Hennessey on Career Regret

I’ve been mulling for a long time whether to stay in physics, and a colleague pointed me toward this Master’s thesis on career regret by Hennessey.

In this blog post I’ll mostly just pull out notable excerpts. I encourage you to read the thesis if this catches your interest. (See also Hanson on deathbed regrets.)

From the introduction:

If you work full time for thirty years the number of hours spent on the job would be approximately 60,000…

What if you never figured out what you want to do with your life? What if you spent your whole life searching and never found the work you wanted? What if you knew what you wanted to do but circumstances prevented you from realizing your dream? What would the experience of any of the aforementioned be like?

This study attempts to examine the experiences of older people who have regrets about their career, specifically as they transition to retirement…how well do we understand the impact of regrettable choices on this population? If a portion of the latter years are indeed spent in quiet contemplation of one’s past, how does one cope with career regret?

Quotes from the literature review on the general phenomenon of regret:

Zeelenberg (1999) refers to regret as a higher order cognitive emotion and this interpretation of regret is supported by the work of Guttentag and Ferrell (2004), who found that 7-year-olds could make the “comparison of what is with what might have been,” whereas 5-year-olds could not. This suggests that, unlike emotions such as fear and anger that can be experienced in infancy, regret requires higher emotional development and cognitive reasoning…

Overall, people are said to experience regret when conventional choices are rejected in favour of unusual ones (Simonson & Tversky, 1992); failure in a situation is the result of a narrow versus wide margin (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995); bad advice is followed and good advice is rejected (Crawford, McConnell, Lewis, & Sherman, 2002); knowledge of alternatives are made available after making a bad decision (Zeelenberg, 1999).

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Meh deep fakes

A lot of people sound worried that new and improving techniques for creating very convincing videos of anyone saying and doing anything will lead to widespread misinformation and even a break down of trust in society.

I’m not very worried. Two hundred years ago, essentially all communication, other than in-person conversation, was done through written word, which is easy to fake and impersonate. In particular, legal contracts were (and are) typeset, and so are trivially fakeable. But although there were (and are) cases of fraud and deception through foraged documents, society has straightforward mechanisms for correctly attributing such communication to individuals. Note, for instance, that multi-billion-dollar contracts between companies are written in text, and we have never felt it necessary to record difficult-to-fake videos of the CEOs reciting them.

The 20th century was roughly a technological Goldilocks period where technology existed to capture images and video but not to fake them. Images, of course, have been fakeable at modest cost for many years. Even in 1992, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun used high-tech fraudulent security footage as a realistic plot point in then-current day. Although we may see some transition costs as folks are tricked into believing fraudulent videos because the ease of faking them has not yet entered the conventional wisdom, eventually people will learn that video can’t be trusted much more than the written word.Which is to say, most of the time you can trust both text and video because most people aren’t trying to defraud you, but extra confirmatory steps are taken for important cases.a   This will not be catastrophic because our trust networks are not critically dependent on faithful videos and images.… [continue reading]

Reply to Hanson

I was privileged to receive a reply from Robin Hanson on my critique of his largely excellent book The Elephant in the Brain with co-author Kevin Simler. I think in several cases he rebutted something other than what I argued, but I encourage you to read it and judge for yourself.

Given the high-profile book reviews that are probably forthcoming from places like the Wall Street Journal, I thank Robin for taking the time to engage with the little guys!

Replies

I’ll follow Robin’s lead and switch to first names.

Some say we should have been more academic and detailed, while other say we should have been more accessible and less detailed….Count Jess as someone who wanted a longer book.

It’s true that I’d have preferred a longer book with more details, but I think I gestured at ways Kevin and Robin could hold length constant while increasing convincingness. And there are ways of keeping the book accessible while augmenting the rigor (e.g., endnotes), although of course they are more work.

Yes for each motive one can distinguish both a degree of consciousness and also a degree of current vs past adaptation. But these topics were not essential for our main thesis, making credible claims on them takes a lot more evidence and argument, and we already had trouble with trying to cover too much material for one book.

I was mostly happy with how the authors handled the degree of consciousness. However, I think the current- vs past-adaptation distinction is very important for designing institutions, which Kevin and Robin correctly list as one of the main applications of the book’s material. For instance, should the arXiv host comments on papers, and how should they be implemented to avoid pissing contests?… [continue reading]

Comments on Simler and Hanson

Drawing on a large academic literature in topics like sociology, behavioral economics, anthropology, and psychology, and especially the (generalized) theory of signalling, Robin Hanson has assembled a large toolbox for systemically understanding hypocrisy, i.e., the ways in which people’s actions systematically and selfishly deviate from their verbalized explanations. Although he would be the first to admit that many of these ideas have been discovered and rediscovered repeatedly over centuries (or millennia) with varying degrees of clarity, and although there is much I am not convinced by, I find the general framework deeply insightful, and his presentation to be more clear, analytical, and descriptive (rather than disruptively normative) than other accounts. Most of this I have gathered from his renowned blogging at Overcoming Bias, but I have always wished for a more concise (and high status!) form factor that I could point others to. At long last, Hanson and his co-author Kevin Simler have written a nice book that largely satisfies me: The Elephant in the Brain (Amazon). I highly recommend it.

