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James Martin's death

20 Stuart_Armstrong 27 June 2013 11:57AM

From the Martin School website:

Dr James Martin 1933 - 2013

 Dr James Martin

It is with great sadness that the Oxford Martin School has learned of the death of our Founder, Dr James Martin.

James Martin was an inspiration to millions – an extraordinary intellect, with wide-ranging interests, boundless energy and an unwavering commitment to addressing the greatest challenges facing humanity. For 25 years Martin was the highest-selling author of books on computing and related technology. He wrote a record 104 books, many of which have been seminal in their field, and was renowned for his electrifying lectures about the future. He was a Pulitzer nominee for his book The Wired Society.

James Martin was a passionate advocate of the power of ideas, and provided the largest benefaction to the University of Oxford in its 900-year history in order to create the Oxford Martin School. Professor Andrew Hamilton, the Vice-Chancellor of the University, said “James Martin was a true visionary whose exceptional generosity established the Oxford Martin School, allowing researchers from across the disciplines to work together on the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing humanity. His impact will be felt for generations to come, as through the School he has enabled researchers to address the biggest questions of the 21st century.”

The School is his permanent legacy and a fitting tribute – a flourishing, vibrant community of the world’s leading minds, coming together to change the world for the better. He enjoyed the excitement and happy atmosphere of the School, and his kind and unfailingly courteous manner was greatly appreciated by all who spent time with him. The Director of the School, Professor Ian Goldin, said “The Oxford Martin School embodies Jim’s concern for humanity, his creativity, his curiosity, and his optimism. Jim provided not only the founding vision, but was intimately involved with the School and our many programmes. We have lost a towering intellect, guiding visionary and a wonderful close friend.”

25th June 2013


On a personal note, I met James Martin a couple of times, and he was always interested in pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and predictive power, and helping the human race. Without him, there would have been no FHI. We've lost a great contributor.

Ritual 2012: A Moment of Darkness

35 Raemon 28 December 2012 09:09AM

This is the second post of the 2012 Ritual Sequence. The Introduction post is here.

This is... the extended version, I suppose, of a speech I gave at the Solstice.

The NYC Solstice Weekprior celebration begins bright and loud, and gradually becomes somber and poignant. Our opening songs are about the end of the world, but in a funny, boisterous manner that gets people excited and ready to sing. We gradually wind down, dimming lights, extinguishing flames. We turn to songs that aren’t sad but are more quiet and pretty.

And then things get grim. We read Beyond the Reach of God. We sing songs about a world where we are alone, where there is nothing protecting us, and where we somehow need to survive and thrive, even when it looks like the light is failing.

We extinguish all but a single candle, and read an abridged version of the Gift We Give to Tomorrow, which ends like this:

Once upon a time,
far away and long ago,
there were intelligent beings who were not themselves intelligently designed.

Once upon a time,
there were lovers, created by something that did not love.

Once upon a time,
when all of civilization was a single galaxy,

A single star.
A single planet.
A place called Earth.

Once upon a time.

And then we extinguish that candle, and sit for a moment in the darkness.

This year, I took that time to tell a story.

It’s included in the 2012 Ritual Book. I was going to post it at the end of the sequence. But I realized that it’s actually pretty important to the “What Exactly is the Point of Ritual?” discussion. So I’m writing a more fleshed out version now, both for easy reference and for people who don’t feel like hunting through a large pdf to find it.

It’s a bit longer, in this version - it’s what I might have said, if time wasn’t a constraint during the ceremony.


A year ago, I started planning for tonight. In particular, for this moment, after the last candle is snuffed out and we’re left alone in the dark with the knowledge that our world is unfair and that we have nobody to help us but each other.

I wanted to talk about death.

My grandmother died two years ago. The years leading up to her death were painful. She slowly lost her mobility, until all she could do was sit in her living room and hope her family would come by to visit and talk to her.

