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I Want To Live In A Baugruppe

43 Alicorn 17 March 2017 01:36AM

Rationalists like to live in group houses.  We are also as a subculture moving more and more into a child-having phase of our lives.  These things don't cooperate super well - I live in a four bedroom house because we like having roommates and guests, but if we have three kids and don't make them share we will in a few years have no spare rooms at all.  This is frustrating in part because amenable roommates are incredibly useful as alloparents if you value things like "going to the bathroom unaccompanied" and "eating food without being screamed at", neither of which are reasonable "get a friend to drive for ten minutes to spell me" situations.  Meanwhile there are also people we like living around who don't want to cohabit with a small child, which is completely reasonable, small children are not for everyone.

For this and other complaints ("househunting sucks", "I can't drive and need private space but want friends accessible", whatever) the ideal solution seems to be somewhere along the spectrum between "a street with a lot of rationalists living on it" (no rationalist-friendly entity controls all those houses and it's easy for minor fluctuations to wreck the intentional community thing) and "a dorm" (sorta hard to get access to those once you're out of college, usually not enough kitchens or space for adult life).  There's a name for a thing halfway between those, at least in German - "baugruppe" - buuuuut this would require community or sympathetic-individual control of a space and the money to convert it if it's not already baugruppe-shaped.

Maybe if I complain about this in public a millionaire will step forward or we'll be able to come up with a coherent enough vision to crowdfund it or something.  I think there is easily enough demand for a couple of ten-to-twenty-adult baugruppen (one in the east bay and one in the south bay) or even more/larger, if the structures materialized.  Here are some bulleted lists.

Desiderata:

  • Units that it is really easy for people to communicate across and flow between during the day - to my mind this would be ideally to the point where a family who had more kids than fit in their unit could move the older ones into a kid unit with some friends for permanent sleepover, but still easily supervise them.  The units can be smaller and more modular the more this desideratum is accomplished.
  • A pricing structure such that the gamut of rationalist financial situations (including but not limited to rent-payment-constraining things like "impoverished app academy student", "frugal Google engineer effective altruist", "NEET with a Patreon", "CfAR staffperson", "not-even-ramen-profitable entrepreneur", etc.) could live there.  One thing I really like about my house is that Spouse can pay for it himself and would by default anyway, and we can evaluate roommates solely on their charming company (or contribution to childcare) even if their financial situation is "no".  However, this does require some serious participation from people whose financial situation is "yes" and a way to balance the two so arbitrary numbers of charity cases don't bankrupt the project.
  • Variance in amenities suited to a mix of Soylent-eating restaurant-going takeout-ordering folks who only need a fridge and a microwave and maybe a dishwasher, and neighbors who are not that, ideally such that it's easy for the latter to feed neighbors as convenient.
  • Some arrangement to get repairs done, ideally some compromise between "you can't do anything to your living space, even paint your bedroom, because you don't own the place and the landlord doesn't trust you" and "you have to personally know how to fix a toilet".
  • I bet if this were pulled off at all it would be pretty easy to have car-sharing bundled in, like in Benton House That Was which had several people's personal cars more or less borrowable at will.  (Benton House That Was may be considered a sort of proof of concept of "20 rationalists living together" but I am imagining fewer bunk beds in the baugruppe.)  Other things that could be shared include longish-term storage and irregularly used appliances.
  • Dispute resolution plans and resident- and guest-vetting plans which thread the needle between "have to ask a dozen people before you let your brother crash on the couch, let alone a guest unit" and "cannot expel missing stairs".  I think there are some rationalist community Facebook groups that have medium-trust networks of the right caution level and experiment with ways to maintain them.

Obstacles:

  • Bikeshedding.  Not that it isn't reasonable to bikeshed a little about a would-be permanent community edifice that you can't benefit from or won't benefit from much unless it has X trait - I sympathize with this entirely - but too much from too many corners means no baugruppen go up at all even if everything goes well, and that's already dicey enough, so please think hard on how necessary it is for the place to be blue or whatever.
  • Location.  The only really viable place to do this for rationalist population critical mass is the Bay Area, which has, uh, problems, with new construction.  Existing structures are likely to be unsuited to the project both architecturally and zoningwise, although I would not be wholly pessimistic about one of those little two-story hotels with rooms that open to the outdoors or something like that.
  • Principal-agent problems.  I do not know how to build a dormpartment building and probably neither do you.
  • Community norm development with buy-in and a good match for typical conscientiousness levels even though we are rules-lawyery contrarians.

Please share this wherever rationalists may be looking; it's definitely the sort of thing better done with more eyes on it.

80,000 Hours: EA and Highly Political Causes

30 The_Jaded_One 26 January 2017 09:44PM

this post is now crossposted to the EA forum

80,000 hours is a well known Effective Altruism organisation which does "in-depth research alongside academics at Oxford into how graduates can make the biggest difference possible with their careers". 

They recently posted a guide to donating which aims, in their words, to (my emphasis)

use evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to best promote the wellbeing of all. To find the highest-impact charities this giving season ... We ... summed up the main recommendations by area below

Looking below, we find a section on the problem area of criminal justice (US-focused). An area where the aim is outlined as follows: (quoting from the Open Philanthropy "problem area" page)

investing in criminal justice policy and practice reforms to substantially reduce incarceration while maintaining public safety. 

Reducing incarceration whilst maintaining public safety seems like a reasonable EA cause, if we interpret "pubic safety" in a broad sense - that is, keep fewer people in prison whilst still getting almost all of the benefits of incarceration such as deterrent effects, prevention of crime, etc.

So what are the recommended charities? (my emphasis below)

1. Alliance for Safety and Justice 

"The Alliance for Safety and Justice is a US organization that aims to reduce incarceration and racial disparities in incarceration in states across the country, and replace mass incarceration with new safety priorities that prioritize prevention and protect low-income communities of color."  

They promote an article on their site called "black wounds matter", as well as how you can "Apply for VOCA Funding: A Toolkit for Organizations Working With Crime Survivors in Communities of Color and Other Underserved Communities"

2. Cosecha - (note that their url is www.lahuelga.com, which means "the strike" in Spanish) (my emphasis below)

"Cosecha is a group organizing undocumented immigrants in 50-60 cities around the country. Its goal is to build mass popular support for undocumented immigrants, in resistance to incarceration/detention, deportation, denigration of rights, and discrimination. The group has become especially active since the Presidential election, given the immediate threat of mass incarceration and deportation of millions of people."

Cosecha have a footprint in the news, for example this article:

They have the ultimate goal of launching massive civil resistance and non-cooperation to show this country it depends on us ...  if they wage a general strike of five to eight million workers for seven days, we think the economy of this country would not be able to sustain itself 

The article quotes Carlos Saavedra, who is directly mentioned by Open Philanthropy's Chloe Cockburn:

Carlos Saavedra, who leads Cosecha, stands out as an organizer who is devoted to testing and improving his methods, ... Cosecha can do a lot of good to prevent mass deportations and incarceration, I think his work is a good fit for likely readers of this post."

They mention other charities elsewhere on their site and in their writeup on the subject, such as the conservative Center for Criminal Justice Reform, but Cosecha and the Alliance for Safety and Justice are the ones that were chosen as "highest impact" and featured in the guide to donating

 


 

Sometimes one has to be blunt: 80,000 hours is promoting the financial support of some extremely hot-button political causes, which may not be a good idea. Traditionalists/conservatives and those who are uninitiated to Social Justice ideology might look at The Alliance for Safety and Justice and Cosecha and label them as them racists and criminals, and thereby be turned off by Effective Altruism, or even by the rationality movement as a whole. 

There are standard arguments, for example this by Robin Hanson from 10 years ago about why it is not smart or "effective" to get into these political tugs-of-war if one wants to make a genuine difference in the world.

One could also argue that the 80,000 hours' charities go beyond the usual folly of political tugs-of-war. In addition to supporting extremely political causes, 80,000 hours could be accused of being somewhat intellectually dishonest about what goal they are trying to further actually is. 

Consider The Alliance for Safety and Justice. 80,000 Hours state that the goal of their work in the criminal justice problem area is to "substantially reduce incarceration while maintaining public safety". This is an abstract goal that has very broad appeal and one that I am sure almost everyone agrees to. But then their more concrete policy in this area is to fund a charity that wants to "reduce racial disparities in incarceration" and "protect low-income communities of color". The latter is significantly different to the former - it isn't even close to being the same thing - and the difference is highly political. One could object that reducing racial disparities in incarceration is merely a means to the end of substantially reducing incarceration while maintaining public safety, since many people in prison in the US are "of color". However this line of argument is a very politicized one and it might be wrong, or at least I don't see strong support for it. "Selectively release people of color and make society safer - endorsed by effective altruists!" struggles against known facts about redictivism rates across races, as well as an objection about the implicit conflation of equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. (and I do not want this to be interpreted as a claim of moral superiority of one race over others - merely a necessary exercise in coming to terms with facts and debunking implicit assumptions). Males are incarcerated much more than women, so what about reducing gender disparities in incarceration, whilst also maintaining public safety? Again, this is all highly political, laden with politicized implicit assumptions and language.  

Cosecha is worse! They are actively planning potentially illegal activities like helping illegal immigrants evade the law (though IANAL), as well as activities which potentially harm the majority of US citizens such as a seven day nationwide strike whose intent is to damage the economy. Their URL is "The Strike" in Spanish. 

Again, the abstract goal is extremely attractive to almost anyone, but the concrete implementation is highly divisive. If some conservative altruist signed up to financially or morally support the abstract goal of "substantially reducing incarceration while maintaining public safety" and EA organisations that are pursuing that goal without reading the details, and then at a later point they saw the details of Cosecha and The Alliance for Safety and Justice, they would rightly feel cheated. And to the objection that conservative altruists should read the description rather than just the heading - what are we doing writing headings so misleading that you'd feel cheated if you relied on them as summaries of the activity they are mean to summarize? 

 


 

One possibility would be for 80,000 hours to be much more upfront about what they are trying to achieve here - maybe they like left-wing social justice causes, and want to help like-minded people donate money to such causes and help the particular groups who are favored in those circles. There's almost a nod and a wink to this when Chloe Cockburn says (my paraphrase of Saavedra, and emphasis, below)

I think his [A man who wants to lead a general strike of five to eight million workers for seven days so that the economy of the USA would not be able to sustain itself, in order to help illegal immigrants] work is a good fit for likely readers of this post

Alternatively, they could try to reinvigorate the idea that their "criminal justice" problem area is politically neutral and beneficial to everyone; the Open Philanthropy issue writeup talks about "conservative interest in what has traditionally been a solely liberal cause" after all. I would advise considering dropping The Alliance for Safety and Justice and Cosecha if they intend to do this. There may not be politically neutral charities in this area, or there may not be enough high quality conservative charities to present a politically balanced set of recommendations. Setting up a growing donor advised fund or a prize for nonpartisan progress that genuinely intends to benefit everyone including conservatives, people opposed to illegal immigration and people who are not "of color" might be an option to consider.

We could examine 80,000 hours' choice to back these organisations from a more overall-utilitarian/overall-effectiveness point of view, rather than limiting the analysis to the specific problem area. These two charities don't pass the smell test for altruistic consequentialism, pulling sideways on ropes, finding hidden levers that others are ignoring, etc. Is the best thing you can do with your smart EA money helping a charity that wants to get stuck into the culture war about which skin color is most over-represented in prisons? What about a second charity that wants to help people illegally immigrate at a time when immigration is the most divisive political topic in the western world?

Furthermore, Cosecha's plans for a nationwide strike and potential civil disobedience/showdown with Trump & co could push an already volatile situation in the US into something extremely ugly. The vast majority of people in the world (present and future) are not the specific group that Cosecha aims to help, but the set of people who could be harmed by the uglier versions of a violent and calamitous showdown in the US is basically the whole world. That means that even if P(Cosecha persuades Trump to do a U-turn on illegals) is 10 or 100 times greater than P(Cosecha precipitates a violent crisis in the USA), they may still be net-negative from an expected utility point of view. EA doesn't usually fund causes whose outcome distribution is heavily left-skewed so this argument is a bit unusual to have to make, but there it is. 

Not only is Cosecha a cause that is (a) mind-killing and culture war-ish (b) very tangentially related to the actual problem area it is advertised under by 80,000 hours, but it might also (c) be an anti-charity that produces net disutility (in expectation) in the form of a higher probability a US civil war with money that you donate to it. 

Back on the topic of criminal justice and incarceration: opposition to reform often comes from conservative voters and politicians, so it might seem unlikely to a careful thinker that extra money on the left-wing side is going to be highly effective. Some intellectual judo is required; make conservatives think that it was their idea all along. So promoting the Center for Criminal Justice Reform sounds like the kind of smart, against-the-grain idea that might be highly effective! Well done, Open Philanthropy! Also in favor of this org: they don't copiously mention which races or person-categories they think are most important in their articles about criminal justice reform, the only culture war item I could find on them is the world "conservative" (and given the intellectual judo argument above, this counts as a plus), and they're not planning a national strike or other action with a heavy tail risk. But that's the one that didn't make the cut for the 80,000 hours guide to donating!

The fact that they let Cosecha (and to a lesser extent The Alliance for Safety and Justice) through reduces my confidence in 80,000 hours and the EA movement as a whole. Who thought it would be a good idea to get EA into the culture war with these causes, and also thought that they were plausibly among the most effective things you can do with money? Are they taking effectiveness seriously? What does the political diversity of meetings at 80,000 hours look like? Were there no conservative altruists present in discussions surrounding The Alliance for Safety and Justice and Cosecha, and the promotion of them as "beneficial for everyone" and "effective"? 

Before we finish, I want to emphasize that this post is not intended to start an object-level discussion about which race, gender, political movement or sexual orientation is cooler, and I would encourage moderators to temp-ban people who try to have that kind of argument in the comments of this post.

I also want to emphasize that criticism of professional altruists is a necessary evil; in an ideal world the only thing I would ever want to say to people who dedicate their lives to helping others (Chloe Cockburn in particular, since I mentioned her name above)  is "thank you, you're amazing". Other than that, comments and criticism are welcome, especially anything pointing out any inaccuracies or misunderstandings in this post. Comments from anyone involved in 80,000 hours or Open Philanthropy are welcome. 

Project Hufflepuff

29 Raemon 18 January 2017 06:57PM

(This is a crossposted FB post, so it might read a bit weird)

My goal this year (in particular, my main focus once I arrive in the Bay, but also my focus in NY and online in the meanwhile), is to join and champion the growing cause of people trying to fix some systemic problems in EA and Rationalsphere relating to "lack of Hufflepuff virtue".

I want Hufflepuff Virtue to feel exciting and important, because it is, and I want it to be something that flows naturally into our pursuit of both epistemic integrity, intellectual creativity, and concrete action.

Some concrete examples:

- on the 5 second reflex level, notice when people need help or when things need doing, and do those things.

- have an integrated understanding that being kind to people is *part* of helping them (and you!) to learn more, and have better ideas.

(There are a bunch of ways to be kind to people that do NOT do this, i.e. politely agreeing to disagree. That's not what I'm talking about. We need to hold each other to higher standards but not talk down to people in a fashion that gets in the way of understanding. There are tradeoffs and I'm not sure of the best approach but there's a lot of room for improvement)

- be excited and willing to be the person doing the grunt work to make something happen

- foster a sense that the community encourages people to try new events, actively take personal responsibility to notice and fix community-wide problems that aren't necessarily sexy.

- when starting new projects, try to have mentorship and teamwork built into their ethos from the get-go, rather than hastily tacked on later

I want these sorts of things to come easily to mind when the future people of 2019 think about the rationality community, and have them feel like central examples of the community rather than things that we talk about wanting-more-of.

Infinite Summations: A Rationality Litmus Test

25 shev 20 January 2017 09:31AM

You may have seen that Numberphile video that circulated the social media world a few years ago. It showed the 'astounding' mathematical result:

1+2+3+4+5+… = -1/12

(quote: "the answer to this sum is, remarkably, minus a twelfth")

Then they tell you that this result is used in many areas of physics, and show you a page of a string theory textbook (oooo) that states it as a theorem.

The video caused quite an uproar at the time, since it was many people's first introduction to the rather outrageous idea and they had all sorts of very reasonable objections.

Here's the 'proof' from the video:

First, consider P = 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1…
Clearly the value of P oscillates between 1 and 0 depending on how many terms you get. Numberphile decides that it equals 1/2, because that's halfway in the middle.
Alternatively, consider P+P with the terms interleaved, and check out this quirky arithmetic:
1-1+1-1…
+ 1-1+1…
= 1 + (-1+1) + (1-1) … = 1, so 2P = 1, so P = 1/2
Now consider Q = 1-2+3-4+5…
And write out Q+Q this way:
1-2+3-4+5…
+ 1 -2+3-4…
= 1-1+1-1+1 = 1/2 = 2Q, so Q = 1/4 
Now consider S = 1+2+3+4+5...
Write S-4S as
1+2+3+4+5…
- 4      -8 …
=1-2+3-4+5… = Q=1/4
So S-4S=-3S = 1/4, so S=-1/12

How do you feel about that? Probably amused but otherwise not very good, regardless of your level of math proficiency. But in another way it's really convincing - I mean, string theorists use it, by god. And, to quote the video, "these kinds of sums appear all over physics".


So the question is this: when you see a video or hear a proof like this, do you 'believe them'? Even if it's not your field, and not in your area of expertise, do you believe someone who tells you "even though you thought mathematics worked this way, it actually doesn't; it's still totally mystical and insane results are lurking just around the corner if you know where to look"? What if they tell you string theorists use it, and it appears all over physics?

I imagine this is as a sort of rationality litmus test. See how you react to the video or the proof (or remember how you reacted when you initially heard this argument). Is it the 'rational response'? How do you weigh your own intuitions vs a convincing argument from authority plus math that seems to somehow work, if you turn your head a bit?

If you don't believe them, what does that feel like? How confident are you?

(spoilers below)


It's totally true that, as an everyday rationalist (or even as a scientist or mathematician or theorist), there will always be computational conclusions that are out of your reach to verify. You pretty much have to believe theoretical physicists who tell you "the Standard Model of particle physics accurately models reality and predicts basically everything we see at the subatomic scale with unerring accuracy"; you're likely in no position to argue.

But - and this is the point - it's highly unlikely that all of your tools are lies, even if 'experts' say so, and you ought to require extraordinary evidence to be convinced that they are. It's not enough that someone out there can contrive a plausible-sounding argument that you don't know how to refute, if your tools are logically sound and their claims don't fit into that logic.

(On the other hand, if you believe something because you heard it was a good idea from one expert, and then another expert tells you a different idea, take your pick; there's no way to tell. It's the personal experience that makes this example lead to sanity-questioning, and that's where the problem lies.)

In my (non-expert but well-informed) view, the correct response to this argument is to say "no, I don't believe you", and hold your ground. Because the claim made in the video is so absurd that, even if you believe the video is correct and made by experts and the string theory textbook actually says that, you should consider a wide range of other explanations as to "how it could have come to be that people are claiming this" before accepting that addition might work in such an unlikely way.

