Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Rationality Quotes August 2013

6 Post author: Vaniver 02 August 2013 08:59PM

Another month has passed and here is a new rationality quotes thread. The usual rules are:

  • 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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.

Comments (732)

Comment author: Zando 03 August 2013 06:50:10AM *  57 points [-]

when trying to characterize human beings as computational systems, the difference between “person” and “person with pencil and paper” is vast.

Procrastination and The Extended Will 2009

Comment author: BT_Uytya 03 August 2013 01:39:05PM *  54 points [-]

The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity. They imagine mindless automatons, heads down in a checklist, incapable of looking out their windshield and coping with the real world in front of them. But what you find, when a checklist is well made, is exactly the opposite. The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (Are the elevator controls set? Did the patient get her antibiotics on time? Did the managers sell all their shares? Is everyone on the same page here?), and lets it rise above to focus on the hard stuff (Where should we land?).

Here are the details of one of the sharpest checklists I’ve seen, a checklist for engine failure during flight in a single-engine Cessna airplane—the US Airways situation, only with a solo pilot. It is slimmed down to six key steps not to miss for restarting the engine, steps like making sure the fuel shutoff valve is in the OPEN position and putting the backup fuel pump switch ON. But step one on the list is the most fascinating. It is simply: FLY THE AIRPLANE. Because pilots sometimes become so desperate trying to restart their engine, so crushed by the cognitive overload of thinking through what could have gone wrong, they forget this most basic task. FLY THE AIRPLANE. This isn’t rigidity. This is making sure everyone has their best shot at survival.

-- Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

Comment author: David_Gerard 05 August 2013 08:49:23PM 10 points [-]

I concur in the general case. But I would suggest the people complaining work in computers. I'm a Unix sysadmin; my job description is to automate myself out of existence. Checklist=shell script=JOB DONE, NEXT TASK TO ELIMINATE.

It turns out, thankfully, that work expands to fill the sysadmins available. Because even in the future, nothing works. I fully expect to be able to work to 100 if I want to.

Comment author: MinibearRex 04 August 2013 06:07:56AM 42 points [-]

I've got to start listening to those quiet, nagging doubts.

Calvin

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 August 2013 05:01:11PM 17 points [-]

This phrase was explicitly in my mind back when I was generalizing the "notice confusion" skill.

Comment author: snafoo 04 August 2013 05:53:01PM 4 points [-]

When you were what?

Comment author: Benito 04 August 2013 05:58:14PM *  8 points [-]
Comment author: snafoo 04 August 2013 05:46:45PM 27 points [-]

Some say imprisoning three women in my home for a decade makes me a monster, I say it doesn’t, and of course the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Ariel Castro (according to The Onion)

Comment author: Randy_M 06 August 2013 07:53:40PM 6 points [-]

"So let's split the difference and say I should have stopped at two."

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 06 August 2013 03:49:17PM 26 points [-]

He took literally five seconds for something I'd spent two weeks on, which I guess is what being an expert means

-- Graduate student of our group, recognising a level above his own in a weekly progress report

Comment author: linkhyrule5 06 August 2013 07:41:07PM 8 points [-]

Now I'm curious about the context...

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 07 August 2013 04:34:34PM 6 points [-]

It wasn't very interesting - some issue of how to make one piece of software talk to the code you'd just written and then store the output somewhere else. Not physics, just infrastructure. But the recognition of the levels was interesting, I thought. Although I do believe "literally five seconds" is likely an exaggeration.

Comment author: Salemicus 22 August 2013 11:16:10PM 13 points [-]

Finding a good formulation for a problem is often most of the work of solving it... Problem formulation and problem solution are mutually-recursive processes.

David Chapman

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 23 August 2013 06:45:06PM 3 points [-]

See also: "Figuring out what should be your top priority" vs. "Actually working on your current best guess".

Comment author: anonym 21 August 2013 02:23:44AM *  12 points [-]

The opposite intellectual sin to wanting to derive everything from fundamental physics is holism which makes too much of the fact that everything is ultimately connected to everything else. Sure, but scientific progress is made by finding where the connections are weak enough to allow separate theories.

-- John McCarthy

Comment author: Benito 01 August 2013 09:15:24PM *  32 points [-]

This analogy, this passage from the finite to infinite, is beset with pitfalls. How did Euler avoid them? He was a genius, some people will answer, and of course that is no explanation at all. Euler has shrewd reasons for trusting his discovery. We can understand his reasons with a little common sense, without any miraculous insight specific to genius.

  • G. Polya, Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning Vol. 1
Comment author: army1987 06 August 2013 10:56:57AM 2 points [-]

See also the appendix “Mathematical Formalities And Style” in Probability Theory by E.T. Jaynes.

Comment author: Alejandro1 01 August 2013 08:45:40PM *  31 points [-]

It's a horrible feeling when you don't understand why you did something.

-- Dennis Monokroussos

Comment author: lavalamp 01 August 2013 11:03:03PM 27 points [-]

It's probably a much more accurate feeling than the opposite one, though...

Comment author: army1987 02 August 2013 09:21:08PM 2 points [-]

If I understand why I did something, I want to believe ...

Comment author: wedrifid 02 August 2013 05:17:17AM *  7 points [-]

It's a horrible feeling when you don't understand why you did something.

That is an interesting observation. For my part I do not experience horror in those circumstances, merely curiosity and uncertainty.

Comment author: Desrtopa 04 August 2013 10:45:38PM 10 points [-]

I think it may depend a lot on how well the action fits into your schema for reasonable behavior.

I have mild OCD. Its manifestations are usually unnoticeable to other people, and generally don't interfere with the ordinary function of my life, but occasionally lead to my engaging in behaviors that no ordinary person would consider worthwhile. The single most extreme manifestation, which still stands out in my memory, was a time when I was playing a video game, and saved my game file, then, doubting my own memory that I had saved it, did it again... and again... and again... until I had saved at least seven times, each time convinced that I couldn't yet be sure I had saved it "enough."

Afterwards, I was horrified at my own actions, because what I had just done was too obviously crazy to just handwave away.

Comment author: felzix 19 August 2013 06:13:42PM 3 points [-]

I used to do that a lot. I still have to fight the urge to save repeatedly when nothing has changed.

My obsessive compulsions are mostly mental though so it has had so little an impact on my interactions with others that I don't think it counts as a disorder.

Comment author: Alejandro1 02 August 2013 10:47:10AM 2 points [-]

It depends on the context, in particular, whether the situation is one where you "must" have a good reason for your actions. Your reaction is appropriate for most ordinary situations; his is appropriate for the context he's talking about (doing a different movement than than the one you intended in a chess game) and other high stakes situations (blurting an answer you know is wrong in an examination, saying/doing something awkward on a date, making a risky movement driving your car…)

Comment author: wedrifid 02 August 2013 01:41:12PM 9 points [-]

his is appropriate for the context he's talking about (doing a different movement than than the one you intended in a chess game) and other high stakes situations (blurting an answer you know is wrong in an examination, saying/doing something awkward on a date, making a risky movement driving your car…)

I experience horrible feelings when I humiliate myself or put myself at risk. This phenomenon seems to occur independently of whether I have a good causal model for why I did those things.

Comment author: jbay 02 August 2013 02:10:09PM 10 points [-]

But, unlike other species, we also know how not to know. We employ this unique ability to suppress our knowledge not just of mortality, but of everything we find uncomfortable, until our survival strategy becomes a threat to our survival.

[...] There is no virtue in sustaining a set of beliefs, regardless of the evidence. There is no virtue in either following other people unquestioningly or in cultivating a loyal and unquestioning band of followers.

While you can be definitively wrong, you cannot be definitely right. The best anyone can do is constantly to review the evidence and to keep improving and updating their knowledge. Journalism which attempts this is worth reading. Journalism which does not is a waste of time."

Comment author: DSherron 04 August 2013 10:49:14PM 7 points [-]

While you can be definitively wrong, you cannot be definitely right.

Not true. Trivially, if A is definitively wrong, then ~A is definitively right. Popperian falsification is trumped by Bayes' Theorem.

Note: This means that you cannot be definitively wrong, not that you can be definitively right.

Comment author: Document 03 August 2013 02:34:29AM *  8 points [-]

There is no virtue in either following other people unquestioningly or in cultivating a loyal and unquestioning band of followers.

True, but possibly dangerously close to "There is no virtue in following other people or in cultivating followers".

Comment author: MinibearRex 05 August 2013 05:23:38AM 25 points [-]

He wasn't certain what he expected to find, which, in his experience, was generally a good enough reason to investigate something.

Harry Potter and the Confirmed Critical, Chapter 6

Comment author: Paulovsk 06 August 2013 08:38:42PM 2 points [-]

Can you give a link to this story? It is surprisingly difficult to find.

Comment author: AndHisHorse 06 August 2013 08:47:06PM *  7 points [-]

It is the second book in the series Harry Potter and the Natural 20, which can be found here.

Comment author: gwern 02 September 2013 12:27:26AM 2 points [-]

If you put the quote into quotation marks and search Google, it's the fifth hit.

Comment author: Particleman 02 August 2013 06:07:05AM 38 points [-]

In 2002, Wizards of the Coast put out Star Wars: The Trading Card Game designed by Richard Garfield.

As Richard modeled the game after a miniatures game, it made use of many six-sided dice. In combat, cards' damage was designated by how many six-sided dice they rolled. Wizards chose to stop producing the game due to poor sales. One of the contributing factors given through market research was that gamers seem to dislike six-sided dice in their trading card game.