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A (small) critique of total utilitarianism

37 Stuart_Armstrong 26 June 2012 12:36PM

In total utilitarianism, it is a morally neutral act to kill someone (in a painless and unexpected manner) and creating/giving birth to another being of comparable happiness (or preference satisfaction or welfare). In fact if one can kill a billion people to create a billion and one, one is morally compelled to do so. And this is true for real people, not just thought experiment people - living people with dreams, aspirations, grudges and annoying or endearing quirks. To avoid causing extra pain to those left behind, it is better that you kill off whole families and communities, so that no one is left to mourn the dead. In fact the most morally compelling act would be to kill off the whole of the human species, and replace it with a slightly larger population.

We have many real world analogues to this thought experiment. For instance, it seems that there is only a small difference between the happiness of richer nations and poorer nations, while the first consume many more resources than the second. Hence to increase utility we should simply kill off all the rich, and let the poor multiply to take their place (continually bumping off any of the poor that gets too rich). Of course, the rich world also produces most of the farming surplus and the technology innovation, which allow us to support a larger population. So we should aim to kill everyone in the rich world apart from farmers and scientists - and enough support staff to keep these professions running (Carl Shulman correctly points out that we may require most of the rest of the economy as "support staff". Still, it's very likely that we could kill off a significant segment of the population - those with the highest consumption relative to their impact of farming and science - and still "improve" the situation).

Even if turns out to be problematic to implement in practice, a true total utilitarian should be thinking: "I really, really wish there was a way to do targeted killing of many people in the USA, Europe and Japan, large parts of Asia and Latin America and some parts of Africa - it makes me sick to the stomach to think that I can't do that!" Or maybe: "I really really wish I could make everyone much poorer without affecting the size of the economy - I wake up at night with nightmare because these people remain above the poverty line!"

I won't belabour the point. I find those actions personally repellent, and I believe that nearly everyone finds them somewhat repellent or at least did so at some point in their past. This doesn't mean that it's the wrong thing to do - after all, the accepted answer to the torture vs dust speck dilemma feels intuitively wrong, at least the first time. It does mean, however, that there must be very strong countervailing arguments to balance out this initial repulsion (maybe even a mathematical theorem). For without that... how to justify all this killing?

Hence for the rest of this post, I'll be arguing that total utilitarianism is built on a foundation of dust, and thus provides no reason to go against your initial intuitive judgement in these problems. The points will be:

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Plastination is maturing and needs funding, says Hanson

70 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 June 2012 08:00PM


Though cryonics has been practiced for forty years, its techniques have improved only slowly; its few customers can only induce a tiny research effort. The much larger brain research community, in contrast, has been rapidly improving their ways to do fast cheap detailed 3D brain scans, and to prepare samples for such scans. You see, brain researchers need ways to stop brain samples from changing, and to be strong against scanning disruptions, just so they can study brain samples at their leisure.

These brain research techniques have now reached two key milestones:

  1. They’ve found new ways to “fix” brain samples by filling them with plastic, ways that seem impressively reliable, resilient, and long lasting, and which work on large brain volumes (e.g., here). Such plastination techniques seem close to being able to save enough info in entire brains for centuries, without needing continual care. Just dumping a plastic brain in a box in a closet might work fine.
  2. Today, for a few tens of thousands of dollars, less than the price charged for one cryonics customer, it is feasible to have independent lab(s) take random samples from whole mouse or human brains preserved via either cryonics or plastination, and do high (5nm) resolution 3D scans to map out thousands of neighboring cells, their connections, and connection strengths, to test if either of these approaches clearly preserve such key brain info.

An anonymous donor has actually funded a $100K Brain Preservation Prize, paid to the first team(s) to pass this test on a human brain, with a quarter of the prize going to those that first pass the test on a mouse brain. Cryonics and plastination teams have already submitted whole mouse brains to be tested. The only hitch is that the prize organization needs money (~25-50K$) to actually do the tests!

Comments?  If superior brain preservation can be demonstrated under a 5nm-resolution 3D scan, plastination wins over vitrification hands-down.  Is Robin missing anything here, or is this indeed as important as he says?

When None Dare Urge Restraint, pt. 2

56 Jay_Schweikert 30 May 2012 03:28PM

In the original When None Dare Urge Restraint post, Eliezer discusses the dangers of the "spiral of hate" that can develop when saying negative things about the Hated Enemy trumps saying accurate things. Specifically, he uses the example of how the 9/11 hijackers were widely criticized as "cowards," even though this vice in particular was surely not on their list. Over this past Memorial Day weekend, however, it seems like the exact mirror-image problem played out in nearly textbook form.

