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Iterated Trust Kickstarters

20 апреля, 2021 - 06:18
Published on April 20, 2021 3:18 AM GMT

Epistemic Status: I haven't actually used this through to completion with anyone. But, it seems like a tool that I expect to be useful, and it only really works if multiple people know about it.

In this post, I want to make you aware of a few things:

Iterated kickstarters: Kickstarters where all the payment doesn't go in instantly – instead people pay in incrementally, after seeing partial progress on the goal. (Or, if you don't actually have a government-backed-assurance-contract, people pay in incrementally as you see other people pay in incrementally, so the system doesn't require as much trust to bootstrap)

Trust kickstarters: Kickstarters that are not about money, and are instead about "do we have the mutual trust, goodwill and respect necessary to pull a project or relationship off?" I might be scared to invest into my relationship with you, if I don't think you're invested in me.

Iterated trust kickstarters: Combining those two concepts.

Iterated Kickstarters

In The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling (of Schelling Point fame), poses a problem: Say you have a one-shot coordination game. If Alice put in a million dollars, and her business partner Bob puts in a million dollars, they both get 10 million dollars. But if only one of you puts in a million, the other can abscond with it.

A million dollars is a lot of money for most people. Jeez. 

What to do?

Well, hopefully you live in a society that has built well-enforced laws around assurance contracts (aka "kickstarters"). You put in a million. If your partner backs out, the government punishes them, and/or forces them to return the money.

But what if there isn't a government? What if we live in the Before Times, and we're two rival clans who for some reason have a temporary incentive to work together (but still incentive to defect)? What if we live in present day, but Alice and Bob are two entirely different countries with no shared tradition of cooperation?

There are a few ways to solve this. But one way is to split the one shot dilemma into an iterated game. Instead of putting in a million dollars, you each put in $10. If you both did that, then you each put in another $10, and another. Now that the game is iterated, the payoff strategy changes from prisoner's dilemma to stag hunt. Sure, at any given time you could defect, but you'd be getting a measly $10, and giving up on a massive $10 million potential payoff.

You see small versions of this fairly commonly on craigslist or in other low-trust contract work. "Pay me half the money up front, and then half upon completion." 

This still sometimes results in people running off with the first half of the money. I'm assuming people do "half and half" instead of splitting it into even smaller chunks because the transaction costs get too high. But for many contractors, there are benefits to following through (instead of taking the money and running), because there's still a broader iterated game of reputation, and getting repeat clients, who eventually introduce you to other clients, etc.

(You might say that the common employment model of "I do a week of work, and then you pay me for a week of work, over and over again" is a type of iterated kickstarter).

If you're two rival clans of outlaws, trying to bootstrap trust, it's potentially fruitful to establish a tradition of cooperation, where the longterm payoff is better than any individual chance to defect.

Trust Kickstarters

Meanwhile: sometimes the thing that needs kickstarting is not money, but trust and goodwill.

Goodwill kickstarters

I've seen a few situations where multiple parties feel aggrieved, exhausted, and don't want to continue a relationship anymore. This could happen to friends, lovers, coworkers, or project-cofounders.

They each feel like the other person was more at fault. They each feel taken advantage of, and like it'd make them a doormat if they went and extended an olive branch when the other guy hasn't even said "sorry" yet. 

This might come from a pure escalation spiral: Alice accidentally is a bit of a jerk to Bob on Monday. Then Bob feels annoyed and acts snippy at Alice on Tuesday. Then on Wednesday Alice is like "jeez Bob what's your problem?" and then is actively annoying as retribution. And by the end of the month they're each kinda actively hostile and don't want to be friends anymore.

Sometimes, the problem stems from cultural mismatches. Carl keeps being late to meetings with Dwight. For Dwight, "not respecting my time" is a serious offense that annoys him a lot. For Carl, trying to squeeze in a friend hangout when you barely have time is a sign of love (and meanwhile doesn't care when people are late). At first, they don't know about each other's different cultural assumptions, and they just accidentally 'betray' each other. Then they start getting persistently mad about the conflict and accrue resentment.

Their mutual friend Charlie comes by and sees that Alice and Bob are in conflict, but the conflict stems is all downstream from a misunderstanding, or a minor mishap that really didn't need to have been a big deal.

"Can't you just both apologize and move on?" asks Charlie.

But by now, after months of escalation, Alice and Bob have both done some things that were legitimately hurtful to each other, or have mild PTSD-like symptoms around each other. 

They'd be willing to sit down, apologize, and work through their problems, if the other one apologized first. When they imagine apologizing first, they feel scared and vulnerable.

I'll be honest, I feel somewhat confused about how to best to relate to this sort of situation. I'm currently related it through the lens of game-theory. I can imagine the best advice for most people is to not overthink it, don't stress about game theory. Maybe you should just be letting your hearts and bodies be talking to each other, elephant to elephant.

But... also, it seems like the game theory is just really straightforward here. A "goodwill kickstarter" really should Just Work in these circumstances. If it's true that "I would apologize to you if you apologized to me", and vice versa, holy shit, why are you two still fighting? 

Just, agree that you will both apologize conditional on the other person apologizing, and that you would both be willing to re-adopt a friendship relational stance conditional on the other person doing that.

And then, do that. 

Competence Kickstarter

Alternately, you might to kickstart "trust in competence."

Say that Joe keeps screwing up at work – he's late, he's dropping the ball on projects, he's making various minor mistakes, he's communicating poorly. And his boss Henry has started getting angry about it, nagging Joe constantly, pressuring Joe to stay late to finish his work, constantly micromanaging him.

I can imagine some stories here where Joe was "originally" the one at fault (he was just bad at his job for some preventable reason one week, and then Henry started getting mad). I can also imagine stories here where the problems stemmed originally from Henry's bad management (maybe Henry was taking some unrelated anger out on Joe, and then Joe started caring less about his job).

Either way, by now they can't stand each other. Joe feels anxious heading into work each day. Henry feels like talking to Joe isn't work it.

They could sit down, earnestly talk through the situation, take stock of how to improve it. But they don't feel like they can have that conversation, for two reasons.

One reason is that there isn't enough goodwill. The situation has escalated and both are pissed at each other.

Another reason, though, is that they don't trust each other's competence.

Manager Henry doesn't trust that Joe can actually reliably get his work done.

Employee Joe doesn't believe that Henry can give Joe more autonomy, talk to him with respect, etc.

In some companies and some situations, by this point it's already too late. It's pretty overdetermined that Henry fires Joe. But that's not always the right call. Maybe Henry and Joe have worked together long enough to remember that they used to be able to work well together. It seems like it should be possible to repair the working relationship. Meanwhile Joe has a bunch of talents that are hard to replace – he built many pieces of the company infrastructure and training a new person to replace him would be costly. And there's a bunch of nice things about the company they work that makes Joe prefer not to have to quit to find a better job elsewhere.

To repair the relationship, Henry needs to believe that Joe can start getting work done reliably. Joe needs to believe that Henry can start treating him with respect, without shouting angrily or micromanaging.

This only works if they in fact both can credibly signal that they will do these things. This works if the missing ingredient is "just try harder." Maybe the only reason Joe isn't working reliably is that he no longer believes it's worth it, and the only reason Henry is being an annoying manager is that he felt like he needed to get Joe to get his stuff done on time.

In that case, it's reasonably straightforward to say: "I would do my job if you did yours", coupled with the relational-stance-change of "I would become genuinely excited to be your employee if you became genuinely excited about being my boss".

Sometimes, this won't work. The kickstarter can't trigger because Henry doesn't, in fact, trust Joe to do the thing, even if Joe is trying hard.

But, you can still clearly lay out the terms of the kickstarter. "Joe, here's what I need from you. If you can't do that, maybe I need to fire you. Maybe you need to go on a sabbatical and see if you can get your shit together." Maybe you can explore other possible configurations. Maybe the reason Joe isn't getting his work done is because of a problem at home, and he needs to take a couple weeks off to fix his marriage or something, but would be able to come back and be a valuable team member afterwards.

I think having the terms of the kickstarter clearly laid out is helpful for thinking about the problem, without having to commit to anything.

Why do you need to think about this in terms of "kickstarter", rather than just "a deal?". What feels special to me about relationship kickstarters is that relationship (and perhaps other projects) benefit from investment and momentum. If your stance is "I'm ready to jump and execute this plan if only other people were onboard and able to fulfill their end", then you can be better positioned to get moving quickly as soon as the others are on board.

The nice thing about the kickstarter frame, IMO, is I can take a relationship that is fairly toxic, and I can set my internal stance to be ready to fix the relationship, but without opening myself up to exploitation if the other person isn't going to do the things I think are necessary on their end.

Iterated Trust Kickstarters

And then, sometimes, a one-shot kickstarter isn't enough.

Henry and Joe

In the case of Henry and Joe: maybe "just try harder" isn't good enough. Joe has some great skills, but is genuinely bad at managing his time. Henry is good at the big picture of planning a project, but finds himself bad at managing his emotions, in a way that makes him bad at actually managing people.

It might be that even if they both really wanted things to work out, and were going to invest fully in repairing their working relationship... the next week, Joe might miss a deadline, and Henry would snippily yell at him in a way that was unhelpful. They both have behavioral patterns that will not change overnight. 

In that case, you might want to combine "trust kickstarter" and "iterated kickstarter."

Here, Joe and Henry both acknowledge that they're expecting this to be a multi-week (or month) project. The plan needs to include some slack to handle the fact that they might fuck up a bit, and a sense of what's supposed to happen when one of them screws up. It also needs a mechanism for saying "you know what, this isn't working."

"Iterated Trust Kickstarter" means, "I'm not going to fully start trusting you because you say you're going to try harder and trust me in turn. But, I will trust you a little bit, and give it some chance to work out, and then trust you a bit more, etc." And vice versa.

Rebuilding a Marriage

A major reason to want this is that sometimes, you feel like someone has legitimately hurt you. Imagine a married couple who had a decade or so of great marriage, but then ended up in a several-year spiral where they stop making time for each other, get into lots of fights. Each of them has built up a story in their head where the other person is hurting them. Each of them has done some genuinely bad things (maybe cheated, maybe yelled a lot in a scary way).

Relationships that have gone sour can be really tricky. I've seen a few people end up in states where I think it's legitimately reasonable to be worried their partner is abusive, but also, it's legitimately reasonable to think that the bad behavioral patterns are an artifact of a particularly bad set of circumstances. If Alice and Bob were to work their way out of those circumstances, they could still rebuild something healthy and great.

In those cases, I think it's important for people to able invest a little back into the relationship – give a bit of trust, love, apology, etc, as a signal that they think the relationship is worth repairing. But, well, "once bitten, twice shy." If someone has hurt you, especially multiple times, it's sometimes really bad to leap directly into "fully trusting the other person."

I think the Iterated Trust Kickstarter concept is something a lot of people do organically without thinking about it in exactly these terms (i.e lots of people damage a relationship and then slowly/carefully repair it). 

I like having the concept handle because it helps me think about how exactly I'm relating to a person. It provides a concrete frame for avoiding the failure modes of "holding a relationship at a distance, such that you're basically sabotaging attempts to repair it", and "diving in so recklessly that you end up just getting hurt over and over."

The ITK frame helps me lean hard into repairing a relationship, in a way that feels safe. 

(disclaimer: I haven't directly used this framework through to completion, so I can't vouch for it working in practice. But this seems to mostly be a formalization of a thing I see people doing informally that works alright)

Concrete Plans

For an ITK to work out, I think there often needs to be a concrete, workable plan. It may not enough to just start trusting each other and hope it works out. 

If you don't trust each other's competence (either at "doing my day job", or "learning to speak each other's love languages"), then, you might need to check:

  • Does Alice/Bob each understand what things they want from one another? If this is about emotional or communication skills they don't have, do they have a shared understanding of what skills they are trying to gain and why they will help?
  • Do they have an actual workable plan for gaining those skills?

Say that Bob has tried to get better at communication a few times, but he keeps running into the same ugh fields which prevent him from focusing on the problem. He and Alice might need to work out a plan together for navigating those ugh fields before Alice will feel safe investing more in the relationship.

And if Alice is already feeling burned, she might already be so estranged that she's not willing to help Bob come up with a plan to navigate the ugh-fields. "Bob, my terms for the initial step in the kickstarter is that I need you to have already figured out how to navigate ugh fields on your own, before I'm willing to invest anything."

Unilaterally Offering Kickstarters

Part of why I'd like to have this concept in my local rationalist-cultural-circles is that I think it's pretty reasonable to extend a kickstarter offer unilaterally, if everyone involved is already familiar with the concept and you don't have to explain it.

(New coordinated schemes are costly to evaluate, so if your companion isn't already feeling excited about working with you on something, it may be asking too much of them to listen to you explain Iterated Trust Kickstarters in the same motion as asking them to consider "do you want to invest more in your relationship with me?")

But it feels like a useful tool to have in the water, available when people need it.

In many of the examples so far, Alice and Bob both want the relationship to succeed. But, sometimes, there's a situation Alice has totally given up on the relationship. Bob may also feel burned by Alice, but he at least feels there's some potential value on the table. And it'd be nice to easily be able to say:

"Alice, for what it's worth, I'd be willing to talk through the relationship, figure out what to do, and do it. I'm still mad, but I'd join the Iterated Kickstarter here." If done right, this doesn't have to cost Bob anything other than the time spent saying the sentence, and Alice the time spent listening to it. If Alice isn't interested, that can be the end of that. 

But sometimes, knowing that someone else would put in effort if you also would, is helpful for rekindling things.



Discuss

How can we increase the frequency of rare insights?

20 апреля, 2021 - 03:12
Published on April 19, 2021 10:54 PM GMT

In many contexts, progress largely comes not from incremental progress, but from sudden and unpredictable insights. This is true at many different levels of scope—from one person's current project, to one person's life's work, to the aggregate output of an entire field. But we know almost nothing about what causes these insights or how to increase their frequency.

Incremental progress vs. sudden insights

To simplify, progress can come in one of two ways:

  1. Incremental improvements through spending a long time doing hard work.
  2. Long periods of no progress, interspersed with sudden flashes of insight.

Realistically, the truth falls somewhere between these two extremes. Some activities, like theorem-proving, look more like the second case; other activities, like transcribing paper records onto a computer, look more like the first. When Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's Last Theorem, he had to go through the grind of writing a 200-page proof, but he also had to have sparks of insight to figure out how to bridge the missing gaps in the proof.

The axis of incremental improvements vs. rare insights is mostly independent of the axis of easy vs. hard. A task can be sudden and easy, or incremental and hard. For example:[1]

incremental work sudden insights easy algebra homework geometry homework hard building machine learning models proving novel theorems

Insofar as progress comes from "doing the work", we know how to make progress. But insofar as it comes from rare insights, we don't know.

Some meditations on the nature of insights

Why did it take so long to invent X?

Feynman on finding the right psychological conditions

Physicist Richard Feynman talks about this in Take the World from Another Point of View:

I worked out the theory of helium, once, and suddenly saw everything. I'd been struggling, struggling for two years, and suddenly saw everything at one time. [...] And then you wonder, what's the psychological condition? Well I know at that particular time, I simply looked up and I said wait a minute, it can't be quite that difficult. It must be very easy. I'll stand back, I'll treat it very lightly, I'll just tap it, and there it was! So how many times since then, I'm walking on the beach and I say, now look, it can't be that complicated. And I'll tap it, tap it, nothing happens.

