CategoryPersonal

Getting Infected

I, like pretty much everyone else, have been spending a lot of time thinking about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. My particular line of thought tends to drift along two tracks: what the policy response to the crisis should be and what our moral obligation as individuals is.

I’ve come to the conclusion that intentional self-infection, ideally though not necessarily as part of a human-challenge trial, has a lot of strong arguments for it both from a general policy perspective as well as from a moral perspective.

Since many folks respond to this idea with something ranging from disgust to bafflement1My thinking has been shaped by other people who have been talking about this for a while. Robin Hanson (http://www.overcomingbias.com/) in particular as well as many others brought the idea to my intention and have shaped my thinking on this. I wanted to explain a bit more about my reasoning and why I think this is an important policy avenue to pursue and why individuals who choose to self-infect (e.g., by going to so-called “COVID parties”) could be acting entirely rationally and morally.

Assumptions

I’m working off a few assumptions that I find reasonable though they definitely aren’t universally accepted. If these assumptions are wrong, then the conclusions I’m drawing will surely be sub-optimal.

  • A widely-available vaccine is at least 18 months away, and likely more.
    • Additionally, there’s a substantial non-zero (i.e., > 1%) chance that we never get a vaccine
  • We will not develop a therapy that meaningfully reduces death or hospitalization rates in the next 18 months
    • This might be overly pessimistic. If you have a good reason to be more optimistic about this, I’d love to hear why.
  • Catching and recovering from the virus confers a meaningful amount of immunity for at least 18 months
  • The US doesn’t have the practical ability to administer a workable test-and-trace policy of sufficient scope. Period.
  • The US population’s tolerance for extended quarantine has already been reached and our days of general maximum-adherence to quarantine measures (absent military intervention) are already behind us.

These assumptions apply specifically to the situation in the USA — there are other countries that have the benefits of being islands, have a generally higher trust in government and willingness to follow government directives, or have governments capable of administering large-scale test-and-trace programs. Those countries have other options.

Reasoning

Assuming the above is true, we’re on the path of having the virus eventually infecting some large part of the population in the US — sufficient to reach so-called “herd immunity”. There is no practical way to prevent that happening — at best we have some control over how long it takes to reach herd immunity and how overwhelmed the healthcare system gets in the meantime.

Conditional on that being true, then what we want to optimize for is:

  • reaching herd-immunity without “over-shooting“ and infecting more people than needed
  • minimizing the number of deaths by infecting those most likely to survive first
  • optimizing for partial-herd-immunity earlier by providing immunity to those most likely to spread to others earlier (i.e., people who have more contacts on average)

So on that path, the advantage of self-infection over just waiting to get accidentally infected from chance contact are numerous:

  • Assuming you’re young and healthy you can contribute to reaching partial herd-immunity faster by self-infecting.
    • This reduces the risk to any other people at higher risk than you who you might come into contact with in the future
  • If you self-infect you can intentionally self-quarantine for two weeks and avoid spreading the virus to higher-risk individuals
    • Since it seems that most transmission occurs from non-symptomatic carriers, this is a real meaningful benefit. With this certainty you can compress your quarantine into two weeks rather than having “light quarantine” over months.
  • You can time your infection to a time when the healthcare system is not overwhelmed, so in the worst-case scenario, you won’t be robbing a hospital bed from someone else who needs it.
  • It reduces the need for quarantine in the future thereby allowing the ability to return to work, be the “dedicated grocery shopper in the household”, etc.
  • It reduces the psychic burden and uncertainty on an individual — there’s a strong benefit of “just getting it over with” that I personally find very compelling.

I find these reasons incredibly compelling. Making the decision to self-infect (assuming you’re young and healthy enough to believe your chance of death is very low) is rational on a personal-interest basis (reducing future uncertainty and psychic burden) as well as on a moral/public interest basis (by moving us toward herd immunity and reducing the likelihood of accidental infection of someone at high-risk).

