually works, whether junior researchers actually have opportunities to guide their own research, and much more.
A common failure mode people seeking to understand a new discipline / institution / field fall prey to is reading a bunch of things or talking to a bunch of people and then prematurely deciding they know the problem and its solution. I’ve definitely seen this in my time as a software engineer and also see it in books / blogs / etc. fairly often. I consider Alexey’s post A tier material because it avoids this failure mode and instead gets at how life sciences research is actually practiced. This is why I am also very excited about Alexey’s new project, New Science.

How to Think by Ed Boyden: Ed Boyden’s one of the scientists I really look up to and this entire series of posts he did on tech review a few years back is underrated in general. In this post, Boyden lays out a list of rules for how to think “in a world where problems are extremely complex, targets are continuously moving, and our brains often seem like nodes of enormous networks”. The post is short enough that you should just go read it, but as a sneak peek, my favorite three rules are:

1. Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you’re reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff. That way, you will always aim towards understanding things at a resolution fine enough for you to be creative.
8. As you develop skills, write up best-practices protocols. That way, when you return to something you’ve done, you can make it routine. Instinctualize conscious control.
9. Document everything obsessively. If you don’t record it, it may never have an impact on the world. Much of creativity is learning how to see things properly. Most profound scientific discoveries are surprises. But if you don’t document and digest every observation and learn to trust your eyes, then you will not know when you have seen a surprise.

Augmenting Long-term Memory and Using spaced repetition systems to see through a piece of mathematics by Michael Nielsen: First of all, these posts inspired my adoption of Anki, which has helped me retain more and, as Andy Matuschak often emphasizes, enjoy learning more. Second, in particular the latter post, gave me insight into how Michael, who’s known for writing the seminal Quantum Computing textbook and has an amazing ability to enter and contribute to new fields, thinks about learning new things.

Becoming Unusually Truth-Oriented by Abram Demski: Abram describes a few practices which he views as unified under the umbrella of helping one maintain a good relationship with the truth. I have experimented with a few of the practices Abram suggests – remembering dreams, being patient with the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, using the inner simulator, and following the natural felt sense thread of ideas – and they’ve been helpful for me. As with the Boyden post, I also just like to see more people sharing strategies they use for thinking real good.

On really trying by Gwern: I could easily include more Gwern writing on this list, but I especially like this and the next post because both have influenced my thinking and seem less well known than some of the other Gwern classics. In On really trying, Gwern documents a bunch of examples illustrating how people seem to have some sort of reserve of intellectual / cognitive effort that gets engaged by things like realizing something is possible or having stakes raised to a certain level. I’ve included this post in the A tier because the idea of this reserve has influenced my thinking about human capabilities and is something I think about frequently.

Cat Psychology & Domestication: Are We Good Cat Owners? (also) by Gwern: Convinced me to get a cat and a Ragamuffin specifically, ‘nuff said! More seriously, a fascinating deep dive into the history of cat domestication and cat psychology.

I can tolerate anything but the outgroup by Scott Alexander: Similar to with Gwern, I could write an entire post just compiling a best of Scott Alexander post. I can tolerate anything but the outgroup explores puzzles around tolerance and filter bubbles. As a sneak peek, the most memorable section seeks to understand why people often have stronger emotional reactions to groups with whom they disagree on relatively minor things than to groups with whom their worldviews fundamentally conflicts.

The ideas in this post inform my views on why politics can be so toxic and have helped me better understand disagreements I’ve observed or been a part of.

Thoughts on Meaning and Writing by Dormin: I’m a big fan of Dormin’s writing in general but to someone else who’s familiar with the Dormin corpus, my choice of this post might seem surprising, so I’m going to try and justify it. One theme that’s latent in Dormin’s various posts – the Napoleon one, the Genghis Khan one – is that historically important figures, yes even the ones you may not like, tend to have done a lot of stuff. In this post, Dormin follows the thread of this idea into a discussion of why he writes, but ironically that’s not what stuck with me about this post. Instead, the thing that stuck with me and keeps me coming back to this post is the question of whether there’s some latent factor driving this commonality amongst historically notable people and if so what is it? Is it some general factor of energy? Is it a certain Will to Power? Is it a success breeds success effect? Pondering this question is part of what keeps me reading biographies and learning about notable figures in various fields, earning this post a place on my A tier list.

B Tier: Good enough to read multiple times

Reality is surprisingly detailed by John Salvatier: This post crystallizes an intuition I’ve built up through spending years as a software engineer but then conveyed it more eloquently and with a better example than I could’ve come up with.

Yoda timers and speed by Xiaoyu He: I’m not a very patient person, so having a post give me permission to embrace my impatience while giving me strategies for channeling it was helpful.

Fast by Patrick Collison: A list of projects and products that have been built / completed quickly. A good reminder that the biggest limit on how quickly we can accomplish our goals is often a function of the limitations we accept rather than physical laws.

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