Here's the kicker. When you dug deeper into the comments they equated dice with "lack of skill." But the game rolled huge amounts of dice. That greatly increased the consistency. (What I mean by this is that if you rolled a million dice, your chance of averaging 3.5 is much higher than if you rolled ten.) Players, though, equated lots of dice rolling with the game being "more random" even though that contradicts the actual math.

Comment author: army1987 02 August 2013 09:20:45PM 15 points [-]

What I mean by this is that if you rolled a million dice, your chance of averaging 3.5 is much higher than if you rolled ten.

The chance of averaging exactly 3.5 would be a hell of a lot smaller. The chance of averaging between 3.45 and 3.55 would be larger, though.

Comment author: Randy_M 06 August 2013 07:49:37PM 6 points [-]

Your chance of averaging 3.5 to two significant figures seems quite high indeed, though.

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 02 August 2013 08:26:41AM *  23 points [-]

Rin: "Even I make mistakes once in a while."

Shirou (thinking): ...This is hard. Would it be good for her if I correct her and point out that she makes mistakes often, not just once in a while?

Fate/stay night

Comment author: FiftyTwo 04 August 2013 03:40:45PM 5 points [-]

Slightly off-topic, but I keep seeing Fate/Stay night referenced on here, is it particularly 'rationalist' or do people just like it as entertainment?

Comment author: Nornagest 05 August 2013 12:19:05AM *  6 points [-]

It's not an especially rational piece of work as such, although it has its moments, but it is one of the more detailed examinations of heroic responsibility and the associated cultural expectations in fiction (if you can get past the sometimes shaky translation). Your mileage might vary, but I see echoes of it whenever Eliezer writes about saving the world.

Comment author: Desrtopa 04 August 2013 10:48:41PM 3 points [-]

It has some elements that stand out in terms of rationalist virtue, and many others which don't.

I found it to be very much a mixed bag, but the things it did well, I thought it did exceptionally well.

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 05 August 2013 12:05:40AM 2 points [-]

It's not so much rationalist as... Eliezer-ish. See my review in the media thread: http://lesswrong.com/lw/i8c/august_2013_media_thread/9ilm

Comment author: sketerpot 03 August 2013 02:21:26AM 4 points [-]

He just needs to get Saber to say it. Saber often tells people, in a bluntly matter-of-fact way, that they're making a mistake. Rin knows this. If Shiro said it, though, she'd think it was some kind of dominance thing and get mad.

(Maybe I'm over-analyzing this.)

Comment author: snafoo 04 August 2013 05:51:26PM 31 points [-]

When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, "At least the handle is one of us.

Turkish proverb

Comment author: monsterzero 05 August 2013 03:28:45AM 9 points [-]
Comment author: ShardPhoenix 02 August 2013 08:28:32AM 19 points [-]

But, Senjougahara, can I set a condition too? A condition, or, well, something like a promise. Don't ever pretend you can see something that you can't, or that you can't see something that you can. If our viewpoints are inconsistent, let's talk it over. Promise me.

Bakemonogatari

Comment author: Grif 06 August 2013 06:50:37AM 4 points [-]

In Bakemonogatari, the main characters often encounter spirits that only interact with specific people under specific conditions, although the effects they have are real (and would manifest to another's eyes as inexplicable paranormal phenomena). As such it's more a request about shoring up inconsistencies in sense perception, than it is about inconsistencies in belief.

Comment author: cody-bryce 02 August 2013 10:29:11PM 24 points [-]

Far too many people are looking for the right person, instead of trying to be the right person.

-Gloria Steinem

Comment author: DanArmak 03 August 2013 09:34:17AM *  8 points [-]

I read that as "looking for the right person to fall in love with". Then the sense is "be the right person for someone else". But that achieves a different goal entirely, since it doesn't make the other person right for you.

There are many cases where you want a different person right for the task.

Name three!

Romantic partners (inherently), trading and working partners (allowing you to specialize in your comparative advantage), deputies and office-holders (allowing you to deputize), soldiers (allowing you to send someone else to their death to win the war).

Comment author: cody-bryce 03 August 2013 04:44:05PM 2 points [-]

I assume the original intent of the quote was about romantic partners, where it means, "Instead of searching so hard, make sure to prioritize being awesome for its own sake."

I was trying to repurpose it to express that action is better than preparing for something to fall into place more generally, and I think it's appealed to people.

Comment author: Panic_Lobster 14 August 2013 06:28:36AM 15 points [-]

Karl Popper used to begin his lecture course on the philosophy of science by asking the students simply to 'observe'. Then he would wait in silence for one of them to ask what they were supposed to observe. [...] So he would explain to them that scientific observation is impossible without pre-existing knowledge about what to look at, what to look for, how to look, and how to interpret what one sees. And he would explain that, therefore, theory has to come first. It has to be conjectured, not derived.

David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity

Comment author: Bugmaster 14 August 2013 08:53:42PM 6 points [-]

Did Karl Popper populate his class with particularly unimaginative students ? If someone asked me to "observe", I'd fill an entire notebook with observations in less than an hour -- and that's even without getting up from my chair.

Comment author: Estarlio 15 August 2013 12:23:06AM 7 points [-]

And, while you were writing, someone would provide the wanted answer ;)

Comment author: rule_and_line 14 August 2013 10:36:08PM *  3 points [-]

That's an interesting prediction. Have you tried it? Can you predict what you'd do after filling the notebook?

In my imagination, I'd probably wind up in one of two states:

  • Feeling tricked and asking myself "What was the point of that?"
  • Feeling accomplished and waiting for the next instruction.
Comment author: philh 10 August 2013 11:48:06PM 15 points [-]

"But think how small he is," said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. "How can his little head carry all thy long talk?"

"Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets."

Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

Comment author: Alejandro1 02 August 2013 10:55:14AM 30 points [-]

Now, now, perfectly symmetrical violence never solved anything.

--Professor Farnsworth, Futurama.

Comment author: lavalamp 02 August 2013 08:22:28PM 25 points [-]

The threat of massive perfectly symmetrical violence, on the other hand...

Comment author: sketerpot 03 August 2013 02:22:52AM 9 points [-]

Such a threat can also be effective for asymmetrical violence -- no matter which way the asymmetry goes.

Comment author: KnaveOfAllTrades 30 August 2013 05:05:33PM *  5 points [-]

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

St. Francis of Assisi (allegedly)

Comment author: peaigr 16 August 2013 04:00:48AM *  5 points [-]

All too often people report on past and present applications [of computers], which is good, but not on the topic whose purpose is to sensitize you to future possibilities you might exploit. It is hard to get people to aggressively think about how things in their own area might be done differently. I have some times wondered whether it might be better if I asked people to apply computers to other areas of application than their own narrow speciality; perhaps they would be less inhibited there!

Since the purpose, as stated above, is to get the reader to think more carefully on the awkward topics of machines “thinking” and their vision of their personal future, you the reader should take your own opinions and try first to express them clearly, and then examine them with counter arguments, back and forth, until you are fairly clear as to what you believe and why you believe it. It is none of the author’s business in this matter what you believe, but it is the author’s business to get you to think and articulate your position clearly. For readers of the book I suggest instead of reading the next pages you stop and discuss with yourself, or possibly friends, these nasty problems; the surer you are of one side the more you should probably argue the other side!

Richard Hamming, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering (1997, PDF)

Comment author: shminux 02 August 2013 03:23:24AM 26 points [-]

A man who says he is willing to meet you halfway is usually a poor judge of distance.

Unknown

Comment author: peter_hurford 02 August 2013 01:42:16PM 8 points [-]

This could be studied empirically.

Comment author: dspeyer 04 August 2013 09:29:25PM 4 points [-]

Difficult. The "distance" is metaphorical, and this probably doesn't apply when there's an easy, unambiguous, generally accepted metric. Without that, how do we do the study?

Still, if you have a way, it could be interesting.

Comment author: Document 06 August 2013 03:07:04AM 9 points [-]

In a famous study, spouses were asked, “How large was your personal contribution to keeping the place tidy, in percentages?” They also answered similar questions about “taking out the garbage,” “initiating social engagements,” etc. Would the self-estimated contributions add up to 100%, or more, or less? As expected, the self-assessed contributions added up to more than 100%.

-Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

On the other hand, the book doesn't give a citation, and searching for the exact text of the question turns up only that passage. Not sure what to make of that.

Comment author: Unnamed 06 August 2013 03:33:41AM 16 points [-]

Ross & Sicoly (1979). Egocentric Biases in Availability and Attribution.

In the study, the spouses actually estimated their contributions by making a slash mark on a line segment which had endpoints labelled "primarily wife" and "primarily husband". The experimenters set it up this way, rather than asking for numerical percentages, for ethical reasons. In pilot testing using percentages, they "found that subjects were able to remember the percentages they recorded and that postquestionnaire comparisons of percentages provided a strong source of conflict between the spouses." (p. 325)

Comment author: AndHisHorse 04 August 2013 11:14:25PM 3 points [-]

If there is no easy, unambiguous generally accepted metric, that would seem to imply that everyone is a poor judge of distance - making the quote trivially true.

Comment author: hylleddin 02 August 2013 09:24:40PM *  13 points [-]

The mark of a great man is one who knows when to set aside the important things in order to accomplish the vital ones.

-- Tillaume, The Alloy of Law

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 05 August 2013 08:24:08PM *  16 points [-]

Old man: Gotcha! So you do collect answers after all!

Eye: But of course! Everybody does! You need answers to base decisions on. Decisions that lead to actions. We wouldn't do much of anything, if we were always indecisive!

All I am saying is that I see no point in treasuring them! That's all!

