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AALWA: Ask any LessWronger anything

24 Will_Newsome 12 January 2014 02:18AM

If you want people to ask you stuff reply to this post with a comment to that effect.

More accurately, ask any participating LessWronger anything that is in the category of questions they indicate they would answer.

If you want to talk about this post you can reply to my comment below that says "Discussion of this post goes here.", or not.

[LINK] Sean Carrol's reflections on his debate with WL Craig on "God and Cosmology"

5 shminux 25 February 2014 12:56AM

I previously mentioned this debate a month ago and predicted that Sean Carroll is unlikely to do very well. The debate happened last Friday and Sean posted his post-debate reflections on his popular blog (the full video will be posted soon). Some excerpts:

I think it went well, although I can easily think of several ways I could have done better. On the substance, my major points were that the demand for “causes” and “explanations” is completely inappropriate for modern fundamental physics/cosmology, and that theism is not taken seriously in professional cosmological circles because it is hopelessly ill-defined (no matter what happens in the universe, you can argue that God would have wanted it that way). He defended two of his favorite arguments, the “cosmological argument” and the fine-tuning argument; no real surprises there. In terms of style, from my perspective things got a bit frustrating, because the following pattern repeated multiple times: Craig would make an argument, I would reply, and Craig would just repeat the original argument.

The cosmological argument has two premises: (1) If the universe had a beginning, it has a transcendent cause; and (2) The universe had a beginning. [...] My attitude toward the above two premises is that (2) is completely uncertain, while the “obvious” one (1) is flat-out false. Or not even false, as I put it, because the notion of a “cause” isn’t part of an appropriate vocabulary to use for discussing fundamental physics. [Emphasis mine]

The Aristotelian analysis of causes is outdated when it comes to modern fundamental physics; what matters is whether you can find a formal mathematical model that accounts for the data. 

Sean goes over a couple of mistakes he thinks he made in the debate, basically being blindsided by WLC bringing up obscure papers and misinterpreting them to suit his argument. 

Sean's reflections are very detailed and worth reading, though I found them hard to summarize. It looks like WLC did his homework better than SC, but it's hard to tell whether it mattered until the video is made public and various interested parties gave their feedback. Another couple of quotes, with my emphasis:

For my closing statement, I couldn’t think of many responses to Craig’s closing statement that wouldn’t have simply be me reiterating points from my first two speeches. So I took the opportunity to pull back a little and look at the bigger picture. Namely: we’re talking about “God and Cosmology,” but nobody really becomes a believer in God because it provides the best cosmology. They become theists for other reasons, and the cosmology comes later. That’s because religion is enormously more than theism. Most people become religious for other (non-epistemic) reasons: it provides meaning and purpose, or a sense of community, or a way to be in contact with something transcendent, or simply because it’s an important part of their culture. The problem is that theism, while not identical to religion, forms its basis, at least in most Western religions. So — maybe, I suggested, tentatively — that could change. I give theists a hard time for not accepting the implications of modern science, but I am also happy to give naturalists a hard time when they don’t appreciate the enormous task we face in answering all of the questions that we used to think were answered by God. [...]

To me, Craig’s best moment of the weekend came at the very end, as part of the summary panel discussion. Earlier in the day, Tim Maudlin (who gave an great pro-naturalism talk, explaining that God’s existence wouldn’t have any moral consequences even if it were true) had grumped a little bit about the format. His point was that formal point-counterpoint debates aren’t really the way philosophy is done, which would be closer to a Socratic discussion where issues can be clarified and extended more efficiently. And I agree with that, as far as it goes. But Craig had a robust response, which I also agree with: yes, a debate like this isn’t how philosophy is done, but there are things worth doing other than philosophy, or even teaching philosophy. He said, candidly, that the advantage of the debate format is that it brings out audiences, who find a bit of give-and-take more exciting than a lecture or series of lectures. It’s hard to teach subtle and tricky concepts in such a format, but that’s always a hard thing to do; the point is that if you get the audience there in the first place, a good debater can at least plant a few new ideas in their heads, and hopefully inspire them to take the initiative and learn more on their own.

Sean concurs: "If we think we have good ideas, we should do everything we can to bring them to as many people as possible."

I hope Luke or someone else will find time to watch the video once posted and give their impressions.

Deregulating Distraction, Moving Towards the Goal, and Level Hopping

43 So8res 12 January 2014 03:21AM

This is the third post in a series discussing my recent bout of productivity. Within, I discuss two techniques I use to avoid akrasia and one technique I use to be especially productive.

Deregulating Distraction

I like to pretend that I have higher-than-normal willpower, because my ability to Get Things Done seems to be somewhat above average. In fact, this is not the case. I'm not good at fighting akrasia. I merely have a knack for avoiding it.

