This is an annual post reviewing the last year and making resolutions and predictions for next year. 2020 brought a combination of challenges from living in a pandemic and becoming a parent. Other highlights include not getting sick, getting a broader perspective on my life through decluttering, and going back to Ukraine for the first time. (This post was written in bits and pieces over the past two months.)
Janos and I had a son, Daniel, on Nov 11. He arrived almost 3 weeks later than expected (apparently he was waiting to be born on my late grandfather’s birthday), and has been a great source of cuddles, sound effects and fragmented sleep ever since.
Some work things also went well this year – I had a paper accepted at NeurIPS, and was promoted to senior research scientist. Also, I did not get covid, and survived half a year of working from home (much credit goes to the great company of my housemates). Overall, a lot of things to be grateful for.
This is an annual post reviewing the last year and making resolutions and predictions for next year. This year’s edition features sleep tracking, intermittent fasting, overcommitment busting, and evaluating calibration for all annual predictions since 2014.
AI safety research:
Wrote an updated version of the relative reachability paper, including an ablation study on design choices.
Co-ran a subteam of the safety team focusing on agent incentive design (ongoing).
AI safety outreach:
Co-organized FLI’s Beneficial AGI conference in Puerto Rico, a more long-term focused sequel to the original Puerto Rico conference and the Asilomar conference. This year I was the program chair for the technical safety track of the conference.
Attended the CFAR mentoring workshop in Prague, and started running rationality training sessions with Janos at our group house.
Started using work cycles – focused work blocks (e.g. pomodoros) with built-in reflection prompts. I think this has increased my productivity and focus to some degree. The prompt “how will I get started?” has been surprisingly helpful given its simplicity.
Stopped eating processed sugar for health reasons at the end of 2017 and have been avoiding it ever since.
This has been surprisingly easy, especially compared to my earlier attempts to eat less sugar. I think there are two factors behind this: avoiding sugar made everything taste sweeter (so many things that used to taste good now seem inedibly sweet), and the mindset shift from “this is a luxury that I shouldn’t indulge in” to “this is not food”.
Unfortunately, I can’t make any conclusions about the effects on my mood variables because of some issues with my data recording process :(.
Declining levels of insomnia (excluding jetlag):
22% of nights in the first half of 2017, 16% in the second half of 2017, 16% in the first half of 2018, 10% in the second half of 2018.
This is probably an effect of the sleep CBT program I did in 2017, though avoiding sugar might be a factor as well.
Made some progress on reducing non-research commitments (talks, reviewing, organizing, etc).
Set up some systems for this: a spreadsheet to keep track of requests to do things (with 0-3 ratings for workload and 0-2 ratings for regret) and a form to fill out whenever I’m thinking of accepting a commitment.
My overall acceptance rate for commitments has gone down a bit from 29% in 2017 to 24% in 2018. The average regret per commitment went down from 0.66 in 2017 to 0.53 in 2018.
However, since the number of requests has gone up, I ended up with more things to do overall: 12 commitments with a total of 23 units of workload in 2017 vs 19 commitments with a total of 33 units of workload in 2018. (1 unit of workload ~ 5 hours)
I’ve been collecting data about myself on a daily basis for the past 3 years. Half a year ago, I switched from using 42goals (which I only remembered to fill out once every few days) to a Google form emailed to me daily (which I fill out consistently because I check email often). Now for the moment of truth – a correlation matrix!
The data consists of “mood variables” (anxiety, tiredness, and “zoneout” – how distracted / spacey I’m feeling), “action variables” (exercise and meditation) and sleep variables (hours of sleep, sleep start/end time, insomnia). There are 5 binary variables (meditation, exercise, evening/morning insomnia, headache) and the rest are ordinal or continuous. Almost all the variables have 6 months of data, except that I started tracking anxiety 5 months ago and zoneout 2 months ago.
I recently defended my PhD thesis, and a chapter of my life has now come to an end. It feels both exciting and a bit disorienting to be done with this phase of much stress and growth. My past self who started this five years ago, with a very vague idea of what she was getting into, was a rather different person from my current self.
I have developed various skills over these five years, both professionally and otherwise. I learned to read papers and explain them to others, to work on problems that take months rather than hours and be content with small bits of progress. I used to believe that I should be interested in everything, and gradually gave myself permission not to care about most topics to be able to focus on things that are actually interesting to me, developing some sense of discernment. In 2012 I was afraid to comment on the LessWrong forum because I might say something stupid and get downvoted – in 2013 I wrote my first post, and in 2014 I started this blog. I went through the Toastmasters program and learned to speak in front of groups, though I still feel nervous when speaking on technical topics, especially about my own work. I co-founded a group house and a nonprofit, both of which are still flourishing. I learned how to run events and lead organizations, starting with LessWrong meetups and the Harvard Toastmasters club, which were later displaced by running FLI.
The past few months had been quite nomadic even by my standards. Visiting the MIRI fellows program, EA Global, Alaska camping (in 4 different parks), CFAR alumni reunion, and finally Burning Man. It was an exciting social time – I had many great conversations and coordinated with various people. It was also tiring to keep up with all the schedule changes, packing and unpacking, and my habits fell through the cracks (meditation, exercise and the like). It is a relief to be back at Citadel with all my stuff in one place, in a stable work and social environment. It almost feels like I’d never left.
It seemed appropriate to conclude the wanderings with Burning Man, which was the most like an actual vacation for me. This year was a good combination of spontaneity and scheduling, adventures and conversations.
The CFAR alumni workshop on the first weekend of May was focused on the Hamming question. Mathematician Richard Hamming was known to approach experts from other fields and ask “what are the important problems in your field, and why aren’t you working on them?”. The same question can be applied to personal life: “what are the important problems in your life, and what is stopping you from working on them?”.
Over the course of the weekend, the twelve of us asked this question of ourselves and each other, in many forms and guises: “if Vika isn’t making a major impact on the world in 5 years, what would have stopped her?”, “what are your greatest bottlenecks?”, “how can we actually try?”, etc. The intense focus on mental pain points was interspersed with naps and silly games to let off steam. On the last day, we did a group brainstorm, where everyone who wanted to receive feedback took a turn in the center of the circle, and everyone else speculated on what they thought were the biggest bottlenecks of the person in the center. By this time, we had mostly gotten to know each other, and even the impressions from those who knew me less well were surprisingly accurate. I am very grateful to everyone at the workshop for being so insightful and supportive of each other (and actually caring).