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The Unfriendly Superintelligence next door

48 jacob_cannell 02 July 2015 06:46PM

Markets are powerful decentralized optimization engines - it is known.  Liberals see the free market as a kind of optimizer run amuck, a dangerous superintelligence with simple non-human values that must be checked and constrained by the government - the friendly SI.  Conservatives just reverse the narrative roles.

In some domains, where the incentive structure aligns with human values, the market works well.  In our current framework, the market works best for producing gadgets. It does not work so well for pricing intangible information, and most specifically it is broken when it comes to health.

We treat health as just another gadget problem: something to be solved by pills.  Health is really a problem of knowledge; it is a computational prediction problem.  Drugs are useful only to the extent that you can package the results of new knowledge into a pill and patent it.  If you can't patent it, you can't profit from it.

So the market is constrained to solve human health by coming up with new patentable designs for mass-producible physical objects which go into human bodies.  Why did we add that constraint - thou should solve health, but thou shalt only use pills?  (Ok technically the solutions don't have to be ingestible, but that's a detail.)

The gadget model works for gadgets because we know how gadgets work - we built them, after all.  The central problem with health is that we do not completely understand how the human body works - we did not build it.  Thus we should be using the market to figure out how the body works - completely - and arguably we should be allocating trillions of dollars towards that problem.

The market optimizer analogy runs deeper when we consider the complexity of instilling values into a market.  Lawmakers cannot program the market with goals directly, so instead they attempt to engineer desireable behavior by ever more layers and layers of constraints.  Lawmakers are deontologists.

As an example, consider the regulations on drug advertising.  Big pharma is unsafe - its profit function does not encode anything like "maximize human health and happiness" (which of course itself is an oversimplification).  If allowed to its own devices, there are strong incentives to sell subtly addictive drugs, to create elaborate hyped false advertising campaigns, etc.  Thus all the deontological injunctions.  I take that as a strong indicator of a poor solution - a value alignment failure.

What would healthcare look like in a world where we solved the alignment problem?

To solve the alignment problem, the market's profit function must encode long term human health and happiness.  This really is a mechanism design problem - its not something lawmakers are even remotely trained or qualified for.  A full solution is naturally beyond the scope of a little blog post, but I will sketch out the general idea.

To encode health into a market utility function, first we create financial contracts with an expected value which captures long-term health.  We can accomplish this with a long-term contract that generates positive cash flow when a human is healthy, and negative when unhealthy - basically an insurance contract.  There is naturally much complexity in getting those contracts right, so that they measure what we really want.  But assuming that is accomplished, the next step is pretty simple - we allow those contracts to trade freely on an open market.

There are some interesting failure modes and considerations that are mostly beyond scope but worth briefly mentioning.  This system probably needs to be asymmetric.  The transfers on poor health outcomes should partially go to cover medical payments, but it may be best to have a portion of the wealth simply go to nobody/everybody - just destroyed.

In this new framework, designing and patenting new drugs can still be profitable, but it is now put on even footing with preventive medicine.  More importantly, the market can now actually allocate the correct resources towards long term research.

To make all this concrete, let's use an example of a trillion dollar health question - one that our current system is especially ill-posed to solve:

What are the long-term health effects of abnormally low levels of solar radiation?  What levels of sun exposure are ideal for human health?

This is a big important question, and you've probably read some of the hoopla and debate about vitamin D.  I'm going to soon briefly summarize a general abstract theory, one that I would bet heavily on if we lived in a more rational world where such bets were possible.

In a sane world where health is solved by a proper computational market, I could make enormous - ridiculous really - amounts of money if I happened to be an early researcher who discovered the full health effects of sunlight.  I would bet on my theory simply by buying up contracts for individuals/demographics who had the most health to gain by correcting their sunlight deficiency.  I would then publicize the theory and evidence, and perhaps even raise a heap pile of money to create a strong marketing engine to help ensure that my investments - my patients - were taking the necessary actions to correct their sunlight deficiency.  Naturally I would use complex machine learning models to guide the trading strategy.