When I was young, my parents were very good at convincing me to manage my money. They gave me an allowance, perhaps a dollar a week. When we would go to the store, I'd get excited about some trite toy and ask my parents whether I could buy it.

Their answers were similar. My mother would crouch down, put a hand on my shoulder, and say "Of course you can. But before you do, think carefully about how much you will enjoy this after you've bought it, and what other things you would be able to buy if instead you saved up."

My father was a bit more direct. He'd just shrug and say "It's your money", with the barest hint of derision.

I rarely spent my allowance.

I now use a similar technique when dealing with distractions.

(It's worth noting that it's always been very easy to put me into far mode, perhaps in part because I decided at a very young age that I wasn't going to die.)

As Kaj Sotala and a few others noted, assigning guilt to non-productive tasks is not especially healthy. Nor is it, in my experience, sustainable. In a few different cases, I experienced scenarios where I wanted to do something but couldn't will myself to do it. I suffered ego depletion and hit a vicious cycle of unproductivity and depression. I never fell completely into the self-hate death spiral, but I flirted around at the edges. It became clear that I needed a new strategy.

To break the cycle, I decided to stop fighting myself.

continue reading »

I Will Pay $500 To Anyone Who Can Convince Me To Cancel My Cryonics Subscription

32 ChrisHallquist 11 January 2014 10:39AM

Background:

On the most recent LessWrong readership survey, I assigned a probability of 0.30 on the cryonics question. I had previously been persuaded to sign up for cryonics by reading the sequences, but this thread and particularly this comment lowered my estimate of the chances of cryonics working considerably. Also relevant from the same thread was ciphergoth's comment:

By and large cryonics critics don't make clear exactly what part of the cryonics argument they mean to target, so it's hard to say exactly whether it covers an area of their expertise, but it's at least plausible to read them as asserting that cryopreserved people are information-theoretically dead, which is not guesswork about future technology and would fall under their area of expertise.

Based on this, I think there's a substantial chance that there's information out there that would convince me that the folks who dismiss cryonics as pseudoscience are essentially correct, that the right answer to the survey question was epsilon. I've seen what seem like convincing objections to cryonics, and it seems possible that an expanded version of those arguments, with full references and replies to pro-cryonics arguments, would convince me. Or someone could just go to the trouble of showing that a large majority of cryobiologists really do think cryopreserved people are information-theoretically dead.

However, it's not clear to me how well worth my time it is to seek out such information. It seems coming up with decisive information would be hard, especially since e.g. ciphergoth has put a lot of energy into trying to figure out what the experts think about cryonics and come away without a clear answer. And part of the reason I signed up for cryonics in the first place is because it doesn't cost me much: the largest component is the life insurance for funding, only $50 / month.

So I've decided to put a bounty on being persuaded to cancel my cryonics subscription. If no one succeeds in convincing me, it costs me nothing, and if someone does succeed in convincing me the cost is less than the cost of being signed up for cryonics for a year. And yes, I'm aware that providing one-sided financial incentives like this requires me to take the fact that I've done this into account when evaluating anti-cryonics arguments, and apply extra scrutiny to them.

Note that there are several issues that ultimately go in to whether you should sign up for cryonics (the neuroscience / evaluation of current technology, estimate of the probability of a "good" future, various philosophical issues), I anticipate the greatest chance of being persuaded from scientific arguments. In particular, I find questions about personal identity and consciousness of uploads made from preserved brains confusing, but think there are very few people in the world, if any, who are likely to have much chance of getting me un-confused about those issues. The offer is blind to the exact nature of the arguments given, but I mostly foresee being persuaded by the neuroscience arguments.

And of course, I'm happy to listen to people tell me why the anti-cryonics arguments are wrong and I should stay signed up for cryonics. There's just no prize for doing so.

Critiquing Gary Taubes, Final: The Truth About Diets and Weight Loss

13 ChrisHallquist 04 January 2014 05:16AM

Previously: Mainstream Nutrition Science on Obesity, Atkins Redux, Did the US Government Give Us Absurd Advice About Sugar?, What Causes Obesity?

If you've been wondering what these posts are doing on LessWrong and you haven't read this comment yet, I urge you to do so. Thanks to commenter FiftyTwo for suggesting I say something like this.

To recap: so taking in more calories than you burn will cause you to gain weight, though calorie intake and expenditure are in turn controlled by a number of mechanisms. This suggests a couple of options for losing weight. You can try to intervene directly in the mechanisms controlling food intake, one of the most well-known examples of this being gastric bypass surgery, admittedly a bit of a drastic option. But intervening at the point of calorie intake is also an option.

