Open thread, Oct. 13 - Oct. 19, 2014

post by MrMind · 2014-10-13T08:17:22.462Z · score: 5 (6 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 359 comments

If it's worth saying, but not worth its own post (even in Discussion), then it goes here.

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359 comments

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comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2014-10-15T07:30:05.690Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW · GW

Should effective altruists donate to fighting Ebola?

Argument against: usually very famous things that make the news are terrible effective altruist causes and you should stick to well-studied things like malaria.

Argument for: Ebola is very underfunded compared to sexier disasters. And it is a disease in the Third World, a category which has brought us most of the best-known effective altruism interventions.

Thoughts: The CDC estimates a best-case scenario of 20,000 cases by January and a worst-case scenario of about 1.5 million cases by January. They do not estimate risks past January. There are also black swan risks in which Ebola spreads to the entire Third World (eg India) and kills tens of millions of people there. However, on the margin individual donations are unlikely to shift the virus from one of these scenarios to another, so it's probably more worth considering how much good the marginal donation does.

Doctors Without Borders is a very well known, GiveWell-approved charity. They are running clinics in the country, but it's hard to tell how much more clinic they can run per dollar. On the other hand, they are also giving out home infection prevention kits by the tens of thousands. Other charities price these at about ten dollars per kit, although I've seen estimates that differ by an order of magnitude. I don't think anybody knows how effective the kits are going to be, although everyone agrees they are a vastly inferior option to sufficient space in hospitals, which at the moment does not exist.

If we estimate likelihood of 100,000 Liberians (geometric mean of estimates) eventually infected = 2% of the population, then $1000 buys 100 kits buys 2 kits for people likely to be infected..

$1000 for malaria bed nets supposedly gives something like 20 to 100 DALYs, depending on whose estimate you trust.

Ebola death rate is about 50%. Suppose the average infected person has 30 DALYs left to lose. So each case of Ebola costs 15 DALYs directly. But it probably ends up costing more like 30, because I think on average each case infects one other person (I don't think this is meant to be iterate, or else the estimate quickly goes to infinity). So if every Ebola kit was 100% effective, we would expect distributing the kits to save 60 DALYs.

That means in order for kits to be as good as the bottom range of estimates for bed nets, they would have to be at least 33% effective in preventing Ebola among people who get them, which they probably aren't.

On the other hand, every number in this estimate is a total wild guess, and I don't trust that I'm within two orders of magnitude of anything approaching reality. Kits likely cost more when including distribution (I expect charities to underreport costs to make people feel good about giving them), there's no guarantee that there's room for more kits, and my rate of how many subsequent cases are caused by each case is from a half-remembered news article. Does anyone have better ideas for how to figure this out?

comment by CellBioGuy · 2014-10-16T06:35:36.192Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The absolute numbers are far far below panic-levels but the underreporting and ridiculously-exponential curve is pretty disturbing. It's showing little sign of saturation in the currently-affected populations (an apparent levelling off of infection rates in Liberia was accompanied by reports of difficulty gathering data), it could spread to other populations, and wherever it goes it brings not just ebola but economic disruption, famine, and disruption of health systems that deal with other, more common chronic diseases like malaria and childbirth complications. As of now the measured doubling time is circa 3.5 weeks (a bit longer than that which the worst-case CDC models used but not by much) with each case infecting about two new ones.

The scary possibility is it getting established in additional poor urban populations. It already might be just starting to set off famines where it already is. All exponentials eventually run into a wall and saturate, but it's unclear exactly which walls will do the job here, behavioral or medical or geographc, and exactly where they are and at what order of magnitude they lay. The possibility of thicker spread through larger populations dominates any discussion of the potential effects of the situation.

My feeling is we will know with more certainty the approximate order of magnitude of the issue by Christmas. In the mean time I somehow managed to save a bit recently... money sent. I hope that was paranoid of me.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-10-15T16:52:36.309Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think this is meant to be iterate, or else the estimate quickly goes to infinity

It is meant to iterate, which is how we've gotten from one case to thousands already. Biology is all about exponential growth. If each person infected now infects an average of less than one new person, the outbreak dies out. If each person infects more than one, it grows until it has infected everyone within reach, which probably means a fixed proportion of the populations of the affected countries. Pushing that number below 1 is a really big deal.


$1000 for malaria bed nets supposedly gives something like 20 to 100 DALYs

Givewell's DALY numbers are based entirely on preventing deaths, and do not account for the long term effects on malaria survivors. In addition to the DALYs of chronic disease, there is also lost productivity, which could have long term consequences for the society. If the conditions are (or will be) malthusian, it is better for people to die of acute starvation than that they be subject to chronic malnutrition; it is better that they die of acute diseases like ebola, that they suffer from chronic diseases like malaria.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-16T16:04:31.741Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

If the conditions are (or will be) malthusian, it is better for people to die of acute starvation than that they be subject to chronic malnutrition; it is better that they die of acute diseases like ebola, that they suffer from chronic diseases like malaria.

No. Better medical care encourages women to get less children and therefore reduces population.

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-16T18:06:29.271Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, right. Damn real life, always giving us easy outs from the interesting ethical dilemmas.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-15T16:59:55.266Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If the conditions are (or will be) malthusian, it is better for people to die of acute starvation than that they be subject to chronic malnutrition;

Better for whom and by which metric?

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-15T19:09:04.413Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if they're roughly comparable in terms of moment-to-moment intensity of suffering, then obviously we (utilitarian consequentialists of any sane kind) would rather that a smaller number of people experience it for a brief period (and then die) than that a larger group of people experience it for a long time (and then die). It's not even a Repugnant Conclusion issue, since it's hard to argue that chronically malnourished lives have positive value on the margin.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-10-16T14:40:45.148Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

since it's hard to argue that chronically malnourished lives have positive value on the margin.

It's rather easy to argue-- they don't kill themselves, so they presumably think their lives are worth living.

comment by gjm · 2014-10-16T15:56:27.286Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

That's an easy argument but I'm not sure it's a correct one. The answers to the following questions may be different:

  • Is it a good thing on the whole that A exists?
  • Now that A already exists, does A want to commit suicide?

for at least the following reasons:

  • Other people will be negatively affected (it may be worse to get to know someone and have them commit suicide, than never to encounter them at all).
  • People have an inbuilt preference for staying alive, for obvious biological reasons, so someone may go on wanting to live well beyond the point at which each day of life is substantially negative for them. (Just as someone may go on wanting to take heroin well beyond the point at which they'd be happier if they stopped.)
comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-17T07:26:59.284Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Even without taking into account cognitive biases and externalities, that argument only applies to people who don't believe in afterlife: if you thought that by killing yourself you would go to hell and by enduring shit thirty more years you would go to heaven, you'd think twice before picking the former.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-15T20:01:52.836Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

if they're roughly comparable in terms of moment-to-moment intensity of suffering

So, um, you think that the life of the chronically malnourished consists of nothing but suffering comparable to that of someone dying from acute starvation??

It's not even a Repugnant Conclusion issue, since it's hard to argue that chronically malnourished lives have positive value on the margin.

It's not a repugnant conclusion to decide that going around killing the chronically malnourished is a good thing -- are you quite sure?

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-15T20:24:32.507Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

So, um, you think that the life of the chronically malnourished consists of nothing but suffering comparable to that of someone dying from acute starvation??

Not my area of expertise, but for the argument to work they only need to be within maybe an order of magnitude or so. Does that seem plausible?

It's not a repugnant conclusion to decide that going around killing the chronically malnourished is a good thing -- are you quite sure?

It certainly sounds repugnant, but I don't think it's equivalent to the Repugnant Conclusion, which is what I was referring to. In any case, you are correct that that would be the logical conclusion to draw from what I said, which is concerning me. Population ethics has always confused me - does anyone have any idea how this one might be resolved?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-16T15:58:52.210Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think the root issue is that you consider chronically malnourished lives to be not worth living. Is that so?

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-16T17:44:24.550Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if they have positive value on the margin, then that means it would be an increase in global utility if a bunch of children were born who were doomed to lives of permanent malnutrition. In fact, it would imply that a morally defensible solution to a Malthusian overpopulation problem would be to let the population explode in third world countries, and then just not let any resources be diverted to them. Heck, a sufficiently underserved African country, for example, could turn into a practically unstopppable utility factory - and quite cheaply!

In all seriousness, I think one of the issues here is that we're conflating "has positive marginal utility in our utility function" with "considers their own life to be worth living (i.e., doesn't kill themselves)", when there doesn't seem to be any particular reason those should always line up (especially if we're not preference utilitarians).

Edit: This is a better summary of my line of thinking about this.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-16T18:03:23.319Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

when there doesn't seem to be any particular reason those should always line up

In which case it's a good, moral, virtuous thing to go kill all those miserable wretches who are so misguided as to consider their own life to be worth living.

But you know what, maybe some good can be extracted out of them. I've got a Modest Proposal you might consider....

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-16T18:14:11.548Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You may have noticed that I spent the entire first paragraph of my comment making that exact point. Again, I think that gjm summarized my line of thinking about this much better upthread, including laying out the more subtle points that I didn't make in the parent. I think it should be clear by this point that we're stuck in a false dilemma, since the two positions we're considering both lead to highly unpalatable conclusions.

comment by RyanCarey · 2014-10-15T10:47:58.064Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I have a couple of remarks

1 - Your malaria/ebola comparison must be off somewhere. Here's how I see it: Malaria - $5 to distribute a net, some small chance of preventing a person from getting malaria, some very small chance of fatality from malaria. ~$4k per life saved. Ebola - $10 to distribute a kit, some small chance of preventing a person from getting ebola, 50% fatality.

So the effectiveness of Ebola kits does not need to be anywhere near as effective at preventing infection in order to be equally effective. Ebola kits need only prevent infection ~0.2% of the time to be effective. Note - my calculation probably has some errors and omisions.

For reference, GiveWell's estimates, CDC projections

2 - CDC is modelling the no-intervention case as exponential, doubling every few weeks. Reading their paper might inform an intermediate-case growth trajectory

3 - It's worth considering how many millions are being poured into ebola reduction by national governments and thinking that if these governments are intervening effectively, then our inroads into ebola are likely to be proportionately smaller, according to the smaller size of our monetary contribution.

4 - A recent relevant link, HT Carl

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-15T13:12:16.558Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

ETA: CellBioGuy gave an excellent response here.

There are also black swan risks in which Ebola spreads to the entire Third World (eg India) and kills tens of millions of people there.

Not meaning to start fear mongering, but since we're talking about highly improbable events, I wonder how probable a mutation is that makes it spread much more effectively via aerosol.

A Finnish official covered this question on the news and her answer was that such a mutation has never been observed, and Ebola is already transmitted effectively enough so that there's no selection pressure for more infectivity.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-15T14:26:44.196Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

A Finnish official covered this question on the news and her answer was that such a mutation has never been observed, and Ebola is already transmitted effectively enough so that there's no selection pressure for more infectivity.

The first part of her answer is true, the second part is nonsense.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-15T15:33:26.556Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The answer was probably incomplete.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-15T14:49:54.190Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Slightly scary, isn't it, with all the doctorates and stuff.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-10-16T14:32:23.905Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not worrying about aerosol. That's low probability.

I think it's high probability that ebola will become endemic, at least in Africa. I don't think it's crazy to believe that America doesn't have the institutional conscientiousness to stop it here.

The mildly good news is that I expect a vaccine to be developed.

And just as a side issue, I'm none too pleased to have a disease that's more likely to hit helpful people.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-16T14:57:34.099Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think it's crazy to believe that America doesn't have the institutional conscientiousness to stop it here.

Can you expand on that?

And just as a side issue, I'm none too pleased to have a disease that's more likely to hit helpful people.

I wonder how this should impact the decision of being helpful under a consequentialist moral system, if at all.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-10-16T15:33:45.447Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

There was enough sloppiness at that hospital in Texas that I'm worried ebola will spread through incompetence. The knowledge and resources might be theoretically available, but they aren't being used adequately.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-16T15:42:00.488Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I suppose this is plausible since even the western medicine is ridden with certain very problematic hospital bugs that spread and are created at least in part through incompetence.

I've seen some terrible hygiene by even some highly regarded professionals. Disinfection is often seen as a nuisance unless you're doing a procedure.

I can personally attest to that you really have to remind yourself that it's important since you have to do it so often.

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-16T01:31:43.262Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's more likely for a disease that spreads through aerosol to mutate to become as deadly as Ebola. Like with SARS.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-17T03:56:21.315Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Um, diseases are generally under selection pressure to become less deadly, not more.

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-17T04:24:09.481Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That just means that the mutant strain won't be as virulent as it otherwise would. It won't keep the mutation from happening.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-21T05:51:45.684Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, and SARS was quite easily contained, a less virulent strain would be even easier.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-16T01:46:19.161Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You're probably right. I think if we're interested in the risk of superbugs we should be interested in the aggregate, not individual pathogens.

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-10-15T14:11:25.231Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Seconded.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-16T00:26:36.316Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

CellBioGuy gave an excellent response here.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-15T14:42:19.907Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The fourth point seems ok but the study I linked makes me slightly doubtful about the other three. I didn't do any searching for other such studies, I simply found that one in the NIH report. Here's another relevant article.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-15T12:43:03.669Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The CDC estimates a best-case scenario of 20,000 cases by January and a worst-case scenario of about 1.5 million cases by January.

What kind of confidence interval lies between best case and worst case?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-15T14:29:28.662Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A better question is what kind of a distribution do they think they're looking at -- in particular, whether it's bimodal.

comment by torekp · 2014-11-02T14:50:40.474Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm late to the thread - just got pointed here from Slate Star Codex. I gave to Doctors Without Borders recently. Your analysis is pretty similar to mine except on two points. Douglas_Knight pretty well covered the first, about iteration. Supposing an infection prevention kit successfully averts an infection, we should not only count the expected half-a-life saved right away, but all the expected subsequent generations of infection that the averted case would have led to, until the end of the current epidemic.

Second, instead of assuming that a prevention kit goes to a random person in the entire population, I think it's more realistic to assume that it goes to the family member of a person who has either the flu, food poisoning, etc, or ebola.

comment by cameroncowan · 2014-10-18T00:27:18.978Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think its worth dealing with Ebola because its not going to get that far. I think Ebola is overhyped. I think worrying about influenza this year and the upper respiratory infection from South America is far more pressing.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-10-13T11:18:12.343Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like quite a few people on Less Wrong are interested in improving the quality of their writing. "Writing" obviously covers many different pursuits, and perhaps every unhappy document is unhappy in its own way, but I'd like to share my own frustrations in this area and see if this is similar to others. If it is, maybe we can do something about it.

I can write well enough to get distinctions for undergraduate-level essays, but this doesn't seem like a very high bar. If you can comprehend an essay question, form a reasonably coherent answer to that question, and put forward this answer as a structured argument which the reader can follow, you're pretty much set. I understand these are exactly the features an undergraduate essay is testing for, but I want to be better than that. George Orwell didn't get his work back with "96%, Well Done". He got tears and accolades and enduring respect. While I don't want to be George Orwell, I'm not ashamed to admit I'd like those things.

I've read a few introductory-level books on subjects like written composition and rhetorical technique. It's given me a broader vocabulary to describe what's going on, and a selection of tips, tricks and patterns. I can say what's good about a piece of writing I like, but I can't fit it into an overarching coherent theory. I can steal elements of style that I like, but I don't really know why they're stylish.

I don't know to what extent this is a skill you just have to work at, or a body of knowledge I don't know where to learn. I'm lacking general support and feedback. Is anyone else in this position, and would they like to offer mutual constructive criticism? Alternatively, is anyone a secret gatekeeper of the arcane lore I seek?

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-10-13T16:25:52.447Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I work at a small publishing house specialized in medical literature. This year we had an editor who had majored in Latin, and he urged us to bring the style of the classical humanities to our physical sciences niche. For example, he said we should follow Aristotle's rhetorical advice (announce what you'll say, then say it, then said what you just said), and insisted that the appeal to authority was valid because we always had to cite sources.

Eventually he left the company for his own reasons, but this made me think about the different assumptions about writing that people can have, depending on their background. This guy believed any attempt at communication was unavoidably ambiguous because that's the way language works. I try to make my writing efficient and clear because I believe language should be transparent.

Perhaps what you already believe about language will shape what you will strive for in your writing.

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-14T01:07:26.672Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think a transparent style is what you need in medical literature. Repeating yourself certainly aids clarity, as long as you aren't annoying your reader. Giving summaries at the beginning is great. Don't save the "punchline" of the result for the end, that's for literature and some journalism, not anything academic.

I don't know that the classical humanities can lay claim to these ideas though.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-13T15:53:06.395Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Writing is hard. I know you don’t need me to tell you that, but any discussion on writing should begin with that statement. Writing is hard and studying it needs to be treated with the same seriousness as any other “hard” question. After all, not everyone has a book in them and those who do have to make the book themselves; it’s not pre-baked inside their genes.

The best statement on the difficulty of “studying” writing that I have encountered (everyone has at least one) was by Flannery O’Connor. Paraphrased: “Studying writing by discussing point of view or sentence structure or character development is like trying to describe a face by saying where the eyes, nose, and mouth are.” Everyone writes and learns to write differently. Some people, like E.H. White or C.S. Lewis, thrive on the academic, the grammar, the scholarly themes and canon and dissection. Others, like Jack Kerouac and James Joyce, thrive off raw passion and blatant disregard for distraction.

Your comparison between Orwell and undergrad essays is a good one. An undergrad essay has set parameters that dictate what will be in it and how it will be decided whether it has succeeded in its task or not. Orwell’s books have no set parameters. No book is so lucky to have set parameters. Their success depends entirely on the society that accepts them.

For my part (and I am only one person in a massive field), the greatest tool for a learning writer is to write. And not write privately but write things for the consumption of others. I have tried writing privately to “perfect” the projects I work on. Doesn’t work. I just write for myself and make nothing. I’m not saying do like Stephen King and Dean Koontz and abandon quality for output. No, not at all! That’s the anathema of improving your writing ability. After all, I don’t think it’s a lack of talent that keeps Donna Tartt from publishing more than one book a decade. But do not sequester your writing away until it is “ready” or “skilled” or “perfect.” Get it in front of someone, because by coming in contact with other minds your writing will do what its suppose to: act as a tool to convey ideas and emotions. By hitting against other people, you can tell where your tool needs sharpening.

If you would like a critic, I would not mind working as a reader and giving you what I can. I really do enjoy editing quite a bit and currently have a bit of a bet going with some fellow writers so that we can each improve the other’s output. I would not mind doing the same here. Just message me. But, beyond doing the thing, I don’t know of any secret gate to pass through. There is no royal road to writing, so to speak.

Well, there is, but the toll is enormous. Worse than the Florida Sunpass.

comment by 27chaos · 2014-10-22T19:01:11.065Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Stephen King argues that writer's block is a myth. Is writing still hard if you're willing to just set pen to paper without trying to filter for good ideas? I find this kind of free writing to be almost repulsive to me, but I think it is just a weird bias that I have and a lot of people have but don't ever move past. I know that many of my favorite writers endorse reckless first drafts and brainstorming sessions.

Maybe writing's difficulty is overestimated by the general public, but underestimated by amateur writers? That seems compatible with both our positions.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-22T21:04:21.377Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A related anecdote: Stephen King had writer's block while writing "The Stand." He overcame it by detonating a bomb and killing half the main cast.

I find the bemoaning of so many writers regarding writer's block to be a far less serious issue than they intend me to think it. I won't say I don't believe in writer's block. I'll say my evidence is inconclusive. My personal experience has been that "writer's block" tends to stem from other, less "artsy" problems. Laziness, ennui, angst. Typically, for me, writer's block is overcome by shutting up and writing or by admitting "this project isn't going to work. Restore, restart, or quit."

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T15:48:19.899Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't have a good idea for my writing skill as I don't think I haven't written anything like an essay in the last five years, Otherwise I'm in a similar position.

How about starting a group where every week one person hand in a post and then everyone discusses what can be improved and how to improve it. Maybe the discussion process can even be live?

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-10-13T11:43:27.374Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for this - it's a very interesting topic. You might want to look into Pinker's Sense of Style, which has been well-received, on this topic (I just started reading it).

I've read a few introductory-level books on subjects like written composition and rhetorical technique. It's given me a broader vocabulary to describe what's going on, and a selection of tips, tricks and patterns.

It would be great if you could give us an overview of what you've learnt, as a starting-point of further discussion.

Also, I think it's important to know what sort of quality writing you're aspiring at. Good scientific writing is very different from good literary writing, for instance.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-10-13T13:45:35.964Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It would be great if you could give us an overview of what you've learnt, as a starting-point of further discussion.

Here's a very broad, shallow overview:

Classical rhetoric is a lot like TVTropes, except the tropes have names like "tricolon" and "synechdoche" instead of "Sean Connery is Going to Shoot You". If you've ever noticed a common device that speakers and writers use, it probably has a name in Greek. They serve purposes. You might read a draft of what you've written and think "this sentence sounds weak and lacks impact, but [rhetorical device] is bold and punchy, so I'll construct one and stick it on the end".

There's quite a lot of material available on standard essay structures and essay types for different purposes, (exposition, persuasion, etc.) mostly directed at students. My prototypical "smart person" would probably find 70% of the content in one of these "obvious", but I imagine the missing 30% would vary from person to person.

Grammar and linguistic knowledge are a powerful rhetorical tool. A really obvious example is the idea of the passive voice sounding evasive and blame-shifting, (e.g. "mistakes were made" rather than "Colin made a mistake"). Understanding the mechanics of sentences is useful in constructing them. I'm currently waiting for a textbook to arrive on this specific subject.

Poetic metre and scansion provide a very useful framework for describing verbal aesthetics. The rhythm of spoken and written words induce emotional and attentional affect in the reader. Nice collections of words sound nice, and people will want to read them.

Informal logic seems like a no-brainer, but is still worth mentioning. If you know what an argument is, it's a lot easier to make one.

Also, I think it's important to know what sort of quality writing you're aspiring at. Good scientific writing is very different from good literary writing, for instance.

I want to present ideas both clearly and attractively. As an example, even when Scott Aaronson goes over my head, he's still a pleasure to read, and my confusion about individual points doesn't spill over to confusion about the whole piece.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-10-13T16:55:18.663Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. I like the Tolstoy reference above (every unhappy document is unhappy in its own way, etc) and think that this comment highlights the mechanism behind that: that there many different ways in which you can write badly: flawed arguments, poor language, bad structure, and so on.

I think that the best way to improve is detailed feedback. You can learn a fair amount from style books, but only so much, I would guess. Lots of the time, you don't see what mistakes you are making, and need someone else to point them out.

It's important that this feedback is precise: that it tells you exactly what you do wrong and what you could do better, on a sentence by sentence level, as it were. General and vague feedback is not at all as useful as it doesn't tell you what to do in order to improve. I like Christian's proposal below of a writing group where such feedback could be given.

For what it's worth I think you're already a very good writer, but of course everyone could improve. Including Orwell.

