Perspectives on Adopt vs Shop

Epistemic status: Considering the area where calculated optimization and emotional attachment both overlap and contradict is an inherently risky process.
Content warning: Kittens.

I’ve been thinking of getting a cat lately, and wondering whether I should buy or adopt. The escalating list of considerations:

Level 0 (common knowledge): “Adopt, don’t shop! Adopting helps a cat who needs a home, while shopping helps create kitten mills and increases the number of sad homeless street cats.”

Level 1 (Naive EA): If, ethics aside, you would pay a few hundred dollars for a store bought pet, it’s probably because the store bought pet is giving you more value in some way. Given that this is a wide enough gap for you to pay several hundred dollars, it’s probably also enough for you to pay an extra $50 to an effective animal charity – which probably does way more for animal welfare than the adoption of one kitten would. So buying a pet + giving money to an animal charity is better (from both a personal utility and a total animal welfare perspective) than adopting a pet, and you should just do that.

Holivia (not mine) was storebought. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t pay good money to wake up next to this floof.

Level 3 (emotional EA): On the other hand… you’re not getting a pet to maximize floof levels. You’re getting a pet for an emotional connection. Serendipity and irreplacability are kind of fundamental to having a real emotional connection. It feels like you could never really bond with a pet if on some level you’re thinking “eh I could go back and buy a new, equally good kitten whenever I want”. In which case why are you even getting a pet.

Finally, three stories, that don’t really lead me to any definitive conclusion.

1 (Bean): A while ago, a friend of mine had this foster kitten. His name is Bean. She showed me some pictures and I was severely tempted to rent a car, drive ten hours, and steal Bean away to adopt him as my own. I’m sure that objectively speaking there were cuter cars within a thousand mile radius of New York, but, well, look at him.

This is Bean. He has since been adopted, hopefully to a warm and loving home.

2 (Vase Cats): Back in March 2020, these two kittens were born in a vase in my parents’ backyard. They started regularly sending me videos of them, which helped get me through the early pandemic. This feels like peak serendipity, but we never actually adopted them, and eventually they grew big enough to jump over the fence and left the garden. I still see them around the neighborhood sometimes when I visit.

An early video. For any vase cat enthusiasts, there are several more up on the channel.

To the degree that this has a moral, it’s that serendipity is important but doesn’t necessarily lead to adoption – and that one goes both ways. They’re both nice things, but we don’t have to tie them together.

3 (Larry, Rosie, Adverse selection and FeLV): My old roommate, once he settled down with a steady then-girlfriend[1], decided to adopt some cats. So they went to the shelter, where most of the cats were kinda laid back and unplayful, except these two siblings, who were incredibly cute and nice and playful. So he decided to adopt them both.

They even eventually learned to share the couch.

Only Issue – they had FeLV, which gave them a roughly 50/50 chance of dying within a few years[2]. He decided to take them both anyway, on the reasoning that he could probably handle better it if they died than some kid adopting them as his first pets.

To the degree that there is a moral here, it’s a little about serendipity (we adopted the nicest cats, healed them, and now Larry plays fetch and fights Rosie over the couch, which is adorable). But it’s mostly about adverse selection – these two great cats were only left at the shelter because they were sick. If you go to a shelter (with a fixed supply and active interest), some people will already have taken the best cats, and you could have to make some compromises you might not want to.

On the other hand, sometimes you don’t. Muffin was adopted at random and does not, to my knowledge, have any real downsides aside from an aversion to having her claws clipped.

[1] Still his girlfriend at the time of this writing.

[2] Fortunately, we ended up winning that coinflip. They’ve both since managed to clear the virus from their systems, and should live a full cat lifespan.

What I learned about running a betting market game night contest.

This week I decided to run a betting markets contest – we got a bunch of people together, opened a bunch of betting markets, and competed to see who’d end up with the highest net score[1]. It’s a lot of fun, and I recommend more people try it. The basic rules went like this:

  1. The best way I found to set it up was to open a group on Manifold Markets[3]. I set up a game night group, then uploaded the questions one at a time. After a few minutes of betting, I moved on to the next question. I closed them all one at a time in the end.
  2. Each player started out with a set total mana budget for all questions of the night. The budget was freed up as we resolved questions at the end of the night, which allowed for some reinvestment. Aside from that, players had to watch their budgets (since you needed to keep some budget left for later questions).
  3. Manifold markets subsidizes the basic questions – the first player to bet has a significant first mover advantage. To deal with this, we went around in a circle and each person in turn got up to a minute to place the first bet, after which it was a free for all[2]. I then gave a couple of minutes for the free for all before proceeding to the next question (betting on past questions was always allowed).
  4. I had various types of questions. Some were trivia (e.g. “does the NYC subway system have more stations than the London Tube”), some were local (e.g. “how many dice are in this bowl” or “how many people will be in the room when this question is settled”), and some were gameable in various ways (e.g. “in how many T/F questions will the majority be correct”, “how many total questions will I ask”, or “which question will have the most total points bet on it”). I had the most fun with the gameable ones (I’m not sure if the contestants did). I did want them to all be unambiguously settleable by the end of the night.

