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Small-Scale Question Sunday for June 2, 2024

Do you have a dumb question that you're kind of embarrassed to ask in the main thread? Is there something you're just not sure about?

This is your opportunity to ask questions. No question too simple or too silly.

Culture war topics are accepted, and proposals for a better intro post are appreciated.

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Hi, I found this place through Tracing WoodGrains and Blocked and Reported. Is there a primer on how this community started and its ideological stance?

I'll second the other comments.

Regarding ideology, we're generally on the right, but there are many stripes of that here, and being on the right is by no means required, though it'll help you get fewer downvotes.

If you want to see high-quality comments, there's a monthly thread. The largest amount of conversation goes on in the weekly culture war thread.

Welcome!

The other responses gave our history. For an ethos, I’ll point to the top of the Culture War thread:

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is.

In other words, we like arguing about things, and we’ve attempted to set up community norms which allow polite, even constructive arguments.

There was a community of people who called themselves "rationalists", centered on a website called "LessWrong". They were trying to figure out how to be less wrong, how to overcome bias and get at the truth. The community coalesced around a couple of prolific bloggers, one of whom was Scott Alexander. Scott was quite an excellent writer and had his own blog, Slate Star Codex, which went moderately viral during the 2014-2015 Social Justice brew-up online. He wrote a string of quite excellent essays attempting to analyze, critique or occasionally defend Social Justice ideas, and built up a thriving community of commenters interested in the subject. He attempted to keep culture war discussion contained to weekly threads created for the topic, and thus the culture war thread was born.

His popularity got high enough that his commenters started a subreddit, /r/slatestarcodex, but as the debate around Social Justice ideology got more and more acrimonious, Scott started getting more and more pushback from SJ proponents for his free speech stance. Eventually, he stopped hosting culture war discussion, and told everyone to take it to the subreddit. This did not succeed in insulating him from SJ disapproval, and he suffered a pretty serious harassment campaign targeting his career and personal life. The mods on the subreddit quickly decided that they didn't want the heat either, and likewise banned discussion of the culture war outside SJ orthodoxy, so the thread moved to /r/themotte. SJ disapproval of the Motte's existence succeeded in drawing attention from the Reddit admins, who made it clear through their actions that they would not allow the thread to operate according to its established principles, so we took the leap and moved off-site to hear. Along the way we've had other communities split off as well, but this remains the most active descendent community by a fair margin.

This place is not supposed to have an ideological stance, other than free speech and good communication. The goal is to facilitate and encourage meaningful communication between people with very different values and points of view, and the rules are designed and enforced with this purpose in mind. Moderation is for tone, not for content; we aim to not care what anyone says, only how they say it. The community leans pretty strongly anti-social justice, as many of the pro-social-justice posters the community had got frustrated and left one way or the other over the succession of moves.

Any other questions?

Someone else may give you the longer history, but very short version:

Most old-timers here originally posted on Scott Alexander's Slate Star Codex subreddit. For that reason, we're sometimes considered part of the LessWrong/rationalist community, though that's not really accurate because most people here don't consider themselves rationalists.

SSC used to have a "culture war" thread for talking about culture war topics. Eventually SA requested that this thread be removed from SSC because he didn't want to be associated with it. (This was before his doxxing by the NYT.) So some people created a new subreddit called themotte which was mostly to continue talking about culture war topics. (There were a few other spinoff communities, some for those who thought The Motte was too right-wing, and some for those who thought it wasn't right-wing enough.)

Over time, we kept getting warnings from reddit admins about our culture war topics (specifically, for not banning people/allowing "hate speech") and we concluded we'd be booted off of reddit sooner or later, as so many other subreddits had for posting unacceptable views, so we (mostly @ZorbaTHut) created this community as an independent site which would be a lot harder to "cancel." We have inevitably lost a lot of members after leaving reddit, and with the passage of time, but it's still lurching along.

As for "ideological stance," we don't have an explicit one. Very broadly, the majority of people here would probably identify as being "anti-woke," but this ranges from disaffected Blue tribers who still consider themselves liberals and vote Democrat to very conservative Red tribers who are MAGA Christian Republicans. (And of course non-Americans with less American political views.) Because we police tone but not content (i.e., you can express almost any view, as long as you do it politely), we have attracted a few people with fringe views (e.g., Holocaust denial, abolishing the age of consent, white nationalism, etc.) This has led many critics to conclude we are "fascists" or the like, but in reality, we have a tiny number of fascists and a much larger number of people willing to tolerate the presence of fascists as long as they can be civil.

What are the reason against passing laws that would reward dating apps for every couple that marries as a result of them?

There are of course many ways that this could be abused, but i yhink especially because this would be directed at a large organization it would be easier to limit its abuse in a eay that for example rewarding couples wouldnt.

So why not? Wouldnt that solve onr of the large incentive misalignments that exist in the market currently?

One argument is that various insular communities would just game the system by requiring marrying couples to ‘technically’ meet via some app right before marriage and then pocket the grant. The government would therefore merely be paying for people who are already going to get married to marry. For that matter Tinder, Bumble etc would instantly introduce a cashback feature whereby they split the payment with you if you technically marry after meeting the app. Many an unmarried couple could then join the app, “meet” through it (won’t take much swiping in most places) and claim the money after marriage.

The grant is for the app, not for the users.

The apps giving user cashbacks could of course be made illegal/outside the contract.

What are the best follows on Twitter?

I only check every so often on nitter, but I'll look at eigenrobot, razibkhan, lymanstoneky, wanyeburnett, maybe atabarrok.

@Howlingmutant0

On psychology research: How do I find if there have ever been studies done to see how much people are primed to agree with survey questions, regardless of the context?

Example: Consider the "Strongly Disagree" to "Strongly Agree" scale of questioning. Suppose a group of people are randomly assigned a list of questions that ask the same content from two different directions. "I feel safe if I park near the front of an ATM" versus "I feel unsafe if I park near the front of an ATM". Two questions with opposite directions. If people are rational on average, you would expect the amount that agree with the first question would roughly equal the amount that disagree with the second question.

I suspect that people are not rational about these questions. I suspect that people are simply more likely agree with whatever statement you put in front of them, positive or negative. I also suspect that the tendency to agree with the statement may be skewed by the demographics of people taking the survey: socioeconomic, age, race.

I have no proof of this hunch, and it feels kinda Dark Arts to even suggest this is probable. Do we know if there is ongoing research to confirm or deny this claim?

What about moderation bias? Are there groups of people that are much more likely to answer "strongly agree" or "strongly disagree" to any question vs answering "agree" or "disagree"? I find that the larger the scale, the more likely I am to navigate towards its center.

It's been a visible technique in psych inventories I've taken to invert ~half the Likert questions-scale questions, which seems like correcting for precisely this type of bias. I haven't seen it in political polls I've taken. I infer that it's a Best Practice for those who really care about such things, or at worst net-zero cargo-culting, and that invoking this bias is a useful technique for those who want to engineer a biased survey.

I don't have any research cites on hand.... but then again, who needs research when you have Yes, Minister?

There's a bias towards the left-most response in likert scales, too (undoubtedly contingent on writing direction)

https://sci-hub.se/https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pfi.21800

This is called acquiescence bias.

From a cursory googling I found this study comparing a few variables with how much acquiescence bias people from 20 European countries have. Age didn't affect the result much, but "respondents with a low degree of conservatism and with a lower level of educational attainment exhibited a higher tendency toward acquiescent responding"*.

* Though I am a little confused here - the table above that quote in the study has "education" negatively correlated with acquiescent responding, but "conservatism" positive. Was there an error here or am I not reading something correctly...?

I recently discovered that I am what many would call a "disheartened idealist". I am very much upset about the lack of kindness and charity in American politics, and I wish very much that I had the power to change it for the better, but I also know that no one would pay attention to my activism or would dismiss my attempts as distractions.

What would you all suggest that I do with these feelings, as an idealist or otherwise?

First, remember that activism is essentially about telling people what to do, and spoiler alert, they usually already know why they do what they do. In 90% of cases, the activist simply lacks the in-depth understanding of a matter, and in 9% of cases you tell them something they already are trying to do, without helping them achieve the desired state. Tbh, 1% is probably even an overestimate of "good" activism.

On the positive side, there's a few avenues for you; The easiest and simplest is to involve yourself in local nonprofits/charity/social groups that fit with your ideals. You will probably still have to put up with some inefficiencies and value-disagreement, but the advantage of locality is that the differences are in plain sight, so you can quickly update and choose accordingly. For global charity, it can take years to realize just how far their behaviour is from your ideals.

The next, higher risk and higher payoff, would be to work in a field that is intrinsically about helping people/improving the world, such as medicine, police, applied research, ... you will still have plenty of disagreements, but if you go up far enough you generally get a reasonably long leash to do what you want, with some caveats.

