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

[Link] Reality has a surprising amount of detail

14 jsalvatier 13 May 2017 08:02PM

Gears in understanding

23 Valentine 12 May 2017 12:36AM

Some (literal, physical) roadmaps are more useful than others. Sometimes this is because of how well the map corresponds to the territory, but sometimes it's because of features of the map that are irrespective of the territory. E.g., maybe the lines are fat and smudged such that you can't tell how far a road is from a river, or maybe it's unclear which road a name is trying to indicate.

In the same way, I want to point at a property of models that isn't about what they're modeling. It interacts with the clarity of what they're modeling, but only in the same way that smudged lines in a roadmap interact with the clarity of the roadmap.

This property is how deterministically interconnected the variables of the model are. There are a few tests I know of to see to what extent a model has this property, though I don't know if this list is exhaustive and would be a little surprised if it were:

  1. Does the model pay rent? If it does, and if it were falsified, how much (and how precisely) could you infer other things from the falsification?
  2. How incoherent is it to imagine that the model is accurate but that a given variable could be different?
  3. If you knew the model were accurate but you were to forget the value of one variable, could you rederive it?

I think this is a really important idea that ties together a lot of different topics that appear here on Less Wrong. It also acts as a prerequisite frame for a bunch of ideas and tools that I'll want to talk about later.

I'll start by giving a bunch of examples. At the end I'll summarize and gesture toward where this is going as I see it.

continue reading »

Thoughts on civilization collapse

14 Stuart_Armstrong 04 May 2017 10:41AM

Epistemic status: an idea I believe moderately strongly, based on extensive reading but not rigorous analysis.

We may have a dramatically wrong idea of civilization collapse, mainly inspired by movies that obsess over dramatic tales of individual heroism.


Traditional view:

In a collapse, anarchy will break out, and it will be a war of all against all or small groups against small groups. Individual weaponry (including heavy weapons) and basic food production will become paramount; traditional political skills, not so much. Government collapse is long term. Towns and cities will suffer more than the countryside. The best course of action is to have a cache of weapons and food, and to run for the hills.


Alternative view:

In a collapse, people will cling to their identified tribe for protection. Large groups will have no difficulty suppressing or taking over individuals and small groups within their areas of influence. Individual weaponry may be important (given less of a police force), but heavy weaponry will be almost irrelevant as no small group will survive alone. Food production will be controlled by the large groups. Though the formal "government" may fall, and countries may splinter into more local groups, government will continue under the control of warlords, tribal elders, or local variants. Cities, with their large and varied-skill workforce, will suffer less than the countryside. The best course of action is to have a stash of minor luxury goods (solar-powered calculators, comic books, pornography, batteries, antiseptics) and to make contacts with those likely to become powerful after a collapse (army officers, police chiefs, religious leaders, influential families).

Possible sources to back up this alternative view:

  • The book Sapiens argues that governments and markets are the ultimate enablers of individualism, with extended-family-based tribalism as the "natural" state of humanity.
  • The history of Somalia demonstrates that laws and enforcement continue even after a government collapse, by going back to more traditional structures.
  • During China's period of anarchy, large groups remained powerful: the nationalists, the communists, the Japanese invaders. The other sections of the country were generally under the control of local warlords.
  • Rational Wiki argues that examples of collapse go against the individualism narrative.


[Link] Nate Soares' "Assuming Good Intent"

8 Raemon 30 April 2017 05:45PM

[Link] If only we had taller been

4 jsalvatier 04 March 2017 11:15PM

How much does consumption affect production?

5 erratim 05 January 2015 03:51PM

A ewe for a ewe

In a discussion with Benquo over his recent suffering-per-calorie estimates I learned that there have been a few different proponents of incorporating short term elasticities into such estimates. But do empirical short term elasticities really improve our estimates of consumption's long term effect on production? For example, if I decide to reduce my lifetime consumption of chicken by one, should I expect the long term production of chicken to drop by ~1, ~0, or something in between?

I believe we should have a relatively strong prior that long term production has a  roughly 1:1 relationship with consumption, including for small individual decisions. Below are a couple arguments I find compelling, and a major exception that is not a short term elasticity.

