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When to Donate Masks?

22 марта, 2020 - 16:20
Published on March 22, 2020 1:20 PM GMT

As people start coming into hospitals with the coronavirus, the number of masks we go through with standard protocols goes up enormously. These masks are normally single-use, and you put on a new mask every time one is needed. Roughly, a hospital could increase its daily usage of masks 100x as they get their first few covid-19 patients, and then even more as the full force of the epidemic hits. This is a ton of stress on the supply chain, and not surprisingly suppliers haven't been able to ramp up. Running your factory around the clock and bringing on extra workers can help some, but when even doubling output would be impressive this is nowhere near enough.

There are many types of mask, but the two main ones in health care are surgical masks and N95 respirator masks:

  • A surgical mask is primarily intended to protect others from the wearer by catching droplets, but provides limited protection to the wearer.

  • A vented N95 mask protects the wearer against not just droplets but also airborne transmission.

  • An unvented N95 mask protects both the wearer and others.

When I say "mask" below, I'm talking about N95 masks. We can get something to replace surgical masks, even if it's people sewing reusable cloth ones, but N95 production is bottlenecked on machines that can make good enough melt-blown fabric.

Luckily, health care is not the only field where people need respiratory protection. Industrial N95 masks are very widely used in construction, demolition, and other situations where there's moderately hazardous dust. These masks aren't rated as surgical N95 masks, and they're more likely to be vented, but their requirements are very similar and the government is now allowing them to be used.

As hospitals are unable to get resupplied with their regular masks, they're asking for donations from the community and industry. This makes a lot of sense: people and organizations that use masks generally keep extras, and medical use is now much more urgent.

On the other hand, donations of masks will not get us through this epidemic on their own: hospitals also need to make massive adjustments in how quickly they go through masks, and this is a hard adjustment. Reusing masks is moderately dangerous, but it's much less dangerous than the very likely prospect of later not having them at all. It looks like hospitals used masks at nearly their regular rate throughout February and in early March, even though the shortage goes back to late January. Reports of mask rationing are haphazard, and in the last couple days I've seen posts from health care workers saying they're using N95 masks:

  • At their regular rate, but they're worried about running out.
  • For aerosol-generating procedures on suspected patients only.
  • One per day, only as needed.
  • One indefinitely.
  • Not at all, because there are no more.
Hospitals are not the kind of places that change policy quickly, and it seems they're mostly adjusting in response to their resupply orders not being filled. The CDC should be telling hospitals across the country that we're very short on masks and that we should be going through them as slowly as possible, but instead it's offering much weaker guidance that would be more appropriate to local shortages.

Since most of this change in behavior is happening in response to masks being unavailable or in very short supply, mask production is hard to ramp up, and we don't expect this to peak for at least a month, if you donate masks today I expect them to be used much more quickly than if you wait and donate them when things are worse. You don't want to wait too long, because at some point the shortage really will be over and the need will decrease, but I expect the need for masks to be much higher in two weeks than it is today.


What is the literature on effects of vaccines on the central nervous system?

22 марта, 2020 - 16:08
Published on March 22, 2020 1:08 PM GMT

I saw some evidence from the recent covid-19 threads that some viruses permanently stay in the brain and cause some damage; This has made me wonder how effective (or alternatively unsafe) vaccines are (flu vaccines in particular).

Here is one study on h5n1 on mice:



What are examples of Rationalist posters or Rationalist poster ideas?

22 марта, 2020 - 10:08
Published on March 22, 2020 7:08 AM GMT


Oxygen–haemoglobin dissociation curve

22 марта, 2020 - 10:05
Published on March 22, 2020 7:05 AM GMT

Since I can't post an image in a comment I've created this post.

I've seen a fair bit written about digital oxymeters (pulse ox) and percentage figures but no mention of the underlying physiology to increase understanding of the significance of those figures.

Haemoglobin (in red blood cells) takes up oxygen in the lungs to then carry around the body.

Oxygen disassociates from haemoglobin (Hb) when the partial pressure of O2 in surrounding tissues is reduced according to this graph:

Note the steep drop in oxygen saturation (the % given by an oxymeter) when PO2 (level of oxygen in surrounding tissues) is low i.e. a lot of oxygen leaves red blood cells quickly at those levels so there isn't enough oxygen in the blood to get round everywhere.

SOURCE: (and much more info.)


Loss of sense of smell as marker of COVID-19 infection

22 марта, 2020 - 05:28
Published on March 22, 2020 2:27 AM GMT


  • In Germany it is reported that more than 2 in 3 confirmed cases have anosmia.
  • In South Korea, ... 30% of patients testing positive have had anosmia as their major presenting symptom in otherwise mild cases
  • There is potential that if any adult with anosmia but no other symptoms was asked to self-isolate for seven days, in addition to the current symptom criteria used to trigger quarantine, we might be able to reduce the number of otherwise asymptomatic individuals who continue to act as vectors, not realising the need to self-isolate.