Even better, if self-infection comes as part of a human-trial challenge trial (i.e., deliberately exposing people as part of a clinical trial to test vaccine effectiveness) we get all of the benefits listed above plus speeding the development of a vaccine. This seems like such a slam-dunk to me from a policy and moral perspective that I’m surprised there’s even a debate about it.

Conclusion

If my reasoning is mistaken here or my assumptions are off, I’d love to hear more about either (please email me). If not, I’d really like to push this conversation forward and into the public domain and get people talking about policy paths that don’t rely on the US government suddenly becoming effective.

In the meantime, if you’d be interested in self-infecting, it’d be best if you did it as a part of a human-challenge trial. You should read more about that (and consider signing up as a potential candidate) here: 1daysooner.org.

Setting up a new note-taking system

This weekend I invested a bunch of time in researching note-taking systems and applications — I want to get in the habit of both writing more and maintaining a repository of things I’ve thought about and learned and the quarantine seems like a good idea to really sink some time into these sorts of organizational tasks (I’m also experimenting with a new email client Airmail and have been working hard to get better code linting set up in my main text editor).

I took a few notes on some note-taking philosophies and the applications that are purpose-built for note-taking (focusing on macOS) which I’ll share here.

Note-Taking

I’ve been greatly influenced by the idea of the memex developed by Vannevar Bush and of the better-phrased “bicycle of the mind” (RIP Steve Jobs) and have wanted for a long time to implement such a system for myself — while I’m a compulsive highlighter in my Kindle, Pocket, and Zotero apps, I practically never actually go back to review those highlights. Occasionally they come in handy when I know that I want to review some article and I can quickly check the highlights to see what’s most important, but I don’t have a good organic way of reviewing things I’ve found interesting over time or, for example, reviewing highlights by subject.

Stephen Johnson writes about the tools he uses for writing in the article Tool for Thought from 2005 in the NYTimes:

The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me.

I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.

Similar in objective if not in implementation is the Zettelkasten method for collecting and cross-linking notes on things you’ve read or ideas you’re working on. In general the ideas can be boiled down to:

  • Be deliberate about capturing your thoughts and ideas, and don’t be too precious about what’s considered a complete thought
  • Store them in a cross-referenced and searchable system that allows for both browsing and discovery

So I want to start moving toward a system more similar to this — where I can compile and store my notes from different projects and (hopefully) promote better recollection of these thoughts and ideas as well as additional spontaneous connections.

Tools

The tools I considered are:

I was looking for an application to check a few important boxes:

  • macOS and iOS native support
  • Markdown support
  • Beautiful interface I enjoy using
  • A tagging / cross-linking system (as opposed to foldering)
  • Support for multiple media types (images, pdfs, etc)

Here are my notes on each (I ended up going with Bear)

Evernote (free / $8 per month)

Evernote is the oldest of these apps and probably the most popular — Ezra Klein is a big proponent and the key feature seems to be the clip-from-browser extension and the oceans of integration for sending data to Evernote. This didn’t feel write for me because I want an app that promotes writing rather than being a passive receptacle for things I read on the internet — that being said I’m still considering setting up Evernote to be the one-true-receptacle and funneling all of my highlights from Kindle, Pocket, and Zotero there. But that’s a project for a future weekend.

Notion ($4 per month)

Notion was a strong contender — they’ve made a really cool product and the flexibility of the tool is very impressive. However, the PMs at notion definitely seem to be headed in a collaboration and project-management direction which doesn’t really fit my use-case at all. I would definitely consider Notion for my startup if I was doing a lot of collaboration and complex project-oriented tasks.

