Money creation and debt 2020-08-12T20:30:42.321Z
Superintelligence and physical law 2016-08-04T18:49:19.145Z
Scope sensitivity? 2015-07-16T14:03:31.933Z
Types of recursion 2013-09-04T17:48:55.709Z
David Brooks from the NY Times writes on earning-to-give 2013-06-04T15:15:26.992Z
Cryonics priors 2013-01-20T22:08:58.582Z


Comment by AnthonyC on Why didn't we find katas for rationality? · 2021-09-15T05:47:20.894Z · LW · GW

This is very true, but I think it misses a key point in what makes katas useful for actually learning a martial art in the first place. As noted in Matt Goldenberg's answer, partner work is much more important for actually learning to use a martial art. Just practicing a kata by rote may look pretty, but it won't tell you anything about how to use it. My own best teachers would teach moves and combinations and katas by rote at first, then very quickly move on to exercises that require creative application. Things like: 

  • Mushin practice - get attacked and respond quickly, and make it work
  • Randori practice - get attacked repeatedly by multiple opponents, and make it work
  • Sparring and grappling practice

All of these can be modified with constraints to make them easier or harder. Easier might be "Every attack against you will be this kind of punch." Harder can be something like "Choose one part of one kata. Come up with a way to use it effectively against whatever your opponent decides to throw at you." Or "Figure out X different ways to use that same sequence of moves, with only minor variations, in different situations, then execute it and see how well it works." Hopefully you've been practicing smart all along, and visualizing opponents while practicing your katas in the air, and developing your understanding of the moves and body mechanics so your interpretations make sense!

To bring this back to the original question: what are we thinking of as the fundamental "moves" we're stringing together to make a "kata"? And is a rationality "kata" practice a one-person or two-person activity? Maybe a rationality kata is made up of moves like "1) Figure out what question/problem you're trying to solve. 2) Spend five minutes thinking about what you know that may be at all relevant. 3) Make a list of unknowns that would be useful to know, and estimate how hard it would be to get the answers. 4) Make a list of strategies and techniques you might try to find a solution, and estimate their odds of success and time required. 5) Rank the results of #4 however you like, and work your way down the list until the problem is solved. 6) Go back to #2 and repeat until you have a good enough solution." Or they can be more specific - katas for calibration, katas for probability estimation, and so on. "Practicing" katas, then, would be a matter of repeating the words of the steps, to commit them to the mental equivalent of muscle memory. This will be partly crystallizing useful concepts into short handles that leap to mind when needed, a kind of mental Miyagi-ing. 

Also, in martial arts, katas can be practiced many different ways. For my own black belt test, some of the kata portion included things like "Precisely execute every kata you know, in order, in less than X minutes total," and "choose one kata you know, and execute is as slowly as possible, minimum Y minutes, while maintaining precision and focus on every part of every movement," and "perform this kata correctly, but make it fit completely in a box no more than Z feet across." I think I've also been asked to do the mirror image of a kata a few times, though not as part of a rank test. Similarly, analyzing and verbalizing why a kata is a certain way, and what it's trying to explore and teach, can be helpful for guiding further practice.

Then, more applied practice might look more like randori, where you get random problems thrown at you repeatedly and you have to use a specific kata to solve them. Or like mushin, where you have to practice quickly figuring out which kata to use for a problem that gets thrown at you, and then make that one work. 

And yes, I realize I've just accidentally come very close to describing some of Jeffreysai's methods, which is obviously not a coincidence, I'm sure.

Comment by AnthonyC on Kids Roaming · 2021-09-04T20:51:43.517Z · LW · GW

I always enjoy reading posts like this, because I'm 34 and if I visit my parents on Long Island, my mom still won't want me to go for a walk near their house by myself. My range as a kid was 0. Until I was in middle school I basically wasn't even allowed to play in the backyard by myself unless I was somewhere someone could see me. I wasn't allowed to go anywhere without being driven until I had a driver's license (we lived in an extremely safe neighborhood, literally in the middle of a county park). Also, possibly related, I have an absolutely horrible sense of direction, and readily get lost in towns I've lived in for years going to places I've been at least a dozen times.

Note: my parents themselves grew up in NYC and were allowed to bike around much of the city by themselves by the time they were 10. I am amazed how much changed in the thirty years between their childhoods and my own.


I know that's not very constructive, I just wanted to share and say I'm glad whenever I see people pushing in the opposite direction.