Now, just as an example, here is the brief 'pitch' for sunlight.

If we go back and look across all of time, there is a mountain of evidence which more or less screams - proper sunlight is important to health.  Heliotherapy has a long history.

Humans, like most mammals, and most other earth organisms in general, evolved under the sun.  A priori we should expect that organisms will have some 'genetic programs' which take approximate measures of incident sunlight as an input.  The serotonin -> melatonin mediated blue-light pathway is an example of one such light detecting circuit which is useful for regulating the 24 hour circadian rhythm.

The vitamin D pathway has existed since the time of algae such as the Coccolithophore.  It is a multi-stage pathway that can measure solar radiation over a range of temporal frequencies.  It starts with synthesis of fat soluble cholecalciferiol which has a very long half life measured in months. [1] [2]

The rough pathway is:

  • Cholecalciferiol (HL ~ months) becomes 
  • 25(OH)D (HL ~ 15 days) which finally becomes 
  • 1,25(OH)2 D (HL ~ 15 hours)

The main recognized role for this pathway in regards to human health - at least according to the current Wikipedia entry - is to enhance "the internal absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate, and zinc".  Ponder that for a moment.

Interestingly, this pathway still works as a general solar clock and radiation detector for carnivores - as they can simply eat the precomputed measurement in their diet.

So, what is a long term sunlight detector useful for?  One potential application could be deciding appropriate resource allocation towards DNA repair.  Every time an organism is in the sun it is accumulating potentially catastrophic DNA damage that must be repaired when the cell next divides.  We should expect that genetic programs would allocate resources to DNA repair and various related activities dependent upon estimates of solar radiation.

I should point out - just in case it isn't obvious - that this general idea does not imply that cranking up the sunlight hormone to insane levels will lead to much better DNA/cellular repair.  There are always tradeoffs, etc.

One other obvious use of a long term sunlight detector is to regulate general strategic metabolic decisions that depend on the seasonal clock - especially for organisms living far from the equator.  During the summer when food is plentiful, the body can expect easy calories.  As winter approaches calories become scarce and frugal strategies are expected.

So first off we'd expect to see a huge range of complex effects showing up as correlations between low vit D levels and various illnesses, and specifically illnesses connected to DNA damage (such as cancer) and or BMI.  

Now it turns out that BMI itself is also strongly correlated with a huge range of health issues.  So the first key question to focus on is the relationship between vit D and BMI.  And - perhaps not surprisingly - there is pretty good evidence for such a correlation [3][4] , and this has been known for a while.

Now we get into the real debate.  Numerous vit D supplement intervention studies have now been run, and the results are controversial.  In general the vit D experts (such as my father, who started the vit D council, and publishes some related research[5]) say that the only studies that matter are those that supplement at high doses sufficient to elevate vit D levels into a 'proper' range which substitutes for sunlight, which in general requires 5000 IU day on average - depending completely on genetics and lifestyle (to the point that any one-size-fits all recommendation is probably terrible).

The mainstream basically ignores all that and funds studies at tiny RDA doses - say 400 IU or less - and then they do meta-analysis over those studies and conclude that their big meta-analysis, unsurprisingly, doesn't show a statistically significant effect.  However, these studies still show small effects.  Often the meta-analysis is corrected for BMI, which of course also tends to remove any vit D effect, to the extent that low vit D/sunlight is a cause of both weight gain and a bunch of other stuff.

So let's look at two studies for vit D and weight loss.

First, this recent 2015 study of 400 overweight Italians (sorry the actual paper doesn't appear to be available yet) tested vit D supplementation for weight loss.  The 3 groups were (0 IU/day, ~1,000 IU / day, ~3,000 IU/day).  The observed average weight loss was (1 kg, 3.8 kg, 5.4 kg). I don't know if the 0 IU group received a placebo.  Regardless, it looks promising.

