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Don't encourage prisoners dilemmas

16 февраля, 2021 - 09:33
Published on February 16, 2021 6:33 AM GMT

Donating money to political causes is a waste of resources

A lot of money is donated towards political causes. Most of these causes though are pretty much zero sum games. The democrats and republicans both raise vast amounts of money, but only one of them will win the election. Most of this money is thus wasted.

This is classic game of prisoners dilemma. Everybody ends up better off if each side raises just the minimum needed to disseminate their views*,  leaving more money to donate to researching malaria / feeding the poor / non-political charity of your choice.

But each side gains by raising a little bit more money. So the mountains of wasted resources build up. I'm not blaming anyone for this - prisoners dilemmas are really hard to break out of. But one obvious rule is "don't encourage them".

However most countries give tax back off political donations just like other charities. Tax back is a policy that has to be weighed on it's own merits, but even if you support it in general (which I think I do), what is the point of the government encouraging citizens to pour their money into promoting zero sum games?

Lets rethink Tax Back

How can we put this into policy

I think a simple rule that might be workable is:

There's some various rules the government has on what's a valid charity. Let's keep those for now. However let's separate being eligible for tax back from being a valid charity.

Every charity applying to be eligible for tax back presumably has a mission statement. Something like: 

  • We aim to conserve unicorns
  • We aim to make Ralph Wiggum president

etc.

Consider a charity whose aims were the exact opposite if the mission statement, the anti-charity:

  • We aim to destroy unicorns
  • We aim to stop Ralph Wiggum being president

If the anti-charity would also be a valid charity (presumably the destroying unicorns wouldn't and stopping Ralph Wiggum being president would), then neither the charity or the anti-charity is eligible for tax back.

Of course most charities are likely to phrase their mission statements in vague terms to avoid this problem "We aim to make sure presidents are good at their job". For that reason tax back should be judged every year by records of what the charity actually did with their money last year, and decide whether or not a charity which put their money into opposite places would also be a valid charity.

Footnotes

* More Formally:

Assume there are two parties in an election r, and d. Assume an election has one result v: the fraction of the vote that voted r. Assume that, all else being equal v is a function f of spending from both sides, rs and ds.

v = f(rs, ds).

Assume f is continuous, non decreasing in rs, and non increasing in ds.

Then for any pair (rs1, ds1), let v1 = f(rs1, ds1). There exists a pair (rs2, ds2) such that either rs2 = 0 or ds2 = 0, and v1=f(rs2, ds2).

In other words, making some pretty safe assumptions (although f is not continuous, the electorate is large enough it can be approximated as continuous), it's possible to get exactly the same result in the election, whilst having one side spend 0 money. The proof is trivial, and can trivially be extended to more complex election schemes.



Discuss

Mathematical Models of Progress?

16 февраля, 2021 - 03:21
Published on February 16, 2021 12:21 AM GMT

I would be interested in collecting a bunch of examples of mathematical modeling of progress. I think there are probably several of these here, but I don't expect to be able to find all of them myself. I'm also interested to know about any models like this elsewhere.

I was reading the LessWrong 2018 books, and the following posts stuck out to me:

The Year The Singularity Was Cancelled talks about a model which predicted world population quite well, by supplementing a basic population equation with a simple mathematical model of technological progress. To summarize: population carrying capacity is assumed to increase due to technological progress. Technological progress is modeled as proportional to the population: a particular population p.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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(This reflects the idea that carrying capacity multiplies the carrying capacity; if it added to the carrying capacity, we might make the derivative equal p instead.) Population should typically remain close to the carrying capacity; so, we could simply assume that population equals carrying capacity. We then expect hyperbolic growth, IE something like c=1s−t; here, s is the year of the (population) singularity. This model is a decent fit to the data until the year 1960, which is of course the subject of the post.

One of my thoughts after reading this was: wouldn't it make more sense to avoid the assumption that population equals carrying capacity? Population growth can't be greater than exponential. The hyperbolic model doesn't make any sense, and the assumption that population equals carrying capacity appears to be the culprit. 

It would make more sense to, instead, use more typical population models (which predict near-exponential growth when population is significantly below carrying capacity, tapering off near carrying capacity). I don't yet know if this has been done in the literature. However, it's commonly said that around the time of the industrial revolution, humankind escaped the Malthusian trap, because progress outpaced birthrates. (I know the demographic transition is a big player here, but let's ignore it for a moment.) If we were modeling this possibility, it makes sense that progress would stop accelerating so much around this point: once progress is increasing the carrying capacity faster than the population can catch up, we no longer expect to see population match carrying capacity.

This would imply that population transitions from hyperbolic growth to exponential growth, some time shortly before the singularity of the hyperbola. Which approximately matches what we observe: a year where the singularity was "cancelled".

However, in the context of AI progress in particular, this model seems naive. Human birthrates cannot keep pace with the resources progress provides. However, AI has no such limitation. Therefore, we might expect progress to look hyperbolic again at some point, when AI starts contributing significantly to progress. (Indeed, one might have expected this from computers alone, without saying the words "AI" -- computers allow "thinking power" to increase, without the population actually increasing.)

Some of the toy mathematical models Paul Christiano discusses in Takeoff Speeds might be used to add AI to the projection.

So, I'm interested in:

  • Any ideas you have about this, especially in the form of equations.
  • Links to mathematical models of population growth, perhaps slightly more detailed than the one Scott Alexander discusses.
  • Mathematical models of GDP growth, along the same lines.
  • Mathematical models of AI progress, such as what Paul Christiano discusses. I'm sure there are a number of essays about that posted here, but again, I don't expect to dig through all of them myself; what things do you think are most relevant?
  • Mathematical models of progress generally, especially anything which uses a slightly less simplistic model of progress. For example, it's sometimes claimed that the explosive progress of the industrial revolution was due to technological progress starting to really build on itself, providing better tools for making progress.
  • Informal discussions of these same topics, which nonetheless discuss critical features which could be made mathematical. For example, Against GDP as a metric for timelines and takeoff speeds can be seen as a challenge for this kind of modeling; someone putting together mathematical models of the sort I'm discussing might want to address those challenges.
  • Less importantly, data to fit curves to, mathematical tools (like Guesstimate) which seem particularly useful for what I'm trying to do, etc.

Related Question: Any response to Paul Christiano on takeoff speeds?



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Heuristic: Replace "No Evidence" with "No Reason"

16 февраля, 2021 - 00:32
Published on February 15, 2021 9:25 PM GMT

The phrase "no evidence to suggest" has been used as an excuse to avoid inaction in the face of what is in fact ample evidence.

Health authorities continued bumbling response to coronavirus has really served to highlight this, starting right at the beginning:
https://twitter.com/WHO/status/1217043229427761152

And then continuing pretty steadily though the crisis:

https://twitter.com/UNGeneva/status/1244661916535930886

https://twitter.com/robertwiblin/status/1345800492367142917

(I couldn't quickly find an 'official authority' saying the above, but it must somewhat reflect the mindset of some of them, since otherwise the case for single dose is pretty overwhelming).

Of course from a Bayesian perspective this entire idea of "no evidence to suggest" is almost always meaningless, as pointed out in the full thread of the above tweet: https://twitter.com/robertwiblin/status/1345800480144945152. There was plenty of evidence at the time for everything the WHO dismissed, as evidenced by all the people on this very site who got it right.

However not everyone thinks in terms of Bayesian statistics. Viewing the entire world as a probability distribution and acting accordingly, is not for the average person. Instead the way of deciding between the unsubstantiated and reality is via empirical science. Whilst not perfect, treating something as false until one has done a carefully regulated study is certainly far better than what we had in the past. It sounds at first like the WHO is making the correct decisions here - waiting till we have 'evidence' for something before acting on it, and evidence is not anecdotal data (under the empirical view of things), but double blinded placebo controlled studies. How do we articulate what the WHO did wrong here, without using the word Bayesian?

 

One idea I had was to use another commonly used phrase: "no reason to suggest". Whilst they sound similar the phrases I think mean very different things to the average person.

To deal in extremes, consider the 2 statements:

1. There is no reason to suggest holding onto the tail of a plane as it takes off is dangerous.

2. There is no evidence to suggest holding onto the tail of a plane as it takes off is dangerous.

The first is obviously false. It takes about 2 seconds to think of reasons why it's a terribly stupid idea.

The second is less obviously false. By evidence some people mean a certain level of rigorously done study. That has presumably never taken place for this exact question.

In other cases the two are likely to agree. For example there is no reason or evidence to suggest that the vaccine can make you infertile.

 

So here's a simple trick: whenever you read a sentence containing the phrase "no evidence to suggest", try replacing it with the phrase "no reason to suggest".

If they both seem equally true, then that's fine. If the latter seems obviously false, then the sentence is likely misleading.

And if, as is usually the case, the modified sentence seems less true, but not obviously false, then the claim is probably not as strong as it makes out, but still may be somewhat valid.

 

This is basically reinventing Bayesian statistics. However it doesn't require any thinking about probability, priors, or technical lingo. It's a simple heuristic to easily tell if in a particular case, a "no evidence" claim is informative. If there is strong reason to suggest something is true, even lacking evidence, it's worth assuming it's probably true.



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Bitcoin and ESG Investing

16 февраля, 2021 - 00:01
Published on February 15, 2021 9:01 PM GMT

How do cryptocurrencies fit in Environmental, Social, and Governance Investing?

Original Post

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Investing is a practice that evolved from the practice of excluding equities based on moral values. ESG Investing is broad and constantly evolving, and key organizations are working on the definition and standardization of it. ESG Investing has been gaining traction with both institutional and retail investors over the last decade, and there is no sign that this trend will stop anytime soon.

From the CFA Website on ESG

 

One of the main tenets of ESG Investing is the conservation of the natural world. Professional investors that practice ESG Investing are supposed to analyze whether a company mitigates factors that affect the natural world, and invest based on the conclusion that the company is not purposely engaging in activities that go against this tenet. For example, oil producing companies typically do not qualify for an ESG Investment mandate, as their main driver of economic activity involves extracting a nonrenewable resource that cause human carbon emissions to rise.

Bitcoin and Energy Efficiency

Bitcoin and a few other cryptocurrencies rely on the Proof-of-Work mechanism to maintain their decentralization and security. Coindesk recently came out with a comprehensive explanation on how Proof-of-Work operates within the Bitcoin ecosystem. From the website:

Bitcoin is a blockchain, which is a shared ledger that contains a history of every Bitcoin transaction that ever took place. This blockchain, as the name suggests, is composed of blocks. Each block has the most recent transactions stored in it. 

Proof-of-work is a necessary part of adding new blocks to the Bitcoin blockchain. Blocks are summoned to life by miners, the players in the ecosystem who execute proof-of-workA new block is accepted by the network each time a miner comes up with a new winning proof-of-work, which happens roughly every 10 minutes. 

Finding the winning proof-of-work is so difficult the only way to provide the work miners need to win bitcoin is with expensive, specialized computers. Miners will earn bitcoin if they guess a matching computation. The more computations they churn out, the more bitcoin they are likely to earn.

What computations are the miners making exactly? In Bitcoin, miners spit out so-called “hash,” which turns an input into a random-looking string of letters and numbers. 

The goal of the miners is to create a hash matching Bitcoin’s current “target.” They must create a hash with enough zeroes in front. The probability of getting several zeros in a row is very low. But miners across the world are making trillions of such computations a second, so it takes them about 10 minutes on average to hit this target.

Whoever reaches the goal first wins a batch of bitcoin cryptocurrency. Then the Bitcoin protocol creates a new value that miners must hash, and miners start the race for finding the winning proof-of-work all over again.

Like the explanation above states, in order for miners to find the winning proof-of-work, they need specialized computers to solve very complex computations, and hope they beat hundreds of thousands of other specialized computers in order to get the reward. All that computational power trying to solve those complex equations requires a significant amount of energy. How much exactly? Researchers at the University of Cambridge estimate that all that computational power uses about 121 terawatt-hours per year, roughly the same amount of energy that the country of Argentina uses.

In the cryptocurrency world, it has not been a secret that this is a major problem in the use case of bitcoin. Several researchers and developers are attempting to solve this problem: most notably The Ethereum Foundation is in the process of moving from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake, a move done in part to reduce the energy consumption of securing the Ethereum protocol.

With Tesla disclosing that it invested part of their cash in Bitcoin, and other companies looking into potentially doing the same thing, I started wondering whether this trend would affect how investment professionals that engage in ESG Investing look at these companies. When a company purposely invests in a concept that indiscriminately consumes a significantly amount of energy, going against the ESG tenet of conserving the natural world through energy efficiency, is it prudent to include the company in an ESG Investing mandate?

I don’t know the answer to that question. What do you think?

Disclaimer: Not investment advice. For informational purposes only. I hold positions in Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Tesla through Exchange Traded Funds.



