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In response to 9/26 is Petrov Day
Comment author: Xodarap 08 September 2015 12:26:34AM 0 points [-]

Does anyone know what Petrov's address is, or any way to reach him?

The Madison, WI effective altruism group would like to write him thank-you letters for our next meetup this Petrov Day.

Comment author: ozziegooen 08 January 2015 04:58:44AM 0 points [-]

Good point

Comment author: Xodarap 26 March 2015 01:48:11PM 0 points [-]

I would use this

Comment author: Squark 05 January 2015 07:03:20PM 0 points [-]

I haven't read the entire post but I believe I solved "infinite ethics" in http://lesswrong.com/lw/jub/updateless_intelligence_metrics_in_the_multiverse/ (by sticking to a bounded utility function with discounts of particular asymptotics resulting from summing over a Solomonoff ensemble).

Comment author: Xodarap 18 January 2015 04:15:38PM 1 point [-]

Thanks. As per theorem 3.2 above you can't have both Pareto and an anonymity constraint. Finite anonymity would add a constant factor to the complexity of the utility vector and hence shouldn't affect the prior, so I assume your method follows the finite anonymity constraint.

As a result, you must be disobeying Pareto? It's not obvious to me why your solution results in this, so I'm bringing it up in case it wasn't obvious to you either. (Or it could be that I'm completely misunderstanding what you are trying to do. Or maybe that you don't think Pareto is actually a reasonable requirement. In any case I think at least one of us is misunderstanding what's going on.)

Problems and Solutions in Infinite Ethics

9 Xodarap 04 January 2015 02:06PM

(Crossposted from the EA forum.)

Summary: The universe may very well be infinite, and hence contain an infinite amount of happiness and sadness. This causes several problems for altruists; for example: we can plausibly only affect a finite subset of the universe, and an infinite quantity of happiness is unchanged by the addition or subtraction of a finite amount of happiness. This would imply that all forms of altruism are equally ineffective.

Like everything in life, the canonical reference in philosophy about this problem was written by Nick Bostrom. However, I found that an area of economics known as "sustainable development" has actually made much further progress on this subject than the philosophy world. In this post I go over some of what I consider to be the most interesting results.

NB: This assumes a lot of mathematical literacy and familiarity with the subject matter, and hence isn't targeted to a general audience. Most people will probably prefer to read my other posts:

1. Summary of the most interesting results

  1. There’s no ethical system which incorporates all the things we might want.
  2. Even if we have pretty minimal requirements, satisfactory ethical systems might exist but we can’t prove their existence, much less actually construct them
  3. Discounted utilitarianism, whereby we value people less just because they are further away in time, is actually a pretty reasonable thing despite philosophers considering it ridiculous.
    1. (I consider this to be the first reasonable argument for locavorism I've ever heard)

2. Definitions

In general, we consider a population to consist of an infinite utility vector (u0,u1,…) where ui is the aggregate utility of the generation alive at time i. Utility is a bounded real number (the fact that economists assume utility to be bounded confused me for a long time!). Our goal is to find a preference ordering over the set of all utility vectors which is in some sense “reasonable”. While philosophers have understood for a long time that finding such an ordering is difficult, I will present several theorems which show that it is in fact impossible.

Due to a lack of latex support I’m going to give English-language definitions and results instead of math-ey ones; interested people should look at the papers themselves anyway.

3. Impossibility Results

3.1 Definitions

  • Strong Pareto: if you can make a generation better off, and none worse off, you should.
  • Weak Pareto: if you can make every generation better off, you should.
  • Intergenerational equity: utility vectors are unchanged in value by any permutation of their components.
    • There is an important distinction here between allowing a finite number of elements to be permuted and an infinite number; I will refer to the former as “finite intergenerational equity” and the latter as just “intergenerational equity”
  • Ethical relation: one which obeys both weak Pareto and intergenerational equity
  • Social welfare function: an order-preserving function from the set of populations (utility vectors) to the real numbers

3.2 Diamond-Basu-Mitra Impossibility Result1

  1. There is no social welfare function which obeys Strong Pareto and finite intergenerational equity. This means that any sort of utilitarianism won’t work, unless we look outside the real numbers.