On the other hand, this 2013 meta-analysis of 9 studies with 1651 adults total (mainly women) supposedly found no significant weight loss effect for vit D.  However, the studies used between 200 IU/day to 1,100 IU/day, with most between 200 to 400 IU.  Five studies used calcium, five also showed weight loss (not necessarily the same - unclear).  This does not show - at all - what the study claims in its abstract.

In general, medical researchers should not be doing statistics.  That is a job for the tech industry.

Now the vit D and sunlight issue is complex, and it will take much research to really work out all of what is going on.  The current medical system does not appear to be handling this well - why?  Because there is insufficient financial motivation.

Is Big Pharma interested in the sunlight/vit D question?  Well yes - but only to the extent that they can create a patentable analogue!  The various vit D analogue drugs developed or in development is evidence that Big Pharma is at least paying attention.  But assuming that the sunlight hypothesis is mainly correct, there is very little profit in actually fixing the real problem.

There is probably more to sunlight that just vit D and serotonin/melatonin.  Consider the interesting correlation between birth month and a number of disease conditions[6].  Perhaps there is a little grain of truth to astrology after all.

Thus concludes my little vit D pitch.  

In a more sane world I would have already bet on the general theory.  In a really sane world it would have been solved well before I would expect to make any profitable trade.  In that rational world you could actually trust health advertising, because you'd know that health advertisers are strongly financially motivated to convince you of things actually truly important for your health.

Instead of charging by the hour or per treatment, like a mechanic, doctors and healthcare companies should literally invest in their patients long-term health, and profit from improvements to long term outcomes.  The sunlight health connection is a trillion dollar question in terms of medical value, but not in terms of exploitable profits in today's reality.  In a properly constructed market, there would be enormous resources allocated to answer these questions, flowing into legions of profit motivated startups that could generate billions trading on computational health financial markets, all without selling any gadgets.

So in conclusion: the market could solve health, but only if we allowed it to and only if we setup appropriate financial mechanisms to encode the correct value function.  This is the UFAI problem next door.

Don't Build Fallout Shelters

27 katydee 07 January 2013 02:38PM

Related: Circular Altruism

One thing that many people misunderstand is the concept of personal versus societal safety. These concepts are often conflated despite the appropriate mindsets being quite different.

Simply put, personal safety is personal.

In other words, the appropriate actions to take for personal safety are whichever actions reduce your chance of being injured or killed within reasonable cost boundaries. These actions are largely based on situational factors because the elements of risk that two given people experience may be wildly disparate.

For instance, if you are currently a young computer programmer living in a typical American city, you may want to look at eating better, driving your car less often, and giving up unhealthy habits like smoking. However, if you are currently an infantryman about to deploy to Afghanistan, you may want to look at improving your reaction time, training your situational awareness, and practicing rifle shooting under stressful conditions.

One common mistake is to attempt to preserve personal safety for extreme circumstances such as nuclear wars. Some individuals invest sizeable amounts of money into fallout shelters, years worth of emergency supplies, etc.

While it is certainly true that a nuclear war would kill or severely disrupt you if it occurred, this is not necessarily a fully convincing argument in favor of building a fallout shelter. One has to consider the cost of building a fallout shelter, the chance that your fallout shelter will actually save you in the event of a nuclear war, and the odds of a nuclear war actually occurring.

Further, one must consider the quality of life reduction that one would likely experience in a post-nuclear war world. It's also important to remember that, in the long run, your survival is contingent on access to medicine and scientific progress. Future medical advances may even extend your lifespan very dramatically, and potentially provide very large amounts of utility. Unfortunately, full-scale nuclear war is very likely to impair medicine and science for quite some time, perhaps permanently.

Thus even if your fallout shelter succeeds, you will likely live a shorter and less pleasant life than you would otherwise. In the end, building a fallout shelter looks like an unwise investment unless you are extremely confident that a nuclear war will occur shortly-- and if you are, I want to see your data!

