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Comment author: [deleted] 02 May 2013 03:48:24AM *  109 points [-]

"The spatial anomaly has interacted with the tachyonic radiation in the nebula, it's interfering with our sensors. It's impossible to get a reading."

"There's no time - we'll have to take the ship straight through it!"

"Captain, I advise against this course of action. I have calculated the odds against our surviving such an action at three thousand, seven hundred and forty-five to one."

"Damn the odds, we've got to try... wait a second. Where, exactly, did you get that number from?"

"I hardly think this is the time for-"

"No. No, fuck you, this is exactly the time. The fate of the galaxy is at stake. Trillions of lives are hanging in the balance. You just pulled four significant digits out of your ass, I want to see you show your goddamn work."

"Well, I used the actuarial data from the past fifty years, relating to known cases of ships passing through nebulae that are interacting with spatial anomalies. There have been approximately two million such incidents reported, with only five hundred and forty-two incidents in which the ship in question survived intact."

"And did you at all take into account that ship building technology has improved over the past fifty years, and that ours is not necessarily an average ship?"

"Indeed I did, Captain. I weighted the cases differently based on how recent they were, and how close the ship in question was in build to our own. For example, one of the incidents with a happy ending was forty-seven years ago, but their ship was a model roughly five times our size. As such, I counted the incident as having twenty-four percent of the relevance of a standard case."

"But what of our ship's moxie? Can you take determination and drive and the human spirit into account?"

"As a matter of fact I can, Captain. In our three-year history together, I have observed that both you and this ship manage to beat the odds with a measurable regularity. To be exact, we tend to succeed twenty-four point five percent more often than the statistics would otherwise indicate - and, in fact, that number jumps to twenty-nine point two percent specifically in cases where I state the odds against our success to three significant digits or greater. I have already taken that supposedly 'unknowable' factor into account with my calculations."

"And you expect me to believe that you've memorized all these case studies and performed this ridiculously complicated calculation in your head within the course of a normal conversation?"

"Yes. With all due respect to your species, I am not human. While I freely admit that you do have greater insight into fields such as emotion, interpersonal relations, and spirituality than I do, in the fields of memory and calculation, I am capable of feats that would be quite simply impossible for you. Furthermore, if I may be perfectly frank, the entire purpose of my presence on the bridge is to provide insights such as these to help facilitate your command decisions. If you're not going to heed my advice, why am I even here?"

"Mm. And we're still sitting at three thousand seven hundred to one against?"

"Three thousand, seven hundred and forty five to one."

"Well, shit. Well, let's go around, then."

The Vulcan your Vulcan could sound like if he wasn't made of straw, I guess? Link

Comment author: gwern 24 July 2013 06:02:23PM 96 points [-]

The difficulty with supposing that automation is producing unemployment is that automation isn't new, so how can you use it to explain this new phenomenon of increasing long-term unemployment?

Clearly computers are exactly the same, and ought to be expected to have the same effects, as steam engines. Just look at horses, they're doing fine.

Now there's been a recession and the jobs aren't coming back (in the US and EU), even though NGDP has risen back to its previous level (at least in the US). If the problem is automation, and we didn't experience any sudden leap in automation in 2008, then why can't people get back at least the jobs they used to have, as they did in previous recessions? Something has gone wrong with the engine of reemployment...But this must mean something new and awful is happening to the processes of employment - it's not because the kind of automation that's happening today is different from automation in the 1990s, 1980s, 1920s, or 1870s; there were skilled jobs lost then, too. ...even I can see all sorts of changed circumstances which are much more plausible sources of novel employment dysfunction than the relatively steady progress of automation.

And there are also issues like labor hoarding and sticky wages/ratchets and tipping points and technologies reaching break-evens. Let me describe another plausible argument: "since computers and software have increased their usefulness smoothly albeit exponentially, we would see productivity gradually increase over time due to computers/software, and computers/software as so great that this would be obvious to the dimmest person using the most gross aggregate figures". This argument would be dead wrong, you would see essentially zero benefit from computers up to the '90s, and this massively counterintuitive and unexpected fact is dubbed the productivity paradox.