I learned a lot from running this. Here’s a list of useful conclusions (some of which I was prepared for, most of which I learned the hard way):

  1. This will be chaotic. If you do well, follow all the advice below, and avoid any new issues, it may be slightly less chaotic. But this is a fundamentally messy game.
  2. You may run into a latency issues. It can take a minute or two for a question to show up on the site for other people, and they may not all show up at once. The best solution I found was to start uploading the next question once the first mover’s exclusive bet was in, and then let the next player start on it once everyone could see it.
  3. Something in the range of 15-20 questions should be good for a 2-3 hour game night (although you may want to take it slower than I did, in which case adjust accordingly). It’s also a lot of fun to not tell the contestants how many questions there are until the end (makes the game more interesting, especially if “how many questions will there be” is itself a question). Have a few questions you can skip if necessary, so that you can tailor the number of questions to the length of the game.
  4. Close the questions before you declare what the right answer is verbally (unless you deliberately want to sow chaos, which you might). Otherwise you’ll have people jumping in to bet in the five seconds between your declaration and your hitting the close button.
  5. Try to avoid open-answer questions. (True/False, preset list, and numerical questions should all be good). Open-ended questions can cause race conditions on the site when multiple people try to submit the same answer. (The one open question that worked out well for us was “which answer will get the most points”).
  6. Make sure you put all the questions in the group. Make sure your questions start with an index so that you can talk about “question X” coherently. Make sure you have the questions and the answers to the questions written down (for those that have predetermined answers). Make sure you settle the question the right way. It’s easy to slip up on any of these under pressure.
  7. Have a clear, loud announcer voice that you use for game declarations (especially whenever you declare a new question and who’s up to be the first mover for it). Make sure everyone is paying attention to official announcements.
  8. Have a sample question for people to experiment with the mechanics of betting (up/down, entering a number, and limit orders) before starting the game proper. Make sure everyone playing has had a chance to understand the betting mechanics before you start. (I used “will this coin come up heads” for this).
  9. Especially if you’re running something for a large group of people (we had around 20), it may be useful to do a beta run with one other person and iron out bugs. It might also be useful to have a two-person team running the game night (one person handling the technical side, one person handling the players). There isn’t that much to do when organizing, but it can still be a lot under pressure (especially if you have to debug anything on the fly).
  10. Keep a timer. Use it to limit the first mover’s time to bet to one minute max, and rely on it to keep the game moving in general. Keeping the game moving with more questions is on you – players are easily sidetracked by arguing on existing questions.
  11. The Manifold leaderboards can be a bit buggy. If you want to check who won, you’ll have to just ask people how many points they have – the group leaderboards might not be accurate.

[1] As it turned out, it was the guy whose day job is a trader at Jane Street.

[2] I also gave players the option to pass on a question (which runs the risk of us running out of questions before we get back to someone), but no one took me up on it. This may be an unnecessary complication, and I’d drop the pass rule if I run something like this again.

[3] Who are in general pretty nice and endorsed. Someone on their team noticed what we were doing when we started and debugged things for me on the fly, which was thoroughly great of them.

On Legibility vs Trust

I’ve been reading Planecrash lately. Here’s how it begins:

This story begins in a place that would be, as seen by some other places, a high-trust society…

And the thing that stands out, once you read some of the story, is that Eliezer’s Dath Ilan is very emphatically not a high-trust society. Its people are constantly questioning the motives and plans of everyone around them, “why trust what you can verify” is a universal common saying, and it’s considered extremely socially taboo to cry in front of someone else (because it might impose an emotional cost they don’t want to pay).

What it has, instead of trust, is extremely high legibility. Everyone thinks in basically the same way, there’s a basic universally-spoken language with no ambiguities or homonyms, and microtransactions for basic favours are standard. Probably the most extreme example of replacing trust with legibility is the story about the government: A few decades ago the government decided there was a secret they needed to make sure no one ever knew. This is inherently suspicious, but instead of asking whether the government was trustworthy, the people of Dath Ilan simply made sure they couldn’t use this secret to seek power by setting up an entirely new government with a completely different set of people using a global paper-based cryptographic system. It’s the sort of thing you can do when you have implausibly extreme level of legibility and coordination, and need to use them to replace trust.

(As an aside, there’s a whole article to be written about how Dath Ilan’s a slightly-twisted representation of the circa-2010 techie/internet culture Eliezer grew up in, but that’s a whole other issue).