Now it turns out that it's relatively easy to lose weight by dieting. That catch is that it's much harder to keep the weight off. A commonly cited rule (for example here) is that most people who lose weight through dieting will regain it all in five years. However, it's important to emphasize that some people do lose weight through dieting and keep it off long-term. An organization called the National Weight Control Registry has made an effort to track those people, and have published quite a few studies based on their work (many of which can be easily found through Google Scholar).

Unfortunately, the NWCR is working with a self-selected sample and asking them what they did after the fact. They're not randomly assigning people to treatments. So for example, a high percentage of the NWCR group reports successful long-term weight loss following low-fat and/or calorie-restricted diets and exercising a lot. And the percentage following low-carb diets was originally small, but it's risen over time. But both of these observations may just reflect the relative popularity of those approaches in the general population.

We may not be able to conclude anything more from the NWCR data than that a significant minority of dieters do succeed at long-term weight loss, some through calorie-restricted diets, some through low-fat diets, and some through low-carb diets. Remember, though, that as discussed in previous posts there's little reason to think low-fat or low-carb diets could cause weight loss except by indirectly affecting energy balance.

And now, one last time, I'm going to talk about what Taubes has to say about this issue. I'm going to quote from Why We Get Fat (pp. 36-38), though Good Calories, Bad Calories contains similar comments, including about the Handbook of Obesity and Joslin's. Taubes begins by citing a review article covering calorie-restricted diets that found that "Typically, nine or ten pounds are lost in the first six months. After a year, much of what was lost has been regained." He also cites a large study that tested a calorie-restricted diet and reached a similar conclusion: participants "lost on average, only nine pounds. And once again... most of the nine pounds came off in the first six months, and most of the participants were gaining weight back after a year."

Based on this, he concludes that "Eating less—that is, undereating—simply doesn't work for more than a few months, if that." Then it's time to really lay in to mainstream nutrition science:

This reality, however, hasn't stopped the authorities from recommending the approach, which makes reading such recommendations an exercise in what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance," the tension that results from trying to hold two incompatible beliefs simultaneously.

Take, for instance, the Handbook of Obesity, a 1998 textbook edited by three of the most prominent authorities in the field—George Bray, Claude Bouchard, and W. P. T. James. "Dietary therapy remains the cornerstone of treatment and the reduction of energy intake continues to be the basis of successful weight reduction programs," the book says. But then it states, a few paragraphs later, that the results of such energy-reduced diets "are known to be poor and not long-lasting." So why is such an ineffective therapy the cornerstone of treatment? The Handbook of Obesity neglects to say.

The latest edition (2005) of Joslin's Diabetes Mellitus, a highly respected textbook for physicians and researchers, is a more recent example of this cognitive dissonance. The chapter on obesity was written by Jeffrey Flier, an obesity researcher who is now dean of Harvard Medical School, and his wife and research colleague, Terry Maratos-Flier. The Fliers also describe "reduction of caloric intake" as "the cornerstone of any therapy for obesity." But then they enumerate all the ways in which this cornerstone fails. After examining approaches from the most subtle reductions in calories (eating, say, one hundred calories less each day with the hope of losing a pound every five weeks) to low-calorie diets of eight hundred to one thousand calories a day to very low-calorie diets (two hundred to six hundred calories) and even total starvation, they conclude that "none of these approaches has any proven merit."

But look at the actual sources and it turns out that, surprise surprise, mainstream experts aren't idiots after all. The second quote from the Handbook of Obesity comes from a paragraph explaining that given how hard obesity is to treat, doctors face a "Shakespearean" dilemma of whether to attempt to treat it at all. The Joslin's article is even clearer (p. 541, emphasis added):

Successful treatment of obesity, defined as treatment that results in sustained attainment of normal body weight and composition without producing unacceptable treatment induced morbidity, is rarely achievable in clinical practice. Many therapeutic approaches can bring about short-term weight loss, but long-term success is infrequent regardless of the approach.

Suppose for a moment that this is true, that long-term weight loss is rare regardless of the approach. If it is, no "cognitive dissonance" is required to recommend treatments that sometimes work. Furthermore, Taubes commits a serious misrepresentation here. Taubes final quote from the Joslin's article, in context, says that, "There are also many programs that recommend specific food combinations or unusual sequences for eating, but none of these approaches has any proven merit." It's pretty obvious in context that the bit Taubes quotes refers only to the programs that recommend specific food combinations or unusual sequences for eating."