Not because you know about how infinite sums work better than a physicist or mathematician does, but because you know how mundane addition works just as well as they do, and if a conclusion this shattering to your model comes around -- even to a layperson's model of how addition works, that adding positive numbers to positive numbers results in bigger numbers --, then either "everything is broken" or "I'm going insane" or (and this is by far the theory that Occam's Razor should prefer) "they and I are somehow talking about different things".

That is, the unreasonable mathematical result is because the mathematician or physicist is talking about one "sense" of addition, but it's not the same one that you're using when you do everyday sums or when you apply your intuitions about intuition to everyday life. This is by far the simplest explanation: addition works just how you thought it does, even in your inexpertise; you and the mathematician are just talking past each other somehow, and you don't have to know what way that is to be pretty sure that it's happening. Anyway, there's no reason expert mathematicians can't be amateur communicators, and even that is a much more palatable result than what they're claiming.

(As it happens, my view is that any trained mathematician who claims that 1+2+3+4+5… = -1/12 without qualification is so incredibly confused or poor at communicating or actually just misanthropic that they ought to be, er, sent to a re-education camp.)

So, is this what you came up with? Did your rationality win out in the face of fallacious authority?

(Also, do you agree that I've represented the 'rational approach' to this situation correctly? Give me feedback!)


Postscript: the explanation of the proof

There's no shortage of explanations of this online, and a mountain of them emerged after this video became popular. I'll write out a simple version anyway for the curious.

It turns out that there is a sense in which those summations are valid, but it's not the sense you're using when you perform ordinary addition. It's also true that the summations emerge in physics. It is also true that the validity of these summations is in spite of the rules of "you can't add, subtract, or otherwise deal with infinities, and yes all these sums diverge" that you learn in introductory calculus; it turns out that those rules are also elementary and there are ways around them but you have to be very rigorous to get them right.

An elementary explanation of what happened in the proof is that, in all three infinite sum cases, it is possible to interpret the infinite sum as a more accurate form (but STILL not precise enough to use for regular arithmetic, because infinities are very much not valid, still, we're serious):

S(infinity) = 1+2+3+4+5… ≈ -1/12 + O(infinity)

Where S(n) is a function giving the n'th partial sum of the series, and S(infinity) is an analytic continuation (basically, theoretical extension) of the function to infinity. (The O(infinity) part means "something on the order of infinity")

Point is, that O(infinity) bit hangs around, but doesn't really disrupt math on the finite part, which is why algebraic manipulations still seem to work. (Another cute fact: the curve that fits the partial sum function also non-coincidentally takes the value -1/12 at n=0.)

And it's true that this series always associates with the finite part -1/12; even though there are some manipulations that can get you to other values, there's a list of 'valid' manipulations that constrains it. (Well, there are other kinds of summations that I don't remember that might get different results. But this value is not accidentally associated with this summation.)

And the fact that the series emerges in physics is complicated but amounts to the fact that, in the particular way we've glued math onto physical reality, we've constructed a framework that also doesn't care about the infinity term (it's rejected as "nonphysical"!), and so we get the right answer despite dubious math. But physicists are fine with that, because it seems to be working and they don't know a better way to do it yet.

Allegory On AI Risk, Game Theory, and Mithril

24 James_Miller 13 February 2017 08:41PM

“Thorin, I can’t accept your generous job offer because, honestly, I think that your company might destroy Middle Earth.”  

 

“Bifur, I can tell that you’re one of those “the Balrog is real, evil, and near” folks who thinks that in the next few decades Mithril miners will dig deep enough to wake the Balrog causing him to rise and destroy Middle Earth.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re right.  You must know that lots of people disagree with you.  Some don’t believe in the Balrog, others think that anything that powerful will inevitably be good, and more think we are hundreds or even thousands of years away from being able to disturb any possible Balrog.  These other dwarves are not going to stop mining, especially given the value of Mithril.  If you’re right about the Balrog we are doomed regardless of what you do, so why not have a high paying career as a Mithril miner and enjoy yourself while you can?”  

 

“But Thorin, if everyone thought that way we would be doomed!”

 

“Exactly, so make the most of what little remains of your life.”

 

“Thorin, what if I could somehow convince everyone that I’m right about the Balrog?”

 

“You can’t because, as the wise Sinclair said, ‘It is difficult to get a dwarf to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!’  But even if you could, it still wouldn’t matter.  Each individual miner would correctly realize that just him alone mining Mithril is extraordinarily unlikely to be the cause of the Balrog awakening, and so he would find it in his self-interest to mine.  And, knowing that others are going to continue to extract Mithril means that it really doesn’t matter if you mine because if we are close to disturbing the Balrog he will be awoken.” 

 

“But dwarves can’t be that selfish, can they?”  

 

“Actually, altruism could doom us as well.  Given Mithril’s enormous military value many cities rightly fear that without new supplies they will be at the mercy of cities that get more of this metal, especially as it’s known that the deeper Mithril is found, the greater its powers.  Leaders who care about their citizen’s safety and freedom will keep mining Mithril.  If we are soon all going to die, altruistic leaders will want to make sure their people die while still free citizens of Middle Earth.”

 

“But couldn’t we all coordinate to stop mining?  This would be in our collective interest.”

 

“No, dwarves would cheat rightly realizing that if just they mine a little bit more Mithril it’s highly unlikely to do anything to the Balrog, and the more you expect others to cheat, the less your cheating matters as to whether the Balrog gets us if your assumptions about the Balrog are correct.”  

 

“OK, but won’t the rich dwarves step in and eventually stop the mining?  They surely don’t want to get eaten by the Balrog.”   

 

“Actually, they have just started an open Mithril mining initiative which will find and then freely disseminate new and improved Mithril mining technology.  These dwarves earned their wealth through Mithril, they love Mithril, and while some of them can theoretically understand how Mithril mining might be bad, they can’t emotionally accept that their life’s work, the acts that have given them enormous success and status, might significantly hasten our annihilation.”

 

“Won’t the dwarven kings save us?  After all, their primary job is to protect their realms from monsters.

 

“Ha!  They are more likely to subsidize Mithril mining than to stop it.  Their military machines need Mithril, and any king who prevented his people from getting new Mithril just to stop some hypothetical Balrog from rising would be laughed out of office.  The common dwarf simply doesn’t have the expertise to evaluate the legitimacy of the Balrog claims and so rightly, from their viewpoint at least, would use the absurdity heuristic to dismiss any Balrog worries.  Plus, remember that the kings compete with each other for the loyalty of dwarves and even if a few kings came to believe in the dangers posed by the Balrog they would realize that if they tried to imposed costs on their people, they would be outcompeted by fellow kings that didn’t try to restrict Mithril mining.  Bifur, the best you can hope for with the kings is that they don’t do too much to accelerating Mithril mining.”

 

“Well, at least if I don’t do any mining it will take a bit longer for miners to awake the Balrog.”

 

“No Bifur, you obviously have never considered the economics of mining.  You see, if you don’t take this job someone else will.  Companies such as ours hire the optimal number of Mithril miners to maximize our profits and this number won’t change if you turn down our offer.”

 

“But it takes a long time to train a miner.  If I refuse to work for you, you might have to wait a bit before hiring someone else.”

 

“Bifur, what job will you likely take if you don’t mine Mithril?”

 

“Gold mining.”

 

“Mining gold and Mithril require similar skills.  If you get a job working for a gold mining company, this firm would hire one less dwarf than it otherwise would and this dwarf’s time will be freed up to mine Mithril.  If you consider the marginal impact of your actions, you will see that working for us really doesn’t hasten the end of the world even under your Balrog assumptions.”  

 

“OK, but I still don’t want to play any part in the destruction of the world so I refuse work for you even if this won’t do anything to delay when the Balrog destroys us.”

 

“Bifur, focus on the marginal consequences of your actions and don’t let your moral purity concerns cause you to make the situation worse.  We’ve established that your turning down the job will do nothing to delay the Balrog.  It will, however, cause you to earn a lower income.  You could have donated that income to the needy, or even used it to hire a wizard to work on an admittedly long-shot, Balrog control spell.  Mining Mithril is both in your self-interest and is what’s best for Middle Earth.” 


A review of cryonics/brain preservation in 2016

21 Andy_McKenzie 31 December 2016 06:19PM

Relevance to Less Wrong: Whether you think it is for better or worse, users on LW are about 50,000x more likely to be signed up for cryonics than the average person

Disclaimer: I volunteer at the Brain Preservation Foundation, but I speak for myself in this post and I'm only writing about publicly available information.

In 2016, cryonics remains a fringe operation. When it is discussed in the news or on social media, many express surprise that cryonics is a "real thing" outside of science fiction. Many others who do know about cryonics tend to label it a pseudoscience. Brain preservation (BP) through non-conventional cryonics methods such as those using aldehyde fixation is even more fringe, with most people not aware of it, and others dismissing it because it uses "toxic" chemicals. 

Here's a rundown of some events important to cryonics/BP in 2016. 

Research progress

- The Brain Preservation Foundation prize was won in February by Robert McIntyre and Greg Fahy. Their winning technique uses glutaraldehyde fixation followed by glycerol cryoprotection (in addition to a step to improve blood-brain barrier permeability and several other components) and allows for the preservation of neural structure as verified by electron microscopy across the cortex. McIntyre has since started a company called Nectome in part to improve and refine this procedure.
- Aschwin de Wolf of Advanced Neural Biosciences announced in November at the CryoSuisse conference that Advanced Neural Biosciences has developed a method that reduces dehydration in rat brain vitrification by using "brain optimized cryoprotectants." There is no peer-reviewed data or more detailed procedure available as of yet, and viability of the tissue may be a concern. 

Legal progress

- In Canada, Keegan Macintosh and Carrie Wong are challenging the anti-cryonics laws in British Columbia
- A right-to-die law passed in Colorado. Although not directly relevant to cryonics, it increases the number of locations where it might be possible to start brain preservation procedures in a more controlled manner by taking advantage of physician-assisted suicide in a terminally ill patient. This has been described as "cryothanasia" and is controversial both within the cryonics community and outside of it. 
- As far as I know, cryonics and brain preservation remain illegal in France, China, and many other areas. 

Current Cryonics Organizations 

- Alcor
- Cryonics Institute 
- KrioRus. They are planning on moving to Tver, which is a few hours west of Moscow (see Bloomberg profile). 
- Oregon Cryonics. This year, they put a hold on allowing users to sign up through their member portal, with the organization pivoting towards research until they can focus on "some critical cryonics research" to validate their methods. OC was profiled by Vice in March
- TransTime. This small cryonics company in San Leandro is still active, and was profiled in a video in Fusion earlier this year
- Osiris. This is a new, for-profit company in Florida that has so far been controversial within the cryonics community, and was recently profiled in the Miami New Times.  
- There are other organizations that only do standby and/or cryoprotectant perfusion. 

Essays about cryonics

- Tim Urban's post at Wait But Why about cryonics has wonderful diagrams explaining concepts such as why many people consider death to be a process, not an event. Like most everything Urban writes, it went viral and is still being posted on social media.  
- Corey Pein's article at The Baffler focuses primarily on critiques of Alcor and in particular Max More. 
- In April, an essay by Rachel Nuwer at BBC considered what would happen if cryonics worked. 
- Neuroscientist Clive Coen critiqued cryonics in an essay at New Humanist in November. 
- In January, PZ Myers critiqued aldehyde stabilized cryopreservation as "wishful thinking" because it is not yet possible to upload the memories/behaviors of even a simple organism based on information extracted post-fixation. 

Cryonics in the news

- In April, a profile of Elaine Walker, who is signed up with Alcor, on CNBC led to a moderately large amount of press for cryonics. 
- In August, a profile of Steve Aoki in Rolling Stone, who is also signed up with Alcor, mentions his plan to do cryonics. 
- In November, by far the biggest news story of the year about cryonics (dominating almost all of the Google trends variance) was about a 14-year-old girl who wanted cryonics and who had to go to court to prevent her father from stopping it. The court allowed her to be cryopreserved following her legal death. This case and related issues were covered extensively in the Guardian and other British news outlets, sparking debate about cryonics generally in the UK. 

The Semiotic Fallacy

19 Stabilizer 21 February 2017 04:50AM

Acknowledgement: This idea is essentially the same as something mentioned in a podcast where Julia Galef interviews Jason Brennan.

You are in a prison. You don't really know how to fight and you don't have very many allies yet. A prison bully comes up to you and threatens you. You have two options: (1) Stand up to the bully and fight. If you do this, you will get hurt, but you will save face. (2) You can try and run away. You might get hurt less badly, but you will lose face.

What should you do?

From reading accounts of former prisoners and also from watching realistic movies and TV shows, it seems like (1) is the better option. The reason is that the semiotics—or the symbolic meaning—of running away has bad consequences down the road. If you run away, you will be seen as weak, and therefore you will be picked on more often and causing more damage down the road.

This is a case where focusing the semiotics on the action is the right decision, because it is underwritten by future consequences.

But consider now a different situation. Suppose a country, call it Macholand, controls some tiny island far away from its mainland. Macholand has a hard time governing the island and the people on the island don't quite like being ruled by Macholand. Suppose, one fine day, the people of the island declare independence from Macholand. Macholand has two options: (1) Send the military over and put down the rebellion; or (2) Allow the island to take its own course.

From a semiotic standpoint, (1) is probably better. It signals that Macholand is strong and powerful country. But from a consequential standpoint, it is at least plausible (2) is a better option. Macholand saves money and manpower by not having to govern that tiny island; the people on the island are happier by being self-governing; and maybe the international community doesn't really care what Macholand does here.

This is a case where focusing on the semiotics can lead to suboptimal outcomes. 

Call this kind of reasoning the semiotic fallacy: Thinking about the semiotics of possible actions without estimating the consequences of the semiotics.

I think the semiotic fallacy is widespread in human reasoning. Here are a few examples:

  1. People argue that democracy is good because it symbolizes egalitarianism. (This is example used in the podcast interview)
  2. People argue that we should build large particle accelerators because it symbolizes human achievement.
  3. People argue that we shouldn't build a wall on the southern border because it symbolizes division.
  4. People argue that we should build a wall on the southern border because it symbolizes national integrity. 

Two comments are in order:

  1. The semiotic fallacy is a special case of errors in reasoning and judgement caused from signaling behaviors (à la Robin Hanson). The distinctive feature of the semiotic fallacy is that the semiotics are explicitly stated during reasoning. Signaling type errors are often subconscious: e.g., if we spend a lot of money on our parents' medical care, we might be doing it for symbolic purposes (i.e., signaling) but we wouldn't say explicitly that that's why we are doing it. In the semiotic fallacy on the other hand, we do explicitly acknowledge the reason we do something is because of its symbolism.
  2. Just like all fallacies, the existence of the fallacy doesn't necessarily mean the final conclusion is wrong. It could be that the semiotics are underwritten by the consequences. Or the conclusion could be true because of completely orthogonal reasons. The fallacy occurs when we ignore, in our reasoning during choice, the need for the consequential undergirding of symbolic acts.

Why is the surprisingly popular answer correct?

19 Stuart_Armstrong 03 February 2017 04:24PM

In Nature, there's been a recent publication arguing that the best way of gauging the truth of a question is to get people to report their views on the truth of the matter, and their estimate of the proportion of people who would agree with them.

Then, it's claimed, the surprisingly popular answer is likely to be the correct one.

In this post, I'll attempt to sketch a justification as to why this is the case, as far as I understand it.

First, an example of the system working well:

 

Capital City

Canberra is the capital of Australia, but many people think the actual capital is Sydney. Suppose only a minority knows that fact, and people are polled on the question:

Is Canberra the capital of Australia?

Then those who think that Sydney is the capital will think the question is trivially false, and will generally not see any reason why anyone would believe it true. They will answer "no" and put high proportion of people answering "no".

The minority who know the true capital of Australia will answer "yes". But most of them will likely know a lot of people who are mistaken, so they won't put a high proportion on people answering "yes". Even if they do, there are few of them, so the population estimate for the population estimate of "yes", will still be low.

Thus "yes", the correct answer, will be surprisingly popular.

A quick sanity check: if we asked instead "Is Alice Springs the capital of Australia?", then those who believe Sydney is the capital will still answer "no" and claim that most people would do the same. Those who believe the capital is in Canberra will answer similarly. And there will be no large cache of people believing in Alice Springs being the capital, so "yes" will not be surprisingly popular.

What is important here is that adding true information to the population, will tend to move the proportion of people believing in the truth, more than that moves people's estimate of that proportion.

 

No differential information:

Let's see how that setup could fail. First, it could fail in a trivial fashion: the Australian Parliament and the Queen secretly conspire to move the capital to Melbourne. As long as they aren't included in the sample, nobody knows about the change. In fact, nobody can distinguish a world in which that was vetoed from one where where it passed. So the proportion of people who know the truth - that being those few deluded souls who already though the capital was in Melbourne, for some reason - is no higher in the world where it's true than the one where it's false.

So the population opinion has to be truth-tracking, not in the sense that the majority opinion is correct, but in the sense that more people believe X is true, relatively, in a world where X is true versus a world where X is false.


Systematic bias in population proportion:

A second failure mode could happen when people are systematically biased in their estimate of the general opinion. Suppose, for instance, that the following headline went viral:

"Miss Australia mocked for claims she got a doctorate in the nation's capital, Canberra."

And suppose that those who believed the capital was in Sydney thought "stupid beauty contest winner, she thought the capital was in Canberra!". And suppose those know knew the true capital thought "stupid beauty contest winner, she claimed to have a doctorate!". So the actual proportion in the belief doesn't change much at all.

But then suppose everyone reasons "now, I'm smart, so I won't update on this headline, but some other people, who are idiots, will start to think the capital is in Canberra." Then they will update their estimate of the population proportion. And Canberra may no longer be surprisingly popular, just expectedly popular.

 

Purely subjective opinions

How would this method work on a purely subjective opinion, such as:

Is Picasso superior to Van Gogh?

Well, there are two ways of looking at this. The first is to claim this is a purely subjective opinion, and as such people's beliefs are not truth tracking, and so the answers don't give any information. Indeed, if everyone accepts that the question is purely subjective, then there is no such thing as private (or public) information that is relevant to this question at all. Even if there were a prior on this question, no-one can update on any information.

But now suppose that there is a judgement that is widely shared, that, I don't know, blue paintings are objectively superior to paintings that use less blue. Then suddenly answers to that question become informative again! Except now, the question that is really being answered is:

Does Picasso use more blue than Van Gogh?

Or, more generally:

According to widely shared aesthetic criteria, is Picasso superior to Van Gogh?

The same applies to moral questions like "is killing wrong?". In practice, that is likely to reduce to:

According to widely shared moral criteria, is killing wrong?

 

Sufficiently sincere confirmation bias is indistinguishable from science

18 Benquo 15 March 2017 01:19PM

Some theater people at NYU people wanted to demonstrate how gender stereotypes affected the 2016 US presidential election. So they decided to put on a theatrical performance of the presidential debates – but with the genders of the principals swapped. They assumed that this would show how much of a disadvantage Hillary Clinton was working under because of her gender. They were shocked to discover the opposite – audiences full of Clinton supporters, watching the gender-swapped debates, came away thinking that Trump was a better communicator than they'd thought.