Once you see that an answer is not serving its question properly anymore, it should be tossed away. It's just their natural life cycle. They usually kick and scream, raising one hell of a ruckus when we ask them to leave. Especially when they have been with us for a long time.

You see, too many actions have been based on those answers. Too much work and energy invested in them. They feel so important, so full of themselves. They will answer to no one. Not even to their initial question!

What's the point if a wrong answer will stop you from returning to the right question. Although sometimes people have no questions to return to... which is usually why they defend them, with such strong conviction.

That's exactly why I am extra cautious with all these big ol' answers that have been lying around, long before we came along. They bully their way into our collection without being invited by any questions of our own. We accept them just because they have satisfied the questions of so many before us... seeking the questions which fits them instead...

My favorite kind of answers are those that my questions give birth to. Questions that I managed to keep safe long enough to do so. These baby answers might seem insignificant in comparison at first, but they are of a much better quality.

Comment author: RowanE 06 August 2013 02:00:32PM 4 points [-]

This is good, although when I read the comic I find myself interpreting Eye as valuing curiosity for curiosity's sake alone,in direct opposition to valuing truth, which I can't really get behind and leads to me siding with the old man.

Comment author: Salemicus 25 August 2013 05:08:58PM *  4 points [-]

All experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move...

To follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

Comment author: Martin-2 01 August 2013 10:19:17PM 4 points [-]

It is not July. It is August.

Comment author: malcolmmcc 01 August 2013 11:11:59PM *  21 points [-]

Saw this under "latest rationality quotes" and was like "man, I'm really missing the context as to how this is a rationality quote."

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 02 August 2013 12:38:25AM 34 points [-]

"If it July, I desire to believe it is July. If it is August, I desire to believe it is August..."

Comment author: linkhyrule5 02 August 2013 08:17:42AM 9 points [-]

If the Romans had been more willing to rename months they were unwilling to keep in their original places, we might have a much saner calendar.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 August 2013 11:03:43AM 23 points [-]

If people in the 1500 years since the Romans had been more willing to rename months...

Comment author: Vaniver 01 August 2013 10:48:47PM *  3 points [-]

Fixed! The perils of copy/paste.

Comment author: Polina 05 August 2013 11:47:45AM *  15 points [-]

Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

George Bernard Shaw

Comment author: RichardKennaway 05 August 2013 02:57:10PM 10 points [-]

I agree with the thought, but I find the attribution implausible. "Finding yourself" sounds like modern pop-psych, not a phrase that GBS would ever have written. Google doesn't turn up a source.

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 August 2013 11:46:03PM 4 points [-]

Google nGram suggests that "Finding yourself" wasn't a phrase that was really in use before the 1960 albeit there a short uptick in 1940. Given that you need some time for criticism and Shaw died in 1950, I think it's quite clear that this quote is to modern for him. Although maybe post-modern is a more fitting word?

The timeframe seems to correspond with the rise of post-modern thought. If you suddenly start deconstructing everything you need to find yourself again ;)

Comment author: Polina 06 August 2013 07:48:15AM 2 points [-]

I think you are right that it is difficult to find the exact source. I came upon this quotation in the book Up where the author quoted Bernard Shaw. Google gave me http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/5217.George_Bernard_Shaw, but no article or play was indicated as a source of this quote.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 08 August 2013 02:09:46AM 4 points [-]

"Life is about creating yourself" still might be problematic because the emphasis is still on what sort of person you are.

Comment author: Arkanj3l 05 August 2013 03:04:37AM *  18 points [-]

From Jacques Vallee, Messengers of Deception...

'Then he posed a question that, obvious as it seems, had not really occurred to me: “What makes you think that UFOs are a scientific problem?”

I replied with something to the effect that a problem was only scientific in the way it was approached, but he would have none of that, and he began lecturing me. First, he said, science had certain rules. For example, it has to assume that the phenomena it is observing is natural in origin rather than artificial and possibly biased. Now the UFO phenomenon could be controlled by alien beings. “If it is,” added the Major, “then the study of it doesn’t belong to science. It belongs to Intelligence.” Meaning counterespionage. And that, he pointed out, was his domain. *

“Now, in the field of counterespionage, the rules are completely different.” He drew a simple diagram in my notebook. “You are a scientist. In science there is no concept of the ‘price’ of information. Suppose I gave you 95 per cent of the data concerning a phenomenon. You’re happy because you know 95 per cent of the phenomenon. Not so in intelligence. If I get 95 per cent of the data, I know that this is the ‘cheap’ part of the information. I still need the other 5 percent, but I will have to pay a much higher price to get it. You see, Hitler had 95 per cent of the information about the landing in Normandy. But he had the wrong 95 percent!”

“Are you saying that the UFO data we us to compile statistics and to find patterns with computers are useless?” I asked. “Might we be spinning our magnetic tapes endlessly discovering spurious laws?”

“It all depends on how the team on the other side thinks. If they know what they’re doing, there will be so many cutouts between you and them that you won’t have the slightest chance of tracing your way to the truth. Not by following up sightings and throwing them into a computer. They will keep feeding you the information they want you to process. What is the only source of data about the UFO phenomenon? It is the UFOs themselves!”

Some things were beginning to make a lot of sense. “If you’re right, what can I do? It seems that research on the phenomenon is hopeless, then. I might as well dump my computer into a river.”

“Not necessarily, but you should try a different approach. First you should work entirely outside of the organized UFO groups; they are infiltrated by the same official agencies they are trying to influence, and they propagate any rumour anyone wants to have circulated. In Intelligence circles, people like that are historical necessities. We call them ‘useful idiots’. When you’ve worked long enough for Uncle Sam, you know he is involved in a lot of strange things. The data these groups get is biased at the source, but they play a useful role.

“Second, you should look for the irrational, the bizarre, the elements that do not fit...Have you ever felt that you were getting close to something that didn’t seem to fit any rational pattern yet gave you a strong impression that it was significant?”'

Comment author: Estarlio 05 August 2013 02:53:40PM *  12 points [-]

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

  • “Silver Blaze” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Comment author: Cthulhoo 02 August 2013 07:33:43AM 9 points [-]

Whatever alleged "truth" is proven by results to be but an empty fiction, let it be unceremoniously flung into the outer darkness, among the dead gods, dead empires, dead philosophies, and other useless lumber and wreckage!

Anton Lavey, The Satanic Bible, The Book of Satan II

Comment author: FiftyTwo 04 August 2013 03:45:16PM 2 points [-]

Isn't it better to examine a falsehood to discover why it was so popular and appealing before throwing it away?

Comment author: AndHisHorse 04 August 2013 07:18:34PM 6 points [-]

Then, to continue the metaphor, we should study it by telescope from afar, not as a present and influential entity in our own sphere of existence, but rather a distant body, informative but impotent, the object of curiosity rather than devotion.

Comment author: shminux 19 August 2013 04:36:20PM *  12 points [-]

If your parents made you practice the flute for 10,000 hours, and it wasn't your thing, you aren't an expert. You're a victim.

The most important skill involved in success is knowing how and when to switch to a game with better odds for you.

Scott Adams

Comment author: Lumifer 19 August 2013 05:47:35PM 13 points [-]

Aka http://demotivators.despair.com/demotivational/stupiditydemotivator.jpg

"Quitters never win, winners never quit, but those who never win AND never quit are idiots"

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 25 August 2013 08:01:42PM 3 points [-]

From the same website, another LessWrongian wisdom:

The bad news is robots can do your job now. The good news is we're now hiring robot repair technicians. The worse news is we're working on robot-fixing robots- and we do not anticipate any further good news.

Comment author: shminux 21 August 2013 07:41:23PM 8 points [-]

A luxury, once sampled, becomes a necessity. Pace yourself.

Andrew Tobias, My Vast Fortune

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 02 August 2013 06:22:12AM 23 points [-]

Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.

Reynolds' law

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 August 2013 03:39:56PM 4 points [-]

Status markers frequently indicate unusual access to resources as well as or even instead of character traits.

Subsidizing status markers dilutes them by making them less common.

How would you tell which factor is more important in the dilution of a status marker?

Comment author: CronoDAS 03 August 2013 02:03:41AM 4 points [-]
Comment author: snafoo 04 August 2013 05:48:35PM 7 points [-]

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

misattributed often to Plato

Comment author: iDante 10 August 2013 10:10:52PM 10 points [-]

To the layman, the philosopher, or the classical physicist, a statement of the form "this particle doesn't have a well-defined position" (or momentum, or x-component of spin angular momentum, or whatever) sounds vague, incompetent, or (worst of all) profound. It is none of these. But its precise meaning is, I think, almost impossible to convey to anyone who has not studied quantum mechanics in some depth.

Comment author: DanArmak 16 August 2013 07:50:04PM 2 points [-]

I haven't studied quantum mechanics in any depth at all. The meaning I, as a layman, derive from this statement is: in the formal QM system a particle has no property labelled "position". There is perhaps an emergent property called position, but it is not fundamental and is not always well defined, just like there are no ice-cream atoms. Is this wrong?

Comment author: pragmatist 16 August 2013 08:48:20PM *  14 points [-]

Yes, it's wrong. In the QM formalism position is a fundamental property. However, the way physical properties work is very different from classical mechanics (CM). In CM, a property is basically a function that maps physical states to real numbers. So the x-component of momentum, for instance, is a function that takes a state as input and spits out a number as output, and that number is the value of the property for that state. Same state, same number, always. This is what it means for a property to have a well-defined value for every state.

