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Leslie's Firing Squad Can't Save The Fine-Tuning Argument

9 сентября, 2020 - 18:21
Published on September 9, 2020 3:21 PM GMT

This post argues against fine-tuning, especially the fine-tuning argument for design. It again shows the importance of perspectives in reasoning as discussed in a previous post.

I previously argued why fine-tuning is a misconception. Reasoning from a first-person perspective, I endorse the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) response. Leslie’s Firing Squad is perhaps the most famous argument against this response. I think it would be interesting to examine it in detail.

It should be pointed out my objection to fine-tuning differs from most, if not all, anthropic objections since perspective-based argument (PBA) rejects the notion of observation selection effect (OSE). The WAP should only be regarded as a logical truth, not as selection bias. Nonetheless, the firing squad argument can still be used to counter PBA. Therefore it deserves an explanation.

The Firing Squad

Suppose you are a prisoner facing the death penalty. You are blindfolded and placed against a wall. A firing squad consist of a dozen expert marksmen stands just a few meters away to carry out the deed. The order is given. The shots ring out. Yet somehow you find yourself alive after the whole ordeal. Every single bullet has missed.

Considering you are still alive you should be vastly more confident that the marksmen intentionally spared you, i.e. by design. After all, the probability of all 12 marksmen missing by chance is immeasurably small.

The Rebuttal To WAP

The firing squad scenario may seem analogous to the fine-tuning argument. WAP suggests all fundamental constants being compatible with our existence is a logical truth, i.e. to be expected. Therefore it is no evidence supporting a designed universe. Then by the same logic, after surviving the firing-squad I should also conclude that is to be expected. Because being alive is the only observation I can make, a logical truth. Consequently, it is not evidence suggesting the marksmen intentionally missed either. That is obviously irrational.

I suggest the analogy drawn between the firing squad and the fine-tuned universe is flawed. There is a critical difference between the two cases. Based on my research, this rebuttal has not been published before.

Analysis of the Firing Squad

The core of my argument (PBA) is to reason from one consistent perspective. So I am going to be explicit about it in the analysis.

Let’s take the prisoner’s first-person perspective. After hearing the shots and realizing I am still alive, I shall reason as follows: The world ought to be compatible with my existence. Whereas the scenario of the marksmen successfully hit thus killing me is incompatible. Therefore it is precluded as a possibility. All there remains is either they intentionally spared me or the immensely improbable case that they all missed by random chance. This would greatly increase the probability that they missed on purpose.

Now let’s take the perspective of some random bystander. Here I would make the exact same probability update as the prisoner. Though there are some differences in the reasoning. This update is not based on the logical truth of WAP. All execution outcomes are compatible with my existence. Instead, I would use the prisoner’s survival as new evidence, since I am not guaranteed to find him alive. The end result is the same: a major increase in the probability that the marksmen missed intentionally.

The Disanlogy

Both the prisoner and the bystander analyze the problem by focusing on the prisoner. This may seem like an obvious thing to do. Trivial, even. However, this perspective asymmetry is based on our background knowledge of what a firing squad is. A firing squad is designed to execute prisoners. We know its purpose. That’s why no matter which perspective we choose to take, the attention is always on the prisoner. Because knowing the firing squad’s purpose, the prisoner’s life-or-death is logically significant to the problem.

That is distinctively different from the fine-tuning argument. The purpose of the universe is unknown. Nothing is logically inherently significant. The fine-tuning argument is formulated to focus on the perspective center. I would ask why is the universe compatible with “my” existence. The fine-tuning argument chooses to use more generalized categories of “my kind” (such as humans, life, sentient observers, or complex physical system) instead of using “me” specifically, to appear less egocentric. It is only a trick to make more allies. Yet the fact remains fine-tuning is rooted in the first-person perspective.

Think As An Alien

Let’s use our imagination, picture some intelligent alien in a far corner of the universe whose physical structure is radically different from us such that our usual definition of “life” doesn’t describe it. Now let’s think from its perspective. When pondering upon the fundamental constants of the universe, it won’t ask “why is the universe compatible with “life” as defined by some bipedal carbon-based creatures light-years away?”. There is no reason for this attention. In the spirit of the fine-tuning argument, it would only ask “why is the universe compatible with me? (or my kind)”.

Now suppose we introduce Leslie’s Firing Squad to the alien. As long as it understands the concept of execution, it would analyze the problem basing on the prisoner’s life-or-death, not its own. This is where the analogy breaks down. The fine-tuning argument depends on one’s own existence. Whereas Leslie’s Firing Squad, with the knowledge of its purpose, depends on the prisoner’s. Supporters of fine-tuning argument deliberately picked the prisoner’s perspective in their rebuttal to make the two cases superficially similar.

That is why the WAP is indeed the correct response to the perspective based fine-tuning problem. Because to myself, my existence, and the world being compatible with it, is a logical truth. Period. For the firing squad, from the prisoner’s perspective, finding myself alive is not in itself surprising. But the fact that I am analyzing the outcome of my own execution is. This surprise hinges on my background knowledge of the firing squad’s purpose. That is what motivates the probability update.

Begging the Question

The fine-tuning argument for design is basically asking a perspective-dependent question while demanding a perspective-independent answer. They formulated a first-person specific problem yet insist on an objective explanation. It is a paradox caused by not reasoning from a consistent perspective.

In my opinion, using Leslie’s Firing Squad as a rebuttal achieves the opposite effect. It highlights the issue of the fine-tuning argument for design. The argument analyzes the fundamental constants by their compatibility with life as an obvious thing to do. Yet, as the firing squad case shows, that would require a prior assumption of the universe’s purpose being life-related. Instead of arguing for life’s significance, it subtlely builds that conclusion into the premises. Begging the question, essentially.



Discuss

What's the CFAR position on how the workbook can be used?

9 сентября, 2020 - 16:56
Published on September 9, 2020 1:56 PM GMT

The CFAR handbook is a great resource for applied rationality. I talked with another rationlist in Berlin about creating a reading group around it. Did CFAR articulate a position around how the handbook can be used and whether such a group would be okay? If so, are there any norm such a reading group should fulfill (e.g. making it clear it's independent of CFAR)?



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How To Fermi Model (document from 2016)

9 сентября, 2020 - 08:13
Published on September 9, 2020 5:13 AM GMT

[Note from Eli in 2020: I wrote this document in 2016, in conjunction with two workshops that I helped Oliver Habryka run. If I were to try and write a similar document today, it would likely be substantially different in form and style. For instance, reading this in 2020, I’m not very compelled by some of the argumentation that I used to justify this technique, and I think I could have been clearer about some of the steps.

Nevertheless, I think this is some useful content. I’m not going to take the time to write a new version of this document, so it seems better to share it, as is, instead of sitting on it.]

Oliver Habryka provided the seed material and did most of the development work on this technique. He gets upwards of 90% of the credit, even though I (Eli) wrote this document. Thanks Oli!

Introduction:Rationale for Fermi Modeling:

Making good decisions depends on having a good understanding of the world: the better one’s understanding the better one’s decisions can be. Model-building procedures allow us to iteratively refine that understanding. 

Using any model-building procedure at all is a large step up from using no procedure at all, but some procedures are superior to others. If possible, we would want to use techniques that rely on verified principles and are based on what we know about how the mind works. So, what insights can be gleaned from the academic social and cognitive sciences that is relevant to model-building? 

First, Cognitive psychology has shown, many times over, that very simple algorithmic decision rules frequently have just as much predictive power, and  even outperform, human expert judgment. Deep, specific models that take into account many details specific to the situation (inside views) are prone to overfitting, and are often inaccurate. Decision rules combat biases like the Halo effect and consequently tend to produce better results.

For instance, a very simple equation to predict the probability that a marriage will last is:

Frequency of lovemaking / Frequency of fights

(Where a higher number represents a more stable marriage. Example taken from Thinking Fast and Slow ch. 21) 

This assessment measure is intuitive and uncomplicated, and it predicts length of marriage about as well as any other method, including expert evaluation by experienced couples counselors. Most of the relevant information is encapsulated in just those two variables: more detailed analysis is swamped by statistical variance and tends to make one overconfident. And the algorithm has the additional distinct advantage of being cheap and easy to deploy: simply plug in the variables and see what comes out.

The upshot is simple numeric algorithms are powerful.

Second, is the study of forecasting. One of the most significant takeaways from Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment project is that “foxes” (who use and integrate multiple methods of evaluation, models, and perspectives) fare better than “hedgehogs” (who use a single overriding model or methodology that they know very deeply). 

This poses a practical problem however. There are dozens of known psychological phenomena (anchoring, priming, confirmation bias, framing effects, attentional bias) that make it cognitively difficult to think beyond one’s first idea. Once one has developed a model or a solution, it tends to be “sticky”, coloring and constraining further thinking. Even if you want to generate new models, it’s hard not to anchor on the one you had in front of you a moment ago. As Kahneman colorfully puts it, “What you see is all there is,” or so it seems. 

Given this, we want decision processes and planning protocols that are 1) algorithmic, using simple equations or scoring rules with variables that are easy to assess 2)  foxy, in that they incorporate many models instead of one, and 3) help mitigate the psychological biases that make this difficult.

Fermi Modeling is an attempt at a model building-procedure that caters to these constraints. It is quantitative, Foxy, and designed to compensate, at least somewhat, for our native biases. 

In contrast to other methods of theorizing and model building, Fermi Modeling is less about going deep and more about going broad. Instead of spending a lot of time building one, very detailed, sophisticated, and precise model, the emphasis is on building many models rapidly.

Overview:

Fermi Modeling is a brainstorming and theorizing technique that encourages you to flip between multiple frames and perspectives, primarily by moving up and down levels of abstraction. 

In broad strokes, the mental process of Fermi Modeling looks like this:

You start, in step 1 (red), by moving up a level of abstraction, by considering reference classes or categories into which your object or problem of interest falls. 

Then, in step 2 (blue), you move down a level of abstraction to generate models applicable to each reference class (with no regard for the original question.) 

Then in step 3 (green), you apply the models generated in step 2 and 3 to the original question. 

The point is to get you to consider questions that you wouldn’t naively ask. 

For instance, suppose I’m considering the question, “how do I determine which people I should spend time assisting, teaching, or otherwise, making better?”

This question brings to mind certain reference frames and criteria. I can think of people in this context as independent agents to implement my goals, which brings to mind consideration such as value alignment, power in the world, and discretion. I can think of people as teammates,  which indicates other important factors such as personal compatibility with me and the complementary-ness of our skill sets. I can think of people as trade partners, which would lead me to consider what value they can give me. 

Furthermore, I can change my focus from the object, “people”, to the verb. I could rephrase the question as “who do I invest in?”, which gives me the reference frame of “investment”. This immediately brings to mind a whole set of models and formulas: compound interest and risk assessment. This yields considerations such as the principal investment, time to pay off, and probability of pay off. 

These finance-flavored factors are obviously relevant to the question of “whose growth I should nurture?”, but I would not have considered them by default. They don’t come to mind when just thinking about “people”, only when thinking about “investments”

Fermi Modeling is a process designed to generate ideas that don’t come to mind by default, and to facilitate rapid consideration of many “angles of attack” on a problem, when creating models and evaluation criteria.

Method

A note on time allocation: one of the advantages of this method is that it pays off quickly, but can still generate large value with large time investment. 

You can Fermi Model for 15 minutes and get rapid useful results, on a quick question, or you can do it for several hours, or even block out a whole day, to consider one particularly important decision. How much time you spend on each step is flexible and subject to personal preference. Just make sure you have enough time to consider at least three reference frames, and aggregate, at the end.

