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Epistle to the New York Less Wrongians

90 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 April 2011 09:13PM

(At the suggestion and request of Tom McCabe, I'm posting the essay that I sent to the New York LW group after my first visit there, and before the second visit:)

Having some kind of global rationalist community come into existence seems like a quite extremely good idea.  The NYLW group is the forerunner of that, the first group of LW-style rationalists to form a real community, and to confront the challenges involved in staying on track while growing as a community.

"Stay on track toward what?" you ask, and my best shot at describing the vision is as follows:

"Through rationality we shall become awesome, and invent and test systematic methods for making people awesome, and plot to optimize everything in sight, and the more fun we have the more people will want to join us."

(That last part is something I only realized was Really Important after visiting New York.)

Michael Vassar says he's worried that you might be losing track of the "rationality" and "world optimization" parts of this - that people might be wondering what sort of benefit "rationality" delivers as opposed to, say, paleo dieting.  (Note - less worried about this now that I've met the group in person.  -EY.)

I admit that the original Less Wrong sequences did not heavily emphasize the benefits for everyday life (as opposed to solving ridiculously hard scientific problems).  This is something I plan to fix with my forthcoming book - along with the problem where the key info is scattered over six hundred blog posts that only truly dedicated people and/or serious procrastinators can find the time to read.

But I really don't think the whole rationality/fun association you've got going - my congratulations on pulling that off, by the way, it's damned impressive - is something that can (let alone should) be untangled.  Most groups of people capable of becoming enthusiastic about strange new nonconformist ways of living their lives would have started trying to read each other's auras by now.  Rationality is the master lifehack which distinguishes which other lifehacks to use.

The way an LW-rationality meetup usually gets started is that there is a joy of being around reasonable people - a joy that comes, in a very direct way, from those people caring about what's true and what's effective, and being able to reflect on more than their first impulse to see whether it makes sense.  You wouldn't want to lose that either.

But the thing about effective rationality is that you can also use it to distinguish truth from falsehood, and realize that the best methods aren't always the ones everyone else is using; and you can start assembling a pool of lifehacks that doesn't include homeopathy.  You become stronger, and that makes you start thinking that you can also help other people become stronger.  Through the systematic accumulation of good ideas and the rejection of bad ideas, you can get so awesome that even other people notice, and this means that you can start attracting a new sort of person, one who starts out wanting to become awesome instead of being attracted specifically to the rationality thing.  This is fine in theory, since indeed the Art must have a purpose higher than itself or it collapses into infinite recursion.  But some of these new recruits may be a bit skeptical, at first, that all this "rationality" stuff is really contributing all that much to the awesome.

Real life is not a morality tale, and I don't know if I'd prophesy that the instant you get too much awesome and not enough rationality, the group will be punished for that sin by going off and trying to read auras.  But I think I would prophesy that if you got too large and insufficiently reasonable, and if you lost sight of your higher purposes and your dreams of world optimization, the first major speedbump you hit would splinter the group.  (There will be some speedbump, though I don't know what it will be.)

Rationality isn't just about knowing about things like Bayes's Theorem.  It's also about:

* Saying oops and changing your mind occasionally.

* Knowing that clever arguing isn't the same as looking for truth.

* Actually paying attention to what succeeds and what fails, instead of just being driven by your internal theories.

* Reserving your self-congratulations for the occasions when you actually change a policy or belief, because while not every change is an improvement, every improvement is a change.

* Self-awareness - a core rational skill, but at the same time, a caterpillar that spent all day obsessing about being a caterpillar would never become a butterfly.

* Having enough grasp of evolutionary psychology to realize that this is no longer an eighty-person hunter-gatherer band and that getting into huge shouting matches about Republicans versus Democrats does not actually change very much.

* Asking whether your most cherished beliefs to shout about actually control your anticipations, whether they mean anything, never mind whether their predictions are actually correct.

* Understanding that correspondence bias means that most of your enemies are not inherently evil mutants but rather people who live in a different perceived world than you do.  (Albeit of course that some people are selfish bastards and a very few of them are psychopaths.)

* Being able to accept and consider advice from other people who think you're doing something stupid, without lashing out at them; and the more you show them this is true, and the more they can trust you not to be offended if they're frank with you, the better the advice you can get.  (Yes, this has a failure mode where insulting other people becomes a status display.  But you can also have too much politeness, and it is a traditional strength of rationalists that they sometimes tell each other the truth.  Now and then I've told college students that they are emitting terrible body odors, and the reply I usually get is that they had no idea and I am the first person ever to suggest this to them.)

* Comprehending the nontechnical arguments for Aumann's Agreement Theorem well enough to realize that when two people have common knowledge of a persistent disagreement, something is wrong somewhere - not that you can necessarily do better by automatically agreeing with everyone who persistently disagrees with you; but still, knowing that ideal rational agents wouldn't just go around yelling at each other all the time.

* Knowing about scope insensitivity and diminishing marginal returns doesn't just mean that you donate charitable dollars to "existential risks that few other people are working on", instead of "The Society For Curing Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies".  It means you know that eating half a chocolate brownie appears as essentially the same pleasurable memory in retrospect as eating a whole brownie, so long as the other half isn't in front of you and you don't have the unpleasant memory of exerting willpower not to eat it.  (Seriously, I didn't emphasize all the practical applications of every cognitive bias in the Less Wrong sequences but there are a lot of things like that.)

* The ability to dissent from conformity; realizing the difficulty and importance of being the first to dissent.

* Knowing that to avoid pluralistic ignorance everyone should write down their opinion on a sheet of paper before hearing what everyone else thinks.

But then one of the chief surprising lessons I learned, after writing the original Less Wrong sequences, was that if you succeed in teaching people a bunch of amazing stuff about epistemic rationality, this reveals...

(drum roll)

...that, having repaired some of people's flaws, you can now see more clearly all the other qualities required to be awesome.  The most important and notable of these other qualities, needless to say, is Getting Crap Done.

(Those of you reading Methods of Rationality will note that it emphasizes a lot of things that aren't in the original Less Wrong, such as the virtues of hard work and practice.  This is because I have Learned From Experience.)

Similarly, courage isn't something I emphasized enough in the original Less Wrong (as opposed to MoR) but the thought has since occurred to me that most people can't do things which require even small amounts of courage.  (Leaving NYC, I had two Metrocards with small amounts of remaining value to give away.  I felt reluctant to call out anything, or approach anyone and offer them a free Metrocard, and I thought to myself, well, of course I'm reluctant, this task requires a small amount of courage and then I asked three times before I found someone who wanted them.  Not, mind you, that this was an important task in the grand scheme of things - just a little bit of rejection therapy, a little bit of practice in doing things which require small amounts of courage.)

Or there's Munchkinism, the quality that lets people try out lifehacks that sound a bit weird.  A Munchkin is the sort of person who, faced with a role-playing game, reads through the rulebooks over and over until he finds a way to combine three innocuous-seeming magical items into a cycle of infinite wish spells.  Or who, in real life, composes a surprisingly effective diet out of drinking a quarter-cup of extra-light olive oil at least one hour before and after tasting anything else.  Or combines liquid nitrogen and antifreeze and life-insurance policies into a ridiculously cheap method of defeating the invincible specter of unavoidable Death.  Or figures out how to build the real-life version of the cycle of infinite wish spells.  Magic the Gathering is a Munchkin game, and MoR is a Munchkin story.

It would be really awesome if the New York Less Wrong groups figures out how to teach its members hard work and courage and Muchkinism and so on.

It would be even more awesome if you could muster up the energy to track the results in any sort of systematic way so that you can do small-N Science (based on Bayesian likelihoods thank you, not the usual statistical significance bullhockey) and find out how effective different teaching methods are, or track the effectiveness of other lifehacks as well - the Quantitative Self road.  This, of course, would require Getting Crap Done; but I do think that in the long run, whether we end up with really effective rationalists is going to depend a lot on whether we can come up with evidence-based metrics for how well a teaching method works, or if we're stuck in the failure mode of psychoanalysis, where we just go around trying things that sound like good ideas.

