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

Why do people ____?

25 magfrump 04 May 2012 04:20AM

The other day, someone did something I didn't expect.  It was something many people have done before; something that I thought of as very normal, but that I in no way understood and had not predicted.

As I said, this had happened many time before, so I wrote it off as "me not understanding people" or "people are weird" for a second, like I usually do, before realizing that "bad at" really means "lacking basic knowledge", which I had never realized before.

And then I thought "I should ask someone who is different from me why people do that, and eventually someone will have an answer."

But many people will have many more questions like this.  So, what have you observed people doing time and time again, but never understood?  Or something that you only understood after a long time or asking someone about it?

And can Less Wrong tell us, not necessarily why (I for one can make up evolutionary psychology fairy tales all day if I want) but what conscious thought process occurs behind these events?

My Elevator Pitch for FAI

13 magfrump 23 February 2012 10:41PM


This is a short introduction to the idea of FAI and existential risk from technology that I've used with decent success among my social circles, which consist mostly of mathematicians or at least people who have taken an introductory CS class.

I'll do my best to dissect what I think is effective about it, mostly as an exercise for myself.  I encourage people to adopt this to their own purposes.

continue reading »

[LINK] Matrix-Style Learning

4 magfrump 13 December 2011 12:41AM


Researchers learned to change people's brain structures to make them better at certain tasks.  But... They weren't aware of getting better at those tasks!  Creepy!

I'd love to see a more technical discussion.

[link] Women in Computer Science, Where to Find More Info?

3 magfrump 23 September 2011 09:11PM

I recently ran across the following link:

A Campus Champion for Women in Computer Science

Which discusses a new president at Harvey Mudd College, and specifically her work in making the computer science major more accessible to women.  This seems neat and interesting except... barely any details are provided whatsoever.

They mention that the introductory computer science course was split into different courses, one of which is taught in Python.  Looking at Maria Klowe's webpage on Harvey Mudd she references that these steps were taken in a three part plan, and says "I encourage you to read more" but there are no obvious links on the page to any specifics.

Is anyone from Harvey Mudd that knows more or how to find out more?  For example, did the increase in female computer scientists go along with an increase in the size of the program (as is implied) or was there a displacement of male computer scientists?  Is the success limited to the one department, or are other engineering and science majors picking up women?  I noticed the front page mentioning that Harvey Mudd was recently named the top engineering school in the US, so presumably the gains don't result from "dumbing down" the program, but I'd like to see more information.

Computer Programs Rig Elections

-2 magfrump 23 August 2011 02:03AM

I don't know how interested this community would be in this topic, I don't mean to be talking politics so much as technology and decision mechanisms.

According to this programmer's testimony, voting machine companies requested that their programmers make it possible for the companies to rig elections, while in communication with elected officials.


If there is a discussion of how worthwhile taking the time to vote is, this may be worth knowing.

This is something that I expected to be true beforehand, but I am wondering: How reliable is this testimony?  What are other LWers' prior and posterior probabilities of elections being rigged in this way?  Is it worth trying to do something about this, and if so what?

Best Textbook List Expansion

5 magfrump 08 August 2011 11:17AM

A while back, Lukeprog set up an article to list the best textbooks in every subject.  It currently contains a fairly large list of books in a variety of subjects.

I just got an e-mail from Amazon advertising "Up to 90% off textbooks" and I thought "This seems like a good opportunity to check out a bunch of cheap, good textbooks in subjects I want to learn about!"

When I went over to Luke's post, I discovered recommendations for philosophy, psychology, all sorts of math, but almost none in basic science.

I assume that someone here must have read one or a few basic textbooks on physics, biology, and chemistry.  If so, what were they?  How were they?  Would I be better off just trying to take a basic lecture course in the subject, or going through Khan Academy?

Traveling to Europe

1 magfrump 18 May 2011 10:48PM

Over this summer, I will be going to Europe to attend a pair of mathematics conferences.  Because they are close together, I'm planning to spend the intervening time (most of the month of July) in Europe.

It is my first time going to Europe.  I am very excited.  I am certain that I will have fun.

I am equally certain that I will have more fun if I consciously attempt to maximize the amount of fun I will have.

However I know absolutely nothing about Europe; I have never been, I have few if any friends or family there.

So my question is, what should I do in order to have the best possible time in Europe?

I appreciate information that is useful for me specifically, as an American graduate student who has never been to Europe, who will be in Rome in early July and need to be in Barcelona by the end of July; the best ways to get around, benefits to being a student, events happening in July, visas that I might need.  I intend to look for Less Wrong meetups occurring during my stay.

I would also appreciate general Europe information, such as excellent sight-seeing locations, the best way to buy food (I hear buying groceries in France is cheap and restaurants are very expensive), how difficult it is to move between different countries, the advantage to staying in one place for some time versus taking more of a tour of the continent.

There are certain types of information that I am not particularly interested in, but that I think would be appropriate to discuss in the same context.  For example, what is the best way to find the cheapest flights or choose when to go on vacation (my flights are reimbursed and my timing is determined); what would make Europe an ideal vacation location, as opposed to Australia, Asia, South America, etc.

If people are interested in more details of my specific situation, I am happy to give them in the comments or private messages.