Comment by AnthonyC on Against "blankfaces" · 2021-09-01T18:20:22.805Z · LW · GW

My impression is that the fact that it is hard to objectively determine why someone is enforcing the rules is part of the point. The effect on the woman in your example is the same either way, but I think the employee's internal state does matter in terms of how it affects the future health and functioning of the organization. The employee warned the woman of the risks, she took them anyway, then chose to complain. If she hadn't been warned, she'd have a point, and in that case refusing to give a refund just because it's the rule instead of making an exception, without giving a reason like "I'm sorry, but I'm not allowed to, or I'll be fired," would be justifiably called blankfacing. It's worse if the employee knew about the crowdedness and deliberately chose not to say anything, than if they were unaware or just didn't think of it in time. It's much worse if the manager also refuses to bend the rules, because that should be part of what managers are for. In that case it would also be appropriate to refund the popcorn, or offer free tickets to a future showing.

I'm curious what you make of this example from my own life. After graduating college I got a job, moved in with my girlfriend, and leased a car. As a result, my name wasn't on the apartment lease (we were not in violation of zoning rules due to me living there, and the landlord knew I was moving in) or any of the bills (the accounts were already set up), and the car registration listed the leasing company's address, not mine. To park on the street I needed to get a town permit. I went to the police station and was told I wasn't allowed to get a resident permit because I couldn't prove residency. The RMV told me there was no way or need to change the address on my license, I just needed to write the new address on a sticker and put it on the ID; this wasn't good enough for the police station either (reasonable enough so far). I asked what I could do to prove residency under these circumstances, and the person at the police station said she didn't know. No one else in the apartment had a car, so it wasn't an amount-of-parking issue. We had a visitor's parking permit, and I used that for lack of a better option. I got a ticket for being a resident using a visitor's permit. I went back and explained this to the person who issues the permits, and she noted that yes, that's how the system works, and no I still can't have a permit, and yes I will keep getting and have to pay tickets. She admitted that the rules are set up that way to make it hard for students to prove residency and get parking permits, in order to preserve spots for non-student residents, and this was catching me even though I was not a student. So I went back at other days and times until a different person was working, and then I was able to get a permit no problem - same documentation. I think "blankface" describes the permit-refuser's behavior extremely well, at least after I got the ticket. 

Comment by AnthonyC on What will be the most important resource after the information age? · 2021-09-01T15:59:35.256Z · LW · GW

Well, what drives the shifts in what resources define an age?

Accumulation of material reaches a point where more isn't (currently) valuable.

A new resource replaces uses of an old one.

Improved technology makes a resource much cheaper, and accumulation of wealth and industrial base make production/scarcity of a resource no longer a limiting factor in most cases.

As @Dagon noted, in some sense "information," once it exists at all, is not scarce, and is already easy to replicate and distribute. But 1) we don't have all the information we could want, and 2) we don't (know how to) use it effectively. The former is a matter of research+sensors+any other data collection (solvable through hardware and personnel), the latter is a problem of intelligence/data science/analysis/data access/knowing what we want.

Society is doing...not a great job, but an ok one, recognizing the importance of the former and investing in it. We still kinda suck at the latter which is related to this site's focus on both AI and alignment, and these seem like a strong candidate for the next limiting factor that could define an age. 

Alternatively, that could turn out not to be a big deal (we get AI right, at which point cheap copying and hardware make AI scarcity not a thing). At that point we should have enough know-how to collect enough matter for or needs and continuously process and recycle it into whatever forms we want. It seems like we then go back to energy being the limiting factor in running our machines - securing supply and dissipating waste heat.

Comment by AnthonyC on Can you control the past? · 2021-08-31T22:24:08.240Z · LW · GW


Comment by AnthonyC on Superintelligent Introspection: A Counter-argument to the Orthogonality Thesis · 2021-08-30T19:04:40.840Z · LW · GW

I freely grant that this maximally strengthened version of the orthogonality thesis is false, even if only for the reasons @Steven Byrnes mentioned below. No entity can have a goal that requires more bits to specify than are used in the specification of the entity's mind (though this implies a widening circle of goals with increasing intelligence, rather than convergence). 

I think it might be worth taking a moment more to ask what you mean by the word "intelligence." How does a mind become more intelligent? Bostrom proposed three main classes.