The highest risk option, but also the most realistic way to actually change the world, is starting a company on something you believe in. You might be surprised, but from my experience most start-up founders are what you term "disheartened idealists". People always imagine some hardcore capitalist cutthroat, but those are actually better served by staying in a big company and climb the corporate ladder, or in the government. The modal start-up founder has already successfully worked in a field for a while, got frustrated with the way things are done, possibly tried to change the system from within but realized it's a fool's errand, and then vouched to show everyone that it can be done better.

Remember that you are an individual, and that the capacity for individuals to change massive complex systems is very limited. Focus on relationships around you; if you have few meaningful relationships, aim to change that first. Find a way to involve yourself in the lives of people around you in a way that serves your ideals. Try to remember that the large-scale systems people describe as "American Politics" are at least partially a collective hallucination, that much of their content is hypothetical or strictly theoretical. If possible, figure out which part falls into that category, and disregard it entirely. Always remember that at least the people immediately around you are individuals, not instances of a tribal collective.

The new nuclear Renaissance! Anyone know of any good writeups comparing and contrasting the various new reactors/companies in development, i.e. Terrapower vs. NuScale vs. eVinci?

Mahaffey's Atomic Accidents is a little outdated (2014), but has a small chapter on NuScale, Gen4 Energy (then Hyperion), mPower, and Toshiba's 4S reactors, along with a handful of other also-runs. Most other summaries I've seen tend to be little more than stats breakdowns.

TerraPower is scheduled to be one of the first actually running (2027-2030, if you believe it, which you shouldn't), but it also straddles the line between small reactor and conventionally sized plant, neither modular, and then throws in sodium testbed on top. And I'm really skeptical of molten sodium -- I get the benefits, but the engineering and political problems are vast. Maybe if it's 'really' more of a research/production reactor, with the power a pleasant side effect?

NuScale's VOYGR is certified (kinda, only for the biggest config), and it's the most 'conventional, but smaller' reactor: make a reactor that can handle 100% of decay heat with a complete coolant loop failure, and put a pin it that design. On the downside, they got hit with skyrocketing costs and high uncertainty for demand, and their planned CFPB got 'indefinitely delayed' at the end of last year as a result. Also not a huge fan of the short fuel replacement cycle, at 18 months, both for non-proliferation reasons and because it even with individual modules offset in time, that cuts into the 'proven, reliable baseload' framework that nuclear plants excel at.

eVinci is theoretically promising and I like the combination of a very-small-reactor and some actual manufacturing expertise of previous nuclear plants (uh, forty years ago; they literally had to give up the last couple they tried), along with actually considering a use for all the 'waste' heat, but it's so early in the process that it's hard to say much at all -- history is filled with excellent technical briefings that didn't survive first contact with the NRC. I'd love the idea of a 5MW-scale microreactor that's completely passive, but even if the whole heat pipe system works, I just can't see the NRC letting it live without years of test operations, and even then probably still requiring some daily human oversight.

X-Energy's Xe-100s are planned for a test site in Texas and a (not hugely plausible) Washington State one, no real timeline yet. Abbot is pushing Texas hard, and the manufacturing demand could absolutely benefit from it. They're another one that's clever -- helium-gas-cooled pebble-bed reactor with live refueling capabilities -- but I'm not sure if they're too clever, and in particular the cost (and losses) of helium leave me a little nervous about how financially viable they might be. (Also, absolutely awful name.)

Oklo's Aurora is a tiny (2-15MW) sodium-cooled fast microreactor. They've not been laughed out of the building by the NRC yet and even have multiple sites planned, but they've had license applications denied using "novel, two-step process" (though things have been going better since). I like the idea of a fully passive sodium reactor more than a pumped-coolant one, but the tiny size and Chemistry Experiment refueling leaves a lot of potential reliability problems.

I have read that hand gestures aid memory / cognition. I also recall reading that medieval art and Roman oratory theorists developed systems of hand gestures. Does anyone know if there has been a more scientific development on the use of hand gestures (and general embodied cognition) for cognition?

It’s a little funny to think that there could be gains to learning and remembering with the use of hand gestures, something literally everyone has at the palm of their hands, but no one has like… developed anything systematic with it. Like we just haven’t fully grasped the application.

Could writing be classed as a hand gesture? I find that notes I've taken by hand are stickier than notes taken by typing.

I believe there's a decent amount of literature in the field of linguistics about sign languages and their relation to visuospatial intelligence and memory, but I don't know the details. I've tried my hand (pun intended) at learning ASL, but never got far enough to truly appreciate the differences between it and spoken languages.

Can anyone help me recall/locate an essay written around 2018-2020 which had as its thesis the idea that when the ideas circulating around the Social Justice movement developed a name that could identify the ideology readily to the general public (and one more value neutral than Social Justice / SJW), then the Social Justice ideology could be effectively counteracted? I remember this circulating prior to Woke becoming the common term for the ideology.

===============

EDIT: The essay in question is here

That's terribly vague, but now it's nagging at me too. let me know if you find it?

Here it is. it's an essay from February 2020 by James Lindsay in which he is suggesting terming the phenomenon Critical Social Justice. It's interesting that in the essay he uses the word 'Woke' once, and in the comments a user suggests referring to the ideology as 'Wokeness' only to do be dismissed.

I thought it might be him, but dismissed it because of "2018"

Incredible that wokeness is such a new term. The language treadmill is running in overdrive now.

As a noun, or as a widely known word it might be new, but I'm sure that "woke" existed already as pejorative appropriated from the congratulatory self-identification around the period of GamerGate to Trump's campaign.

I distinctly remember "woke" being used as a positive self-description among campus lefties at least as early as ~2010.

Earlier than your stated timeframe but Scott's "Can It Be Wrong to Crystallize Patterns?" might be relevant.

Thanks for the suggestion, but it wasn't Freddie. I remember it being by someone further to the right (not necessarily a conservative or someone further right, either).

So, what are you reading?

I’m on Gardiner’s Athletics of the Ancient World, after reading the paper Mens Sana in Corpore Sano? Body and Mind in Ancient Greece by Young which was in part very critical of him. Still going through Reagan in His Own Hand and The Future Does Not Compute.

At the beach I read Cheated about the Astros sign stealing scandal in MLB. One of the prime movers, who has been more or less shuffled out of the game as a result, was Carlos Beltran, and the book goes into his life story a lot. Like a lot of Latino players, he was signed into American pro-baseball with very limited English skills, and Beltran has always been noted as a smart, cerebral player. He was frustrated by his lack of ability to communicate, he felt like he had a head full of thoughts and no ability to tell them to anyone in the clubhouse. At best, minor league clubs might have one bilingual coach per team, and that was purely a matter of luck. 17-19 year old Caribbean players were trying to learn English on the fly, while also adapting to living in a new country, and learning the professional game.

Beltran always experienced this as a personal insult, hated that he couldn't speak to his teammates and communicate his ideas. It weighed on him every day in the minor leagues, he suffered under the shame of not being able to speak clearly. He hated it, he wanted to be able to speak and he couldn't. It was a black mark on his whole life at the time. As a star player and popular union rep later, he lead the way to instituting a policy by which every team kept a Spanish Language Interpreter on staff, the way they had for Japanese players customarily for years before. Beltran was proud of the policy, sometimes considered it his greatest accomplishment as a player.

And what struck me about the story was this: Beltran's story wasn't so extraordinary. Thousands of young Latino players had come up in the minors, as teenagers, with no English skills. And they struggled like Beltran did. And probably a hundred of them* had done as well as Beltran had in the majors in terms of success, prominence, leadership. And yet most of them hadn't taken not knowing English as a personal affront. They didn't experience it as a real problem that needed to be solved. It took Carlos Beltran to do that.

And I've been thinking about why that is. What is it that makes one person experience an affront to their race/ethnicity/group as a personal suffering, and another it slides right off? What makes one white man watch Cheerio commercials through gritted teeth, and another laugh knowingly and figure things are fine? What makes one black guy just try to live his life and get ahead, and another view every outside force as a microaggression? What makes one Latino switch hitting centerfielder say "This is an outrage" and another say "Eh, whatever?"

I'm working my way through Chris Isherwood's Berlin Stories, the book that the play Cabaret was based on. I highly recommend it. It's a really fun book, filled with not a little political insight into Weimar Germany, but mostly hijinks and picaresque. Incredibly gay, but then so were the Nazis at the outset, so plus one for pride month I guess.