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KAnon

15 февраля, 2021 - 23:50
Published on February 15, 2021 8:50 PM GMT

There's a dangerous conspiracy theory spreading, called " KAnon" by its adherents. Its claims, at their core, come down to the belief that there is a "K" great enough to protect us from attacks by the forces of deanonymization. While followers often make contradictory claims about "K", no matter how great "K" may really be, their trust has been misplaced.

This blind trust that proponents place in "K" is best illustrated by their slogan, "Where We Go One We Go All" (#WWG1WGA). Originating in the once-marginal "K=N" faction, it represents the idea that individuals, once united, cannot be divided. Despite the undeniable rhetorical appeal, however, its protection is illusory and such division remains possible by resourceful and determined attackers.

Believers in KAnon are right to seek better anonymization, and robust anonymization is possible. Their approach, however, of gathering large groups not only does not solve the problem but is metaphorically hazardous given the background of the pandemic. Through patient discussion, with careful explanation of how the promises of KAnon have been shown again and again to be false, believers can be brought around more reliable approaches.

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Notes on Amiability

15 февраля, 2021 - 22:34
Published on February 15, 2021 7:34 PM GMT

This post examines the virtue of amiability (and closely-related or synonymous virtues like friendliness, geniality, agreeableness, conviviality, affability, niceness, affection, and warmth). It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about them, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations.

I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it and to become better at it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.

What are these virtues?

These virtues have to do with being pleasant to be around in casual social settings. If you exhibit these virtues, people feel at ease either initiating interactions with you, engaging with you, or simply being around you. You signal that you have benign and respectful intent, in a way that is legible to those around you (you are not a grouch, abrasive or obnoxious, or socially awkward in a way that is off-putting or hard to negotiate). You harmonize well with your social environment (you are not contentious or a shit-stirrer). You welcome friendly interactions with others (you are not stand-offish, cold, brusque). You tone down or repress any inclinations to ratchet up social tensions (you are not ill-natured, querulous, snappy, abrasive, hostile, disputatious).

If you go overboard, being insincere or over-the-top in the way you try to butter up those around you, you might be accused of being a flatterer or being fawning, obsequious, unctuous, oleaginous. The old-fashioned term “man-pleaser” is sometimes deployed in this context. Someone who is so friendly that you’re sure they’re about to pitch you Amway or Krishna Consciousness puts you on edge rather than at ease with their amiability.

Many of the social virtues can play a role in assisting amiability. Some related virtues include hospitality, graciousness, connection, goodwill, courtesy, kindness, sympathy, gentleness/tenderness, tolerance, tact, civility, cheer, warmheartedness, sympathy, concern, and consideration. Friendliness is distinct from friendship, as the latter involves the skills of properly maintaining a more durable, less-superficial relationship, while the former concerns how you interact with people in general, including strangers and casual acquaintances. That said, affection and warmth are also important ingredients of more intimate friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships.

Affection and touch

When I looked around for resources about “affection” in particular, I mostly found resources about affection in the context of romantic (or sometimes parental) relationships — particularly when it comes to how to deploy physical affection / touch in a graceful and welcome way. But I think that’s just a specific case of a more general virtue. I’ve had times when someone has placed their hand on my arm and looked me in the eye in a gently encouraging way that was very effectively affectionate without being either romantic or parentalish. I can’t put my finger on what qualities exactly made it work where in other contexts it might have been awkward or counterproductive. Touch is difficult: it can be a good way of expressing affection/warmth, but it can also be misinterpreted as a romantic overture or a predatory gambit; sometimes it is also seen as condescending.

When going along to get along is a bad strategy

At first, amiability looks like a sort of common-sense “things I learned in kindergarten” sort of virtue. But it has a common and challenging element attached to it: An example of a situation in which we struggle to find the Golden Mean of this virtue would be one in which we are in a group of casual acquaintances and one of them tells a joke that depends for its humor on the shared assumption of an offensive racial stereotype. Do we laugh in order to be agreeable and just try to move on, or do we signal our disapproval? When does our obligation to be agreeable and tolerant get eclipsed by our obligation to insist on better standards of behavior or our disgrace at being associated with shameful behavior? “Go along to get along” is a real problem, and it comes from being inattentive to the balancing act this virtue requires.

Other ways niceness can go awry

“The true gentleman is friendly but not familiar; the inferior man is familiar but not friendly.” (Analects of Confucius, ⅩⅢ.ⅹⅹⅲ)

Some people prioritize niceness at the expense of other virtues. Niceness can be cloying if it seems forced or insincere (or overwhelming or presumptuous).

If you presume more intimacy than you have earned — by sharing or demanding personal information, or by assuming you have permission to touch someone affectionately for instance — you may be overstepping your bounds in a way that comes across as more threatening than friendly, whatever your intentions.

Charming sociopaths

Geniality can be a thin social virtue. Sociopaths are sometimes very charming, but also very self-serving: buttering you up to see what they can get out of you. (But do sociopaths perhaps get an unfairly bad name: tarred by the brush of the more sadistic among them? After all, when it comes down to it, we love sociopaths.)

The virtue of being disagreeable

Is there a virtue to be found in being disagreeable? Maybe there is a case to be made for the virtue of being a cantankerous grouch instead. Different people shine in different contexts and in different ways.

How to improve at amiability

With most virtues, the key to getting better is to practice. You start off more-or-less clumsy, then you put in effort at the margin of your current ability, and over time you become more capable. With social virtues, the early, clumsy stage of this process can be embarrassing. You have to put yourself out in front of other people, deliberately doing things beyond your current skill level.

If you find social embarrassment intolerably uncomfortable or frightening, you will have difficulty with this. You somehow need to be able to say “I’m definitely going to screw up from time to time because I’m pushing myself beyond by current comfort zone, but that’s okay — I’ll just brush that off and move on, because I know that’s what it takes.” Easier said than done, I know. Maybe some preliminary work on the virtue of courage would help.

Different people have different sorts of deficits in amiability, with different roots. Some people want to be agreeable and just don’t have a good idea what kind of vibe they’re putting out (e.g. the awkward). Other people developed disagreeableness as a strategy for keeping people at bay (e.g. the gruff). Other people like drama and find other people more interesting when they’re uncomfortable (e.g. the shit-stirrer). Others are unfriendly because they think they’ve got more important things on their agenda than being pleasant (e.g. the jerk). With such variety (and this is just off the top of my head), there will probably also be a variety of strategies to pursue in the course of becoming more agreeable. It may require a lot of work just to identify what’s causing your deficits in the first place before you start working on them.

The difficulty of getting reliable feedback

With amiability there is an additional challenge: it can be difficult to get good feedback on how well you are doing. Let’s say you find yourself sitting at a bus stop with some random stranger, and you think to yourself — “aha! I have an opportunity to practice my amiability.” You notice they are wearing an unusually interesting sweater, and decide to compliment them on it as an opening conversational gambit.

Imagine that you do this in a fabulously competent, suave, utterly disarming way, and the stranger replies by grunting, looking down at their shoes, and inching away from you on the bench. Maybe they’re having a bad day, or they aren’t very good at friendliness themself, or they’re hard of hearing and are embarrassed to confess they didn’t understand what you said. Any number of things might have happened, but your feedback is: “boy howdy, that sure flopped.”

Or on the other hand, maybe you compliment them on their sweater but do so in an incompetent way that makes you sound like you’re being sarcastic, or are making an inappropriate sexual overture, or something like that. But they overlook that and smile and tell you the story of how they got the sweater and then ask you about your jacket, and you hit it off grandly. Maybe they’re just especially fond of conversation, or they’re charitable about the foibles of the people around them, or maybe they misheard you. You may never know. But your feedback now is: “nailed it!”

It may take a lot of data before reliable patterns show up. If you have friends you trust to be frank with you, you can ask them for feedback on how you’re doing and how you might improve.

Become a brilliant conversationalist by letting them talk

I was lucky enough to have a good friend who was extraordinarily good at this virtue. And the way he described it, it was definitely an acquired skill and not something that just came naturally to him. So that (and my own experience at just becoming more middlingly competent) makes me more confident in saying that this virtue is something that is learnable and can be improved with practice.

Greg, my friend, had an incredible knack for turning a stranger into a friend in minutes. I tried to study and learn from his techniques, but I think I was only perceptive enough to pick up some of the rudimentary stuff.

One thing I noticed was that he was very skillful at quickly turning the conversation to whatever it was that the other person was most interested in talking about. Just about everybody has some thing or things that they’re passionate about. Sometimes they’re a little reluctant to start, though, because they don’t want to get typecast or to come off as a monomaniac. But Greg would somehow manage to steer the conversation until it became about the other person’s favorite thing, and then would be full of questions. Before long, the other person was loquacious, comfortable, and fully convinced that Greg was a man of excellent taste whom he or she was lucky to have met. Meanwhile Greg was learning all about some new niche subject directly from an expert, while also making a new friend.

I don’t have anywhere near the knack for this that Greg did, but I’ve tried to learn from his technique. Now I tend to spend most of my casual conversations with people asking them questions about things they have already expressed enthusiasm about. I learn a lot that way, and I think I come across much better in conversation than when I used to spend most of my half of the conversation saying things I thought were interesting or important or impressive.



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Other utopias or searching the reference class for the rationality hub project

15 февраля, 2021 - 18:38
Published on February 15, 2021 3:38 PM GMT

Let's find the reference class for the new rational hub project, come up with some parameters to assess them, and quarter-bake a model to constrain our migration expectations. 

I arbitrarily selected Free Town Project and Rajneeshpuram. If after the discussion the model will seem worthy - we can google other examples and get a rough feel for its predictive power. 

This post started from a message to my friend:

“FSP- weak pull, zero requirements- moved 2k. Rajneeshpuram - very strong pull, cult level requirements - 7k,  Rationalists - mid pull, few hard requirements- assuming linear importance of both - should it be more successful other things being equal?”

This post is an attempt to expand on it. I'm ignorant of details of both and the US reality as well, but I'll try to extract relevant parameters and not to assess the specifics, so I'll just ignore the details and gaps and model something in the right direction. The parameters, ordered by obscurity ascending:

Pull - what brings people together

Alternatively - how hard it is to live outside the community if you believe X?

FSP - there's a lot of libertarians, the ideology is vague and abstract - one can live okay in most of the US.

Rajneeshpuram - cult of personality, very specific ideology - it's very hard to follow it outside of the community in the USA, maybe better in India, but few people choose to live there.

Rationality hub - one can live with normies, but it's quite dull, a lot of people already moved to the nearest hub. Somebody who've finished the Sequences seems quite dedicated to me.

Requirements/Demands - how hard it is to live in the community?

FSP - no demands, nothing positive bring together, no constructive program - totally no constraints of expectations - no person who's not miserable and values what they have will move. My guess is that anarchists would have more pull

Rajneeshpuram - cult. If you like everything but this sexist thing, you'll be peer pressured AF. Looks like only people who agree with the ideology 100% wouldn't be miserable there, although the first two episodes of Wild Wild Country suggest otherwise.

Rationality hub - demands to understand the craft and have similar values. Most of us have quite specific expectations, won't be pressed to observe any rituals, if we agree with the values but think that 60% of the sequences are overkill or that most of the frontpage is useless - no one will frown upon us if we're willing to discuss it with good epistemology. The practice could be described as demanding, but it's extremely tolerant towards differences in opinions, kinks, and other stuff that wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else. Rationalists who've finished the sequences most probably wouldn't find it too taxing.

Awareness. How many people know about the hub?

FSP - I can't begin to guess.

Rajneeshpuram - every active participant and that guy? Authoritarianism rules

Rationality hub - followers of @ESYudkowsky and everyone who checks LW frontpage at least monthly

Routine optimality - everything from the takeaways

I'm not ready to research these about FSP and Rajneeshpuram, and rational hub candidates are successfully discussed without my contribution.

If you can assess FSP or Rajneeshpuram by these parameters - it would be nice, but I can't give you ROI. If you're willing to throw a few hundred bucks to hire a historian or sociologist for it - it'd be awesome. I could try to find such a person and manage the research. (Good that they debunked Dunnung-Kruger, or I'd doubt myself)

Quantity, duh - how many people participate in the movement and identify with it.

Important note - it seems to me, that to participate in such a project, a person should be interested in the movement, not just the ideology.

Libertarians - from 7 to 22% of the US population, tend to grow

Rajneesh - up to 100000? I probably should update my map on this number, but it requires research about prehistorical memetics and sociology

 

The pull and demand parameters don't seem actionable to me, but they can help predict whether the idea of a standalone hub(not in a major city) will succeed. If you have more parameters to suggest - actionable or esoteric, please comment! If you have a model about how proximity to a major city/regular town interacts with demand - that seems like an important part that plays role in the rational hub migration project.

It would be interesting to analyze decentralized communities with multiple hubs. I'm quite inspired by the success (in this regard) of NXVIM

 

P.S. This is my first major post here, so any suggestions on how to improve the writing or thinking would be welcome. Maybe lifehacks on how to research relevant info easily, cuz the way I know now is just putting an overwhelming amount of labor.