There is speed superintelligence, which you could mimic by replacing the neurons of a human brain with components that run millions of times faster but with the same initial connectome. It is at the very least non-obvious that a million-fold-faster thinking Hitler, Gandhi, Einstein, a-random-peasant-farmer-from-the-early-bronze-age, and a-random-hunter-gatherer-from-ice-age-Siberia would end up with compatible goal structures as a result of their boosted thinking.

There is collective superintelligence, where individually smart entities work together form a much smarter whole. At least so far in history, while the behavior of collectives is often hard to predict, their goals have generally been simpler than those of their constituent human minds. I don't think that's necessarily a prerequisite for nonhuman collectives, but something has to keep the component goals aligned with each other, well enough to ensure the system as a whole retains coherence. Presumably that somehow is a subset of the overall system - which seems to imply that a collective superintelligence's goals must be comprehensible to and decided by a smaller collective, which by your argument would seem to be itself less constrained by the forces pushing superintelligences towards convergence. Maybe this implies a simplification of goals as the system gets smarter? But that competes against the system gradually improving each of its subsystems, and even if not it would be a simplification of the subsystems' goals, and it is again unclear that one very specific goal type is something that every possible collective superintelligence would converge on.

Then there's quality superintelligence, which he admits is a murky category, but which includes: larger working and total memory, better speed of internal communication, more total computational elements, lower computational error rate, better or more senses/sensors, and more efficient algorithms (for example, having multiple powerful ANI subsystems it can call upon). That's a lot of possible degrees of freedom in system design. Even in the absence of the orthogonality thesis, it is at best very unclear that all superintelligences would tend towards the specific kind of goals you're highlighting.

In that last sense, you're making the kind of mistake EY was pointing to in this part of the quantum physics sequence, where you've ignored an overwhelming prior against a nice-sounding hypothesis based on essentially zero bits of data. I am very confident that MIRI and the FHI would be thrilled to find strong reasons to think alignment won't be such a hard problem after all, should you or any of them ever find such reasons.

Comment by AnthonyC on Superintelligent Introspection: A Counter-argument to the Orthogonality Thesis · 2021-08-29T22:52:31.994Z · LW · GW

Note: even so, this objection would imply an in increasing range of possible goals as intelligence rises, not convergence.

Comment by AnthonyC on Superintelligent Introspection: A Counter-argument to the Orthogonality Thesis · 2021-08-29T14:54:45.343Z · LW · GW

@adamShimi's comment already listed what I think is the most important point: that you're already implicitly assuming an aligned AI that wants to want what humans would want to have told it to want if we knew how, and if we knew what we wanted it to want more precisely. You're treating an AI's goals as somehow separate from the code it executes. An AI's goals aren't what a human writes on a design document or verbally asks for, they're what are written in its code and implicit in its wiring. This is the same for humans: our goals, in terms of what we will actually do, aren't the instructions other humans give us, they're implicit in the structure of our (self-rewiring) brains. 

You're also making an extraordinarily broad, strong, and precise claim about the content of the set of all possible minds. A priori, any such claim has at least billions of orders of magnitude more ways to be false than true. That's the prior.

My layman's understanding is that superintelligence + self modification can automatically grant you 1) increasing instrumental capabilities, and 2) the ability to rapidly close the gap between wanting and wanting to want. (I would add that I think self-modification within a single set of pieces of active hardware or software isn't strictly necessary for this, only an AI that can create its own successor and then shut itself down).

Beyond that, this argument doesn't hold. You point to human introspection as an example of what you think AGI should be automatically would be inclined to want, because the humans who made it want it to want those things, or would if they better understood the implications of their own object- and meta-level wants. Actually your claim is stronger than that, because it requires that all possible mind designs achieve this kind of goal convergence fast enough to get there before causing massive or unrecoverable harm to humans. Even within the space of human minds, for decisions and choices where our brains have the ability to easily self-modify to do this, this is a task at which humans very often fail, sometimes spectacularly, whether we're aware of the gap or not, even for tasks well within our range of intellectual and emotional understanding. 

From another angle: how smart does an AI need to be to self-modify or create an as-smart or smarter successor? Clearly, less smart than its human creators had to be to create it, or the process could never have gotten started. And yet, humans have been debating the same basic moral and political questions since at least the dawn of writing, including the same broad categories of plausible answers, without achieving convergence in what to want to want (which, again, is all that's needed for an AI that can modify its goals structure to want whatever it wants to want). What I'm pointing to is that your argument in this post, I think, includes an implicit claim that logical necessity guarantees that humankind as we currently exist will achieve convergence on the objectively correct moral philosophy before we destroy ourselves. I... don't think that is a plausible claim, given how many times we've come so close to doing so in the recent past, and how quickly we're developing new and more powerful ways to potentially do so through the actions of smaller and smaller groups of people.