Step 0. 

Ask a “how” or  “what”  question. In particular, look for questions that have a sense of gradient or variation: what causes a thing to be better, easier, bigger, or more impactful. What is a variable that you are trying to maximize or minimize?

Your question should impinge on your actions somehow. The answer to this question will inform some decision about how to act in the world.

Alternatively, this could be a question of general assessment: determining the overall “quality” or “goodness” of some object of interest, be it an organization, a process, a technology, etc.

Prompts 

Examples 

  • Try to find an optimization problem.
  • What determines the quality of X?
  • How can I do X best?
  • What determines how much of Y the system that I want to understand produces?
  • What determines the probability that my system produces Y?
  • What is the most effective way to make money?
  • What should the program for EA Global be?
  • How can I make more friends?
  • How can I get more work done?
  • How can I learn math faster?
  • How do I run the best workshop?
  • How do I build political influence?
  • How can I find a good boyfriend/girlfriend?
  • How can I find a co-founder for my company?
  • What do I make of CFAR?

Step 0.5. 

Once you have written the initial question, rephrase the question in multiple ways. Try to ask the same question, or a nearby question, using different terminology. (This can involve small refactorings of the goal.) Doing this can introduce a little “conceptual jitter”, that can sometimes yield fruitful distinctions.

Examples

  • What is the most effective way to make money?
  • What determines a person’s income?
  • How does one maximize earning power?
  • What should the program for EA Global be?
  • What is the best version of EA Global?
  • What should I have participants do at EA global?
  • How can I make more friends?
  • What makes people want to be friends with other people?
  • How do relationships form?
  • How can I get more work done?
  • What makes stuff get done faster?
  • What contributes to my losing time?
  • How can I learn math faster?
  • What’s the most efficient way to learn academic subjects?
  • What’s holding me back from knowing math?
  • How do I run the best workshop?
  • What makes a workshop good?
  • How do I build political influence?
  • How do I get large groups to do stuff?
Step 1: Abstract

Generate reference frames 

  1. Mark or underline all the key terms in each phrasing. To a first approximation, underlining all the nouns and all the verbs works. [If you are doing Fermi modeling as an evaluation procedure, you can skip this part].
  2. For each of the marked terms, list reference classes for which the term is an example. You want to move up a level of abstraction, considering all the categories into which the term fits. You want to generate between 15 and 50 reference frames (of which you might use 4 to 6).

Prompts 

Examples 

  • What is x?
  • What is x an instance/example of?
  • “Everything is a case-study”
  • What different reference classes would scientists from different fields put this in?

EAG 

  • Conference
  • Social Gathering
  • Informational Message
  • Educational Content
  • Bunch of monkeys together

How can I make more friends? 

  • Relationships
  • Mammals
  • Search procedures
  • Partners for playing
  • Emotional support
Step 2: Model

Rapid model building on each of the frames:

Take one of the reference frames that you generated in the last step and Fermi model on it.

We recommend, if you are doing this for the first time, that you start with a frame other than the one you think is most useful, interesting, or relevant to your problem. Often, people pick one frame and build one model and feel like they’re done. After all, the “correct” model is right in front of them; why would they bother constructing another, inferior model? Starting with a less-than-your-favorite frame encourages you to build more than one model.

Step 2.1

Identify first order factors. Consider what variables would determine the “quality” or quantity of things in the reference class. This often takes the form of asking “what makes an X good?”. A thing can be more or less X or more or less of a good X. 

Note that we are only looking at first-order factors. The models that we are generating are intended to be quick and rough. There will, for most categories, be many, many factors that exert a small influence on the overall outcome. We are only looking for as many factors as will have a sufficient effect as to influence the order of magnitude of the outcome. What factors explain most of the variance?

Prompts 

Examples 

  • What makes things in this reference class good?
  • How do things in this reference class work in general?

Social Gathering 

  • Number of People
  • “Quality” of average person
  • Number of new connections

Search Procedure 

  • Pool available to search
  • Accuracy of filtering procedure
  • Speed of filtering procedure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step 2.2

Use simple mathematical operations (*, /, +, -, average, min, max, squared) to describe the relationships between first order factors.  Write a function that describes how changes in the inputs change the output.

If you don’t know where to start, simply multiply your first order factors together, and then check to see if the resulting model makes sense as a first approximation. If it doesn’t, tinker with it a little by adjusting or adding terms.

Examples 

Social Gathering = Quality_Of_Connections∗#People#N_Connections.mjx-chtml {display: inline-block; line-height: 0; text-indent: 0; text-align: left; text-transform: none; font-style: normal; font-weight: normal; font-size: 100%; font-size-adjust: none; letter-spacing: normal; word-wrap: normal; word-spacing: normal; white-space: nowrap; float: none; direction: ltr; max-width: none; max-height: none; min-width: 0; min-height: 0; border: 0; margin: 0; padding: 1px 0} .MJXc-display {display: block; text-align: center; margin: 1em 0; padding: 0} .mjx-chtml[tabindex]:focus, body :focus .mjx-chtml[tabindex] {display: inline-table} .mjx-full-width {text-align: center; display: table-cell!important; width: 10000em} .mjx-math {display: inline-block; border-collapse: separate; border-spacing: 0} .mjx-math * {display: inline-block; -webkit-box-sizing: content-box!important; -moz-box-sizing: content-box!important; box-sizing: content-box!important; text-align: left} .mjx-numerator {display: block; 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Search Procedure = Accuracy∗Pool_Size∗Speed

You can quickly check your models by looking for 0s. What happens when any given factor is set to 0 or to arbitrarily large? Does the result make sense? This can inform your expressions.

If you aren't familiar with the notion, try drawing a graph, that holds all but one of the inputs constant. You can use the graph to reverse engineer the mathematical notion if you want.

You can do more work on these models, primarily by decomposing your first order factors into more basic components. But this is usually misguided. These models are rough, based only on simple intuitions, making them more detailed at this point makes them more precise than their general accuracy warrants. In most cases, it only makes sense to add detail after we have had opportunity to test our models empirically.

Some of the models you generate may be cached, standard models from one domain or another. For instance, there are known, simple equations for compound interest. This is perfectly fine, and in fact, is quite good. Those models come pre-vetted and verified. 

The process of generating a single model should not take more than 6 minutes in most cases, as a beginner. 

Step 2.3

Build as many such models in a given reference class as you’d like. Two or three is usually sufficient. 

Some people find this step somewhat difficult. There are a couple of “tricks” that you can apply to reframe and generate more models.

  1. Do a resolve cycle: set a timer for five minutes (or two minutes) and come up with as many models as you can before it rings. Get into the mindset of “I have to do it.”
  2. Reverse the question:  If you’ve been considering what makes a thing good, then ask what would make it bad. (“If you can’t optimize, pessimize.”)
  3. Consider how scientists or academics from various disciplines would approach this problem? How does a historian look at this? A mechanical engineer? A biologist? An economist?
  4. Consider an alternative way to parse the world. A good way to do this is to forbid the use of the factors you used in your first model. How else could you make sense of this situation?
  5. Ask the person next to you. It’s often surprising how different the models that another person will generate are.

Some notes on models:

  • Consider all the costs. They usually go in the denominator.
  • Time is often an input, but it usually has a negligible effect on the output
  • Econ 101: Remember to account for opportunity cost (subtracted from the main body of the expression). Is the next best option much worse than this one?
  • Probabilities are expressed as values between 0 and 1. It may be helpful to consider what distribution a value is drawn from.
  • You can put in constant multiples.

 

 

 

 

 

Step 2.4 (Optional)

Generate examples to spur models: think of hypothetical, or better yet, actual examples of the reference class.  Consider how they fare in terms of each of your main factors. What makes each example good? How could you tweak them to make them better or worse?

(optional) Test: generate counterexamples

Step 2.5

Repeat step 2. Build more models on each reference frame in turn.

Really do this! I’ve sometimes seen people (and am personally prone to) become quite anchored on or attached to their first model they / I build, since it seems obviously correct. Most of the value of this method comes building many models.

Step 3: Aggregate

Once you’ve generated some models, you know want to go back and evaluate your original question. Some of the models you built won’t be relevant to the original question, but you should be sure to consider each one before dismissing it. Remember, the whole point is to generate considerations that wouldn’t have occurred to you by default. 

There are lots of ways to do this.

Looking at each of your models / functions, compare to the situation you’re considering (your workshop, for instance). Estimate values for each of the terms in each model. Do the majority of the models recommend one type of action?

You can use the models you’ve generated abstractly in the more concrete context. What happens when you adjust the factors on your actual plan?

Try and come up with a plan that scores perfectly on each model. See how much overlap there is between those plans. Can you goal-factor and get most of the benefit?

The quantitative nature of your models means that you can also take your subjective analysis out of it. Set up a scoring system, that takes all the inputs for a plan and returns an aggregated score.

Closing thoughts 

Advantages:

Since, for most of the process, you’re not focusing on the original question at all, but rather building models only in the context of the reference frame, you avoid, somewhat, the “stickiness” of your initial models. You’re less likely to get stuck thinking that the way you modeled the problem is the “correct” model (and then being resistant to seeing other perspectives, due to a whole slew of biases), since you shouldn’t be thinking about the original problem at all. 

As mentioned above, this method scales easily with more time invested. It’s also parallelizable.  it’s easy to have multiple people on a team all Fermi modeling on the same topic, and each of them is likely to come up with novel, useful insights. I’d recommend that each person do step 1 independently, have everyone share frames, then have each person do 2 and 3 on a subset of the frames.

Disadvantages:

This process is designed to produce rough heuristics rapidly. Sometimes a deep understanding of the specific situation is necessary. 

Further reading:

Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence by Paul Meehl: a slim but dense volume, this a classic of the the field that first made the case for numeric algorithms over expert judgment.

Chapter 21 of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a popular overview of how simple algorithmic decision rules frequently outperform expert judgment.

Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How can we Know? by Philip Tetlock is a compendium on the research project that gave rise to the Fox vs. Hedgehog distinction.

Biases that are relevant

Abstraction vs. Analogy by Robin Hanson is a good, brief example of considering an object in terms of several various reference frames.

Cluster Thinking vs Sequence Thinking by Holden Karnofsky is an essay on making decisions on the basis of weighing and integrating many models.

How to Measure Anything: How to Find the Value of Intangibles in Business 

by Douglas W. Hubbard is an excellent primer on applying quantitative measurements to qualitative domains.



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Updates Thread

9 сентября, 2020 - 07:34
Published on September 9, 2020 4:34 AM GMT

If you've updated your belief on something you think is worth noting, post it here.

  • It doesn't have to be a full blown "mind change", just an incremental update to your beliefs.
  • I'm thinking it'd be good to have a low bar for what is "worth noting". Even if it's something trivial, I figure that the act of discussing updates itself is beneficial. For rationality practice and for fun!


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CTWTB: Paths of Computation State

8 сентября, 2020 - 23:44
Published on September 8, 2020 8:44 PM GMT

This is the second post of Category Theory Without The Baggage; first post here. You can probably follow most of this post without reading the first one. Be warned that I am a novice when it comes to category theory; please leave a comment if you see a substantive error or oversight.

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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')}  at the point x = 2, y = 5. We have a choice about the order in which to perform the operations. One possibility:

  • Add x+y
  • Add x+3
  • Multiply x*(x+3)
  • Divide

Another possibility:

  • Add x+3
  • Add x+y
  • Multiply x*(x+3)
  • Divide

This hopefully seems trivial in such a simple example, but we want to be able to easily talk about this sort of thing in more complicated problems. To that end, we’re going to visualize these possible computation-orders in terms of graphs.

