60 Comments

With regard to your point #10 ("Expecting people to follow written instructions"): I used to work from home, preparing income tax returns. I would often need to get additional information from clients. I found that if I emailed a client and asked multiple questions, I would get a reply that answered just the first question – or sometimes just the last question. Very frustrating.

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Yes, hence the rule "only one question per email." Since adopting that, I've had a lot better results in getting the responses I want.

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"Solving supply shortages with consumption subsidies"

This.

Also, this one:

"Rewriting your code from scratch." has a Wikipedia page devoted to it: The Second System Syndrome.

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This is very good indeed and led me to the Tunnel Guy. Thank you, John.

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Also! Some things I originally planned to include in this list but found to my surprise they do seem to work at least somewhat:

- Vitamin D supplementation

- Citronella

- Microwaving stuff without liquid water (as long as there are polar molecules or maybe charged ions)

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Two surprising things that seem to work: My wife says that drinking kombucha helps with her gastric issues. It's possible that the placebo effect is responsible here, but she tested a bunch of other treatments, both conventional and alternative, and none of them seemed to help. Another thing I've noticed is that if I have persistent hiccups, I can stop them by filling a glass half full of water, putting a paper towel over the top, and then sucking a few gulps of water through the paper towel. This works remarkably well.

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What is the working theory behind why singular supplements like vitamin D work, but multivitamins do not?

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To be fair, the evidence for vitamin D is quite weak (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_D#Mortality,_all-causes). Just not quite weak enough for me to be comfortable declaring it totally doesn't work!

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Probably because you can't control for other variables.

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Do you include iron supplements here? They seem to work incredibly well, to treat anemia, in pregnancy, and for my own tiredness (I'm vegetarian but did not grow up that way, mostly good now but sometimes mess up my diet).

Even low dose interventions seem to meaningfully pass through:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10255632/

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I haven't thought long on vitamin D bit read this the other day on hacker news, an aggregate site. To summarize: vitamin D isn't "completely harmless" because it's a vitamin and can possibly have severe side effects in high doses. https://www.devaboone.com/post/vitamin-d-part-2-shannon-s-story

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Re: non-fiction books

1. Would be interesting to consider effects of important books before and after the Internet. My life/mind was actually changed when I was young in the 20th century and read Orientalism, Room of One’s Own, Diet for a Small Planet.

Perhaps the powerful ideas in those books now are conveyed in a parade of TikToks that have the same impact?

2. Benefit of nonfiction is to absorb the whole schema rather than the specifics, almost like how much procedural knowledge you learn in school that you don’t remember learning but are essential to know. Just as you don’t say (let’s hope), what a waste elementary school was, I can’t remember what I did all day there.

But the pile on of details as in The Power Broker constructs an understanding that you leave the book with. You may not remember the names of the highways and such but The Power Broker leaves you understanding how important cohesive neighborhoods are to the life of a city and what a lasting destructive effect racism in city planning continues to have many decades later. A detail rich text has you living and absorbing understanding rather than consciously accruing it.

3. Importance of first hand voices bearing witness and telling you how it was: Frederick Douglass memoir, Anne Frank, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz’. At the very least, the undeniable humanity of those voices have a lasting impact on readers. But maybe memoirs is not what you meant by non-fiction.

Thanks for freeing me from the worry that I am writing too many words.

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Yes, I have a hard disagree on the nonfiction point. Loads of books have changed my life and the way I think about things (but then again, I'm a weirdo who is very good at following simple written instructions and change my mind in response to evidence).

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Oh, number 13! I write a LOT of instructional text as part of my job. I have come to understand this as text that I can someday point to in court..."see! I TOLD him not do that here, and here and here., on this legal document." I think of this as liability leverage literature. Sigh...🤷‍♂️

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I think "CYA instructions" benefit both parties. For example, my gym has a rule that you are required to wear shoes. I frequently take my shoes off at the gym, as do many other people, and nobody ever tells us to put our shoes back on. But if I drop a weight on my foot or something, I have no grounds to sue the gym because they did have a rule that I was supposed to wear shoes. So I get to deadlift in my socks and the gym gets to not get sued. Everybody wins.

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I think that this is all rather brilliant

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For number 28, isn’t this assuming you don’t weigh yourself? Every person I know who tracks calories also weighs themselves and adjusts their calorie targets down if they stop losing weight. The best calorie trackers will do this automatically if you put your weight in consistently

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Yeah, I think this is a good point. Maybe the way I'd put it is that even if we can't measure calories accurately, we also don't really know what our steady-state caloric intake would be anyway. It's true that as long as you measure calories consistently (even if inaccurately) and track your weight, you should be able to dial in how many calories (as you measure) lead to steady-state weight.

What I find so interesting about this is that so many people are able to maintain steady weights *without* tracking calories. This seems like strong evidence (to me) for the "thermostatic equilibrium" idea of weight. If you aren't tracking calories and even tiny variations would lead to huge weight gain, then somehow your body "knows" how many calories it needs and it's making you eat that much.