Feynman tried to figure out what conditions lead to insights, but he "never found any correlations with anything."

P vs. NP

A pessimistic take would be that there's basically no way to increase the probability of insights. Recognizing insights as obvious in retrospect is easy, but coming up with them is hard, and this is a fundamental mathematical fact about reality because P != NP (probably). As Scott Aaronson writes:

If P=NP, then the world would be a profoundly different place than we usually assume it to be. There would be no special value in "creative leaps," no fundamental gap between solving a problem and recognizing the solution once it's found. Everyone who could appreciate a symphony would be Mozart; everyone who could follow a step-by-step argument would be Gauss; everyone who could recognize a good investment strategy would be Warren Buffett. It’s possible to put the point in Darwinian terms: if this is the sort of universe we inhabited, why wouldn’t we already have evolved to take advantage of it?

I'm not quite so pessimistic. I agree with Scott Aaronson's basic argument that solving problems is much harder than recognizing good solutions, but there might still be ways we could make it easier to solve problems.

johnswentworth on problems we don't understand

The concept of sudden-insight problems relates to johnswentworth's concept of problems we don't understand. Problems we don't understand almost always require sudden insights, but problems that require sudden insights might be problems we understand (for example, proving theorems). johnswentworth proposes some types of learning that could help:

  • Learn the gears of a system, so you can later tackle problems involving the system which are unlike any you've seen before. Ex.: physiology classes for doctors.
  • Learn how to think about a system at a high level, e.g. enough to do Fermi estimates or identify key bottlenecks relevant to some design problem. Ex.: intro-level fluid mechanics.
  • Uncover unknown unknowns, like pitfalls which you wouldn't have thought to check for, tools you wouldn't have known existed, or problems you didn't know were tractable/intractable. Ex.: intro-level statistics, or any course covering NP-completeness.

I would expect these types of learning to increase the rate of insights.

Learning how to increase the frequency of insights

Insights happen less frequently under bad conditions: when you're sleep-deprived, or malnourished, or stressed out, or distracted by other problems. Some actions can increase the probability of insights—for example, by studying the field and getting a good understanding of similar problems. But even under ideal conditions, insights are rare.

Interestingly, most of the things that increase the frequency of insights, such as sleep and caffeine, also increase the speed at which you can do incremental work. It's possible that these things speed up thinking, but don't increase the probability that any particular thought is the "right" one.

I can come up with one exception: you can (probably?) increase the frequency of insights on a problem if you understand a wide variety of problems and concepts. I don't believe this does much to speed up incremental work, but it does make sudden insights more likely. Perhaps this happens because sudden insights often come from connecting two seemingly-unrelated ideas. I've heard some people recommend studying two disparate fields because you can use your knowledge of one field to bring a unique perspective to the other one.

Overall, though, it seems to me that we as a society basically have no idea how to increase insights' frequency beyond a basic low level.

Instead of directly asking how to produce insights, we can ask how to learn how to produce insights. If we wanted to learn more about what conditions produce insights, how might we do that? Could we formally study the conditions under which geniuses come up with genius ideas?

If someone gave me a pile of money and asked me to figure out what conditions best promote insights, what would I do? I might start by recruiting a bunch of mathematicians and scientists to regularly report on their conditions along a bunch of axes: how long they slept, their stress level, etc. (I'd probably want to figure out some axes worth studying that we don't already know much about, since we know that conditions (like sleep quality) do affect cognitive capacity.) Also have them report whenever they make some sort of breakthrough. If we collect enough high-quality data, we should be able to figure out what conditions work best, and disambiguate between factors that help provide insights and factors that "merely" increase cognitive capacity.

I'm mostly just speculating here—I'm not sure the best way to study how to have insights. But it does seem like an important thing to know, and right now we understand very little about it.

  1. Some more specific examples from things I've worked on:

    ↩︎


Discuss

Quick examination of miles per micromort for US drivers, with adjustments for safety-increasing behavior

20 апреля, 2021 - 02:19
Published on April 19, 2021 11:19 PM GMT

This post links to a Google Sheet containing a quick investigation into the accuracy of Wikipedia's figure for miles per micromort (230) for US drivers, when accounting for preventative behaviors.

The following are the main outcome estimates:

Miles per micromort, no adjustments, in US (2019)91-- If excluding motorcycles105-- If excluding motorcycles and pedestrians, pedalcyclists, and other nonoccupants137-- Amongst passenger vehicle occupants only132-- Amongst passenger vehicle occupants only, if setting single-car crashes to 0235-- Amongst passenger vehicle occupants only, if approximating the seatbelt-wearing only rate245-- Amongst passenger vehicle occupants only, if setting single-car crashes to 0 and approximating the seatbelt-wearing only rate442-- Amongst passenger vehicle occupants only, if setting single-car crashes to 0 and approximating the seatbelt-wearing only rate and if setting alcohol-impaired, drowsiness-associated, and distraction-associated deaths to 50% of current level (as an approximation of controlling one driver's behavior in two driver crashes)548

This rapid (~1.5 hrs including documentation) investigation was funded by Ruby Bloom via the Bountied Rationality FB group.



Discuss

Wanted: Research Assistant for The Roots of Progress

19 апреля, 2021 - 22:03
Published on April 19, 2021 7:03 PM GMT

I’m hiring a part-time research assistant to support work on my essays, talks, and the book I’m writing on the history of industrial civilization.

You must have the ability to orient yourself in unfamiliar mental territory; to penetrate the fog of confusing, incomplete, and contradictory information; to sniff out reliable sources of key facts and to corroborate them; and to quickly sketch out a new intellectual landscape.

You will handle queries such as:

  • What happened to the price of cotton and the wages of textile laborers before, during, and after textile mechanization in the 18th/19th centuries? Find data and analysis on this, including relevant statistics on labor productivity, and produce a list of sources.
  • What startups or other commercial projects are pursuing advanced nuclear reactor designs? Make a list, and fill out details of each in a spreadsheet, such as type of reactor, amount and sources of funding, etc.
  • Find first-person accounts of agricultural life and work before the 19th century, including descriptions of regular planting and harvesting seasons, and also times of crop failure or even famine.
  • What is the difference between a bloomery, a blast furnace, and a Catalan forge? Make a list of sources that address this question.

The deliverable will typically be a list of sources, with brief notes on what each one contains, ranked roughly in order of relevance to the original query. You don’t have to answer the questions I pose, but you need to find sources that help me answer them.

The only real requirements are writing skills and attention to detail. However, the ideal candidate would be:

  • A graduate student in history, economics, or a related field (ideally with access to scholarly sources)
  • Familiar with and interested the progress community in general, and my work in particular
  • Able to put in part-time work with fairly quick turnaround (24 hours for small queries would be excellent)

If you lack experience and credentials, apply anyway: you can make up for it by being dedicated, diligent, and willing/able to be trained.

The work will be variable, up to roughly 10–15 hours/week. We’ll mostly communicate by email/messaging, so you can be in any time zone. Pay: $25–30/hour, depending on qualifications.

To apply, send a CV/resume and writing sample to me at jason@rootsofprogress.org.



Discuss

You Can Now Embed Flashcard Quizzes in Your LessWrong posts!

19 апреля, 2021 - 16:44
Published on April 19, 2021 1:44 PM GMT

With the help of the LessWrong.com team, we've set up a way for you to embed flashcard quizzes directly in your LessWrong posts! This means that you can write flashcards for any of your LessWrong posts and either: 

(a) quiz people as they read your article to help them retain your content, or 

(b) provide an easy way for them to continue to be quizzed after they are done reading so that they can indefinitely remember the most important things they learned in your article!

This post will explain how to add flashcards to your own posts in a step-by-step fashion.

If you want to see an example of a LessWrong post with flashcards, check out my LessWrong post on self-control, where we first experimented with this feature.

And before we get to the instructions, here's an example (from that same post) of what embedded flashcards look like when you put them right in your article:

 

Adding flashcards to your post is quite simple. Just follow these steps:

 Step 1: Create your own deck of flashcards using Thought Saver

Create a Thought Saver account at app.thoughtsaver.com and use it to create some flashcards for your post. You'll need to put all the flashcards for your post into the same deck. Here’s how to do that:

(i) Click “New Card” in Thought Saver to start creating a new flashcard - but don’t save it just yet.

(ii) In the text input box with the label "Decks"...

  1. Type the name of the new deck you'd like to create for your article.
  2. Hit "Enter" ("Return") or click "Create new deck".
  3. This card has now been added to that deck, and this deck will now be available so that you can add all the other flashcards (for your post) to it too!

     

Example: 

  • Type "Book summary: The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
  • Click 'Create new deck: "Book summary: The Very Hungry Caterpillar."'
  • Repeat these steps until you’ve created all flashcards for your article and added them all to this same deck.
Step 2: Go to the Thought Saver page for your new deck

(You’re ready to take this step once you've created all the flashcards for your article and added them to the same deck.)

(i) Navigate to the page for your deck by clicking the name of your deck on one of your flashcards:

Or alternatively, you can access a deck from the search bar by clicking in the search bar and then clicking the deck name when it appears:
 

 

(ii) Now set the order of the cards in your deck, so that they appear in the order that you'd like to quiz the reader on them. Click the overflow menu in the top right corner of the page (the 3 vertical dots). Click "Sort". Arrange the cards in the order you want. Users of your deck will be quizzed on the first card first, then the second card, and so on. This allows you to design your cards in such a way that the concepts built on each other. Click "Save" when you’re done sorting.

Step 3: Click the "Share" button for that deck and click  "Create Link" within the share window 

 

 

(Please note that the actual text/verbiage may vary from this screenshot as we are actively iterating on this wording to make this section more understandable.) 
 

 

IMPORTANT NOTE: The following steps will have to be repeated for each widget/quiz you’d like to embed in your article. We recommend including at least 2 quiz widgets in your article, but for a longer article, you may want to include more.

Step 4: Select which cards from your deck you would like to appear in the quiz for your (first) embedded widget 

If you're embedding multiple widgets in your article, we’ll assume that you want to have each widget show different cards (as opposed to certain cards from your deck being repeated in more than one widget). 

(i) Enter the appropriate ‘starting card number’ and ‘ending card number’ (based on how you sorted the cards in this deck previously). So for instance, if the starting card number is 3 and the ending card number is 7, that quiz widget will quiz the reader on cards 3 through 7.


 

 

(ii) Click “Copy” to copy the embed source URL to your clipboard:
 

IMPORTANT NOTE: you’ll need to have this URL copied to your clipboard for the steps below.

Example of how to spread the cards from your deck over multiple quizzes: 

  • You might choose to put the first card through the fifth card [cards 1–5] from your deck in the first flashcard quiz of your LessWrong post
  • And then in the next flashcard quiz, you might include cards 6–10, etc., etc.)
  • Note that from all embedded widgets, at the end of completing that quiz, users will have the option to subscribe to the full deck in Thought Saver (where they can get daily email quizzes, quiz themselves manually, create their own decks, etc.)

Note also that instead of (or in addition to) embedding a quiz, you can also just add a link to your flashcard deck by using the Share link feature (see screenshot above). For instance, at the bottom of your post, you could say "Click here to subscribe to the flashcards for this post" and have that text link to the share link.

Step 5: Create a new post on LessWrong or open one you’re currently working on then click "Edit Block"  within your post

If you’re not logged in to your LessWrong account, or if you do not yet have an account, log in or create an account first

Once you're logged in, open the post you are working on, or create your new post.

When you've reached a point in your post when you'd like to embed a Thought Saver flashcard quiz widget, click the "Edit Block" button to the left of the current line: 
 

NOTE: if you’re starting from a completely blank page, start typing something to make the “Edit Block” button appear or hover your mouse over the area just to the left of the current line you're on.

Step 6. Click "Insert Media" from the options menu


 

Step 7: Paste the embed URL you copied from Thought Saver, and click Save! 
 

Now you've successfully embedded a Thought Saver flashcard quiz into your LessWrong post! 

You may now continue writing your LessWrong post and repeating steps 4 through 7 to keep embedding more flashcard quizzes throughout that same post (as many as you'd like). 

We hope you enjoy this new functionality! We'd love to hear your feedback on it and on Thought Saver more generally! Please give us feedback by commenting below, or by clicking the feedback button in the upper right-hand corner of the Thought Saver app.

If you're interested in how to write great flashcards, I'd recommend Andy Matuschak's article how to write good prompts: using spaced repetition to create understanding. Andy and his collaborator Michael Nielsen have been the pioneers in this space of embedding flashcards in essays. I highly recommend their essay Quantum Country where they introduced this medium. You may also want to check out Andy's other work related to this topic.

 

Thanks!



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D&D.Sci April 2021 Evaluation and Ruleset

19 апреля, 2021 - 16:26
Published on April 19, 2021 1:26 PM GMT

This is a followup to the D&D.Sci post I made last week; if you haven’t already read it, you should do so now before spoiling yourself.

Here is the web interactive I built to let you evaluate your solution; below is an explanation of the rules used to generate the dataset. You’ll probably want to test your answer before reading any further.

Ruleset

(Note: to make writing this easier, I’m using standard D&D dice notation, in which “3+4d8” means “roll four eight-sided dice, sum the results, then add three”.)

EnemiesSharks

Sharks are 1/6 of encounters.

They attack in groups of 2+1d4, each of which does 1d10 points of damage.

Demon Whales

Demon Whales are 1/14 of encounters. (If that fraction seems high, you’re failing to account for all the sunk ships that couldn’t report encountering them.)

An attack from a Demon Whale does 17d12 points of damage.

A Demon Whale encounter has a ~78% fatality rateCrabmonsters

Crabmonsters are 1/14 of encounters.

A Crabmonster repeatedly rolls 1d80 as it tears through the ship, adding a point of damage with each roll, until it rolls a 1 (that is, encounters someone or something that stops it).

~8% of Crabmonster encounters do >200% damage; a Crabmonster encounter has a ~28% fatality ratePirates

Though the Navy’s records don’t bother to distinguish, Pirates come in two categories: Brigands (local criminals who had the poor fortune to cross paths with Naval supply ships while flying the black flag, and/or to mistake them for civilian cargo ships) and Privateers (agents of an enemy government, harassing your Navy’s fleet using hit-and-run tactics). Brigands are 1/6 of random encounters during your voyages, Privateers 1/21.

A fight with Brigands does 4d8 points of damage; a fight with Privateers does 6d12.

Merpeople

Surface-dwellers are unaware of the intricacies of underwater society, and record both Atlantean Merfolk (1/14 of encounters) and Alexandrian Merfolk (2/21 of encounters) as “Merpeople”. Fortunately, the two city-states are close enough politically that befriending one will cause them both to allow you free passage.

Atlanteans do 20+3d20 damage; Alexandrians do 1d8*1d8*1d8+1d20 damage.

~14% of Alexandrian attacks do >200% damage; an Alexandrian attack has a ~37% fatality rateKraken

Kraken are 2/21 of encounters.

