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Rationality Quotes February 2013

2 Post author: arundelo 05 February 2013 10:20PM

Another monthly installment of the rationality quotes thread. The usual rules apply:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted separately. (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments. If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments or posts from Less Wrong itself or from Overcoming Bias.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.

Comments (564)

Comment author: andreas 02 February 2013 05:42:44AM *  38 points [-]

"I design a cell to not fail and then assume it will and then ask the next 'what-if' questions," Sinnett said. "And then I design the batteries that if there is a failure of one cell it won't propagate to another. And then I assume that I am wrong and that it will propagate to another and then I design the enclosure and the redundancy of the equipment to assume that all the cells are involved and the airplane needs to be able to play through that."

Mike Sinnett, Boeing's 787 chief project engineer

Comment author: Nic_Smith 05 February 2013 02:47:59AM 4 points [-]

Isn't the point of the article that Boeing may not have actually done at least the first two steps (design cell not to fail, prevent failure of a cell from causing battery problems)?

I am confused.

Comment author: Baughn 07 February 2013 02:53:57PM 3 points [-]

It's the point of the problem, anyway.

SInnett is probably a very good designer, but the battery design was outsourced.

Comment author: jsbennett86 02 February 2013 03:45:22AM *  33 points [-]

On scientists trying to photograph an atom's shadow:

...the idea sounds stupid. But scientists don't care about sounding stupid, which is what makes them not stupid, and they did it anyway.

Luke McKinney - 6 Microscopic Images That Will Blow Your Mind

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 February 2013 11:33:28PM 22 points [-]

I've just come across a fascinatingly compact observation by I. J. Good:

Public and private utilities do not always coincide. This leads to ethical problems. Example - an invention is submitted to a scientific adviser of a firm...

The probability that the invention will work is p. The value to the firm if the invention is adopted and works is V, and the loss if the invention is adopted and fails is L. The value to the adviser personally if he advises the adoption of the invention and it works is v, and the loss if it fails to work is l. The losses to the firm and the adviser if he recommends the rejection of the invention are both negligible...

Then the firm's expected gain if the invention is adopted is pV - (1-p)L and the adviser's expected gain in the same circumstances is pv - (1-p)l. The firm has positive expected gain if p/(1-p) > L/V, and the adviser has positive expected gain if p/(1-p) > l/v.

If l/v > p/(1-p) > L/V, the adviser will be faced with an ethical problem, i.e. he will be tempted to act against the interests of the firm.

This is a beautifully simple recipe for a conflict of interest:

Considering absolute losses assuming failure and absolute gains conditioned on success, an adviser is incentivized to give the wrong advice, precisely when:

  • The ratio of agent loss to agent gain,
  • exceeds the odds of success versus failure
  • which in turn exceeds the ratio of principal loss to principal gain.

You can see this reflected in a lot of cases because the gains to an advisor often don't scale anywhere near as fast as the gains to society or a firm. It's the Fearful Committee Formula.

Comment author: shminux 07 February 2013 12:04:51AM *  12 points [-]

the Fearful Committee Formula.

Which is not nearly as common as the reverse, the Reckless Adviser Formula, when the personal loss to the adviser is so low and the potential personal gain is so high, they recommend adoption even when the expected gain for the company is negative.

Comment author: Vaniver 06 February 2013 11:39:09PM *  8 points [-]

In general, this is referred to as the principal-agent problem.

Note that the adviser's ethical problem also exists if L/V > p/(1-p) > l/v.

The adviser to the value

Is the order also inverted in the original?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 06 February 2013 11:36:16PM 5 points [-]

You can see this reflected in a lot of cases because the gains to an advisor often don't scale anywhere near as fast as the gains to society or a firm.

Name three?

Comment author: Vaniver 06 February 2013 11:44:29PM 7 points [-]

The success of Market-Based Management / Koch Industries appears to be due at least in part to their focus on NPV at the managerial level. You get stories like (from memory, and thus subject to fuzz) the manager of a refining plant selling the land the plant was on to a casino which was moving to the area, which he was rewarded for doing because the land the plant was on was more valuable to the casino than the company, even after factoring in the time lost because the plant was shut down and relocated. The corporate culture (and pay incentive structure) rewarded that sort of lateral use of resources, whereas a culture which compartmentalized people and departments would have balked at the lost time and disruption.

Comment author: philh 02 February 2013 11:22:32AM *  47 points [-]

Men in Black on guessing the teacher's password:

Zed: You're all here because you are the best of the best. Marines, air force, navy SEALs, army rangers, NYPD. And we're looking for one of you. Just one.
Edwards: Maybe you already answered this, but, why exactly are we here?
Zed: [noticing a recruit raising his hand] Son?
Jenson: Second Lieutenant, Jake Jenson. West Point. Graduate with honors. We're here because you are looking for the best of the best of the best, sir! [throws Edwards a contemptible glance]
[Edwards laughs]
Zed: What's so funny, Edwards?
Edwards: Boy, Captain America over here! "The best of the best of the best, sir!" "With honors." Yeah, he's just really excited and he has no clue why we're here. That's just, that's very funny to me.

Comment author: juped 06 February 2013 03:41:42PM 6 points [-]
Comment author: DSimon 13 February 2013 12:23:05AM 2 points [-]

That whole testing sequence is one of the best examples in film of how to distinguish what's expected of you from what's actually a good idea.

(Or in that specific case, what seems to be expected of you.)

Comment author: Stabilizer 05 February 2013 01:20:51AM 41 points [-]

Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it.

-Joel Spolsky

Comment author: CronoDAS 06 February 2013 08:15:45PM *  18 points [-]

Real artists ship.

-- Steve Jobs

(The Organization Formerly Known as SIAI had this problem until relatively recently. Eliezer worked, but he never published anything.)

Comment author: cody-bryce 20 February 2013 07:44:40PM 4 points [-]

And they ship the characters the fans want.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 05 February 2013 05:27:05AM 3 points [-]

If your service is down, it has no features.

Comment author: DanArmak 05 February 2013 06:10:34PM 3 points [-]

And no bugs.

Comment author: ygert 05 February 2013 06:57:55PM *  5 points [-]

Well, there is one pretty major bug: That your service is not doing anything at all!

Comment author: shminux 05 February 2013 07:13:27PM 5 points [-]

It's a feature.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 05 February 2013 07:41:35PM 5 points [-]

It has all the bugs. All of them.

(Well, not really. For instance, it doesn't have any security holes.)

Comment author: Strange7 07 February 2013 02:23:54AM 2 points [-]

If it bears any resemblance to a product at all, your own admin-level access constitutes a potential security hole.

Comment author: Mestroyer 07 February 2013 09:13:19AM 40 points [-]

I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend

Faramir, from Lord of the Rings on lost purposes and the thing that he protects

Comment author: Dorikka 14 February 2013 04:54:30AM 3 points [-]

Except that a non-overwhelming love of a useful art may help you become better in the art, even though you would switch to another if it helped you optimize more.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 02 February 2013 06:06:48AM 61 points [-]

It’s nice to elect the right people, but that’s not the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.

-- Milton Friedman

Comment author: Multiheaded 04 February 2013 06:32:54PM *  14 points [-]

No one can be good for long if goodness is not in demand.

-- Bertold Brecht

(I'm always amused when people of opposite political views express similar thoughts on society.)


The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set some limit on infinite error.

Comment author: AlexSchell 06 February 2013 08:44:00PM 3 points [-]

This solution only works if you are in the special position of being able to make institutional design changes that can't be undone by potential future enemies. Otherwise, whose "right things" will happen depends on who is currently in charge of institutional design (think gerrymandering).

Comment author: Sengachi 08 February 2013 12:32:17AM 2 points [-]

Then try to make it politically profitable to help sustain those changes you make. Make it so painfully obvious that the only reason to remove those changes would be for one's unethical gain that no politician would ever do so. The problem then though, is that people end up just not caring enough.