3.3 Zame's impossibility result2

  1. If an ordering obeys intergenerational equity over [0,1]N, then almost always we can’t tell which of two populations is better 
    1. (i.e. the set of populations {X,Y: neither X<Y nor X>Y} has outer measure one)
  2. The existence of an ethical preference relation on [0,1]N is independent of ZF plus the axiom of choice

4. Possibility Results

We’ve just shown that it’s impossible to construct or even prove the existence of any useful ethical system. But not all hope is lost!

The important idea here is that of a “subrelation”: < is a subrelation to <’ if x<y implies x<’y.

Our arguments will work like this:

Suppose we could extend utilitarianism to the infinite case. (We don't, of course, know that we can extend utilitarianism to the infinite case. But suppose we could.) Then A, B and C must follow.

Technically: suppose utilitarianism is a subrelation of <. Then < must have properties A, B and C.

Everything in this section comes from (3), which is a great review of the literature.

4.1 Definition

  • Utilitarianism: we extend the standard total utilitarianism ordering to infinite populations in the following way: suppose there is some time T after which every generation in X is at least as well off as every generation in Y, and that the total utility in X before T is at least as good as the total utility in Y before T. Then X is at least as good as Y.
    • Note that this is not a complete ordering! In fact, as per Zame’s result above, the set of populations it can meaningfully speak about has measure zero.
  • Partial translation scale invariance: suppose after some time T, X and Y become the same. Then we can add any arbitrary utility vector A to both X and Y without changing the ordering. (I.e. X > Y ó X+A > Y+A)

4.2 Theorem

  1. Utilitarianism is a subrelation of > if and only if > satisfies strong Pareto, finite intergenerational equity and partial translation scale invariance.
    1. This means that if we want to extend utilitarianism to the infinite case, we can’t use a social welfare function, as per the above Basu-Mitra result

4.3 Definition

  • Overtaking utilitarianism: suppose there is some point T after which the total utility of the first N generations in X is always greater than the total utility of the first N generations in Y (given N > T). Then X is better than Y.
    • Note that utilitarianism is a subrelation of overtaking utilitarianism
  • Weak limiting preference: suppose that for any time T, X truncated at time T is better than Y truncated at time T. Then X is better than Y.

4.4 Theorem

  1. Overtaking utilitarianism is a subrelation of < if and only if < satisfies strong Pareto, finite intergenerational equity, partial translation scale invariance, and weak limiting preference

4.5 Definition

  • Discounted utilitarianism: the utility of a population is the sum of its components, discounted by how far away in time they are
  • Separability:
    • Separable present: if you can improve the first T generations without affecting the rest, you should
    • Separable future: if you can improve everything after the first T generations without affecting the rest, you should
  • Stationarity: preferences are time invariant
  • Weak sensitivity: for any utility vector, we can modify its first generation somehow to make it better

4.6 Theorem

  1. The only continuous, monotonic relation which obeys weak sensitivity, stationary, and separability is discounted utilitarianism

4.7 Definition

  • Dictatorship of the present: there’s some time T after which changing the utility of generations doesn’t matter

4.8 Theorem

  1. Discounted utilitarianism results in a dictatorship of the present. (Remember that each generation’s utility is assumed to be bounded!)

4.9 Definition

  • Sustainable preference: a continuous ordering which doesn’t have a dictatorship of the present but follows strong Pareto and separability.

4.10 Theorem

  1. The only ordering which is sustainable is to take discounted utilitarianism and add an “asymptotic” part which ensures that infinitely long changes in utility matter. (Of course, finite changes in utility still won't matter.)

5. Conclusion

I hope I've convinced you that there's a "there" there: infinite ethics is something that people can make progress on, and it seems that most of the progress is being made in the field of sustainable development.