You don't even show that we didn't see this sort of abrupt jump in disemployment back then! For all you know, during the various panics and busts, there were huge disemployment effects as companies were forced or enabled to automate, but the people were able to switch sectors or find new jobs, which is the principle claim here.

Or to be less extreme, there are lots of businesses who'd take nearly-free employees at various occupations, if those employees could be hired literally at minimum wage and legal liability wasn't an issue.

Part of ZMP, as you should be aware, is that it's perfectly possible to have lots of humans who you would not hire at any wages at all, completely aside from the issue that the much-ballyhooed disemployment effects of minimum wage have been surprisingly hard to observe. For example, how many people would hire a black kid from the inner city to do their dishes for $0 an hour? Not many. How many would do so if they learned that like distressingly many such people, the kid in question has been convicted of some crime or other? I am guessing less than 100% of people would hire them. This is an obvious case where you would not hire someone at any price; ZMP simply extends this to say that there are many more such people.

We do not literally have nothing better for unemployed workers to do. Our civilization is not that advanced.

Sure we are. One video of an employee spitting in customer's food can go viral and do more damage to a chain's sales than that employee would earn for the chain in a hundred years. One person in an o-ring process can do an incredible amount of damage if they are only slightly subpar; to continue the NASA analogy, one loose bolt can cost $135 million, one young inexperienced technician can cost $200 million. Isolated examples? Well, just calculate the expected-value of reducing the number of such incidents by even 0.01%...

Many industries that would otherwise be accessible to relatively less skilled labor, have much higher barriers to entry now than in 1950. Taxi medallions, governments saving us from the terror of unlicensed haircuts, fees and regulatory burdens associated with new businesses - all things that could've plausibly changed between now and the previous four centuries.

What happened to your smoothness argument? It applies just as well to your libertarian examples here - better, actually, because many of your examples have origins in the Great Depression, for example, NYC taxi medallions in 1937.

Human beings, including employers, are very averse to downside risk, so this could plausibly be a major obstacle to reemployment.

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Why doesn't this apply to firing people as well and fully explain how automation could be smoothly progressing while disemployment cyclical?

We need some new factor to explain why this wasn't true in 1950, and obvious candidates

No, the obvious candidate is the increasing skilledness and fragility of production as automation and precision and all-around technological sophistication increases. You want to know what manufacturing looks like in 2013, and not 1950? is as good a place to start as any.

A. Then it's odd to see so many news articles talking about AI killing jobs, when plain old non-AI computer programming and the Internet have affected many more jobs than that. The buyer ordering books over the Internet, the spreadsheet replacing the accountant - these processes are not strongly relying on the sort of algorithms that we would usually call 'AI' or 'machine learning' or 'robotics'.

Those were AI. "AI is whatever we don't know how to do yet", remember? Look at the MIT AI Lab, and what it and other AI places were doing in the '70s and '80s due to and to support their work: intranets, Internet, hypertext, interpreted languages with garbage collection, GUIs, single-person workstations, parallel processing, online chat and email, networking algorithms and on and son.

And then there's all the robotic warehouses which help online retailers like Amazon compete. Hm. I bet in a past era those warehouses would've been run using humans.

Even then, the total number of people driving cars for money would just be a small part of the total global economy; most humans are not paid to drive cars most of the time.

The trucking industry alone employs ~3% of the entire American population. That's not trivial by any means. And how many of those employees do you think are skilled operations research PhDs who can easily find employment elsewhere in logistics?

If we imagine that in future decades machine intelligence is slowly going past the equivalent of IQ 70, 80, 90, eating up more and more jobs along the way...

Q. Could we already be in this substitution regime -

A. No, no, a dozen times no, for the dozen reasons already mentioned. That sentence in Hanson's paper has nothing to do with what is going on right now.

Oh yeah? Alright, here's a kid with IQ 70. He can lift things under 40 pounds and put them where you tell him to. I'm afraid he can't read past a third-grade level, or anything like that. It's probably not a good idea to let him near any moving machinery either. Fortunately for you, he doesn't throw any violent temper tantrums and he doesn't steal - he's a sweet kid, willing to work. Just dumber than a stack of bricks. Take him down Main Street and see if anyone will hire him. How many job offers did he get?