The reason I title these sorts of blog posts “Comments on…” is so I can present some disorganized responses to a work without feeling like I need to build a coherent thesis or pass overall judgment. I do not summarize the book below, so this post will mostly be useful for people who have read it. (You might think of this as a one-sided book club discussion rather than a book review.) But since I will naturally tend to focus on the places where I disagree with the authors, let me emphasize: the basic ideas of this book strike me as profound and probably mostly true.… [continue reading]

PDF Guru is like Chrome for PDF readers

This is a quick post to highlight an excellent new PDF reader on macOS call PDF Guru (iTunes store). It is a recently revamped version of PDF Reader X.

I’ve only used it for a week, but it’s the best PDF reader I’ve experienced for reading academic articles. It’s snappy and reminds me of Chrome when it first came out. Draggable tabs. Split view. Plays well with Zotero. Can easily add native PDF annotation and search through the existing ones. (And it saves annotations fast when you close the file.Competitors either do this slowly or, like Skim, use a non-native annotation format that can’t be read by other PDF readers.a  ) The UI for “find” displays a lot of info intuitively.Edit 2018-1-12: And you can search for any unicode character! Really useful for searching a document for math.b   Everything is just nicely designed. I haven’t yet run into a limitation on the free version, but it’s worth upgrading to Pro to support the developer (only $20).

Beware that this is the first version following a big re-write of PDF Reader X, and it’s not completely stable. I’ve gotten it to crash a few times, but the developer has been very responsive to feedback and I’d wager on the stability improving soon. (Edit 2018-1-7: After upgrading to the new version, 3.0.20A, a couple weeks ago, I haven’t experienced any crashes. Looks stable.)

I’m advertising Guru because I think the current selection of PDF readers for academic reading is pretty bad.I have no connection to the developer.c   I strongly prefer Guru (instability and all) over these other PDF readers on maxOS that I have tried: FoxIt, Preview, Adobe Acrobat Reader, and Skim.… [continue reading]

PI accepting 2017 master’s student applications

The Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) program is now accepting applications for this Master’s program, to start next fall. The due date is Feb 1st. Me previously:

If you’re in your last year as an undergrad, I strongly advise you (seriously) to consider applying. Your choice of grad school is 80% of the selection power determining your thesis topic, and that topic places very strong constraints on your entire academic career. The more your choice is informed by actual physics knowledge (rather than the apparent impressiveness of professors and institutions), the better. An additional year at a new institution taking classes with new teachers can really help.


Here’s the poster and a brand new propaganda video:
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Comments on Hanson’s The Age of Em

One of the main sources of hubris among physicists is that we think we can communicate essential ideas faster and more exactly than many others.This isn’t just a choice of compact terminology or ability to recall shared knowledge. It also has to do with a responsive throttling of the level of detail to match the listener’s ability to follow, and quick questions which allow the listener to hone in on things they don’t understand. This leads to a sense of frustration when talking to others who use different methods. Of course this sensation isn’t overwhelming evidence that our methods actually are better and function as described above, just that they are different. But come on.a   Robin Hanson‘s Age of Em is an incredible written example of efficient transfer of (admittedly speculative) insights. I highly recommend it.

In places where I am trained to expect writers to insert fluff and repeat themselves — without actually clarifying — Hanson states his case concisely once, then plows through to new topics. There are several times where I think he leaps without sufficient justifications (at least given my level of background knowledge), but there is a stunning lack of fluff. The ideas are jammed in edgewise.

Academic papers usually have two reasons that they must be read slowly: explicit unpacking of complex subjects, and convoluted language. Hanson’s book is a great example of something that must be read slowly because of the former with no hint of the latter. Although he freely calls on economics concepts that non-economists might have to look up, his language is always incredibly direct and clear. Hanson is an academic Hemingway.

Most of what I might have said on the book’s substance was very quickly eclipsed by other reviews, so you should just read Bryan Caplan, Richard Jones, or Scott Alexander, along with some replies by Hanson.… [continue reading]

Inaccessible Wikipedia science articles as inclusionism

I thought this criticism by Ars Technica of the woeful state of Wikipedia’s science articles was mostly off the mark. (HN Comments.) The author framed it as a conflict between laymen and specialists, claiming that scientific articles are targeted at specialists at the expense of laymen, with lots of jargon, etc. I eagerly agree with him that there are lots of terrible science articles, and that some technical articles could use better context and introductory bits. But I think this is largely a problem of not having enough skilled science writers rather than a purposeful choice between laymen and specialists. Due to the curse of knowledge the specialists literally do not understand what is and isn’t accessible to laymen; they see through the jargon like the matrix. And the laymen do not get in their gut how many true technical dependencies there really are, that unless you understand topics X and Y, topic Z is pretty much useless. They assume that all this jargon is used by the specialists either because they are too lazy to translate, or are purposefully constructing barriers to entry. I empathize with skilled science writers (which are unfortunately rare), because their best articles often go unnoticed as both laymen and scientists read them and shrug “Yea, that’s pretty clear. Was that really so hard?”.

The examples used in the editorial, like “Rabi oscillation“, are the sort of scientifically deep topics, with many dependencies, that one will never be able to write more than a few layman-accessible sentences about. If you don’t know what a Hilbert space is, there’s just not that much to say about Rabi oscillations.… [continue reading]