In QM, physical properties are more complicated -- they're linear operators, if you want a mathematically exact treatment. But here's an attempt at an intuitive explanation: There are some special quantum states (called eigenstates) for which physical properties behave pretty much like they do in CM. If the particle is in one of those states, then the property takes the state as input and basically just spits out a number. Whenever the particle is in that state, you get the same number. For those states, the property does have a well-defined value.

But the problem in QM is that those are not the only states there are. There are other states as well. These states are linear combinations of the eigenstates, i.e. they correspond to sums of eigenstates (states in QM are basically just vectors, so you can sum them together). These linear combinations are not themselves eigenstates. When you input them into the property, it spits out multiple numbers, not just one. In fact it spits out all the numbers corresponding to each of the eigenstates that are summed together to form our linear combination state. So if A and B are eigenstates for which the property in question spits out numbers a and b respectively, then for the combined state A + B, the property will spit out both a and b -- two numbers, not just one.

So the property isn't just a simple function from states to numbers; for some states you end up with more than one number. And which of those numbers do you see when you make a measurement? Well, that depends on your interpretation. In collapse theories, for instance, you see one of the numbers chosen at random. In MWI, the world branches and each one of those numbers is seen on a separate branch. So there's the sense in which properties aren't well-defined in QM -- properties don't associate a unique number with every physical state. This is all pretty hand-wavey, I realize, but Griffiths is right. If you really want an understanding of what's going on, then you need to study QM in some depth.

Also, I should say that in MWI there is something to your claim that the position of a particle is emergent and not fundamental, but this is not so much because of the nature of the property. It's because particles themselves are emergent and non-fundamental in MWI. The universal wavefunction is fundamental.

Comment author: DanArmak 16 August 2013 10:40:47PM 4 points [-]

Thanks for the detailed explanation! Now I have more fun words to remember without actually understanding :-)

Seriously, thanks for taking the time to explain that.

Comment author: cody-bryce 02 August 2013 10:30:27PM 26 points [-]

If Tetris has taught me anything it's that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear.

-Unknown

Comment author: DanArmak 03 August 2013 09:29:53AM 6 points [-]

We can reformulate Tetris as follows: challenges keep appearing (at a fixed rate), and must be solved at the same rate; we cannot let too many unsolved challenges pile up, or we will be overwhelmed and lose the game.

Comment author: Alejandro1 03 August 2013 01:34:22PM 21 points [-]

So Tetris is really an anti-procrastination learning tool? Hmmm, wonder why that doesn't sound right….

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 03 August 2013 06:37:44PM 6 points [-]

But the challenge rate is not fixed. It increases at higher levels. So the lesson seems rather hollow: At some point, if you are successful at solving challenges, the rate at which new ones appear becomes too high for you.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 05 August 2013 01:18:19PM 5 points [-]

Just like life. The reward for succeeding at a challenge is always a new, bigger challenge.

Comment author: linkhyrule5 05 August 2013 05:57:27AM 3 points [-]

At which point you die, for lack of intelligence.

Actually a fairly good metaphor for x-risk, surprisingly.

Of course, it's a lot easier to make a Tetris-optimizer than a Friendly AI...

Comment author: CronoDAS 03 August 2013 01:48:52AM *  30 points [-]

It's ridiculous to think that video games influence children. After all, if Pac-Man had affected children born in the eighties, we'd all be running around in dark rooms, eating strange pills, and listening to repetitive electronic music.

-- Paraphrase of joke by Marcus Brigstocke

Comment author: DanielLC 05 August 2013 04:35:08AM 6 points [-]

It's funny, but you really shouldn't be learning life lessons from Tetris.

If Tetris has taught me anything, it's the history of the Soviet Union.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 04 August 2013 06:13:25AM 12 points [-]

So, in a business setting, you’ve got to provide value to your customers so that they pay for the goods and services that you’re providing. Philanthropy is unfortunate in that the people that your customer base is made of oftentimes are the people that are writing the checks to support you. The people that are writing the donation checks are what keep organizations in business oftentimes. The people that are receiving the services, then, are oftentimes not paying for the services, and therefore their voice is not heard. And so within the nonprofit space, we’ve created a system where he/she who tells the best story is the one that’s rewarded. There’s an incentive to push down the stories that are not of positive impact. There’s the incentive to pretend that there are no negative things that happen, there’s the incentive to make sure that our failures are never made public, and there’s the disconnected between who’s paying for the service and who’s receiving the services. When you disconnect those two aspects, you do not have accountability that acts in the best interest of the people who are receiving what we are all trying to do, which is just to help in places of great need.

Peter Greer

Comment author: mwengler 05 August 2013 04:28:45PM 3 points [-]

And so within the nonprofit space, we’ve created a system where he/she who tells the best story is the one that’s rewarded.

Rewarding those who tell great stories is hardly limited to non-profits. Hollywood of course does this as well it should. Fund raising for new ventures does this a lot, raising money for many sorts of investment at the retail level is largely an effort of telling good stories not particularly supported by statistical fact.

Which isn't to say that this is not a problem for non-profits, but rather that non-profits might do well to see how other industries deal with this phenomenon.

Comment author: Document 06 August 2013 03:12:35AM 2 points [-]

The problem is doubtless exacerbated when those paying for the service and those receiving it live in different time periods.

Comment author: Joshua_Blaine 02 August 2013 05:49:04PM 14 points [-]

The best solution to a problem is usually the easiest one.

-- GLaDOS from Portal 2

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2013 09:03:39PM 23 points [-]

If you cast out all the easy strategies that don't actually work as non-'solutions', then sure, in what remains among the set of solutions, the best is often the easiest, though not easy. I can think of much harder ways to save the world and I'm not trying any of them.

Comment author: gwern 12 August 2013 12:26:53AM 6 points [-]
...Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

--Delmore Schwartz, "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day"; quoted by Mike Darwin on the GRG ML

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 04 August 2013 05:43:25AM 15 points [-]

And anyone that’s been involved in philanthropy eventually comes to that point. When you try to help, you try to give things, you start to have the consequences. There’s an author Bob Lupton, who really nails it when he says that when he gave something the first time, there was gratitude; and when he gave something a second time to that same community, there was anticipation; the third time, there was expectation; the fourth time, there was entitlement; and the fifth time, there was dependency. That is what we’ve all experienced when we’ve wanted to do good. Something changes the more we just give hand-out after hand-out. Something that is designed to be a help actually causes harm.

Peter Greer

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 02 August 2013 02:48:21AM 29 points [-]

Once there was a miser, who to save money would eat nothing but oatmeal. And what's more, he would make a great big batch of it at the start of every week, and put it in a drawer, and when he wanted a meal he would slice off a piece and eat it cold; thus he saved on firewood. Now, by the end of the week, the oatmeal would be somewhat moldy and not very appetising; and so to make himself eat it, the miser would take out a bottle of good whiskey, and pour himself a glass, and say "All right, Olai, eat your oatmeal and when you're done, you can have a dram." Then he would eat his moldy oatmeal, and when he was done he'd laugh and pour the whiskey back in the bottle, and say "Hah! And you believed that? There's one born every minute, to be sure!" And thus he had a great savings in whiskey as well.

-- Norwegian folktale.

Comment author: DanArmak 03 August 2013 09:46:18AM 8 points [-]

I don't understand this rationality quote. Is it about fighting akrasia? Self-hacking to effectively saving money? It clearly describes a method that wouldn't actually work, and it could work as humour, but what does it mean as a rationality tale?

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 03 August 2013 06:34:06PM 11 points [-]

It's either a cautionary tale about the dangers of deceiving yourself, or a humorous look at the impossibility of actually doing so.

Comment author: ChrisPine 04 August 2013 05:28:06PM 30 points [-]

It's a cautionary tale about Norwegian food.

Comment author: D_Alex 09 August 2013 01:59:29AM *  8 points [-]

It explains lutefisk.

Quote from Garrison Keillor's book Lake Wobegon Days: Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.

Quote from Garrison Keillor's book Pontoon: Lutefisk is cod that has been dried in a lye solution. It looks like the desiccated cadavers of squirrels run over by trucks, but after it is soaked and reconstituted and the lye is washed out and it's cooked, it looks more fish-related, though with lutefisk, the window of success is small. It can be tasty, but the statistics aren't on your side. It is the hereditary delicacy of Swedes and Norwegians who serve it around the holidays, in memory of their ancestors, who ate it because they were poor. Most lutefisk is not edible by normal people. It is reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog or the world's largest chunk of phlegm.

Interview with Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything (translated quote from a 1999 article in Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet): Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction. It is currently the only exception for the man who ate everything. Otherwise, I am fairly liberal, I gladly eat worms and insects, but I draw the line on lutefisk.

  • the above is from Wikipedia entry on lutefisk. Believe it or not.
Comment author: RolfAndreassen 10 August 2013 05:01:29AM *  3 points [-]

Lake Wobegon Days: Every Advent we (ate lutefisk)

Obviously, that's why they were all above average!

No, seriously, lutefisk is peasant food. Rich urban types eat smalahovve.

Comment author: army1987 06 August 2013 10:45:45AM 5 points [-]

I took it to be about the hidden complexity of wishes: people often say they want to have more money left at the end of the month when what they actually mean is that they want to have more money left at the end of the month without making themselves miserable in the process, and the easiest solution to the former needn't be at all a solution to the latter.

Comment author: BT_Uytya 03 August 2013 01:43:31PM 4 points [-]

It's interesting to view this story from source-code-swap Prisoner's Dilemma / Timeless Decision Theory perspective. This can be a perfect epigraph in an article dedicated to it.

