Be in a field where tech is the limit

The main bottleneck to progress in software is increasingly our ideas, rather than technological limitations. This is a sign that our field is stagnating.

I recently spoke to a friend in biotechnology who depressingly proclaimed to me: “The entire field is full of great ideas, but we won’t have the technology to bring them to life for another decade at least”

That was one of the more exciting things I had heard in a while!

In 1960 computer science was in its infancy. Mainframes were starting to be adopted in large industries to solve very specific issues.
The world was beginning to realize the incredible potential of computation. But already in the 60’s the field was full of ideas! Many of computer science’s great ideas were thought up much before we had the technology to bring them to life.

The following decades saw computing moving ever close to the consumer. Only a few decades later a personal computer would be common place in many households. Everyone’s lives were now directly being affected by the industry.

Biotechnology sounds to me much like computing in the 60’s. The first real applications of the field are being brought to life in large industries, but are still many steps removed from the consumer. Like computer science, this will rapidly change. This decade might bring cultivated meat to my local store. Who knows what the following decades will bring.

Innovation happens in fields where our ideas are limited by our means to pursue them. Software is no longer such a field, our brightest minds should be going elsewhere.

The best gift

My mother once told me, “The best gift is to give a gift”

For a friends birthday I gave the best gift. All of the things needed to give a gift.

  • Wrapping paper
  • Gift cards
  • Colored rope for wrapping
  • decorations to put on the wrapped present

If the best gift is to give a gift, the best give to receive must be the gift you can give. This raises an issue.

If the best gift to receive is the gift you can give then the best gift to give must be the gift of giving the gift you can give. In other words, I should have wrapped the gift an extra time.

Taken to its logical conclusion the best gift is all of the things needed to give a gift wrapped infinite times. But each layer requires more wrapping paper than the last resulting in a big gift that’s infinitely big.

And that’s not very practical. Fortunately there’s a simple solution. For each layer of wrapping use a new type of wrapping paper half as thick as the previous layer. Unfortunately the store near me did not have such paper.

A solution to circumvent this is to give not one, but two gifts!

The first gift is just my original gift. That is, all of the ingredients needed to give a gift. The second gift is wrapping paper as well as enough money to cover the labor costs of wrapping the first gift. This works as long as the recipients are able to recursively pay the wrapping and labor costs.

In other news, I recently purchased a gift wrapping store.

Bidding-Go and shuffle-chess

In the last few months I have been very unproductive playing a lot of Go.

Unfortunately go, like chess, suffers from mirror play and nerds who have read books on opening theory (Called Joseki by go enthusiasts). This blog post presents a Go-variation which removes these unfun components. I also rant about

Shuffle chess

Its rules are simple:
– Set up the black side, but randomize the placement of the back row.¹
– Now mirror this position for whites backrow.
– Then play a regular chess game.

I love this variation of chess, because it evens the playing field between me and the book-nerds that memorized opening theory.

It removes the ability for book-nerds to gain an advantage by reading up on starting positions. It’s the chess equivalent of removing the internet from pesky netdeckers in TCG’s.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the primary reason regular chess remains dominant is a collective sense of sunk-cost associated with all those books they spent time writing and reading.

¹Bobby Fischer, created a popular variant of this known as chess960. It complicates the setup, to preserve opposing bishops and castling. Shuffle chess is better. My reasoning is a blogpost of its own

Bidding-Go

Unfortunately shuffle-chess still suffers from mirror play, as the starting positions are symmetric. This variation of an entirely different game doesn’t!

I present to you, bidding-go!

Bidding-go ruleset:
– Place 4 black and white stones randomly on the goban.
– Each player now bids Komi² on the color they would like to play.
– The player who bid the highest komi, gets to pick their starting color. Their opponent gets to start with the same Komi as the winning bid.
– Play a regular go game, black goes first.

This variation solves multiple problems with go:

  1. There exists no Joseki
  2. starting positions are almost always asymmetric, preventing mirror-go. Also Asymmetric gameplay is more fun.