There’s a culture of people (originally based on James Scott’s Seeing Like a State) that thinks all legibility is bad. I still think they’re wrong, but after reading this I at least see what they’re afraid of. Living in a place like Dath Ilan, that replaces all trust with legibility, sounds awful. There’s three levels of thinking about this:

On the first level, Legibility and Trust are roughly orthogonal. Legibility in itself is good, and living in a high-trust societies are good, and neither of them fully substitutes for the other so we should have both.

On the second level, there is a nonzero amount of displacement happening: Legibility can reduce the need for trust, to some degree, which makes people prioritize building trust less. More indirectly, legibility lets newcomers integrate into society more easily, which means more legible societies also have more strangers, immigrants, and cultural variance, which reduces trust. So there is one point here I will concede to the illegibility crowd – you shouldn’t put all your eggs in legibility, even if it seems like it could solve your problems.

On the third level – we still need legibility. Firstly, because displacement effects are second-order, so they’re almost always less significant than the original benefits of legibility. Secondly, because where they don’t displace, legibility and trust benefit each other – a work environment works best when you can both understand what’s expected of you and trust that people will be reasonable when measuring it. And third, because legibility scales better and is easier to achieve. It’s nice to imagine being part of a high-trust illegible community, but if you’re not already in that community, illegibility is awful. And most people don’t start out in a high-trust community they genuinely like.

Annual semi-mopey Birthday post: Twin Primes, part 2

Mood: The actual song in my head today is You Had a Bad Day. This is mostly because I’ve been reminiscing over California, which is a different time in my life. Always Gold is a better representation of my mood these days.

Scott once observed that American life seems to go in four-year intervals: four years of high school, four years college, four years med school, four years residency[1].

Well, I’m not American. Israeli high school goes for three years instead of four, but as suited to my tradition of never quite fully fitting in anywhere, I’m actually a bit off that . As far as I can tell my life goes in blocks of around two and a half years, and I’m around two years into the current block.

Working backwards – I’ve been in New York just over two years now (I moved here around February 1st 2020). Before that I was in California for two and a half years. Before that, I split the five years of grad school into around two halves – the first one was culture shock, living in my original dorm room, doing courses and panicking about not understanding algebraic geometry well enough to do any original research, going on approximately (or maybe exactly) zero dates. The second half involved at least one relationship and several one-night stands, switching to combinatorics and finally getting some research done, moving out of the grad dorms and then back into different grad dorms, deciding to leave academia, and hanging out socially with a different subset of mathematicians.

Does this go back any further? The block before that – my time between high school and coming to America – was just about three years, finishing my undergrad and doing my master’s. Further back it gets murky – should the previous block be just two years – starting with the chaos of eleventh grade, from math camp to college to my (terrible) first kiss and ending with physics camp? Or does it start a year and a half before that, with the big social reshuffle where I lost most of my friends at the end of ninth grade? Is middle school all one block? (Elementary school, weirdly enough, is easier – I went to four different schools, which splits me into pretty neat periods).

Anyway, exhaustive block-sorting of my previous life aside, the point here is that I’m due for a major change within the next few months. And a major change is on the horizon – I’m looking for a new job, possibly in a different city, probably with a year or more of garden leave between it and my current one. There is a nonzero (but low) probability of just changing teams and roles at my current job – but even that would be a fairly large change. But whichever way it goes – this time next year I won’t be working as an engineer, or for my current boss (future me, if you’re reading this a year in the future and still there – just leave already. Unless things have changed a lot more than I’m expecting you’re still miserable, unfulfilled and probably underpaid, at least relative to the stress premium. But hopefully you’re somewhere better by now).

I might stay in New York, I might go back to Israel, I might even go to London or Singapore. But I don’t want to stay where I am.

Relationship-wise, this year has been… interesting. There’s definitely been a few spectacular failures of crushes, the type I’ve had before. There’s also been one or two really good relationships that didn’t end up leading to marriage – but not because anyone was terrible, or explosive, or mean. Just because we didn’t quite have enough long-term chemistry and compatibility. But despite that I’m going to miss Liz – she was sweet, and kind, and went out of her way to do nice things and care for me, and never did anything mean or went out of her way to hurt me. And I’m not sorry that ended, exactly – there were reasons for it – but I’m still happy it happened. Partly because it had a lot of genuine warm moments I can look back on. And partly because it proved to me that that sort of thing can happen to me. Not an almost-miss because someone I thought was wonderful turned out to reject or hurt me or be terrible, but an almost-miss because someone was exactly who I thought she was at first, but we just didn’t develop enough from there. Which is an independent and uncorrelated error that I wouldn’t expect to reproduce in most cases.

There’s at least one other relationship that’s also pretty great in similar ways, but that one’s still ongoing, so I’ll avoid getting into it here. It could still blow up in various ways, but then that’s always an option. So far I’m pretty happy with it though.