Black box economies in general

If I go to a large alien civilization of uncertain economic structure and surprise them by buying(?) one widget, how should I expect that to affect their long term production of widgets? Seems like I should expect it to increase by one, because now they have one less than they used to. If it was originally decided that that widget should be produced; why wouldn't they decide to replace it when lost?

Neoclassical capitalism in the long term

In a simplified market, I expect there to be a lowest price at which chickens can be reliably produced at scale ("the Cost"). If producers expect the market price to be less than the Cost in the future, they will shut down production to avoid losses. If they expect it to be more than the Cost in the future, they might expand operations to make more profit. In the long term (when we can ignore temporary shocks to the system and producers have time to make adjustments), I expect the equilibrium price of chicken to approach the Cost of chicken (because other prices lead to conditions that push the price back toward the Cost). In other words, my prior is that the "price elasticity of supply" in the arbitrarily long term becomes arbitrarily high (imagine a virtually horizontal supply curve).

How many chickens will be produced at that long term price? However many are worth the Cost to consumers. If 50% of chicken consumers permanently become vegetarians, I expect that eventually the chicken industry will end up producing about 50% fewer chickens at a price similar to today's.

Similarly if consumption is reduced by just one chicken. My prior is that producers have an unbiased estimate of consumption, and that doesn't change when I eat one less chicken (so my best guess about their long term estimate of consumption drops by one when I forgo one chicken).

Time breaks the elastic limit

Compare my prior that every chicken forgone causes (in the long term) one less chicken to be produced, to the estimates that it only causes 6% or 76% of a chicken to not be produced (as Peter Hurford points out in the second case, the enormous range in these estimates alone is enough to raise flags).

Those numbers sound plausible in the short term when there's a backup in the chicken pipeline and a drop in price because producers were caught off guard by the drop in consumption. But if the vegetarians hold their new diets, won't the producers eventually react to the changed market? When they do I bet the equilibrium price will be somewhere close to the original Cost, and the quantity produced will be about 50% less (not 3% less or even 38% less). I think the thing these elasticity estimates are forgetting is that the producers aren't satisfied (in the long term) with the lower price that results from a chicken glut caused by vegetarianism. If they were, they'd be producing more chickens now.

Said another way, it all comes down to the difference between producers' reaction in the short term vs. the long term. In the short term, when someone decides not to eat a chicken, it goes to the next highest bidder (so price drops and production doesn't change much). But in the long term, producers produce all the chickens that will be demanded at the Cost (they want to produce as many as they can at that price, but if they produce any more, the chickens will be sold at a loss). When one person permanently becomes vegetarian, we should expect that long term size of the industry decreases accordingly.

When the long term Cost changes with industry size

To be clear, if we could actually measure consumption's effect on long term production in specific cases, it would rarely be exactly 1:1, though my prior is that it will average out to that over time. The exception is if consumption consistently affects the long term price in a particular direction. For example, here are some reasons that I might expect the Cost of chicken to grow or shrink as the size of the chicken industry increases:


  • Finite inputs such as limited agricultural land (Cost grows with size)
  • The production process also creates another product like eggs (Cost grows with size if marginal production is used for both)
  • Gains to scale such as factory farming (Cost shrinks with size)
  • R&D or innovation (Cost shrinks with size)
  • Favorable government policies (Cost shrinks with size)


If we have sufficiently certain estimates on any of these effects, we can certainly try to model them, although it would be a very different exercise than using empirical estimates of short-term elasticities. As it is, I have no idea which of the above effects win out (ie, whether the "consumption elasticity of the Cost" is positive or negative in the long term).

I think we would make our estimates more simple and accurate by sticking with the prior that eating one less chicken causes about one less chicken to be produced in the long term.

I Want To Live In A Baugruppe

44 Alicorn 17 March 2017 01:36AM

Rationalists like to live in group houses.  We are also as a subculture moving more and more into a child-having phase of our lives.  These things don't cooperate super well - I live in a four bedroom house because we like having roommates and guests, but if we have three kids and don't make them share we will in a few years have no spare rooms at all.  This is frustrating in part because amenable roommates are incredibly useful as alloparents if you value things like "going to the bathroom unaccompanied" and "eating food without being screamed at", neither of which are reasonable "get a friend to drive for ten minutes to spell me" situations.  Meanwhile there are also people we like living around who don't want to cohabit with a small child, which is completely reasonable, small children are not for everyone.