Fun fact: the author of the last theorem (the one which defined "sustainable") was one of the lead economists on the Kyoto protocol. Who says infinite ethics is impractical?

6. References

  1. Basu, Kaushik, and Tapan Mitra. "Aggregating infinite utility streams with intergenerational equity: the impossibility of being Paretian." Econometrica 71.5 (2003): 1557-1563. http://folk.uio.no/gasheim/zB%26M2003.pdf
  2. Zame, William R. "Can intergenerational equity be operationalized?." (2007).  https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/9745/1/1204.pdf
  3. Asheim, Geir B. "Intergenerational equity." Annu. Rev. Econ. 2.1 (2010): 197-222.http://folk.uio.no/gasheim/A-ARE10.pdf
Comment author: RomeoStevens 01 August 2014 12:44:51AM *  0 points [-]

again look at confidence bounds. Most of the studies you'll find to simply lack the statistical power to make concrete recommendations. Fish seems unambiguously good and shows the largest effect sizes vs vegans (e.g. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleID=1710093), I agree that ovo-lacto evidence is weaker, but I'll maintain that there is slight evidence in favor of it. Given that a diet including fish, eggs, and milk, is much much easier to adhere to it remains something I recommend. Remember that my approach to nutrition in the OP is that effect sizes are small and you should focus your efforts elsewhere.

I do appreciate you taking the time to argue this point, smacking various claims with a hammer is essential.

Comment author: Xodarap 06 September 2014 04:06:30PM 0 points [-]

I agree that ovo-lacto evidence is weaker, but I'll maintain that there is slight evidence in favor of it. Given that a diet including fish, eggs, and milk, is much much easier to adhere to it remains something I recommend. Remember that my approach to nutrition in the OP is that effect sizes are small and you should focus your efforts elsewhere.

At last, we have reached convergence! I disagree slightly (the most recent article you linked again does not find significant differences between vegans and vegetarians as far as I can tell) but I'm fine calling that "slight evidence". The problem was that the OP said:

Ovo-lacto vegetarians live significantly longer than vegans

Which doesn't sound like it's true in either the statistical nor the colloquial sense of the word. Right? So can we just remove that sentence pretty please?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 21 July 2014 05:45:15PM *  -2 points [-]

This overview of studies is a reasonable place to look: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/dxrates

Note the conclusion: even though several RR's look better for vegans, the data can't yet make a strong case that veganism is actually better than pesc or ovo-lacto vegetarian diets. In particular, 1.0 RR is often within the 95% CI.

This is also worth looking at if I forgot to link it anywhere else: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/93/1/158.short

Comment author: Xodarap 31 July 2014 02:30:40PM 1 point [-]

Right. So given that we don't actually have any evidence to support claims like "Ovo-lacto vegetarians live significantly longer than vegans" don't you think it makes sense to remove those claims?

Comment author: Emile 03 March 2014 05:33:20PM 1 point [-]

Minor nitpick: on the last table (self-presentation), the two last lines should probably be switched, so that the factors are order from most positive to most negative (-0.17 and -0.14 should be switched).

Comment author: Xodarap 04 March 2014 02:56:05AM 0 points [-]

Thanks, I've fixed this.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 03 March 2014 05:19:54AM 0 points [-]

I guess I completely failed to discuss that the studies I linked to do not constitute the entire set of studies I drew from for the recommendations. I will expand on some of the points when I have time.

Comment author: Xodarap 04 March 2014 01:34:26AM *  2 points [-]

Sounds good.

Just reading the wikipedia page#Health_studies) on eggs seems to indicate that evidence for their health benefits is questionable at best, (and even though you were trying to make the argument that eggs were healthy you couldn't find the evidence to do so at first) so given that you're only mentioning "the largest high level features of a diet that have positive or negative impact", I'm not convinced eggs are worth including at all.