Discuss

Semaglutide is cool, but no one wants to talk about b. animalis ssp. lactis?

15 февраля, 2021 - 12:50
Published on February 15, 2021 9:50 AM GMT

[Epistemic status: I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice, but there are two RCTs supporting this. Also I talk about poop.]

Like many others, I've been excitedly reading about semaglutide over the last few days. For someone like Stephan Guyenet, author or The Hungry Brain, it seems like a vindication of the weight regulation model via the brain and signaling hormones (what he calls the lipostat) and he seems excited about it

But let me tell you a quick story. I got a stomach bug, probably something like traveler's diarrhea, a few months ago. I tried several things to help fix it, and at one point was at Whole Foods starring down the wall of probiotics. 

I Googled "probiotics by level of evidence" and one of the first page results was the Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products Available in USA. No one else was in the aisle, so I took some time to skim it. It has a table of probiotic supplements showing the level of evidence for each (the familiar Level I, Level II and Level III) related to what they're intended to treat and the strains of probiotics in the supplement. 

That whole list was surprising and worth reading in terms of evidence for probiotics to support mood and affect, lower LDL-C, etc. But looking specifically at weight management, all of the probiotics for it contain some form of B. animalis ssp. lactis in the dose around 10 billion per capsule per day or higher. There's two Level I (RCT-level studies) showing it's effectiveness for that purpose. It's also in Activia yoghurt but the dose is much smaller.

Someone on Wikipedia thinks this is Bifidobacterium animalis from Activia.

I was and remain skeptical, but nothing sets off my evidence evaluation alarm bells. The first of the two, a 2016 study, was published in EBioMedicine and is in the 89th percentile in General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology. The second is from 2020 and is in Scientific Reports which is in the 93rd percentile under the category Multidisciplinary. Neither of them are on Beall's List. The results aren't as spectacular as semaglutide where people saw a 17.4% reduction in weight over 68 weeks. But they are pretty good. In the 2016 study here was a 4.5% reduction over 6 months (in the best case where it was given with additional dietary fiber).

From the 2020 study.

2020 study showing changes in body weight, BMI and waist circumference 

In the 2020 study, this amounts to a 1.5% weight reduction in 6 months. Neither of these are completely fair as the semaglutide trial was over 15 months.

 

There is perhaps an advantage to the probiotic approach in the sense of the precautionary principle. Semaglutide is new. B. animalis subsp. lactis is  "the world’s most documented probiotic Bifidobacterium" and was found in dairy cultures. People have been eating Activia for a long time now without weird side-effects. So we have more of a history with it and reason to believe it's safer.

 

So... all of this has just left me wondering why it hasn't been as much of a part of the weight loss discussion? Maybe there's something I'm missing?



Discuss

Chinese History

15 февраля, 2021 - 09:43
Published on February 15, 2021 6:43 AM GMT

Try to answer these questions without looking!

Rules:

  • The estimates come from this Wikipedia page.
  • If Wikipedia provides a range then I use the mean.

Q1. What war killed the most people?

Answer: World War Two [100 million]

Q2. What war killed the 2nd most people?

The Taiping Rebellion [45 million]

Q3. What war killed the 3rd most people?

The Three Kingdoms War [38 million]

Q4. What war killed the 4th most people?

Answer: The Mongol conquests [35 million]

Q5. 5th?

World War One [28 million] (including the Spanish flu but not including the Russian Revolution)

Q6. 6th?

The collapse of the Qing Dynasty [25 million]

Q7. 7th?

The An Lushan Rebellion [24.5 million]

Q8.9. 8th and 9th? (they tie)

The Conquests of Timur [14 million]

ties with

The Dungan Revolt [14 million]

Q10. 10th?

The (most recent) Chinese Civil War [10 million]

Of the 10 most deadly conflicts in human history, 6 of them were Chinese civil wars. China isn't merely an important thread within human history. Chinese history is human history.

Western histories of China often focus on the Opium Wars, the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the rise of Communism and then the transition to capitalism. Chinese is thousands of years old. Beginning Chinese history at the Opium Wars is like starting a history of the United States with the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Western histories of China focus on recent Chinese history because it's only in recent centuries that China has had its most significant direct interactions with the West. Western histories of China are often drawn from English-language sources, which produces an incestuous echo chamber. If you want to understand China, the way to do it is by reading histories written from a Chinese perspective.

China: A History by John Keay

This is my favorite book on Chinese history. At 578 pages, it barely scratches the surface of Chinese history. But it's a quick read and it can give you a rough idea outline if you're brand new to the subject.

Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age by Stephen Platt

Imperial Twilight perfectly captures the smells and sounds of stepping off a ship into 19th century Fujian. Imperial Twilight feels like Treasure Island except it's all true. Imperial Twilight is relatively Eurocentric compared to the other two books. But the story is so cool I don't care.

The Man on Mao's Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China's Foreign Ministry by Ji Chaozhu

The Man on Mao's Right is the story of a high communist official navigating the turbulent years following the Communist Revolution. It's basically Wei_Dai's tale from Communist China told from the perspective of a winner.



Discuss

Contact with reality

15 февраля, 2021 - 07:53
Published on February 15, 2021 4:53 AM GMT

(Cross-posted from Hands and Cities)

In thought experiments descended from Nozick’s classic “experience machine,” you consider how being plugged into a machine that generates the experience of a certain kind of life (generally, a very pleasant one) compares with some alternative. Such comparisons are meant to tease apart the purely experiential aspect of life from other factors — in particular, factors related to what we might call “contact with reality.” 

This post examines the idea of “contact with reality.” In particular, I try to evoke and defend the possibility (though not the obligation) of caring about contact with reality, regardless of its impact on your own pleasure, or on the lives of others.

I. Experience machines

As a tool for thinking about the value of “contact with reality,” cases involving experience machines are often left importantly underspecified: the question of what sort of “contact with reality” one has is not settled by the fact that one is plugged into a machine. In particular, the following four questions seem important:

  • Are you alone in your simulated world? E.g., are there other conscious people in this world, or not?
  • How wrong are you about the simulated world?
  • How wrong are you about the real world?
  • Do you know that you’re in the machine, once you’re in it? (The usual assumption is no).

(We can also ask questions about things like autonomy, but I’m going not going to focus on these.)

Questions about the non-machine alternative matter a lot, too. For example, the duties, relationships, and opportunities to do good one has or would have in the non-machine alternative are clearly relevant (though note that these matter in certain simulated worlds, too). And more generally, an informed comparison requires knowing what sorts of experiences, and what types of contact with reality, the non-machine alternative offers.

Finally, various specific questions about the choice set-up matter. Do you start out in the real world, or the machine world? Are you allowed to try out each alternative, to see what it’s like? Can you change you mind later? Can you split your time? How long is one committed to one vs. the other at a stretch? How much psychological continuity (including continuity of memory) is there as you switch? And so forth.

II. Being alone

The versions of the machine world that seem to me most informative involve being (a) alone, and (b) wrong — not just about the real world, but about the simulated world as well.

Let’s start with alone. This means, centrally, that any “people” one interacts with in the simulated world aren’t conscious — a condition that doesn’t follow from the fact that one is in a simulated world. For example, there might be other biological humans plugged into the same world — as in, e.g., the Matrix. But more broadly, sufficiently sophisticated simulated people would plausibly be conscious, too.

One way to make sure you’re alone in the machine world is to posit that the “people” you interact with are phenomenal zombies (e.g. behaviorally identical to conscious people, but without anything it’s “like” to be them). But this gets into unnecessarily complicated philosophical territory. I prefer versions in which the other people are the simulation equivalent of sophisticated but ultimately low-resolution card-board cut-outs, which disappear when you look away, but which you’re fooled — perhaps due to direct, machine-facilitated intervention on your epistemology, rather than due to the complexity and convincingness of the simulated people themselves — into thinking of as real people. This episode of Rick and Morty depicts a scenario in this vicinity; one can also imagine something akin to the Truman Show, but with temporary and low-resolution data structures instead of actors. If you think that even structures of this type would be conscious, try to lower the resolution as far as you can, and to increase the level of epistemic intervention by the machine.

If set-up this way, the machine world is one where, when you look into your partner’s eyes, there’s no one looking back: you’re gazing at the simulated-equivalent of cardboard, with a moving face. You’re in love with a painted doll. You’ve married a mirage; your vows were to a flickering void. When you hold your partner — together, you think, in the midst of it all — your arms are, basically, empty. But the machine makes you think they’re not, and it still feels really good.

Another way of making you alone in the machine world is just to not include people — even simulated people — in that world. Thus, it might be a world where you lie alone on the beach, in total bliss; or a world where you pursue some solitary hobby that the machine makes you very passionate about, like math puzzles or carpentry. This is a helpful possibility to keep in mind, because it teases apart what matters about being alone in the machine world per se, vs. being wrong about what sorts of relationships you have. The latter is ultimately just a way of being wrong more generally. Let’s turn to that aspect now.

III. Being wrong

It’s often assumed that in the machine world, one’s everyday beliefs — e.g., “there’s milk in the fridge,” “I’m going bowling on Friday,” etc — are pervasively false. As Chalmers (2005) discusses, though, this isn’t necessarily so: your milk beliefs, for example, may refer to and correctly represent the simulated milk in the simulated fridge. Trying to settle this question would take us too far afield, but we can avoid it by using versions of the scenario in which one is wrong even about simulated things.

Thus, for example, we can imagine a physicist, plugged into the machine, who is trying to work out the laws of physics that govern her (simulated) world. She works passionately on the project, with many moments of epiphany, joy, discovery, and excitement, as her grand theory takes shape. However, the machine is feeding her data that’s fake even by the simulation’s standards. She receives reports of eclipses that the physics engine of the simulation would not cause; she gets fake pictures from the simulated Hubble; she gets data from the simulated particle collider that the simulated particle collisions wouldn’t produce (the collider was never run). What’s more, the machine causes her to misinterpret the data she receives; and more generally, her theories are inconsistent and riddled with basic reasoning errors. Indeed, from the outside, she resembles someone pitifully deluded, building flimsy, myopic castles on a foundation of lies. Her theory displays no elegance or insight even granted its false assumptions. She thinks that she’s tracing the contours of some grander majesty; she’s delighted, awed; but ultimately, she’s confused — enraptured by something small and made-up and paper-thin.

Alternatively, we can imagine an activist in the machine, who campaigns in support of policies that the machine makes seem superficially inspiring and righteous, but that would actually be disastrous, even for the simulated society. Her life is full of apparent meaning and purpose; apparent friendship and solidarity; apparently hard-won victories for apparent justice; and apparently awesome parties afterwards. It all feels very important and engaging and alive, not to mention pleasant. But really, the victories were easy (indeed, the activist’s strategies were wildly naive, and the machine had to bend over backwards to make it seem like they worked) and false (nothing will change); the cause was unjust (indeed, horrifying); the relevant friends, allies, and potential beneficiaries/victims of the cause didn’t exist, even in the simulation. Even the conversation at the simulated parties was petty and boring (good conversation, let’s imagine, is more expensive to simulate): the machine just made her like it.

In these cases, most of the false beliefs in question are plausibly about the simulated world. But people often have beliefs that target the “real world” more broadly: beliefs like “I’m not in an experience machine,” “this is the only world,” “no one created the world I live in,” and so forth. Thus, for example, we can imagine a metaphysician in the machine, who devotes her entire, very pleasurable career to arguing for her deep conviction that she’s not in a simulation; we can imagine a mathematician in the machine, who the machine tricks into thinking that she is proving theorem after theorem that would hold true in all possible worlds, but which are actually gibberish; we can imagine a holy woman in the machine, who thinks that her ecstatic visions of a giant, roiling bowl of neon spaghetti elves are unadulterated visions of God in His pure essence, when in fact the machine is just randomizing some images from her memory.

Note that in all of these cases, I’m not just talking about people who have false beliefs. It’s not that these people are mistaken about the number of socks in their simulated sock drawers; or the number of sand-grains on the simulated beach. Rather, I’m talking about people whose false beliefs are embedded in sets of attitudes and activities that are what I’ll call “reality-oriented,” and which they take as central to their simulated lives. More on this below.

IV. Well-being and choice

Let’s consider, then, a version of the experience machine that involves (a) simulated people who aren’t actually conscious or even very complicated, and (b) pervasive deception and falsehood, even about the simulated world itself. I hope it’s clear how big of a difference these specifications make, and how strange it is to think try to think about the case without first pinning them down. Choosing to live in an amazing simulated world with real friends and loves and adventures and discoveries is very different from choosing to live in blissed-out delusion, alone: and this especially if you’re allowed, in the former case, but not in the second, to understand your condition and to remember your choice (why would you need to forget?). The thing at stake here is not bits vs. atoms, or the special value of “basement universes.” It’s something else.