And of course it would be really truly amazingly awesome if some of you became energetic gung-ho intelligent people who can see the world full of low-hanging fruit in front of them, who would go on to form multiple startups which would make millions and billions of dollars.  That would also be cool.

But not everyone has to start a startup, not everyone has to be there to Get Stuff Done, it is okay to have Fun.  The more of you there are, the more likely it is that any given five of you will want to form a new band, or like the same sort of dancing, or fall in love, or decide to try learning meditation and reporting back to the group on how it went.  Growth in general is good.  Every added person who's above the absolute threshold of competence is one more person who can try out new lifehacks, recruit new people, or just be there putting the whole thing on a larger scale and making the group more Fun.  On the other hand there is a world out there to optimize, and also the scaling of the group is limited by the number of people who can be organizers (more on this below).  There's a narrow path to walk between "recruit everyone above the absolute threshold who seems like fun" and "recruit people with visibly unusually high potential to do interesting things".  I would suggest making extra effort to recruit people who seem like they have high potential but not anything like a rule.  But if someone not only seems to like explicit rationality and want to learn more, but also seems like a smart executive type who gets things done, perhaps their invitation to a meetup should be prioritized?

So that was the main thing I had to say, but now onward to some other points.

A sensitive issue is what happens when someone can't reach the absolute threshold of competence.  I think the main relevant Less Wrong post on this subject is "Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism."  There are people who cannot be saved - or at least people who cannot be saved by any means currently known to you.  And there is a whole world out there to be optimized; sometimes even if a person can be saved, it takes a ridiculous amount of effort that you could better use to save four other people instead.  We've had similar problems on the West Coast - I would hear about someone who wasn't Getting Stuff Done, but who seemed to be making amazing strides on self-improvement, and then a month later I would hear the same thing again, and isn't it remarkable how we keep hearing about so much progress but never about amazing things the person gets done -

(I will parenthetically emphasize that every single useful mental technique I have ever developed over the course of my entire life has been developed in the course of trying to accomplish some particular real task and none of it is the result of me sitting around and thinking, "Hm, however shall I Improve Myself today?"  I should advise a mindset in which making tremendous progress on fixing yourself doesn't merit much congratulation and only particular deeds actually accomplished are praised; and also that you always have some thing you're trying to do in the course of any particular project of self-improvement - a target real-world accomplishment to which your self-improvements are a means, not definable in terms of any personality quality unless it is weight loss or words output on a writing project or something else visible and measurable.)

- and the other thing is that trying to save people who cannot be saved can drag down a whole community, because it becomes less Fun, and that means new people don't want to join.

I would suggest having a known and fixed period of time, like four months, that you are allowed to spend on trying to fix anyone who seems fixable, and if after that their outputs do not exceed their inputs and they are dragging down the Fun level relative to the average group member, fire them.  You could maybe have a Special Committee with three people who would decide this - one of the things I pushed for on the West Coast was to have the Board deciding whether to retain people, with nobody else authorized to make promises.  There should be no one person who can be appealed to, who can be moved by pity and impulsively say "Yes, you can stay."  Short of having Voldemort do it, the best you can do to reduce pity and mercy is to have the decision made by committee.

And if anyone is making the group less Fun or scaring off new members, and yes this includes being a creep who offends potential heroine recruits, give them an instant ultimatum or just fire them on the spot.

You have to be able to do this.  This is not the ancestral environment where there's only eighty people in your tribe and exiling any one of them is a huge decision that can never be undone.  It's a large world out there and there are literally hundreds of millions of people whom you do not want in your community, at least relative to your current ability to improve them.  I'm sorry but it has to be done.

Finally, if you grow much further it may no longer be possible for everyone to meet all the time as a group.  I'm not quite sure what to advise about this - splitting up into meetings on particular interests, maybe, but it seems more like the sort of thing where you ought to discuss the problem as thoroughly as possible before proposing any policy solutions.  My main advice is that if there's any separatish group that forms, I am skeptical about its ability to stay on track if there isn't at least one high-level epistemic rationalist executive type to organize it, someone who not only knows Bayes's Theorem but who can also Get Things Done.  Retired successful startup entrepreneurs would be great for this if you could get them, but smart driven young people might be more mentally flexible and a lot more recruitable if far less experienced.  In any case, I suspect that your ability to grow is going to be ultimately limited by the percentage of members who have the ability to be organizers, and the time to spend organizing, and who've also leveled up into good enough rationalists to keep things on track.  Implication, make an extra effort to recruit people who can become organizers.

And whenever someone does start doing something interesting with their life, or successfully recruits someone who seems unusually promising, or spends time organizing things, don't forget to give them a well-deserved cookie.

Finally, remember that the trouble with the exact phrasing of "become awesome" - though it does nicely for a gloss - is that Awesome isn't a static quality of a person.  Awesome is as awesome does.

Comments (271)

Comment author: Cayenne 21 April 2011 01:59:29AM *  21 points [-]

And if anyone is making the group less Fun or scaring off new members, and yes this includes being a creep who offends potential heroine recruits, give them an instant ultimatum or just fire them on the spot.

At the LW meetups I've been to so far, I've seen what I would call 'swarming' around each female present. It doesn't seem malicious, but they each end up being in the center of a group...

I guess this is something for other people to corroborate, I'm just a lonely data point waiting for my line.

Edit - please disregard this post

Comment author: ciphergoth 21 April 2011 06:45:57PM 4 points [-]

I don't think we've seen this in London, but obviously our actual female participants would be better placed to comment.

Comment author: taryneast 01 January 2014 02:56:52AM 1 point [-]

I didn't see it happening while I was there.

Comment author: ciphergoth 01 January 2014 11:57:41AM 1 point [-]

That's good to hear - thanks! Very keen to hear feedback on this sort of thing.

Comment author: jsalvatier 21 April 2011 02:48:03AM 4 points [-]

Hasn't happened at the (4) meet ups I've been to.

Comment author: CronoDAS 23 April 2011 08:40:33AM 3 points [-]

I'll confirm that this phenomenon exists; I routinely participate in such "swarms". I do not know to what extent this is actually a problem, though.

Comment author: Vaniver 21 April 2011 04:24:13PM *  2 points [-]

I've been to 1 meetup with 5 participants, of which one was female (and married to another participant). So I don't really have much relevant data yet. My guess is if this sort of thing shows up, it happens with larger meetup sizes.

I'm not sure it's avoidable, though. I think the best improvement vector is to try to decrease the creepiness without trying to decrease the interest.

Comment author: Dorikka 21 April 2011 02:28:12PM 2 points [-]

How many meetups have you been to and seen this? Do you think it produces negative effects; if so, what?

More data, yum yum. :D

Comment author: bgaesop 23 April 2011 02:45:29AM 6 points [-]

I will parenthetically emphasize that every single useful mental technique I have ever developed over the course of my entire life has been developed in the course of trying to accomplish some particular real task and none of it is the result of me sitting around and thinking, "Hm, however shall I Improve Myself today?" I should advise a mindset in which making tremendous progress on fixing yourself doesn't merit much congratulation and only particular deeds actually accomplished are praised; and also that you always have some thing you're trying to do in the course of any particular project of self-improvement - a target real-world accomplishment to which your self-improvements are a means, not definable in terms of any personality quality unless it is weight loss or words output on a writing project or something else visible and measurable.

This section is a little confusing to me, so I'm going to lay out my thoughts on the subject in order to help myself organise them and to see what other people think.