They do 12d8 points of damage.

Nessie

Nessie is 1/21 of encounters.

She does 40+10d8 points of damage.

An encounter with Nessie has a ~2% fatality rateHarpies

Harpies are 1/14 of encounters.

They do 1d4+1d8+1d12 points of damage.

Water Elementals

Water Elementals are 2/21 of encounters.

The Navy has countering the powerful but predictable attacks of Water Elementals down to an art; there are well-known methods for ensuring they only almost destroy a given ship. They do 73+1d12 points of damage.

Direction

Direction is irrelevant from perspectives both practical (you have no control over how many trips you take each way) and epistemic (direction happens to have no effect on outcomes).

Time effects

Time has almost no effect. The one exception is that Privateers used to be much more common (and other encounters therefore slightly less common) before 4/1401; this is when your nation’s main rival changed tactics and stopped hiring mercenaries to attack supply ships.

Sinking Risk by Enemy

In the absence of interventions, ~50% of shipwrecks are caused by Demon Whales, ~18% by Crabmonsters, ~31% by Merpeople, ~1% by Nessie, and 0% by other threats.

Strategy

If attempting to optimize odds of survival, your best choices are to buy all oars, arm carpenters, tribute the Merpeople, and buy one extra cannon; congratulations to simon, GuySrinivasan and Measure for reaching this conclusion.

However, since Pirates never sink ships and Nessie is pretty bad at it, you may wish to take the money you’d spend on the cannon and either hold onto it (to impress the Navy’s accountants) or spend it on foam swords (to impress the Navy’s dockworkers).

Reflections

All else equal, there’s a little extra uncertainty when predicting quantities instead of categories: “is that sudden peak at 14% noise, or a clue to the generating function?”, etc. However, the main reason this challenge was so much more speculative than its predecessors is that the most important information – details of attacks that did 100%+ damage – was censored by the mechanics of the world. In the absence of hard evidence, small errors in inference compound, priors pick up the slack, and considerations like “what genres apply here?” or “is the scenario designer enough of a troll to have Demon Whale damage arbitrarily cap out at 99%?” take on a significance they wouldn’t otherwise.

This is both good and bad. Good because the personal touch adds intrigue to what would otherwise just be data-wrangling; bad because every unit of effort spent psychoanalyzing the GM is a unit of effort not spent on getting better at data-wrangling or on psychoanalyzing reality’s GM (i.e. studying Math and Science). I enthusiastically solicit feedback on this point, as well as on every other point.

Scheduling

The next D&D.Sci challenge should be ready sometime earlyish next month, but nebulous and open-ended work commitments mean I can’t promise anything.



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Parameter count of ML systems through time?

19 апреля, 2021 - 15:54
Published on April 19, 2021 12:54 PM GMT

Pablo Villalobos and I have been working to compile a rough dataset of parameter counts for some notable ML systems through history.

This is hardly the most important metric about the systems (other interesting metrics we would like to understand better are training and inference compute , and dataset size), but it is nonetheless an important one and particularly easy to estimate.

So far we have compiled what it is (to our knowledge) the biggest dataset so far of parameter counts, with over a 100 entries.


But we could use some help to advance the project:

  1. Is there any previous relevant work?  We are aware of the AI and compute post by OpenAI, and there are some papers with some small tables of parameter counts.
  2. If you want to contribute with an entry, please do! The key information for an entry is a reference (citation and link), domain (language, vision, games, etc), main task the system was designed to solve, parameter count (explained with references so its easy to double check), and date of publication. The criteria for inclusion is not very well defined at this stage in the process; we have been focusing on notable papers (>1000 citations), significant SOTA improvements (>10% improvement on a metric over previous system) and historical relevance (subjective). We mostly have ML/DL/RL papers, and some statistical learning papers. To submit an entry either leave an answer here, send me a PM, email jaimesevillamolina@gmail.com or leave a comment in the spreadsheet.
  3. If you'd be interested in joining the project, shoot me an email. The main commitment is to spend 1h per week curating dataset entries. Our current goal is compiling parameter counts of one system per year between 2000 and 2020 and per main domain. If you can compute the number of parameters of a CNN from its architecture you are qualified. I expect participating will be most useful to people who would enjoy having an excuse to skim through old AI papers.

Thank you to Girish Sastry and Max Daniel for help and discussion so far!



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Problems of evil

19 апреля, 2021 - 11:06
Published on April 19, 2021 8:06 AM GMT

(Cross-posted from Hands and Cities)

I.

I wasn’t raised in a religious household, but I got interested in Buddhism at the end of high school, and in Christianity and a number of other traditions, early in college. Those were the days of the New Atheists, and of intricate wrangling over theistic apologetics. And I did some of that. I went, sometimes, to the atheist group, and to some Christian ones; I read books, and had long conversations; I watched lectures, and YouTube debates.

Much of the back-and-forth about theism that I engaged with at that point in my life, I don’t think about much, now. But I notice that one bit, at least, has stayed with me, and seemed relevant outside of theistic contexts as well: namely, the problem of evil.

As usually stated, the problem of evil is something like: if God is perfectly good, knowing, and powerful, why is there so much evil in the world? But I think this version is too specific, and epistemic. Unlike many other issues in theistic apologetics, I think the problem of evil — or something in the vicinity — cuts at something much broader than a “three O” (omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent) God. Indeed, I think it cuts past belief, to a certain affirming orientation towards, and commitment to, reality itself — an orientation I think many non-theists, especially of a “spiritual” bent (including a secularized/naturalistic one), aspire towards, too.

II.

My impression is that of the many objections to theism, the problem of evil has, amongst theists, a certain kind of unique status — centrally, in its recognized force, and but also, in the way this force can apply independent of doubt about God’s existence per se.

Here’s the (devoutly Christian) theologian David Bentley Hart:

“That’s the best argument of all. It’s not an argument regarding God’s existence or non-existence, because that’s a question, first you have to define what existence means, what God means. But it goes directly to the question of divine goodness and benevolence. It’s the weightiest and the most powerful and the one that, actually, is the argument that’s adduced most often by believers, famously Dostoyevsky… It’s the argument that holds the most water for me.”

Indeed, Hart calls various responses to the problem of evil “banal and sometimes quite repulsive”:

“…the Calvinist argument for divine sovereignty, does it really have to justify itself to you morally; or equally, Richard Swinburne’s arguments, forgive me, I hate to name names, about how suffering gives us opportunities for moral goodness, and that includes, apparently, the holocaust… I think ultimately, if that’s the calculus, then God comes out as evil. There’s just no way you work your way to the end of these chains of reasoning, without coming up with an arbitrary and in some ways quite deplorable picture of God.”

(See also the Christian apologist and philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who writes: “I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil—theodicies, as we may call them—strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous.”)

C.S. Lewis, too (another Christian apologist), seems to have felt the problem of evil with special acuity. In the beginning of The Problem of Pain, he describes why, before his conversion, he rejected Christianity:

“If you asked me to believe that [the pain and seeming indifference of the world] is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.”

Indeed, A Grief Observed — a book compiled from journals Lewis wrote after his wife (called “H.” in the book) died of cancer — documents a (brief) crisis in this regard: not of faith in God, per se, but of faith in God’s goodness. Wracked by grief, haunted by his wife’s pain, Lewis writes:

“Come, what do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape. Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable. And how or why did such a reality blossom (or fester) here and there into the terrible phenomenon called consciousness?…

If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people… No, my real fear is not materialism. If it were true, we — or what we mistake for ‘we’ — could get out, get from under the harrow. An overdose of sleeping pills would do it. I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or worse still, rats in a laboratory….

Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?…”

(The first few chapters of A Grief Observed, by the way, are some of my favorite bits of Lewis; and he exhibits, there, a vulnerability and doubt rare amidst his usual confidence).

Like Lewis, Dostoyevsky’s Ivan does not present evil as an objection to God’s existence per se. Indeed, he accepts that at the end of days, he may see the justice of the suffering of children; but he does not want to see it, or accept a ticket to heaven on such terms:

“Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be, when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’…  I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then… It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

I think part of what might be going on, in these quotations, is that the problem of evil is about more than metaphysics. Indeed, Lewis dismisses materialism as confidently as ever; Hart sets the question of God’s “existence,” whatever that means, swiftly to the side; Ivan still expects the end of days. The problem of evil shakes them on a different axis — and plausibly, a more important one. It shakes, I think, their love of God, whatever He is. And love, perhaps, is the main thing.

III.

One common response to the problem of evil is: we don’t know why God permits so much evil, but we shouldn’t expect to know, either. He is too far beyond us. His ways are not our ways.

We see some of this, for example, in the book of Job. Job was “perfect and upright” (Job 1:1); but God, in a dispute with the devil about whether Job righteousness depends on his material advantages, allows the devil to kill Job’s children, servants, and livestock, and to cover Job’s body with boils. At first, Job refuses to curse God (“the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”). But later, Job complains. Eventually, God appears to him in a whirlwind, to remind him how little he understands:

“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou has understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest?” (Job 38:4).

Job, with friends, sitting in ashes. 
Painting by Repin, image source here.

More philosophical versions of this sometimes invoke a chess-master. If you see Gary Kasparov make a chess move that looks bad to you, this need not impugn his mastery.

Response: OK, but if you’re not sure whether it’s Kasparov, or a random move generator, bad moves are evidence. And eventually — as queen and rooks fall, as no hint of strategy emerges — lots of it.

But we can un-know harder: why think you even know what it is to win at chess? Sure, God does bad-seeming things. But what are human concepts of “good’ and “bad,” faced with God’s transcendence?

Here’s Lewis, responding to moves like this:

If God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good’, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying him.” (p. 567)

Whether this argument actually works isn’t clear. Analogy: if you are devoted to any being that plays for the true win conditions of chess, and you hypothesize, initially, that checkmate constitutes winning, you’ll still end up devoted to a being who plays for a wholly different condition, if that condition turns out to be the true one (thanks to Katja Grace for suggesting objections in this vein; and see, also, the Euthyphro dilemma). But I think Lewis is pointing at an important worry regardless (and indeed, one that hit him hard during the crisis described above): namely, that if we go too far into “unknowing”; if we strip from God too much of what we think of as “goodness”; or if we call too many bad things “good,” then God, and goodness, start to empty out completely.

This worry seems especially salient in the context of contemporary (liberal, academic) theology, which in my experience (though it’s been a few years now), is heavily “apophatic” and mystical. That is, it approaches God centrally in His beyond-ness: beyond language, knowledge, mind and matter, personhood and non-personhood; beyond, even, existence and non-existence. Thus, Meister Eckhart writes of God: “He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being.” Or John Scotus Eriugena: “Literally God is not, because He transcends being.”

Perhaps God is beyond being. But is he beyond goodness, too? Some bits of Eckhart suggest this. “God is not good, or else he could be better.” (Though, conceptual transcendence aside, this seems like a terrible argument? “Pure black is not dark, or else it could be darker.”) And indeed, if we are to say nothing about God, presumably this includes: nothing good. God is blank.

But what, then — amidst the horrors of this world — grounds worship, reverence, devotion?

I think a variety of non-theists face something like this question, too. 

IV.

In my days of talking with lots of people about their spirituality, I learned to ask certain questions to figure out where they were coming from; and whether they believed in God, or even in a “personal God,” wasn’t high on the list. Of Christians, for example, I would generally ask whether they believed in the literal, bodily resurrection of the historical Jesus — a concrete question that I think efficiently distinguishes variants of Christianity (e.g., “I believe in miracles” vs. “well it’s really all a kind of symbolic thing at the end of the day isn’t it?”), and which has some biblical endorsement as central (Corinthians 15:14: “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain”).

Similarly, I think of whether someone believes that Ultimate Reality is in some sense “good” as a much more informative question, spiritually speaking, than whether they believe in God, or that e.g., our Universe was created by something like a person. Indeed, I know a variety of vigorously secular folks who take seriously creation stories involving intelligent agents (see, even, Dawkins). And there are many God-related words (the Ground of Being, the Absolute, the Source, the Unconditioned, the Deathless) and concepts (pantheism, Deism) that do not imply anything like goodness (many of which, relatedly, can be compatible with something like naturalism — though the practice of capitalizing letters of abstract, God-related words seems, instructively in this context, in a higher-level sort of tension with the intellectual aesthetic most associated with naturalism).

But I don’t think that “belief” — whether in divine goodness or no — really captures what matters, either. Indeed, mystical/apophatic traditions like Eckhart’s often focus on negating and/or going beyond concepts — and “belief” is tough without concepts. Does Eckhart’s God exist? Does a dog have Buddha nature? Mu.

More broadly, the relationship between “spirituality” and explicit belief seems, at least, complex. Consider Ginsberg (1956):

“The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!

Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is an eternity! Everyman’s an angel!”

What is the “belief” here? Not, clearly, that men don’t murder, or that clocks don’t tick. And looking out at the panoply of spiritual practices, communities, and experiences to which even metaphysically-naturalistic folk devote passionate energy, belief (even of a fuzzy, inconsistent, and/or motte-and-bailey kind) hardly seems the main thing going on.

But if we set aside belief — and especially, if we endeavor to avoid belief of the kind that makes apologetics, metaphysics, etc necessary at all — is it all just “sexed up atheism,” in Dawkins’s phrase, or non-sense? I think that at the very least, there are interesting differences between how e.g. Meister Eckhart is orienting towards the world, and how straw-Dawkins (even when appreciative of the world’s beauty) is doing so — differences separable from their respective metaphysics, but core to their respective “spirituality.”

V.

Dawkins, Carroll, Sagan, Tyson: all are keen to remind us of the wonder and awe compatible with naturalism (indeed, Kriss (2016) goes so far as to accuse popular atheists of peddling forms of beauty that discourage social change: “Whenever you hear a rapturous defense of the natural world, you should be on your guard: this is class power talking, and it’s trying to kill you”). But beliefs aside, are wonder and awe enough to equate the attitudes of Dawkins and Eckhart? I think: no. For one thing, there is a difference between (a) attitudes directed at particular arrangements of reality (stars, flowers, and so forth), and (b) attitudes directed, in some sense, at reality itself, the Being of beings. (Though stars, flowers, etc can serve, for (b), as vehicles, or sparks, or windows.)

In this vein, we might think of an attitude’s “existential-ness” as proportionate to the breadth of vision it purports to encompass. Thus, to see a man suffering in the hospital is one thing; to see, in this suffering, the sickness of our society and our history as a whole, another; and to see in it the poison of being itself, the rot of consciousness, the horrific helplessness of any contingent thing, another yet.

We might call this last one “existential negative”; and we might call Ginsberg’s attitude, above, “existential positive.” Ginsberg looks at skin, nose, cock, and sees not just particular “holy” things, contrasted with “profane” things (part of the point, indeed, is that cocks read as profane), but holiness itself — something everywhere at once, infusing saint and sinner alike, shit and sand and saxophone, skyscrapers and insane asylums, pavement and railroads, the sea, the eyeball, the river of tears.

