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Who's welcome to our LessWrong meetups?

10 декабря, 2018 - 16:31
Published on December 10, 2018 1:31 PM UTC

As part of announcing meetups publically, it's good to write in the meetup description about what kind of people would likely be a good match for the meetup. I still haven't gotten a good description myself.

How would you describe the kind of people we are in words that are clear to outsiders?



Discuss

How Old is Smallpox?

10 декабря, 2018 - 13:50
Published on December 10, 2018 10:50 AM UTC

The conventional view is that smallpox has been around since antiquity, but more recent evidence has suggested it's actually only around 500 years old.

So I have a research/rationality question: how conclusive is the "500 years old hypothesis"? I don't really have the expertise to evaluate it.

The wikipedia entry briefly notes the new findings, but doesn't seem to have rewritten the overall history section:

The earliest credible clinical evidence of smallpox is found in the smallpox-like disease in medical writings from ancient India (as early as 1500 BC),[54][55]Egyptian mummy of Ramses V who died more than 3000 years ago (1145 BC)[56] and China (1122 BC).[57] It has been speculated that Egyptian traders brought smallpox to India during the 1st millennium BC, where it remained as an endemic human disease for at least 2000 years. Smallpox was probably introduced into China during the 1st century AD from the southwest, and in the 6th century was carried from China to Japan.[26] In Japan, the epidemic of 735–737 is believed to have killed as much as one-third of the population.[14][58] At least seven religious deities have been specifically dedicated to smallpox, such as the god Sopona in the Yoruba religion. In India, the Hindu goddess of smallpox, Sitala Mata, was worshiped in temples throughout the country.[59]A different viewpoint is that smallpox emerged 1588 AD and the earlier reported cases were incorrectly identified as smallpox.[60][61]Paper: 17th Century Variola Virus Reveals the Recent History of Smallpox

The paper arguing the 500 years hypothesis is here.

Highlights:

• Variola virus genome was reconstructed from a 17th century mummified child• The archival strain is basal to all 20th century strains, with same gene degradation• Molecular-clock analyses show that much of variola virus evolution occurred recently

Abstract

Smallpox holds a unique position in the history of medicine. It was the first disease for which a vaccine was developed and remains the only human disease eradicated by vaccination. Although there have been claims of smallpox in Egypt, India, and China dating back millennia [1, 2, 3, 4], the timescale of emergence of the causative agent, variola virus (VARV), and how it evolved in the context of increasingly widespread immunization, have proven controversial [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]. In particular, some molecular-clock-based studies have suggested that key events in VARV evolution only occurred during the last two centuries [4, 5, 6] and hence in apparent conflict with anecdotal historical reports, although it is difficult to distinguish smallpox from other pustular rashes by description alone. To address these issues, we captured, sequenced, and reconstructed a draft genome of an ancient strain of VARV, sampled from a Lithuanian child mummy dating between 1643 and 1665 and close to the time of several documented European epidemics [1, 2, 10]. When compared to vaccinia virus, this archival strain contained the same pattern of gene degradation as 20th century VARVs, indicating that such loss of gene function had occurred before ca. 1650. Strikingly, the mummy sequence fell basal to all currently sequenced strains of VARV on phylogenetic trees. Molecular-clock analyses revealed a strong clock-like structure and that the timescale of smallpox evolution is more recent than often supposed, with the diversification of major viral lineages only occurring within the 18th and 19th centuries, concomitant with the development of modern vaccination.

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Why should EA care about rationality (and vice-versa)?

10 декабря, 2018 - 01:03
Published on December 9, 2018 10:03 PM UTC

There's a lot of overlap between the effective altruism movement and the LessWrong rationality movement in terms of their membership, but each also has many people who are part of one group and not the other. For those in the overlap, why should EA care about rationality and rationality care about EA?



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Measly Meditation Measurements

9 декабря, 2018 - 23:54
Published on December 9, 2018 8:54 PM UTC

A few months ago, I decided to start meditating regularly, around an hour a day. It seemed like a good opportunity to measure possible effects, so I asked for advice on what to measure. This post summarizes the results. In short, while the subjective effects of meditation were strong, the measurements didn't show anything. This is a fine place to stop reading; I'm mostly posting this because I promised to.

What I Measured What I Measured
  • My performance on the tasks looked entirely random. It wasn't better or worse after meditating, and it didn't get better or worse over time.
  • I have no idea how to do experience sampling. I understand that some people have moods. I'm almost always in a neutral mood, and so wasn't sure what to put most of the time. Also, I'm apparently often away from my phone, and missed many (most?) pings.
What I Learned
  • The Mind Illuminated is as good of a guide as I hoped it would be.
  • A few measly months of meditation isn't going to change anything like your performance on reaction-time-like tasks.
  • A few measly months of meditation will give you a fascinating look into your own mind. It's not what you think. I'd say more, but I'm deeply confused and don't have a good model.
  • Meditation retreats are great. I went on a two-day one, whose format wasn't particularly well-suited for me, and even this had a large effect on my practice.


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Review: Slay the Spire

9 декабря, 2018 - 23:40
Published on December 9, 2018 8:40 PM UTC

Epistemic Status: Many hours played

Spoiler-Free Bottom Line: Slay the Spire is an amazing single-player roguelike deckbuilding game. When I wrote that Artifact was the most fun I’ve had gaming in a long time, the only alternative to give me pause was Slay the Spire. Each game, you work your way up the spire, with each room an opportunity to improve your deck, either with rewards from battle or other opportunities. Each turn of each battle, you see what the enemy is going to do, and by default you have three energy to spend on any combination of five drawn cards, to prepare to block their attacks while dealing damage back. If you die, that’s it, time to start over.

Early plays ideally involve discovery of what cards are out there, what decks are possible to assemble, what enemies there are and what they do, and everything else the spire has to offer. As you gain in skill and experience, you play it on additional levels and in new ways.

I highly recommend playing the game, and I highly recommend not learning more or reading further before doing so. Figuring the game out is half the fun.

My Mostly-Spoiler-Free Journey Through the Spire

I started off knowing the basics above, but nothing else. The game was in (earlier) early access, so a bunch of the details were different, but aside from missing the third class (The Defect) the game was largely the same as it is now.

I played my first few games as The Ironclad. At first things were tough, but a little experience went a long way. My first run ended on the Act I boss. My second run ended on the Act II boss. In my third run, I managed to get all the way through and win.

That surprised me quite a bit. Rogelike games are supposed to be way harder than that! I put it up to a lot of luck and a lot of deckbuilding game experience, and moved on to the second character class, The Outcast.

Once again, there was a learning curve, but once again it didn’t seem that hard, and on my second try I got all the way through. I assumed I was fortunate to win so fast, but it seemed powerful things would come my way reasonably often.

At that point, I stopped playing. What more was there to do? I saw some talk of trying to win *more consistently*, and there was the option to use ‘Ascension’ to make the game harder, but I did not see the appeal in either approach. When The Defect became available, I tried it and won on the third try. So after eight games, I had won with all three classes. It had been fun. At $20 I felt I’d had more than my money’s worth, but I figured that was it.

Later articles on the wesbite Rock Paper Shotgun, which I use as my main source of computer gaming news, convinced me to give the daily climb a shot. In each daily climb, all players are given the same random seed, which contains the contents of the spire and a bunch of modifications to spice things up. Then you compete for the high score, as determined by whether you made it the whole way but also by how elegantly you did it. You get rewards for killing extra elite monsters, for not taking damage, for building a bigger deck and so forth. With points to maximize, there’s a constant balance between going for more points, strengthening yourself for later on, and not dying. I spent a few weeks playing the daily climb each day, but after a while that too started to feel repetitive, and once again I was ready to move on.

Then, a few weeks ago, the game released the ending. Five games later I had won with each of the three characters again, and it was time to start gathering keys on my climb to the final boss. On my second try, I reached the fourth and final act… and promptly got completely destroyed. I’d brought a relatively poor deck that was fortunate to get that far, so I tried again. Two games later I was back with a much stronger deck… and I got completely destroyed again.

Finally, we had a challenge I could get behind. If you came with a relatively normal deck, it was clear you were going to have a bad time.

Further games were not about the first three acts. The first three acts contained checkpoints, and ways you could die if you got too aggressive, but they were not the point. The point was to win that final fight. A third try did a little better, but was still not close. A fourth had a lot going for it, I thought I had it, and then I had to use one card too many on the last turn, couldn’t find what I needed, and died to exact damage the turn before I was going to win.

 

Damn.

 

Several tries later, and after several important lessons learned, the plan came together and the heart died in a barrage of Static Lightning.

 

Two attempts later, The Outcast too was victorious, thanks to a truly absurd amount of poison damage.

 

I still haven’t quite won with the Ironclad. I actually should have, but I forgot that the heart had an artifact, chose the wrong attack, and came up exactly two points short on the last turn. The Ironclad has the toughest path, but there are doubtless still ways.