Simple clinical test for anosmia (from Davidson & Murphy, 1997):

Standard 70% isopropyl alcohol preparation pad is opened such that 0.5 cm of the pad itself is visible. The alcohol pad is placed beneath the patient's nostrils while the patient inspires twice, to familiarize himself or herself with the alcohol odor, and the subject is asked if he or she detects an odor. Odor thresholds for alcohols are 2 or more orders of magnitude lower than trigeminal thresholds for the same stimuli.6 Thus, an anosmic will detect the presence of alcohol trigeminally only when it is extremely close to the nose. The alcohol pad is withdrawn and the threshold test begun. The subject is asked to close the mouth and eyes, breathe normally, and indicate when the odor is detected. Active sniffing and deep inspiration are discouraged. The basic procedure follows the method of limits. A standard metric tape measure is extended downward from the patient's nares and held in place (Figure I ). The alcohol pad is placed 30 cm below the nose and, with each expiration, is moved 1 cm closer to the nares until the subject detects the presence of odor. The distance from the anterior nares to the alcohol pad is measured in centimeters at the point at which the subject first detects the odor. The procedure is repeated 4 times and the mean distance defines the threshold. Threshold For purposes of comparison, all of the subjects completed a standard olfactory threshold test. A series of 10 concentrations of butanol ( -butyl alcohol) was used to determine absolute olfactory threshold sensitivity. The highest butanol concentration consisted of 4% vol/vol in distilled water. Each successive dilution was one third of the preceding dilution. Two "blanks," containing only distilled water, were also prepared. All bottles, including blanks, contained 60 mL of liquid. Olfactory threshold was assessed with a modified version 7 of a 2-alternative, forced-choice,ascending method of limits procedure. The subject was presented with 2 bottles, one containing the odorant and the other consisting of distilled water. Each nostril was tested separately. The spout of the bottle was inserted into the nostril of interest. The subject was asked to squeeze the bottle to generate a puff of air. The subject did this with both bottles. Subjects were asked to identify which of the 2 bottles contained the stronger odor.All subjects began at the lowest concentration to avoid adaptation.9 Incorrect choices led to presentation of a higher concentration and correct choices led to continued presentation of the same concentration to a criterion of 5 successive correct responses. The presentation of the odorant and blank were randomized for each comparison trial and the nostril to be tested first was also randomly determined. There were approximately 45 seconds between trials to allow time for recovery of the olfactory system and for the odor molecules to collect in the head space of the bottle.


Coronavirus Tech Handbook

22 марта, 2020 - 02:27
Published on March 21, 2020 11:27 PM GMT

The Coronavirus Tech Handbook is a crowdsourced collection of tools, websites and data relating to the coronavirus outbreak.

If you are working on something to prevent or mitigate the Coronavirus pandemic, this might be a good place to share information and find collaborator. There is also a facebook group for discussions, and a newsletter.

I'm not involved in this but I know the people who built the Coronavirus Tech Handbook. I be happy to put you in touch with them, or forward any feedback.

If you know of anything you think should be added to the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, but are to busy/lazy/whatever (no judgement) to add it yourself, pleas tell me and I'll add it for you.

I have not followed the corona related discussion here on LW so I don't know what projects you've been up to here.


What's the upper bound of COVID contagiousness?

22 марта, 2020 - 01:39
Published on March 21, 2020 10:39 PM GMT

A key question for people figuring out good longterm isolation practices is "how long do I have to be symptom-free before I'm 'certified safe'?"

This post on the typical-course-of-COVID-19 provides some studies that inform on the question, but doesn't directly answer it yet.

I recall hearing something like "most cases last less than two weeks", but I'm not sure if two weeks is actually a strong enough upper bound that I'd feel comfortable encouraging lots of people to act on it.


Tagging (Click Gear Icon to filter Coronavirus content)

22 марта, 2020 - 01:16
Published on March 21, 2020 10:16 PM GMT

A couple weeks back, as coronavirus content took over LessWrong, we thought "Hmm, so... we've almost finished this new tagging feature. Maybe we should hurry to finish that up so that we can use it to help manage this avalanche of COVID-19 posts?"

For the past week we've been rolling out features to help with this. Right now, since Tagging is still in beta, we're testing it out just with a Coronavirus tag.

1. You can now filter out Coronavirus-tagged posts from the Home Page.

If you click the gear icon to the right of the "Latest Posts" section, you'll open up a settings tab where you can test the new tag filtering system. You can currently filter on Personal Blogposts, and Coronavirus-tagged posts. You can choose to hide them, or to only show posts with a matching tag. (Later on, once we've implemented a wider-ranging tag system, you'll be able to filter arbitrary combinations of tags).

Right now the filter system only applies to the Latest Posts section, but soon we'll most likely extend this to the Recent Discussion section and the "/allPosts" page.

2. Home Page Coronavirus Section

We've also recently added a section at the top of the home page which displays the top 3 posts on the Coronavirus Tag Page.  We found that we wanted more than one stickied post, to keep multiple conversations going on the Justified Advice Thread, Open Thread, and Link Database, and other important posts we wanted people to be able to keep track of.

But! If you are sick of CV content, you can open up the gear-icon in the Recommendations section, and hide Top Coronavirus Content widget.

Meanwhile, it you want all the CV content...

3. There's a Coronavirus Tag Page!

If you want to catch up on all the COVID-19 content, it's all available over at https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/coronavirus

Currently, only admins can add a tag to a post. But all users can upvote or downvote the relevance of a tag to a particular post. On the Tag Page, you'll see a little vote button to the left of the karma. Voting affects the post's Tag Relevance Score, which determines the sort order on a tag page. 

(It's fine to be a bit more strategic about how to upvote or downvote on tag-relevance. The goal is not to determine "how good is this post overall?" but "how high on the tag page should the post appear?". The system is designed so that the collective decision-making of the LessWrong userbase can output a pretty good set of "top posts" that new users see when they first come to the page, or when glance at the Tag Hover Preview.)