This variation will likely suffer from front-loaded decision making, similar to the impact of your beginning settlements position in Catan. A bad starting bid will lose you the game, which is unfun. It make take a while to get a good bidding-intuition.

If you try out my variation, let me know how it went!

² Komi denotes the amount of starting victory points the white player gets for going second.

Where’s the ambition, apple?

EDIT: There’s the ambition!

This blog post is an attempt to convey the frustration I feel with apple’s lack of ambition with regards to macOS. Progress has ground to a halt, and it kills me to watch.

The care and attention to detail that once radiated from macOS, no longer shines as bright. It is full of long abandoned software, that has no right to fill up space on every users computer.

Many flaws I point out are nitpicks. I include them to provide concrete examples of what I mean when I say macOS is losing its attention to detail.

Bugs galore

Every once in a while when I use my Bluetooth headphones macOS will mess up the sound balance, making one ear louder than the other with seemingly no pattern.

The macOS 'Sound' menu. A slider is present and is off-center indicating the error.
The fix is simple, just move back the balance-slider to the middle.

This bug has been around for years, with no fix in sight.

Once in a while when I open up my macbook, the display gamma will be completely off. Going into the ‘display’ settings and repeatedly turning on and off ‘true tone’ and ‘automatically adjust brightness’ a few times will fix this.

These are among the many examples of weird bugs present on modern macOS that were typical of past Linux. While Linux jumped leaps and bounds in the past decade, macOS stood nearly still.

Siri

I just put my frozen pizza in the oven.

Hey siri, set a timer 20 minutes from now

Image of what siri shows when calling the command

Siri perfectly recognized what I want to do, why doesn’t it just do it? It doesn’t matter to me what siri wants to call it.
Also, why does it say ‘Content not available’? That’s the type of jank that belongs in an OSS linux app, not a premier macOS feature for one of the presumably more common siri commands.

The touch bar

Enough has been said about the touch bar, so I’ll keep it short. Why should any developer spend time developing sorely lacking features for the touch bar, when they just released the most popular mac without one?

The only way I can make sense of the decision to release the air without a touch bar, is that it must be really expensive to manufacture and they were struggling to hit the $1000 price point.

As a result the touchbar lives in this weird limbo state. Apple themselves clearly are uncertain what they want from it, and it shows. Since its release the touch bar has been left mostly abandoned and it’s been up to third party developers to make it useful.

It can be useful, at least after heavy customization – something a screen lends itself well to. Why isn’t apple doing more to help users customize it?

macOS comes with an application called Automator. Automator is confusing for power and regular users alike and as a result, nobody uses it. Why not rethink Automator completely with the touchbar in mind? Bring the power of programming to regular users with an easily accessible ‘create your own button’ feature that lets users add custom commands accessible from their touchbar?

iMovie

My mother recently recorded two videos that she needed to glue together. After opening up iMovie, she wasn’t able to drag and drop the movies into the program. Nothing would happen when we tried doing it. No error message, and seemingly no other way to do it. After googling how to import a video into iMovie, I realized the problem was that the videos were .mkv format, which iMovie doesn’t support.

Why did iMovie not inform her about the problem when she tried dragging and dropping the movie? iMovie should let inform her what she is doing wrong and guide her to a solution, rather than fail silently leaving us completely in the dark.

.mkv is an open file format, and there are tons of free software that can convert the file format in milliseconds to .mp4 which iMovie supports. iMovie should just convert it when I drag it into iMovie. That would be the apple solution. For it to just work.

Podcasts

Apple recently released a podcast app. It’s not possible to change the playback speed. Apple’s own website describes how to do it on iOS, so it doesn’t seem to be a deliberate design decision to exclude it. If apple is going to build an app that will use up space on every single mac, put in some freaking effort and include basic functionality.

Photo Booth

Photo Booth is included on every mac as well. When Steve Jobs premiered it in 2005, showcasing the funny effects was a highlight of the presentation. Since 2005 Apple launched the iPhone and started the mobile revolution, yet the Photo Booth app remains untouched.

phones now take much higher quality pictures than macbooks. Who is using Photo Booth to take funny pictures, when their phone can do so much better? If there are many, apple should update the effects.