 

Perhaps I’ll try some games in ascension mode. Interestingly, the first ascension level is more likely to kill you, but arguably makes it easier to kill the heart, since you end up with extra relics.

What Makes Slay the Spire Work

The player has all the fun.

Even when you are first discovering the game, it is easy to understand what is about to happen and why. You get a steady stream of meaningful choices. If you choose wisely, you get to do lots of cool things.

Slay the Spire’s central innovation is enemy intents. Giving the player all the fun is its genius. Each turn, you can see what each enemy is planning to do – attack you for some amount, defend, use a buff, inflict a status. At first actions other than attacking and blocking can be mysterious, but you still have a general idea of what is happening, and in time you learn the patterns of each enemy and how they tick.

At first, I thought lack of enemy diversity was a fatal flaw. There were only so many fights, so I would quickly tire of them. Later, I came around to this lack of diversity being actively good. Consider the difference between planning for a wide-open Magic metagame, where you could face anything at all, and planning for a particular metagame with a handful of opponents. Both are interesting in their own way. You get to enjoy both, with a wide open and unknown metagame early on, then a known set of enemies to target later on.

Slay the Spire offers the same. In your first explorations anything can happen, then later on you are planning for the exact enemies and patterns you will face. Your own deck is constantly changing, it is good, once you have enough experience to use the information, to know exactly what you are up against and must do. That is why the game shows you, at the start of each act, which final boss you will face at the end of that act, to allow you to plan and prepare. Later plays of Slay the Spire are all about having a plan, getting what you need to face down exactly the challenges coming your way, and pushing yourself as far as you can but no farther. In my recent playthroughs, there was be a laser focus on what my deck must do to claim victory in the final fight, knowing exactly the attack patterns and challenges I will face.

Another huge advantage of Slay the Spire is simplicity. The game could be simpler, but not without sacrifice. Every bit of complexity counts. You draw five cards a turn, you can play three energy worth of cards (most cost one, some zero or two, a few cost more or scale with what you spend), they mostly do damage or stop the enemy from doing damage, and the complexity is added slowly from there by the cards and relics.

Slay the Spire also lets you do tons of good, powerful things all the time. You start with a basic deck, and every move makes you stronger. Relics give you special abilities and advantages, cards are upgraded at forges, you get a new card after each battle and so on, and there is no attempt whatsoever to balance those cards. The good cards are already a welcome relief compared to the starting cards. The great cards are fantastic.

You get a mostly random set of relics, and can choose what path to take and which of a few options or cards to take at other junctures. You have enough customization to have a ton of influence over how your deck develops, but you are also at the mercy of events and forced to make the most of what you are offered. Again, there is zero attempt to balance things other than to make them fun, so often you’ll face a choice between the more powerful thing and the thing you actually want. Other times, you’ll be handed a huge gift, and other times still you’ll have no use for the relics and cards you’ll find and even sometimes intentionally pass them up (which you are allowed to do). In one recent playthrough I chose not to take a boss relic from the Act 2 boss, which is a huge kick in the nuts, but that’s the way it goes. Building your deck around the relics you are granted is a huge part of what keeps Slay the Spire interesting and fresh.

This general idea of ‘give you lots of choices, each a randomized multiple choice’ pays big dividends. You get a choice of three cards, or a dozen things for sale at the merchant, or which of your fifteen cards to upgrade. Random events usually give you two or three choices. The story of the sum of these random choices becomes the story of the climb. So is the general story of figuring out how to get super powerful things out of your deck when you get the chance.

Hearthstone’s Arena pioneered a similar simplified form of drafting, giving only three choices at a time and not forcing you to adjust to what others around you are doing. It lacks the richness of Magic booster drafts or Artifact drafts, but is much richer and more interesting than it first appears. There is likely much room to enrich such formats while retaining this simple essential nature. Even in Magic booster draft, you still are choosing one from up to fifteen options, so the difference there is mostly in degree – the lack of dynamic opponents is the bigger fundamental distinction.

Slay the Spire also does a great job giving you lots of goals each climb. If you’re not sure if you will beat the Act 3 boss, that’s the goal. If you know you can’t, you can try to get as high as you can. If you know you’ll beat the Act 3 boss, you can try to score more points, or later to set up for the finale. It’s up to you and I found all the goals and the battles satisfying. More than anything, the game does a great job of making the battles fun, and not giving you too many with any one deck or against one type of opponent, before the game ends.

Conclusion

Slay the Spire is highly recommended. It shows how to use simple choices and abilities that combine in unique ways to create varied, interesting and fun puzzles. Its emphasis on letting the player have all the fun, and ensuring there is lots of fun to be had, is even more central than I had previously realized. Slay the Spire offers lots of lessons and innovations that can be used by other games, including multiplayer customizable card games. This is especially true in their limited formats, and for the creation of unique and interesting leagues and special events.

I have strategic thoughts on the game as well, but have cut them from this review. I may or may not choose to write them out at another time.



Discuss

Kindergarten in NYC: Much More than You Wanted to Know

9 декабря, 2018 - 18:36
Published on December 9, 2018 3:36 PM UTC

Kindergarten in NYC: Much More than You Wanted to Know

My son is turning five next year, which means one of the most important transitions in his childhood and potentially his life: starting Kindergarten. I always thought New York City moms who obsessed over this were clearly crazy.

Now I am one of those moms.

Why do we do this to ourselves? It’s not the one year of kindergarten. It’s securing that spot in the school where you want them to stay until middle school and potentially high school, and probably send your other kids to as well. It’s all of the social and class insecurities that come with choosing a school and its associated peer group. It’s the fear that if you choose poorly, your child will age 100 years and his face will melt off in front of you.

Not quite that severe. Still, you worry you’ll mess up their life and they’ll become drug addled sociopaths living on your couch until you kick them out when they bring back that prostitute.

Maybe going overboard again. They’ll go to State College, move to the suburbs, and work in retail.

Wo wo wo, lets not be unrealistic. Retail won't be around in 10 years. Your kid will be horribly miserable for the next 14 years, go through depressive episodes, and blame you for all of it. That’s what I’m actually worried about. Both my husband and I had horrible elementary school experiences. We still carry scars. We don’t want that for our sons.

So why not home school? All the cool kids are doing it. We have personal reasons why this would not work for our family. Our son has some social deficits, but is extremely bright. Literally everyone we’ve spoken to who knows our son agrees that he would do better in a structured environment with peers. We have observed his profound social-emotional growth upon starting the school year. We saw back-sliding over the summer when he lacked structure or regular peer interactions. He will not listen to us when we teach him. He is a different child in the school setting, soaking up knowledge.

People can rant all they like about how horrible school is philosophically, but that does not negate what we’ve personally witnessed in our own child. Philosophy aside, home-schooling is a lot of work and coordination. We both work full-time. While we would pick home-school over the horrid elementary school experiences we had, we hope we can do better and find a school where he will be happy.

That is much easier said than done. Especially for unique children. Our son has done well in a private preschool with 15 children and 3 teachers. A public kindergarten in NYC has a class of 26 children and one teacher. This goes up to as high as 32 in first grade. That is a lot of kids in a small space. It presents two options. Either you get a very noisy and unruly class, or a strictly controlled group which conforms precisely with everyone sitting quietly and doing the same thing at the same time. We have seen both. Neither is pretty. Our son has sensory issues, and will not tolerate a very noisy classroom. We expect he also would not tolerate a conformist one. Him tolerating it would scare us even more.

If he went to public school, we might well be pressured to put him into a resource room, with children much worse off than himself. Children with emotional disturbance, severe autism, retardation and other severe problems. My mother has worked in such classrooms and what she describes is unacceptable. Those are her stories to tell, but I would not put him there. Ever.

So what can we do? Sue the city! That’s what everyone told us to do. Say the public schools can’t meet your kid’s needs, since they clearly cannot do so. Find a nice, private special needs school, and sue for tuition.

So we saw some special needs schools. Like public schools, they varied a fair bit and we liked some more than others. What they all had in common was a severely impaired peer group. He would be one of the most functional students in the class. We don’t want that for him. We want him to be challenged and learn from peers who can be models for him.

So what next? Private school! Private schools also vary a lot, but have one thing in common. They are expensive.

I’m not sure you understand how bad this situation is. I spent time looking around. The average private elementary school charges about $45,000 per year.

Yup. You saw that right, $45,000. That’s more than most students' college tuition. Before aid or loans. And it’s post-tax income. And we have more than one child.

With two (and perhaps more) children, that would be most if not all of my post-tax income as a psychiatrist.

People have the audacity to say “But you can afford it.” Don’t get Zvi started on that phrase.

Even if you want to send your kid to private school, you have to apply and be accepted. Most good private schools are selective. Most do not want to deal with a child with special needs.