The principals don't seem to have come into this with a fair-minded attitude. Instead, it seems to have been a case of "I'll show them!":

Salvatore says he and Guadalupe began the project assuming that the gender inversion would confirm what they’d each suspected watching the real-life debates: that Trump’s aggression—his tendency to interrupt and attack—would never be tolerated in a woman, and that Clinton’s competence and preparedness would seem even more convincing coming from a man.

Let's be clear about this. This was not epistemic even-handedness. This was a sincere attempt at confirmation bias. They believed one thing, and looked only for confirming evidence to prove their point. It was only when they started actually putting together the experiment that they realized they might learn the opposite lesson:

But the lessons about gender that emerged in rehearsal turned out to be much less tidy. What was Jonathan Gordon smiling about all the time? And didn’t he seem a little stiff, tethered to rehearsed statements at the podium, while Brenda King, plainspoken and confident, freely roamed the stage? Which one would audiences find more likeable?

What made this work? I think what happened is that they took their own beliefs literally. They actually believed that people hated Hillary because she was a woman, and so their idea of something that they were confident would show this clearly was a fair test. Because of this, when things came out the opposite of the way they'd predicted, they noticed and were surprised, because they actually expected the demonstration to work.

But they went further. Even though they knew in advance of the public performances that the experiment got the wrong answer, they neither falsified nor file-drawered the evidence. They tried to show, they got a different answer, they showed it anyway.

This is much, much better science than contemporary medical or psychology research were before the replication crisis.

Sometimes, when I think about how epistemically corrupt our culture is, I'm tempted to adopt a permanent defensive crouch and disbelieve anything I can't fact-check, to explicitly adjust for all the relevant biases, and this prospect sounds exhausting. It's not actually necessary. You don't have to worry too much about your biases. Just take your own beliefs literally, as though they mean what they say they mean, and try to believe all their consequences as well. And, when you hit a contradiction – well, now you have an opportunity to learn where you're wrong.

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

2017: An Actual Plan to Actually Improve

17 helldalgo 27 January 2017 06:42PM

[Epistemic status: mostly confident, but being this intentional is experimental]

This year, I'm focusing on two traits: resilience and conscientiousness.  I think these (or the fact that I lack them) are my biggest barriers to success.  Also: identifying them as goals for 2017 doesn't mean I'll stop developing them in 2018.  A year is just a nice, established amount of time in which progress can actually be made.  This plan is a more intentional version of techniques I've used to improve myself over the last few years.  I have outside verification that I'm more responsible, high-functioning, and resilient than I was several years ago.  I have managed to reduce my SSRI dose, and I have finished more important tasks this year than last year.  

Inspiring blog posts and articles can only do so much for personal development.  The most valuable writing in that genre tends to outline actual steps that (the author believes) generate positive results.  Unfortunately, finding those steps is a fairly personal process.  The song that gives me twenty minutes of motivation and the drug that helps me overcome anxiety might do the opposite for you.  Even though I'm including detailed steps in this plan, you should keep that in mind.  I hope that this post can give you a template for troubleshooting and discovering your own bottlenecks.

I.  

First, I want to talk about my criteria for success.  Without illustrating the end result, or figuring out how to measure it, I could finish out the year with a false belief that I'd made progress.  If you plan something without success criteria, you run the same risk. I also believe that most of the criteria should be observable by a third party, i.e. hard to fake. 

  1. I respond to disruptions in my plans with distress and anger.  While I've gotten better at calming down, the distress still happens. I would like to have emotional control such that I observe first, and then feel my feelings.  Disruptions should incite curiosity, and a calm evaluation of whether to correct course.  The observable bit is whether or not my husband and friends report that I seem less upset when they disrupt me.  This process is already taking place; I've been practicing this skill for a long time and I expect to continue seeing progress.  (resilience)
  2. If an important task takes very little time, doesn't require a lot of effort, and doesn't disrupt a more important process, I will do it immediately. The observable part is simple, here: are the dishes getting done? Did the trash go out on Wednesday?  (conscientiousness)
  3. I will do (2) without "taking damage."  I will use visualization of the end result to make my initial discomfort less significant.  (resilience) 
  4. I will use various things like audiobooks, music, and playfulness to make what can be made pleasant, pleasant.  (resilience and conscientiousness)
  5. My instinct when encountering hard problems will be to dissolve them into smaller pieces and identify the success criteria, immediately, before I start trying to generate solutions. I can verify that I'm doing this by doing hard problems in front of people, and occasionally asking them to describe my process as it appears.  
  6. I will focus on the satisfaction of doing hard things, and practice sitting in discomfort regularly (cold tolerance, calming myself around angry people, the pursuit of fitness, meditation).  It's hard to identify an external sign that this is accomplished.  I expect aversion-to-starting to become less common, and my spouse can probably identify that.  (conscientiousness)
  7. I will keep a daily journal of what I've accomplished, and carry a notebook to make reflective writing easy and convenient.  This will help keep me honest about my past self.  (conscientiousness) 
  8. By the end of the year, I will find myself and my close friends/family satisfied with my growth.  I will have a record of finishing several important tasks, will be more physically fit than I am now, and will look forward to learning difficult things.
One benefit of the some of these is that practice and success are the same.  I can experience the satisfaction of any piece of my practice done well; it will count as being partly successful.  

II.

I've taken the last few years to identify these known bottlenecks and reinforcing actions.  Doing one tends to make another easier, and neglecting them keeps harder things unattainable.  These are the most important habits to establish early.  

  1. Meditation for 10 minutes a day directly improves my resilience and lowers my anxiety.
  2. Medication shouldn't be skipped (an SSRI, DHEA, and methylphenidate). If I decide to go off of it, I should properly taper rather than quitting cold turkey.  DHEA counteracts the negatives of my hormonal birth control and (seems to!) make me more positively aggressive and confident.
  3. Fitness (in the form of dance, martial arts, and lifting) keeps my back from hurting, gives me satisfaction, and has a number of associated cognitive benefits.  Dancing and martial arts also function as socialization, in a way that leads to group intimacy faster than most of my other hobbies.  Being fit and attractive helps me maintain a high libido.  
  4. I need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep.  I've tried getting around it.  I can't.  Getting enough sleep is a well-documented process, so I'm not going to outline my process here.
  5. Water.  Obviously.
  6. Since overcoming most of my social anxiety, I've discovered that frequent, high-value socialization is critical to avoid depression.  I try to regularly engage in activities that bootstrap intimacy, like the dressing room before performances, solving a hard problem with someone, and going to conventions.  I need several days a week to include long conversations with people I like.  
Unknown bottlenecks can be identified by identifying a negative result, and tracing the chain of events backwards until you find a common denominator.  Sometimes, these can also be identified by people who interact with you a lot.

III.  

My personal "toolkit" is a list of things that give me temporary motivation or rapidly deescalate negative emotions.  

  1. Kratom (<7g) does wonders for my anxieties about starting a task.  I try not to take it too often, since I don't want to develop tolerance, but I like to keep some on hand for this.
  2. Nicotine+caffeine/ltheanine capsules gives me an hour of motivation without jitters.  This also has a rapid tolerance so I don't do it often.
  3. A 30-second mindfulness meditation can usually calm my first emotional response to a distressing event.
  4. Various posts on mindingourway.com can help reconnect me to my values when I'm feeling particularly demotivated.  
  5. Reorganizing furniture makes me feel less "stuck" when I get restless.  Ditto for doing a difficult thing in a different place.
  6. Google Calendar, a number of notebooks, and a whiteboard keep me from forgetting important tasks.
  7. Josh Waitzkin's book, The Art of Learning, remotivates me to achieve mastery in various hobbies.
  8. External prompting from other people can make me start a task I've been avoiding. Sometimes I have people aggressively yell at me.
  9. The LW study hall (Complice.co) helps keep me focused. I also do "pomos" over video with other people who don't like Complice.
IV.

This outline is the culmination of a few years of troubleshooting, getting feedback, and looking for invented narratives or dishonesty in my approach.  Personal development doesn't happen quickly for me, and I expect it doesn't for most people.  You should expect significant improvements to be a matter of years, not months, unless you're improving the basics like sleep or fitness.  For those, you see massive initial gains that eventually level off.  

If you have any criticisms or see any red flags in my approach, let me know in the comments.

 

Planning the Enemy's Retreat

17 Gram_Stone 11 January 2017 05:44AM

Related: Leave a Line of Retreat

When I was smaller, I was sitting at home watching The Mummy, with my mother, ironically enough. There's a character by the name of Bernard Burns, and you only need to know two things about him. The first thing you need to know is that the titular antagonist steals his eyes and tongue because, hey, eyes and tongues spoil after a while you know, and it's been three thousand years.

The second thing is that Bernard Burns was the spitting image of my father. I was terrified! I imagined my father, lost and alone, certain that he would die, unable to see, unable even to properly scream!

After this frightening ordeal, I had the conversation in which it is revealed that fiction is not reality, that actions in movies don't really have consequences, that apparent consequences are merely imagined and portrayed.

Of course I knew this on some level. I think the difference between the way children and adults experience fiction is a matter of degree and not kind. And when you're an adult, suppressing those automatic responses to fiction has itself become so automatic, that you experience fiction as a thing compartmentalized. You always know that the description of consequences in the fiction will not by magic have fire breathed into them, that Imhotep cannot gently step out of the frame and really remove your real father's real eyes.

So, even though we often use fiction to engage, to make things feel more real, in another way, once we grow, I think fiction gives us the chance to entertain formidable ideas at a comfortable distance.

A great user once said, "Vague anxieties are powerful anxieties." Related to this is the simple rationality technique of Leaving a Line of Retreat: before evaluating the plausibility of a highly cherished or deeply frightening belief, one visualizes the consequences of the highly cherished belief being false, or of the deeply frightening belief being true. We hope that it will thereby become just a little easier to evaluate the plausibility of that belief, for if we are wrong, at least we know what we're doing about it. Sometimes, if not often, what you'd really do about it isn't as bad as your intuitions would have you think.

If I had to put my finger on the source of that technique's power, I would name its ability to reduce the perceived hedonic costs of truthseeking. It's hard to estimate the plausibility of a charged idea because you expect your undesired outcome to feel very bad, and we naturally avoid this. The trick is in realizing that, in any given situation, you have almost certainly overestimated how bad it would really feel.

But Sun Tzu didn't just plan his own retreats; he also planned his enemies' retreats. What if your interlocutor has not practiced the rationality technique of Leaving a Line of Retreat? Well, Sun Tzu might say, "Leave one for them."

As I noted in the beginning, adults automatically compartmentalize fiction away from reality. It is simply easier for me to watch The Mummy than it was when I was eight. The formidable idea of my father having his eyes and tongue removed is easier to hold at a distance.

Thus, I hypothesize, truth in fiction is hedonically cheap to seek.

When you recite the Litany of Gendlin, you do so because it makes seemingly bad things seem less bad. I propose that the idea generalizes: when you're experiencing fiction, everything seems less bad than its conceivably real counterpart, it's stuck inside the book, and any ideas within will then seem less formidable. The idea is that you can use fiction as an implicit line of retreat, that you can use it to make anything seem less bad by making it make-believe, and thus, safe. The key, though, is that not everything inside of fiction is stuck inside of fiction forever. Sometimes conclusions that are valid in fiction also turn out to be valid in reality. 

This is hard to use on yourself, because you can't make a real scary idea into fiction, or shoehorn your scary idea into existing fiction, and then make it feel far away. You'll know where the fiction came from. But I think it works well on others.

I don't think I can really get the point across in the way that I'd like without an example. This proposed technique was an accidental discovery, like popsicles or the Slinky:

A history student friend of mine was playing Fallout: New Vegas, and he wanted to talk to me about which ending he should choose. The conversation seemed mostly optimized for entertaining one another, and, hoping not to disappoint, I tried to intertwine my fictional ramblings with bona fide insights. The student was considering giving power to a democratic government, but he didn't feel very good about it, mostly because this fictional democracy was meant to represent anything that anyone has ever said is wrong with at least one democracy, plausible or not.

"The question you have to ask yourself," I proposed to the student, "is 'Do I value democracy because it is a good system, or do I value democracy per se?' A lot of people will admit that they value democracy per se. But that seems wrong to me. That means that if someone showed you a better system that you could verify was better, you would say 'This is good governance, but the purpose of government is not good governance, the purpose of government is democracy.' I do, however, understand democracy as a 'current best bet' or local maximum."

I have in fact gotten wide-eyed stares for saying things like that, even granting the closing ethical injunction on democracy as local maximum. I find that unusual, because it seems like one of the first steps you would take towards thinking about politics clearly, to not equivocate democracy with good governance. If you were further in the past and the fashionable political system were not democracy but monarchy, and you, like many others, consider democracy preferable to monarchy, then upon a future human revealing to you the notion of a modern democracy, you would find yourself saying, regrettably, "This is good governance, but the purpose of government is not good governance, the purpose of government is monarchy."

But because we were arguing for fictional governments, our autocracies, or monarchies, or whatever non-democratic governments heretofore unseen, could not by magic have fire breathed into them. For me to entertain the idea of a non-democratic government in reality would have solicited incredulous stares. For me to entertain the idea in fiction is good conversation.

The student is one of two people with whom I've had this precise conversation, and I do mean in the particular sense of "Which Fallout ending do I pick?" I snuck this opinion into both, and both came back weeks later to tell me that they spent a lot of time thinking about that particular part of the conversation, and that the opinion I shared seemed deep.

Also, one of them told me that they had recently received some incredulous stares.

So I think this works, at least sometimes. It looks like you can sneak scary ideas into fiction, and make them seem just non-scary enough for someone to arrive at an accurate belief about that scary idea.

I do wonder though, if you could generalize this even more. How else could you reduce the perceived hedonic costs of truthseeking?

0.999...=1: Another Rationality Litmus Test

16 shev 21 January 2017 02:16AM

People seemed to like my post from yesterday about infinite summations and how to rationally react to a mathematical argument you're not equipped to validate, so here's another in the same vein that highlights a different way your reasoning can go.

(It's probably not quite as juicy of an example as yesterday's, but it is one that I'm equipped to write about today so I figure it's worth it.)

This example is somewhat more widely known and a bit more elementary. I won't be surprised if most people already know the 'solution'. But the point of writing about it is not to explain the math - it's to talk about "how you should feel" about the problem, and how to rationally approach rectifying it with your existing mental model. If you already know the solution, try to pretend or think back to when you didn't. I think it was initially surprising to most people, whenever you learned it.

The claim: that 1 = 0.999... repeating (infinite 9s). (I haven't found an easy way to put a bar over the last 9, so I'm using ellipses throughout.)

The questionable proof:

x = 0.9999...
10x = 9.9999... (everyone knows multiplying by ten moves the decimal over one place)
10x-x = 9.9999... - 0.9999....
9x = 9
x = 1

People's response when they first see this is usually: wait, what? an infinite series of 9s equals 1? no way, they're obviously different.

The litmus test is this: what do you think a rational person should do when confronted with this argument? How do you approach it? Should you accept the seemingly plausible argument, or reject it (as with yesterday's example) as "no way, it's more likely that we're somehow talking about different objects and it's hidden inside the notation"?

Or are there other ways you can proceed to get more information on your own?


One of the things I want to highlight here is related to the nature of mathematics.

I think people have a tendency to think that, if they are not well-trained students of mathematics (at least at the collegiate level), then rigor or precision involving numbers is out of their reach. I think this is definitely not the case: you should not be afraid to attempt to be precise with numbers even if you only know high school algebra, and you should especially not be afraid to demand precision, even if you don't know the correct way to implement it.

Particularly, I'd like to emphasize that mathematics as a mental discipline (as opposed to an academic field), basically consists of "the art of making correct statements about patterns in the world" (where numbers are one of the patterns that appears everywhere you have things you can count, but there are others). This sounds suspiciously similar to rationality - which, as a practice, might be "about winning", but as a mental art is "about being right, and not being wrong, to the best of your ability". More or less. So mathematical thinking and rational thinking are very similar, except that we categorize rationality as being primarily about decisions and real-world things, and mathematics as being primarily about abstract structures and numbers.

In many cases in math, you start with a structure that you don't understand, or even know how to understand, precisely, and start trying to 'tease' precise results out of it. As a layperson you might have the same approach to arguments and statements about elementary numbers and algebraic manipulations, like in the proof above, and you're just as in the right to attempt to find precision in them as a professional mathematician is when they perform the same process on their highly esoteric specialty. You also have the bonus that you can go look for the right answer to see how you did, afterwards.

All this to say, I think any rational person should be willing to 'go under the hood' one or two levels when they see a proof like this. It doesn't have to be rigorous. You just need to do some poking around if you see something surprising to your intuition. Insights are readily available if you look, and you'll be a stronger rational thinker if you do.


There are a few angles that I think a rational but untrained-in-math person can think to take straightaway.

You're shown that 0.9999.. = 1. If this is a surprise, that means your model of what these terms mean doesn't jive with how they behave in relation to each other, or that the proof was fallacious. You can immediately conclude that it's either:

a) true without qualification, in which case your mental model of what the symbols "0.999...", "=", or "1" mean is suspect
b) true in a sense, but it's hidden behind a deceptive argument (like in yesterday's post), and even if the sense is more technical and possibly beyond your intuition, it should be possible to verify if it exists -- either through careful inspection or turning to a more expert source or just verifying that options (a) and (c) don't work
c) false, in which case there should be a logical inconsistency in the proof, though it's not necessarily true that you're equipped to find it

Moreover, (a) is probably the default, by Occam's Razor. It's more likely that a seemingly correct argument is correct than that there is a more complicated explanation, such as (b), "there are mysterious forces at work here", or (c), "this correct-seeming argument is actually wrong", without other reasons to disbelieve it. The only evidence against it is basically that it's surprising. But how do you test (a)?

Note there are plenty of other 'math paradoxes' that fall under (c) instead: for example, those ones that secretly divide by 0 and derive nonsense afterwards. (a=b ; a^2=ab ; a^2-b^2=ab-b^2 ; (a+b)(a-b)=b(a-b) ; a+b=b ; 2a = a ; 2=1). But the difference is that their conclusions are obviously false, whereas this one is only surprising and counterintuitive. 1=2 involves two concepts we know very well. 0.999...=1 involves one we know well, but one that likely has a feeling of sketchiness about it; we're not used to having to think carefully about what a construction like 0.999... means, and we should immediately realize that when doubting the conclusion.

Here are a few angles you can take to testing (a):

1. The "make it more precise" approach: Drill down into what you mean by each symbol. In particular, it seems very likely that the mystery is hiding inside what "0.999..." means, because that's the one that it's seems complicated and liable to be misunderstood.

What does 0.999... infinitely repeating actually mean? It seems like it's "the limit of the series of finite numbers of 9s", if you know what a limit is. It seems like it might be "the number larger than every number of the form 0.abcd..., consisting of infinitely many digits (optionally, all 0 after a point)". That's awfully similar to 1, also, though.

A very good question is "what kinds of objects are these, anyway?" The rules of arithmetic generally assume we're working with real numbers, and the proof seems to hold for those in our customary ruleset. So what's the 'true' definition of a real number?