More generally, Eliezer, you seem to completely fail to grapple with the real proponents of these ideas like Autor or Brynjolfsson or heck, even Cowen. What is the point of this 'anti-FAQ' if you aren't dealing with the actual arguments (never mind steelmen)?

Comment author: ModusPonies 10 May 2013 07:41:03PM 67 points [-]

If you are a human, then the biggest influence on your personality is your peer group. Choose your peers.

If you want to be better at math, surround yourself with mathematicians. If you want to be more productive, hang out with productive people. If you want to be outgoing or artistic or altruistic or polite or proactive or smart or just about anything else, find people who are better than you at that thing and become friends with them. The status-seeking conformity-loving parts of your mind will push you to become like them. (The incorrect but pithy version: "You are an average of the five people you spend the most time with.")

I've had a lot of success with this technique by going to the Less Wrong meetups in Boston, and by making a habit of attending any event where I'll be the stupidest person in the room (such as the average Less Wrong meetup).

Comment author: westward 18 December 2013 09:05:29PM *  66 points [-]

"Finally, a study that backs up everything I've always said about confirmation bias." -Kslane, Twitter


Comment author: sediment 02 June 2013 07:58:49PM *  64 points [-]

Hofstadter on the necessary strangeness of scientific explanations:

It is no accident, I would maintain, that quantum mechanics is so wildly counterintuitive. Part of the nature of explanation is that it must eventually hit some point where further probing only increases opacity rather than decreasing it. Consider the problem of understanding the nature of solids. You might wonder where solidity comes form. What if someone said to you, "The ultimate basis of this brick's solidity is that it is composed of a stupendous number of eensy weensy bricklike objects that themselves are rock-solid"? You might be interested to learn that bricks are composed of micro-bricks, but the initial question - "What accounts for solidity?" - has been thoroughly begged. What we ultimately want is for solidity to vanish, to dissolve, to disintegrate into some totally different kind of phenomenon with which we have no experience. Only then, when we have reached some completely novel, alien level will we feel that we have really made progress in explaining the top-level phenomenon.


I first saw this thought expressed in the stimulating book Patterns of Discovery by Norwood Russell Hanson. Hanson attributes it to a number of thinkers, such as Isaac Newton, who wrote, in his famous work Opticks: "The parts of all homogeneal hard Bodies which fully touch one another, stick together very strongly. And for explaining how this may be, some have invented hooked Atoms, which is begging the Question." Hanson also quotes James Clerk Maxwell (from an article entitled "Atom"): "We may indeed suppose the atom elastic, but this is to endow it with the very property for the explanation of which... the atomic constitution was originally assumed." Finally, here is a quote Hanson provides from Werner Heisenberg himself: "If atoms are really to explain the origin of color and smell of visible material bodies, then they cannot possess properties like color and smell." So, although it is not an original thought, it is useful to bear in mind that greeness disintegrates.

— from the postscript to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (his lovely book of essays from his column in Scientific American)

Comment author: philh 26 December 2013 03:24:14AM 63 points [-]

I'd like to thank the LW community that the fact that you can embed images in comments comes as a surprise to me.

Comment author: B_For_Bandana 17 May 2013 10:09:46PM 56 points [-]

I have discovered a way to carry a credit card balance indefinitely, interest-free, without making payments, using only an Amazon Kindle.

How my card works is, any purchases made during Month N get applied to the balance due in the middle of Month N+1. So if I make a purchase now, in May 2013, it goes on the balance due June 15th. If I don't pay the full May balance by June 15th, then and only then do they start charging interest. This is pretty typical of credit cards, I think.

Now the key loophole is that refunds are counted as payments, and are applied immediately, but purchases are applied to the balance due next month. So if I buy something on June 5th, and return it on June 6th, the purchase goes toward the balance due on July 15th, but the refund is applied as a payment on the balance due on June 15th! So you can pay your entire June balance with nothing but refunds, and you won't have to worry about paying for those purchases until July, at which time you can do the whole thing again. The debt is still there, of course, because all you've done is add and then subtract say $100 from your balance, but absolutely no interest is charged. This process is limited only by your credit line (which you cannot exceed at any time) and by the ease with which you can buy and return stuff each month.

