Awww, a Zebra

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2008-10-01T01:28:05.000Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 53 comments

This image recently showed up on Flickr (original is nicer):


With the caption:

"Alas for those who turn their eyes from zebras and dream of dragons!  If we cannot learn to take joy in the merely real, our lives shall be empty indeed." —Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.

"Awww!", I said, and called over my girlfriend over to look.

"Awww!", she said, and then looked at me, and said,  "I think you need to take your own advice!"

Me:  "But I'm looking at the zebra!"
Her:  "On a computer!"
Me:  (Turns away, hides face.)
Her:  "Have you ever even seen a zebra in real life?"
Me:  "Yes!  Yes, I have!  My parents took me to Lincoln Park Zoo!, I hated that place."


Part of the Joy in the Merely Real subsequence of Reductionism

Next post: "Hand vs. Fingers"

Previous post: "Initiation Ceremony"


Comments sorted by oldest first, as this post is from before comment nesting was available (around 2009-02-27).

comment by Anonymous44 · 2008-10-01T02:11:08.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Alas, for those who turn their eyes from dragons and dream of zebras! If we cannot take joy in the merely fantasy, our lives shall be empty indeed." - Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, in a parallel universe.

I never expected a post from Overcoming Bias as informal as a picture with commentary from (But I suppose that's a fact about my own state of poor calibration).

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-11-04T15:31:17.238Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Laughing out loud right now.

comment by Lara_Foster2 · 2008-10-01T02:30:48.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ohhhh... oh so many things I could substitute for the word 'Zebra'....

comment by Tiiba3 · 2008-10-01T03:36:12.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, a picture of a zebra is real.

And you'll probably agree that the merely real is, in some ways, in need of improvement, which is the whole point of transhumanism.

Replies from: Rixie
comment by Rixie · 2013-03-29T20:39:40.238Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh my gosh . . .

My friend has litterally just enlightened my on the whole weeping angel thing and wow does this comment not belong here.

comment by l · 2008-10-01T03:36:12.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't know Eliezer had a girlfriend, how can you justify spending resources on that sort of thing?

Not an attack though, you probably have a good reason, I just can't figure out what it is.

comment by Aspiring_Vulcan · 2008-10-01T03:58:03.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't know Eliezer had a girlfriend, how can you justify spending resources on that sort of thing?

Not an attack though, you probably have a good reason, I just can't figure out what it is.

Was this written in jest? It's hilarious.

comment by Nominull3 · 2008-10-01T04:13:12.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No time for love, we've got a world to save!

...or so the theory runs.

Replies from: pnrjulius
comment by pnrjulius · 2012-04-09T06:24:24.354Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This does not seem like an evolutionarily stable strategy.

Replies from: elityre
comment by Eli Tyre (elityre) · 2019-10-09T22:24:27.755Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Nominull3 · 2008-10-01T04:14:26.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now that I think about it I seem to recall seeing a clever excuse for indulging in the pleasures of the flesh that Eliezer had written. Can't remember where off the top of my head, though...

comment by Doug_S. · 2008-10-01T06:13:22.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[missing the point] I like cats better. [/missing the point]

comment by Eli's_other_project · 2008-10-01T06:20:14.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

gasp Hasn't Eli been working only on his mind-children? Can we expect another permutation of the superior genes that brought us so much awesomeness in the form of Eli?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2008-10-01T06:36:50.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Can we expect another permutation of the superior genes that brought us so much awesomeness in the form of Eli?


Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2011-12-02T17:28:33.856Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this for intrinsic or simply instrumental reasons? For example, how much of your time would being a sperm donor have to take up before you would decline to do it?

Replies from: Gurkenglas
comment by Gurkenglas · 2014-05-19T16:22:25.274Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Intelligence is roughly a function of genetics and some conglomeration of upbringing and chance. If you are looking for the human with the best genetics, picking from the most intelligent humans you can find is therefore not the optimal way to go.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2014-05-19T22:25:38.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Intelligence is roughly a function of genetics and some conglomeration of upbringing and chance.


If you are looking for the human with the best genetics, picking from the most intelligent humans you can find is therefore not the optimal way to go.