It's also worth mentioning that neither of these sources ignore the debate over low-carb diets. The Handbook of Obesity criticizes Atkins-style low carb diets at some length, but also says that, "Moderate restriction of carbohydrates may have real calorie-reducing properties." And the Joslin's article ends up being fairly positive towards low-carb diets in general (p. 542):

Dietary composition may play a role in long-term success in weight loss and weight maintenance. For example, a study comparing a moderate-fat diet consisting of 35% energy from fat and a low-fat diet in which 20% of energy was derived from fat demonstrated enhanced weight loss assessed by total weight loss, BMI change, and decrease in waist circumference in the group on the moderate-fat diet. Retention in the diet study was greater among those actively participating in the weight loss program in this group compared with 20% in the low-fat diet group.

Recently, increased interest has focused on the possibility that diet content may affect appetite. For example, diets with a low glycemic index may be useful in preventing the development of obesity; subjects given test meals with different glycemic indexes and then allowed free access to food ate less after eating meals with a low glycemic index. Some data suggest that diets with a high glycemic index predispose to increased postprandial hunger, whereas diets focused on glycemic index and information regarding portion control lead to higher rates of success in weight loss, at least among adolescent populations. Low-carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins diet appear to be associated with significant weight loss. However, this diet has not been systematically studied, nor has long-term maintenance of weight loss.

I assume the author of the Joslin's article would say, however, that low-carb diets haven't been shown to completely solve the problem of long-term weight loss being really hard. But would they be right about that? 

To the best of my knowledge, there have been only two randomized, controlled trials of low-carb diets that have covered a period of two years (and none covering a longer period than that). Taubes has cited both in support of his claims. The first, an Israeli study published in 2008, also also included a group assigned to a Mediterranean diet. Here are the results in terms of weight loss: 

So on the one hand, subjects on the low-carb diet did initially lose more weight, about 6.5 kg (14 lbs.) compared to about 4.5 kg (10 lbs.) for the low-calorie diet. On the other hand, both groups started regaining the weight after six months. If, as Taubes claims, data like this shows that low-calorie diets "simply doesn't work for more than a few months," does this data justify saying the same thing about low-carb diets?

Furthermore, if you believe the rule about weight lost to dieting coming back in five years, it seems likely that would happen to both groups. Intriguingly, though, while participants on the Mediterranean diet didn't initially lose as much weight as those on the low-carb diet, the weight regain didn't seem to happen as much on the Mediterranean diet. That makes me wonder what a five-year study of the Mediterranean diet would find.

Note that the Israeli study also found that that participants in all three groups significantly reduced their caloric intake, supporting the hypothesis that even diets that don't explicitly restrict calorie intake work by reducing calorie intake indirectly.

What about the other study, published in 2010, which Taubes has hailed as "the biggest study so far on low-carb diets"? Here are its results (note that the low-fat diet was also a calorie-restricted diet):

That's right, this study found no statistically significant difference between low-fat and low-carb diets in terms of weight loss, and again show the typical pattern of people losing weight in the first six months and then slowly gaining it back. Together, these two studies support the picture painted by Joslin's: low-carb diets may work somewhat better for weight loss, but they don't appear to solve the problem of long-term weight loss being really hard.

One other relevant detail: the second study found that "A significantly greater percentage of participants who consumed the low-carbohydrate than the low-fat diet reported bad breath, hair loss, constipation, and dry mouth." As Taubes' fellow science writer John Horgan has noted, this reveals an apparent inconsistency in how Taubes judges different diets. He goes to great lengths to play up the unpleasantness of calorie-restricted diets, but tells his readers that if they just stick to their low-carb diet theunpleasant side-effects will go away eventually.

So given all this, what should you do if you want to lose weight? I think depends a lot on who you are. I have ethical qualms about consuming animal products, including and in fact especially eggs, which is one strike against low-carb diets for me. Also, while there's some evidence low-carb diets may be better for hunger, my personal experience is that what foods I find filling is kind of random (lentils, black beans, and baguettes all rate highly on the filling-ness measure for me). So maybe just experiment and try to figure out which foods let you personally eat in moderation and not feel hungry. Keep Eliezer's advice in Beware of Other Optimizing in mind, and if one thing doesn't work for you, try something else.

A final point: the truth about weight loss sucks. If your case isn't bad enough to justify something drastic like gastric bypass surgery, your main option is diets which sometimes work but usually don't. Regardless of the approach. Unfortunately, this is not an exciting message to put in a popular book on nutrition. This creates an excellent opportunity for someone like Taubes: imply that if the experts admit they don't have a great solution to the problem, then clearly they don't know what they're talking about, and therefore your solution is sure to work!