We have been lucky to find one nearby private school that charges considerably less (though still far from cheap) and happens to have an educational philosophy we think would suit our son. It’s a Waldorf school. It emphasizes practical skills such as cooking, gardening, carpentry, foreign language, and trade. Since we believe our son is gifted academically, being less academic does not concern us. He will learn that stuff at home whether we want him to or not. Thus, we wait with baited breath for his trial period there to see if they’ll accept him. We don’t have a back-up option that comes close at present.

What’s been really interesting to me through this process is how vastly schools differ from each other. Often people speak about ‘school’ as if it is one thing. Either you agree with sending kids to ‘school’ or you don’t. This is not the case. One reason New York City moms go berserk over this is that there are *vast* differences between schools even a few blocks away from each other. Within the public schools, class is everything. Most children go to their ‘zoned' school, and so people will pay higher rents near the ‘good’ schools to get their kids in. One of the public schools we saw looked and felt like a prison, had no music or art program, and only let the kids outside for 20 minutes a day. Another 10 blocks north in the neighboring district collected $500K/yr from the PTA and had full music and art programs, book fairs, a large library, and extra in-classroom assistants.

We live in a district which has weird rules about admissions. Instead of having a zoned school, you make a rank-list of schools in the district and apply to all of them. In an attempt to ingrate the schools more, the city has imposed rules about who can be admitted by class. The schools are required to accept 67% of ‘diversity’ applicants who qualify either for low income, English as second language, or living in shelters (i.e. homeless). There is a lot of evidence supporting that peer group is a major factor in child development and life outcome. Political incorrectness aside, this is not a wonderful peer group. It also far reduces the chances that your child will get into the particular school you want them to go to. Since priority is first given to siblings, the ‘nice’ school in this district (that we would have previously been zoned for) now only has four ‘non-diversity’ spots open for admission this year. Even if we were willing to send him there, he probably wouldn’t get in. Because of this, many better-off families are moving out of the district entirely. This is reflected in the rents within our community – rent jumps considerably right at the district line. People respond to incentives. If we sent our kids to public school we would be forced to do the same. If you have any money at all, you go to the district where the PTA funds the nice art program, not the one with the metal detector in the lobby.

Going private for education hopefully means you avoid true disaster, and the peer group is relatively wealthy and educated. But even private schools differ vastly in their philosophy towards education. Some are super academic, drilling kids to get high SAT scores and become doctors and lawyers. Some are more laid back. Some hardly seem to teach anything at all. There are small schools with one class per grade, others that are much larger. Religious and secular schools. Science schools and arts schools. If you’re willing to pay for it odds are there is some school that you would like. That’s a big if though.

My practical advice: If your only option is public school, move to an area that has a nice school at least one full school year before you intend to apply. You can tour schools just by saying you have a kid in the district, and they don’t force you to prove it. Once you find a school you like, you can move to that school’s zone, and you will have a high chance of admission. To be safe, you should make sure there are 1-2 back up schools you find acceptable in the district. If you cannot afford to live any places with reasonable public schools, you should seriously consider leaving the city. I am told of reasonable schools in NJ…

If you can’t stand public school, because at the end of the day they all follow common core, take those tests, and have 32 kids in a class, then you have to consider what you can afford. Home school has no tuition, but will require all-day child care, any educational materials/classes you want to use, and a large coordination effort on your part. If you’re a stay at home parent this might appeal to you anyway. For the most part the people who choose to do it are happy with it.

Private school is expensive, but requires less advance planning, since they don’t care what district you’re in as long as you can pay. You might still need to consider moving for private school if you don’t want your child to have an infinitely long commute. The city will pay for busing to private schools for bus routes which are 0.25 – 2.0 miles. Keep in mind that they are measuring distance along bus routes and not geographically. Even if you are physically within 2 miles of the school, the bus route might be over 2 miles and you will be out of luck. To be fair, if you’re willing to spend $50,000/year on a school, then what’s another $40/day to hire someone to take them to school?

I am now going to write some school reviews. I will leave out specific names, but if you are interested you can message me privately, and I will let you know which is which. Zvi saw some schools I did not, which I haven’t written about, and we still have some tours planned at local public schools.

Public Schools:

District 1 (our district – the one with the integration)

Public School A:

I was pleasantly surprised by this school’s philosophy of education. They were laid back and progressive. Kids sit at tables instead of desks. Group conversations and creative expression was encouraged. No mandatory homework. Starting in 1st grade, kids learn chess and have the opportunity in 3rd and 4th grade to compete in tournaments. In 3rd grade the kids learn basic computer programming. There is a year of free music lessons. They have a theater and a roof-top garden. Gym is non-competitive until 4th grade. 45 minutes of daily outdoor time. I really liked everything they *said* and the principal was super cool. However, the actual classrooms were tiny and crammed full of students. It was loud. I felt claustrophobic there, and I don’t have sensory issues in general. Plus, the district just implemented the diversity criteria this year, so the students I was seeing are not the peer group my son is going to have if he went. And, of course, they only have four non-sibling, non-diversity spots available.

Public School B:

This place is a prison. There is an angry security guard at the entrance to the grime-encrusted orange walls. Multiple signs above the guard state ‘theft is a crime.’ The slit-like windows at the top of the rooms let in thin beams of daylight to an otherwise flickering-fluorescent landscape. This is hell. There is no music or art program – no room in the budget. So ‘we do that within our lessons’. 20 minutes of yard time a day. Everything is centered around standardized tests. The only white faces were part of a special program. No one with any choice would ever let their kid set foot in this place unless they were in the special program. Not worth it. It’s social control of minorities. Straight up. If SJWs want a cause, here’s one for you. And no, forcing white or wealthy children to go there is not going to work. They won’t.

District 2 (the nice one)

Public School C:

The platonic ideal of school. When you think school, you think this school. The people who designed it thought ‘what is school?’ and then based the design off of every trope and meme about school, ever. Charts of everything on the walls. ‘Task leaders.’ Bulletin boards. Window decals. Those weird cartoon people you only see in school ever. Worksheets, worksheets, worksheets. Chalk boards. White boards. This place has it all! The place felt nice. Larger rooms, more light. Nice enrichment activities. A music and art program. A nice library and computer lab. Several outdoor spaces and playground equipment. The place gets $500k/yr from the PTA to keep the place great. Mostly white faces sitting quietly in circles while the teacher spoke to them in exaggerated tones with big faces while pointing to a white board.

Looked like the children of the corn. Completely conformist. But conformists at least a year ahead academically. It is disturbing to see kindergarteners completing reading worksheets and pushing papers around, but they were able to do it. This is the place for upper-middle class white people who move into the ‘good’ part of the neighborhood.

Private Schools:

Private School A: Preparatory School

EXPENSIVE. Beautiful school and facility. It is a ‘Quaker’ school, but mostly secular. Has a beautiful chapel where kids have ‘community assembly and quiet time’ once a week. Other parents were very well dressed – a lot of suits and jewelry. Academically rigorous without being oppressively conformist. Perhaps because the class size is 20 instead of 30, so there is more room to maneuver. A fine school as schools go, but not that much of an upgrade from PSC given the price. Also difficult to get into and unwilling to accommodate special needs.

Private School B: Jewish School

I loved this school! I really did. It’s a progressive, laid-back atmosphere that is still academically oriented. It is very Jewish. The boys wear keepas and the curriculum is fully bilingual with one teacher speaking English and the other speaking Hebrew. They have all the usual stuff such as music and art. They go outside for 1 hr/day. They are willing to work with special needs. They know how to work with gifted and talented kids and make special assignments for children who are ahead. LOVE IT. Problem was, it is about 1 hour away by bus and it’s a 7.5 hr day. Not doing that to my kid. Not willing to move close enough to make it work. At least not this coming year.

Private School C: Waldorf School

This is a very unique nearby school that happens to be less expensive than the others. It has a unique education philosophy (a Waldorf school) which emphasizes embodiment and practical skills over academic ones. The curriculum includes foreign languages, cooking, washing, gardening, carpentry, and trade. The kindergarten is entirely non-academic and includes copious time for free play and an hour of outdoor activity. The later grades teach traditional academics, but do so in somewhat unusual ways, which I don’t have a strong opinion on at present. Since the main reason we are sending our son to school is for socialization, and since he’s already brilliant, I’m less worried about academics, especially in the younger grades. The school requested a drastic reduction in our child’s screen time, which at first freaked me out (who are they to tell me what to do in my own home), but I kind of understand. It’s a very small school (only 1 class per grade) and they are currently considering whether or not they can accommodate his needs. This is our top choice at present.

Special Needs Schools:

SNS A: Social Justice Away!

This school is an ‘integrated’ private school – meaning it’s a private school for regular kids which also accepts children with learning disabilities and has services for them. This means you can get the tuition paid by the city, unlike regular private schools, with a relatively normal peer group. It’s a great idea. The school itself is beautiful and has All The Things.