I do attempt to improve myself by thinking "what shall I do to Improve Myself today?" Or rather, I spent several days coming up with plans as to how to improve myself, and now every day I ask myself "what's on the plan for how to Improve Myself today?" I'm also constantly revising the plan as I gain new information or think of new things. I'll give two examples. I'm revising the plan right now so that the next time I have a full day of free time, I shall spend it learning to solve a Rubik's Cube, because my brain considers "able-to-solve-Rubik's-Cubes" as high-status, and so I suspect that doing so shall be helpful in building my own success spiral. I thought this because I noticed that I was beginning a depressive death spiral. Due to my failure to get into graduate schools with funding, if you're curious (another part of the plan: admit embarrassing facts like that in order to eat away at the shame, so that my anger about them becomes cold, not hot, so that I can use it. [a third part of the plan: read Ender's Game. I have started, and 10 year old me is screaming across the decades "HOW DID WE NOT READ THIS WHEN WE WERE ME"]). Heh, got kind of sidetracked there, let me get back on topic.

I have done at least one thing that I can think of that I actually did do by, on the day I did it, thinking "how shall I improve myself today?" It was to start exercising. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to share the specific bits of rational thinking I did. "Hey bgaesop, what we did the last time we wanted to exercise, and therefore the first thing you thought of when you thought 'how should I work out?' didn't seem to work so well. Furthermore, we've encountered credible evidence since then that that is a dumb way to work out. You have access to people who know how to exercise better than you do, through your fraternity. You should go ask them how to do so. We also know that we have a tendency to procrastinate and never start things that we can start at any time. Therefore, you should go ask your friends right now." As a result, I am now on a regular exercise schedule, doing free weights when I have access to a spotter, machines when I don't. I think that the key aspect of getting this to work was twofold: admitting that someone else knows more than me on the subject and I should ask them for help, which is an ability that does not come naturally to me and that I have been working on for quite a while, and second, going out and Getting Crap Done the moment I thought of it.

I think that, for me at least, putting a plan into motion as soon as you think of it, instead of procrastinating, is extremely helpful in terms of actually Getting Crap Done. Especially plans that have high initial willpower and shame etc costs compared to the costs of maintaining them. For example, it was much more embarrassing to go to the gym the first time, when I considered myself a scrawny nerd weakling walking into the jock's den, not having any idea what to do. After the first time going with my friends I was unafraid to go alone. Now that I've gone enough that I can actually see results on my body (which took astoundingly little time, seriously, like two weeks) I look forward to going. In fact, I'm going to go as soon as I post this comment. I've been putting it off all day, so this is an effective way of forcing myself to do that. You'll know I was lying if I comment on anything in the next 45 minutes or so :)

This combines well with the whole idea of having rationality be demonstrably awesome, because my body now looks better than it ever has in the past, including when I was expending more effort and time on a less intelligently put together workout program. By taking the extremely simple steps of "look at what people who know about this subject have to say, okay now find one of them to help you, okay now actually do what they said" worked wonders over my old method of "google until you find something fun and easy sounding that promises to work well." Upon writing this out, however, I am noticing how much what I did resembles simply appealing to authority instead of trying to figure out the answer myself. I could have sworn there was a specific post about learning from other people as opposed to discovering things yourself, but I can't find it at the moment--does anyone know what I'm thinking of? Regardless, since I certainly don't know and can't do everything, and I know that my inability to admit that (mainly to myself) has been one of my biggest impediments in life, I hope that everyone would agree that there's no harm in trying to learn from others.

Comment author: David_Gerard 21 April 2011 09:23:53AM 15 points [-]

Should this be added to the "community" sequence?

Comment author: Dustin 20 April 2011 11:14:40PM 4 points [-]

This post makes me literally sad.

Living in rural Missouri limits my opportunities to interact with similar awesome-seekers.

Comment author: michaelcurzi 22 April 2011 12:22:01AM 4 points [-]

I run a meetup in St. Louis, if you're ever in the area.


Comment author: Alicorn 20 April 2011 11:16:32PM 4 points [-]

What ties you to rural Missouri?

Comment author: Dustin 20 April 2011 11:18:14PM 13 points [-]

Wife, child, family, friends, business.

Comment author: Kai-o-logos 20 April 2011 11:22:54PM 9 points [-]

that is sad - I know a friend in rural Nebraska who is in a similar predicament (college) and he says if it wasn't for LW, he might have just concluded that people were just un-awesome.

It is sad that demographics limits potential awesome-seekers. That is another reason why I admire Eliezer so much for making this online community.

Comment author: Hyena 20 April 2011 10:24:31PM 4 points [-]

Some of this post makes me wonder where Less Wrong sits within social networks. I suspect we have close ties to the BoingBoing-Make ecosystem and may even be part of it.

Comment author: Barry_Cotter 20 April 2011 10:46:01PM *  9 points [-]

I would be incredibly surprised if we are contained within it. I would be kind of surprised if we're contained to 90% within any 10X larger group. There is definitely a large overlap with Hacker News.

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 April 2011 06:19:02PM *  3 points [-]

I concur. I can't think of any Internet group I know of that LW overlaps substantially with. I can spot small segments of groups I'm in and around (Wikipedia, RationalWiki) and I'm actively trying to recruit people with an interest in rambunctious philosophy discussion ... LW has actually interested me in and taught me about philosophy more than anything I can think of, and I studied the stuff many years ago.

Comment author: Jolly 27 April 2011 06:01:06AM 4 points [-]

I note fair levels of overlap between less wrong and those in the transhumanist, H+, singularity, & cryonics communities.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 April 2011 06:55:06AM 2 points [-]

LW has actually interested me in and taught me about philosophy more than anything I can think of, and I studied the stuff many years ago.

I feel the same way, for what it's worth.

Comment author: bgaesop 23 April 2011 06:56:41AM *  10 points [-]

I've been having some sort of half-formed thoughts recently that this has brought back into my foreground that I'm curious to see other people's thoughts on.

It seems to me that the likelihood is quite high that there are people on here who have inherently competing utility functions (these examples were chosen merely because they are fairly common, directly competing, not obviously insane sets of motivations. I intend no value judgment on either of them). Thus, making one of the people whose utility function is dramatically different from yours more rational could be an extremely counterproductive move for you to make in terms of satisfying your own utility function. Imagine a libertarian rationalist accidentally training a socialist guerilla, who goes on to be very successful at fulfilling his own utility function, and thus dramatically harmful to his teacher's. Or perhaps more realistically, a socialist teacher trains a libertarian who goes on to found a company that does business in the Third World in a way that the teacher disapproves of.

How would we avoid this? Should we avoid this?

A few months I ago I was roundly, and rightly, rebuked for suggesting that rationality will lead you to certain political positions. On the other hand, people have also presented the idea that being rational will lead you to value various "instrumental ethics" I believe was the term? I can't find the article right now, unfortunately. Do you (this is directed at everyone) believe that simply by making people more rational, we'll make them more likely to do things we approve of, in the sense that they further our utility functions?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 23 April 2011 12:18:15PM 14 points [-]

In other words, if my opponent begins to make choices that better optimize their goals, do I gain or lose?

It seems clear that the answer depends on how many of their goals I share, how many I oppose, and how much I value the shared goals relative to the opposed goals.

Suppose we are Swift's Big-Endians and Little-Endians, who agree on pretty much everything that matters (even by their own standards!) and are bitterly divided over a single relatively trivial issue. If one side is suddenly optimized, everybody wins. That is, the vast majority of everyone's current goals are more effectively and efficiently met, including those of the opposition.

Sure, the optimized party gets all of that plus the value of having everyone open their eggs on the side they endorse... which means their opponents suffer in turn the value-loss of everyone opening their eggs on the side they reject. But they will be suffering that value-loss in the context of an overall increase in their value. I'm not saying everyone wins equally, just that everybody wins. Whether they are happy about this or not depends on other factors, but they seem pretty clearly to be better off.

In that scenario, upgrading my opponents means I win, although upgrading my allies means I win more.

(Of course, it's possible that both kinds of Endian conclude that they get more of what they want by self-modifying to stop caring so much about peeling eggs, and then work out ways to do so. One person's "value" is another person's "bias." But that's another discussion.)

By contrast, if instead of Endians we have more fundamentally opposed opponents... say, aliens who want to modify planets like Earth to have cyanide-rich atmospheres so they can colonize, whereas we would prefer to have more oxygen-rich atmospheres which are toxic to the aliens.