Well, we can look it up, and find that it's fairly complicated and involves identifying reals with sets of rationals in one or another specific way. If you can parse the definitions, you'll find that one definition is "a real number is a Dedekind cut of the rational numbers", that is, "a partition of the rational numbers into two sets A and B such that A is nonempty and closed downwards, B is nonempty and closed upwards, and A contains no greatest element", and from that it Can Be Seen (tm) that the two symbols "1" and "0.999..." both refer to the same partition of Q, and therefore are equivalent as real numbers.

2. The "functional" approach: if 0.999...=1, then it should behave the same as 1 in all circumstances. Is that something we can verify? Does it survive obvious tests, like other arguments of the same form?

Does 0.999.. always act the same was that 1 does? It appears to act the same in the algebraic manipulations that we saw, of course. What are some other things to try?
We might think to try: 1-0.9999... = 1-1 = 0, but also seems to equal 0.000....0001, if that's valid: an 'infinite decimal that ends in a 1'. So those must be equivalent also, if that's a valid concept. We can't find anything to multiply 0.000...0001 by to 'move the decimal' all the way into the finite decimal positions, seemingly, because we would have to multiply by infinity and that wouldn't prove anything because we already know such operations are suspect.
I, at least, cannot see any reason when doing math that the two shouldn't be the same. It's not proof, but it's evidence that the conclusion is probably OK.

3. The "argument from contradiction" approach: what would be true if the claim were false?

If 0.999... isn't equal to 1, what does that entail? Well, let a=0.999... and b=1. We can, according to our familiar rules of algebra, construct the number halfway between them: (a+b)/2, alternatively written as a+(b-a)/2. But our intuition for decimals doesn't seem to let there be a number between the two. What would it be -- 0.999...9995? "capping" the decimal with a 5? (yes, we capped a decimal with a 1 earlier, but we didn't know if that was valid either). What does that mean imply 0.999 - 0.999...9995 should be? 0.000...0004? Does that equal 4*0.000...0001? None of this math seems to be working either.
As long as we're not being rigorous, this isn't "proof", but it is a compelling reason to think the conclusion might be right after all. If it's not, we get into things that seem considerably more insane.

4. The "reexamine your surprise" approach: how bad is it if this is true? Does that cause me to doubt other beliefs? Or is it actually just as easy to believe it's true as not? Perhaps I am just biased against the conclusion for aesthetic reasons?

How bad is it if 0.999...=1? Well, it's not like yesterday's example with 1+2+3+4+5... = -1/12. It doesn't utterly defy our intuition for what arithmetic is. It says that one object we never use is equivalent to another object we're familiar with. I think that, since we probably have no reason to strongly believe anything about what an infinite sum of 9/10 + 9/100 + 9/1000 + ... should equal, it's perfectly palatable that it might equal 1, despite our initial reservations.

(I'm sure there are other approaches too, but this got long with just four so I stopped looking. In real life, if you're not interested in the details there's always the very legitimate fifth approach of "see what the experts say and don't worry about it", also. I can't fault you for just not caring.)


By the way, the conclusion that 0.999...=1 is completely, unequivocally true in the real numbers, basically for the Dedekind cut reason given above, which is the commonly accepted structure we are using when we write out mathematics if none is indicated. It is possible to find structures where it's not true, but you probably wouldn't write 0.999... in those structures anyway. It's not like 1+2+3+4+5...=-1/12, for which claiming truth is wildly inaccurate and outright deceptive.

But note that none of these approaches are out of reach to a careful thinker, even if they're not a mathematician. Or even mathematically-inclined.

So it's not required that you have the finesse to work out detailed mathematical arguments -- certainly the definitions of real numbers are too precise and technical for the average layperson to deal with. The question here is whether you take math statements at face value, or disbelieve them automatically (you would have done fine yesterday!), or pick the more rational choice -- breaking them down and looking for low-hanging ways to convince yourself one way or the other.

When you read a surprising argument like the 0.999...=1 one, does it occur to you to break down ways of inspecting it further? To look for contradictions, functional equivalences, second-guess your surprise as being a run-of-the-mill cognitive bias, or seek out precision to realign your intuition with the apparent surprise in 'reality'?

I think it should. Though I am pretty biased because I enjoy math and study it for fun. But -- if you subconsciously treat math as something that other people do and you just believe what they say at the end of the day, why? Does this cause you to neglect to rationally analyze mathematical conclusions, at whatever level you might be comfortable with? If so, I'll bet this isn't optimal and it's worth isolating in your mind and looking more closely at. Precise mathematical argument is essentially just rationalism applied to numbers, after all. Well - plus a lot of jargon.

(Do you think I represented the math or the rational arguments correctly? is my philosophy legitimate? Feedback much appreciated!)

Thoughts on "Operation Make Less Wrong the single conversational locus", Month 1

16 Raemon 19 January 2017 05:16PM

About a month ago, Anna posted about the Importance of Less Wrong or Another Single Conversational Locus, followed shortly by Sarah Constantin's http://lesswrong.com/lw/o62/a_return_to_discussion/

There was a week or two of heavy-activity by some old timers. Since there's been a decent array of good posts but not quite as inspiring as the first week was and I don't know whether to think "we just need to try harder" or change tactics in some way.

Some thoughts:
 - I do feel it's been better to quickly be able to see a lot of posts in the community in one place 

 - I don't think the quality of the comments is that good, which is a bit demotivating.
 - on facebook, lots of great conversations happen in a low-friction way, and when someone starts being annoying, the person's who's facebook wall it is has the authority to delete comments with abandon, which I think is helpful.
- I could see the solution being to either continue trying to incentivize better LW comments, or to just have LW be "single locus for big important ideas, but discussion to flesh them out still happen in more casual environments"

 - I'm frustrated that the intellectual projects on Less Wrong are largely silo'd from the Effective Altruism community, which I think could really use them.

 - The Main RSS feed has a lot of subscribers (I think I recall "about 10k"), so having things posted there seems good.
 - I think it's good to NOT have people automatically post things there, since that produced a lot of weird anxiety/tension on "is my post good enough for main? I dunno!"
 - But, there's also not a clear path to get something promoted to Main, or a sense of which things are important enough for Main

 - I notice that I (personally) feel an ugh response to link posts and don't like being taken away from LW when I'm browsing LW. I'm not sure why.

Curious if others have thoughts.

[Link] Dominic Cummings: how the Brexit referendum was won

16 The_Jaded_One 12 January 2017 09:26PM

Stupidity as a mental illness

15 PhilGoetz 10 February 2017 03:57AM

It's great to make people more aware of bad mental habits and encourage better ones, as many people have done on LessWrong.  The way we deal with weak thinking is, however, like how people dealt with depression before the development of effective anti-depressants:

  • Clinical depression was only marginally treatable.
  • It was seen as a crippling character flaw, weakness, or sin.
  • Admitting you had it could result in losing your job and/or friends.
  • Treatment was not covered by insurance.
  • Therapy was usually analytic or behavioral and not very effective.
  • People thus went to great mental effort not to admit, even to themselves, having depression or any other mental illness.
continue reading »

LW UI issue

14 gworley 24 March 2017 06:08PM

Not really sure where else I might post this, but there seems to be a UI issue on the site. When I hit the homepage of lesswrong.com while logged in I no longer see the user sidebar or the header links for Main and Discussion. This is kind of annoying because I have to click into an article first to get to a page where I can access those things. Would be nice to have them back on the front page.

The Social Substrate

14 lahwran 09 February 2017 07:22AM

This post originally appeared on The Gears To Ascension

ABSTRACT

I present generative modeling of minds as a hypothesis for the complexities of social dynamics, and build a case for it out of pieces. My hope is that this explains social behaviors more precisely and with less handwaving than its components. I intend this to be a framework for reasoning about social dynamics more explicitly and for training intuitions. In future posts I plan to build on it to give more concrete evidence, and give examples of social dynamics that I think become more legible with the tools provided by combining these ideas.

Epistemic status: Hypothesis, currently my maximum likelihood hypothesis, of why social interaction is so weird.

INTRO: SOCIAL INTERACTION.

People talk to each other a lot. Many of them are good at it. Most people don't really have a deep understanding of why, and it's rare for people to question why it's a thing that's possible to be bad at. Many of the rules seem arbitrary at first look, and it can be quite hard to transfer skill at interaction by explanation.

Some of the rules sort of make sense, and you can understand why bad things would happen when you break them: Helping people seems to make them more willing to help you. Being rude to people makes them less willing to help you. People want to "feel heard". But what do those mean, exactly?

I've been wondering about this for a while. I wasn't naturally good at social interaction, and have had to put effort into learning it. This has been a spotty success - I often would go to people for advice, and then get things like "people want to know that you care". That advice sounded nice, but it was vague and not usable.

The more specific social advice seems to generalize quite badly. "Don't call your friends stupid", for example. Banter is an important part of some friendships! People say each other are ugly and feel cared for. Wat?

Recently, I've started to see a deeper pattern here that actually seems to have strong generalization: it's simple to describe, it correctly predicts large portions of very complicated and weird social patterns, and it reliably gives me a lens to decode what happened when something goes wrong. This blog post is my attempt to share it as a package.

I basically came up with none of this. What I'm sharing is the synthesis of things that Andrew Critch, Nate Soares, and Robin Hanson have said - I didn't find these ideas that useful on their own, but together I'm kind of blown away by how much they collectively explain. In future blog posts I'll share some of the things I have used this to understand.

WARNING: An easy instinct, on learning these things, is to try to become more complicated yourself, to deal with the complicated territory. However, my primary conclusion is "simplify, simplify, simplify": try to make fewer decisions that depend on other people's state of mind. You can see more about why and how in the posts in the "Related" section, at the bottom.

NEWCOMB'S TEST

Newcomb's problem is a game that two beings can play. Let's say that the two people playing are you and Newcomb. On Newcomb's turn, Newcomb learns all that they can about you, and then puts one opaque box and one transparent box in a room. Then on your turn, you go into the room, and you can take one or both of the boxes. What Newcomb puts in the boxes depends on what they think you'll do once it's your turn:

  • If Newcomb thinks that you'll take only the opaque box, they fill it with $1 million, and put $1000 in the transparent box.
  • If Newcomb thinks that you'll take both of the boxes, they only put $1000 in the transparent box.

Once Newcomb is done setting the room up, you enter and may do whatever you like.

This problem is interesting because the way you win or lose has little to do with what you actually do once you go into the room, it's entirely about what you can convince Newcome you'll do. This leads many people to try to cheat: convince Newcomb that you'll only take one box, and then take two.

In the original framing, Newcomb is a mind-reading oracle, and knows for certain what you'll do. In a more realistic version of the test, Newcomb is merely a smart person and paying attention to you. Newcomb's problem is simply a crystallized view of something that people do all the time: evaluate what kind of people each other, to determine trust. And it's interesting to look at it and note that when it's crystallized, it's kind of weird. When you put it this way, it becomes apparent that there are very strong arguments for why you should always do the trustworthy thing and one-box.

THE NECESSITY OF NEWCOMBLIKE INTERACTION

(This section inspired by nate soares' post "newcomblike problems are the norm".)

You want to know that people care about you. You don't just want to know that the other person is acting helpfully right now. If someone doesn't care about you, and is just helping you because it helps them, then you'll trust and like them less. If you know that someone thinks your function from experience to emotions is acceptable to them, you will feel validated.

I think this makes a lot of sense. In artificial distributed systems, we ask a bunch of computers to work together, each computer a node in the system. All of the computers must cooperate to perform some task - some artificial distributed systems, like bittorrent, are intended to allow the different nodes (computers) in the system to share things with each other, but where each participating computer joins to benefit from the system. Other distributed systems, such as the backbone routers of the internet, are intended to provide a service to the outside world - in the case of the backbone routers, they make the internet work.

However, nodes can violate the distributed system's protocols, and thereby gain advantage. In bittorrent, nodes can download but refuse to upload. In the internet backbone, each router needs to know where other routers are, but if a nearby router lies, then the entire internet may slow down dramatically, or route huge portions of US traffic to china. Unfortunately, despite the many trust problems in distributed systems, we have solved relatively few of them. Bitcoin is a fun exception to this - I'll use it as a metaphor in a bit.

Humans are each nodes in a natural distributed system, where each node has its own goals, and can provide and consume services, just like the artificial ones we've built. But we also have this same trust problem, and must be solving it somehow, or we wouldn't be able to make civilizations.

Human intuitions automatically look for reasons why the world is the way it is. In stats/ML/AI, it's called generative modeling. When you have an experience - every time you have any experience, all the time, on the fly - your brain's low level circuitry assumes there was a reason that the experience happened. Each moment your brain is looking for what the process was that created that experience for you. Then in the future, you can take your mental version of the world and run it forward to see what might happen.

When you're young, you start out pretty uncertain about what processes might be driving the world, but as you get older your intuition learns to expect gravity to work, learns to expect that pulling yourself up by your feet won't work, and learns to think of people as made of similar processes to oneself.

So when you're interacting with an individual human, your brain is automatically tracking what sort of process they are - what sort of person they are. It is my opinion that this is one of the very hardest things that brains do (where I got that idea). When you need to decide whether you trust them, you don't just have to do that based off their actions - you also have your mental version of them that you've learned from watching how they behave.

But it's not as simple as evaluating, just once, what kind of person someone is. As you interact with someone, you are continuously automatically tracking what kind of person they are, what kind of thoughts they seem to be having right now, in the moment. When I meet a person and they say something nice, is it because they think they're supposed to, or because they care about me? If my boss is snapping at me, are they to convince me I'm unwelcome at the company without saying it outright, or is my boss just having a bad day?

NEWCOMBLIKE URGES

Note: I am not familiar with the details of the evolution of cooperation. I propose a story here to transfer intuitions, but the details may have happened in a different order. I would be surprised if I am not describing a real event, and it would weaken my point.

Humans are smart, and our ancestors have been reasonably smart going back a very long time, far before even primates branched off. So imagine what it was like to be an animal in a pre-tribal species. You want to survive, and you need resources to do so. You can take them from other animals. You can give them to other animals. Some animals may be more powerful than you, and attempt to take yours.

Imagine what it's like to be an animal partway through the evolution of cooperation. You feel some drive to be nice to other animals, but you don't want to be nice if the other animal will take advantage of you. So you pay attention to which animals seem to care about being nice, and you only help them. They help you, and you both survive.

As the generations go on, this happens repeatedly. An animal that doesn't feel caring for other animals is an animal that you can't trust; An animal that does feel caring is one that you want to help, because they'll help you back.

Over generations, it becomes more and more the case that the animals participating in this system actually want to help each other - because the animals around them are all running newcomblike tests of friendliness. Does this animal seem to have a basic urge to help me? Will this animal only take the one box, if I leave the boxes lying out? If the answer is that you can trust them, and you recognize that you can trust them, then that is the best for you, because then the other animal recognizes that they were trusted and will be helpful back.

After many generations of letting evolution explore this environment, you can expect to end up with animals that feel strong emotions for each other, animals which want to be seen as friendly, animals where helping matters. Here is an example of another species that has learned to behave sort of this way.

This seems to me be a good generating hypothesis for why people care about what other people think of them innately, and seems to predict ways that people will care about each other. I want to feel like people actually care about me, I don't just want to hear them say that they do. In particular, it seems to me that humans want this far more than you would expect of an arbitrary smart-ish animal.

I'll talk more in detail about what I think human innate social drives actually are in a future blog post. I'm interested in links to any research on things like human basic needs or emotional validation. For now, the heuristic I've found most useful is simply "People want to know that those around them approve of/believe their emotional responses to their experiences are sane". See also Succeed Socially, in the related list.

THE RECURSION DISTORTION

Knowing that humans evaluate each other in newcomblike ways doesn't seem to me to be enough to figure out how to interact with them. Only armed with the statement "one needs to behave in a way that others will recognize as predictably cooperative", I still wouldn't know how to navigate this.

At a lightning talk session I was at a few months ago, Andrew Critch made the argument that humans regularly model many layers deep in real situations. His claim was that people intuitively have a sense of what each other are thinking, including their senses of what you're thinking, and back and forth for a bit. Before I go on, I should emphasize how surprising this should be, without the context of how the brain actually does it: the more levels of me-imagining-you-imagining-me-imagining-you-imagining… you go, the more of an explosion of different options you should expect to see, and the less you should expect actual-sized human minds to be able to deal with it.

However, after having thought about it, I don't think it's as surprising as it seems. I don't think people actually vividly imagine this that many levels deep: what I think is going on is that as you grow up, you learn to recognize different clusters of ways a person can be. Stereotypes, if you will, but not necessarily so coarse as that implies.

At a young age, if I am imagining you, I imagine a sort of blurry version of you. My version of you will be too blurry to have its own version of me, but I learn to recognize the blurry-you when I see it. The blurry version of you only has a few emotions, but I sort of learn what they are: my blurry you can be angry-"colored", or it can be satisfied-"colored", or it can be excited-"colored", etc. ("Color" used here as a metaphor, because I expect this to be built a similar way to color or other basic primitives in the brain.)

Then later, as I get older, I learn to recognize when you see a blurry version of me. My new version of you is a little less blurry, but this new version of you has a blurry-me, made out of the same anger-color or satisfaction-color that I had learned you could be made out of. I go on, and eventually this version of you becomes its own individual colors - you can be angry-you-with-happy-me-inside colored when I took your candy, or you can be relieved-you-with-distraught-me-inside colored when you are seeing that I'm unhappy when a teacher took your candy back.

As this goes on, I learn to recognize versions of you as their own little pictures, with only a few colors - but each color is a "color" that I learned in the past, and the "color" can have me in it, maybe recursively. Now my brain doesn't have to track many levels - it just has to have learned that there is a "color" for being five levels deep of this, or another "color" for being five levels deep of that. Now that I have that color, my intuition can make pictures out of the colors and thereby handle six levels deep, and eventually my intuition will turn six levels into colors and I'll be able to handle seven.

I think it gets a bit more complicated than this for particularly socially competent people, but that's a basic outline of how humans could reliably learn to do this.

A RECURSION EXAMPLE

I found the claim that humans regularly social-model 5+ levels deep hard to believe at first, but Critch had an example to back it up, which I attempt to recreate here.

Fair warning, it's a somewhat complicated example to follow, unless you imagine yourself actually there. I only share it for the purpose of arguing that this sort of thing actually can happen; if you can't follow it, then it's possible the point stands without it. I had to invent notation in order to make sure I got the example right, and I'm still not sure I did.

(I'm sorry this is sort of contrived. Making these examples fully natural is really really hard.)

  • You're back in your teens, and friends with Kris and Gary. You hang out frequently and have a lot of goofy inside jokes and banter.
  • Tonight, Gary's mom has invited you and Kris over for dinner.
  • You get to Gary's house several hours early, but he's still working on homework. You go upstairs and borrow his bed for a nap.
  • Later, you're awoken by the activity as Kris arrives, and Gary's mom shouts a greeting from the other room: "Hey, Kris! Your hair smells bad.". Kris responds with "Yours as well." This goes back and forth, with Gary, Kris, and Gary's mom fluidly exchanging insults as they chat. You're surprised - you didn't know Kris knew Gary's mom.
  • Later, you go downstairs to say hi. Gary's mom says "welcome to the land of the living!" and invites you all to sit and eat.
  • Partway through eating, Kris says "Gary, you look like a slob."
  • You feel embarrassed in front of Gary's mom, and say "Kris, don't be an ass."
  • You knew they had been bantering happily earlier. If you hadn't had an audience, you'd have just chuckled and joined in. What happened here?