I also started, but for obscure reasons am not yet finishing, Path Lit By Lightning. For a variety of personal reasons, I've always known of the stories of Jim Thorpe, so when I saw this get so many glowing reviews, I figured I'd get to it. I can see why it was so well reviewed: it's a real four quadrant book. It's an old sports book, like Monsters of the Midway or 61 or Bottom of the 34th, which is going to appeal to dudes. It's telling a progressive story of racial oppression and overcoming bias, so it's got the liberal bent. It's an investigative reporting into revisionist history with quality research going into it. And it's just a good personal biography of an interesting guy. Really works from any angle. One thing I didn't realize from prior stories: the reason Carlisle Indian School consistently beat Ivy League football teams was partly the talent and spirit of the players, partly the coaching of legend Pop Warner, but also partly that Carlisle wasn't really a college so much as a combination high school/college/vocational/finishing school with no real set curriculum or year of graduation. A lot of their players were in their mid-20s, or had unclear birth certificates. So while the Ivies were fielding 18-22 year olds, Carlisle was rolling out grown-ass 25-26 year olds. Those are important years, from a football perspective.

*Beltran is essentially 100th overall in career bWar, but he never had great playoff success or was the best player on great teams, so I think a lot of other Latinos like El Duque or Aroldis Chapman might deserve greater career credit even if they were lesser players on an overall career basis.

As a Cards fan, Beltrán occupies a funny place in the organization's history. St. Louis won the World Series in 2006, beating the Detroit Tigers in 5 games. To get there they had a grueling NLCS against the Mets, the team that figures most prominent in Beltrán's playing career. Game 7, bottom of the 9th, Cards up 3-1. Then-rookie-now-just-retired Adam Wainwright is in to close out the game for the birds.

"Uncle Charlie", Waino's other nickname from an old-time term for the curveball his career was known for, sees José Valentín first. Valentín is batting 7th, this is the weakest part of the Mets' lineup and the dream set for a quick save. Valentín has a .271 average, a .330 on-base percentage and in the regular season just shy of twice as many strikeouts as walks. He's gonna swing, and he does on the first pitch, a fastball, lofting a ball into center for a single. Pressure's on.

Endy Chávez is next. Chávez by profile is the same story as Valentín, just a little better. .306 average, .338 OBP, 24 walks vs 44 strikeouts. He'd been weak in the playoffs in hitting but among outfielders that year only Andruw Jones exceeded him in Defensive Runs Saved, Jones' 24 to Chávez' 22, so this a guy you keep in the lineup even if he's not hitting that well. But he does there: Waino throws the curveball, no chance he's giving up back to back hits, so it's a ball, curveball again for a called strike, and with the batter off-balance common thought says cross 'em blind from breaking to the heat, fastball again, but Chávez is ready, line drive to left field, runners on first and second.

Cliff Floyd pinch hits, strikes out looking on 6 pitches. José Reyes next, lines out on 5 pitches. Paul Lo Duca comes up and gets pitched around with a walk on 5 pitches. Now it's Beltrán's turn. Game 7, Bottom 9th, 2 outs, bases loaded, just one good single ties it, and at the plate is one of the all-time great postseason hitters, what happens? Strike, foul, Uncle Charlie catches him looking. Cards go to the World Series, trouncing the Tigers including then-rookie Justin Verlander.

Cards win the World Series again in 2011. Tony La Russa retires, Albert Pujols goes to the Angels, Mike Matheny comes in and looking for something to help cover the loss of La Máquina, John Mozeliak (*spit*) signs one Carlos Beltrán. Despite losing the greatest Cardinal since Stan Musial, the Cards had power. My all-time favorite Cardinal in Matt Holliday was always a basher, Allen Craig who posted an insane, #2-all-time .454 average with runners in scoring position in 2013, shoulda-been-2013-MVP Matt Carpenter, defensive GOAT Yadier Molina whose offense peaked in 2012/2013, and Beltrán. In his two years he had 56 homers, slashing .283/.343/.493 and was good for 6.2 bWAR. For the unfamiliar, you can interpret this as "very good." He was exactly what the Cards needed and the fans took to him quickly, myself definitely included. Big fan, even today. Cards don't sign him in 2014, he spends three years with the Yankees, a year with the Rangers, and his final playing year with the Astros as they win their first World Series in 2017.

Then it's 2019, Astros are again in the World Series against the Nationals. The sign-stealing scandal breaks and soon enough all fingers point at Beltrán. He's one of the very few people who received punishment. The Astros "lost" $5 million, yeah they probably made a billion off the ring; they lost first and second round picks in '20 and '21, 30/30 GMs would trade two years of all picks for a ring; Jeff Luhnow, AJ Hinch and Alex Cora got suspended for 2020, lol lmao, appropriate those ended up being fake suspensions for a fake season; and Beltrán, who had just been tapped as manager for the Mets, stepped down.

At first I thought MLB was depressingly cavalier about the cheating. It fit with my model of MLB and the owners as a bunch of shitheads hellbent on ruining the point of the sport, but something wasn't sitting right, and then it started to break--oh, the Red Sox were cheating, as were the Yankees, and so, it seems, were a lot of teams in baseball. I don't think the Cards or Cubs were but I think an uncomfortable number of teams were cheating, and while the Astros' trash cans may have been the most glaring example, I think of it as a Lance Armstrong situation. Most teams were cheating, the Astros were the strongest, so they got the most out of it. It also lines up with the lack of real punishment: MLB considered it, the Astros threatened lawsuits that would reveal 10+ teams were cheating, and so they agreed on a slap on the wrist for being the ones who got caught, but nothing lasting.

Also the Astros beat the Dodgers in 2017, that's a W for fans of 29 teams. And maybe I want to rationalize the flaws of the guy I still like, but the question "Why didn't the Dodgers' astronomically wealthy ownership raise hell?" sure is answered neatly with "They were cheating too."

Martino goes into this extensively in the book. While a lot of other teams were engaged in sign-stealing using replay rooms that bordered on illegal, but concludes that none were as extensive or as team-supported as the Astros.

I do think the Astros were also disliked for hitting "betray" on Baseball culture in other ways. The Lastros era was the worst MLB example of open tanking, which is a disease on American sport which I truly hope teams adopt the obvious solutions to solve.

On the subject of cheated, that Nats/Astros series was an excellent world series.

HOWIE DO

People who hide posting history in profile, why? This is anyway visible to google, can be crawled etc.

I have a lot of enemies.

I like being more open about my life when posting but don't want to make it too easy to connect enough breadcrumbs to dox me. I was extremely hesitant to share personal stories in /r/themotte because of my profile's ties to my location.

I'm pretty dox-able by people who know me and don't want to make that easier.

I know someone personally who reads some of the online personalities that get discussed here. I don’t think it’s likely, but one day he could show up here, maybe read one of my comments in, say, the wellness thread, and think, “Hey that sounds like a guy I know.”

He could then click on my profile, confirm other details I’ve mentioned in other comments, conclude it’s me, and then further be treated to various flavors of my crimethink that I’ve never shared with him.

If he wants to do some nerdy computer stuff to sniff out a potential irl acquaintance, I guess he can, but he would be much more likely to determine that it wasn’t worth it.

I think it’s to new users’ detriment that they can’t use this feature. It’s a completely unnecessary risk, even if you don’t think it’s very risk.

If you’re SecureSignals, how easy do you want it to be for one HR grunt to see everything you’ve written on here?

Because in internet forum culture there is a long tradition of looking up one’s interlocutor’s posting history and throwing some personal insults in. Nobody is under the impression that hiding it deletes it from the internet, but it does make it harder for someone you’re discussing something with to dig up another post they disagree with from 8 months ago and criticize you based on that, or decide to dislike you because of it.

I'm posting this in Small-Scale because I don't want to get too weighty on this, but rather commiserate with other smart people about how difficult it is to appreciate how not smart the rest of the world is. Or at least convince you that it's freaking ugly out there.

A little bit of background first.

I consider myself retarded and slow and like I make lots of easy stupid mistakes. My brain feels really noisy and like I would regularly kill people if I worked in an ER or intensive care because I'd mis-dose them or get confused about what step in what procedure we're following. (Though some of these are probably ADHD issues, which a psychiatrist agreed enough with to write me an Rx for, as an Adderall-seeking adult)

I found myself becoming a misanthrope in public school because I considered it extremely, absurdly slow and boring and my school didn't appear to care. I'm sure I didn't make it easy for them because I found everything so trivial that I wouldn't do the work. I also thought most of my teachers were slackers who just wanted an easy job and didn't look up to them in any way (though there were some diamonds in the rough) and perhaps my contempt came across my facial expressions. I started cutting classes to hang out in the computer lab and write OpenGL programs. I can see how few if any teachers wanted to take a risk and advocate for me or would even imagine I was bored to tears intellectually. I also had no friends in HS, not even other supposedly smart kids. I'm not autistic by any means. Everyone just seemed... off. And also my carefully cultivated set of friends on IRC were so much better.

I was so disgusted with school and other people that I never went to college. The thought of taking any step in that direction was a hard no, I was desperate to get out into the work force and got a computer job when I was 18 and didn't think much about intelligence, for awhile.