We’ll start with a graph representing the expression itself - i.e. the usual visual for a circuit:

We can represent “computation state” as a cut through this DAG. For instance, we start out in this state:

The state (x, x, x, y) gives the data carried by each edge we cut through. If we imagine that the computation at each node is performed by a different person, then at the very beginning of the computation, these would be the messages sent from our first two people (i.e. the people with our input values x = 2 and y = 5) to the people downstream. Alternatively, if a single CPU were performing this computation, it would probably save some memory by only storing x once rather than keeping three separate copies; more on that later.

From there, we have two possible next steps:

On the left, we compute x+3 first, so our state updates to (x+3, x, x, y). On the right, we compute x+y first, so our state updates to (x, x, x+y).

After performing either of these operations, we can perform the other, leaving us in the state (x+3, x, x+y). We can visualize this as two computation-paths in a computation-graph:

Or, dropping all the visuals of the circuit-cuts:

The two paths from (x, x, x, y) to (x+3, x, x+y) correspond to the two possible orders of the addition operation: x+3 followed by x+y, or x+y followed by x+3.

Here’s the full graph of computation states, with the multiplication and division operations added in.

Any allowed order of the operations in our original circuit corresponds to a path from the upper-left to lower-right in this computation-state graph. If that makes sense, then you’ve probably understood the basic idea. (If it’s still a bit murky, try drawing the graph-cuts corresponding to the three states at the bottom of the diagram above, then walk through an evaluation of the circuit and consider which cut represents the state at each step.)

As A Category

Recall from the previous post that a category is a graph with some notion of equivalence between paths. If we have a graph in which the paths represent something interesting - e.g. our computation-state graph - then we can generate potentially-interesting categories by thinking about notions of “equivalence” between the paths.

One example: imagine that each node of our computation is handled by a different person, and the arrows in the circuit correspond to messages passed between people. If we have a limited number of messengers, then we might want to limit the maximum number of messages passed simultaneously - i.e. if we only have 4 messengers, then we’d want to pick a computation-path which never cuts through four arrows simultaneously. (Equivalently: we want a computation-path which never has more than 4 variables in its state.) When searching for such a computation-path, it might be useful to consider two paths “equivalent” if they start and end at the same node and have the same maximum number of messages.

With one small adjustment, we can make this example into something more realistically useful for e.g. writing a compiler. Rather than counting all arrows cut, we count the number of “distinct” arrows cut - i.e. the number of messages with different contents. Then (x, x, x, y) would only count as two, and (x+3, x, x, y) would count as three. When performing the computation on a CPU, this would be the number of memory cells we need to use simultaneously - so we’d consider two computation-paths equivalent if they use the same maximum number of memory cells.

Of course, there are many other possibilities. There’s the trivial possibility: any two paths with the same start and end state are equivalent (i.e. we just need to find some computation-path, and don’t care which). Or the edges in the computation-graph could have some kind of costs associated with them, in which case we’d call two paths equivalent if they have the same cost - potentially quite nontrivial if e.g. it’s expensive to perform two multiplications back-to-back on a deeply pipelined processor, but cheaper if they’re not performed back-to-back.

Now imagine that we’re writing a compiler, and it needs to compile code where the computation-state graph lives in a space with thousands of dimensions and has exponentially many nodes, but most paths are equivalent to large numbers of other paths. I can see where it might be useful to have some mathematical constructions which can compress some of those equivalent paths - thus, category theory.

Generalization: Symmetric Monoidal Categories

The computation-state graph associated with a circuit is the prototypical example of a “symmetric monoidal category”. That’s an absolutely awful name, and I’m not going to explain where it comes from. But I will give one more example, which should be sufficient to illustrate the concept.

Suppose we’re cooking rice and beans. We add water to the beans and cook them. We also add water to the rice and cook that. Finally, we combine the rice and beans. Visually:

As before, we can use cuts in this graph to identify the state at any time. For instance:

This cut represents a state where the beans are done cooking, but we have not yet started the rice at all.

As before, we can create a state graph which shows possible paths between states:

In this case, the path through the lower left involves starting the beans first, while the path through the upper right involves starting the rice first. Both end up in the lower right state, in which both the beans and the rice are cooking.

Thinking about this state graph as a category, many of the same notions of equivalence from computation-states carry over nicely. For instance, the maximum number of arrows cut by a cooking-path might correspond to the number of items which need to be on the countertop simultaneously; as before, it’s a measure of “how much workspace” is needed by a path. We could imagine expanding this to a large-scale model of economic production in some domain, with thousands of dimensions and exponentially many possible paths. As before, it would be useful to have standard tools to compress “equivalent” paths through the state graph.



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Indignation in response to the 1890 census

8 сентября, 2020 - 23:14
Published on September 8, 2020 8:14 PM GMT

In reading about the development of technology, I keep an eye out for changes in society as well. I commented recently that we don’t seem to celebrate major achievements as much anymore. But it’s not just technology that Americans used to view differently. It’s growth of all kinds.

The book Computer: A History of the Information Machine tells the story of the 1890 census. It was the first census to be computed, not by hand, but with tabulating machines, developed by Herman Hollerith. On August 16, 1890, the grand total was announced: the population of the United States was 62,622,250.

“But”, it says, “this was not what the allegedly fastest-growing growing nation in the world wanted to hear.” It quotes a contemporary account in a periodical, The Electrical Engineer, from 1891 (emphasis added):

The statement by Mr. Porter [the census director] that the population of this great republic was only 62,622,250 sent into spasms of indignation a great many people who had made up their minds that the dignity of the republic could only be supported on a total of 75,000,000. Hence there was a howl, not of “deep-mouthed welcome,” but of frantic disappointment.

The book continues:

The press loved the story. In an article headlined “Useless Machines” the Boston Herald roasted Porter and Hollerith; “Slip Shod Work Has Spoiled the Census,” exclaimed the New York Herald; and the other papers soon took up the story.

“Spasms of indignation” because population growth was too low for “the dignity of the republic”. Americans were proud of being the fastest-growing country. Today, in contrast, people fear overpopulation, and the general slowing of world population growth is generally considered to be good news.

Something changed in American attitudes in the last 100+ years, not just toward technology or the economy as such, but more fundamentally toward growth itself.



Discuss

Escalation Outside the System

8 сентября, 2020 - 21:20
Published on September 8, 2020 6:20 PM GMT

Transcript of a discussion on a friend's wall on the merits of responding "guillotines" to union text-bankers when asked what the country needs more of:

Me: When you respond "guillotines" what do you expect the campaign volunteer reading the response to think you're advocating for?

Them: Murder.

Me: Whose murder do you expect them to think you are advocating for?

Them: The richest people in the US.

Me: 0.1%, 1%, 5%?

Them: I think billionaires is a good cutoff. There are 540 in the US. So, the richest 0.000164%.

Me: Is executing them your first choice? Or would you prefer to see non-violent redistribution?

Is your objection that having this much money is immoral when others need it so much more, that you can't be this rich without having committed serious crimes, or something else?

Them: I'd certainly prefer a non-violent solution. Redistribution sounds lovely.

My objection is that we do not have anything remotely resembling a democracy. And I think that having that much money is actually immoral, while 21% of the children in the US are below the poverty line. Putting them together, I think it's a fine solution to kill them off until they can figure out how to release their chokehold on our government.

And it seems to me, solutions within the system have been adequately tried.

(I do think that keeping millions—let alone billions—for yourself is immoral when the money could do so much more, but that is the extent of my agreement.)

I see this perspective often in leftist spaces: the system has failed its most vulnerable, it cannot be fixed, we must escalate violently to transcend the system and find new solutions outside.

There have been many successful leftist revolutions, at least if you define success as gaining power. (And that gap is one reason why I wouldn't support violent revolution regardless.) What I don't understand is how leftists could look at the current political climate in the US and think that violent revolution would work out well for them?

It's not clear that Trump will leave office if he loses in November:

Crowd: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

Trump: Now if you really want to drive them crazy you say "twelve more years"

Crowd: [cheers]

Crowd: "Twelve more years! Twelve more years! Twelve more years!"

Trump at the Republican National Convention, 2020-08-24

Then consider that the military and gun owners tend conservative. While I understand why leftists would be unhappy with the status quo, violent escalation clearly plays into the narratives and strategy of the right.

(I wonder whether this is similar to what happened with ironic support for Nazism blending into actual support for Nazism? You go from commiserating about rent, to posting jokey memes referencing mass killing of landlords under Mao, to citing it unironically as the solution to the housing crisis?)

Comment via: facebook



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Austin Petrov Day: 6:30pm 9/26

8 сентября, 2020 - 17:23
Published on September 8, 2020 2:23 PM GMT

Calling all central Texas LW readers: We are excited to announce this year's Petrov Day ceremony in Austin!

What is Petrov Day? Put simply, it's a day we commemorate the world not ending. The Austin Less Wrong community has been celebrating Petrov Day annually since at least 2015 (maybe longer), and it's our premiere event of the year. We'd be glad to see you there!

In light of the pandemic, we will be holding the ceremony outdoors, with masks, keeping 6 feet distance. For details on the social distancing rules and directions to the location, see here. The event will be at 6:30pm, Saturday, September 26, 2020. The ceremony will begin promptly at sunset (7:21pm), so please arrive before then.

We have modified the ceremonial manual to accommodate the outdoor setting. If possible, please bring a printed copy of the double-sided booklet version (or a mobile device on which you can read the mobile-friendly version), and a pen/pencil.

If you have any questions, you can comment below or message/email me privately (jchan107@protonmail.com). In the meantime, bookmark the Austin Less Wrong mailing list for updates on this and other events (both online and in-person).



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Efficacy of Vitamin D in helping with COVID

8 сентября, 2020 - 13:50
Published on September 8, 2020 10:49 AM GMT

so a new research found that high dose of Vitamin D significantly improve out comes for COVID patient:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960076020302764?via%3Dihub

another source on facebook claim that:

- A study in Indonesia found that out of the patients that died from COVID-19, 98.9% of them were deficient in vitamin D, while only 4% of the patients with sufficient vitamin D died.

-A study of patients in New Orleans found that 84.6% of the COVID-19 patients in the ICU were deficient in Vitamin D while only 4% of the patients in the ICU had sufficient levels of Vitamin D.

-A study in the Philippines found that for every standard deviation increase in vitamin D people were 7.94 times more likely to have a mild rather than severe COVID-19 outcome and 19.61 times more likely to have a mild rather than critical outcome.

I couldn't find any mention of this on lesswrong, [granted I haven't look very hard], anyone who have done their reseach on this can help me determine the import of Vitamin D in fighting this pandemic?

and if it's true, anyway we can profit from this? any stock or index fund?



Discuss

Loneliness

8 сентября, 2020 - 11:14
Published on September 8, 2020 8:14 AM GMT

Loneliness is an inevitable part of the human condition, no matter your culture or set of relationships. You have to spend time alone. And sometimes, you'll spend time not only alone, but undistracted. The work is done for the day. You have no plans. There are no pressing errands or chores. You are not tired. No activity - not reading or writing, not cooking or playing music, not anything - calls out for your attention.

You feel aware that all activities have a shared characteristic, which is that they can distract you from your loneliness. Or at least numb it somewhat, bring it to a tolerable level. So much of our work, too, is done in the long run to protect us from loneliness, or with the goal of helping us escape it.

Some people seem to revel in being alone. They feel as if they have too many demands on their attention, and crave some time to themselves. They have so many books or hobbies to pursue. Or maybe they just want to sleep or get some exercise. They are almost tormented by the extreme pressure to relate. They are more in demand than they can handle.

