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Call for volunteers: Publishing the Sequences

13 wedrifid 28 June 2012 03:08PM

The Singularity Institute is in the process of publishing Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Sequences of rationality posts as an electronic book. The Sequences are made up of multiple hundreds of posts. These are being downloaded and converted to LaTeX for publishing programmatically and that’s where the human tasks begin. These will entail:

  • Verifying that all the content has all been transferred, including all text, equations and images.
  • Proofreading for any typographical errors that may have escaped attention thus far.
  • Verifying that all external links are still alive (and replacing any that are not).
  • Creating a bibliography for all material referenced in the chapters (posts).

The recent document publishing efforts at SIAI would not have been possible without the assistance of dedicated volunteers. This new project is the perfect opportunity to help out lesswrong while giving you an excuse to catch up on (or revisit) your reading of some foundational rational thinking material. As an added bonus every post reviewed will save the world with 3.5*epsilon probability.

We need volunteers who are willing to read some sequence posts and have an eye for detail. Anyone interested in contributing should contact me at cameron.taylor [at] singinst [dot] org.

For those more interested in academic papers we also have regular publications (and re-publications) that need proofreading and editing before they are released.

Dotting i's and Crossing t's - a Journey to Publishing Elegance

12 wedrifid 14 March 2012 09:23PM

More literally a journey to making the dots of the 'i's line up just right with the 'f's and ensuring that the crossing of 'T' meets up neatly with the tip of the 'h' - all without breaking text searching and copy and paste.


Now, as we all know, science isn't just about little things like peer review and double blind placebo controlled studies. Far more important is presenting your work in accordance with the grand traditions of scientific publication - all while ensuring you flatter all the right people for their sometimes obsolete and possibly only slightly relevant past works. Of course you must do this all according to standard citation formulae developed a century or two ago back when the city in which a text document was published was somehow a useful piece of information.

Some may consider people like Galileo and Bacon to be the most influential figures in science but the man who made the greatest contribution to the way humanity seeks and disseminates knowledge is of course Donald Knuth. The man who took a decade off writing his multi-volume magnum opus [The Art of Computer Programming](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Computer_Programming) to create TeX, the foundation of LaTeX and without which science as we know it would be unrecognizable. These days presenting academic publications without using LaTeX may be nearly as uncouth and banal as writing about your research in first person rather than than the passive voice!

The above cynicism is largely sincere and only a trifle exaggerated. Yet at the same time I acknowledge that there is much value to be had in wearing a uniform and the time for lonely dissent is not on matters as trivial as presentation. The overhead of presenting work in a form that other academics are willing to accept is comparatively minor and the payoffs significant.

One of the many initiatives lukeprog has set in motion now that he is organizing things over at SingInst is the porting of all of SIAI's past publications from various adhoc formats to LaTeX with a standard publication template. You can see an early example of the new format here.


Unfortunately, Wei_Dai encountered a problem. In the first presentation of the converted document copy and pasting "The" would give something like "Ļe" and copying "fi" would give "ŀ". The problem is with the implementation of ligatures. Back when typesetting was done manually - I can only imagine using a whole bunch of little metal stamp like things that could be plugged into the right places - the typsetters had an extra collection of pseudo letters to use instead of combinations like "fi", "ffi" and "Th". The reason being that those particular combinations just don't look too good if they are placed together the same way that you would place them with other letters. You wind up with either having the too far apart or having parts of them overlap in a way that isn't particularly neat.

In the font SingInst uses the non-ligature versions of 'f' and 'i' combine with the dot of the 'i' only partially ovelapping the 'f' which somehow makes it jump out more easily to the reader. The way this is solved with the ligatures is actually increase the degree of overlap such that the f smoothly blends in to the i. Someone with far more highly honed aesthetic sense than I concluded that this is the best way to present English letters and it looks fairly good to me so I'll take their word for it.

The problem is that while ligatures are easy for humans to read "Notepad", "Word" and "Firefox" aren't nearly as smart. And unfortunately there isn't a consistent standard between fonts of which ligature means what so we end up with all sorts of random mess if we try to copy and paste from a ligature riddled document into our editor of choice. This left me with rather a lot of work to do while I was generating LaTeX files from those of the old SingInst publications that were only available in PDF form and that isn't a task I would wish on all the future consumers of SingInst literature.