If you'd like, pause for a moment and see if you can figure it out.


You, Gary, and Kris all feel comfortable bantering around each other. Clearly, Gary and Kris feel comfortable around Gary's mom, as well. But the reason you were uncomfortable is that you know Gary's mom thought you were asleep when Kris got there, and you hadn't known they were cool before, so as far as Gary's mom knows, you think she thinks kris is just being an ass. So you respond to that.

Let me try saying that again. Here's some notation for describing it:

  • X => Y: X correctly believes Y
  • X ~> Y: X incorrectly believes Y
  • X ?? Y: X does not know Y
  • X=Y=Z=...: X and Y and Z and ... are comfortable bantering

And here's an explanation in that notation:

  • Kris=You=Gary: Kris, You, and Gary are comfortable bantering.
  • Gary=Kris=Gary's mom: Gary, Kris, and Gary's mom are comfortable bantering.
  • You => [gary=Gary's mom=kris]: You know they're comfortable bantering.
  • Gary's mom ~> [You ?? [gary=Gary's mom=kris]]: Gary's mom doesn't know you know.
  • You => [Gary's mom ~> [You ?? [gary=Gary's mom=kris]]]: You know Gary's mom doesn't know you know they're comfortable bantering.

And to you in the moment, this crazy recursion just feels like a bit of anxiety, fuzzyness, and an urge to call Kris out so Gary's mom doesn't think you're ok with Kris being rude.

Now, this is a somewhat unusual example. It has to be set up just right in order to get such a deep recursion. The main character's reaction is sort of unhealthy/fake - better would have been to clarify that you overheard them bantering earlier. As far as I can tell, the primary case where things get this hairy is when there's uncertainty. But it does actually get this deep - this is a situation pretty similar to ones I've found myself in before.

There's a key thing here: when things like this happen, you react nearly immediately. You don't need to sit and ponder, you just immediately feel embarrassed for Kris, and react right away. Even though in order to figure out explicitly what you were worried about, you would have had to think about it four levels deep.

If you ask people about this, and it takes deep recursion to figure out what's going on, I expect you will generally get confused non-answers, such as "I just had a feeling". I also expect that when people give confused non-answers, it is almost always because of weird recursion things happening.

In Critch's original lightning talk, he gave this as an argument that the human social skills module is the one that just automatically gets this right. I agree with that, but I want to add: I think that that module is the same one that evaluates people for trust and tracks their needs and generally deals with imagining other people.

COMMUNICATION IN A NEWCOMBLIKE WORLD

So people have generative models of each other, and they care about each other's generative models of them. I care about people's opinion of me, but not in just a shallow way: I can't just ask them to change their opinion of me, because I'll be able to tell what they really think. Their actual moral judgement of their actual generative model of me directly affects my feelings of acceptance. So I want to let them know what kind of person I am: I don't just want to claim to be that kind of person, I want to actually show them that I am that kind of person.

You can't just tell someone "I'm not an asshole"; that's not strong evidence about whether you're an asshole. People have incentives to lie. People have powerful low-level automatic bayesian inference systems, and they'll automatically and intuitively recognize what social explanations are more likely as explanations of your behavior. If you want them to believe you're not an asshole, you have to give credible evidence that you are not an asshole: you have to show them that you do things that would have been unlikely had you been an asshole. You have to show them that you're willing to be nice to them, you have to show them that you're willing to accommodate their needs. Things that would be out of character if you were a bad character.

If you hang out with people who read Robin Hanson, you've probably heard of this before, under the name "signaling".

But many people who hear that interpret it as a sort of vacuous version, as though "signaling" is a sort of fakery, as though all you need to do is give the right signals. If someone says "I'm signaling that I'm one of the cool kids", then sure, they may be doing things that for other people would be signals of being one of the cool kids, but on net the evidence is that they are not one of the cool kids. Signaling isn't about the signals, it's about giving evidence about yourself.In order to be able to give credible evidence that you're one of the cool kids, you have to either get really good at lying-with-your-behavior such that people actually believe you, or you have to change yourself to be one of the cool kids. (This is, I think, a big part of where social anxiety advice falls down: "fake it 'til you make it" works only insofar as faking it actually temporarily makes it.)

"Signaling" isn't fakery, it is literally all communication about what kind of person you are. A common thing Hanson says, "X isn't about Y, it's about signaling" seems misleading to me: if someone is wearing a gold watch, it's not so much that wearing a gold watch isn't about knowing the time, it's that the owner's actual desires got distorted by the lens of common knowledge. Knowing that someone would be paying attention to them to infer their desires, they filtered their desires to focus on the ones they thought would make them look good. This also can easily come off as inauthentic, and it seems fairly clear why to me: if you're filtering your desires to make yourself look good, then that's a signal that you need to fake your desires or else you won't look good.

Signals are focused around hard-to-fake evidence. Anything and everything that is hard to fake and would only happen if you're a particular kind of person, and that someone else recognizes as so, is useful in conveying information about what kind of person you are. Fashion and hygiene are good examples of this: being willing to put in the effort make yourself fashionable or presentable, respectively, is evidence of being the kind of person who cares about participating in the societal distributed system.

Conveying truth in ways that are hard to fake is the sort of thing that comes up in artificial distributed systems, too. Bitcoin is designed around a "blockchain": a series of incredibly-difficult-to-fake records of transactions. 
Bitcoin has interesting cryptographic tricks to make this hard to fake, but it centers around having a lot of people doing useless work, so that no one person can do a bunch more useless work and thereby succeed at faking it.

SUMMARY

From the inside, it doesn't feel like we're in a massive distributed system. It doesn't feel like we're tracking game theory and common knowledge. Even though everyone, even those who don't know about it, do it automatically.

In the example, the main character just felt like something was funny. The reason they were able to figure it out and say something so fast was that they were a competent human who had focused their considerable learning power on understanding social interaction, presumably from a young age, and automatically recognized a common knowledge pattern when it presented itself.

But in real life, people are constantly doing this. To get along with people, you have to be willing to pay attention to giving evidence about your perception of them. To be accepted, you have to be willing to give evidence that you are the kind of person that other people want to accept, and you might need to change yourself if you actually just aren't.

In general, I currently think that minimizing recursion depth of common knowledge is important. Try to find ways-to-be that people will be able to recognize more easily. Think less about social things in-the-moment so that others have to think less to understand you; adjust your policies to work reliably so that people can predict them reliably.

Other information of interest

Metarationality Repository

14 JacobLiechty 22 January 2017 12:47AM

In the past couple years, if you've poked your head into Rationality-sphere discussions you may have heard tell of a mental framework which has eluded clear boundaries but has nonetheless raised some interested eyebrows and has begun to solidify into a coherent conversation point. This system of thought has been variously referred to as "Postrationality" or "Metarationality" or "Keganism" or "Meaningness."  Briefly put, Metarationality is a set of related Rationality concepts that place less emphasis on idealized Less Wrong style Rationality and more on one's place in a developmental psychology pathway. This description is imperfect in that there is not yet an agreed-upon definition of Metarationality; it currently stands only as a fuzzy set of relationships between certain specific writings emerging from the traditional Rationality space.

In the spirit of Repositories, myself and a few other LW-ers have compiled some source materials that fall inside or adjacent to this memespace. If you are aware of any conspicuously missing links, posts, or materials, please post a list in a single comment and I'll add to the lists! (Edit 1-28-17: There have been many suggestions for additions which I will add to the lists soon!)

Primary Texts

  • In Over Our Heads - Robert Kegan. Introduction to the 5-Stage model of psychological development. The "Thinking: Fast and Slow" of Metarationality, and spiritual sequel to his earlier work, The Evolving Self.
  • Metaphors We Live By - Mark Johnson. A theory of language and the mind, claimed by many as substantially improving their practical ability to interact with both the world and writing.
  • Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre - Keith Johnstone. A meandering and beautiful if not philosophically rigorous description of life in education and theater, and for many readers proof that logic is not the only thing that induces mental updates.
  • Ritual and its Consequences - Adam Seligman et. al. An anthropological work describing the role or ritual and culture in shaping attitudes, action, and beliefs on a societal scale. The subtitle An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity closely matches metarationalist themes.
Primary Blogs
  • Meaningness - David Chapman. Having originally written Rationality-adjacently, Chapman now encompasses a broader ranging and well internally-referenced collection of useful metarationalist concepts, including the very coining of "Metarationality."
  • Ribbonfarm - A group blog from Venkatesh Rao and Sarah Perry, self-described as "Longform Insight Porn" and caring not for its relationship or non-relationship to Rationality as a category.
Secondary and Metarationality-Adjacent Blogs

Individual Introductory Posts

Weird Twitter Accounts

My main intention at this juncture is to encourage and coordinate understanding of the social phenomenon and thought systems entailed by the vast network spanning from the above links. There is a lot to be said and argued about the usefulness or correctness of even using terms such as Metarationality, such as arguments that it is only a subset of Rationalist thought, or that terms like Postrationality are meant to signal ingroup superiority to Rationalism. There is plenty of ink to be spilled over these questions, but we'll get there in due time.

Lets start with charitability, understanding, goodwill, and empiricism, and work from there.

Thanks to /u/agilecaveman for their continued help and brilliance.

[Link] The engineer and the diplomat

14 Benquo 27 December 2016 08:49PM

In support of Yak Shaving

13 Elo 16 March 2017 05:31AM

Original post:  http://bearlamp.com.au/in-support-of-yak-shaving/


Yak shaving is heralded as pretty much "the devil" of trying to get things done.  The anti-yak shaving movement will identify this problem as being one of focus.  The moral of the story they give is "don't yak shave".

Originally posted in MIT's media lab with the description:

Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you're working on.

But I prefer the story by Seth Godin:

"I want to wax the car today."

"Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I'll need to buy a new one at Home Depot."

"But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls."

"But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor's EZPass..."

"Bob won't lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though."

"And we haven't returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it."

And the next thing you know, you're at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.

I disagree with the conclusion to not yak shave, and here's why.


The problem here is that you didn't wax the car because you spent all day shaving yaks (see also "there's a hole in my bucket").  In a startup that translates to not doing the tasks that get customers - the tasks which get money and actually make an impact, say "playing with the UI".  It's easy to see why such anti-yak shaving sentiment would exist (see also: bikeshedding, rearranging deck chairs on the titanic, hamming questions).  You can spend a whole day doing a whole lot of nothings; getting to bed and wonder what you actually accomplished that day (hint: a whole lot of running in circles).

Or at least that's what it looks like on the surface.  But let's look a little deeper into what the problems and barriers are in the classic scenario.

  1. Want to wax car
  2. Broken hose
  3. Hardware store is far away
  4. No EZpass for tolls
  5. Neighbour won't lend the pass until pillow is returned
  6. Broken mooshi pillow
  7. Have to go get yak hair.

So it's not just one problem, but a series of problems that come up in a sequence.  Hopefully by the end of the list you can turn around and walk all the way straight back up the list.  But in the real world there might even be other problems like, you get to the hardware store and realise you don't know the hose-fitting size of your house so you need to call someone at home to check...

On closer inspection; this sort of behaviour is not like bikeshedding at all.  Nor is it doing insignificant things under the guise of "real work".  Instead this is about tackling what stands in the way of your problem.  In problem solving in the real world, Don't yak shave" is not what I have found to be the solution.  In experiencing this the first time it feels like a sequence of discoveries.  For example, first you discover the hose.  Then you discover the EZpass problem, then you discover the pillow problem, at which point you are pretty sick of trying to wax your car and want a break or to work on something else.


I propose that classic yak shaving presents a very important sign that things are broken.  In order to get to the classic scenario we had to

  1. have borrowed a pillow from our neighbour,
  2. have it break and not get fixed,
  3. not own our own EZpass,
  4. live far from a hardware store,
  5. have a broken hose, and
  6. want to wax a car.  

Each open problem in this scenario presents an open problem or an open loop.  Yak shaving presents a warning sign that you are in a Swiss-cheese model scenario of problems.  This might sound familiar because it's the kind of situation which leads to the Fukushima reactor meltdown.  It's the kind of scenario when you try to work out why the handyman fell off your roof and died, and you notice that:

  1. he wasn't wearing a helmet.
  2. He wasn't tied on safely
  3. His ladder wasn't tied down
  4. It was a windy day
  5. His harness was old and worn out
  6. He was on his phone while on the roof...

And you realise that any five of those things could have gone wrong and not caused much of a problem.  But you put all six of those mistakes together and line the wind up in just the right way, everything comes tumbling down.


Yak shaving is a sign that you are living with problems waiting to crash down.  And living in a situation where you don't have time to do the sort of maintenance that would fix things and keep smoulders from bursting into flames.

I can almost guaranteed that when your house of cards all come falling down, it happens on a day that you don't have the spare time to waste on ridiculous seeming problems.


What should you do if you are in this situation?

Yak shave.  The best thing you can do if half your projects are unfinished and spread around the room is to tidy up.  Get things together; organise things, initiate the GTD system (or any system), wrap up old bugs, close the open loops (advice from GTD) and as many times as you can; YAK SHAVE for all you are worth!

If something is broken, and you are living with it, that's not acceptable.  You need a system in your life to regularly get around to fixing it.  Notepadsreviews, list keeping, set time aside for doing it and plan to fix things.

So I say, Yak Shave, as much, as long, and as many times as it takes till there are no more yaks to shave.


Something not mentioned often enough is a late addition to my list of common human goals.

Improve the tools available – sharpen the axe, write a new app that can do the thing you want, invent systems that work for you.  prepare for when the rest of the work comes along.

People often ask how you can plan for lucky breaks in your life.  How do you cultivate opportunity?  I can tell you right here and now, this is how.

Keep a toolkit at the ready, a work-space (post coming soon) at the ready, spare time for things to go wrong and things to go right.  And don't forget to play.  Why do we sharpen the axe?  Clear Epistemics, or clear Instrumental Rationality.  Be prepared for the situation that will come up.

Yak Shave like your life depends on it.  Because your life might one day depend on it.  Your creativity certainly does.


Meta: this took 2.5 hrs to write.

[Link] David Chalmers on LessWrong and the rationalist community (from his reddit AMA)

13 ignoranceprior 22 February 2017 07:07PM

Increasing GDP is not growth

13 PhilGoetz 16 February 2017 06:04PM

I just saw another comment implying that immigration was good because it increased GDP.  Over the years, I've seen many similar comments in the LW / transhumanist / etc bubble claiming that increasing a country's population is good because it increases its GDP.  These are generally used in support of increasing either immigration or population growth.

It doesn't, however, make sense.  People have attached a positive valence to certain words, then moved those words into new contexts.  They did not figure out what they want to optimize and do the math.

I presume they want to optimize wealth or productivity per person.  You wouldn't try to make Finland richer by absorbing China.  Its GDP would go up, but its GDP per person would go way down.

continue reading »

[Link] Slate Star Codex Notes on the Asilomar Conference on Beneficial AI

13 Gunnar_Zarncke 07 February 2017 12:14PM

[Link] EA Has A Lying Problem

13 Benquo 11 January 2017 10:31PM

A different argument against Universal Basic Income

13 chaosmage 28 December 2016 10:35PM

I grew up in socialist East Germany. Like most of my fellow citizens, I was not permitted to leave the country. But there was an important exception: People could leave after retirement. Why? Because that meant their forfeited their retirement benefits. Once you took more from the state than you gave, you were finally allowed to leave. West Germany would generously take you in. My family lived near the main exit checkpoint for a while and there was a long line of old people most days.

And then there is Saudi Arabia and other rentier states. Rentier states(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rentier_state) derive most of their income not from their population. The population gets a lot more wealth from the state than the state gets from the population. States like Saudi Arabia are therefore relatively independent of their population's consent with policy. A citizen who is unhappy is welcome to leave, or to retreat to their private sphere and live off benefits while keeping their mouth shut - neither of these options incurs a significant cost for the state.

I think these facts are instructive in thinking about Universal Basic Income. I want to make a point that I haven't seen made in discussions of the matter.

Most political systems (not just democracies) are built on an assumption that the state needs its citizens. This assumption is always a bit wrong - for example, no state has much need of the terminally ill, except to signal to its citizens that it cares for all of them. In the cases of East Germany and Saudi Arabia, this assumption is more wrong. And Universal Basic Income makes it more wrong as well.

From the point of view of a state, there are citizens who are more valuable (or who help in competition with other states) and ones who are more of a burden (who make competing with other states more difficult). Universal Basic Income massively broadens the part of society that is a net loss to the state.

Now obviously technological unemployment is likely to do that anyway. But there's a difference between answers to that problem that divide up the available work between the members of society and answers that divide up society into contributors and noncontributors. My intuition is that UBI is the second kind of solution, because states will be incentivized to treat contributors differently from noncontributors. The examples are to illustrate that a state can behave very differently towards citizens if it is fundamentally not interested in retaining them.

I go along with Harari's suggestion that the biggest purely political problem of the 21st century is the integration of the economically unnecessary parts of the population into society. My worry is that UBI, while helping with immediate economic needs, makes that problem worse in the long run. Others have already pointed out problems with UBI (such as that in a democracy it'll be impossible to get rid of if it is a failure) that gradual approaches like lower retirement age, later entry into the workforce and less work per week don't have. But I reckon that behind the immediate problems with UBI such as the amount of funding it needs and the question of what it does to the motivation to work, there's a whole class of problems that arise out of the changed relationships between citizens, states and economies. With complex networks of individuals and institutions responding intelligently to the changed circumstances, a state inviting its citizens to emigrate may not be the weirdest of unforeseen consequences.

Planning 101: Debiasing and Research

12 lifelonglearner 03 February 2017 03:01PM

Planning 101: Techniques and Research

<Cross-posed from my blog>

[Epistemic status: Relatively strong. There are numerous studies showing that predictions often become miscalibrated. Overconfidence in itself appears fairly robust, appearing in different situations. The actual mechanism behind the planning fallacy is less certain, though there is evidence for the inside/outside view model. The debiasing techniques are supported, but more data on their effectiveness could be good.]

Humans are often quite overconfident, and perhaps for good reason. Back on the savanna and even some places today, bluffing can be an effective strategy for winning at life. Overconfidence can scare down enemies and avoid direct conflict.

When it comes to making plans, however, overconfidence can really screw us over. You can convince everyone (including yourself) that you’ll finish that report in three days, but it might still really take you a week. Overconfidence can’t intimidate advancing deadlines.

I’m talking, of course, about the planning fallacy, our tendency to make unrealistic predictions and plans that just don’t work out.

Being a true pessimist ain’t easy.

Students are a prime example of victims to the planning fallacy:

First, students were asked to predict when they were 99% sure they’d finish a project. When the researchers followed up with them later, though, only about 45%, less than half of the students, had actually finished by their own predicted times [Buehler, Griffin, Ross, 1995].

Even more striking, students working on their psychology honors theses were asked to predict when they’d finish, “assuming everything went as poor as it possibly could.” Yet, only about 30% of students finished by their own worst-case estimate [Buehler, Griffin, Ross, 1995].