Comment by AnthonyC on Can you control the past? · 2021-08-28T12:49:50.810Z · LW · GW

I know it's off topic, but I hope Omega is precise in how it phrases questions, because Paris is in Ohio, and the Eiffel Tower is in Cincinnati.

Comment by AnthonyC on Learning can be deciding · 2021-08-25T22:39:32.157Z · LW · GW

This sounds like the individual version of EY's explanation of how Schwarzenegger became governor of California.


It also sounds a lot like Scott Alexander's explanations of predictive processing.

Comment by AnthonyC on Covid 8/19: Cracking the Booster · 2021-08-19T19:06:58.577Z · LW · GW

he does point out that school didn’t teach him anything useful and now he’s Scott Alexander, and it didn’t teach me much of anything either, so search your experiences and draw your own conclusions, and then draw your own secondary conclusions about the pandemic. 

Well, it took 15 years, but school did eventually teach me to stop trusting authority figures...

I don’t mention Vitamin D as much as I should, as it’s one of the practical things an individual can do that has high expected value in terms of preventing or helping with Covid, that would be a good idea even without Covid. And yet I struggle to remember to take it. 

Do you take anything else daily, successfully? I find weekly pill boxes labeled with the weekdays helpful, I fill them once a week. Although, vitamin D doesn't necessarily have to be taken daily, it builds up slowly in the body over time so you could easily double up after days you miss. One time I had an actual diagnosed deficiency, and the prescription vitamin D was a huge dose (50k IU) once a week for 8 weeks.

Comment by AnthonyC on Obesity Epidemic Explained in 0.9 Subway Cookies · 2021-08-16T15:52:02.071Z · LW · GW

I think it's interesting that you label protein and vegetables as high-satiety foods, when that just isn't the case for me. Lean meats and veggies satiate me for longer than refined grains, but nor nearly as long as food higher in fat, as long as they're relatively healthy fats (olive or avocado oil, grass fed butter and cream, cheese, nuts and seeds, things like that). That result definitely varies somewhat between people, but my experience isn't out of the ordinary. Eating veggies or protein without fat just leaves me feeling full but unsatisfied, waiting until my stomach will let me eat more.

I agree with your point about the magnitude of the change. People didn't suddenly start eating vastly more food after 1980. But that potentially cuts both ways: most of the other trends in diet and exercise were gradual and started much earlier, yet weight wasn't increasing at a population level then. So why would slight reductions reverse the trend now, when slight increases didn't generate it before? Why this recommend this specific slight intervention when so many other things have changed in our lives and environments, especially when you know that it just will come off as insulting to most people who've actually struggled to lose weight?

Yes, sometimes it is that simple. I know people who've just cut our soda and/or started walking for half an hour a day and lost tens of pounds in a year. And I'm glad for them! But not everyone's body responds that way, and that's kinda the point. 

Edit to add: also, if the amount of calorie variation needed to lose 20 pounds really were as small as you say, at the level of a single cookie weighing less than 50 grams, then no, intuition for portion sizes would not be sufficient for controlling food intake, and you really would have to measure things. That would mean that being off by a teaspoon of oil when grilling a chicken breast in a pan each day is worth 5 pounds of body fat over time, and that's just one part of one meal. Ditto for replacing a cup of strawberries with the same volume of apple or melon, or a cup of apple or melon with the same volume of banana - which are the kinds of things that over time just take way too much mindshare to keep up with for every single food decision, even for smart people who like math and measuring things.

Comment by AnthonyC on Obesity Epidemic Explained in 0.9 Subway Cookies · 2021-08-16T15:36:44.624Z · LW · GW

This matches my experience very closely as well, though I'm only about halfway to my goal (dropped from 238 to 215, want to get down to the low 190s) after 4 years of trying a bunch of different things.

What the OP is suggesting doesn't work in practice for rats and mice, let alone humans who have many more levers with which to confound simple interventions through behavior, conscious or not.

