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gotdistractedbythe comments on Rationality Quotes May 2013 - Less Wrong

6 Post author: katydee 03 May 2013 08:02PM

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Comment author: [deleted] 02 May 2013 03:48:24AM *  112 points [-]

"The spatial anomaly has interacted with the tachyonic radiation in the nebula, it's interfering with our sensors. It's impossible to get a reading."

"There's no time - we'll have to take the ship straight through it!"

"Captain, I advise against this course of action. I have calculated the odds against our surviving such an action at three thousand, seven hundred and forty-five to one."

"Damn the odds, we've got to try... wait a second. Where, exactly, did you get that number from?"

"I hardly think this is the time for-"

"No. No, fuck you, this is exactly the time. The fate of the galaxy is at stake. Trillions of lives are hanging in the balance. You just pulled four significant digits out of your ass, I want to see you show your goddamn work."

"Well, I used the actuarial data from the past fifty years, relating to known cases of ships passing through nebulae that are interacting with spatial anomalies. There have been approximately two million such incidents reported, with only five hundred and forty-two incidents in which the ship in question survived intact."

"And did you at all take into account that ship building technology has improved over the past fifty years, and that ours is not necessarily an average ship?"

"Indeed I did, Captain. I weighted the cases differently based on how recent they were, and how close the ship in question was in build to our own. For example, one of the incidents with a happy ending was forty-seven years ago, but their ship was a model roughly five times our size. As such, I counted the incident as having twenty-four percent of the relevance of a standard case."

"But what of our ship's moxie? Can you take determination and drive and the human spirit into account?"

"As a matter of fact I can, Captain. In our three-year history together, I have observed that both you and this ship manage to beat the odds with a measurable regularity. To be exact, we tend to succeed twenty-four point five percent more often than the statistics would otherwise indicate - and, in fact, that number jumps to twenty-nine point two percent specifically in cases where I state the odds against our success to three significant digits or greater. I have already taken that supposedly 'unknowable' factor into account with my calculations."

"And you expect me to believe that you've memorized all these case studies and performed this ridiculously complicated calculation in your head within the course of a normal conversation?"

"Yes. With all due respect to your species, I am not human. While I freely admit that you do have greater insight into fields such as emotion, interpersonal relations, and spirituality than I do, in the fields of memory and calculation, I am capable of feats that would be quite simply impossible for you. Furthermore, if I may be perfectly frank, the entire purpose of my presence on the bridge is to provide insights such as these to help facilitate your command decisions. If you're not going to heed my advice, why am I even here?"

"Mm. And we're still sitting at three thousand seven hundred to one against?"

"Three thousand, seven hundred and forty five to one."

"Well, shit. Well, let's go around, then."

The Vulcan your Vulcan could sound like if he wasn't made of straw, I guess? Link

Comment author: Vaniver 03 May 2013 04:31:49AM 15 points [-]

To be exact, we tend to succeed twenty-four point five percent more often than the statistics would otherwise indicate

Well... not quite. The selection effect makes the survival number basically impossible to calculate, but regularly surviving risky scenarios seems like it would provide a bit better odds for the influence of moxie than 249:200.

Fun Bayes application: what's the likelihood ratio for the existence vs. nonexistence of moxie-based immunity to death during battle for military leaders, given the military history of Earth?

Comment author: DaFranker 03 May 2013 04:41:53PM *  29 points [-]

Well... not quite. The selection effect makes the survival number basically impossible to calculate, but regularly surviving risky scenarios seems like it would provide a bit better odds for the influence of moxie than 249:200.

At some point, if the Vulcan is smart enough, I suspect the calculation would begin to hinge more on plot twists and the odds that the story is nearing its end, as the hypothesis that they are wearing Plot Armor rises up to the forefront.

I'd also suspect that the Vulcan would realize quickly that as his prediction for the probability of success approaches 1, the odds of a sudden plot reversal that plunges them all in deep poo also approaches 1. And then the Vulcan would immediately adjust to always spouting off some random high-odds-against-us number all the time just to make sure they'd always succeed heroically.