Here's where the Kindle comes in. Repeatedly buying and returning items from a brick-and-mortar store is incredibly time-consuming and risky. You have to buy stuff, keep it in good shape, and then return it, interacting with human clerks each time, without raising suspicion. Not efficient. But if you have a Kindle, you know that when you buy a book, after you hit "Purchase" a screen comes up that asks if you have bought the item by accident, and if so, would you like to cancel the purchase. If you hit the button to cancel the purchase, what happens is that the purchase is still applied to your card, but it is refunded a couple of days later. Bingo. Automatic refunds, obtained at home at no risk, with no human oversight.

But e-books on Amazon are like $10, so you'd have to sit there all day hitting "buy" and "return" to shift a significant amount of debt, right? Wrong. If you know where to look, the Amazon kindle store has lots of handbooks, technical manuals, and textbooks that cost hundreds of dollars. Start out searching for "neurology handbook" and just surf the "similar books" list from there. Buy and return a few of those, and you're set for another month.

Obviously you have to pay off the debt at some point. This is not free money. But if you're in a tight spot for a few months, it's incredibly useful. And hey, if the inflation-adjusted prime rate is 0%, why should you have to pay interest? You're good for it.

This is by far the most munchkin-like idea I've ever had, and I'm pretty happy about it. I've been using it since January, making real payments toward my card as I can, and covering the rest with Amazon buy-and-returns. I know I'll pay down the debt when I have a better job, but in the meantime it is really nice not to have to pay any interest on it.

Comment author: Kai_Sotala 12 May 2013 12:36:02AM *  59 points [-]

Then change your nick to be very similar to that of a top contributor.

Comment author: timujin 22 November 2013 03:43:44PM *  59 points [-]

Surveyed. Having everyone participate in a Prisoner's Dillema is extremely ingenious.

Edit: Hey, guys, stop upvoting this! You have already falsified my answer to survey's karma question by an order of magnitude!

Edit much later: The lesswrong community is now proved evil.

Edit much more later: Bwahaha, I expected that... Thanks for the karma and stuff...

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 22 November 2013 09:11:27AM 58 points [-]

Taken. It was relatively quick; the questions were easy. Thanks for improving the survey!

Two notes: The question about mental illness has no "None" answers; thus you cannot distinguish between people who had none, and people who didn't answer the question. The question about income did not make clear whether it's pre-tax or post-tax.

Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 13 January 2014 08:23:49PM *  57 points [-]

To me, charitable reading and steelmanning are rather different, though related.

To read charitably is to skip over, rather than use for your own rhetorical advantage, things in your interlocutor's words like ambiguity, awkwardness, slips of tongue, inessential mistakes. On the freeway of discussion, charitable reading is the great smoother-over of cracks and bumps of "I didn't mean it like that" and "that's not what it says". It is always a way towards a meeting of the minds, towards understanding better What That Person Really Wanted To Say - but nothing beyond that. If you're not sure whether something is a charitable reading, ask yourself if the interlocutor would agree - or would have agreed when you're arguing with a text whose author is absent or dead - that this is what they really meant to say.

I prefer "charitable reading" and not "the principle of charity" because the latter might be applied very broadly. We might assume all kinds of things about the interlocutor's words acting out of what we perceive as charity. For example, "let's pretend you never said that" in response to a really stupid or vile statement might strike many people as an application of the principle of charity, but it is clearly not a charitable reading. And that's good - it's really a different sort of thing, whether desirable or not.

Steelmanning, on the other hand, is all about changing the argument against your position to a stronger one against your position. The "against your position" part is left out of some good explanations in other comments here, but I think it's crucial. Steelmanning is not a courtesy or a service to my interlocutor. It is a service to me. It is my attempt to build the strongest case I can against my position, so I can shatter it or see it survive the challenge. The interlocutor might not agree, if I were to ask them, that my steelmanned argument is really stronger than theirs; that's no matter. I'm not doing it for them, I'm doing it for myself.

When you look at it like this, there should be no danger of confusing the steelmanned argument with the interlocutor's original one. The steelmanned argument is properly yours, it is based on the original argument but should not be attributed to the interlocutor even rhetorically. There's no benefit to the conversation from doing that. You're not doing anyone a favor by pretending they said something they didn't.

