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Amanda Knox: post mortem

23 gwern 20 October 2011 04:10PM

Continuing my interest in tracking real-world predictions, I notice that the recent acquittal of Knox & Sollecito offers an interesting opportunity - specifically, many LessWrongers gave probabilities for guilt back in 2009 in komponisto’s 2 articles:

Both were interesting exercises, and it’s time to do a followup. Specifically, there are at least 3 new pieces of evidence to consider:

  1. the failure of any damning or especially relevant evidence to surface in the ~2 years since (see also: the hope function)
  2. the independent experts’ report on the DNA evidence
  3. the freeing of Knox & Sollecito, and continued imprisonment of Rudy Guede (with reduced sentence)

Point 2 particularly struck me (the press attributes much of the acquittal to the expert report, an acquittal I had not expected to succeed), but other people may find the other 2 points or unmentioned news more weighty.

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Disclosure vs. Bans: Reply to Robin Hanson

6 David_J_Balan 04 January 2010 01:09AM

A little while back I wrote a post arguing that the existence of abusive terms in credit card contracts (such as huge jumps in interest rates for being one day late with a payment) do not satisfy the conditions for standard economic models of asymmetric information between rational agents, but rather are trickery, pure and simple. If this is right, then the standard remedy of mandating the provision of more information to the less-informed party, but not otherwise interfering in the market (the idea being that any voluntary agreement must make both parties better off, no matter how strange or one-sided the terms may appear, so any interference in contracts beyond providing information will reduce welfare), is not the right one. There is no decent argument that those terms would appear in any contract where both parties knew what they were doing, so if you see terms like that, the appropriate conclusion is that someone has been screwed, not that Goddess of Capitalism, in her infinite-but-inscrutable wisdom, has uncovered the only terms that, strange as they may seem to mere mortals, make a mutually beneficial contract possible. The goal is to get rid of those terms, and the most direct way to do that is simply to prohibit them. There are some good reasons to be reluctant to have the government go around prohibiting things, so mandatory disclosure might still be a good policy (though the Federal Reserve has investigated this and concluded that it isn't), but the goal would be to use the disclosures to eliminate the abusive terms. There is no justification for the standard economist's agnosticism about whether the terms are good or not: they're bad and the only question is how best to get rid of them.

Robin Hanson left some comments to that post, in which he made the point that since people voluntarily choose these terms, they must like them and so prohibiting them would have to mean protecting people against their will. I answered that while I'm enough of a paternalist to be willing, under some circumstances, to impose limited protections on people even if those people would oppose them, that I didn't think that was an issue here, as I would guess (though I have no proof), that the Federal Reserve's recent decision to ban certain credit card practices was probably very popular, even (especially?) among the people who are harmed by those practices. Robin's reply, as I understand it, is that this may be true, but since people can't simultaneously want to accept credit cards with those terms and at the same time favor banning those terms, it must be the case that they either don't understand the terms of the credit card contracts or they don't understand the effects of the ban. Somewhere there must just be some missing information, and therefore we must be back where we started, with the problem being a lack of information that could be resolved by providing more information.

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Mandating Information Disclosure vs. Banning Deceptive Contract Terms

21 David_J_Balan 20 December 2009 08:55PM

Economists are very into the idea of mutually beneficial exchange. The standard argument is that if two parties voluntarily agree to a deal, then they must be better off with the deal than without it, otherwise they wouldn't have agreed. And if the terms of that deal don't harm any third parties,* then the deal must be welfare-improving, and any regulatory restrictions on making it must be bad.

One objection to this argument is that it's not always clear what is and what is not "voluntary." I once has a well-published economist friend argue that there are no gradations of voluntariness: either a deal was made under some kind of compulsion or it wasn't. I asked him if he would be OK letting his then pre-adolescent son make any schoolyard deal he wanted as long as it was not made under any overt threat, and I think (but am not totally sure) that he has since backed off this position. So there is an argument for purely paternalistic restrictions on freedom of contract. 

Another objection, one which economists tend to take more seriously, relates to information. Specifically, there is the idea that maybe one party to the contract is not fully informed about its terms. For this reason, many economists are willing to entertain policies by which firms are required to disclose certain information, and to do so in a way that is comprehensible to consumers. So for example we now have "Schumer boxes" that govern the ways in which credit card companies present certain information in promotional materials. This seems to many people to be a reasonable remedy: if the problem was that one side of the transaction was ignorant, then a regulation that eliminates that ignorance, while at the same time not interfering with their freedom to engage in mutually beneficial exchange, must be a good thing.