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There's some feedback between intake and expenditure. If you ate a small number of extra calories a day, you would not perpetually gain weight (as you seemed to suggest). Your body would likely upregulate activity in various ways (e.g. NEAT) to compensate. If you eat enough, obviously you will gain weight, but the more weight you gain the more you need to eat to gain at the same rate.

There's a similar effect on the expenditure side, where increasing exercise results in some compensation in other ways to partially (but not completely) offset the increase (this is the 'constrained energy model').

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First, engaging post, thank you.

Schrödinger's cat is out of the bag with “…somehow the body knows…”. Putting several of these in a Vitamix, Yogic thinking says the body has its own karma and will go through it WITH OR WITHOUT US. The illusion/joke is there’s someone here doing something. To be a good instruction, already too much said.

This is vote canceling speaking and you know how maddening it is to be muted without consent. So to quote a Star Trek line “There are ghosts, ghosts are real!” (All Our Yesterdays)

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Calorie counting can work. It works for me, but not like that. That kind of example is always thrown out as the reductio ad absurdum. Of course it doesn't work like that. But most people over-estimate how many calories they burn in exercise by multiple times. And most people underestimate the calories of what they consume, also by many times. So using some kind of app to track your activity and intake can get you way, way closer than you would be just by winging it. I don't worry about extreme accuracy. I set a goal and do my general best at counting, and try to stay in range. If I do that, I totally lose or maintain weight (whichever I'm aiming for).

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Agreed; I only needed to calorie count for a short period (a few months) in order to build up the intuition around food and exercise that I could then carry forward indefinitely

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Good list.

I think when it comes to nonfiction books, one has to keep in mind that most aren't good. That is to say, it isn't that the nonfiction book doesn't work as a form, but that most people are bad at it and have nothing to say. There are definitely cases where they work amazingly well and change your life and how you see things.

Also, when it comes to religions without God, Buddhism might want a word with you. Although we tend to like religions with a human face as it were, you have to stretch the definition of "gods" pretty far to cover all of those without a specific pantheon.

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Yes, no one will ever convince me that "What is Mathematics?" by Courant and Robbins does not "work"!

Regarding Buddhism, that's a strong point. But I wonder—while Buddhism avoids the G word, it does seem to make some pretty strong metaphysical claims. I know there are various attempts to sort of do "Buddhism without Belief" but those don't seem too successful, yet. Maybe a more defensible claim would be that "organized religion without strong metaphysical beliefs" doesn't work?

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I feel I never push Adam Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments" enough when it comes to non-fiction. "The Origin of Wealth" by Eric Beinhocker is also good, for that matter.

I think the claim about strong metaphysical beliefs is a much better one. After all, the whole point of religion is to make claims about how the universe works and what our place is in it, our duties to ourselves and others, etc. I think there is probably a fuzzy line between what we would call a philosophical system and religion, and usually things are clearly religions once you include a god figure, but there definitely seem to be religions that don't require the characters of gods yet function on strong claims about how the world and universe work, generally in non-objectively demonstrateable ways.

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With acupuncture and multivitamins, it's a case by case basis. Every holistic practice has people who don't know what they're doing, just like many doctors in Western medicine (and every field, for that matter). Just because a handful of people exploit or misinterpret or misuse these things doesn't mean they never work. I understand skepticism, but it can be harmful to make generalizations about old wisdom and medicine that has historically helped many people.

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"Communism"

Random blogger > Marx

Right... that's your argument. Nice post though.

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I concede that I'm probably not as smart as Marx, but I have advantage over him in that I know what happens in the 20th century.

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Who are you gonna believe, Marx or your own lying eyes? We've tried it plenty of times. There's no further argument needed.

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Wow, so much good stuff.

But I would argue against your nonfiction book contention, at least for me. Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal" and "Why Buddhism Is True" and Robert Sapolsky's "Determined" - life changing.

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I completely agree with #36, but Apollo 11 is an illustration of the principle, not a counterexample as you posed it. All the previous Apollo missions -- and Gemini and Mercury missions -- were steps in solving problems and figuring out what would be required for a successful Apollo 11.

A "trying to figure it all out ahead of time" approach would have had engineers plan and design and build prototypes in a lab for 7 years without launching a single actual space mission, then build a big rocket based on their theories, and try to launch it hoping that it would work. (Of course, it would probably have blown up.)

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#35 is something I can attest is false in at least two situations. One, when any attempt to improve your existing code makes it worse. You're trying to get to the top of the mountain, but any path leads to a dead end. The only way to actually get there is to go back to the bottom and go a different way, or just be happy with the point you've reached.

Or two: fixing someone else's code. Sometimes every attempt to improve someone else's absolute garbage just reinforces the problems, cementing them into deeper structures, like a bone healing incorrectly.

This can, and often do, overlap.

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I think give Roam and Tana another try daily for a month. That'll help you use Zettlekasten notetaking tools. I'm using Obsidian a bit now and can understand why starting there would make high failure rates likely. It also helps to have a reason to use it (e.g. course notes, research notes) and collaboration in a multi-user workspace for socializing.

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I’ve been using Anki for non-fiction books and I think it’s the way to go.

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