Others might look at these people with envy. For some, loneliness is a feeling of alienation and rejection. Or perhaps of neglect, of being left out. It might be caused not even by being ignored, but due to life circumstances, such as a transition or a move that leads to distance from loved ones. Some people might have friends, family, even a romantic partner and children, and yet still feel consumed by loneliness, out of touch with the people they believe care about them the most. It's hard to know who has it worst. But everyone has this loneliness in some form or another. I imagine that even the people who can't seem to escape the ceaseless demands for their attention must experience a special form of loneliness within that dynamic.

Now, we all know that there are experiences, or practices, that are said to help us escape from loneliness, or numb it, or at least push the boundaries of it back a little bit. But these fixes are often temporary. An isolated individual who begins to make friends may find themselves surprised to learn that the loneliness comes right back, this time in a new form. Yes, the new friends help - in the right moment, when the interaction is desired and both people are at their best - but often, even two good friends will not see eye to eye or have a meeting of the minds. A person whose life places constant demands on their time might find that they deeply miss the activity just a few days or weeks after it stops.

Some people who know a thing or two about psychology might believe that they can hack their brains to bypass the feeling of loneliness, or perhaps to transcend it. They might hope that meditation, the experience of flow, or a passionate daily habit of creating art might assuage the pain. Is it possible that all it takes to end the pain of loneliness is some careful retooling of one's daily habits?

Or then again, maybe loneliness is a symptom of some sort of disordered psychology, an unresolved emotional issue. Once we identify that issue and resolve it, perhaps through therapy or some new patterns of behavior, the loneliness will disappear as well, or at least change into a more manageable and meaningful form.

Others might try to accept loneliness with a stoic's attitude, that the suffering it entails is self-created and can be ended through one's own strength of character. Perhaps it can only be accepted, just as we accept the inevitability of death, the possibility of tragedy in our lives, and the daily burdens that we have to carry.

Still others might diagnose loneliness as a symptom of some aspect of modern industrialized life, and believe that while it is as inescapable as our current economic and political systems seem to be, that we can fight against it with the same kind of activist spirit we bring to other causes. Perhaps, they think, loneliness manifests from and gives rise to oppression, and needs to be treated as a tool of power used to keep the powerless under heel.

Like any experience, loneliness can be looked through two different lenses: as an experience in the moment, and as a narrative, memory, or source of meaning. In the moment, loneliness can manifest as a range of feelings, sensations in the body, thoughts, and patterns of behavior that might be gross or subtle. There might be many durations and intensities of loneliness, and different characters of it as well, as many as there are varieties of wine.

What about as a source of meaning? Loneliness can feel like a frightening experience, even a monster that's attacking you, or a ghost that has you trapped in your room. And we can find meaning in battling against monsters, slaying dragons, exorcising the evil spirits that haunt us. If loneliness feels like fear to you, maybe there is a way you can confront it. Or maybe it's not a monster, but a beggar you walk by every day, feeling ashamed of yourself. Maybe by giving loneliness some care and sustenance, some loving attention, you'll form an ongoing relationship, and it will reveal itself, like a Greek god in disguise, to be something altogether more healthy and holy - solitude.

Then again, loneliness can feel like a void. The absence of meaning. A silence where a story should be. We've all felt this. You might feel it if you've ever come home to an empty house at the end of the day, with no plans not just for the day, but for the rest of the week. Or you could feel it if you take an international trip as a tourist, having read all the guidebooks, then landing in the airport and suddenly feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Sure, it's full of amazing architecture, great food, trinkets to buy, new friends to meet in the hostel. But right now, none of that feels real or important. You're just a body, standing in a place where nobody knows you, where everybody was doing just fine before you got here and will continue doing so after you leave. It's the sensation of having too much time on your hands.

Art has been described as a cure for loneliness, but it can also cause it as well. You listen to a song. One day, it might feel like the singer is relating to you, and you might feel your loneliness has disappeared as you're bathed in the words and the music. Another day, though, the song might only remind you that it's a mere recording. The artist isn't present, doesn't even know you, and wasn't thinking about you at all when he or she wrote the song. And the song doesn't belong to you. It's a commodity, a commercial product, and perhaps many millions of other people listen to it as well. The special relationship you'd like to have the song feels cheapened by the realization, and you turn it off.

After all, probably fewer people are listening closely to the silence around them than are listening to that song right at this moment. And there's something unique about the silence you're hearing. It's broken by noises that are unique to where you are. And the thoughts in your particular head are merged with that silence. This is my silence, you can think. Nothing to do, and nothing to be done about it.

Now, I don't want to appear to be advertising meditation as if it's the cure for loneliness, after all. Just listening to the silence more often might be fine for a moment, for an hour, even a whole day or more. But as you can see, there are so many types of loneliness, and so many proposed ways to deal with it, that prescribing a universal cure seems ridiculous, even if I had the credibility to do so. Which I don't. I'm still struggling with loneliness as much as anybody, and I began thinking about this not to convey some great solution that worked for me, but to articulate the problem I was having.

It seems to me that a multi-pronged approach might be best. Is it possible to commit to approaching whatever social relationships are available to us with renewed vigor, while simultaneously working to deepen our relationship with our solitary self? To accept the pain of solitude, but also to meditate on it? To distract ourselves while also making efforts at genuine creativity? To envision what it would be like to find a rich sense of meaning and genuine emotional comfort in spending a substantial amount of time by ourselves, while also imagining and desiring the joys of a deep and reciprocal relationship? To try and do our work for its own sake, but also to appreciate that we hope our work will be inspiring and rewarding in a way that makes us attractive to other people? To articulate the pain we feel when we simply cannot shake an uncomfortable, even an intolerable loneliness, while appreciating that at best, that act of articulation is still only getting us from the moment we're in to another moment at some later time?

While we can all take inspiration from each other as we deal with our individual experiences of loneliness, it seems to me that it's up to each person alone to forge their own life-long relationship with solitude. No matter which TED talk you watch, which book or article you read, and no matter which friend you talk to, the end of that exchange will come, and you'll be back to yourself again, always with the burning question "What now?"

And that question will raise itself over and over again, moment by moment, through all your waking hours. "What now?" "What now?" Sometimes, you'll answer it. Sometimes, somebody else will answer it for you. Maybe your boss. Maybe your child. But all too often, "What now" will have no answer that can truly convince you it is right. Oh, you'll give an answer. But you'll know that it was only so that you could have something to say.

That's just how it is. The challenge, then, is not to give the right answer to "What now," but to keep yourself interested in the possible answers. As a scientist, my job is to stay curious, endlessly so, about the questions in my field of research. As a teacher, my job is to stay curious about my students. As a friend, partner, family member, and part of my community, my job is to stay curious about the people with whom I am in relationship.

As myself, as a solitary person, my job is to stay curious about the question "What now?"

That curiosity can come through in observation of my surroundings. In nature, by a wooded lake, looking at the reflections on the water at sunset and listening to the sounds of birds and mammals calling amongst the trees, the answer to "What now?" might simply be look and listen. If I am lucky, I not only do so, but for a moment, I lose myself in that sensation.

Other times, I am not in such a beautiful setting, or my mind is more frantic, my heart more anxious. The answer to "What now?" might be that I try ringing up one of my friends, just to see if they'll answer. Or it might be to put on my running shoes and get my heart pounding. There could be all sorts of activities, or no activity at all if I simply choose to pass a moment in stillness.

Understanding that you'll never be separate from the question of "What now?", and that this is the only question that solitude, that loneliness, is asking you, can bring some helpful clarity to the time alone. Because for some people, loneliness doesn't seem to be asking an innocuous question like that. Instead, it seems to be asking some terrifying questions, or simply telling you some horrible facts. That you could die and nobody would find your body for hours or days or weeks. That most likely, none of your friends are thinking at all about you right now. That when they talk to you, they have themselves and their other relationships more on their mind; that you are an afterthought, or merely a convenient listening ear. That the two of you are merely trying to escape your loneliness together, like two prisoners who break out of their own cells and into each others'. There seems to be no way out of the prison.

These are the kinds of thoughts that can lead a person to truly suffer from loneliness. And people act on that suffering in tragic or destructive ways.

But again, I think that we are mistranslating the questions of solitude when we look at them in this dark light. "What now?" is all they are really trying to ask. It's a question with no agenda. It says that you are free, right now. Not free to do anything. You can't intrude into the relationships of others that you can see all around. You can't suddenly become lost in a fit of inspiration, or switch on some charismatic electricity that will command the attention of the people who are at present ignoring you.

Imagine that you have a long and attractive menu in your mind. It lists all the realistic options of things there are for you to do. Under "starters," it lists appetizing snacks like "watch something on Netflix" and healthy options like "take a moment to just breathe." Under "entrees," it has a wide variety of hearty fare: all the hobbies you know how to do, the errands and chores and wellness routines you probably should take care of, and all the many plans and ideas you have yet to even begin exploring. And down at the end, under "desserts," you'll find choices that are fleeting but delightful, one of which might be eating some literal ice cream.

Becoming comfortable with solitude might mean that we not only have access to a great menu of options, all of which we've tried, but that we know ourselves well enough to judge what we're hungry for and what is good for us in the moment.

I believe that if we can accomplish these two things - translating the question asked by aloneness as the simple phrase "What now?" and developing our mental menu of possible answers - then we have a way of transforming loneliness from a haunting or empty experience into something else. We can stop seeing it as an accident, a disease, or an emergency, and acknowledge that loneliness was, is, and will be with us at every moment. Loneliness is just ourselves. It is, in fact, our human freedom. Our potential. Loneliness is all the realistic options we do have, moment by moment, and the goals and plans and experiments that we devise to give a sense of meaning and purpose to all that activity.

Yes, loneliness may still hurt. There is no cure-all. This is just another technique, with all the others. In fact, it is not even that. All I've accomplished here is typing some words into my computer. And the act of doing so has had an effect on my mind. That is part of loneliness, too. The journey that I took through these moments is different than the one I'll take in the future, or that you will take as you read and reflect on this message. We cannot copy or step into each others' minds, no matter how much effort the speaker puts into making themselves clear and how hard the listener tries to truly understand. There is an unbridgeable gulf.

That is why I come back to the idea that loneliness is always an individual's task. No - even harder than that. It's the task of a particular version of you, the one that exists right now, in some moment in time, to feel stitched together with your own past and future, to feel as if your mind belongs with your body, and that all the different parts of your mind, and all the sensations you are having, belong together, and belong to you. You've heard of dissociation, which is sort of the opposite sensation. A separation of the self into fragmented pieces.

This is the opposite. It's association. And of course association -not to be cute - would be the cure for loneliness, wouldn't it? As I said, I can't promise a solution, but we can at least try to understand the problem.

Part of the problem of loneliness is that we just seem to keep asking ourselves the question "What now," or one of its scarier versions, pretty much constantly from day to day. And another part of the problem is this second aspect, that we often feel at least somewhat dissociated. There are memories in your head that you haven't thought about in years. Ways you haven't moved your muscles in weeks or months. People who think about you from time to time, and who you think about too, but a little less every year. But, for now, not so little that you never think about each other. The potential is still there.

And the world is full of strangers. These strangers mostly are on their own journeys. They don't know why they should want to meet you. But some of them are ready to meet anybody. Look for the person standing alone in a corner at a party. Send a kind message to somebody on an online dating service. Try going to a bar, a group hike, or a book club (if there's no pandemic on the loose) and see if you can strike up a conversation there. Perhaps you can even help some of these busy folk to understand why they in fact should want to meet you.