It took me eight years to gain 40 pounds. That's a difference of about 50-200 calories per day (increasing as base weight rises and it takes more food to generate a sustained weight gain), on average, by pure calorie math. AKA initially no more than the difference between standing vs sitting for one hour, walking an extra 0.5 mile vs not, or eating half an apple vs not. Seems like it should be a breeze to fix! Just a few minutes a day, or one simple action! And yet the years in which I switched to a standing desk (and extra 4-6 hours standing daily) I didn't lose any weight, nor did I gain any when I stopped. The year I hiked 300 miles more than I normally do as part of a challenge, no weight loss. And all of that is in line with the research that exercise is not that helpful for controlling weight most of the time.

Eating keto (for me, <10% carbs, <20% protein) did help me lose weight steadily, and gave me more energy, but it just wasn't sustainable for me. I basically lost the ability to eat with other people in many circumstances. 1) That's very isolating, 2) I tend to eat more when eating alone, 3) it's not feasible when eating is tied to work events or travel, and 4) on days when I did eat carbs I got significant temporary side effects, I couldn't just take a one day break for Thanksgiving and Christmas (and birthdays, and Easter, and anniversaries, and...). I managed it for all of 2017, then stopped. Lost 20 pounds, gained 10 back. Then in early 2020 I cut out almost all refined oils and sugar and reduced refined grains my more than half, and lost that 10 again. This January I started 16:8 IF and lost another 5. I'd need to lose another 25 to hit an officially healthy BMI. With IF, as with keto previously, I have more energy, better mood, and less hunger between meals. Also, with cutting out refined ingredients, I don't even enjoy most fast food and sweets anymore, they taste fake and have no depth of flavor.

I also notice that I never fidget anymore when sitting still. I noticed this change during grad school, which is about when I started gaining most of the weight, when for most of my life before that I tapped my foot to the point of regularly needing to be told to stop shaking the car. This is apparently equivalent to hundreds of extra calories burned per day according to some studies, and if I could somehow upregulate fidgeting I would apparently lose my remaining 20 pounds in under a year, without any other changes! But of course I can't do that, and I have no idea why this changed, or if there's any meaningful causal relation between that and my weight. Just one of many unconscious factors I've noticed.

Comment by AnthonyC on Fermi Fingers · 2021-08-16T14:48:16.191Z · LW · GW

Personally I am very slow at typing on my phone. Always have been, I'm old at heart. I also find inputting values with large exponents to be inconvenient and slow. So if I'm not by my laptop, I tend to do quick calculations in my head, then only use my phone to double check order of magnitude. I actually prefer pencil and paper to typing on my phone a lot of the time.

Edit to add: My wife prefers to use her calculator, and is usually a tad slower than me, but does catch errors I miss, maybe one time in 10? 

Comment by AnthonyC on Covid 8/12: The Worst Is Over · 2021-08-14T19:46:13.626Z · LW · GW

Manufacture? No. Use? Only at lab scale, in animals or a few patients for small studies. Design? Yes, and the design process did not require any additional new tech nor the resources of a large pharmaceutical company.

Yes, old school vaccines have a lot more history behind them and large organizations were more familiar with them and so they were better equipped to get them through trials and scaled up for deployment. But the mRNA vaccines that did make it through seem to be more effective than those old school vaccines.

Of those 18, how many actually failed trials vs. other reasons for not having come to market (didn't get funding, didn't have the pre-existing expertise needed, didn't move fast enough relative to competitors)? Also, four of those 18 were BioNTech, and counting that as a success and three failures seems like a mistake when it's the same company trying multiple things initially and then proceeding with the best one.

How many old-school vaccine development efforts didn't pan out, or only got approved because of extensive government support in their countries of origin?

My take is that we have had, for at least a handful of years, the ability to design a new mRNA vaccine against a novel virus in a matter of days, test it in a matter of months, and scale it up in less than a year. Instead, the companies founded to develop that kind of technology had to go in a different direction (targeting cancer), and without the pandemic they would have languished much longer without bringing any mRNA therapeutics to market at all. The pandemic cut through enough bureaucracy that they got a product out and built manufacturing capacity, and now that they have done that, they're quickly able to repeat that success for other diseases. 

I do not expect the pandemic to lead to a flurry of other new traditional vaccines, because those haven't suddenly gotten easier or cheaper to develop, we just threw more resources at them for covid.