Long-time readers of LessWrong, however, will realize that the universe is allowed to throw us problems with no good solution. That's something that may be especially worth keeping in mind when evaluating claims in the vicinity of medicine and nutrition. In a way, Taubes' readers are lucky: following his advice won't kill you, and won't lead to you missing out on any wildly more effective solution. It might have some unpleasant side-effects you could've avoided with another approach, but also might have some advantages. However, I've read enough of the literature on medical quackery to know Taubes' rhetorical tactics can be used for much more dangerous ends.

Just imagine: "It's doctors and pharmaceutical companies that caused your cancer in the first place. That chemotherapy and radiation therapy stuff they're pushing on you is obviously harmful. Don't you now there are all-natural ways you can cure your cancer?" If someone says that to you, then knowing that the universe is unfair, and that sometimes the best solution it gives you to a problem will have serious downsides, well knowing that just might save your life. Or not. Because the universe isn't fair. 


Early on in the process of writing this series, I said when it was over with I'd do a post-mortem to look at how I could have broken it up better. However, Vaniver has given me what seems like good advice on that issue, which I plan to follow in the future. (Unless someone else comes along and persuades me otherwise. You're welcome to try that).

But there are other issues here, the big meta-issue being that downvotes don't help me distinguish between people thinking the posts were completely off-topic for Lesswrong vs. not liking how finely they were broken up vs. me not realizing what a hot-button issue obesity is for some people vs. other things. So suggestions on how I could best solicit anonymous feedback would be especially appreciated.

Soft Paternalism in Parenting

31 Gunnar_Zarncke 04 January 2014 03:52PM

Reading the recently featured Beware of Trivial Inconveniences I realized that this is the method that makes Say Yes really work and thus this is Practical Advice Backed By Deep Theories.

The trick of saying "yes" instead of "no" is *not* to say less often "no" at the cost at allowing things when you say "yes". That just trades the stress of saying "no" (standing consequently despite clash of wills) against the effort to fulfill, monitor, pay or clean up after the "yes".

Soft paternalism applied to parenting means saying "Yes, but" or "Yes, later" or "Yes, if". This signals to the child that you understand his/her wish but also supplies some context the child may not be aware of. It reduces your cost of saying "yes" at the expense of a cost to cash in the "yes" for the child.

continue reading »

Handshakes, Hi, and What's New: What's Going On With Small Talk?

57 Benquo 02 January 2014 10:08PM

This is an attempt to explicitly model what's going on in some small talk conversations. My hope is that at least one of these things will happen:

  • There is a substantial flaw or missing element to my model that someone will point out.
  • Many readers, who are bad at small talk because they don't see the point, will get better at it as a result of acquiring understanding.

Handshakes

I had some recent conversational failures online, that went roughly like this:

“Hey.”
“Hey.”
“How are you?”
The end.

At first I got upset at the implicit rudeness of my conversation partner walking away and ignoring the question. But then I decided to get curious instead and posted a sample exchange (names omitted) on Facebook with a request for feedback. Unsurprisingly I learned more this way.

Some kind friends helped me troubleshoot the exchange, and in the process of figuring out how online conversation differs from in-person conversation, I realized what these things do in live conversation. They act as a kind of implicit communication protocol by which two parties negotiate how much interaction they’re willing to have.

Consider this live conversation:

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
The end.

No mystery here. Two people acknowledged one another’s physical presence, and then the interaction ended. This is bare-bones maintenance of your status as persons who can relate to one another socially. There is no intimacy, but at least there is acknowledgement of someone else’s existence. A day with “Hi” alone is less lonely than a day without it.

“Hi.”
“Hi, how’s it going?”
“Can’t complain. And you?”
“Life.”

This exchange establishes the parties as mutually sympathetic – the kind of people who would ask about each other’s emotional state – but still doesn’t get to real intimacy. It is basically just a drawn-out version of the example with just “Hi”. The exact character of the third and fourth line don’t matter much, as there is no real content. For this reason, it isn’t particularly rude to leave the question totally unanswered if you’re already rounding a corner – but if you’re in each other’s company for a longer period of time, you’re supposed to give at least a pro forma answer.

This kind of thing drives crazy the kind of people who actually want to know how someone is, because people often assume that the question is meant insincerely. I’m one of the people driven crazy. But this kind of mutual “bidding up” is important because sometimes people don’t want to have a conversation, and if you just launch into your complaint or story or whatever it is you may end up inadvertently cornering someone who doesn’t feel like listening to it.

You could ask them explicitly, but people sometimes feel uncomfortable turning down that kind of request. So the way to open a substantive topic of conversation is to leave a hint and let the other person decide whether to pick it up. So here are some examples of leaving a hint:

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“Anything interesting this weekend?”
“Oh, did a few errands, caught up on some reading. See you later.”