No...? If scores on an IQ test are a joint product of genes & environment, then selecting the top scorer on an IQ test and using their genes will produce offspring with the highest scores on average compared to picking at random from the lower-scorers. To do better you'll need additional information we don't have (eg at the moment, no one can sequence a genome and extract an accurate predicted intelligence).

Replies from: TheOtherDave, Vaniver
comment by TheOtherDave · 2014-05-19T22:52:39.794Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Somewhat tangentially... couldn't you do better by identifying IQ-inhibiting and IQ-enhancing environmental factors and weighting IQ scores based on those factors? If Sam's IQ is 5% lower than Pat's but Sam has lived in an environment 5x worse for developing IQ, if I'm interested in genetics it seems I'd do better with Sam.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2014-05-19T23:24:09.434Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You'd need to know the elasticity of intelligence and environments (5x on what scale? And does -5% really indicate outperformance on the genetics side?), which I'm not actually sure we know, and much of the 'environment' contribution is nonshared - immeasurable, random, we don't know what it is. But hypothetically, you could do slightly better by trying to measure environment & control for it, yeah.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-05-21T20:50:24.851Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To do better you'll need additional information we don't have (eg at the moment, no one can sequence a genome and extract an accurate predicted intelligence).

Actually, we could get some information that would help here- IQ up the ancestral tree. The correlation between grandparent and grandchild IQ is higher than one would expect from stacking two independent parent-child relationships.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2014-08-05T21:45:28.760Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. I'm not sure how much they'd add; I ran into an interesting observation about this with regard to estimating cows' milk production based on their relatives and on SNPs, where the comparison runs the other direction:

The R^2 values were converted to realized reliabilities by dividing by mean reliability of 2008 daughter deviations and then adding the difference between published and observed reliabilities of 2003 parent averages. When averaged across all traits, combined genomic predictions had realized reliabilities that were 23% greater than reliabilities of parent averages (50 vs. 27%), and gains in information were equivalent to 11 additional daughter records.

So if an old SNP chip can add that much information in terms of family records, the family can't matter that much.

comment by Ben_Wraith3 · 2008-10-01T07:01:56.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aspiring Vulcan: I didn't think it was written in jest, it seems like a legitimate question to me. It definitely seems plausible that having a girlfriend would have some benefits that would help Eli save the world, but how to justify spending time and resources on a girlfriend that could be spent on other things is a good question nonetheless.

comment by Vizikahn2 · 2008-10-01T08:22:37.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alas for those who turn their eyes from ladies and google themselves.

comment by Eli's_other_project · 2008-10-01T12:47:48.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can one make scientific breakthroughs without dedicating all of one's waking hours to it? Newton: Science: Best Sans Booty.

Replies from: pnrjulius
comment by pnrjulius · 2012-04-09T06:25:02.484Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Feynman: FUCK THAT.

comment by retired_urologist · 2008-10-01T13:10:03.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In medicine, the concept "zebra" represents a strange, unlikely condition or diagnosis, usually to be avoided or considered on a lower tier, iterated thus: When one hears hoofbeats, one should think of horses rather than zebras. Spending too much time chasing zebras detracts from making the diagnosis of "horse". Coincidence? Or just another example of the medical field's poor thought process?

Replies from: jkaufman, bigjeff5
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2010-11-10T17:28:17.434Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The medical advice you're relating sounds quite reasonable. It's saying to consider base rates when making a diagnosis. If P(hoofbeats|horse) is the same as P(hoofbeats|zebra) but P(horse) >> P(zebra), then P(horse|hoofbeats) >> P(zebra|hoofbeats).

comment by bigjeff5 · 2011-02-03T00:39:57.207Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It probably isn't very good advice if you're practicing medicine on the savanna though. There, if you hear hoofbeats, it's probably a zebra!

comment by Cyan2 · 2008-10-01T13:24:29.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Science: Best Sans Booty.