Or consider this passage from Hesse’s Siddhartha:

“He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhatha. Instead he saw other faces, many faces, a long series, a continuous stream of faces — hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves, and which were yet all Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish, of a carp, with tremendous painfully opened mouth, a dying fish with dimmed eyes. He saw the face of a newly born child, red and full of wrinkles, ready to cry. He saw the face of a murderer, saw him plunge a knife into the body of a man; at the same moment he saw this criminal kneeling down, bound, and his head cut off by an executioner. He saw the naked bodies of men and women in the postures and transports of passionate love. He saw corpses stretched out, still, cold, empty. He saw the heads of animals — boars, crocodiles, elephants, oxen, birds. He saw Krisha and Agni. He saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other … And all these forms and faces rested, flowed, swam past and merged into each other, and over them all there was continually something thin, unreal and yet existing, stretched across like thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, shell, form or mask of water — and this was Siddhartha’s smiling face which Govinda touched with his lips at that moment.”

This seems to me “existential positive,” too. Govinda’s vision purports to encompass all of birth and death; the ten thousand things, seen in their unity; and yet Siddhartha smiles. And we can see many of the quotes from theists, in section II, as responding to the sense in which the problem of evil threatens their own “existential positive,” whether it threatens their belief in God or no.

To the extent that it goes beyond e.g. “the stars are so beautiful,” I think that a lot of contemporary, non-theistic spirituality involves elements of “existential positive” — even if not explicitly stated, and even in the context of more metaphysically pessimistic traditions, like Buddhism. Mystical traditions, for example (and secularized spirituality, in my experience, is heavily mystical), generally aim to disclose some core and universal dimension of reality itself, where this dimension is experienced as in some deep sense positive — e.g. prompting of ecstatic joy, relief, peace, and so forth. Eckhart rests in something omnipresent, to which he is reconciled, affirming, trusting, devoted; and so too, do many non-Dualists, Buddhists, Yogis, Burners (Quakers? Unitarian Universalists?) — or at least, that’s the hope. Perhaps the Ultimate is not, as in three-O theism, explicitly said to be “good,” and still less, “perfect”; but it is still the direction one wants to travel; it is still something to receive, rather than to resist or ignore; it is still “sacred.”

Indeed, we might think of popular injunctions to be “present,” “aware,” “here,” “now” — at least when interpreted in non-instrumental terms — as expressing a kind of existential positive, too. If reality is not in some sense good; and if turning towards it, receiving it, being aware of it, promotes no other worldly end (calm, focus, ethical clarity, etc); why, then, be mindful, or awake? Why not distract, or dull, or delude, or ignore?

What’s more, even if everything in this world is holy, in the limit of breadth, the “existential positive” here extends yet further — beyond any of the ways the world just happens to be, to a kind of affirmation of Being/Reality in itself, however manifest. Or at least, this is implied, I think, by a kind of unconditional holiness. (Though Katja Grace suggests: maybe in this world, everything is holy, but that other world, it isn’t. Indeed, we could even try to imagine a kind of “holiness zombie” world, physically identical to this one). More contingent forms of universal holiness, I think, involve what we might think of as “existential luck” — akin to (though broader than) the type Satan accuses God of giving Job. Sure, you’re spiritual here, in an often-pretty world, with your telescopes and your oxen and your boil-free skin. But suppose you were in a hell world. Suppose, in fact, you already are. (Kriss thinks you are.) What holiness, then?

VI.

In the context of the “existential positive,” and especially in its least contingent forms, a kind of non-theistic problem of evil re-arises. What is Ginsberg’s holiness, if holocaust, Alzheimers, rape, depression, factory farm, be holy? Or if, more, the worst possible world would be holy — since it, too, would be real? Ginsberg need not excuse God’s creation of the world’s horrors; Ginsberg’s God need not create, or choose, or know. Nor need Ginsberg protect or preserve those horrors, however holy. But there is still something in them of the Real; and the Real, for Ginsberg (or, my imagined Ginsberg), and for many others, is sacred in itself.

We see pressures, here, similar to those that drove the old theologians towards the obscure doctrine of “privatio boni“: that is, the view that evil is nothing real and substantive in itself, but is rather the absence or privation of goodness. God, after all, is the fount of all reality; to say that some bit of reality is bad, then, risks marring God’s perfection. Indeed, Lewis, in his depiction of Hell in The Great Divorce, makes it a tiny, insubstantial place, fading into nothingness, barely there (though the “barely,” I think, points at part of what makes privatio boni unstable — e.g., if evil really weren’t there, it struggles to play a role in the story).

Relatedly, for the old theologians, reality/being/existence was itself a “perfection” (hence, e.g. the ontological argument). And the “transcendentals” — that is, the set of properties common to all beings — were thought to include not just non-normative properties like “truth,” “unity,” and so forth, but also “beauty,” and “goodness.” We might see Ginsberg’s “holiness” as a transcendental, too.

But as ever, as soon as we set out to forge a non-contingent connection between the True and the Good; the Real and the Sacred; the Is and the Ought; the Ultimate and the to-be-Trusted, Affirmed, Rested-In, Worshipped — we run right into cancers; genocides; parasites; paralysis; predators ripping flesh from bone; mass extinctions; “bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.” Contra the old theologians, these things are just as True, Real, Is, Ultimate, as anything else. If these, too, are sacred, then what is sacredness? Why reverence for the Real? Why not defiance, rebellion, disgust?

VII.

We might make a similar point a different way. Much of contemporary spirituality, I think, aims at a certain type of unification or “non-duality.” It aims, that is, to erase or transcend distinctions rather than draw them; to reach the whole, rather than the part. Indeed, to the extent that an “existential” attitude aims, ultimately, to encompass as much of the “whole picture” as possible, some aspiration towards unity seems almost inevitable.

But as we raise the level of abstraction, but wish to persist in some kind of existential affirmation, we will include, and affirm, more and more of the world’s horror, too (until, indeed, we move past what the world is actually like, to what it could be like, and to horrors untold). The content of the affirmation thereby either drains away, or horribly distorts. That is, naively, affirmation is made meaningful via its dualism; via the distinction between what is to be affirmed and what is not — and much of the world is, one might think, “not.” As this distinction collapses, the difference between “existential positive” and nihilism, good and “beyond good,” becomes increasingly unclear.

Thus, for example, Rumi writes:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there…

Indeed, in my experience, various non-dual-flavored spiritual teachers flirt with, or explicitly endorse, what look, naively, like fairly direct types of nihilism, even as they urge e.g. compassion and kindness elsewhere. Buddhists doing this often suggest that realizing the empty and constructed nature of all things will, in fact, lead to greater compassion; and perhaps, empirically, this is right. But what if it doesn’t? Why should it? Indeed, confidence has waned, amongst some Western Buddhists, in a strongly reliable or “default” connection between “ethics” and “insight.” And good vs. bad, in some non-dual contexts, is just another constructed distinction — indeed, perhaps a core barrier — holding you back; another type of separation; perhaps, indeed, another type of violence.

But if we go fully beyond ideas of “good” and “bad,” what calls us towards Rumi’s field? We need not understand “goodness” in narrow, brittle, moralistic, or universalized ways; discernment need not exclude openness and receptivity; and perhaps it is good, in ways, to learn to put down “good” entirely, at least at times. But the David Enochs and Thomas Nagels of the world are right, I think, to recognize the ubiquity of at least some kind of normativity to a huge amount of human thought, and non-dual spirituality (not to mention much of the discourse about “non-judgment”) is no exception. “Beyond good” is not “special extra super good.” It’s just actually not good (or bad). Go fully beyond any sort of good, and the sacred loses its shine.

VIII. 

My main aim here has been to point at the ways that something reminiscent of the theistic problem of evil applies to more amorphous forms of (even very naturalistic) spirituality, too. I won’t, here, say much about how deep a problem this is, and how one might respond to it (and sufficiently mystical responses will simply be: “this is a problem that arises at the level of concepts; but if you go experience of e.g. holiness itself, it does not arise, at least not in this way” — and I think there’s at least something to this).

Obviously, one response is to reject any kind of reverence or affirmation towards the Real in itself. Indeed, the rejection of any sort of evaluatively rich attitude (positive or negative) towards the Real in itself seems to me a plausible candidate for the essence of secularism — or at least, one salient kind. That is, the secularist may have positive and negative attitudes towards particular arrangements of reality; but Being, the Real, the Ultimate, the Numinous — these things, just in themselves (insofar as they have meaning at all), are blanks. (I think there are connections, here, between secularism in this sense, and a lack of interest in “contact with reality” of the type I described here; but that’s another story.)

I do want to point, though, at a different family of responses that seem to me both interesting, and less obviously secular in this sense.

Fromm (1956) distinguishes between “father love” and “mother love.” (To be clear: these are archetypes that actual mothers, fathers, non-gendered parents, non-parents, etc can express to different degrees. Indeed, if we wanted to do more to avoid the gendered connotations, we could just rename them, maybe to something like “assessment love” and “acceptance love.”) Fromm’s archetypal father orients towards his child from a place of expectation and assessment. He loves as the child merits. He teaches morality, competence, and interaction with the outside world. Fromm’s archetypal mother, by contrast, relates to her child with unconditional acceptance. She loves no matter what. She teaches security, self-loyalty, home. (See also parallels with Darwall’s (1977) “appraisal respect” vs. “recognition respect” — though there are many differences, too).

“Father love,” for many, is easy to understand. Love, one might think, is an evaluative attitude that one directs towards things with certain properties (namely, lovable ones) and not others. Thus, to warrant love, the child needs to be a particular way. So too with the Real, for the secularist. If the Real, or some part of it, is pretty and nice, great: the secularist will affirm it. But if the Real is something else, the thing to be done is to reshape it until it’s better. In this sense, the Real is approached centrally as raw material (here I think of Rob Wiblin’s recent tweet: “I’m a spiritual person in that I want to convert all the stars into machines that produce the greatest possible amount of moral value”).

But mother love seems, on its face, more mysterious. What sort of evaluative attitude is unconditional in this way? Indeed, more broadly, relationships of “unconditional love” raise some of the same issues that Ginsberg’s holiness does: that is, they risk negating the sense in which meaningfully positive evaluative attitude should be responsive to the properties of their object (reflecting, for example, when those properties are bad). And one wonders (as the devil wondered about Job) whether the attitude in question is really so unconditional after all.

But is mother love unconditionally positive? Maybe in a sense. But a better word might be: “unconditionally committed” or “unconditionally loyal” (thanks to Katja Grace for suggesting this framing). That is, we can imagine an archetypal mother who cares, like the archetypal father, about the child’s virtue, who is pained by the child’s mistakes, and so forth; and whose love, in this sense, is far from a blanket of uniform affirmation (though whether this fits Fromm’s mother mold, I’m not sure). But where the archetypal father might, let us suppose, give up on the child, if some standard is not met, the mother will not. That is, the mother is always, in some sense, loyal to the child; on the child’s team; always, in some sense, caring; paying attention.

Exactly how to understand this sort of unconditional loyalty, I’m not sure; and it may, ultimately, have problems similar to unconditional holiness (and obviously, ideals of unconditional loyalty, commitment, love etc in actual human contexts have their own issues). But we have, at least, a robust kind of human acquaintance with “mother love” of various kinds, and I wonder if it might suggest less secular (in my sense above) responses — perhaps even ancient and familiar responses — to the problems of evil I’ve discussed.

We might look for other examples, too, of forms of love that seem to transcend and encompass something’s faults, without denying them. Here I think of this scene from Angels in America — one of my favorites of all time (spoilers at link; and hard to understand if you don’t know the play). And also, of the father’s forgiveness in the parable of the prodigal son. (For a set of moving reflections on the parable, I recommend Nouwen (1994).)

“And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” (Luke, 15:21-22). 
Painting by Rembrandt, source here.

Chesterton, in Orthodoxy (chapter 5) talks about loyalty as well, and about loving things before they are lovable:

“My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave behind because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more … What we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent.”

I don’t think responses in this vein — that is, forms of love, loyalty, commitment, and forgiveness towards the Real, despite its faults — fully capture what’s going on with experiences of e.g., holiness, sacredness, reverence, or receptivity (thanks to Katja Grace for suggesting distinctions in this respect). Nor am I committed to (or especially interested in) claims about the “secularism” of such responses. But faced with problems of evil, theistic or no, I think these responses might have a role to play.



Discuss

the fat baker principle

19 апреля, 2021 - 10:58
Published on April 19, 2021 7:58 AM GMT

Culpability


"wait am I responsible for the pareto depth thing"  
"Yes." t. Jollybard  
essay theme: https://soundcloud.com/jollybard/gigantopithecus

The self is the landlord of the mind


Beliefs should pay rent in anticipated experience.  
Everyone knows this by now, we've already turned out the pockets of the laziest and most impoverished ideas,  
the freeloaders in this informational class struggle have been evicted long ago.  
If we're the land barons of our own minds, why stop at just a little power?  
Taking this idea further, preferences should pay rent just as much as beliefs.  
But what can a preference 'pay'?  

The Fat Baker Principle


There are different competing constructions for the 'fat baker'. Naturally, I prefer mine.  
One could go:"Never trust a thin baker."  
Another: "it's way easier to become good at something if you actually enjoy what you make"  
"lmao"  
"lole!"  
Finally: "how can you say you even like bread if you can't make a decent loafa?"  

To put it another way, preferences should pay rent in changed behavior.  
If you really like manga, maybe you should have internalized a model that can split out good manga from bad.  
If you really, really, really like manga, maybe you should have internalized a model that's most of the way to synthesizing new manga.

Conclusions


This is not only a virtue-deontology ethics  
("you should make things yourself if you like them enough to fling critique")  
but a rudimentary system of personality-level course correction against flights of fancy.  

If you find yourself liking something, do you find yourself wanting to curate examples of work, find other creatives, sketch out the bones of your own work?  
Do you find yourself "liking" parasocial relationships of engagement and consumption with content-creators, luminaries, or "communities" instead?  
If you can only like your likes at arms length, mediated through others and not your own hands, you might not like them as much as you think you do.



Discuss

Bellman's Curse on Advice

19 апреля, 2021 - 06:13
Published on April 19, 2021 2:30 AM GMT

This is a linkpost for https://nibnalin.me/dust-nib/bellmans-curse-of-dimensionality.html

In dynamic programming and reinforcement learning, the most fundamental challenge we face is just grokking the high dimensionality of a state space. 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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')} ). Given the state space, how does any solver for this game even represent these configurations, let alone evaluate them? While games are helpful toys to start with, this phenomenon of “exponential explosion” in systems is extremely common in many real-world problems, where we’ve given it the stage name: Bellman’s Curse of Dimensionality.

While popular study of dimensionality is usually focused on tight, mathematical systems, I’ve found that thinking about dimensionality as a metaphor in other, less well-defined systems is a surprisingly helpful tool.

Advice, for instance, tends to fit such a model very naturally. You have an extremely large state space (life) where you only get one opportunity to traverse a path. To add to that, like the typical exponential problem, as dimensionality of life increases, the volume of the space of possibilities increases so fast that the available data on historical outcomes becomes quite sparse. How, then, can someone evaluate others’ advice, or look at someone else’s life to figure out what they should do with their own?