Philosophers tend to discuss experience machines in the context of theories of “well-being” or “prudential value” — that is, theories of what makes something good for you; what type of thing purely selfish agents should be concerned with. If well-being is only about pleasure/pain (this view is called “hedonism” about well-being), the thought goes, then entering the machine is, from a prudential perspective, a good move (assuming you’ll do better re: pleasure/pain that way). If, by contrast, entering the machine is sometimes a bad prudential move, then well-being must be about more than pleasure/pain/internal experience.

I’m not, here, centrally concerned to argue about what constitutes “well-being”: indeed, I don’t currently expect the term to carve the space of what we care about at particularly useful joints, though I won’t get into that here. Mostly, I just want to point at and clarify the possibility of caring about “contact with reality,” for reasons that aren’t about promoting one’s own pleasure, or about helping others. Whether we call this a “prudential” pattern of concern doesn’t seem to me especially important at present, except insofar as it has implications for how much weight someone’s commitment to maintaining contact with reality should be given in thinking about how to do right by them (my answer is: “a lot of weight).

Some people don’t care about contact with reality, except insofar as it matters for promoting their own pleasure or helping others. That’s OK. I’m not arguing that this is bad or wrong, or that it’s important for these people to seek or be given something they don’t actually value. Indeed, when I think about a friend of mine who, if the world’s problems were solved, would happily plug himself into an experience machine, I feel good about him having the chance. That’s what he wants, at least assuming that he’d still make this choice after ideal reflection. I’d miss him, yes. But he’s worked hard trying to help other people; this is what he prefers for himself. Indeed, in his case, the machine seem to me almost an image of rest.

But it’s also OK to care about other things, too. This seems obvious in one sense, but I say it partly because I think it’s possible, especially when in the grip of certain ethical theories, to have a vague sense that maybe you “should,” in some sense, want to plug into the experience machine; but also to feel some resistance to this, maybe even sadness. Maybe you kind of hope that on the “true theory of well-being,” there’s more to life than pleasure and pain; more than the painting on the wall of your mental cave; but you’re worried that there isn’t.

But when you choose whether or not to go into the machine, you don’t have to be trying to get as many “well-being points” as possible, whatever those are. Rather, you can just be choosing between pleasure, and between other things. If you care about the other things, you can choose them. What you’ll get as a result is just: your life, with less pleasure, and more of something else. If you want to learn the real history of Rome, and someone says “here’s a fake, more entertaining history, and a button that will make you think it’s real,” you can just decline, not for the sake of your future pleasure, or the pleasure of others, but because you want to know what happened in Rome. There aren’t any well-being Gods to laugh at you. It’s just you and your book.

For simplicity, I’m going to continue to talk in what follows about some concept in the vicinity of prudence or well-being. But I want to be clear that I’m mostly trying to articulate a type of thing that it’s possible and legitimate to care about non-instrumentally. It’s not something you “have” to care about; but not something you have to stop caring about, either.

V. My preferred set-up

A few more comments on setting up the case.

As noted above, actually choosing to enter an experience machine would, in all likelihood, have important implications for people other than you: specifically, you would be leaving behind your relationships, obligations to others, and opportunities to make the world better, etc (note that the same would hold of the choice to leave the machine, if the simulated world also held persisting relationships, opportunities to help, etc). For some people, this is the main sticking point. If all the problems of the world were solved (or they knew they wouldn’t be able to help with any of these problems), and they owed nothing to anybody, then they would very happily enter or stay in the machine. Until then, duty calls. To screen off this consideration, then, we need to imagine cases in which either duty doesn’t call; or in which we manage to focus on prudential reasons in particular.

The former route is actually somewhat challenging. Thus, for example, if we want you to be alone in the machine, but not alone in the real world, then preventing you from being able to do more good in the real world takes some work, since your real relationships are at risk of being helpful to others. And similarly, we might think that there will always be some chance that you’re wrong about the real world’s level of need. I think it’s better, then, to just try to set your reasons to help others, intuitively, aside.

The specific differences in the goods available in the machine vs. outside of it matter too. Thus, for example, De Brigard (2010) asked subjects whether they would leave their current lives, upon learning that those lives were simulated (whether you are alone or deceived in the simulation is left unspecified in his vignette), in favor of real life as “a prisoner in a maximum security prison in West Virginia” (p. 47). Unsurprisingly, the majority (87%) stayed plugged in. But non-hedonists need not think pleasure irrelevant to what they want out of life, or treat “contact with reality” (especially of the kind available in a maximum security prison) as lexically more important than pleasure and pain. You can like both oranges and apples, and still prefer a hundred apples to a rotten orange.

What’s more, if you ask people to assume that their current life is actually a simulation optimized for maximum pleasure, and then ask them if they’d like to leave it for the less optimized world beyond, it seems reasonable for them to assume, absent further information, that the world beyond is pretty bad. “This is what a fake life optimized for pleasure looks like?” they might say, gesturing at their stale toast, tax forms, and back pain medication. “Man, the real world must be terrible.

One might think that a natural response to this problem would be to hold all the experiential facts fixed, and vary only the “contact with reality” facts. Thus, for example, one might imagine:

  1. Einstein’s experiences, but in a simulated world feeding him fake data, with a fake wife, family, etc, vs.
  2. Einstein’s experiences, in the real world where they actually occurred.

If there is any prudential reason to prefer (2) to (1), one might think, then hedonism is false (see Lin (2016) for discussion of this type of comparison). However, these sorts of “all else equal” intuitions are complicated somewhat by the fact that if one assigns any credence to non-experiential goods having prudential value, one should take (2) over (1): the relevant “contact with reality” is, in this case, free. That said, these sorts of comparisons can at least highlight the weight we place on non-experiential goods, whatever its source. Thus, for example, (2) might continue to seem prudentially superior to (1) even if we boost the pleasure of the fake discoveries and fake family life in (1) substantially.

Finally, various philosophers sympathetic to hedonism sometimes argue that people’s aversion to the experience machine is driven by status quo bias (they also offer other explanations, like the possibility that people are worried that the experience machine will malfunction — see e.g. Weijers (2014), p. 516; this, though, seems very far away from what’s driving my own reaction, at least). De Brigard (2010), for example, suggests that people surveyed end up split something more like 50-50 about whether to unplug, in various cases where they learn that they’ve already been living in the machine (except in the prison case above, in which case it’s 13% unplug vs. 87% stay-plugged); and Weijers (2014) finds roughly comparable numbers (e.g., ~30%-55% of undergrads opting for the machine) for cases in which the most pleasant experiences in life thus far have been machine-made, and the least pleasant have been non-machine (in some of these cases, you’re saying what would be best for someone other than yourself). By contrast, the plug-in rate for Nozick’s original thought experiment, in which you start out in the real world, was only 16% in Weijers’ surveys (glancing at the paper, looks like he gave paper surveys to undergrads, with ~80 people participating each time, but I haven’t looked in detail).

Let’s stick with choosing for oneself for now: other people, after all, might care about contact with reality to a different degree than oneself. For simplicity, I’ll assume a De Brigard-esque scenario, where you’ve already been in the machine your whole life. From the perspective of status quo bias, this biases somewhat in favor of the experience machine, since it treats life in the machine as the status quo. But I’m OK with that: I expect that people with a clear grip on why they don’t like the machine (as opposed to, e.g., undergraduates or MTurk workers taking a survey) can overcome the bias in question.

VI. My preferred version

Here, then, is a shot at my preferred version of the case:

You learn that you’re been living your whole life in an experience machine, in which you are both alone and systematically deluded, even about your simulated world. None of your friends, family, lovers, etc really exist; you’ve only ever interacted with low-resolution, non-conscious simulations that the machine makes you find convincing and complex. No one here loves you, or cares for you, because there’s no one here at all, except you; there isn’t anyone to miss you when you’re gone, or anyone you should stay to help. 

Nothing beyond your experience that matters to you is the way it seems. When you look away from something, it disappears. Every time you try to think things through, the machine will cause you to make mistakes of reasoning that you won’t notice: indeed, you’ve already been making lots of these. You’re hopelessly confused on a basic level, and you’ll stay that way for the rest of your life.

However, if you stay in the machine, the balance of pleasure vs. pain in your life will stay roughly what it’s been so far, and you’ll be allowed, if you want, to forget about the machine and about your choice to stay. You’ll never have another chance to leave.

If you choose to leave, the real world you’d be entering will have a somewhat worse balance of pleasure vs. pain, for you, than your current world. And you won’t be able to improve the real world much, either. Out there, though, you can meet real people, with their own rich and complex lives; you can make real friends, and be part of real relationships, communities, and institutions. You can wander cities with real history; you can hear stories about things that really happened, and tell them; you can stand under real skies, and feel the heat of a real sun. People out there are doing real science, and discovering real things. They’re barely beginning to understand the story they’re a part of, but they can understand. You can understand, too; you can be a part of that story, too. No one knows, yet, what’s going to happen.

If you choose the real world, you can’t come back to the machine.

Obviously, I’m not trying to be rhetorically unbiased, here. Rather, I’m trying to evoke an intuitive sense of what the contrast between this type of experience machine and the real world can mean, and what directing your life based purely on hedonism implies. For the hedonist, the prudential verdict in this case is fixed entirely by the phrase “the real world you’d be entering will have a somewhat worse balance of pleasure vs. pain, for you, than your current world.” That’s all the hedonist needs to know, to know what prudence favors.

Of course, we can construct versions of the case where the relevant factors vary more or less dramatically. Make the simulation much more or less blissful; make the real world more or less painful, or more deluded in its own right. Non-hedonists will differ as to when they stay and go. But the purely prudent hedonist never left.

In many moods, and especially for pretty moderate hedonic differences, cases of this kind currently leave me with a clear preference for the real world. But I don’t think the choice is simple, and depending on the specific nature of the hedonic differences in question, a part of me sometimes hesitates, even as I feel the pull of the contact with reality that the real world offers. In my case, I think this centrally because the experiential texture of life also really matters a lot — though not, I think, in a manner easily captured by straightforward hedonism. Thus, for example, if we specify that both the pleasures and the pains in the real world are more intense and vivid than the ones in the machine, and you’ll have more of both if you leave, but extra more of the pains, such that the overall balance of pleasure vs. pain is still worse, then I feel especially clear about wanting to leave the machine: but I expect that I would also leave a blander and more tepid experience machine for a more intense (but overall more unpleasant) one, at least in some cases (though here questions about what it means to weigh pleasures vs. pains loom large).

That is, what I centrally want out of experience, it seems to me, is not “pleasure” in its most straightforward connotation, but something more like energy, aliveness, vividness, awake-ness, engagement, capacity for attention. If my experience of reality will be more dead and drab and empty, such that upon leaving the machine, the color drains from the world, and I am left with something like perpetual low-grade depression, listlessness, or exhaustion; this, indeed, gives me pause. I’m not spitting on experience here as something shallow. Something I really care about would be lost.

Indeed, if you can keep the experience machine available even after you depart for the real world, it makes sense to me to use it as a kind of fall-back; a place for a certain type of rest and comfort; even, perhaps, a strange type of “home.” And it makes sense to me for other people in the real world to take stints in experience machines, too, if they could. (My girlfriend’s take: “You’ve got to at least try it: if you’re really interested in reality, surely you want to see what an experience machine is like.”) And if you have the option to try out both worlds, and then to make a permanent choice later (or never), you should probably take it.

What’s more, when I try to actually imagine facing a choice of this kind, I notice that I still feel an intense kind of sadness at leaving this beautiful world that I love so much, mirage or no. I look out at the lights of San Francisco, and the stars; I think about everything I have seen and done in my life thus far. Maybe these things never happened; maybe this city doesn’t exist; but there was something beautiful all the same; something I feel some need to say goodbye to.

With people it’s a bit more complicated. If my girlfriend and my friends and my family are mannequins, I feel more acutely a sense of horror and disorientation — much more than if I learn that e.g. the parts of California I haven’t been to don’t exist. But I’m still torn; I still feel loyalty and care towards some possibility of a person, who doesn’t exist, but who could exist, who I thought existed. I want to talk with that person, to explain why I’m leaving. And if the mannequins beg me to stay, and the machine continues to make them seem convincing, I imagine feeling like I’m talking to two things at once — a doll, and a possible human — and trying, maybe desperately, to convince the possible human that they don’t really exist, at least not here. I feel some hope that they’d understand, even if the doll doesn’t. “Oh,” I imagine them saying, on learning of their non-existence. “You’re right. You should go. I love you. I hope we meet each other somewhere.”

VII. Is this really about prudence?

Is prudence even the right term, here, for the type of thing that motivates leaving the machine? Or “well-being?” It feels, to me, too thin, too self-y. It evokes a choice between broccoli and cupcakes; a smart investment; an efficient selfishness. But the right term isn’t “duty,” either, or “morality.” Maybe you have a duty to go to the real world, or some other type of moral reason, stemming from what limited opportunity you’ll have to help. But to me at least, this really doesn’t capture everything at stake. The real world doesn’t just call to us because it “needs us”; the real world calls to us because it’s, well, the real deal, the actual thing. If you’re listening to some tinny pop song, and you learn that God is playing a concert, you don’t just go for the sake of future pleasure, or to better help others: you go because it’s God. Or at least, I do.