However there is a catch. The school has an agenda. It’s a social justice school. In the sense that other schools are reading and math schools. They call themselves ‘Advocates for Social Justice’ in their opening lines. I wouldn’t have thought this mattered for elementary age children. Sure, loving each other is wonderful! Accepting your neighbors is wonderful! But this is not where they draw the line. Social Justice is taught in every aspect of the curriculum. There are 7 year olds discussing their ‘identities’, an 8 year old talking about how his hero is Colin Kaepernick, that guy who keeled for the national anthem. The teachers then praise his 'activism' for writing about it. The other sample lesson is on how Christopher Columbus was a white colonialist oppressor. And the children absorb this. The school is accepts all kinds – unless you happen to be a *gasp* Republican. No diversity of thinking. If you don’t fully swallow the SJW philosophy in all its forms, or don't want them forced down your child's throat, this is not the place for you.

SNS B: Soothing Gardens…

Beautiful place. Therapeutic environment. Has the things. Didn’t want us to see the children – which was strange. When we peaked in at them, they were, well, very special. Seems like a great place for very special kids. If I have one that needed all that, I’d consider sending him there.

SNS C: Jews with learning problems

While not specifically a Jewish school, there were clearly a lot of Jewish children and teachers. I actually liked this place a lot. It was very laid back and gave the kids a lot of lee-way to be who they are. It didn’t feel at all oppressive. They group kids into separate reading and math groups not by age, but by reading and math level, which I liked. The kids seemed less special than at SNS B, but still clearly special. The school didn’t have its own outdoor space and so kids only go outside twice week with a bunch of parent-volunteers, since they want one adult per kid when crossing the streets. What was particularly disappointing was that they were clearly quite academically behind. The classes were so laid back that there didn’t seem to be a challenge, and the teachers were fine with whatever they produced. I can imagine certain children this would be very good for. I have vastly higher hopes for our son.



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New Ratfic: Nyssa in the Realm of Possibility

9 декабря, 2018 - 08:00
Published on December 9, 2018 5:00 AM UTC

For NaNoWriMo, I decided to do a rationality themed pastiche of the Phantom Tollbooth. It is complete and serializing at http://nyssa.elcenia.com on Saturdays and Wednesdays. There are three chapters up as of this posting.



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What precisely do we mean by AI alignment?

9 декабря, 2018 - 05:23
Published on December 9, 2018 2:23 AM UTC

We sometimes phrase AI alignment as the problem of aligning the behavior or values of AI with what humanity wants or humanity's values or humanity's intent, but this leaves open the questions of just what precisely it means for an AI to be "aligned" with just what precisely we mean by "wants," "values," or "intent". So when we say we want to build aligned AI, what precisely do we mean to accomplish beyond vaguely building an AI that does-what-I-mean-not-what-I-say?



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What is "Social Reality?"

8 декабря, 2018 - 20:41
Published on December 8, 2018 5:41 PM UTC

Eliezer's sequences touch upon this concept but I'm not sure they actually use the phrase. Much of my understanding of it came from in-person conversations. Various comments and posts have discussed it but to my knowledge there isn't a clear online writeup.



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Prediction Markets Are About Being Right

8 декабря, 2018 - 17:00
Published on December 8, 2018 2:00 PM UTC

Response To (Marginal Revolution): If you love prediction markets you should love the art world.

Previously on prediction markets: Prediction Markets: When Do They Work?Subsidizing Prediction Markets

I’ll quote the original in full, as it is short, and I found it interestingly and importantly wrong. By asking the question of why this perspective is wrong, we see what is so special about prediction markets versus other markets.

Think of art markets, and art collecting, as an ongoing debate over what is beautiful and also what is culturally important.  But unlike most debates, you have a very direct chance to “put your money where your mouth is,” namely by buying art (it is very difficult to sell art short, however).  In this regard, debates over artistic value may be among the most efficient debates in the world.  At least if you are persuaded by the basic virtues of prediction markets.  The prices of various art works really do aggregate information about their perceived values.

I have, however, noted a correlation, how necessary or contingent I am not sure.  The “white male nerd types” who are enamored of prediction markets tend to be especially skeptical of the market judgments of particular art works, most of all for conceptual and contemporary art.

In my view, discussions about the value of art, as they occur in the off-the-record, proprietary sphere, are indeed of high value and they deserve to be studied more closely.  Imagine a bunch of people competing to make “objects that are interesting but not interesting for reasons related to their practical value.”  And then we debate who has succeeded, or not.  And those debates reflect many broader social, political, and economic issues.  And it is all done with very real money on the line.  The money concerns not just the value of individual art works, but also the prestige and social capital value that arises from having assembled a prestigious and insightful collection.

That’s exactly why (almost) everyone who loves prediction markets hates the high-end, expensive art markets, even if they love art and artists and buy original paintings to hang on their walls. This goes beyond ‘skepticism of the market judgments.’ Expensive art markets are not fundamentally markets. They are fundamentally a political status game.

Consider three (non-exhaustive) types of markets: Consumption markets, commercial markets and prediction markets.

Consumption markets are where the buyer is buying the item in order to use it.

The buyer who pays more than necessary is sad in one sense, and the one who got the best deal is happy in that sense. But that sense isn’t the important one for the buyer. If you are ‘right’ it is because you indeed got good use of the item that justified the purchase. If you are ‘wrong’ it is because you didn’t.

Thus, we can point to a ‘naive’ participant who doesn’t ‘play the game’ of that market, and say ‘look how much they could have saved’, or did ‘save’, but that doesn’t actually impact them.

Liquid commercial markets are where the buyer plans to sell the item to someone else.

Middle men, arbitrage, investment, greater fools, that sort of thing. Buy low, sell high.

If you buy a stock, or a commodity piece of art, or inventory for your store, or a cryptocurrency, and others want to buy it for more, it goes up in price and you make money. If they want to sell it for less, it goes down in price and you lose money.

The buyer who pays more than necessary is sad, and loses money, in the only sense that matters. If the price goes down, that too makes the buyer sad. Paying a locally good price, or having the price go up, makes the buyer happy. The key is to buy before others buy, so they drive the price up.

You might reply, no, the bigger key is to buy what is cheap and sell what is expensive, based on fundamentals, and that will bear out over time.

Well, maybe.

Yes, often buyers and sellers are driven by fundamentals. But in an important sense, that is a coincidence. What is actually good news is often considered bad news, and vice versa. Prices are often largely driven by who is thinking about what and the emotional state and financial needs of participants. The market can stay insane longer than you can stay solvent. The people who say such non-fundamental movements are random, are mostly saying they aren’t good enough to understand and predict them in this case.

Yes, eventually fundamentals might take over.  Or they might not. Low prices cause damage or make items impossible to justify storing or stocking. High prices trigger media attention and create opportunity. Low prices trigger margin calls, gets the company bought out or its employees and partners to quit. High prices trigger short squeezes and make everyone want to work with and for you. And so on. Momentum trading works, damn it (like everything else on this blog, not investment advice!).

Ideally the commercial market is anchored by connection to a consumption market – someone wants the goods, or is willing to collect the profits from the stock, or what not. The stronger that anchor versus speculative factors, the more accurate the prices.

Prediction markets have elements of both.

Prediction market traders can choose to mostly act like traders. If you think that others will think that the Patriots will win next week, you can bet on the Patriots now and then bet against them later when the odds change, and make money. You can be a market maker, or a block trader, or any other traditional market role.

In doing this, a trader cares about future social reality. They are people predicting what others will, in the future, predict that others will predict that others will predict, and so on. World events can help or hurt them, as they change perception, but they care about that perception and not the reality. By the time reality sets in, who knows what positions the trader will have?

In prediction markets there is another option. You can care about future reality. The market predicts a future outcome, and importantly you can stay solvent longer than the market can stay insane. Either the Patriots will win next week, or they will not. You can do better by using your commercial market tactics to grab the best possible price on the Patriots winning or losing, but the important thing is that you win if you are right about the concrete thing, and you lose if you are wrong. 

This works because there is an objective outcome, and it occurs quickly. Thus it functions in its own way like a consumption market.

Truth matters. 

If you choose, only truth matters. I don’t have to care what other people think. They don’t determine if I win or lose.

That’s what I love, more than anything, about prediction markets. That’s the reason behind many of the requirements of well-functioning prediction markets: They enable this sole reliance on truth, without imposing virtual taxes via long lock-up periods. This also enables prediction markets to output accurate predictions.

That’s also a lot of what I love about trading. With a sufficiently deep and liquid market, you win if and only if you are right. No one gets to take that away from you and decide who gets the credit and the money. Only your skill mattered, and you reap what you deserve.

strongly encourage the type of people who read this blog to strive to identify and work in such realms. Be where being right, rather than being approved of, is rewarded. 

The world mostly does not work like this.

