Comment by alan on Rationality quotes: September 2010 · 2010-09-03T03:05:15.092Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

If there were a party of those who are not sure they are right, I'd belong to it.

--Albert Camus

Comment by alan on The Importance of Self-Doubt · 2010-08-20T03:48:10.427Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
  1. Jeremy Bentham may be a candidate, or perhaps James Mill, father of J.S. Mill--though there's been some recent speculation that the former fell somewhere on the autism spectrum (no slight intended). By the way, if you're interested, check out the research on shifting modes of moral congition, deontological vs. consequentialist, depending upon subject matter, featured in the work of David Pizarro, e.g. Further afield, one may check out what Taleb has to say about who has led a genuinely Popperian lifestyle.
Comment by alan on Book Recommendations · 2010-08-10T03:13:53.214Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Eclectic lists can be fun. Here are a few titles:

  1. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca;
  2. Obliquity by John Kay;
  3. Mistakes were Made but Not by Me by Tavris and Aronson;
  4. Master and Margerita by Bulgakhov;
  5. Social Cognition by Ziva Kunda;
  6. The Synaptic Self by Joseph LeDoux;
  7. Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz;
  8. Knowledge and Its Limits by Tim Williamson;
  9. Dilemmas by Gilbert Ryle; and 10.The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger
Comment by alan on Book Review: The Root of Thought · 2010-07-23T02:17:55.664Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This new finding may be correct, but the old dictum about "nullius in verba" still makes sense.

Comment by alan on Rationality Quotes: July 2010 · 2010-07-05T04:22:00.176Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

What frightens us most in a madman is his sane conversation.

--Anatole France

Comment by alan on But Somebody Would Have Noticed · 2010-05-07T21:46:32.810Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Respectfully, the idiosyncracy of Semmelweis's personality isn't directly the point. Semmelweis had established beyond doubt early in his career that hand-washing with chlorinated water before deliveries dramatically drove down the maternal mortality rate. This was a huge finding. Incredibly to most of us now, at one time childbirth was a leading cause of death. The gut prejudice of his peers prevailed, however, and it was to be another 60 years later that the introduction of sulfa drugs and antibiotics again began to drive down maternal mortality. The point relates to pluralistic ignorance and the role of social proof. Social proof roughly means that the greater number of persons who find an idea correct, the greater it will be correct. In situations of uncertainty , everyone looks at everyone else to see what they are doing. One answer to Alicorn's query at the end of her post is to bear in mind the phenomenon of social proof, and the tendency toward pluralistic ignorance. Therefore, look beyond what the plurality of people are doing or saying.

Comment by alan on But Somebody Would Have Noticed · 2010-05-07T16:11:12.061Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The compact terminology for the class of phenomena you are describing is "pluralistic ignorance," and in other contexts it presents a far vaster challenge that the Kitty Genovese case would indicate. Consider the 19th century physician Ignatz Semmelweis, who pioneered the practice of hand-washing as a means of reducing sepsis and therefore maternal mortality. He was ostracized by fellow practitioners and died in destitution.

Comment by alan on Rationality quotes: May 2010 · 2010-05-03T02:00:14.060Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Leisure? Happiness? Aurelius, the emperor, was always on the move with his army trying to preserve his empire and worried about his conniving son, Commodus. Beethoven was a reclusive single man, who grew ill and deaf in later years. Schopenhauer was a self-absorbed and misogynistic single man (though he supposedly enjoyed walking his poodles). Nietzsche was a precocious and convalescent single man. Why not add Wittgenstein to the list? Selection bias?

Comment by alan on Singularity Summit 2009 (quick post) · 2009-08-19T03:35:50.626Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Has anyone considered extending an invitation to Raymond Smullyan, as, say, a guest of honor to the summit (if not having done so already). Living in New York State, he recently published an amusing and short literary book (at age 89). There aren't many students of A. Church (recall that Turing was one of them) still with us. With Aubrey de Grey on the roster covering issues of longevity and more, an appearance by Ray Smullyan, provided he is willing and able, may raise the level of your conference not only intellectually, but also in terms of humor, humanity and perspective. I've heard he also does magic tricks. Thoughts?