Image taken with the photobooth app of me with an outdated effect.
Is this the best effect apple can come up with?

Why does this ancient relic of an un-deletable application still exist in its current version?

iPad interoperability

Apple wisely decided to keep macOS (nearly) free of touchscreens. All your touchscreen needs are to be served by the iPad. Given this decision, I am puzzled at the lack of interoperability between macOS and the iPad.

Catalina brought us sidecar, which is pretty neat. But it’s difficult to believe the best use macOS can make of the $1000 iPad is as a second monitor. Apple can do better.

Logic & Garageband

Composing music digitally is frustrating to say at least. Logic & Garageband support writing music using digital sheet notation. This is the preferred way to compose music for many. Alternatively the notes can be written directly in midi. Both of these ways are clunky and uncomfortable, and painfully slow.

Why can’t I write the sheet music with a pen on the iPad and have it show up directly in logic? Have a look at staffpad. That is exciting! Why is this being developed by a third party? Apple has the capital to simply buy out the company, like they did with Siri, and make it an apple exclusive that neatly integrates with logic & Garageband. Now that’s something to make me seriously consider purchasing an iPad.

iPhone interoperability

For a month in between having my macbook stolen and acquiring a new one, I spent a month with Kubuntu. KDE Plasma has a phone app, from where I could control my powerpoint presentations. I got two compliments for my sleek presentations that month. It’s the type of feature, that just oozes apple.

The KDE team hacked that app together, and it is clear they’re heavily limited by having to run the app through Bluetooth on top of android. With full control of the hardware and software on both iOS and macOS, why can’t I control a powerpoint presentation from my phone without having to install janky third-party apps?

Apple controls the entire ecosystem, still I opt for an android phone. Having the same charger for my macbook and phone is a greater convenience, than anything apple has brought to the table so far

It is frustrating to see products that were once so far ahead, become dated and mediocre with no vision to create anything ambitious. It feels like we’ve collectively settled on building ever sleeker variants of applications that have existed since in the 90’s.

Ordering a pizza in 2020

Yesterday I had misfortune of ordering a pizza. Now, ordering a pizza in 2020 is no easy feat and turned out to be a problem too difficult for even me to solve. I ended up settling on my local subway.

First attempt

I made my selection between the 28 different takeout startups, settling on Postmates as I had used it once before. This time, every restaurant showed up as unavailable and ordering was not possible. No problem, I’ll just order somewhere else!

Second attempt

Next I tried ordering directly from blaze-pizza’s website. After painstakingly typing in my address into some maps-feature which insisted my address didn’t exist, I got to create my order.

Creating my order

Having been to the pizza place from which I was ordering, I know very well the ingredients I wanted on my pizza. Only one problem. The online list didn’t have half the ingredients listed. I figured I could live without vegan chicken and seasonal veggies.

Now I had received a offer in the mail which I was eager to make use of. Pretty simple: order a large pizza, get one free.

Unfortunately, after creating an order for a large pizza, typing in the code yielded an error message stating I needed to add a large pizza for the coupon to be valid. I quickly gave up trying to cash in my coupon, after all I was pretty darn hungry at this point and just wanted to eat.

Finally I needed to type in my credit card information. Being a Danish citizen in America, I typed in my Danish credit card. The form informed me my zip-code was invalid. It certainly wasn’t, it was just not American!

Luckily I have a card issued by transferwise, maybe the form will accept this cards zip code! Only one thing, the card was empty and I needed to add funds.

First derailment

To add funds onto transferwise, you must use their app. Now I had recently changed telephone, so I needed to install the app. To do so they send an SMS that you must type in for verification. After waiting 20 seconds for the SMS to arrive I logged in.

Second derailment

Trying to add $500, with my danish card I was greeted with my banks SMS verification feature. When pressing the the text field to type in my verification code the entire page would turn blank. Luckily the virtual keyboard was still present so I typed in the verification code in blind. Success!

Wait, never mind.