I've slowly, eventually come to terms with the fact that I have a fairly big cognitive edge over most people. I don't mean this with a sense of pride. I mean this in a sense of horror.

One thing that's confused me a lot is that over the last decade or two, "verbal IQ" has gone up considerably. In the olden days it seemed like people on the internet were either smart or they were obvious morons because the obvious morons couldn't write, being new to keyboards and chatting. But nowadays even the most dimwitted Redditor writes English fluently and they'll even use words from the scientific and intellectual classes to argue, so I would spend a long time arguing with people who were just never going to understand me. Like man-years, I'm sure.

Anyway, it was still really hard to realize I have a cognitive edge? Charles Murray argues in Real Education that many smarter people don't realize just how smart they are, due to sorting. They seek out other smart people and compare themselves and see that they have minor relative strengths and weaknesses and conclude the differences between them, and thereby everyone actually, are cases of nurture and not nature. Meanwhile the people who can't do basic arithmetic in their heads or who could never handle a hypothetical conditional don't enter your universe, or you probably sense you're not very alike and don't get to know their intellectual life.

A few things have broken me out of this. In the Parable of the Talents, Scott writes:

I work with psychiatric patients who tend to have cognitive difficulties. Starting out in the Detroit ghetto doesn’t do them any favors, and then they get conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that actively lower IQ for poorly understood neurological reasons.

The standard psychiatric evaluation includes an assessment of cognitive ability; the one I use is a quick test with three questions. The questions are – “What is 100 minus 7?”, “What do an apple and an orange have in common?”, and “Remember these three words for one minute, then repeat them back to me: house, blue, and tulip”.

There are a lot of people – and I don’t mean floridly psychotic people who don’t know their own name, I mean ordinary reasonable people just like you and me – who can’t answer these questions. And we know why they can’t answer these questions, and it is pretty darned biological.

Disturbing.

Did you see the conditional hypotheticals thing? Scott again, quoting the anonymous IQ researcher posting to 4chan this time (so grain of salt)

I did IQ research as a grad student, and it involved a lot of this stuff. Did you know that most people (95% with less than 90 IQ) can't understand conditional hypotheticals? For example, "How would you have felt yesterday evening if you hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch?" "What do you mean? I did eat breakfast and lunch." "Yes, but if you had not, how would you have felt?" "Why are you saying that I didn't eat breakfast? I just told you that did." "Imagine that you hadn't eaten it, though. How would you have felt?" "I don't understand the question." It's really fascinating [...]

Other interesting phenomenon around IQ involves recursion. For example: "Write a story with two named characters, each of whom have at least one line of dialogue." Most literate people can manage this, especially once you give them an example. "Write a story with two named characters, each of whom have at least one line of dialogue. In this story, one of the characters must be describing a story with at least two named characters, each of whom have at least one line of dialogue." If you have less than 90 IQ, this second exercise is basically completely impossible. Add a third level ('frame') to the story, and even IQ 100's start to get mixed up with the names and who's talking. Turns out Scheherazade was an IQ test!

Time is practically impossible to understand for sub 80s. They exist only in the present, can barely reflect on the past and can't plan for the future at all. Sub 90s struggle with anachronism too. For example, I remember the 80-85s stumbling on logic problems that involved common sense anachronism stuff. For instance: "Why do you think that military strategists in WWII didn't use laptop computers to help develop their strategies?" "I guess they didn't want to get hacked by Nazis". Admittedly you could argue that this is a history knowledge question, not quite a logic sequencing question, but you get the idea. Sequencing is super hard for them to track, but most 100+ have no problem with it, although I imagine that a movie like Memento strains them a little. Recursion was definitely the killer though. Recursive thinking and recursive knowledge seems genuinely hard for people of even average intelligence.

I tried the "didn't eat breakfast" thing on a few people I know. All of the adults got it (whew). It's very interesting to try it on kids. Kids five and under can't do it flat out, but at about 6+ they can. Imagining that some people are forever 5 years old in that part of their brain is freaking wild.

Swiveling back to Murray in Real Education, he tries to convince you of how not smart the average person is by showing a series of fairly trivial 8th grade exam questions and detailing how wrong most kids get them.

The Anasazi made beautiful pottery, turquoise jewelry, fine sashes of woven hair, and baskets woven tightly enough to hold water. They lived by hunting and by growing corn and squash. Their way of life went on peacefully for several hundred years. Then around 1200 AD something strange happened, for which the reasons are not quite clear.

Here is the item:

Example 7. The Anasazi's life before 1200 AD was portrayed by the author as being

(A) dangerous and warlike (B) busy and exciting (C) difficult and dreary (D) productive and peaceful

The answer is D, productive and peaceful

55% of Illinois 8th graders get this wrong.

I've posted a few of these to Twitter. Some are mathy, and some are word problems. This one about the Asanazi drives some people berserk; people apparently can't separate the author's portrayal from their own portrayal, or do the basic constraint logic needed to rule the rest out.

I saw someone joke in a different part of Twitter that stuff like LSAT questions are designed to maximize toxic Twitter engagement and I have to concur.

Last one. Scott again, writes recently.

According to tests, fewer than 10% of Americans retain PIIAC-defined “basic numeracy skills”, even though in theory you need to know algebra to graduate from most public schools.

I don't really know what this PIIAC thing is, so I asked ChatGPT4o to generate an example question that demonstrate proficiency.

You are planning a trip and need to budget for fuel costs. Your car’s fuel efficiency is 30 miles per gallon, and the distance to your destination is 450 miles. If the price of gasoline is $3 per gallon, how much will you spend on gasoline for the trip?

IMO you should be able to do this in your head in a few seconds. It feels embarrassing to even talk about something this easy and connect any hint of pride to it, like this is an example of any cognitive edge at all. Yet huge portions of the population will struggle with it. I asked an 11th grader taking AP classes this question and they said they would need pen and paper to figure it out(!) He at least knew how to organize it in terms of x.

I could see a grand majority of the population never writing it in terms of x = ... and solving that way.

I'm trying to fill a position at work right now. A sys admin role. I want to ask that gas mileage question during technical interviews but I'm afraid the people who will get it right will be so insulted that they can't believe I'm asking this, while the people who get it wrong will feel very unfairly brutally discriminated against because I could pop such an irrelevant-to-their-job question on them.


So. How do we expect to become a Star Trek, space faring civilization again? There's so much work to do that we need smart people for and so few smart people.

We know how to avoid being overwhelmed by 65 IQ adults. In childhood you can ensure they don't suffer the worst poverty and go hungry and give them a K-6 education. Then they'll have 80-90 IQ. That's still grim, but a huge accomplishment.

Ignoring the Flynn effect, do we have any idea at all about how to shift, say, the middle of the curve from 100 IQ to 130 IQ? Is there any therapy or drug or surgery anywhere on the horizon that could achieve this?

The answer is D, productive and peaceful

55% of Illinois 8th graders get this wrong.

I've posted a few of these to Twitter. Some are mathy, and some are word problems. This one about the Asanazi drives some people berserk

I don't get it. How do these people think it is anything but D? They go berserk defending not-D? By what justification?

Sure, the text says "peaceful," but "productive" is very much in the eye of the beholder. Are the listed tasks productive? Does the median 8th grader think so? I'm sure you could point to "internalized something" as a Western-centric view of why making anthropological artifacts is not terribly "productive." Or conversely, that cultural investment isn't inherently productive at all (what does this do for GDP?). "Productive" is a value judgement that isn't in the original text.

I could see some argument that constantly hunting and living on a diet of corn and squash (do kids like squash?) sounds rather dreary. And lots of difficult physical work (for kids that would prefer sitting in front of a flashing picture box).

They refuse to interpret it based on the author's portrayal and instead substitute their own. As a human living in 2024, I find the thought of making beads, baskets, hunting and growing corn dull and dreary and who are you to say it's not? That's the best fit. Final answer. As you can see I have now proven the question is dumb and we are unfairly giving kids low marks.

This calls for the IQ bell curve meme. Left and right extremes: "well I can't know what the author wanted to say, I'm not a mind reader". The middle: "obviously D, the text and the answer both say 'productive'".

Unironically though: yes, we are unfairly giving kids low marks. Interpretive questions call for free-form answers, not multiple choice (as noted by other posters).

The guy on the right who looks like a monk knows what the intended expected midwit answer is though.

Yes. That doesn't mean he'll pick that answer if he doesn't have something to get out of it (like a passed test).

There's a great deal of productive work people can do with very little abstract thinking skill. I went through basic training recently. I was probably the smartest, or at least close to it, at stuff like algebra and writing essays and reading comprehension. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people there would have trouble with those sorts of problems and would need to go through a couple hours of lessons to consistently get those problems correct, and even then would probably forget those lessons after a few months.