Fortunately, the PDF format and the LaTeX are both advanced enough to handle making the visible text use the ligature characters while keeping the original text available for easy copy and pasting by the interested reader. This involves something called a 'cmap'. It is a mapping from an input encoding to the output encoding. With that cmap embedded in the pdf file any fully featured pdf reader is able to take the pretty text, strip apart the ligatures and figure out what they were originally.

Why then is Wei unable to copy our Th's and fi's? I haven't the slightest idea. My research suggests that the xelatex distribution we were using should just work and handle this sort of thing. So confident is it in managing such mappings that it outright rejects compatibility with the 'cmap' passage which could be used in the older 'pdflatex' compiler to handle this sort of task.

Attempted Workarounds

  • \usepackage{cmap} - Recommended as the solution to all problems ligature related as the result of all obvious google searches. Unfortunately the package doesn't load in xelatex and from all reports just isn't supposed to be needed.
  • Use a different, similar font. There are plenty of alternatives to Adobe Caslon Pro - Adobe Garamond Pro for example. No luck - the problem seemed to apply to all fonts installed to the system (and thereby made accessible via xelatex's font magic).
  • Find a font that doesn't need ligatures - This works, obviously. There are plenty of fonts that keep the letters sufficiently spread - or are even mono-typed. None of them looked anywhere near as good as Adobe Caslon Pro but they would have to suffice if no better alternative could be found.
  • Manually edit .map files. If I recall that helped a tad. One by one characters could be retargetted but then all ended up pointing at the basic font rather than, say to 'bold'.
  • Extracting maps from otf (font) files - There are all sorts of linux based command line tools for the manipulation of fonts between various formats and the extraction of data from them. Some of the work as specified. The ones that try to do more than one step at the same time do not - at least without extensive intervention. While no doubt it would lead to eventual success this approach is not recommended to anyone who has less than several weeks to spend learning the dark arts of font internal details.
  • autoinst - this is a tool that is supposed to 'just work' and install fonts for use even in the comparatively primitive pdflatex. Suffice it to say that it does not.
  • autoinst with manual assistance - autoinst seems to produce all the files that should be needed, the task then is to distribute them in a way that allows them to work with latex. This approach would probably work... eventually. It is far from trivial and did not work within the time I allocated to.
  • Expert assistance - Money solves everything. Luke contacted assorted people who know about LaTeX and offered to pay them to fix our problem. Unfortunately none of the responders had a clue in this case, at least not at first glance.
  • Pristine, up to date installation of TeXLive -often the packages installed by ubuntu are not as fresh as those to be had by installing directly from the source. Reverting the ubuntu virtual machine to a pre-latex state and downloading 2gb worth of TeXlive distribution could well have helped. It didn't.
  • lualatex or pdflatex instead of xelatex - no luck (yet).
  • MikTeX - the easy to use windows based distribution of latex may have allowed the autoinst program or perhaps xelatex magic to 'just work'. It didn't - in fact a known bug in one of the packages in that distribution prevented the SingInst template from working with MikTeX at all.
  • inbuild font packages - success - to a degree. Fonts that come with old style latex packages in either MikTeX or TeXLive work as intended. They still don't look as good as Adobe Caslon Pro but would have been been good enough.


  • Running MikTeX instead of TeXlive Reinstalling MikTeX, downloading fresh packages and then running lualatex. Success! Adobe Caslon Pro now appears in our publications without any Ligature related problems. Why did this work while lualatex on TeXLive still doesn't work correctly? I'm not entirely sure. But I'm rather glad I had the hunch to go back and try it even when my attention had moved on to more important matters.

Optimal Decision Making

An analysis could be done on what the optimal problem solving strategy would have been at any point in that process. Among other things I would note that rather early on in the process I decided that the expected value of continuing to attack the problem was rather low - so I stopped billing Luke for the time. But since I really don't like being bested by a challenge I went ahead and did it anyway. Much frustration was involved but in this case I was rewarded with a large boost of personal satisfaction and with SingInst publications that are an iota or two more beautiful!

Cryonics on Castle [Spoilers]

25 wedrifid 04 October 2011 09:46AM

Check out the latest episode of Castle (Headcase) to see Cryonics covered in mainstream fiction in a not entirely terrible manner. The details are not exactly accurate but probably not more inaccurate than similar fictionalised coverage of most other industries. In fact there is one obvious implementation difference that the company in Castle uses which is how things clearly ought to be:

Amulets of Immortality

It is not uncommon for cryonics enthusiasts to make 'immortality' jokes about their ALCOR necklaces but the equivalent on the show make the obvious practical next step. The patients have heart rate monitors with GPS signalers that signal the cryonics company as soon as the patient flatlines. This is just obviously the way things should be and it is regrettable that the market is not yet broad enough for 'obvious' to have been translated into common practice.