Ow, this is starting to sound very newcomblike.

Comment author: orthonormal 03 May 2013 10:21:34PM 24 points [-]

And then the Vulcan would immediately adjust to always spouting off some random high-odds-against-us number all the time just to make sure they'd always succeed heroically.

Holy crap, canon!Spock is a genius rationalist after all.

Comment author: Kawoomba 03 May 2013 10:26:57PM 2 points [-]

The C3PO of rationalists.

(At least when in a fight, the bridge crew always takes great care to ask for damage reports, and whether someone anywhere on the ship broke a finger, before, you know, firing back.)

Comment author: [deleted] 03 May 2013 10:28:38PM *  3 points [-]

Hey, the humans have to do something while the computer (which somehow hasn't obtained sentience) does all the real work.

Comment author: Kawoomba 03 May 2013 10:41:08PM 23 points [-]

The computer is secretly making paper clips in cargo bay 2, beaming them into space when noone is looking.

I want to believe.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 05 May 2013 09:10:22PM 2 points [-]

The last line of reasoning doesn't quite work. Not every incident has an episode made out of it.

Comment author: DaFranker 06 May 2013 08:41:06PM *  1 point [-]

I don't see why not. Clearly, they're even more immune to death, dismemberment and other Bad Endings when they're not in a running episode. Or they just never run into the kind of exciting situations that happen during episodes.

I also suspect that distinguishing whether an episode is running would be even easier. One dead-obvious clue: The captain insists on going on an away mission, RedShirts are sent with him, all the RedShirts die unless they're part of the primary rotation bridge crew. Instant signal that an episode is running. AFAICT, very few redshirts ever die in this manner outside of episode incidents.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 06 May 2013 10:33:16PM 0 points [-]

I was referring to the chances that something would go wrong when it looks nearly certain to succeed. Things can go blissfully smoothly when the camera isn't running.

Comment author: Alicorn 06 May 2013 10:37:05PM 5 points [-]

This discussion seems like it needs a reference to Redshirts by John Scalzi.

Comment author: DaFranker 07 May 2013 02:23:00PM 0 points [-]

Yes.

Hell yes it did.

*adds to want-to-read list*

Comment author: Gurkenglas 15 December 2013 08:44:41PM *  0 points [-]

They do very many things that have a near-1 probability of succeeding, and only few of them are thwarted by plot.

Comment author: [deleted] 15 December 2013 05:35:55PM 0 points [-]

And then the Vulcan would immediately adjust to always spouting off some random high-odds-against-us number all the time just to make sure they'd always succeed heroically.

How do we know that it still works even when the Vulcan doesn't believe what they're saying?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 15 December 2013 07:39:11PM 1 point [-]

If it doesn't, presumably the Vulcan should then immediately adjust to believing the high-odds-against-us number. (This would admittedly be much more difficult to pull off consistently.)

Comment author: [deleted] 20 December 2013 05:09:29AM 1 point [-]

Maybe Vulcans are physiologically incapable of believing anything with insufficient evidence.

Comment author: khafra 03 May 2013 12:20:30PM 6 points [-]

I read that charitably as indicating occasional failures in non-deadly situations. Not even Captain Kirk wins 'em all.

Comment author: CCC 03 May 2013 02:29:25PM 9 points [-]

There have been approximately two million such incidents reported, with only five hundred and forty-two incidents in which the ship in question survived intact.

Unweighted, that's 3690:1 odds.

we tend to succeed twenty-four point five percent more often than the statistics would otherwise indicate - and, in fact, that number jumps to twenty-nine point two percent specifically in cases where I state the odds against our success to three significant digits or greater

Since odds to three or more significant figures have been quoted, that gives us 2856:1 odds (still without weighting). From this, I conclude that the successful incidents usually involved ships that were either very differently designed to the ship in question, or were a long time ago (case in point - the 47-year-old success case). This implies that the current ship's design is actually somewhat more likely to fall afoul of the nebula than an average ship, or an older ship. Rather substantially, in fact; enough to almost exactly counter the determination/drive factor.