I don't claim to have a solution to this problem, but in my experience it's helpful to keep the dimensionality framework suggested by Bellman in the back of your mind as you navigate advice. For starters, thinking about the dimensions in this space independently is helpful to evaluate different states clearly:

  • Time: Your professor probably don’t have the best advice for you because their own experience about your situation was frozen in 1980s, and a lot about the world has changed since then.
  • Space: Advice about fundraising from a US entrepreneur is obviously not as relevant for someone raising in India or China.
  • Internal state: This is one of the harder categories to pin down. One way to think about these is as some function of an individual's personality and thought processes, but I think that only scratches the surface of what this broad category intends to cover. If someone attempts to use Steve Jobs' offbeat management methods, but lacks the charisma and the "reality distortion field" Steve Jobs is said to have conjured, they're not going be as successful in their endeavours.

I've always found it somewhat surprising how much different, often entirely contradictory, advice you can hear about any choices you can think of. When just about everyone has their own strongly held opinions about everything, it's really hard to evaluate the applicability and the net delta of any singular piece of advice.

I think the only antidote to evaluating advice given such dimensional differences is to figure out relative distortions in the advisor's state to your state, and "port" the advice as necessary. Don't do what Napoleon did, do what he would do if he was a founder born in silicon valley during the Information Age.

Another consequence of this framework is that differences in multiple dimensions scale non-linearly. A 60 year old college professor will always have strictly less applicable advice, since they are separated from you in time and space vs. someone of your age living in the same city as you. Note that I’m only making a claim about the applicability of their advice here, whether the advice itself is good or bad is a completely different question that one should evaluate separately.

Notably, however, there are many flaws in this framework. The most obvious flaw to me is that it isn't clear if the aforementioned dimensions are linearly independent, and treating them as such has unintended consequences (for instance, someone at different space and time but with the same internal state aren’t necessarily as bad as someone at the same space and time but wildly different internal state).

Blessing of dimensionality

There is one other interesting result that arises from this framework that's applicable to advice: the blessing of dimensionality. In math, the curse of dimensionality leads to a conjugate that feels un-intuitive on first consideration: because exponential problems are so hard, even basic heuristics are good enough to get reasonably close to optimal solutions. The oversimplified explanation for this is that state spaces for such problems are so large that taking random paths is exponentially worse than taking a path that’s just good enough.[1]

When I first read Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People", I was extremely surprised by the blandness and obviousness of all the advice it described. Surely, I thought, this couldn't be a multi-decade bestselling book with advice that claims to have changed countless lives. Weirdly enough, Dale Carnegie doesn't need his readers to develop Steve Jobs' charisma to be successful, if they take the basic, most obvious steps they'll already be good enough to be reasonably successful in life. This "blessing of dimensionality" is why most popular advice you'll find is un-specific and vague, even though, in practice, most of us will end up applying that advice to the most specific scenarios and circumstances.

On a broader perspective, this conjugate "blessing of dimensionality" is a good reminder to avoid traps of overthinking and taking life overly seriously. If your actions have some reasonable motivations, at the end of the day, the worse you'll do in expectation is really not that bad in absolute terms: You're unlikely to end up in a ditch in a forest due to picking a wrong choice at some fork in the road once, if all the other forks you've picked before had some reasonable amount of consideration behind them too.

  1. More technical details about the set up for this class of problems are better described here ↩︎



Discuss

Are there good classes (or just articles) on blog writing?

19 апреля, 2021 - 04:10
Published on April 19, 2021 1:10 AM GMT

I've been writing a blog for a long time, and I think the articles that actually get posted tend to be decent. Unfortunately, I have a lot of articles that never make it past the draft (or even outlining) stages. It seems like once I get past a certain level of complexity I just get lost. I have trouble deciding how to structure posts (or whether I should split them into a series), and I'm terrible at writing introductions and conclusions. I'm also not particularly good at headlines, although I consider this a less-important problem.

Are there good articles / books / classes on how to do this, ideally with well-chosen practice ("Outline articles on these topics", "Write an article on this topic", "Write an introduction for this post?", etc)? I would be willing to pay money for this if it's good enough, especially if I had access to someone who could review my work and give suggestions.

I assume one method of doing this is "practice until you get good at it". I've occasionally just forced myself to write something and then post it, but I almost always end up deleting these posts because they're not up to my standards, and I feel like they don't count as "deliberate practice" because I can tell that something is wrong with them but I don't have the experience to know what it is.

I've been looking through SkillShare and other things I've found via searches, but they also seem to skip over the "actually writing an article" step and focus on things I don't need help with, like:

  • I don't need to setup my blog (I already have one)
  • I don't need help with SEO
  • I don't care about monetization right now
  • I already have ideas for articles


Discuss

Updating the Lottery Ticket Hypothesis

19 апреля, 2021 - 00:45
Published on April 18, 2021 9:45 PM GMT

Epistemic status: not confident enough to bet against someone who’s likely to understand this stuff.

The lottery ticket hypothesis of neural network learning (as aptly described by Daniel Kokotajlo) roughly says:

When the network is randomly initialized, there is a sub-network that is already decent at the task. Then, when training happens, that sub-network is reinforced and all other sub-networks are dampened so as to not interfere.

This is a very simple, intuitive, and useful picture to have in mind, and the original paper presents interesting evidence for at least some form of the hypothesis. Unfortunately, the strongest forms of the hypothesis do not seem plausible - e.g. I doubt that today’s neural networks already contain dog-recognizing subcircuits at initialization. Modern neural networks are big, but not that big.

Meanwhile, a cluster of research has shown that large neural networks approximate certain Bayesian models, involving phrases like “neural tangent kernel (NTK)” or “Gaussian process (GP)”. Mingard et al. show that these models explain the large majority of the good performance we see from large neural networks in practice. This view also implies a version of the lottery ticket hypothesis, but it has different implications for what the “lottery tickets” are. They’re not subcircuits of the initial net, but rather subcircuits of the parameter tangent space of the initial net.

This post will sketch out what that means.

Let’s start with the jargon: what’s the “parameter tangent space” of a neural net? 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src: local('MathJax_Size4'), local('MathJax_Size4-Regular')} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-size4-Rw; src /*1*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/eot/MathJax_Size4-Regular.eot'); src /*2*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/woff/MathJax_Size4-Regular.woff') format('woff'), url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/otf/MathJax_Size4-Regular.otf') format('opentype')} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-vec-R; src: local('MathJax_Vector'), local('MathJax_Vector-Regular')} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-vec-Rw; src /*1*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/eot/MathJax_Vector-Regular.eot'); src /*2*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/woff/MathJax_Vector-Regular.woff') format('woff'), url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/otf/MathJax_Vector-Regular.otf') format('opentype')} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-vec-B; 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')}  with two kinds of inputs: parameters θ, and data inputs x. During training, we try to adjust the parameters so that the function sends each data input x(n) to the corresponding data output y(n) - i.e. find θ for which y(n)=f(x(n),θ), for all n. Each data point gives an equation which θ must satisfy, in order for that data input to be exactly mapped to its target output. If our initial parameters θ0 happen to be close enough to a solution to those equations, then we can (approximately) solve this using a linear approximation: we look for Δθ such that 

y(n)=f(x(n),θ0)+Δθ⋅dfdθ(x(n),θ0)

The right-hand-side of that equation is essentially the parameter tangent space. More precisely, (what I'm calling) the parameter tangent space at θ0 is the the set of functions F(x) of the form

F(x)=f(x,θ0)+Δθ⋅dfdθ(x,θ0)

… for some Δθ.

In other words: the parameter tangent space is the set of functions which can be written as linear approximations (with respect to the parameters) of the network.

The main empirical finding which led to the NTK/GP/Mingard et al picture of neural nets is that, in practice, that linear approximation works quite well. As neural networks get large, their parameters change by only a very small amount during training, so the overall Δθ found during training is actually nearly a solution to the linearly-approximated equations.

Major upshot of all this: the space-of-models “searched over” during training is approximately just the parameter tangent space.

At initialization, we randomly choose θ0, and that determines the parameter tangent space - that’s our set of “lottery tickets”. The SGD training process then solves the equations - it picks out the lottery tickets which perfectly match the data. In practice, there will be many such lottery tickets - many solutions to the equations - because modern nets are extremely overparameterized. SGD effectively picks one of them at random (that’s one of the main results of the Mingard et al work).

Summary:

  • The “parameter tangent space” of a network is the set of functions which can be written as linear approximations (with respect to the parameters) of the network.
  • The parameter tangent space at the network’s randomly-chosen initial parameters is roughly the set of “lottery tickets”.
  • SGD (effectively) throws out any lottery tickets which don’t perfectly match the data, then randomly picks one of the remaining tickets.

Of course this brushes some things under the rug - e.g. different "lottery tickets" don't have exactly the same weight, and different architectures may have different type signatures. But if you find the original lottery ticket hypothesis to be a useful mental model, than I expect this to generally be an upgrade to that mental model. It maintains most of the conceptual functionality, but is probably more realistic.

Thankyou to Evan, Ajeya, Rohin, Edouard, and TurnTrout for a discussion which led to this post.



Discuss

Anger

18 апреля, 2021 - 19:14
Published on April 18, 2021 4:14 PM GMT

I don't get angry. I haven't gotten angry in ten years. A Buddhist would say I have "pulled up anger by the roots".

Anger is predicated on the desire to hurt someone. The desire to hurt someone as a terminal value is pure evil.

I have been on the receiving end of a lot of anger. Ostensibly, it is because of things I did or I didn't do. None of that matters. How often a particular person gets angry at me has little to do with me and everything to do with that person.

Though I no longer get angry, I do feel stress. My baseline stress is a function of physical exercise, social interaction, food, meditation and art. But that's not goes through my head. When I feel stress, I go looking for something I'm doing wrong like an appointment I've forgotten about, a chore I've been putting off or some other personal inadequacy. I misattribute the stress to a confabulation and then go about solving the wrong problem.

I think angry people do the same thing. They feel anger before identifying a target. This would explain why observation that whether someone gets angry at me in a particular interaction correlates with how frequently that person has gotten angry at me in the past and cannot be predicted by my proximate influence.

With particularly angry people, I can predict when they will get angry before they do but I cannot predict what they will get angry at. Except that, if I am alone with the person, the target will eventually become me no matter what I do.

  1. There are two red flags to avoid almost all dangerous people: 1. The perpetually aggrieved ; 2. The angry.

100 Tips for a Better Life by Ideopunk

When I was a kid I had an adult berate me for not shoveling dirt into a hole and then, an hour later, berate me for shoveling dirt into the hole. Neither beratement had anything to do with the task. He just wanted to make me suffer. But he didn't understand his own motivation. He confabulated that I was a lazy kid who should have known better than than to do (or not do) whatever I was doing (or not doing).

The most undeserving victims of anger are the victims of genocides and such. But in my personal experience, the people for whom anger causes the most suffering are angry people themselves. Anger is incompatible with happiness. If you are frequently angry then you are frequently unhappy.

Pulling up anger by the roots makes you a gentler, happier person. The catch is that anger is a natural defense against other angry people. To safely remove a natural defense you must replace it with an artificial one.

If you are not an angry person then the best way to deal with angry people is to avoid them. If you cannot avoid angry people then distance yourself from them. If you bump into angry people then diffuse the situation. If you cannot diffuse the situation then fight as a last resort.



Discuss

Rising rents and appropriate responses

18 апреля, 2021 - 17:05
Published on April 18, 2021 2:05 PM GMT

I was recently involved in a discussion related to real estate and rising rents. A friend proposed this policy: "We should limit the extent to which the city can expand, and we should have rent caps so that the prices don't go up." I responded: "That means that purchase prices will go up dramatically, if the influx of new citizens doesn't stop." She said: "Yes, but that will be temporary - the prices will stabilize at some point, they cannot grow forever."

I agree that they cannot grow forever. The prices will stabilize, that much is certain, but they will stabilize at a very high point. I proposed that there are essentially two futures: you either have a San Francisco scenario, where new construction is very difficult, but since people still want to come and live there, the prices for renting and owning are incredibly high OR you have a Tokyo scenario, where you tear down old neighborhoods to make place for gigantic complexes which allow very dense living (and still have high prices because the demand still exceeds the supply).

What happens if you institute construction limits and rent control? Ownership prices go up, and rent goes up in the surrounding places. People want to go to hubs so much that they will forego the benefits of living in other areas. The opportunities in the city simply outweigh what they can get elsewhere.

Given a constant influx of new citizens to a hypothetical city:

If you institute construction limits: this hits the poor the most, because now everyone is competing for a very limited resource (available housing).

If you institute rent control: this helps the poor temporarily because the prices are more affordable, but since you now limit how much construction companies can earn, there will be less construction. How much less? Difficult to say.

If you institute both: prices of owning will rise, and mobility among those who rent will drop (every rental property charges the maximum possible rent and is already rented out - which means you cannot just move out of your apartment and easily find a new one). If the influx of citizens remains constant, with time, all housing will be bought up (by those who can afford it) and there will be very little for renting (again, hitting the poor the most because if you're poor, you have to rent).

If you do literally nothing at all: construction companies will build as much as they can, people will buy/rent as much as they can. The density will grow, and since individual construction companies don't have an incentive to care about urban planning, just their own projects, you will get ugly neighborhoods and questionable infrastructure. There's no guarantee that this will happen, but I've seen it happen in my city. Maybe, if you're lucky, decision makers in construction companies will care about urban planning despite not being incentivized to do so.

Therefore, you probably have to do something. The force of people wanting to move to the city is very strong, and simply placing limits will not stop it (at least not without unintended consequences). What to do?

  1. Build new hubs. Make it unreasonable for businesses NOT to move to this new hub: offer generous tax cuts, zero rent for employers, cover employee relocation etc. If people see a lot of opportunity to achieve their goals in your new hub, they'll maybe move there instead, lightening the load on the old hub.
  2. Have urban planning for new development. This will curtail new development a little bit, but not so much as an outright ban. And you will hopefully end up with neighborhoods that aren't ugly and that have infrastructure.

I'm kinda disappointed because I have just invented a generic government: that's precisely what governments are already doing (or claim to be doing).

Regardless, I'm posting this here with three requests:

  • Please criticize my model! I don't know what exactly I'm wrong about, but I'm reasonably certain that I'm wrong about something.
  • What are the experts disagreeing on? What are the deeper questions?
  • Finally, what are some good resources to learn about these topics?


Discuss

Could we permanently fund the government via a one-time wealth tax?

17 апреля, 2021 - 23:20
Published on April 17, 2021 8:20 PM GMT

Here’s a radical proposal: write a constitutional amendment abolishing taxation after we do it just one more time. Once, and only once, the government will be allowed to take some fraction of the wealth stock, and then never again. Importantly, the government retains all of its other powers — the power to enforce laws, provide for the national defense, pay welfare, and adjudicate disputes between people — but it must fund those activities using the capital income from the wealth it now owns.

Why would we want to adopt such a proposal? There are two main reasons. The first reason is that it will effectively permanently eliminate the lost economic efficiency from taxation. The second reason is that, by giving the government a relatively fixed share of wealth, it will now be encouraged to be fiscally responsible, rather than shortsightedly take out debt that it will not be able to pay back without constantly raising taxes.

I’ll elaborate on my two justifications in turn, and then address a few objections.