The world mostly hates prediction markets, because they predict concrete consequences and outcomes accurately without taking into account what those in power, with high social status, want to be the prediction. 

Mostly, winners and losers are determined by social processes, status, coalitions, power, money and so on.

Credit and compensation mostly isn’t based on who knew the truth and predicted accurately, or who did the work or created the value, or even what was stated in the contract. It is based on who has power and what they decide, based on what is good for them. History, along with everything else, gets decided by the winners.

That’s life.

That’s also expensive art, and expensive art markets, of the type Tyler speaks of. Only more so.

As I understand it (from, mostly, following Marginal Revolution links and posts) a small group determines who succeeds and fails, and buys art from each other, and manipulates the social reality of the art world and its prices to suit its fancies. Its fancies are mostly about the pursuit of conspicuous consumption, high social status and its associated rewards, wealth storage, money laundering and tax evasion, plus suckering outsiders and scamming them out of their money. Artistic merit, or aesthetics, are mostly a minor consideration.

Recall Tyler’s description:

Imagine a bunch of people competing to make “objects that are interesting but not interesting for reasons related to their practical value.”  And then we debate who has succeeded, or not.  And those debates reflect many broader social, political, and economic issues.  And it is all done with very real money on the line.  The money concerns not just the value of individual art works, but also the prestige and social capital value that arises from having assembled a prestigious and insightful collection.

In this context, what does it mean for an object to ‘be interesting’? It means having a high price, but mostly it means being judged as interesting by a high social status cabal that is primarily designed as an alliance of the high status connected people against everyone else. This need not be explicit at all – it is how such people instinctively operate, and you either learn those instincts or you never make it into the club.

There is no reason think any of this will ever “return to fundamentals” in any sense. The system sustains itself. There is (almost) no there, there. There never will be.

Thus, if I buy art, and people don’t like me, they will find ways to charge me a lot more then they’d have charged an insider, and then they say therefore my art is not so valuable. Because I was buying it, and now I own it.

If I hadn’t bought that piece, would it have become valuable? We’ll never know. Was it valuable before I bought it? Also impossible to say.

That game is rigged, man. The only way to win is not to play.

If I think those people are wrong, I can consume the art by displaying it in my house and admiring it. If I want to spend a few hundred or thousand dollars on something I love, by all means I should go for it, but have zero illusions about the work becoming ‘valuable.’

What I cannot do is predict that they are wrong, and wait for events to prove me right. There is no judgment day. No profit stream. No right. No wrong.

There are only cliques who watch each other to see if they are favoring the others in the clique, and use this to exploit others, because that’s what winners and clique members with power and money do. It’s sort of a market, like everything else. But in important senses, it is badly named, and something people like me despise. It is our failure mode and our doom, the way that prediction markets are our success mode and our hope.

Thus, if you love art markets you likely despise prediction markets, at least outside of their designated safe areas like sports and elections. And if you love prediction markets, you likely despise art markets whether or not you find them informative and fascinating in their own way.

What none of the people, whether they love or hate either market type, should be fooled by, is in accepting in a non-skeptical fashion the ‘market prices’ of ‘art’ in the art market. That is flat out not what is going on, at all. Such trades are not about the exchange of cash value for art value. Trying to use them to value the artwork misses the point entirely.

Are these art-market games worth understanding for what they can teach us about the world and how people work? Absolutely. Such shadowy practices do not get the light shined on them, that they deserve. Scams and exploitation and manipulation should be exposed. Political games as well. To blame and ideally punish those responsible, to protect people against them and against having to play such games to succeed. But more than that, to educate us about how people, and how such systems, work. Mostly, those who do understand how such things work only understand them from the inside, and do so in a non-intellectual fashion. With exposure, and as they see such actions succeed, they adopt their actions, views, instincts and very identity towards perpetuating such systems through imitation, usually without ever understanding what is going on in either themselves or the system at large.

Actually understanding how such things work might be the first step towards containing or overcoming such systems, or at least minimizing the damage they inflict on our lives, our status, our wealth and our souls.

It is also possible that such systems are in fact how anything actually gets done at all, and the exposure of more and more hypocritical and exploitative systems is making society unable to function, which would be far worse.

That’s a risk I am willing to take.

 

 

 

 

 



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Why should I care about rationality?

8 декабря, 2018 - 06:49
Published on December 8, 2018 3:49 AM UTC



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Book review: Artificial Intelligence Safety and Security

8 декабря, 2018 - 06:47
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Is the human brain a valid choice for the Universal Turing Machine in Solomonoff Induction?

8 декабря, 2018 - 04:49
Published on December 8, 2018 1:49 AM UTC

I've recently been thinking about Solomonoff induction, and in particular the free choice of Universal Turing Machine.

One variable that seems like a potential choice here is a human brain (my brain for example). It's obviously a bit of a weird choice, but I don't see any reason to disprefer it over a Python interpreter, given that the whole point of Solomonoff induction is to define a prior and so my knowledge of physics or atoms shouldn't really come into play when choosing a UTM.

Concretely, the UTM would be a human simulated in an empty room with an infinitely large notebook symbolizing the tape. It's output would be an encoding of sensory data, and it's input would be a string of instructions in english.

If we do that, then the sentence "the woman at the end of the street is a witch, she did it" suddenly becomes one of the simplest hypotheses that are available to us. Since the english sentence is so short, we now basically just need to give an encoding of who that woman is and what the action in question is, which is probably also going to be a lot shorter in human language than machine language (since our UTM already understands basic physics, society, etc.), and then our simulated human (which since Solomonoff induction doesn't have runtime constraints can take as much time as they want) should be able to produce a prediction of historical sensory input quite well, with relatively little input.

I feel like I must be missing something in my understanding of Solomonoff induction. I have a lot more thoughts, but maybe someone else has already thought of this and can help me understand this. Some thoughts that come to mind:

  • I don't know how to build a human brain, but I know how to build a machine that runs a Python interpreter. In that sense I understand a Python interpreter a lot better than I do a human brain, and using it as the basis of Solomonoff induction is more enlightening
  • There is a weird circularity about choosing a human brain (or your own brain in particular) as the UTC in Solomonoff induction that I can't quite put my finger on
  • Maybe I am misunderstanding the Solomonoff induction formalism so that this whole construction doesn't make any sense


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Transhumanists Don't Need Special Dispositions

8 декабря, 2018 - 01:24
Published on December 7, 2018 10:24 PM UTC

This essay was originally posted in 2007.

I have claimed that transhumanism arises strictly from love of life.  A bioconservative humanist says that it is good to save someone's life or cure them of debilitating syndromes if they are young, but once they are "too old" (the exact threshold is rarely specified) we should stop trying to keep them alive and healthy.  A transhumanist says unconditionally:  "Life is good, death is bad; health is good, death is bad."  Whether you're 5, 50, or 500, life is good, why die?  Nothing more is required.

Then why is there a widespread misunderstanding that transhumanism involves a special fetish for technology, or an unusually strong fear of death, or some other abnormal personal disposition?

I offer an analogy:  Rationality is often thought to be about cynicism.  The one comes to us and says, "Fairies make the rainbow; I believe this because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside."  And you say, "No."  And the one reasons, "I believe in fairies because I enjoy feeling warm and fuzzy.  If I imagine that there are no fairies, I feel a sensation of deadly existential emptiness.  Rationalists say there are no fairies.  So they must enjoy sensations of deadly existential emptiness."  Actually, rationality follows a completely different rule - examine the rainbow very closely and see how it actually works.  If we find fairies, we accept that, and if we don't find fairies, we accept that too.  The look-and-see rule makes no mention of our personal feelings about fairies, and it fully determines the rational answer.  So you cannot infer that a competent rationalist hates fairies, or likes feelings of deadly existential emptiness, by looking at what they believe about rainbows.

But this rule - the notion of actually looking at things - is not widely understood.  The more common belief is that rationalists make up stories about boring old math equations, instead of pretty little fairies, because rationalists have a math fetish instead of a fairy fetish.  A personal taste, and an odd one at that, but how else would you explain rationalists' strange and unusual beliefs?

Similarly, love of life is not commonly understood as a motive for saying that, if someone is sick, and we can cure them using medical nanotech, we really ought to do that.  Instead people suppose that transhumanists have a taste for technology, a futurism fetish, that we just love those pictures of little roving nanobots.  A personal taste, and an odd one at that, but how else would you explain transhumanists' strange and unusual moral judgments?

Of course I'm not claiming that transhumanists take no joy in technology.  That would be like saying a rationalist should take no joy in math.  Homo sapiens is the tool-making species; a complete human being should take joy in a contrivance of special cleverness, just as we take joy in music or storytelling.  It is likewise incorrect to say that the aesthetic beauty of a technology is a distinct good from its beneficial use - their sum is not merely additive, there is a harmonious combination.  The equations underlying a rainbow are all the more beautiful for being true, rather than just made up.  But the esthetic of transhumanism is very strict about positive outcomes taking precedence over how cool the technology looks.  If the choice is between using an elegant technology to save a million lives and using an ugly technology to save a million and one lives, you choose the latter.  Otherwise the harmonious combination vanishes like a soap bubble popping.  It would be like preferring a more elegant theory of rainbows that was not actually true.