My grandfather died last year, just about a week after my birthday. It was hard, even harder than I thought it would be, even though it wasn’t exactly a surprise to anyone (him least of all). It’s still hard to think about. I don’t think there’s much to be said about it. I saw Coco the night before I got the news, which was strangely appropriate.

I moved to a new, fancy apartment. Fanciest apartment since I lived in SF, and with much better lighting (it’s a corner apartment with lots of windows). I liked it well enough to renew the lease, although given the job stuff I guess I’m not sure I’ll actually stay the full year. It’s my first time renewing a lease since… well, since my second year of grad school (and that was also, ironically, a one bedroom).

(Funny aside: I went on a date the other day with someone who, as it turned out pretty much at random, also lived in that exact dorm room a few years after me. So indeed do many things come to pass).

I have about five minutes to finish writing this post. What else is there to say? I guess I do feel a little bit older, but not much; 29-33 feels like a pretty samey age block. My shoulder’s been cracking more lately, but I think that’s just because of how I’ve been lifting weights, not age or anything (it actually doesn’t hurt the way it did a few years ago whenever I slept on my left side). The future does seem a bit narrower than it used to – I no longer feel like I can start infinite new careers, I feel like this is my last shot at that (at least, for making money – there’s always the chance I’ll later do the thing where you quit a high-paying job to do something fun, once you’ve made enough money). I worry about lacking motivation to try to save the world – maybe that’ll change if I ever have a family. I got a free iPad from work for my 2-year anniversary, which I ironically plan to use for studying for my next job (seems like reading PDFs is the one potential good usecase for an iPad). I got way too into Slay The Spire, almost finished Skyward Sword, and played through the entire Phoenix Wright trilogy (I still ship him with Iris).

Time to sign off for the year. Hopefully next one will have some good news. If it’s better relationships-wise by as much as this year was from the ones before it, and better career-wise by the median amount of what I can currently reasonably expect, and no new disasters strike, I think I’ll be pretty happy.

[1] It’s been just about 4-5 years since he wrote that post; Over the last year he left his original job as a psychiatrist to start Lorien/full time substack and gotten married, so he seems to be keeping up the streak)

Reflections on the end of the pandemic.

The pandemic officially ended this week in New York, with the repeal of the mask mandate. The rest of the world is at most a week or two behind.

Total US Cases over the last three months

The omicron wave is over, the hospitals didn’t become overloaded again, and almost no one is immunonaive anymore. We’re not down to literally zero cases, but the pandemic is as over as it’s ever going to be.

Israeli rates over the last three months. Not quite all the way back down, but at this rate they’ll be there within a week

It’s time to start talking about the pandemic in the past tense. If 2019 is the Before Times, we are now in the After Times.

It’s also time to reflect on what pandemic measures you’re still doing. The pandemic is as over as it’s ever going to be, which means that any measures you’re taking now are measures you’ve decided it’s worth taking for the rest of your life. If you still isolate and avoid meeting people, you’ll be isolated for the rest of your life. If you still wear a mask around strangers, you may never have a real face to face conversation with a stranger again.

Or maybe not. Maybe you’ve been deeply afraid for a long time, and it’s not so easy to look at the numbers, decide the fear is no longer rational, and move on. That’s understandable. Fear isn’t always easy to get over. But if you don’t want to be this afraid for the rest of your life, it’s time to start working on it. You don’t have to do it all at once. But you can’t put off trying any more.

Maybe you’ve thought deeply about it, compared your best estimates of the risks with the cost of various preventative actions, and decided that the risks of covid are so great, or the costs of isolation are so low, that it’s worth living this way for the rest of your life. If that’s your decision, well, that’s up to you. But you can’t enforce it on other people anymore.

If you’re neither of these – if you have decided to move on – it won’t be easy. There’s a lot of people who are deeply invested in being afraid, and, unfortunately, more than a few people who enjoy being busybodies and enforcing norms on you. For society to move on, we’re going to have to push back.

What can you do? First, you can stop wearing a mask where not required. If you are a legislator, or a business owner, or someone in a position of power, you can remove the distancing and mask requirements you had during the pandemic. If you are a voter, remember this when you vote. If you are a customer, remember that you can take your business elsewhere. Remember that civil disobedience is also a tool you can use – in situations without enforcement, you can choose to disregard bad rules. Subway mask wearing will de facto end when people stop wearing masks, not when the MTA repeals its unenforced mask requirements and stop blaring their PSAs. In places that do require masks, you can make them go out of their way to remind you – wearing a mask is not costless to you and should not be costless for others to enforce on you.