An investigation into the shipyards, and current design paradigms, may be in order once the trillions of lives have been saved. I suspect that too little emphasis is being placed on safety at some point in the design process.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 May 2013 03:18:40PM *  24 points [-]

An investigation into the shipyards, and current design paradigms, may be in order...

...as I recommended strenuously before we left dock at the beginning of this mission, since a similar analysis performed then gave approximately 8000:1 odds that before this mission was complete you would do something deeply stupid that got us all killed, no matter how strenuously I tried to instruct you in basic risk factor analysis. That having failed, I gave serious consideration to simply taking over the ship myself, which I estimate will increase by a factor of approximately 3000 the utility created by our missions (even taking into account the reduced "moxie factor", which is primarily of use during crises a sensible Captain would avoid getting into in the first place). However, I observe that my superiors in the High Command have not taken over Starfleet and the Federation, despite the obvious benefits of such a strategy. At first this led me to 83% confidence that the High Command was in possession of extremely compelling unshared evidence of the value of humanity's leadership, which at that time led me to update significantly in favor of that view myself. I have since then reduced that confidence to 76%, with a 13% confidence that the High Command has instead been subverted by hostile powers partial to humanity.

Comment author: CCC 04 May 2013 02:40:35PM 17 points [-]

The steel-Vulcan in the original quote admits that humans have an edge in the field of interpersonal relations. I imagine that's why the Vulcans let the humans lead; because the humans are capable of persuading all the other races in the Federation to go along with this whole 'federation' idea, and leave the Vulcans more-or-less alone as long as they share some of their research results.

Or, to put it another way; Vulcan High Command has managed to foist off the boring administration work onto the humans, in exchange for mere unimportant status, and is not eager to have it land back on their laps again.

Of course, some Vulcans do think that a Vulcan-led empire would be an improvement over a human-led one. The last batch to think that went off and formed the Romulan Empire. The Vulcans and the Romulans are currently running a long-term, large-scale experiment to see which paradigm creates a more lasting empire in practice. (They don't tell the other races that it's all a political experiment, of course. They might not be great at interpersonal realtions, but they have found out in the past that that is a very bad idea).

Comment author: TheOtherDave 04 May 2013 04:58:23PM 3 points [-]

It's not mere unimportant status, though. The Federation makes decisions that affect the state of the Galaxy, and they make different decisions than they would under Vulcan control, and those differences cash out in terms of significant differences in overall utility. For a culture that believes that "the fate of the many outweighs the fate of the few, or the one," the choice to allow that just so they can be left alone seems bizarre.

Of course, that assumes that they consider non-Vulcans to be part of "the many." Now that I think about it, there's no particular reason to believe that's a commonly held Vulcan value/belief.

Comment author: Estarlio 04 May 2013 11:36:11PM 5 points [-]

The Federation makes decisions that affect the state of the Galaxy, and they make different decisions than they would under Vulcan control

Eh, questionable. I'm sure many of us have been in situations where we're advising more senior staff and the manager or whoever isn't really the one making the decision anymore - they're just the talking head we get to rubber stamp what those of us who actually deal with the problem have decided is going to happen.

In practice I tend to find that the people who control access to information, rather than the people who wield formal authority, tend to have the most power in an organisation.

Comment author: Zubon 04 May 2013 11:26:33PM 2 points [-]

This is a conceptually simple trade-off, although the math would be difficult. Assume that a Federation under Vulcan control would make better decisions but would have more difficulty implementing them (either on a sufficient scale or as effectively) because the strengths that make them better analysts are not the same strengths that make humans charismatic leaders. The Federation might not have as many planets, those planets might not be as willing to implement Vulcan ideas when advocated by Vulcans, etc. Is overall utility higher if Vulcans take the optimal action A% of the time at X% effectiveness or if humans take the optimal action B% of the time at Y% effectiveness? (You would adjust "the optimal action" for the relative strengths of the two species.)

If you believed that AX > BY, you formed the Romulan Empire. If you believed that AX < BY, you joined the Federation. I don't know enough Star Trek lore to say what happens if you end up with different estimates than the rest of your faction (defection, agitation for political change, execution?).