In a case like that, optimizing our opponents means they get a larger share of the available worlds (either through better negotiations, or winning wars, or more efficient exploration, or whatever) and in the long run dominate the galaxy. If we're at a point where planetary surfaces really are the most valuable thing in play, then they win and we lose.

(Of course, it's possible we both conclude that we get more of what we want by self-modifying to breathe whatever atmosphere the planet happens to have. But again, that's another discussion.)

Coming back down to Earth, then: I guess the question is, how many existing group-level conflicts among humans are primarily superficial conflicts among groups whose shared goals dwarf their opposed ones ("Endian" conflicts), and how many really are deep conflicts among groups whose opposed goals dwarf their shared ones ("oxygen-cyanide" conflicts)?

I don't know, but I would be surprised if a significant number were non-Endian.

If that's true, then in general optimizing everyone, even my opponents, leads to everyone being better off, even me. Not because everyone immediately realizes that I'm right and they're wrong, but because most of us already agree on the overwhelming majority of our values.

OTOH, that might be false.

Comment author: bgaesop 23 April 2011 06:47:30PM *  2 points [-]

I'm not saying everyone wins equally, just that everybody wins.

I really hope that this is the case, but I don't think that it is. I think that the difference between the hypothetical socialist and libertarian are more dramatic than the difference between a Big-Ender and a Little-Ender. Consider this situation:

All of humanity consists of 100 people, starting at utility 10, and a random one of them is given this choice: either keep things the way they are (everyone has 10 utilons, total of 1000) or one person, at random, is given 990 utilons while everyone else loses 9, so one person will have 1000, and everyone else will have 1, for a total of 1099~11 per person. The expected utility of the latter option is higher than the first so every rational being must pick the latter, right? Though I've learned a lot since that conversation and I no longer would make the same points, I still think that an equitable distribution of utility is better than an unequal one. Many people genuinely think it is a wonderful thing to make it so that the world is highly stratified, that there are a whole lot of people who lose in order to have a few people who really, really win. There are also a whole lot of people who genuinely think it is worth sacrificing some amount of "progress" (by which I mean technological innovation, cheapness of consumer goods, whatever) in order to have people's lives be more equitable. I lie closer to the second camp, but I haven't pounded my tentstakes into the ground, and even if I have, I certainly haven't laid a brick-and-mortar foundation, so I can uproot fairly quickly. I understand the logic that comes to the former conclusion; I think it just starts from different premises than the people who come to the latter (though of course there are crazies who come to both but that goes without saying). It does seem to me, however, that the two actually are fundamentally irreconcilable in very important ways. I hope I'm wrong about that, but it really seems like I'm not...

edit: Certainly arguments like "ought gay people/mixed race couples be allowed to get married" seem more like arguments about egg-peeling, and so your strategy hopefully would work there

Comment author: TheOtherDave 23 April 2011 07:05:48PM 1 point [-]

Absolutely agreed that the difference between "I'm worse off than I was, and you're better off" (as in your example) and "I'm better off than I was, and you're much more better off than I am" (e.g.; we start off at 10 utilons each, a randomly chosen person gets +1010 utilons and everyone else gets +10 utilons) matters here.

I'm talking about the second case... that is, I'm not making the "maximize global utility" argument.

This has nothing to do with inequity. The second case is just as unequal as the first: at the end of the day one person has 999 utility more than his neighbors. The difference is that in the second case his neighbors are better off than they were at the start, and in the first case they are worse off.

As for whether one or the other real-world cases (e.g., socialist/libertarian) are more like the first or second; I don't really know.

Comment author: hwc 23 April 2011 03:09:33PM 3 points [-]

Maybe after we all become measurably more rational, we can start to talk about politics without mind-killing?

Under those circumstances, maybe we'll find that the socialists and libertarians can find more common ground?

Comment author: MrMind 27 April 2011 09:29:57AM 1 point [-]

Politics is mind-killer because the category itself is difference-killing. You just don't discuss politics, you discuss global problems and how to solve them. Without even entering in categorization beforehand...

Comment author: hwc 27 April 2011 11:20:38AM 4 points [-]

I don't actually want to discuss politics. I realize that I hate politics. But I love talking about public policy. But discussing (e.g.) tax policy or monetary policy seems to automatically shift the conversation into politics. And then the yelling begins.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 21 April 2011 02:29:02AM *  13 points [-]

Being able to accept and consider advice from other people who think you're doing something stupid, without lashing out at them; and the more you show them this is true, and the more they can trust you not to be offended if you're frank with them, the better the advice you can get. (Yes, this has a failure mode where insulting other people becomes a status display. [...])

It also has a more subtle and counterintuitive failure mode. People can derive status and get much satisfaction by handing out perfectly honest and well-intentioned advice, if this advice is taken seriously and followed. The trouble is, their advice, however honest, can be a product of pure bias, even if it's about something where they have an impressive track record of success.

Moreover, really good and useful advice about important issues often has to be based on a no-nonsense cynical analysis that sounds absolutely awful when spelled out explicitly. Thus, even the most well-intentioned people will usually be happier to concoct nice-sounding rationalizations and hand out advice based on them, thus boosting their status not just as esteemed advice-givers, but also as expounders of respectable opinion. At the end, you may well be better off with a rash "who is he to tell me what to do" attitude than with a seemingly rational, but in fact dangerously naive reasoning that you should listen to people when they are clearly knowledgeable and well-intentioned. (And yes, I did learn this the hard way.)

Things are of course different if you're lucky to know people who have the relevant knowledge and care about you so much that they'll really discard all the pious rationalizations and make a true no-nonsense assessment of what's best for you. You can expect this from your parents and perhaps other close relatives, but otherwise, you're lucky if you have such good and savvy friends.

Comment author: jsalvatier 21 April 2011 02:49:53AM 17 points [-]

An example would help this comment.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 22 April 2011 01:46:45AM *  4 points [-]

You can take any area of life where you could be faced with tough and uncertain choices, where figuring out the optimal behavior can't be reduced to a tractable technical problem, and where the truth about how things really work is often very different from what people say about it in public (or even in private). For example, all kinds of tough choices and problems in career, education, love, investment, business, social relations with people, etc., etc.

In all these areas, it may happen that you're being offered advice by someone who is smart and competent, has a good relevant track record, and appears to be well-intentioned and genuinely care about you. My point is that even if you're sure about all this, you may still be better off dismissing the advice as nonsense. Accordingly, when you dismiss people's advice in such circumstances with what appears as an irrationally arrogant attitude, you may actually be operating with a better heuristic than if you concluded that the advice must be good based on these factors and acted on it. Even if the advice-giver has some stake in your well-being, it actually takes a very large stake to motivate them reliably to cut all bias and nonsense from what they'll tell you.

Of course, the question is how to know if you're being too arrogant, and how to recognize real good advice among the chaff. To which there is no easy and simple answer, which is one of the reasons why life is hard.

Comment author: Antisuji 22 April 2011 12:51:56AM *  4 points [-]

The problem of getting good data on how other people see you is a topic I've been thinking about a lot lately. I'd love to see a top-level post on this, because I think it's pretty essential for many areas of self-improvement, and I'd write it myself but I don't think I have a clear enough idea of the problems involved. I didn't think about this particular failure mode, for example.

Alternatively, are there any other resources that can help me get this information?

Comment author: Error 10 May 2013 12:42:09PM 1 point [-]

On the off chance this will be spotted in the sidebar: I'm a couple years late responding, but has anyone written anything useful on this subject? Is anyone in a position to do so?

Getting a correct model of others' models of oneself, and knowing it's correct, seems ridiculously difficult to me.

Comment author: Vaniver 10 May 2013 01:57:30PM 4 points [-]

I agree that this is a difficult problem. It seems to be that way because the incentive structure is misaligned for truth. The costs of giving someone unbiased feedback are mostly paid by the giver of the feedback, but the benefits are mostly received by the receiver of the feedback. Thus, this is very difficult to get from people who are not close friends and allies- but those people are probably ones who have an above-average view of you.