If you’re very worried about potential harms to others, and want to do something to save lives, well, covid is no longer the main crisis going on. Givewell is always a good suggestion for global activism, and for local activism, I suggest joining the anti-car movement – by QALYs lost car crashes do more damage than covid even in a normal year, and that’s without even getting into their air pollution health effects, which are credibly even larger.

With that tangent done, it’s time to go forth into the after times. Remember, we can always end up with a new pandemic – either by some radically more dangerous new covid strain or from something completely new – so we’d better live life while we can. Go out and live, because the world will not wait for you to be ready.

Song Translations: Crocodile Creek

I originally wrote this one in 2013, sitting bored in the back of a functional analysis lecture. I had to reproduce it from memory (with a few alterations), but somewhat to my surprise I found I remembered it all

Original song, lyrics.

I am by your side again,
And with you my heart flows again,
But where are they today,
Those children of the sun?

All the boats left the quay
And all my friends have gone away
The wooden bridge is all collapsed
But still goes bank to bank above you

Remember how the sky would race
Across the flowing water’s face
How the stars would bathe among the reeds there in the night
Do you remember moonlit singing,
Or a lonely flower springing?
How the quarry shone when it was baths in silver light?

My ears catch a familiar sound
I close my eyes and listen hard,
Where have they gone away,
those ringing silver bells?

When there was a fire here
The smoke rose high, the singing clear
And an hour after midnight,
We were in the dark, remember…

Remember how the sky would race…

The mountain there is standing, still
The grass is green along the hill
Your water is forever
Flowing, flowing on…

And today, like long ago
The tree above, the stones below,
And only different eyes I see
Staring at me through the water…

Remember how the sky would race…

The Hidden Keepers’ Monastery

The thief heard the door shut behind him soon after he finished the book. In retrospect, he thought, he should probably have taken the book somewhere safe before reading it. But after all the years of searching, he had grown impatient.

A moment of disorientation as he looked up. As he’d expected, the monk he’d seen before – the man he’d sneaked by on his way in – was sitting in the room with him. But the old man was sitting in front of him. The door was behind him. “How did you…”

“How did I get here?” The monk asked quietly. “There is no secret door, if you were thinking that. But God is not shy with his miracles, for those of us who know the Truth.”

The thief gestured to the book on the table. “You claim to know the true name of God. That you are the sole caretakers of the ancient secret hidden even from the vatican…”

“We do, Julian. Sit down.” Julian sat down, in a chair he was sure had not been there a moment earlier. “You know my name.”

“We know many things. Here in this house of God, where we know the true Name, We need not rely on blind faith. We see His acts around us, the blazing light of His fingerprints in every act. You should feel it even in that chair you sit on, as it was made for this conversation.”

Without consciously thinking about it, Julian knew what he meant. The chair didn’t just feel like a hunk of wood he was sitting on. It felt like the thing that other wooden chairs were a metaphor for.

But he still had questions.

“The book said you split off from the Church, or the church split off from you, back in Roman times. That Peter was one of you, and maybe Jesus too, and you created all of christianity to do… something. Like Hari Seldon creating the Foundation, leaving only the few who knew his secrets to run the Second Foundation in his wake.” He had always loved those books as a child. They’d what led him to researching Roman history, all the way down to the secret annals of the Vatican where he had first discovered hints about the Secret Monastery.

“Older even than that”, the old monk said. “As old as Abraham, we think, although even our oldest histories do not go back that far.”

“But why then? Why the secrecy?” Why keep The light of God to yourself, hidden in this monastery at the far end of the world, he thought, but did not say. He didn’t want to hurt the quiet old monk, being so patient with a burglar.

The old man sighed. “You see God’s light around you, but there is another side to it, we fear. The fires of hell are harsh, and we wish to protect people from them.”

“Hell is real then too?” That part hadn’t been in the book. 

“It is.”

He asked the obvious question. “Do you know how to avoid it?”

“We do. It’s not complicated. You simply have to hold God in appropriate awe.”

“That doesn’t sound too hard, if you see miracles around you every day. But why keep it hidden?”

“Well, I’ll have to go back a bit for that. 

It all started a long time ago, before even our records go. Long before the time of Jesus. Probably before even Moses, if he was ever a real person – even we’re not sure of that. Legend says it started all the way back in the time of Abraham.

As legend has it, Abraham was the first man in the first true civilized city – civilized enough that written language was commonplace  – to have encountered God directly. The first encounter was, as the account goes, fairly straightforward. God appeared before Abraham when he was alone in his father’s shop, revealed the true nature of the world to him, and warned him about life beyond this world. We don’t know what the other options are – that part of the tale is rather garbled – but God was very clear that sinners go to hell, which is a worse fate than a mortal can possibly imagine.”

“What sins send you to hell? How can you be safe from going there?”