In a conversation, live or close to live, charitable reading is always the appropriate and virtuous thing to do, but steelmanning your interlocutor's argument might not be. It often is appropriate, but that isn't a given. Remember, the steelmanned argument is your creation and is meant for you, you owe it to yourself to test your beliefs with it, but not necessarily in the context of this conversation. Not because concealing it is an easier way to victory, but rather because what's steelmanned for you might not be steelmanned or even interesting to your interlocutor. Their argument said A, and you may have found a way to strengthen it further to say B, but they might not want to claim B, to defend B, to agree that B is stronger than A. That said, if you do think the steelmanned argument would be useful to them, by all means introduce it, but explicitly as your own. Some phrases that are commonly said in such cases would be: "I see your point here, and I would even add ... but still, I would disagree...", or "You could also say that...", or you can propose a back-and-forth: "I think this is wrong because of... You might want to reply that... But to that, I would say..." In all these cases, the interlocutor is free to agree or disagree with your explicitly introduced steelman.

Now, going to the example in the post, where the ancient Roman chooses to interpret a progressive argument for increasing welfare as "really" carrying between lines the ancient Roman rationale. He is not doing a charitable reading of his interlocutor's words - they would definitely not agree that this is what they meant to say. And he is not steelmanning anything either, because he hasn't strengthened an argument against his own position; rather, he fortified his existing beliefs by manufacturing another fake confirmation. If he were to modify the progressive's argument in some way that would make it harder for him to interpret it in the ancient-Roman sense, that would be steelmanning.

To sum up:

  • Charitable reading is always done for the sake of the discussion, to improve its usefulness, to reduce noise, and to avoid conscious or unwitting misrepresentation. It should never introduce anything to the argument that its original owner wouldn't have recognized as what they said. It's always a good idea.
  • Steelmanning is always done for your own sake. It always says something new that the original owner of the argument didn't think of or at least didn't say. When put back into the discussion, it should be introduced explicitly as your words. Steelmanning is usually a good idea whenever something important to you is being discussed. Steelmanning every trivial thing is tedious and silly; you're doing it for youself, so you get to decide what should be steelmanned.
Comment author: Zando 03 August 2013 06:50:10AM *  57 points [-]

when trying to characterize human beings as computational systems, the difference between “person” and “person with pencil and paper” is vast.

Procrastination and The Extended Will 2009

Comment author: Tuxedage 11 May 2013 04:33:53PM *  55 points [-]

So I've recently decided to change my real name from an oriental one to John Adams. I am not white.

There’s a significant amount of evidence that shows that

(1) Common names have better reception in many areas, especially publication and job interviews.

(2) White names do significantly better than non-white names

(3) Last names that begin with the early letters of the alphabet have a significant advantage over last names beginning with the latter letters of the alphabet.

Source :

Therefore if I were to use "John", one of the most common 'white' first names, along with Adams, a 'white' surname that also begins with the letter A, it should stand that I would be conferred a number of advantages.

Furthermore, I have very little attachment to my family heritage. Switching names doesn’t cost me anything beyond a minor inconvenience of having to do paperwork. For some people, changing your name may be extremely worthwhile, depending on your current name, and how attached you are to it. At least, it may be worthwhile to consider it, and depending on the person, may be a very cheap optimization with significant benefits.

Comment author: CarlShulman 01 December 2013 11:29:34PM *  54 points [-]

Disclaimer: I like and support the EA movement.

