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Ask gwern: Who are you?
103 points by bmmayer1 on May 4, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments
We know so much about you, and yet, so little. What's your day job? Where do you find the time to do all this writing? Does your site make a significant amount of money? Why do you choose relative anonymity?

I was originally not going to answer this, but kiba posted his request https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5654008 and to my astonishment, it worked: through Paypal I have currently received $293.01 in 7 donations, through Bitcoin, 1.62btc ($189) in 4 donations.

I have replied to the Paypal donators (but not the Bitcoiners, since they're unreachable) thanking them but I would also like to thank them publicly here: I get very little feedback on my writing aside from little numbers ticking upwards in Google Analytics, and am often plagued by doubts - are my writings any good? Are they usually confined in a ghetto? Are people going away laughing at my ignorance and amateurism? Will they contribute meaningfully to anything at all or just represent an indulgent waste of time and intellectual masturbation? So to see a few comments raise almost overnight ~$500 moves me.

> What's your day job?

Various things; as I say on http://www.gwern.net/Links#personal I sometimes write for people.

> Does your site make a significant amount of money?

No. I sometimes get donations, but not very much; they are all recorded in http://www.gwern.net/About#popularity if you're curious about specifics.

I recently added Google AdSense and Amazon affiliate linking because money was tight. These don't make very much either. Specifically:

- Google AdSense: $241 lifetime total (over 269k pageviews) - Amazon Affiliate: $59 total or ~$0.8 a day: http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/85192141/2013-05-04-total...

> Why do you choose relative anonymity?

For the reasons I've said in the past. To which I can add personal safety: my Silk Road page is a bit questionable legally, and we all know that there are ways to exploit knowledge of one's True Name and address (even if, as far as I know, I have no enemies willing to resort to, say, 'swatting' me) - one group of stalkers called up a college they thought I worked at to see if they could get me fired or otherwise ruin my day.

gwern, thanks for the reply.

I admire your prolific output, even if I don't agree with a lot of your conclusions (historical and political, that is, because your math/stat is too complicated for me to understand). I have to say, you have sparked a lot of discussion amongst me and my friends recently. The importance of argument from argument instead of from authority is made even more clear when the writer, by virtue of his (her?) anonymity, has no authority to fall back on, which makes his arguments even more critical. But it doesn't matter: some of the most accomplished people in history were amateurs. All that is required is a love of the subject, and you seem to love your subjects. Keep up the good work. BTC coming your way.

> I admire your prolific output, even if I don't agree with a lot of your conclusions (historical and political, that is, because your math/stat is too complicated for me to understand). I have to say, you have sparked a lot of discussion amongst me and my friends recently.

Hm, intriguing - I don't write about politics very much, I wonder what it could be... My little thing about the American Revolution, perhaps.

> BTC coming your way.


Thanks for the articles gwern, some bitcoin coming your way. But a suggestion, could you add your bitcoin address by the Paypal donate button on your site? I found it a little hard to find.

I'll look into adding it. Not sure quite the best way to do it.

If you find value in it, does this really matter? Knowing these things about a person does little more than give you something to like/dislike, approve/disapprove, etc. about them.

Why should we care what this person does? How much money they make from the small parts of their life we see? Why they choose not to bare their souls to us, the morbidly curious?

If this question were actually answered, in my opinion, this site would become less interesting. Keep and enjoy a little bit of mystery and wonder, even if it is just a very little bit.

Such personal questions about people whose work I respect come from a feeling that I might like to do similar, and an insight into their lifestyle and personality may enable that, or else persuade me that the sacrifices are too high for my circumstance. Learning about the lives of people with similar interests always widens my perspective on ways to spend time and the opportunity costs therein.

A good example for me is top level gamers. I love playing games and watching them being played competitively (videogames, Magic the Gathering, Chess, etc.). I've dabbled in competitive gaming but never committed very far, and when I do talk to high level players I always want to know what their day jobs are. To my surprise (or disgust, or satisfaction - I'm not quite sure which), many are unemployed or involved in low-level jobs which allow them to maximise practice time. Some are professional and sponsored but unless they do really well then their incomes from this are atrocious. Then there are others such as "Ultradavid" (a fighting game commentator, but someone whose work I highly respect) who is a lawyer! Only a couple of days ago I asked Ryan Hart (probably the best UK all-rounder at fighting games) about his job and he said he does remote consultancy and editing which means he can travel worldwide to play and still work. One of my relatives is world-class in a competitive sport and also has a very high-powered career - I asked him how he manages that and he told me the prestige of the sport in question allows him to be given time off for competitions and training, though his life essentially is just work, family, and the sport. I found that one particularly interesting because I suspect even if he were far and away the best Counter Strike player in the world rather than in a well-respected sport then that wouldn't fly in his profession. Anyway, these are datapoints which increase my knowledge and help inform my own decisions.