Comment author: MixedNuts 04 August 2013 05:28:41PM 10 points [-]

Betcha it'd work. I'm going to set a piece of candy in front of me, work for half an hour, and then put it back, at least once a day for a week.

Comment author: KnaveOfAllTrades 05 August 2013 11:31:57AM *  12 points [-]

I sometimes find that telling my Inner Lazy that it can decide—after I've done the first one—between whether to continue a series of tasks or to stop and be Lazy gets me to do the whole series of tasks. Despite having noticed explicitly that in practice this 'decision delay strategy' leads to the whole series getting done, it still works, and rather seems like tricking my Inner Lazy to transition into/hand the reins over to into my Inner Agent.

Comment author: malcolmmcc 12 August 2013 04:07:34AM 6 points [-]

Accountability check!

Did you do it? How'd it go?

Comment author: MixedNuts 12 August 2013 07:19:10AM 10 points [-]

Did it once, binge-ate the candy a few hours later, bought more candy, binge-ate it again. Trying again in two weeks (or going to the doctor if still prone to binging).

Comment author: danlucraft 03 August 2013 01:45:28PM 9 points [-]

In the context of LW, I took it as an amusing critique of the whole idea of rewarding yourself for behaviours you want to do more .

Comment author: wedrifid 03 August 2013 04:10:23PM *  5 points [-]

I don't understand this rationality quote. Is it about fighting akrasia? Self-hacking to effectively saving money? It clearly describes a method that wouldn't actually work, and it could work as humour, but what does it mean as a rationality tale?

It could be used as an effective "How to create an Ugh Field and undermine all future self-discipline attempts" instruction manual. It isn't a rationality tale. It is confusing that 40 people evidently consider it to be one. (But only a little bit confusing. I usually expect non-rationalist quotes that would be accepted as jokes or inspirational quotes elsewhere to get around 10 upvotes in this thread regardless of merit. That means I'm surprised about the degree of positive reception.)

Comment author: KnaveOfAllTrades 05 August 2013 11:49:59AM 4 points [-]

create an Ugh Field and undermine all future self-discipline attempts

That's one way it could play out. It feels like this thinking also allows for it to work, because one might feel good about what got done by means of the trick, which would positively reinforce being tricked. I think the matter isn't clear cut.

Comment author: AlexanderD 06 August 2013 02:13:19AM 6 points [-]

I don't think you are correct.

The miser knows each time he will not get the reward, and that he will save on food and drink. That is the real reward, and the rest is a kabuki play he puts on for less-important impulses, to temporarily allow him to restrain them in service of his larger goal. The end pleasure of savings will provide strong positive reinforcement.

This could probably be empirically tested, to see if it is true and would work as a technique. I can imagine a test where someone is promised candy, and anticipates it while acting to fulfill a task, and then is rewarded instead with a dollar. Do they learn disappointment, or does the greater pleasure of money outweigh the candy? This is predicated on the idea that they would prefer the money, of course - you would need to tinker with amounts before the experiment might give useful results.

Comment author: pjeby 06 August 2013 12:55:47PM 7 points [-]

The miser knows each time he will not get the reward, and that he will save on food and drink. That is the real reward,

Also, don't forget his pleasure at successfully tricking himself. ;-)

Comment author: army1987 06 August 2013 09:33:47PM 2 points [-]

I can imagine a test where someone is promised candy, and anticipates it while acting to fulfill a task, and then is rewarded instead with a dollar. Do they learn disappointment, or does the greater pleasure of money outweigh the candy?

Myself, I'd just spend the dollar on candy.

Comment author: Ambition 02 August 2013 02:32:30AM 9 points [-]

He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.

-Thomas Jefferson

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2013 09:01:03PM 23 points [-]

One who possesses a maximum-entropy prior is further from the truth than one who possesses an inductive prior riddled with many specific falsehoods and errors. Or more to the point, someone who endorses knowing nothing as a desirable state for fear of accepting falsehoods is further from the truth than somebody who believes many things, some of them false, but tries to pay attention and go on learning.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 03 August 2013 12:31:21AM 8 points [-]

How about "If you know nothing and are willing to learn, you're closer to the truth than someone who's attached to falsehoods"? Even then, I suppose you'd need to throw in something about the speed of learning.

Comment author: AndHisHorse 04 August 2013 11:19:15PM 5 points [-]

It would seem that the difference of opinion here originates in the definition of further. Someone who knows nothing is further (in the information-theoretic sense) from the truth than someone who believes a falsehood, assuming that the falsehood has at least some basis in reality (even if only an accidental relation), because they must flip more bits of their belief (or lack thereof) to arrive at something resembling truth. On the other hand, in the limited, human, psychological sense, they are closer, because they have no attachments to relinquish, and they will not object to having their state of ignorance lifted from them, as one who believes in falsehoods might object to having their state of delusion destroyed.

Comment author: Grant 05 August 2013 07:56:18AM 4 points [-]

To me "filled with falsehoods and errors" translates into more falsehoods than "some". Though I agree its not a very good quote within the context of LW.

Comment author: Ambition 03 August 2013 01:18:16AM *  3 points [-]

He who knows nothing is further from the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors, but has the courage to acknowledge them as so.

-LessWrong Community

Comment author: Decius 07 August 2013 06:20:27PM 2 points [-]

In what units does one measure distance from the truth, and in what manner?

Comment author: linkhyrule5 10 August 2013 01:56:22AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: BlueSun 05 August 2013 05:03:07PM 2 points [-]

Maybe it's just where my mind was when I read it but I interpreted the quote as meaning something more like:

"It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

Comment author: cody-bryce 02 August 2013 10:28:23PM 10 points [-]

I just think it's good to be confident. If I'm not on my team why should anybody else be?

-Robert Downey Jr.

Comment author: Document 03 August 2013 02:25:30AM 11 points [-]

I think it's good to be well-calibrated.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 August 2013 03:06:40AM *  13 points [-]

I think it's good to be well-calibrated.

It is usually best to be socially confident while making well-calibrated predictions of success. The two are only slightly related and Downey is definitely talking about the social kind of confidence.

Comment author: Document 03 August 2013 04:08:28AM *  2 points [-]

Good point. I'm still not sure I like his framing of social interactions as getting people on "your" team (which I may be partly biased in by the source of the quote), but the objection in my initial post isn't a good one.

Comment author: snafoo 04 August 2013 05:50:23PM 13 points [-]

I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.

Stephen Jay Gould

Comment author: wedrifid 04 August 2013 06:54:40PM 7 points [-]

I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.

A proactive interest in the latter would seem to lead to extensive instrumental interest in the former. Finding things (such as convolutions in brains or genes) that are indicative of potentially valuable talent is the kind of thing that helps make efficient use of it.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 10 August 2013 04:58:14AM 8 points [-]

I suspect, actually, that Gould would not view "find the geniuses and get them out of the fields" as a reasonable solution to the problem he poses. What he wants is for there to be no stoop labour in the first place, whether for geniuses or the terminally mediocre. The geniuses are just a way to illustrate the problem.

Comment author: ialdabaoth 04 August 2013 08:07:01PM 15 points [-]

There are surprisingly few MRI machines or DNA sequencers in cotton fields and sweatshops. Paraphrasing the original quote from Stephen Jay Gould: The problem is not how good we are at detecting talent; it's where we even bother to look for it.

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 August 2013 08:46:53PM 6 points [-]

You need neither MRI machines nor DNA sequencers to detect intelligence. IQ test perform much better at detecting intelligence.

Comment author: gwern 06 August 2013 10:20:22PM *  10 points [-]

Yes; at this point with only 3 SNPs linked to intelligence, it's a joke to say that 'poor people aren't being sequenced and this is why we aren't detecting hidden gems'.

Comment author: gwern 04 August 2013 10:55:10PM 7 points [-]

There was only one Ramanujan; and we are all well-aware of Gould's views on intelligence here, I presume.

Comment author: William_Quixote 04 August 2013 11:11:45PM 8 points [-]

they are not well known to me

Comment author: gwern 05 August 2013 12:09:39AM 10 points [-]
Comment author: William_Quixote 05 August 2013 05:41:59PM 3 points [-]

Thanks

Comment author: army1987 05 August 2013 05:35:20PM 4 points [-]

There was only one Ramanujan

In what reference class?

Comment author: gwern 05 August 2013 07:45:55PM *  11 points [-]

I chose Ramanujan as my example because mathematics is extremely meritocratic, as proven by how he went from poor/middle-class Indian on the verge of starving to England on the strength of his correspondence & papers. If there really were countless such people, we would see many many examples of starving farmers banging out some impressive proofs and achieving levels of fame somewhat comparable to Einstein; hence the reference class of peasant-Einsteins must be very small since we see so few people using sheer brainpower to become famous like Ramanujan.

(Or we could simply point out that with average IQs in the 70s and 80s, average mathematician IQs closer to 140s - or 4 standard deviations away, even in a population of billions we still would only expect a small handful of Ramanujans - consistent with the evidence. Gould, of course, being a Marxist who denies any intelligence, would not agree.)

Comment author: Vaniver 06 August 2013 01:41:36AM 24 points [-]

from poor/middle-class Indian

It is worth pointing out that Ramanujan, while poor, was still a Brahmin.

Comment author: gwern 11 August 2013 05:05:10PM 6 points [-]

Being a Brahmin does not put rice on the table. Again, he was on the brink of starving, he says; this screens off any group considerations - we know he was very poor.

Comment author: Vaniver 11 August 2013 09:37:05PM 3 points [-]

Being a Brahmin does not put rice on the table. Again, he was on the brink of starving, he says; this screens off any group considerations - we know he was very poor.