Bear ($1.50 per month)

I landed on Bear for three big reasons: great markdown support, a beautiful editor, and a sophisticated tagging system that allows for the idea of linking posts together in a more fluid way. So far I’m happy with the decision and have set up a global keyboard shortcut to open a new Bear note to (hopefully) encourage me to more fluidly drop into writing-mode more frequently rather than just passively reading. I’ve also pro-actively created notes for the books I’m currently reading so that (again, extremely hopefully) I’ll have reduced the friction enough to find it easy to jot down notes as I’m reading.

Ulysses ($5.00 per month)

Ulysses seems like the most beautiful of the options, and the one dedicated most to supporting writers. If I wrote professionally for a living I think Ulysses might have been a stronger contender, but for my needs (focused more on note-taking than long-form writing) Ulysses doesn’t have much on Bear and is more than 3x the price.

Roam (??? $15 – $30 per month)

Roam research is definitely the most interesting of these options. Conor White-Sullivan, the founder of Roam very explicitly lists the note-taking applications and methods I mentioned above as inspiration for Roam. The UI is focused explicitly on building a web of connections between different ideas in ways that utilize bi-directional linking and some keyboard shortcuts that encourage the user to quickly and easily create new notes and concepts.

Honestly, I would have loved to give Roam a try but at that price point it’s just not worth it for me (looking at you too, Superhuman email). My hope right now is that if Roam is successful some of the other writing apps will steal the best ideas around the UI and linking and I’ll be able to take advantage of them in a more cost-effective editor.

Too late

The rate at the which my world has changed over the past 3 weeks is really astounding. At the beginning of March, a mere 24 days ago, I was still planning on traveling from Mexico to go to a friend’s wedding (remember those?!) that would have been this week. Back then, this plague was still called the “corona virus” and I truly thought it wouldn’t hit America — it’d fizzle out in the east just like SARS and MERS had before.

Never before in my life have my beliefs and expectations about the future shifted so rapidly.

It’s very difficult for humans to reason about exponential growth — our brains just simply don’t work in a way that allows us to extrapolate exponential growth into the future using the normal mental tools we have. The way this has registered for me has not been in terms of the numbers — I can read the numbers off of the charts and project those into the future and say “10 thousand deaths” aloud just as well as anyone else — but rather in terms of the time scale. Going from 100 deaths to 10 thousand deaths only takes 3 weeks if your death rate is doubling every 3 days. That’s the difference between “what virus?” and bodies piled up in the halls of hospitals in 21 days.

We are just simply not built to process that amount of change that rapidly — when I talk to people here in Mexico who don’t seem that worried about the plague, I like to point out that Mexico right now has the same number of cases and deaths that New York did three weeks ago. Too late is coming. Too late is already here. Too late comes so fast that it’s difficult to comprehend even as I’m very closely watching it happen to my friends in New York.

The rate at which the world is changing makes it impossible to plan — all of my plans and goals for the year are out the window. I’ve experienced changes to my plans in the face of unexpected events, but in the past I’ve always been able to assess the situation, adjust my plans, and keep pushing forward. But right now that feels impossible — I can’t adjust because the ground is shifting under me in a way that doesn’t feel remotely forecastable. I really don’t know how to think about what the world will be like two weeks from now.

So for now I’m in a holding pattern. It’s too late to fix what’s broken and still too early to figure out what’s next.

Dating App Strategy

I, unfortunately enough, have spent a lot of time on dating apps. I was an okcupid user back in the early 2010s and have since then (excluding a few happy years coupled) been a longtime Bumble/Tinder/Hinge user. Over that time I’ve seen lots change about the dating apps — from Tinder’s incredible swipe interface innovation that turned finding a lifelong mate to cherish into a sort of erotic candy crush you can play on the subway, to Bumble’s important girls-go-first innovation that has shifted how (some) people think about early-relationship dynamics in interesting ways (for what it’s worth, women in Mexico seem to find it a lot more unusual / challenging than women in NYC did).