Benefits of abolishing taxation

Many people might not see the benefit of abolishing taxation. Sure, no one likes to pay taxes, but aren’t they our civic duty? Plus, our taxes often go towards beneficial social spending, and that’s morally good.

It’s important to note that my proposal does not necessarily eliminate the positive aspects of taxation. The government is still allowed to exist, and pay for social programs using capital income from the wealth it retains from the initial wealth tax.

My proposal is also agnostic about the size of government. Hypothetically, the government could take an initially large fraction of the total wealth and generously fund social programs, or an initially very small fraction of the total wealth and fund none at all. In other words, my proposal is consistent with both complete Soviet-style nationalization of industries, and a Milton Friedman-style hands-off approach.

Rather than eliminating government, this proposal would merely eliminate one of its main drawbacks. Taxation is not merely bad to those who think that it’s theft, and therefore immoral. Taxation is bad for perfectly ordinary common-sense moral reasons that I hope will become clear with an example.

Suppose you are running a lemonade shop on a beach. You calculated that, given the cost of supplies and your personal labor, the total production cost of a cup of lemonade was $1. To make a profit, you sell your lemonade for $2 a cup. About 100 people on the beach think this is a reasonable price, and lower than the maximum that they’d be willing to pay, and therefore purchase your lemonade. You make $100 profit, and 100 people get value from purchasing cold lemonade. So far, so good.

Now, the government steps in and demands you pay a $2 tax for each cup of lemonade sold. Since you were only receiving $1 of profit from each cup of lemonade sold before, the only way you can still operate your business is by raising prices. Your production costs remain the same, and therefore in order to make the same amount of profit per cup of lemonade, you must raise your prices by $2 — the amount of the tax. Since a cup of lemonade now costs $4, only 10 people are now willing to purchase the lemonade. The government now takes in $20 revenue that it can use for beneficial social purposes, but now you only make only $10 of profit, and only 10 people are able to get cold lemonade, rather than 100.

The moral of the story here is that the moral wrongness of taxation is not merely a matter of not wanting your money to go to the government. You could very well think that the government spends your money well. However, by charging a tax on a particular market, the government made it so that both producers and consumers receive less value overall than if it had not imposed any tax at all.

In economics, this lost value created from taxation is called deadweight loss, and it’s illustrated via the triangle in the chart below.

Do all taxes have this effect? No, but nearly all do. Astral Codex Ten recently reviewed a book from Henry George in which he proposes one tax that famously doesn’t have any deadweight loss: the land value tax.

There is also another tax that doesn’t have this effect: a lump sum tax, paid once. Imagine, in the example above, instead of charging $2 per lemonade sold, the government unexpectedly demanded $20 upfront. Since the government is collecting the same amount of revenue, you might think that this would have the same effect as the per-unit tax.

However — so long as the tax was unexpected, and can’t be expected to happen again — it would not produce any deadweight loss. To recoup your losses, you could set up a lemonade stand and produce $100 of profit, just as you did before with no tax. Then you’d get $80 of profit, consumers would get to enjoy their lemonade and the government would retain the same revenue.

Fiscal responsibility

Contrary to popular misconception, fiscal responsibility in governance is less about trying to reduce the budget deficit as much as possible and more about about ensuring that any debt we do take out is a responsible investment that should be expected to pay off eventually.

The problem is that politicians have little incentive to act fiscally responsibly. In the United States politicians in the federal government serve terms between 2 and 6 years long. Most are concerned primarily with winning the next election, and could barely give a damn about what happens after that. In fact, some politicians — particularly those in the House of Representatives — spend more time campaigning than they do drafting and negotiating legislation.

One easy way to win elections is to give voters government handouts. Then, each voter knowing that their politician gave them handouts, is more likely to vote for them in the future. “Government handouts” is not necessarily a pejorative here; I think there’s some valid reasons to give voters things they want. But the problem is that these handouts often don’t make any long-term fiscal sense, and politicians often have no incentive to make good choices about which handouts are best. Remember, they just care about winning votes.

A general rule is that government policy must be paid via taxes eventually. The government can take out debt, but taxes must be used to pay the interest on our debt. Since interest payments are spread over time, the primary financial burden of government debt is taken by people in the future — far past the next election — rather than taxpayers in the present.

In a nutshell, that’s the argument why politicians should be expected to be financially irresponsible.

While my proposal can’t fix all the issues with governance, it can conceivably fix this one. Why? If government could no longer raise new funds via taxation, then it will know that the only way to raise new funds is via capital investments. Therefore, it will only take out debt if that debt is reasonably likely to give way to real financial returns.

But suppose politicians act irresponsibly anyway and take out a ton of debt with no plan for how to pay for it. All this would mean is that the size of government would shrink. Since the government can no longer levy new taxes, the only way for it to pay the interest on debt incurred poorly would be for it to sell some of its capital and hand some control back to the private sector.

Now, I will address some objections.

Hold on, under your proposal, wouldn’t the government eventually shrink until it ceases to exist? This is just anarcho-capitalism in disguise…

As stated above, the one main reason to expect the government to shrink is that it acts irresponsibly and politicians take out debt with no good plan to pay it back. However, if this happens, shouldn’t we celebrate that the government is shrinking?

Look at this way: the fact that the government acted irresponsibly is evidence that it’s not a good institution for growing the world’s wealth. Since the capital stock is one of the key determinants of wages, and growth in per-capita income, it should be good to know that institutions which manage it poorly would shrink, and institutions which manage it well would grow.

It’s worth noting that the reverse is also totally possible. If you believe that government more efficiently spurs economic growth than the private sector, then under this proposal, we should expect it to grow in relative power, and eventually, become far more powerful than the private sector. But this is also good.

If the private sector underperforms the public sector at the task of growing wealth, then it’s all the better that it shrinks.

The private sector will just sabotage the government, and try to kill it.

I see no compelling reason why the private sector would sabotage the government. One of the main current reasons why companies don’t like the government is that companies must pay taxes. But if no one had to pay taxes anymore, then the only remaining reason is that companies don’t like the existing laws.

While some private actors would certainly wish for many government laws to go away, there’s a good reason to think that they couldn’t do it wholesale. The reason is that the government has a natural advantage in power.

Unlike the private sector, the government retains the power to enforce laws, and this ability is asymmetric. That is to say, there’s no equivalent power allowing Standard Oil to break up the government into 34 constituent smaller governments.

Those in the private sector must follow all the rules of the government. By contrast, no one in the government is beholden to the rules of the private sector. Both private and public entities must grow their wealth in the same way — by making responsible investments. However, only the public sector maintains the ability to enforce arbitrary limits on the power over its competition.

With no taxation, wouldn’t inequality skyrocket?

Not necessarily. Remember, the government would be funded in perpetuity via a one-time wealth tax. Economists have pointed out that a wealth tax is among the most progressive taxation proposals, whose burden falls almost entirely on the top 10% of the population.

Thomas Piketty has pointed out that the main reason why income and wealth inequality has risen in the last few decades has been to the fundamentally greater returns on capital income as compared to overall economic growth. To illustrate, if people see their wages grow at an average of 4% a year, but the capitalist class sees their wealth grow at 6% a year, over a long enough period of time, aggregate income from capital will far outstrip aggregate income from wages.

Since government functions will be funded via capital income, it will in theory maintain the same growth advantage as those who own capital privately. And as noted earlier, government will have the additional advantage that it can enforce laws.

The government could use its large capital income to fund a generous welfare state, in theory. That’s why I don’t see any inherent reason to expect inequality to go up.

But as has been long pointed out, governments often don’t always spend money to target the poor. Education subsidies benefit those who are statistically more likely to be rich, and social security and healthcare spending benefit the old, who are disproportionately wealthy.

To the extent that you think government will fail at the task of redistributing income, then your problem is with democracy itself as a means of reducing inequality, not with my proposal.

But is it really possible to fund all government activities using only the pure returns on wealth?

It turns out, yes, but it’s complicated. Steve Roth points out in Capital’s Share of Income Is Way Higher than You Think that if you just look at rents paid to capital owners — what laypeople normally think of when they imagine returns on investments — the current amount of yearly capital income in the United States is only about 28% of the GDP. Since the US government spends 44% of the GDP, we are going to have a bit of a problem.

However, most investors recognize that dividends, and other rent payments, aren’t the full story. Investors gain when the market price of their assets go up. When we take into account capital gains, both realized and unrealized, the share of capital income rises dramatically, to about 51%.

Still, this means that government would need to take about 86% of all wealth in the United States in order to permanently fund its current level of spending given both rent payments and capital gains.

Since the government seizing 86% of all the nation’s resources suddenly would almost certainly trigger a depression, I do not currently recommend it.

However, I still believe this proposal is worth thinking about for one important reason. If Picketty is right, and the returns from capital have been consistently outstripping GDP (as you can sort of make out in the chart above), then perhaps some time in the future, capital income will far outstrip ordinary income paid to labor. At such time, politicians could propose a one-time wealth tax and then henceforth be done with taxation forever. And that might be a win for everyone.



Discuss

Defining "optimizer"

17 апреля, 2021 - 21:03
Published on April 17, 2021 3:38 PM GMT

I've been thinking about how to define "optimizer".

My attempted definition of "optimizer" is, "something such that there is a metho
d of describing a change to the system to to concretely describe a system that scores unusually highly on another function, for a wide range of functions, in a way that's significantly shorter description length for a system optimizing that function from scratch."

The basic justification for my definition is that if something is an optimizer, then if you were to write a program that emulates the system, then the program would be an implementation of some optimization algorithm. And you could describe something that optimizes for something else by changing the parts of the code responsible for what is in effect the systems' objective function.

The justification can be extended to logical descriptions of systems that aren't necessarily describable as programs. I said in the definition that the new system need to be concretely described. This is so you can't call a rock or other random thing an optimizer because you could describe a new system as something like "This rock, except for being great at optimizing". The same goes for non-rocks.

The definition seems to work okay.

Humans and AIs would be considered optimizers. This is because a system that optimizing for x can be described by describing a change to the emotions or values of the human or AI in the right way.

And a toaster isn't an optimizer. Even though toasters are good at scoring highly on making well-toasted bread, the mechanisms for toasting aren't particularly useful for optimizing much else. So I don't think describing a change to a toaster to make it score well on a random other function would be easier than specifying the system from scratch.

And I don't think other various things in our environment, like tools and inanimate objects, would be classified as optimizers. This is because, like toasters, tools and miscellaneous objects don't do anything much that could generalize to a wide range of other functions, so I don't think describing an optimizer would be made much easier or less complicated than specifying one from scratch.

Thoughts?
 



Discuss

The hour I first alieved

17 апреля, 2021 - 20:02
Published on April 17, 2021 5:02 PM GMT

0 Summary

Many believe that religious behavior is only justified if one has religious belief. I disagree, argue that religion should be managed according to its membership in what I call the category of “Adaptive Distorted States of Perception”, and attempt to make the rationalist case for moderate orthopraxis.

I Intro

One of my philosophy professors at university adopts a seemingly pathological behavior; he attends Church every Sunday, despite lacking belief in God. It may be worth mentioning that the university in question is not a Christian college, but rather your run-of-the-mill secularized Ivy. Of course, he is not alone in doing something like this. But, perhaps somewhat uniquely, he does so neither due to a failure to parse his beliefs nor because of inertia. Instead, he chose to adopt this practice as a result of first principles reasoning, reasoning which I ultimately do not find compelling, but which nonetheless centers a question which I believe allows for a productive reframing of the problem:

Do we make a category error when we speak of religious belief?

Here, I’ll seek to argue that we ask too much of religious experience when we seek to espouse global beliefs which accord with it. I will seek to instead identify a category of adaptive imperatives, place religious experience in this category, and suggest that we ought to evaluate its value and its place in life in the same way in which we evaluate that of its categorical peers, such as romance and appreciation of art.

II Alief and Possession

What do romance and appreciation of art have in common? They are rationalizable only if with alief; that is to say, by some perturbation to the rationally-assented-to world-map.

On some level, many people recognize that infatuated love presupposes strange beliefs — that the object of our love is particularly fascinating, good, or even divine among the alternatives. Jungian Psychology seems silly until one remembers the vivid imagery which the mind constellates around one’s lovers in the heat of youth. In the arms of a lover, we adopt a map of the world that is a radical distortion of the one we rationally ascribe to in our more clear-headed moments. Even if in the back of our minds we recognize that this map is not correct (useful) in a global sense, we nonetheless feel its weight. In a sense, we are blissfully unable to reject the peculiar ontology of love.

The story is the same for art. We recognize on some level that the painting or music in front of us is simply information carefully arranged to stimulate our meaning-making faculties. And yet as we look at the painting, we find awareness of this cold reality to slip away, a creeping earnestness taking its place. We take the painting seriously and even begin to take it literally. We enter a trance — or, put another way, a cluster of salient aliefs — nearly as overwhelming as that of infatuated love.

Most would report that these trance states are quite enjoyable, perhaps even addictively so for some. This suggests the question — is it responsible to enter them willingly? What distinguishes love from an LSD trip; that is, what makes it anything other than a potentially habit-forming escape from reality that carries the risk of propagating its hallucinations to our day-to-day living?


II Adaptive Imperatives and A Set-Point for Possession


I believe there is a key difference between love and LSD: love is a biological imperative. It’s hard to opt out of the love/sex ontology categorically. Many who try seem to find themselves slipping into ontological possession, where the distortion finds them rather than the reverse. Why?

Well, we can imagine a toy model where certain distorted states of perception (DSPs from here on) mediate adaptive behaviors: a romantic DSP helps us convincingly seduce mates, an artistic DSP helps us convincingly signal non-verbal intelligence, etc. Indeed, not only will a DSP promote success in an associated endeavor, but it may also motivate the endeavor in the first place. A romantic DSP not only makes me better at seduction if I happen to be engaged in it, but motivates me to seduce if I’m not. We could hypothesize a sort of emotional tally that records the frequency at which we enter DSPs, where if the recent relative mass of a certain DSP drops too low, the brain induces the same DSP in order to promote the adaptive behavior. We’ll refer to such DSPs as adaptive.

III The Optimal Mixture

Assuming this set-point toy model to be true, the optimal response to DSPs is not to vainly strive to prevent them, but rather to schedule them in a manner that best controls and contains them. Just as it’s better to eat regular and planned meals than to naively attempt to starve oneself until one gives in to an indiscerning binge, it’s better to plan out the basis on which one enters the love DSP than to have it erupt at exactly the worst times (school, work, etc). If one says to himself “the love DSP is untrue, and scheduling it into my life is to endorse falseness. I won’t do it!”, we might admire his devotion. But we’d probably be right in describing him as foolish — he is subject to a biological speed limit of rationality, and to pretend that this limit does not exist is to accept a suboptimal DSP schedule. He may love rationality, but his very devotion robs him of it — the DSPs he wishes to reject keep inexorably creeping in at the worst moments.

Thus the key difference: whereas taking LSD is strictly elective in the sense that it adds to the mass of expected delusion, embracing love moderately simply alters its distribution across time.

III Identifying Adaptive DSPs

So, we’re potentially left with a sharp decision boundary along the categorical divide between adaptive DSPs and other DSPs (like those induced by LSD). One seeking to be maximally rational should indulge the former judiciously, but presumably reject the latter (or at the very least view them suspiciously). So, how do we know if a DSP is adaptive?