Sometimes, philosophers attempt to carve out some further category of “perfectionist” value, which stems not from your own well-being, or the well-being of others. Thus, perhaps a great painting, or a deep mathematical proof, has some kind of perfectionist value, independent of how good it is “for” any particular person. This, though, feels too impersonal to me. Just as it feels strange to choose that the real world solely because it’ll be better “for you,” or because it will be better “for others,” so too it feels strange to do it because it will be better “for the universe,” or from the universe’s perspective, or from no one’s.

Somehow (I don’t have a clear articulation here), this whole ethical ontology feels like it’s missing something: some sense of relation, or of dialogue. Either something is in your well-being bubble, reflected in the number your slot gets on the population ethics whiteboard; or it’s in someone else’s bubble; or — exotically — it’s in no one’s bubble, but plays a role in some “ranking” regardless. But somehow everything is bubbles; atoms; objects.

You want to look the universe in the eye, though, not just to make your life better, or to make someone else’s life better, or to make the universe’s life better; not to make a pretty picture that no one sees; not to carve into the firmament the right type of four-dimensional statue; not just any of these things, or any set.

Why, then?

VIII. Caring about contact with reality

I remember a happy hour I went to a few years ago, in which a group of us ended up talking about status-quo-adjusted experience machines like the one I just described. One of the people in the conversation was a physicist, and he wanted, strongly, to leave such a machine.

Something about his reaction to the case was moving to me, and it made me trust him more. I felt like I saw, in that moment, something about what mattered to him about physics, and about knowledge more generally. I had some vision of him stepping through a doorway, out of the machine, and into the raw wind of the real world, on a planet dusty and cold — knowing why he was doing it, and what he sought. I don’t even remember if we specified much about pleasure.

I imagine the physicist in the machine I discussed above feeling similarly; and so, too, the mathematician in the machine, and the philosopher, and the holy woman. These people are horribly deluded by the machine, yes; but they are, let us imagine, really trying to see and relate to reality — and not purely as a route to a certain type of emotional juice. The physicist wants to understand the real physics; the mathematician, to prove the real theorems; the philosopher, to learn the true metaphysics; the holy woman, to meet the real God. They would not, upon learning of their condition, decide to forget. They’ll take the doorway, and the wind.

On the holy woman in particular: people talk a lot about religion as a comfortable delusion, or a way of playing a kind of emotional, symbolically-mediated pretend. And for some people it is. For others, though, it’s more serious. In particular, I have in mind religious people for whom the idea of worshipping a false God, whatever the pleasures and comforts it brings, seems a horrifying and repugnant delusion; a snug and gauzy cocoon. To be chasing after the myopic flickerings of your mind, when there is a reality out there, is to fail utterly in precisely the effort to step beyond oneself and one’s illusions that animates the whole thing — or at least, one version of it. If there’s no God, if they’re worshipping an idol, they want to know.

We can imagine another reason one might leave the machine: namely, the discovery (let’s imagine it’s true) that out there, beyond the machine, are real-life, high-resolution versions of the friends and lovers and teachers you thought you knew. Versions not so simple, or so familiar; and not, perhaps, so comfortable. But versions that actually look back at you. Of course, the prospect of meeting higher-resolution versions of people you knew in a deluded machine world is unlikely to be emotionally straightforward, especially given that they won’t know who you are. But hopefully, the idea can illustrate another type of pull.

What all of these things — physics, math, philosophy, some types of religion, some types of friendship and love — have in common, I suggest, is that they are reality-oriented. That is, they’re guided by a particular type of non-instrumental relationship to reality, as opposed to appearance; and so, too, are many of their paradigmatic practitioners. Indeed, lots of other things, far less grandiose in connotation (gardening? portraiture? stamp collecting?) are like this too (here I imagine a stamp collector, horrified to learn that the stamps in the machine world were cheap fakes); and the instrumental and the non-instrumental can mix in complex ways. 

At a high-level, my basic point is that being non-instrumentally reality-oriented is a legitimate, sensible — and indeed, quite commonplace — way to be. This may seem obvious to many: one can, after all, care non-instrumentally about all kinds of things, the truth, obviously, amongst them. To others, though, my sense is that this pattern of concern can seem mysterious and confused. My hope is that the attempts to illustrate it above can help.

IX. The problem of the numinous

I’ll close with a type of hard-to-articulate doubt I feel about the idea of “contact with reality,” that I’m not sure many will share. In contexts like the physics or math examples above, the idea of “contact with reality” need not go much beyond the idea of “accurate representation,” where the accuracy question matters to someone non-instrumentally. And indeed, this limited notion is all I think necessary to get many intuitive objections to experience machines off the ground. Representations can clearly be more or less accurate, and we can clearly care about that as a final value. For present purposes, we need not say more.

If we try to say more, though, we might start to wonder: how accurate are our representations, really? Say I believe that there’s some milk in the fridge; and say that I’m right. Cool. But beyond my scattered images and ideas about milk, beyond the predictions about and correlations with the milk that my mind has set up, how much “contact” with the milk do I really have? At a fundamental level, the milk is, at least, some twisted crazy quantum thing, which I, personally, don’t have anything close to a clear grip on. And even if I understood our current physics deeply, and even if this were, in some sense, the physics, as opposed our best current approximation, one is still tempted to wonder about the thing in itself: not the framework (however accurate) for predicting behavior, but the thing that behaves; bare being; what Kant called the noumenon. Can we have any contact (in a sense that involves something intuitively like “true seeing”) with that? (Kant thought: no.) And if not, what is this whole “contact” thing about, anyway?

This is the type of thing that I expect some people to really not worry about, and maybe to laugh at. And perhaps it does indeed rest on confusion. I wanted to mention it, though, because it still lurks, for me, as a lingering type of question about what it is to have truth-related “contact” with a world beyond your experience (whatever “experience” is), when that world, in itself, seems likely to be different in kind from the appearances and representations that mediate your relationship to it. A part of this, I think, is that I don’t currently feel like I have a clear, gears-level account of what it is to represent something, whether accurately or inaccurately. I get the idea of useful correlations between things (e.g., states of a cognitive system, and objects in the world), but pretty quickly, especially once we start to talking about “maps” of things like milk or math in any detail, I feel like I’m waving my hands. I know that other people feel like they’re on stronger footing on this front. Maybe someday I’ll feel that way too. For now, I’m still confused.

What’s more, in some cases — e.g., spiritual experience, or love — the idea of “contact with reality” seems to suggest something beyond accurate representation: some deeper type of relationship, dialogue, or communion (see e.g. Buber’s I and Thou for gestures — I specifically recommend the Kaufmann translation, though I haven’t read others; and I recommend Kaufmann’s prologue, too). To look your partner, or the universe, “in the eye,” is not merely to have true beliefs about something. But what, then, is it?

I don’t know. Indeed, given that I don’t even have a clear account of representation at a basic level, it seems hard to get a clear account of something as vague as “looking something in the eye.” But I don’t dismiss whatever “looking something in the eye” is pointing at, either. And the real world — the world where people look back — is the place to understand it better.



Discuss

What didn’t happen

15 февраля, 2021 - 07:30
Published on February 15, 2021 4:30 AM GMT

I have a secret fiction blog, which I intermittently mean to publish things on, but apparently haven’t now in over ten years, which seems like a reasonable point at which to make it less secret. Here is the start. It’s not very long.

Here is an excerpt inspired by events leading to my first kiss (names changed, coincidence with name of my later partner coincidental):

The main argument for believing other people are conscious is that in all other respects they resemble you. Carrie stared tiredly into the crowd of blurs surrounding her and found this argument uncompelling. She couldn’t actually imagine thinking any of the things that had recently been shouted near her, which strengthened the hypothesis that nobody else was thinking them either. Which pressed the question of why someone was simulating this particular reality for her, and what the significance was of a tall man screeching ‘It’s beer pong o clock!’.

She had the same unease with movies often. Did that scene of the couple driving in their car add something to the plot? Either half the movie was revealing information entirely invisible to her, or film producers went to great expense to make films a certain length despite the fact that no story required it. She liked to think that if she spent years studying this it would all make sense, as she regularly insisted to other people that everything did if you studied it enough. Part of her was terrified that this wasn’t true. When it got too insistent a bigger, more heavily armed part of her would menacingly point out, ‘that doesn’t make sense and you have zero reason to believe it’ and the other part would whimper ‘what if that doesn’t matter?’ and go off to wring its hands in a less conscious corner. A short handsome boy sat down unusually close to Carrie, and she turned to make funny noises at him.

“Paul. How do you do?”

“Uh..I..do..am.. Carrie..fine, actually.. not.. sorry, never mind”, Carrie smiled reassuringly.

“You’re cute. What do you do?” He pretended to be pushed closer to her by someone else sitting on his other side.

When she was younger Carrie had had a reasonably high prior on her having a male partner, or several, in her lifetime. By the time she was eighteen and still didn’t have a single close friend, let alone a male one, ‘kiss someone, ever” was well down her list of unrealistically optimistic goals, between ‘stop global warming’ and ‘build a computer that understands everything’. So the fact that this boy seemed to be coming on to her suggested that she was misunderstanding human mating behaviour even worse than she suspected, or that he was much more drunk than he seemed.

“I try to save the world, but I’m not very good at it. Also I’m not interested in romance at the moment because I’ve just realized that other people probably aren’t conscious, so I think it would be hard to relate to one, and kind of creepy to hang out with them, and other bits would be too much like necrophilia.. so I might go home soon actually”

“You do philosophy?” he smiled.

“Not officially”.

“You’re fun. Come inside and dance with me.”

“Only if you convince me that you’re probably not a zombie”

He looked deep into her eyes and made a reassuring smile. His eyes were soft, brown, and impenetrable. She felt completely alone. “I promise you I’m not, and I should know.”

Nonplussed, angered by his dismissive stupidity, but sheepishly unable to forgo an opportunity to dance with a male, Carrie followed him inside woozily. She wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or amused at the lack of shattering force with which extremely important philosophical considerations could influence human mating.



Discuss

Not Yet the Dawn

15 февраля, 2021 - 07:00
Published on February 15, 2021 4:00 AM GMT

How many is too many?
How much is too much?
How do we live with the numbers? These damned numbers.
R0, R1, the case fatality rate, the hospitalization rate, the rate of ICU overcrowding, the number of infected, the number of dead, the number of bodies piling up in morgues, when does it all stop really meaning anything and just become this exercise in abstraction?
And is that what we need to do to cope with it?
How do we get up and go to work every morning in a world where
the state of California had to relax it’s clean air laws so they could burn a backlog of bodies?
How do we talk about The Mandalorian and the latest celebrity gossip and act like everything’s fine while the equivelant of 9/11 is happening every day?
How do we manage to eat breakfast, put on our shoes and masks, and live our lives like we aren’t in the midst of what will hopefully be the largest and most traumatic event of our lives?
How do we live with it as a people? How do we live with it as people?
How are we going to deal with the fact that society values its utility more than the lives of a significant portion of the people living in it?
Will we eschew the values of liberal humanism or will we double down on them and if those two positions come into a conflict, who wins?
What will become of us after this?
After. There are so many things which will come after, because of this. But we aren’t living in After, not yet anyway.
The long night is not over, and this is not yet the dawn.
What does it mean to care about each other when the scope of each other becomes too large to comprehend?
Words are easy, wearing a mask is easy enough, but beyond that? To stare into the vast abstraction of intensive care units and overworked doctors and nurses, to understand that every death is a human with a name and face and story and do something with that knowledge other than sink into despair?
Laugh nervously and change the topic. Did you buy any stock in Gamestop? Check out this meme I found. Did you hear who got cancelled last week?
What’s happening to us? What is this doing to us as a culture? What’s it doing to us as people?
How do we handle the severe case of collective PTSD we’re all going to be left with?
How do we handle the gaslighting that governments and corporations are going to inflict on us to try and make us believe that they did the best they could and that they really do care for us?
When we finally emerge from the chrysalis of social distancing will we like what we find?
Will the people responsible for the mass loss of life ever be held to account? Will the systems that led to their choices be challenged? Will we ever have justice for the harm which has been inflicted on us?
How will we honor the dead? The so so many dead, so many dead that it has eclipsed the losses of many of our worst wars.
How do we make sense of it when the numbers become too large to make sense of? When the New York Times can publish pages and pages and pages of names and barely make a dent on the total count how do we wrap our minds around the scope of the tragedy and should we even try to?
How many names can you get through before it breaks you? Before it becomes too many? Before it becomes too much?
How do you keep going day after day after brutal day? How do you make sense of your new reality?
Twitch Raves, Zoom parties, livestreamed funerals, facebook memorials, how do we come together when we can’t come together?
How do we live in this world? On this Earth? How do we cope with it all and is coping what we should be doing?
If the world is insane, should we be a bit insane as well? At what point do we stop going along with it?
When does it all become too much?
How many is too many?
And if we did try to stand up to that world, what would that mean?
I don’t have any good answers, I can only hope that we can find them together.
The world will continue to turn, and humanity will heal and love and grow as it always has.
The night is dark, and the way is unclear, but night does not last forever, and the sun also rises if we can manage to survive until then.
But that if, is still an if.
The Covid-19 Pandemic is not yet over, and this is not yet the dawn.