For this and other complaints ("househunting sucks", "I can't drive and need private space but want friends accessible", whatever) the ideal solution seems to be somewhere along the spectrum between "a street with a lot of rationalists living on it" (no rationalist-friendly entity controls all those houses and it's easy for minor fluctuations to wreck the intentional community thing) and "a dorm" (sorta hard to get access to those once you're out of college, usually not enough kitchens or space for adult life).  There's a name for a thing halfway between those, at least in German - "baugruppe" - buuuuut this would require community or sympathetic-individual control of a space and the money to convert it if it's not already baugruppe-shaped.

Maybe if I complain about this in public a millionaire will step forward or we'll be able to come up with a coherent enough vision to crowdfund it or something.  I think there is easily enough demand for a couple of ten-to-twenty-adult baugruppen (one in the east bay and one in the south bay) or even more/larger, if the structures materialized.  Here are some bulleted lists.


  • Units that it is really easy for people to communicate across and flow between during the day - to my mind this would be ideally to the point where a family who had more kids than fit in their unit could move the older ones into a kid unit with some friends for permanent sleepover, but still easily supervise them.  The units can be smaller and more modular the more this desideratum is accomplished.
  • A pricing structure such that the gamut of rationalist financial situations (including but not limited to rent-payment-constraining things like "impoverished app academy student", "frugal Google engineer effective altruist", "NEET with a Patreon", "CfAR staffperson", "not-even-ramen-profitable entrepreneur", etc.) could live there.  One thing I really like about my house is that Spouse can pay for it himself and would by default anyway, and we can evaluate roommates solely on their charming company (or contribution to childcare) even if their financial situation is "no".  However, this does require some serious participation from people whose financial situation is "yes" and a way to balance the two so arbitrary numbers of charity cases don't bankrupt the project.
  • Variance in amenities suited to a mix of Soylent-eating restaurant-going takeout-ordering folks who only need a fridge and a microwave and maybe a dishwasher, and neighbors who are not that, ideally such that it's easy for the latter to feed neighbors as convenient.
  • Some arrangement to get repairs done, ideally some compromise between "you can't do anything to your living space, even paint your bedroom, because you don't own the place and the landlord doesn't trust you" and "you have to personally know how to fix a toilet".
  • I bet if this were pulled off at all it would be pretty easy to have car-sharing bundled in, like in Benton House That Was which had several people's personal cars more or less borrowable at will.  (Benton House That Was may be considered a sort of proof of concept of "20 rationalists living together" but I am imagining fewer bunk beds in the baugruppe.)  Other things that could be shared include longish-term storage and irregularly used appliances.
  • Dispute resolution plans and resident- and guest-vetting plans which thread the needle between "have to ask a dozen people before you let your brother crash on the couch, let alone a guest unit" and "cannot expel missing stairs".  I think there are some rationalist community Facebook groups that have medium-trust networks of the right caution level and experiment with ways to maintain them.


  • Bikeshedding.  Not that it isn't reasonable to bikeshed a little about a would-be permanent community edifice that you can't benefit from or won't benefit from much unless it has X trait - I sympathize with this entirely - but too much from too many corners means no baugruppen go up at all even if everything goes well, and that's already dicey enough, so please think hard on how necessary it is for the place to be blue or whatever.
  • Location.  The only really viable place to do this for rationalist population critical mass is the Bay Area, which has, uh, problems, with new construction.  Existing structures are likely to be unsuited to the project both architecturally and zoningwise, although I would not be wholly pessimistic about one of those little two-story hotels with rooms that open to the outdoors or something like that.
  • Principal-agent problems.  I do not know how to build a dormpartment building and probably neither do you.
  • Community norm development with buy-in and a good match for typical conscientiousness levels even though we are rules-lawyery contrarians.

Please share this wherever rationalists may be looking; it's definitely the sort of thing better done with more eyes on it.