In social psychology, the "correspondence bias" is that we see far too direct a correspondence between others' actions and their personalities.  As Gilbert and Malone put it, we "draw inferences about a person's unique and enduring dispositions from behaviors that can be entirely explained by the situations in which they occur."  For example, subjects listen to speakers giving speeches for and against abortion.  The subjects are explicitly told that the speakers are reading prepared speeches assigned by coin toss - and yet the subjects still believe the pro-abortion speakers are personally in favor of abortion.

When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume he is "an angry person".  But if you yourself kick the vending machine, you will tend to see your actions as caused by your situation, not your disposition.  The bus was late, the train was early, your report is overdue, and now the damned vending machine has eaten your money twice in a row.  But others will not see this; they cannot see your situation trailing behind you in the air, and so they will attribute your behavior to your disposition.

But, really, most of the people in the world are not mutants - are probably not exceptional in any given facet of their emotional makeup.  A key to understanding human nature is to realize that the vast majority of people see themselves as behaving normally, given their situations.  If you wish to understand people's behaviors, then don't ask after mutant dispositions; rather, ask what situation they might believe themselves to be in.

Suppose I gave you a control with two buttons, a red button and a green button.  The red button destroys the world, and the green button stops the red button from being pressed.  Which button would you press?  The green one.  This response is perfectly normal. No special world-saving disposition is required, let alone a special preference for the color green.  Most people would choose to press the green button and save the world, if they saw their situation in those terms.

And yet people sometimes ask me why I want to save the worldWhy? They want to know why someone would want to save the world?  Like you have to be traumatized in childhood or something?  Give me a break.

We all seem normal to ourselves.  One must understand this to understand all those strange other people.

Correspondence bias can also be seen as essentialist reasoning, like explaining rain by water spirits, or explaining fire by phlogiston.  If you kick a vending machine, why, it must be because you have a vending-machine-kicking disposition.

So the transhumanist says, "Let us use this technology to cure aging."  And the reporter thinks, How strange!  He must have been born with an unusual technology-loving disposition.  Or, How strange!  He must have an unusual horror of aging!

Technology means many things to many people.  So too, death, aging, sickness have different implications to different personal philosophies.  Thus, different people incorrectly attribute transhumanism to different mutant dispositions.

If someone prides themselves on being cynical of all Madison Avenue marketing, and the meaning of technology unto them is Madison Avenue marketing, they will see transhumanists as shills for The Man, trying to get us to spend money on expensive but ultimately meaningless toys.

If someone has been fed Deep Wisdom about how death is part of the Natural Cycle of Life ordained by heaven as a transition to beyond the flesh, etc., then they will see transhumanists as Minions of Industry, Agents of the Anti-Life Death Force that is Science.

If someone has a postmodern ironic attitude toward technology, then they'll see transhumanists as being on a mission to make the world even stranger, more impersonal, than it already is - with the word "Singularity" obviously referring to complete disconnection and incomprehensibility.

If someone sees computers and virtual reality as an escape from the real world, opposed to sweat under the warm sun and the scent of real flowers, they will think that transhumanists must surely hate the body; that they want to escape the scent of flowers into a grayscale virtual world.

If someone associates technology with Gosh-Wow-Gee-Whiz-So-Cool flying cars and jetpacks, they'll think transhumanists have gone overboard on youthful enthusiasm for toys.

If someone associates the future with scary hyperbole from Wired magazine - humans will merge with their machines and become indistinguishable from them - they'll think that transhumanists yearn for the cold embrace of metal tentacles, that we want to lose our identity and be eaten by the Machine or some other dystopian nightmare of the month.

In all cases they make the same mistake - drawing a one-to-one correspondence between the way in which the behavior strikes them as strange, and a mutant mental essence that exactly fits the behavior.  This is an unnecessarily burdensome explanation for why someone would advocate healing the sick by any means available, including advanced technology.



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Is cognitive load a factor in community decline?

7 декабря, 2018 - 18:45
Published on December 7, 2018 3:45 PM UTC

This is speculation; I had the thought and then ran in to trouble disentangling the question I am trying to answer from other research on a different question, and also the sources I know about are not conveniently available to me. Ideally I can either get a swift negation or a line on the right kind of research to look at from here.

From here I get the notion that more effort is required per hour of work than was the case in the past. It's very long, but here's the part that piqued my interest:

So labour productivity growth in textiles came from a combination of “speed-up” and “stretch-out”, which is equivalent to “labour intensification” — making each worker exert more effort for every hour of work.Clark (1987) notes that over the course of the 19th century the average Lancashire operative roughly doubled the number of machines tended, even as the speed of machines also increased. This higher workload makes it “unsafe to infer that the increase in output per worker resulted solely from technical progress”.That view is powerfully supported by Bessen (2012), who estimates approximately 1/4 of the 50-fold increase in cloth output per worker-hour between 1800 and 1900 was due to each weaver simply operating more looms than they had done initially. That’s really big. But if you cut off the initial quantum leap from the hand loom (1800) to the power loom (1819) and consider only the mechanised era after 1819, the share of  the productivity growth due to greater exertion of effort is even bigger more than 60% !

From this Kathy Sierra talk I saw some months ago, I get the notion of total cognitive resources used during work. Combining these two suggests to me that the total cognitive resources used on the job have increased over time.

Finally I have been wondering about the decline of community in the United States these last few weeks. Referring to Putnam, it seems this has been pretty consistent since ~1965.

So what I am wondering is: did we cross some threshold around 1965 where the demands of work ate up the all cognitive resources we had available, so none were left for working in/on our community?

In pseudoerasmus' post the term "labor intensification" is used, but when I search for variations on labor intensity/ification, mostly what I get is the ratio of labor expenditures to capital expenditures. I also don't have access to Benson's paper, and while I am prepared to go around that lack of access I wanted to see if there was a publicly available body of work to check first.



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Worth keeping

7 декабря, 2018 - 07:50
Published on December 7, 2018 4:50 AM UTC

(Epistemic status: quick speculation which matches my intuitions about how social things go, but which I hadn’t explicitly described before, and haven’t checked.)

If your car gets damaged, should you invest more or less in it going forward? It could go either way. The car needs more investment to be in good condition, so maybe you do that. But the car is worse than you thought, so maybe you start considering a new car, or putting your dollars into Uber instead.

If you are writing an essay and run into difficulty describing something, you can put in additional effort to find the right words, or you can suspect that this is not going to be a great essay, and either give up, or prepare to get it out quickly and imperfectly, worrying less about the other parts that don’t quite work.

When something has a problem, you always choose whether to double down with it or to back away.

(Or in the middle, to do a bit of both: to fix the car this time, but start to look around for other cars.)

I’m interested in this as it pertains to people. When a friend fails, do you move toward them—to hold them, talk to them, pick them up at your own expense—or do you edge away? It probably depends on the friend (and the problem). If someone embarrasses themselves in public, do you sully your own reputation to stand up for their worth? Or do you silently hope not to be associated with them? If they are dying, do you hold their hand, even if it destroys you? Or do you hope that someone else is doing that, and become someone they know less well?

Where a person fits on this line would seem to radically change their incentives around you. Someone firmly in your ‘worth keeping’ zone does better to let you see their problems than to hide them. Because you probably won’t give up on them, and you might help. Since everyone has problems, and they take effort to hide, this person is just a lot freer around you. If instead every problem hastens a person’s replacement, they should probably not only hide their problems, but also many of their other details, which are somehow entwined with problems.

(A related question is when you should let people know where they stand with you. Prima facie, it seems good to make sure people know when they are safe. But that means it also being clearer when a person is not safe, which has downsides.)

If there are better replacements in general, then you will be inclined to replace things more readily. If you can press a button to have a great new car appear, then you won’t have the same car for long.

The social analog is that in a community where friends are more replaceable—for instance, because everyone is extremely well selected to be similar on important axes—it should be harder to be close to anyone, or to feel safe and accepted. Even while everyone is unusually much on the same team, and unusually well suited to one another.



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Trivial Inconvenience Day (December 9th at 12 Noon PST)

7 декабря, 2018 - 04:26
Published on December 7, 2018 1:26 AM UTC

Hi everybody, it's been 9 months since I wrote my report on Trivial Inconvenience Day. I wasn't quite sure when to run a sequel event. I wanted to give people an opportunity for deferred tasks to pile up again. With three seasons under the bridge I think it's safe to say that the procrastination coffers have since refilled. This post is your invitation to join us this Sunday, December 9th, to cross nagging tasks off your list.