Comment by alan on The Strangest Thing An AI Could Tell You · 2009-07-16T15:07:04.056Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well spotted! But why is it NOT strange to hold that the CI applies to an AI? Isn't the raison d'etre of AI to operate on hypothetical imperatives?

Comment by alan on The Strangest Thing An AI Could Tell You · 2009-07-16T15:01:16.928Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In reply, at a superficial level, the statement was intended as (wry) humor toward consequentialist friends in the community. Anyone who wrote the AI code presumably had a hypothetical imperative in mind: "You, the AI, must do such and such in order to reach specified ends, in this case reporting a truthful statement." And that's what AI does, right? But If the AI reports that deontology is the way to go and tells you that you owe AI reciprocal respect as a rational being bound by a certain priori duties and prohibitions, that sounds quite crazy--after all, it's only code. Yet might our ready to hand conceptions of law and freedom predispose us to believe the statement? Should we believe it?

Comment by alan on The Strangest Thing An AI Could Tell You · 2009-07-16T03:39:13.128Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Kant's categorical imperative applies with equal force to AI.

Comment by alan on What's In A Name? · 2009-06-30T03:42:23.189Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

With a name like "Utility," while sonorous enough, might this be an invitation to some notion of a need for maximizsation? Is it advisable to freight a child with such expectations? If so, then an alternate that might serve is Bentham(e). At least it could be shortened to Ben. On a lighthearted note, might Utility find himself or herself drawn toward becoming a public utilities worker? (In Latin culture, I'm acquainted with a few people named Jesus and Angel. Suffice to say, none in that sample set appears particularly pious or angelic in disposition or outward behavior. Your mileage may vary.

Tangential to the observation about the Stanford experiement, a story appeared a few years ago about a New York family in which one boy was legally named "Loser;" the other, "Winner." Care to guess which of the two brothers went on to become a police officer?

Comment by alan on With whom shall I diavlog? · 2009-06-03T20:51:45.484Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

How about Gary Drescher?

Comment by alan on You Are A Brain · 2009-05-10T02:12:44.166Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Nicely done! Thanks for sharing.

Comment by alan on Special Status Needs Special Support · 2009-05-06T20:55:57.662Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Scholars estimate that the book of Job, probably the work of multiple authors, was composed some time between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C.E. When comparing didactic poetry, does the fact that the book of Job is so old have anything to do with the reverence or specialness which some modern readers attach to it? Furthermore, is Job really a fitting example of Sacred Truth rather than, say, "sacred perplexity"? Is advanced age in a wisdom narrative a necessary condition of Sacredness? Is there something special about "touching the old," harkening back to an Overcoming Bias post by that name?

Comment by alan on Great Books of Failure · 2009-04-19T03:43:03.159Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

"What I Learning Losing a Million Dollars" by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan (1994)

Subject: Analysis of catastrophic trading mistakes woven through the autobiography of a highly confident commodities trader. He made $250k in one day. Thereafter he went on to take greater risks in commodities markets, counting his profits before they were realized. At one point he considered renting a Concord jet to celebrate his imagined gains. Over the course of several months, however, due to a combination of misfortune, hubris , denial, and creative rationalization, his entire position was wiped out and he lost over $1 million.

This is the only non-quack popular book of its kind I know of which deconstructs the psychological mistakes a trader can make. The book is self-published, and until recently, was out of print. Sadly, one of the authors, Mr. Paul, perished in the attacks on the WTC. Not widely known about, the book is fortunately avalable once again.

The lessons contained in it are related not just to trading, but to life in general. Honest and unflinching in its analysis of self-deception, overconfidence, and how to guard against them. This book is unique.