When taking personal precautionary measures, worrying about such catastrophes is generally silly, especially given the risks we all take on a regular basis-- risks that, in most cases, are much easier to avoid than nuclear wars. Societal disasters are generally extremely expensive for the individual to protect against, and carry a large amount of disutility even if protections succeed.

To make matters worse, if there's a nuclear war tomorrow and your house is hit directly, you'll be just as dead as if you fall off your bike and break your neck. Dying in a more dramatic fashion does not, generally speaking, produce more disutility than dying in a mundane fashion does. In other words, when optimizing for personal safety, focus on accidents, not nuclear wars; buy a bike helmet, not a fallout shelter.

The flip side to this, of course, is that if there is a full-scale nuclear war, hundreds of millions-- if not billions-- of people will die and society will be permanently disrupted. If you die in a bike accident tomorrow, perhaps a half dozen people will be killed at most. So when we focus on non-selfish actions, the big picture is far, far, far more important. If you can reduce the odds of a nuclear war by one one-thousandth of one percent, more lives will be saved on average than if you can prevent hundreds of fatal accidents.

When optimizing for overall safety, focus on the biggest possible threats that you can have an impact on. In other words, when dealing with societal-level risks, your projected impact will be much higher if you try to focus on protecting society instead of protecting yourself.

In the end, building fallout shelters is probably silly, but attempting to reduce the risk of nuclear war sure as hell isn't. And if you do end up worrying about whether a nuclear war is about to happen, remember that if you can reduce the risk of said war-- which might be as easy as making a movie-- your actions will have a much, much greater overall impact than building a shelter ever could.

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.”

Spend Money on Ergonomics

43 Kevin 23 December 2011 06:40AM

Warning: This is an applied rationality post, about rationality applied to a specific area of life, not a generalized rationality post.

Ergonomics is incredibly important. Sadly, so many of us in the techno-geek cluster ignore well-defined best practices of ergonomics and develop the infamous hunched back of late night computer toiling.

Seriously, ergonomics is basically a solved problem. The mathematics of anthropometry in relation to body mechanics and repetive stressors on the body are quite well understood.

I am here to offer you a basic, incredibly important, yet widely ignored lesson of rationality.

Spend money on ergonomics!

I really can't emphasize this enough. It's such low hanging fruit, yet I know way too many master aspiring rationalists with egregious ergonomic setups.

It is accepted wisdom on Less Wrong that optimizing your career is important, because you'll spend 80,000 hours working on your career. Strikingly, ergonomics presents an even larger time-based optimization opportunity. With straightforward monetary investment, you can dramatically improve the next hundreds of thousands of hours of your life. The effect size here is just enormous. Spend money on ergonomics, and you will be less fatigued, more energetic, more productive, and healthier into the later years of your life.


If you must do your computing while sitting (and do consider alternative standing deskstreadmill desks, or a desk suited to computing while lying in bed), then a good chair is a stunningly good investment. If you make your living while sitting in a chair and computing, what is a $500 investment in your comfort and good health and productivity while sitting? A used Aeron from Craigslist costs around $500 and is the gold standard of ergonomic chair design. 

At the low end of ergnomic chairs, the Ikea TORBJÖRN gets a hearty recommendation. It's only $39. Buy some extras for your visitors? That's what I did but then they all ended up in the rooms of my roommates. At the midrange, I have recommended the Ikea Verksam, but it appears to be discontinued. I think the current model Volmar is similar enough though I have not personally sat in it.

The important thing when getting your chair is to make sure it actually fits your body enough to let you sit in a proper ergonomic position. Note that the model in these OSHA images is committing an ergonomics no-no by using arm rests. Yes, I know they feel good to rest your arms on, but they're a crutch. Most all of the positions where you are resting your arms on your armrest are really bad for typing 8 hours a day. Just take the armrests off of your chair and start building up your arm strength. Similarly, avoid chairs with head rests.