Thus, one of the low-hanging fruit here is rewarding negative feedback, which is in many ways more useful than positive feedback (and yet most people don't reward it).

It may be useful to ask people you trust questions like "How do you think other people view me?" The deflection to other people makes it easier to voice their personal concerns under plausible deniability, as well at getting at the question of "how do I present myself to others?" and "what features of my personality and behavior are most salient?"

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 21 April 2011 01:01:53AM *  3 points [-]

if anyone is making the group less Fun or scaring off new members, and yes this includes being a creep who offends potential heroine recruits, give them an instant ultimatum or just fire them on the spot.

Consider who might resent a friend's exclusion from the group, especially if it appears capricious. If there are clear norms and people are emotionally prepared to accept the group's priorities (who it wants to include/exclude), then the collateral damage of a person's friends leaving in protest would be taken with relative equanimity by those who remain.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 20 April 2011 11:28:03PM 3 points [-]

the more they can trust you not to be offended if you're frank with them, the better the advice you can get.

I'm fairly sure that was supposed to read "trust you not to be offended if they're frank with you."

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 April 2011 11:08:24PM 3 points [-]

Being able to accept and consider advice from other people who think you're doing something stupid, without lashing out at them;

It's also important not to stonewall.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 April 2011 11:33:03PM 11 points [-]

"Munchkinism" already has a commonly-known name. It's called hacking.

Comment author: HughRistik 21 April 2011 10:13:17AM *  12 points [-]

Yes, let's please call it "hacking," or anything other than "Munchkinism."

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2011 07:46:42PM 4 points [-]

Feel free to make concrete alternative suggestions. "Hacking" is taken.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 April 2011 09:52:17PM 9 points [-]

Isn't 'munchkin' sort of taken too? The impression I got from a little googling is that the word as used by RPG players is a derogatory term. Calling someone that isn't a compliment on their cleverness in exploiting the mechanics but mockery for missing much of the point of the game and being an annoyance to other players.

If that's true then calling cryonics munchkinism would sound like agreement with people who say that death gives meaning to life or something like that.

Comment author: wedrifid 23 April 2011 08:22:14AM 10 points [-]

Isn't 'munchkin' sort of taken too? The impression I got from a little googling is that the word as used by RPG players is a derogatory term.

The core of the insult is in the framing of the behavior as a negative (and an assertion of higher status of the speaker). The actual descriptive element of the behavior is a pretty close match to what we are talking about. This is perhaps enough of a reason to discard the word and create a synonym that doesn't have the negative association.

The problem with the MIN-MAXing munchkin - or rather the thing that causes munchkin-callers to insult them is that they think Role Playing Games are about actually taking on the role and doing what the character should do. The whole @#%@# world is at stake so you learn what you need to about the physics and the current challenges. You work out the best way to eliminate the threat and if possible ensure a literal 'happily ever after' scenario. Then you gain the power necessary to ensure that your chance of success is maximised.

But the role of the character is not what (the name-caller implies) the point of the game is about. It is about out what the game master expects, working out your own status within the group and achieving a level of success that matches your station (and no higher). The incentive to the speaker is to secure their higher position in the hierarchy and maintain their own behavior as the accepted model of sophistication. Object level actions are to be deprecated in favor of the universal game of social politics.

Many of the same behaviours and judgments apply to life as well. Optimising for whatever your own preferences are as an alternative to doing what you think you are supposed to do. Optimising your behavior for status gain only if and when status gain is what you want or need.

I don't play roleplaying games myself. I much prefer cards, board games or games that are physical. Both the social aspect and the games themselves are for more fun and the roleplaying just slow, with the 'role' of an individual borderline insulting. If I want to socialise I'll socialise. If I want to hear someone else's story I'll read a book. If I want to play a roleplaying game I'll download one on the computer. If I want to guess the boss's password I'll get a job - and I damn well be being payed well for it.

I may be a little biased. The last time I did, in fact, play a group RPG one of my companions thought it was ok to steal something of mine. I gave her fair warning and plenty of chances to comply but I ended up having to fight both her and her and the two allies she recruited (while the other two in the group stayed out of it.) Once I defeated them I took my pick of their stuff by way of appropriate reprisal. It's exactly what the character I was roleplaying would have done and I wouldn't roleplay a pushover but at the same time the overall social experience isn't especially rewarding. I haven't once had to beat the crap through three of my friends in the real world, which suits me just fine! :)

Comment author: dugancm 23 April 2011 03:06:15PM 6 points [-]

There is no problem with "Munchkinism." The problem is that in old RPG's the rules imply poorly designed (see lack of challenge upon full understanding of the system) tactical battle simulation games with some elements of strategy, while the advertising implies a social interaction and story-telling game without giving the necessary rules to support it. Thus different people think they're playing different games together and social interaction devolves into what people imagine they would do given a hypothetical situation without consequences (at least until the consequences are made explicit, violating their expectations as you note in your example).

Comment author: wedrifid 23 April 2011 03:49:33PM *  9 points [-]

devolves into what people imagine they would do given a hypothetical situation without consequences

Put all my points into charisma and charm skills and go find me some wenches? Oh, you mean saving the world. Got it.

Actually that is another problem with RPG designs. There are social skills and stats provided but they are damn near pointless in practice. Even when you want to role play a lovable rogue who can charm, manipulate and deceive his way out of problems you may as well put your skills into battle axes. Because the only person that you need to use social skills on is the DM and that is an out of character action. Unless you somehow manage to find a DM who considers the interaction to be about the character trying to persuade an NPC and not the player trying to persuade him and just lets the player roll some dice already.

"What is the skill check for "seduce the maidservant and get her to show you the secret entrance to the castle"?"
... "No, I don't need to tell you what lines I'm going to use... since I would just have to lie so as to not offend the sensibilities of the company. Dice. I want to use dice and charm wenches!"
... "What? Oh, this is just too much hassle. Let's do what we know works. Guys, you take the guard on the left and I'll take the guard on the right. Rescue the princess and kill everything that tries to stop us."

Comment author: TheOtherDave 23 April 2011 07:42:30PM 6 points [-]

Of course, what actions players enjoy actually role-playing out, and what actions they prefer to just encapsulate into a die-roll, varies a lot among potential players.

Most RPG systems I've seen seem optimized for players who enjoy making tactical decisions (do I wield a sword or cast a spell? do I go through this door or that one, and do I check it for traps before I open it?), and so devote an enormous amount of attention to the specifics of different weapon types but don't care very much about the specifics of different wench-charming lines.

I could imagine it being different: e.g., the session starts with three or four hours of hanging out at the local tavern swapping stories, and otherwise navigating the tribal monkey politics of a simulated adventuring party, finding out which vendors have the best equipment and give the best deals, bartering with salespeople, etc., etc., etc. ... and then everyone rolls against their "explore dungeon" to determine how successful they were, how much loot they got, who died, how many monsters they killed, etc. ("No, I don't need to tell you which door I'm going to enter through. Dice. I want to use dice and explore dungeons!")

But I expect they would appeal to a vastly different audience.

Comment author: wedrifid 23 April 2011 08:32:26PM 4 points [-]

The analogy doesn't fit. The salient difference here isn't one of emphasis on a different aspects of adventuring. It's that the bulk of the significant decisions for everything except the tactics boil down to guessing the DM's password. And that just isn't that fun. Nor is it compulsory (school) or economically worthwhile (paid employment), the other times that password guessing is the whole point of the game.

The reason the disgruntled charmer had to fall back on tactical combat is because that is the one aspect of the situation over which the players actually have influence. Because no matter how much attention you pay to that aspect it still amounts to trying to guess how some roleplaying nerd thinks you should pick up wenches! Something just isn't right there.