Schrödinger disagreed. (So did Einstein... and Feynman... I could mention Kinsey, but that would be cheating, I supppose.)

comment by control_master · 2008-10-01T16:27:09.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not just about spending resources - In my experience, having a girlfriend makes you dangerously comfortable with being a mere human, whereas bitter loneliness makes you see the necessity of achieving incorporeal modes of existence much more clearly.

(this comment will be remembered as a significant milestone in singularitarian demographics)

comment by TGGP4 · 2008-10-01T21:16:33.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Against Cyan I refer to James Watson and some nifty graphs.

comment by Eli's_other_project · 2008-10-02T01:06:59.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suggest Eliezer (any aspiring world-saving scientist) deal with the-signal-from-downstairs like with hunger; get a snack and forget about it. No whipping into eating-frenzy by watching cooking shows...

comment by Eli's_other_project · 2008-10-02T01:21:36.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

...and no, you don't need your own personal chef. Sure, they cook a tastier meal, but they also make you eat more often than you need to; having a chef just combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity...

comment by Oppenheimer · 2008-10-02T02:08:06.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I need physics more than friends. I place more importance on my studies than myself. I often go long periods without social contact outside of my professional colleagues, and at times even long periods without food or rest.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2008-10-02T06:51:35.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Her: "Pass me the laptop, I want to see if there were any comments on that post."

Me: "No, you don't. They're pretty awful."

(Girlfriend looks.)

Her: "That's awful."

Me: "Yep."

Replies from: Derbu Xehiu
comment by Derbu Xehiu · 2018-09-03T13:02:35.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hahaha. That's Ridiculous.

You know it's funny how some people actually really do laugh like a horse. Or maybe a zebra? I almost never do it because I usually laugh well... like a man. That is except in cases where reality is so damn hilarious that I just can't help myself but take gasp for air.

comment by Tiiba2 · 2008-10-02T08:36:14.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My fears:

  1. Paperclip AI
  2. People I know IRL catching me reading something embarrassing on the Internet
  3. Nuclear war
  4. The zombie under my bed
comment by Awww,_a_girlfriend_>_Singularity · 2008-10-02T09:35:23.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Awful, perhaps, but are these arguments true?

Are you willing to take the risk that you're going to have to admit on your death bed: If only I hadn't succumbed to the dictates of my genes... If only I hadn't lived like the majority; if only I hadn't done what had been done so many times before by so many billions of organisms... If only I had been different enough. But I wasn't. I let my genes pilfer my time for simple, two-dimensional pleasure signals. I placed greater value on companionship than progress. I exchanged the now, for the eternity. I could have saved the world... but now I lay here dying, instead of living forever.

After the Singularity, there's plenty of time for girlfriends. And boyfriends. And robofriends. Trillions of them. You can super-saturate your re-designed gender-specific feedback modules again and again.

But not now. Lead the way. Go wirehead later. Delay gratification. Be a transhuman. Ditch the...

comment by Singularity_sooner,_fun_later · 2008-10-02T10:02:26.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you know you can save the world, or do anything significant that has eternal repercussions, that no other human is likely to do in the mid to long term - if you are truly a once-in-a-civilization-event - how irrational is it to do anything else?

If you can't reprogram your mind from "Having a companion is a good idea." to "Having a companion is neglecting my duties.", having no companion may feel like sacrifice. But if you can, or you start with the latter conviction, having a companion feels like the height of folly. Torment. Frustration. Time away from your true love - The Singularity.

With great power comes great responsibility - non-transferable, non-delegatable responsibility.

comment by Richard_Hollerith2 · 2008-10-02T10:06:29.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They're still pretty awful, IMHO.

comment by Baseline_singularitarian · 2008-10-02T10:24:22.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As someone who is pooling all my resources (mind and money) into expediting the development of technologies leading to the Singularity, having a companion never entered my consciousness. (And I've had my share of applicants - heck, I've been asked to marry on the spot several times by super hotties, so I'm really making a real sacrifice here - if I thought like a baseline human, which I don't.)

comment by Aron · 2008-10-02T10:24:23.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Strong AI doesn't have to be the only thing that's really frikkin' hard.

comment by Reprogrammed_goal_system · 2008-10-02T10:42:58.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not doing what your genes tell you to do, e.g. not having a companion (not wanting to have a companion), overcoming your genes, is an artificial goal, the result of reprogramming - of self-improvement.

comment by SL5 · 2008-10-02T10:59:53.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Through his cerebrations Eliezer appears to have attracted the Cream of the Singularitarian Crop here, who are now Collectively Disappointed.

comment by AnnaSalamon · 2008-10-02T11:14:11.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

l, Aww, Ben_Wraith:

While I appreciate the effort toward optimal decision-making, surely there is some way to contribute without invading Eliezer's personal life?