As far as I can tell, if we had had better regulatory and research policy, we could have lived in the world where Moderna or BioNTech had been working on infectious disease mRNA vaccines all along, and launched an improved flu vaccine back in 2016 or so, so that by early 2020 they already had some manufacturing capacity and supply chains in place that they could expand and replicate (with at least the medical community knowing this was a thing that had been used millions of times). I do not believe that that world ever had to have made any technological advances that ours didn't make, yet they would have been able to mass produce our most effective covid vaccines much, much faster than we did. They would know that they knew how to fight a virus.

Edit to add: I worry that many people (1) think this is what a worst-case-scenario pandemic looks like, and (2) think that next time there's a new disease, the solution will be to mask up and shut down indefinitely, instead of immediately designing an mRNA vaccine, conducting large trials as fast as possible, and pre-emptively manufacturing hundreds of millions of dose so they're ready to go ASAP, with an expectation that all relevant regulatory agencies will work round the clock to remove all unnecessary roadblocks to approval.

Comment by AnthonyC on Covid 8/12: The Worst Is Over · 2021-08-14T13:34:29.772Z · LW · GW

Now I realize there's another: the mRNA vaccines are not that new, they simply never made it public before. Just something that dawned on me.

Early papers on mRNA therapeutics date back to the late 1980s/early 1990s, with a number of small scale tests and trials starting by the late 1990s. Making custom arbitrary mRNA has been affordable/feasible since at least the mid-2000s. BioNTech was founded in 2008, and Moderna was founded in 2011, which means the relevant tech at that point was already far enough along to warrant founding companies that were going to need a lot of funding to bring anything to market. But instead of making vaccines targeting infectious diseases, they both mostly targeted cancer immunotherapy. I assume that's because those are the treatments they were able to get funding for, even though it's a much harder problem technically.

I don't know when the first year was they they could have designed a successful vaccine against a novel virus in a day and a half, but the odds of that happening just before covid hit are obviously very low, especially since more recent trials and studies are showing that we can also quickly develop (better) vaccines against the flu and malaria, and the success with covid was not an unlikely outcome.

Comment by AnthonyC on Covid 8/5: Much Ado About Nothing · 2021-08-05T21:43:29.704Z · LW · GW

RE: That example of a company requiring only the vaccinated to go into the office: It could be worse. I know of at least one company where they are letting anyone who declares themselves to be afraid of getting covid stay home, but are having everyone else come back. As you might imagine, the former group has a much higher vaccination rate than the latter.

Comment by AnthonyC on The World is Continuous, Not Discrete · 2021-08-03T13:47:38.701Z · LW · GW

This is true, but implementing it as general policy may benefit from a multilevel world model, where you're aware of the continuous underlying reality but set discrete thresholds anyway. The space of states may be nearly continuous, but that is true on many axes at once, whereas the number of actions we can take in a given window of time to move along those axes is bounded, and we need to make discrete choices of how to prioritize. And ideally, set aside time periodically to review the prioritization process. That last one seems to be where a lot of people stumble, recognizing that the approximations aren't eternal.

My own experience is that in many contexts there models live in different peoples' heads. Biologists and (most?) doctors know there is a spectrum of health, but use simpler discrete models for treatment decisions. It creates its own problems (when insurers and regulatory agencies enforce them rigidly, for example), but also lets them help more people on average.

Comment by AnthonyC on Cherry Pit Storage · 2021-08-03T13:40:56.077Z · LW · GW

Personally I don't mind spitting out the pits at all, but for cases where it may be annoying (like in a fruit salad) I use a cherry pitter with a hopper:

Fun, too. Though it does tend to spray some cherry juice around.

Comment by AnthonyC on Brief thoughts on inefficient writing systems · 2021-08-03T13:22:32.235Z · LW · GW

In principle, couldn't you start writing in the International Phonetic Alphabet right now, and then right a script with an English dictionary to convert back and forth to standard English? Maybe providing prompts when you run the script to decide which regional dialect/variation you're trying for, and which homophone?

Comment by AnthonyC on A Contamination Theory of the Obesity Epidemic · 2021-07-30T15:26:25.829Z · LW · GW

My layman's understanding (and personal experience based on self-experimentation over the past decade trying to get to a healthy weight range) has been that this is a threshold problem. For generations we've been gradually making intentional and unintentional changes to diet, activity, and environment that make it a little harder for our bodies to regulate weight, until eventually we use up the slack and start actually gaining.