It screens off any wealth considerations, with the exception of his education (which is midlly relevant). It has a big impact on the question of average IQ and ancestry, though. Brahmin average IQ is probably north of 100,* and so a first-rank mathematician coming from a Brahmin family of any wealth level is not as surprising as a first-rank mathematician coming from a Dalit family.

So we still need to explain the absence (as far as I know) of first rate Dalit mathematicians. Gould argues that they're there, and we're missing them; the hereditarian argues that they're not there. One way to distinguish between the two is to evaluate the counterfactual statement "if they were there, they wouldn't be missed," and while Ramanujan is evidence for that statement it's weakened because of the potential impact of caste prejudice / barriers.

(It seems like the example of China might be better; it seems that young clever people have had the opportunity to escape sweatshops and cotton fields and enter the imperial service / university system for quite some time. Again, though, this is confounded by Han IQ being probably slightly north of 100, and so may not generalize beyond Northeast Asia and Europe.)

*Unfortunately, there is very little solid research on Indian IQ by caste.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 August 2013 03:11:37PM *  14 points [-]

And not just that, but he had more education than the poorest Indians, and probably more than the second poorest. And got his hands on a math textbook, which was probably pretty low probability.

My bet is that there aren't a lot of geniuses doing stoop labor, especially in traditional peasant situations, but there are some who would have been geniuses if they'd had enough food when young and some education.

Comment author: gwern 11 August 2013 05:13:14PM *  4 points [-]

And not just that, but he had more education than the poorest Indians, and probably more than the second poorest.

Even the poorest Indians (or Chinese, for that matter) will sacrifice to put their children through school. Ramanujan's initial education does not seem to have been too extraordinary, before his gifts became manifest (he scored first in exams, and that was how he was able to go to a well-regarded high school; pg25).

And got his hands on a math textbook, which was probably pretty low probability.

Actually, we know how he got his initial textbooks, which was in a way which emphasizes his poverty; pg26-27:

Ramanujan's family, always strapped for cash, often took in boarders. Around the time he was eleven, there were two of them, Brahmin boys, one from the neighboring district of Trichinopoly, one from Tirunelveli far to the south, studying at the nearby Government College. Noticing Ramanujan's interest in mathematics, they fed it with whatever they knew. Within months he had exhausted their knowledge and was pestering them for math texts from the college library. Among those they brought to him was an 1893 English textbook popular in South Indian colleges and English preparatory schools, S. L. Loney's Trigonometry, which actually ranged into more advanced realms. By the time Ramanujan was thirteen, he had mastered it.

...He became something of a minor celebrity. All through his school years, he walked off with merit certificates and volumes of English poetry as scholastic prizes. Finally, at a ceremony in 1904, when Ramanujan was being awarded the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics, head- master Krishnaswami Iyer introduced him to the audience as a student who, were it possible, deserved higher than the maximum possible marks. An A-plus, or 100 percent, wouldn't do to rate him. Ramanujan, he was saying, was off-scale.

So just as well he was being lent and awarded all his books, because certainly at age 11 as a poor Indian it's hard to see how he could afford expensive rare math or English books...

but there are some who would have been geniuses if they'd had enough food when young and some education.

A rather tautological comment: yes, if we removed all the factors preventing people from being X, then presumably more people would be X...

Comment author: Grant 06 August 2013 04:42:26PM *  6 points [-]

I think a better term might be 'meritocratic', and not 'democratic'. Unless mathematicians vote on mathematics?

Comment author: army1987 06 August 2013 10:30:19AM 3 points [-]

Okay, maybe there aren't other examples quite as good as him, but a few of these people surely come close.

Or we could simply point out that with average IQs in the 70s and 80s, average mathematician IQs closer to 140s - or 4 standard deviations away, even in a population of billions we still would only expect a small handful of Ramanujans - consistent with the evidence.

Yes, but I'm not sure all of the populations working in cotton fields and sweatshops had such a low average IQ. (And Gould just said “people”, not “innumerable people” or something like that.)

Comment author: gwern 06 August 2013 09:54:18PM 5 points [-]

Most of those people either seem to come from middle-class or better backgrounds, fall well below Einstein, or both (I mean, Eliezer Yudkowsky?)

Comment author: jasonsaied 07 August 2013 05:35:05AM *  4 points [-]

Doesn't your observation that most successful autodidacts come from financially stable backgrounds SUPPORT the hypothesis that intelligent individuals from low-income backgrounds are prevented from becoming successful?

With the facts you've highlighted, two conclusions may be drawn: either most poor people are stupid, or the aforementioned "starving farmers" don't have the time or the resources to educate themselves or "[bang] out some impressive proofs," on account of the whole "I'm starving and need to grow some food" thing. I don't see how such people would be able to afford books to learn from or time to spend reading them.

Comment author: gwern 11 August 2013 04:58:31PM 4 points [-]

Doesn't your observation that most successful autodidacts come from financially stable backgrounds SUPPORT the hypothesis that intelligent individuals from low-income backgrounds are prevented from becoming successful?

No, it doesn't; see my other comment. I was criticizing the list as a bizarre selection which did not include anyone remotely like Einstein.

I don't see how such people would be able to afford books to learn from

How did Ramanujan afford books?

The answer to the autodidact point is to point out that once one has proven one's Einstein-level talent, one is integrated into the meritocratic system and no longer considered an autodidact.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 05 August 2013 11:03:23PM 3 points [-]

on the verge of starving

I haven't heard that before. Do you have a source?

Comment author: Vaniver 05 August 2013 11:28:59PM *  11 points [-]

From his letter to G.H. Hardy:

I am already a half starving man. To preserve my brains I want food and this is my first consideration. Any sympathetic letter from you will be helpful to me here to get a scholarship either from the university or from the government.

Googling the text finds it quoted a bunch of places.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 06 August 2013 12:28:19AM 3 points [-]

Wow, thanks!

Comment author: gwern 06 August 2013 02:08:56AM 10 points [-]

Besides his letter to Hardy, Wikipedia cites The Man Who Knew Infinity (on Libgen; it also quotes the 'half starving' passage), where the cited section reads:

Describing the obsession with college degrees among ambitious young Indians around this time, an English writer, Herbert Compton, noted how "the loaves and fishes fall far short of the multitude, and the result is the creation of armies of hungry 'hopefuls'-the name is a literal trans- lation of the vernacular generic term omedwar used in describing them- who pass their lives in absolute idleness, waiting on the skirts of chance, or gravitate to courses entirely opposed to those which education in- tended." Ramanujan, it might have seemed in 1908, was just such an omedwar. Out of school, without a job, he hung around the house in Kumbakonam.

Times were hard. One day back at Pachaiyappa's, the wind had blown off Ramanujan's cap as he boarded the electric train for school, and Ramanujan's Sanskrit teacher, who insisted that boys wear their traditional tufts covered, asked him to step back out to the market and buy one. Ramanujan apologized that he lacked even the few annas it cost. (His classmates, who'd observed his often-threadbare dress, chipped in to buy it for him.)

Ramanujan's father never made more than about twenty rupees a month; a rupee bought about twenty-five pounds of rice. Agricultural workers in surrounding villages earned four or five annas, or about a quarter rupee, per day; so many families were far worse off than Ramanujan's. But by the standards of the Brahmin professional community in which Ramanujan moved, it was close to penury.

The family took in boarders; that brought in another ten rupees per month. And Komalatammal sang at the temple, bringing in a few more. Still, Ramanujan occasionally went hungry. Sometimes, an old woman in the neighborhood would invite him in for a midday meal. Another family, that of Ramanujan's friend S. M. Subramanian, would also take him in, feeding him dosai, the lentil pancakes that are a staple of South Indian cooking. One time in 1908, Ramanujan's mother stopped by the Subramanian house lamenting that she had no rice. The boy's mother fed her and sent her younger son, Anantharaman, to find Ramanujan. Anantharaman led him to the house of his aunt, who filled him up on rice and butter.

To bring in money, Ramanujan approached friends of the family; perhaps they had accounts to post, or books to reconcile? Or a son to tutor? One student, for seven rupees a month, was Viswanatha Sastri, son ofa Government College philosophy professor. Early each morning, Ramanujan would walk to the boy's house on Solaiappa Mudali Street, at the other end of town, to coach him in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. The only trouble was, he couldn't stick to the course material. He'd teach the standard method today and then, if Viswanatha forgot it, would improvise a wholly new one tomorrow. Soon he'd be lost in areas the boy's regular teacher never touched.

Sometimes he would fly off onto philosophical tangents. They'd be discussing the height of a wall, perhaps for a trigonometry problem, and Ramanujan would insist that its height was, of course, only relative: who could say how high it seemed to an ant or a buffalo? One time he asked how the world would look when first created, before there was anyone to view it. He took delight, too, in posing sly little problems: If you take a belt, he asked Viswanatha and his father, and cinch it tight around the earth's twenty-five-thousand-mile-Iong equator, then let it out just 271" feet-about two yards-how far off the earth's surface would it stand? Some tiny fraction of an inch? Nope, one foot.

Viswanatha Sastri found Ramanujan inspiring; other students, however, did not. One classmate from high school, N. Govindaraja Iyengar, asked Ramanujan to help him with differential calculus for his B.A. exam. The arrangement lasted all of two weeks. You can think of calculus as a set of powerful mathematical tools; that's how most students learn it and what most exams require. Or else you can appreciate it for the subtle questions it poses about the nature of the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large. Ramanujan, either unmindful of his students' practical needs or unwilling to cater to them, stressed the latter. "He would talk only of infinity and infinitesimals," wrote Govindara,ja, who was no slouch intellectually and wound up as chairman oflndia's public service commission. "I felt that his tuition [teaching] might not be of real use to me in the examination, and so I gave it up."