Generally speaking, we likely would be satisfied with the fulfillment of three conditions: lack-induced compulsivity, universality, and evolutionary plausibility. That is, we’d expect a DSP to be adaptive if it visits humans whether they invite it or not, we’d expect all humans to experience it and all cultures to optimally schedule it, and presumably we would also grow more confident in our belief if there were an attractive evolutionary justification for its existence (although this latter condition might not be necessary).

The DSP associated with love seems to check all of these boxes. It seems to be something that can possess even the most unwilling — begrudging crushes are not exactly unheard of — if it is neglected, and yet seems to infrequently afflict (at the wrong time) those who schedule it into their lives. That is my experience, anyway. On the second point, I’m no anthropologist, but it seems like love and infatuation are quite universal and that all cultures evolve some way to regulate them if given enough time. Finally, the evolutionary advantage is obvious: if I can credibly tell my mate that I see her to be a goddess more beautiful than any of her rivals (and so would not cheat), I become a more attractive prospect.

IV Religion associates with an Adaptive DSP

I admit that this is less clear than the case of love. But, I still think there is a decent case.

Lack-Induced Compulsivity: Justice Potter famously argued that it is difficult to explicitly characterize when imagery begins to serve as an outlet for the love-associated DSP. Similarly, it is out of the scope of a brief blog post to demonstrate from first principles that various movements or ideologies are or are not sustained by religion-associated DSP. Is “money” a religion? Probably not. Have Fascism, Leninism, and now Wokism indulged the religious compulsivity of their otherwise “secular” adherents? Perhaps. If we take religions to be comprised of the following elements: worldview, community, central myth, rituals, ethics, characteristic emotional experiences, material expression, and sacredness, I believe a strong case can be — and has been — made that, were we to group the above three in with the standard “religions”, an uninitiated alien observer would not detect a salient category boundary around them. I’ll leave it at that, so as not to induce inordinately much political excitement in the discussion (yes, of course I agree that the totalizing ideology you prefer is *not* associated with a DSP, but instead perfectly agrees with the maximally rational position).

Universality: Religion seems to be universally culturally encoded, and presumably arose many times throughout human history, as even today children not fully acculturated to secularism frequently adopt seemingly endogenously generated religious attitudes. Just as with the love DSP, the religious DSP seems to arise naturally in the process of development and to persist into adulthood.

Evolutionary Explanation: Some believe that religion is a just an accident of heuristics of cognition. The argument goes something like: humans evolved greedy agent detection and a teleological valuation of the world, and religion is the consequence of both faculties misfiring on random noise. This likely bears some explanatory power. Is religion, however, merely a spandrel of cognitive heuristics? Clearly, there is what we might call an animistic spandrel — children universally seem to believe that things have minds and are designed with a purpose. Yet, this spandrel doesn’t seem all that difficult to undo; we’d expect culture evolution to manage and eliminate this belief if it were not beneficial (as the West is now doing). It stands to reason that formal religion was indeed selected for — most likely as a way to credibly signal devotion to the group. This should causes us to update in the direction of there being a truly adaptive component to the religious impulse; we can easily imagine a world in which religion arose as an unalloyed spandrel, but quickly became useful and subsequently directly selected for. Indeed, just as the first eye spot was likely an accident which then subsequently was selected for and took on its own adaptive trajectory, we should not expect that an advantageous spandrel like religious belief would remain just a spandrel for long — given enough time, we’d expect some religious-DSP set point to be adaptively installed. Finally, if religion were simply a spandrel, we wouldn’t expect people to enter into a DSP when engaging in it — there would be no separation between sacred and profane, as “sacred” (spirits, purpose, etc) would be just mistaken aspects of the perceived profane. Instead, it seems like people experience strongly distorted perceptions of the world when encountering the “divine,” just as they do with love and art.

So, there seems to be a religious DSP, many believe it possesses even those who claim to be irreligious, there is a strong cultural-evolution flavored adaptive case for it, and it appears to be universal. We might conclude, then, that there is a good chance that there is an adaptive DSP associated with religion.

V Embrace Scheduled Religion

Assuming the hypothesis that the religious DSP is adaptive, it seems that the optimal response is to embrace standard casual religious practice. Weekend services can be thought of as coordinating devices for people to contain their inherently social religious DSPs in community, just as bars are coordinating devices for people to contain their inherently social love DSPs on a (mostly) pairwise basis.

Belief, of course, is an entirely different matter. One can appreciate art while recognizing the degree to which that appreciation is an artifact of evolution, and the same with love. Do we feel distressed by our apparent inner contradiction and irrationality when we slip into the alief that our lover is truly a goddess among mere mortals? No — because we recognize that such a belief is on some level enriching. Both in that the love DSP is an important aspect of being human, and in that splurging on love alief on Saturday night will allow us to be more rational Monday through Friday (that is, allow us to find ourselves free from compulsively pining after random people in our workplace, etc).

Similarly, we should not feel distressed as we slip into a religious DSP at the weekly service of our choice. Is it really any more shameful to alieve that a god is real than it is to alieve in love? Is it so undesirable to embrace one of the experiences that makes us distinctly human? Plus, indulging on a controlled and contained basis, according to a regular schedule, should leave us less vulnerable to the kind of compulsive religious-DSP possession that arguably killed millions in the secularizing 20th century and arguably has left more looking very silly in the secular 21st.

By scheduling our DSP possession to concentrate on a single holy day of the week, we can ensure it stays out of other considerations, such as whether to invade country X.

Of course, one should schedule DSPs moderately. If one were to inhabit the art DSP or the love DSP all day, every day, we’d call him indulgent and foolish — living one’s life entirely possessed by a distorted view of the world is sure to cause problems. Constantly inhabiting the religious DSP can cause one to enact some strange and problematic behavior, which I believe has contributed to much of the animosity toward it. It’s true that wars have been fought because of the religious immoderacy of the involved populations. However, such ubiquity and immoderacy is not necessary — if Omega asked me whether my lover truly was more beautiful than all the other women in the world, I would tell it no in a heartbeat.

We should similarly contain aliefs associated with religious DSPs. It is true that there are some religions which attempt to be totalizing — but why should that matter? The choice between immoderacy and abstinence is a poor one, but it seems to be the one both atheists and vocal religionists stipulate. Moderacy, that is religious practice and situational alief without sincere belief, is often criticized by intellectuals on both sides as inconsistent and unthinking, partly because those who have converged to it typically don’t think as hard about the topic as do extremists.

Ironically, it may be the very people who think least about the topic — “Sunday casuals” — who have converged upon the optimal schedule; it’s only the thinkers who let themselves be fooled by a category error — that religion is a matter of belief and not alief — into adopting suboptimal strategies. Something something something species is wise?



Discuss

Book review and policy discussion: diversity and complexity

17 апреля, 2021 - 17:53
Published on April 17, 2021 11:36 AM GMT

Link post from equilibria.club

 

Diversity and complexity - Scott E. Page.

 

Introduction

It is time for the first book review on Equilibria Club! The book is filled to the brim with models and ideas about diversity and complexity, each of which could normally deserve their own blog post. I will try to highlight some of the most valuable insights, especially those using economic and political examples, while still leaving enough of a cliffhanger for the interested readers.

The author's previous books, of which one is about diversity and one about complexity, may have allowed him to see the interesting relations between the two topics.

Throughout the book, various technical definitions of diversity and complexity are used. Each definition or measure captures a different aspect of our understanding. Ultimately, the author mentions various benefits which diversity offers.

Major insights1. Diversity influences stability

The first major insight of the book is that diversity can both create and stabilize a market. The first example is both fun and enlightning - at least to my economic theorist mind:

"Imagine an exchange market—a bazaar in which people bring wheelbarrows of goods to trade. This example demonstrates how diversity can reduce volatility in a system and also produce complexity. In an exchange market, diversity can enter in three ways: (1) in what the agents bring to buy and sell, their endowments; (2) in the agents’ preferences for the different goods; and (3) in the ways the agents adapt to information, specifically prices."

"If the market had no diversity, not much would happen. If everyone had identical endowments and preferences, then no one would have any reason to trade. So, we need diversity on at least one of these dimensions just to make the market come to life. Let’s add diversity to both endowments and preferences so that agents bring different goods to market and desire different bundles of goods as well. In such a market, we need some mechanism for prices to form. Following standard economics, let’s assume that there exists a market maker, who calls out prices with the intent of producing equilibrium trades."

"Once we introduce the market maker, we have to take into account how agents respond to prices. Let’s start by assuming no diversity. If all of the agents react in the same way, then prices will be volatile. They’ll jump all over the place. This volatility results from everyone reacting in the same way to a price that’s too low, resulting in a massive increase in demand and a similar rise in price. Gintis (2007) shows that diversity in the learning rules reduces this volatility."

 

A similar logic plays out every day in the tiny world of bees:

"They want to maintain a comfortable temperature in the hive. Bees have an internal mechanism that determines when the hive is too hot or too cold. When it’s too hot, they fan out. When it’s too cool, they huddle together. A hive of genetically identical bees will all get hot and cold at the same temperature. [...] If the bees have different temperatures at which they get hot and cold, that is, if they have variance in their temperature thresholds, then these fluctuations become less severe."

 

Pretty cool huh? However, both of the above example make use of negative feedback loops; in other words: increased participation by the market players or the bees leads to diminishing returns. Other models which are built on positive feedback loops actually show that variation can introduce chaotic behavior:

"With positive feedbacks, the opposite occurs: variation in thresholds leads to an increase in the probability of large events. This observation can be made more formal with Granovetter’s (1978) riot model."

 

2. Diversity increases robustness

Besides influencing stability, diversity (when defined as a property displaying high variance) can help to increase robustness or fitness. While stability is about a system staying in its place, robustness is about a system being able to adapt to a variety of circumstances.

Fisher’s theory of natural selection relates the rate of increase in fitness of an organism to its genetic variance. In simple terms: the more variance a particular population has, the more opportunities exists for organisms to adapt. By using the "Price equation" in which we ignore mutations, "Fisher's fundamental theorem" can be derived which states that the change in average fitness equals variance of fitness:

For a more thorough derivation of these formula's, I recommend you to read the book! A final note on the usefulness of variation:

"The idea that fitness increases with variance proves useful as a departure point for thinking about variation as a form of search. This logic can be made more formal (Weitzman 1979). [...] as the number of searches increases, what determines the value of the best solution found is weight in the upper tail of the distribution."

 

3. Fundamental diversity is not required for complexity. Emergent diversity is.

A new categorization to add to your mental model: fundamental versus emergent diversity! This distinction reminded me a bit of the difference between essential and accidental complexity introduced in the classic 1986 essay No Silver Bullet by Fred Brooks; which has some theoretical basis but seems useless in practice. Let's have a look at the types of diversity and complexity by looking at the Game of Life:

"The rules for the Game of Life are deceptively simple. A dead agent comes to life if it has exactly three live neighbors; otherwise it stays dead. A live agent remains alive if and only if it has two or three live neighbors. Otherwise, it dies, either of boredom (fewer than two live neighbors) or of suffocation (more than three live neighbors). The Game of Life can produce complex patterns including blinkers that flip back and forth, gliders that float across the torus, and even pulsing glider guns that spit out gliders at regular intervals."

"If the Game of Life doesn’t include much diversity, how can it produce complexity? Two answers: large numbers of parts and interdependence that produces emergent structures. First, the large number answer: a long string of zeros and ones proves a sufficiently rich space to support complexity, just as a long string of DNA can contain the instructions for life. Complexity requires little diversity in the parts, provided there are enough parts. With enough zeros and ones it’s possible to say anything. Second, the parts are interdependent. The sum, the component consisting of the parts, can be more complex than the parts themselves. What is a brain but a collection of spatially situated simple parts that interact according to rules? In the brain, the rules depend on chemistry and physics, whereas in the Game of Life, the rules depend on logic, but in both cases simple parts produce complexity."

"Here, then, is the take away: fundamental diversity is not required for complexity. Emergent diversity is. The Game of Life produces complexity through the interactions of diverse interacting parts, but those parts are not the cells. The relevant parts are the emergent structures, like the gliders. These exist on a higher level."

 

Given that reality has a surprising amount of detail, which interacts in unpredictable ways, I suspect that we can assume accidental complexity and emergent diversity to be the main determinants which we should take into account in our models.

4. The optimal level of variation depends on the level of disturbance

In the first point above, we saw that diversity can have a different impact in the presence of positive versus negative feedback loops.

We already know that diversity increases robustness in a changing environment, but there is also a relation between amount of change in the environment and amount of useful diversity.

"This insight—that the level of variation should track the rate of disturbances—leads to the question: can an entity within a complex system locate this optimal level of variation? Yes. In fact, it’s relatively easy. To see how, we can return to our landscape model and think of the level of variation as the feature that adapts. Given a rate of disturbance, there exists an optimal level of variation. Except in rare cases, the closer the level of variation is to the optimal level, the better the population will perform on average. Therefore, the “variation landscape” isn’t rugged. It’s single-peaked, and easily scaled."

"In working through this logic, I’ve taken the rate of disturbances as exogenous—as occurring outside the system. In complex systems, the rate of disturbance to a landscape would be endogenous—it would depend on how fast other entities adapt and respond. Therefore, it would also depend on the levels of variation in other species. Whether levels of variation settle down or vary over time depends on the complex system and the path it takes. In either case, what’s important to keep in mind is that for any type of entity, the appropriate level of variation will eventually emerge from the system. Moreover, that level will tend to track the rate at which the system churns."

 

Moreover:

"Variation can also act as a signal in complex systems. Consider an ecological system that is undergoing a phase transition, such as a lake becoming eutrophic or a grassland moving toward desertification. During the phase transition, the fitness landscape for species will shift. That shift in the landscape may transform what was a peak into a flat spot on the fitness landscape. This implies the potential for an increase in variation prior to a major change in the system."

Room for improvement

Various chapters in the book start with 'Diversity's inescapable benefits', which makes me wonder how many arguments were collected because of a happy death spiral or mood affiliation. Mind you, most of the book is actually very nuanced; describing neutral or context-dependent impacts of diversity. The book even starts with clear examples of how hard it can be to infer relationships about diversity:

"Assembly implies that the level of diversity in a system has survived some winnowing process. This winnowing creates three problems for empirical tests of the effects of diversity. I refer to these as the problem of multiple causes, the sample problem, and selection (squared) bias. I cover each in turn."

This still doesn't warrant for suddenly calling the benefits 'inescapable'. To give one example, the author mentions "diminishing returns to type" but fails to mention its big brother "increasing returns to scale", which are both valid and widespread phenomena.

Moreover diversity is just not a very hard and well-defined concept in science (yet):

"Moving back to the more general discussion of what is a type, it is probably not too much of a reach to say that the definition of types depends upon the question being asked. A candy store that sells thousands of types of candy can be thought of as selling either one type of good—candy—or, if we distinguish among the many brands and varieties, thousands of types. Whether we differentiate between a Clark Bar and a Butterfinger depends on whether we’re interested in the diversity of individual choices (in which case we do) or how economic diversity drives macro-economic growth (in which case we do not)."