Other things to watch out for:

  • Predictable attempts by the cops to take the already preserved body so they can collect more evidence.
  • A somewhat insightful question of whether the cryonics company should hand over the corpsicle without taking things to court because that way they would not risk legal precedent being set based on a case where there are unusual factors which may make them lose. It may be better to lose one patient so that they can force the fight to happen on a stronger case.
  • Acknowledgement that only the head is required, which allows a compromise of handing over the body minus the head.
  • Smug superiority of cops trying to take the cryonics patient against the will of the patient himself, his family and the custodians. This is different than cops just trying to claim territory and do their job and to the hell with everyone else, it is cops trying to convey that it is morally virtuous to take the corpse and the wife would understand that it was in her and her corpsicle husband's best interest to autopsy his head if she wasn't so stupid. (Which seems like a realistic attitude.)
  • Costar and lead detective Beckett actually attempts to murder a cryonics patient (to whatever extent that murder applies to corpsicle desiccation). For my part this gave me the chance to explore somewhat more tangibly my ethical intuitions over what types of responses would be appropriate. My conclusion was that if someone had shot Beckett in order to protect the corpsicle I would have been indifferent. Not glad that she was killed but not proud of the person killing her either. I suspect (but cannot test) that most of the pain and frustration of losing a character that I cared about would be averted as well. Curious.
  • Brain destroying disease vs cryonicist standoff!
  • Beckett redeems herself on the 'not being an ass to cryonicists' front by being completely non-judgemental of the woman for committing "involuntary euthenasia" of her tumor-infested husband. (Almost to the point of being inconsistent with her earlier behavior but I'm not complaining.)
  • A clever "Romeo and Juliet" conclusion to wrap up the case without Beckett being forced to put the wife in jail for an act that has some fairly reasonable consequentialist upsides. Played out to be about as close to a happy ending as you could get.

Overall a positive portrayal of cryonics or at least one I am happy with. It doesn't convey cryonics as normal but even so it is a step less weird than I would usually expect. I'd call it good publicity.

Preference For (Many) Future Worlds

18 wedrifid 15 July 2011 11:31PM

Followup to: Quantum Russian Roulette; The Domain of Your Utility Function

The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I'm beat
and to another give my seat
for that's the only painless feat.

Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

-- M.A.S.H.

Let us pretend, for the moment, that we are rational Expected Utility Maximisers. We make our decisions with the intention of achieving outcomes that we judge to have high utility. Outcomes that satisfy our preferences. Since developments in physics have led us to abandon the notion of a simple single future world our decision making process must now grapple with the notion that some of our decisions will result in more than one future outcome. Not simply the possibility of more than one future outcome but multiple worlds, each of which with different events occurring. In extreme examples we can consider the possibility of staking our very lives on the toss of a quantum die, figuring that we are going to live in one world anyway!

How do preferences apply when making decisions with Many Worlds? The description I’m giving here will be obvious to the extent of being trivial to some, confusing to others and, I expect, considered outright wrong by others. But it is the post that I want to be able to link to whenever the question “Do you believe in quantum immortality?” comes up. Because it is a wrong question!

continue reading »

Wiki: Standard Reference or Original Research?

14 wedrifid 25 May 2011 01:13PM

My understanding of the purpose of the lesswrong wiki has been that it is a collection of well established concepts and local jargon that we can use as a reference and an easy way to communicate across inferential distance. The material on the wiki (I assumed) was to be summarised from prominent and uncontroversial blog posts that are already referenced to from time to time. Yet on several occasions I have seen pages edited with new content straight from the author's creativity.

A stark example was brought to my attention recently by User: bogus.

Please read the Less Wrong wiki page on Mind-killer, which summarizes the arguments for not doing politics at LessWrong better than any 'sequence' or blog post could.

What? I certainly hope not. If it the content isn't straight from a post then get it off the wiki and make it a post! And if the meaning of a concept differs in emphasis from that used in a sequence then so much the worse for your wiki comment.

Looking at the aforementioned mind-killer page the kind of thing I do not expect to see on the wiki is this:

many of these political virtues were identified by Bernard Crick in his work In Defense of Politics.