Unsurprisingly at this point, I will declare that ergonomic keyboards are just better. They used to be a premium product, but now Microsoft's entry level ergonomic keyboard is only $25. Also, DVORAK is strictly better than QWERTY, ignoring the inconvenience of being forced to switch back and forth between keysets.



Ironically, given that it is the default environment for computing, sitting is not very good for the body compared to standing or lying. This makes sense in an evolutionary biology sense -- the human body was definitely designed for working while sitting up, and sleeping while lying down. We can hack this a little by working while lying down, though many people have trouble focusing given the implied lack of focus of a lying down position.

So, a good mattress can be an investment in both your sleeping comfort and your working comfort. I think a good mattress is even more important than a good chair. You spent 1/4-1/3 of your life asleep! I can accomplish no useful work without a good night's sleep.

If you sleep with (or ever plan on sleeping with) a partner, get a queen size bed. A US full size bed is equal to 1.5 twin beds, which doesn't fit two full size adults. My parents sleep on a full size bed (along with a small dog!) and are plagued by insomnia, not enough space, and bouts of blanket stealing. Apparently, it was not uncommon among their generation to prefer the forced physical closeness of a smaller bed. This is ok sometimes, of course, but when we're talking every night, you'll sleep better when not forced to be crushed up against your partner. 

A king size bed is even better, of course, if your room can fit it. I got a king size bed because my partner and I both like to compute while lying down in bed, and two people plus computers fit much better on a king size bed than a queen size bed.

I like memory foam mattresses. A minority of people really don't. My heuristic on this is that if you think you'll like a memory foam mattress, you will. One nice thing about memory foam is that it doesn't transmit vibrations from one side to the other. This means that you could probably sleep while someone else is jumping on the other side of the bed. That would not work on a conventional spring mattress. I've heard latex mattresses are even better but I'm too cheap to take my own advice to the full logical conclusion. 

Feel free to skip the box spring, unless your bed requires one. 



This is an area where my own ergonomics falls short. I'm 5' 11'' and I just can't quite fit in my Hyundai Elantra. No matter how I adjust the seat, I can't get in a perfectly ergonomic driving position. I refuse to buy another car until I can get one that drives itself, so for now, it seems like I am stuck with a somewhat unergonomic driving experience. 

On hand positioning, note that the 10-2 advocated by some DMV and then driver's ed is basically wrong. Whatever slight advantage it might offer is offset by the risk that your arms are between the airbag and your body during a crash. 9-3 is a new conservative choice. I drive 8 and 4. The California DMV manual now supports this.


Fidget more often

One of the most important points of ergonomics is that injury comes from sustained stress. The body can handle a little bit of a stress for a short period of time without much in the way of problems. People often walk into a room and see me scrunched up in the most awkward seeming, obviously unergonomic and uncomfortable looking positions. Why do I do it? Well, it turns out that your body can tolerate almost any position at all for short periods of time. The important part is to notice when your body is experiencing too much stress and shift positions.

Take a step back from this article and note how your body feels, as you are situated. Do you notice any discomfort or stress in your neck, shoulders, back, or lower body? Try fidgeting into a more comfortable position. Next time you notice stress, fidget again. Repeat for the rest of your life.

The science of fidgeting is still surprisingly undeveloped, though more evidence is coming out in favor of it. Fidgeters are much less likely to be obese than non-fidgeters. Fidgeting also works as a technique to help with focus -- it's well documented for ADHD people, but fidgeting doesn't just help ADHD people focus.

Try barefoot shoes

Vibram Fivefingers are popular enough among aspiring rationalists that I frequently joke about the cult of the toe shoe. The evidence behind barefoot running as strictly superior to conventional running shoes at this point seems overwhelming. The evidence for barefoot walking as superior to shoe'd walking is less so, but it seems intuitive to me -- when you actually get tactile feedback from your feet painfully thudding against the ground, you're more likely to walk in such a way as to minimize stress on your body.

I really like Fivefingers, but got annoyed with random passerbys asking me about them everytime I leave my house. Also, they have a tendency to fall apart after heavy use and repeated washings. 