Ramanujan had lost all his scholarships. He had failed in school. Even as a tutor of the subject he loved most, he'd been found wanting. He had nothing.

And yet, viewed a little differently, he had everything. For now there was nothing to distract him from his notebooks-notebooks, crammed with theorems, that each day, each week, bulged wider.

Comment author: gwern 12 August 2013 06:30:22PM 5 points [-]

pg169-171, Kanigel's 1991 The Man Who Knew Infinity:

It wasn't the first time a letter had launched the career of a famous mathematician. Indeed, as the mathematician Louis J. Mordell would later insist, "It is really an easy matter for anyone who has done brilliant mathematical work to bring himself to the attention of the mathematical world, no matter how obscure or unknown he is or how insignificant a position he occupies. All he need do is to send an account of his results to a leading authority," as Jacobi had in writing Legendre on elliptic functions, or as Hermite had in writing Jacobi on number theory.

And yet, if Mordell was right-if "it is really an easy matter" - why had Gauss spurned Abel? Carl Friedrich Gauss was the premier mathematician of his time, and, perhaps, of all time. The Norwegian Niels Henrik Abel, just twenty-two at the time he wrote Gauss, had proved that some equations of the fifth degree (like x^5 + 3x^4 + ... = 0) could never be solved algebraically. That was a real coup, especially since leading mathematicians had for years sought a general solution that, Abel now showed, didn't exist. Yet when he sent his proof to Gauss, the man history records as "the Prince of Mathematics" tossed it aside without reading it. "Here," one account has him saying, dismissing Abel's paper as the work of a crank, "is another of those monstrosities."

. Then, too, if "it is really an easy matter," why had Ramanujan's brilliance failed to cast an equal spell on Baker and Hobson, the other two Cambridge mathematicians to whom he had written?...The other Cambridge mathematician, a Senior Wrangler, was E. W. Hobson, who was in his late fifties when he heard from Ramanujan and more eminent even than Baker. His high forehead, prominent mustache, and striking eyes helped make him, in Hardy's words, "a distinguished and conspicuous figure" around Cambridge. But he was remembered, too, as a dull lecturer, and after he died his most important book was described in words like "systematic," "exhaustive," and "comprehensive," never in language suggesting great imagination or flair. "An old stick-in-the-mud," someone once called him.

...Of course, Ramanujan's fate had always hung on a knife edge, and it had never taken more than the slightest want of imagination, the briefest hesitancy, to tip the balance against him. Only the most stubborn persistence on the part of his friend Rajagopalachari had gained him the sympathy of Ramachandra Rao. And Hardy himself was put off by Ramanujan's letter before he was won over by it. The cards are stacked, against any original mind, and perhaps properly so. After all, many who claim the mantle of "new and original" are indeed new, and original - but not better. So, in a sense, it should be neither surprising nor reason for any but the mildest rebuke that Hobson and Baker said no. Nor should it be surprising that no one: in India had made much of Ramanujan's work. Hardy was perhaps England's premier mathematician, the beneficiary of the finest education, in touch with the latest mathematical thought and, to boot, an expert in several fields Ramanujan plowed .... And yet a day with Ramanujan's theorems had left him bewildered. I had never seen anything in the least like them before. Like the Indians, Hardy did not know what to make of Ramanujan's work. Like them, he doubted his own judgment of it. Indeed, it is not just that he discerned genius in Ramanujan that redounds to his credit today; it is that he battered down his own wall of skepticism to do so. That Ramanujan was Indian probably didn't taint him in Hardy's eyes.

Personally, having finished reading the book, I think Kanigel is wrong to think there is so much contingency here. He paints a vivid picture of why Ramanujan had failed out of school, lost his scholarships, and had difficulties publishing, and why two Cambridge mathematicians might mostly ignore his letter: Ramanujan's stubborn refusal to study non-mathematical topics and refusal to provide reasonably rigorous proofs. His life could have been much easier if he had been less eccentric and prideful. That despite all his self-inflicted problems he was brought to Cambridge anyway is a testimony to how talent will out.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 August 2013 04:38:36PM 5 points [-]

Was extremely democratic. Do we know this is still true?

Comment author: gwern 06 August 2013 09:58:41PM *  18 points [-]

"The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Productivity of American Mathematicians" comes to mind as an interesting recent natural experiment where the floodgate of Russian mathematical talent was unleashed after the collapse of the USSR and many of them successfully rose in America despite academic math being a zero-sum game; consistent with meritocracy.

Comment author: Lumifer 06 August 2013 06:17:19PM 6 points [-]

At the outlier level, I think so -- see e.g. Perelman. At the normal professor-of-mathematics level, probably not.

Comment author: HonoreDB 07 August 2013 02:06:48PM 8 points [-]

I think it can be illustrative, as a counter to the spotlight effect, to look at the personalities of math/science outliers who come from privileged backgrounds, and imagine them being born into poverty. Oppenheimer's conjugate was jailed or executed for attempted murder, instead of being threatened with academic probation. Gödel's conjugate added a postscript to his proof warning that the British Royal Family were possible Nazi collaborators, which got it binned, which convinced him that all British mathematicians were in on the conspiracy. Newton and Turing's conjugates were murdered as teenagers on suspicion of homosexuality. I have to make these stories up because if you're poor and at all weird, flawed, or unlucky your story is rarely recorded.

Comment author: gwern 11 August 2013 04:54:13PM *  11 points [-]

Oppenheimer's conjugate was jailed or executed for attempted murder, instead of being threatened with academic probation.

A gross exaggeration; execution was never in the cards for a poisoned apple which was never eaten.

Gödel's conjugate added a postscript to his proof warning that the British Royal Family were possible Nazi collaborators, which got it binned, which convinced him that all British mathematicians were in on the conspiracy.

Likewise. Goedel didn't go crazy until long after he was famous, and so your conjugate is in no way showing 'privilege'.

Newton and Turing's conjugates were murdered as teenagers on suspicion of homosexuality.

Likewise. You have some strange Whiggish conception of history where all periods were ones where gays would be lynched; Turing would not have been lynched anymore than President Buchanan would have, because so many upper-class Englishmen were notorious practicing gays and their boarding schools Sodoms and Gomorrahs. To remember the context of Turing's homosexuality conviction, this was in the same period where highly-placed gay Englishman after gay Englishman was turning out to be Soviet moles (see the Cambridge Five and how the bisexual Kim Philby nearly became head of MI6!) EDIT: pg137-144 of the Ramanujan book I've been quoting discusses the extensive homosexuality at Cambridge and its elite, and how tolerance of homosexuality ebbed and flowed, with the close of the Victorian age being particularly intolerant.

The right conjugate for Newton, by the way, reads 'and his heretical Christian views were discovered, he was fired from Cambridge - like his successor as Lucasian Professor - and died a martyr'.

I have to make these stories up because if you're poor and at all weird, flawed, or unlucky your story is rarely recorded.

The problem is, we have these stories. We have Ramanujan who by his own testimony was on the verge of starvation - and if that is not poor, then you are not using the word as I understand it - and we have William Shakespeare (no aristocrat he), and we have Epicurus who was a slave. There is no censorship of poor and middle-class Einsteins. And this is exactly what we would expect when we consider what it takes to be a genius like Einstein, to be gifted in multiple ways, to be far out on multiple distributions (giving us a highly skewed distribution of accomplishment, see the Lotka curve): we would expect a handful of outliers who come from populations with low means, and otherwise our lists to be dominated by outliers from populations with higher means, without any appeal to Marxian oppression or discrimination necessary.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 11 August 2013 05:50:39PM *  6 points [-]

...and we have Epicurus who was a slave.

I don't think Epicurus was a slave. He did admit slaves to his school though, which is not something that was typical for his time. Perhaps you are referring to the Stoic, Epictetus, who definitely was a slave (although, white-collar).

Comment author: gwern 12 August 2013 03:14:40PM 5 points [-]

Whups, you're right. Some of the Greek philosophers' names are so easy to confuse (I still confuse Xenophanes and Xenophon). Well, Epictetus was still important, if not as important as Epicurus.

Comment author: HonoreDB 15 August 2013 07:00:51PM 7 points [-]

Do you really think the existence of oppression is a figment of Marxist ideology? If being poor didn't make it harder to become a famous mathematician given innate ability, I'm not sure "poverty" would be a coherent concept. If you're poor, you don't just have to be far out on multiple distributions, you also have to be at the mean or above in several more (health, willpower, various kinds of luck). Ramanujan barely made it over the finish line before dying of malnutrition.

Even if the mean mathematical ability in Indians were innately low (I'm quite skeptical there), that would itself imply a context containing more censoring factors for any potential Einsteins...to become a mathematician, you have to, at minimum, be aware that higher math exists, that you're unusually good at it by world standards, and being a mathematician at that level is a viable way to support your family.

On your specific objections to my conjugates...I'm fairly confident that confessing to poisoning someone else's food usually gets you incarcerated, and occasionally gets you killed (think feudal society or mob-ridden areas), and is at least a career-limiting move if you don't start from a privileged position. Hardly a gross exaggeration. Goedel didn't become clinically paranoid until later, but he was always the sort of person who would thoughtlessly insult an important gatekeeper's government, which is part of what I was getting at; Ramanujan was more politic than your average mathematician. I actually was thinking of making Newton's conjugate be into Hindu mysticism instead of Christian but that seemed too elaborate.