I think this is important, because if true, it means that there will never be a silver bullet, nor a single solution at either an individual or societal level. It also means the solutions don't have to look like the proximal cause that "pushed us over the edge" if it's easier to reverse changes that happened much earlier, or if we need to do other things to overcome sources of hysteresis in our bodies' weight-regulation systems. We have a lot of possible levers: Reducing pollution, eliminating exposure to certain chemicals, curing some infections, altering diet composition and methods of food preparation, altering timing and number of meals, altering speed and social context of eating, reducing various forms of stress, varying all the different dimensions of type and duration of exercise, changing how we sleep, changing indoor lighting and air quality, changing time spent outdoors, improving hydration, reducing chronic inflammation, and that's just what I thought of in two minutes. It is hard to do plan and stick to enough self-experimentation over a long enough time to find out what actually works for an individual, even for very smart and educated people.

Comment by AnthonyC on Brief thoughts on inefficient writing systems · 2021-07-30T14:37:15.214Z · LW · GW

"You aren't going to change English in the same way you aren't going to change QWERTY layouts."

I think you (for some value of "you") could do that in an otherwise-stable world, over a long enough timescale, but other technological changes will obviate the need for it to soon to do so. Things like natural language processing, automated translation, brain-computer interfaces, cochlear implants and other interventions making deafness rarer.

Although now I'm wondering if any sign languages have their own dedicated written forms, and if so, what they're like. Also, whether anyone has created video-to-text software for sign languages, even if that needs to include a machine translation step to convert to a spoken language's written form.

Comment by AnthonyC on Brief thoughts on inefficient writing systems · 2021-07-30T13:58:09.896Z · LW · GW

I think there may be a lot more insight to pull out of East Asian language case studies.

You can't simply reform Chinese to be phonemic, because written pinyin doesn't give you enough information to distinguish among the massive number of homophones (which you get from context clues in spoken language that aren't available in writing) in a language where each character is a single syllable, and most words are ~2 characters on average, with very few longer than 4. Also, even though this is becoming less important in the modern world, you lose the advantage of mutually incomprehensible dialects being able to share a common written language. When the PRC, which wasn't exactly in favor of classical scholarship, tried to modernize the language, the result was simplified characters, not an alphabet. (Side note: Mandarin has some of the easiest grammar of any language I've come across, and I wouldn't be surprised if that is tied into the use of very short words with almost no inflection/word form changes based on grammar, and also to the maintenance of ideographic writing).

From there, we have Japan and Korea, which started out importing Chinese characters, but have since diverged.

I don't know the history in detail, but Korea created a phonemic alphabet centuries ago, and went back and forth a few times. I'd be curious how much data we have on the results. For one thing, it's easier to learn, but also less stable over time as pronunciations change.

Japan uses multiple writing systems at once, both ideographic and phonetic. I don't know when each was created, when each is chosen today, or how this affects language learners. What does the data look like there? 

I do think it would be great to reform non-phonemic alphabetic written languages like English. That seems closer to a pure dead weight loss, a historical accident of having imported a foreign alphabet at the beginning of  written English. Although... given how different registers of vocabulary in English tend to have different parent language families, I wonder if that might not add its own confusions too? Unlikely, but possible?

As an older example, there's the Rosetta stone and the use of Demotic by linguists to translate previously-indecipherable heiroglyphics. Not sure what the lesson there would be, but seems relevant?

Comment by AnthonyC on Delta variant: we should probably be re-masking · 2021-07-24T14:16:31.159Z · LW · GW

Came here to say exactly this, glad someone beat me to it.


Also, I can't quite tell if the OP is recommending wearing masks or mandating wearing masks

Comment by AnthonyC on Should government set interest rates? · 2021-07-08T15:49:02.538Z · LW · GW

Set interest rates in what sense? 

As Dagon noted, it doesn't, in general, only in some specific cases. It doesn't control the interest rate on its own debt, even in countries like the US where the government controls the currency in which its debt is denominated.

I'm not an economist, but I think central banks would do better to focus on something like NGDP level targeting rather than trying to use interest rates to control specific metrics of inflation. That's a narrower question, but maybe closer to the one you're trying to ask?

There are also laws against lending at extremely high interest rates, or other aspects of loan terms, or discussions of the effective interest rates charged by payday lenders, which are less about monetary policy principles and more about the innumeracy of most people and society not addressing that innumeracy, or the desperation of its more vulnerable members, in useful and practical ways. It's banning a product perceived as dangerous by those with the banning power instead of finding other ways to get people not to  buy the product.