Having seen now, conservatively, many thousands of dating profiles I’ve developed some (apparently) non-standard beliefs about the best way to craft a dating profile to optimize for good matches. I’ll share those here in the hopes that they may be of use to all of those other poor souls swiping through the hellscape of dating apps here in 2020. Obviously, given my personal and conspicuous lack of success, take all of this advice with at least a few large granules of salt.

First, we should align on what the goal of a dating app is — for me, it’s to find people with whom I enjoy spending a lot of time with. Ideally at least one of those people will turn into a long-term partner with whom I can build a deep relationship with, but I’m actually happy to meet people on the apps whom I could plausibly become friends with or at least wouldn’t regret spending a few hours with on a first date. That is, I want to effectively separate the people I’m most likely to get along well with from the mass of folks with whom I mostly likely won’t.

If your goal is something different, maybe maximizing the number of dates you go on, or identifying high-probability one-night-stands, then you can disregard all of the rest of the advice in this blog post (or maybe consider actually inverting the strategies described here).

So, with that goal in mind, I want to craft a profile that:

  • Attracts potential partners whom I’m most likely to get along well with
  • Repels potential partners whom I’m least likely to get along well with

I think of this as  a signaling problem where I want to use my profile to signal most effectively to my type of people that I’m their type, and signal to the rest that I’m not. I want to use the space in my profile to send very strong signals to both of those parties — ideally each piece of information in the profile sends the correct signal to both of those two groups.

Let’s consider the single most common thing I see in dating profiles:

“I love to travel”

Because it’s so common, it therefore immediately does a terrible job of separating high-probability partners from low-probability partners. Everyone loves to travel! This sentence tells you nothing about the person writing it and sends no signal to anyone. Because one can easily imagine two people who both love to travel not only not getting along, but also not enjoying the same travel experience, we can improve it by adding more specificity. Here are three examples:

  • I love local culture, so when traveling you can always find me sampling the street food, the spicier the better (no matter the gastrointestinal consequences).
  • I’m a shoestring traveler — I love backpacking and meeting new people in hostels. For me, travel is all about late nights with new friends.
  • I’m all about treating myself — my ideal vacation involves a whole lot of spa time and incredible meals with people I love

All three of these people have a valid love of travel, but one can easily imagine them not enjoying the same trip at all. By adding a lot more specificity, we can attract the sort of people who have similar tastes and highlight our differences to the rest.

Here’s another example of a thing that I enjoy that would do a good job of sending clear signals to the relevant groups:

“I love to go to art museums alone and crank Radiohead through my headphones”

This is both true and highlights some unique things about me that will interest people who I think are good potential partners and turn off bad potential partners. If you’re not into art museums and you’re annoyed by people who like Radiohead, this profile is not going to appeal to you! However, if you’re the sort of person who finds this intriguing / endearing you should email me.

If your goal is to identify the most high-quality matches from the rest of the world, you should try to pack your profile with points like these — you can use your photos to make these points as well, so be strategic! If we all get better at doing this sort of signaling, we’ll all be able to find each other more quickly.

Happy hunting.

Dating in Mexico

I’ve been in Mexico for almost a year and a half now (hard to believe!) and people often ask me about my dating life here. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of salacious details for anyone because while I’ve been a number of first dates, there have been only a handful of second dates and exactly one third date. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on the differences in dating culture here and there are at least a few things I find interesting.

First, the use of dating apps (Tinder, Bumble) is much less prevalent here than in New York. I’ve spoken to (and gone on dates with) a number of people for whom that was their first date with anyone from a dating app, ever. In New York, the dating app scene has grown pretty efficient: everyone knows the rules and more-or-less how to play the game:

  • You don’t spend a lot of time chatting on the app, get to the first date quickly
  • The first date should be a coffee or a drink
  • No hard feelings if it’s only one coffee or a drink
  • Everyone is interested in getting through dates relatively efficiently so as not to minimize time wasted with people you aren’t that into

In Mexico, it still feels like people are figuring out what the rules of the game even are.