4. Beta Feedback, Upcoming Features

What sort of additional features would you like for Tags, or for Coronavirus content in particular?

Some features we're currently considering include:

  • Better sorting and filtering on the tag page (in particular, being able to see all Coronavirus un-resolved questions)
  • Possibly including a "Recent Discussion" section for the Tag page.
  • Subscribing to a tag, so you're alerted to all new posts with that tag.


The questions one needs not address

21 марта, 2020 - 22:51
Published on March 21, 2020 7:51 PM GMT

Two years ago, I would have proclaimed a cautious bias towards thinking religion is a bad idea.

Since then, having read a bunch of “religious” philosophers and observed a bunch of “religious” people, I came to the conclusion that “religion” is a term I will start shying away from using at all, because it’s ill defined. It encompasses too many ideas to be a useful point of discussion.

As a specific example, let’s look at Sunni Islam and some things most people would probably like and dislike about it:

1. I once visited Burj Khalifa and was told that the highest livable floor in the building (158) is dedicated to a mosque. (Googling this fact I find claims that it’s an urban myth, but I can’t find strong evidence one way or another. For the purposes of this article let’s assume the tour guide wasn’t lying).

I find this to be a very nice thing. Here you have the tallest building in the world and you could sell the top floor for billions of dollars, or have it be the king’s apartment, or show it off to important officials to brag and to flatter them… but instead you decide to build a place of worship.

It’s the sort of act that says “Yeah, we made this awe-inspiring thing, but we really owe it to thousands of of past generations. None of us can fully comprehend how we managed to do this, so let’s dedicate its highest floor to something transcendent, something that symbolizes the beautiful, impossible and absurd experiment that made it possible, our society”.

It’s the sort of thing I like about the Catholic faith or any other faith when I walk into their places of worship, adorned in such beauty that they really make you stop, calm down and contemplate in awe and wonder.

2. On 11-9-2001 a group of Sunni terrorists decided that Americans were the worst possible evil and that harming them and their country is an act so moral and just that it’s worth dying for.

This is the kind of action born out of an ethical smugness that even I can’t comprehend, and I’m quite an ethically smug person.

It’s thinking that you can be so right as to warrant doing an action which will be viewed as horrible by most of the world, but completely disregarding their opinion because you obviously have it right.

It’s the same kind of thing I dislike about an atheist SS officer murdering hundreds of Jews because he is certain his normally atrocious action serves “the greater good”.

3. Avicenna deciphered and translated old texts in order to better learn what dozens of generations before him thought about the world.

He observed, poked and prodded the world around him to learn its mysteries. He generated knowledge which was so precious it was taught in medical schools around the world more than half a millennium after his death.

He did this, as far as I understand, partially because of some mystical ideas about the will of God for man to master and understand his creation. I admire Avicenna for basically the same reasons I admire Francis Bacon or Richard Feynman or Alan Turing.

4. Avicenna spent most of his life writing nonsense about his interpretation of old religious texts. Coming up with unfounded and useless systems to explain the soul. Producing a bunch of work that are illogical and childish.

His quest to say something relevant about metaphysics is as irrelevant to anything we have today as those of Thales or Bostrom.

Out of this he gathered up a bunch of ideas about man’s purpose in life and ethics which are pointless at best and harmful at worst.

I dislike Avicenna for basically the same reasons I dislike Thomas Aquinas: he wasted his life and added pointless mental fluff to the zeitgeist, which materialized into nothing.

Questions that need not be asked

There are questions which need not be asked, that is simply because they are ill-phrased, so answering them is just going to result in you playing around with words until you’ve convinced your brain that you found and answer or embedded them into your mind so much that they seem “sacred”.

The basic example of this is the whole “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound ?”.

This question has 4 ways of answering it:

  • No
  • Yes
  • Thinking about it for 10 years, coupled with deep meditation and becoming “enlightened”
  • Do you mean “sound” as in “someone hearing something” or do you mean “sound” as in “acoustic vibrations being transmitted through the earth and air starting at the points of impact” ?

See more on this here.

Out of those answers “4” is correct.

This is basically the case with all “grand” questions:

  • What is the meaning of life ?
  • Does God exist ?
  • Is there free will ?

Deconstruct these questions and you will soon find out that they are ill posed. Once you try to further refine the terms in order to get to an answerable question you reach a very simple answer to a bunch of separate questions.

Those questions contain terms that upon further inspection are impossible to define (e.g. “free will”, “God”) or terms incompatible with one another (e.g. “meaning”, “life”).

  • “What is the meaning of life” is as nonsensical as saying “Is it honorable to drink high-PH water ?” or “Are neutrons afraid of bees ?”
  • “Does God exist ?” can mean “Is there an absolute system of morality we should bide by ?”, “Is there something more powerful than humans out in the universe ?”, “Is there an invisible all-powerful man in the sky ?”, “Are we living in controlled a simulation ?”, “Does our consciousness transcend death ?”.
  • “Is there free will ?” relies on a term so ill-defined it’s like asking “Can magrugleblegs eat bloxorgs ?” Try imaging the difference between a world where “ free will” exists versus one where it doesn’t … or read Avicenna or 101 other philosophers who wasted their time trying to define the term.
Answering questions that cannot be asked

In the end, spending too much time answering questions that cannot be asked can lead down two paths.

Path number one is writing a bunch of philosophy and/or religious books, ending up being very uncertain about your answer and only being able to explain it in a format longer than the one required to understand all of modern physics.