Third derailment

A notification let me know $500 was too much to be transferred with a credit card. I repeated the broken sms verification. Finally, success!

Third attempt

Armed with a transferwise card now with $200 on it, I could go back to what I originally set out to do, namely order my pizza. I typed in the credit card information to blaze pizza’s website. A loading screen appeared. anxiously awaiting my order to go through, A notification popped up “Card declined”. I looked at the transferwise app, from where I could see the pizza transaction stating that it was ‘awaiting confirmation’ from the vendor.

Admitting defeat

By now I was out of credit cards, and still nowhere closer to actually completing my order. I guess ordering a pizza is just too difficult a problem for us to solve. The technology simply isn’t there yet. Maybe in 2030 we’ll get there.

Why do negative harmonies sound worse?

Music theorists have worked for hundreds of years on what constitutes harmonious music. This theory helps explain why smashing your fists on a piano will not sound nice, but pressing the black keys in any given order will.

They discovered that we can group note-relationships into different scales. Our culture determines the way we perceive those scales. Western culture perceives the Minor-scale as sad and Major-scale happy. Rampant overuse of the Double harmonic scale in movie-scores for scenes that are set in the middle-east, has turned it foreign and scary. Likewise, a movie about feudal Japan is not complete without a Hirajoshi Scale.

So what happens if we change a song’s key rewrite a song from one scale to another? If we change a song’s key from major to minor, does it become sad? Kinda. Unfortunately there is no algorithm we can apply to change a songs key without creating disharmony that breaks the music theorists rules for what constitutes harmonious music. We are forced to change some notes to make it abide by these laws. The resulting music tends to adopt the qualities of whatever scale you rewrote it in. A song rewritten to the minor key becomes sad and vice-versa.

There is another algorithm we can consistently apply to any harmony which does not result in any broken rules. An explanation of the algorithm can be found here.

If the original music was harmonious, the negative harmony will always be as well. But weirdly enough, it never sounds as good. Why is that?  What is the quality that the original harmony possessed, which its negative harmony does not?

To give an example of this, Stairway to heaven’s negative harmony, is bland and forgettable, whereas the original is widely regarded as one of the best pieces of music ever written. What changed that made the song lose its beauty?

Wherein lies the magic that makes a song go from merely harmonious, to beautiful?

Watch CGTN


(written february 2019)

What is your opinion on the election in Senegal?

What about the 126 billion dollar investment made by the Indian government to upgrade the nations railways by 2020?

I didn’t know Senegal was a country until earlier today, much less its location, GDP, and other basic facts. Its election is fascinating. The election committee decided last minute to postpone the election day for a week buying (allegedly) much needed time to set up the needed infrastructure to support a voter turnout of more than half the population. The current president, running for reelection has announced he will lead an investigation of the committee. There is so much new information here to evaluate and learn from.

Fortunately, I did know about India prior to hearing this, after all, I’m only moderately stupid! It is a pretty big country. Is a 126 billion dollar investment a big deal in the scope of the Indian economy? It could be anything in between smudge in the budget to half the government’s yearly budget for all I know. At this moment if you’re thinking “this guy is really ignorant” you’d be right, I’m really ignorant regarding most issues outside of the west.

Worse yet, I was not aware just how ignorant I was. There is so much happening in the world, and most of it I’m not aware of. China Global Television Network primarily focuses its coverage on Asia and Africa. It’s crazy that 72 percent of the world’s population until recently made up a negligible part of my newsfeed.

CGTN is not without flaws. It is at the very least subject to a good deal soft censorship. Still the quality of reporting is much better than most western news I encounter. I’m uncertain whether this is because the quality is actually higher, or just because I’m less familiar with the topics and don’t pick up on the bias.

Overall, I’m very happy with having replaced 20 minutes of netflix during lunch, with news that significantly broaden my horizon.

Ode to LaTeX

Latex is a god forsaken tool and should be banished to the depths of hell from whence it came. How this freak of abominable nature has survived for decades is the damning proof that markets are inefficient.