Regarding rhetorics I personally prefer texts that don't include too many rhetorical devices such as personal stories, fictive dialogues, and so on, but which instead present the heart of the matter in a precise, structured, and non-roundabout way. Tastes differ here, however.

comment by pan · 2014-10-16T22:30:04.148Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Relavent: Pinker's lecture at Google on this book.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-10-18T07:09:43.081Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's given me a broader vocabulary to describe what's going on, and a selection of tips, tricks and patterns. I can say what's good about a piece of writing I like, but I can't fit it into an overarching coherent theory.

My experience is that writing isn't a field that would have an overarching coherent theory - instead it only has an endless selection of "tips, tricks and patterns", as you put it. Becoming a better writer is just about constantly expanding your toolkit of tricks, by being explicitly told tricks, taking apart other writers' work to discover theirs, and experimenting with inventing new ones. Read a lot and write a lot.

(Stein on Writing is my own favorite collection of tricks, covering both fiction and non-fiction writing.)

comment by zedzed · 2014-10-13T18:48:32.989Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The best way to improve writing will vary largely by person. Here's what worked/is working for me that I think generalizes better than average:

  1. Get good enough that, when you read other people's writing, you notice things they could've done better. Notice the first step in "how to improve at writing" is "improve at writing"; going from below baseline takes a different strategy than going from baseline to above. Importantly, until you get to the point where you're able to make improvements to other's writing, writing your own stuff isn't going to help, since you're not high level enough to improve it. That is, getting to this baseline is going to require external resources. I personally used a combination of Strunk and White and a MLP fanfic blog.

Also, getting to this level doesn't need to take much. You can get absurd mileage out of "Omit needless words".

  1. Find a person other than yourself who's writing something and would like a beta. Things that you should probably look for: intelligence, similarity in writing goals, divergence in writing style.

  2. Act as a beta reader. Make suggestions liberally. That is, if you see a change you might make and are unsure if it will improve the writing, suggest it; your primary will either accept or reject it. The important part is you discussion points of disagreement.

You can, of course, go at this from the opposite side (as a primary who finds a beta), but my system 1 says the other way is easier. They guy I currently beta for had to put in an absolutely absurd amount of work to get to the point of taking on betas, whereas I just had to leave a review saying "this is pretty good, but you could improve x, y, and z, and you could really use a beta, and I'd be up for it because this story will be awesome if you can clean this stuff up."

comment by Emily · 2014-10-15T14:30:49.808Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Note that although Strunk and White might have some reasonable advice on some topics, many of their recommendations are linguistically ignorant, just plain nonsensical, or violated all the time by excellent writers (including the authors themselves, sometimes on the same page they offer the advice). Here is a well-informed, highly negative review.

I very much agree with your advice about acting as a beta reader. It's really helpful for both parties and gets you lots of brownie points too!

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2014-10-19T15:19:37.988Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I came to the open thread to add a comment saying "Everyone should read Steven Pinker's The Sense Of Style". I didn't know I'd have the perfect occasion.

There's no overarching coherent theory, but there are ideas both at the detailed level of choosing words and at the higher level of structuring your writing and taking your reader on a journey. I also enjoyed reading it immensely and found it very hard to put down. Everyone here writes, so everyone here should read it!

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-10-19T20:04:30.193Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm a little over half way through it, and already willing to endorse it wholeheartedly.

comment by cameroncowan · 2014-10-18T00:12:02.169Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I would recommend writing, regularly and refine the skill. Thats the only way to improve effectively.

comment by 27chaos · 2014-10-14T07:09:44.327Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Have you read any of Paul Graham's essays? I'm always very impressed by the quality of his writing.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-10-14T11:04:40.503Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've read pretty much all of them, but have something of a complicated reaction to them. I think he takes quite an experimental approach to essay-writing, and some of those experiments pay off more than others.

comment by casebash · 2014-10-13T13:40:51.796Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The best feedback will come from seeing how people in your target audience respond to your writing. You don't want to necessarily take on board all of their suggestions, but you do want to see how they seem to receive it in general. I mean, people are good at knowing what they like, but bad at knowing what they would like.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-16T04:51:43.880Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is writing really as hard as people here make it out to be, or is it an endeavor that makes people set absurdly high standards for themselves?

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2014-10-16T09:32:58.711Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is the third pre-submission edit of this comment, so you probably have a very good point.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-18T01:18:34.363Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The standards you set for yourself depend on your goals. If your goal is to be a successful blogger or book author it makes sense to set high standards for yourself.

Freud owns a lot of his influence to good writing skills. We probably wouldn't speak of Darwinism if Darwin wouldn't have written a well written book with "On the Origin of Species". Darwin would be much more one of many different biologists if he hadn't written a book that people enjoy to read.

The C programming language owns much of their success to a well written book.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-18T06:37:56.484Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Your examples of extreme success kind of prove my tongue-in-cheek point.

comment by lmm · 2014-10-17T19:54:53.995Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Success is rare. I think that's probably because it's mostly luck but people don't want to accept that; compare "hard" multiple-choice tests in medical/legal education.

comment by 27chaos · 2014-10-22T18:51:47.020Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think I have some excellent advice for you this time.

I've noticed very recently that in my own writing I tend to optimize for the strength of individual sentences instead of for the strength of paragraphs or arguments as a whole. Because I write one sentence at a time, it's tempting to have each sentence make its point as direct and powerfully as possible. But this is a little bit like playing each note of a song as loudly as possible in an attempt at maximum musical impact. A more skilled performer would play some notes softly, others louder, and use that to emphasize certain ideas over others within the work. I think writing is the same way, and some sentences or paragraphs should be softer or louder than others. The main function of some sentences should be what they do for other sentences, rather than their own arguments. Changing my writing habits in this way will be difficult, but I think eventually highly rewarding.

I don't know whether you have a similar problem or not. But I suspect it's a common one, and hope someone will find this advice useful even if you don't.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2014-10-16T07:22:01.447Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Louie Helm wrote for his own online magazine Rockstar Research that a very popular post he wrote a few years ago, Optimal Employment, has directly led to dozens of rationalists find happy work in Australia, one of whom even started a business based upon Louie's model. I was thinking of using it as an example of a positive externality of Less Wrong, via flow-through effects, for a post I was researching. However, my friend user amcknight [LW · GW] pointed out in the comments of the original post that several questions and concerns were raised in the comments that Louie, nor anyone else, answer to the satisfaction of the incredulous. For example, if Louie got his math wrong in his Fermi estimates, chain of conjunctive calculations, etc.

I'm having trouble figuring it out for myself, so: what do you think? Were Louie's recommendations sound back then? If they were, are they still sound now? Has the information, or the environment, changed so much that neither the post, nor its recommendations, are still relevant to, e.g., the rationalist community, or average young Americans?

comment by lmm · 2014-10-17T20:17:39.588Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The prediction that it would become a popular thing certainly hasn't come to pass, and at least one of his factual claims at the time was false; I live in the UK and while there were and are people who spent a year or two in Australia, they didn't spend it bartending in the outback and didn't save money.

I think many LW-cluster people, myself included a) are much better at following a plan than being creative b) undervalue themselves. The idea that dozens of LW-cluster people could be given an explicit plan for how to earn above-average discretionary income, follow it, and earn above-average discretionary income, does not surprise me. But I don't think that plan has to be optimal or even above-average for this to work.

And FWIW in my particular field of employment, I've received substantially higher offers when applying for "subfield I have 5 years' experience in" rather than "subfield closely related to the subfield I have 5 years' experience in". I don't know if this continues forever, but I do think that in my early twenties I vastly underestimated the (economic) value of experience. The straight-up career path is alive and well in at least some cases.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2014-10-18T05:21:02.432Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In addition to the mixed reaction to Louie's post in the comments section, and your response above, this seems sufficient for me to change how I would include Louie's post. It's popular enough that since it launched a business I will include it as an example of a positive externality of Less Wrong, but it's not an example that will dominate the others. I might contact the business Louie's article inspired directly to ask them what they think of this. I figure this would return information at least as reliable as Louie's estimates, assuming the company in question will be honest.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-14T18:45:23.998Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This looks interesting. Abstract:

I analyze the age at death of 121,524 European nobles from 800 to 1800. Longevity began increasing long before 1800 and the Industrial Revolution, with marked increases around 1400 and again around 1650. Declines in violence contributed to some of this increase, but the majority must reflect other changes in individual behavior. The areas of North-West Europe which later witnessed the Industrial Revolution achieved greater longevity than the rest of Europe even by 1000 AD. The data suggest that the 'Rise of the West' originates before the Black Death.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-15T03:48:36.403Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Seconded. Damn paywalls.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-15T04:56:04.598Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Damn paywalls.

Huh? The paper is freely available from the link.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-15T12:38:13.118Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Was browsing with my phone, didn't render the page properly it seems.

comment by Metus · 2014-10-14T18:41:29.487Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I'm currently working through Getting Things Done by David Allen and can recommend it to almost anyone, even if you do not have problems with productivity or organisation as you can get a better understanding of what actually makes you work.

For example I finally found out why I like Evernote: It is a trusted system to just put stuff in, in the jargon of GTD.

comment by Torello · 2014-10-15T23:17:27.833Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I read GTD about four months ago and have started using it at work. It's made an incredible difference by 1) reducing the instances I feel overwhelmed or confused about what to do 2) helping me to better track my primary projects 3) helping me not to forget about small projects or put off the steps to getting them started 4) the system reminds me of what I'm waiting for other people to do, which I never tracked efficiently before.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-15T14:37:09.072Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I read it a while ago but it reading it alone wasn't enough to have an impact for me.

comment by Manfred · 2014-10-14T01:29:07.225Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I'm looking for a short story that someone on here wrote.

It was about free will. The story opens with the main characters approaching a space station built by an old race, operated by a custodial AI. The AI keeps predicting what they're going to do and say in advance. The first mate character gets agitated, the captain keeps her cool. Then there's some sort of disaster (approaching enemy fleet?), they have to get out fast, and the captain makes use of the AI's simulations of them to get a good outcome.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-10-16T17:25:54.847Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Has anyone successfully communicated their philosophy / sense of life to someone through conversations or letters? I'm familiar with projects to do that through blog posts / books / lectures / etc., but am not that familiar with deliberate attempts to do that with feedback. I've had many conversations in life and forums and so on about small issues, and how those issues deal with principles and philosophies and so on, but it seems to me that there are likely to be good strategies for taking advantage of the feedback that conversations allow that I wouldn't think of myself but can imitate.

(It seems to me that people do a lot of sorting by sense of life or philosophy--"that this person doesn't like X or believe Y is indicative of a deep incompatibility"--but it seems to me that if you're trying to communicate on a deep level with a specific person, you need to find differences and then communicate through them instead of just writing the other person off.)

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-18T13:34:37.091Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Most of the time success isn't binary. Five years ago I think there might have been people who could fully understand me but today I think I derivative on a lot of more fundamental questions enough that communicating my full philosophy is unrealistic.

I don't need another person to understand me fully. It's perfectly fine that different people have different life philosophies. If you want to effect other people pushing something on them is usually not very effective.

Two weeks ago I basically found that I can fix a long standing health issue by moving upwards when I'm moving forward and downwards when I'm moving back. It took me roughly 2 1/2 years of on average weekly exposure to the idea to fully grasp it so I could actually use it. It fixed an issue that according to doctors I was supposed to live with the rest for my life, so it's a meaningful insight.

Then a week afterwards I go to my somatics group and there a man who has trouble with his left shoulder. It's tense. When he moves forward he moves down instead of upward. I clearly see how that's his problem.

However it's not something fixed by a few words. I do mention the issue but my somatics teacher says (I paraphrase): "Well, yes. However he's not at the point where he can integrate that knowledge."

I'm unable to communicate a single sentence of wisdom in a way that doesn't take months and I was very conscious of that fact. I know the time it took me. I have read the research on phenomenological primitives and know that you can't easily give someone a new one. The idea just takes a sentence but that doesn't help.

It's like the one time I spent hours trying to explain a first year bioinformatics student the concept of recursion. Recursion is a simple concept but explaining it to someone who doesn't have any basis for it is hard. It was before the exam so, the semester informatics A in Haskell didn't succeed in communicating the idea. I got that the course chooses Haskell to make a point of teaching recursion. The prospect of successfully teaching the primitive of recursion made using Haskell, instead of a language that's actually useful, worthwhile.

If you are communicating over a big inferential gap, trying to explain multiple primitives at once to explain your full life philosophy is an impossible undertaking. It's what you are up against if your own life philosophy is sufficiently complex and contains nonstandard ideas.

Feeling bad about that fact isn't helpful. You can't explain a non-mathematician graduate mathematics and hope that they instantly get it. If you have a complex life philosophy it's similar. If you are on LW there a good chance that you do have a complex life philosophy, even if a lot of the ideas seem trivial to yourself.

Giving up the need to have the other person understand you fully opens up a lot of freedom. You can start to listen to the other person. If you see a door that you can open to help a person make an insight you can go for it.

Most of the influential conversations I had that strongly influenced someone else where very targeted. Understanding the other person was key. Carrots don't grow faster if you pull. When doing change work on important beliefs many untargeted pushs create resistance. If a person defends a belief successfully that strengthens the belief.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-10-18T14:51:22.537Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't need another person to understand me fully. It's perfectly fine that different people have different life philosophies. If you want to effect other people pushing something on them is usually not very effective.

I agree that one should not pin hopes to changing someone else's life philosophy. The specific reason I'm interested in this is because there are people I want to talk to about what I'm thinking about now, but I realize that I can't do that without talking about what I was thinking about three months ago, and I can't talk about that without... But this gap is just going to increase unless I take deliberate steps to decrease it. (This is exactly what you describe later in your post.)

[edit]And, since this wasn't as specific as it could have been, they don't have to agree with my position; my first goal is them knowing my position well enough to make correct predictions about it. If they like it better they'll move on their own.

I'm also realistic about the timeframes involved. I think it's been about a decade since we were fully philosophically compatible, and taking another decade to close that gap seems like it might be necessary.

Giving up the need to have the other person understand you fully opens up a lot of freedom. You can start to listen to the other person. If you see a door that you can open to help a person make an insight you can go for it.

I'm reading this as "haste makes waste; if you learn the other person's philosophy, you get credibility for listening and that knowledge lets you avoid the parts with the most resistance, target the parts that make the easiest jumping-off points for explaining your positions or are the most fertile places for your ideas to grow in. Once that's established--and you'll only know it's established when you listen to them and hear that it's taken root--then their philosophy will have shifted and there will be a new easiest spot." Is that the main spirit of it or is there something I missed?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-18T16:24:20.942Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How easy it is for someone else to be able to make predictions about your actions depends on the way you make decisions.

If you make a decisions based on making a Fermi estimate and then using Bayes theorem a person who has no idea about Fermi estimates or Bayes theorem won't be able to predict your actions. If you have integrated those concepts into your life so that you use them constantly than even a person who has learned Bayes theorem in an university lecture is unlikely to be able to follow. For them it's just something abstract that's used for text book problems and they will have a really hard time to predict your actions, because the can't model you in a way that includes Bayes theorem.

If I make a decisions based on emotions my somatics teacher might be able to predict my actions better then myself because she has a better perception of my emotional state then I have. If I make my decisions based on an abstract intellectual concept like Bayes theorem then she can't predict the outcomes. From her perspective I'm in my head and she has no information besides that.

Outside of specific primitives if you play a game two levels higher than the other person you are unpredictable.

Is that the main spirit of it or is there something I missed?

It goes beyond that. If you show a person who beliefs that vaccine causes autism a news article with lists scientific arguments that vaccines doesn't cause autism, you can strengthen their beliefs that vaccines cause autism.

Mormons who go on a mission and debate Mormonism with outsiders get often more committed Mormons because they invest effort into defending their beliefs to outsiders.

We live in a world where people found in a study that people of higher intelligence are more likely to disbelieve in global warming.

In Go strategy there the term aji keshi. Defending a belief makes it more rigid.

If I try to open a door today and do badly at it, that door while be fortified in a month and it's even harder to get in.

If you successfully planted a little carrot and then pull strongly on it before it's ready you kill it.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2014-10-16T06:15:35.355Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

The Less Wrong Wiki is a valuable resource. Since Eliezer Yudkowsky's original sequences were completed, the Less Wrong community has changed much. This thread is to be used to voice updates Less Wrong users would like to be made to the WIki, especially so it's easier to use it as a reference for introducing a new concept from Less Wrong for the first time.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-16T10:33:57.403Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

If you want to start a thread for that task, a discussion post probably makes more sense than a post in the open thread that isn't as long living.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-10-16T17:10:47.850Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The Less Wrong Wiki is a valuable resource.

Who gets what value from the wiki?

For a time, I adopted the Special Threads page, because it looked like a valuable resource. Eventually it grew to be too much of a hassle, and after that code changes made it less useful (because now there are links to the latest open thread and rationality diary and quotes thread and so on). There have been a lot of attempts to build up various parts of the wiki as useful, but I don't think all that much of it is actively maintained, and the parts of it I use the most seem to be metaposts (sequence lists, etc.).

This thread is to be used to voice updates Less Wrong users would like to be made to the WIki, especially so it's easier to use it as a reference for introducing a new concept from Less Wrong for the first time.

Several things come to mind here.

  1. Be bold. If you want the wiki to have pages on X, add pages on X, and maintain pages on X. If it's not being done, that's because the wiki is waiting for you to do it. We are likely better off encouraging people to edit the wiki than we are encouraging people to ask what they would like to be done (because who will do it?).
  2. Inferential distance. If it took two thousand words to explain the concept in 2008, say, do we think it will take significantly less words to explain the concept now? Quite possibly, yes. That wiki page is a much shorter explanation than the Eliezer post that discussed the evopsych reasons for why we should expect inferential distances to be a problem, but that wiki page might also be optimized for someone in the LW-sphere who just doesn't know the jargon, rather than someone outside of the LW-sphere who would need it explained to them what evidence actually means. (The evidence wiki page is terse, and links to seven blog posts about evidence.)
comment by Vulture · 2014-10-14T17:29:07.648Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

So, the "polymath" thread seems to have ground to a halt. I can't tell whether the discussion just stopped going anywhere (possibly due to elimination of low-hanging fruit), or it dropped off the recent-posts list and people forgot about it, or what. Does anyone have any insight into what's going on?

comment by danieldewey · 2014-10-15T08:52:41.163Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Lots of good stuff happened there, but it looks like it'll have to be curated fairly actively to continue to make progress, and unfortunately that doesn't fit with my current duties.

If someone else would like to act as a leader for it, I'd be happy for that! In any case, I'm glad we tried it, and thankful that so many people jumped in.

comment by Sarunas · 2014-10-15T12:54:37.171Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If I recall correctly, most successful polymath projects did in fact have active leaders, such as Timothy Gowers and Terence Tao, who helped to direct the efforts of others. Maybe without such active leadership a project tends to lose its focus. However, I myself do not have sufficient knowledge to take up such task as I do not think I am familiar enough with the research in this area (and at the moment I do not have much time to deeply familiarize myself with it). Nevertheless, thank you for creating that thread. This is precisely the type of threads I would love to see more of on LessWrong.

comment by advancedatheist · 2014-10-13T23:50:35.973Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Dale Carrico on Yudkowsky and Bostrom:

http://amormundi.blogspot.com/2014/10/fluffing-yud.html

comment by philh · 2014-10-14T00:56:59.684Z · score: 8 (14 votes) · LW · GW

This seems to be an example of negative commentary being primarily negative, rather than primarily commentary. One specific concrete claim that stood out to me without needing to unpack:

I seem to recall that Yudkowsky first claimed he didn't need to get a degree [...] because the singularity was so near it would be a waste of time.

is, I believe, simply false.

comment by gjm · 2014-10-14T10:48:56.339Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with your overall characterization of the post, but on the specific concrete claim: one of the commenters there cites this article as saying this:

Yudkowsky's reason for shunning formal education is that he believes the danger of unfriendly AI to be so near -- as early as tomorrow -- that there was no time for a traditional adolescence. "If you take the Singularity seriously, you tend to live out your life on a shorter time scale," he said.

which I think is close enough to DC's claim. I have no way of telling how accurately that article represents EY's position or whether the quotation itself is accurate. Here's EY characterizing another statement in that article as a lie (though for what it's worth I think it can be interpreted consistently with what EY says is the truth -- but of course that doesn't mean it wasn't intended to mislead).

comment by philh · 2014-10-14T13:48:31.558Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, I've updated somewhat in the direction that Eliezer actually said that at one point. (I was previously assuming that it was a mash-up of other things he's said, but those things were all Sequences-or-later and this article is pre-Sequences.)

With the other statement,

When one researcher booted up a program he hoped would be AI-like, Yudkowsky said he believed there was a 5 percent chance the Singularity was about to happen and human existence would be forever changed.

It seems important to note that Eliezer was talking about a program unlike any program that had ever been turned on, when we knew less than we did at the time of writing. Without that detail, it can be interpreted as not-completely-literally-false, but I wouldn't call it truthful. (The fact that Eliezer was not able to say it at the time seems less important, but leaving it out obscures the timeline.) When searching for the source of the "if you take the Singularity seriously" line, I found another comment by Eliezer on the subject: http://sl4.org/archive/0104/1163.html .

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-14T18:02:05.725Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I say this with the benefit of hindsight, but just remember that not only Eurisko (the 5% risk program) but also its successors like Cyc which benefit from vastly greater computing power and decades of architecture improvement, fall far far short of being FOOMable AIs.

So if somebody had estimated a 5% risk for Eurisko, and then we saw what actually happened, I would update as them being substantially too paranoid.

comment by philh · 2014-10-14T18:48:03.288Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think "it didn't even come close" is sufficient to say that 5% was too paranoid.

I know the principles behind an atomic bomb, but I don't know how much U-238 you need for critical mass. If someone takes two fist-sized lumps of U-238 and proposes to smash them together, I'd give... probably ~50% chance of it causing a massive explosion. But I'd also give maybe about 10% probability that you need like ten times as much U-238 as that. If that happens to be the case, I still don't think that 50% is too paranoid, given my current state of knowledge.

There are people who do know how much U-238 you need, and their probability estimate will presumably be close to 0 or close to 1. And today, we can presumably work through the math and point out what the limits of Eurisko are that stop it from FOOMing. But if we hadn't done the math at the time, 5% isn't obviously unreasonable.

comment by Nornagest · 2014-10-14T19:10:43.239Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Tangential, but: U-238 is fissionable but not fissile; no amount of U-238 will give you a massive explosion if you bang it together. It's U-235 that's the fissile isotope.

(Even banging that together by hand won't give you a massive explosion, though it will give you a moderately large explosion and an extremely lethal dose of radiation: the jargon is "predetonation" or "fizzle". You need to bring a critical mass into existence hard and fast, e.g. by imploding a hollow sphere with explosive lenses, or a partial reaction will blow the pieces apart before criticality really has a chance to get going.)

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-14T20:31:29.872Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think I can prove that I'm not coming at it from a hindsight biased perspective.