  • There are a lot more people on the apps who just want to talk, and will never commit to scheduling a date
  • People are generally worse at making dating app profiles (more on this in a separate blog post) — I’ve seen countless profiles where all of the pictures are selfies, taken at the same time, in their car.
  • Lots of people have written in their profile “what are we going to tell our friends when they ask us how we met? jaja” which is something people in NYC stopped writing 6 or 7 years ago — there is no shame or stigma attached to meeting via a dating app at all.

Besides the general dating app inefficiencies, I unfortunately feel like I’m naturally an ill-fit for some of the other dating customs here — while I finally feel like I’m able to speak Spanish well enough to be funny (sort of) and to show some of my personality, there’s still a few things that I feel like really weaken my game.

First, I can’t dance salsa — it’s shocking to me how much dancing salsa is a part of Mexican social life in general, but in particular I feel like my inability to participate fluidly in a night out of dancing meaningfully hampers my flirting ability

And, more importantly, I’m generally reluctant to make the first move with anyone — part of it is obviously me being terrified of rejection, but also I feel like the lessons of the last few years have really sunk in — I really don’t want to ever make a woman feel uncomfortable, and, after a bit of flirting if I’m not getting very strong signals that she’s into it, I’m generally inclined to just drop it rather than keep flirting and risk making her feel uncomfortable / pressured.

I’m not sure what the right answer here is — am I over-thinking these situations (as I’m generally inclined to do) and missing out on good dating opportunities? Or am I doing the right thing but with the (worthwhile) side effect of missing out on some dates I’m not particularly inclined to change, but it is something I’ve been pondering for a while now.

Here in Mexico I feel like it’s expected that men are more forward and women never make the first move — while in New York I could rely on a (relatively) level playing field, that seems to be much less the case here — I still feel like I don’t understand the unwritten rules of flirting and dating here enough to be able to walk the line between flirting and being overly-aggressive, so for now I will continue to err on the good side of that particular line.

2020 Resolutions

We’re here on the second of January and I wanted to post my resolutions for 2020 for all the world to see in an effort towards accountability through visibility. I’ve been spending some time thinking about my goals for this year and what all I want to get done this year, so since one of them is to write more blog posts, I figured I’d start here.

Become fully fluent in Spanish

I spent the last year getting to the point where I can speak Spanish enough to have real meaningful conversations with people. I speak to my roommate only in Spanish, and I can finally make jokes and show a bit more of my personality in Spanish (which is a big milestone!). However, I still struggle if I’m in a group of native speakers and they’re all speaking rapidly, and I still generally need to use Spanish subtitles if I’m watching a movie or TV show in Spanish. The goal for 2020 is to get to full fluency — I’ll have more blog posts to come on my strategies for trying to make that happen.

Learn to dance salsa

One thing that has surprised me about Mexican culture is how prevalent salsa dancing it is — it’s not uncommon at all for salsa dancing to break out at any given party, and for … basically every non-foreigner to know how to dance and be on the floor dancing. While I love to dance to hip-hop and reggaeton, salsa is a whole different animal. My goal here is to get to the point where I can dance with a stranger and not absolutely embarrass myself. I expect I’ll both need some formal lessons and to spend a fair amount more time in salsa clubs to get there.

Read a lot of books

According to goodreads I read 31 books in 2019 (though I didn’t finish all of those), and I have an even more ambitious list slated for 2020 — 34 books in total, which isn’t too out of the ordinary for me, but this year about half of them will be in Spanish. This will be a pretty heavy load, but if I want to meet goal #1 I think it’ll be necessary. Expect many book reviews to be forthcoming!

Write more blog posts

Finally, I want to be more diligent about writing blog posts. My goal (for now) is at least one per week — this should be easily achievable with my schedule, and my hope is that after I build up the writing muscle a bit more I can increase the frequency even more.

Happy New Year to all of my friends, and here’s to many more blog posts in 2020!