Comment author: JenniferRM 02 March 2014 11:14:01PM *  16 points [-]

The most important caveat is that lab studies find much larger effect sizes than in the field, to the extent that the average field effect for the ingratiating tactics is negative. This is probably due to the fact that lab experiments can be better controlled.

The first sentence seems really important and I'm wondering how to interpret the second. One hypothesis that is consistent with the first sentence is that studies show that in lab environments where arbitrary people are thrown into very short term interactions ingratiation works quite well... but that in the iterated environment of real long term working relationships it is detected and causes more problems than it helps with. Call this the hypothesis that "bullshit only works at first".

The second sentence argues against this hypothesis, but I'm not sure how strongly the second sentence is supported. Is it on-the-spot speculation? Is it the considered opinion of most experts in the field?

If the hypothesis that "bullshit only works at first" is the correct one it suggests that ingratiation should be avoided, or at the very least it suggests that ingratiation should be avoided in relationships that are dissimilar from random short term laboratory interactions. Am I off track here? Is the hypothesis (and its implied behavioral upshot) clearly ruled out by the research you explored and are summarizing? Clarification would be useful :-)

Comment author: Xodarap 03 March 2014 01:07:50AM 3 points [-]

This is a good point.

If you look at tables 8 and 9 from Gordon you can see that once you control for "transparency" (i.e. how obvious the bullshit is) the setting is no longer a significant predictor. So I'm not sure I agree that it's the "iterated" part of real-world interactions which cause this result (it seems likely that you can more easily tell if someone's changing their behavior to follow an experiment if they are a close coworker than a random student, for example), but I think your point about transparency being important is relevant.

Political Skills which Increase Income

57 Xodarap 02 March 2014 05:56PM

Summary: This article is intended for those who are "earning to give" (i.e. maximize income so that it can be donated to charity). It is basically an annotated bibliography of a few recent meta-analyses of predictors of income.

Key Results

  • The degree to which management “sponsors” your career development is an important predictor of your salary, as is how skilled you are politically.

  • Despite the stereotype of a silver-tongued salesman preying on people’s biases, rational appeals are generally the best tactic.

  • After rationality, the best tactics are types of ingratiation, including flattery and acting modest.

Ng et al. performed a metastudy of over 200 individual studies of objective and subjective career success. Here are the variables they found best correlated with salary:



Political Knowledge & Skills


Education Level


Cognitive Ability (as measured by standardized tests)




Training and Skill Development Opportunities


Hours Worked


Career Sponsorship


(all significant at p = .05)

(For reference, the “Big 5” personality traits all have a correlation under 0.12.)

Before we go on, a few caveats: while these correlations are significant and important, none are overwhelming (the authors cite Cohen as saying the range 0.24-0.36 is “medium” and correlations over 0.37 are “large”). Also, in addition to the usual correlation/causation concerns, there is lots of cross-correlation: e.g. older people might have greater political knowledge but less education, thereby confusing things. For a discussion of moderating variables, see the paper itself.

Career Sponsorship

There are two broad models of career advancement: contest-mobility and sponsorship-mobility. They are best illustrated with an example.

Suppose Peter and Penelope are both equally talented entry-level employees. Under the contest-mobility model, they would both be equally likely to get a raise or promotion, because they are equally skilled.

Sponsorship-mobility theorists argue that even if Peter and Penelope are equally talented, it’s likely that one of them will catch the eye of senior management. Perhaps it’s due to one of them having an early success by chance, making a joke in a meeting, or simply just having a more memorable name, like Penelope. This person will be singled out for additional training and job opportunities. Because of this, they’ll have greater success in the company, which will lead to more opportunities etc. As a result, their initial small discrepancy in attention gets multiplied into a large differential.

The authors of the metastudy found that self-reported sponsorship levels (i.e. how much you feel the management of your company “sponsors” you) have a significant, although moderate, relationship to salary. Therefore, the level at which you currently feel sponsored in your job should be a factor when you consider alternate opportunities.