But I think I can say confidently that today's technology is at least a qualitative leap away from Strong let alone FOOM AI. To make that more clear, I think no currently existing academic, industrial or personal project will achieve Strong AI or FOOM. Concretely:

In the next 2 years the chance of Strong AI and/or FOOM AI being developed is no more than 0.2%

So that's a 2 year period where I estimate the chance of Strong AI or FOOM as substantially less than EY is saying we should have estimated Eurisko's risk of FOOM only in retrospect.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-15T12:29:38.077Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So if somebody had estimated a 5% risk for Eurisko, and then we saw what actually happened, I would update as them being substantially too paranoid.

Did you try to calibrate yourself via the credence game or a similar method?

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-15T21:33:45.663Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I kept in mind that highly confident predictions (98%+) are often miscalibrated and I still make that assertion.

Also thought about it in terms of placing a bet.

I am not just throwing around numbers.

I can't prove that this isn't all hindsight bias, but to make a forward-looking prediction (also said this in another post): I believe that in the next 2 years the chance of Strong AI and/or FOOM AI being developed is no more than 0.2%.

Yes, this is a super-high-confidence prediction. But I have a pretty deep knowledge of computer science and AI research, I can very confidently say that current technology is a qualitative leap from Strong AI.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-15T22:04:20.512Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I kept in mind that highly confident predictions (98%+) are often miscalibrated and I still make that assertion.

Keeping something like that in mind does relatively little. Humans don't manage to correct for the hindsight bias based on keeping things in mind. Calibration actually needs feedback. You need to see how you mess up to get a feel for what a 95% prediction feels like.

95% feels like: I'm pretty certain that won't happen but I'm not fully certain.

But I have a pretty deep knowledge of computer science and AI research, I can very confidently say that current technology is a qualitative leap from Strong AI.

The whole point for the 5% prediction was that going from a state where no program is self modifying to a world with self modifying AI is a qualitative leap.

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-15T22:17:05.727Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The whole point for the 5% prediction was that going from a state where no program is self modifying to a world with self modifying AI is a qualitative leap.

But estimating this risk of FOOM still disregards the enormous computational power constraints on this software, and the fact that the self-modification heuristics were quite limited.

Basically, we know now that AI researchers in the 80's and earlier were TREMENDOUSLY overoptimistic. I also think that less optimism was warranted by the facts at the time, and not just hindsight.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-15T23:27:29.758Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

we know now that AI researchers in the 80's and earlier were TREMENDOUSLY overoptimistic

In hindsight they were optimistic, but given the knowledge to which they had access at the time, it's harder to make the same arguments. How would you argue that a researcher at that time should know how much the computational power constraints of that day mattered?

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-16T00:37:53.660Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But I'd argue that their optimism stemmed from irrational assumptions. I'm not even saying that if I were transported back in time I would fall prey to the same irrational assumptions, but I would say that they had naive views of problems like visual object recognition or language comprehension that were completely unmotivated.

A comparable error today would be to assume that Strong AI is right around the corner as soon as we crack some current set of well-defined research problems, that there could not be any more problems that are not yet understood.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-16T10:30:38.925Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A comparable error today would be to assume that Strong AI is right around the corner as soon as we crack some current set of well-defined research problems

I don't see at all how the step from non-self -modifying AI to self -modifying AI is in the same reference class as solving most well defined current research problems.

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-16T15:42:16.593Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think we're arguing over whether I'm speaking from hindsight bias or whether the researchers in the past were irrationally overoptimistic (and whether EY's assessment of how optimistic they should have been without hindsight is overoptimistic).

Let's admit both are possible.

What could I show you that would convince you of the latter?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-16T15:57:59.607Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What could I show you that would convince you of the latter?

A valid heuristic that comes to the conclusion that you want to convince me off. In this case your claim that moving from non-self -modifying AI to self -modifying AI is no qualitative leap in the same way that solving most current well-defined AI problems is no qualitative leap suggests that you aren't reasoning clearly. If you get the easy things wrong, then the harder things are also more likely to be wrong.

Furthermore there a strong prior that you are wrong about estimating probabilities if you aren't calibrated. It been shown that naive attempt to try to correct against the hindsight bias just don't work. Until you have at least trained calibration a bit you aren't in a good position to judge whether other people are off.

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-14T02:19:22.798Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

The author admits the quote is only anecdotal, but it does seem plausible to me. EY has said stuff more dumbfounding than that.

More generally, it's just a snarky blog post. Nothing wrong with that; posts are allowed to be snarky. And there's plenty to criticize about uncritical belief in a singularity or the work MIRI does (which this post isn't doing, it's just reminding us of the existence of those criticisms via snark).

comment by D_Malik · 2014-10-13T22:44:37.705Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Does anyone have interesting ideas for machine learning projects? This would involve obtaining some large dataset and then doing prediction or clustering on it.

I'm doing this as a final project for a college course. Examples of past projects:

  • Detecting and classifying cardiac arrhythmia.
  • Predicting stock market movements.
  • Predicting the score an essay will receive.
  • Using Twitter to infer consumer attitudes about companies.
  • Clustering rappers by their lyrics.
  • Predicting how many citations a paper will receive.
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T23:33:46.522Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I still believe that the spaced repetition dataset produced by memosyne is underanalysed. Gwern put effort into bringing that dataset into a good format.

In particular:

  • Is there a way to calculate the brain power for an individual day? Reviews made at a high brainpower day would have a higher successful. Having such a metric would be very useful for Quantified Self (QS) purposes because it means that everybody who uses Anki or memosyne daily would get a free QS metric.

  • Is there a better way to to calculate the interval for cards than the supermemo algorithm that can be proven to be better based on the data from the memosyne set? If so how much better? (If you find something that shows real improvement over the status quo, the next step would be to write an Anki addon that does AB split testing with it)

I think that especially the first task has the chance to provide a decently cited academic paper.

I don't know how much effort either of those tasks takes and whether it would go beyond a project for a college course, but both projects should be interesting and highly useful. You might also find other interesting question when you investigate the data set.

comment by D_Malik · 2014-10-14T01:20:30.053Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, that looks great! ~60% probability I'll do my project on this, actually.

The second one actually looks more interesting and useful to me, since it would directly lead to improved scheduling. There's a lot of literature on the spacing effect, and it doesn't look like anyone's actually done empirical analysis of it on this scale before. (And I do a lot of reviews daily, so I wouldn't be surprised if this project actually took negative net time!) There's also disagreement between e.g. Supermemo and Anki about which algorithm is best, so the issue isn't very settled.

The first one (calculating brainpower for a day) seems easy to do to some extent - just look at the average time each review took, or some function of time-per-review and number of reviews. I'm doubtful about whether you could get more reliability out of looking at e.g. card ratings. Perhaps a better way to measure brainpower would be n-back, or Seth Roberts's arithmetic test.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-14T13:56:54.453Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's also disagreement between e.g. Supermemo and Anki about which algorithm is best, so the issue isn't very settled.

Yes. Wozniak who wrote Supermemo did nearly all his work on his own. I think there a good chance that he missed significant things that are known in 2014 about machine learning in his work. Anki and Mnemosyne are also both written by people without strong knowledge of machine learning.

Maybe some deep learning algorithm is simply better than Wozniaks idea.

The first one (calculating brainpower for a day) seems easy to do to some extent - just look at the average time each review took, or some function of time-per-review and number of reviews.

The problem is that not every card is similar. If I add 100 new cards in a single day and go through them and they are all relatively easy compared to the cards I usually answer, I will effect the brainpower score if you simply calculate it the easy way. Thinking up a way that's robust to such effect is where it get's tricky.

Perhaps a better way to measure brainpower would be n-back, or Seth Roberts's arithmetic test.

Doing n-back or arithmetic tests means that you need to spend additional time. I have put quite a lot of thought in the issue and even did arithmetic tests via a self written android app for over a year and I have come to the conclusion that we simply won't get a significant number of people to do this. A lot of people are already doing Anki or Mnemosyne and would get free data without spending additional time or mental effort.

Seth Roberts arithmetic test has the problem that it doesn't tell you how to treat a speed up at the cost of more errors. If I remember right button produced speed up but raised the error rate slightly. The same problem comes with Anki. I often observed speed ups in answering cards that come along with higher error rates.

Long term memory brainpower is also an interesting metric. As far as I know there are no good tests for it. At present psychologists do have tests for short term memory and tests for reaction time and tasks like arithmetic.

Having a good way to measure long term memory brainpower at daily resolution might be useful for research about diseases like alzheimers and detecting it in it's early stages. Researchers cite their tools, so a relevant paper that gives them a metric for long term memory brainpower has a good chance of being cited widely.

Having a brain power metric would also allow for better scheduling. Let's say one day you are ill and your brain isn't working properly. You do you reviews. Various cards which you reviewed successfully don't get the boost that they would get if your brain was working properly.

After a month has passed an algorithm that detects days with low brain power. It detects the problem. It could reduce the intervals of the cards reviewed on that day that aren't already reviewed. That means you get a better scheduling algorithm when you first solve the brainpower issue.

I'm not sure about the effect size but Anki Droid has >1,000,000 downloads. A lot of smart people use Anki from an effective altruism perspective, making smart people more effective is highly useful.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2014-10-17T18:58:13.391Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Does anyone know if Schlitz and Wiseman (or anyone replicating) ever figured out what went wrong in their joint experiment on remote staring? My google-fu is failing, and the one link I found doesn't work.

(Paper: link, Yvain writing about it: link, section IV.)

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T19:05:05.294Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

They didn't repeat the experiment, so I don't know how you imagine that there was a way to find out what went wrong.

I would imagine that another round in which the both do the experiment together would be fun. If the participant has to be told something both Schlitz and Wiseman tell it to him. Computer equipment can be set up to require both people to click.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2014-10-17T19:24:28.771Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

They didn't repeat the experiment, so I don't know how you imagine that there was a way to find out what went wrong.

Because I don't know if they did or didn't, that's why I'm asking. Are you sure?

I seem to remember reading something about it on Randi's forum that they did indeed repeat it, and, I think, found something interesting. I don't remember the details though; that's the google result that's not working for me any more.

Though the link is posted on LW with a comment that the effect did go away when controlled.

comment by HonoreDB · 2014-10-13T17:18:19.752Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

What's the best way to get (U.S.) legal advice on a weird, novel issue (one that would require research and cleverness to address well)? Paid or unpaid, in person or remotely.

(For that matter, if anyone happens to be interested in donating good legal advice to a weird, novel non-profit organization, feel free to contact me at histocrat at gmail dot com).

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T21:14:43.315Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

It probably includes finding a person with expertise on the subject matter. That means it's easier if you reduce the level of abstractness and specify the issue at least a bit.

comment by HonoreDB · 2014-10-13T21:43:08.788Z · score: 31 (31 votes) · LW · GW

I'm happy to specify completely, actually, I just figured a general question would lead to answers that are more useful to the community.

In my case, I'm helping to set up an organization to divert money away from major party U.S. campaign funds and to efficient charities. The idea is that if I donate $100 to the Democratic Party, and you donate $200 to the Republican party (or to their nominees for President, say), the net marginal effect on the election is very similar to if you'd donated $100 and I've donated nothing; $100 from each of us is being canceled out. So we're going to make a site where people can donate to either of two opposing causes, we'll hold it in escrow for a little, and then at a preset time the money that would be canceling out goes to a GiveWell charity instead. So if we get $5000 in donations for the Democrats and $2000 for Republicans, the Democrats get $3000 and the neutral charity gets $4000. From an individual donor's point of view, each dollar you donate will either become a dollar for your side, or take away a dollar from the opposing side.

This obviously steps into a lot of election law, so that's probably the expertise I'll be looking for. We also need to figure out what type of organization(s) we need to be: it seems ideal to incorporate as a 501c(3) just so that people can make tax-deductible donations to us (whether donations made through us that end up going to charity can be tax-deductible is another issue). I think the spirit of the regulations should permit that, but I am not a lawyer and I've heard conflicting opinions on whether the letter of the law does.

And those issues aside, I feel like there could be more legal gotchas that I'm not anticipating to do with Handling Other People's Money.

comment by Prismattic · 2014-10-14T02:45:35.203Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I think you might be underestimating the amount of money in politics that comes from large organized contributors who give money to both parties for purposes of making the system in general beholden to them rather than favoring one ideology over the other.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-14T14:05:16.322Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

While some money does follow that road, not all money does.

comment by HonoreDB · 2014-10-14T22:39:42.204Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think those contributors will probably not be our main demographic, since they have an interest in the system as it is and don't want to risk disrupting it. In theory, though, donating to both parties can be modeled as a costly signal (the implied threat is that if you displease me, the next election I'll only donate to your opponent), and there's no reason you can't do that through our site.

comment by gwillen · 2014-10-14T02:43:42.884Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

You should probably chat with Sai, of Make Your Laws. (http://s.ai/) He's spent a bunch of time recently petitioning the FEC to answer questions about various crazy ways his organization would like to funnel donations. (Specific technical questions, like: "If someone gives us a donation whose recipient is conditional on a condition that won't be known until 6 months from now, [question about how some regulation applies].") I bet he can at least help you find answers.

comment by HonoreDB · 2014-10-14T22:41:55.307Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, I'll look him up.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-14T13:53:40.157Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sai once gave a talk advertising LessWrong at the Chaos Computer Congress (CCC) in Berlin.

At the flight to Berlin he just boarded the plane with fruit juice. He got it on the fruit by declaring it as a medical drug that he needs to keep his glucose level up. He said he knew the TSA rules better than the TSA folks. Then he asked how he can listen to the cockpit radio and got kicked out.

He took the next plane and allegedly took undetected enough pure caffeine with him to blow up the plane and allegedly told the crowd at the CCC about it which was probably a dumb move.

While he's no lawyer by trade, I think he knows very well to navigate the rules and is likely supportive of creative projects like this.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-14T17:57:58.561Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

undetected enough pure caffeine with him to blow up the plane

Is caffeine explosive or did you mean to type some other word instead?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-15T11:07:43.541Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is caffeine explosive or did you mean to type some other word instead?

It's been four years so my memory might be faulty but if I remember right it was caffeine. Normal dosage of caffeine that Wikipedia lists is 500 milligram.

For obvious reasons the part where he allegedly spoke about it isn't in the video. I allegedly told the audience that he will demonstrate the explosive capabilities of the substance later that day. Unfortunately there was some official of some agency in the audience that didn't find this funny and who then walked around with recording equipment to record any further word that Sai said, so Sai didn't go into further details.

It's illegal to carry something on a plane that can blow up the plane but obviously TSA rules can't check for every possible substance that's explosive. The idea that fluids are the only thing that's explosive is obviously also mistaken. Disclosing security vulnerabilities is very much in the spirit of the Chaos Computer Congress. So it was the substance he choose when they illegally forbid his fruit juice (and he sued them for not allowing him fruit juice with he carries with him for health reasons, a bit later)

For me Sai was a very impressive character.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T22:04:53.476Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I recommend crossposting the request for information to http://www.effective-altruism.com/ . Maybe someone knows someone who can help. It's worthwhile to spread the request that many people see it.

comment by HonoreDB · 2014-10-13T23:07:39.085Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks!

comment by Salemicus · 2014-10-14T16:28:51.877Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The idea is that if I donate $100 to the Democratic Party, and you donate $200 to the Republican party (or to their nominees for President, say), the net marginal effect on the election is very similar to if you'd donated $100 and I've donated nothing; $100 from each of us is being canceled out.

It seems to be implicit in your model that funding for political parties is a negative-sum arms race. This is starkly at odds with much of political thinking, which sees funding for political parties as a positive-sum game. This is expressed by public subsidies for political parties, in such terms as public funding/matching funding/tax deductibility of political donations, depending on where you reside.

Political parties turn funding into votes by getting their message out to voters, so the more funding political parties have, the better informed an electorate we will have. Moreover, to the extent that funding getting your message out becomes less binding of a constraint, then other constraints (such as the persuasiveness of that message) will become more binding - which seems like a good thing.

I guess it just goes to show that one person's public good is another person's public nuisance. In my own view, the most damaging negative-sum arms race is academia. Perhaps you will inspire me to set up my own 501c(3) to allow matching donations to universities to be diverted to political parties.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-14T18:10:25.326Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

This is starkly at odds with much of political thinking, which sees funding for political parties as a positive-sum game.

Consider the incentives for people who express this "political thinking".

Political parties turn funding into votes by getting their message out to voters, so the more funding political parties have, the better informed an electorate we will have.

More political agitprop does not necessarily lead to more informed voters. Is there any real-world data on the relationship between political campaign spending and voter knowledge (once you pass the very low bar of "oh, there is an election and X, Y, and Z are on the ballot")?

P.S. Analogous reasoning would argue for public funding of advertising as leading to "more informed" consumers who could make better choices about what to buy X-D

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-17T03:34:05.247Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

More political agitprop does not necessarily lead to more informed voters. Is there any real-world data on the relationship between political campaign spending and voter knowledge (once you pass the very low bar of "oh, there is an election and X, Y, and Z are on the ballot")?

Well, for starters it helps to also have some information about who X, Y, and Z are.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T03:55:15.007Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Which political agitprop won't give you.

comment by Salemicus · 2014-10-15T08:56:58.716Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

P.S. Analogous reasoning would argue for public funding of advertising as leading to "more informed" consumers who could make better choices about what to buy X-D

I definitely agree with the line of argument that advertising is a public good, because it leads to more informed consumers, and I am highly sceptical of knee-jerk claims that it is a negative-sum arms race. So at least we're both consistent!

However, I don't think that advertising (whether commercial or political) should be subsidised, because I think the government is very bad at encouraging public goods. My point was merely that HonoreDB's charity, although no doubt well intentioned, appears to me to be destroying value, rather than creating it...

Consider your own analogy to commercial advertising. Suppose Coke and Pepsi signed a compact to reduce their advertising expenditures by a specified amount; would you suppose that to be good or bad for the consumer?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-15T14:48:45.758Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that agitprop and/or advertising leads to more informed voters/consumers because its purpose is not to inform. Its purpose is to manipulate, to force the subject to a certain opinion by all means necessary. Any "informing" that happens is entirely coincidental and, depending on the circumstances, could be considered a feature or a bug.

In local terminology, advertising tries to change the map in your head and the main feature of the one it wants to install is that it shows all paths leading to the same place, the one conclusion that it wants you to make. An accurate map is bad from the advertising point of view and needs to be replaced. In the service of this goal the advertisers can and do use biases and fallacies, they spin, mislead, and obfuscate, and on occasion just lie.

Suppose Coke and Pepsi signed a compact to reduce their advertising expenditures by a specified amount; would you suppose that to be good or bad for the consumer?

Economically -- good. Psychologically -- I don't know. People like to be told what to prefer :-/

comment by Salemicus · 2014-10-16T17:20:48.104Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Suppose Coke and Pepsi signed a compact to reduce their advertising expenditures by a specified amount; would you suppose that to be good or bad for the consumer?

Economically -- good.

Wow. Let's just say we're very far apart on this.

There's a wealth of law and economics literature about the effect of advertising, which demonstrates that advertising bans hurt consumers and help producers - see for example this classic. An agreement within a cartel isn't the same as a legal ban, but we should surely expect it to have a similar effect - especially given that many real-world advertising bans were lobbied for by major incumbents. Do you have any rationale for why you think consumers would actually benefit?

I was inviting you to consider what I considered an obvious cartel behaviour aimed at suppressing consumer ability to get the best deal. But bravo on biting the bullet!

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-16T17:40:55.447Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

which demonstrates that advertising bans hurt consumers and help producers

First, we were not talking about legal bans (which I am generally not in favor of).

Second, you have to be quite careful here not to confuse "advertising" and "intensity of competition". I have no doubts that reducing the competition hurts consumers, but I am not convinced that reducing advertising expenditures necessarily leads to reduced competition. I suspect that these two things are often conflated (and the causation flipped).

In this particular case, do you think that if both Coke and Pepsi reduce their advertising budgets by, say, $10m each, the consumer will be hurt economically? What is the mechanism for that?

Third, are you implicitly claiming that the current level of advertising expenses is optimal? If we accept your thesis and start to increase advertising, will there be some point when the curve bends -- the advertising becomes excessive? Presumably so. Where are we with respect to this point? How do you know?

Do you have any rationale for why you think consumers would actually benefit?

Plain-vanilla cost savings some which will be passed on to consumers.

obvious cartel behaviour aimed at suppressing consumer ability to get the best deal.

Huh? I walk into a supermarket and look at the prices of Coke and Pepsi which are there side by side. I know from experience to which degree I prefer one over another. How will advertising help me get the best deal?

comment by Salemicus · 2014-10-16T18:07:59.035Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

First, we were not talking about legal bans (which I am generally not in favor of).

Glad to hear it. Do you agree with the wealth of literature showing that bans on advertising are bad for the consumer? And do you agree that a binding agreement within a duopoly would have a similar effect to a legal ban?

In this particular case, do you think that if both Coke and Pepsi reduce their advertising budgets by, say, $10m each, the consumer will be hurt economically? What is the mechanism for that?... I walk into a supermarket and look at the prices of Coke and Pepsi which are there side by side. I know from experience to which degree I prefer one over another. How will advertising help me get the best deal?

Yes, I think the consumer would be hurt. Advertising alerts us to new products, changes to existing products, and changes in the terms (eg price) under which those products are sold. Let me give you two examples of Coke/Pepsi advertising and how it affects me.

Where I live, Coke produces a wide variety of products, and is constantly adding more. Currently, they are heavily advertising their new "Coke Life" product, which has a different kind of sweetener, and a slightly different taste. If Coke had a smaller advertising budget, fewer consumers would be aware of this new product and what it's about, resulting in loss of the potential consumer surplus from drinking the new product among those who prefer it to other Coke or Pepsi products.

In addition, Coke frequently has promotional offers on. Just walking into the supermarket and look at the prices is inadequate, I specifically go there to buy Coke because of the promotional offer. Otherwise I might miss out. And I know about the promotional offer because of advertising. In the absence of this, consumers would have to go to the supermarket on a much-more-frequent basis, just to check the price of Coke. This would be a loss.

Third, are you implicitly claiming that the current level of advertising expenses is optimal?

I am claiming that, given that the current level of Coke vs Pepsi advertising is the result of adversarial competition in a free market, I think there's a very heavy burden on people who claim it's "too high" (or "too low"). I am not claiming that it's "optimal" by everyone's idiosyncratic criteria.

Plain-vanilla cost savings some which will be passed on to consumers.

Why on earth would the cost savings be passed on to consumers? Do you think Coke or Pepsi is sold at marginal cost? This is a market with unique products and partial substitution, so these companies are price-setters, not price-takers. This saving would just increase their profits.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-18T22:00:52.207Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to be making a fundamental assumption which I disagree with. You are assuming that what is best for the producer is best for the consumer and that increased consumption is a public good. You are assuming that we are dealing with homo economus who decides correctly and for whom more information is always a good thing. We are dealing however with homo sapiens, who can be easily led into things against his best interest. I do not think your basic assumption holds and I point to the massive increases in obesity which have benefited producers (more demand) but not consumers (die sooner) as evidence. To use the specific example you've been using, coke is rather unhealthy, being mainly simple sugars which have been proven to lead to obesity in sufficient quantities. Its consumption is kept well above the normal set point by advertising and I think this is a negative thing on the whole.