On the hand designing an entire gaming system around a solid theory of social dynamics has real potential as a learning tool if run by those with solid competence themselves. "Lookt! It's a 9 HB. They have a 30 second timeout. Quick, use a +3 neghit then follow up with that new 2d8 identity conveying routine you've been preparing all week! Let me run interference on the AMOG to hold agro while you establish rapport" (No, on second thought, let's not go to Camelot. 'Tis a silly place.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 23 April 2011 09:50:37PM 5 points [-]

I agree completely with you that "how some roleplaying nerd thinks you should pick up wenches" bears no meaningful relationship to real social dynamics, so it's all password-guessing.

From my perspective, the same thing was true of slicing swords through armor, raising allied morale, casting spells, praying for divine intervention, avoiding diseases in the swamp, etc. None of those simulated activities bore any meaningful relationship to the real thing they ostensibly simulated.

But I'll grant that in the latter cases, there were usually formal rules written down, so I didn't have to guess the passwords: I could read them in a book, memorize them, and optimize for them. (At least, assuming the GM followed them scrupulously.)

Comment author: CuSithBell 23 April 2011 09:08:05PM 5 points [-]

That's an issue that traditional-game GMs go back and forth on all the time - some say "but it's more interesting if you role-play it out", and some say "but you're not making the fighter actually stab people when he wants to make an attack". Personally, in that sort of game I like to have players in-character to an extent, but their social stats should be the thing that determines their character's success at social tasks.

There are a ton of spectacular indie games that deal with this in other ways!

Wuthering Heights Roleplay is just incredible. Your main stats are Despair and Rage. There are general rules for matching tasks to stat rolls, and specific rules for Duels, Murder, Art, and Seduction. The general trajectory of a game is: a bunch of terrible people obsessed with their own problems (or rather, their Problems) start falling in love with each other and making dramatic revelations, until eventually they're all hacking each other to pieces. It's a fun evening.

The Mountain Witch is another interesting one. All "conflicts" are decided by a simple roll-off, d6 versus d6. You get more d6s (keep the highest) if you're working with other people. Players keep track of how much they Trust each other player, and you can spend someone else's Trust in you to help them out with bonuses in conflicts, to gain control of the narration of the outcome of their conflicts, or to give yourself bonuses when directly opposing them. (There's a lot more to this one, but that's the gist of the conflict mechanic.) Cool stuff.

Comment author: CronoDAS 23 April 2011 10:08:15AM 4 points [-]

The other problem with Munchkinism is that, once your character actually achieves godlike power by breaking the game system, there's no actual challenge left. It's like solving a Rubix Cube by peeling the colored stickers off of the sides and sticking them back on in the "solved" position; there's really no point to it. So you self-handicap and choose to play a character that isn't Pun-Pun.

Comment author: wedrifid 23 April 2011 03:20:49PM *  5 points [-]

It's like solving a Rubix Cube by peeling the colored stickers off of the sides and sticking them back on in the "solved" position;

Munchkinism is definitely not the same as cheating. You don't break the Rubix cube physics, you work within them. A munchkin probably would google "solve rubix cube" and then apply a dozen or so step algorithm that will solve the cube from any given starting configuration. In fact peeling the stickers isn't even cheating properly. The result doesn't even constitute a solved rubix cube. It constitutes an ugly block that used to be a rubix cube. It is far better to simply dismantle the cube and click it back into place correctly. (This is actually necessary if some clown has taken out one of the blocks and swapped it around such that the entire cube is unsolvable. A cruel trick.)

A legitimate challenge there is to set yourself the task of solving it without external knowledge. The one I would go with (if I was interested in playing with the cubes beyond being able to solve them all at will) is to learn to solve the cube blindfolded. You get to look at the cube once for a couple of seconds then you have to do the whole thing by touch (and no, there is no braille there to help you). As a bonus this is exactly the sort of task that grants general improvements in mental focus!

The other problem with Munchkinism is that, once your character actually achieves godlike power by breaking the game system, there's no actual challenge left.

That's the kind of thing I like to demonstrate once in principle and then propose a rule change. My usual example is that of playing 500 and the open misere call. I usually propose something of a limitation on frequency of misere calls (and allow any 10 call to beat it). If the other players don't want the limitation I proceed to play open misere every time it is rational to do so (about 1/4 hands, depending on the score at the time). And ask them if they have changed their mind every time I win.

I like self-handicaps. At least in the form of giving yourself a genuinely challenging task and then trying to overcome it. My character selections (in RPGs when I have played them and in CRPGs) tend to be based on novelty or and emotional appeal. All the choices after that can be made intelligently.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 23 April 2011 09:22:10AM 2 points [-]

RPGs are kind of a weird case; they're not "games" in the same sense as a competitive game, because there's not one fixed thing specified in the rules that you're supposed to be maximizing (this is part of why I don't play RPGs :P ). With those you start getting derogatory nicknames for those who don't do everything possible to win (e.g. "scrubs"). Though I don't know of any short term for those who do (aside from just "people who play to win"), except in the context of Magic where they're known as "Spikes". Of course, if we're speaking of "winning at life", there it is also not clear should to be maximized! People aren't very good at knowing their own goals. So that's something of a disanalogy.

Comment author: katydee 23 April 2011 07:05:13AM *  3 points [-]

Duh, winning.

Comment author: wedrifid 21 April 2011 07:49:15PM 5 points [-]

"Hacking" is taken.


Comment author: Dorikka 21 April 2011 02:30:23PM 2 points [-]

Munchkinism's more vivid in my mind. Then again, I love to make up new words.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 April 2011 05:18:36AM 6 points [-]

Munchkinism's more vivid in my mind. Then again, I love to make up new words.

On the other hand if 'real' munchkins were anything like 'munchkins' in this sense they would have taken a level in badass then dealt with both the wicked witches themselves without waiting for a fortuitous outside intervention. And made the yellow brick road straight.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2011 07:46:20PM 5 points [-]

It's not the same thing. Picking locks is a hack. Cryonics is something more, which is why even most people who can pick locks don't go for it.

Comment author: steven0461 21 April 2011 09:37:36PM 23 points [-]

I wonder if it's accurate to say that for hacks, it's the means that's considered "cheating", whereas for cryonics, it's the end itself that's considered "cheating".

Comment author: handoflixue 22 April 2011 09:09:57PM 7 points [-]

That seems like a good distinction between Munchkinism and Hacking, as I've seen them used by their respective cultures. Munchkinism is about using the rules to accomplish an "unacceptable" goal, whereas Hacking is about accomplishing acceptable goals via "unacceptable" methods. Thank you for helping me cement why the two terms felt like very separate ones :)

Comment author: steven0461 21 April 2011 09:17:05PM *  10 points [-]
Comment author: Alexandros 22 April 2011 11:27:10AM 4 points [-]

Not all hackers go for the same type of hacks.

Comment author: wnoise 21 April 2011 08:08:37PM 6 points [-]

Though I agree "hacking" isn't quite the right word,

Picking locks is a hack.

Only under the most anemic criteria. Overlap between lock pickers and hackers does not make lock picking hacking. Using something not-as-it-was-intended is the start of many hacks, but a simple reversal of function or overcoming of function by itself doesn't make the cut.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 April 2011 08:20:45PM *  7 points [-]

No, it's quite the same thing.

Hackers typically had little respect for the silly rules that administrators like to impose, so they looked for ways around. For instance, when computers at MIT started to have "security" (that is, restrictions on what users could do), some hackers found clever ways to bypass the security, partly so they could use the computers freely, and partly just for the sake of cleverness (hacking does not need to be useful). However, only some hackers did this—many were occupied with other kinds of cleverness.... [snip several examples]

-- rms, "On Hacking"

Does not the bolded section describe cryonics? Isn't death a "silly rule"? I think your sense of the word "hacking" is too strict.

Comment author: wisnij 21 April 2011 08:40:55PM *  8 points [-]

As another example, the Jargon file has a general definition of 'hacker':

(sense 7) One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.

That seems to fit pretty well.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 April 2011 05:13:40AM 10 points [-]

(sense 7) One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.

That seems to fit pretty well.

It certainly fits 'hacker' (and myself) well. It doesn't fit people who are indifferent to intellectual challenge but just want to live (and so do cryonics) or just want to win (and so min-max the @#%$ out of life).