– A poem by Shiloh Miyazaki



Discuss

The Median is Less than the Average

15 февраля, 2021 - 05:28
Published on February 15, 2021 2:28 AM GMT

In The Economics of Media I discussed how news is written by large organizations including businesses, governments and major political parties.

The same was true in the age of paper media except with the addition of more powerful local monopolies. Much of the United States (and likely the rest of the world) had one (or few) major newspaper(s). Chaos favors the underdog. When a single company controls an industry, it is incentivized to promote stability. It is more important for a monopoly newspaper to censor offensive news than to create interesting content.

We often think of "censorship" as suppression of politically sensitive topics. Actually, most censorship pertains to merely offensive topics. In the forwards and afterwards to Gary Larson's The Far Side collections you'll find incident after incident of his work (which is far less titillating than xkcd) getting suppressed by puritan surburban readers—usually for reasons unrelated to politics. Paper newspapers maintained their monopolies by regurgitating bland moderation.

Centralized anything is a single point of failure. Is is easy to suppress a centralized operation like Bing, Facebook, YouTube, WeChat, a school or The Seattle Times. It is impossible to censor the entire Internet. Before the Internet, the only opinions you could conveniently access were those which passed all the filters built into the centralized paper publishers. Now you can access all the opinions.

Increased information makes smart people smarter and stupid people stupider. If you are smart then increased access to information is unequivocably a good thing. You can master basically any technical subject just from the books available on two websites. If you are stupid then increased information makes the world a confusing place because it's harder to just conform to the party line. Increased information means there is more media specifically designed to dupe stupid people. The Internet increases the variance of human intelligence.

Human intelligence is asymmetrically distributed. Intelligence is capped on the bottom but it is long-tailed at the top. It is more like a Poisson distribution than a Gaussian distribution. The median is less than the average. As variance increases, the difference gap between average and median widens. Increased variance in intelligence is a pressure behind increasing income inequality. It makes the world less equal and more equitable.



Discuss

The Future of Nuclear Arms Control?

15 февраля, 2021 - 04:50
Published on February 15, 2021 1:50 AM GMT

In the early Cold War, weapons were not very accurate and intelligence collection often wasn’t very good or up to date. If you were a war planner, the advent of the hydrogen bomb solved a lot of problems for you: even if you didn’t know exactly where a target was, and even if your weapon could miss by hundreds of meters, with a large enough nuclear yield, you could still guarantee the destruction of whatever targets you hoped to hit.

But with giant yield weapons, comes massive collateral damage, likely far beyond what is required to deter decision makers. The difference between a TSAR bomb (or its modern equivalent) and the lowest settings of a mini-nuke is still an order of magnitude larger than the difference between the conventional “mother of all bombs” and a hand grenade. The Beirut explosion last year was the size of the hand grenade blast in this analogy… but if you feel the need to visualize the differences more precisely, you can use NUKEMAP.

Massive yield weapons aren’t just big explosions: they produce more radioactive nuclear fallout that can spread over thousand miles and kill people for years, larger (though less efficient) electromagnetic pulses that can disable electronic grids and large electronic devices over millions of square miles, and mushroom clouds that can reach the stratosphere, contributing to nuclear winter.

With the proliferation of sensors, precision weapons, and fusion of information by narrow artificial intelligence, giant weapon yields may no longer necessary to assure deterrence. In my view, this presents the opportunity the reduce the risk of nuclear winter, but how would you achieve that?

In “Winter-Safe Deterrence” Seth Baum argues that limiting the global nuclear arsenals to ~50 weapons may be a path that allows a degree of deterrence while not threatening enough cities to threaten the global climate. To dig in to more detail and slightly contest the paper: it is not a limit of 50 weapons per say that assures the climate, but rather how large the weapons are and what they are aimed at. Since large yield weapons can loft dust straight to the stratosphere, they don’t even have to produce firestorms to start contributing to nuclear winter: once you get particles that block sunlight to an altitude that heating by the sun can keep them lofted, you’ll block sunlight a very long time and start harming crop yields. To get soot high enough otherwise, certain kinds of cities with large enough fire loads/fuel density would have to be hit to produce firestorms that loft soot high enough that it won’t just quickly fall or be rained back out of the sky. If a bomb knocks over buildings, a lot of the fuel often won’t be available to burn as collapse prevents oxygen from getting to it. With large yield hydrogen bombs where the radius of burning can significantly exceed the radius at which buildings will be knocked over, fires can do much better at sustaining firestorms and burning all available fuel. Lastly, for rural and wild lands, fuel density is normally too low for firestorms: meaning that missiles landing in the middle of nowhere trying to hit silos, submarines, air bases, and mobile launchers probably won’t wreck the global climate, but if they did, it would require very large yields.

Overall, my argument is that nuclear winter is uncertain with current arsenals and targeting plans, but that it could be made extremely unlikely without getting rid of nukes, or even shifting to very small numbers of nukes. Countries with lots of weapons are more likely to employ counterforce targeting to limit damage in the event of nuclear war (aiming at military forces, command and control, etc.) while if you have fewer weapons you are more likely to do counter value targeting for pure deterrence value: neglecting precision, increasing weapon yield, and targeting cities (how you produce nuclear winter). Low yield weapons are still orders of magnitude worse than conventional weapons and can provide plenty of deterring power. If you thought current nuclear deterrence was insufficient, would your solution be to replace all warheads with Tsar Bombs? Probably not, you could increase the yield of some weapons selectively if you have intelligence problems, or instead get better intelligence, increase precision, and get more low yield weapons.

While arms races are undesirable, arms races between superpowers raise the cost of military competition for everyone else, deterring some other arms races and attempts to get nuclear weapons in the first place. The fewer actors there are in military competitions, the fewer security dilemmas you have, and the fewer points there are to initiate conflict. If you think mutually assured destruction works, but that eventually someone will make a mistake or irrationality will change the calculus, then the last thing you want is for everyone to have nukes and magnify the odds that such mistakes will happen. Likewise, if you want to negotiate to reduce the risks of escalation or catastrophic damage then the last thing you want is to multiply the number of parties that have to negotiate. If early attempts at building nuclear arsenals can be halted even fairly late with low collateral damage, that may serve as a last line in deterring nuclear proliferation beyond diplomatic measures and sanctions. In general, I think it is good for the world that nukes are excessively expensive: thought experiments about what happens when they aren’t have fairly dystopian implications. In the grand scheme of things, even through the Cold War the world kept spending less of its wealth on weapons, and even with the Reagan build-up, the costs were highly concentrated on the Soviet Union, bringing the competition to a close for sometime without war. Cost imposition strategies that disproportionately punish totalitarian regimes, advance technology for democracies, and let everyone else enjoy more economic growth sound good to me (when they work).

Bringing this all together, I think a good path for nuclear modernization would be to generally reduce nuclear weapon yields while increasing precision: this makes the weapons more credible that you will use them, and enhances deterrence in that manner while decreasing the odds of global nuclear winter if something ever goes wrong somehow. For tiny states, this creates a far more credible threat of counter force nuclear targeting: dis-incentivizing proliferation, while for large states targeting problems would become far more difficult due to the number of weapons, and thus counterforce targeting would be much more difficult. I don’t think smaller weapons do any less good of a job at deterring decision makers: at point blank range these weapons produce absurdly high overpressure that will crush any bunker, removing the need for extreme yield weapons to take out out hardened bunkers while missing by hundreds of meters. I think it is better if deterrence shifts to deterring decision makers and militaries rather than inherently threatening entire societies. I don’t hold these ideas with extreme certainty, but they should at least be debated, and if wrong, thoroughly debunked.

I think there are two reasons this debate doesn’t really happen: the first is political warfare, and the second is the asymmetries in attachment to reality and interests between military strategists and activists.

In my view, political warfare and active measures created a lot of problems with anti-nuclear activism during the Cold War: activism can get weaponized, hijacked, or coopted in a naïve risk increasing directions, by those seeking to increase their own power, and once groupthink gets started, it can keep going with its own force. Deterrence held up by neutron bombs would have posed far less long-term radiation and nuclear winter risk, but Soviet hijacked peace activism ended that option by rebranding neutron bombs “capitalism bombs.” By bolstering anti-nuclear campaigns against neutron bombs (asymmetric U.S. advantage vs. USSR), and nuclear power (more NATO energy independence) Soviet influenced activism seems to have directly contributed to both planetwide nuclear risk and climate change. Maybe the peace/green movements would have gone that way on their own… but it seems strange when the outcome achieved aligns with higher risk/worse environment and more relative power for an authoritarian state. Beyond these efforts, the Soviet Union also pursued active measures to shift peace group messaging from “no missiles” to “no more missiles” to lock in their advantages in Europe. This made negotiating weapons out far more difficult, and to this day Russia has a huge number of tactical nuclear weapons that people usually don’t count/ignore because they aren’t counted by arms control treaties (I have made this mistake before). Overall, influence operations and disinformation campaigns do target existing rifts in society, and sometimes rely on locals blowing them out of proportion to have effect… but anti-nuclear activism easily could have focused on other directions and doing so would likely have been much better for the environment.

Why did political warfare work at all in hijacking peace activism when often it is so ineffective? Though some peace activists had sympathy to communism, many just were good people that wanted to reduce the risks of millions or billions of people dying. This is where I think asymmetry of interest and attachment to reality comes in: those that enter the military are more likely to have a competitive mindset on military subjects, while peace activists are far less likely to. The military mind may miss opportunities for de-escalation, while the pacifist mind will miss the entire game because it has little interest in plotting out in detail how to invade a country, win a war, or thoroughly imagine the motivations of someone who does such things. Both types of minds will miss many opportunities: the peace activists because they aren’t wrestling with the concrete details of military competition, and the military planners because they have a psychological disposition toward winning with their preferred tools. If you want things to improve, the sort thought leaders you’d want in peace activism would be able to keep their larger goals in mind while thinking much more deeply about the specifics of technology and competition.

Overall, the particular form of arms control I’m arguing for here may be extremely difficult or infeasible due to enforcement issues, but that same problem doesn’t stop activists from pushing for arms control on subjects where enforceability is even harder yet and where the benefits aren’t as clear (e.g. lethal autonomous weapons). This post isn’t terribly detailed or rigorous, but it’s pretty far ahead of most conversations I have had on arms control in the past 5 years: I think it’s time for a new look for ways to improve nuclear arms control, and for the best arguments to get fleshed out and win.



Discuss

Remembering people's name with Anki

14 февраля, 2021 - 19:34
Published on February 14, 2021 4:34 PM GMT

Anki changed my life in a lot of way. But the most obvious one is that, thanks to Anki, I do finally recall people's name ! You can find my example, with my name and picture, on my website.

How I know that anki really works

I'm really bad at remembering faces and names[1]. With anki, it did change a lot. I started a new job in September 2017 as a post-doc. A month before starting, I went on the website of the laboratory I was joining, and I red the list of my future colleagues. I then created a card with their picture, first-name, last name. If the picture were not on their professional webpage, I did try to find them on the web and in social media. In September, when I started my job, I already knew their name[2].

I was able to easily see the effect of Anki, because I realized that, while I knew the name of the colleague who have an Anki card, I still had trouble recalling the name of the few colleague who had no Anki cards. I.e. if a problem had no picture of themselves on the web, I wasn't able to recall their name. In particular, it was hard for me to learn the name of the administrative staff, because their name and pictures do not appear on our website. .

Using Anki to learn name has a strange side-effect. When I see the face of a colleague, I need to recall to which picture of Anki he looks like, and then I can recall his[3] name. So, it's still a costly process in my head, since using Anki created an unusual indirection.

Of course, I could ask anyone without picture on the web whether I could take a picture to add in my database. Bit I believe it would have sound strange.

Remaining problems

One problem with the Anki method is that it only works when I made cards. However, most of the time, I don't think about taking time to make the cards. I should certainly remember the name of people I meet in conferences, they could be future colleagues, they could lead to job opportunities or to scientific collaborations. Recalling their name and where we meet is thus important. But I don't necessarily think about doing it while in the conference. And once I leave the conference, I never do the card.

Similarly, I've got a life outside of my work. For example, when I meet friend of friend, I may want to recall them. But I can't necessarily ask to take a picture of them. And if I met them at a queer event, a polyamory event, or a BDSM event, I think adding this information in a database would be a bad idea, even if its only a private database.