However, the issue has become sidetracked in economic minutiae. The real question is this: Is campaign funding a greater or lesser good than effective altruism. $1000 to Malaria Foundation provides 20-100 DALY, as Yvain said higher up. I find it spectacularly unlikely that $1000 spent on TV adverts extolling the virtues of a candidate and lawn signs showing his face can provide a similar benefit or even one within the same order of magnitude. This is especially relevant when half comes from each candidate.

So, the ball is in your court.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-18T23:08:43.472Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

We are dealing however with homo sapiens, who can be easily led into things against his best interest.

Who decides what the "best interest" is?

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-18T23:49:28.764Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I honestly couldn't say. In the borderline cases you would presumably need some kind of impartial observer with sufficient specialist knowledge. Luckily, I don't have to worry about borderline cases because the three cases we have here are fairly obvious. For an example of an obvious case of homo sapiens being led into things against his best interest consider smoking. It is extremely rare that smoking is in anyone's best interest given the high cost in both money and years of life such a habit entails.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-18T23:54:24.303Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I honestly couldn't say.

I feel that's a major issue you'll have to face.

For an example of an obvious case of homo sapiens being led into things against his best interest consider smoking.

Sure. People have smoked a variety of dried plants (including but not limited to tobacco and marijuana) for a very long time. Much, much longer than advertising has been around. So, what's the "best interest" here, who decides what it is, and who "leads" people into something against their best interest?

Note, by the way, that if you honestly can't say who decides what's in a person's best interest (other than herself, of course) then the phrase "It is extremely rare that smoking is in anyone's best interest" doesn't mean anything.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-19T00:18:38.971Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ideally I would measure best interest compared to the human utility function, but we do not have the luxury of a fully unpacked utility function. In the mean time I'll just go with (length of life x happiness) - (very large number x atrocities committed). As to who leads someone against their best interest, that would be advertisers as the agents of companies who wish to sell people things. Some advertisers also move people towards their best interest. The point is that the best interest of the buyer and the best interest of the seller are rather disconnected and intersect rather randomly. The best interests of the people being sold to are far less relevant to the people doing the selling than the amount of money a person can be persuaded to spend.

Edit: I feel like this would be a good place to put a chart of cigarette usage by % of population over the years. At current time, 42% of people smoking have tried to quit over the last year. I feel like this is fairly conclusive: these people are acting against their own self interest

Have you read any behavioural economics? These are rather central things to the theory and there are books out there that can explain this a lot better than me.

Also, we're getting sidetracked again. I thought the whole advertising thing was just a useful example to talk about the original disagreement about charity vs giving to political parties.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-19T01:18:29.134Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As to who leads someone against their best interest, that would be advertisers

It doesn't look like you've read my post. Who leads this guy, for example? People like him have been doing this for hundreds of years at least.

Have you read any behavioural economics?

Yes, I have. I understand how people can be influenced. I still don't understand how someone is going to decide what is in, for example, my best interest.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-19T10:08:12.551Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No-one decides what is in the best interest of a singular person except that person. This kind of stuff is only really applicable to large populations where you can shift the conditions to raise or lower usage by 10% by raising barriers against harmful activities and lowering them for beneficial activities. By raising barriers I mean for example increasing the cost of cigarettes through taxes while increasing knowledge by printing cancer statistics on packaging, an effective strategy that the UK has been using for a while now. Applying it to singular people involves far more direct intervention than most people are willing to deal with and tends to cause problems. I am essentially espousing soft paternalism.

That guy is smoking a tobacco cigar in India I assume? He is influenced by the people around him who don't know how much damage is done by smoking, by the ready and cheap availability of the thing he wants to smoke, by the physical addictiveness of the plant, by the status change associated with smoking (positive or negative) and by his own state of knowledge about the effects of his actions. People like him have been doing this for hundreds of years and it was a reasonable choice given the knowledge they had because no-one knew that it was dangerous and caused cancer. Now the knowledge exists, and it has become clear that it is a bad choice. It has negative utility.

I did read your post. I couldn't figure out where what you were getting at. I was honestly wondering if you were trying to use Socratic method on me or something. Your point was not clear to me, it still isn't. Could you clarify?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-20T16:58:31.847Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No-one decides what is in the best interest of a singular person except that person.

Empirically that's not true. There is a large number of laws and regulations, for example, which claim to exist in my best interest -- from the seat-belt laws to the FDA.

Applying it to singular people involves far more direct intervention than most people are willing to deal with and tends to cause problems. I am essentially espousing soft paternalism.

So are the, ahem, implementation difficulties are the only reason why you espouse soft paternalism and not hard? If applying "this kind of stuff" to individual people didn't cause problems, would you have issues with it?

Your point was not clear to me, it still isn't.

My point, stated bluntly, is that no one is qualified to judge what is in a person's best interest except for that very person. And given that it fails on the individual level, it fails on the aggregate level as well.

A side theme here is that I highly value autonomy and am quite suspicious of paternalism.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-20T19:18:49.340Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, right you're talking about the specific practical implementation of these things. My bad. I don't have a better model than the current one kicking about, that's for sure. The ideal of the current model in my country (the UK) is that the scientific community figures out what things are unambiguously helpful and unambiguously harmful and legislation is enacted to maximise and minimise those activities. More ambiguous things don't tend to get legislation enacted. That the actual implementation of the model falls short in a number of ways is obvious and unfortunate, but I don't know enough about the subject to propose a better solution. If you have one I would be interested to hear it.

If applying "this kind of stuff" to individual people didn't cause problems, would you have issues with it?

For it not to cause problems people would have to be fine with an outside force making a large number of their decisions for them. It appears to be an inherent human trait to dislike excess meddling by any outside force so I'm not entirely sure that such a population exists. This may simply reflect a western view of looking at things though, my knowledge of the mindset of Chinese people for example is obviously insufficient.

I would still have one issue with it even if people didn't mind being meddled with. Hard paternalism implies bans on things, hard rules that are not allowed to be broken. There are almost always situations where the reasons behind a rule do not apply. With hard paternalism a person would be prohibited from doing something even when it made sense in that specific situation.

no one is qualified to judge what is in a person's best interest except for that very person.

You've been blunt with me so I'll do you the same courtesy. People are bad at judging what actions maximise their own best interest. I believe that a majority of people are highly effected by the environment in which they make their decisions and can be induced to make different decisions, good or bad, through clever manipulation. Most people do not have the knowledge to deal with manipulation like this in an effective manner. It is an asymmetrical fight, because advertisers can apply whole departments of people and the latest knowledge of neuroscience to manipulating the inherent biases of the human brain while normal people devote very little or no time to countermeasures. As the knowledge and money base of advertising increases I would expect people to be more and more swayed.

I will give some specific examples and predictions to bring this back to earth. If healthy food was cheaper and as easy to prepare as unhealthy food, a country would have a healthier populace of a lower weight and live longer. If soft drinks high in fructose and other simple sugars were advertised less, diabetes rates would drop. Some examples of things known to work: When cigarettes were made expensive and the health effects well known such that people who decided to smoke were regarded as silly, cigarette use decreased so did lung cancer (after an appropriate time lag). If pension payments are made automatic as part of a pay cheque and employees simply have to check a box to opt out, employee pensions savings increase.

The idea of soft paternalism is to discourage bad decisions while still allowing them to be made. It is to make the right thing to do, the easy thing to do. The barriers against bad decisions are intentionally low such that anyone with a good reason can circumvent them. This allows policy makers to improve people's lives en mass without actually curtailing any specific person's autonomy very much. This has the useful side effect that if a bad decision is made by the government people can route around it with comparative ease.

By the way, that pattern of highly valuing autonomy and intense suspicion of government intrusion is something I find extremely common in US Americans, but is comparatively rare in my country the UK. I would be interested to talk to you about possible causes if you're up for it. My immediate thought is that the US government has given people more reasons to distrust it but I would much rather know your thinking, seeing as you live there.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-20T21:38:06.841Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A few general points.

We don't live in an idealized environment where our society is ruled by benevolent philosopher-kings or run by bodhisattva mandarins. The government consists of elected politicians and unelected bureaucracy of civil servants -- all of them human, always prone to mistakes, not always having the best intentions, corruptible by power, having their own incentives, etc. etc. The question of the appropriateness of soft paternalism has to be evaluated in the context of real political systems where the chances of the paternalistic tools being misused or abused are high.

Yes, people are bad at judging what's in their best interests, but there's no one who is better. There are lots and lots of examples, historical and more recent, of situations where some authority decides it knows what's better for the people -- and then it turns out that isn't the case at all. So the next authority (or even the same one) says sorry, carts out the corpses, cleans up the mess a bit, and then says "ah, but now we certainly now what is best for you!". Rinse and repeat...

In the same vein you posit that regular people are defenceless against advertisers, but they are defenceless in the same way against government propagandists as well. In fact, paternalism legitimises the idea that people are sheep in need of a leader, they cannot be trusted to arrange their own affairs. Infantilising the populace is a very seductive political technique.

pattern of highly valuing autonomy and intense suspicion of government intrusion is something I find extremely common in US Americans, but is comparatively rare in my country the UK.

You can probably google up discussions of this topic, it's not an uncommon one. Off the top of my head I can come up with:

  • Genetics: the subset of the population that had... difficulties with the King and the Parliament actually left the UK -- and a large part of these rabble-rousers landed in the US.
  • More genetics: the US is a country of immigrants -- almost all Americans descend from ancestors who decided to leave their country and their government. That is indicative of high autonomy and not trusting your (former) government much :-)
  • Population density: the higher it is, the more unity and cohesion the country needs and enforces. If you have family homesteads situated miles from each other, they don't need to agree on much.
  • History and traditions: the UK had centuries to instill obedience to authority into its population, the US started as a colony which didn't like its metropolis much :-/
  • The US political elite hasn't been able to perfect that patronising look that goes so well with the proper upper-crust accent :-P

My immediate thought is that the US government has given people more reasons to distrust it

From the American perspective, the situation over the pond looks like an unmitigated disaster. Between the ever-present cameras, the ASBOs, the terrorist-sympathisers legislation, etc. things are looking bloody awful over there...

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-20T22:10:07.207Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

To be quite honest I'd trust my government to do soft paternalism but not yours.

Do you know what's fascinating? We have an almost identical view of your country from over here, what with the rampant abuse of power among policemen, the massive online data mining, the gun crime, the bizarre and aggressive politics where shouting louder seems to be considered legitimate. And the tv news, it's just astounding. I've watched Fox and it is just bizarre, with people actually shouting at guests, belittling respected experts who were asked onto the show, cutting their mike when they start to disagree. Anyone who tried that here would be out of a job in short order. CNN may be better but they are still hilarious in a number of ways. That filibustering doesn't get a politician voted out instantly was originally shocking to me.

I could go on for a long long time. Suffice to say, the UK is actually doing pretty good. We have a few problems but they aren't the ones you've head about in the news. The ever present cameras have not been abused and are generally only used when a crime happens to have been committed in front of them (assault, burglary ect). The ASBOs are no worse than the worse rednecks or people from the ghettos. Also, terrorist-sympathiser legislation? I don't remember that.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-21T04:32:11.198Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

We have a few problems but they aren't the ones you've head about in the news.

Tell that to the girls from Rotherham. Or does that not count as "in the news" since your news media refused to report on it while is was happening? Not to mention the people attempting to blow the whistle on this back in 2001, were promptly prosecuted for hate speech.

the massive online data mining [by the US],

(..)

The ever present cameras have not been abused and are generally only used when a crime happens to have been committed in front of them (assault, burglary ect).

Do you see the problem with this juxtaposition?

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-21T11:02:46.296Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was not trying to say that the idea I had of the US was an accurate one, nor that the UK was some sort of paradise where nothing wrong happens. I was pointing out the general distortion one can expect by relying on news media for an idea of a country. Rotherham for example is a highly charged emotional subject. Trying to get an accurate idea of the actual situation just from exceptions like that is a bit pointless. It works about as well as using the situation in Detroit to judge a whole country

One is a recording in a public place where there is no expectation of privacy, the other is the cataloguing of everyone's entire backlog of conversations on the internet, including private ones and in some cases encrypted ones. Aside from both fitting the emotional impression of overreaching security state I don't see that the two are particularly comparable. The potential for abuse is certainly different. Unless there is some abuse case of the cameras that i'm not aware of?

Edit: The US data mining is a lot more comparable to the UK data mining. I believe they are similar. It may just be a failure of my creativity, but I can't actually think of a situation where cctv footage could be abused to convict an innocent man. Conversely, abuse cases abound for largescale data mining.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-24T04:12:50.289Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was not trying to say that the idea I had of the US was an accurate one, nor that the UK was some sort of paradise where nothing wrong happens. I was pointing out the general distortion one can expect by relying on news media for an idea of a country. Rotherham for example is a highly charged emotional subject. Trying to get an accurate idea of the actual situation just from exceptions like that is a bit pointless. It works about as well as using the situation in Detroit to judge a whole country

You seem to be arguing that the UK is much better than the US in this regard. In fact similar forces are involved in creating both Detroit and Rotherham. On the other hand, the US wasn't covering up Detroit's crime statistics and prosecuting people who tried to blow the whistle.

The potential for abuse is certainly different. Unless there is some abuse case of the cameras that i'm not aware of?

How so. I can't think of an abuse case for email reading that doesn't also apply to the CCTV cameras.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-24T14:09:57.303Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well I'm not arguing that. The UK doesn't seem to be structurally much better than the US, I'm no even sure how I'd go about measuring that. Although it is a bit naive to say that the US (or rather the Detroit police force) isn't covering up some of Detroit's crime statistics. So far as I'm aware almost any metric used to allocate reward and punishment will eventually be gamed.

Jiro has some nice CCTV camera abuse cases. Online information gathering takes all those abuse cases quite a bit further. Instead of possibly one lie or falsehood or case of wrong/politically damaging information you can probably choose from dozens if you have access to a politician's online data. Same abuse cases, more ammunition against an average person.

comment by Jiro · 2014-10-21T19:05:28.592Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I can't actually think of a situation where cctv footage could be abused to convict an innocent man.

A couple of ideas come to mind immediately:

-- Just like reading all your email is likely to turn up something that sounds bad, tracking all your movements is likely, just by chance, to turn up something that looks suspicious; you may have been seen near a known drug dealers' den, or bordello, or you often visit a person who has been convicted of a crime, or you have been seen near children's playgrounds too much.

-- Use of the CCTV footage to catch you in a lie--bearing in mind that everyday human life involves telling necessary lies every so often. This can make you look really bad--oh, no, he lied to his wife about where he was, maybe he had an affair. He lied in his political speech--who knows what he was doing in back alleys back then?

-- Using the CCTV to capture images of something that would be embarrassing in public. Of course, you would have to make a mistake to show something private in public, but CCTV has the effect of greatly expanding the effect of such mistakes. Imagine someone caught on camera in bondage gear, or kissing a member of the same sex (or just cheating on their spouse). Or wearing a symbol of a sports team that is accused of being racist.

-- Taking a CCTV image out of context

Of course, you're being too narrow by asking for a conviction; these can be used to damage someone without convicting him of anything. Driving a politician out of office or blackmailing someone is not convicting him, after all.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-22T10:59:10.192Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, I see it was a failure of my creativity, cheers.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-21T00:01:14.568Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Suffice to say, the UK is actually doing pretty good.

Does it, now? Ignoring the minor matters like recent riots or how you managed to drop considerably below Ireland in GDP per capita, didn't you recently almost lose a large chunk of the country? And while the scurrying at Downing the week before the referendum when the poll results came out gets full marks for amusement value, it does seem that a bit less than half of all Scots have a problem with trusting Whitehall to do what's best for them.

terrorist-sympathiser legislation?

Evidently in the UK it's a crime to write bad poetry about martyrdom.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-21T01:31:17.863Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Consider the probability of almost any other country allowing a free and uninhibited referendum for a section of that country to split off. Texas for example, or Sicily. Consider what it implies about the health of the democratic process that the Scots could vote an independence movement into majority of their government, then have a free and unmolested referendum without one bullet fired and only a modicum of political fuckery. I think that's a pretty good showing all things considered. Don't a lot of countries have some ethic group that distrusts the central government? It's hardly an exceptional situation.

Regardless, the point was not to start a cross Atlantic pissing match over whose country is worse. The point is to show you that the picture you have of the UK is likely so distorted as to be essentially useless. Consider the picture I painted of the US, consider how inaccurate it likely was. That is at least the scale of the mismatch between your map and the territory of the UK. To call the 6th largest economy in the world an unmitigated disaster is plain wrong, the place comes up near the top in nearly any objective measure you care to name.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-21T01:47:03.518Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The point is to show you that the picture you have of the UK is likely so distorted as to be essentially useless.

That's interesting. Are you quite sure my map is distorted or maybe I just have a different baseline and different framework to look through? How would one tell the difference?

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-21T02:59:48.100Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It could be a different framework or baseline, but I find it more likely that you've been given incomplete data. I'm assuming you've gotten most of your information from news stories and articles? Unfortunately I can't think of a way to fully check without physically visiting the country to see if it matches or not. The next best thing would be watching some boring bbc news coverage, but even that would be mildly sensationalist by comparison to normal life. You can't go by my experience because I'm not a fully trustworthy source, despite my attempts at rationality.

Comparative statistics maybe? Figure out what objective measures you'd expect the UK to do well or poorly on based on your current map then look them up. See if there are any US cities you do know that turn out to have similar measures then use the comparison to update based on the new information. Seems like the best bet anyway.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-21T04:33:53.088Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The next best thing would be watching some boring bbc news coverage, but even that would be mildly sensationalist by comparison to normal life.

The same is true of the US. The difference is that Americans have a lower tolerance for "government doing bad things to other Americans", whereas your attitude seems to be "it doesn't count unless it happens to someone I personally know".

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-21T10:27:53.571Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There's a difference in the magnitude of the sensationalism and the professionalism of the news between the two countries. The UK is rather lucky in that regard.

My attitude is that the magnitude of the individual wrong has to be multiplied by the number of times it actually happened to be properly understood. The actual physical threat of terrorism, for example, is largely irrelevant in my reckoning of the country. Last time I did the math it turned out to kill less than 10 people a year on average in the UK. I had a look down the NHS data for death rates and found multiple diseases I'd never even heard of that killed more people, so I decided that terrorism itself was largely unimportant. The reaction to terrorism is the only part that has relevance. I have a similar attitude about most overblown societal problems. The news may be attempting to convince my lizard brain that the world is spectacularly unsafe but the actual statistics suggest I live in one of the safest countries in the safest period of human history.

Edit: Forgot to specify that it was the TV news that was good. The papers can be pretty variable, from good to terrible.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-21T15:04:27.702Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There's a difference in the magnitude of the sensationalism and the professionalism of the news between the two countries.

Is there, really?

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-21T15:35:33.316Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Apologies, I meant the TV news. The papers can be pretty terrible

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-21T04:07:51.515Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

but I find it more likely that you've been given incomplete data. I'm assuming you've gotten most of your information from news stories and articles?

Um, I've been to the UK multiple times and some of my relatives lived there for a while :-/

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-21T13:47:57.869Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Which bits did you visit? How did things seem while you were there? Unmitigated disaster or just kind of average?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-21T14:58:13.909Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A variety of bits, Midlands is the major area where I haven't been.

Unmitigated disaster or just kind of average?

See, that's what I mean by different baselines. It looks like to you life is fine as long as you or your friends aren't dragged off in chains and sent to the salt mines. Of course UK is a first-world Western European country with all that it implies. It's not Zimbabwe. But then by similar criteria places like, say, post-Stalin Russia were also "kind of average". For the great majority of people life just went on and nothing terrible happened. Unless you were part of specific social groups, things looked fine.

I'm not saying that the UK is on the verge of tranforming into an Ingsoc society, but from the individual freedoms and civil rights point of view, it has considerably degraded and is looking pretty bad. Of course if you don't care about such things much, well, you don't care about such things much.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-21T16:15:06.971Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I do care about such things, about as much as I care about the total prosperity of the group. In my utility function they are approximately equal. I am worried about the erosion of civil rights, not because they are being misused much now or because of any inherent beliefs about human rights but because of the potential for abuse later down the line. The way I see it laws that give a particular position unrestricted power without independent checks and counterbalances are problematic in the long term. As time increases to infinity the probability that such power will be abused tends to 100%. That is, eventually a particularly misguided or sociopathic or mentally ill person will eventually end up in that position.

It's also why I think large scale data mining is more dangerous than CCTV cameras. To abuse CCTV you need to change the laws to make new things illegal, you can't do it as one person. To abuse data mining all that is required is for the head (or sub head) of intelligence to get the records of every current and prospective politician then threaten to leak certain uncomfortable details at key times. Most people have something online that would interfere with political election. Too much power in one person with too little oversight. The potential for abuse is huge.

Apologies about my manner this past while. I'm still getting used to people attacking my ideas without attacking me. Historically the two have been correlated in other webforums and I've not yet convinced my brain to give up the link. You know, I'm curious about what your favoured policy is. You don't like soft paternalism, what system do you go in for?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-21T16:57:51.457Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

because of the potential for abuse later down the line.

I think we are in agreement about that.

It's also why I think large scale data mining is more dangerous than CCTV cameras.

It's a false dilemma, there is absolutely no reason why we must have one or the other and so must choose the lesser evil. We can choose none. Of course, in reality it seems we will get both.

I don't expect there is significant difference in large scale data mining between the US and the UK. The NSA and MI5 are best buddies :-/

To abuse CCTV you need to change the laws to make new things illegal

Nope. You only need to to see compromising (not necessarily illegal) information. If you capture footage of a minister going to visit his mistress, that's not illegal but that's useful blackmail material.

Apologies about my manner this past while.

No apologies necessary, that has been a pretty polite debate (by the internet standards, at least :-/) so far.

You don't like soft paternalism, what system do you go in for?

I hesitate to declare allegiance to a particular system, but my favoured direction is allowing people to do stupid things and then reap the consequences. I think autonomy trumps optimality.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-22T11:34:37.406Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with every point you just made, good catch on the false dilemma. Apart from the last one, I hold small reductions in autonomy which give medium sized or greater increases in optimality to be allowable. I suspect this difference may stem from a divergence in upbringing and culture.

Out of curiosity, how does allowing people to do stupid things work exactly? Zero tax on alcohol? Cigarettes advertised openly and sold at market rate? What does the implementation look like and what consequences do you expect?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-22T15:10:42.119Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect this difference may stem from a divergence in upbringing and culture.

That is likely :-)

how does allowing people to do stupid things work exactly?

In the usual way. Have you forgotten what freedom looks like?