But that didn't matter at all. In boot camp, the things that mattered were how well you polished boots, folded clothes, made it to the place you were supposed to be on time, could do the multi-step safety check on your rifle, could put together a lean-to to sleep under, and all the fitness stuff. Almost all those people with lower IQs could blow me out of the water at those tasks(although there were a couple people that I expect would be especially bad at math and were even worse than me at basic skills). For regular life skills, stuff that wasn't abstract, they could do great- they weren't some barely conscious apes that barely managed not to kill themselves, like I feel like we'd both expect after hearing they couldn't answer 100-17 with mental math.

The Anasazi question reminds me that adults forget what it is like to be young and are oblivious to the social constructs of middle age; there are cases to be made for B and C and a nit to be picked about D.

B The author depicts the Anasazi as doing fine weaving. Both by using the word, in the case of sashes woven from hair, and implying it in the case of basket, with a mesh without holes. fine is more work than coarse. Doing all that work will keep them busy. The child is probably dragged round the supermarket on shopping trips. Meat comes from the chill cabinet. Perhaps neighbors go hunting, but the child is discouraged from asking to go too, because guns are scary and dangerous. Hunting sounds forbidden and dangerous; certainly exciting. Hunting long ago, with a bow or s spear sounds harder and more dangerous. harder speaks to the Anasazi leading busy lives. You hunt, you catch nothing (you cannot just shoot your prey) so you hunt again the following day. You are kept busier than people today who can guarantee to get the whole weeks shopping with one car trip to the supermarket. dangerous might stand alone to the adult mind, but a child will pick up the message that the Anasazi lead exciting lives. B is a contender.

C "baskets woven tightly enough to hold water." is a strange claim. The child might have been paying attention when history covered the Spanish Armada. Sir Francis Drake Singed the King of Spains beard. One historian emphasizes burning stocks of seasoned timber, needed for wet cooperage. Wet cooperage is when a cooper makes a barrel so well that it is suitable for storing water. That is much harder than dry cooperage and needs seasoned timber. Burn that and there are no new barrels for storing water on board ship. No barrels, no Armada. What the attentive child knows is that holding water is a major pain under earlier, lo-tech conditions of life. The author is depicting the life of the Anasazi as difficult in two senses. First they do impressive feats of basket weaving. That is technically difficult. Second, they are likely forced to do this by a lack of technology (though what has gone wrong with their pots? Why aren't they holding water in pots? Unsuitable clay? Lack of glazes?). We would ordinarily summarize the problems posed by lack of basic technology by saying that life was difficult.

The author talks of beautiful pottery and turquoise jewelry. The thirteen year old boy answering the question knows just what the author is talking about. It is the fine china that lives in the cabinet, and the Meissen figurines, with their boring pastel colors. The limbs are not articulated, eliminating any play value, and you are not allowed to play with them anyway because of their impractical fragility. Turquoise jewelry is stupid, girly crap. The author is implying that the Anasazi lead lives that are boring as fuck. dreary is one of the polite adult words for this, difficult and dreary. C is a contender.

D Since the author uses the word peacefully, the use of the word peaceful immediately makes D a strong contender. The problem lies with the word productive having two conflicting meanings. A school pupils perhaps learns the school room notion of productivity from history lessons on Luddites and weavers. Power looms made weavers more productive. A lot more productive. It made those who wore clothes better off by bringing down the price of cloth. That is a lot of people and a big price fall, so a huge gain overall. On the other hand, weavers who expected to be better off, because prosperity comes from productivity, were shocked to find the surplus of cloth and the resulting price falls more than offset the gain in the amount of cloth produced. productive is an output measure, not an input measure. productivity is a specific measure of output: output per hour of labor.

You are productive when you pour a sack of polyethylene pellets into the hopper of your injection molding machine and produce a thousand water bottles an hour. You are unproductive when you spend a week or two weaving a basket so tightly that it just about holds water.

The alternative meaning of productive lies at the intersection of pastoral romance and the Protestant work ethic. You are unproductive in the taverna, drinking Ouzo and playing Back Gammon. You are productive when you return to your farm and tend your olive grove. It is not about the fertility of the grove or the price of olives. You are unproductive when you play a video game; you are productive when you write the program for a video game (but why would any-one buy a video game if playing it is disparaged as unproductive?)

Since I'm middle aged and middle class I'm acculturated to school as a center of pointless busywork that keeps children off the streets. The devil finds work for idle hands, and we use the word productive to praise keeping those hands busy with the right kind of pointless busy work (such as making beautiful pottery that doesn't hold water, and turquoise jewelry). It contrasts with the word unproductive which disparages the forms of pointless activity preferred by younger persons or those of lower social class.

Answer D is checking that the children are picking up the correct meaning of productive. Are they well on their way to being middle aged and middle class? We wouldn't want them saying that the Anasazi are "unproductive and peaceful". We prefer them to have a fashionable sense of "Ted Kaczynski"-lite, and ignore the crassly industrial notion of productive.

I'm in a pickle. I don't know what my comment implies. On first reading I'm defending the intelligence of Illinois 8th graders. They are not stupid, the question is bad. On second reading I'm trashing a question, chosen by a clever person, to illustrate a point. That is to say, chosen by a person who is clever compared to other people. But the question is still trash, so even "clever" people are smug and stupid and we as a species are ultra-doomed :-(

In my opinion, you are way overthinking this. I think this ties back into the subject of this thread, but probably 90% of tests are written for people who aren't particularly intelligent by other people who also aren't particularly intelligent as a clumsy and ham-fisted way to see if they're good enough for something. They're meant to see if you can think along with the author's mid-tier thought process, not stimulate discussion and sophisticated consideration.

I solved it in like 10 seconds. Skim it, check the answers, go over it a little more carefully, the words of the story are obviously meant to be about being productive and peaceful, mark D, done, move on to the next one. If you've managed to make it through a first-world school, you probably have an idea how tests are written and how the people who will grade them want you to answer.

The Motte loves our overthinking things. Most of the rest of the world does not. You (metaphorical you) will frequently in life be judged by people who are much dumber than you, but have power over you anyways. It's to your benefit to learn how to appear to pass their tests while being submissive to them temporarily. Giving the answer that they want fast codes to them as smart; going on a long tangent about how technically true it actually is may actually be a sign of greater intelligence, but will signal to them that you're an uncooperative weirdo spewing what seems like gibberish to them, not a supergenius.

I'm in a pickle. I don't know what my comment implies. On first reading I'm defending the intelligence of Illinois 8th graders. They are not stupid, the question is bad. On second reading I'm trashing a question, chosen by a clever person, to illustrate a point. That is to say, chosen by a person who is clever compared to other people. But the question is still trash, so even "clever" people are smug and stupid and we as a species are ultra-doomed :-(

I think your comment says you are uneasy about questions that require so much human interpretation and you are, rightfully, distrustful of authorities who demand a precise answer.

Yeah I leant B for a moment before concluding D was a better fit. These kinds of multiple choice questions should really be short answer questions. There's a reason that multiple choice only appears in tests and nowhere else in life!

But Illinois 8th graders or most people generally are pretty stupid.

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-19801666

A total of 97 MPs were asked this probability problem: if you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?*

Among Conservative members, 47% gave the wrong answer, which is disappointing enough. But of the 44 Labour MPs who took part, 77% answered incorrectly.

This is the pool of people who are allegedly, constitutionally, supposed to run government departments providing services to tens of millions. They control billions of dollars. Come on!

The distracters aren't really effective if there's not a plausible argument for them. That's largely the point of distracters. The goal is to identify the best answer.

You are productive when you produce stuff. The question details 4 types of items and 2 crops that are produced. The crops are also produce.

There is a right answer, a wrong answer, and two distractors. The distractors focus the discriminating power of the test. If the distractors are almost right, even the clever get distracted and the test focuses on separating the very clever from clever. If the distractors are wrong, just not so blatantly wrong as the wrong answer, average test takers can find the right answer by elimination, and the detailed test results (separating out wrong versus distracted) serves to separate the very stupid and stupid.

The interpretation of

55% of Illinois 8th graders get this wrong.

will vary depending on whether the distractors are nearly right or nearly wrong.

They lived by hunting and by growing corn and squash.

In your reply, you focused on hunting but what about "growing corn and squash"?

Busy? Yes. But exciting? In what galaxy could you say growing corn and squash is exciting? That's a resounding no, to me. That significantly downgrades B as an answer, IMO.

What this is though, is productive. (We even call it "produce" in stores)

Some of these things sound dull or dreary, but I'm just not seeing how you can call doing all of these things dull and dreary. Beautiful pottery? Fine sashes? Turquoise jewelry? The picture the author is painting does not really communicate dull and dreary to me. I can see how they might be painstaking and hard, but they're still describing fashionable and pretty things. "Dull" is very much downgraded as a choice to me. What about hunting? Really hard to think dull and dreary here as well.

What all of these things have in best common is they involve producing. Fine jewelry, container chotchkas, or hunting or growing food to eat.