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The Amanda Knox Test: How an Hour on the Internet Beats a Year in the Courtroom

42 komponisto 13 December 2009 04:16AM

Note: The quantitative elements of this post have now been revised significantly.

Followup to: You Be the Jury: Survey on a Current Event

All three of them clearly killed her. The jury clearly believed so as well which strengthens my argument. They spent months examining the case, so the idea that a few minutes of internet research makes [other commenters] certain they're wrong seems laughable

- lordweiner27, commenting on my previous post

The short answer: it's very much like how a few minutes of philosophical reflection trump a few millennia of human cultural tradition.

Wielding the Sword of Bayes -- or for that matter the Razor of Occam -- requires courage and a certain kind of ruthlessness. You have to be willing to cut your way through vast quantities of noise and focus in like a laser on the signal.

But the tools of rationality are extremely powerful if you know how to use them.

Rationality is not easy for humans. Our brains were optimized to arrive at correct conclusions about the world only insofar as that was a necessary byproduct of being optimized to pass the genetic material that made them on to the next generation. If you've been reading Less Wrong for any significant length of time, you probably know this by now. In fact, around here this is almost a banality -- a cached thought. "We get it," you may be tempted to say. "So stop signaling your tribal allegiance to this website and move on to some new, nontrivial meta-insight."

But this is one of those things that truly do bear repeating, over and over again, almost at every opportunity. You really can't hear it enough. It has consequences, you see. The most important of which is: if you only do what feels epistemically "natural" all the time, you're going to be, well, wrong. And probably not just "sooner or later", either. Chances are, you're going to be wrong quite a lot.

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You Be the Jury: Survey on a Current Event

31 komponisto 09 December 2009 04:25AM

As many of you probably know, in an Italian court early last weekend, two young students, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted of killing another young student, Meredith Kercher, in a horrific way in November of 2007. (A third person, Rudy Guede, was convicted earlier.)

If you aren't familiar with the case, don't go reading about it just yet. Hang on for just a moment.

If you are familiar, that's fine too. This post is addressed to readers of all levels of acquaintance with the story.

What everyone should know right away is that the verdict has been extremely controversial. Strong feelings have emerged, even involving national tensions (Knox is American, Sollecito Italian, and Kercher British, and the crime and trial took place in Italy). The circumstances of the crime involve sex. In short, the potential for serious rationality failures in coming to an opinion on a case like this is enormous.  

Now, as it happens, I myself have an opinion. A rather strong one, in fact. Strong enough that I caught myself thinking that this case -- given all the controversy surrounding it -- might serve as a decent litmus test in judging the rationality skills of other people. Like religion, or evolution -- except less clichéd (and cached) and more down-and-dirty.

Of course, thoughts like that can be dangerous, as I quickly recognized. The danger of in-group affective spirals looms large. So before writing up that Less Wrong post adding my-opinion-on-the-guilt-or-innocence-of-Amanda-Knox-and-Raffaele-Sollecito to the List of Things Every Rational Person Must Believe, I decided it might be useful to find out what conclusion(s) other aspiring rationalists would (or have) come to (without knowing my opinion).

So that's what this post is: a survey/experiment, with fairly specific yet flexible instructions (which differ slightly depending on how much you know about the case already).

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News: Improbable Coincidence Slows LHC Repairs

7 Zack_M_Davis 06 November 2009 07:24AM

Related to: How Many LHC Failures is Too Many?

My first reaction to this was that it had to be a joke, but I thought Less Wrong readers would like to know that The Times of London is reporting that repairs on the Large Hadron Collider have been delayed by overheating caused by a piece of bread, possibly dropped by a bird:

The rehabilitation of the beleaguered Large Hadron Collider was on hold tonight after the failure of one of its powerful cooling units caused by an errant chunk of baguette.

The £4 billion particle-collider faced more than a year of delays after a helium leak stymied the project in its first few days of operation. It is gradually being switched back on over the coming months but suffered a new setback on Tuesday morning.

Scientists at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva noticed that the system’s carefully monitored temperatures were creeping up.

Further investigation into the failure of a cryogenic cooling plant revealed an unusual impediment. A piece of crusty bread had paralysed a high voltage installation that should have been powering the cooling unit. [...]

A spokeswoman for CERN confirmed that baguette was responsible for the latest hiatus, but she conceded that mystery surrounded the way it got into the vital power installation, which is protected by high security fences.

