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

St. Petersburg Mugging Implies You Have Bounded Utility

11 TimFreeman 07 June 2011 03:06PM

This post describes an infinite gamble that, under some reasonable assumptions, will motivate people who act to maximize an unbounded utility function to send me all their money. In other words, if you understand this post and it doesn't motivate you to send me all your money, then you have a bounded utility function, or perhaps even upon reflection you are not choosing your actions to maximize expected utility, or perhaps you found a flaw in this post.

continue reading »

Manufacturing prejudice

24 PhilGoetz 03 April 2011 05:26PM

There's a tradition in England - I don't know how old - of abusing red-headed people.  It's a genuine prejudice in England.  From this facebook page:

'Ginger' in England basically is like saying:

"Look there's an ugly, smelly, no friends, socially unacceptable, negative, aggressive, angry, violent, unclean, nasty, non boyfriend material, low self esteem, unattractive, social misfit, nerdy, moron, low education, non human...etc etc etc"

The term 'ginger' didn't become 'mainstream' just because of that South Park episode, I was being shot at, having acid thrown over me, stabbed, headbutted, punched, spat on, kicked, dehumanised, singled out, socially excluded, avoided, belittled, character assassinated etc since I can remember and to be fair I found that treatment was at its peak years before that South Park episode was even thought up.

This spread to the US in 2005, when Cartman tried to incite violence against redheads in a South Park episode with "Kick a Ginger Day".

What's interesting is how this meme is spreading in the US: As humor.  This meme is promoted by sites like CollegeHumor.com and MyLifeIsAverage.com, which mine it as a source of ironic humor.  The Cheezburger Network is pushing ginger-hatred almost as aggressively as they push pedophilia as a fount of humor.

Are humans capable of, collectively, keeping real and humorous/ironic racism separate?  No, they are not. What South Park "kicked" off as an ironic commentary on racism is becoming actual racism.

One clue that you're going too far in your ironic humor is when you start finding the real thing funny.

Do humans have an instinctive need to bond over shared prejudices?  Is combating racism a game of whack-a-mole, in which society invents new prejudices to replace the ones being taken away?

The Last Number

4 Stuart_Armstrong 10 April 2010 12:09PM


He paused for a moment, and licked his recently reconstructed lips. He was nearly there. After seventeen thousand subjective years of effort, he was, finally, just seconds away from the end. He slowed down as the finish line drew into sight, savouring and lengthening the moment where he stood there, just on the edge of enlightenment.


Those years had been long; longer, perhaps, in the effects they had upon him, than they could ever be in any objective or subjective reality. He had been human; he had been frozen, uploaded, simulated, gifted with robotic bodies inside three different levels of realities, been a conscript god, been split into seven pieces (six of which were subsequently reunited). He had been briefly a battle droid for the army of Orion, and had chanted his numbers even as he sent C-beams to glitter in the dark to scorch Formic worlds.

He had started his quest at the foot of a true Enlightened One, who had guided him and countless other disciples on the first step of the path. Quasi-enlightened ones had guided him further, as the other disciples fell to the wayside all around him, unable to keep their purpose focused. And now, he was on the edge of total Enlightenment. Apparently, there were some who went this far, and deliberately chose not to take the last step. But these were always friends of a friend of an acquaintance of a rumour. He hadn't believed they existed. And now that he had come this far, he knew these folk didn't exist. No-one could come this far, this long, and not finish it.

continue reading »

Free copy of Feynman's autobiography for best corny rationalist joke

13 GreenRoot 04 April 2010 12:32AM

Portrait of Richard FeynmanI have an extra copy of Richard Feyman's autobiography, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Aventures of a Curious Character, which I want to give away here.

This is one of two autobiographies (along with Ben Franklin's) to actually change my life.  I've seen it quoted often on LessWrong, as Feynman has a point of view on life that fits well with the ideas we explore here.  In addition to his rationalist side, Feynman also exhibited a wonderfully free sense of humor. Even when working at the Manhattan Project, he joked around and never took himself too seriously.  I think our community would benefit if the rationalism here were likewise leavened by some self-deprecating humor.

I will mail the autobiography, at my expense, to whomever posts the best corny rationalist joke in the comments below, as judged by karma voting.  Anything goes.  Here's a little inspirational prompting:

  • How many rationalists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? ...
  • Two rationalists walk into a bar. ...
  • You might be a rationalist if ...

Edit (April 12th): The winner of the corny rationalist joke contest is this one-liner by SilasBarta, which collected 17 net up-votes:

Rationalist pick-up line: "I would never cheat on you if and only if you would never cheat on me if and only if I would never cheat on you."

The runner-up (and my personal favorite) is this exchange by Bo102010, which collected 14 net up-votes.   The full comment thread for this one has an explanation and suggested refinements.

A rationalist walks into a bar with two bartenders. The rationalist asks "What's the best drink to get tonight?"

The first bartender says "The martini."

The second bartender says "The gin and tonic."

The first bartender repeats "The martini."

The second bartender repeats "The gin and tonic."

The first says again "The martini."