Similar overconfidence was also found in Japanese and Canadian cultures, giving evidence that this is a human (and not US-culture-based) phenomenon. Students continued to make optimistic predictions, even when they knew the task had taken them longer last time [Buehler and Griffin, 2003, Buehler et al., 2003].

As I student myself, though, I don’t mean to just pick on ourselves.

The planning fallacy affects projects across all sectors.

An overview of public transportation projects found that most of them were, on average, 20–45% above the estimated cost. In fact, research has shown that these poor predictions haven’t improved at all in the past 30 years [Flyvbjerg 2006].

And there’s no shortage of anecdotes, from the Scottish Parliament Building, which cost 10 times more than expected, or the Denver International Airport, which took over a year longer and cost several billion more.

When it comes to planning, we suffer from a major disparity between our expectations and reality. This article outlines the research behind why we screw up our predictions and gives three suggested techniques to suck less at planning.

 

The Mechanism:

So what’s going on in our heads when we make these predictions for planning?

On one level, we just don’t expect things to go wrong. Studies have found that we’re biased towards not looking at pessimistic scenarios [Newby-Clark et al., 2000]. We often just assume the best-case scenario when making plans.

Part of the reason may also be due to a memory bias. It seems that we might underestimate how long things take us, even in our memory [Roy, Christenfeld, and McKenzie 2005].

But by far the dominant theory in the field is the idea of an inside view and an outside view [Kahneman and Lovallo 1993]. The inside view is the information you have about your specific project (inside your head). The outside view is what someone else looking at your project (outside of the situation) might say.

Obviously you want to take the Outside View.

 

We seem to use inside view thinking when we make plans, and this leads to our optimistic predictions. Instead of thinking about all the things that might go wrong, we’re focused on how we can help our project go right.

Still, it’s the outside view that can give us better predictions. And it turns out we don’t even need to do any heavy-lifting in statistics to get better predictions. Just asking other people (from the outside) to predict your own performance, or even just walking through your task from a third-person point of view can improve your predictions [Buehler et al., 2010].

Basically, the difference in our predictions seems to depend on whether we’re looking at the problem in our heads (a first-person view) or outside our heads (a third-person view). Whether we’re the “actor” or the “observer” in our minds seems to be a key factor in our planning [Pronin and Ross 2006].


Debiasing Techniques:

I’ll be covering three ways to improve predictions: MurphyjitsuReference Class Forecasting (RCF), and Back-planning. In actuality, they’re all pretty much the same thing; all three techniques focus, on some level, on trying to get more of an outside view. So feel free to choose the one you think works best for you (or do all three).

For each technique, I’ll give an overview and cover the steps first and then end with the research that supports it. They might seem deceptively obvious, but do try to keep in mind that obvious advice can still be helpful!

(Remembering to breathe, for example, is obvious, but you should still do it anyway. If you don't want to suffocate.)

 

Murphyjitsu:

“Avoid Obvious Failures”


Almost as good as giving procrastination an ass-kicking.

The name Murphyjitsu comes from the infamous Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” The technique itself is from the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), and is designed for “bulletproofing your strategies and plans”.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Figure out your goal. This is the thing you want to make plans to do.
  2. Write down which specific things you need to get done to make the thing happen. (Make a list.)
  3. Now imagine it’s one week (or month) later, and yet you somehow didn’t manage to get started on your goal. (The visualization part here is important.) Are you surprised?
  4. Why? (What went wrong that got in your way?)
  5. Now imagine you take steps to remove the obstacle from Step 4.
  6. Return to Step 3. Are you still surprised that you’d fail? If so, your plan is probably good enough. (Don’t fool yourself!)
  7. If failure still seems likely, go through Steps 3–6 a few more times until you “problem proof” your plan.

Murphyjitsu based off a strategy called a “premortem” or “prospective hindsight”, which basically means imagining the project has already failed and “looking backwards” to see what went wrong [Klein 2007].

It turns out that putting ourselves in the future and looking back can help identify more risks, or see where things can go wrong. Prospective hindsight has been shown to increase our predictive power so we can make adjustments to our plans — before they fail [Mitchell et al., 1989, Veinott et al., 2010].

This seems to work well, even if we’re only using our intuitions. While that might seem a little weird at first (“aren’t our intuitions pretty arbitrary?”), research has shown that our intuitions can be a good source of information in situations where experience is helpful [Klein 1999; Kahneman 2011]*.

While a premortem is usually done on an organizational level, Murphyjitsu works for individuals. Still, it’s a useful way to “failure-proof” your plans before you start them that taps into the same internal mechanisms.

Here’s what Murphyjitsu looks like in action:

“First, let’s say I decide to exercise every day. That’ll be my goal (Step 1). But I should also be more specific than that, so it’s easier to tell what “exercising” means. So I decide that I want to go running on odd days for 30 minutes and do strength training on even days for 20 minutes. And I want to do them in the evenings (Step 2).

Now, let’s imagine that it’s now one week later, and I didn’t go exercising at all! What went wrong? (Step 3) The first thing that comes to mind is that I forgot to remind myself, and it just slipped out of my mind (Step 4). Well, what if I set some phone / email reminders? Is that good enough? (Step 5)

Once again, let’s imagine it’s one week later and I made a reminder. But let’s say I still didn’t got exercising. How surprising is this? (Back to Step 3) Hmm, I can see myself getting sore and/or putting other priorities before it…(Step 4). So maybe I’ll also set aside the same time every day, so I can’t easily weasel out (Step 5).

How do I feel now? (Back to Step 3) Well, if once again I imagine it’s one week later and I once again failed, I’d be pretty surprised. My plan has two levels of fail-safes and I do want to do exercise anyway. Looks like it’s good! (Done)


Reference Class Forecasting:

“Get Accurate Estimates”


Predicting the future…using the past!

Reference class forecasting (RCF)is all about using the outside view. Our inside views tend to be very optimistic: We will see all the ways that things can go right, but none of the ways things can go wrong. By looking at past history — other people who have tried the same or similar thing as us — we can get a better idea of how long things will really take.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Figure out what you want to do.
  2. See your records how long it took you last time 3.
  3. That’s your new prediction.
  4. If you don’t have past information, look for about how long it takes, on average, to do our thing. (This usually looks like Googling “average time to do X”.)**
  5. That’s your new prediction!

Technically, the actual process for reference class forecasting works a little differently. It involves a statistical distribution and some additional calculations, but for most everyday purposes, the above algorithm should work well enough.

In both cases, we’re trying to take an outside view, which we know improves our estimates [Buehler et al., 1994].

When you Google the average time or look at your own data, you’re forming a “reference class”, a group of related actions that can give you info about how long similar projects tend to take. Hence, the name “reference class forecasting”.

Basically, RCF works by looking only at results. This means that we can avoid any potential biases that might have cropped up if we were to think it through. We’re shortcutting right to the data. The rest of it is basic statistics; most people are close to average. So if we have an idea of what the average looks like, we can be sure we’ll be pretty close to average as well [Flyvbjerg 2006; Flyvbjerg 2008].

The main difference in our above algorithm from the standard one is that this one focuses on your own experiences, so the estimate you get tends to be more accurate than an average we’d get from an entire population.

For example, if it usually takes me about 3 hours to finish homework (I use Toggl to track my time), then I’ll predict that it will take me 3 hours today, too.

It’s obvious that RCF is incredibly simple. It literally just tells you that how long something will take you this time will be very close to how long it took you last time. But that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective! Often, the past is a good benchmark of future performance, and it’s far better than any naive prediction your brain might spit out.

RCF + Murphyjitsu Example:

For me, I’ve found that using a mixture of Reference Class Forecasting and Murphyjitsu to be helpful for reducing overconfidence in my plans.

When starting projects, I will often ask myself, “What were the reasons that I failed last time?” I then make a list of the first three or four “failure-modes” that I can recall. I now make plans to preemptively avoid those past errors.

(This can also be helpful in reverse — asking yourself, “How did I solve a similar difficult problem last time?” when facing a hard problem.)

Here’s an example:

“Say I’m writing a long post (like this one) and I want to know how what might go wrong. I’ve done several of these sorts of primers before, so I have a “reference class” of data to draw from. So what were the major reasons I fell behind for those posts?

<Cue thinking>

Hmm, it looks like I would either forget about the project, get distracted, or lose motivation. Sometimes I’d want to do something else instead, or I wouldn’t be very focused.

Okay, great. Now what are some ways that I might be able to “patch” those problems?

Well, I can definitely start by making a priority list of my action items. So I know which things I want to finish first. I can also do short 5-minute planning sessions to make sure I’m actually writing. And I can do some more introspection to try and see what’s up with my motivation.

 

Back-planning:

“Calibrate Your Intuitions with Reality”

Back-planning involves, as you might expect, planning from the end. Instead of thinking about where we start and how to move forward, we imagine we’re already at our goal and go backwards.

Time-travelling inside your internal universe.

Here are the steps:

  1. Figure out the task you want to get done.
  2. Imagine you’re at the end of your task.
  3. Now move backwards, step-by-step. What is the step right before you finish?
  4. Repeat Step 3 until you get to where you are now.
  5. Write down how long you think the task will now take you.
  6. You now have a detailed plan as well as better prediction!

The experimental evidence for back-planning basically suggests that people will predict longer times to start and finish projects.

There are a few interesting hypotheses about why back-planning seems to improve predictions. The general gist of these theories is that back-planning is a weird, counterintuitive way to think about things, which means it disrupts a lot of mental processes that can lead to overconfidence [Wiese et al., 2012].

This means that back-planning can make it harder to fall into the groove of the easy “best-case” planning we default to. Instead, we need to actually look at where things might go wrong. Which is, of course, what we want.

In my own experience, I’ve found that going through a quick back-planning session can help my intuitions “warm up” to my prediction more. As in, I’ll get an estimation from RCF, but it still feels “off”. Walking through the plan through back-planning can help all the parts of me understand that it really will probably take longer.

Here’s the back-planning example:

“Right now, I want to host a talk at my school. I know that’s the end goal (Step 1). So the end goal is me actually finishing the talk and taking questions (Step 2). What happens right before that? (Step 3). Well, people would need to actually be in the room. And I would have needed a room.

Is that all? (Step 3). Also, for people to show up, I would have needed publicity. Probably also something on social media. I’d need to publicize at least a week in advance, or else it won’t be common knowledge.

And what about the actual talk? I would have needed slides, maybe memorize my talk. Also, I’d need to figure out what my talk is actually going to be on.

Huh, thinking it through like this, I’d need something like 3 weeks to get it done. One week for the actual slides, one week for publicity (at least), and one week for everything else that might go wrong.

That feels more ‘right’ than my initial estimate of ‘I can do this by next week.’”

 

Experimental Ideas:

Murphyjitsu, Reference Class Forecasting, and Back-planning are the three debiasing techniques that I’m fairly confident work well. This section is far more anecdotal. They’re ideas that I think are useful and interesting, but I don’t have much formal backing for them.

Decouple Predictions From Wishes:

In my own experience, I often find it hard to separate when I want to finish a task versus when I actually think I will finish a task. This is a simple distinction to keep in mind when making predictions, and I think it can help decrease optimism. The most important number, after all, is when I actually think I will finish—it’s what’ll most likely actually happen.

There’s some evidence suggesting that “wishful thinking” could actually be responsible for some poor estimates but it’s far from definitive [Buehler et al., 1997, Krizan and Windschitl].

Incentivize Correct Predictions:

Lately, I’ve been using a 4-column chart for my work. I write down the task in Column 1 and how long I think it will take me in Column 2. Then I go and do the task. After I’m done, I write down how long it actually took me in Column 3. Column 4 is the absolute value of Column 2 minus Column 3, or my “calibration score”.

The idea is to minimize my score every day. It’s simple and it’s helped me get a better sense for how long things really take.

Plan For Failure:

In my schedules, I specifically write in “distraction time”. If you aren’t doing this, you may want to consider doing this. Most of us (me included) have wandering attentions, and I know I’ll lost at least some time to silly things every day.

Double Your Estimate:

I get it. The three debiasing techniques I outlined above can sometimes take too long. In a pinch, you can probably approximate good predictions by just doubling your naive prediction.

Most people tend to be less than 2X overconfident, but I think (pessimistically) sticking to doubling is probably still better than something like 1.5X.

 

Working in Groups:

Obviously because groups are made of individuals, we’d expect them to be susceptible to the same overconfidence biases I covered earlier. Though some research has shown that groups are less susceptible to bias, more studies have shown that group predictions can be far more optimistic than individual predictions [Wright and Wells, Buehler et al., 2010]. “Groupthink” is term used to describe the observed failings of decision making in groups [Janis].

Groupthink (and hopefully also overconfidence), can be countered by either assigning a “Devil’s Advocate” or engaging in “dialectical inquiry” [Lunenburg 2012]:

We give out more than cookies over here

A Devil’s Advocate is a person who is actively trying to find fault with the group’s plans, looking for holes in reasoning or other objections. It’s suggested that the role rotates, and it’s associated with other positives like improved communication skills.

A dialectical inquiry is where multiple teams try to create the best plan, and then present them. Discussion then happens, and then the group selects the best parts of each plan . It’s a little like building something awesome out of lots of pieces, like a giant robot.

This is absolutely how dialectical inquiry works in practice.

For both strategies, research has shown that they lead to “higher-quality recommendations and assumptions” (compared to not doing them), although it can also reduce group satisfaction and acceptance of the final decision [Schweiger et al. 1986].

(Pretty obvious though; who’d want to keep chatting with someone hell-bent on poking holes in your plan?)

 

Conclusion:

If you’re interested in learning (even) more about the planning fallacy, I’d highly recommend the paper The Planning Fallacy: Cognitive, Motivational, and Social Origins by Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Johanna Peetz. Most of the material in this guide here is was taken from their paper. Do go check it out! It’s free!

Remember that everyone is overconfident (you and me included!), and that failing to plan is the norm. There are scary unknown unknowns out there that we just don’t know about!

Good luck and happy planning!

 

Footnotes:

* Just don’t go and start buying lottery tickets with your gut. We’re talking about fairly “normal” things like catching a ball, where your intuitions give you accurate predictions about where the ball will land. (Instead of, say, calculating the actual projectile motion equation in your head.)

** In a pinch, you can just use your memory, but studies have shown that our memory tends to be biased too. So as often as possible, try to use actual measurements and numbers from past experience.


Works Cited:

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Johanna Peetz. "The Planning Fallacy: Cognitive,

Motivational, and Social Origins." Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 43 (2010): 1-62. Social Science Research Network.

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. "Exploring the Planning Fallacy: Why People

Underestimate their Task Completion Times." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67.3 (1994): 366.

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Heather MacDonald. "The Role of Motivated Reasoning in

Optimistic Time Predictions." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.3 (1997): 238-247.

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. “It’s About Time: Optimistic Predictions in

Work and Love.” European Review of Social Psychology Vol. 6, (1995): 1–32

Buehler, Roger, et al. "Perspectives on Prediction: Does Third-Person Imagery Improve Task

Completion Estimates?." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 117.1 (2012): 138-149.

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. "Inside the Planning Fallacy: The Causes and

Consequences of Optimistic Time Predictions." Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (2002): 250-270.

Buehler, R., & Griffin, D. (2003). Planning, Personality, and Prediction: The Role of Future

Focus in Optimistic Time Predictions. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 92, 80–90

Flyvbjerg, Bent. "From Nobel Prize to Project Management: Getting Risks Right." Project

Management Journal 37.3 (2006): 5-15. Social Science Research Network.

Flyvbjerg, Bent. "Curbing Optimism Bias and Strategic Misrepresentation in Planning:

Reference Class Forecasting in Practice." European Planning Studies 16.1 (2008): 3-21.

Janis, Irving Lester. "Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes."

(1982).

Johnson, Dominic DP, and James H. Fowler. "The Evolution of Overconfidence." Nature

477.7364 (2011): 317-320.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011.

Kahneman, Daniel, and Dan Lovallo. “Timid Choices and Bold Forecasts: A Cognitive

Perspective on Risk Taking." Management Science 39.1 (1993): 17-31.

Klein, Gary. Sources of power: How People Make DecisionsMIT press, 1999.

Klein, Gary. "Performing a Project Premortem." Harvard Business Review 85.9 (2007): 18-19.

Krizan, Zlatan, and Paul D. Windschitl. "Wishful Thinking About the Future: Does Desire

Impact Optimism?" Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3.3 (2009): 227-243.

Lunenburg, F. "Devil’s Advocacy and Dialectical Inquiry: Antidotes to Groupthink."

International Journal of Scholarly Academic Intellectual Diversity 14 (2012): 1-9.

Mitchell, Deborah J., J. Edward Russo, and Nancy Pennington. "Back to the Future: Temporal

Perspective in the Explanation of Events." Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 2.1 (1989): 25-38.

Newby-Clark, Ian R., et al. "People focus on Optimistic Scenarios and Disregard Pessimistic

Scenarios While Predicting Task Completion Times." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6.3 (2000): 171.

Pronin, Emily, and Lee Ross. "Temporal Differences in Trait Self-Ascription: When the Self is

Seen as an Other." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90.2 (2006): 197.

Roy, Michael M., Nicholas JS Christenfeld, and Craig RM McKenzie. "Underestimating the

Duration of Future Events: Memory Incorrectly Used or Memory Bias?." Psychological Bulletin 131.5 (2005): 738.

Schweiger, David M., William R. Sandberg, and James W. Ragan. "Group Approaches for

Improving Strategic Decision Making: A Comparative Analysis of Dialectical Inquiry,

Devil's Advocacy, and Consensus." Academy of Management Journal 29.1 (1986): 51-71.

Veinott, Beth. "Klein, and Sterling Wiggins,“Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Premortem

Technique on Plan Confidence,”." Proceedings of the 7th International ISCRAM Conference (May, 2010).

Wiese, Jessica, Roger Buehler, and Dale Griffin. "Backward Planning: Effects of Planning

Direction on Predictions of Task Completion Time." Judgment and Decision Making 11.2

(2016): 147.

Wright, Edward F., and Gary L. Wells. "Does Group Discussion Attenuate the Dispositional

Bias?." Journal of Applied Social Psychology 15.6 (1985): 531-546.

[Link] The "I Already Get It" Slide

12 jsalvatier 01 February 2017 03:11AM

Value Journaling

12 ProofOfLogic 25 January 2017 06:10AM

I like to link to the Minding Our Way sequence on overcoming guilt a lot, but I've recently gone and added "information hazard" warnings to several of my posts which link there. Someone pointed out to me that the sequence destroys some people's current (guilt-based) motivation without successfully building up an alternative, making it a somewhat risky thing to try.

In light of that problem, I was thinking about what practices might help build up the kind of positive motivation that sequence is aiming at.

I was also listening to an audiobook on cognitive behavioral therapy. The book mentioned gratitude journaling, a practice which has proved surprisingly effective for boosting mood and getting longer and more refreshing sleep. The practice is simple: every week, write down five things which you were grateful for. (Once a week seems to be about right; writing more often is less effective.)

Gratitude journaling is the proven practice here, and if you want guaranteed results, you're better off trying it rather than the technique I'm going to describe here. But, we'd never have new techniques if someone didn't make them up!