The cult of the toe shoes seems to be moving onto Ninja Zemgears. They're also much, much cheaper than Fivefingers, so it's not as big of a deal when they inevitably fall apart. They are also much less intrusive as footwear than Vibrams. People notice them less, and when they do, they think you are wearing comfortable Japanese slippers (Tabi shoes) rather than monstrous toe forms. 


I've offered a lot of suggestions here for how to actually improve your life. If you do this sort of life-hacking, you will be able to actually notice that you are happier, less fatigued, more energetic, and more productive. Just try it. No one ever regrets improving their ergonomic well-being. You'll get to spend more of your day at your peak level of performance instead of in a tense, fatigued, or uncomfortable state.

I'm happy to answer specific questions or give product recommendations in the comments.

Funnel plots: the study that didn't bark, or, visualizing regression to the null

47 gwern 04 December 2011 11:05AM

Marginal Revolution linked a post at Genomes Unzipped, "Size matters, and other lessons from medical genetics", with the interesting centerpiece graph:

a funnel plot of genetic studies showing null result approached as sample size increasese

This is from pg 3 of an Ioannidis 2001 et al article (who else?) on what is called a funnel plot: each line represents a series of studies about some particularly hot gene-disease correlations, plotted where Y =  the odds ratio (measure of effect size; all results are 'statistically significant', of course) and X = the sample size. The 1 line is the null hypothesis, here. You will notice something dramatic: as we move along the X-axis and sample sizes increase, everything begins to converge on 1:

Readers familiar with the history of medical association studies will be unsurprised by what happened over the next few years: initial excitement (this same polymorphism was associated with diabetes! And longevity!) was followed by inconclusive replication studies and, ultimately, disappointment. In 2000, 8 years after the initial report, a large study involving over 5,000 cases and controls found absolutely no detectable effect of the ACE polymorphism on heart attack risk. In the meantime, the same polymorphism had turned up in dozens of other association studies for a wide range of traits ranging from obstet­ric cholestasis to menin­go­­coccal disease in children, virtually none of which have ever been convincingly replicated.

(See also "Why epidemiology will not correct itself" or the DNB FAQ.)

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Rational Health Optimization

20 jacob_cannell 18 September 2010 07:47PM

Possibly Related To: Diseased Thinking, Thou Art Godshatter

There are 8760 hours in a typical year.  A typical 30-year old will spend about 2900 of those hours sleeping, around 160 of them impaired or incapacitated by illness and will experience perhaps 2000 hours of peak mental function.

As one ages, the fraction of hours spent sleeping decreases slightly, but eventually the annual hours of peak mental function declines as well, and the annual hours spent ill increases nonlinearlly until one eventually makes that final hospital visit.  

There is a hope that medical technology, accelerated via a Singularity, will advance to the point where we have full mastery over biology and can economically repair organ and cellular damage faster than aging accumulates it.  There is sufficient evidence to put a reasonable bet on that happening by mid-century.

But for most of us that still leaves an unnaceptably high risk of death in the cumulative years between now and then.  Cyronics enrollment offers a further hope, but in practice probably only results in a modest improvement in long term survival odds after full discounting for the technical risks and uncertainties.

In the end it all comes down to a die roll.  Wouldn't you like to get an extra +1 or two?

With a simple evolutionary health optimization, one can:

  • achieve perhaps a 10% increase in peak mental hours per year
  • slow aging and prolong expected lifespan by at least ten years (before considering future medical advances)
  • significantly reduce chance of death before mid-century
  • shift body weight to a healthier equilibrium, increase attractiveness, general mood and happiness

Evolution and Health

Our bodies are the collective result of countless layers of mindless complex adaptations, evolutionary godshatter from a bygone history.  The current sub-species or races of humans today are just a small sampling of a much larger space of genetically related human ancestors who roamed the earth for hundreds of thousands of years before the modern era.  Our modern genomes are a wide and highly irregular sampling of this diverse set of historical adaptations.

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