Comment author: AlexSchell 08 February 2013 04:53:39AM 4 points [-]

What you're describing is exactly the position of being able to make institutional design changes that can't be undone by potential future enemies. This position is "special" not only because the task is very difficult, but also because you have to be the first to think of it.

Comment author: James_Miller 01 February 2013 07:41:37PM 39 points [-]

You want accurate beliefs and useful emotions.

From a participant at the January CFAR workshop. I don't remember who. This struck me as an excellent description of what rationalists seek.

Comment author: Dorikka 01 February 2013 10:49:12PM 22 points [-]

People often seem to get these mixed up, resulting in "You want useful beliefs and accurate emotions."

Comment author: FiftyTwo 02 February 2013 06:36:01PM 9 points [-]

Not sure what an "accurate emotion" would mean, feel like some sort of domain error. (e.g. a blue sound.)

Comment author: James_Miller 02 February 2013 07:38:10PM *  15 points [-]

An accurate emotion = "I'm angry because I should be angry because she is being really, really mean to me."

A useful emotion = "Showing empathy towards someone being mean to me will minimize the cost to me of others' hostility."

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 02 February 2013 07:40:30PM 4 points [-]

Where's that 'should' coming from? (Or are you just explaining the concept rather than endorsing it?)

Comment author: James_Miller 02 February 2013 08:34:56PM 4 points [-]

I mean in the way most (non-LW) people would interpret it, so explaining not endorsing.

Comment author: James_Miller 02 February 2013 05:34:27PM *  4 points [-]

Contrasting "accurate beliefs and useful emotions" with "useful beliefs and accurate emotions" would probably make a good exercise for a novice rationalist.

Comment author: sark 02 February 2013 06:47:23PM 9 points [-]

Why not both useful beliefs and useful emotions?

Why privilege beliefs?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 02 February 2013 08:37:47PM *  11 points [-]

This is addressed by several Sequence posts, e.g. Why truth? And..., Dark Side Epistemology, and Focus Your Uncertainty.

Beliefs shoulder the burden of having to reflect the territory, while emotions don't. (Although many people seem to have beliefs that could be secretly encoding heuristics that, if they thought about it, they could just be executing anyway, e.g. believing that people are nice could be secretly encoding a heuristic to be nice to people, which you could just do anyway. This is one kind of not-really-anticipation-controlling belief that doesn't seem to be addressed by the Sequences.)

Comment author: sark 03 February 2013 12:00:40PM 5 points [-]

"Beliefs shoulder the burden of having to reflect the territory, while emotions don't."

This is how I have come to think of beliefs. It's like refactoring code. You should do it when you spot regularities you can eke efficiency out of. But you should do this only if it does not make the code unwieldy or unnatural, and only if it does not make the code fragile. Beliefs should be the same thing. When your rules of thumb seem to respect some regularity in reality, I'm perfectly happy to call that "truth". So long as that does not break my tools.

Comment author: James_Miller 02 February 2013 07:16:09PM 3 points [-]

If useful doesn't equal accurate then you have biased your map.

The most useful beliefs to have are almost always accurate ones so in almost all situations useful=accurate. But most people have an innate desire to bias their map in a way that harms them over the long-run. Restated, most people have harmful emotional urges that do their damage by causing them to have inaccurate maps that "feel" useful but really are not. Drilling into yourself the value of having an accurate map in part by changing your emotions to make accuracy a short-term emotional urge will cause you to ultimately have more useful beliefs than if you have the short-term emotional urge of having useful beliefs.

A Bayesian super-intelligence could go for both useful beliefs and emotions. But given the limitations of the human brain I'm better off programming the emotional part of mine to look for accuracy in beliefs rather than usefulness.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 03 February 2013 02:35:04AM 5 points [-]

It's perhaps worth noting that EY seems to have taken instead the "accurate beliefs and accurate emotions" tack in e.g. The Twelve Virtues of Rationality. Or at least that seems to be what's implied.

I mean, I suspect "accurate beliefs and useful emotions" really is the way to go; but this is something that -- if it really is a sort of consensus here -- we need to be much more explicit about, IMO. At the moment there seems to be little about that in the sequences / core articles, or at least little about it that's explicity (I'm going from memory in making that statement).

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 03 February 2013 09:33:31PM *  4 points [-]

Agreed. The idea that I should be paying attention to and then hacking my emotions is not something I learned from the Sequences but from the CFAR workshop. In general, though, the Sequences are more concerned with epistemic than instrumental rationality, and emotion-hacking is mostly an instrumental technique (although it is also epistemically valuable to notice and then stop your brain from flinching away from certain thoughts).

Comment author: Mestroyer 06 February 2013 05:52:02AM *  72 points [-]

"If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?"

"Oh jeez. Probably."

"What!? Why!?"

"Because all my friends did. Think about it -- which scenario is more likely: every single person I know, many of them levelheaded and afraid of heights, abruptly went crazy at exactly the same time... ...or the bridge is on fire?"

Randall Munroe, on updating on other people's beliefs.

Comment author: satt 09 February 2013 05:05:01PM 11 points [-]

Dilbert dunnit first!

(Seeing that strip again reminds me of an explanation for why teenagers in the US tend to take more risks than adults. It's not because the teenagers irrationally underestimate risks but because they see bigger benefits to taking risks.)

Comment author: TobyBartels 07 February 2013 04:10:50PM *  9 points [-]

Let me just put the text string ‘xkcd’ in here, because I was going to add this if nobody else had, and it's lucky that I found it first.

Oh, and there's more text in the comic than what's quoted, and it's good too, so read the comic everybody!

Comment author: [deleted] 09 February 2013 01:59:57PM 2 points [-]

See also this Will_Newsome comment. (I incorrectly remembered that it said something like “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” “If all of them survived, I probably would.”)

Comment author: VincentYu 01 February 2013 09:36:33PM *  53 points [-]

In Munich in the days of the great theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld (1868–1954), trolley cars were cooled in summer by two small fans set into their ceilings. When the trolley was in motion, air flowing over its top would spin the fans, pulling warm air out of the cars. One student noticed that although the motion of any given fan was fairly random—fans could turn either clockwise or counterclockwise—the two fans in a single car nearly always rotated in opposite directions. Why was this? Finally he brought the problem to Sommerfeld.

“That is easy to explain,” said Sommerfeld. “Air hits the fan at the front of the car first, giving it a random motion in one direction. But once the trolley begins to move, a vortex created by the first fan travels down the top of the car and sets the second fan moving in precisely the same direction.”

“But, Professor Sommerfeld,” the student protested, “what happens is in fact the opposite! The two fans nearly always rotate in different directions.”

“Ahhhh!” said Sommerfeld. “But of course that is even easier to explain.”

Devine and Cohen, Absolute Zero Gravity, p. 96.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 06 February 2013 09:14:22AM *  4 points [-]

It's an interesting story, but it might not be as silly as it sounds if one considers "ease of explanation" as a metric for how much credence one's model assigns to a given scenario. (Yes, I agree this is a hackneyed way of modeling stuff.)

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 07 February 2013 03:02:54AM 5 points [-]

Unfortunately, this seems to be the default way humans do things.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 07 February 2013 03:32:34AM *  2 points [-]

Well, the world is a complicated place and we have limited working memory, so our models can only be so good without the use of external tools. In practice, I think looking for reasons why something is true, then looking for reasons why it isn't true, has been a useful rationality technique for me. Maybe because I'm more motivated to think of creative, sometimes-valid arguments when I'm rationalizing one way or the other.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 06 February 2013 02:41:49PM 5 points [-]

So, uh, what's the explanation?

Comment author: shminux 07 February 2013 11:03:43PM *  8 points [-]

The story appears to be apocryphal. I've heard many versions of it associated with various famous scientists. The source quoted is a collection of jokes, with very low veracity. Additionally, there are no independent versions of the story anywhere on Google. By the way, the quoted date of Sommerfeld's death is also incorrect. I wonder if there even were (unpowered) ceiling fans in Munich's trolleys during that time.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 08 February 2013 02:42:17PM 4 points [-]

Good point. Effects that don't exist don't need to be explained.