Comment by alan on The Unfinished Mystery of the Shangri-La Diet · 2009-04-12T03:48:39.745Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This post has generated a disproportionate number of comments. I think it illustrates the common struggles we all face in attempting to optimize our own behavior as well as that of others. At what point does other-optimizing become a case of trying to hard and lapsing into failure mode, a disutility loop if you will. The UC Berkeley writer Michael Pollan summed up his dietary advice in seven words: "Eat food, mostly plants, not too much." Or how about renowned nutritionist Marion Nestle: "East less, move more." Of course, one of the joys of living is eating. Why not let the activity provide pleasure and utility? Is it the calories we are trying to conrol, or are we attempting to achieve mastery over some portion of our or other's behavior in order to comfort ourselves with an illusion of control? Is it what you're eating or is it what's eating you, to put it colloquially?

Comment by alan on Supporting the underdog is explained by Hanson’s Near/Far distinction · 2009-04-06T02:12:54.789Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Pardon the reference to Shakespeare, but I was trying to come up with a non-contemporary, non-hypothetical, well-known example of the adaptiveness of being an underdog. In Henry V you have a narrative where the king uses consciousness of the numerical inferiority of his troops to assert, i.e., signal, superior valor. In the play, one of his officers surmises that their army is outnumbered by the French by 5 to one; another wishes out loud that another 10,000 could be added to their number. Henry dismisses this talk, declaring: "The fewer men, the greater share of honour. God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more."

Unlike the cave-men who joined Urk's faction, many of those who didn't shrink from batle in Henry's army would NOT have been wiped out. To the contrary, they would have succeeded disproportionately well in evolutionary terms. Might their tribal social emotions go some distance in suggesting why? Stripped of context, odds are merely quantitative, and necessarily leave out important information on qualitative dimensions, such as social emotions. Assume a supporter of Urk gets excited enough over the prospect of sharing the spoils of Zug and reputational rewards that would accrue to him. We might admit that it is not foreordained that Urk would lose the contest. Not only are supporters of the underdog not necessarily wiped out; when they win, as Shakespeare's Henry intuited, they stand to gain a greater share of the glory, and hence evolutionary fitness.

Comment by alan on Can Humanism Match Religion's Output? · 2009-03-27T16:28:05.254Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer wrote, "Really, I suspect that what's going on here has less to do with the motivating power of eternal damnation, and a lot more to do with the motivating power of physically meeting other people who share your cause."

I think this observation strikes very close to the heart of the matter. People will tell you they attend Catholic mass, for example, for any number of reasons, most of which are probably not available to introspection, but which actually relate to our functioning as social animals. People are motivated to meet other people, and church attendance is one of the few remaining outlets for this tendency. Whether the rationale for congregating is to uphold some deep cause is almost beside the point for the majority. Certainly there will be some for whom some cause is salient and pressing; they are the visible and the vocal, not the representative.

It is perhaps tempting to offer up Catholicism as a proxy for Christianity, and Christianity as a proxy for religion. Bear in mind, though, that Western and Eastern Christianity do not even agree on when to celebrate their holiest day, Easter. Then there are some rather yawning doctrinal disparities between Protestant sects and Roman Catholicism, and even then within itself. There is a growing movement among Catholics to have the mass recited to them in Latin. A prototypical rationalist might call this practice an example of willful obscurantism and worshipping ignorance, but that would be incorrect. It seems unlikely that the point is to comprehend the words of a dead language, but rather to use the setting as a means of priming a type of experience that William James was talking about.

In addition to Yvain's catalogue of Catholics being communal, hierarchical, and official, one could add socially reinforcing. If your co-religionist is giving 10% of his income to support church activities, and you know this is true (it's easy to find out), then there is social pressure not to be a slouch when it comes to tithing--a phenomenon of competition in terms of signaling commitment to cooperative behavior. Would rationalists would ever do that?