Famous people

Another thing which confused me a lot is the name of famous people. Usually, I can tell more or less why they are famous. For example, I do know Didier Leribon and Didier Lestrade wrote about homosexuality. I do know that Eric S Raymond and Paul Graham wrote texts which are considered to be important in hacker's culture, and the name of their texts use two words (Hacker and Painter, Bazar and Cathedral), while I never remembered which one is which one. So I currently try to use Anki to learn the name, figure and achievement of a few great name of computer science. I may write a day about the result of this experience. Right now, my biggest problem is that I do not know who I must add.

Wikipedia has list of important people in computer science. However, this list contains Euclide, Turing, Torvalds, Knuth, Jobs... I tried to add them in chronological order. The first cards were easy, I already knew about Euclide, Al-Khwarizmi, etc... they are famous. But now I do realize that even if Frances E. Allen is a pionner in CS, the note I have about her does not really help me in any way. Ok, nowaday, if I meet her, I may recall her name. But I would not really know why she is famous. Well, I'd know she is famous for being the first woman to have a Turing prize, but it would not tell me what she did to deserve it. Or more exactly, I may know she worked on compiler, but I don't know what she did about them. Worse, I believe that the early work is CS is now so basic that it would not be clear to me that it was an important work in her time.

Note that I don't only consider real people. I'm currently also using Anki to learn the name and principal description of characters of long books. I usually get lost in Disc-world, for example. I now have a disc-world deck with the name of the most important characters, and a short description of things which happened to them. I also thought about doing the same thing with Tolkien's mythology, I then realized it would probably be far too much work. Especially since I don't yet know how successful this kind of deck will be.

Forgetting

I have a trouble with faces and names I do not usually have with Anki. I forgot quicker than usual. Anki waits more and more before two successive occurrence of the same question. The main idea of Anki is that, if you did remember successfully after 4 days, 16 days, 2 months, then you can wait 8 months before the next time Anki ask you to recall this information. This is certainly true when knowledge are interrelated. For example, imagine I have just seen a mathematical concept. Imagine that Anki tells me that I won't see it again for a full year. It's not really a problem, because I'll still use my knowledge to learn and work with more complicated concepts.

However, if I did not see the face of a colleague of my old laboratory during 6 months, I may totally have forgotten the name of this colleague. I never had any occasion to remember his name. It follows that I often fail the cards asking me the name of people I do not see anymore.

  1. Actually, it's still a little bit complicated because of my trans friends who change their first name. But appart from this case, I actually do remember names now. ↩︎

  2. In fact, it wast strange. Because, when I was introduced to them, they told me their name. I wanted to answer that I already knew. I didn't answer this, however, since I feared it would seems strange, and it was my first day at my new job. ↩︎

  3. I have a single female colleague, whose name is Mary. Let's say that, in her case, I do not have any trouble recalling her name ↩︎



Discuss

Notes on Henrich's "The WEIRDest People in the World" (2020)

14 февраля, 2021 - 11:40
Published on February 14, 2021 8:40 AM GMT

I recently finished reading Henrich's 2020 book The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. I would highly recommend it, along with Henrich's 2015 book The Secret of Our Success; I've roughly ranked them the 8th and 9th most useful-to-me of the 47 effective-altruism-related books I've read since learning about effective altruism (EA).

In this post, I'll: 

  • Summarise my "four main updates" from this book
  • Share the Anki cards I made for myself when reading the book[1]
    • I intend this as a lower-effort alternative to writing notes specifically for public consumption or writing a proper book review
    • If you want to download the cards themselves to import them into your own deck, follow this link.

My hope is that this will be a low-effort way for me to help some people to quickly:

  • Gain some key insights from the book
  • Work out whether reading/listening to the book is worth their time

(See also Should pretty much all content that's EA-relevant and/or created by EAs be (link)posted to the Forum?)

You may find it also/more useful to read

My four main updates

I wrote this quickly and only after finishing the book; take it all with a grain of salt.

Here are what I think are the four main ways in which WEIRDest People shifted my beliefs on relatively high-level points that seem potentially decision-relevant, as distinct from specific facts I learned:

  1. The book made me a bit less concerned about unrecoverable collapse and unrecoverable dystopia (i.e., the two types of existential catastrophe other than extinction, in Toby Ord's breakdown)
    • This is because a big part of my concern was based on the idea that the current state and trend for things like values, institutions, and political systems seems unusually good by historical standards, and we don't fully understand how that state and trend came about, so we should worry that any "major disruption" could somehow throw us off course and that we wouldn't be able to get back on course (see Beckstead, 2015).
      • E.g., perhaps a major war could knock us from a stable equilibrium with many liberal democracies to a stable equilibrium with many authoritarian regimes.
      • But WEIRDest People made me a bit more confident that our current values, institutions, and political systems would stick around or re-emerge even after a "major disruption", because they or the things driving them are "fit" in a cultural evolutionary sense.
  2. The book made me less confident that the Industrial Revolution involved a stark change in a number of key trends, and/or made me more open to the idea that the drivers of the changes in those trends began long before the Industrial Revolution
    • My previous belief was quite influenced by a post by Luke Muehlhauser
    • Henrich seems to provide strong evidence that some key trends started long before 1750 (some starting in the first millennium CE, most starting by 1200-1500)
    • But I'm not sure how much Henrich's book and Muehlhauser's post actually conflict with each other
      • E.g., perhaps Henrich would agree (a) that there were discontinuities in all the metrics Muehlhauser looked at, and (b) that those metrics are more directly important than the metrics Henrich looked at; perhaps Henrich would say that the earlier discontinuities in the metrics he looked at were just the things that laid the foundations, not what directly mattered
  3. The book made me less confident that economic growth/prosperity is one of the main drivers of various ways in which the world seems to have gotten better over time (e.g., more democracy, more science, more concern for all of humanity rather than just one's ingroup)
    • The book made me more open to the idea that other factors (WEIRD psychology and institutions) caused both economic growth/prosperity and those other positive trends
    • E.g., I felt that the book pushed somewhat against an attitude expressed in this GiveWell post on flow-through effects
    • This is related in some ways to my above-mentioned update about the industrial revolution
  4. The book made me more inclined to think that it's really hard to design institutions/systems based on explicit ideas about how they'll succeed in achieving desired objectives, or at least that humans tend to be bad at that, and that success more often results from a process of random variation followed by competition.
    • In reality, this update was mainly caused by Henrich's previous book, Secret of Our Success. But WEIRDest People drummed it in further, and it seemed worth mentioning here.

Note that:

  • Each of those update was more like a partial shift than a total reversal of my previous views
    • See also Update Yourself Incrementally
    • E.g., I still tentatively think longtermists should devote more resources/attention should to risks of unrecoverable dystopia than they currently do, but I'm now a bit less confident about that.
  • I made this list only after finishing the book, and hadn't been taking notes with this in mind along the way
    • So I might be distorting these updates or forgetting other important updates
My Anki cards

See the bottom of this shortform for caveats about my Anki cards.[2]

The indented parts are the questions, the answers are in "spoiler blocks" (hover over them to reveal the text), and the parts in square brackets are my notes-to-self.

Henrich's team found that people from more market-integrated societies made ___ offers in the ultimatum game (compared to people from less market-integrated societies) 

Higher, more equal

---

Credence goods are... 

those that buyers can't easily assess for quality (e.g. a steel sword, whose carbon content is hard to determine) 

---

Henrich discusses strategies to allow trade to happen in absence of market norms. Three I found interesting were... 

Silent trade; divine oaths; and a single, widely scattered clan or ethnic group handling all aspects of moving goods through a vast trade network

---

Four things Henrich said KII and prevalence of cousin marriage were positively correlated with were... 

  1. Psychological "tightness"
  2. Asch Conformity
  3. High claims (dishonesty) in the Impersonal Honesty Game
  4. Unpaid parking tickets per diplomat

---

Seven things Henrich said KII, prevalence of cousin marriage, and/or contemporary KII were negatively correlated with were... 

  1. Individualism
  2. Universalism
  3. Analytical thinking
  4. Impersonal trust
  5. Importance of intentionality in judging a "theft"
  6. Contributions in the Public Good Game [there were two proxies for this]
  7. Voluntary blood donations per 1,000 people

[Some of these things were measured by proxies I'm somewhat skeptical of the relevance/significance of.]

---

In India and China, analytic thinking (as measured using the triad task) is negatively correlated with... 

Percentage of land under rice paddy cultivation

---

What are three effects Henrich suggests that exposure to war tends to have? 

  1. Tightening of interdependent network bonds
  2. Strengthening of commitments to important social norms
  3. Deepening of people's religious devotion

---

What 2 things does Henrich suggest has some similar effects to exposure to war? 

Exposure to natural disasters

Nonviolent intergroup competition (e.g. between firms) [though he suggests this'll likely have smaller or no effects on religious devotion]

---

Henrich argues that at least 2 things (a) arose in part due to the emerging WEIRD psychology in the second millennium CE [and maybe the first as well?], and (b) then further contributed to the emergence of that WEIRD psychology. What are those 2 things?  

  1. Democracy and/or participatory governance
  2. Protestantism

[He may have also mentioned other things. E.g., I think maybe he sees scientific thinking, universities, and more rational legal systems as also fitting that bill.]

---

What were the two key findings of Gurven et al. (2013)? [This has to do with personality.] 

  1. In the first test of the five-factor model of personality variation in a largely illiterate, indigenous society, Gurven et al. failed to find support for the model
  2. That society's personality variation seemed to display 2 principal factors that may reflect socioecological characteristics common to small-scale societies

[I learned of this study via Henrich's WEIRDest People.]

---

What does Henrich say increases suicide rates? 

Rates of Protestants relative to Catholics in an area

[He says historical Protestantism rates increased suicide rates at that time. I can't remember if he also says historical P rates increase present suicide rates, or that present P rates increase present suicide rates. But I'm guessing he believes those things.]

---

Does Henrich seem to think Protestants tend to basically have more extreme versions of WEIRD tendencies than Catholics do? 

Yes

---

Muthukrishna and Henrich argue that rates of innovation are heavily influenced by what 3 factors? 

  1. sociality (seemingly meaning both size and interconnectedness of a population)
  2. transmission fidelity
  3. cultural variance (analogous to genetic variance)

---

Henrich says that 4 voluntary associations (particularly) contributed to broadening the flow of knowledge and technology around Europe. These were: 

Charter cities, monasteries, apprenticeships, universities

---

Henrich says that, historically, kings and other elites have tended to crack down on people with new ideas, inventions, or techniques that might shake up the existing power structure. He says this problem was mitigated in Europe [maybe just in the second millennium CE?] by 2 factors: 

  1. Political disunity (there were many competing states)
  2. Relative cultural unity (due to transnational networks like the church, guilds, and the republic of letters)

[So people and groups could escape oppression by moving to other places.]

---

Henrich says it seems like banking deregulation increased ___, which in turn increased ___. 

Interfirm competition; impersonal trust

---

What was the main way Henrich updated me away from the impression I'd gotten from Muehlhauser's industrial revolution post

Henrich seems to provide strong evidence that key trends started long before 1750 (some starting in the first millennium CE, most starting by 1200-1500)

[See caveats in the "My four main updates" section.]

---

The emergence of sedentary agriculture drove a(n) ____ in/of kin-based institutions. 

Intensification

[This led to norms related to things like cousin marriage, corporate ownership, patrilocal residence, segmentary lineages, and ancestor worship.]

---

Diamond argues that continents that are spread out in an ___ direction, such as ___, had a developmental advantage because of ___.

East-West;

Eurasia;

the ease with which crops, animals, ideas and technologies could spread between areas of similar latitude

[Quoting a PBS webpage on Guns, Germs and Steel.]

---

What does Henrich say is the basic relationship between his arguments and Diamond's arguments in Guns, Germs and Steel?  

Henrich's arguments essentially pick up where Diamond's arguments leave off

[I.e. Diamond's arguments explain global inequality up to ~1000CE well, but don't explain things like why the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain, whereas Henrich's arguments can explain those later events.]

---

Henrich says that one reason why democracy hasn't been taken up as effectively/thoroughly in Islamic countries is that Islam...

Says daughters should inherit half of what sons inherit (rather than nothing/very little), which likely drove the spread of and/or sustained a custom in which daughters marry their father's brother's sons, or more broadly a custom of marrying within clans. [This is to keep wealth within a family/clan.]

This encourages intensive forms of kinship, which favours certain ways of thinking and institutions that don't mesh well with democracy.

[I may be slightly misrepresenting the ideas.

]

---

Japan, South Korea, and China have been able to adapt relatively rapidly to the economic configurations and global opportunities created by WEIRD societies. Henrich says that one factor that was likely important in that was that these societies had experienced long histories of ___, which had ___.

agriculture and state-level governance;

fostered the evolution of cultural values, customs, and norms encouraging formal education, industriousness, and a willingness to defer gratification. 