Comment author: Desrtopa 08 February 2013 03:08:19PM 3 points [-]

I wonder if there even were (unpowered) ceiling fans in Munich's trolleys during that time.

I'm not much of an engineer, but based on my understanding of their design from the description given, I can't see how they would even contribute to their alleged purpose.

Comment author: jsbennett86 02 February 2013 03:36:42AM *  31 points [-]

It seems that 32 Bostonians have simultaneously dropped dead in a ten-block radius for no apparent reason, and General Purcell wants to know if it was caused by a covert weapon. Of course, the military has been put in charge of the investigation and everything is hush-hush.

Without examining anything, Keyes takes about five seconds to surmise that the victims all died from malfunctioning pacemakers and the malfunction was definitely not due to a secret weapon. We're supposed to be impressed, but our experience with real scientists and engineers indicates that when they're on-the-record, top-notch scientists and engineers won't even speculate about the color of their socks without looking at their ankles. They have top-notch reputations because they're almost always right. They're almost always right because they keep their mouths shut until they've fully analyzed the data.

Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics' review of The Core

Comment author: jsbennett86 02 February 2013 03:37:42AM 11 points [-]

The remark included the following as a footnote:

Even top-notch engineers and scientists will speculate wildly when they're off-the-record. We define on-the-record as those times when their written or oral communications are likely to be taken seriously and directly attributed to the scientist or engineer making them. Surely answering a direct question posed by a general would fall into this category.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 February 2013 12:35:50PM 3 points [-]

See also the extra panel (hover onto the red button) in yesterday's SMBC comic.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 06 February 2013 03:04:14PM 8 points [-]

... I had not known about red buttons on SMBC.

roll d20... success on 'resist re-binge' check.

Comment author: Desrtopa 02 February 2013 02:26:07PM 4 points [-]

32 people in the same ten block radius simultaneously dying of malfunctioning pacemakers seems so tremendously unlikely, I can't imagine how one could even locate that as an explanation in a matter of seconds.

Comment author: jsbennett86 02 February 2013 10:57:46PM 3 points [-]

Also from the review:

A pacemaker malfunction isn't automatically fatal. In most cases the patient's heart will still beat, although with an abnormal rhythm. The severity of a pacemaker problem depends on the type of malfunction as well as the severity of the patient's condition. EM interference can cause problems, but major problems are rare considering the amount of EM interference pacemaker patients are exposed to. Pacemakers are designed to minimize these problems. It's hard to believe that dozens of pacemaker patients with various heart conditions and different makes and models of pacemakers would simultaneously die from microwave exposure.

Comment author: JQuinton 18 February 2013 08:10:42PM 10 points [-]

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

William Deseriewicz

The whole speech is worth reading as one giant rationality quote

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 19 February 2013 02:33:04AM 4 points [-]

Not bad, although it seems to equate originality with goodness a little too much.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 02 February 2013 06:51:31AM 26 points [-]

[S]econd thoughts tend to be tentative, and people tend not to believe that they are being lied to. Their own fairmindedness makes them gullible. Upon hearing two versions of any story, the natural reaction of any casual listener is to assume both versions are slanted to favor their side, and that the truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle. So if I falsely accuse an innocent group of ten people of wrongdoing, the average bystander, if he later hears my false accusation disputed, will assume that five or six of the people are guilty, rather than assume I lied and admit that he was deceived.

-- John C Wright

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2013 06:28:04PM *  20 points [-]

That reminds me of http://xkcd.com/690/.


If one group of editors were to say the Earth is flat and another group were to say it is round, it would not benefit Wikipedia for the groups to compromise and say the Earth is shaped like a calzone.

-- Raymond Arritt

(Quoting this before dinner is making me hungry.)

Comment author: HalMorris 03 February 2013 04:23:44PM 4 points [-]

Wikipedia may ultimately have to do one of two things, or both:

1) Provide better structure for alternate versions of contested ideas

2) Construct a practically effective demarcation between strictly factual domains, and anything more interpretive.

Such a demarcation will always be challenged; I don't see any way around that, but I'd also insist that it's necessary for our sanity. Supposed it was possible, maybe using a browser with links to a database, to try to "brand" (or give the underwriters seal of approval to) those pages that provided straightforward factual assertions, and unretouched photographs, and scans of original source texts, such as all newspapers of which a copy still exists), and to promote the idea that the respectability of any interpretive or ethical claim consists very largely in its groundedness in showing links to the "smells like a fact" zone.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 06 February 2013 08:48:04AM *  3 points [-]

Several versions with explicit labeling of which viewpoint it represents would be a huge step in improving general information retrieval. Hypertext in general was obviously a huge leap, but the problem of presenting the evolution of a school of thought on a particular subject has not been solved satisfactorily IMO. Path dependence of various things is still among the information we regularly do not record/throw away. We should not be reliant upon brilliant synthesists taking interest in each subject and writing a well organized history.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 February 2013 01:55:07AM *  17 points [-]

Been making a game of looking for rationality quotes in the super bowl

"It's only weird if it doesn't work" --Bud Light Commercial

Only a rationality quote out of context, though, since the ad is about superstitious rituals among sports fans. My automatic mental reply is "well that doesn't work"

Comment author: Jay_Schweikert 05 February 2013 07:46:24PM 7 points [-]

Well, but in the universe of the commercials, it clearly did, so long as you went to the appropriate expert.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 February 2013 01:13:32AM 34 points [-]

Market exchange is a pathetically inadequate substitute for love, but it scales better.

S. T. Rev

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 01 February 2013 06:08:33PM 34 points [-]

Things that are your fault are good because they can be fixed. If they're someone else's fault, you have to fix them, and that's much harder.

-- Geoff Anders (paraphrased)

Comment author: Giles 09 February 2013 04:34:03AM 4 points [-]

Did he mean if they're someone else's fault then you have to fix the person?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 09 February 2013 05:39:44AM 3 points [-]


Comment author: jsbennett86 18 February 2013 10:40:35AM 6 points [-]

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.

Linus Pauling

Comment author: [deleted] 18 February 2013 01:08:06PM 7 points [-]

Yes, but also being able to tell which of those ideas are good is even better.

Comment author: jsbennett86 18 February 2013 10:41:00AM 6 points [-]

From the alt-text in the above-linked comic:

Corollary: The most prolific people in the world suck 99% of the time.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 20 February 2013 07:17:17AM 6 points [-]

The example in the comic is not a good one. Of the choices on the board, E being proportional to mc^2 is the only option where the units match. You only need to have that one idea to save yourself the trouble of having lots of other ideas.

Comment author: jooyous 06 February 2013 09:57:17PM *  32 points [-]

I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet, then I continued weeping because his foot problem did not actually solve my shoe problem.

-- Noah Brand

I'd prefer if this quote ended with " ... and then I got done weeping and started working on my shoe budget," but oh wells.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 February 2013 01:31:55PM 3 points [-]

Generally speaking, bigger problems tend to be cheaper to solve (i.e. solving them will yield more utilons per dollar); so if there is a painting in a museum that risks being sold, and there are people that risk dying from malaria, the existence of latter is a good indication that worrying about the former isn't the most effective use of a given amount of resources. (“Concentrate on the high-order bits” -- Umesh Vazirani.) But in this particular case, that heuristic doesn't seem to work (unless I'm overestimating the cost of prosthetics).

Comment author: B_For_Bandana 07 February 2013 12:38:32AM 13 points [-]

"...And then I remembered status is positional, felt superior to the footless man, and stopped weeping."

Comment author: [deleted] 09 February 2013 01:20:45PM *  7 points [-]

Shoes aren't just about positional social status, are they? (I mean, the difference between a $20 pair of shoes and a $300 pair of shoes mostly is, but the difference between a $20 pair of shoes and no shoes at all isn't, is it?)