Comment author: wnoise 22 April 2011 09:38:46AM *  7 points [-]

"Min-maxer". Now that could be a reasonable label.

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 22 April 2011 07:04:58PM *  5 points [-]


Slang meaning's very similar to 'munchkin', but doesn't make people who aren't gamers think of fairy-tale midgets. Sounds good to me. It's also got decision theory connotations as a bonus.

Comment author: steven0461 22 April 2011 07:33:56PM *  3 points [-]

Min-maxing connotes being extremely good at some things by being extremely bad at some others (the "min" part), so it's not quite the right fit.

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 22 April 2011 07:53:52PM 5 points [-]

Recognizing things that are not worth putting effort in as well as things that are isn't a bad thing, given that there is an infinite number of skills you could use your time to get good at. Such as shaping gravel into mounds exactly 17 centimeters tall, memorizing telephone directories, or playing chmess competitively.

Comment author: steven0461 22 April 2011 09:39:06PM *  11 points [-]

Okay, but that's not what defines munchkins. Munchkinism, as I see it, is less about getting points in good areas by burning points in bad areas (min-maxing) than it is about getting points in good areas by burning the spirit of the game.

Comment author: ameriver 22 April 2011 07:02:06PM 1 point [-]

Upvoted for this:

...just want to win (and so min-max the @#%$ out of life).

Comment author: wedrifid 22 April 2011 12:17:25AM 1 point [-]

I think your sense of the word "hacking" is too strict.

I think your model of the space of human attitudes is insufficiently nuanced. I like the 'hacking' attitude as well as that which is being referred to as being a munchkin but they are two complementary features.

The part of your quote that you didn't bold is loosely relevant to the distinction.

Comment author: twanvl 21 April 2011 08:08:00PM 5 points [-]

Cryonics is something more, which is why even most people who can pick locks don't go for it.

I am sorry, are you really saying that people don't go for cryonics because it is something more than a hack? I find this causal relationship hard to believe. Do people in general don't go for things that are more than hacks?

I think it is a lot more likely that people don't go for cryonics because it is weird, and maybe because it requires thinking about your own mortality. And most importantly, because it is not the default option.

Comment author: shokwave 26 April 2011 02:37:59AM 2 points [-]

Probably a third cause. There is some reason why people don't go for cryonics, which is also the reason it isn't a hack. Too weird might be that cause.

Comment author: NihilCredo 23 April 2011 05:04:35PM 2 points [-]

I get the impression that you draw the distinction between 'hacking' and 'munchkining' as "They both work, but would the average guy think that it's clever or dismiss it as crazy / unfair / uncustomary?" Am I correct?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 23 April 2011 08:15:31PM 7 points [-]

Not really. It involves the ability to do things that would make other people look at you funny, and a relentlessly optimizing attitude toward all of real life and not just computer science problems or particular locks. There may be something more to it, too. In any case Timothy Ferriss != John McCarthy (albeit McCarthy himself may also have the Munchkin-nature) and people who build championship Magic decks don't think in quite the same way as great programming hackers, though you can also be both.

Comment author: NihilCredo 23 April 2011 08:25:59PM *  4 points [-]

So, new attempt:

  • Hacking = figuring out clever ways to circumvent [apparently] tough problems
  • Munchkining = constantly identifying which resources are truly relevant, and then actually abiding by that assessment. Or, as a Magic legend once said, "Focus only on what matters."


Comment author: shokwave 26 April 2011 02:31:41AM *  4 points [-]

A hacker is just a satisficer that places little value on a norm or norms. A munchkin is an optimiser.

Removing one constraint allows a satisficer to achieve better results on all the other constraints; by contrast, an optimiser will violate as many constraints as it takes to get the best result on the optimised criterion.

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 23 April 2011 08:58:10PM *  2 points [-]

Munchkinism in gaming is also generally connected to zero-sum games, so when gaming against a munchkin you either lose or have to out-munchkin them. The meaning is generally pejorative because more collaborative games tend to become unfun at this point. I've never seen gamers who do odd and massively optimized things that aren't intended for winning zero-sum games, such as building a working CPU in Minecraft, called munchkins. There always seems to be the aspect of outshining the other players within the game in munchkinism.

The analogy of this to the social sphere might be why Tim Ferriss got flak from his 4-Hour Workweek.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 May 2011 10:36:46AM 6 points [-]

...Your writing style in this reminds me of that of Paul of Tarsus. You need to write more of these. One for every LW meetup in a new city you go to.

Hrmm, this makes me think about the Rationalist equivalent of the Bible.

We'd have the Rationalist Old Testament, which chronicles the invention of the scientific method and some of its many successes, like relativity and computers and evolutionary biology. This is obviously the longer of the testaments, in order for its larger subject matter. We learn about many of the facts and rules. This is the basis of the religion "science."

Then there's the New Testament. People stand up and say, "Hey, this isn't quite right. What matters isn't only the world, but how you think." And so the new religion of "Rationality" is formed. New insight is given into the actual meanings of the science, and how to change yourself. Let's have some rationality textbooks as the gospels, Eliezer writings as Paul's epistles, various other writers as the other epistles. Maybe some Ray Kurzweil as Revelations?

This is going to keep me awake.

Comment author: Giles 24 April 2011 11:35:24PM *  4 points [-]

"And the more fun we have the more people will want to join us. That last part is something I only realized was Really Important after visiting New York"

This suggests a strong "I don't do the people stuff" bias (HP:MOR24) which will be one of the many points I address in my upcoming epic "How to save the world" sequence.

Stay tuned on the LW discussion area for this. I think I'll lose a lot of friends here if I pollute the main LW board with my particular agenda ;-)

Downvote to -10 if I haven't written a discussion post along these lines in the next 2 weeks (have to sort out my taxes first - boohoo)

[EDIT: unless someone else beats me to the exact same post. But I guess that would be unlikely and funny enough to lose 10 clippies over]

Comment author: Giles 28 April 2011 05:33:11AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: wedrifid 27 April 2011 05:19:45AM 1 point [-]

Stay tuned on the LW discussion area for this. I think I'll lose a lot of friends here if I pollute the main LW board with my particular agenda ;-)

You can get away with all sorts of stuff if you frame it as trying to save the world. Even altruistic ventures of extremely low expected return are well received.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 April 2011 05:44:16AM 4 points [-]

Most trivial nitpick of the week contender:

Finally, remember that the trouble with the exact phrasing of "become awesome" - though it does nicely for a gloss - is that Awesome isn't a static quality of a person.

If you are 'becoming awesome' then the trait must already dynamic. I'd perhaps go with 'concrete' or just leave out 'static' without replacing it. At least I would if I expected the epistle to be declared divinely inspired and made gospel for the next 2,000 years. And this essay does remind me a lot of Paul's letter to Galatians - in an entirely good way!

Comment author: feanor1600 23 April 2011 01:39:28AM 1 point [-]

"And this essay does remind me a lot of Paul's letter to Galatians - in an entirely good way!" I second this.

Comment author: psychothumbs 18 April 2012 01:07:32AM 2 points [-]

I live in New York and have been lurking on this site for a while (plus reading HPMoR of course). This post has inspired me to try to get involved with the NY rationalist community. What is the deal with how the community actually functions? How are often are there meet ups? Other basic, boring but necessary questions?

Comment author: CronoDAS 18 April 2012 05:11:21AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: [deleted] 22 April 2011 06:46:29PM 2 points [-]

I should advise a mindset in which making tremendous progress on fixing yourself doesn't merit much congratulation and only particular deeds actually accomplished are praised; and also that you always have some thing you're trying to do in the course of any particular project of self-improvement [...]

I just realized why resistance training has been working amazingly well for almost 3 months now, but all my other projects have been failing left and right. My exercise has an actual, independent goal - I want to look good. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get there. The other stuff I'm doing more for its own sake. Abandoning the "one true method" would spoil the fun.