In support of Yak Shaving

14 Elo 16 March 2017 05:31AM

Original post:  http://bearlamp.com.au/in-support-of-yak-shaving/

Part 2:  http://bearlamp.com.au/yak-shaving-2/

Yak shaving is heralded as pretty much "the devil" of trying to get things done.  The anti-yak shaving movement will identify this problem as being one of focus.  The moral of the story they give is "don't yak shave".

Originally posted in MIT's media lab with the description:

Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you're working on.

But I prefer the story by Seth Godin:

"I want to wax the car today."

"Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I'll need to buy a new one at Home Depot."

"But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls."

"But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor's EZPass..."

"Bob won't lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though."

"And we haven't returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it."

And the next thing you know, you're at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.

I disagree with the conclusion to not yak shave, and here's why.

The problem here is that you didn't wax the car because you spent all day shaving yaks (see also "there's a hole in my bucket").  In a startup that translates to not doing the tasks that get customers - the tasks which get money and actually make an impact, say "playing with the UI".  It's easy to see why such anti-yak shaving sentiment would exist (see also: bikeshedding, rearranging deck chairs on the titanic, hamming questions).  You can spend a whole day doing a whole lot of nothings; getting to bed and wonder what you actually accomplished that day (hint: a whole lot of running in circles).

Or at least that's what it looks like on the surface.  But let's look a little deeper into what the problems and barriers are in the classic scenario.

  1. Want to wax car
  2. Broken hose
  3. Hardware store is far away
  4. No EZpass for tolls
  5. Neighbour won't lend the pass until pillow is returned
  6. Broken mooshi pillow
  7. Have to go get yak hair.

So it's not just one problem, but a series of problems that come up in a sequence.  Hopefully by the end of the list you can turn around and walk all the way straight back up the list.  But in the real world there might even be other problems like, you get to the hardware store and realise you don't know the hose-fitting size of your house so you need to call someone at home to check...

On closer inspection; this sort of behaviour is not like bikeshedding at all.  Nor is it doing insignificant things under the guise of "real work".  Instead this is about tackling what stands in the way of your problem.  In problem solving in the real world, Don't yak shave" is not what I have found to be the solution.  In experiencing this the first time it feels like a sequence of discoveries.  For example, first you discover the hose.  Then you discover the EZpass problem, then you discover the pillow problem, at which point you are pretty sick of trying to wax your car and want a break or to work on something else.

I propose that classic yak shaving presents a very important sign that things are broken.  In order to get to the classic scenario we had to

  1. have borrowed a pillow from our neighbour,
  2. have it break and not get fixed,
  3. not own our own EZpass,
  4. live far from a hardware store,
  5. have a broken hose, and
  6. want to wax a car.  

Each open problem in this scenario presents an open problem or an open loop.  Yak shaving presents a warning sign that you are in a Swiss-cheese model scenario of problems.  This might sound familiar because it's the kind of situation which leads to the Fukushima reactor meltdown.  It's the kind of scenario when you try to work out why the handyman fell off your roof and died, and you notice that:

  1. he wasn't wearing a helmet.
  2. He wasn't tied on safely
  3. His ladder wasn't tied down
  4. It was a windy day
  5. His harness was old and worn out
  6. He was on his phone while on the roof...

And you realise that any five of those things could have gone wrong and not caused much of a problem.  But you put all six of those mistakes together and line the wind up in just the right way, everything comes tumbling down.

Yak shaving is a sign that you are living with problems waiting to crash down.  And living in a situation where you don't have time to do the sort of maintenance that would fix things and keep smoulders from bursting into flames.

I can almost guaranteed that when your house of cards all come falling down, it happens on a day that you don't have the spare time to waste on ridiculous seeming problems.

What should you do if you are in this situation?

Yak shave.  The best thing you can do if half your projects are unfinished and spread around the room is to tidy up.  Get things together; organise things, initiate the GTD system (or any system), wrap up old bugs, close the open loops (advice from GTD) and as many times as you can; YAK SHAVE for all you are worth!

If something is broken, and you are living with it, that's not acceptable.  You need a system in your life to regularly get around to fixing it.  Notepadsreviews, list keeping, set time aside for doing it and plan to fix things.