What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that loneliness can feel like the worst sort of emergency, one where we don't know the cause or the extent of the catastrophe, but we simply feel in our bones that something very, very bad is happening. Or it can be an awful trickster, making us sick and then selling us snake oil that only makes us more ill. It preys on our worst anxieties, and convinces us that by adopting the right set of habits, buying the right clothes, getting the right education, and so on, we will transform ourselves into somebody who's worth another person's time and love.

But loneliness, I think, has the potential to be a friend. Almost a secular god - omnipresent, benevolent, powerful. It is always asking us "What next?" and encouraging us to develop a rich repertoire of answers. Trauma victims are sometimes hurt the most when they have no way to help themselves, when they are trapped and must wait passively to be rescued. Loneliness seems to want us to make an active choice to "What next?", even if that choice is to sit silently for a while.

I don't think that there's some particular attitude or energy that's ideal for responding to loneliness, except to say that panic, anxiety, and depression seem at the very least to be more common than optimal. Sometimes, "What next?" wants to be followed by a sense of calm, a willingness to do very little for a while and remind ourselves that we don't have to do anything. Other times, "What next?" leads us to a flurry of activity, where we might get a lot of chores done, get in touch with friends, or start a whole new hobby. I've never experienced enlightenment, and I don't have any strong preconceptions that there is some narrow brain state that makes all these existential problems vanish as we ride away on a cloud of bliss. I believe more that people get stuck. In depression, in mania, in the doldrums, in reactivity, in thought, in emotion, in habit, in states of emergency, in obsessions, in burdensome responsibilities, in too much unstructured time.

Loneliness can feel like a trap when it points out to us how stuck we seem to be. When we can't see a way out, or when we perceive all our actions to escape or accept or transcend as futile, then we have the learned helplessness of loneliness. Although I feel little confidence that wisdom can easily translate from mind to mind, I think it is probably important for each person, somehow or other, to get to a place where they have consciously accepted and found words to express the idea that loneliness is not a trap, not a prison, not an invasion from which escape is futile. It is a gentle but probing question reminding us of our freedom, and the sense that the next minute, the next hour, the next day, the next year, we will only have more freedom. And this state of affairs will continue until we die and are released from having to answer that question once and for all.

Exploring the problem of loneliness with my own wisdom and my own logical and anthropological understanding of the basic conditions of human life helps me feel more hope for tomorrow. And more freedom in this minute. It helps me feel like there is meaning to be found even in the most inane distractions, and as though the most profound accomplishments are not beyond my grasp. I hope that it will help me feel as though the silence between sentences when I talk with my friends is not an anxious waiting for more words, but a reflective time to hear and appreciate what was said.

We will see. That's all there is to do. What next?



Discuss

Luna First, But Not To Live There

8 сентября, 2020 - 10:21
Published on September 8, 2020 3:14 AM GMT

In certain corners of the astronautics community, there’s a real and substantial debate over whether to prioritize Mars or Luna when planning out the future of human spaceflight. There are good arguments on each side, but I think that neither side makes the correct case.

Luna is attractive because it is close. We know how to land on Luna; we’ve done it before. Building bases on Luna would offer the opportunity to really understand how humans live and operate in space over the long term. It would provide a test-bed for certain technologies that would enable more advanced missions to the planets. If things go wrong, it would be easier to get support from Earth, or to head home if need be.

The counter-argument put forth by the pro-Mars camp is that Luna is a very different world from Mars, and thus wouldn’t provide really all that much advantage for testing Mars-specific technologies. Life support systems on Luna would necessarily use a very closed loop; aside from some water deposits at the poles, astronauts would want to recycle as much as possible. Mars, on the other hand, has water and carbon dioxide and organic molecules in abundance. It offers much better options for building self-sufficient outposts.

There’s also disagreement about the efficacy of using Luna as a refueling stop, so to speak, en route to the Red Planet. From an orbital mechanics standpoint, it’s not a slam-dunk idea, but the argument in practice depends heavily on the specific logistics. In-situ fuel production might just make such a configuration worth it.

In any case, both camps miss the main question when it comes to long-term off-world development: where’s the money coming from?

While Mars is obviously the more attractive target for colonization, we are a very long way from building colonies on other celestial bodies, no matter how good of an idea it is. The reason is very simple: space colonization is an unspeakably expensive proposition. The off-world economy as it currently exists is entirely constructed around servicing needs on Earth, and there are no terrestrial markets which demand colonies on another planet.

I have yet to think of an economic need which a self-sustaining population on Mars would fulfill, that innovative strategies could not fulfill on Earth. Farming food on Mars? We can do hydroponics here. Running out of room to house people? We’re nowhere near that kind of population density. New legal environments to test out social engineering concepts? Seasteads and charter cities are way safer and less expensive. Climate change? Just tax carbon and build nuclear power plants, sheesh.

No one will front the money to build Mars colonies until there’s an economic incentive to do so. I see no such economic incentive. I would love to be wrong about this, because Mars is the best colonization target by far. But I don’t think I am.

Nevertheless, there are profits to be made in space.

There are needs on Earth which off-world industries can satisfy. Currently, most of the needs which we’re satisfying relate to information on or near Earth’s surface: passing data quickly between two points, or observing the location of moving vehicles, or watching the development of weather systems—things in that vein. There’s been a lot of discussion of space tourism, but that has yet to make any real money without piggybacking on government-funded flights. Scientific probes and the like are great, but largely a public service. They don’t represent the sort of self-sustaining economic sector that successful space colonization requires.

What self-sustaining options are there? Honestly, that’s very difficult to predict. Modeling the profitability of a venture depends heavily on the assumptions we make. How far will launch costs fall over the coming years? Will other space technologies follow suit? What will the tax and regulatory structure look like in twenty years?

Some things are simply impossible to know at this point: how materials behave in microgravity, what resources are available in space, and in what forms—and how much will everything cost? Will there need to be humans involved, or not? These are impossible to know without further investigation; basic research is, in many cases, a part of the capital investment. Publicly-funded space agencies have done a great deal in this area, but the private sector is going to have to carry some of its own weight before turning a profit.

We can still speculate, of course. I think in-space manufacturing and resources from space are potentially tremendous markets. That said, many people get these aspects wrong. For instance, many will point to the nominal value of precious metals in asteroids, ignoring the fact that introducing such quantities would immediately and permanently crash the market. In that particular regard, what’s far more interesting is the possibilities that open up when platinum, say, becomes cheaper than aluminum is now.

The real value of off-world industry will come in the things we can do in space that we can’t do on Earth. This includes all sort of material processes (though, of course, gravity makes a great many things easier), and the lack of environmental concerns. As the people of Earth demand an increasingly high standard of living and simultaneously a cleaner environment, I suspect that this may prove to be the ultimate driver of off-world industrialization. Again, though, speculation.

Towards that end, staying near Earth is much more attractive logistically than going all the way to Mars. 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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')} ΔV considerations eat up the profit margins, to the extent that off-world resource extraction has yet to enter even the demonstration phase. The cost of even basic space technology is currently prohibitive.

Those costs will fall, at least to some extent, but the basic logic remains. If all we need is microgravity, there’s little reason to go above low Earth orbit. If we desire some degree of gravity, Luna will probably do. Asteroids may be useful targets for mining, but I would need to see actual numbers before deciding whether to pursue particular resources on Earth, Luna, or smaller bodies.

Critically, space industrialization is different from space colonization. Developing an off-world economy is a pre-requisite for seeing a large, permanent population above the atmosphere.

Certainly astronauts can visit Luna and Mars. We might even establish permanent research bases. This, however, is a public-spirited endeavor. Governments may choose to pay for scientific missions to other planets; they will not front the costs of developing entire planets quite literally from the ground up. Whatever outputs space agencies may build, they will not be colonies. People won’t live there, the way that human populations have whenever establishing themselves in a new locality. There won’t be families and new businesses and the like, not for a long time.

Instead, we’re probably going to see many largely-automated operations, with minimal and possibly intermittent human presence. Over time, these will expand, and eventually we may see actual colonies in orbit and on Luna. But that will come only once there’s a profitable market for goods manufactured or processed in space. These industries will beget new markets, which may be satisfied by other off-world industries. At some point down the road, there very well may be demand which can be more profitably supplied from Mars than Earth (from a ΔVperspective, it’s easier to reach Luna from the surface of Mars than Cape Canaveral). But I think that it’s unrealistic to expect that to occur particularly soon.

As we push towards human settlement in space, our focus should therefore be the development of new industries and new technologies to enable and motivate working above the atmosphere. Between the two targets of Luna and Mars, the former clearly comes out ahead for this purpose. Proximity wins over hospitality, though many of the disadvantages Luna has as a world are significantly less serious in the context of production rather than settlement.

One day, our species will span three worlds. That day remains very far away. Rather than fixate on terraforming dreams, we should chart a course carried by the currents of economic necessity. With the correct regulatory environment and technological investments, we can begin building sustainable off-world industries in a realistic timescale. Such industries will carry us to the planets in the pursuit of profit—a far more reliable motivator than any humanitarian spirit from politicians.

That, I suspect, is what the future of space travel is going to come down to. Do we pursue an incremental strategy that eventually carries us to the ends of the Solar System, or do we wallow on this one planet, fantasizing of an amazing future no one has any incentive to hand us? Are we going to fixate on self-sustained colonies and settle for nothing less, or shall we go to Luna first, but not to live there?



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Decision theory analysis of whether vaccines should be distributed prior to the completion of stage three trials please

8 сентября, 2020 - 02:50
Published on September 7, 2020 11:50 PM GMT

I’m response to MR’s post on whether vaccines should be released early. The pinned comments there mostly differ about how likely an early vaccine is to kill one in 4,000 or 10000 people. It’s a tough forecasting problem I know, but there must have be tens of vaccines which have gone through the entire trial, so the percentage which reached stage three then had a death rate about 1 in 4000 bears heavily on the question.



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A Toy Model of Hingeyness

7 сентября, 2020 - 20:39
Published on September 7, 2020 5:38 PM GMT

This is a crosspost from the Effective Altruism forum

Epistemic status: Attempt to clarify a vague concept. This should be seen as a jumping of point and not as a definitive model.


Definition of Hingeyness

The Hinge of History refers to a time when we have an unusually high amount of influence over the future of civilization, compared to people who lived in the eras before and after ours.

I will use the model I made for my previous question post to explain why I don't think this definition is very useful. As before, in this model are only two possible choices per year. The number inside the circle refers to the amount of utility that year experiences and the two lines are the two options that this year has to decide on. The amount of utility which each option will add to the next year is written next to the lines. (link to image)


Older decisions are hingier

I think we all agree that we should try to avoid the option that will lead to better results in the next year, but will create less utility in the long run. In this model the year with 1 utility could choose the +2 option, but it should choose the +1 option because it leads to better options next year. Let's assume that all life dies after the last batch of years. The 1 utility then 3 utility then 0 utility option is the worst because you've generated 4 utility in total. 1-3-6 is just as good as 1-2-7, but 1-2- 8 is clearly the best path.

The implication is that later decisions are never hingier than earlier ones. 1 gets a range of options that ranges from 4 utility to 11 utility, no other option get's that kind of range. In fact, it's a mathematically impossible that future decisions have a range of options that's larger than the previous decisions had (assuming the universe will end and isn't some kind of loop). It's also a mathematically impossible that future decisions have ranges where the best and worst case scenarios give you more utility than the range of the previous years. This is, unless negative utility is possible, which might arguably exist when you have a universe of beings being kept alive and tortured against their will (but it's rare in any case).