The trouble began when MSNBC host Chris Hayes noted* that he was uncomfortable with how people use the word "hero" to describe those who die in war -- in particular, because he thinks this sort of automatic valor attributed to the war dead makes it easier to justify future wars. And as you might expect, people went crazy in response, calling Hayes's comments "reprehensible and disgusting," something that "commie grad students would say," and that old chestnut, apparently offered without a hint of irony, "unAmerican." If you watch the video, you can tell that Hayes himself is really struggling to make the point, and by the end he definitely knew he was going to get in trouble, as he started backpedaling with a "but maybe I'm wrong about that." And of course, he apologized the very next day, basically stating that it was improper to have "opine[d] about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots."

This whole episode struck me as particularly frightening, mostly because Hayes wasn't even offering a criticism. Soldiers in the American military are, of course, an untouchable target, and I would hardly expect any attack on soldiers to be well received, no matter how grounded. But what genuinely surprised me in this case was that Hayes was merely saying "let's not automatically apply the single most valorizing word we have, because that might cause future wars, and thus future war deaths." But apparently anything less than maximum praise was not only incorrect, but offensive.

Of course, there's no shortage of rationality failures in political discourse, and I'm obviously not intending this post as a political statement about any particular war, policy, candidate, etc. But I think this example is worth mentioning, for two main reasons. First, it's just such a textbook example of the exact sort of problem discussed in Eliezer's original post, in a purer form than I can recall seeing since 9/11 itself. I don't imagine many LW members need convincing in this regard, but I do think there's value in being mindful of this sort of problem on the national stage, even if we're not going to start arguing politics ourselves.

But second, I think this episode says something not just about nationalism, but about how people approach death more generally. Of course, we're all familiar with afterlifism/"they're-in-a-better-place"-style rationalizations of death, but labeling a death as "heroic" can be a similar sort of rationalization. If a death is "heroic," then there's at least some kind of silver lining, some sense of justification, if only partial justification. The movie might not be happy, but it can still go on, and there's at least a chance to play inspiring music. So there's an obvious temptation to label death as "heroic" as much as possible -- I'm reminded of how people tried to call the 9/11 victims "heroes," apparently because they had the great courage to work in buildings that were targeted in a terrorist attack.

If a death is just a tragedy, however, you're left with a more painful situation. You have to acknowledge that yes, really, the world isn't fair, and yes, really, thousands of people -- even the Good Guy's soldiers! -- might be dying for no good reason at all. And even for those who don't really believe in an afterlife, facing death on such a large scale without the "heroic" modifier might just be too painful. The obvious problem, of course -- and Hayes's original point -- is that this sort of death-anesthetic makes it all too easy to numb yourself to more death. If you really care about the problem, you have to face the sheer tragedy of it. Sometimes, all you can say is "we shall have to work faster." And I think that lesson's as appropriate on Memorial Day as any other.

*I apologize that this clip is inserted into a rather low-brow attack video. At the time of posting it was the only link on Youtube I could find, and I wanted something accessible.

How to avoid dying in a car crash

76 michaelcurzi 17 March 2012 07:44PM

Aside from cryonics and eating better, what else can we do to live long lives?

Using this tool, I looked up the risks of death for my demographic group. As a 15-24 year old male in the United States, the most likely cause of my death is a traffic accident; and so I’m taking steps to avoid that. Below I have included the results of my research as well as the actions I will take to implement my findings. Perhaps my research can help you as well.1

Before diving into the results, I will note that this data took me one hour to collect. It’s definitely not comprehensive, and I know that working together, we can do much better. So if you have other resources or data-backed recommendations on how to avoid dying in a traffic accident, leave a comment below and I’ll update this post.

General points

Changing your behavior can reduce your risk of death in a car crash. A 1985 report on British and American crash data discovered that driver error, intoxication and other human factors contribute wholly or partly to about 93% of crashes.” Other drivers’ behavior matters too, of course, but you might as well optimize your own.2

Secondly, overconfidence appears to be a large factor in peoples’ thinking about traffic safety. A speaker for the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) stated that “Ninety-five percent of crashes are caused by human error… but 75% of drivers say they're more careful than most other drivers. Less extreme evidence for overconfidence about driving is presented here.

