There are lots of things I wish I knew about earlier than I did, because they’re useful or fun or interesting or something like that. There aren’t that many things that I think I really regret not knowing about earlier, but there are a few, so I want to share them for people who might not know about them and who they may possibly help. Some of them won’t be for everybody, but I think all of them are underrated and they were all immensely helpful for me.
Anki is a free and open-source flashcard program that basically lets you remember anything. I used it for exams throughout university, and it makes you feel like you’re cheating, because you remember everything you wanted to remember for the exam (as long as you start using Anki a decent amount of time before the actual exam - e.g. don’t just start using it a week before), it somehow feels like opening up a textbook in the middle of the exam and copying the quotes and statistics verbatim. But it’s not just for exams: since graduating I’ve used Anki to remember interesting bits of social science research - if you ask me the three main findings of Campbell and Lovenduski’s 2015 paper on the role of parliamentarians (a paper I read a long time ago, and only once) I can tell you, because I used Anki to remember them. It’s based on two main ideas: active recall (retrieving information from memory) and spaced repetition (see here). It is just unreasonably effective - if you are in university and have exams, it’s a ‘must download’, if you have long graduated it’s a ‘must download if you want to remember anything forever’. Here’s a great video explaining just how effective Anki is.
I am diagnosed with ADHD and this is by far the most useful stimulant for cognitive enhancement and promoting trait conscientiousness. Yes, I’ve tried Ritalin. Yes, I’ve tried Vyvanse (which I know is basically just Dextroamphetamine with lysine attached). This (often known as Dexedrine, or Amfexa) is better, although your mileage may vary. But more broadly, this is a recommendation to get an ADHD diagnosis if you struggle with procrastination, organisation, working consistently, concentration, etc. I was a mediocre student in the first year of university before my diagnosis and after getting on medication, I was an exceptional student. Because of the fundamental problem of causal inference I’m not going to claim it was totally because of the meds, but they probably helped. I also sort of think even if you don’t have ADHD you should try to get diagnosed with it, because the medication is such a game-changer - see this Scott Alexander post on how Adderall works for people whether they have ADHD or not, and some interesting claims about whether ADHD exists at all.
In the first year of my master’s degree, I did a module on quantitative methods, which I had used a bit during my undergraduate degree, but mainly just a bit of STATA here and there, without any serious commitment. But when I used R, I fell in love. I’m sure Python is just as good, and I’ve used it a bit for downloading tweets for my master’s thesis, but R is the one that clicked for me. Learning about statistics in general is great - you can read journal articles without always wondering what the hell is going on when you come across a regression table, you can understand whether a social science paper really has a good method for establishing causality, and it’s useful if you ever end up going into a job where you need to analyse data. Highly recommend! Also recommended is downloading RStudio to use with R, and using the tidyverse and ggplot2 for organising and visualising data.
Knowing about Sci-Hub and the Kindle, Z-Library, Calibre combination
You probably know about sci-hub already, but it has been brought to my attention that some people don’t know about it. If you want to access articles in scientific journals, some people use sci-hub to get them for free. That is interesting to know. You might also be interested to know that some people use Nord VPN to get access to sci-hub. To add: the best way to read books is to get an Amazon Kindle, find books you want on Z-library, and import them into Calibre to get them onto the Kindle. Reading can be expensive if you buy every book you need or have high opportunity costs if you go to the library to get every book you want, and reading scientific journals can be impossible if you don’t have an institutional log-in - again, I cannot recommend using these services for legal reasons, but I can happily recommend knowing about them, because knowing about things that lots of people use and have had an influence on modern academia is interesting. And useful.
Good Judgement Open
There are a ton of books that you might buy thinking they will make you more rational and immune to cognitive biases: ‘The Scout Mindset’ by Julia Galef, ‘Thinking, fast and slow’ by Daniel Kahneman (and Amos Tversky, sort of), ‘Misbehaving’ by Richard Thaler, and so on (all of those books were chosen because they are particularly good - there are also some awful rationality books, but these are all wonderful, and you should buy them!). But they won’t teach you to be rational at all, they’ll just present some of the evidence on rationality, which will make you as good at being rational as reading ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ will make you good at football. Instead, do some forecasting on Good Judgement Open and see where your blindspots really are - are you overconfident? Do you think your preferred politicians are more likely to win elections than they really are? Find out, and if you get vey good at forecasting, maybe you’ll be invited to be a superforecaster.
If there’s anything that you regret not knowing about earlier, please let me know in the comments or get at me on Twitter. I read recently that Peter Thiel has an obsession with secrets, by which he means things that he knows (or that someone knows) that everybody else is unaware of, but are important. These 5 things are secrets of mine, and weirdly, sometimes I tell people my secrets and they still don’t use them. Over the course of my university degree, I did immensely well in exams because of Anki, and people would ask me what my secret was - I would happily tell them it was Anki, and nobody (as far as I know) went on to use it for their exams. If you have a secret, I will listen and I’ll try it out.