Comment author: CCC 06 May 2013 09:58:04AM 1 point [-]

This was what I'd meant to say, only much, much better phrased. Thank you.

Comment author: CCC 04 May 2013 07:37:41PM 0 points [-]

Of course, that assumes that they consider non-Vulcans to be part of "the many." Now that I think about it, there's no particular reason to believe that's a commonly held Vulcan value/belief.

It's Spock's belief... but Spock was half-human, and the other Vulcans mostly seemed to think he was perhaps a bit too attached to that side of his ancestry. I think that they definitely assigned a good deal less weight to non-Vulcans. (Not zero weight... they did help out Humanity a bit on first contact, after all... just less weight).

Besides, given that the Vulcan High Council is pretty influential in the Federation, they can steer things their way at least some of the time; they might not be able to persuade the Federation to follow the path of maximal utility, but they can signpost the path (and warn about any cliffs in the area); the other races might not listen to them all the time, but they're quite likely to listen at least some of the time, severely limiting the utility loss.

Comment author: DaFranker 03 May 2013 08:23:33PM 5 points [-]

If I was rich enough, I would pay you to write fanfic like this.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 May 2013 08:51:26PM 3 points [-]

Given how well my time is recompensed these days, I suspect you could find many far-cheaper, equally good writers.

Comment author: DaFranker 03 May 2013 09:10:52PM 1 point [-]

Hmm, good point.

Comment author: Kindly 03 May 2013 02:59:46PM 3 points [-]

One could object by pointing out that moxie, determination, drive, and the human spirit have the strongest effect in life-or-death situations: situations in which their rate of survival over the past three years is obviously 100%.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 May 2013 08:49:00PM 3 points [-]

Thanks for the link. I really enjoyed reading the comic archives.

Comment author: ChristianKl 03 May 2013 12:38:47PM *  2 points [-]

"Mm. And we're still sitting at three thousand seven hundred to one against?"

"Three thousand, seven hundred and forty five to one."

You shouldn't trust people who claim to know 4 digits of accuracy for a forcast like this. The uncertainity involved in the calcuation has to be greater.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 May 2013 01:01:43PM 20 points [-]

You shouldn't trust people who claim to know 4 digits of accuracy for a forcast like this.

You shouldn't trust a human person who makes that claim. But if we are using 'person' in a way that includes the steel-Vulcan from the quote then yes, you should.

The uncertainity involved in the calculation has to be greater.

It is all uncertainty. There is no particular reason to doubt the steel-Vulcan's ability to calibrate 'meta' uncertainties too.

In the face of all the other evidence about the relative capabilities of the species in question that the character in question is implied to have it would be an error to overvalue the heuristic "don't trust people who fail to signal humility via truncating calculations". The latter is, after all, merely a convention. Given the downsides of that convention (it inevitably makes predictions worse) it is relatively unlikely that the Vulcans would have the same traditions regarding significant figure expression.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 May 2013 08:04:38PM 13 points [-]

And lo, Wedrifid did invent the concept of Steel Vulcan and it was good.

Do we actually have enough fictional examples of this to form a trope? (At least 3, 5 would be better.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 03 May 2013 03:03:18PM 0 points [-]

You shouldn't trust a human person who makes that claim. But if we are using 'person' in a way that includes the steel-Vulcan from the quote then yes, you should.

There inherent uncertainity in the input. The steel-Vulcan in question counted one specifc case as being 24% relevant to the current question. That's two digits of accuracy.

If many of your input variables only have two digits of accuracy the end result shouldn't have four digits of accuracy.

Comment author: DaFranker 03 May 2013 04:31:09PM *  18 points [-]

If many of your input variables only have two digits of accuracy the end result shouldn't have four digits of accuracy.

Almost-inaudibly, whispering in a small corner of the room while scribbling in a notebook that the teacher is totally stupid while said teacher says something similar to the quote above:

under the assumption that all variables have equivalent ratios of weight to the final result and that the probability distribution of the randomness is evenly distributed across sub-digits of inaccuracy, along with a few other invisible assumptions about the nature of the data and calculations

Yep, that's me in high school.