You are productive when you pour a sack of polyethylene pellets into the hopper of your injection molding machine and produce a thousand water bottles an hour. You are unproductive when you spend a week or two weaving a basket so tightly that it just about holds water.

Sure, but "they continued this way until 1200 AD". That should put you in an old timey frame of reference. I don't know much about the time before 1200 AD but I bet baskets that hold water would be hella clutch.

What are the odds of getting two heads in a row (on two independent unbiased coin flips)? Do you know the answer? How many UK politicians do you think can get the right answer? 52%, sample size of 101 (Source here)

Math is hard. If, in a few seconds, you can see the relationship between 30 mile/gallon and $3/gallon means you get 10 miles per dollar, so for 450 miles you spend 45 dollars, then you probably have enough quantitative ability to work a six-figure job.

But broadly you're right. Talent is rarest resource in the universe and you can't make people smarter. But you only need one Newton or Haber to advance the frontier.

Math is hard. If, in a few seconds, you can see the relationship between 30 mile/gallon and $3/gallon means you get 10 miles per dollar, so for 450 miles you spend 45 dollars, then you probably have enough quantitative ability to work a six-figure job.

You can take a few seconds longer and just brute-force the calculation through 15 gallons. I guess the problem is that using math to solve problems feels like work to a large percentage of the population, so they don't do it if they can get away with not doing it. Why keep a rough running total of your shopping cart contents in your head when the cashier will just ring it up and you can just pay with your credit card? If you really must reduce your spending, then you can just sit down, get your calculator out and do work.

How many UK politicians do you think can get the right answer? 52%, sample size of 101

That's actually so much better than I was expecting. Whew.

But broadly you're right. Talent is rarest resource in the universe and you can't make people smarter. But you only need one Newton or Haber to advance the frontier.

The frontier advancement is obviously important stuff, but still, having worked in orgs full of, say, approx 140+ IQ people and orgs that must be approx 115 IQ people, I can tell you the former is insanely productive and refreshing and the latter is almost oppressive and gets mired in stupid shit. I can't help but extrapolate to all of society and think how much harder better faster stronger the rest of the world would be if we brought the average up.

That's actually so much better than I was expecting. Whew.

You are much more cynical than me. And I am extremely cynical, but damn, still not enough. Failing this in any capacity is just inexcusable.

It's still a disappointing result, don't get me wrong, but my prior was pretty low for MPs.

I don't disagree. I think this is the thesis of Garrett Jones' "Hive Mind" book, but I haven't read it.

It would have to be genetic engineering, or embryo selection, or something like that. But selecting for intelligence is thought of negatively for arbitrary reasons.

Not so arbitrary; selecting for intelligence may have its drawbacks. The infamous paper Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence (NHAI) hypothesizes that Europe accidentally selected the Ashkenazi Jews for intelligence for 800 years, and that their population also got a larger proportion of genetic brain disorders compared to human baseline as a result. The implicit warning is that anyone attempting a similar result on purpose will get genetic brain disorders in the resulting population.

Some people try to find scientific refutations for this hypothesis (PDF), instead of outright rejecting it as “eugenics bad” and refusing to do science.

I think hive mind actually says average IQ is more important than your geniuses for a country level wealth.

My guess it’s because any country can do catch up growth (mostly), but having low IQ makes politics and institutions too crappy.

I'm trying to fill a position at work right now. A sys admin role. I want to ask that gas mileage question during technical interviews but I'm afraid the people who will get it right will be so insulted that they can't believe I'm asking this, while the people who get it wrong will feel very unfairly brutally discriminated against because I could pop such an irrelevant-to-their-job question on them.

We use a question like this in our interviewing process. There's much more to it (this is just one component; they then have to design a software system around it), but it requires some basic multiplication.

For the first 2 years, we'd pop it on them live. The results were extremely poor. 90% of people had to pull out a calculator, and many of them would add or remove a 0 if they didn't. I hate to say it, but we had to provide the whole question beforehand to even get through the thing in an hour. I was originally horrified.

Then again, I don't think that solving this sort of complex problem with a timer over your head is empathetic or reasonable. In reality, when I come across a system constraint I have to engineer around, I at least have hours (if not days). My gut feeling was that many people failed because of the pressure and nerve aspect as opposed to the ability to solve the problem in a reasonable timeframe.

In any case, that's a long rant to say: "Feel Empowered to include basic shit like this and use it as a qualifier, but I suggest making it part of a larger question provided to the candidate the day before the interview."

Then again, I don't think that solving this sort of complex problem with a timer over your head is empathetic or reasonable. In reality, when I come across a system constraint I have to engineer around, I at least have hours (if not days). My gut feeling was that many people failed because of the pressure and nerve aspect as opposed to the ability to solve the problem in a reasonable timeframe.

I've been doing hiring off and on for about 20 years so I feel confident offering two quick thoughts.

  1. Have you done mock interviews with the rest of the team to try these questions out? How do your own people do?

  2. Is failing to complete the problem in time that big a deal? In general I find the journey of problem solving more important than reaching the end in the allotted time. You usually know after an hour if someone is too much of a dick to work with, or if they could finish if you gave them another 15 minutes. OTOH, if you and the candidate spend an entire hour struggling with what you thought would take ten minutes, that's probably bad.

  1. The scenario is interesting because it's a real problem we had to solve at the company early on. We haven't had to change it at all for around 5 years because it's such a high-quality signal (and interviewees rate it highly). We did have to modify the approach though - we finished iterating on it after around 1.5 years and probably 30 interviews.
  2. Once the question has been provided a day beforehand, being unable to come up with an adequate solution during the interview is a deal breaker. The good news is twofold: The answer has a correctness gradient, and the whole question is designed to be iterated on as a discusssion. Did you put together a maximally elegant and simple solution? Ok, now make it enterprise-grade. Did you bring your resume-driven development tendencies to the table? Now simplify.

Our entire interview suite uses those approaches, including our small take-home project, so we can easily cross-reference someone's performance with their salary requirements and stated YOE. The tech interview team explicitly defines the tiers of answer performance, and we all collaborate on them.

There have been some calls to introduce a new question to more closely represent the state of the art in modern development. After ~7 total years anything gets long in the tooth, and I'd be lying if I said I'm not a bit concerned about the performance of LLMs in the space. With excellent prompting, they can succeed in our interview if not blow us away. There's no substitute for seeing if someone can verbally describe how they'd solve or problem or change a solution.

Hmm, if it were me, I would be worried that this scenario question would get leaked online. But perhaps your company isn't famous enough that people collect interview questions on forums.

Lol ding ding ding! ~100 people so we are under the radar. Glassdoor doesn't have it on there yet.

But we've interviewed probably 2,000? I think it's still worth developing something, and even if someone knows the answer you can still qualify folks.

I’d personally love to give someone a blank Excel and that mileage problem, if I was interviewing them for a job with Excel use as part of the job description/job ad.

Seriously? My Excel job interview question looks more like this:

  • on worksheet A you have schema and table names and their sizes in the main DB
  • on worksheet B you have schema and table names and their sizes in the backup DB
  • show me all main DB tables that are either missing or have the wrong size
  • bonus question: show me which schemas are completely fine

Seriously. I’m not thinking of a job where Excel will be a primary tool for database work, but admin jobs and other jobs where Excel is an ancillary tool.

  1. Full outer join on table name
  2. Then just null and equality checks until you are there.

Admittedly I can't do this in Excel (because I don't use it), but it's a trival squeal (SQL) or any other tabular tool question

Left join, but ok. The trick is doing this in Excel.

How is your sysadmin recruiting going?

Having been in this space for nearly 30 years, the quality of the candidates seems lower now than in the 90's.

I recall working with people enthusiastic and curious about the technology we were administering. They'd have hobbies or intrests in adjacent but relevant areas.

Many now need more supervision than they receive. I also suspect the poor performers drag down the pay scales.

I work in tech accidentally. I'm a "little sister." My older brother was very into computers, and I fell into it because working overnights as tech support while I was in law school gave me a lot more time to study than working overnights at a gas station. I knew enough by virtue of being around my brother to be competent (and back then, knowing the difference between SLIP and PPP was enough to get hired). And there was a certain level of trouble shooting and just needing to understand computers that you had to know to use them. So I could swap out cards in my computer as I managed upgrades, I'm not afraid of an IRQ jumper. I've run cables. But I am not a computer person. These are just things I learned by virtue of being around people who lived and breathed this stuff, or because I had to know it in order to use the tools for my specific purposes. And ultimately, because I ended up liking working in tech more than working in law. I'm good at what I do. People who learn I didn't intend to go into tech or that I don't consider myself particularly a computer person are often surprised.