Decrease in range

Does that mean that hingeyness is now a useless concept? Not necessarily. The range will never grow, but the amount by which it narrows from year to year varies widely. Let's look at an extreme example. (link to image)

So the decisions made in 1 will always have the broadest range [204-405], but if you look at the difference in range between 3 [203-311] and 4 [208-311] it's not that much. So hingeyness may still be useful to think about how quickly our range is decreasing. It's even possible that the range doesn't shrink at all.


Going extinct quickly isn't necessarily bad

In the previous post I said that choosing for times where we survive for longer is almost always better (assuming you're a positive utilitarian and negative utility is impossible), this is an example of when this is not the case. The 1-2-402 chain gives the world the most utility even though it goes extinct one tick quicker. We (naturally) focus on reducing x-risk, but I wanted to visualize here why it might be possible that dying quickly in a blaze of utility is better than fizzling on for longer with low amounts of utility (especially if negative utility is possible). Although it should be noted that this model gives you clear ticks which might not exist in real life. Maybe planck time? Or maybe the time it takes to go from one state of pleasure to another a.k.a the time it takes to fire a neuron? Depending on how you answer that question this argument might fall flat.


Is hingeyness related to slack?

I'm starting to see similarities between the range of possible choices you keep and the amount of slack. I previously expressed that I see the slack/moloch trade-off as similar to the exploration/exploitation trade-off. Since we can't accurately predict which branches will give us the most utility it might be useful to keep a broad range of options open a.k.a to give yourself a lot of slack. In fact if we look at the first image you can see that someone who is pursuing linear utility exploitation will go from 1 to 3 (giving himself a +2 instead of a +1). Since this gives you worse results later this is basically the same thing as moloch pushing you into an inadequate equilibria. Having the slack/exploration to choose a sub-optimal route in the short-run but a better route in the long-run can only work if you have a lot of hingeyness.


How probability fits in

In reality of course you get more than two options, but the principle stays the same. Instead of a range you get a probability distribution. (link to image)

The probability that you get a certain amount of utility is equal to the amount of chains that generate that specific amount of utility (If you think certain chains have inherently less chance of existing you can just multiply the two factors). The range we are talking about is the difference between the lowest amount you could possibly generate and the highest. This will always either stay the same or shrink. This is not necessarily a bad thing as a we would rather face a narrow range of options between several good outcomes than a broad range of options between a lot of bad outcomes. But what about a distribution that looks like this (link to image):

This is what I think a lot of people think about when we talk about the hinge of history; a time in history where the decisions we make can either turn out to have very good outcomes or very bad outcomes with very little in between. Our range may be smaller than the previous eras, but the probability that we either gain or lose lots of utility have never been higher. I won't decide what the "true definition of hingeyness" is since language belongs to it's users. I'm just pointing out that "the range of total amount of utility generated", "how quickly that range is decreasing" and "how polarized the probability distribution is" are very different concepts and we should probably have different labels for them. I will suggest three in the conclusion.


How much risk should we take?

I previously asked:

When you are looking at the potential branches in the future, should you make the choice that will lead you to the cluster of outcomes with the highest average utility or to the cluster with the highest possible utility?

EmmaAbele answered:

I'd say the one with the highest average utility if they are all equally likely. Basically, go with the one with the highest expected value.

But what about the cluster of branches with the median amount of utility, or mode or whatever? I don't think these questions have one definitively correct answer. Instead I would argue that we should use meta-preference utilitarianism to choose the options that most people want to choose.


Conclusion

There are three concepts that could be described as Hingeyness:

1) The range of the amount of utility you can potentially generate with your decision (maybe call it 'hinge broadness'?)

2) How much that range will narrow when you make a decision (maybe call it 'hinge reduction'?)

3) How polarized the probability is that you get either a lot or very little utility in the future (maybe call it 'hinge precipiceness'?)

Having lot's of "hinge broadness" is crucial for having slack. This toy model can be used to visualize all of these concepts.



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How long does it takes to read the sequences?

7 сентября, 2020 - 20:19
Published on September 7, 2020 5:19 PM GMT

Sorry if that has been answered before, I searched quickly and could not find the answer.

To be more specific, how long does it takes an average reader to read all of the texts in https://www.lesswrong.com/rationality ?

I already read them all (more specifically the version on https://www.readthesequences.com/ ) but I am asking so that I can give an estimate to the people I recomend it to.



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Changes in Reality

7 сентября, 2020 - 19:18
Published on September 7, 2020 4:18 PM GMT

[Some short thoughts I just wanted to get out of my brain; bullet-points instead of well-structured prose. This is entirely random speculation, and not well-explained. Cross-posted from Grand, Unified, Empty.]

  • Social systems (laws, customs, memes) are subject to evolutionary pressure from the dynamics of reality; when reality changes, existing social systems are typically no longer in equilibrium and have to evolve, or collapse and be rebuilt. Consider for example the invention of the birth control pill and the resulting impact on family structure, gender relations, etc. Pre-pill social customs around marriage and family were no longer in equilibrium in a world with reliable female birth control, and so society shifted to a new set of customs.
  • “Change in reality” largely means economic and technological change. New wealth and new capabilities.
  • “Change in reality” has been accelerating for a long time as new technologies and discoveries unlock new economic prosperity which enables more discoveries, in an explosive feedback loop. Some argue that technology/science have slowed down a lot recently, but I think that’s mostly because our best and brightest are too busy extracting economic value from our recent innovations (computers and, separately, the internet). Once that bounty has been consumed, more general technological progress will resume its previous course.
  • There is a natural limit on how fast social systems can evolve. Humans can adapt to living under radically different memeplexes, but not instantly, and somebody has to invent those memes first. When reality changes slowly this is fine, as it leaves plenty of time for a multiplicity of experimental memetic shifts in different groups, letting the best adaption dominate with high probability.
  • At some point in the future (possibly soon?) reality will start changing faster than our social systems can adapt. Our existing laws, customs, memes, and government will be out of equilibrium, but we will not have enough time to converge on a new social system before reality changes again. Society will fragment and human culture will undergo an intense period of adaptive radiation.
  • The countervailing force is technology’s ability to connect us (the “global village”) and equivalently the law of cultural proximity.


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The Four Children of the Seder as the Simulacra Levels

7 сентября, 2020 - 18:00
Published on September 7, 2020 3:00 PM GMT

Previously: Unifying the Simulacra Definitions, Simulacra Levels and their Interactions, On Negative Feedback and Simulacra

Simulacra levels are complex, counter-intuitive and difficult to understand.

Thus, it is good and right to continue exploring them partly via story and metaphor.

The metaphor here will be that of the four children from Jewish Passover Seder.

The Jewish Seder tells us of four generations of children: The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the one who does not know how to ask.

The story is profoundly weird and does not, on its face, make much sense. Yet every year it is told anyway. What is going on here?

Many attempts have been made to interpret it.

A while back I wrote the first rationalist seder (later versions can be found here). At the time, the story of the four children did not make sense to me. Why this narrative of decline and fall, of wisdom as something that can only decay? 

To make sense of the story of the children and to tie it to the themes I wanted to focus on, I told a reversed story and substituted in generations of rationalists and truth seekers. 

In this story, we first learn how to ask, then we are simple, then we are instrumental, then we seek to fully understand, and then finally in a fifth stage we can transcend. We can be great because we stand on the shoulders of giants. 

Reversing the order of development is reasonably common, as is an implied fifth child. When I was googling for details of what the sons say, the first hit was a reversed-order story of the children as stages of psychological development, with a fifth stage beyond the four listed.

These are fine tales, worthy of telling. Today, I bring a different story.

I bring the story that I now believe was originally intended.

The four children are the four simulacra levels. 

The wise child represents level 1. They want to know how the Seder works.

The wicked child represents level 2. They want to know what the Seder can get them.

The simple child represents level 3. They want to know what the Seder symbolizes.

The child who does not know how to ask represents level 4. They don’t know things anymore.

This hypothesis and the analysis that follows could be me doing what Scott Alexander often did and cherry picking to find entertaining and potentially enlightening connections that were clearly never intended. But I actually don’t think so. 

I believe this is the primary original intent of the story. This makes the four children, and in particular the fourth child, make sense. This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.

Quotes are taken from an Orthodox Haggadah excerpt, which is the third hit on a Google search of “the four children passover.” The second hit is reform, so it doesn’t count. The first hit, as noted above, was Psychology Today doing its own thing, which really shouldn’t have been in the highlight box.

You are encouraged to click through to the sources, or even better perform your own search or pick up and read the section from your own Haggadah, to verify that I am not engaging in cherry picking and to consider additional perspectives.

Level One – The Wise Child

The Wise Child lives in object-level reality. She cares about understanding the territory, and knows the map is a means to that end. She wants the facts.

She asks this question:

“What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that G‑d, our G‑d, has commanded to you?” (deut. 6:20)

A naturalist might interpret this question as “how does the physical world work?”

As she communicates, thus shall you communicate to her. She wants to know the facts, so you give her the facts.

You should respond to him as the Torah commands, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, etc.” and also instruct him in all the laws of Passover, up to and including its final law: “After eating the Passover offering, one should not then conclude the meal with dessert which would wash away the taste of the Passover offering.”

When one cares about the object level, one cares about every detail. The final law, a requirement with a specific physical purpose, is stressed here to illustrate that. 

The final law is likely the final law so that it can be the final law in this passage. Dessert in the Seder is part of step 13 of 15. It’s not a natural place to put a final law.

The act and purpose matter in the Wise Child’s object-level literal senses. We wish to remember the taste of the Passover offering, so despite having an explicit phase of the meal for dessert, we must be careful that this dessert does not wash away the taste of the offering.

The act and purpose also matter directly as metaphor, in the more important meaning of both this law and its explanation. We finish the ceremony with joyful songs, but joyful songs that remind us of our struggles and do not hide the truth of our world – we know what the numbers are, the strong prey upon the weak then we all fall to the Angel of Death. Actions have consequences.

We also explicitly remind the Wise Child, that merely observing commandments without understanding them is not sufficient, for to do so would allow not merely them but our other actions and maps to cease to be anchored by reality:

So we tell the Wise Child:

It is true that the essence of the soul transcends the “natural order” of the person—the intellect and emotions—and therefore is blind to distinctions between commandments. It is likewise true that one can observe commandments without understanding them but simply because of the innate, essence-connection between the soul and G‑d. One can “pass over” and bypass the complications and limitations of self.

But it is G‑d’s will that we experience commandments within the “natural order” of our psyche, within our intellect and emotions. The transcendent “Passover” of our souls then finds expression within and permeates the “laws” of our minds and hearts (The Rebbe).

The very name of the holiday – Passover – is superficially about the Exodus from Egypt and the concept that the Angel of Death ‘passed over’ Jewish houses during the tenth plague. But that never really made sense as a justification for the name of the entire holiday. This does.

What the name is really for is a warning to avoid this trap of ‘passing over’ the object level, not forming a gears-level understanding, and allowing our maps to become disconnected from profound reality.

Without discussion and argument, the Seder is hardly a Seder at all.

We must remain anchored in the object level, in our profound reality, if we wish to remain wise.

Inevitably, we lose sight of this, and proceed to level two. Thus, the second generation.

Level Two – The Wicked Child

The Wicked Child cares not about the first level, the obligation to the truth — as embodied by the Torah and the Passover story and Passover service.

Instead, the Wicked Child cares about what effect the service, and the story that we tell at the Seder, will have on others – to be at the second level is to draw a distinction between what you believe and do, and what you seek others to believe and do.

He cares not about whether the service reflects reality. He cares about in what way the service could mask and denature reality, and what he can get out of this service.

He thus asks:

“What is this service of yours?!”