One possible cause for this was suggested by the Transport Research Laboratory, which explains that “...the feeling of being confident in more and more challenging situations is experienced as evidence of driving ability, and that 'proven' ability reinforces the feelings of confidence. Confidence feeds itself and grows unchecked until something happens – a near-miss or an accident.”

So if you’re tempted to use this post as an opportunity to feel superior to other drivers, remember: you’re probably overconfident too! Don’t just humbly confess your imperfections – change your behavior.

Top causes of accidents


Driver distraction is one of the largest causes of traffic accident deaths. The Director of Traffic Safety at the American Automobile Association stated that "The research tells us that somewhere between 25-50 percent of all motor vehicle crashes in this country really have driver distraction as their root cause." The NHTSA reports the number as 16%.

If we are to reduce distractions while driving, we ought to identify which distractors are the worst. One is cell phone use. My solution: Don’t make calls in the car, and turn off your phone’s sound so that you aren’t tempted.

I brainstormed other major distractors and thought of ways to reduce their distracting effects.

Distractor: Looking at directions on my phone as I drive

  • Solution: Download a great turn-by-turn navigation app (recommendations are welcome).
  • Solution: Buy a GPS.

Distractor: Texting, Facebook, slowing down to gawk at an accident, looking at scenery

  • Solution [For System 2]: Consciously accept that texting (Facebook, gawking, scenery) causes accidents.
  • Solution [For System 1]: Once a week, vividly and emotionally imagine texting (using Facebook, gawking at an accident) and then crashing & dying.
  • Solution: Turn off your phone’s sound while driving, so you won’t answer texts.

Distractor: Fatigue

  • Solution [For System 2]: Ask yourself if you’re tired before you plan to get in the car. Use Anki or a weekly review list to remember the association.
  • Solution [For System 1]: Once a week, vividly and emotionally imagine dozing off while driving and then dying.

Distractor: Other passengers

  • Solution: Develop an identity as someone who drives safely and thinks it’s low status to be distracting in the car. Achieve this by meditating on the commitment, writing a journal entry about it, using Anki, or saying it every day when you wake up in the morning.
  • Solution [In the moment]: Tell people to chill out while you’re driving. Mentally simulate doing this ahead of time, so you don’t hesitate to do it when it matters.

Distractor: Adjusting the radio

  • Solution: If avoiding using the car radio is unrealistic, minimize your interaction with it by only using the hotkey buttons rather than manually searching through channels.
  • Solution: If you’re constantly tempted to change the channel (like I am), buy an iPod cable so you can listen to your own music and set playlists that you like, so you won't constantly want to change the song.

A last interesting fact about distraction, from Wikipedia:

Recent research conducted by British scientists suggests that music can also have an effect [on driving]; classical music is considered to be calming, yet too much could relax the driver to a condition of distraction. On the other hand, hard rock may encourage the driver to step on the acceleration pedal, thus creating a potentially dangerous situation on the road.


The Road and Traffic Authority of New South Wales claims that “speeding… is a factor in about 40 percent of road deaths.” Data from the NHTSA puts the number at 30%.

Speeding also increases the severity of crashes; “in a 60 km/h speed limit area, the risk of involvement in a casualty crash doubles with each 5 km/h increase in travelling speed above 60 km/h.

Stop. Think about that for a second. I’ll convert it to the Imperial system for my fellow Americans: in a [37.3 mph] speed limit area, the risk of involvement in a casualty crash doubles with each [3.1 mph] increase in travelling speed above [37.3 mph].” Remember that next time you drive a 'mere' 5 mph over the limit.

Equally shocking is this paragraph from the Freakonomics blog:

Kockelman et al. estimated that the difference between a crash on a 55 mph limit road and a crash on a 65 mph one means a 24 percent increase in the chances the accident will be fatal. Along with the higher incidence of crashes happening in the first place, a difference in limit between 55 and 65 adds up to a 28 percent increase in the overall fatality count.

Driving too slowly can be dangerous too. An NHTSA presentation cites two studies that found a U-shaped relationship between vehicle speed and crash incidence; thus “Crash rates were lowest for drivers traveling near the mean speed, and increased with deviations above and below the mean.”