The second says again "The gin and tonic."

Then the first says "The gin and tonic."

The rationalist smiles and says, "I'm glad you could come to an agreement."

Thanks to everybody who contributed and voted on corny jokes.


5 dclayh 01 April 2010 04:04AM

Previously: Eliezer Yudkowsky facts, and Kevin's prediction.


A bit of silliness for the day.  Below the fold to spare those with delicate sensibilities. 

continue reading »

Comic about the Singularity

2 dclayh 14 January 2010 06:20PM

Today's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  (Which incidentally is a very funny webcomic I read regularly.)  Mouseover the red button for a bonus panel.

Clearly the author hasn't read the proper Eliezer essay(s) on post-Singularity life.

The 9/11 Meta-Truther Conspiracy Theory

43 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 December 2009 06:59PM

Date:  September 11th, 2001.
Personnel:  Unknown [designate A], Unknown [designate B], Unknown [designate C].

A:  It's done.  The plane targeted at Congress was crashed by those on-board, but the Pentagon and Trade Center attacks occurred just as scheduled.

B:  Congress seems sufficiently angry in any case.  I don't think the further steps of the plan will meet with any opposition.  We should gain the governmental powers we need, and the stock market should move as expected.

A:  Good.  Have you prepared the conspiracy theorists to accuse us?

B:  Yes.  All is in readiness.  The first accusations will fly within the hour.

C:  Er...

A:  What is it?

C:  Sorry, I know I'm a bit new to this sort of thing, but why are we sponsoring conspiracy theorists?  Aren't they our arch-nemeses, tenaciously hunting down and exposing our lies?

A:  No, my young apprentice, just the opposite.  As soon as you pull off a conspiracy, the first thing you do is start a conspiracy theory about it.  Day one.

continue reading »

Hamster in Tutu Shuts Down Large Hadron Collider

38 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 November 2009 04:29PM

The Large Hadron Collider was shut down yesterday by a hamster in a tutu, weary scientists announced.

The Large Hadron Collider is the successor to the earlier Superconducting Super Collider, which was shut down by the US House of Representatives in 1993 after 14 miles of tunnel had been constructed at a cost of $2 billion.  Since its inception, the Large Hadron Collider has been plagued by construction delays, dead technicians, broken magnet supports, electrical faults, helium containment failures, vacuum leaks, birds with baguettes, terrorists, ninjas, pirates, supervillains, hurricanes, asteroids, cosmic energy storms, and a runaway train.  On one occasion it was discovered that the entire 17-mile circular tunnel had been built upside-down due to a sign error in the calculations, and the whole facility had to be carefully flipped by a giant spatula.

continue reading »

Spay or Neuter Your Irrationalities

2 Alicorn 10 April 2009 08:08PM

No human person has, so far as I am aware, managed to eradicate all irrationalities from their thinking.  They are unavoidable, and this is particularly distressing when the irrationalities are lurking in your brain like rats in the walls and you don't know what they are.  Of course you don't know what they are - they are irrationalities, and you are a rationalist, so if you had identified them, they would be dying (quickly or slowly, but dying).  It's only natural for someone committed to rationality to want to indiscriminately exterminate the threats to the unattainable goal.

But are they all worth getting rid of?

It is my opinion that they are not: some irrationalities are small and cute and neutered, and can be confined and kept where you can see them, like pet gerbils instead of rats in the walls.

I'll give you an example: I use iTunes for my music organization and listening.  iTunes automatically records the number of times I have listened to each song and displays it.  Within a given playlist, I irrationally believe that all of these numbers have to match: if I have listened to the theme from The Phantom of the Opera exactly fifty-two times, I have to also have listened to "The Music of the Night" exactly fifty-two times, no matter how much I want to listen to the theme on repeat all afternoon.

Does this make any sense?  No, of course not, but it isn't worth my time to get rid of it.  It is small - it affects only a tiny corner of my life, and if it starts to get in the way of my musical preferences, I can cheat it by resetting play counts or fast-forwarding through songs (like I could get around the chore of feeding a gerbil with an automatic food dispenser).  It is "cute" - I can use it as a conversation starter and people generally find it a mildly entertaining quirk, not evidence that I need psychiatric help.  I have it metaphorically neutered - since I make no effort to suppress it, I'm able to recognize the various emotional reactions that satsifying or frustrating this irrational preference creates, and I would notice them if they cropped up anywhere else, where I would deal with them appropriately.  I also don't encourage it to memetically spread to others.  I keep it where I can see it - I make note of when I take actions to satisfy my irrational preference, and acknowledge in so doing that it's my reason and my reason doesn't make much sense.

In short, I treat it like a pet.  If it started being more trouble than it would be to root it out of my brain, I'd go through the necessary desensitization, just as I would get rid of a pet gerbil that bit me or kept me up at night even if this meant two hours each way on the bus to the Humane Society.

Introducing CADIE

0 MBlume 01 April 2009 07:32AM

Apparently there is no need to worry about the topic that must not be named anymore, for Google has taken care of everything. Behold the dawning of a new age!

Introducing CADIE

View more: Next