My daughter (college aged) is basically a power user, even growing up with two parents in tech. She hasn't had to do the trouble shooting or the general tech support we had to do, because computers are functional tools now. When something doesn't work, after she turns it off and back on, she's kind of stymied, because things usually "just work" for her. It's the same way a lot of folks are with cars. I grew up with beaters, so there's a level of mechanical trouble shooting I knew that people who grew up with cars that just worked didn't know. Now, because she grew up with parents in tech, she can do basic trouble shooting, she can build simple electronic devices, she knows percussive maintenance can just work. But she has peers (in STEM even) who couldn't figure out how to plug an ethernet cable in (they've never plugged in a phone jack, either...).

I don't think that folks are necessarily less capable, they just don't have the same skill set. It's not required in the way it used to be. In the 80's, if I couldn't build my own PC, I didn't have a PC. Nowadays, building your PC is a niche thing only people who are deeply into (some aspects of) computers do. My daughter and her peers are going to come across as less able, in a lot of ways, than those of us who were in tech in the 90s (or earlier). They aren't. They've just grown up with tools that work. They aren't shadetree mechanics because that hasn't been something in their environment. They know other things. And they obviously have the potential (it's not like we're smarter than them). Nowadays, they have no reason to be able to chant orange white, orange, green white, blue, blue white, green, brown white, brown. So when I'm interviewing (for a junior position), I look for the curiosity, the trouble shooting ability, the engagement. This is particularly challenging because interviewing has become very scripted, at least where I work currently. It's also challenging because there's something about computers that makes a lot of people in it want to be the smartest guy in the room, and they can get really demeaning, really quickly, about someone who doesn't act like they know it all right out of the gate. As if proving themselves superior is more important than finding someone who can do the job. It's not rocket science, even when it is.

I think we often hire the wrong people, both because the candidates show up with less of the knowledge we're looking for, so it's hard to pick out the best ones, and also because the hiring process has become so weird that the ways in which we might have dug for the passion, the enthusiasm, even the basic underlying abilities (do they give up when they don't know something, or do they poke at it again?) aren't allowed. But we focus on, how did this candidate not know the TCP 3 way handshake cold? (Sure, maybe he should have, but it ends up being more important because we aren't allowed to get into how he figured out how to manage pedal feedback, because we'll never learn that he plays guitar in a band for a hobby, and maybe him explaining THAT problem is what demonstrates the trouble shooting and tracing skills that we're looking for, even if he spaced on the 3 way handshake in a moment of stress.)

She hasn't had to do the trouble shooting or the general tech support we had to do, because computers are functional tools now.

Yes, this is huge. My aunt was a programmer back in the 1970s, and debugged programs by staring at raw core dumps until they made sense. I will never develop that skill, because I have access to tools that are much better for over 99% of cases I will ever deal with. Similarly, I use her old punchcards as bookmarks.

They've just grown up with tools that work. They aren't shadetree mechanics because that hasn't been something in their environment. They know other things.

In your opinion what are these other things?

For my kid and her peers, their people skills are lightning years above the people skills of the computer people I know (and mine). There seems to be a higher baseline for presentations than there used to be. They have broad computer skills - they may "just" be power users, but they also don't just know excel, they know all the tools. They have better virtual meeting etiquette. I think they have broader skills in general. My kid and her STEM peers have high level accomplishments in athletics, arts, humanities, in a way that I didn't see among my computer peers in the 80s and 90s. Unless you count D&D, quoting Monty Python, and taking the Church of the SubGenius a little too seriously broad high level accomplishments.

I'm not meaning to talk down myself or my peers. But I would like those of us who are shocked at what the kids don't know to consider why they don't know it. If I can't show someone how to plug in an ethernet cable that's on me. It's unreasonable to expect everyone to know everything. I've been employed in tech since 1995, and got "my" (it was a family computer) first computer in 1979 (Atari gang represent!). There are loads of things I don't know. Even things I obviously should know that I just don't.

Definitely video editing.

I think there's truth to this, but there are limits. To use your example, if someone who wants to work in tech can't figure out how to plug in an Ethernet cable, then they are in fact lacking skills. Specifically, basic troubleshooting skills. I should be able to hand anyone an Ethernet cable and a computer with a port, and have them figure out how the two fit together. The large majority of one's value as a tech person isn't the specific things they know how to work with, it's their ability to figure out new things when confronted with them. I don't care if someone knows how to set master/slave IDE jumpers, but I do care if they just give up and say "I don't know" when confronted with such a problem.

Agreed. In many jobs, to be successful you need to be curious, willing to take risks, able to think things through logically, and problem solve. But for a kid who's never plugged in a phone jack, it shouldn't be surprising if they're also confused when asked about an ethernet cable. This came up because when my kid lived in her first dorm at college, we set her up with a hard wired connection, expecting wireless to be completely overwhelmed. She became the tech support person on her dorm floor because apparently no one else walked their kids through this process. So she'd take her friends to Staples, get them whatever they needed for their particular computer, show them where the jack was in their room (kind of hidden) and get them set up. These kids have not been taught or encouraged to take risks, so the idea of plugging a very expensive computer into some random thing in a way they've never seen or done wasn't something they took to immediately. It all makes sense if you consider the current environment.

This is why I don't want to look for quiz answers or trick questions when interviewing. I want to look for the curious ones, the ones who're willing to try to puzzle through something. I don't care as much about how accurate they are, I care that they're willing to take the risk of admitting they don't know something in front of someone else and try and talk through how they might arrive at an answer.

Sysadmin seems to be a bit of a dying role - most of the competent people are probably looking for DevOps or SRE roles.

Which... is really just sysadmin with a fancy name tbh.

Eh, I'd argue that sysadmin is maintaining running systems by hand, and DevOps is Infrastructure-as-Code. There is a qualitative difference when you switch from one to the other.

Sysadmin jobs haven't been maintaining systems by hand for the last 20 years (my entire career). A good sysadmin has long used scripts and other tools to help his work, and from there it's easy to move to infrastructure as code.

That's true. Maybe the shift also is from servers-as-pets to servers-as-cattle.

I just think there's a definite shift between the two types of admin, even if it occurs in parts. And because the change is large enough, we use two different words to describe the jobs.

I can't really say. I've changed industries a few times the last 20 years. It certainly seems like more people are replying to job openings now. Like hundreds at a time. 2 years ago it would be tens. I don't have a read yet if the quality is higher though. E.g. a lot of these numbers could be blown up from layoffs, and the laid off people are probably not the cream of the crop.

Me too. Tech before / during the dot com bust. Finance / investment banking, managed services, defense.

I think I may be seeing some geographic selection effects too. It could be the median candidate in London, UK is better than the median candidate in the Boston suburbs.

I suspect the causality is reversed, if you were paying more you'd find your candidate pool to be better. The IT industry is way bigger and more competitive these days and talented individuals can find their way to six figure jobs pretty easily.

The more we pay, the worse the candidate pool is, simply because it draws more normies that are in it for the money than geeks.

Even at 6 figures the quality is poorer than I recall.

I suspect it's the increased size of the industry that we're failing to produce the quality candidates at scale or there is insufficient human capital as a starting point.

I'm trying to fill a position at work right now. A sys admin role. I want to ask that gas mileage question during technical interviews but I'm afraid the people who will get it right will be so insulted that they can't believe I'm asking this

... switch out the variable names? E.g. "Every time the server reboots, it has to pull down a 450MB file over a 30MBPS connection before it can start serving requests. The server drops any requests that come in before it finishes booting. Assuming the system gets 3 requests per second, how many requests are dropped every time the server reboots?"

There's so much work to do that we need smart people for and so few smart people.

There are 8 billion people. Half of those people have above-median intelligence. While the number of very smart people, as a fraction, seems very small, the absolute number of such people is mind-bogglingly large.

That suggests one approach might be to try to get a large group of IQ>130 people together in one location for the purposes of advancing the state of knowledge of the universe, maybe in a small city that is specifically focused on supporting those people. Since it's a city dedicated to the study of the universe, I propose calling it a "universe city".

... switch out the variable names? E.g. "Every time the server reboots, it has to pull down a 450MB file over a 30MBPS connection before it can start serving requests. The server drops any requests that come in before it finishes booting. Assuming the system gets 3 requests per second, how many requests are dropped every time the server reboots?"

Okay I needed to write this one down, but only because you said megabits.

Technically he didn't. MBps is megabytes per second, not megabits.

That suggests one approach might be to try to get a large group of IQ>130 people together in one location for the purposes of advancing the state of knowledge of the universe, maybe in a small city that is specifically focused on supporting those people. Since it's a city dedicated to the study of the universe, I propose calling it a "universe city".

Sounds sexy af.

So. How do we expect to become a Star Trek, space faring civilization again? There's so much work to do that we need smart people for and so few smart people.

If you are a smart person, you should have multiple children. They’ll probably increase the number of smart people in the world just by you having some romantic evenings.