This is a way to indicate interest in more than just a “Fine, how are you?” response. What happened here is that one party asked about the weekend, hoping to elicit specific information to generate a conversation. The other politely technically answered the question without any real information, declining the opportunity to talk about their life.

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“Anything interesting happen over the weekend?”
“Oh, did a few errands, caught up on some reading.”
“Ugh, I was going to go to a game, but my basement flooded and I had to take care of that instead.”
“That’s tough.”
“Yeah.”
“See you around.”

Here, the person who first asked about the weekend didn’t get an engaged response, but got enough of a pro forma response to provide cover for an otherwise out of context complaint and bid for sympathy. The other person offered perfunctory sympathy, and ended the conversation.

Here’s a way for the recipient of a “How are you?” to make a bid for more conversation:

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“How are you?”
“Oh, my basement flooded over the weekend.”
“That’s tough.”
“Yeah.”
“See you around.”

So the person with the flooded basement provided a socially-appropriate snippet of information – enough to be a recognizable bid for sympathy, but little enough not to force the other person to choose between listening to a long complaint or rudely cutting off the conversation.

Here’s what it looks like if the other person accepts the bid:

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“How are you?”
“Oh, my basement flooded over the weekend.”
“Wow, that’s tough. Is the upstairs okay?”
“Yeah, but it’s a finished basement so I’m going to have to get a bunch of it redone because of water damage.”
“Ooh, that’s tough. Hey, if you need a contractor, I had a good experience with mine when I had my kitchen done.”
“Thanks, that would be a big help, can you email me their contact info?”

By asking a specific follow-up question the other person indicated that they wanted to hear more about the problem – which gave the person with the flooded basement permission not just to answer the question directly, but to volunteer additional information / complaints.

You can do the same thing with happy events, of course:

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“How are you?”
“I’m getting excited for my big California vacation.”
“Oh really, where are you going?”
“We’re flying out to Los Angeles, and then we’re going to spend a few days there but then drive up to San Francisco, spend a day or two in town, then go hiking in the area.
“Cool. I used to live in LA, let me know if you need any recommendations.”
“Thanks, I’ll come by after lunch?”

So what went wrong online? Here’s the conversation again so you don’t have to scroll back up:

“Hey.”
“Hey.”
“How are you?”
The end.

Online, there are no external circumstances that demand a “Hi,” such as passing someone (especially someone you know) in the hallway or getting into an elevator.

If you import in-person conversational norms, the “Hi” is redundant – but instead online it can function as a query as to whether the other person is actually “present” and available for conversation. (You don’t want to start launching into a conversation just because someone’s status reads “available” only to find out they’re in the  middle of something else and don’t  have time to read what you wrote.)

Let’s say you’ve mutually said “Hi.” If you were conversing in person, the next thing to do would be to query for a basic status update, asking something like, “How are you?”. But “Hi” already did the work of “How are you?”. Somehow the norm of “How are you?” being a mostly insincere query doesn’t get erased, even though “Hi” does its work – so some people think you’re being bizarrely redundant. Others might actually tell you how they are.

To be safe, it’s best to open with a short question apropos to what you want to talk about – or, since it’s costless online and serves the same function as “Hi”, just start with “How are you?” as your opener.

What’s New?

I recently had occasion to explain to someone how to respond when someone asks “what’s new?”, and in the process, ended up explaining some stuff I hadn’t realized until the moment I tried to explain it. So I figured this might be a high-value thing to explain to others here on the blog.

Of course, sometimes “what’s new?” is just part of a passing handshake with no content – I covered that in the first section. But if you’re already in a context where you know you’re going to be having a conversation, you’re supposed to answer the question, otherwise you get conversations like this:

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“What’s new?”
“Not much. How about you?”
“Can’t complain.”
Awkward silence.

So I’m talking about cases where you actually have to answer the question.

The problem is that some people, when asked “What’s New?”, will try to think about when they last met the person asking, and all the events in their life since then, sorted from most to least momentous. This is understandably an overwhelming task.

The trick to responding correctly is to think of your conversational partner’s likely motives for asking. They are very unlikely to want a complete list. Nor do they necessarily want to know the thing in your life that happened that’s objectively most notable. Think about it – when’s the last time you wanted to know those things?

Instead, what’s most likely the case is that they want to have a conversation about a topic you are comfortable with, are interested in, and have something to say about. “What’s New?” is an offer they are making, to let you pick the life event you most feel like discussing at that time. So for example, if the dog is sick but you’d rather talk about a new book you’re reading, you get to talk about the book and you can completely fail to mention the dog. You’re not lying, you’re answering the question as intended.

Cross-posted on my personal blog.