“That’s the first question everyone always asks. It was the first question Abraham asked too, back in his father’s shop in Ur Kasdim. And God said it was simple enough. You must hold the true name of God in honest reverence throughout your life.”

“Honest reverence to God? That’s it?”

“That’s it. But honest reverence is not so simple a matter. Finding honest awe within yourself is easy when you first see a miracle, as you are finding out now. Keeping reverence throughout your life is… hard. Men can get used to anything.

But there was another side to this. What do you think Abraham’s second question was, once he learned about hell?”

“He would have asked… what about his father, and all the other people who had never even heard the true Name of God? Were they all doomed to hell?”

“So he did. And God said that this only applied to people who actually knew the Name. Anyone who was honestly in ignorance, through no fault of his own, was safe.It would be unjust to condemn someone like that.”

“So Abraham reached the conclusion that people were safer never hearing about the Name, because keeping it in honest reverence would be hard for most of them. And you keep God’s Name hidden for the same reason?”

“Exactly right. 

But Abraham also learned something else. He was the first man since the invention of writing to whom God had revealed himself so directly, but he was not the first man ever to have learned it. Every time God’s name was forgotten from this world, God revealed himself to a new mortal, chosen at random among humanity. And before writing was commonplace, and it was hard to keep written records, the knowledge had always died away again within a few generations.

But now writing was common in Ur, and was spreading throughout the known world. Abraham could not just take the secret with him to his grave – if the knowledge died with him, it might come to someone without his judgement, someone who would tell it to the world, where it would never be forgotten again. He couldn’t risk that.

So he did the only thing he could. He left his family to protect them, and travelled to a faraway land where few people lived. And there he started his clan, the hidden keepers of the Name.

Over the generations, his family grew, and eventually they became a mighty people. At some point – certainly by the time of Moses – it had become a secret kept only by the high priests, and then became more secret even than that. Jesus’s claim to be king of the jews was based not on him having the bloodline of kings, but rather on his family being the last descendants of the keepers of the Name.

But Jesus was careless, or perhaps was betrayed by one of his apostles, and the Romans learned that he and not the priests was the true Keeper of the Name. And the Roman governor decided to have the secret tortured out of him, and to present it to his emperor. For all its danger, knowing God’s true name truly does work miracles, and the Romans wanted that power for themselves, as they wanted to learn all the powers of all the peoples they conquered.

But Jesus endured the torture on the cross, and died before revealing the Name. But afterwards his apostles realized how close they had come to disaster, and that it could happen again, since foolish people who heard about the Name might try to uncover it. And so they forged the great masquerade.

They declared Jesus himself to be God, and based a whole religion around him. They spread it throughout the empire, and claimed that their new religion of christianity, a hidden sect of judaism, had been the secret Jesus kept all along. And a few of them escaped, and were forgotten by the empire, and came far here to build this monastery. The secret leaders of christianity were powerful allies, so they were kept in the loop that this monastery was a secret that must be protected, but even they were never told the full truth. And we have chosen our heirs very carefully, to be only those rare people who can keep the Name in reverence for all their days.

So now”, the old man continued, his voice growing weary, “you know the full story. You know what we keep here, and why we keep it hidden. It was good to talk with you. It has been many years since I spoke with someone from Outside.”

He got up and walked over to the highest shelf on the wall, and took a dusty old bottle of wine, from which he poured Julian a cup.

“I will not try to stop you from leaving, if you wish. We have kept the secret here for two thousand years now. I believe that God Himself is guarding it for us, and that if you decided to try to reveal it to the masses, you would find your path blocked in some unexpected way.

But if God guards His secrets, only you can guard your soul. And so I will give you a choice. If you trust yourself beyond all doubt to keep the awe you feel now in your heart, and carry it for all your days, you may get up and go. And if not, then you may drink the wine.”

Julian sat there for a long time. The old man got up and left, and Julian walked up to the window (had it been there before?). They had been talking for a long time, and the stars were starting to fade, and be replaced by the first light of dawn.

Lessons from covid predictions: Always use multiple models

Epistemic status: This point isn’t novel (it’s one of the the ten commandments of superforecasting, more or less),  but it’s often underappreciated.

I went out of my way to make two explicit predictions about covid over the course of the pandemic. The first, back around January 2020, was a vague claim that internet people’s worrying about the pandemic was probably overblown and it’d probably level off before it got global. The second one (dated March 12 2021) was more explicit:

 Israel opened vaccines up to general availability at about 0.7 SPP (Shots Per Person). Biden wants to open them on May 1st, which will be just about 0.7SPP at current rates.
Overall, this seems pessimistic (we should expect more acceleration by then), so it does seem to be more of Biden’s “underpromise and overdeliver” media strategy. But this one’s likely to not be too far off, since there’s much less time for acceleration now.
(A few complications: The US vaccinated slower, so you might need a higher threshold for demand shock. But also US rules are more convoluted, so you’d expect demand shock to hit in earlier – but the more convoluted rules also mean there’s more people in the various priority groups, so less pressure to open up to general availability. Overall I think these are mostly a wash).