So I say, Yak Shave, as much, as long, and as many times as it takes till there are no more yaks to shave.

Something not mentioned often enough is a late addition to my list of common human goals.

Improve the tools available – sharpen the axe, write a new app that can do the thing you want, invent systems that work for you.  prepare for when the rest of the work comes along.

People often ask how you can plan for lucky breaks in your life.  How do you cultivate opportunity?  I can tell you right here and now, this is how.

Keep a toolkit at the ready, a work-space (post coming soon) at the ready, spare time for things to go wrong and things to go right.  And don't forget to play.  Why do we sharpen the axe?  Clear Epistemics, or clear Instrumental Rationality.  Be prepared for the situation that will come up.

Yak Shave like your life depends on it.  Because your life might one day depend on it.  Your creativity certainly does.

Meta: this took 2.5 hrs to write.

[Link] An Intuition on the Bayes-Structural Justification for Free Speech Norms

5 Zack_M_Davis 09 March 2017 03:15AM

Don’t Apply the Principle of Charity to Yourself

49 UnclGhost 19 November 2011 07:26PM

In philosophy, the Principle of Charity is a technique in which you evaluate your opponent’s position as if it made the most amount of sense possible given the wording of the argument. That is, if you could interpret your opponent's argument in multiple ways, you would go for the most reasonable version. This is a good idea for several reasons. It counteracts the illusion of transparency and correspondence bias, it makes you look gracious, if your opponent really does believe a bad version of the argument sometimes he’ll say so, and, most importantly, it helps you focus on getting to the truth, rather than just trying to win a debate.

Recently I was in a discussion online, and someone argued against a position I'd taken. Rather than evaluating his argument, I looked back at the posts I'd made. I realized that my previous posts would be just as coherent if I'd written them while believing a position that was slightly different from my real one, so I replied to my opponent as if I had always believed the new position. There was no textual evidence that showed that I hadn't. In essence, I got to accuse my opponent of using a strawman regardless of whether or not he actually was. It wasn't until much later that I realized I'd applied the Principle of Charity to myself.

Now, this is bad for basically every reason it's good to apply it to other people. You get undeserved status points for being good at arguing. You exploit the non-existence of transparency. It helps you win a debate rather than trying to maintain consistent and true beliefs. And maybe worst of all, if you're good enough at getting away with it, no one knows you're doing it but you... and sometimes not even you.

Like most bad argument techniques, I wasn't aware I was doing this at a conscious level. I've probably been doing it for a long time but just didn't recognize it. I'd heard about not giving yourself too much credit, and not just trying to "win" arguments, but I had no idea I was doing both of those in this particular way. I think it's likely that this habit started from realizing that posting your opinion doesn't give people a temporary flash of insight and the ability to look into your soul and see exactly what you meanall they have to go by is the words, and (what you hope are) connotations similar to your own. Once you've internalized this truth, be very careful not to abuse it and take advantage of the fact that people don't know that you don't always believe the best form of the argument.

It's also unfair to your opponent to make them think they've misunderstood your position when they haven't. If this happens enough, they could recalibrate their argument decoding techniques, when really they were accurate to start with, and you'll have made both of you that much worse at looking for the intended version of arguments.

Ideally, this would be frequently noticed, since you are in effect lying about a large construct of beliefs, and there's probably some inconsistency between the new version and your past positions on the subject. Unfortunately though, most people aren't going to go back and check nearly as many of your past posts as you just did. If you suspect someone's doing this to you, and you're reasonably confident you don't just think so because of correspondence bias, read through their older posts (try not to go back too far though, in case they've just silently changed their mind). If that fails, it's risky, but you can try to call them on it by asking about their true rejection.

How do you prevent yourself from doing this? If someone challenges your argument, don't look for ways by which you can (retroactively) have been right all along. Say "Hm, I didn't think of that", to both yourself and your opponent, and then suggest the new version of your argument as a new version. You'll be more transparent to both yourself and your opponent, which is vital for actually gaining something out of any debate.


tl;dr: If someone doesn't apply the Principle of Charity to you, and they're right, don't apply it to yourselfrealize that you might just have been wrong.

View more: Next