It was hate at first sight. Who in their right mind would use a tool that requires them to use stack-overflow to insert two images beside each other in the proper size!? I was even more shocked to learn that the majority of research papers are written in latex. No wonder every professor is so busy if they’re spending the majority of their time getting their document to compile.

Okay I’ll give it a rest, but my point stands.

I was joyous to learn that Jeff bezos refused to use latex already in the 80’s for the same reasons I do today. I would have expected 40 years of technological progress would have brought a product all could agree superior.

This is not the case and the reasoning is terrible.

The idea of ‘not worrying about layout’ seems to be born mostly out of the absurd difficulty of actually changing it. Instead of Still most latex documents end up looking far superior to their WYSIWYG counterparts.

It comes down to a small set of wisely chosen defaults. Computer Modern is a beautiful font. The 66 character limit makes for easily readable papers. So what happens when we change a Google Docs document to mimic these settings?

Not bad! Google please hire me and let me build googletex.

Or at the very least put me out of my misery because at this point I’d rather write papers with fingerpaint on roadkill than continue using latex.

The career coordination problem

Originally posted on the effective altruism forum: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/pN5qwnruujugRY4AC/the-career-coordination-problem

80,000 hours have outlined many career paths where it is possible to do an extraordinary amount of good. To maximize my impact I should consider these careers. Many of these paths are very competitive and require enormous specialization. I will not be done with my studies for potentially many years to come. How will the landscape look then? Will there still be the same need for an AI specialist, or will entirely new pressing issues have crept up on us like Operations management recently did so swiftly?

80,000 hours is working hard at identifying key bottlenecks in the community. MIRI has long stated that a talent gap has been its main limitation in hiring. This sentiment is shared among many top AI research institutions. Justifiably 80,000 hours recommended AI research as a top career path.

Attending EAGx Netherlands in 2018, I was surprised to see so many young, bright, and enthusiastic people proudly stating they were pursuing a career in AI research with some even switching from unrelated fields to a MSc in Machine Learning!

Not too long ago when it became clear there is an operations management bottleneck, 80,000 hours swiftly released podcasts and articles advocating for the value of pursuing expertise in this field.

I didn’t get to attend EAG London but was told the workshop for Operations management was so packed they had to add an extra room! If there were half as many Effective altruists excited to pursue Operations in EAG London as there were aspiring AI researchers at EAGx Netherlands I’m certain we got Operations covered.

Only one problem. Many of these brilliant people will not be ready until years from now and the bottleneck will remain until then. If we keep recommending pursuing careers that alleviate current bottlenecks for too long after they’ve been identified, then when the bottlenecks are finally alleviated there will be a flood of talented people coming after, crowding over the same limited jobs.

I’m concerned that too little effort is put into tracking how many Effective altruists are pursuing the different problem profiles. Having met more than a hundred Effective altruists early in their career I can count on a single finger the people I’ve met dedicated to improving institutional decision making for example.

80,000 hours has coached around a thousand students and must have the best idea of what careers effective altruists are pursuing, but there is little to to no public information about this that we can take into consideration when we try to figure out what paths to pursue. When planning our careers we shouldn’t only look at neglected areas. We should also look also at the neglected neglected areas, so we avoid crowding over the same subset of neglected areas that are more or less bottlenecked by the time it takes to attain expertise. Currently, this is very hard to do unless you know many young Effective Altruists and even that is a biased sample size.

The career coaches of 80,000 hours are already strained, and I’m asking them to spread their time even thinner but I think it’s important enough to warrant it. As someone with a severe lack of talent, steering clear of competition is my go-to strategy. It would be hugely valuable for me, and hopefully others like me, to have a better insight on what careers other EA’s are choosing, which problems you believe will remain as important in 5 years and which will not.

This potential failure mode is hard to regard as a flaw with 80,000 hours’ career advice but is rather a symptom of their smash success. We are really taking their advice to heart! I suspect 80,000 hours thought about these issues years ago and are well prepared, but on the off-chance I had an original idea, I figured I’d voice it!

Thanks to Sebastian Schmidt for providing feedback on a draft of this, any resemblance of coherent thought is solely due to his help.