I agree with Vaniver, that it would be good to give more time to arguments that the EA movement is going to do large net harm. You touch on this a bit with the discussion of Communism and moral disagreement within the movement, but one could go further. Some speculative ways in which the EA movement could have bad consequences:

  • The EA movement, driven by short-term QALYs, pulls effort away from affecting science and policy in rich countries with long-term impacts to brief alleviation of problems for poor humans and animals
  • AMF-style interventions increase population growth and lower average world income and education, which leads to fumbling of long-run trajectories or existential risk
  • The EA movement screws up population ethics and the valuation of different minds in such a way that it doesn't just fail to find good interventions, but pursues actively terrible ones (e.g. making things much worse by trading off human and ant conditions wrongly)
  • Even if the movement mostly does not turn towards promoting bad things, it turns out to be easier to screw things up than to help, and foolish proponents of conflicting sub-ideologies collectively make things worse for everyone, PD style; you see this in animal activists enthused about increasing poverty to reduce meat consumption, or poverty activists happy to create huge deadweight GDP losses as long as resources are transferred to the poor,
  • Something like explicit hedonistic utilitarianism becomes an official ideology somewhere, in the style of Communist states (even though the members don't really embrace it in full on every matter, they nominally endorse it as universal and call their contrary sentiments weakness of will): the doctrine implies that all sentient beings should be killed and replaced by some kind of simulated orgasm-neurons and efficient caretaker robots (or otherwise sacrifice much potential value in the name of a cramped conception of value), and society is pushed in this direction by a tragedy of the commons; also, see Robin Hanson
  • Misallocating a huge mass of idealists' human capital to donation for easily measurable things and away from more effective things elsewhere, sabotages more effective do-gooding for a net worsening of the world
  • The EA movement gets into politics and can't clearly evaluate various policies with huge upside and downside potential because of ideological blinders, and winds up with a massive net downside
  • The EA movement finds extremely important issues, and then turns the public off from them with its fanaticism, warts, or fumbling, so that it would have been better to have left those issues to other institutions
Comment author: Nominull 22 November 2013 05:56:12AM 55 points [-]

Are you planning to do any analysis on what traits are associated with defection? That could get ugly fast.

(I took the survey)

Comment author: roystgnr 22 November 2013 06:02:25AM 54 points [-]

I took the survey. My apologies for not doing so in every previous year I've been here, and for not finding time for the extra questions this year.

The race question should probably use checkboxes (2^N answers) rather than radio boxes (N answers). Biracial people aren't that uncommon.

Living "with family" is slightly ambiguous; I almost selected it instead of "with partner/spouse" since our kids are living with us, but I suspected that wasn't the intended meaning.

Comment author: Cthulhoo 03 September 2013 10:49:52AM 53 points [-]

In some species of Anglerfish, the male is much smaller than the female and incapable of feeding independently. To survive he must smell out a female as soon as he hatches. He bites into her releasing an enzime which fuses him to her permanently. He lives off her blood for the rest of his life, providing her with sperm whenever she needs it. Females can have multiple males attached. The morale is simple: males are parasites, women are sluts. Ha! Just kidding! The moral is don't treat actual animal behavior like a fable. Generally speaking, animals have no interest in teaching you anything.

Oglaf (Original comic NSFW)

Comment author: BT_Uytya 03 August 2013 01:39:05PM *  54 points [-]

The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity. They imagine mindless automatons, heads down in a checklist, incapable of looking out their windshield and coping with the real world in front of them. But what you find, when a checklist is well made, is exactly the opposite. The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (Are the elevator controls set? Did the patient get her antibiotics on time? Did the managers sell all their shares? Is everyone on the same page here?), and lets it rise above to focus on the hard stuff (Where should we land?).

Here are the details of one of the sharpest checklists I’ve seen, a checklist for engine failure during flight in a single-engine Cessna airplane—the US Airways situation, only with a solo pilot. It is slimmed down to six key steps not to miss for restarting the engine, steps like making sure the fuel shutoff valve is in the OPEN position and putting the backup fuel pump switch ON. But step one on the list is the most fascinating. It is simply: FLY THE AIRPLANE. Because pilots sometimes become so desperate trying to restart their engine, so crushed by the cognitive overload of thinking through what could have gone wrong, they forget this most basic task. FLY THE AIRPLANE. This isn’t rigidity. This is making sure everyone has their best shot at survival.

-- Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 May 2013 05:55:19AM 51 points [-]

...just to be clear on this, you have a persistent hallucination who follows you around and offers you rationality advice and points out fallacies in your thinking?

If I ever go insane, I hope it's like this.

Comment author: Benito 03 April 2014 08:10:35PM *  52 points [-]

Comedian Simon Munnery:

Many are willing to suffer for their art; few are willing to learn how to draw.

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