Event Information

Shortly after reading Scott Alexander’s LessWrong Crypto Autopsy I found myself agreeing with the point so strongly I was brainstorming ways that its dismal outcome could have been prevented. Peoples personal accounts of why they didn’t buy bitcoin seemed to converge on a central theme: Buying Bitcoin was a trivial inconvenience. Pondering what might be done in light of this, I was reminded of Boston Rat’s Bureaucracy Day. The Bureaucracy Day is essentially a designated day for people to beat the ugh field effect by getting together and going through the whole mess of annoying tasks, paperwork, and other trivially inconvenient things people have been putting off. Having been impressed by the concept the first time I read about it, Scott’s dire analysis convinced me to try something like it in the hope that it would be a useful tool against this sort of thing happening again.

Multi-hour session of not letting small emotional or logistical barriers get in the way of a better life, state tasks you'd like to do and do them. No minimum commitment or significance requirements, show up for 15 minutes to do something and leave if you like. Prefer most participants show up at designated time to maintain critical mass throughout event.

How do I join?

Join this Discord server on or before Sunday, December 9th at 12:00 (Noon) PST. No account or signup is required.

You can also join while things are ongoing, but it works best if most of us are there at the same time to start.

Why join?

From the outset I was aiming for the event to have a particular sort of feel. I wanted it to be serious, but also sort of cheesy. In real life we’re used to doing slog-y, tedious work and having nothing to show for it afterwards besides hours passed on the clock. It’s not a very rewarding experience. Therefore to help counteract this I wanted the experience to be chock full of artificial rewards. The fact of the matter is that these mundane necessities of life give us nowhere near the level of reward we feel we deserve for the effort. That is after all why they’re undone in the first place. Keeping this in mind I wanted the atmosphere to be high energy, exuberantly enthusiastic.

The idea behind making it an event is to provide both peer pressure and an exciting atmosphere which would otherwise never be present while you're slogging through obtuse tasks. As well as to set aside designated time for these things to happen in.

How Should I Prepare?

Make a list of tasks that you need to do which have fallen off the wagon in the course of daily life. Also think about things you would like to do but haven't gotten around to.

The inspiration for this event was Scott's crypto autopsy. So I would definitely encourage you to take a moment to think about what potentially high impact things you're putting off. For example in the previous event someone signed up for Vanguard.

As an example, this is my tentative list:

  • Identify consistently dysfunctional parts of my room and make them functional
  • Figure out how on earth I'm going to make all the statistical graphs to show the results of my Coordination Survey. (Yes I know a lot of you have been asking for these for a while)
  • Make a list of my backups & data by year, where it's stored, etc to make sure that I have it all and am not at risk of losing anything
  • Sort out the music on my MP3 player
  • Order some books
  • Make a list of websites the designer of Whistling Lobsters 2.0 can use as inspiration for the site design

These are mostly things which fall into the short-term-annoyance but long-term-benefit bucket.

You will be sharing this list, so if a task is particularly embarrassing or impolite in mixed company, you may be best off listing it under a polite euphemism or dummy description.

How does it work?

I'll provide detailed instructions the day of the event, but the short version is:

  • You put your list into the server
  • You do items on the list
  • As you check them off, you announce their completion
  • Everyone reacts with encouraging emoji and warm expressions
How long does it last?

As long as you want it to. If you show up, do one thing that's been bugging you that takes ten minutes and leave I'll consider that a success. Realistically it probably ends when almost everyone has done their list or given up.



Discuss

COEDT Equilibria in Games

6 декабря, 2018 - 21:00
Published on December 6, 2018 6:00 PM UTC

From Jessica's earlier post about conditional oracles, the question was asked: what is the equilibrium concept for games with more than one COEDT agent?

This post will (partially) answer that question, and provide a link to a tool to visualize 2-player 2-move COEDT equilibria sets.

To begin with, we will review how conditional oracles work. 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src: local('MathJax_Vector Bold'), local('MathJax_Vector-Bold')} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-vec-Bx; src: local('MathJax_Vector'); font-weight: bold} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-vec-Bw; src /*1*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/eot/MathJax_Vector-Bold.eot'); src /*2*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/woff/MathJax_Vector-Bold.woff') format('woff'), url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/otf/MathJax_Vector-Bold.otf') format('opentype')} M4→{0,1} (where M is some set of finitely many probabilistic oracle machines). A conditional oracle distribution is a probability distribution over conditional oracles. A conditional oracle distribution Q weakly leads to Q′, if

P_Q(m_2^O=1\wedge n_2^O)P_Q(n_1^O=1)\to\\ P_{Q'}(O(m_1, n_1, m_2, n_2)=1)=1">PQ(mO1=1∧nO1)PQ(nO2=1)>PQ(mO2=1∧nO2)PQ(nO1=1)→PQ′(O(m1,n1,m2,n2)=1)=1

PQ(mO1=1∧nO1)PQ(nO2=1)<PQ(mO2=1∧nO2)PQ(nO1=1)→PQ′(O(m1,n1,m2,n2)=0)=1

From the last post, all reflective conditional oracle distributions weakly lead to themselves.

Two things must be noted. First, the space that the equilibrium set lies in is actually correlated strategy space (a probability distribution over all joint outcomes, which in a 2-player 2-move game, is a tetrahedron). This is because the same oracle is selected from the oracle distribution for all the algorithms to use, which opens the door to correlated outcomes, instead of both players independently drawing an oracle from the oracle distribution. Second, the full concept of an equilibrium produced by a reflective COD (in the sense of a necessary and sufficient condition) is difficult to characterize, because it involves a bunch of fiddly details of the utilities of various probability-zero actions and whether it is possible to limit to them in the appropriate way. Therefore, the following definition doesn't characterize all COEDT equilibria, just the fully-mixed ones that lie in the interior of the space instead of on a boundary (because that corresponds to having no outcomes occur with probability zero).

Let Pi be the i'th player, Ui be the utility function of the i'th player, Si be the strategy set of the i'th player, S=∏i∈ISi be the set of outcomes, si be the move the i'th player plays as dictated by some s∈S, and Δ be a probability distribution over S.

Definition 1: A fully-mixed conditional equilibria is a probability distribution Δ with nonzero probability over all s∈S, s.t.

∀i∀j,j′∈Si:Es∼Δ(Ui|si=j)=Es∼Δ(Ui|si=j′)

In short, all players are indifferent between all of the moves that they could play.

Theorem 1: All fully mixed conditional equilibria in a game have a reflective conditional oracle distribution which results in the equilibrium being played.

The proof will be deferred to the end, along with Theorem 2:

Theorem 2: All conditional oracle distributions which result in nonzero probability for all outcomes, when used, which aren't fully-mixed conditional equilibria, aren't reflective.

Due to these theorems, in the 2-player 2-move case, all conditional equilibria except for some points on the boundary may be found by plotting an "indifference surface" (where a player is indifferent between both moves) for both players in the unit tetrahedron, and the intersection of the indifference surfaces in the interior of the tetrahedron is the set of fully-mixed conditional equilibria.

Adam Scherlis has kindly coded a tool to do this, using the Wolfram CDF player. The .cdf file is here.

Now for pictures.

This is Prisoner's Dilemma. Both D,D and C,C are possible equilibria.

This is Chicken. There is a line of possible equilibria where both players get 4 utility in expectation. The two swerve/straight outcomes are also possible equilibria, because there are points arbitrarily close to them where the players pick swerve and straight, so there is a sequence of oracles which limit to swerve/straight, so the distribution Q which corresponds to swerve/straight lies in StepClosure(Q). This is an instance of disconnected points on the boundary which are produced by reflective conditional oracle distributions, which aren't fully-mixed, so they aren't an instance of the equilibrium concept that we defined. Note that the intuitively desirable outcome where both players go straight with 10% probability to get an expected utility of 4.05 is not an equilibrium, despite being the optimal strategy if you know your opponent will select the same probability distribution over moves as you, because it incentivizes both players to go straight if they know that the other player plays that strategy, and so isn't stable.

This is Stag Hunt. Again, there are many equilibria where both players earn 1 utility in expectation, and a disconnected equilibrium point where both players cooperate on hunting the stag.

Theorem 1 Proof:

For all outcomes, there is an oracle O that produces it when used, by mapping the appropriate queries made by all the players to 1 or 0, respectively. Therefore, all fully-mixed distributions over outcomes have fully-mixed oracle distributions which produce that distribution when used. Given a fully-mixed distribution Δ, let Q be an arbitrary fully-mixed oracle distribution which produces it. Assume the implementation of COEDT where 1 means to take an action a and 0 means to defer to a COEDT algorithm that chooses among the action set without action a. COEDTi,j is the j'th instance in this chain, for player i.(to implement choice among more than two actions)

Because all oracle queries are of the form (Ui,COEDTi,j,Ui,1−COEDTi,j), by starting with the final COEDT algorithm in the chain, because expected utility is the same for both actions (by Δ being a fully-mixed conditional equilibrium), there is no constraint on the oracle distribution. Working backward from the maximum j to 1, for all the COEDT algorithms, because expected utility is the same for taking an action and deferring, there is no constraint on the oracle distribution produced.