Comment author: Dahlen 08 February 2013 01:24:34AM 4 points [-]

This. If only people realized that unpleasant facts do not cancel each other out, and pointing out one unpleasant fact in addition to another should never ever make us feel better, because it only leaves us in a worse world than we started out in. Compute the actual utilities. It's such a common and avoidable error.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 08 February 2013 10:55:41PM 5 points [-]

I think both your comment and the quote are forgetting the instrumental purpose of crying and/or feeling bad.

Comment author: Dahlen 09 February 2013 09:52:03AM 3 points [-]

I can't say I see your point. Mind explaining?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 17 February 2013 11:35:09AM 7 points [-]

My guess: The purpose of crying is to make people around you more likely to help you.

So if you don't have shoes, there is a chance that crying in public will make someone give you money to buy the shoes. But if there is a person without feet nearby, your chances become smaller, because people will redirect their limited altruist budgets to that other person. Your crying becomes less profitable.

Comment author: jooyous 08 February 2013 07:05:54AM *  5 points [-]

I think people just accidentally conflate keeping problems in perspective with the idea that the existence of bigger problems makes the small problems negligible and therefore equivalent to non-problems.

I've seen this happen with positive things too; sometimes you won't mind repeatedly doing small favors for someone and they start acting like you not minding means the favor is equivalent to doing nothing from your perspective, which is frustrating when your small but non-zero effort goes unacknowledged.

It's sort of like approximating sinθ as 0 for small angles. ^_^

Comment author: Grognor 03 February 2013 09:59:37PM *  37 points [-]

It is because a mirror has no commitment to any image that it can clearly and accurately reflect any image before it. The mind of a warrior is like a mirror in that it has no commitment to any outcome and is free to let form and purpose result on the spot, according to the situation.

—Yagyū Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword

Comment author: xv15 11 February 2013 04:34:07PM 15 points [-]

Closeness in the experiment was reasonably literal but may also be interpreted in terms of identification with the torturer. If the church is doing the torturing then the especially religious may be more likely to think the tortured are guilty. If the state is doing the torturing then the especially patriotic (close to their country) may be more likely to think that the tortured/killed/jailed/abused are guilty. That part is fairly obvious but note the second less obvious implication–the worse the victim is treated the more the religious/patriotic will believe the victim is guilty. ... Research in moral reasoning is important because understanding why good people do evil things is more important than understanding why evil people do evil things.

-Alex Tabarrok

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 12 February 2013 05:06:16AM 8 points [-]

the worse the victim is treated the more the religious/patriotic will believe the victim is guilty.

One amusing aspect is that assuming the person is justified in their belief that their church/country is ethical, the above is a valid inference.

Comment author: ChristianKl 27 February 2013 05:30:29PM 2 points [-]

Not necessarily. You don't punish people based on their likelihood of being guilty but based on severity of their crime.

If torture is used as tool to gain information instead of being used to punish it's even more questionable whether the likelihood of being guilty correlates with the severity of the torture. The fact that someone decides to torture to get more information suggests that they have an insuffienct amount of information.

If there a 50% chance that a person has information that can prevent a nuclear explosion, you can argue that it's ethical to torture to get that information.

After the bomb has exploded and you know for certain who did the crime, there not much need to torture anyone.

An interrigator that tortures is more likely to get false confession that implicate innocents. If he then goes and tortures those innocents, you see that people who torture are more likely to punish innocents than people who don't.

Comment author: Alicorn 13 February 2013 05:23:11AM 5 points [-]

"It does not matter what we have believed," Caleb said. "What matters is the truth."

--Jovah's Angel by Sharon Shinn

Comment author: arundelo 01 February 2013 05:00:17PM 25 points [-]

Eventually you just have to admit that if it looks like the absence of a duck, walks like the absence of a duck, and quacks like the absence of a duck, the duck is probably absent.

--Tom Chivers

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 February 2013 11:13:04PM 15 points [-]

I agree subject to the specification that each such observation must look substantially more like the absence of a duck then a duck. There are many things we see which are not ducks in particular locations. My shoe doesn't look like a duck in my closet, but it also doesn't look like the absence of a duck in my closet. Or to put it another way, my sock looks exactly like it should look if there's no duck in my closet, but it also looks exactly like it should look if there is a duck in my closet.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 02 February 2013 04:18:29AM 4 points [-]

If your sock does not have feathers or duck-shit on it, then it is somewhat more likely that it has not been sat on by a duck.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2013 05:26:10AM 6 points [-]

Insufficiently more likely. I've been around ducks many times without that happening to my socks. Log of the likelihood ratio would be close to zero.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 03 February 2013 04:26:59PM *  3 points [-]

You originally were talking about a duck in your closet, which isn't the same as thing as being around ducks.

The discussion reminds me of this, which makes the point that, while corelation is not causation, if there's no corelation, there almost certainly isn't causation.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 05 February 2013 08:37:54AM *  14 points [-]

if there's no corelation, there almost certainly isn't causation.

This is completely wrong, though not many people seem to understand that yet.

For example, the voltage across a capacitor is uncorrelated with the current through it; and another poster has pointed out the example of the thermostat, a topic I've also written about on occasion.

It's a fundamental principle of causal inference that you cannot get causal conclusions from wholly acausal premises and data. (See Judea Pearl, passim.) This applies just as much to negative conclusions as positive. Absence of correlation cannot on its own be taken as evidence of absence of causation.

Comment author: shminux 05 February 2013 08:09:30PM *  3 points [-]

the voltage across a capacitor is uncorrelated with the current through it

It depends. While true when the signal is periodic, it is not so in general. A spike of current through the capacitor results in a voltage change. Trivially, if voltage is an exponent (V=V0exp(-at), then so is current (I=C dV/dt=-aCV0 exp(-at)), with 100% correlation between the two on a given interval.

As for the Milton's thermostat, only the perfect one is uncorrelated (the better the control system, the less the correlation), and no control system without complete future knowledge of inputs is perfect. Of course, if the control system is good enough, in practice the correlation will drown in the noise. That's why there is so little good evidence that fiscal (or monetary) policy works.

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 05 February 2013 09:41:24AM *  8 points [-]

Yes, this is completely wrong. There is frequently no correlation but strong causation due to effect cancellation (homeostasis, etc.)

Here's a recent paper making this point in the context of mediation analysis in social science (I could post many more):


Nancy, I don't mean to jump on you specifically here, but this does seem to me to be a special instance of a general online forum disease, where people {prefer to use | view as authoritative} online sources of information (blogs, wikipedia, even tvtropes, etc.) vs mainstream sources (books, academic papers, professionals). Vinge calls it "the net of a million lies" for a reason!

Comment author: simplicio 04 February 2013 11:44:31PM 7 points [-]

Not disagreeing, but just wanted to mention the useful lesson that there are some cases of causation without correlation. For example, the fuel burned by a furnace is uncorrelated with the temperature inside a home. (See: Milton Friedman's thermostat.)

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2013 01:19:39AM 19 points [-]

Saw kid tryin' to catch a butterfly, got me wonderin why I didn't see a butterfly trying desperately to fly away from a kid


Comment author: Desrtopa 06 February 2013 09:33:16PM 23 points [-]

The first response that comes to my mind is "because if the butterfly were trying that hard to escape the kid, it would fly above the kid's reach, and the kid would give up." When I look at the scene, I see a kid chasing a butterfly, and a butterfly too stupid to realize it should flee instead of simply dodging.

Animals on the intelligence levels of butterflies (which, keep in mind, have specific mating flight patterns they use to tell other members of their species apart from things like ribbons and stray flower petals,) don't seem to even have retreat instincts, just avoidance instincts. They can't recognize persistent pursuit. A fly won't hesitate to land on a person who has been trying to swat it for minutes on end.

Comment author: woodside 03 February 2013 07:53:04AM *  9 points [-]

Because you're a human, not a butterfly. It seems like an animal that used a cognitive filter that defaulted to the latter case would take a pretty severe fitness hit.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 February 2013 05:18:12PM *  11 points [-]

Three things, in no particular order:

  • I seem to recall that, in some obscure language, each noun has an agency level and in a sentence the most agenty noun is the subject by default, unless the verb is specially inflected to show otherwise: for example, “[dog] [bite] [man]” would mean ‘a man bit a dog’, regardless of word order, because the noun “[man]” has higher agency than “[dog]”.