Can you picture anyone doing peak creative work while trying to justify every ounce of their resource use? To others or to themselves? Eliezer presumably knows he doesn't need to do that, but... threads like this can't help his or others' morale. And morale is a precious resource.

Group efforts in general, and particularly philanthropic efforts, devolve too easily into shows of self-sacrifice. After all, sacrifice takes less effort in many ways, and it looks like trying . If we want to create a positive singularity, we'll need to make our project fun, we'll need to make the actual useful work attractive, we'll need to get people aim for achievement (not for an appearance of "using all their resources"), and we'll to make it something that real people want to join and don't burn out at.

It isn't only Eliezer who can help, by the way. If nothing else, you can help the effort get money; some of those willing and able able to do FAI research are spending their time raising money, right now, for lack of other ways to get money. If you find a way to gather money for the effort, more research will be done and the chances of a positive singularity will improve. There are other possibilities for helping, too. If you're concerned about the future, perhaps take a look at what you have, who you know, and what you might do? Creating a positive singularity can be a lot of fun.

Replies from: johnsonmx
comment by johnsonmx · 2012-09-30T22:15:58.385Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the first 3/4ths are very well stated. I couldn't agree more.

On the last bit, my personal intuition is there are plenty of things people can do for FAI research beyond raising money. Moreover, such intangibles are likely often more important to the cause of FAI than cash.

(Also, the argument that "some of those willing and able able to do FAI research are spending their time raising money, right now, for lack of other ways to get money" may be undermined by the paragraph above it; e.g., I'd rather be thinking about FAI than raising money for others to think about FAI.)

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2008-10-02T11:27:14.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And with that, I'll close the thread. I may be mistaken, but I don't think this is what most of our readership comes here to read.

Note that the authors "SL5", "Reprogrammed goal system", "Baseline singularitarian", "Singularity sooner, fun later", "Awww, a girlfriend > Singularity", "Oppenheimer", and "Eli's other project" all seem to be the same person based on IP.

comment by bogus · 2009-10-11T22:09:31.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interestingly, I've read that young Chinese do treat zebras as near-mythical creatures: they're referred to as "cǎo ní mǎ" (i.e. "grass-mud horses") and there's a lot of fantasy literature about them, much of it with political overtones. In contrast, dragons are little more than cultural and decorative symbols--although conversely, Chinese dragons do appear in some Western fantasy stories.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-06T16:53:37.065Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you might have been misinformed about this translation..

edit: you're mostly right but it's not a zebra.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-06T16:57:21.020Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't even know who's pranking whom here.

comment by rkyeun · 2012-09-30T18:51:57.118Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If there is a better way to see a merely real zebra than to have the photons strike a surface, their patterns be stored, and transmitted to my brain, which cross-relates it to every fact about zebras, their behavior, habitat, physiology, and personality on my internal map of a zebra, then I don't know it and can't experience it, since that's what happens when I am in fact actually there, as well as what happens when I look at a picture that someone who was actually there shares with me.

Replies from: johnsonmx
comment by johnsonmx · 2012-09-30T22:20:15.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You probably get a much richer sensation of zebra-ness under some conditions (being there, touching the zebra, smelling the zebra, seeing it move) than just seeing a picture of one on flickr. Experiencing zebra-ness isn't a binary value, and some types of exposures will tend to commandeer many more neurons than others.

comment by Alex_Arendar · 2015-11-30T13:50:56.869Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do all zebras have the same (withing some accuracy range) ratio of black to white, btw?