I wanted to make a version of gratitude journaling which might be more suited to aspiring rationalists. I decided that it could be combined with the idea of value affirmation. Value affirmation (surprisingly) shows positive effects a year later, after just 15 minutes spent writing about what you value in life. Might it be useful to write about what we value more often? Perhaps repeating the value-affirmation exercise exactly would get old fast (since values do not change that much from week to week), but if we tie our values to things which happened recently, we get something which looks a lot like gratitude journaling.

That's the basic idea -- write about what you valued over the past week. What follows are my elaborations based on several weeks of trying it out.

continue reading »

[Link] Yudkowsky's 'Four Layers of Intellectual Conversation'

12 Gram_Stone 08 January 2017 09:47PM

Buckets and memetic immune disorders

12 Tyrrell_McAllister 03 January 2017 11:51PM

AnnaSalamon's recent post on "flinching" and "buckets" nicely complements PhilGoetz's 2009 post Reason as memetic immune disorder. (I'll be assuming that readers have read Anna's post, but not necessarily Phil's.) Using Anna's terminology, I take Phil to be talking about the dangers of merging buckets that started out as separate. Anna, on the other hand, is talking about how to deal with one bucket that should actually be several.

Phil argued (paraphrasing) that rationality can be dangerous because it leads to beliefs of the form "P implies Q". If you convince yourself of that implication, and you believe P, then you are compelled to believe Q. This is dangerous because your thinking about P might be infected by a bad meme. Now rationality has opened the way for this bad meme to infect your thinking about Q, too.

It's even worse if you reason yourself all the way to believing "P if and only if Q". Now any corruption in your thinking about either one of P and Q will corrupt your thinking about the other. In terms of buckets: If you put "Yes" in the P bucket, you must put "Yes" in the Q bucket, and vice versa. In other words, the P bucket and the Q bucket are now effectively one and the same.

In this sense, Phil was pointing out that rationality merges buckets. (More precisely, rationality creates dependencies among buckets. In the extreme case, buckets become effectively identical). This can be bad for the reasons that Anna gives. Phil argues that some people resist rationality because their "memetic immune system" realizes that rational thinking might merge buckets inappropriately. To avoid this danger, people often operate on the principle that it's suspect even to consider merging buckets from different domains (e.g., religious scripture and personal life).

This suggests a way in which Anna's post works at the meta-level, too.

Phil's argument is that people resist rationality because, in effect, they've identified the two buckets "Think rationally" and "Spread memetic infections". They fear that saying "Yes" to "Think rationally" forces them to say "Yes" to the dangers inherent to merged buckets.

But Anna gives techniques for "de-merging" buckets in general if it turns out that some buckets were inappropriately merged, or if one bucket should have been several in the first place.

In other words, Anna's post essentially de-merges the two particular buckets "Think rationally" and "Spread memetic infections". You can go ahead and use rational thinking, even though you will risk inappropriately merging buckets, because you now have techniques for de-merging those buckets if you need to.

In this way, Anna's post may diminish the "memetic immune system" obstacle to rational thinking that Phil observed.

Musical setting of the Litany of Tarski

11 komponisto 23 March 2017 11:18AM

About a year ago, I made a setting of the Litany of Tarski for four-part a cappella (i.e. unaccompanied) chorus.

More recently, in the process of experimenting with MuseScore for potential use in explaining musical matters on the internet (it makes online sharing of playback-able scores very easy), the thought occurred to me that perhaps the Tarski piece might be of interest to some LW readers (if no one else!), so I went ahead and re-typeset it in MuseScore for your delectation. 

Here it is (properly notated :-)).

Here it is (alternate version designed to avoid freaking out those who aren't quite the fanatical enthusiasts of musical notation that I am).

Concrete Takeaways Post-CFAR

11 lifelonglearner 24 February 2017 06:31PM

Concrete Takeaways:

[So I recently volunteered at a CFAR workshop. This is part five of a five-part series on how I changed my mind. It's split into 3 sections: TAPs, Heuristics, and Concepts. They get progressively more abstract. It's also quite long at around 3,000 words, so feel free to just skip around and see what looks interesting.]

 

(I didn't post Part 3 and Part 4 on LW, as they're more speculative and arguably less interesting, but I've linked to them on my blog if anyone's interested.]

 

This is a collection of TAPs, heuristics, and concepts that I’ve been thinking about recently. Many of them were inspired by my time at the CFAR workshop, but there’s not really underlying theme behind it all. It’s just a collection of ideas that are either practical or interesting.

 


TAPs:

TAPs, or Trigger Action Planning, is a CFAR technique that is used to build habits. The basic idea is you pair a strong, concrete sensory “trigger” (e.g. “when I hear my alarm go off”) with a “plan”—the thing you want to do (e.g. “I will put on my running shoes”).


If you’re good at noticing internal states, TAPs can also use your feelings or other internal things as a trigger, but it’s best to try this with something concrete first to get the sense of it.


Some of the more helpful TAPs I’ve recently been thinking about are below:


Ask for Examples TAP:

[Notice you have no mental picture of what the other person is saying. → Ask for examples.]


Examples are good. Examples are god. I really, really like them.


In conversations about abstract topics, it can be easy to understand the meaning of the words that someone said, yet still miss the mental intuition of what they’re pointing at. Asking for an example clarifies what they mean and helps you understand things better.


The trigger for this TAP is noticing that what someone said gave you no mental picture.


I may be extrapolating too far from too little data here, but it seems like people do try to “follow along” with things in their head when listening. And if this mental narrative, simulation, or whatever internal thing you’re doing comes up blank when someone’s speaking, then this may be a sign that what they said was unclear.


Once you notice this, you ask for an example of what gave you no mental picture. Ideally, the other person can then respond with a more concrete statement or clarification.


Quick Focusing TAP:

[Notice you feel aversive towards something → Be curious and try to source the aversion.]


Aversion Factoring, Internal Double Crux, and Focusing are all techniques CFAR teaches to help deal with internal feelings of badness.


While there are definite nuances between all three techniques, I’ve sort of abstracted from the general core of “figuring out why you feel bad” to create an in-the-moment TAP I can use to help debug myself.


The trigger is noticing a mental flinch or an ugh field, where I instinctively shy away from looking too hard.


After I notice the feeling, my first step is to cultivate a sense of curiosity. There’s no sense of needing to solve it; I’m just interested in why I’m feeling this way.


Once I’ve directed my attention to the mental pain, I try to source the discomfort. Using some backtracking and checking multiple threads (e.g. “is it because I feel scared?”) allows me to figure out why. This whole process takes maybe half a minute.


When I’ve figured out the reason why, a sort of shift happens, similar to the felt shift in focusing. In a similar way, I’m trying to “ground” the nebulous, uncertain discomfort, forcing it to take shape.


I’d recommend trying some Focusing before trying this TAP, as it’s basically an expedited version of it, hence the name.


Rule of Reflexivity TAP:

[Notice you’re judging someone → Recall an instance where you did something similar / construct a plausible internal narrative]

[Notice you’re making an excuse → Recall times where others used this excuse and update on how you react in the future.]


This is a TAP that was born out of my observation that our excuses seem way more self-consistent when we’re the ones saying then. (Oh, why hello there, Fundamental Attribution Error!) The point of practicing the Rule of Reflexivity is to build empathy.


The Rule of Reflexivity goes both ways. In the first case, you want to notice if you’re judging someone. This might feel like ascribing a value judgment to something they did, e.g. “This person is stupid and made a bad move.”


The response is to recall times where either you did something similar or (if you think you’re perfect) think of a plausible set of events that might have caused them to act in this way. Remember that most people don’t think they’re acting stupidly; they’re just doing what seems like a good idea from their perspective.


In the second case, you want to notice when you’re trying to justify your own actions. If the excuses you yourself make suspiciously sound like things you’ve heard others say before, then you may want to jump less likely to immediately dismissing them in the future.


Keep Calm TAP:

[Notice you’re starting to get angry → Take a deep breath → Speak softer and slower]


Okay, so this TAP is probably not easy to do because you’re working against a biological response. But I’ve found it useful in several instances where otherwise I would have gotten into a deeper argument.


The trigger, of course, is noticing that you’re angry. For me, this feels like an increased tightness in my chest and a desire to raise my voice. I may feel like a cherished belief of mine is being attacked.


Once I notice these signs, I remember that I have this TAP which is about staying calm. I think something like, “Ah yes, I’m getting angry now. But I previously already made the decision that it’d be a better idea to not yell.”


After that, I take a deep breath, and I try to open up my stance. Then I remember to speak in a slower and quieter tone than previously. I find this TAP especially helpful in arguments—ahem, collaborative searches for the truth—where things get a little too excited on both sides.  

 


Heuristics:

Heuristics are algorithm-like things you can do to help get better results. I think that it’d be possible to turn many of the heuristics below into TAPs, but there’s a sense of deliberately thinking things out that separates these from just the “mindless” actions above.


As more formal procedures, these heuristics do require you to remember to Take Time to do them well. However, I think that the sorts of benefits you get from make it worth the slight investment in time.

 


Modified Murphyjitsu: The Time Travel Reframe:

(If you haven’t read up on Murphyjitsu yet, it’d probably be good to do that first.)


Murphyjitsu is based off the idea of a premortem, where you imagine that your project failed and you’re looking back. I’ve always found this to be a weird temporal framing, and I realized there’s a potentially easier way to describe things:


Say you’re sitting at your desk, getting ready to write a report on intertemporal travel. You’re confident you can finish before the hour is over. What could go wrong? Closing Facebook, you begin to start typing.


Suddenly, you hear a loud CRACK! A burst of light floods your room as a figure pops into existence, dark and silhouetted by the brightness behind it. The light recedes, and the figure crumples to the ground. Floating in the air is a whirring gizmo, filled with turning gears. Strangely enough, your attention is drawn from the gizmo to the person on the ground:


The figure has a familiar sort of shape. You approach, tentatively, and find the splitting image of yourself! The person stirs and speaks.


“I’m you from one week into the future,” your future self croaks. Your future self tries to tries to get up, but sinks down again.


“Oh,” you say.


“I came from the future to tell you…” your temporal clone says in a scratchy voice.


“To tell me what?” you ask. Already, you can see the whispers of a scenario forming in your head…


Future Your slowly says, “To tell you… that the report on intertemporal travel that you were going to write… won’t go as planned at all. Your best-case estimate failed.”


“Oh no!” you say.


Somehow, though, you aren’t surprised…


At this point, what plausible reasons for your failure come to mind?


I hypothesize that the time-travel reframe I provide here for Murphyjitsu engages similar parts of your brain as a premortem, but is 100% more exciting to use. In all seriousness, I think this is a reframe that is easier to grasp compared to the twisted “imagine you’re in the future looking back into the past, which by the way happens to be you in the present” framing normal Murphyjitsu uses.


The actual (non-dramatized) wording of the heuristic, by the way, is, “Imagine that Future You from one week into the future comes back telling you that the plan you are about to embark on will fail: Why?”


Low on Time? Power On!

Often, when I find myself low on time, I feel less compelled to try. This seems sort of like an instance of failing with abandon, where I think something like, “Oh well, I can’t possibly get anything done in the remaining time between event X and event Y”.


And then I find myself doing quite little as a response.


As a result, I’ve decided to internalize the idea that being low on time doesn’t mean I can’t make meaningful progress on my problems.


This a very Resolve-esque technique. The idea is that even if I have only 5 minutes, that’s enough to get things down. There’s lots of useful things I can pack into small time chunks, like thinking, brainstorming, or doing some Quick Focusing.


I’m hoping to combat the sense of apathy / listlessness that creeps in when time draws to a close.


Supercharge Motivation by Propagating Emotional Bonds:

[Disclaimer: I suspect that this isn’t an optimal motivation strategy, and I’m sure there are people who will object to having bonds based on others rather than themselves. That’s okay. I think this technique is effective, I use it, and I’d like to share it. But if you don’t think it’s right for you, feel free to just move along to the next thing.]


CFAR used to teach a skill called Propagating Urges. It’s now been largely subsumed by Internal Double Crux, but I still find Propagating Urges to be a powerful concept.


In short, Propagating Urges hypothesizes that motivation problems are caused because the implicit parts of ourselves don’t see how the boring things we do (e.g. filing taxes) causally relate to things we care about (e.g. not going to jail). The actual technique involves walking through the causal chain in your mind and some visceral imagery every step of the way to get the implicit part of yourself on board.


I’ve taken the same general principle, but I’ve focused it entirely on the relationships I have with other people. If all the parts of me realize that doing something would greatly hurt those I care about, this becomes a stronger motivation than most external incentives.


For example, I walked through an elaborate internal simulation where I wanted to stop doing a Thing. I imagined someone I cared deeply for finding out about my Thing-habit and being absolutely deeply disappointed. I focused on the sheer emotional weight that such disappointment would cause (facial expressions, what they’d feel inside, the whole deal).


I now have a deep injunction against doing the Thing, and all the parts of me are in agreement because we agree that such a Thing would hurt other people and that’s obviously bad.


The basic steps for Propagating Emotional Bonds looks like:

  • Figure out what thing you want to do more of or stop doing.

  • Imagine what someone you care about would think or say.

  • Really focus on how visceral that feeling would be.

  • Rehearse the chain of reasoning (“If I do this, then X will feel bad, and I don’t want X to feel bad, so I won’t do it”) a few times.


Take Time in Social Contexts:

Often, in social situations, when people ask me questions, I feel an underlying pressure to answer quickly. It feels like if I don’t answer in the next ten seconds, something’s wrong with me. (School may have contributed to this). I don’t exactly know why, but it just feels like it’s expected.


I also think that being forced to hurry isn’t good for thinking well. As a result, something helpful I’ve found is when someone asks something like, “Is that all? Anything else?” is to Take Time.


My response is something like, “Okay, wait, let me actually take a few minutes.” At which point, I, uh, actually take a few minutes to think things through. After saying this, it feel like it’s now socially permissible for me to take some time thinking.


This has proven in several contexts where, had I not Taken Time, I would have forgotten to bring up important things or missed key failure-modes.


Ground Mental Notions in Reality not by Platonics:

One of the proposed reasons that people suck at planning is that we don’t actually think about the details behind our plans. We end up thinking about them in vague black-box-style concepts that hide all the scary unknown unknowns. What we’re left with is just the concept of our task, rather than a deep understanding of what our task entails.


In fact, this seems fairly similar to the the “prototype model” that occurs in scope insensitivity.


I find this is especially problematic for tasks which look nothing like their concepts. For example, my mental representation of “doing math” conjures images of great mathematicians, intricate connections, and fantastic concepts like uncountable sets.


Of course, actually doing math looks more like writing stuff on paper, slogging through textbooks, and banging your head on the table.


My brain doesn’t differentiate well between doing a task and the affect associated with the task. Thus I think it can be useful to try and notice when our brains our doing this sort of black-boxing and instead “unpack” the concepts.


This means getting better correspondences between our mental conceptions of tasks and the tasks themselves, so that we can hopefully actually choose better.


3 Conversation Tips:

I often forget what it means to be having a good conversation with someone. I think I miss opportunities to learn from others when talking with them. This is my handy 3-step list of Conversation Tips to get more value out of conversations:


1) "Steal their Magic": Figure out what other people are really good at, and then get inspired by their awesomeness and think of ways you can become more like that. Learn from what other people are doing well.


2) "Find the LCD"/"Intellectually Escalate": Figure out where your intelligence matches theirs, and learn something new. Focus on Actually Trying to bridge those inferential distances. In conversations, this means focusing on the limits of either what you know or what the other person knows.


3) "Convince or Be Convinced”: (This is a John Salvatier idea, and it also follows from the above.) Focus on maximizing your persuasive ability to convince them of something. Or be convinced of something. Either way, focus on updating beliefs, be it your own or the other party’s.


Be The Noodly Appendages of the Superintelligence You Wish To See in the World:

CFAR co-founder Anna Salamon has this awesome reframe similar to IAT which asks, “Say a superintelligence exists and is trying to take over the world. However, you are its only agent. What do you do?”


I’ll admit I haven’t used this one, but it’s super cool and not something I’d thought of, so I’m including it here.

 


Concepts:

Concepts are just things in the world I’ve identified and drawn some boundaries around. They are farthest from the pipeline that goes from ideas to TAPs, as concepts are just ideas. Still, I do think these concepts “bottom out” at some point into practicality, and I think playing around with them could yield interesting results.


Paperspace =/= Mindspace:

I tend to write things down because I want to remember them. Recently, though I’ve noticed that rather act as an extension of my brain, I seem to treat things I write down as no longer in my own head. As in, if I write something down, it’s not necessarily easier for me to recall it later.


It’s as if by “offloading” the thoughts onto paper, I’ve cleared them out of my brain. This seems suboptimal, because a big reason I write things down is to cement them more deeply within my head.


I can still access the thoughts if I’m asking myself questions like, “What did I write down yesterday?” but only if I’m specifically sorting for things I write down.


The point is, I want stuff I write down on paper to be, not where I store things, but merely a sign of what’s stored inside my brain.


Outreach: Focus on Your Target’s Target:

One interesting idea I got from the CFAR workshop was that of thinking about yourself as a radioactive vampire. Um, I mean, thinking about yourself as a memetic vector for rationality (the vampire thing was an actual metaphor they used, though).


The interesting thing they mentioned was to think, not about who you’re directly influencing, but who your targets themselves influence.


This means that not only do you have to care about the fidelity of your transmission, but you need to think of ways to ensure that your target also does a passable job of passing it on to their friends.


I’ve always thought about outreach / memetics in terms of the people I directly influence, so looking at two degrees of separation is a pretty cool thing I hadn’t thought about in the past.


I guess that if I took this advice to heart, I’d probably have to change the way that I explain things. For example, I might want to try giving more salient examples that can be easily passed on or focusing on getting the intuitions behind the ideas across.


Build in Blank Time:

Professor Barbara Oakley distinguishes between focused and diffused modes of thinking. Her claim is that time spent in a thoughtless activity allows your brain to continue working on problems without conscious input. This is the basis of diffuse mode.


In my experience, I’ve found that I get interesting ideas or remember important ideas when I’m doing laundry or something else similarly mindless.


I’ve found this to be helpful enough that I’m considering building in “Blank Time” in my schedules.


My intuitions here are something like, “My brain is a thought-generator, and it’s particularly active if I can pay attention to it. But I need to be doing something that doesn’t require much of my executive function to even pay attention to my brain. So maybe having more Blank Time would be good if I want to get more ideas.”


There’s also the additional point that meta-level thinking can’t be done if you’re always in the moment, stuck in a task. This means that, cool ideas aside, if I just want to reorient or survey my current state, Blank Time can be helpful.


The 99/1 Rule: Few of Your Thoughts are Insights:

The 99/1 Rule says that the vast majority of your thoughts every day are pretty boring and that only about one percent of them are insightful.


This was generally true for my life…and then I went to the CFAR workshop and this rule sort of stopped being appropriate. (Other exceptions to this rule were EuroSPARC [now ESPR] and EAG)


Note:

I bulldozed through a bunch of ideas here, some of which could have probably garnered a longer post. I’ll probably explore some of these ideas later on, but if you want to talk more about any one of them, feel free to leave a comment / PM me.