  • Would you sooner see a tiger chasing a man, or a man running away from a tiger? If the former, it's not just the fact that butterflies are not human, it's the fact that the butterflies are small.

  • I think that, at least in the case of the lion, it would also depend on whether the two of them are moving towards the left side or the right side of my visual field. I heard that in The Great Wave off Kanagawa the boats are intended to look more agenty than the wave, but for Western people it will typically look like the other way round (due to Western languages being written from left to right), and for a Westerner to get the right effect they'd have to look at the picture in a mirror. (It works for me, at least.)

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 06 February 2013 03:50:40PM *  7 points [-]

Is this visual field orientation issue really Western vs Eastern? If so, has it evaporated lately?

One of the media that most lends itself to testing this notion is video games, since there is almost always an agent, and often a preferred direction to gameplay. In some cases, there is a lot of free movement but when you enter a new zone/approach a boss, it generally goes one way rather than the other.

Eastern games favoring left-to-right over right-to-left: Super Mario Brothers, Ninja Gaiden, Megaman, Ghosts and Goblins, Double Dragon, TMNT, River City Ransom, Sonic the Hedgehog, Gradius/Lifeforce, UN Squadron, Rygar, Contra, Codename: Viper, Faxanadu (at least, the beginning, which is all I saw), Excitebike, Zelda 2, Act Raiser, Wizards and Warriors, and Cave Story.

On the other side, Final Fantasy combat generally puts the party on to right side, facing left. That's pretty leftward-oriented for sure. And very slightly - more slightly than any of the above - Metroid. Whenever you find a major powerup, you approach it from the right. You enter Tourian (the last area) from the right, and approach all 3 full bosses from the right. Those two are all I can think of with any sort of leftward bias at all.

In the west, the only games I can think of that favor right-to-left over left-to-right are Choplifter and Solaris; also, we get slightly-leftward readings on the Atari game of The Empire Strikes Back (you go left to meet the attack, but the primary agents are the attacking walkers, which are going right, and you need to keep up with them) and Pitfall (it seems mainly designed for players going right... which meant it was easier to turn around and go left; however, I'm sure the designer did this intentionally).

In absolute terms and even more at a fractional level, that's more than the eastern games.

... Now my head hurts. And man, going to a boarding school at a young age really exposed me to a lot of games.

Comment author: bbleeker 06 February 2013 10:35:15AM 3 points [-]

I heard that in The Great Wave off Kanagawa the boats are intended to look more agenty than the wave, but for Western people it will typically look like the other way round (due to Western languages being written from left to right), and for a Westerner to get the right effect they'd have to look at the picture in a mirror. (It works for me, at least.)

Huh, I just tried that, and it works for me too. When you mirror it, it looks like they're going into the wave instead of fleeing from it. The effect is really strong; I wondered if it would still work when I knew about it, but it does.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 February 2013 02:05:17AM *  2 points [-]

BTW, does anyone get different effects from the emoticons :-/ and :-\ or it's just me?

V erpragyl qvfpbirerq gung, juvyr gurl fhccbfrq gb or flabalzbhf (ba Snprobbx gurl eraqre gb gur fnzr cvp), gb zr gur sbezre srryf zber yvxr “crecyrkvgl, pbashfvba” (naq gung'f ubj V trarenyyl hfr vg), jurernf gur ynggre srryf zber yvxr “qvfnccebiny” (naq V bayl fnj gung orpnhfr zl cubar unf :-\ ohg abg :-/ nzbat gur cer-pbzcbfrq rzbgvpbaf, fb V cvpxrq gur sbezre ohg vg qvqa'g ybbx evtug gb zr).

[Edited to move the question to the front and rot-13 the rest as per Nesov's suggestion.]

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 10 February 2013 02:15:27AM 4 points [-]

Does anyone else get the same effect?

You shouldn't prime the audience before asking a question like that.

Comment author: alex_zag_al 05 February 2013 01:54:15AM 6 points [-]

Don't good hunters have good mental models of their prey? I mean I get that you're thinking that it wouldn't help to feel sympathy for animals of other species. But it would help in many cases to have empathy, and to see things from the other animal's perspective.

Comment author: Grif 02 February 2013 01:12:40AM *  24 points [-]

If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should value evidence? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument would you invoke to prove they should value logic?

--Sam Harris

Comment author: jooyous 02 February 2013 09:51:31PM *  11 points [-]

This reminds me of

You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

which I believe is a paraphrasing of something Jonathan Swift said, but I'm not sure. Anyone have the original?

Comment author: simplicio 04 February 2013 11:35:34PM 18 points [-]

You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

I don't think this is empirically true, though. Suppose I believe strongly that violent crime rates are soaring in my country (Canada), largely because I hear people talking about "crime being on the rise" all the time, and because I hear about murders on the news. I did not reason myself into this position, in other words.

Then you show me some statistics, and I change my mind.

In general, I think a supermajority of our starting opinions (priors, essentially) are held for reasons that would not pass muster as 'rational,' even if we were being generous with that word. This is partly because we have to internalize a lot of things in our youth and we can't afford to vet everything our parents/friends/culture say to us. But the epistemic justification for the starting opinions may be terrible, and yet that doesn't mean we're incapable of having our minds changed.

Comment author: Nornagest 04 February 2013 11:59:20PM *  5 points [-]

Suppose I believe strongly that violent crime rates are soaring in my country (Canada), largely because I hear people talking about "crime being on the rise" all the time, and because I hear about murders on the news. I did not reason myself into this position, in other words. Then you show me some statistics, and I change my mind.

The chance of this working depends greatly on how significant the contested fact is to your identity. You may be willing to believe abstractly that crime rates are down and public safety is up after being shown statistics to that effect -- but I predict that (for example) a parent who'd previously been worried about child abductions after hearing several highly publicized news stories, and who'd already adopted and vigorously defended childrearing policies consistent with this fear, would be much less likely to update their policies after seeing an analogous set of statistics.

Comment author: jooyous 05 February 2013 12:23:38AM *  2 points [-]

This is partly because we have to internalize a lot of things in our youth and we can't afford to vet everything our parents/friends/culture say to us. But the epistemic justification for the starting opinions may be terrible, and yet that doesn't mean we're incapable of having our minds changed.

I agree, but I think part of the process of having your mind changed is the understanding that you came to believe those internalized things in a haphazard way. And you might be resisting that understanding because of the reasons @Nornagest mentions -- you've invested into them or incorporated them into your identity, for example. I think I'm more inclined to change the quote to

You can't expect to reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

to make it slightly more useful in practice, because often changing the person's mind will require not only knowing the more accurate facts or proper reasoning, but also knowing why the person is attached to his old position -- and people generally don't reveal that until they're ready to change their mind on their own.

Oops, I guess I wasn't sure where to put this comment.

Comment author: ChristianKl 02 February 2013 05:07:14PM 27 points [-]

You put them into a social enviroment where the high status people value logic and evidence. You give them the plausible promise that they can increase their status in that enviroment by increasing the amount that they value logic and evidence.

Comment author: Turgurth 03 February 2013 01:12:28AM 8 points [-]

If you can't appeal to reason to make reason appealing, you appeal to emotion and authority to make reason appealing.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 02 February 2013 03:39:43AM *  5 points [-]

Take all their stuff. Tell them that they have no evidence that it's theirs and no logical arguments that they should be allowed to keep it.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 02 February 2013 04:03:26AM 23 points [-]

They beat you up. People who haven't specialized in logic and evidence have not therefore been idle.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 02 February 2013 04:18:25AM 4 points [-]

Shoot them?

Comment author: gryffinp 02 February 2013 10:32:43AM 31 points [-]

I think you just independently invented the holy war.

Comment author: BerryPick6 02 February 2013 05:28:41PM 2 points [-]

This is from the Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig debate, starting around the 44 minute mark. IIRC, Luke's old website has a review of this particular debate.