In the case of gwern, it could influence my own choices greatly to hear if he lives off an inheritance, or is a Physics professor, or a professional football player, or especially if he has applied his analytical skills to learning specific technologies in high demand and low supply which maximise his hourly earnings to enable him to work very little and do what he wants the rest of the time. Or, indeed, if he is unemployed and poor, and if so...why?

+1. Why does it matter? It's totally his right to remain (pseudo-)anonymous. Plus, it might be part of the fun.

I wrote about _why for this reason, too: http://kevinw.github.io/2013/04/30/why-did-why-the-lucky-sti...

That's a nice essay. I was especially moved by the parts about the ephemerality of programs as compared to ordinary writing - indeed, what program will still be read a century from now?

Unfortunately, he doesn't have a day job and he's really poor. If you like his research, consider a donation in paypal dollars or bitcoin.

From the site: 1L7LgaRtr3WSw5g1MaJQWj19T6RByssz41

Just donated $5.

Do you know him personally?

No, but I do interact with him on a daily basis on IRC.

This is what consistently appalls me ( and yet astounds me at the same time )

That companies and organizations are full of utterly untalented and wholly ill-suited & miserable folks who somehow lucked into lofty and well-paying jobs.

And yet there are gifted people like gwern who cannot seem to catch a break no matter how demonstrably prolific they are.

I think we should stop telling kids that life rewards the passionate and the skilled. (By rewards I don't mean some inner solace coming from indulging in what you love, but the conventional rewards of recognition and remuneration.)

Life is rigged in favor of the opportunists.

The schemers, hustlers, the witty-talkers and the seize-rs.

But certainly not the plainspoken and the adept.

No matter how you dice it, your conscience tells you that this is more than a bit unfair and disenchanting.

"That companies and organizations are full of utterly untalented and wholly ill-suited & miserable folks who somehow lucked into lofty and well-paying jobs."

Why does it astound you that opportunities go to the opportunists?

I think that what you're seeing here is that gifted people do eventually catch a break and luck into a lofty and well-paying job. And then their employer starts telling them what to work on (because, after all, people don't pay you for being smart - they pay you to do things for them), and they don't have time to work on the cool-but-relatively-useless public-domain stuff. From the outside, it looks like they've suddenly become utterly untalented, ill-suited, and miserable. But from the inside, they're just as smart as they ever were, it's just that their talents have been redirected into invisible things that people will actually pay for.

I used to do cool stuff like teach folks how to write Scheme interpreters in Haskell or port Arc to Javascript or spend half a day re-implementing Tetris on a webpage. Eventually enough people noticed that I got a nice job at Google. I still work on cool stuff, but nobody notices anymore, partly because everybody takes the fact that Google Search just works for granted and because I work with enough other talented people that I can't claim sole credit for anything I do anymore.

If Gwern wants a job at Google, I'll be happy to refer him.

> I still work on cool stuff, but nobody notices anymore, partly because everybody takes the fact that Google Search just works for granted and because I work with enough other talented people that I can't claim sole credit for anything I do anymore.

Just curious: Are you equally satisfied with the not-so-public work you're doing now?

Tough question. The work I'm doing is challenging and I'm paid well for it, so yes, on that end I'm satisfied with it. I'd be lying if I said there weren't moments where I wish more of it were public, though, or that I could do something impressive in its own right rather than part of a major software system (and hence constrained by the other design choices made for that system), or that it doesn't sting when the project you're working on, which is doing some very cool technical things, gets canceled because it doesn't fit into the direction that your group is going.

I'd say that on balance, yes, I'm equally satisfied. But that probably means that I'll end up switching between the two a few times during my career.

> If Gwern wants a job at Google...

Sorry, I would prefer he continue to work on gwern.net.

If this is the case I hope you are donating to him.

In case you are not, at first brush, convinced that "specialists" with "vast amount of expertise" in organizations of national importance are routinely found to be incompetent schleps easily manipulated by your average conman, we can hop over to Great Britain:

U.K. businessman James McCormick convicted of selling golf ball finders as bomb detectors to Iraq

Source(s) :


Or we can look at our own homegrown example:

Drones Hacked with $26 Software




These are even public because of their national security consequences.