Comment by alan on The Sacred Mundane · 2009-03-25T17:02:32.794Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" was derived from the Gifford Lecture series he delivered around 1900-1902. The first thing to bear in mind, then, is that James' definition of religion was intended as a working definition in order that his audience could follow his exposition. As a founding father of the field of modern psychology and a proponent of pragmatic philosophy, dogmatism wasn't at all a part of James' style.

Secondly, brilliant and amiable as he may have been in person, James referred to himself as a "sick soul," given to bouts of psychic entropy (i.e, depression). His emphasis on the experiential quality of spirituality had nothing to do with supporting dogma or hewing to community supersition. Rather, James saw positive spiritual experience as psychic uplift, eudaemonia--experienced idiosyncratically at the individual level, and sought to examine and cultivate such experiences. Seen from another vantage point, James was in fact exploring a world view based on seeking out the sacred in the mundane.

Comment by alan on Hyakujo's Fox · 2009-03-25T03:09:58.161Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

"It really makes you wonder how the hell they got that far while still believing that the wrong answer could turn you into a fox."

In the autobiography of Master Hakuin, people considered to be possesed by the spirit of a wild fox were thought to exhibit irrational, even erratic behavior, or vice versa. So this seems like a metaphor, but one at odds with standard western interpretations.

Comment by alan on Rational Me or We? · 2009-03-17T16:25:09.816Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Robin wrote: "Martial arts can be a good training to ensure your personal security, if you assume the worst about your tools and environment." But this does not mean that martial arts cannot also be good training if you assume a more benign environment. Environments are known to be unpredictable.

One of the most important insights a person gains from martial arts training is to understand one's limits--which relates directly to the bias of overconfidence. If martial arts training enables a person to project an honestly greater degree of self confidence, then the signaling benefit alone may merit the effort. Does rationality training confer analogous signaling benefits?

Comment by alan on The Costs of Rationality · 2009-03-04T17:18:10.738Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Query: Need the quest for the truth necessarily be quixotic? Tilting at windmills would be an example of delusional activity. Isn't the quixotic then the opposite of the rational?

Comment by alan on Unteachable Excellence · 2009-03-03T03:51:54.176Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I hazily recall that in the introduction to Benjamin Grahams "Intelligent Investor, "Buffett credits his former mentor with educating a group of stellar-performing security analysts and investors, among whom he counts himself.

Buffett has advised to read Graham, Fisher (Phil), and take it from there, so to speak. Easier said than done. Graham and Dodd's 1934 classic, "Security Analysis," for example, is comprised of 726 pages including its index. There is nothing seductively narrative, personal or hyperbolic about the book's content. Rather, it states plainly that the function of security analysis is can be placed under the headings: descriptive, selective, and critical. Anyone who was serious about learning Buffett's techniques, it seems obvious, should at least peruse books authored by his mentor while trying to internalize some of their lessons. Failure to do so constitutes a curious and telling omission.

Much of the run of management books fall into the groove of presenting engaging narratives based on ex post facto selection of protagonists. Buffett undoubtedly understands that while success is not random, it is fleeting. That understanding may be what motivates the perpetual search for talent.

Two other books of general interest on this topic include "The Halo Effect" by Phil Rosenzweig (on the specific delusions propagated in much excellence literature); and "Winning the Loser's Game" by Charles Ellis (on the long-term futility of chasing outsize investment returns through a strategy based on active trading). Yes, it is possible to win by not losing when you are playing a loser's game. But apparently for many, it's simply easier to buy excellence porn and indulge in wishful thinking.

Comment by alan on The Most Frequently Useful Thing · 2009-03-02T00:46:14.620Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The most frequently useful thing I have learned from OB is to update assumptions based on new information on an ongoing basis. I think this idea ties in nicely with that of standing against maturity, if maturity is taken to mean a certain rigidity, an inflexibility of purpose and outlook.