Comment author: Andreas_Giger 02 February 2013 04:29:35AM *  3 points [-]

Put them in a situation where they need to use logic and evidence to understand their environment and where understanding their environment is crucial for their survival, and they'll figure it out by themselves. No one really believes God will protect them from harm...

Comment author: Swimmer963 02 February 2013 01:03:42PM 11 points [-]

No one really believes God will protect them from harm...

I have some friends who do... At least insofar as things like "I don't have to worry about finances because God is watching over me, so I won't bother trying to keep a balanced budget." Then again, being financially irresponsible (a behaviour I find extremely hard to understand and sympathize with) seems to be common-ish, and not just among people who think God will take care of their problems.

Comment author: MixedNuts 02 February 2013 04:44:53PM 2 points [-]

Why not? Thinking about money is work. It involves numbers.

Comment author: Kindly 02 February 2013 04:51:06PM 2 points [-]

Moreover, it often involves a great deal of stress. Small wonder that many people try to avoid that stress by just not thinking about how they spend money.

Comment author: Andreas_Giger 02 February 2013 03:45:27PM *  2 points [-]

I think that's mostly because money is too abstract, and as long as you get by you don't even realize what you've lost. Survival is much more real.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 February 2013 11:11:45AM *  5 points [-]

Sadly, that only works on a natural-selection basis, so the ethics boards forbid us from doing this. If they never see anyone actually failing to survive, they won't change their behavior.

Comment author: Andreas_Giger 02 February 2013 03:47:46PM *  3 points [-]

Can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Videotape the whole thing so the next one has even more evidence.

Comment author: jsbennett86 13 February 2013 11:34:58PM 18 points [-]

Every time you read something that mentions brain chemicals or brain scans, rewrite the sentence without the sciencey portions. “Hate makes people happy.” “Women feel closer to people after sex.” “Music makes people happy.” If the argument suddenly seems way less persuasive, or the news story way less ground-breaking… well. Someone’s doing something shady.

Ozy Frantz - Brain Chemicals are not Fucking Magic

Comment author: Kawoomba 06 February 2013 10:26:25AM 18 points [-]

A sharp knife is nothing without a sharp eye.

Klingon proverb.

Comment author: Vaniver 01 February 2013 09:27:35PM 17 points [-]

If you're not making quantitative predictions, you're probably doing it wrong.

--Gabe Newell during a talk. The whole talk is worthwhile if you're interested in institutional design or Valve.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 02 February 2013 08:20:12AM 13 points [-]

What's the percent chance that I'm doing it wrong?

Comment author: Vaniver 02 February 2013 03:54:43PM 10 points [-]

The whole quote:

If you're not making quantitative predictions, you're probably doing it wrong, or you're probably not doing it as well as you can. That's sort of become kind of critical to how we operate. You have to predict in advance. Anybody can explain anything after the fact, and it has to be quantitative or you're not being serious about how you're approaching the problem.

The problems you face might not require a serious approach; without more information, I can't say.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2013 01:20:29AM 11 points [-]

People's executive functioning is largely invisible to them, and perceived in moral terms to the extent that it is visible.

S. T. Rev

Comment author: Rubix 02 February 2013 01:17:50AM 25 points [-]

"In any man who dies, there dies with him his first snow and kiss and fight. Not people die, but worlds die in them."

-Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 02 April 2017 12:34:23PM 3 points [-]

Ironically, the man Yevtushenko is now dead too; but the world Yevtushenko, asteroid number 4234, lives on.

Comment author: curiousepic 06 February 2013 02:25:23AM *  26 points [-]

Q: I was wondering what the dumbest or funniest argument you've heard against the defeat of aging?

Aubrey de Grey: Um, It's been a very very long time since I've heard a question or concern I haven't heard before, so nothing's dumb or funny anymore, it's just... tedium.

From this recent talk

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 February 2013 11:21:44PM 14 points [-]

I cannot express how true this is, at least not without a lot of swear words.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 February 2013 04:41:21PM 12 points [-]

Aubrey de Grey being an immortalist himself, I'm assuming the irony to be unintentional?

Comment author: ESRogs 09 February 2013 09:03:07AM 6 points [-]

Haha, didn't occur to me until I read your comment, so there's one data point for you.

Comment author: Kindly 01 February 2013 07:44:07PM 12 points [-]

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total darkness sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

W. H. Auden, "The More Loving One"

Comment author: simplicio 23 February 2013 01:10:18AM 8 points [-]

Whenever you feel that society is forcing you to conform or treating you like a number, not a person, just ask yourself the following question: "Does my individuality create more work for other people?" If the answer is yes, then you should be prepared to pay more.

(Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell)

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 05 February 2013 01:22:59AM 15 points [-]

Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking "Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?" they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make.

-- Screwtape, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2013 05:25:27AM 18 points [-]

Good things come to those who steal them.

-- Magnificent Sasquatch

Comment author: Apprentice 18 February 2013 11:42:57PM 3 points [-]

He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated itself. He saw nothing but colours - colours that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are.

-- C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2013 01:18:28AM 15 points [-]

Judge a book by its cover. The author and publisher selected that design to represent the book's content and tone. #MoreSensibleSayings


Comment author: sketerpot 02 February 2013 06:13:42AM 23 points [-]
Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 03 February 2013 10:20:44PM 25 points [-]

Authors are deliberately excluded from all this, on the grounds that they're so in love with what's inside the book that they don't understand what the cover stuff is for. Which is advertising.

The purpose of cover art is not to show the reader what's inside the book.

It's to get his attention from across the bookstore and get him to pick the book up in the first place.

Half-naked women and muscular barbarians are very good for getting teenaged readers to at least take a look. Black and red are good, too. And spiffy hardware, like spaceships. Cut-out covers, foil, blood, all that stuff--it gets attention, and the art and marketing people really don't give a damn whether it agrees with what's inside the book.

The cover gets you to pick up the book and read the blurbs; the blurbs are supposed to convince you to actually buy it. The blurb writer doesn't care any more about accuracy than the art director did; his job is to sell the book, period. One way to do that is to skim through the book and pick out all the most lurid details.

So all this is done without the author's interference. The author might put up a fuss about the half-naked women, since everyone in the story is ninety years old and wearing dirty bathrobes the whole time. The author might object to having his sentimental tale of old age cover-blurbed, "Shocking Love Secrets of the Ancients!" Who wants to waste time arguing with him? Better to shut him out and deliver the package as a fait accompli.

-- Lawrence Watt-Evans

Comment author: Andreas_Giger 02 February 2013 03:40:32PM 15 points [-]

You don't "judge" a book by its cover; you use the cover as additional evidence to more accurately predict what's in the book. Knowing what the publisher wants you to assume about the book is preferable to not knowing.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2013 05:01:02PM *  7 points [-]

(Except when it's a novel and the text on the back cover spoilers events from the middle of the book or later which I would have preferred to not read until the right time.)

Comment author: aleksiL 03 February 2013 02:23:57PM 5 points [-]

Spoilers matter less than you think.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 03 February 2013 10:16:24PM 18 points [-]

According to a single counter-intuitive (and therefore more likely to make headlines), unreplicated study.

Comment author: BerryPick6 03 February 2013 10:17:36PM *  9 points [-]

Gah! Spoiler!

Comment author: roystgnr 05 February 2013 10:43:28PM 3 points [-]

I don't like the study setup there. One readthrough of spoiled vs one readthrough of unspoiled material lets you compare the participants' hedonic ratings of dramatic irony vs mystery, and it's quite reasonable that the former would be equally or more enjoyable... but unlike in the study, in real life unspoiled material can be read twice: the first time for the mystery, then the second time for the dramatic irony; with spoiled material you only get the latter.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 February 2013 11:47:51PM 3 points [-]

Those error bars look large enough that I could still be right about myself even without being a total freak.

Comment author: CellBioGuy 02 February 2013 01:25:32AM 10 points [-]

No, they selected them to sell more copies by highjacking the easier-to-press buttons of your nervous system.