Huh? Bernard Crick? Since when was Bernard Crick part of an uncontroversial well established concept of 'mind killing' on lesswrong? The only reference to that author is in one comment by bogus in a post that is itself obscure. I've got nothing against Bernard Crick but I think the way to go about sharing the good news about his work is by making a post on him not injecting references into the wiki. Because then the new content has a chance to be vetted, commented on and voted on by the users.

Less obvious but to my mind more important is the distorted emphasis the article places on the subject, such as in the opening "politics is a mind killer" paragraph:

Political disputes are not limited to standard disagreements about factual matters, nor to disputes of personality or perspective or even faction: they involve matters that people physically fight over in the real world—or at least, matters that are to be enforced by the government's monopoly of violence.

That is kind of true. At least it isn't quite misleading enough that I would outright downvote it if it were a comment in a thread. But it certainly distracts from the core of the issue. On the other hand the related Politics is the Mind-Killer page nails it with a paragraph from an actual blog post:

People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation... When, today, you get into an argument about whether "we" ought to raise the minimum wage, you're executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed... Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back - providing aid and comfort to the enemy.



What the mind killer page does have in its favour is links. Apart from links to the PITMK posts and the color politics page it links to the related Paul Graham post which is also commonly referred to here. So basically if I was a wiki editor I would probably just nuke the content and leave the links and do the same thing whenever I found wiki pages that are original content. This is perhaps one good reason why I don't spend my time editing the wiki. ;)

Rationality Quotes: January 2011

2 wedrifid 03 January 2011 05:24AM

Post quotes.

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be voted up/down separately.  (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments.  If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts from LW. (If you want to exclude OB too create your own quotes thread! OB is entertaining and insightful and all but it is no rationality blog!)
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.


The 9 Circles of Scientific Hell

7 wedrifid 22 December 2010 02:59AM

Neuroskeptic is my favorite blog on neuroscience. Don't be deceived by the 'skeptic' in the name, the coverage is well balanced and overall quite positive. He recently interrupted his regular scheduling with a light piece on the circles of scientific hell. Definitely worth a look. I'm not too sure about the order of the various sins. I'd be tempted to put "p-value fishing" way down the list!

An excerpt:

Second Circle: Overselling
"This circle is reserved for those who exaggerated the importantance of their work in order to get grants or write better papers. Sinners are trapped in a huge pit, neck-deep in horrible sludge. Each sinner is provided with the single rung of a ladder, labelled 'The Way Out - Scientists Crack Problem of Second Circle of Hell"

Makes me want to want to break out into a chorus of "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime"!

Explaining information theoretic vs thermodynamic entropy?

-3 wedrifid 04 November 2010 11:41PM

What is the best way to go about explaining the difference between these two different types of entropy? I can see the difference myself and give all sorts of intuitive reasons for how the concepts work and how they kind of relate. At the same time I can see why my (undergraduate) physicist friends would be skeptical when I tell them that no, I haven't got it backwards and a string of all '1's has nearly zero entropy while a perfectly random string is 'maximum entropy'. After all, if your entire physical system degenerates into a mush with no order that you know nothing about then you say it is full of entropy.


How would I make them understand the concepts before nerdy undergraduate arrogance turns off their brains? Preferably giving them the kind of intuitive grasp that would last rather than just persuading them via authoritative speech, charm and appeal to authority. I prefer people to comprehend me than to be able to repeat my passwords. (Except where having people accept my authority and dominance will get me laid in which case I may have to make concessions to practicality.)

A Rational Education

12 wedrifid 23 June 2010 05:48AM

Within the next month I will be enrolling in an(other) undergraduate university course. This being the case I must make a selection of both course and major. While I could make such decisions on impulsive unconscious preference satisfaction and guesswork on what subjects happen to provide the most value I could also take the opportunity to address the decision more rationally and objectively. There are some relevant questions to ask that I know LessWrong readers can help me answer.

  1. Which subjects and courses can make the best contribution to Epistemic Rationality?
  2. Which subjects and courses provide the most Instrumental Rationality benefits?
  3. Given all available information about the universe and what inferences can be drawn about my preferences and abilities what course structure should I choose?
  4. Which course do you just happen to like?

continue reading »

Rationality Quotes: February 2010

2 wedrifid 01 February 2010 06:39AM

A monthly thread for posting rationality-related quotes you've seen recently (or had stored in your quotesfile for ages).

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be voted up/down separately.  (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments.  If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
continue reading »

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