He says of yours—implying that it is not for him. By excluding himself from the community, he denies the essential principle of Judaism, the obligation to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.

You should also “blunt his teeth” (speak harshly to him) and say to him:

“It is because of this that I would fulfill His commandments, such as this Passover offering, matzah and maror that G‑d acted for me when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8)—for me, but not for him. If he [the wicked child] had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

As he speaks on the second level, so we need to respond to him on the second level.

Thus, the first thing we note about the Wicked Child is that he has separated himself from this central principle of Judaism, the obligation to the truth. We put his failure to be at level one front and center. That’s how important this is.

Yet we do not give up on him. One cannot have level one without the inevitability of level two. To care about what we believe, for any reason, is to invite others to care about what we believe, for their own selfish reasons.

Incentives will always be a thing.

We must constantly remind everyone that we seek truth and to understand and manipulate the object level not (merely) for its own sake, but because this is how we all survive and have nice things. Without this, all is lost.

Thus, we speak back to him in his own language of consequences to him. We seek truth because truth saves us. We fulfill the obligations of reality and tell its stories that connect us to its profound reality – we are the people of the book – because they grant us freedom and life.

If the Wicked Child had been there, he would not have taken such action, would neither have been of help to or earned the help of the community, and thus he would not have been saved. 

This is the whole quest. It is the central mission. Once they become wise to this, the child can study the details on their own:

As the Talmud states, a Jew cannot lose his Jewishness. Regardless of the degree of his disengagement from Judaism, the Jewish spark lives on within him.

Kabbalah teaches that the wicked child, second of the four children, corresponds to the second of the Four Cups. This means that the bulk of the Haggadah is recited over the cup related to the wicked child! Clearly, befriending and educating the wicked child is a central aspect of the Haggadah. For this effort helps bring about the ultimate realization of the Egyptian Exodus.

The Jewish spark here represents this drive towards truth in all of us. Of course this cannot be fully extinguished. Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. A sufficiently powerful smackdown from reality will wake anyone (who survives it) up.

It can, however, be suspended indefinitely under the wrong conditions.

Thus, we spend the bulk of the Seder speaking primarily to the Wicked Child.

In each generation the wicked child must be convinced of the need to choose wisdom. The wicked child follows from the wise child, as the second level follows from the first. Only by continuously maintaining right incentives and norms, and hammering the necessary messages into everyone’s heads over and over, can we ensure the wicked children among us ultimately choose wisdom.

This is not a struggle that happens once. It happens continuously for each of us that still thinks reality is a thing. Each of us who still believes that others believe that one thing is and another is not, is tempted continuously by the ability to say that which is not in order to get others to believe that which is not. 

This fits with my model that, while higher-simulacra-levels are always present to some extent, past societies have mostly succeeded at keeping the focus on the object level and thus preventing things on the whole from degenerating further.

Or, that those that have failed at this task have fallen soon thereafter.

When the community fails at this task, the Wicked Children grow up and remain wicked. They continuously work to mask and denature the grand reality. Words become less and less often and less and less substantively a reflection of reality, and more and more a mask of that reality – the mask the speaker wishes to place upon it. In turn, people’s expectations adjust.

Things then give way to the third generation.

Level Three – The Simple Child

The Simple Child is not born simple. Nor is she stupid. The Simple Child is responding to incentives. She plays the game laid out before her.

Raised by and around the wicked, The Simple Child lacks the expectation that symbols line up with reality. Those around her have been pretending the whole time. She wants to know how to pretend to do this pretending.

She does not have or seek a useful model of physical reality. Such a model does not seem like it would be useful.

She notices instead that rewards and punishments in such a world are best navigated through asking what signals to send. So she seeks to understand symbols well enough to send the right signals.

Thus, the simple child asks the most basic question: “What is this?”, or “What is this celebration about?”

You shall say to him: “We are commemorating the fact that with a strong hand G‑d took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Exodus 13:14).

As she speaks to you, so shall you speak to her. She wants to know what this symbol means. So we tell her what it means, and what and who is to be raised or lowered in status.

We don’t actually answer the question! We do not tell her what this is. 

She isn’t really asking for that information. She isn’t ready for the answer. We don’t have that kind of time. We will. But not now. Not tonight.

But this is all rather tragic. Did we give up on her so easily? Has all been lost by this point? Can we not do better than to get her to think of us as her in-group whose actions should be imitated and signals sent?

This is one of the biggest problems of our age. If someone seeks to be nothing but a partisan, how does one get them to be more than that? If everyone is being judged on their partisanship, how is one to free them from that? To snap them out of it?

The text does not seem to have an answer. The Haggadahs I have used don’t even try to answer. This particular version advises:

We tell the simpleton how the Exodus occurred and how he too can experience a personal “Exodus”: Just as G‑d used a strong hand to “overcome” the attribute of justice, we too must use a strong hand to overcome those aspects of our personalities that impede our spiritual growth. We then experience a spiritual liberation from our personal enslavements.

That does not seem likely to get us much of anywhere. We’re talking in mumbo-jumbo in the hopes it will symbolically resonate. All we hold out is the promise of ‘spiritual liberation.’

It seems that all the Rabbis believe we can do, at this point, is damage control. Thus, we spend so much time trying to rescue the Wicked Child. That’s where there is still some hope. The Simple Child, in this model, is mostly a lost cause.

But we offer a way out. We note that we are commemorating a fact. 

We link our explanation back to a concrete origin, as a first step in reorienting her attention. It’s a trick that just might work.

The ‘spiritual liberation’ is exactly this – to notice reality and be liberated from being trapped in meaningless symbols. To think for one’s self.

That’s why there is no talk about the Wise Child’s spiritual liberation. There is no need.

Thus, this model says the goal is purely to get the Simple Child to pay attention. The promises we make to her are to get her to participate at all, to be present. After that, she can be exposed to the arguments and discussions, to the details. She can notice what is actually going on, and think more on that level.

There is hope. Room to grow. She can still ask questions and care about the answers. Remember her opening question. She asks, what is this? Thus, she still knows on some level that there is a this and it has a what.

What she is unable to do, if she is not helped out of her trap, is pass this remaining understanding along. The fourth generation is coming.

Level Four – The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask

It is frequently pointed out that the name of the fourth generation is profoundly weird.

Have you ever met a child who did not know how to ask?

I have not. I’ve met adults who no longer know how to ask. Who have fully integrated level four. Who have forgotten. The fourth level ceases to know that the first level exists.

There is the temptation to not engage with the name. To treat it as some sort of metaphor.

The temptation is wrong. The fourth generation does not know how to ask.

That does not quite mean “literally does not know how to ask anything at all”. But it also kind of does mean that.

Asking requires realizing that there exist questions and answers. It requires believing that those questions and answers matter. That there is a ‘there there’ under all that.

He does not know that some things are while other things are not. If answers don’t matter, there can be no questions.

Even if he did somehow want that information, he doesn’t know how to ask about actual things. Everything is a symbol referencing another symbol. There’s no way to get those symbols to reference the physical world. Thus, no way to ask a question.

This is the giveaway that we’ve been talking about simulacrum levels.

The one who does not know how to ask cannot ask for wisdom. For them, wisdom isn’t a thing.

And they can’t ask how reality works. For them, reality isn’t a thing.

What is to be done about this? We must talk in a way he might understand, that might cause him to realize there are things to be understood.

Thus:

As for The One Who Knows Not How To Ask—you must open up [the conversation] for him.

As it is written: You shall tell your child on that day: “It is because of this that G‑d acted for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

What we are trying to communicate here is basic cause and effect. That there is a this and it caused a that. Because of this, G-d acted for me when I left Egypt. The very idea of logic, of consequence, is lost upon him. Recover those, together with the idea that some things are and others are not, and the child can learn how to ask. All that matters, for now, is teaching this most basic lesson.

Their need to leave Egypt (which in Hebrew is literally “the narrow place”), is here about the need to realize this. Because we know things and seek knowledge, our world exists and can expand. We can do things, go places, not be trapped. We can be free.

Two levels. Because of these actions, things happened. Because of knowledge, one can take actions that do things.

The child’s participation in the Seder is not about any of that; they are just employing systems that attend the rituals that those around them participate in. They go through all the motions, but have no idea what they are doing.

What about alternative interpretations of this stage?

I have heard the suggestion that the fourth child is very young, and does not yet know how to speak. This seems clearly wrong.

If that was what was going on, the child would have a different name – the child who cannot (yet) speak – and our advice for them would be different. The child being unable to speak doesn’t make sense in the context of the text telling you to start the conversation for them. If they can’t talk, trying to start a conversation about the Exodus would be quite pointless. 

Another reason to reject this interpretation is that this child does not yet know how to talk, but does know how to ask. He doesn’t know the words, but if you hang around a child who hasn’t yet learned to talk and pay attention it’s clear they can ask about basic things without words. 

Another alternative interpretation, from the same Haggadah as above, is this angle:

Too Smart For Questions

This fourth child may be a ritually observant Jew who fulfills all the customs of the Seder. But his Judaism is cold and dry. He does not feel a need for spiritual liberation. He has no questions about or real interest in the Exodus because he does not think of himself as being in exile.

He claims that he is not the excitable type and thus excuses his lifeless Jewish practice. Yet while he cannot muster any excitement for Judaism, he is easily exercised and engaged by material ambitions. He does not realize that his heart and mind are in exile, oblivious to the spiritual content of life.

We cannot begin by telling this Jew what G‑d did (as we tell the simple child); we must first inspire him to seek spiritual liberation. We therefore tell him:

“G‑d did this for me when I left Egypt”—you too are in need of leaving Egypt.

The key insight here is that we cannot begin the way we did with the Simple Child, by conveying information. It won’t work! The Simple Child has redirected her curiosity, and does not yet much value information, but still understands that information is a thing.

Information would only bounce off The One Who Does Not Know How To Ask. Not being able to ask is merely a symptom. Spiritual liberation again means realizing knowledge exists at all, and is the necessary first step.

However, I think the rest of this is importantly wrong. And it can be wrong in two ways.

First, this child may be misidentified. 

If the child is instead Simple, going through the ritual without feeling makes sense. The simple child can be told what this is and what to do, and then they go through the motions. It certainly would not occur to them to seek ‘spiritual revelation’ because life at the third level has no spiritual aspect.

If the child is instead Wicked, that is another potential explanation for this data. They are there to avoid punishment, or to score points, rather than to have the experience and/or better themselves.

The second way this is wrong is the most common mistake when those outside it try to model level four. It is the idea that he is easily exercised and engaged by material ambitions— that those sufficiently at level 4 are doing what the rest of us are doing, engaging in actions because of their model’s guess as to their consequences, in order to achieve particular ends.

That’s not how level 4 works. Such people don’t have goals. They have systems. The fourth child truly is lifeless and unexcited. When such people seem excited, it is because their systems think being excited is the next move, the way deep learning might suggest excitement be expressed at particular points. Nothing more.

Such strategies do often cash out in material ambitions, but that is not because such ambitions excited the person or a plan was formed to get them. The idea of having a plan or ambitions, or of there being a physical thing to be ambitious about, doesn’t parse for them the same way it does for others.

Then there’s this other note:

The fourth child may actually want to ask but lacks confidence and fears being seen as a fool. The Haggadah instructs us to be sensitive to such people and to put them at ease by initiating conversation with them until they are comfortable sharing their thoughts confidently and clearly (R. Shlomo Alkabetz; Chida).

That is definitely not the fourth child. The issue lies elsewhere.

It’s certainly a thing that happens. But the child it would be happening to would be the Wise child.

Knowledge is desired. There’s social issues in the way, but that is our fault. 