Personal examples of semantic stopsigns

44 Alexei 06 December 2013 02:12AM

I think most of us are familiar with the common semantic stopsigns like "God", "just because", and "it's a tradition." However, I've recently been noticing more interesting ones that I haven't really seen discussed on LW. (Or it's also likely that I missed those discussion.)

The first one is "humans are stupid." I notice this one very often, in particular in LW and other rationalist communities. The obvious problem here is that humans are not that stupid. Often what might seem like sheer stupidity was caused by a rather reasonable chain of actions and events. And even if a person or a group of people is being stupid, it's very interesting to chase down the cause. That's how you end up discovering biases from scratch or finding a great opportunity.

The second semantic stopsign is "should." Hat tip to Michael Vassar for bringing this one up. If you and I have a discussing about how I eat too much chocolate, and I say, "You are right, I should eat less chocolate," the conversation will basically end there. But 99 times out of a 100 nothing will actually come out of it. I try to taboo the word "should" from my vocabulary, so instead I will say something like, "You are right, I will not purchase any chocolate this month." This is a concrete actionable statement.

What other semantic stopsigns have you noticed in yourself and others?

 

On Walmart, And Who Bears Responsibility For the Poor

10 ChrisHallquist 27 November 2013 05:08AM

Note: Originally posted in Discussion, edited to take comments there into account.


Yes, politics, boo hiss. In my defense, the topic of this post cuts across usual tribal affiliations (I write it as a liberal criticizing other liberals), and has a couple strong tie-ins with main LessWrong topics:

  • It's a tidy example of a failure to apply consequentialist / effective altruist-type reasoning. And while it's probably true that the people I'm critiquing aren't consequentialists by any means, it's a case where failing to look at the consequences leads people to say some particularly silly things.
  • I think there's a good chance this is a political issue that will become a lot more important as more and more jobs are replaced by automation. (If the previous sentence sounds obviously stupid to you, the best I can do without writing an entire post on that is vaguely gesturing at gwern on neo-luddism, though I don't agree with all of it.)

The issue is this: recently, I've seen a meme going around to the effect that companies like Walmart that have a large number of employees on government benefits are the "real welfare queens" or somesuch, and with the implied message that all companies have a moral obligation to pay their employees enough that they don't need government benefits. (I say mention Walmart because it's the most frequently mentioned villain in this meme, but others, like McDonalds, get mentioned.)

My initial awareness of this meme came from it being all over my Facebook feed, but when I went to Google to track down examples, I found it coming out of the mouths of some fairly prominent congresscritters. For example Alan Grayson:

In state after state, the largest group of Medicaid recipients is Walmart employees. I'm sure that the same thing is true of food stamp recipients. Each Walmart "associate" costs the taxpayers an average of more than $1,000 in public assistance.

Or Bernie Sanders:

The Walmart family... here's an amazing story. The Walmart family is the wealthiest family in this country, worth about $100 billion. owning more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people, and yet here's the incredible fact.

Because their wages and benefits are so low, they are the major welfare recipients in America, because many, many of their workers depend on Medicaid, depend on food stamps, depend on government subsidies for housing. So, if the minimum wage went up for Walmart, would be a real cut in their profits, but it would be a real savings by the way for taxpayers, who would not having to subsidize Walmart employees because of their low wages.

Now here's why this is weird: consider Grayson's claim that each Walmart employee costs the taxpayers on average $1,000. In what sense is that true? If Walmart fired those employees, it wouldn't save the taxpayers money: if anything, it would increase the strain on public services. Conversely, it's unlikely that cutting benefits would force Walmart to pay higher wages: if anything, it would make people more desperate and willing to work for low wages. (Cf. this this excellent critique of the anti-Walmart meme).

Or consider Sanders' claim that it would be better to raise the minimum wage and spend less on government benefits. He emphasizes that Walmart could take a hit in profits to pay its employees more. It's unclear to what degree that's true (see again previous link), and unclear if there's a practical way for the government to force Walmart to do that, but ignore those issues, it's worth pointing out that you could also just raise taxes on rich people generally to increase benefits for low-wage workers. The idea seems to be that morally, Walmart employees should be primarily Walmart's moral responsibility, and not so much the moral responsibility of the (the more well-off segment of) the population in general.

But the idea that employing someone gives you a general responsibility for their welfare (beyond, say, not tricking them into working for less pay or under worse conditions than you initially promised) is also very odd. It suggests that if you want to be virtuous, you should avoid hiring people, so as to keep your hands clean and avoid the moral contagion that comes with employing low wage workers. Yet such a policy doesn't actually help the people who might want jobs from you. This is not to deny that, plausibly, wealthy onwers of Walmart stock have a moral responsibility to the poor. What's implausible is that non-Walmart stock owners have significantly less responsibility to the poor.