“Nobody knows how it got there,” she told The Times. “The best guess is that it was dropped by a bird, either that or it was thrown out of a passing aeroplane.”

“Obviously this was slightly surprising. Within the team there was some amusement once they had relaxed after initial concerns.”

I'm rather confident that this is just a meaningless coincidence, but in light of the anthropic speculations last year about the LHC's technical difficulties, I thought this was worth sharing.

Hat tip MBlume


Investing for the Long Slump

8 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 January 2009 08:56AM

I have no crystal ball with which to predict the Future, a confession that comes as a surprise to some journalists who interview me.  Still less do I think I have the ability to out-predict markets.  On every occasion when I've considered betting against a prediction market - most recently, betting against Barack Obama as President - I've been glad that I didn't.  I admit that I was concerned in advance about the recent complexity crash, but then I've been concerned about it since 1994, which isn't very good market timing.

I say all this so that no one panics when I ask:

Suppose that the whole global economy goes the way of Japan (which, by the Nikkei 225, has now lost two decades).

Suppose the global economy is still in the Long Slump in 2039.

Most market participants seem to think this scenario is extremely implausible.  Is there a simple way to bet on it at a very low price?

If most traders act as if this scenario has a probability of 1%, is there a simple bet, executable using an ordinary brokerage account, that pays off 100 to 1?

Why do I ask?  Well... in general, it seems to me that other people are not pessimistic enough; they prefer not to stare overlong or overhard into the dark; and they attach too little probability to things operating in a mode outside their past experience.

But in this particular case, the question is motivated by my thinking, "Conditioning on the proposition that the Earth as we know it is still here in 2040, what might have happened during the preceding thirty years?"

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A New Day

23 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 December 2008 06:40PM

Somewhere in the vastnesses of the Internet and the almost equally impenetrable thicket of my bookmark collection, there is a post by someone who was learning Zen meditation...

Someone who was surprised by how many of the thoughts that crossed his mind, as he tried to meditate, were old thoughts - thoughts he had thunk many times before.  He was successful in banishing these old thoughts, but did he succeed in meditating?  No; once the comfortable routine thoughts were banished, new and interesting and more distracting thoughts began to cross his mind instead.

I was struck, on reading this, how much of my life I had allowed to fall into routine patterns.  Once you actually see that, it takes on a nightmarish quality:  You can imagine your fraction of novelty diminishing and diminishing, so slowly you never take alarm, until finally you spend until the end of time watching the same videos over and over again, and thinking the same thoughts each time.

Sometime in the next week - January 1st if you have that available, or maybe January 3rd or 4th if the weekend is more convenient - I suggest you hold a New Day, where you don't do anything old.

Don't read any book you've read before.  Don't read any author you've read before.  Don't visit any website you've visited before.  Don't play any game you've played before.  Don't listen to familiar music that you already know you'll like.  If you go on a walk, walk along a new path even if you have to drive to a different part of the city for your walk.  Don't go to any restaurant you've been to before, order a dish that you haven't had before.  Talk to new people (even if you have to find them in an IRC channel) about something you don't spend much time discussing.

And most of all, if you become aware of yourself musing on any thought you've thunk before, then muse on something else.  Rehearse no old grievances, replay no old fantasies.

If it works, you could make it a holiday tradition, and do it every New Year.

Thanksgiving Prayer

20 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 November 2008 04:17AM

At tonight's Thanksgiving, Erin remarked on how this was her first real Thanksgiving dinner away from her family, and that it was an odd feeling to just sit down and eat without any prayer beforehand.  (Yes, she's a solid atheist in no danger whatsoever, thank you for asking.)

And as she said this, it reminded me of how wrong it is to give gratitude to God for blessings that actually come from our fellow human beings putting in a great deal of work.

So I at once put my hands together and said,

"Dear Global Economy, we thank thee for thy economies of scale, thy professional specialization, and thy international networks of trade under Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage, without which we would all starve to death while trying to assemble the ingredients for such a dinner as this.  Amen."

Today's Inspirational Tale

11 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 November 2008 04:15PM

At a Foresight Gathering some years ago, a Congressman was in attendance, and he spoke to us and said the following:

"Everyone in this room who's signed up for cryonics, raise your hand."

Many hands went up.

"Now everyone who knows the name of your representative in the House, raise your hand."

Fewer hands went up.

"And you wonder why you don't have any political influence."

Rationalists would likewise do well to keep this lesson in mind.

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