Rationality Exercise: My Little Pony

13 magfrump 13 May 2011 02:13AM

Recently I started watching My Little Pony: Friendship as Magic on the recommendation of numerous friends.  It has been entertaining for the most part, but in episode 15, I hit a problem.

The main character, Twilight Sparkle, is an avid intellectual, who is constantly reading and learning about the magic of the world.  In episode 15, a friend of hers, Pinkie Pie, reveals a strange talent for divination:  When something is about to fall, her tail twitches.  Various other manifestations also exist, in excruciating detail.

Twilight Sparkle is very unhappy with this "unscientific" state of affairs.  She attempts (to my delight) to do Science to Pinkie Pie, however her attempts to do Science are frustratingly foiled; in large part because her experiments ignore the nature of the phenomenon.

After watching and being frustrated by this episode, I decided that it would be more fun to come up with better experiments that would cut to the core of the issue and really investigate the subject.

My first idea was, if Pinkie Pie's tail twitches when something falls, place Pinkie Pie in a room.  In a room next to her, drop things, and have someone else record her responses and timing.

Once you can reliably predict and cause tail twitches, try holding her tail still.  See if, say, the rest of her body starts shaking, or the thing stops falling.  See if the twitches return if she is asleep.  See how far away you can make something fall and still get a reaction.

The list could continue forever!  What ideas do you have?  You're welcome to seek out and watch the episode, and give experiments that would apply well to Pinkie Pie in particular, or just consider the idea that someone claims that their arm twitches noticeably when something is about to fall, and has used their twitchy arm to accurately predict several falling objects for you, in an uncontrolled setting.  How would you Do Science to them (assuming their full cooperation)?

EDIT: it occurred to me immediately after submitting that "Experimental design" would have been a better title beginning that "Rationality exercise," but assuming the RSS issues are unresolved I will not change it.

[POLL] Slutwalk

-9 magfrump 08 May 2011 07:00AM

I recently heard about the upcoming event (or set of events) Slutwalk.  I realize that this is somewhat political and may have some mind-killing effects, but my main interest is in the Less Wrong reaction to the idea.  From the wikipedia page[1]:

The "Toronto Slut Walk" refers to a protest held on April 3, 2011 in Toronto. Protesters walked from Queen's Park (Toronto) to the Toronto Police Headquarters located on Central Street [1]. These protesters were dressed in revealing clothing and holding signs in order to reject the belief that female rape victims are "asking for it"[2]. They marched in response to remarks made by a Toronto police officer and judge. Women are also organizing other "slut walks" around Canada and the United States[3][4], including one scheduled for August 20th, 2011 in New York City[5].

Before continuing to read, please answer the poll below as to how you feel about the idea of the "Slutwalk."


I have many friends who are involved with the Slutwalk and my first impression is that it is a good idea; that framing and terminology, if not a strong part of policy decisions, can have large effects on personal wellbeing.  Also that while dressing more modestly may have some effect on sexual assault, having an authority put any onus of a crime on a victim harshly reduces the disincentive for perpetrators.

On the other hand, I have been known to be clueless before in matters of activism, and I recall that Robin Hanson has made cutting remarks about protest being about attracting mates and making a show of identifying with groups, and this certainly seems like it could fit that description to a T.  So I am curious what others' reactions are.

This is a political issue, and we all know politics is the mind-killer, so I would mostly like to see what people think of this idea; specifically whether it is controversial, heavily supported, or heavily disapproved of.

I will attempt to reformat if I can figure out how to work the formatting.

EDIT: Rephrased poll options and removed references to clusters, at popular request.


[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toronto_Slutwalk

What Else Would I Do To Make a Living?

15 magfrump 02 March 2011 08:09PM

Response to: The Value of Theoretical Research


Reading paulfchristiano's article the other day, I realized that I had had many similar discussions with myself, and have been guilty of motivated stopping and poor answers to all of them.

However, one major roadblock in my pursuing better answers, is that I feel that I have been "locked in" to my current path.

I am currently a mathematics Ph.D. student.  I did not have a minor.  I don't have significant programming skills or employment experience.  I know nothing about finance.  I know a lot about mathematics.


Paul says:

There is a shortage of intelligent, rational people in pretty much every area of human activity. I would go so far as to claim this is the limiting input for most fields.

However, "most fields" is not a very good tool for narrowing my search space; I have spent my entire life in school, and I like having structures and schedules that tell me when I'm doing productive things and that I've progressed to certain stages.  I'm not ready to drop out and do whatever, and I don't have a particular idea of what whatever might be.


On the other hand, I currently have a variety of resources available to me.  For example, I have a steady income (a grad student stipend isn't much, but it's plenty for me to live on), and I have the ability to take undergraduate classes for free (though not the spare time at the moment.)

My current intent is to continue and finish my Ph.D., but to attempt to take classes in other subjects, such as linguistics, biology and chemistry, and computer science which might lead to other interesting career paths.


Has anybody else had a similar feeling of being "locked in"?  How have you responded to it?  For those who have studied mathematics, are you still?  If you continued, what helped you make that decision?  If you stopped, what about that?  What did you end up doing?  How did you decide on it?

View more: Next