In your example, the cited specific case only means that the final accuracy to be calculated is +- 0.01 individual ship relevance, which means that at the worst this one instance, by the standard half-the-last-significant-digit rule of thumb (which is not by any means an inherent property of uncertainties) means that there's +- 0.5% * 1 ship variance over the 542 : 2 000 000 ratio for this particular error margin.

Note also that "24% weight of the relevance of 1 ship in the odds" translates very poorly in digit-accuracies to "3745 : 1", because 3745:1 is also 0.026695141484249866524292578750667% chance, which is a shitton of digits of accuracy, and is also 111010100001 : 1, which is 12 digits of accuracy, and is also (...) *

As you can see, the "digits of accuracy" heuristic fails extremely hard when you convert between different ways to represent data. Which is exactly what happened several times in the steel-vulcan's calculations.

Moral of the story: Don't work with "digits of accuracy", just memorize your probability distribution functions over uncertainty and maximal variances and integrate all your variables with uncertainty margins and weights during renormalization, like a real Vulcan would.

Edit: * (Oh, and it's also 320 in base-35, so that's exactly two significant digits. Problem solved, move along.)

Comment author: wedrifid 03 May 2013 03:22:41PM *  8 points [-]

If many of your input variables only have two digits of accuracy the end result shouldn't have four digits of accuracy.

That is indeed the (mere, human) convention as taught in high schools of our shared culture. See above regarding the absurdity of using that heuristic as a reason for rejecting the advice of what amounts to a superintelligence.

Comment author: shminux 03 May 2013 03:54:23PM *  6 points [-]

It's not about accuracy, it's about not privileging 3700 over 3745. Neither is a particularly round number in, say, binary, and omitting saying "forty five" after converting this number into decimal system for human consumption is not much of a time saver.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 May 2013 08:22:30AM 0 points [-]

But re-mentioning the “forty five” after a human asks you “three thousand seven hundred?” is mostly pointless nitpicking, and demonstrates a lack of understanding of human (well, at least, of neurotypical human) psychology IMO.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 04 May 2013 05:01:45PM 11 points [-]

Either that, or it reflects an accurate understanding of the things that humans (justifiably or otherwise) treat as signals of authoritative knowledge. I mean, there's a reason people who want to sound like experts quote statistics to absurd levels of precision; rounding off sounds less definitive to most people.

Comment author: DanielLC 07 May 2013 03:59:22AM 6 points [-]

Perhaps, but on the off chance that the captain doesn't listen, giving the exact probability increases the chances of success. The Vulcan mentioned that.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 December 2014 08:35:21PM 1 point [-]

What I find curious about StarTrek models of... well, intelligence, if starship building is any indication of it... is that Romulans are on the same page as Vulcans. Forget 'Vulcans are more rational/logical/... then Humans'; they haven't outstripped the other subspecies! How have they been using their philosophy since Surak?

Comment author: CCC 31 December 2014 06:08:18AM 1 point [-]

Surak's philosophy was never about improving scientific progress. Surak's philosophy was all about shutting down all hints of emotion, with the explicit intention of shutting down anger specifically, and thus preventing the entire Vulcan species from blowing itself up in a massively destructive civil war.

Vulcans, and by exension Romulans, are significantly more intelligent than humans; this is an advantage that both subspecies hold, and Surak's philosophies don't change that. Surak's philosophies speak of the inappropriateness of any sort of emotional reaction, and praise slow, careful, methodical progress, in which every factor is taken into account from all possible angles before the experiment is begun. Surak's philosophies speak out against such emotional weaknesses as enjoying one's work; a Vulcan who enjoys science may very well decide to move into a different field instead, one in which there is less danger of committing the faux pas of actually smiling. (Surak's philosophies go perhaps rather too far - to the point where a close association with a risk-taking species like humanity is probably a good thing for the Vulcans - but they do accomplish their aim of preventing extinction via civil war).