In the spirit of testable predictions: My 90% confidence interval for the median (that is, 25th/50) state making vaccines generally available is 4/17-5/2.

My reasoning behind the first prediction was that we’d had pandemic scares every few years for a while – swine flu, SARS 1, Ebola, Zika, and they’d all fizzled out. So there’s an argument that your prior should be that most pandemic scares fizzle out.

The first prediction, obviously, was wrong. The second was technically correct (the actual date of the median state making vaccines available was 4/19), but just barely, and thanks to an unprincipled extension of my error bounds (I’d run a spreadsheet with a few different scenarios for the rate of vaccine acceleration, then added a few days to each side to get my interval. The US was nowhere at only 0.63 SPP at the time.) I’d give myself a 0.5/2 here, which isn’t a great track record.

 Where did I go wrong?

My biggest mistake was only having one model for each prediction. With the first one, I didn’t even have a confidence interval. With the second one, I accounted for uncertainty within the model, but not for the uncertainty from the model being off. We should always, always consider at least two models when making a prediction. Think of it as running a Monte Carlo simulation on the meta level – we run through the meta-level process of coming up with different models a few times, and that lets us improve accuracy (by averaging the models), and estimate our model uncertainty (by seeing how much they vary).

What could I have done here? For the first prediction (whether or not covid would go global), I could have done an inside-view estimate. Look an infection rates, look at the error bars on how good preventative measures might be, try to guess how likely they were to fail. I probably (given what I knew at the time) would have ended up at somewhere around 30% chance of it going global – still low, but no longer crazy off. 

For the second one, I could have come up with an inside-view model – try to estimate how much pent-up demand there was in special categories and see when we’d run through it, or compare US states to each other instead of just to a different country. It would have given a result closer to the truth, and would have let me estimate model uncertainty without resorting to an ad-hoc “eh let’s just add a few days to fudge it”.

(Can the multi-model approach fail? If my extra model for the first question was “go out to the street and ask someone if he had covid”, it would have made me worse off. Doing the math, adding models fails if the within-model error is significantly larger than our model uncertainty. So our models do have to be at least reasonably good).

Finally, on a more optimistic note – we did manage to learn from this going forward. When we ran through trying to estimate the infection risk at NYC solstice, we made the inside-view calculations for likely results based on microcovid’s infection estimates and all that – but we also sanity-checked them by looking at results from similar events like lollapalooza, and it helped to see that they had similar results to our estimates.

Shaked’s Dating Profile

General self-description

Moderately nerdy guy (age 30) who writes stories, translates songs, and overshares cat pictures. Currently living in New York City but leaning against settling down here permanently, and likes the idea of living somewhere family-friendly (that isn’t a suburb).


By nerdy, I mean that I tend to get into phases where I get weirdly excited about things. To take a few random recent examples: Which countries have the best and most cost-effective transit systems[1], and urbanism and city planning more generally[2]. Computability theory[3], or alternate computation models, like what its implications would look like for a world that had regular time travel. Acrobatics.

 The history of clothes making[4]. Making homemade liquor.


Building this took a surprisingly long time

Cats[5]. Elaborate improvised constructs.

Also, glacier climbing

What a world would look like if time travel was possible but constrained by computability limits, except that cats could effectively get around them by having weak preferences, and the whole thing ran on a hybrid Miyazaki/Moomins/FF7 aesthetic. And so on.

By family-oriented, I mean, well – I like happy families. And I like kids, and really want kids, and like the kind of family/tribal structures where people of different ages actually interact.

I am slightly trad in some ways, by which I mean something like enjoying some traditions and traditional attitudes but not actually being particularly religious. So I like Friday night family dinners (with the candles and the nice tablecloth[6]), and I like casual gender norms (In that, say, I prefer the sound of “my wife” to “my spouse”), but don’t do regular prayers or really keep kosher (except I don’t eat pork).

For stories – I wrote this one about first contact, or this one about bike lanes. For song translations, I mostly do Israeli folk songs (like this one, or this one).

Life/Relationship Goals

Most of all, I want a family. I want a good happy partnership relationship, and I want a bunch of kids. There’s probably practical constraints on how many kids I could practically have or handle, but in principle, I’m a fan of the idea of having lots of kids. I think I would be a good dad.

I currently live in New York and work doing vague finance and programming stuff. I like it here for now, but I wouldn’t want to settle down permanently, or raise kids here. Where I want to end up is a hard question – for having kids, I’d want to be somewhere clean and pedestrian-friendly, where the kids can walk safely by themselves to get around or play outside or whatnot. Sometimes I think about going back to Israel, but there are other places that meet those conditions. (Financially, I do have more than enough to support a family, including if I was married to someone who wanted to be a homemaker or work nonprofit or whatever, or to take a few years off for that matter).