I think we're doing a poorer job of engaging the the children of smart people.

We have 4 children. They're all smart, but my middle son has tested as > 99.9% in math and taught himself to read somewhere between ages 3 and 4. Despite being in one of the more affluent districts in our state in the Northeast there are no services for gifted children. As long as children are performing at grade level asking for more academic rigor is met with shrugs. This is partially why we're homeschooling now.

In 80's California our class sizes were bigger but there was a GATE program and divided start to better group the class into reading groups by ability / level. I'm sure there are lots of 'studies' but the couple I've dug into seem like bullshit.

In all seriousness: find a private tutor that works with gifted kids. It won't be cheap -- you can expect to spend somewhere in the $50-$200 per lesson range -- but it will be cheaper than an actually good private school, and while he won't have the peer group, at least he'll have someone who is capable of working with his educational needs. (Though it sounds like you personally may have this covered with homeschooling -- and that's awesome if you do.)

My wife actually does some of this (she also works with struggling kids too, since there's a lot more demand for that kind of tutoring), and for a while had a student in almost exactly your situation (down to the region of the country) -- a second (?) grader doing roughly sixth grade level math (though of course they were not using a normal curriculum). Unfortunately the student had to quit because something happened and the family could no longer afford it, I think.

The main reason that most schools are not willing to do anything for gifted kids is that there's so little real demand for it that they can just not bother. Even most parents of gifted kids are not willing to really invest, and are satisfied with the kid getting As and being in a million activities. Or they are more concerned with their kids maxing out the metrics in the system they are in -- grades, test scores, impressive sounding extracurriculars -- than with actually getting them the best education. Either way, accommodating the real needs of gifted kids is not on the schools' radar because it's not the parents' priority.

PS: If anyone reading this has an elementary or middle school age kid who is gifted in math, can meet before 7 PM eastern time, and is able to handle doing tutoring lessons over Zoom, DM me -- my wife might be interested. (Yes, Zoom is not as good as in person, but she's had a lot of experience with it at this point and can make it work surprisingly well.)

PPS: If you are homeschooling an elementary aged kid who is gifted in math and are not using Beast Academy, do yourself a favor and look into it. My wife swears by it as a gifted curriculum, and you can either (a) just buy the books and use them for homeschooling, (b) enroll in an online class through Art of Problem Solving, or (c) find a private tutor (like my wife) who is familiar with it to work with your kid.

The peer group at the Russian School of Math is a benefit.

This was our first year homeschooling. My wife is happy with the progress they're making.

Before being a FT SAHM / homemaker, she was MD/PhD.

The lack of support for gifted kids is part of it. The lack of rigor in the curriculum in general is surprising. There are no letter grades. Seldom / rarely any homework. Spelling is typically not corrected on any submitted work, students are not expected to correct / revise their own work for resubmission. The concept of penmenship seems to have disappeared entirely. There's no copy work. No spelling / writing from dictation. Rarely any reading aloud. No deficiency notices. Yet there's still somehow less time for recess.

We have 4 children. They're all smart, but my middle son has tested as > 99.9% in math and taught himself to read somewhere between ages 3 and 4. Despite being in one of the more affluent districts in our state in the Northeast there are no services for gifted children. As long as children are performing at grade level asking for more academic rigor is met with shrugs. This is partially why we're homeschooling now.

One of my kids is like this. He taught himself to read at age 5 and he's about 3 grades ahead in math ability. He's supposed to start first grade in the fall but we're homeschooling him instead because, among other things, the public schools have no resources for gifted kids. We're in the PNW and not the Northeast. I'd try a private school here but they're all either religious or some woo woo hippie shit.

(I also think he'd go through a misanthrope period if he was forced to hang out with kids that much slower than him, like I did)

I wouldn't necessarily be opposed to the religious schools unfortunately many are sponsored by denominations that have embraced idpol or alphabetism. Also my wife would likely need to return to work to pay the tuition.

We're supplementing homeschooling with weekly foreign language (my wife's native language) in a classroom environment and The Russian School of Math.

I was identified as gifted in elementary school, the GATE program in the district as kooky as it was made school much more engaging.

Just to let you know- my memory of Catholic schools was there was no gifted and talented available at all. There was honors/AP classes available in high school for some subjects, and that was it.

It's a real shame. Some students are far more effective consumers of education than others, so with limited educational resources we really ought to be focusing on them, but this goes against the equity dogma of the day.

There's so much work to do that we need smart people for and so few smart people

If you're a smart person, how do you find this work that needs doing? I consider myself a smart person. I inevitably find myself working for companies where I do tons of work that only a really smart person could do, but that work is ultimately pretty meaningless and has little impact on society.

I drive down the costs of software systems, I improve operational maintainability of these systems, etc. I do this for products that you yourself know and have used. But still, it doesn't really matter much in the grand scheme of things, as I find it really unlikely that these products will change the course of human civilization, and I find it unlikely that my work to make it more maintainable or cost less is going to even matter much for these products. I'm a cog on a team inside of an organization inside of several much larger organizations, and everything that gets done is just so operational that it basically feels completely meaningless.

Give me something meaningful to do, where I really can make an impact. I'd love to do it. But everyone tells you they're working on meaningful stuff, and it always ends up being the same operational crap.

If you're a smart person, how do you find this work that needs doing? I consider myself a smart person. I inevitably find myself working for companies where I do tons of work that it only a really smart person could do, but that work is ultimately pretty meaningless and has little impact on society.

...

Give me something meaningful to do, where I really can make an impact. I'd love to do it. But everyone tells you they're working on meaningful stuff, and it always ends up being the same operational crap.

Your first instinct is probably to run screaming from these meaningful environments because, besides the principal investigators or chief scientist being big swinging dicks and fairly competent most of the team is mid, the bureaucracy is soul crushing, or both.

Aside from academic labs or pharma departments doing meaningful work, there are many startups out there that have the same form. Started by a few scientists writing Python, they got funded, and now they're trying to scale their operation and it's a fucking nightmare between bad platforms and bad dependency management and spaghetti code bases and otherwise mid dev teams. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to come in and shine it up while also fighting intense resistance to change. Also they're paying low six figures at best and there's 10+ meetings a week.

A few more OOMs of smart people would help a lot.

Well, my current job has most of the things you describe as being a part of the meaningful startups: the seniors with egos, the bureaucracy, the poorly thought out code bases and dependencies. The main differences are the fact that my job doesn't feel as impactful, but it pays triple to quadruple the salary you're citing for startups.

they're paying low six figures at best and there's 10+ meetings a week

I've had this job. The 'meaningfulness' wears off. Now I look for meaning in myself and family, not my work.

At work I trade my time for money to fund the meaningful part of my life.

We know how to avoid being overwhelmed by 65 IQ adults. In childhood you can ensure they don't suffer the worst poverty and go hungry and give them a K-6 education. Then they'll have 80-90 IQ.

This only works when the there's lots of >100 IQ people, 80 IQ are unable to support society which they need to be 80 IQ. So, we do not know to avoid overwhelmed by 65 IQ adults.

touché

No, there's not, although hypothetically you could shift the fertility curve to eventually generate a 130 IQ population. You can also generate small, temporary IQ boosts through stimulants.

Polygenic screening is both unlikely to see mass adoption(it can only apply to IVF, and IVF couples both have other things they care about[People want their kids to be cute, obedient, calm, and sometimes athletically talented at least as much as they want them to be smart], and also IVF is not a majority of births), and unable to increase IQ by two standard deviations, or indeed, more than like 20% of a standard deviation on average.

and sometimes athletically talented at least as much as they want them to be smart

A very large fraction of public is in denial of genes having substantial effect on intelligence with few exceptions.

and also IVF is not a majority of births

This might change if costs go down and accuracy of PGS up.

This might change if costs go down and accuracy of PGS up.

I doubt it. Adopting IVF as the default way to make babies is probably associated with a decline in the birth rate, so populations which don’t will, even all other things being equal, tend to have a higher birth rate than populations who do. Of course all other things aren’t equal, populations which would continue to make babies after a date night already have higher birthrates. IVF as the norm would probably just make the gap wider.

and sometimes athletically talented at least as much as they want them to be smart

A very large fraction of public is in denial of genes having substantial effect on intelligence with few exceptions.

Interestingly, another point Murray makes in Real Education is that IQ and other talents appear correlated. Despite the dumb football player stereotype, or the nerd who trips over their own feet stereotype, in the aggregate people with high athletic skill also have higher IQs.

if atheticism is correlated with IQs, why correlation of IQ and male attractiveness as rated by women is ~0 ?

How many motteizeans played sports?

My personal observation has been that particularly good athletes tend to be upper end of average, like 110 or so, but that athleticism is basically uncorrelated with intelligence beyond that, although golf and the like tends to be a bit smarter. The unusually smart crowd is usually not great at sports, although there are a few exceptions.