Path number two leads to the mind tricking itself into thinking the answer existing and is certain, which leads to the kind of self-assured megalomania that can cause you to fly planes into towers in order to reach the kingdom of eternal bliss, or to torture and rape young single mothers because that is the only way their sins can be absolved (Hi, Irish Catholic Church!).

It’s like feeding code into a compiler, getting the compiler stuck in an infinite loop and, instead of pressing ctrl-C, waiting forever for an answer or getting an OOM error and interpreting that as the compiled code.

This is what I now assume I hate about religion.

You have people wasting their time and other’s people resources shoveling air in order to find a treasure.

You have people wasting their time and other’s people resources (and sometimes life and well-being) because they reached a nonsensical answer which they consider to be the absolute truth.

Both of these things might stem from trying to answer these “trick” questions.

This pattern is by no means sequestered to religion, however. It’s just that most of the questions seem to fall under the umbrella of religion.

But go to the opposite end of spectrum and look at something like the “rationalist atheist” community and you’ll basically find the same pattern. A bunch of people assuming an air of smugness because they think they’ve found an unshakable moral truth and a bunch of people wasting their time thinking about ill-phrased questions, just replacing “God” with “a simulation” or replacing “repenting for the end times” with “handling AI risk”.

Indeed, go to the extreme end of any movement, be it a far-right cult, a progressive propaganda machine, a libertarian echo chamber or a communist party… and you find the same pattern. A combination of “philosopher” getting trapped by unanserable questions and spouting nonsense and fanatics convinced they have the absolute moral truth and committing acts of violence and hate because of it.

Part of me thinks that the answer to this problem is simple and I’ve partially written about this in A Better Way of Understanding Systems and A short rant on personal memetic hygiene.

But that part of me is likely wrong. I’d be a hypocrite if I thought otherwise since a long time spent on these kind of questions is what got me to where I am… and I kind of enjoy the place where I am mentally. It feels cozy and happy and the ideas I’m able to generate from it, whilst almost certainly not yet useful for almost anything, at least feel to me like “the kind of things which I will be able to develop into useful works of engineering if I refine them for long enough”.

You can argue that Avicenna could have spent all his time researching medicine and astronomy and none looking into the nature of “the soul” and “God”, but it requires the same smugness that I warned against a few paragraphs ago to make that assumption. It might well be that Avicenna needed to waste his time on pointless questions in order to get the perspective and motivation that allowed him to create the closest thing to modern medicine that existed before late Renaissance.

I think the world need more Avicennas and if the price we must pay is a bunch of bad books about phenomenology and metaphysics it’s a very advantageous trade.

But the world could probably do without a bunch of Thomas Aquinas throwing away hereditary money on whoring and gambling then publishing nonsense about metaphysics due to thinking that “existence” is a characteristic the same way “blue” is. The world would almost certainly be better off without people committing genocide and flying commercial planes into tall buildings.

Maybe there is a sweet spot in terms of musing on these questions, around that sweet spot you get Edmund Burke or a Quaker doctor dedicating his life to curing tropical diseases in Rwanda. If you don’t venture into these kind of questions at all, you get an accountant or a store clerk; venture to deeply or go the wrong way and you get a Thomas Aquinas or a fundamentalist preacher who wants to kill homosexuals.

Alas, I can’t speak much as to how you can find that sweet-spot, besides the vaguely-related article I linked above. So this train of thought about unanswerable questions leads me to an unanswerable question. Possibly because I’m asking it in the wrong way or because my assumptions are completely wrong to being with… On which I just wasted almost 2,000 words saying almost nothing at all, the very thing I am railing against.


March 20th: Daily Coronavirus Links

21 марта, 2020 - 22:17
Published on March 21, 2020 7:17 PM GMT

As part of the LessWrong Coronavirus Link Database, Ben, Elizabeth and I are publishing daily update posts with all the new links we are adding each day that we ranked a 3 or above in our importance rankings. Here are all the top links that we added yesterday (March 20th), by topic.


Worldwide current and historical stats

History of number and percent infections, recoveries, deaths, worldwide. Uses John Hopkins data


Kurzgesagt: Accessible video to basic science of C19

High quality (in both production values and content) intro to the physical form of C19 and how it interacts with the body

(EV): They state that C19 can invade immune cells, but the only identified C19 receptor isn't on immune cells, and the paper they cite is for SARS proper, not C19

Medical System

WHO coordinates C19 drug trials

WHO to coordinate multinational testing of remdesivir (lopinavir + ritonavir) (HIV) and chloroquine (malaria)

Do more with fewer tests by batching

Batching multiple people's samples could give us much more information with the same number of tests, at the cost of slower results

Guide to C19 pharma in development

A guide to the vaccine and treatment regiments currently in testing

List of hospitals requesting donations of equipment

Aggregation of hospital requests for donors to tackle

(RS): hope I did that right, lmk if not (first link added)

Progression & Outcome

Optimistic scenario exploration

Long now explores a set of assumptions, unproven but consistent with current knowledge, under which things might be pretty okay

Video explanation of basic C19 science

Great explanation of C19's form and lifecycle, including explanations of how certain potential treatments could work

Spread & Prevention

Video: estimating prevalence from deaths

Estimating actual COVID 19 cases (novel corona virus infections) in an area based on deaths. Based on work by Tomas Pueyo.