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-22T15:51:29.250Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Haha, oh you rapscallion. But seriously, freedom can be used to argue for almost every angle of any possible debate. Freedom from taxes, freedom from bandits (by way of increased taxes) ect. I can't really model it except as a cross between an applause light and a mental category masquerading as something implicit. In a very real sense I never knew what freedom looked like in the first place. It is a chimera.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-22T16:03:48.079Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

One should not miss an opportunity to properly use a pithy phrase :-P

Your question is way too broad, though -- I'm sure you're capable of imagining a world with zero taxes on alcohol, for example. What do you mean? To foreclose unproductive avenues, I'm neither an anarchist nor a big-L libertarian -- I do not seek to do away with the state.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-22T16:11:04.836Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'll be narrow then: what are some specific examples of policies that allow people to be stupid (or smart) and reap the consequences?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-22T16:19:25.966Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Um. Allowing people to go climb mountains just because they are there? Allowing people to marry who they damn well please? Allowing people to play or avoid lotteries?

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-22T20:02:07.989Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Huh, I was expecting no speed limits on certain roads or shops that sold dangerous drugs legally or even just the reversal of what I was saying about cigarettes earlier. Without a tax on cigarettes you necessarily end up with packs of cigarettes for 80p. Then again you did say you were hesitant to declare allegiance so I'll not push you about it. It is kind of puzzling to have an idea torn down but not be told what the tearer would rather replace it with though, normally they go hand in hand. I am not used to that.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-22T20:39:39.710Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It is kind of puzzling to have an idea torn down but not be told what the tearer would rather replace it

Future is uncertain and I am not wedded to ideological absolutes. I have a good idea of the direction I want to go, but not so much about the place where I would stop.

For example, I want a smaller, weaker government compared to what we currently have, but I don't know how small and weak until we try some experiments and see how they turn out (not that I'm holding my breath). Testing by reality is paramount and I see little use in imagining grand social structures -- that killed enough people already.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-22T21:01:34.881Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fair doos, it's been nice talking to you. Considering how active you are I'm sure we'll run into each other again

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-10-22T21:13:56.269Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You have chosen examples where the status quo is a restriction. Lumifer has chosen examples where the status quo is no restriction. That is, you have both chosen examples that point in your respectively favoured directions.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-22T21:52:07.717Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure I have on all the examples. Cigarette price hikes are status quo, as are (kinda) soft drinks but the rest don't seem to be. The no speed limits for example is illegal in most countries apart from Germany with the Autobahn. Interfering with food prices and availability to massively favour healthiness is not done in any country that I'm aware of. It certainly couldn't be called status quo or else crisps would cost £3.50 while healthy microwavable meals would be £1.

Unless I've misunderstood you?

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-24T04:22:42.842Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

To abuse CCTV you need to change the laws to make new things illegal, you can't do it as one person.

Well, given the free speech laws of the UK (or rather lack thereof) I think your existing laws are bad enough.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-24T14:27:39.540Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

True but irrelevant. I am not making a comparison between the UK and US laws.

comment by Jiro · 2014-10-21T19:15:41.500Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"Intentionally low" barriers have this way of expanding when the people who put the barriers in place either find they don't work to keep people away, or stand to benefit from making the barrier stronger.

Also, you're still forcing your decision on people who are poor enough that they can't afford to get across the barrier easily. (Whether that happens, of course, depends on the exact barrier used.)

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-22T11:21:02.344Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're right and yes, I am. That's the downside really. Policy debates should not appear one sided and all that. The upsides appear to outweigh the downsides from where I'm sitting. I just haven't come across a better system yet and I don't plan on waiting generations for AI to find an answer for these questions.

I measure a slightly reduced autonomy in areas of obvious harm to be a lesser downside than increased death rates.

comment by Jiro · 2014-10-20T21:11:53.586Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My immediate thought is that the US government has given people more reasons to distrust it but I would much rather know your thinking, seeing as you live there.

It goes back too far for that. I would suggest it goes back to distrust of the British colonial government. A country formed by rebelling against the government is going to end up distrusting government more.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-20T21:36:05.883Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was thinking more about events during the lifetimes of people actually alive today. Being taught about the struggle against the British from a young age would count.

However, I've just realised that this entire line of reasoning is extremely speculative and my probability of being right is small. Probably best to scrap the line of discussion.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-21T04:38:32.045Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Being taught about the struggle against the British from a young age would count.

How about, being immersed in a culture where the standard story is of a noble rebel fighting against an oppressive government?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-16T18:30:11.926Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Do you agree with the wealth of literature

I am not sufficiently familiar with it and, frankly, I don't care enough about the topic to go read a bunch of economics papers and then fisk them. My data-less suspicion is that bans on advertising are a consequence of reduced competition and/or near-monopoly behavior by incumbents, just a harm to consumers is also a consequence of the same thing, and people misinterpret the correlation between "less advertising" and "harm to consumers".

fewer consumers would be aware of this new product and what it's about, resulting in loss of the potential consumer surplus from drinking the new product

So, you pointed out the benefits. What about costs? Why do you believe the benefits are higher than costs?

Also, you're ignoring the advertising for established products, as well as for failed products (e.g. the New Coke).

Note that I'm not saying that all advertising is harmful and that zero advertising is the desired state. I am saying that my best guess at the "optimal" point (which balances costs against public benefits) is such that I think the current levels of commercial advertising are above that point. Reducing advertising would get us closer to that optimum -- though, obviously, I don't know where exactly it is.

Of course the optimal point which balances costs against public benefits is different from the optimal point which balances costs against the firm's benefits.

In the absence of this, consumers would have to go to the supermarket on a much-more-frequent basis, just to check the price of Coke.

Let's not get quite this ridiculous X-)

I think there's a very heavy burden on people who claim it's "too high" (or "too low")

That's a cop-out :-) Besides, adversarial competition in a free market optimizes for the firm's benefits from advertising, not for the public benefits.

Why on earth would the cost savings be passed on to consumers?

Because, as you mentioned, there is "adversarial competition in a free market". That includes price wars, promotional coupons, etc. By your logic, there should never be promotions for a product -- why lessen your profits for no good reason?

comment by Salemicus · 2014-10-16T19:17:06.337Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So, you pointed out the benefits. What about costs? Why do you believe the benefits are higher than costs?

But I don't see costs to consumers here. Savings would not be passed on to consumers (see below), so what is the problem? That some people find the adverts annoying? Sure, but others find them entertaining. Coke in particular has had many adverts that have entered public consciousness.

I am saying that my best guess at the "optimal" point (which balances costs against public benefits) is such that I think the current levels of commercial advertising are above that point. Reducing advertising would get us closer to that optimum -- though, obviously, I don't know where exactly it is.

This is exactly the kind of claim that I think should have to face a very heavy burden. Your WAG (which you cheerfully admit is not based on a careful reading of the literature) is that the public costs of advertising (which you do not specify) are greater than the (equally unspecified) public benefits. Because you can't specify or quantify any costs or benefits, you can't say how much you'd like to reduce advertising by, but it's just got to be reduced, dag nabbit!

Why on earth would the cost savings be passed on to consumers?

Because, as you mentioned, there is "adversarial competition in a free market"

So? That only implies that firms pass on cost savings if we have perfect competition (driving price down to marginal cost). If you have imperfect competition, firms are (at least partially) price-setters, not price-takers, and set price based on demand, to maximise profits. For an extreme example of imperfect competition, a Damien Hirst artwork that was cheap to make doesn't necessarily sell for any less than one that was expensive to make. For a standard example of (pseudo-)perfect competition, see petrol - it's an essentially indistinguishable commodity, so all petrol stations sell it at basically the same price (small changes based on location), and cost rises/falls are passed on to the consumer.

By your logic, there should never be promotions for a product -- why lessen your profits for no good reason?

On the contrary, promotions for a product are an excellent sign that you don't have perfect competition - that's why you never see a sale on petrol (see above). Companies run promotions because they are selling well above marginal cost, but they want to be able to price-discriminate to make additional profits. For example, suppose I am selling Coke, and there are two people, Alan and Bob. Coke costs me 10p per litre to produce. Alan values Coke at £2.50 per litre, and would like to buy 1 litre per day. Bob values Coke at 60p per litre, and would like to buy 1 litre per day. So I price the Coke at £2 per litre, and make £1.90 (Alan pockets 50p consumer surplus, Bob doesn't buy). That's more profitable to me than pricing the Coke at 50p per litre, because although I'd make an additional profitable sale to Bob, it would reduce my profits from the Alan transaction by more. What I really want to do is sell Coke to Alan at £2 per litre, but Bob at 50p per litre, and that is where promotions etc come into play. Ideally I will find a way to advertise my promotion to Bob, without letting Alan find out.

In the absence of this, consumers would have to go to the supermarket on a much-more-frequent basis, just to check the price of Coke.

Let's not get quite this ridiculous X-)

I don't know what you mean by ridiculous. I buy a lot of Coke, but I am a thrifty shopper. I carefully collect coupons etc for discounted products (not just Coke) to take advantage of the cost savings, and buy staple products like Coke only when they are on promotion. In the absence of advertising for discounts etc, I definitely would go to the supermarket more often to check for offers. This would be an annoying waste of my time. There are plenty of other people like me.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-16T19:58:18.824Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But I don't see costs to consumers here.

I feel there's some disconnect here. Advertising costs are effectively paid for by consumers so of course the magnitude of these costs impacts the consumers. Imagine them doubled or quadrupled -- you don't think this would result in higher prices? Or do you believe the prices to be a ratchet going one way only so that reduced costs never lead to reduced prices?

Your WAG (which you cheerfully admit is not based on a careful reading of the literature) is that the public costs of advertising (which you do not specify) are greater than the (equally unspecified) public benefits.

Since it's the consumers who pay for advertising, the direct public costs of advertising are pretty easy to estimate: that's the revenue of the advertising industry. You can, of course, then start adjusting this number is a variety of ways.

Public benefits, I have no good estimate for.

My WAG is, of course, a WAG, but I don't see why your position that the level of advertising expenses happens to be optimal for the public benefit should enjoy the advantages of being the default baseline.

The reasoning behind my estimate is pretty simple. Firms set the levels of advertising expenditure based on their estimates of the benefits to the firm. My assumption is that any advertisement brings more benefit to the firm which places it than to the public at large. Given this, the market-determined level of advertising is going to be too high from the public benefit point of view.

If you have imperfect competition, firms are (at least partially) price-setters, not price-takers, and set price based on demand, to maximise profits.

Yes, of course, and it's a very complicated process which depends a lot on the particular details of the industry. However I find the blank assertion that the firms will not pass any cost savings onto the consumer (especially in a highly competitive industry like soft drinks) to be not tenable. There is the market force pushing prices towards the average (not marginal) cost and while it may be counterbalanced by many things it's still there. Look at, say, electronics -- as the costs drop so do prices.

but they want to be able to price-discriminate to make additional profits.

I understand price discrimination, but that's irrelevant for the subject under discussion which is whether the consumer will ever see part of the cost savings.

I don't know what you mean by ridiculous.

Going to the supermarket "on a much-more-frequent basis, just to check the price of Coke" implies a ridiculously low value of your time. I don't know of anyone who goes to the supermarket just to check prices on soft drinks. And in this particular example we're talking much more about information rather than advertising. To illustrate the difference, if you subscribe to receive emails about Coke promotions that would get you all you need. Expensive video clips showing attractive women orgasming as Coke touches their lips are pretty useless for your purposes.

comment by Salemicus · 2014-10-17T08:23:35.344Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Advertising costs are effectively paid for by consumers

You keep asserting this. You provide no evidence or argument that it's true. I agree that advertising costs are likely to be paid for by consumers in (say) the petrol market, although given that market is complicated by franchises, even there it may not be true. I think they are very unlikely to be paid for by consumers in markets featuring (partial) monopolies, such as Coke/Pepsi. So no, I don't think that if Coke quadrupled its advertising budget it would be able to pass on the cost to consumers.

You seem to think the soft drink market is "highly competitive." And you're right, in the sense that everyone is trying to bring the best products to market, to make a profit. But you're wrong, in the sense that the products are not direct substitutes in terms of consumer experience. Coke does not taste the same as Pepsi, and only the Coca-Cola Corporation knows how to make Coke. This is why Coke can sell their product for twice the price of some supermarket own-brand cola; they are earning rents on their intellectual property. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Pepsi. This is a partially-monopolistic market, very different from the market for electronics, where the products are functional substitutes, and so are close to commodities, and indeed, cost savings are passed on.

And note that we see the most advertising precisely in partially monopolistic markets, and very little in commodity markets, precisely because of the effect on prices.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T15:13:25.803Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You keep asserting this. You provide no evidence or argument that it's true.

I am sorry, but what other options are there? The advertising costs are paid out of interest on the firm's bank balances? Out of tax subsidies? Out of charity donations?

The firm's costs are paid out of the firm's revenues. If the firm's revenues come from selling things to consumers, the consumers are paying for the firm's costs -- all of them, including production, distribution, advertising, office space, janitors, and executives' membership in the golf club. The consumers get the product in exchange, of course.

But you're wrong, in the sense that the products are not direct substitutes in terms of consumer experience.

As you mentioned, "You keep asserting this. You provide no evidence or argument that it's true." Let me provide a counterexample.

Many fast-food chains have exclusive contracts with Coke or Pepsi. McDonalds, for example, serves only Coke. Given this, you can directly observe whether Coke is accepted as a substitute for Pepsi: often enough at the counter you can hear the following exchange:

-- What's your drink?
-- Pepsi (automatic answer as that's what the person is used to drinking)
-- Sorry, we have only Coke.

And at this point the customer can either accept the substitution (and say "Coke is fine") or decline it (and say "I'll have X instead"). I don't have actual data, but I've seen this case happen many times and the number of people who will accept Coke is much higher than the number of people who will refuse it.

very different from the market for electronics, where the products are functional substitutes

Coke and Pepsi are functional substitutes. They don't taste exactly the same, but then Samsung's and HTC's phones don't look and behave exactly the same either.

note that we see the most advertising precisely in partially monopolistic markets, and very little in commodity markets, precisely because of the effect on prices.

Citation needed. Advertising is basically buying market share. I would argue that we see most advertising in highly competitive markets where you can buy market share. That means that you can differentiate your product and convince part of the public that the product is better than the other guy's and not just because it's cheaper. And I'm not willing to call all markets with differentiable products "partially monopolistic".

Your ability to persuade an average bloke that petrol of brand X is better than petrol of brand Y is limited. Therefore your ability to buy market share is limited. Therefore you don't spend much money on advertising. But you ability to persuade the same bloke that beer X is better than beer Y is much higher. Thus you can buy market share and advertising beer is worth it (for the firm, of course).

comment by Salemicus · 2014-10-17T15:33:18.286Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am sorry, but what other options are there? The advertising costs are paid out of interest on the firm's bank balances? Out of tax subsidies? Out of charity donations?

Out of the firm's profits.

The firm's costs are paid out of the firm's revenues. If the firm's revenues come from selling things to consumers, the consumers are paying for the firm's costs -- all of them

Yes, this is true, in a sense. But it says nothing about what changes when one of these costs change. If the cost of office space increases, does that raise prices for consumers, or does it mean the firm has less to spend on golf club membership, or a mixture, or what?

Consider the toy example I gave above when I'm selling Coke to Alan and Bob - if you recall, I set the price at £2 per litre, and am making £1.90 in profit. Now suppose I start spending £1 in advertising. Do I raise the price to £3? Nope; I already set my price at the level that would maximise my revenues. It just means my profits are now only 90p.

Regarding substitutability: yes, Coke and Pepsi are partial substitutes, and electronic goods are not completely commodities. But Colas are much less substitutable than Samsung and HTC, or Dell and HP. The question is one of degree.

So try a model where all cola costs 10p a litre to produce, Alan values Coke and Pepsi equally at £3 a litre, Bob and Chris value Coke at £3 a litre, Pepsi at £1 a litre, and Dave and Edward value Coke at £1 a litre, Pepsi at £3 a litre. In equilibrium, how much will Coke sell for? How much will Pepsi sell for? Now suppose Coke and Pepsi each spend £1 on advertising. How much will Coke sell for? How much will Pepsi sell for?

Advertising is basically buying market share. I would argue that we see most advertising in highly competitive markets where you can buy market share. That means that you can differentiate your product and convince part of the public that the product is better than the other guy's and not just because it's cheaper. And I'm not willing to call all markets with differentiable products "partially monopolistic".

Yes, we see advertising in "competitive" markets in the sense you are using (which appears to be something akin to "contested"), but not in the economic sense of "perfect competition" i.e. commodities. You are not disagreeing with me there. You may not be willing to call markets with differentiable products "partially monopolistic", but I'm afraid I'm using standard usage. See e.g. Wikipedia:

Monopolistic competition is a type of imperfect competition such that many producers sell products that are differentiated from one another (e.g. by branding or quality) and hence are not perfect substitutes.

You should also note that as advertising is a fixed cost, not a marginal cost, so it wouldn't affect the marginal cost anyway...

Unfortunately I feel like I've reached the end of the line trying to explain this to you.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T15:38:04.861Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Out of the firm's profits.

Bollocks. Profits = revenues - costs. You can't pay costs out of profits.

I already set my price at the level that would maximise my revenues.

The whole point of advertising is to change that level. You're spending a pound per litre in order to change the equation which determines the proper price.

If you expect your advertising to reduce your profits why would you advertise in the first place?

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-10-17T16:25:44.204Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hi you two (Lumifer and Salemicus). A are you aware that you are having a wordy public conversation on a somewhat political topic more than two times deeper than the LW comment thread depth? I had trouble even finding the start of your conversion due to the limits. No one will vote on you and you clutter the recent comments. I recommend to both of you to discuss this as a privat conversation.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-21T05:03:55.609Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As it happens I was finding the conversation interesting.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-10-21T09:49:58.353Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for taking the time to giving feedback this deep in the thread (hurray LW notification system). I reconsider my recommendation now. And will look away next time.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T16:30:02.903Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am aware that we are having a wordy public conversation. I don't consider microeconomics to be political, even "somewhat". I don't care whether anyone will vote on these posts or not. As to "cluttering" recent comments, all posts do that. If you don't want to read this subthread, avert your eyes.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-10-17T16:42:08.794Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I will avert my eyes. I accept your decision. It was a recommendation and you don't need to take it.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-10-17T16:25:29.940Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hi you two (Lumifer and Salemicus). A are you aware that you are having a wordy public conversation on a somewhat political topic more than two times deeper than the LW comment thread depth? I had trouble even finding the start of your conversion due to the limits. No one will vote on you and you clutter the recent comments. I recommend to both of you to discuss this as a privat conversation.

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-16T00:32:08.521Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Psychologically -- I don't know. People like to be told what to prefer :-/

This doesn't jibe with my intuition - I think virtually no one would be upset if there were fewer soda advertisements.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-16T16:00:00.399Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think virtually no one would be upset if there were fewer soda advertisements.

Do you think the same is true for iPhone advertisements?

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-16T17:46:35.739Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I think so. Maybe this is a culture-bubble thing, but I don't think I know anyone who would notice, much less care, if there were more or fewer advertisements for one particular product or another (ad space, keep in mind, is fungible).

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-16T18:04:39.162Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But how will they know which product is cool, that is, is efficient at signaling status?

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-16T18:18:13.741Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If it becomes effective at signaling status by being advertised, then the only people who would be disadvantaged by reducing the advertisements would be people who already had iPhones. People with the money to consistently own the newest iPhone surely have other ways of purchasing status, anyway, and would continue to do so even if that status wasn't assigned specifically through the medium of advertising.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-16T16:18:14.309Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I definitely agree with the line of argument that advertising is a public good, because it leads to more informed consumers, and I am highly sceptical of knee-jerk claims that it is a negative-sum arms race. So at least we're both consistent!

Even if political advertising produces a little more informat voters, I find it unlikely that the money is as well spent as money on a GiveWell recommended charity.

Furthermore a lot of TV ads don't really inform and aren't completely honest. Watching a news show is more likely to inform than watching a campaign ad.

Polling that interrupts people also steals them valuable time and many people are too polite to simply put down the telephone. Less money spent on pollsters that optimize advertising messages is a net gain.

comment by Salemicus · 2014-10-16T17:46:37.405Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Even if political advertising produces a little more informat voters, I find it unlikely that the money is as well spent as money on a GiveWell recommended charity.

GiveWell's top recommended charity is giving direct aid to poor Africans. This may make their lives more pleasant, but is very unlikely to have any long-term effect - Africa is poor because it has bad institutions, not inadequate consumption. In 30 years time, GiveWell will still be trying to find ways to alleviate African "poverty," but will that word mean near-starvation, or something akin to the lives of poor Westerners today? That will be determined by the rates of economic and technological growth for the world as a whole, which in turn are critically influenced by public policy in the First World. Public policy in (broadly-defined) Western countries is the most important issue facing mankind today, and even small improvements are therefore worth vast sums. My own altruistic giving is entirely to a domestic political party for just this reason.

Furthermore a lot of TV ads don't really inform and aren't completely honest. Watching a news show is more likely to inform than watching a campaign ad.

But a lot of news shows don't really inform and aren't completely honest, so your conclusion doesn't follow. Campaign adverts allow politicians to get their message out unfiltered by the news media - which has its own agenda. This is particularly important for anti-incumbent politicians. Advertising turns information presentation around elections into a properly adversarial process. If information only goes through the news media, that crucial element is often lost, and with it much of the accountability of elections.

Polling that interrupts people also steals them valuable time and many people are too polite to simply put down the telephone.

Oh come on, this is marginal at best. Did you object to the census on the same grounds, or is this just mood affiliation?

Less money spent on pollsters that optimize advertising messages is a net gain.

Well yes, ceteris paribus. But presenting election information in a way that doesn't speak to the electorate is a net loss, ceteris paribus. I complained the other day that you can make anything look good under "benefit analysis" - here we have the converse, a "cost analysis." We do both sides of the cost-benefit analysis for a reason.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-16T18:14:44.083Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

GiveWell's top recommended charity is giving direct aid to poor Africans. This may make their lives more pleasant, but is very unlikely to have any long-term effect - Africa is poor because it has bad institutions, not inadequate consumption.

Have you looked at the actual arguments put forth by GiveWell? The money isn't mainly used for consumption but often used by people to start businesses that they otherwise couldn't start.

Empowering individuals to start businesses has advantages over funneling money into bad existing institutions.

Campaign adverts allow politicians to get their message out unfiltered by the news media - which has its own agenda.

I do value checks and balance and I don't want unfiltered lies.

But presenting election information in a way that doesn't speak to the electorate is a net loss, ceteris paribus.

The problem is that the value of the time of the person answering the phone isn't priced into the calculations of the person running the query.

Oh come on, this is marginal at best. Did you object to the census on the same grounds, or is this just mood affiliation?

I think the census does provide valuable data. More targeted political ads don't provide much value.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-16T16:14:32.651Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Consider your own analogy to commercial advertising. Suppose Coke and Pepsi signed a compact to reduce their advertising expenditures by a specified amount; would you suppose that to be good or bad for the consumer?