Comment author: gwern 03 September 2013 06:24:01PM 3 points [-]

Do you really think the existence of oppression is a figment of Marxist ideology?

I'm perfectly happy to accept the existence of oppression, but I see no need to make up ways in which the oppression might be even more awful than one had previously thought. Isn't it enough that peasants live shorter lives, are deprived of stuff, can be abused by the wealthy, etc? Why do we need to make up additional ways in which they might be opppressed? Gould comes off here as engaging in a horns effect: not only is oppression bad in the obvious concrete well-verified ways, it's the Worst Thing In The World and so it's also oppressing Einsteins!

If being poor didn't make it harder to become a famous mathematician given innate ability, I'm not sure "poverty" would be a coherent concept.

Not what Gould hyperbolically claimed. He didn't say that 'at the margin, there may be someone who was slightly better than your average mathematician but who failed to get tenure thanks to some lingering disadvantages from his childhood'. He claimed that there were outright historic geniuses laboring in the fields. I regard this as completely ludicrous due both to the effects of poverty & oppression on means & tails and due to the pretty effective meritocratic mechanisms in even a backwater like India.

Even if the mean mathematical ability in Indians were innately low (I'm quite skeptical there)

It absolutely is. Don't confuse the fact that there are quite a few brilliant Indians in absolute numbers with a statement about the mean - with a population of ~1.3 billion people, that's just proving the point.

to become a mathematician, you have to, at minimum, be aware that higher math exists, that you're unusually good at it by world standards, and being a mathematician at that level is a viable way to support your family.

The talent can manifest as early as arithmetic, which is taught to a great many poor people, I am given to understand.

I'm fairly confident that confessing to poisoning someone else's food usually gets you incarcerated, and occasionally gets you killed (think feudal society or mob-ridden areas), and is at least a career-limiting move if you don't start from a privileged position.

Really? Then I'm sure you could name three examples.

Goedel didn't become clinically paranoid until later, but he was always the sort of person who would thoughtlessly insult an important gatekeeper's government, which is part of what I was getting at

Sorry, I can only read what you wrote. If you meant he lacked tact, you shouldn't have brought up insanity.

Ramanujan was more politic than your average mathematician.

Really? Because his mathematician peers were completely exasperated at him. What, exactly, was he politic about?

Comment author: HonoreDB 04 September 2013 12:16:04AM *  4 points [-]

the effects of poverty & oppression on means & tails

Wait, what are you saying here? That there aren't any Einsteins in sweatshops in part because their innate mathematical ability got stunted by malnutrition and lack of education? That seems like basically conceding the point, unless we're arguing about whether there should be a program to give a battery of genius tests to every poor adult in India.

The talent can manifest as early as arithmetic, which is taught to a great many poor people, I am given to understand.

Not all of them, I don't think. And then you have to have a talent that manifests early, have someone in your community who knows that a kid with a talent for arithmetic might have a talent for higher math, knows that a talent for higher math can lead to a way to support your family, expects that you'll be given a chance to prove yourself, gives a shit, has a way of getting you tested...

I'm fairly confident that confessing to poisoning someone else's food usually gets you incarcerated, and occasionally gets you killed (think feudal society or mob-ridden areas), and is at least a career-limiting move if you don't start from a privileged position.

Really? Then I'm sure you could name three examples.

Just going off Google, here: People being incarcerated for unsuccessful attempts to poison someone: http://digitaljournal.com/article/346684 http://charlotte.news14.com/content/headlines/628564/teen-arrested-for-trying-to-poison-mother-s-coffee/ http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=85968

Person being killed for suspected unsuccessful attempt to poison someone: http://zeenews.india.com/news/bihar/man-lynched-for-trying-to-poison-hand-pump_869197.html

Sorry, I can only read what you wrote. If you meant he lacked tact, you shouldn't have brought up insanity.

I was trying to elegantly combine the Incident with the Debilitating Paranoia and the Incident with the Telling The Citizenship Judge That Nazis Could Easily Take Over The United States. Clearly didn't completely come across.

Really? Because his mathematician peers were completely exasperated at him. What, exactly, was he politic about?

He was politic enough to overcome Vast Cultural Differences enough to get somewhat integrated into an insular community. I hang out with mathematicians a lot; my stereotype of them is that they tend not to be good at that.

Comment author: cody-bryce 02 August 2013 10:31:02PM 7 points [-]

There are no happy endings. Endings are the saddest part, So just give me a happy middle And a very happy start.

-Shel Silverstein

Comment author: MixedNuts 04 August 2013 05:31:52PM 8 points [-]

But but peak/end rule!

Comment author: katydee 03 August 2013 06:34:02AM *  9 points [-]

The tired and thirsty prospector threw himself down at the edge of the watering hole and started to drink. But then he looked around and saw skulls and bones everywhere. "Uh-oh," he thought. "This watering hole is reserved for skeletons."

Jack Handey

Comment author: Manfred 05 August 2013 09:14:05AM 6 points [-]

So good even dead people want to drink it.

Comment author: Document 06 August 2013 05:28:23PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Eugine_Nier 03 August 2013 05:09:14AM 9 points [-]

Nobody can believe nothing. When a man says he believes nothing, two things are true: first, that there is something in which he desperately, perhaps dearly, wishes not to believe; and second that there is some unspoken thing in which he secretly believes, perhaps even unknown to himself.

John C Wright

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 August 2013 02:36:23AM 5 points [-]

Is there a name for the fallacy of claiming to be an expert on the specific contents of other people's subconsciouses?

Comment author: malcolmmcc 07 August 2013 03:23:48AM 2 points [-]

This sounds like it implies that both things must be true. It seems to me that either would be sufficient to justify someone saying they believe nothing.

Comment author: lukeprog 25 August 2013 05:15:29PM *  4 points [-]

It ain’t ignorance [that] causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.

Josh Billings

(h/t Robin Hanson)

Comment author: lukeprog 16 August 2013 03:15:48AM 4 points [-]

An educated mind is, as it were, composed of all the minds of preceding ages.

Le Bovier de Fontenelle

Comment author: wedrifid 16 August 2013 06:51:01AM *  7 points [-]

An educated mind is, as it were, composed of all the minds of preceding ages.

This explains all those urges I get to burn witches, my talent at farming, all my knowledge at hunting and tracking and my outstanding knack for feudal political intrigue.

(Composition is not the relationship to previous minds that education entails. Can someone think of a better one?)

Comment author: Kawoomba 16 August 2013 06:55:40AM 8 points [-]

Derivation.

Comment author: DanArmak 16 August 2013 07:35:48PM 7 points [-]

We rest upon the frontal lobes of giants.

Comment author: hairyfigment 06 August 2013 06:11:11PM 5 points [-]

How do you know that it will bring out his genius, Graff? It's never given you what you needed before. You've only had near-misses and flameouts. Is this how Mazer Rackham was trained? Actually, why isn't Mazer Rackham in charge of this training? What qualifications do you have that make you so sure your technique is the perfect recipe to make the ultimate military genius?

-- Will Wildman, analysis of Ender's Game

Comment author: gothgirl420666 04 August 2013 10:29:14PM *  8 points [-]

I like it when I hear philosophy in rap songs (or any kind of music, really) that I can actually fully agree with:

I never had belief in Christ, cus in the pictures he was white

Same color as the judge that gave my hood repeated life

Sentences for little shit, church I wasn't feeling it

Why the preacher tell us everything gon be alright?

Knew what it was for, still I felt that it was wrong

Till I heard Chef call himself God in the song

And it all made sense, cus you can't do shit

But look inside the mirror once it all goes wrong

You fix your own problems, tame your own conscience

All that holy water shit is nothing short of nonsense

Not denying Christ, I'm just denying niggas options

Cus prayer never moved my Grandmama out of Compton

I prayed for my cousin, but them niggas still shot him

Invest in a gun, cause them niggas still got them

And won't shit stop em from popping you in broad day

Hope that choir pew bulletproof or you gon' pay

-- Vince Staples, "Versace Rap"

Comment author: David_Gerard 05 August 2013 08:59:07PM 4 points [-]
Comment author: gothgirl420666 05 August 2013 10:19:07PM 5 points [-]

I always thought it was interesting that Tupac got all the conspiracy theories while Biggie got none, despite the fact that Biggie released an album called Ready to Die, died, then two weeks later released an album called Life After Death. It's probably because Tupac's music appeals more to hippie types who are into this kind of stuff.

Comment author: metastable 21 August 2013 07:42:19PM 4 points [-]

The complexity of software is an essential property, not an accidental one. Hence, descriptions of a software entity that abstract away its complexity often abstract away its essence.

Fred P. Brooks, No Silver Bullet

Comment author: wedrifid 22 August 2013 02:07:10AM 5 points [-]

The complexity of software is an essential property, not an accidental one. Hence, descriptions of a software entity that abstract away its complexity often abstract away its essence.

This is true, but the connotations need to be applied cautiously. Complexity is necessary, but it is still something to be minimised wherever practical. Things should be as simple as possible but not simpler.

Comment author: shminux 21 August 2013 08:08:44PM *  6 points [-]

I've always had misgivings about this quote. In my experience about 90% of the code on a large project is an artifact of a poor requirement analysis/architecture/design/implementation. (Sendmail comes to mind.) I have seen 10,000-line packages melting away when a feature is redesigned with more functionality and improved reliability and maintainability.

Comment author: Glen 02 August 2013 10:52:18PM 4 points [-]

Everything can be reduced to an abstraction, a puzzle, and then solved

-Ledaal Kes (Exalted Aspect Book: Air)