Romulans, on the other hand, have no difficulty showing emotions. Some of them will enjoy their science, they'll take risks, they'll occasionally accidentally blow themselves up with dangerous experiments (or lose their tempers and blow up other Romulans on purpose). Somehow, they've managed to avoid suicidal, self-destructive civil war so far... but I'm somehow not surprised that the Vulcans have failed to outstrip them.

Comment author: [deleted] 31 December 2014 07:03:52AM 1 point [-]

And yet it is still so easy to imagine such an outcome. Actually, I am more surprised that they chose such similar roads more than they are close in achievements. For example, maybe Vulcans would have made breakthroughs in areas that have no value for Romulans, and viva a versa.

Comment author: CCC 31 December 2014 07:54:19PM 3 points [-]

That the Vulcans and the Romulans have incredibly close levels of technology is surprising, yes; but not nearly as surprising as the idea that the Humans, the Klingons, the Betazoids, and about a hundred or so other species all have such incredibly similar technology levels, and all without any hint of shared history before they developed their seperate warp drives.

Comment author: [deleted] 31 December 2014 08:20:11PM 0 points [-]

Aww, maybe we should control for the Mysterious Space Police culling thing, and then the results would diverge like preschoolers let out on a May day. Like, there's a Prime Prime Directive. The MSP didn't apprehend Nero (natch), and look what happened?!

...I'm making a fully general counterargument, aren't I?:)

Comment author: CCC 04 January 2015 09:22:56AM 0 points [-]

Well, considering that it's a fictional universe, the reason why so many species have such similar technology levels is clear; it's more enjoyable to listen to stories about species who are close enough technologically that there's some narrative tension about who will win in a given contest. While you can tell stories about vastly more powerful empires (see, for example, Q) such stories are better taken in small doses; and Q never actually goes flat-out against the Federation, because if he does, the Federation will lose instantly and there will be no story. (Occasionally, the Federation has an effect in a Q-vs.-Q conflict, but that's as far as it goes).

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "the Mysterious Space Police culling thing", though.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 January 2015 10:22:55AM 1 point [-]

Agree. I meant there were other aliens far more technologically advanced who regulated the rates of development. (Sorry, I am not very interested in this discussion, but maybe someone other might be.)

Comment author: CCC 11 January 2015 04:35:49PM 1 point [-]

Thank you for the explanation.

Comment author: Jiro 16 December 2013 05:18:59AM -1 points [-]

What does it mean to beat the odds by X percent?

My first thought is that it means that the number of successes is (1+X) * the expected number of successes. If so, then beating a single 1-in-a-million shot means having 1 success where 1/1000000 success is expected, then X is 99999900 percent. That's an awful lot more than 29.2%. It's also strange because the exact number is affected by adding additional missions with 100% survivability--if you have 100 missions, one of which is 1 in a million odds and the rest of which are certain, and you beat them all, the number of successes is 100 while the expected number is 99.000001, and you only beat the odds by about 1%.

Comment author: soreff 05 May 2013 04:59:52PM -1 points [-]

And with 542 survivals, assuming Poisson statistics, the one-sigma bounds are around +-4% of that. I'll believe Spock most significant figure, but not the other three. :-)

Comment author: Kindly 05 May 2013 07:17:24PM 4 points [-]

To summarize the important bits of the "Do steel-Vulcans provide excessive significant digits?" discussion:

Suppose that the one-sigma range tells us that where the quote has 3745, some reasonable error analysis says 3745 plus or minus 173. Then the steel-Vulcan would still say 3745 and not, e.g., 3700 or 4000, for the following reasons:

  1. 3745 is still the midpoint of the range of reasonable values, and thus the closest single value to "the truth".

  2. Taking meta-uncertainty into account, you still should assign some probability to how likely you are to survive, which is going to be some probably-not-round number like 1 in 3745.

This sort of accuracy is probably not very helpful to humans: I don't have a cognitive algorithm that lets me distinguish between 1 in 3745 odds and 1 in 3812 odds, so saying "about 1 in 4000" provides all the information I'll actually use. Presumably a species that can come up with this kind of answer in the first place feels differently about this; in fact, there's probably some strong cultural taboo against rounding.