However, driving fast is still far more dangerous than driving slowly. This relationship appears to be exponential, as you can see on the tenth slide of the presentation.

  • Solution: Watch this 30 second video for a vivid comparison of head-on crashes at 60 km/hr (37 mph) and 100 km/hr (60 mph). Imagine yourself in the car. Imagine your tearful friends and family. 
  • Solution: Develop an identity as someone who drives close to the speed limit, by meditating on the commitment, writing a journal entry about it, using Anki, or saying it every day when you wake up in the morning.

Driving conditions

Driving conditions are another source of driving risk.

One factor I discovered was the additional risk from driving at night. Nationwide, 49% of fatal crashes happen at night, with a fatality rate per mile of travel about three times as high as daytime hours. (Source)

  • Solution: make an explicit effort to avoid driving at night. Use Anki to remember this association.
  • Solution: Look at your schedule and see if you can change a recurring night-time drive to the daytime.

Berkeley research on 1.4 million fatal crashes found that “fatal crashes were 14% more likely to happen on the first snowy day of the season compared with subsequent ones.” The suggested hypothesis is that people take at least a day to recalibrate their driving behavior in light of new snow. 

  • Solution: make an explicit effort to avoid driving on the first snowy day after a sequence of non-snowy ones. Use Anki to remember this association.

Another valuable factoid: 77% of weather-related fatalities (and 75% of all crashes!) involve wet pavement.

Statistics are available for other weather-related issues, but the data I found wasn’t adjusted for the relative frequencies of various weather conditions. That’s problematic; it might be that fog, for example, is horrendously dangerous compared to ice or slush, but it’s rarer and thus kills fewer people. I’m interested in looking at appropriately adjusted statistics. 

Other considerations

  • Teen drivers are apparently way worse at not dying in cars than older people. So if you’re a teenager, take the outside view and accept that you (not just ‘other dumb teenagers’) may need to take particular care when driving. Relevant information about teen driving is available here.

  • Alcohol use appeared so often during my research that I didn’t even bother including stats about it. Likewise for wearing a seatbelt.

  • Since I’m not in the market for a car, I didn’t look into vehicle choice as a way to decrease personal existential risk. But I do expect this to be relevant to increasing driving safety.

  • “The most dangerous month, it turns out, is August, and Saturday the most dangerous day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.” I couldn’t tell whether this was because of increased amount of driving or an increased rate of crashes.

  • This site recommends driving with your hands at 9 and 3 for increased control. The same site claims that “Most highway accidents occur in the left lane” because the other lanes have “more ‘escape routes’ should a problem suddenly arise that requires you to quickly change lanes”, but I found no citation for the claim.

  • Bad driver behavior appears to significantly increase the risk of death in an accident, so: don't ride in car with people who drive badly or aggressively. I have a few friends with aggressive driving habits, and I’m planning to either a) tell them to drive more slowly when I’m in the car or b) stop riding in their cars.

Commenters' recommendations

I should note here that I have not personally verified anything posted below. Be sure to look at the original comment and do followup research before depending on these recommendations.

  • MartinB recommends taking a driving safety class every few years.

  • Dmytry suggests that bicycling may be good training for constantly keeping one's eyes on the road, though others argue that bicycling itself may be significantly more dangerous than driving anyway.

  • Various commenters suggested simply avoiding driving whenever possible. Living in a city with good public transportation is recommended.

  • David_Gerard recommends driving a bigger car with larger crumple zones (but not an SUV because they roll over). He also recommends avoiding motorcycles altogether and taking advanced driving courses.

  • Craig_Heldreth adds that everyone in the car should be buckled up, as even a single unbuckled passenger can collide with and kill other passengers in a crash. Even cargo as light as a laptop should be secured or put in the trunk.

  • JRMayne offers a list of recommendations that merit reading directly. DuncanS also offers a valuable list.

1All bolding in the data was added for emphasis by me.

2The report notes that "57% of crashes were due solely to driver factors, 27% to combined roadway and driver factors, 6% to combined vehicle and driver factors, 3% solely to roadway factors, 3% to combined roadway, driver, and vehicle factors, 2% solely to vehicle factors and 1% to combined roadway and vehicle factors.”