 

Areas where diversity can be subsidized

As diversity has some potential benefits in environments with negative feedback loops (diminishing marginal returns) and high variance, could we somehow subsidize diversity or tax a lack of it?

Let's first look at diversifying financial capital ownership. However, individual market participants are already heavily incentivized to diversify their assets. As a result; large financial intermediaries are now investing people's savings into nicely diversified groups of asset classes; giving those intermediaries lots and lots of market power. Weyl and Posner argue for regulation to enforce diversity: major institutional investors should not be able to invest in more than one company in a particular sector/vertical.

Policies which enforce diversity of human capital are already mainstream, though there is a lot of ground to cover here as well. As humans have strong tendencies to avoid diversity, I suspect that this debate will continue for a long time.

 

Verdict

When explaining concepts; there is always a question of how much to explain by analogy (which is useful given that the majority of human brain activity is likely to be cache lookups) versus how much to explain from first principles. I think the author did a great job at doing both, presenting both examples and equations from a wide array of scientific fields. One of the author's other books, Computational Models in Political Economy, is going on my shortlist for future reviews.

The various examples show a number of potentially stabilizing or adapting impacts of diversity, which may prove helpful when building models of the world or trying to evaluate your next course of action. If you like this material, you'll probably also like Algorithms To Live By, which is filled with more equations and models to provide insights for daily life!



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How long should I delay my second shot?

17 апреля, 2021 - 11:51
Published on April 17, 2021 8:51 AM GMT

I got my first shot of Pfizer.  They automatically scheduled my second appointment for 3 weeks later, but I canceled it, with the plan to reschedule some other time.  Two reasons for this: first, while I can't unilaterally impose First Doses First, I can at least impose First Dose First--my second appointment slot was made available for someone else.  Second, booster shots for other diseases are typically most effective after a longer interval.

But once vaccine supply catches up with demand, how much longer does it make sense to wait?  More long-run effectiveness is good, but the booster is also more valuable while Covid is more prevalent.  Eventually, vaccination will drive R below 1, even accounting for the disappearance of masks, distancing, etc.  At that point, much of my protection will come from low prevalence and herd immunity rather than personal immunity anyway.  There's also the possibility that Covid shots may become an annual thing like flu shots, which would also render this a short-term concern.  (Or so I assume--supposing I would end up getting yet another shot later, is the timing of my second shot likely to influence the effectiveness of the third?  Do memory B cells use Anki?)

In my case, it's pretty easy to continue taking strong precautions in the meantime, although my wife (who did get her second shot on schedule) will certainly appreciate when we can both go out and do things together.



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Networks of Meaning

17 апреля, 2021 - 10:30
Published on April 17, 2021 7:30 AM GMT

Nearly every piece of fiction that I have written has had at its heart an image of some simple object linking two previously separate clusters of images.[1]

– Gerald Murnane

The more things an image is joined with, the more often it springs into life.

Dem.: The more other images an image is joined with, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused.[2]

– Baruch Spinoza

Clearly, some things are meaningful to us. Some things are meaningful to me but not to you. Some other things are meaningful to you but not to anyone else on Earth. What's more, it happens that humans experience what we call revelation, where new information or a change in perspective makes previously familiar things seem newly meaningful to us.

The writer Gerald Murnane, in my view one of the greatest writers ever to live, recounts his having been brought by his wife to the opening of a contemporary art exhibition, where he is asked by the amiable organisers to take part in a panel discussion later the same evening. Being the sort of person who avoids walking into shops unless he is sure he wants to buy something (so as not to risk disappointing the shopkeeper), he accepts, though he knows nothing about contemporary art. Having accepted, he paces around the gallery, trying to think of something to say in the panel. He happens upon an artwork consisting of a handful of smooth stones scattered over the floor. The stones remind him of the fear he used to feel as a child on a rocky bay near his grandfather's farm.

I said very little during the panel discussion at the gallery, and I have no recollection of how that little was received, but I have never forgotten my satisfaction at having formulated what had been for the previous three decades of my life as a writer a sort of instinctive awareness and no more. I said, at least once, and with an image in my mind of the stones on the bare floor of the brightly lit gallery but as though they slithered beneath my bare feet in the deep shadow at one end of a sunlit, remote bay of the Southern Ocean – I said that meaning for me was connection; that a thing had meaning for me if it was connected with another thing.

[...]

Once having equated meaning with connection, I saw that the sentence, even the simplest sentence, was the form of words best able to express meaning. The simplest sentence comprises a subject, for example The stones, and a predicate, for example were smooth and mottled. In the cited example, the qualities of smoothness and mottled-ness are connected with the perceived existence of certain stones. I got much satisfaction from assuring myself of these basic matters but vastly more satisfaction from my being thenceforth justified in supposing that my having preferred since childhood to read and to write long sentences was evidence of my longing to discover and to dwell on the countless connections between things: to dwell on them while I read and, while I wrote, to bring to light more of them than I or anyone had previously suspected.[3]

Murnane is referring not to the meaning of life, but to meaning in life. I think he would say that this sort of meaning has a metaphysical truth in it, but such a belief is not necessary for his account of meaningfulness to be valuable, for what he is describing is the way in which meaning arises from, or produces perhaps, or is even, the coherence one's perspective gains from seeing how things are related to one another. There is, after all, the possibility that life is meaningless but some the parts that constitute it are not.

Meaning in Life

Consider these four examples:

  • Heranhal organises a party in his home, for which an old friend comes from afar. This friend arrives gracefully at the party & gets along well with everyone there. Afterwards, thinking about these new friendships that have blossomed between the old friend & the new ones, Heranhal experiences a shudder of pleasure.
  • Beladora reads a book about cultural evolution. The fact that a process well-known to her, evolution, is a powerful analogue of many cultural processes also familiar to her, astonishes her. It is as if a new & fertile landscape has suddenly opened up before her.
  • Drilego goes sailing on the Mediterranean with her father. At one point, the wine-dark sea causes her to remember the Odyssey, which her departed mother read to her when she was a child.[4] She feels a tangled mixture of emotions.
  • Turtoualdus wonders what his ancestry looks like. He sends a saliva sample to a personal genomics service & gets in return a detailed report on where his ancestors came from. He now feels more rooted.

What these four examples have in common is that, in each of them, a new connection is formed in a network of some sort, & this connection-forming stirs up some or other emotion. The networks are all different. In the first situation, it is a social network; in the second, it is something like a semantic network; in the third, it is a network of impressions & memories; in the fourth, it is one of places & blood relations. But in all situations, the process is similar.

Look, maybe I am just pattern matching here. Maybe the pleasure that Heranhal feels has nothing to do with his connecting the old friend with his new friends; maybe Beladora's revelatory feeling has nothing to do with her connecting evolution with culture; maybe the mixture of emotions that Drilego feels has nothing to do with her connecting the sailing trip with her father with the memory of her dead mother; maybe the rootedness that Turtoualdus feels has nothing to do with his connecting himself to those far, fabled & historically significant peoples & regions.

But, on the other hand, this would help explain numerous things. It would help explain why younger people (who have had less time to form these meaning-connections) often have less sophisticated taste in art than adults (because sophisticated art relies on context & knowledge & is usually not on its own as immediately pleasurable or stimulating as popular art; sophisticated art needs things to latch on to; the minds of younger people contain fewer meaning-nodes for it to latch on to). It would help explain why there is a perceived need in any narrative to tie up all the loose ends, in other words to connect the themes, characters or events that have appeared in the narrative. It would help explain why epics often produce more powerful effects even as they take longer to get into. It would help explain the insistent force of genre (because works made in an established tradition can connect to concepts in that tradition; they have whole backgrounds of meaning to draw on & allude to). It would help explain why characters are often written so as to be relatable (because the more relatable & similar the character is to the reader, the more easily the reader will connect what is happening in the narrative to their own life).

It would also help explain how metaphor & simile works, viz. by making a connection between two separate things. The more unexpected this connection, the more striking the metaphor or simile; but those that are already familiar to us, we deride as cliché, e.g. "love is a battlefield" or "she is brave as a lion". In fact, this would seem to explain why cliché & banality are such powerfully negative attributes in discussions about art generally, because works of art described thusly do not draw any new connections in the reader's mind & are therefore dull, boring.

Meaning in Psychology

This idea of meaning as connection is not especially new. The social psychologist Roy Baumeister has likened it to a web the strands of which are associations, a metaphor which, he writes, "is apt, for the essence of a web is not the individual strands but the fact of their connectedness and pattern"; "[m]eaning begins with simple association and distinction".[5] Heintzelman & King, too, have given an account of meaning as something that emerges from the ability to associate, to detect relations between things in the environment.[6]

Definitions of meaning often point to properties like purpose or coherence.[7] Indeed, there is scholarly consensus that meaning comprises three chief components: coherence, existential mattering & purpose.[8]

It is not difficult to see how coherence could fit in here. When Beladora discovered the connection between evolution & culture, she put into place one more piece in the puzzle of life; & so did Turtoualdus when he learned of his ancestral history. Knowing the relations of things means having a more unified representation of the world.

As for existential mattering, the notion of networks of meaning could relate to it in the following way. If I matter existentially, it is because I have an impact on other things & people.[9] It is easier to produce & to see this impact if I can connect my own life to more different things. Therefore, if my network of meaning is rich around the node that represents me, then I ought to feel that I matter existentially, the way that Heranhal did twice over when he connected his old friend with his new friends. That would be why social exclusion – a shutting off from other people – produces feelings of not mattering or being without a purpose.[10]

Speaking of purpose, it is more difficult to see how it relates to all this. But let me venture a guess. Having a sense of purpose involves having some goal & structuring one's life around that goal.[11] But a person with this kind of drive & focus may feel not only that they have a better picture of the world, but that they have a greater impact on it, too. If that is the case, the causal path runs from purpose to meaning only via coherence & existential mattering.

There is a thorny question here on which way the causality runs more generally. Do feelings of coherence & existential mattering produce meaning? Or does a sense of meaning (or, in Murnane's view, connection) produce feelings of coherence & existential mattering? I don't know. I am only confident in stating that there is an association between them.

On the one hand, this model finds support in some related research:

  • People report finding more meaning in their lives when they have good family & social relations.[12] The fact that family members & old friends are closely linked to many of our memories, thoughts, ideas & other friends & family members makes me think that our early lives are the foundation of meaning, to which all subsequent things are linked later on.
  • People report finding more meaning in their lives if they subscribe to a grand world view such as a religion.[13] These world views connect the believer both with a higher entity (gods, flags, ideals) & with things that exist or have existed in the world (movements, places, histories). Faith in the Islamic religion, for example, is what allows a pilgrimage to Mecca to be deeply meaningful in a way that it wouldn't be for someone who has no connection to it.
  • People report finding more meaning in their lives when they are older.[14] The mechanism here would be similar to that which makes adults better able to appreciate sophisticated art than.
  • Autobiographical memories may be important in the creation of meaning.[15][16] (Elsewhere, Murnane has compared the mind – & I'm paraphrasing here – to a plain on which cities are images & the roads between them memories.) Likewise, Sedikides & Wildschut write that nostalgia helps people find meaning, "primarily by increasing social connectedness [...], and secondarily by augmenting self-continuity (a sense of connection between one's past and one's present)".[17]

On the other hand, I can also think of a few things that speak against it:

  • Positive emotions seem to produce meaning in life.[18] In fact, they are apparently one of the main drivers of meaning.[19] Some things seem meaningful because they are bound up with strong feelings, but in the examples that I have given, meaningful experiences produced powerful emotions, not the other way around.
  • There is a sense in which the network model of meaning might just not be that useful. Nearly anything can be described in terms of networks. For it to be a useful metaphor, the thing described also has to show some features peculiar to networks, such as clusters, motifs or centrality, that would allow us to use the tools of network analysis to also analyse meaning. Though I have hinted at some of these features, I have not explained how they fit in or why that makes the network metaphor useful.[20]
Meaning in Aggregate

This is a speculative post, in case you hadn't noticed. What I am describing is a model for thinking about some emotion-producing events, not a description of how those things play out in practice. In this model, things are not meaningful in & of themselves: they are meaningful because they are connected to other meaningful things. So meaning, in this model, is a self-supporting network the nodes of which are persons, memories, ideas, images, works of art. It is self-supporting in the same way that the narrator of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time describes:

Thus the empty spaces of my memory were covered by degrees with names which in taking order, in composing themselves with relation to one another, in linking themselves to one another by an increasingly numerous connexion, resembled those finished works of art in which there is not one touch that is isolated, in which every part in turn receives from the rest a justification which it confers on them.[21]

What he describes is of course an artwork of strict logic. This passage from the same novel (though a later volume) expresses a similar sentiment:

We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal's "Pensées" in an advertisement for soap.[22]

In my language, what Proust's narrator is describing is a network of meaning so widely & densely connected that the bearer can find, in however unlikely a place, something that relates to it. This idea is supported by research suggesting that meaning in life is associated with habit.[23] It is also supported by research showing that meaning in life is associated with old age, as mentioned previously.[24] Anything becomes interesting when you've seen enough similar things.

Gerald Murnane, who greatly admires "[the] effeminate, hypochondriac Frenchman", does not seem able to find profound stuff just anywhere. He finds it in a handful of seemingly ordinary places – in, among others, horse-racing, marbles, colour, ground-dwelling birds, plains & grasslands, maps, the Hungarian language & of course À la recherche du temps perdu. Most of these are connected to his childhood. But though not everything is fertile to him, that which is can never be drained of its meaning; things only attain an ever deeper profundity as time passes & further things are connected to them. Ours minds are flexible; meaning is additive.

  1. Murnane, Personal Best. ↩︎

  2. Spinoza, Ethics (Vp13d). ↩︎

  3. Murnane, In Praise of the Long Sentence. ↩︎

  4. Presumably a version abridged & edited for children, or perhaps the real deal but with the last few chapters omitted. The past really is a foreign country. ↩︎

  5. Baumeister, Meanings of Life. ↩︎

  6. Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2014). (The Feeling of) Meaning-as-Information. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(2), 153–167. ↩︎

  7. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  8. ibid. ↩︎

  9. ibid. ↩︎

  10. Williams, K. D. (2012). Ostracism: The impact of being rendered meaningless. In P. R. Shaver & M. Mikulincer (Eds.), Meaning, mortality, and choice: The social psychology of existential concerns (p. 309–323). ↩︎

  11. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  12. Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 43–52. ↩︎

  13. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  14. ibid. ↩︎

  15. ibid. ↩︎

  16. Harris, C. B., Rasmussen, A. S., & Berntsen, D. (2013). The functions of autobiographical memory: An integrative approach. Memory, 22(5), 559–581. ↩︎

  17. Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2018). Finding Meaning in Nostalgia. Review of General Psychology, 22(1), 48–61. ↩︎

  18. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  19. ibid. ↩︎

  20. That is something I will save for another day. This post is already getting longer than I had expected. ↩︎

  21. Proust, The Guermantes Way. ↩︎

  22. Proust, The Captive & The Fugitive. ↩︎

  23. Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2018). Routines and Meaning in Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(5), 688–699. ↩︎

  24. Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 43–52. ↩︎



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