My ideal relationship involves sharing random ideas that get us excited off each other, cooking or going on hikes together, randomly messaging each other cat pictures, developing a pool of shared references and frames that becomes a little like a shared language, spiderman kisses (that is, where one or both of the people doing the kissing are hanging upside-down), and eventually raising a bunch of kids together.

Also, occasional backpacking trips where we wind up cooking improvised pancakes in random abandoned cabins.


If the above part sounds appealing, you should try to contact me! You can email me (, preferred), find me on facebook, whatever.

See? Very welcoming

I like the idea of social proof – if we know people in common, you can talk to me through them, or talk to them about whether they think we’d work.

Properties common in people I have good relationships with:

  • Getting delighted by things. Probably the biggest single factor, although it can be hard to describe. If you’re the sort of person who would build the food pyramid I mentioned above, or give names to random wildlife, or stop to look in random windows because you’re curious what the people inside live like, or like to think about the logistics of feeding a continent of sentient hamsters, we are likely to get along and you should give me a call.
  • Compatible life goals. This one is pretty obvious, I guess.
  • Ability to resolve conflicts. I’m not always great at immediately noticing when something is bothering someone, but I do listen when people talk to me about things. It helps a lot in a relationship, if you’re someone who can bring up things that bother you, and we can talk it through and solve it.
  • Having initiative, and dreams, and like to do things.They don’t have to be shared interests – I just like people who have interests they get excited about.

Finally, if you do want to contact me but aren’t sure how, ideas for conversation starters

  • What would the world look like if it had time-travelling cats?
  • If you had the choice to be turned into a group of hamsters, how many hamsters would it take for you to prefer being the group of hamsters to being human?
  • What’s something you deeply care about, or something that would make your life or your neighborhood or the world better?
  • If you could be in any sort of place imaginable right now, where would you be?
  • Any random thing you’ve been thinking about lately
  • Just “Hi” is also good!

External references (things I get excited about that I didn’t make)





[5] In order: Harvey and Olivia (top left), Uriel (napping) and Larry and Rosie (my ex step-pets, which is a delightful palindrome).


[7] Okay this one was probably a stretch.

Public Transit in the Hollownest

Epistemic status: Not a professional transit planner, but spend a stupid amount of time reading on it in my free time and decided to have some Opinions.

The Hollownest is the vast ruin of a once-great kingdom of bugs driven mad by light pollution. Like any great kingdom, it had several distinct public transit systems, some well planned and some less so.


There are two main transit systems through the Hollownest: The trains and the stagecoach.

The stagecoach, run by the stag beetles whose backs carry the passengers. It is efficient, highly interconnected, low-latency and serves most useful points (except for the well-named Coliseum of Fools).

complete map of the stag coach system

It is, however, low-throughput – the tunnels can’t carry multiple stags at once and each stag can only carry a few bugs at a time. As a result, the king began a major infrastructure project to build high capacity railroads. They take up a lot of space – the tunnels are huge – but they have large capacity to match.

Two were completed before the fall of the kingdom. The first, mainline is reasonably well planned: It connects the Hive in the east, to the corridor above the palace, to the mantis kingdom in the west. These are three of the Hollownest’s main population centers, all (almost) on a line that didn’t require bulldozing any existing settlements. This isn’t exactly a straight line – the palace is a bit below it, the Matis village a bit above – but keeping horizontal and centered was more important, and we can imagine that the engineers convinced the king of the wisdom of this plan.

The second train line is… rather less well planned. It connects the the forgotten crossroads on one side – which might at one point have been a reasonable important population centre – to the resting grounds. We can imagine that this was a useless pork project or a political compromise – few bugs go to the resting grounds, but some very important bugs are bugs are buried there and perhaps their relatives pulled influence with the king to get the project approved, possibly blocking the more important Hive/Palace/Mantis Village line until the two were approved as a package.

There’s one more glaring error here: There is no rail connection to the city of tears, the single biggest population centre in the entire hollownest. The city itself has good internal transit via elevators, but its only connection to the outside world is the stag coaches (there is one elevator down, but it ends up well to the east of the train station). Why would this be?

One potential answer: Maybe they didn’t have room? But we already see that one elevator got built – and the waterways are large and empty, so it couldn’t have been too much of a challenge to have built the main elevator through them, connecting directly with the train station at the palace.

The true answer, alas, is shadier. The stag coaches were against the train, which they worried would automate away their jobs, as we know from speaking to the one remaining stag beetle. They must have used their union to block any project that touched the city of tears, which they probably relied on to fund their entire transit network.