A Transhumanist Poem

12 Swimmer963 05 March 2011 09:16AM

**Note: I'm not a poet. I hardly ever write poetry, and when I do, it's usually because I've stayed up all night. However, this seemed like a very appropriate poem for Less Wrong. Not sure if it's appropriate as a top-level post. Someone please tell me if not.**



The first man

Who held a stick in rough hands

And drew lines on a cold stone wall

Imagine when the others looked

When they said, I see the antelope

I see it. 


Later on their children's children

Would build temples, and sing songs

To their many-faced gods.

Stone idols, empty staring eyes

Offerings laid on a cold stone altar

And left to rot. 


Yet later still there would be steamships

And trains, and numbers to measure the stars

Small suns ignited in the desert

One man's first step on an airless plain


Now we look backwards

At the ones who came before us

Who lived, and swiftly died. 

The first man's flesh is in all of us now

And for his and his children's sake

We imagine a world with no more death

And we see ourselves reflected

In the silicon eyes

Of our final creation

Value Deathism

26 Vladimir_Nesov 30 October 2010 06:20PM

Ben Goertzel:

I doubt human value is particularly fragile. Human value has evolved and morphed over time and will continue to do so. It already takes multiple different forms. It will likely evolve in future in coordination with AGI and other technology. I think it's fairly robust.

Robin Hanson:

Like Ben, I think it is ok (if not ideal) if our descendants' values deviate from ours, as ours have from our ancestors. The risks of attempting a world government anytime soon to prevent this outcome seem worse overall.

We all know the problem with deathism: a strong belief that death is almost impossible to avoid, clashing with undesirability of the outcome, leads people to rationalize either the illusory nature of death (afterlife memes), or desirability of death (deathism proper). But of course the claims are separate, and shouldn't influence each other.

Change in values of the future agents, however sudden of gradual, means that the Future (the whole freackin' Future!) won't be optimized according to our values, won't be anywhere as good as it could've been otherwise. It's easier to see a sudden change as morally relevant, and easier to rationalize gradual development as morally "business as usual", but if we look at the end result, the risks of value drift are the same. And it is difficult to make it so that the future is optimized: to stop uncontrolled "evolution" of value (value drift) or recover more of astronomical waste.

Regardless of difficulty of the challenge, it's NOT OK to lose the Future. The loss might prove impossible to avert, but still it's not OK, the value judgment cares not for feasibility of its desire. Let's not succumb to the deathist pattern and lose the battle before it's done. Have the courage and rationality to admit that the loss is real, even if it's too great for mere human emotions to express.

Is cryonics necessary?: Writing yourself into the future

6 gworley 23 June 2010 02:33PM

Cryonics appears to be the best hope for continuing a person's existence beyond physical death until other technologies provide better solutions.  But despite its best-in-class status, cryonics has several serious downsides.

First and foremost, cryonics is expensive—well beyond a price that even a third of humanity can afford.  Economies of scale may eventually bring the cost down, but in the mean time billions of people will die without the benefit of cryonics, and, even when the cost bottoms out, it will likely still be too expensive for people living at subsistence levels.  Secondly, many people consider cryonics immoral or at least socially unacceptable, so even those who accept the idea of cryonics and want to pursue taking personal advantage of it are usually socially pressured out of signing up for cryonics.  Combined, these two forces reduce the pool of people who will act to sign up for cryonics to be less than even a fraction of a percent of the human population.

Given that cryonics is effectively not an option for almost everyone on the planet, if we're serious about preserving lives into the future then we have to consider other options, especially ones that are morally and socially acceptable to most of humanity.  Pushed by my own need to find an alternative to cryonics, I began trying to think of ways I could be restored after physical death.

If I am unable to preserve the physical components that currently make me up, it seems that the next best thing I can do is to record in some way as much of the details of the functioning of those physical components as possible.  Since we don't yet have the brain emulation technology that would make cryonics irrelevant for the still living, I need a lower tech way to making a record of myself.  And of all the ways I might try to record myself, none seems to better balance robustness, cost, and detail than writing.

Writing myself into the future—now we're on to something.

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