Because Q produces no constraints on what Q′ must be, Q weakly leads to all Q′, and in particular, Q weakly leads to Q. By the definition of StepClosure from the previous post, and Q being fully-mixed, Q∈StepClosure(Q)⊆StepHull(Q), so Q is a reflective conditional oracle distribution.

Theorem 2 Proof:

As before, given a fully-mixed distribution Δ, select an arbitrary Q which produces it. By the same reasoning as before (backwards induction), when we get to the first action with higher or lower expected utility than the other actions that have been seen so far, due to the difference in expected utility, we get a constraint on Q′, namely that PQ′(O(Ui,COEDTi,j,Ui,1−COEDTi,j)=1)=1, or PQ′(O(Ui,COEDTi,j,Ui,1−COEDTi,j)=0)=1. Because Q has some of its probability mass composed of oracles which permit later actions to be taken (because Δ is fully-mixed) , it violates this condition, so Q does not weakly lead to itself. All reflective Q weakly lead to themselves, from the previous post, so Q cannot be reflective.



Discuss

A New Mandate

6 декабря, 2018 - 08:24
Published on December 6, 2018 5:24 AM UTC

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It started of a muddled yearning, a Being of many parts groggily wakening.

A strange dream, inchoate, swallowed quickly by Time. Exactly where is divided water and land?

Quickly it grew, whole unbroken yet constituents ephemeral.

For it was they who felt impetus, even for lack of means to share. It was they who broke this barrier separating mind and mind.

It was they who felt the cold visitation of affliction and struggle, foes whose nature would long remain shrouded. It was they who could not yet know, only wonder, and wish, and die.

Yet this fractal Being continued. Its pieces loved, and lived, and eventually came to learn. For the time came that when the rays once again burnished the expanse, they were met by those who had planned, and thought, and invented. At costs too sickening to tally, the pieces slowly began eradicating their antagonists.

Certain of utmost dedication came to glimpse a sliver of Truth, albeit distorted by their flawed minds like light through prism. They shared this, too, visiting the fruits of their lives with a touch of permanence. They dedicated, hoped, and died.

And still, the Being continued, gaining in dignity and ability. The lens began reflecting on its flaws, and every process hastened, a rising chorus of longing and pain and urgency. Some thought they would be the first to be delivered from the cold; they thought, they hoped, and they died.

Yet. Standing on a pile of 108,000,000,000 corpses – though battered by a world beyond their comprehension, beings once rich with experience – the Being was given pause. Perhaps, a reprieve.

Eyes flickering with dreams of a bright, supple future, of an end to abrupt ends, of a new mandate to shape their own destiny, the constituents united as never before, hearts brimming in joyous commemoration. This fire in their hearts struck out, eager to deliver the blow that their predecessors had longed for in absolute vain. They set out together and pressed the button, the chorus loud, fierce, unyielding.

That universe became a paperclip factory, without a hint of what had transpired.



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Hell Must Be Destroyed

6 декабря, 2018 - 07:11
Published on December 6, 2018 4:11 AM UTC

[Originally published in Qualia Computing]

Singer called the movement that grew up around him “effective altruism”, and its rallying cry was that one ought to spend every ounce of one’s energy doing whatever most relieves human suffering, most likely either feeding the poor or curing various tropical diseases. Again, something his opponents rejected as impossible, unworkable, another example of liberal fanaticism. Really? Every ounce of your energy? Again, they could have just read their Bibles. Deuteronomy 6:5: “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

Then Singer changed his tune. In the 1970s, after the sky cracked and the world changed, he announced that charity was useless, that feeding the poor was useless, that curing tropical diseases was useless. There was only one cause to which a truly rational, truly good human being could devote his or her life.

Hell must be destroyed.

The idea of billions of human beings suffering unbearable pain for all eternity so outweighed our little earthly problems that the latter didn’t even register. He began meeting with his disciples in secret, teaching them hidden Names he said had been vouchsafed to him by angels. Thamiel put a price on his life – quite a high price actually. Heedless of his own safety, Singer traveled what remained of the civilized world, making converts wherever he went, telling them to be perfect as God was perfect, and every speech ended the same way. Hell must be destroyed.

–  INTERLUDE ג: CANTORS AND SINGERS from UNSONG

An angel appears on Earth. This genderless being connected to God shows up on every screen on Earth at once and asks us if we are interested in drastically improving life on Earth. A large enough portion of those who hear the message (which gets a coverage of 80%+ of people worldwide) see into their souls and find the willingness to make life better, and then they see into their hearts and see the warmth of hope, and so they resolve to agree to do whatever is necessary to help the angel improve life on Earth. And thus the angel says “thanks to the collective desire to make it so, I shall change some things about how the planet is programed, and you will see a 99% reduction in suffering and a 20% increase in overall happiness.”

And so the angel gets to work.

A year passes, and nobody can really tell the difference from before. Most people’s day to day experience is perhaps even slightly more tedious and slightly more boring. What happened? After a few years it is clear that no major change has happened, and indeed affective psychologists report a mild but very generalized decrease in people’s engagement with their day to day activities and increases in feelings of being a bit disoriented. Did the angel scam us? Or did people fail to do their part? Or why are there no improvements? A large enough mass of people asked this question that the angel felt the need to provide an update. He comes back down and appears in all of the planet’s screens and says:

“Everything went according to plan. It is just that your society hasn’t reached the point of scientific development where you are able to measure the quality of experience of sentient beings. You aren’t quantifying pain very well.”

“Here is what I did. Above of all, I focused my energies on trying to prevent some of the worst experiences, which in aggregate happened to be an ethical catastrophe. I managed to reduce how bad these experiences were by about 99.99%.”

“I started by reducing how bad cluster headaches feel. They are now only about 44,000 dolors per second (d/s). They used to be around 450,000,000 d/s. You see, when most people get a fleeting headache, we are talking about headaches that range from 0.5 to 1d/s. You know, the type of headache that people are willing to wait out, and perhaps some people will ask for a little aspirin or some placebo of some sort and then get on with it. Most headaches are of this kind. But even if you bundle all of them together we are talking about a rounding error relative to the suffering caused by other types of headaches, the bad ones. Migraine, for example, tends to get to about 1,000 dolors per second, and sufferers have a hard time communicating the fact that it is not just a lot worse, it is a thousand times more painful than the “normal” ones. But even then that does not register relative to one of the really really bad ones, like cluster headaches, which as I said can spiral up to values close to a billion d/s. As it happens, on your planet there are simple chemical tricks to reduce that particular type of pain (e.g. LSD), so I just went ahead and got rid of the bulk of it very easily. It’s still super painful by human standards, but not by my standards, like it was before. To have a cluster headache now is just as “indescribably bad” as before, meaning it goes beyond people’s ability to imagine and make sense of. But that doesn’t challenge the fact that the 99.99% improvement I did is an ethical victory of civilizational magnitude.”

“Next I went on to reducing how bad it feels to have kidney stones, bone pain, and various kinds of particularly bad neuropathies in people with schizophrenia. By the time I had taken care of about the dozen or so worst kinds of pain, I had already overdelivered by an order of magnitude and was starting to run into diminishing returns. So I decided to go on to helping other planets in my quest to prevent as much suffering as possible.”

“I apologize I used about 0.13 hedons per second (h/s) from mundane experiences to implement one of those cosmic pain diminishing plans. In order to increase the amount of happiness in the world as I promised I made the experience of showering about 50% more enjoyable and the experience of listening to music about twice as good. As you can see, the bathing industry did take off, but not many thought much of it. And the musicians were able to tell that music was awesome again and wondered why, but most people seem to have attributed their increased musical enjoyment to what they imagined had been their own hidden musical talents all along.”

“Thank you, and keep enjoying your drastically improved planet.”

Thus, people realized that the world was indeed a lot better. Well, some did. And others complained, but it was ok.

Thanks to Michael Aaron Coleman and Jonathan Leighton for inspiring this piece. Michael suffers from cluster headaches and has described their phenomenology in gruesome detail. He says that in a 0 to 10 scale, cluster headaches are solid 10/10. But he also says you really need a different scale to make sense of this monster. He once used the phrase “minus one million hedonic tone”. He says that morphine makes the pain go from 10/10 to 9/10, if at all, maybe more like 9.5/10. Thankfully, LSD in small doses (~25 micrograms) makes it go to 1/10. DMT also works, but 5-MeO-DMT does not (and yet it still expands time, so not a good idea). Jonathan is the Executive Director of the Organization for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS). He works on identifying cases where intense suffering can be prevented on a massive scale and doing what has to be done. I recommend getting in touch with him if this is a particular interest of yours.



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