I'm not sure whether all the advertising is just about choosing between the two brands. A costumer might drink many different beverages besides Coke and Pepsi.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-14T21:00:02.367Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to be implicit in your model that funding for political parties is a negative-sum arms race.

It probably is on the margin. I'd guess that, while if both parties received 99% less donations there might be some kind of adverse effect, if both parties received epsilon less donations the effect would be of order epsilon squared or smaller.

comment by HonoreDB · 2014-10-14T22:36:04.651Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to be implicit in your model that funding for political parties is a negative-sum arms race.

What army1987 said. The specific assumption is that on the margin, the effect of more funding to both sides is either very small or negative.

In my own view, the most damaging negative-sum arms race is academia.

This is definitely an extendable idea. It gets a lot more complicated when there are >2 sides, unfortunately. Even if they agreed it was negative-sum, someone donating $100 to Columbia University would generally not be equally happy to take $100 away from Harvard. I don't know how to fix that.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-14T14:07:50.321Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

After thinking about the issue a bit, an edge case that's worth to think about: What happens when someone donates personally X amount of money to a party and then donates Y money via your process and X+Y are together more than the maximum donation allowable?

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-17T03:35:54.942Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The idea is that if I donate $100 to the Democratic Party, and you donate $200 to the Republican party (or to their nominees for President, say), the net marginal effect on the election is very similar to if you'd donated $100 and I've donated nothing; $100 from each of us is being canceled out

That the ratios of the marginal benefits of a dollar for the two parties are 1:1 is not at all obvious.

comment by HonoreDB · 2014-10-17T04:15:16.742Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, but it's really hard to anticipate which side will benefit more, so in expected value they're equal. I'm sure some people will think their side will be more effective in how it spends money...I'll try to persuade them to take the outside view.

comment by casebash · 2014-10-13T13:35:04.009Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Is there convincing evidence either way on Speed Reading? Some people swear by it, others claim that it doesn't actually provide an improvement over skimming.

comment by jsteinhardt · 2014-10-13T17:35:41.879Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This is only an anecdote, but I've always been an extremely slow reader, but worked hard to fully comprehend everything on the first read-through (at least for subjects that weren't extremely subtle and required lots of time to chew over). An example of this is that when I took AP U.S. History, I could just read the textbook once and ace the tests. This isn't just about having a photographic memory (which I don't have), this is also about synthesizing facts into patterns and ideas as I read. I find this very helpful and do the same thing while following whiteboard talks (except I'm apparently a much faster verbal learner, or at least I don't have trouble following talks in real time at all).

I'm not sure what direction this anecdote points in, but at the very least I'd personally be afraid to do speed-reading because it would mess up a pretty good system I already have in place.

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-13T22:29:12.656Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've experienced the same when reading philosophy literature for a class. With my slow reading I was also able to remember individual quotes and their locations well enough to retrieve them pretty well, and both write essays and answer multiple choice tests. I attribute this to taking as much time as I needed on a readthrough to "digest" the text and even pause and mull it over.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-10-13T14:10:08.618Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

There seems to be a moderately hard speed-comprehension tradeoff curve. A few techniques might shift the curve outward, letting you have more speed and more comprehension, but mostly they give you more flexibility to choose where you want to be on the curve.

comment by Sysice · 2014-10-13T19:39:25.520Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This matches my experience. Speed reading software like Textcelerator is nice when I want to go through a fluff story at 1200 WPM, but anything remotely technical requires me to be at 400-600 at most, and speedreading does not fundamentally affect this limit.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T21:20:50.856Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Reading technical material at 600 WPM would still be much faster than the average person.

comment by Sysice · 2014-10-13T21:41:52.678Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

True. I've always read things around that speed by default, though, so it's not related to speedreading techniques, and I don't know how to improve the average person's default speed.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T22:13:29.144Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

True. I've always read things around that speed by default

"default" is a deceptive word. You probably didn't read at that speed when you where 10 years old. Somewhere along the lines you learned it. Given that you learned it and don't know how you learned it, there also no good reason to assume that you are at the maximum that's possible.

comment by Jackercrack · 2014-10-18T22:14:15.395Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Here are two in-browser speed reading apps for anyone who wants them for testing hypotheses. My sense is that it is useful for quickly skimming simple news, re-reading books you've already read or other things of little depth that you want to get out of the way quickly, but that you wouldn't to use it on something that requires actual thinking. I have not tested this.

http://spreeder.com/

https://www.squirt.io/install.html

A thought, the people swearing by it vs the no improvement folks reminds me rather a lot of the people from generalising from one example.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T16:21:33.162Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's been a few years since I investigated the issue the last time in depth but at the time the situation was that there was no convincing evidence either way.

comment by DataPacRat · 2014-10-13T11:23:04.983Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Post-Singularity Worldbuilding Quirks?

If you take it as given that...

  • Something which could be described as a 'Singularity' happened circa 2050;
  • At least a few people survived outside that Singularity;
  • Earth still exists, in at least generally recognizable form;

... then what random background details might result that are both...

  • interesting; and
  • wouldn't break your willing suspension of disbelief in a work of fiction?

The reason I ask: I'm writing a story in such a setting, and am hoping to tap into the local hivemind to, possibly, help flesh out some of the background sections - ones not directly relevant to the plot, but which imply a greater depth of worldbuilding - that I wouldn't have thought of on my own. As possible examples: particular species that a weakly superintelligent post-human AI might have decided to wipe out, such as cruciferous vegetables; new species that similar WSPHAIs might have decided to let loose, such as snake varieties with interesting chemicals to be milked of their venom, or a de novo species resembling sparrow-mouse griffons; cultural quirks in one relatively isolated area or another, such as a seemingly ordinary group decision that masks are terribly comfortable to wear; odd aspects of language development after a few decades...

What comes to your mind?

comment by Toggle · 2014-10-13T13:56:02.493Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

...a few people survived outside that Singularity...

I'm not sure what this means exactly. Are they returning space explorers who are surprised by recent developments (a la Planet of the Apes)? Luddite survivors who experienced the transition and rejected it? Members of an uncontacted tribe or some primitive culture with ethnographic boundaries respected by the machine? Each of these will interpret a post-singularity world in a very different way, I think.

'Singularity' is code for 'we don't know', so as a writer you're permitted just about anything. But the most fun I've had with post-singularity fiction is when there is a dominant singleton with running themes and strong personality quirks- The Optimalverse is the reigning champion here, in my opinion, but there's also the famous I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Gods are fun to read about when they're mad in some way, or at least when they seem mad from a human perspective. So it's worth thinking particularly about the forces (that is, the choices and personalities) that give internal structure to your post-Singularity world. Randomness is not compelling.

Aside from that, my advice would be to avoid anything that is too much a fantasy trope. Try not to get in to the habit of thoughts like "It's a dragon, except [x] is different." Make sure it's your world that's driving these things, and not your genre.

Actual examples, as requested- although these probably suffer from being 'too random' since I don't know anything about your world:

Exactly 1.4 trillion biological humans, cloned with some variations, buried underground in cryogenic stasis near the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, on a timer to wake up automatically in ten million years. One of many contingency plans in case of catastrophe. They have never been conscious, but there is a kind of dream.

A machine intelligence (or the machine intelligence) has begun to redirect comets and asteroids from the Oort Cloud to collide with Venus. Most people assume this is part of a terraforming effort, but that theory fails to explain why the collisions always occur in groups of three equidistant points along a great circle.

There is a handful of bipedal, roughly humanoid robots walking across Asia. They walk in a straight line, climbing directly over any terrain features to avoid deviating from the path. Any time they encounter a prepubescent human, they ask for her to give them directions, and will change course to whichever direction she points. Each is separated form the others, and seem incapable of acknowledging their existence.

In Antarctica, there is currently a replica of 17th century Paris carved entirely out of ice, detailed down to the level of individual ice cobblestones and ice candles with frozen flames in ice chandeliers. Last year it was 20th-century Jakarta, and the year before that Beijing. As the year progresses, the replica changes subtly as if it were lived in; furniture moves, ships-of-the-line are slowly completed, footprints appear. Nobody has yet taken responsibility.

comment by DataPacRat · 2014-10-13T14:18:12.646Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure what this means exactly.

I'm letting myself be inspired by Robin Hanson in a number of aspects, and had the intelligence explosion focused in high-population and urban areas, with the human survivors being those who avoided being in a city during the critical period.

Exactly 1.4 trillion biological humans, cloned with some variations, buried underground in cryogenic stasis near the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, on a timer to wake up automatically in ten million years. One of many contingency plans in case of catastrophe. They have never been conscious, but there is a kind of dream.

I'm not sure I could justify "trillions", given what I've established for the setting so far; but for a more modest number, this is quite possible. (In fact, it's a variation on an idea my protagonist once had, but never had the resources to attempt; though that version of the idea included staggered release times.)

comets and asteroids

I've had a Kessler Cascade turn the orbitals into a death trap for anything trying to leave Earth, partly for a narrative level to avoid self-replicating Von Neumann things in space overshadowing everything my planet-bound protagonist could even attempt, and partly in-setting as a result of the conflicts that arose during the Singularity.

There is a handful of bipedal, roughly humanoid robots walking across Asia.

In Antarctica

Ah, now these I could use almost without alteration, and, at least as importantly, as springboards for further ideas. :)

comment by Manfred · 2014-10-14T01:32:32.875Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Vinge's Marooned in Realtime comes to mind. The survivor's tech is close to what the singularity level was, but they "missed" the singularity and aren't improving their tech over the timescale of the story because of low population and other priorities.

"Missing" an intelligence explosion would be hard, if it drastically optimizes the solar system. In Vinge, this works because the exploding society simply disappears - implying that they're off in higher dimensions or femtotech or something. Other examples would be if the survivors are being simulated - there's a great story whose author I forget, about someone waking up after the singularity because he was an early brain scan and they just fixed him up now.

comment by SilentCal · 2014-10-14T17:03:42.659Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Non-Linnaean wildlife. Built de novo by the superintelligence; made of the same sorts of organic materials as normal species, but not related to them; possibly not nucleic-acid based/non-reproductive. Their inner workings are simpler and more efficient; no symbiotic mitochondria and chloroplasts, but rather purpose-built modules. They are edible, and the survivors know the unique taste of, e.g., their 'muscle' tissue, which is not actin/myosin based.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-14T18:07:08.596Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Built de novo by the superintelligence; made of the same sorts of organic materials as normal species, but not related to them; possibly not nucleic-acid based/non-reproductive.

Don't think we need a superintelligence for that.

comment by SilentCal · 2014-10-14T21:15:02.799Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting! But while we're a lot closer than I realized, we probably aren't going to be thoroughly out-designing evolution from the bottom up on macroscopic animal-like creatures any time soon.

comment by Izeinwinter · 2014-10-17T12:40:28.069Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Evolution searches nearby spaces of what already exists with astonishing exhaustiveness. But if there isn't a chain of viable intermediaries between one form and another, then the second will just not arise, no matter how fit for survival it would be. This isn't a problem that afflicts an biological engineer, and said engineer also has the example of what evolution has already come up with to work off. So, massively out-designing evolution ? Sure. That's not even a hard trick for a singularity mind.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-14T23:45:59.702Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

we probably aren't going to be thoroughly out-designing evolution

Depends on the criteria of "out-designing". If they are something evolution had never any reason to optimize for (e.g. lots of tasty-for-humans meat fast), I don't see why not.

comment by SilentCal · 2014-10-15T15:53:00.287Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think "from the bottom up" is the hard criterion. We can fiddle with the knobs evolution has produced, but it doesn't sound like we have the insight to replace basic building blocks like mitochondria and [dr]na.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-15T16:16:46.719Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, how deep is your bottom? You said "made of the same sorts of organic materials as normal species", so did you just mean carbon-based chemistry? something that depends on slow room-temperature reactions in liquids and gels?

You want something different, but not too different (like a metal-based robot), so what's the Goldilocks distance from plain old regular life?

comment by SilentCal · 2014-10-15T17:32:57.317Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think my Goldilocks range is along the lines of 'probably made of proteins and lipids and such; preferable edible or at least biodegradable by ordinary bacteria (I don't know what this requires); a human non-biologist without tools could mistake it for normal'.

But it's pretty interesting to think about possibilities at other ranges, too.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T15:05:46.038Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The whole point of the concept of singularity is that we don't know what will happen afterwards.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-10-13T15:51:47.093Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Some things, however, are less plausible than others.

In fiction, you have to make it up, but you can't make it something implausible.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T21:23:00.606Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In fiction, you have to make it up, but you can't make it something implausible.

But any real scenario will seem implausible. That's what the idea of singularity is about. If you believe that you can predict in any sense how the world will look like afterwards "singularity" is a very poor term to use.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-10-13T22:08:21.211Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think it is a poor term.

Still, it can only mean 'a whole lot less predictable than usual', not 'MAX ENTROPY ALL THE TIME'. Physics will still apply. Given that people survived and have lives worth writing stories about, we are at least within 'critical failure' distance of friendliness in AI. That narrows things very considerably.

A lot of the unpredictability of the singularity arises from a lack of proof of friendliness. One you've cleared that (or nearly), the range of possibilities isn't singular in nature.

comment by DataPacRat · 2014-10-13T22:02:37.201Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If there's nothing I can write that wouldn't break your Willing Suspension of Disbelief about events after an intelligence explosion, then there's nothing I can write to do that, and nothing you can suggest to add to my story's background; and both our times might be spent more productively (by our own standards) if we focus on our respective projects.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T22:07:56.153Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you have a world where you can predict events after an intelligence explosion that intelligence explosion per definition isn't a singularity event.

comment by DataPacRat · 2014-10-13T22:22:34.714Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There are several working definitions for the term 'singularity'. If the definition you use means that you think a story involving that word is inherently implausible, then one possibility would be to assume that where you see me write that term, I instead write, say, "That weird event where all the weird stuff happened that seemed a lot like what some of those skiffy authours used to call the 'Singularity'", or "Blamfoozle", or anything else which preserves most of my intended meaning without forcing you to get caught up in this particular aspect of this particular word.

comment by James_Miller · 2014-10-13T16:42:36.399Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

With high probability we do, unfortunately.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-13T21:22:08.850Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

With high probability there won't be any humans afterwards but that doesn't tell you how the world would look like.

comment by James_Miller · 2014-10-13T22:45:10.333Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Disagree, since over 99% of what I care about would be the same across all post-singularity states that lack lifeforms I care about. Analogously, if I knew that tomorrow I would be killed and have some randomly selected number written on my chest I would believe that today I knew everything important about my personal future.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-14T14:12:22.284Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you want to tell a story about that would, than you need to know something about how the world looks like besides "there are no humans".

comment by gjm · 2014-10-13T15:49:57.835Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

We also don't know what will have happened by 200 years from now (singularity or no singularity), but that is no obstacle to writing science fiction set 200 years in the future.

comment by BenSix · 2014-10-13T09:28:49.690Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Steven Poole criticises doubters of human rationality by lauding the virtues of "public reason", which supposedly ensures that "any one thinker can be corrected". It is true that collaborative and, indeed, disputatious reasoning is vital - and the "nudge" theorists he snipes at have never impressed me - but the idea that our societies are efficient self-correcting organisms is plain false. Some influential people think that climate change is a dire threat, for example, and others that it is a mere sham. Some think that state redistribution is key to a functioning society and others that the state is an abomination. Some influential people think that Gods exist and others that there is nothing beyond the material of life. To make sense of the world, intelligent people have to use their own powers of reasoning, and should be aware of their limitations.

comment by Larks · 2014-10-17T02:39:39.768Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Does anyone have any serious thoughts about anti-Ebola preparations one could take? (Please keep 'it is not a big threat' responses to a minimum - I'm aware of that, but am interested in the question anyway).

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T02:58:04.884Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

By "anti-Ebola preparations" do you actually mean "minimizing your chance of getting infected"?

Take a tent and go solo camping. Somewhere up North :-)

comment by garabik · 2014-10-17T08:56:47.545Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That increases other (personal) risks. However, it answers the original question - though not quite correctly, it does not quite minimize the risk of infection - if you accept increasing other risks as a price for decreasing Ebola-risk, there are (much) more dangerous places to go camping, with (much) less Ebola risk (e.g. abandoned underground salt mine). If you accept increasing other risks beyond any reasonable limits, then the answer (which you might very well get from an optimizing AI) is very simple - shoot yourself. Future risk of Ebola infection - zero :-)

comment by Larks · 2014-10-17T23:07:56.930Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

By "anti-Ebola preparations" do you actually mean "minimizing your chance of getting infected"?

No, because as garabik noted, I don't want to commit suicide.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-18T21:20:55.216Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Bonus points for emulating a stupid AI. Not.

comment by lmm · 2014-10-17T20:48:11.790Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Ordinary disaster-preparedness things - have some emergency canned food and maybe bottled water (get a fire extinguisher while you're at it - not for ebola, but it's more likely to save your life). Get in the habit of taking your temperature daily, in a consistent way and at a consistent point in your routine, and plug it into some quantified self thing, then you'll have an idea of what's normal and be able to spot a fever sooner. (If your toilet allows, a habit of inspecting your poop can also give you early warning of irregularities). Getting a flu shot will lower your odds of a false alarm. Wash your hands frequently, especially after shaking hands with anyone (or getting their bodily fluids on you, but that's hopefully common sense); wear gloves in public places if you can get away with it; be sure to keep any open wounds covered, even if they're small (and obv. don't have sex, especially with promiscuous people). Work from home if you can, avoid crowds, and especially avoid aeroplanes (bear in mind this is actively bad for your odds of not dying; even during an ebola scare, driving is far far far more dangerous than, well, pretty much anything).

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-18T07:25:20.895Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If your toilet allows, a habit of inspecting your poop can also give you early warning of irregularities

This could be a useful habit anyways. Very roughly speaking: gray poop - liver, floaty greasy poop - pancreas, undigested poop - small intestine, black poop - proximal bleeding, bloody poop - distal bleeding, watery poop - lactose intolerance or inflammation, rock solid poop - diet lacking fiber.

comment by CellBioGuy · 2014-10-17T07:37:21.338Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Try to encourage getting it stopped and stamped out at the center of infection, Western Africa, where it is being maintained in the population, expanding and throwing off infected travelers. Money and political pressure are the presumed ways to do this, in the absence of direct medical/epidemiological skills in the efforts against it.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-21T05:39:44.769Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also encouraging your government to stop flights to the affected areas if it hasn't done so already.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T19:53:03.889Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When it comes to personal safety it's generally a bad idea to optimise your preparation against specific threads.

comment by advancedatheist · 2014-10-14T02:04:17.213Z · score: 3 (17 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder why wanting or having something in the "wrong" century allegedly makes you a morally bad person now; but when the thing you want arrives, works and enough people have or use it to make it socially normalized, they accept it as part of their current standard of living and don't go around disapproving of each other for possessing it.

For example, I've noticed a ramping up lately of propaganda against those horrible people called "billionaires." I would call today's billionaires the early adopters of future living standards, assuming that we continue to have exponential economic growth. In a few centuries, people with the equivalent purchasing power of today's billionaires would probably consider themselves "middle class." We find this idea in science fiction, for example, where "middle class" people in imaginary future societies own vast estates, have staffs of robots to do their bidding, fly private space ships and so forth. The really wealthy people, by contrast, can buy entire planets as their personal property. A. Bertram Chandler provides an example of this idea in his science fiction novel, To Prime the Pump, though no doubt you can think of other examples. '

I've noticed something similar regarding the public's perception of cryonicists. They call us selfish and narcissistic, for example. (People even wrote this about Kim Suozzi.) We just want a standard of health care that doesn't exist in our century, but we might have the ability to reach it via cryostasis to, say the 24th Century. How does that make us selfish or narcissistic, instead of, say, "visionary"? If the people in the 24th Century have rejuvenation, revival from cryo- and other forms of bio-stasis, radical life extension and so forth, and enough of them take advantage of these technologies to normalize them socially, then they won't go around calling each other selfish and narcissistic for benefiting from what they consider the current standard of medicine.

In other words, people who resent today's billionaires and cryonicists haven't thought deeply on the timing issue. Though that makes sense if they expect to clock out any time now, and they don't think they can do anything about it.

comment by Prismattic · 2014-10-14T02:40:57.321Z · score: 20 (20 votes) · LW · GW

For example, I've noticed a ramping up lately of propaganda against those horrible people called "billionaires." I would call today's billionaires the early adopters of future living standards, assuming that we continue to have exponential economic growth.

I don't think this is a good example of the broader phenomenon you are describing. When people criticize the very wealthy, they're primarily making a criticism about relative, not absolute standards of living. I.e. "It is a sin to have so much when others have so little." I wouldn't say this is the only criticism, because I have seen, for example, criticisms of people owning mansions when they have small families (since it creates enormous upkeep costs and the unused rooms have basically no value except as a positional good). But that's the exception; I don't think anyone would consider owning a Maserati immoral (at least on grounds of wealth rather than environmentalism) if there weren't also people struggling to pay for basic necessities.

comment by gjm · 2014-10-14T10:37:55.578Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW · GW

I would call today's billionaires the early adopters of future living standards

My impression is that what billionaires are resented and propagandized against for is mostly not lifestyle advantages like having huge houses, private jets, the option of not working for a living, etc., but two other things.

  • Power over other people. For instance, consider the Koch brothers, who are frequent targets of criticism. But what they get attacked for is not being rich but using their wealth for particular political ends (and unsurprisingly the people doing the attacking are generally political partisans whose political position is opposed to the Kochs'). The complaint here isn't "boo, these people can buy yachts and mansions and planes" but "boo, these people can buy government policy". (And of course the complaints mostly come from people who think the policies they're buying are harmful.)
  • Getting rich at the expense of other people. For instance, consider the financial wizards of Wall Street -- the original main targets of the "99%/1%" rhetoric, I believe. I dare say there was always some resentment of the financial elites, but there was an enormous change in how widely and openly and loudly they were resented -- when there was a big financial crash in which lots of people lost jobs and savings, which was widely perceived as the result of reckless greed by those financial elites.

What these have in common is that the anger is aimed not at the lifestyle of the super-rich -- at all the nice things they are able to have -- but at its (alleged) negative impact on others.

If indeed the economy continues to grow exponentially for a few centuries, and if scientific and engineering progress continue strongly, then indeed everyone may end up with a lot of the lifestyle elements that only the very rich have now. But it won't be possible (by definition) for everyone to have far-more-than-average influence on public policy, or for everyone to get wealthy by making people in general poor. And those, not the luxurious lifestyle, are what billionaires get attacked for.