This is, of course, how it all begins. Children do not start out not knowing how to ask. The problem is caused by the adults who do not know how to answer.

We have somehow taught this child that asking questions can mean being a fool and that this is bad. We’ve answered his questions by telling him what we want them to see, or what the ritual response to their statement is, rather than by explaining what is and what is not. Without answers, what is a question?

It’s on us to fix it. Not them. The prescription here is a good idea, but seems importantly non-central. What is most important is taking away this idea that asking questions is bad or foolish, and setting up an expectation that questions get answers. If seek means ye might find, perhaps then ye will seek.

Otherwise, engaging them in conversation will seem like torture rather than opening them up. It’s calling on kids unprompted in class to interrogate and humiliate them. It’s grading kids on ‘class participation’ where participation means guessing the teacher’s password. It is being polite at the dinner table until you can ask to be excused. If those around you will only respond to your level one inquiries with level three or four answers, either because that is all they know or they assume that is what you must seek, then you too do not know how to ask.

Thus, once things move along sufficiently, the full generation does not know how to ask, even those who remain wise, wicked or simple. When they attempt to ask, no answers come. Meaningful questioning ceases.

This is a common failure mode.

Level Five – The Child Who Is Not There

Despite the failings of the four children, they all did the most important thing of all.

They showed up. They are present at the Seder.

That is important because, in this story and metaphor, the Seder (literally ‘order’) represents civilization. It is the ability to know things and pass on that knowledge. Also therefore to accomplish meaningful things, to gather the fruits of our labor.

The fourth generation still sits down with the first one. They work together. To some extent, they must listen. This maintains an anchor.

Without the first generation’s renewal and participation, the process cannot be sustained.

As the generations progress, it becomes harder to draw the children into wisdom. Those who are drawn in become less rewarded for it, and more punished. The wicked understand, acknowledge and value the Wise—they depend on the Wise for their own cynical gain. The simple don’t see the point of wisdom. Those who do not know how to ask don’t even know wisdom is a thing.

Finally, there is the child who is not there. Not only do they not know how to ask, they are not connected to those that do. Value in the physical world ceases to be sustained at all. All is lost.

Conclusion, Goals and Takeaways

There were a few distinct goals here.

The first was that when I realized this lined up, it felt too good not to explore and share. Other goals were not necessary, and could be figured out later.

The second was to provide another look at the elephant that provides additional intuition pumps. When something is confusing, the more distinct ways to illustrate both the key points and the details around them, the more likely any given person is to find one that resonates. This also provides additional potential names and references for the levels.

The third was to reinforce in particular the idea that there is something profound that is lost at the fourth level, and to provide help understanding what that is and how that could be. That the fourth level loses its logical facilities. This version puts that so front and center that the loss of logic is explicit and much of the rest of the model is implicit. And it’s important enough that it has survived two thousand years of looking like nonsense.

The fourth, similar to the third, was to provide additional support for the idea of progression through the stages. And to look at how this first attempt tried to halt and even reverse that progression, in the hopes that we can use those strategies and/or find ways to do better.

This was a fun one. No doubt there are many other similar attempts out there. I can think of several but am curious what people come up with on their own. What are some others, real or fictional?

Is GPT-3 a simulation of the child who does not know how to ask?

I have now produced a book-long sequence on Moral Mazes, and a succession of posts on Simulacra levels. The central hope is to use this as background common knowledge concepts and jargon vocabulary going forward, and that others can do so as well.



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Reference Classes

7 сентября, 2020 - 15:52
Published on September 7, 2020 12:52 PM GMT

Epistemic Status: Just some thoughts off the top of my head

Fake Nous recently featured an article on agent-centered evidence:

Sue had a premonition about the flight, and then the plane crashed. For Sue, that’s pretty strong evidence of precognition. We would completely understand Sue’s resolution to never get on a plane that she has a bad feeling about; this would not seem unreasonable at all. But for third parties, it’s not very convincing. Is it? ... This event is a biased sample from the class of stuff that happens. The reason I heard about this story is that something weird happened – if Sue had a premonition that was completely wrong, then the story wouldn’t get repeated and I wouldn’t have heard about it. Furthermore, since there have been billions of people in the world, I should initially expect that some things like this would have happened, even if there were no precognition or ESP.” But when Sue herself experiences the event, she shouldn’t say that. To her, her own life is not a biased sample. ... That seems to make sense. Two people can get “the same evidence” but by a different evidence-collection method, and of course that can affect the significance of the evidence... There is still something weird about this, though, because Sue knows how the situation looks to third parties, and they know how the situation looks to her. Both seemingly know the same facts. The third parties know that Sue’s experience is not a biased sample to her. She knows that her experience is, to other people, just the experience of one among the 7 billion people on earth, and not particularly remarkable to them.... Another question: what about people who know Sue personally? But if Sue is a member of your immediate family, you might say, “There are 4 members of my family... And if so, why couldn’t we extend this to Sue’s barrista at Starbucks? The barrista could say, “I have had only 100 customers today, of whom one had a precognition-like experience”, which sounds fairly remarkable.

I actually think that there is a form of agent-centered evidence called intuition which isn't easily communicatable to other agents and can often prove fairly useful. However, that's not the issue I want to discuss today. Instead, I want to talk about reference classes. But before I cover that, let's talk about shots. Suppose we have a raffle with one prize and a thousand tickets. If you have one ticket, you have one shot, while if you have ten tickets, you have ten shots. I haven't precisely defined it, but I think this example should be clear enough. Once you know the number of shots, you can turn it into a probability.

Let's suppose that you have four members in your family and that you also have four work colleagues. If one of your family members has a precognition-like experience, you might say that it is remarkable as you only had four shots, but let's suppose that in the counterfactual where one of your colleagues had an experience you would have also counted it as four shots. This seems like a mistake; only one can be counted as four shots and if the other occurs, then it has to be counted as eight shots with the group being classed as family AND colleagues.

If you have a bunch of different groups, say three family members, another five work colleagues and eight cousins, then you can order them arbitrarily. It doesn't matter if you do (3,5,8) or (5,3,8) or (8,3,5); any of them is fine. If you order them (8,3,5), then the number of shots for a member of a group is 8 for the first, 11 for the second and 16 for the third.

This might seem strange. We are calculating a different probability of psychic powers existing when an event happens to a member of your family vs. one of your colleagues, even though there doesn't seem to be any fundamental reason written into the universe itself why one group should give you more evidence.

Then again, the probability you assign to something existing is really more about your subjective state, such as the information available to you and how it was generated, rather than the objective state of the universe itself. We can think about choosing how to order your groups the same way that we think about committing to a (frequentialist) experiment design in advance. It's well understood that if you test more hypotheses, you increase your chance of a spurious result. For example, if you test for effects in male adults, female adults, male children and female children, you've taken four shots as opposed to having only tested for an overall effect. This is typically adjusted for by using a significance threshold that isn't constant, but instead depends on the number of hypotheses that you are testing.

We can take this analogy further. Suppose in the example above, we choose the ordering, (5, 3, 8). Then this defines three experiments - work collegues only with five shots, work + family with eight shots and all groups with sixteen shots. If we observe one of our family members having such an experience, we can treat it as us having pre-committed to an experiment covering family and work colleagues with eight shots. This is far better than the naive tendency we might have to define the group as just family with three shots.

However, it still isn't a completely accurate way to handle probability, as if we want an accurate an estimate of psychic ability as possible, then we should take into account all the evidence available. So if we also know about whether our cousins have had such experiences, then we really should take that into account when calculating the probability. Of course, trying to figure out this implicit sample might greatly calculate the calculation, which is why this group based approximation is much more appealing instead.

That said, this is quite an unusual approximation, as it can result in completely different probabilities than if we had the whole data. For example, observing a positive out of five shots striking instead of a positive out of sixteen makes a huge difference in the actual probabilities. Nonetheless, if you had precommitted to making a decision based on the first five, then the increase in probability when you saw a positive result would be perfectly matched by the decrease when you a negative result. This means that deciding in advance to only look at the first five wouldn't bias the result, even if throws away data.

Perhaps a more realistic scenario is one where you precommit to expanding the experimental group until you hit a positive result or you've expanded it to the end. This would represent the fact that someone might not worry about how amazing it is that someone in their church had a particular experience if someone in their family had such an experience. These expansionary scenarios are too complex to handle using the shots framework, but even in this scenario the maths isn't too hard.

Of course, a lot of the time we aren't deciding in advance, but are instead deciding after the fact. In this case, you're ability to use these schemes is highly, highly dependent on your ability to self-model. If you can do this well, then you can adopt these schemes after the fact, but if you do it poorly, it'll completely mess up the results.



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MOOCS That teach this stuff?

7 сентября, 2020 - 02:57
Published on September 5, 2020 5:36 AM GMT

Related Q,

Are there MOOCS that teach this that anyone would recommend me?



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Shed Wall Plans

7 сентября, 2020 - 01:20
Published on September 6, 2020 10:20 PM GMT

Last week I wrote about estimating whether insulation was worth it for our shed if we're going to use it as a home office. While I'm waiting for the carpenter to put a new roof on it, I'm thinking through what finishing the walls would look like.

The Facebook side of the discussion on the insulation post was very helpful, and got me thinking about putting closed cell foam panels directly against the concrete walls. Because it's both a vapor barrier and efficient insulation it reduces the risk of condensation happening between the concrete and the insulation.

I'm less sure about what comes next. Whatever I'm doing is not structural, and there are a lot of trade-offs. All of the options involve the layer of closed-cell foam directly against the concrete, but then they vary on how they're finished. Standard options:

  • Build a 2x3 wall, then drywall. This gives room to run the electrical, and wood to attach the drywall to. The wall would be attached to the subfloor below and roof joists above. Nothing needs to go through the foam to the concrete, and the wood framing makes later work easier.

  • Build a 2x4 wall. Same advantages as a 2 x 3 wall, but now there's enough space in the cavity that it could be insulated. I could either use this for a larger amount of insulation total, or reduce the thickness of the foam.(video example)

  • Furring strips. Run strips of wood horizontally along the wall, and attach them through the foam into the concrete. Then run a second set vertically, 16 inches on center, to attach the drywall to. There's room for electrical as long as you dig out a bit of the foam for the boxes. (video example).

Less conventional:
  • Verticals inside: Instead of using furring strips, put vertical 2x3s from floor to ceiling, 16 inches on center. Attach them a the top and bottom (roof joists and subfloor). Attach the drywall to the wood. Run the electrical through the ceiling, and then down into the appropriate bay so you don't need to drill through any verticals. Essentially the same as the furring strip solution, but without needing to put fasteners through the foam into the concrete. This seems better than the furring strip approach?

  • Verticals outside: Attach the drywall to the foam with adhesive. Then instead of standard drywall joints, run 2x3s vertically 48 inches on center. Electrical in conduit, attached to the verticals. Mildly funny looking, doesn't feel quite as nice, maximizes space if you ignore the verticals.

foam finish overall R-value cost 1" verticals outside 1.5" R-6.5 $372 2" verticals outside 2.5" R-13 $580 1" verticals inside 3" R-6.5 $468 2" verticals inside 4" R-13 $676 3" verticals inside 5" R-19.5 $988 1" 2x3 4" R-6.5 $536 2" 2x3 5" R-13 $744 1" 2x4 insulated 5" R-21.5 $930 2" 2x4 insulated 6" R-28 $1138

This doesn't include the cost of the fasteners or adhesive, but seems about right. I'm leaning towards the approach of vertical 2x3s sixteen inches on center under the drywall with 2" foam, since it seems to offer a good balance of cost, insulation, and minimizing wasted space.

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