(EV): They're still only using cases that came to the attention of medical authorities, potentially missing people w/o severe symptoms

Work & Donate

SoGive's C19 donation guide

A short list of recommendations for organizations that would benefit from more money and are (perhaps indirectly) fighting COVID-19

Link to Full Database


Blog Post Day II

21 марта, 2020 - 19:39
Published on March 21, 2020 4:39 PM GMT

TL;DR: You are invited to join us online on Saturday the 28th of March, to write that blog post you've been thinking about writing but never got around to. This is the second event of this type; the first one went well. Please comment if you are thinking about joining so I can gauge interest.

The Problem:

Like me, you are too scared and/or lazy to write up this idea you've had. What if it's not good? I started a draft but... Etc.

Alternatively: Coronavirus got you down? Cooped up inside? Looking for something new to do, someone new to talk to? How about you write a blog post?

The Solution:

1. Higher motivation via Time Crunch and Peer Encouragement

We'll set an official goal of having the post put up by midnight. Also, we'll meet up in a special-purpose discord channel to chat, encourage each other, swap half-finished drafts, etc. If like me you are intending to write the thing one day eventually, well, here's a reason to make that day this day.

2. Lower standards via Time Crunch and Safety in Numbers

Since we have to be done by midnight, we'll all be under time pressure and any errors or imperfections in the posts will be forgivable. Besides, they can always be fixed later via edits. Meanwhile, since a bunch of us will be posting on the same day, writing a sloppy post just means it won't be read much, since everyone will be talking about the handful of posts that turn out to be really good. If you are like me, these thoughts are comforting and encouraging.

Evidence this Works:

MIRI Summer Fellows Program had a Blog Post Day towards the end, and it was enormously successful. It worked for me, for example: It squeezed two good posts out of me. (OK, so one of them I finished up early the next morning, so I guess it technically doesn't count. But in spirit it does: It wouldn't have happened at all without Blog Post Day.) More importantly, MSFP keeps doing this every year, even though opportunity cost for them is much higher (probably) than the opportunity cost for you or me. And we did a Blog Post Day on LW last month and it worked great.

Side Benefits:

It'll be fun!


[Meta] Do you want AIS Webinars?

21 марта, 2020 - 19:01
Published on March 21, 2020 4:01 PM GMT

Ever now and then I talk to someone who tell me that they can not get good feedback on their research (e.g. the they don't get much responses on their alignment forum post), and been thinking about how to solve this? Also, right now is a good time to try out various online solutions.

I am offering to run webinars if enough people are interested.

The format I suggest is that each webinar is 1h 40min and centers around one person presenting their idea or result.

  • 5 min introduction
  • 30 min presentation
  • 30 min of questions and discussion centered around trying to understand and improve idea.
  • 30 min of attacking the idea to find out all the ways it can fail.
  • 5 min rounding off but the presenter summering what their take away is.

The reason I suggest this structure is

  1. I think a webinar needs a structure to keep on track
  2. It is important to look for weaknesses in an idea, but it is even more important to fist understand it and to make sure you attack the strongest version of that idea.

I am very much open to different format, and would like to experiment a bit if there is enough interest.


mRNA vaccine development for COVID-19

21 марта, 2020 - 18:17
Published on March 21, 2020 3:17 PM GMT

Epistemological status:

A bunch of sources and a reasoning while reading the source. Go to the sources for the factual claims and reason about claims and say if you think I made a mistake. Join the conversation in the comments.

Between CureVac and BioNTech, two of the three companies that have platforms for mRNA vaccine production are German. It might be faster to develop new vaccines with such mRNA technology then to develop old protein based vaccines. The technology is the hope that we will get a vaccine sooner then we would get a vaccine that's produced the traditional way.

BigPharma giant Johnson & Johnson that uses a more traditional approach to developing vaccines expects to hit clinical trials only in November.

Moderna, the third company with such technology, that’s from the US, started their human trials on 16th of March. BioNTech, announced a $135 million partnership with Shanghai-based Fosun Pharmaceutical Group to co-develop its COVID-19 vaccine candidate in China. They are going to start clinical trials in late April because they can leverage Fosun’s Chinese “clinical trial, regulatory and commercial capabilities”.

In their conference call CureVac said that after talking with regulators they will only do their clinical trials in early summer. This gives the impression that the German regulatory bodies prevent them to go as fast as the Moderna trials in Seattle or BioNTech trials in China.

The EU just gave CureVac 80 million Euro funding to scale up their production capacity to be able to produce 1 billion vaccine doses in one campaign. It’s great that they fund production capacity but it would be worthwhile if EU and German regulators would also reduce the red tape so that CureVac can start human trials in other jurisdictions.

This situation looks to me like it would be beneficial if we can push EU/German regulators to cut red tape for CureVac in addition to giving money or another jurisdiction would allow them to run their human trials earlier.

(While researching this post I also created a Google Sheet that lists more COVID-19 vaccine efforts)


Would a tax on AI products be useful?

21 марта, 2020 - 07:00
Published on March 21, 2020 4:00 AM GMT

On one hand, it would capture part of the negative externality in the market pricing. And the money could be used to finance AI safety research.

On the other hand, maybe AI companies would think their responsability are limited to paying that tax and that's it.

It might also be hard to implement and enforce. What counts as AI? Which part of the profit was made because of the AI component?

What other considerations are there? What do you think of this idea? How desirable and feasible is it? Has anyone written on this?

Motivations for asking:

  • Get people to think about this
  • Improve my understanding of economics


What would be the consequences of commoditizing AI?