 

How often do you check this forum?

11 JenniferRM 30 January 2017 04:56PM

I'm interested from hearing from everyone who reads this.

Who is checking LW's Discussion area and how often?

1. When you check, how much voting or commenting do you do compared to reading?

2. Do bother clicking through to links?

3. Do you check using a desktop or a smart phone?  Do you just visit the website in browser or use an RSS something-or-other?

4. Also, do you know of other places that have more schellingness for the topics you think this place is centered on? (Or used to be centered on?) (Or should be centered on?)

I would ask this in the current open thread except that structurally it seems like it needs to be more prominent than that in order to do its job.

If you have very very little time to respond or even think about the questions, I'd appreciate it if you just respond with "Ping" rather than click away.

In Defense of the Obvious

11 lifelonglearner 21 January 2017 03:06AM

        [Cross-posed from blog]     

My brain does this thing where it shuts off when I experience some warning signs.  A lot of these have to do with my identity or personal beliefs, which go off when I believe my tribe is being attacked.  I don’t think I’ll go as far as to say that all brain shutoffs are bad (which feels like a Cleaving Statement), but there’s another type of warning sign I’ve recently noticed: Dismissing The Obvious.

              Just because a statement is tautological or obvious does not mean it is useless.

              Here are some examples:

              “If you want to get all of your tasks done everyday, be sure to make a to-do list and a schedule!  That way, you can keep track of what you’ve done/need to do!”

              My brain’s response: <doesn’t even quite register the points> “Whatever, this doesn’t sound interesting.” <pattern-matches it as “boring advice stuff" that "isn't groundbreaking”>.

              In actuality: The advice still stands, even if it’s self-evident and obvious.  People who make to-do lists have a better idea of what they need to get done.  It’s still useful to know, if you care about getting stuff done!

              “If you want to exercise more, you should probably exercise more.  Then, you’d become the type of person who exercises more, and then you’d exercise more.”

OR

              “If you have more energy, then you’re more energetic, which means you have more energy to do things.”

              My brain’s response: “Those conclusions follow each other, by definition!  There’s nothing here that I don’t know!” <scoffs>

              In actuality: Just because two things are logically equivalent doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn.  In my head, the nodes for “energetic” and “energy = increased doing-stuff capacity” are not the same nodes.  Consequently, bringing the two together can still link previously unconnected ideas, or allow you to see the connection, which is still beneficial!

              What my brain is doing here is tuning out information simply because “it sounds like the kind of obvious information that everyone knows”.  I’m not actually considering the point.  More than that, obvious tips tend to be effective for a large group of people.  That’s why they’re obvious or commonly seen.  The fact that I see some advice show up in lots of places should even perhaps be increased reason for me to try it out.  

              A related problem is when smart, experienced people give me advice that my brain pattern-matches to “boring advice”.  When their advice sounds so “mundane”, it can be easy to forget that the “boring advice” is what their brain thought was the best thing to give me.  They tried to distill all of their wisdom into a simple adage, I should probably at least try it out.

              In fact, I suspect that my brain’s aversion to Obvious/Boring Advice may be because I’ve become acclimated to normal self-improvement ideas.  I’m stuck on the hedonic treadmill of insight porn, or as someone put it, I’m a rationality junkie.

              Overwhelmed by the sort of ideas found in insight porn, it looks like I actually crave more and more obscure forms of insight.  And it’s this type of dangerous conditioning that I think causes people to dismiss normal helpful ideas— simply because they’re not paradigm-crushing, mind-blowing, or stimulating enough.

              So, in an effort to fight back, I’m trying to get myself hooked on the meta-contrarian idea that, despite my addiction to obscure ideas, the Obvious is still usually what has the most-leverage.  Often, the best thing to do is merely the obvious one.  Some things in life are simple.

              Take that, hedonic treadmill.

 

 

Welcome to LessWrong (10th Thread, January 2017) (Thread A)

11 folkTheory 07 January 2017 05:43AM

(Thread B for January is here, created as a duplicate by accident)

Hi, do you read the LessWrong website, but haven't commented yet (or not very much)? Are you a bit scared of the harsh community, or do you feel that questions which are new and interesting for you could be old and boring for the older members?

This is the place for the new members to become courageous and ask what they wanted to ask. Or just to say hi.

The older members are strongly encouraged to be gentle and patient (or just skip the entire discussion if they can't).

Newbies, welcome!

 

The long version:

 

If you've recently joined the Less Wrong community, please leave a comment here and introduce yourself. We'd love to know who you are, what you're doing, what you value, how you came to identify as an aspiring rationalist or how you found us. You can skip right to that if you like; the rest of this post consists of a few things you might find helpful. More can be found at the FAQ.

 

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A list of some posts that are pretty awesome

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[Link] How to not earn a delta (Change My View)

10 Viliam 14 February 2017 10:04AM

A majority coalition can lose a symmetric zero-sum game

10 Stuart_Armstrong 26 January 2017 12:13PM

Just a neat little result I found when thinking about Jessica's recent post.

For n players, let ai be the action of player i and si(a1,a2,...an) the reward of player i as a function of the actions of all players. Then the game is symmetric if for any permutation p:{1,...n}→{1,...n}

si(a1,a2,...an) = sp(i)(ap(1),ap(2),...ap(n))

The game is zero-sum if the sum of the si is always zero. Assume players can confer before choosing their actions.

Then it is possible for a majority coalition to strictly lose a zero-sum game, even in a deterministic game where they get to see their opponents' moves before choosing their own.

This seems counter-intuitive. After all, if one coalition has M players, the other has m players, with m<M, and there are no other players, how can the M players lose? Couldn't just m of the M players behave exactly as the smaller coalition, thus getting the same amount in expectation? The problem is the potential loses endured by the remaining M-m players.

For an example, consider the following 5 player colour game (it's a much simplified version of the game I came up with previously, proposed by cousin_it). Each player chooses one of two colour, blue or red. Then the players that selected the least commonly chosen colour(s) are the winners; the others are the losers. The losers pay 1 each, and this is split equally between the winners.

Then consider a coalition of three players, the triumvirate. The remaining two players - the duumvirate - choose different colours, red and blue. What can the triumvirate then do? If they all chose the same colour - say blue - then they all lose -1, and the duumvriate loses -1 (from its member that chose blue) and gains 4/1 (for the member that chose red). If they split - say 2 blue, 1 red - then the ones that chose blue lose -1, while the duumveriate loses -1 (from its member that chose blue) and gains 3/2 > 1 (from the member that chose red).

So the duumvriate can always win against the triumvirate.

Of course, it's possible for two members of the triumvirate to create a second duumvirate that will profit from the hapless third member. Feel free to add whatever political metaphor you think this fits.

 

Larger games

Variations of this game can make Jessica's theorem 2 sharp. Let the minority coalition be of size m (the majority coalition is of size M = n-m = qm+r for some unique q and 0≤r<m). The actions are choosing from m colours; apart from that the game is the same as before. And, as before, the members of the minority coalition each choose a different colour.

Then an m-set is a collection of players that each chose a different colour. Split the players into as many disjoint m-sets as possible, with the minority coalition being one of them - say this gives q'+1 m-sets. There are r' remaining players from the majority coalition.

Note that we can consider that any loss from a member of an m-set is spread among the remaining members. That's because all winners are members of m-sets, and players that choose the same colour are interchangeable. So we can assign the loss from the member of an m-sets as being an equivalent gain to the other members. Thus the m-sets only profit from the r' remaining players. And this profit is spread equally among the winners - hence equally among the m-sets.

Thus the majority coalition has a loss of r'/(q'+1), and minimises its loss by minimising r' and maximising q' - hence by setting q'=q and r'=r. Under these circumstances, the minority coalition wins r/(q+1) in total.

Adding 1 to the reward of each player, then dividing all rewards by n, gives the unit-sum game in Jessica's theorem.

Did EDT get it right all along? Introducing yet another medical Newcomb problem

10 Johannes_Treutlein 24 January 2017 11:43AM

One of the main arguments given against Evidential Decision Theory (EDT) is that it would “one-box” in medical Newcomb problems. Whether this is the winning action has been a hotly debated issue on LessWrong. A majority, including experts in the area such as Eliezer Yudkowsky and Wei Dai, seem to think that one should two-box (See e.g. Yudkowsky 2010, p.67). Others have tried to argue in favor of EDT by claiming that the winning action would be to one-box, or by offering reasons why EDT would in some cases two-box after all. In this blog post, I want to argue that EDT gets it right: one-boxing is the correct action in medical Newcomb problems. I introduce a new thought experiment, the Coin Flip Creation problem, in which I believe the winning move is to one-box. This new problem is structurally similar to other medical Newcomb problems such as the Smoking Lesion, though it might elicit the intuition to one-box even in people who would two-box in some of the other problems. I discuss both how EDT and other decision theories would reason in the problem and why people’s intuitions might diverge in different formulations of medical Newcomb problems.

Two kinds of Newcomblike problems

There are two different kinds of Newcomblike problems. In Newcomb’s original paradox, both EDT and Logical Decision Theories (LDT), such as Timeless Decision Theory (TDT) would one-box and therefore, unlike CDT, win $1 million. In medical Newcomb problems, EDT’s and LDT’s decisions diverge. This is because in the latter, a (physical) causal node that isn’t itself a decision algorithm influences both the current world state and our decisions – resulting in a correlation between action and environment but, unlike the original Newcomb, no “logical” causation.

It’s often unclear exactly how a causal node can exert influence on our decisions. Does it change our decision theory, utility function, or the information available to us? In the case of the Smoking Lesion problem, it seems plausible that it’s our utility function that is being influenced. But then it seems that as soon as we observe our utility function (“notice a tickle”; see Eells 1982), we lose “evidential power” (Almond 2010a, p.39), i.e. there’s nothing new to learn about our health by acting a certain way if we already know our utility function. In any case, as long as we don’t know and therefore still have the evidential power, I believe we should use it.

The Coin Flip Creation Problem is an adaption of Caspar Oesterheld’s “Two-Boxing Gene” problem and, like the the latter, attempts to take Newcomb’s original problem and make it into a medical Newcomb problem, triggering the intuition that we should one-box. In Oesterheld’s Two-Boxing Gene, it’s stated that a certain gene correlates with our decision to one-box or two-box in Newcomb’s problem, and that Omega, instead of simulating our decision algorithm, just looks at this gene.

Unfortunately, it’s not specified how the correlation between two-boxing and the gene arises, casting doubt on whether it’s a medical Newcomb problem at all, and whether other decision algorithms would disagree with one-boxing. Wei Dai argues that in the Two-Boxing Gene, if Omega conducts a study to find out which genes correlate with which decision algorithm, then Updateless Decision Theory (UDT) could just commit to one-boxing and thereby determine that all the genes UDT agents have will always correlate with one-boxing. So in some sense, UDT’s genes will still indirectly constitute a “simulation” of UDT’s algorithm, and there is a logical influence between the decision to one-box and Omega’s decision to put $1 million in box A. Similar considerations could apply for other LDTs.

The Coin Flip Creation problem is intended as an example of a problem in which EDT would give the right answer, but all causal and logical decision theories would fail. It works explicitly through a causal influence on the decision theory itself, thus reducing ambivalence about the origin of the correlation.

The Coin Flip Creation problem

One day, while pondering the merits and demerits of different acausal decision theories, you’re visited by Omega, a being assumed to possess flawless powers of prediction and absolute trustworthiness. You’re presented with Newcomb’s paradox, but with one additional caveat: Omega informs you that you weren’t born like a normal human being, but were instead created by Omega. On the day you were born, Omega flipped a coin: If it came up heads, Omega created you in such a way that you would one-box when presented with the Coin Flip Creation problem, and it put $1 million in box A. If the coin came up tails, you were created such that you’d two-box, and Omega didn’t put any money in box A. We don’t know how Omega made sure what your decision would be. For all we know, it may have inserted either CDT or EDT into your source code, or even just added one hard-coded decision rule on top of your messy human brain. Do you choose both boxes, or only box A?

It seems like EDT gets it right: one-boxing is the winning action here. There’s a correlation between our decision to one-box, the coin flip, and Omega’s decision to put money in box A. Conditional on us one-boxing, the probability that there is money in box A increases, and we “receive the good news” – that is, we discover that the coin must have come up heads, and we thus get the million dollars. In fact, we can be absolutely certain of the better outcome if we one-box. However, the problem persists if the correlation between our actions and the content of box A isn’t perfect. As long as the correlation is high enough, it is better to one-box.

Nevertheless, neither causal nor logical counterfactuals seem to imply that we can determine whether there is money in box A. The coin flip isn’t a decision algorithm itself, so we can’t determine its outcome. The logical uncertainty about our own decision output doesn’t seem to coincide with the empirical uncertainty about the outcome of the coin flip. In absence of a causal or logical link between their decision and the content of box A, CDT and TDT would two-box.

Updateless Decision Theory

As far as I understand, UDT would come to a similar conclusion. AlephNeil writes in a post about UDT:

In the Smoking Lesion problem, the presence of a 'lesion' is somehow supposed to cause Player's to choose to smoke (without altering their utility function), which can only mean that in some sense the Player's source code is 'partially written' before the Player can exercise any control over it. However, UDT wants to 'wipe the slate clean' and delete whatever half-written nonsense is there before deciding what code to write.

Ultimately this means that when UDT encounters the Smoking Lesion, it simply throws away the supposed correlation between the lesion and the decision and acts as though that were never a part of the problem.

This approach seems wrong to me. If we use an algorithm that changes our own source code, then this change, too, has been physically determined and can therefore correlate with events that aren’t copies of our own decision algorithm. If UDT reasons as though it could just rewrite its own source code and discard the correlation with the coin flip altogether, then UDT two-boxes and thus by definition ends up in the world where there is no money in box A.

Note that updatelessness seemingly makes no difference in this problem, since it involves no a priori decision: Before the coin flip, there’s a 50% chance of becoming either a one-boxing or a two-boxing agent. In any case, we can’t do anything about the coin flip, and therefore also can’t influence whether box A contains any money.

I am uncertain how UDT works, though, and would be curious about others people’s thoughts. Maybe UDT reasons that by one-boxing, it becomes a decision theory of the sort that would never be installed into an agent in a tails world, thus rendering impossible all hypothetical tails worlds with UDT agents in them. But if so, why wouldn’t UDT “one-box” in the Smoking Lesion? As far as the thought experiments are specified, the causal connection between coin flip and two-boxing in the Coin Flip Creation appears to be no different from the connection between gene and smoking in the Smoking Lesion.

More adaptations and different formalizations of LDTs exist, e.g. Proof-Based Decision Theory. I could very well imagine that some of those might one-box in the thought experiment I presented. If so, then I’m once again curious as to where the benefits of such decision theories lie in comparison to plain EDT (aside from updatelessness – see Concluding thoughts).

Coin Flip Creation, Version 2

Let’s assume UDT would two-box in the Coin Flip Creation. We could alter our thought experiment a bit so that UDT would probably one-box after all:

The situation is identical to the Coin Flip Creation, with one key difference: After Omega flips the coin and creates you with the altered decision algorithm, it actually simulates your decision, just as in Newcomb’s original paradox. Only after Omega has determined your decision via simulation does it decide whether to put money in box A, conditional on your decision. Do you choose both boxes, or only box A?

Here is a causal graph for the first and second version of the Coin Flip Creation problem. In the first version, a coin flip determines whether there is money in box A. In the second one, a simulation of your decision algorithm decides:

Since in Version 2, there’s a simulation involved, UDT would probably one-box. I find this to be a curious conclusion. The situation remains exactly the same – we can rule out any changes in the correlation between our decision and our payoff. It seems confusing to me, then, that the optimal decision should be a different one.

Copy-altruism and multi-worlds

The Coin Flip Creation problem assumes a single world and an egoistic agent. In the following, I want to include a short discussion of how the Coin Flip Creation would play out in a multi-world environment.

Suppose Omega’s coin is based on a quantum number generator and produces 50% heads worlds and 50% tails worlds. If we’re copy-egoists, EDT still recommends to one-box, since doing so would reveal to us that we’re in one of the branches in which the coin came up heads. If we’re copy-altruists, then in practice, we’d probably care a bit less about copies whose decision algorithms have been tampered with, since they would make less effective use of the resources they gain than we ourselves would (i.e. their decision algorithm sometimes behaves differently). But in theory, if we care about all the copies equally, we should be indifferent with respect to one-boxing or two-boxing, since there will always be 50% of us in either of the worlds no matter what we do. The two groups always take the opposite action. The only thing we can change is whether our own copy belongs to the tails or the heads group.

To summarize, UDT and EDT would both be indifferent in the altruistic multi-world case, but UDT would (presumably) two-box, and EDT would one-box, in both the copy-egoistic multi-worlds and in the single-world case.

“But I don’t have a choice”

There seems to be an especially strong intuition of “absence of free will” inherent to the Coin Flip Creation problem. When presented with the problem, many respond that if someone had created their source code, they didn’t have any choice to begin with. But that’s the exact situation in which we all find ourselves at all times! Our decision architecture and choices are determined by physics, just like a hypothetical AI’s source code, and all of our choices will thus be determined by our “creator.” When we’re confronted with the two boxes, we know that our decisions are predetermined, just like every word of this blogpost has been predetermined. But that knowledge alone won’t help us make any decision. As far as I’m aware, even an agent with complete knowledge of its own source code would have to treat its own decision outputs as uncertain, or it would fail to implement a decision algorithm that takes counterfactuals into account.

Note that our decision in the Coin Flip Creation is also no less determined than in Newcomb’s paradox. In both cases, the prediction has been made, and physics will guide our thoughts and our decision in a deterministic and predictable manner. Nevertheless, we can still assume that we have a choice until we make our decision, at which point we merely “find out” what has been our destiny all along.

Concluding thoughts

I hope that the Coin Flip Creation motivates some people to reconsider EDT’s answers in Newcomblike problems. A thought experiment somewhat similar to the Coin Flip Creation can be found in Arif Ahmed 2014.

Of course, the particular setup of the Coin Flip Creation means it isn’t directly relevant to the question of which decision theory we should program into an AI. We obviously wouldn’t flip a coin before creating an AI. Also, the situation doesn’t really look like a decision problem from the outside; an impartial observer would just see Omega forcing you to pick either A or B. Still, the example demonstrates that from the inside view, evidence from the actions we take can help us achieve our goals better. Why shouldn’t we use this information? And if evidential knowledge can help us, why shouldn’t we allow a future AI to take it into account? In any case, I’m not overly confident in my analysis and would be glad to have any mistakes pointed out to me.

Medical Newcomb is also not the only class of problems that challenge EDT. Evidential blackmail is an example of a different problem, wherein giving the agent access to specific compromising information is used to extract money from EDT agents. The problem attacks EDT from a different angle, though: namely by exploiting it’s lack of updatelessness, similar to the challenges in Transparent Newcomb, Parfit’s Hitchhiker, Counterfactual Mugging, and the Absent-Minded Driver. I plan to address questions related to updatelessness, e.g. whether it makes sense to give in to evidential blackmail if you already have access to the information and haven’t precommitted not to give in, at a later point.

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