Now, of course it's possible that what really motivates any given criticism of very rich people is good old-fashioned envy (or, in the case of the financial elites, sometimes good old-fashioned anti-Semitism) and that all the stuff about buying influence and causing economic disaster is just an excuse. But it seems at least worth considering the possibility that the people making those criticisms mean what they say.

they call [cryonicists] selfish and narcissistic

I think it's pretty safe to dismiss "narcissistic" on the grounds you do. But a case can be made for "selfish" -- not really any better a case than can be made for pretty much everyone, but I'd say that pretty much everyone is in fact selfish :-). Specifically, suppose you choose for $100k of your money to be spent on cryopreservation at the moment of (what non-cryonicists would consider to be) your death. That's money that would otherwise have been inherited by others. So you're choosing to use that money to give yourself a (probably small) chance of surviving into the far future, rather than to benefit those others.

Most of us spend most of our money to benefit ourselves (or in some cases our close family) rather than others. Most of us could do a lot more good to the world by spending a lot less on ourselves. So I think the same sort of charge of selfishness can be levelled at almost everyone as is levelled at cryonicists. But that doesn't make it wrong.

You can, indeed, characterize what cryonicists or billionaires are doing as wanting something that everyone will have in the future. But the complaint (or at least a complaint) isn't that no one should ever have it, but that for one reason or another trying to have it now imposes a substantial cost on other people.

(Note 1. The following -- highly fanciful -- analogy may help. Suppose that instead of trying to live a 24th-century lifestyle in the 21st century, you're trying to life an affluent US / Western European lifestyle in some desperately poor part of Africa. To this end you build factories and roads and things -- but only for your use, the locals get no benefit. The factories are staffed with imported minions and supply only you, no one else is allowed on your roads, etc. It doesn't seem unreasonable for your neighbours to resent you, not simply for living like an affluent Westerner, but for imposing noise and pollution and nuisance on them in order to do so, with no compensating benefit to them.)

(Note 2. The above analysis is not concerned with the question of whether the criticisms are correct. One could argue, e.g., that the billionaires' influence on public policy is actually beneficial, that every cryonics customer benefits everyone by encouraging funding for research in relevant areas, etc. I'm concerned only with what the criticisms actually are.)

comment by CellBioGuy · 2014-10-14T03:57:42.043Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I would call today's billionaires the early adopters of future living standards, assuming that we continue to have exponential economic growth.

That's one hell of an assumption.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-16T01:05:25.615Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Disagree. I think the data support exponential global economic growth as a reasonable assumption.

http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG

In fact, given the historical evidence, I think a very compelling argument is required in order to NOT assume exponential global economic growth.

comment by satt · 2014-10-18T15:27:12.150Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think calling "today's billionaires the early adopters of future living standards" does incorporate two debatable assumptions, but they're implicit assumptions rather than the explicit one CellBioGuy called out. The implicit assumptions are that (1) future economic growth translates into real income growth throughout the income distribution, and (2) being rich in the future will actually allow one to mimic the lifestyle of today's billionaires.

(1) could be false if economic growth just ends up being captured by e.g. the top 10% of the income distribution. If so, decades from now most people's living standards might remain below those of today's billionaires.

(2) could be false if components of current billionaires' lifestyles become difficult to buy in the future. For instance, a billionaire today can buy pretty well any dwelling they like. But even in the future I doubt most people at the 20th percentile of the income distribution could do the same.

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-10-14T03:44:09.407Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Are you talking about the Bill Gates-rich or the Paris Hilton-rich? They are both admired and hated for totally different reasons.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-14T17:48:35.736Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Who admires the Paris Hilton-rich?

Scratch that, I'd prefer to continue not to hear about such people.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-14T18:24:44.250Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I would call today's billionaires the early adopters of future living standards

That's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure it works well historically. At which point the lifestyle of hoi polloi started to resemble that of a Roman senator? Does today's middle class live like medieval feudal lords?

We find this idea in science fiction

In the sci-fi from the 50s. Contemporary sci-fi is rather more dystopian (with some exceptions, notably Iain Bank's Culture).

comment by lmm · 2014-10-14T20:04:43.669Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

At which point the lifestyle of hoi polloi started to resemble that of a Roman senator?

The '60s? Widespread literacy (and cheap paperbacks), indoor plumbing, private gardens, the dinner party or similar gathering as a social occasion.

Does today's middle class live like medieval feudal lords?

In some interesting ways. There are similarities in diet, and to a certain extent occupation. Of course there are also large differences.

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-14T17:21:09.328Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Having slaves two centuries ago was accepted, but having them now allegedly makes you a morally bad person. I don't think that's what you were referring to, though.

comment by Sherincall · 2014-10-13T19:47:14.703Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I've just enrolled in a 1 year applied mathematics Master's program. The program is easy, and I'm mostly doing it because it costs me nothing and a Master's degree is a good asset to have. I plan on working full time and not attending any classes, and I'm certain I still won't have any problems there.

However, coming from a CE background, I have no idea what to do for my thesis. I want it to be something from the fields of AI or Probability/Statistics, but I'm out of ideas. So, any suggestions as to what may be either fun or useful (preferably both) in those areas, that I should dedicate my spare time to?

comment by othercriteria · 2014-10-14T05:11:21.452Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If you want a solid year-long project, find a statistical model you like and figure out how to do inference in it with variational Bayes. If this has been done, change finite parts of the model into infinite ones until you reach novelty or the model is no longer recognizable/tractable. At that point, either try a new model or instead try to make the VB inference online or parallelizable. Maybe target a NIPS-style paper and a ~30-page technical report in addition to whatever your thesis will look like.

And attend a machine learning class, if offered. There's a lot of lore in that field and you'll miss out if you do the read-the-book-work-each-problem thing that is alleged to work in math.

comment by Sherincall · 2014-10-14T21:48:25.465Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I did some machine learning in previous studies, and read up on some online, so I have a basis in that. Taking Advanced Statistics, and AI (maths part) courses, and a few less relevant ones.

I plan on doing it in two years, one for the courses, one for the thesis, so a yearlong project is acceptable. However, I'll also have a full time job, and a hobby or two, and a relationship. The suggestions sound great, and I'll dedicate a few days to study them carefully. Thank you very much.

comment by Furcas · 2014-10-16T14:21:04.143Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A while ago Louie Helm recommended buying Darkcoins. After he did the price of a darkcoin went up to more than 10$, but now it's down to 2$. Is it still a good idea to buy darkcoins, that is, is their price likely to go back up?

comment by knb · 2014-10-16T23:58:35.621Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Honestly I doubt cryptocurrencies are any better than a random walk (unless you have some special foreknowledge of some extra attention the currency is about to get.)

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T12:06:39.407Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Honestly I doubt cryptocurrencies are any better than a random walk (unless you have some special foreknowledge of some extra attention the currency is about to get.)

If you have 50% of tripling your money and 50% of losing everything that's still a very good bet. It's difficult to say whether Darkcoins have that property.

comment by Izeinwinter · 2014-10-17T12:25:58.230Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

They're worse than a random walk. They are basically a scam targeting libertarians.

The process goes like this; Come up with a cryptocurrency. Mint some, and make some libertarianish / anarchist /ect noise. Sell some for actual money, and draft some more people into the minting game. Now watch as the suckers who bought in engage in motivated reasoning about the future value / inevitable dominance / technical brilliance of the crypto currency, drawing in more suckers. This may, or may not cause the price to go up, but it is certain to cause the market for your currency (which you made some off cheaply back at step one) to become deeper, so now you can sell more. For actual money.

Don't bite this hook. There is a line attached to it.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T13:32:18.946Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

They are basically a scam targeting libertarians.

The first time someone told me that was when Bitcoin was at 7$.

Darkcoin is basically a bet on the idea that the kind of people who want to use a cryptocurrency don't want to use a cryptocurrency that's traceable and that there a valid market with say 1 billion total capitalisation for that currency. Currently the tor blackmarkets however only run on bitcoin: http://www.gwern.net/Black-market%20survival#data

It's no trivial decision but it's not straightforward in any direction.

But it's better than say Litecoin which reason to be is that it can effectively mined on normal computer and botnet owners can mine it.

comment by gwern · 2014-10-17T17:37:17.415Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Currently the tor blackmarkets however only run on bitcoin

Worth noting that a few have tried Litecoin or Darkcoin; today I'm adding to the list a new cannabis market, Diabolus, which claims to support both Bitcoin and Darkcoin.

(However, despite a little dabbling by the black-markets, I don't expect altcoins to supplant Bitcoin anytime soon for them: currently anonymity doesn't matter to the sellers since I still know of no one who has been busted even partially due to tracing coin movements! What they need are ways to cash out, and Bitcoin is king in that respect.)

comment by Izeinwinter · 2014-10-17T15:46:08.597Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't say they weren't successful scams. You can make vast fortunes riding a bubble that is rising, even if it has zero, or - as bitcoin does - negative, underlying value. But what you are doing is making bets on the psychology of crowds. You are not investing, you are gambling.

And poker is both more fun and less wasteful of perfectly good electricity.

In this case, the value proposition of darkcoin is specifically facilitating international crime. This is not likely to be viewed with any amusement whatsoever by the state. Any state.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T16:45:01.435Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You are not investing, you are gambling.

My post above used the term bet, so I'm not thinking in terms of strict investment but in terms of trading.

And poker is more fun.

If you focus on having fun that's okay. On the other hand other people might focus on making money.

In this case, the value proposition of darkcoin is specifically facilitating international crime. This is not likely to be viewed with any amusement whatsoever by the state. Any state.

States not liking it doesn't do that much. There are no good policy tools to go after it.

As Stellar and Ripple progress you also won't need a centralized market anymore to buy and sell Darkcoin or Bitcoin currency.

Crypto Wars I was lost by the government. There was a time where a few people in the Obama administration went for Crypto War II but that didn't went through either. Business just want encryption and even China can't outlaw it because of the desires of their business community.

comment by Izeinwinter · 2014-10-17T18:26:30.318Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The thing is, bitcoin and clones has much worse average return than poker when considered over the life span of each currency - poker doesn't have a house rake unless you are playing at a casino, all crypto-currencies do - the sums spent on electricity and hardware are leaving the pot. And that's most of the money people are investing in coins!

Further, the lack of good policy tools is a problem if you want to hold them. Because it makes it fairly likely that something draconic will be adopted as a deterrent. For example, just one possibility that jumped into my head is to consider the mere possession of dark coin evidence of involvement in the drug trade. Hello Asset Forfeiture.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T18:58:53.199Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Because it makes it fairly likely that something draconic will be adopted as a deterrent. For example, just one possibility that jumped into my head is to consider the mere possession of dark coin evidence of involvement in the drug trade.

The US is still somewhat a country of laws. It has courts. That means that a persecutor has a burden of proof. It's no good career decision to wage uncertain fights for a US government official. Any signal government official is usually just togging along the party line and grabs whatever safe opportunity he can to advance his career.

The US didn't put anybody at HSBC into prison for washing billions of drug money. The US government is to weak, to fight those battles.

poker doesn't have a house rake unless you are playing at a casino, all crypto-currencies do

Bitcoin does provide some economic value today. There money going into the pot because of economic reasons, even if you don't like some of them because they are about black markets.

Hello Asset Forfeiture.

Hiding crypto currency behind crypto isn't that hard.

comment by Jiro · 2014-10-17T20:15:24.091Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The US didn't put anybody at HSBC into prison for washing billions of drug money. The US government is to weak, to fight those battles.

It is often simultaneously true that laws are enforced too harshly against people who are mostly law-abiding but do minor illegal things, while not enforced enough against serious criminals. Law-abiding people are easier to track down and catch, less dangerous for the police to go after, more likely to have a lot to lose from fighting the government, less likely to be in a demographic that can claim discrimination, and less able to do anything useful to the police in exchange for leniency (such as naming co-conspirators).

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-18T00:35:06.357Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It is often simultaneously true that laws are enforced too harshly against people who are mostly law-abiding but do minor illegal things, while not enforced enough against serious criminals.

Using a crypto-currency is not something that's easy to persecute. Standing in front of a jury and telling them someone should be sent to prison because he brought a dark coin is no easy sell. Organisation such as EFF + ACLU also provide for a well funded legal defense.

Darkcoin usage isn't something that's easy to track down and catch if it's hidden behind crypto.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T14:36:03.525Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you have 50% of tripling your money and 50% of losing everything that's still a very good bet.

That's not necessarily true -- you're ignoring risk.

Consider someone who's about to retire and has saved enough money for a comfortable retirement. Would you advise him to bet his entire savings in this way?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-17T15:21:45.560Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Nothing I said advocates betting everything on one card. For that matter I don't even advise anybody to do anything. I'm rather engaging in analysis.

comment by rkdj · 2014-10-15T13:25:43.242Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

have you noticed people adopting the lesswrong terminology and inaccurately priding themselves on being "sane"?

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-15T17:39:13.308Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I haven't noticed anyone doing that, but it does sound like the sort of thing people would do. This can hardly be avoided, though, unless we were to entirely decouple status from all superficial characteristics.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-15T15:28:28.209Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Have you? If you have, would this tell us more about LW or human psychology? If the latter, then what's the news?

Sanity isn't binary and YMMV.

comment by Error · 2014-10-13T16:39:49.442Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm trying to make Christmas travel arrangements to London, along with a family member who's somewhat spooked by the Ebola thing. I'm ~80% sure that the risk is negligible. I base this mostly on the prior that it's the current media panic and current media panics can usually be ignored, plus a cursory look at the number and location of cases (in particular, nothing in the U.K. yet, although apparently there's some expert noise worrying about the possibility).

  1. Is my judgement correct?
  2. I remember a Sequence article on a bias that causes us to systematically overestimate dramatic risks, but don't remember where it is. Anyone know the one I'm talking about off the top of their head? It might be good to have references.
  3. (probable followup) Assuming I am right and the risk really is epsilon, how do I transmit this fact without being dismissive?
comment by Nornagest · 2014-10-13T19:53:38.851Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Is my judgement correct?

Short answer: Yes.

Let's go through a Fermi estimate. According to Wikipedia there have been only a small handful of Ebola cases in the First World during this outbreak, almost exclusively among people who'd been volunteering in West Africa on missionary or health care assignments. (There has, however, been one case of local transmission in Texas.) Let's be generous and say 20 people with the disease flew in or out of the US over the last month. Now, there are about two million air passengers per day in the US, of which I'm guessing about a quarter are on international flights; that works out to 15 million international passengers over the same month.

Ebola takes close contact to be transmitted; it's not an airborne disease. Since you'll probably be sitting next to each other, that means you'll each only be coming into close contact with one other person on each flight. Let's say that, if they're infectious, that person has a 20% chance of giving you Ebola over the course of the flight (probably an overestimate), and that a case of Ebola in the First World has a 50% chance of killing you. Combined with the ratio of infected travelers we worked out earlier, that means that your chance of dying from Ebola contracted on each leg of the trip is about one in 7.5 million.

That's about as dangerous as driving 30 miles in a car, or a bit less than a mile on a motorbike. And I'm making a number of simplifications that almost certainly inflate the risk: your route for example doesn't go anywhere near West Africa, assuming you're starting near Atlanta as your profile would suggest.

comment by gjm · 2014-10-14T10:58:53.235Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What is it that your family member sees as dangerously increasing the risk of getting Ebola?

  • Going to the UK (perhaps they think the UK is likely to be hit worse than wherever you are now)
  • Getting on an aeroplane (perhaps they are concerned by being in close proximity to other people)
  • Travelling at all (perhaps they want to minimize the number of different people they interact with)

I am far from being an expert and you shouldn't trust me, but my handwavy judgement is the same as yours.

Possibly relevant Sequence article about the availability heuristic.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-13T19:22:02.044Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW
  1. Risk of what is negligible? 80% seems awfully low for making the decision in question.
  2. Might be the availability heuristic but I'm not sure which article you're talking about. It applies to events that are easy to imagine. Dramatic events and events frequently covered by news certainly fit.
  3. Aknowledge their feelings and the basis for them first, then present the facts and hope they make the right decision themselves. Aknowledge their feelings repeatedly if necessary. Feeling understood isn't usually about the facts.

You could compare ebola with other infectious disease like tuberculosis for example, which should be far more scary for the time being especially since it's airborne. Viral hepatitis isn't and you should be scared shitless of it if you're afraid of catching ebola.

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-13T23:12:38.091Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Don't sweat ebola, for now anyways. There are thousands of cases, trues, but they are highly localized. There have been VERY few western cases. And even if you were on a flight with someone in the narrow window of ebola's contamination stage, you wouldn't be infected with it unless they bit you or you shared drinks or something like that.

comment by VAuroch · 2014-10-14T03:25:21.449Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Shaking hands is sufficient, if the cabin is warm enough that the patient is sweating.

comment by adamzerner · 2014-10-17T02:17:32.566Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Can someone explain/articulate why rent-seeking behavior is bad for an economy? Why an economy should be structured to use people's natural greed to motivate them to create wealth.

In particular, I'm thinking about domain sharking. Ie. people who buy domain names in order to sell them rather than use it to develop a site. When the sale happens, money is just moved from the buyer to the seller with no wealth being created. In fact, the net effect is negative because it deters people from starting websites.

This article talks about rent-seeking. However, after reading it a few times, I still feel like there are some key conceptual gaps in my understanding that I'm hoping will be filled if I hear a different explanation.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-17T02:55:49.815Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Can someone explain/articulate why rent-seeking behavior is bad for an economy?

The point of the economy is to produce value (where "value" is defined as "something people want"). Accordingly you want to structure the economy in such a way as to incentivize people to produce value. Rent-seeking produces no value and, in fact, lessens the incentives for others to produce value.

Why an economy should be structured to use people's natural greed to motivate them to create wealth.

Nothing else works as well.

comment by adamzerner · 2014-10-19T05:09:39.921Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, I really appreciate the explanations! I'm a bit confused about a few things though. I have a vague understanding, but don't truly understand them.

1) How exactly does, say, operating a restaurant produce value?

2) Why doesn't rent-seeking produce value?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-20T16:49:57.106Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

1) How exactly does, say, operating a restaurant produce value?

Let's say you are running a restaurant with, say, 200 customers per day on the average. This means that 200 people have voluntarily decided that the food and service your restaurant provides are worth more than the amount of dollars you have charged them. Your restaurant has produced value that is greater than your revenue. If your revenue is covering your costs (which are the value you use up in the process of running your restaurant) then you are generating positive value.

2) Why doesn't rent-seeking produce value?

Rent-seeking is basically about redistribution of value between different people (or organizations). To take a very simple example, imagine a medieval peasant clearing a new field in the forest and growing crops there. He produces a certain amount of value. After a few years the local feudal lord learns of the new field and tells the peasant that the field is on the lord's land and so the peasant shall pay a quarter of his crop to the lord. The amount of value produced is still exactly the same, but before 100% of it went to the peasant and now 75% goes to the peasant and 25% goes to the rent-collecting lord.

comment by adamzerner · 2014-10-21T04:14:58.006Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hm, ok. I get the idea that voluntary exchange implies that the each party thinks they're receiving something of equal or greater value in return.

I'm still a bit confused about when you can say that value is being redistributed. For example, what the lord did contributes to the precedent that land ownership is enforced, which probably has some value. How do you know when no value is being created? Are there any well accepted examples?

What do you think of the domain sharking example? I sense that it involves value destruction (rather than creation). Instead of an entrepreneur being able to buy a domain name, he has to pay a domain shark more money for it. Thus transferring money from the entrepreneur to the domain shark, discouraging entrepreneurship and wasting the domain shark's labor.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-21T05:13:51.453Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How do you know when no value is being created?

Well, "value" is a very baseline concept. You can create value out of thin air -- e.g. by singing (you can create negative value the same way :-D). For economists this concept of value is too encompassing -- in most cases they prefer to talk about good and services, even better, tradeable goods and services. With these, things are easier: you can gauge their value when they trade and measure it in money. There are certain downfalls here, of course (ask an environmentalist :-/) but for most basic economics you can assume that the value of something is how much dollars/euros/gold coins/sheep you can sell it for.

So with our peasant, let's say he was able to grow 10 bushels of rye on his forest field and their value was 100 thalers -- so the "revenue" from this economic activity was 100 thalers and all of it went to the peasant. Afterwards the "revenue" was still 100 thalers, but 75 of them went to the peasant and 25 -- to the lord. Note how the total sum didn't change -- this means we're talking about pure redistribution here.

Value destruction is also possible (you can usually treat it just as negative value). Let's say that the cost of maintaining and working this field is 80 thalers. While the peasant was working it for himself, his "profit" was 20 thalers and that made him happy. Now, after the lord showed up, he gets only 75 thalers but spends 80 -- he's in the red! So he abandons the field and the forest swallows it back. Our lord just destroyed some value with his rent-seeking.

comment by FullMeta_Rationalist · 2014-11-05T01:41:50.531Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How do you know when no value is being created?

You ask who benefits not from the trade, but from the agent's existence. Let's reason counterfactually: what would the market look like if the restaurant were removed from the equation?

  1. If the restaurant is profitable and popular, then customers will feel sad over its absence.

  2. If the restaurant is unprofitable and unpopular, then removing the restaurant won't make much difference (and free up resources to be allocated elsewhere).

  3. If the restaurant redistributes storebought merchandise where it otherwise wouldn't be sold, then customers will feel sad over its absence.

  4. If the restaurant simply clears out everything from the Walmart next door, repackages it, and jacks the price, then customers will feel glad at its removal. Good riddance!

Domain Sharking is an example of Case 4. If Domain Sharks ceased to exist, then its customers would buy the website themselves at lower prices and feel glad. Domain Sharks can exist because each URL is unique by design. So if you want a specific URL, you must go through the Domain Shark. I.e. it's a monopoly void of any positive externalities.

Contrast Domain Sharks with Stock Brokers (for lack of a better example). Stock Brokers give you personal advice for a fee. But you also have the choice of forgoing the advice for a smaller fee by trading online. Brokers in this case offer a useful service by buying stocks in bulk and dispensing advice. And if traders don't like that, an alternative exists.

P.S. After reflection, maybe this is where you're getting confused. You understand that value is created when you make stuff people want. But then you look at Domain Sharks and think "People are buying from Domain Sharks. Domain Sharks have stuff people want. Therefore, Domain Sharks must be valuable." The issue is the Domain Shark is a barrier to what people want rather than a portal, but somehow profit from what looks like (if you squint) twiddling their thumbs.

Are there any well accepted examples?

P.S.S. I believe the canonical example is Digital Rights Management. Why go through record labels when artists can upload?

comment by adamzerner · 2014-11-05T04:50:35.263Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks! The idea to reason counter-factually is very helpful.

1) So is real-estate rent-seeking? How is it different from domain sharking?

2) What allows someone to extract rent? The only things I could think of are a) governmental power, b) ownership rights, and maybe c) physical force.

3) Are there degrees of rent-seeking? Like what if a domain shark is using the domain to host a site that has tetris, and a few of his friends play it? Is that still technically rent-seeking? What if 100 people played it? 1,000? 1,000,000? Is rent-seeking relative to what it could have been (like would it be rent-seeking if the domain could have been used by google or something?)?

This is my understanding of rent-seeking. If you wouldn't mind, I'd appreciate any comments/elaborations. No worries at all if you don't want to.

comment by bogus · 2014-11-06T02:52:10.460Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So is real-estate rent-seeking? How is it different from domain sharking?