21 марта, 2020 - 06:56
Published on March 21, 2020 3:56 AM GMT


I think the common thinking on this is that commoditization would foster fierce competition, which would create an environment where companies are optimized to respond to market pressure, and so cutting corners on safety and other public good, whereas a monopoly would have more slack to care about those things.

That seems right to me, and probably the bulk of the consequence weight goes there when thinking about monopolizing AI vs commoditizing it.

But other considerations I had were:

  • if AI is commoditized, then there might be less AI R&D
  • if AI is commoditized, then all the economic surplus might go to the consumers instead of the shareholders (hence preventing massive economical inequality)

Maybe all the answers are in Strategic Implications of Openness in AI Development and I should reread the paper (it's been a while).

Motivation for asking: I might have some vague proto-ideas on how to commoditize it.


What's the present value of the Future?

21 марта, 2020 - 06:35
Published on March 21, 2020 3:35 AM GMT

Present value: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/presentvalue.asp

If the question is a confusion, I'd also like to know why.

I have a sufficiently related question that I'll just post it here:

  • If everyone knew Alphabet would create a fast take-off friendly superintelligence in 2120, except (or including, depending on your values) it would be a libertarian world (meaning the wealth would be redistributed to the shareholders), then how much would Alphabet be worth? (related: After which year does it stop being worth some relevant threshold?)

(Of course, this question is just an approximation of a potential future, but I still think it's a valuable one.)

My first stab at the question of Alphabet:

  • 1.07 increase per year ^ 100 years = ~10^3 multiples
  • value of the the world = ~10^13 USD
  • value of the Sun: 10^25 operations = ~10^25 human lives

Even with a 1000 discount, and assuming a human-life equivalent of operation is worth 1 USD, the present value would still be 10^22 USD, much more than world total asset value. This means that even with a 1 in a 10^12 chance of this happening, opportunity cost aside, all assets should be invested there. The opportunity cost just/mostly means other investments might have a higher probability (like other AI companies). Why aren't AI companies worth massively more?

Related post: Why don't singularitarians bet on the creation of AGI by buying stocks?

Related: I saw an article (I think on https://aiimpacts.org/, but I can't find it back) that was proposing economic growth might never be as fast as it was between 1990 and 2010, while still offering exponential growth. Do you have a link to that article?

Motivations for asking:

  • Better understanding how economics work
  • Maybe invest in AI companies


Near-term planning for secondary impacts of coronavirus lockdowns [assuming things don't blow up]

21 марта, 2020 - 05:43
Published on March 21, 2020 2:43 AM GMT

In this document, I attempt to discuss the impact of the coronavirus lockdown and how to prepare for it. This is not focused on the direct impact of coronavirus, but rather on the secondary impact of precautions that people are taking, including the lockdowns and the new normal of staying home and working from home.

The document is written in an imperative tone, focused on what to do. However, please don't read into this tone the idea that I am confident of these suggestions and authoritatively pushing them. They are just ideas!

Many of these ideas are self-justifying, but I have not tried to justify their relative importance to other ideas that I have omitted. Subject to time constraints, I'll be happy to answer specific questions challenging the ideas, or comparing them to other ideas I didn't list. If you have a question of that sort, there's a good chance I'll just agree that the idea I didn't list was more important.

My initial draft of this post included some discussion of potential future timelines, but I decided to omit that in order to make the post focus on ideas for dealing with the situation. I may separately write about possible futures.

General ideas
  • Expect a three-month timeline for the lockdown (i.e., lockdown continuing till the end of June), with the possibility of a six-month, twelve-month, or even eighteen-month lockdown. Even if a strict lockdown lasts much less, health advice may still recommend that you shelter in place for additional time.
  • Brace for impact! Prepare psychologically. Plan for three months of lockdown; it could be shorter, but it could also be much longer. If you overprepare a little bit because the lockdown lasts just one month, you'll need to write off the effort, but that'll be less painful than forming expectations that this will end in a few weeks and then constantly being disappointed at how much it's dragging out.
    • It's ideal if all your concrete actions are "no-regret" -- so that if the lockdown lasts longer or shorter than you expect, the action still gives you some lasting benefit. But this may not always be possible.
  • Keep a buffer (material goods, liquid savings, other reserves), but don't engage in panic actions to build buffers.
Impact on day-to-day life experience

Since we're talking of a three-month timeline for a lockdown (and possibly much longer), you have to think of a sustainable way to manage your life. It's not a day or two that you can somehow brute-force. You need a sustainable approach, and a reasonable balance. Here are some ideas:

  • Strike the right balance in terms of going out: It's reasonably safe to go out if you stay far from people and don't touch stuff. So, make sure to get a reasonable amount of exercise and fresh air. Don't stay cooped up in your home for days. Obviously, exceptions apply for people who are sick or may have been exposed, or if there is legal enforcement of a stricter stay-at-home order. Most existing stay-at-home orders, even the strictest lockdowns, allow people (who are not old or at risk of already being exposed) to go out alone for exercise. In some regions, you may need to carry documentation stating that you are going out for exercise.
  • Get the right cadence in terms of purchasing food and necessities: Keep in mind that grocery stores and convenience stores are limiting the amount you can buy at a given time. So make sure to make regular (though not very frequent) trips to stay stocked up on necessities, thinking as far ahead as feasible. Sanitize well before and after such trips. If you can make these trips at a time when the stores and streets are less crowded, please do that. Again, please make sure to comply with any stay-at-home orders, including taking appropriate documentation in regions where documentation is necessary.
  • Take great care of your health even outside of coronavirus-related matters: It'll be a terrible idea if you need to go to a doctor at this time. So, make sure to take good care of your health, particularly dental health and any other aspects of health that tend to be problematic for you. Make sure to eat healthy and take your normal supplements that have a good track record for you.
  • Use scarce goods sparingly. Here are some illustrative examples; the specifics may not make sense in light of your health concerns, beliefs about environmental impact, and aesthetics, but they give a general idea:
    • If you use paper goods at home (such as paper towels), consider using cloth-based substitutes, as long as each person can use their own personal cloth: Paper goods are likely to stay in shortage, so you want to use yours sparingly if feasible. For instance, use cloth towels instead of paper towels for wiping your hands, as long as multiple people aren't sharing the same towel.
    • Give preference to handwashing with soap over using hand sanitizer. Handwashing is anyway more effective, and soap seems to be less in demand than hand sanitizer (likely because of the huge demand for hand sanitizer created by businesses offering hand sanitizers at workstations). The relative availability of hand sanitizer may, however, improve as lockdown continues and business use of hand sanitizers slows down.
    • You will need to figue out what other goods are scarce where you live and adjust consumption habits accordingly. Please weigh other considerations like health, the environment, personal aesthetics, etc.
Impact on social life and interaction

Staying at home, and refraining from participating in social activities, is something that could get harder and harder as the time period gets longer. Some social activities are easy to forgo for a week, but harder to forgo for three months. I expect that this could lead to people feeling depression, loneliness, and mental health issues, with the risks increasing the longer this continues.

A silver lining is that the reduced level of necessary activity, in particular commuting, may help people recover from months or even years of hectic commutes.

The balance of these factors will vary from person to person, but I expect that for most people, the social life impact will be a net negative.

What can we do? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Exploit the positives: You can't do some social activities that you normally do, but perhaps the shelter-in-place and the saved commute time gives you more flexibility and time to do some other things you've always wanted to do but never had the bandwidth for. For instance, maybe you can spend evenings working on a long-deferred personal project, or learn a new skill, instead of being stuck in the commute or socially pressured to attend events you don't really enjoy. Or maybe you could spend more time with your family (in the literal sense, not as a euphemism). Or spend more time online with people who don't live near you anyway.
  • Get along better with the people you live with: You can't escape your home to go hang out with others, so you probably need to make peace with whoever is next to you, whether that's your family, your pets, or random roommates. Appreciate more the time you spend with them (with appropriate social distance!) or at any rate, don't get into fights, considering that you can't walk out of the house that easily.
  • Switch social activities online as much as possible, and plan a little bit for them: If you got a lot of your social energy from serendipitious in-person interaction, this will be in short supply. Instead, you may have to plan the equivalent online things a bit more. In many cases, more conscious planning and coordination may be needed. So make sure to plan and push for the online equivalents where feasible. This is important because it's likely the lockdown will last long enough that completely forgoing some kinds of social interactions will be too costly. This may be particularly important for group activities that play an important role providing emotional support to their members.
Impact on work life and job security

This mostly applies to jobs where you were previously going into an office and you're now working from home. It doesn't apply to cases where you have been fired or furloughed, or where you were always working from home, or where you still need to go in for the job.

  • Make home station adjustments: Make adjustments to your home environment to make it more feasible to efficiently work from home. A lot of people find it helpful to have a physical separation of their work station and the rest of their home; if that's feasible and desirable for you, consider doing it.
  • Negotiate a new work-life balance: The previous work-life balance you worked out probably needs to be adjusted in light of the new situation. For instance, perhaps you can start work earlier or end later, but need more breaks within the day to cook food or deal with your kid who's also staying at home. Think through the right balance that works for you and your employer. This may take a few days to figure out.
  • Make sure lines of communication and recognition of your work have adjusted to the work-from-home reality: Even if you're doing just as much work as you were doing in the past, your boss or colleagues may not realize that. Make sure that the "optics" angle is well-covered. The specifics will vary from job to job.
  • Keep in mind that getting a new job may be harder, so try to secure yourself in your existing job more: At least until the lockdown is in place, and possibly even for a few more months, switching jobs will be hard. So, try as much as possible to get along with your existing job. This is true even if your industry isn't directly affected in a severe way; for people in industries that are heavily affected, the situation is much trickier. NOTE: If you are in a heavily affected industry and have an opportuunity to jump to a less affected one, consider taking it. But secure the new opportunity first before jumping ship.
Financial impact
  • Give more importance to building a liquid savings buffer: In my simple financial advice doc, I recommend building liquid savings for about one year. In the current climate, I recommend increasing the target to two years, and to three if your job or industry is particularly negatively affected. In particular, I suggest:
    • Stop contributing to retirement accounts until you have hit the increased liquid savings threshold. With that said, if you do have more liquid savings than the increased threshold, increasing contributions to retirement accounts may be a great idea.
    • Hold off on repaying very-low-interest loans such as student loans until you have hit the increased liquid savings threshold (though it's best to do calculations for each loan to trade off the interest rate against the loss of liquidity).
    • If you are well below your liquid savings threshold, investigate how much of your money is in retirement accounts and other funds and make contingency plans to liquidate some of it to shore up your liquid savings. Liquidating retirement accounts may come with a penalty, which is why it's better to store any new money you're getting in more liquid forms. So make the plan (to liquidate) and be prepared to execute it if you find your net savings rate turning negative (due to unexpected income loss or expense increases).
  • Beyond the goal of maintaining liquidity to weather you through 2 to 3 years, don't engage in panic buying or selling of assets: There are arguments in favor of buying and holding in the stock market given the lower prices. Evaluate them based on your normal criteria.
  • Continue your regular philanthropy and consumer spending: On a similar note, if you engage in regular philanthropy or in consumer spending that gives you happiness, continue with it as long as (a) it still makes sense in the context of the lockdown, and (b) you either already reached or are on the way to your liquid savings threshold. In other words, after securing your health and wealth, continue your life as close to normal as possible.
    • If, for building your savings, you have a choice between cutting down on consumer spending that gives you happiness, versus cutting down on putting money into retirement accounts, choose the latter. In other words, spend normally, and put less money into your retirement account. Saving for retirement can wait for a few years; if you don't survive those few years, there is no point saving for retirement.
My reasons for writing this document
  • Especially in the rationality community, I've seen a lot of advice on protecting oneself against coronavirus, but not as much on dealing with the massive social experiment that's being unleashed in the effort to do so. I expect the latter to increase in importance over time, both if containment efforts are successful, and if they aren't.
  • Much discussion among the general public about the lockdown seems to be along the lines of "hey, we're in uncharted territory, this is scary" and isn't reiterating enough what this might mean over time periods longer than a week or two. I think what's important is to start bracing for an extended period of lockdown, to minimize the wave of secondary effects as people get frustrated with the lockdown. Preparing people in this way could help make sustained containment and social distancing efforts more palatable, and mitigate some of the adverse social and economic effects. My post is probably a very small contribution, but I hope it pushes positively in the general direction.