Comment author: Nic_Smith 02 February 2013 02:38:51AM *  3 points [-]

There's something to that, but it's not as if Varian's Microeconomic Analysis is going to have the cover of Spice and Wolf 1.

Comment author: Desrtopa 02 February 2013 02:31:22PM 8 points [-]

On the other hand, the method of judging a book's contents by its cover clearly has holes in it considering Spice and Wolf 1 has the cover of Spice and Wolf 1.

Comment author: HalMorris 02 February 2013 02:49:20AM 3 points [-]

Probably purely true for some books, but as someone who buys thousands of books a year, my impression is they are very likely to reveal who they think their readers will be (hence a lot of covers say "stay away" to me), and just occasionally they can show a startling streak of originality. E.g. the board designs (there may be no dustjacket) on Dave Eggers' books are uniquely artistic in my opinion, and in this case since he has been seriously into graphics, I don't think it's any accident. You might think "Maybe this book is written by a bold and original person" and IMHO you'd be right. Also, the cover design of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon kind of sent a message on my wavelength and it was not misleading (for me).

Comment author: simplicio 07 February 2013 03:15:03AM 9 points [-]

It is important, therefore, to always maintain a balanced view of markets. There is something extremely elegant about the way they allocate goods and resources, and the way the price system automatically adjusts the system of production in response to changes in demand. There is a clear sense in which markets achieve a level of coordination and efficiency that no other form of social organization is able to provide. However, markets are not magical, and they will not solve all our problems. They work properly only under very specific institutional conditions.

(Joseph Heath, The Efficient Society)

Heath is an excellent writer on economics/philosophy.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 25 February 2013 10:44:25PM 6 points [-]

I am, in most of my endeavors, a solidly successful person. I decide I want things to be a certain way, and I make it happen. I've done it with my career, my learning of music, understanding of foreign languages, and basically everything I've tried to do. For a long time, I've known that the key to getting started down the path of being remarkable in anything is to simply act with the intention of being remarkable.

If I want a better-than-average career, I can't simply 'go with the flow' and get it. Most people do just that: they wish for an outcome but make no intention-driven actions toward that outcome. If they would just do something most people would find that they get some version of the outcome they're looking for. That's been my secret. Stop wishing and start doing.

Yet here I was, talking about arguably the most important part of my life - my health [emphasis added] - as if it was something I had no control over. I had been going with the flow for years. Wishing for an outcome and waiting to see if it would come. I was the limp, powerless ego I detest in other people.

But somehow, as the school nerd who always got picked last for everything, I had allowed 'not being good at sports' or 'not being fit' to enter what I considered to be inherent attributes of myself [emphasis added]. The net result is that I was left with an understanding of myself as an incomplete person. And though I had (perhaps) overcompensated for that incompleteness by kicking ass in every other way I could, I was still carrying this powerlessness around with me and it was very slowly and subtly gnawing away at me from the inside.

-- Chad Fowler (from The 4-Hour Body)

Comment author: cody-bryce 20 February 2013 07:39:48PM 6 points [-]

"We're even wrong about which mistakes we're making."

-Carl Winfeld

Comment author: scav 07 February 2013 04:13:25PM 12 points [-]

But I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive.

-- Randall Munroe

Comment author: BerryPick6 07 February 2013 04:25:22PM 2 points [-]

Definitely a double, but I can't link the others right now.

Comment author: shminux 12 February 2013 07:45:18AM 9 points [-]

Instead of assuming that people are dumb, ignorant, and making mistakes, assume they are smart, doing their best, and that you lack context.


Comment author: Document 23 February 2013 10:37:33PM *  2 points [-]

With apologies for double-commenting: "Don't assume others are ignorant" is likely to be read by a lot of people (including myself at first) as "Aim high and don't be easily be convinced of an inferential gap". Posts on underconfidence may also be relevant.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 13 February 2013 01:56:44PM 5 points [-]

If we are in the business of making assumptions, there is no dichotomy, you can as well consider both hypotheticals. (Actually believing that either of these holds in general, or in any given case where you don't have sufficient information, would probably be dumb, ignorant, a mistake.)

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 13 February 2013 07:45:51AM 3 points [-]

Also, consider the possibility that it is you who is dumb, ignorant, and making mistakes.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 01 February 2013 09:04:17PM 9 points [-]

Evolutionary psychology, economics, and behavior studies in general often fail to account for what may be an innate, or strongly socialized, motivating variable. "Rational people will seek to maximize their gain." Sure. Now define gain. In many discussions about behavior and economics, we do not account for obedience and social pressure. This is a mistake, as it is evident that it is a highly significant, though invisible, determinant.

The Last Psychiatrist (http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2009/06/delaying_gratification.html)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 February 2013 03:13:18AM 5 points [-]

Responsibility without power breeds cynicism.

-- Scott Sumner (talking about Italian politicians when the EU controls their monetary policy, but it generalizes)

Comment author: Roze_Function 07 February 2013 01:57:34AM 5 points [-]

True, reason was a difficult tool. You laboured with it to see a little more, and at best you got glimpses, partial truths; but the glimpses were always worth having.

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty

Comment author: Kingoftheinternet 01 February 2013 07:47:05PM *  14 points [-]

If you are reading this book and flipping out at every third sentence because you feel I'm insulting your intelligence, then I have three points of advice for you:

  • Stop reading my book. I didn't write it for you. I wrote it for people who don't already know everything.

  • Empty before you fill. You will have a hard time learning from someone with more knowledge if you already know everything.

  • Go learn Lisp. I hear people who know everything really like Lisp.

For everyone else who's here to learn, just read everything as if I'm smiling and I have a mischievous little twinkle in my eye.

Introduction to Learn Python The Hard Way, by Zed A. Shaw

Comment author: pewpewlasergun 02 February 2013 04:15:27AM 9 points [-]

If anyone feels even remotely inspired to click through and actually learn python, do it. Its been the most productive thing I've done on the internet.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 06 February 2013 09:06:18AM 7 points [-]

This makes me wonder how much my writing skills would improve if I retyped excellently written essays for a while.

Comment author: Vaniver 06 February 2013 11:50:07PM *  19 points [-]

Benjamin Franklin's method of learning to write well is summarized here. His version:

A question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of the propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute's sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words; and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons. As we parted without settling the point, and were not to see one another again for some time, I sat down to put my arguments in writing, which I copied fair and sent to him. He answered, and I replied. Three or four letters of a side had passed, when my father happened to find my papers and read them. Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I ow'd to the printing-house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remark, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.

About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try'd to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious. My time for these exercises and for reading was at night, after work or before it began in the morning, or on Sundays, when I contrived to be in the printing-house alone, evading as much as I could the common attendance on public worship which my father used to exact on me when I was under his care, and which indeed I still thought a duty, though I could not, as it seemed to me, afford time to practise it.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 February 2013 11:23:50PM 7 points [-]

I would expect the answer to be "not much, compared to writing and publishing horrible, horrible fanfiction".

Comment author: BlueSun 06 February 2013 02:53:26PM 4 points [-]

I'd like to see a study result on that.

In Art History class I learned that a common way for great artists to learn to paint was by copying the work of the masters. I then asked the art teacher why it was a rule that we couldn't copy other famous historical paintings. I can't remember her exact answer but the times I haven't followed her advice and went and copied a great painting, I seem to have learned more. But again, I'd like to see a study result.

Comment author: Yahooey 10 February 2013 09:02:57PM 4 points [-]

Coincidences … are the worst enemies of the truth. (Les coïncidences … sont les pires ennemies de la vérité.)

Gaston Leroux

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 February 2013 09:22:02PM 3 points [-]

Only with very low probability.

Comment author: Yahooey 11 February 2013 07:00:22AM *  4 points [-]

and the human mind loves to find patterns even when the probabilities of the pattern being a rule are low. Coincidences are correlation.