This meme also worries me because I lean towards thinking that the minimum wage isn't a terrible policy but we'd be better off replacing it with guaranteed basic income (or an otherwise more lavish welfare state). And guaranteed basic income could be a really important policy to have as more and more jobs are replaced by automation (again see gwern if that seems crazy to you). I worry that this anti-Walmart meme could lead to an odd left-wing resistance to GBI/more lavish welfare state, since the policy would be branded as a subsidy to Walmart.

Wait vs Interrupt Culture

67 Benquo 27 November 2013 03:38PM

At the recent CFAR Workshop in NY, someone mentioned that they were uncomfortable with pauses in conversation, and that got me thinking about different conversational styles.

Growing up with friends who were disproportionately male and disproportionately nerdy, I learned that it was a normal thing to interrupt people. If someone said something you had to respond to, you’d just start responding. Didn’t matter if it “interrupted” further words – if they thought you needed to hear those words before responding, they’d interrupt right back.

Occasionally some weird person would be offended when I interrupted, but I figured this was some bizarre fancypants rule from before people had places to go and people to see. Or just something for people with especially thin skins or delicate temperaments, looking for offense and aggression in every action.

Then I went to St. John’s College – the talking school (among other things). In Seminar (and sometimes in Tutorials) there was a totally different conversational norm. People were always expected to wait until whoever was talking was done. People would apologize not just for interrupting someone who was already talking, but for accidentally saying something when someone else looked like they were about to speak. This seemed totally crazy. Some people would just blab on unchecked, and others didn’t get a chance to talk at all. Some people would ignore the norm and talk over others, and nobody interrupted them back to shoot them down.

But then a few interesting things happened:

1) The tutors were able to moderate the discussions, gently. They wouldn’t actually scold anyone for interrupting, but they would say something like, “That’s interesting, but I think Jane was still talking,” subtly pointing out a violation of the norm.

2) People started saying less at a time.

#1 is pretty obvious – with no enforcement of the social norm, a no-interruptions norm collapses pretty quickly. But #2 is actually really interesting. If talking at all is an implied claim that what you’re saying is the most important thing that can be said, then polite people keep it short.

With 15-20 people in a seminar, this also meant that people rarely tried to force the conversation in a certain direction. When you’re done talking, the conversation is out of your hands. This can be frustrating at first, but with time, you learn to trust not your fellow conversationalists individually, but the conversation itself, to go where it needs to. If you haven’t said enough, then you trust that someone will ask you a question, and you’ll say more.

When people are interrupting each other – when they’re constantly tugging the conversation back and forth between their preferred directions – then the conversation itself is just a battle of wills. But when people just put in one thing at a time, and trust their fellows to only say things that relate to the thing that came right before – at least, until there’s a very long pause – then you start to see genuine collaboration.

And when a lull in the conversation is treated as an opportunity to think about the last thing said, rather than an opportunity to jump in with the thing you were holding onto from 15 minutes ago because you couldn’t just interrupt and say it – then you also open yourself up to being genuinely surprised, to seeing the conversation go somewhere that no one in the room would have predicted, to introduce ideas that no one brought with them when they sat down at the table.

By the time I graduated, I’d internalized this norm, and the rest of the world seemed rude to me for a few months. Not just because of the interrupting – but more because I’d say one thing, politely pause, and then people would assume I was done and start explaining why I was wrong – without asking any questions! Eventually, I realized that I’d been perfectly comfortable with these sorts of interactions before college. I just needed to code-switch! Some people are more comfortable with a culture of interrupting when you want to, and accepting interruptions. Others are more comfortable with a culture of waiting their turn, and courteously saying only one thing at a time, not trying to cram in a whole bunch of arguments for their thesis.

Now, I’ve praised the virtues of wait culture because I think it’s undervalued, but there’s plenty to say for interrupt culture as well. For one, it’s more robust in “unwalled” circumstances. If there’s no one around to enforce wait culture norms, then a few jerks can dominate the discussion, silencing everyone else. But someone who doesn’t follow “interrupt” norms only silences themselves.

Second, it’s faster and easier to calibrate how much someone else feels the need to talk, when they’re willing to interrupt you. It takes willpower to stop talking when you’re not sure you were perfectly clear, and to trust others to pick up the slack. It’s much easier to keep going until they stop you.

So if you’re only used to one style, see if you can try out the other somewhere. Or at least pay attention and see whether you’re talking to someone who follows the other norm. And don’t assume that you know which norm is the “right” one; try it the “wrong” way and maybe you’ll learn something.

Cross-posted at my personal blog.

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