Your average publicly traded corporation and even large non-profits and charities are filled with utterly moronic placeholders who are very good at self-preservation and climbing rungs.

So mediocre opportunists who fill the ranks of nearly every outfit in America do not appall you?

The brain trust in most companies doesn't fill a beer boot.

No. The average person is, by definition, average. If mediocre opportunists didn't fill the ranks of nearly every outfit in America, they'd all be unemployed.

Typically if smart people have difficulty finding or keeping a job, it's either because a.) they don't want one or b.) they have mental or emotional problems that make them difficult to work with. The latter is a real problem, but not really an injustice (or rather, it's an injustice that people are born with or develop these problems, but not that they aren't hired if they have them). In that case, one's mental energy is often better spent dealing with those problems or enlisting help to deal with those problems than on becoming smarter, because you get a much higher payoff from the former.

> The average person is, by definition, average.

True, but I'd then make the usual counterpoint that average is not the median or mode and can be misleading in its own way - the average human has half a vagina and <1 ball and <1 breast, the average human has <4 limbs and <2 eyes, etc

The average person can be quite feckless, even if you live in a population split between preternaturally intelligent clones of John von Neumann and people tragically in a coma...

Have you considered the possibility that maybe he just doesn't want a regular job?

Someone once said "If you don't toot your own horn, no one else will."

Hiding behind a pseudonym is a great way to avoid being recognized for your works in the short-term, unless you're some sort of prolific writer, but I think we know that's a lot different than developing software.

If gwern would associate these works you all revere him for with his real name, I'm sure he'd have plenty of job offers.

A comment gwern left in reply to something like this 2 years ago: http://www.gwern.net/About#comment-257772944

"I'm kinda hoping that if I do enough statistics because I find it interesting, I'll stumble into a real job" - gwern

One of the more resourceful and consistently interesting people I have had the pleasure of knowing.

I reply with a question, in what way is gwern so famous that "we" need to know about him, his day job, his schedule, his site revenue,...?

I heard about gwern (and his site) this week when I stumbled on http://www.gwern.net/otaku from a NGE website (3.33 just got out...) and didn't search the website further. Now I've seen the same website appear for its article on the death of Google Products.

So now I've gotten a glance, seen some articles I already read,... But what is this all about? Maybe it's because we are used to popular bloggers always writing under their full name, with their blogs always being related to their work-personas,... What makes you want (or think we deserve) to know so much more about him?

This is the most bizarre submission I have ever seen on the front page of HN.

Why? I think it's lovely. Is there any way to interpret this other than a tribute to Gwern and his work?

I think he is, or was, a researcher for the Singularity Institute [1] (now known as the Machine Intelligence Research Institute).

[1] http://lesswrong.com/lw/9t8/the_singularity_institute_needs_...

Pretty easy to find out with some Google-fu, but certainly there is no reason to make a big deal out of it.

gwern answers here: https://pastee.org/bebat


If you appreciate his work, please don't cause Gwern grief by trying to uncover his True Name.

Breaking Gwern's pseudonymity could get him in a lot of trouble. His writings cover many topics, but some of them show evidence of breaking the law. For example, he has probably used Silk Road to buy drugs online. Even the most lax employer or school would be forced to take some action if they found out about his activities. He could even face criminal prosecution.

The guy has created a ton of value and captured almost none of it. Considering how altruistic he's being, the ethical action is to respect Gwern's desire and not out him.

" Even the most lax employer or school would be forced to take some action if they found out about his activities. "


" Even the most lax employer or school would be forced to take some action if they found out about his activities. "

" Hyperbole. "


You think a private university is going to take action for something that did not happen within the confines of the school?

Yes. Why would you think otherwise?

Because private institutions (atleast all that I am aware of) avoid getting involved in non-school matters. What schools do you know of that would get involved?

Having gone to private schools, my experience has been that they are more likely than public institutions to get involved in matters outside of school, since the behavior of their student body contributes to the external image they are trying to portray.

When I asked what schools do you think would get involved I actually meant "provide names of schools." I am curious to look at the policies they have in place and see what is different from the schools I am familiar with.

I also went to private schools for a time.

They are very image conscious, especially the schools associated with religion.

Doxing a pseudonym without consent (or attempting to) is kind of impolite and aggressive, especially if you want him to answer your questions about his life.

What would a name & address tell you exactly?

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