March 19th: Daily Coronavirus Links

21 марта, 2020 - 03:00
Published on March 21, 2020 12:00 AM GMT

As part of the LessWrong Coronavirus Link Database, Ben, Elizabeth and I are publishing daily update posts with all the new links we are adding each day that we ranked a 3 or above in our importance rankings. Here are all the top links that we added yesterday (March 19th), by topic.


Instructions for making a mask out of HEPA paper

Step by step instructions, with pictures, on how to form a mask out of HEPA filters or otherwise unwoven fabric. In Chinese but google translate was perfectly understandable

(EV):  In Chinese but google translate was perfectly understandable

Medical System

China's guide to diagnosis and treatment

China's official C19 handbook, translated into English by them

Chinese Hospital's C19 guide

Zhejiang School of Medicine's hospital outlines how to prevent, identify, and treat COVID019

Trial using hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin

N=20, hyrodxychloroquine was effective, and moreso combined with azithromycin


Technical review of diagnosis techniques

Introduction to various categories and molecular methods for diagnosing COVID19, outline companies and academic groups developing diagnostics

Spread & Prevention

Why does Japan have so few cases

Japan has ~900 cases despite being very dense and mostly continuing daily life (with the exception of the school shut down). Why?

(EV): I wonder what their pneumonia case rate is doing

Why does India have so few cases

India has only just had its 3rd C19 death. How did they do so well? Possibly aggressive border action

(EV): I also wonder what their pneumonia case rate is doing

Full Database Link


Mediation From a Distance

21 марта, 2020 - 01:02
Published on March 20, 2020 10:02 PM GMT

Suppose we have an electronic circuit with two pieces: combinational logic and memory. The combinational logic is designed to behave as memoryless input/output logic gates - it has only short-term state, and computes some function. The memory reads the output of the combinational logic once per clock cycle, stores it, and feeds it back into the combinational logic as input during the next clock cycle. The causal diagram looks something like this:

Key point: even though there’s a path from the combinational logic state at the start of one clock cycle to its state at the start of the next cycle, that path has approximately-zero causal influence. We could intervene on the logic state right after the cycle starts:

… and the state at the start of the next cycle would not change at all.

In other words: in this model, the memory state mediates the influence of the logic state during one cycle on logic states during future cycles. This is not a property of the graph structure alone - it happens because the combinational logic does not have any long-term memory of its own.

Key problem for causal abstraction: how can we algorithmically detect situations like this?

One obvious answer is to probe the circuit experimentally. Counterfactual queries are particularly handy for this: we fix the random noise, then check which nodes would be changed by a counterfactual intervention on the logic state at some time. Try this for a bunch of different samples, and look for long-range mediation in the results.

One problem with this approach: we often want an abstraction which works on all possible “input values” of some variables. There may be exponentially many such values, and we’d have to check all of them to verify that the abstraction works.

An example: consider a ripple-carry adder (i.e. the electronic circuit version of grade-school long addition). Each stage adds two input bits and a carry bit from the previous stage, then passes its own carry bit to the next stage. We want to abstract from the low-level electronics to some higher-level model.

If we’re using a 64-bit adder, then there are 2^(2*64) possible inputs. For almost all of those (specifically all but about 2^64 of them), flipping one low-order bit will not change the high-order bit. But if we want our adder to work on all possible inputs, then we need to account for the one-in-2^64 possibilities when flipping a low-order bit does change the high-order bit. We won’t catch that just by sampling.

In full generality, the problem is presumably NP-complete - we’re asking whether any possible inputs to an arbitrary circuit result in some variable changing in response to a counterfactual intervention on another variable. Yet we’re able to use abstract models an awful lot in practice, so… what tricks are we using?


How do I run an organization remotely, effectively?

20 марта, 2020 - 23:26
Published on March 20, 2020 8:26 PM GMT

Having good answers to this seems really important both to the rationalsphere-in-particular, and the world in general over the coming months.