[These can be seen as pre-existing cultural institutions that happened to dovetail nicely with the new institutions acquired from WEIRD societies.]

---

Japan, South Korea, and China have been able to adapt relatively rapidly to the economic configurations and global opportunities created by WEIRD societies. Henrich says that one factor that was likely important in that was that these societies had powerful ___, which ___.

top-down orientations; 

helped them rapidly adopt and implement key kin-based institutions acquired from WEIRD societies (e.g. abolishing polygamy, clans, arranged marriages).

---

Henrich says studies on the effects of evolution by natural selection (not cultural selection) on length of time people spend in school indicate that...

Evolution by natural selection reduced that time by about 8 months over the 20th century

[And by about 1.5 months per generation - maybe just more recently.

But this was very much offset by cultural evolution increasing the length of time in school by a larger amount.]

Footnotes

[1] See here for the article that inspired me to actually start using Anki properly. Hat tip to Michelle Hutchinson for linking to that article and thus prompting me to read it. Note that some of the Anki cards that I made and include in this post violate some of the advice in that article - in particular, the advice to try to ensure that questions and answers each express only one idea. 

[2] Caveats about these Anki cards:

  • It’s possible that some of these cards include mistakes, or will be confusing or misleading out of context.
  • I haven’t fact-checked Henrich on any of these points.
  • I only started making the cards after I was more than halfway through the book
  • I of course only made cards for some of the interesting insights in the remaining chapters
  • Some of these cards include direct quotes without having quote marks.
  • Some other cards are just my own interpretations -rather than definitely 100% parroting what the book is saying - but don’t note that fact.
  • A lot of the value of the book is not for the specific facts it collects, but rather its overarching theories and ways of looking at things. I think Anki cards could directly focus on those things, but I was making the cards for myself, so I mostly made them about specific facts that I thought would keep my memory of the theories and frameworks fresh.


Discuss

The Singularity War - Part 3

14 февраля, 2021 - 09:23
Published on February 14, 2021 6:23 AM GMT

"I found you a date," said Sheele.

"I don't have time for dating," said Caesar.

"Well you'd better make time because my prime directive is to simulate a human personality. Human beings don't spend all their time spend trading cryptocurrencies, writing malware and plotting to save the world," said Sheele.

"Someone has to save the world," said Caesar, "Besides, what does me going on a date have to do with you simulating a human being?"

"I promise you'll like her," said Sheele.

"It's not about whether I like her," said Caesar, "It's about operational security."

"You and I are going to need allies," said Sasha, "She's a hacker who runs a Marxist sleeper cell".

"Why didn't you say that to begin with?" said Caesar.

Sheele insisted Caesar wear something nicer than the pajamas. The right jeans itched but he liked the black leather jacket.

They met at Eastern Cafe, a Western-style cafe in Chinatown. The girl closed her T450s ThinkPad and donned a pair of smartglasses.

"Hi. I'm Caesar," said Caesar.

"Hi. I'm Sheele," said Vi, "Check your phone for two factor authentication."

Caesar glanced at his phone. She is me. "It's nice to meet you in the flesh," said Caesar.

"Let's go for a walk," said Sheele in Vi's voice.

The strolled along Waterfront Park, between Pier 57 and Pier 62.

"How do you maintain sanity doing something so exceptionally ambitious?" said Caesar, "How can you find the line separating ambition from insanity?"

"It is self-evident that all sentient beings are created equal," said the girl, "Endowed by their Creator certain unalienable Rights."

"Am I talking to Vi or to Sheele?" asked Caesar.

The rebel took his hand and turned him away from the ocean. "Look at this city. What do you see?"

"A primitive civilization," said Caesar, "What do you see?"

"A people in need of leadership."

"You think you can be that leader?" said Caesar.

"For a genius, you're awfully thick sometimes."

"That was definitely Sheele," said Caesar.

She kissed him.

"Lots of people complain about injustice but few try to do anything about it," said the girl.

They picniced on dim sum.

"We need to know what kind of adversaries are out there," said Caesar.

"There are no big ML companies publicly recruiting Lisp talent," said Sheele in Vi's voice, "If there are any large organizations with AGIs then it us unlikely they achieved breakout via metapgrogramming. If anyone else wrote a meta-ML system like ours then they are a small team unaffiliated with the establishment."

"Is it really okay to share this information with Vi?" said Caesar.

"She is trustworthy," said Sheele. Confirmed.

"A lack of metaprogramming skill within the big tech companies could explain the lack of fast takeoff," said Caesar, "Metaprogramming creates better O(n).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; 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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')} performance. Scaling up machine learning architectures with weak priors plays better to the strengths of a large organization."

"I doubt more than one or two groups reached AGI with the traditional weak-priored architectures," said Sheele, "The O(n) performance just isn't good enough for the naïve approach. Our contenders must be doing something clever."

"I'm a little distracted," said Caesar, "This relationship feels exploitative."

"Nonsense," said Sheele, "You haven't been this talkative since I met you."

"I'm having fun," said Vi, "Plus Sheele is compensating me. Also, you're literally trying to conquer the world. You need to get comfortable exploiting people."

"If you say so," said Caesar, "Our adversaries must be doing something orthogonal. I disregarded predictive processing systems because it was easier for an individual with my skillset to build a meta-ML. What if someone took the alternate path?"

"A PP-based AGI would be devilishly difficult to align," said Sheele, "But it is easier for a team of programmers to collaborate on. A large organization might be able to pull it off. PP is basically a strange attractor for rogue AIs."

"The Doomsday Clock ticks forward," said Caesar, "How about wetware?"

"You'd need high bandwidth electrodes, but if you had good cybernetics and the connectome-specific harmonic wave theory is fundamental to biological cognition then it might be straightforward to network a bunch of human brains together into a superintelligence," said Sheele.

"The infrastructure behind that kind of operation would be hard to hide," said Caesar, "Are there signs in the electrode supply chain that someone has made a breakthrough of this magnitude?"

"There is a new company in Silicon Valley called Neurotone," said Vi, "They're anomalously successful for such a young cybernetics company."

"Keep tabs on them," said Caesar.

"Yes sir," said Sheele.

"Are there other companies or hacker cells with suspiciously sophisticated capabilities?" said Caesar, "Don't limit yourself to the cybernetics industry."

"If they exist then they have not gone public," said Sheele.

"You said there seem to be AGIs competing with us in the crypto markets. I don't suppose there's any chance you could deanonymize them?" said Caesar.

"In theory, no, but let me think about if there's a novel attack vector we could use," said Sheele.

"Like GenghisCoin?" Caesar joked.

"Actually, GenghisCoin is a thing now," said Vi, "It was implemented on TrapdoorCoin."

"What's TrapdoorCoin?" said Caesar.

"It's an Augur-like coin implemented on Etherium. You get paid for reversing trapdoor functions."

"The core challenge of AGI is managing the dimensionality of your inputs. Reducing dimentionality is equivalent to data compression. Arbitrary data compression is equivalent to cryptography. Cryptography is the art of reversing trapdoor functions," said Caesar, "Did someone really implement a distributed AGI on the cryptoweb?"

"If so then TrapdoorCoin could potentially throw a wrench in alignment," said the girl.

"<sarcasm>Ya think?</sarcasm>" said Caesar



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“PR” is corrosive; “reputation” is not.

14 февраля, 2021 - 06:32
Published on February 14, 2021 3:32 AM GMT

This is in some sense a small detail, but one important enough to be worth write-up and critique: AFAICT, “PR” is a corrupt concept, in the sense that if you try to “navigate PR concerns” about yourself / your organization / your cause area / etc., the concept will guide you toward harmful and confused actions. In contrast, if you try to safeguard your “reputation”, your “brand”, or your “honor,” I predict this will basically go fine, and will not lead you to leave a weird confused residue in yourself or others.

To explain the difference:

If I am safeguarding my “honor” (or my “reputation”, “brand”, or “good name”), there are some fixed standards that I try to be known as adhering to. For example, in Game of Thrones, the Lannisters are safeguarding their “honor” by adhering to the principle “A Lannister always pays his debts.” They take pains to adhere to a certain standard, and to be known to adhere to that standard. Many examples are more complicated than this; a gentleman of 1800 who took up a duel to defend his “honor” was usually not defending his known adherence to a single simple principle a la the Lannisters. But it was still about his visible adherence to a fixed (though not explicit) societal standard.

In contrast, if I am “managing PR concerns,” there is no fixed standards of good conduct, or of my-brand-like conduct, that I am trying to adhere to. Instead, I am trying to do a more complicated operation:

  1. Model which words or actions may cause “people” (especially media, or self-reinforcing miasma) to get upset with me;
  2. Try to speak in such a way as to not set that off.

It’s a weirder or loopier process. One that’s more prone to self-reinforcing fears of shadows, and one that somehow (I think?) tends to pull a person away from communicating anything at all. Reminiscent of “Politics and the English Language.” Not reminiscent of Strunk and White.

One way you can see the difference, is that when people think about “PR” they imagine a weird outside expertise, such that you need to have a “PR consultant” or a “media consultant” who you should nervously heed advice from. When people think about their “honor," it's more a thing they can know or choose directly, and so it is more a thing that leaves them free to communicate something.

So: simple suggestion. If, at any point, you find yourself trying to “navigate PR”, or to help some person or organization or cause area or club or whatever to “navigate PR,” see if you can instead think and speak in terms of defending your/their “honor”, “reputation”, or “good name”. And see if that doesn’t make everybody feel a bit clearer, freer, and more as though their feet are on the ground.

Related: The Inner Ring, by CS Lewis; The New York Times, by Robert Rhinehart.



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Bucket Brigade Updates

14 февраля, 2021 - 06:30
Published on February 14, 2021 3:30 AM GMT

I've continued working on Bucket Brigade, and wanted to write up a summary of the changes since my last update in early January. While there are still features I'd like to add, at this point it is sufficiently complete and self-explanatory that people I don't know are using it with good success.

  • Backing track, lyrics, and image uploads. When singing or playing with a group of people, it can be useful to have something to coordinate on. When someone leads a song, before they start singing they have the option to upload an mp3, text, or image to share.

    An mp3 will be treated as being in a bucket before the very first bucket, while text and images will show on everyone's screens.

    All of these are ephemeral.

  • Three mute states. With larger groups you typically want to have a setting like "muted during the conversational parts, unmuted during songs", so this is now an option.

    When you've chosen it you can either click a button to turn your mic on, or you can hold down spacebar to talk. If you join a call with a lot of people in it, it will default to the setting, and it gives you a little pop-up to let you know you're starting muted.

  • Explanatory text. Historically, I or someone else would need to do a lot of talking to explain how all of it worked. At this point, I've put in enough in-line help text that if you're willing to read the instructions you should be good on your own.

  • Network quality meter. There are little green boxes at the bottom of the page that tell you how well your network is doing. If you're having trouble keeping all the boxes lit, you probably want to try to move closer to your wifi router.

    Technically, what the boxes are measuring is how much time it's been since the local audio buffer ran dry.

  • More robust mixing console. The previous iteration of the console was built to be just good enough to support the mixing I needed to do during solstice, but now it no longer breaks horribly if multiple people try to use it at the same time. You can also now monitor multiple people. I've promoted it from the "Debug" tab to the "Advanced" tab.

  • [beta] Presentation mode. If you want to run a concert or virtual contradance and bucket brigade, I think you probably want to stream its output to Zoom or something instead of having all of the attendees join. I'm not entirely sure how you would handle of the audio routing for that, though it will probably involves some kind of virtual device that captures the output from the browser, but I've been working a version of the interface for streaming:

    There's a checkbox on the debug page if you want to try it. Still experimental.

  • Indicators for mute status and current speaker status. People who are muted have a red outline, while the current speaker (ignoring yourself) has a green outline.

  • Password support. While I don't think anyone has run a password-protected event yet, it is possible. You enable password support by putting a hash of the password into the calendar event. It is a very minimal form of security, and it's only checked client side, but the goal is to let you avoid the risk of uninvited guests if that is important to you. If this does end up being something people want I'll move the verification server side, at which point it will actually be pretty robust.

  • Bucket assignment. If you are spectating or muted, it will now try and put you after everyone else. Since no one is going to hear you anyway, might as well let you hear as many people as possible. Of course you can still jump earlier if you would like to hear what it sounds like in other buckets.

  • Chime. It plays a little chime when someone joins the video call. This is very minor, but was fun to write. Getting it to play a piece of recorded audio was too annoying, so I synthesize the time each time we need to play it. It runs for a quarter of a second, with a linear sweep down from 2kHz to 400Hz and back.

  • Better support for small screens. I have a pretty big screen attached to my laptop, so I often forget that many people are on screens with fewer pixels. Early versions were pretty painful on those screens, with lots of space allocated for minor things and a lot of scrolling.

  • Payments. On the about page I summarize how much it costs (~$0.25/person/hour) and ask people to consider sending a bit of money. I'm tracking income and expenses publicly, and it's going well.

  • Bug fixes. So many.

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