Comment author: tgb 09 February 2013 07:22:54PM *  4 points [-]

It is interesting to note that Bohr was an outspoken critic of Einstein's light quantum (prior to 1924), that he mercilessly denounced Schrodinger's equation, discouraged Dirac's work on the relativist electron theory (telling him, incorrectly, that Klein and Gordon had already succeeded), opposed Pauli's introduction of the neutrino, ridiculed Yukawa's theory of the meson, and disparaged Feynman's approach to quantum electrodynamics.

[Footnote to: "This was a most disturbing result. Niels Bohr (not for the first time) was ready to abandon the law of conservation of energy". The disturbing result refers to the observations of electron energies in beta-decay prior to hypothesizing the existence of neutrinos.]

-David Griffiths, Introduction to Elementary Particles, 2008 page 24

Comment author: Stabilizer 05 February 2013 01:17:36AM 5 points [-]

Clarity is the counterbalance of profound thoughts.

-Luc de Clapiers

Comment author: HalMorris 03 February 2013 04:01:55PM 7 points [-]

Joke: a tourist was driving around lost in the countryside in Ireland among the 1 lane roads and hill farms divided by ancient stone fences, and he asks a sheep farmer how to get to Dublin, to which he replies:

"Well ... if I was going to Dublin, I wouldn't start from here."

Moral, as I see it anyway: While the heuristic "to get to Y, start from X instead of where you are" has some value (often cutting a hard problem into two simpler ones), ultimately we all must start from where we are.

Comment author: James_Miller 01 February 2013 07:35:27PM 9 points [-]

No scientific conclusions can ever be good or bad, desirable or undesirable, sexist, racist, offensive, reactionary or dangerous; they can only be true or false. No other adjectives apply.

Satoshi Kanazawa

Comment author: Nornagest 01 February 2013 08:35:08PM 13 points [-]

While I pretty much agree with the quote, it doesn't provide anyone that isn't already convinced with many good reasons to believe it. Less of an unusually rational statement and more of an empiricist applause light, in other words.

In any case, a scientific conclusion needn't be inherently offensive for closer examination to be recommended: if most researchers' backgrounds are likely to introduce implicit biases toward certain conclusions on certain topics, then taking a close look at the experimental structure to rule out such bias isn't merely a good political sop but is actually good science in its own right. Of course, dealing with this properly would involve hard work and numbers and wouldn't involve decrying all but the worst studies as bad science when you've read no more than the abstract.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 02 February 2013 05:56:24AM 4 points [-]

if most researchers' backgrounds are likely to introduce implicit biases toward certain conclusions on certain topics, then taking a close look at the experimental structure to rule out such bias isn't merely a good political sop but is actually good science in its own right.

Unfortunately, since the people deciding which papers to take a closer look at tend to have the same biases as most scientists, the papers that actually get examined closely are the ones going against common biases.

Comment author: Nornagest 02 February 2013 07:19:00AM 3 points [-]

I hate to find myself in the position of playing apologist for this mentality, but I believe the party line is that most of the relevant biases are instilled by mass culture and present at some level even in most people trying to combat them, never mind scientists who oppose them in a kind of vague way but mostly have better things to do with their lives.

In light of the Implicit Association Test this doesn't even seem all that far-fetched to me. The question is to what extent it warrants being paranoid about experimental design, and that's where I find myself begging to differ.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 02 February 2013 04:16:55AM 13 points [-]

This seems to imply that science is somehow free from motivated cognition — people looking for evidence to support their biases. Since other fields of human reason are not, it would be astonishing if science were.

(Bear in mind, I use "science" mostly as the name of a social institution — the scientific community, replete with journals, grants and funding sources, tenure, and all — and not as a name for an idealized form of pure knowledge-seeking.)

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2013 06:22:10PM *  8 points [-]

I take the quote to be normative rather than descriptive. Science is not free from motivated cognition, but that's a bug, not a feature.

Comment author: shminux 01 February 2013 07:41:48PM 8 points [-]

I'd take an issue with "undesirable", the way I understand it. For example, the conclusion that traveling FTL is impossible without major scientific breakthroughs was quite undesirable to those who want to reach for the stars. Similarly with "dangerous": the discovery of nuclear energy was quite dangerous.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2013 06:20:39PM *  5 points [-]

If travelling faster than light is possible,
I desire to believe that travelling faster than light is possible;
If travelling faster than light is impossible,
I desire to believe that travelling faster than light is impossible;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 01 February 2013 07:55:58PM 4 points [-]

I think it's pretty clear that scientific conclusions can be dangerous in the sense that telling everybody about them is dangerous. For example, the possibility of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, there should probably be an ethical injunction against deciding what kind of science other people get to do. (But in return maybe scientists themselves should think more carefully about whether what they're doing is going to kill the human race or not.)

Comment author: Apprentice 18 February 2013 11:35:58PM 4 points [-]

Those who stand against the dark mirror of evil are trapped in an eternal conflict. Because, for the cultists; they only have to succeed once. But for the defenders of humanity, we have to prevail every single time.

-- From the final screen of Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2013 01:03:41PM 7 points [-]

Heaven? They tried to recruit me, but I turned them down. My place is here in shadows, with the blood and the fear and the screams of the dying, standing back to back with my loves against the world.

-- Time Braid

Comment author: CronoDAS 06 February 2013 11:33:05PM 5 points [-]

Man who run in front of car get tired.
Man who run in back of car get exhausted.

(Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 February 2013 11:44:25PM 18 points [-]

Studies show that people who try to run behind a car frequently fail to keep up, while nobody who runs in front of a car fails more than once.

Comment author: CronoDAS 13 February 2013 05:53:28AM 3 points [-]

Give a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.

Comment author: shaih 18 February 2013 04:43:25AM 3 points [-]

No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.

Karl Popper

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 20 February 2013 07:19:06AM 9 points [-]

There's a failure mode associated to this attitude worth watching out for, which is assuming that people who disagree with you are being irrational and so not bothering to check if you have arguments against what they say.

Comment author: Mestroyer 22 February 2013 05:49:22PM 3 points [-]

Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation. Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men. Hence the use of spies...

Sun Tzu on establishing a causal chain from reality to your beliefs.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 February 2013 03:31:47AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: taelor 01 February 2013 09:50:23PM 3 points [-]

It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent. One may be forgiven for not being too happy about any division of mankind into good and evil, progressive and reactionary, black and white; and it is not clear that moral indignation is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great confusion of one’s judgement. There can be no complaint against the historian who personally and privately has his preferences and antipathies, and who as a human being merely has a fancy to take part in the game that he is describing; it is pleasant to see him give way to his prejudices and take them emotionally, so that they splash into colour as he writes; provided that when he steps in this way into the arena he recognizes that he is stepping into a world of partial judgements and purely personal appreciations and does not imagines that he is speaking ex cathedra.

But if the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge, or stand as the official avenger of the crimes of the past, then one can require that he shall be still more godlike and regard himself rather as the reconciler than as the avenger; taking it that his aim is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past, and that in this understanding, if it can be complete, all things will ultimately be reconciled. It seems to be assumed that in history we can have something more than the private points of view of particular historian; that there are “verdicts of history” and that history itself, considered impersonally, has something to say to men. It seems to be accepted that each historian does something more than make a confession of his private mind and his whimsicalities, and that all of them are trying to elicit a truth, and perhaps combining through their various imperfections to express a truth, which, if we could perfectly attain it, would be the voice of History itself.

But if history is in this way something like the memory of mankind and represents the spirit of man brooding over man’s past, we must imagine it as working not to accentuate antagonisms or to ratify old party-cries but to find the unities that underlie the differences and to see all lives as part of the one web of life. The historian trying to feel his way towards this may be striving to be like a god but perhaps he is less foolish than the one who poses as god the avenger. Studying the quarrels of an ancient day he can at least seek to understand both parties to the struggle and he must want to understand them better than they understood themselves; watching them entangled in the net of time and circumstance he can take pity on them – these men who perhaps had no pity for one another; and, though he can never be perfect, it is difficult to see why he should aspire to anything less than taking these men and their quarrels into a world where everything is understood and all sins are forgiven.

— Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History