Ever wondered where the 'rent' in rent-seeking came from? Yup, land ownership is pretty much the TropeNamer of rent seeking. Of course, land is quite special in that land-scarcity (and thus, land rent) is unavoidable, even under the most relaxed zoning rules. Still, the basic feature distinguishing unearned rent from earned returns is there: land rent goes to a private landowner, not to the surrounding society and general public that actually gave land its high value.

comment by FullMeta_Rationalist · 2014-11-06T00:26:22.712Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Disclaimer: I'm no economist. This discussion is getting out of my comfort zone, so I skimmed wikipedia. I recommend you do likewise (and maybe browse a library). Here are my two cents anyway.

So is real-estate rent-seeking? How is it different from domain sharking?

In your draft, I think you're confusing distribution with land-development with ownership.

  • A Real-Estate Agent facilitates exchange. They create a market by matching buyers to sellers. They are valuable middlemen because buying and selling real estate would be more difficult otherwise.

  • A Land Developer takes a rotten piece of land and adds value before passing it on to a buyer; value is added to both parties (assuming a willing buyer exists).

  • A Domain Shark is a parasite. They just hog a resource and don't improve it. The Shark is a middleman which benefits himself to the detriment of the rest of society.

The point is that a single person can wear many hats. But for the sake of analysis, we need to recognize distinct responsibilities.

What allows someone to extract rent?

See the bottom of wikipedia. Most seem to fall under either Law or Racketeering.

Are there degrees of rent-seeking?

Value is tough to pin down because it's an implicit, nebulous concept. It's supposed to be the "objective/aggregate" version of utility whereas utility is considered "subjective/personal". But how do you measure value? If economists could just take a ruler and say "yep, commodity X is worth $Y amount of value", value traders would be out of a job. Value isn't actually objective, it's just an average of what everyone likes.

Even harder is tracking the negative externalities. I think the saying goes "everyone hates lawyers, except their own". The idea is that lawyers are good when they represent one's self (who is clearly the hero) , but the net value to society are outweighed by costs of scummy lawyers who fight with guile and cunning on behalf of the villains. It would sure be nice if society could simply eliminate the scummy lawyers. But lawyers aren't paid by society, they're paid by their clients! Therefore, lawyers persist. (This was merely an example. For the record, I prefer to live in a world where lawyers exist.)

Like what if a domain shark is using the domain to host a site that has tetris, and a few of his friends play it?

About tetris. If your site hosts tetris, no one will begrudge you. You at least attempt to provide a service. So long as you can pay for it, the land-development & service will justify the ownership in most people's minds (in a Virtue Ethics sort of way). But if you want to make a hard case for (or against) the tetris website, you'll want to estimate all the pros and cons Utilitarian-style and tally them up. This includes things like "the carbon dioxide emitted by the powerplant which powers your server."

Utility is in the eye of the beholder. But the Domain Shark is as ugly as sin.

comment by adamzerner · 2014-11-06T01:27:18.582Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you. Your comments have been very helpful!

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-10-19T23:42:10.109Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Rent-seeking doesn't produce value by definition. This means that people will argue over what actually counts as rent-seeking. I am not going to define rent-seeking, but a similar activity is fighting over the dividing a fixed pie. Dividing the pie is a zero-sum game. Effort expended towards changing the outcome does not grow the pie. If that effort could have been spent on something productive, it should be thought of as destroying value.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-18T13:23:45.710Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Why an economy should be structured to use people's natural greed to motivate them to create wealth.

A economy isn't structured with a purpose to use something. Economies self organize. The structure themselves and people try to provide services for prices that customer want to pay.

This means that anybody in the system who sees an inefficiency can make money by eliminating that inefficiency. In hierarchical organisations usually only people at the top can redirect resources and the people at the top often don't have all the information.

In our system we have a plurality. We solve some problems via hierarchical organisations and others via markets. In cases of big corporations that have their own hierarchies there a mix.

comment by adamzerner · 2014-10-19T05:15:21.035Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting points about hierarchical organizations.

I'm confused about why you say that "A economy isn't structured with a purpose to use something. Economies self organize". Doesn't private ownership and other features of capitalism make it possible for this self organization?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-19T14:25:38.990Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Looking at the features of a real world system and analysing those features is different than something being structured for a purpose.

comment by slutbunwaller · 2014-10-14T17:38:37.215Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I posted this last week but was too late to get any responses, so I'm reposting:

I want to change which charities I donate to, and am looking for transparent, accountable, secular (or at least non-evangelical) Canadian charities that promote democracy, social reform, infrastructure building, rationality, humanism, education, scientific progress, similar principles. Any suggestions for charities worth investigating, or at least a group/organization/website that can help me find what I'm looking for? In the past I haven't properly researched this sort of thing so I'm short on resources.

So far I've taken a closer look at Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders

(I might remind one of you that disagreement isn't grounds for downvoting all my posts)

comment by singularitard · 2014-10-21T18:43:30.219Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Amnesty, UNICEF, Bill and Linda Gates Foundation, as far as mainstream charities go. I believe they all have specific Canadian divisions if you are worried about tax reasons.

Some others you might check out are Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada Without Poverty, Equiterre, Canadian Council For International Cooperation, Tides Canada, CoDevelopment. I had a longer list but misplaced it.

I also strongly suggest you research each charity on your own instead of depending on whether or not a ranking website tells you it is good.

comment by lmm · 2014-10-14T20:08:41.772Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Givewell already analyzes the effectiveness of various charities, so I'd start there.

comment by slutbunwaller · 2014-10-14T20:54:08.578Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I don't agree with their emphasis on direct cash transfers. It reminds me of the Canadian Revenue Agency's statement that "preventing poverty is not charity, only relieving it." Givewell has always struck me as being more concerned about balancing one's karma than actually causing lasting improvement anywhere. That's just my perception, though.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-10-15T02:25:06.629Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It's really hard to measure lasting improvements, which does bias the choice of interventions Givewell considers, but they endorse direct transfers because it has been shown to be more effective at lasting improvements than other things they've considered.

comment by slutbunwaller · 2014-10-16T14:21:10.462Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Lasting improvements for whom? Measured how?

Not addressing the underlying issues means there is no stem to the "supply" (so to speak) of people requiring charitable help.

comment by ea247 · 2014-10-28T18:02:26.872Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

They measured the outcomes of cash transfers by asking them tons of questions about their happiness and their increase in assets a year later. Happiness questions include things like "how often in the last week have you felt hopeless?"; "How often in the last week have you felt happy?"; "How would you rate your satisfaction with life as whole?". It increased their happiness (which I think as a utilitarian is the most important outcome) as well as increased their assets a year later.

Deworming has also been found to impact income many years later. And increasing income is just another way of saying pulling out of poverty, albeit incrementally.

The question of getting to root causes is appealing and I used to be interested in this but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that nobody really has the answer. Economics is insanely complicated. In studies where you retroactively see whether economists predictions came true, the economists didn't do better than chance. So given that we don't know the root cause, but we do have interventions that provide long-lasting effects, we should focus on those.

comment by singularitard · 2014-10-21T18:44:26.334Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You might be (probably are not) right, but it is definitely something that requires research instead of just taking their word for it.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-15T13:20:25.139Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

While Givewell does recommend one charity that focuses on direct cash transfer not every charity recommended by Givewell does and Givewell analyses Charities in detail, so even if you don't agree with their conclusion reading their analysis of a particular charity can help you evaluate the charity.

comment by singularitard · 2014-10-21T18:45:14.735Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

They don't publish very long write-ups, it's more like a checklist of their particular criteria.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-21T20:44:14.264Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

They don't publish very long write-ups, it's more like a checklist of their particular criteria.

I do think the length of the analysis of GiveDirectly is fairly long (http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/give-directly). If you think that the recommendation of GiveDirectly is a mistake based on naive assumptions it makes sense to read the article.

comment by singularitard · 2014-10-21T21:00:27.015Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't say that, top level commenter did. I wish their evaluations of all charities were at least as detailed as that.

comment by Drayin · 2014-10-28T18:35:15.777Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

They would needs hundreds of staff if not more to do that.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-10-15T02:09:12.390Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Why do you want Canadian charities?

So that you can get a tax break or an employer match?
That makes your money about twice as effective, but changing charities often makes a much larger difference. So don't restrict to charities registered in Canada.

comment by slutbunwaller · 2014-10-15T14:52:18.897Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There are a few reasons. Part of it is that left-leaning Canadian charities have been under threat by our government recently, so there is a political element. Part of it is tax refunds. Part of it is that there are problems in our own country as well that need solving, not just in sub-Saharan Africa.

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-16T01:37:10.921Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Part of it is tax refunds.

The effectiveness of different charities varies by orders of magnitude. I don't think tax refunds will make a notable difference.

Part of it is that there are problems in our own country as well that need solving, not just in sub-Saharan Africa.

Relvant xkcd comic. There will always be problems in your country. If you haven't gotten to the point where you'll start helping sub-Saharan Africa yet, when will you?

comment by jsteinhardt · 2014-10-16T03:26:44.618Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Relevant xkcd comic response: http://xkcd.com/871/

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-16T03:36:01.250Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you're suggesting that he donates to a not-as-good charity because he can't be a perfect altruist, I respond with purchase fuzzies and utilons separately. Sorry I couldn't find another xkcd comic for it.

comment by slutbunwaller · 2014-10-16T14:22:50.515Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There will always be problems in your country. If you haven't gotten to the point where you'll start helping sub-Saharan Africa yet, when will you?

That's a strong assumption regarding my charitable donation habits, of which you have no knowledge

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-16T16:41:25.172Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What's the assumption? You just told me that you're planning on donating to a Canadian charity, and that it's because Canada still has problems. I suppose I assumed that you're only donating to one country. If not, there are further problems with your donation habits.

comment by slutbunwaller · 2014-10-17T19:23:58.771Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Again, weak simplification of things I didn't even say.

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-18T01:08:50.073Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was trying to guess what you meant. Can you just tell me? What was I assuming, and in what way was it false?

comment by singularitard · 2014-10-21T18:48:14.697Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Based on the phrase "change which charities I donate to" I had assumed he or she was already donating to multiple charities, presumably including action in subsaharan africa.

Also can you explain the "magnitude" thing? I'm not sure I follow your definition of "effectiveness".

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-21T22:55:40.676Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Based on the phrase "change which charities I donate to" I had assumed he or she was already donating to multiple charities, presumably including action in subsaharan africa.

The money being donated to charities that are not in Sub-Saharan Africa would be better donated to charities that are. Even if that were not the case, that would just mean that the money that is donated to charities that are in Sub-Saharan Africa would be better donated to charities that are not. The money from a single donor isn't enough to change which continent you should donate to.

Also can you explain the "magnitude" thing?

An order of magnitude is a power of ten.

I'm not sure I follow your definition of "effectiveness".

Here's an example of what I mean.

The Seeing Eye trains dogs to help mitigate the effects of blindness for about $50,000 each. The Fred Hollows Foundation performs cataract surgeries to cure blindness for about 25$ each. It's not generally clear how to relate how much good two different charities are, but it is pretty obvious that a cataract surgery does more good than a guide dog, and for 2,000 times less. Thus, the Fred Hollows Foundation is more than three orders of magnitude more cost-effective than The Seeing Eye. Even if The Seeing Eye was tax-free and the Fred Hollows Foundation was taxed at 99.9%, it would be worth while to donate to The Seeing Eye.

comment by singularitard · 2014-10-22T14:30:48.167Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

An order of magnitude is a power of ten.

I'm not sure if you are trying to be sardonic, but I wanted to know where you get the idea that some charities are actually orders of magnitude more effective. It sounds completely fabricated to enforce your point.

comment by slutbunwaller · 2014-10-22T00:27:26.268Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Here's an example of what I mean.

I get that it's just an example, but cataracts are far from the only source of blindness

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-22T19:39:59.563Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How is that relevant? Does Alice being blind for another reason make it less important for Bob to be able to see?

If you cured everyone with cataracts, and all of the other cheap stuff, then it might be worth while to do something more expensive. But this is only because doing something cheap is no longer an option.

comment by Brillyant · 2014-10-18T19:31:14.787Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can someone help me understand why those who would like to lose weight can't just eat less and exercise more?

Weight loss methods seem to be a topic that have gotten really complex on LW. And I don't get it. I've read quite a bit on LW, et al about weight loss and dieting and just don't get why it's so complicated.

Note: I'm a strong believer in genetic differences in individual metabolism...from my recall something like 25% of BMR is presumed to be genetic. This would be incredibly consequential over time.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-18T20:50:07.183Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Since you participated in the discussion of the posts that critiqued Taubes beginning here, I don't understand why you'd bring this topic up again if you've nothing new to say.

Can someone help me understand why those who would like to lose weight can't just eat less and exercise more?

Yes. Try being less stubborn. Those threads are full of possible reasons why.

comment by Brillyant · 2014-10-19T00:19:16.482Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's part of the reason I'm asking—I didn't come out of that discussion with a good answer. I would have expected otherwise.

Dieting is hard. You need to allocate resources to it to win. I'm going to start a calorie-deficit-creating diet on Monday. It will suck. I'll be hungry. I'll experience some fatigue. Crankiness, perhaps...

But I'm also going to lose some weight. If I stick to it. I'm going to start learning the guitar and playing chess regularly too. Maybe systematically reading through the LW sequences.

And I don't understand how weight loss is fundamentally different that any of those pursuits. It will require an allocation of resources (time, focus, etc.) that I can't use elsewhere—so it will be a sacrifice—but the pounds will come off if I just do the exercises and monitor my diet. My chess game? Not so sure. My guitar ability? I'm hopeful. Following and comprehending the sequences? We'll see...

The weight loss, in contrast, will seem relatively predictable and automatic IF I follow the plan of regular exercise and diet control.

My assumption is that LW knows something I don't—And I'd either like to (a) confirm that idea and understand what it is I'm wrong about so I'm no longer wrong, or (b) get rid of that wrong idea and try to share what I know bout being right.

I had hoped the Taubes discussion would help me clarify things, but it didn't. It seemed to be complicating a simple thing. Without looking back, I believe I said so at the time.

I accept and understand (I think more than the average person) the idea of genetic metabolic privilege via increased BMR, etc... but I still don't see any way losing weight can be attributed to much (if anything) apart from eat less, exercise more.

Can you point to something in the discussion you cited that you considered definitive? It seemed to be a contentious discussion with no resolution or consensus.

comment by hyporational · 2014-10-19T05:42:23.483Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the clarification.

The weight loss, in contrast, will seem relatively predictable and automatic IF I follow the plan of regular exercise and diet control.

I agree.

Can you point to something in the discussion you cited that you considered definitive? It seemed to be a contentious discussion with no resolution or consensus.

I can't. The discussion made me more open minded to the idea that dieting may be more complicated than I think. I personally find losing weight relatively easy.

I still don't see any way losing weight can be attributed to much (if anything) apart from eat less, exercise more.

Me neither, in the sense that I'm sure if you control those two conditions with certainty the person will lose weight. What makes things complicated is that the metabolic and psychological responses to that energy deficit and weight loss can apparently make it very costly to some people.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-18T21:18:04.567Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Can someone help me understand why those who would like to lose weight can't just eat less and exercise more?

They can.

If it's not working, eat less and exercise more. Physics is physics.

The usual implied questions behind, though, are "Do you have enough motivation to eat sufficiently less?" and "For how long will you be able to keep it up and what happens afterwards?".

Weight loss methods seem to be a topic that have gotten really complex on LW.

Because the two questions above are important ones and because EY tried to lose weight and it didn't work for him.

just don't get why it's so complicated

Losing weight is not complicated. Maintaining the desired body configuration is -- because it usually requires continuous effort.

comment by Brillyant · 2014-10-19T00:26:44.191Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The usual implied questions behind, though, are "Do you have enough motivation to eat sufficiently less?" and "For how long will you be able to keep it up and what happens afterwards?".

I don't see how that complicates anything. This applies to any pursuit.

Because the two questions above are important ones and because EY tried to lose weight and it didn't work for him.

Oh.

Losing weight is not complicated. Maintaining the desired body configuration is -- because it usually requires continuous effort.

Sure. But how is that not true of lot of things that require maintenance? Of course you'd need to be disciplined to maintain many "desired states of configuration".

comment by DanielLC · 2014-10-19T05:40:52.727Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Some people find certain things take more effort than others. For many people, the willpower necessary to stay thin is more than they have. Given how problematic being overweight can be, this is a problem.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-19T15:08:26.523Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure. But how is that not true of lot of things that require maintenance? Of course you'd need to be disciplined to maintain many "desired states of configuration".

Humans are driven by a lot of instincts that have millions of years of evolution behind them. Beating those instinct for a short time is doable but it's harder to beat them for longer timeframes.

The human body can reduce energy consumption at the cost of being less agile and feeling bad. It has various ways to sabotage a diet that for most people are outside of their conscious control.

comment by Brillyant · 2014-10-19T21:36:44.477Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, it's difficult?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-10-19T22:18:31.211Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There are many different ways of difficult.

Changing your blood pulse by will from 90 bpm to 60 bpm is difficult.

You are dealing with a bunch of inbuild mechanisms that you have to deal with and a lot of them are outside of your awareness.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-19T01:11:54.656Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But how is that not true of lot of things that require maintenance?

The problem is that your own body tries to sabotage your maintenance and it can get pretty tricksy (or brutal).

comment by Brillyant · 2014-10-19T01:30:13.147Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How so?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-20T16:33:40.920Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In the usual ways. Your body has its own ideas about your food intake which may or may not match what your consciousness decides. It also has a variety of levers to affect your brain -- from outright feelings of hunger to subtle reduction of mental efficiency when it thinks itself underfed.

comment by Brillyant · 2014-10-20T19:48:52.363Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Of course. But isn't this the case with anything?

If I decide to consciously commit to any task, there will be obstacles. If I set out to increase my knowledge on a subject, I'll fight boredom, distractions, etc. It will reduce my capacity for other tasks—both mentally and by consuming time.

Losing weight is difficult, but it seems much simpler to me than the discussion (and perhaps consensus) I've seen around here.

I've wondered if it's due to body weight being such a personal issue?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-10-20T20:14:46.735Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But isn't this the case with anything?

Kinda, but the thing is, there are different levels of difficulty that one faces when trying to do "anything".

Sometimes it's just a matter of establishing a habit.

Sometimes you need to get over a hill and then the activity will provide its own incentives (e.g. runner's high).

And sometimes it's just a hard slog all the way and any time you relax you backslide.

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-10-19T16:15:36.421Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In the ancestral environment, sweet food (i.e. fruits and honey) was difficult to find in the wild, and our brains got wired to take advantage of every little opportunity to recharge with those sweet calories.

Now that we can mass-produce corn syrup and all kinds of cheap calories, our ancestral urges play against our best interest.

comment by 27chaos · 2014-10-22T19:18:37.368Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I've lost 30 pounds in the last four months. I have a hard time losing weight unless I fast for a day or two at a time. Reducing portions at some meals just means I snack more later in the day when my attention has wavered. Hypothetically I could reduce portions at all meals, but realistically given the demands of my life that won't happen. Avoiding meals altogether is easier for me because I don't feel very hungry when my attention is absorbed in something other than food, so as long as I stay busy I'm fine. It also helps that I've got social anxiety and don't like to go into the cafeteria where large crowds of students are.

comment by MrMind · 2014-10-20T08:08:54.546Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can someone help me understand why those who would like to lose weight can't just eat less and exercise more?

Since I've been trying for almost, oh years and years, I possibly can point you into some directions.

On eating less: eating less what, exactly? There are people who just eat less carbohydrates, or less fats, or less sugars, etc, and they still get fatter. The point is that you can eat in quantity as much as you want, if you just eat less calories. Ah, but counting calories is no easy task: it's pretty easy when you eat something that has been industrially produced , but when it comes to food you prepare yourself, or others prepare for you? How much calories is a portion of vitel tonné? It depends on the portion size, on the ingredients, on the preparation. How much calories are in a slice of angel food cake, prepared with only 80% of the eggs? Who knows? What if you're forced to eat every day something different? On the other side, even if you manage to reduce the calories eaten, you'll get hungry, very hungry. There's basically no amount of will-power or motivational hack that will work against hunger. It's one of the primary instinct of life and will overwrite everything your conscious mind can come up with.

On excercising more: which specific excercises will you choose? Aerobic, anaerobic? Walking, running, swimming, weight lifting? You have to find the time of course to do those activities. And many of the thing you're going to choose will either require too much time to have an impact on your diet, or will increase drastically your hunger, or will lower your metabolism by killing your thermogenesis outside the excercise.

So yes, losing weight is easy if you eat less and excercise more. But coming up with a way to do those things efficiently and reliably is a very difficult task.

comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-10-21T05:15:58.707Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What people said, also metabolism.

comment by MrMind · 2014-10-14T12:30:50.882Z · score: -1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

There are domains where it's easy to perform experiments (physics, chemistry) and others where it's unfeasible (biology, economy) or impossible (psychology).
The quality of scientific understanding in these different domains is necessarily different. Has there been any thoughts or study devoted to the subject of doing statistics or Bayesian learning where you can suffer from lack of feedback or hysteresis? Is there a mathematics for doing science in low feedback domains?

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-10-14T15:07:01.132Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

In what universe can't you do experiments about biology or psychology?

comment by CellBioGuy · 2014-10-14T16:39:42.774Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Guess I should've stayed home today.

comment by MrMind · 2014-10-15T07:04:26.990Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Surely you can do some tests or experiments, but the staple of physics-like experiments, having identically prepared systems, is partially or totally lacking.

It's only unfortunate that the poorly qualified first paragraph has totally hidden the real question, which was at the end of the second paragraph. I guess I'll have to wait for the next open thread...

comment by Vulture · 2014-10-14T19:51:49.562Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I just realized that MrMind probably meant evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, which makes waayy more sense.

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-14T17:53:02.477Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well you can't do things that would be really nice to do in biology like "rerun the tape of life", not to mention the tremendously interdependent system that is any living organism. And the artificial laboratory conditions of psychological experiments, along with variability of subjects, form a huge impediment to study.

It's not that you can't do experiments, but it's much more difficult to isolate parts of biological, economic and psychological systems and experiment usefully on them.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-10-14T20:50:39.690Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Well you can't do things that would be really nice to do in biology like "rerun the tape of life",

You can't do things in cosmology like "rerun the tape of the universe" either.

comment by Punoxysm · 2014-10-14T21:19:55.306Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, but I think it's reasonable to say that humans are ill-behaved as experimental subjects compared to other biological organisms, which are ill-behaved compared to particles, stars and galaxies.

I mean ill-behaved in the sense that their behaviors cannot be reliably modeled by compact mathematical models.

comment by lmm · 2014-10-17T20:52:38.697Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The whole point of Bayesianism is that you get as much information as possible from a small amount of data. It works perfectly well in noisy domains.

The recent post on Knightian Uncertainty may or may not be relevant to your interests - it's not the same thing but it seems like it might be related to what you were really getting at.