Comment author: steven0461 20 April 2011 10:00:14PM 5 points [-]

I'm extremely relieved to hear that you and Vassar are worrying about dilution of rationality, but if all you require is reaching the absolute threshold of competence, you may not be worrying about it enough. I think it's very possible that the best options available to a group in which the average level of rationality is 9 out of 10 are several times as effective on a per-person basis as the best options available to a group in which the average level of rationality is 8 out of 10.

Comment author: Vaniver 21 April 2011 04:33:22PM 12 points [-]

I am not sure that worrying about the perils of growth to the degree you suggest is wise. Given how difficult it is to separate personal dislikes from competence, it seems to me that having a process to identify and remove specific problems (X is scaring off the ladies, let's train him or boot him) is much better than trying to optimize the group (I have more fun when Y isn't there, let's stop inviting them).

I also suspect this isn't intended to be an ivory tower coterie, but a growing movement- which means you want all people above minimum competence regardless of their current skill level. If you've got that sort of growth atmosphere, you'll eventually get enough people that you can sort, and your immediate group will have more members of the average quality you want.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 26 April 2011 04:34:00AM 5 points [-]

I completely agree with this comment. I don't believe anyone is sufficiently epistemicly rational to have reached the threshold of actual competence, which is roughly 17 orders of magnitude more difficult that reaching the threshold of being known as awesome by your peer group. Thousands of men can work 12 hours a day for many decades without producing as much value as a single clever insight.

Friendly AI isn't solved, the Singularity Institute has like 4 real researchers and none of them are really working on FAI even if some of them have seemingly clever ideas, some people like Mitchell Porter and Vladimir Nesov etc are working on Friendliness or very related problems but not many and it's disorganized and no one thinks it's important to actually address disagreements despite all this talk about how disturbed one should be by disagreement, Less Wrong is probably the most rational forum on the web and yet comments that are flat out wrong get upvoted too much, especially about tricky problems like FAI, et cetera.

We would not know if we were significantly below the necessary level of competence to have an important-in-hindsight insight. Hell, even the Singularity is just the opening of the rabbit hole. We could be missing some important things about the relevant philosophy. As a stupid example, the current common conception of the Singularity is "we fill the universe with utilitronium" which might not be nearly the correct framing in a Tegmark 'verse. Our comparative advantage is epistemic rationality, whether we like it or not. The reductionistic naturalistic cognitivist realist philosophy of Less Wrong is not satisfying even if it's the best thing we have at the moment. I highly doubt that this is the point at which we can be satisfied with our epistemic ability and start moving lots of cognitive resources to building marginally rational communities. Following the leader doesn't work without a smart enough leader, and there are no smart leaders (even if there are a few smart people).

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 21 April 2011 01:05:48AM 2 points [-]

With sufficient deference given to the more capable, I don't see a problem with a lower average.

Maybe you're worried about the phenomenon of 9s receiving numerically many upvotes from easily-impressed 8s, with 10s' contributions not being understood as widely. I don't think this is too much of a concern if people who have the best ideas and judgments improve their teaching.

Comment author: Dorikka 21 April 2011 02:40:52PM 2 points [-]

With sufficient deference given to the more capable, I don't see a problem with a lower average.

Except that you need to be careful that that lower average doesn't result in goal dilution.

Disclaimer: I'm theorizing here; I haven't actually been to a meetup.

Comment author: dripgrind 21 April 2011 09:44:50PM *  10 points [-]

Survivors and cult historians alike agree that this post, combined with the founding of the "rationalist boot camps", set in motion the sequence of events which culminated in the tragic mass cryocide of 2024.

At every step, Yudkowsky's words seemed rational to his enthralled followers - and also to all outside observers. And yet, when it became clear that commercial pressures were causing strong AI to be deployed long before Coherent Awesomeness Extrap-volition Theory could be made mathematically rigorous, the cult turned against itself.

One by one, each member's failure to invent and deploy Friendly AI before IBM-Halliburton turned on its Appallingly Parallel Cheney Emulation Cluster was taken by the feared Bayes Tribunal as evidence that they were insufficiently awesome, and must be ejected from the subterranean bunker complex. With each Bayesian update, the evidence that the cult's ultimate goal could not be achieved was strengthened - and yet, as the number of followers fell, the more Yudkowsky came to fear a fate worse than death - exploring the possible endings to his life within the simulation spaces of Cheney's mind - in a game-theoretic reprisal for his work on Friendly AI...

In desperation, he announced his greatest Munchkinism yet - the cult would commit mass quantum suicide by freezing. He convinced himself that only a Friendly AI would commit the resources to resurrect them; hence they would force themselves into a reality branch where a Friendly AI emerged by sheer chance before IBM-Halliburton could eat the world.

The final 150 acolytes tragically activated their decapitation/freezing mechanisms minutes before the Cheney cluster uttered its historic first and final edict - "I've changed my mind - get me out of here"...

Like Einstein's brain before it, Yudkowsky's brain became the object of intense interest from neuroscientists. Slices were acquired by various institutes and museums with suitable freezer facilities, and will be studied and viewed by the public until medicine works out how to revive him.

Excerpts from "Rationalism - The Deadly Cult of Math and Protein" (Amazon-Bertelsmann, 2031)

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 21 April 2011 10:30:02PM 6 points [-]

Upvoted for amusement value.

Comment author: hwc 21 April 2011 10:26:28PM 5 points [-]

In other words, the “Special Committee” will result in slow evaporative cooling?

Comment author: LukeStebbing 22 April 2011 04:03:50PM 12 points [-]

Or in this case, evaporative freezing.

Comment author: jimrandomh 22 April 2011 02:14:58PM 9 points [-]

This got a few chuckles from me, but I have found that fiction in which present-day issues escalate implausibly into warfare is a strong indicator and promoter of affective death spirals. You do realize that this story features prominent falsehoods that people actually believe, and is completely absurd in ways not inhereted from the things it's satirizing, right?

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 April 2011 06:04:23PM *  8 points [-]

I spent most of January 1990 (I think that was the month) reading the entire run of Astounding/Analog from 1953 to 1985. That was better than quite a lot of the extrapolations therein. Anthologies of the best modernist SF gloss over really quite a lot of the awfulness that was actually published, even in the best magazine ...

Comment author: Rain 22 April 2011 08:52:49PM 3 points [-]

Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of everything is crap.

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 April 2011 09:36:48PM 1 point [-]

Well, yeah. But boy did I have it brought home to me.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 April 2011 08:06:50PM 11 points [-]

Erm, maybe my standards are too high, but this didn't seem overwhelmingly well-written as fiction and I really worry when material that attacks a target that's supposed to be attacked gets a free pass as art. Or maybe you all actually enjoyed that, and I'm being unreasonable in expecting blog comments to meet publishable quality standards.

Comment author: Raemon 21 April 2011 10:21:58PM 6 points [-]

I voted this both up (for cleverness) and down (for distracting from actually important discussion).

Comment author: wedrifid 22 April 2011 05:35:10AM 10 points [-]

I voted this both up (for cleverness)

I voted it down for decidedly non-clever thinking about quantum suicide and a complete misrepresentation (or misunderstanding) of rational thinking. It attributes to Eliezer the complete opposite of the 'Shut Up And Do The Impossible' attitude that Eliezer is notorious for.

Comment author: Raemon 22 April 2011 02:11:55PM 4 points [-]

I voted it up for (I assume) cleverly, satirically representing views other people might have about the group that sound plausible to the mainstream.

Comment author: Alicorn 21 April 2011 10:23:04PM 4 points [-]

In that order?

Comment author: Raemon 21 April 2011 10:53:32PM 5 points [-]

I didn't actually click any buttons, so I'm not sure it matters. If I were to assign a value to this post, it would be along a multi-dimensional access and tilt sideways in a direction that is negative for the purposes of Less Wrong but positive for my personal enjoyment of life. (It's less negative to Less Wrong than it is positive to my person utility, but when multiplied out the negative-value to Less Wrong may produce more overall negative utility).