The Dilbert Effect

The strongest predictor of salary (tied with education level) is what the authors politely term “Political Knowledge & Skills” - less politely, how good you are at manipulating others.

Several popular books (such as Cialdini’s Influence) on the subject of influencing others exist, and the study of these “influence tactics” in business stretches back 30 years to Kipnis, Schmidt and Wilkinson. Recently, Higgins et al. reviewed 23 individual studies of these tactics and how they relate to career success. Their results:



Definition (From Higgins et al.)



Using data and information to make a logical argument supporting one's request



Using behaviors designed to increase the target's liking of oneself or to make oneself appear friendly in order to get what one wants

Upward Appeal


Relying on the chain of command, calling in superiors to help get one's way



Attempting to create an appearance of competence or that you are capable

of completing a task



Using a forceful manner to get what one wants



Making an explicit offer to do something for another in exchange for their doing what

one wants

(Only ingratiation and rationality are significant.)

This site has a lot of information on how to make rational appeals, so I will focus on the less-talked-about ingratiation techniques.

How to be Ingratiating

Gordon analyzed 69 studies of ingratiation and found the following. (Unlike the previous two sections, success here is measured in lab tests as well as in career advancement. However, similar but less comprehensive results have been found in terms of career success):


Weighted Effectiveness (Cohen’s d difference between control and intervention)


Other Enhancement



Opinion Conformity


“Go along to get along”



Any of the following tactics: Self-promotion, self-deprecation, apologies, positive nonverbal displays and name usage



Includes studies where the participants weren’t told which strategy to use, in addition to when they were instructed to use multiple strategies

Rendering Favors


Self-presentation is split further:


Weighted Effect Size






Apologizing for poor performance



When the participant is told in generic terms to improve their self-presentation

Nonverbal behavior and name usage


Nonverbal behavior includes things like wearing perfume. Name usage means referring to people by name instead of a pronoun.






One important moderator is the direction of the appeal. If you are talking to your boss, your tactics should be different than if you’re talking to a subordinate. Other-enhancement (flattery) is always the best tactic no matter who you’re talking to, but when talking to superiors it’s by far the best. When talking to those at similar levels to you, opinion conformity comes close to flattery, and the other techniques aren't far behind.

Unsurprisingly, when the target realizes you’re being ingratiating, the tactic is less effective. (Although effectiveness doesn’t go to zero - even when people realize you’re flattering them just to suck up, they generally still appreciate it.) Also, women are better at being ingratiating than men, and men are more influenced by these ingratiating tactics than women. The most important caveat is that lab studies find much larger effect sizes than in the field, to the extent that the average field effect for the ingratiating tactics is negative. This is probably due to the fact that lab experiments can be better controlled.


It’s unlikely that a silver-tongued receptionist will out-earn an introverted engineer. But simple techniques like flattery and attempting to get "sponsored" can appreciably improve returns, to the extent that political skills are one of the strongest predictors of salaries.


I would like to thank Brian Tomasik and Gina Stuessy for reading early drafts of this article.


Cohen, Jacob. Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences. Psychology Press, 1988.


Gordon, Randall A. "Impact of ingratiation on judgments and evaluations: A meta-analytic investigation." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71.1 (1996): 54.


Higgins, Chad A., Timothy A. Judge, and Gerald R. Ferris. "Influence tactics and work outcomes: a meta‐analysis." Journal of Organizational Behavior 24.1 (2003): 89-106.


Judge, Timothy A., and Robert D. Bretz Jr. "Political influence behavior and career success." Journal of Management 20.1 (1994): 43-65.


Kipnis, David, Stuart M. Schmidt, and Ian Wilkinson. "Intraorganizational influence tactics: Explorations in getting one's way." Journal of Applied psychology 65.4 (1980): 440.

Ng, Thomas WH, et al. "Predictors of objective and subjective career success: A meta‐analysis." Personnel psychology 58.2 (2005): 367-408.

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