I think there are also much deeper questions tied into any discussion of interest rates, some of them very old. What is a debt? When is it just to incur a debt or impose a repayment obligation on someone or refuse to pay a debt? When is it immoral or coercive to make a loan, and what steps are permissible to ensure repayment?

Comment by AnthonyC on In-group loyalty is social cement · 2021-07-08T14:32:48.831Z · LW · GW

In sales the relationship building goes in many directions. One salesperson today may be selling company A's product, but may be trying to sell you company B's product next year, or a completely different product category. They have a relationship with their current employer, yes, but also a set of relationships with past customers, both companies and also individuals they've sold to (and those individuals migrate over time to new roles and new companies). As a buyer, I'm more likely to buy from someone who, in the past, has been honest about whether their company's product is a good fit for me. I've worked with many successful salespeople who are honest about not being the best fit for a customers' needs. This is especially important when a firm intends to sell to the same customers on an ongoing basis, whether support services or new products or versions. Salespeople will also follow such cues better as long as their commissions depend in part on retention, not just initial sales. It's hardly universal, but it does happen.

Also: loyalty to a firm relies on believing the firm will also be loyal to you, and I don't know how common that is, but I have not yet worked anywhere that engendered such a feeling, especially in sales.

Edit: these days the real-world resolution would seem to be that both competing companies move to a SaaS model, reducing the costs of trying and switching products so that customers self-sort over time until they find one they're happy with, while also incentivizing each database company to continue improving to keep customers happy.

Comment by AnthonyC on How can there be a godless moral world ? · 2021-06-25T10:55:37.046Z · LW · GW

I'm not going to argue with you. I still stand by the rest of my comment.

Comment by AnthonyC on How can there be a godless moral world ? · 2021-06-22T13:10:42.214Z · LW · GW

"Philosophical arguments, explanations that the world is not moral, better definitions of morality, they're all nice but in the end, you won't convince me that a monkey birthed a human.
If I am making a mistake in believing that you believe that the monkey birthed a human, I want to know what that mistake is in order to learn about evolution."

Based on this I have to conclude that @gilch was right about the importance of starting with epistemic rationality, and going from there. Practice on the easier problems before you tackle the hard ones, for the same reason that catechism and Sunday school generally teach children and recent converts the nice parables and ignore Job and other complex and harsh passages until much later.

Whether or not you believe it actually happened that way, if you don't understand how humans and apes could have arisen from a common ancestor over the past 5 million years or so, if you don't understand how all life on Earth could have originated from some of the first strands of self-replicating RNA billions of years ago, if it isn't clear how human moral instincts could have arisen via biological evolution for millions of years living in hunter-gatherer bands or how our ideas about those instincts could have been honed into modern forms by millennia of cultural evolution living in agricultural and pastoral communities, then you haven't understood the concept of evolution and aren't ready to explore the question of morality in a godless world. 

There are many good places to start. Mine was the Sequences, before they became this book. There are lots of other options that will appeal more or less to different people and be easier or harder for you to enjoy reading and stick with. Learn as much as you can about everything that interests you, and as much as is useful about everything that does not. Go forth and study.

When you are ready, maybe don't start with your own faith. Read about Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, and how law relates to different religious and metaphysical and social systems. Read about what meaning is, isn't, can be, and can't be, from a metarational perspective. Then think about the questions you asked here. We'll all be here to talk then or answer questions you have along the way.

Comment by AnthonyC on How can there be a godless moral world ? · 2021-06-21T23:33:40.908Z · LW · GW

That's true, good point, though I have a hard time interpreting "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" as referring to the plants being burned and not people being hurt.

Comment by AnthonyC on How can there be a godless moral world ? · 2021-06-21T20:49:47.843Z · LW · GW

I think the whole point is that by your worldview, what you think and feel and claim to know are irrelevant. You have no agency in choosing what to believe about what is good, should God choose to tell you. You talk about "the real God," but every Abrahamic religions agrees that God is ineffable and unknowable in almost all ways no matter how much gets revealed through prophets and messiahs and saints and miracles.

The Bible gives plenty of examples of God lying, deceiving, betting, changing his mind. I don't know how much you're coming at this from a fundamentalist viewpoint (Bible as literally God's words, as opposed to human interpretation of divine revelation). But if the Bible is literally God's words, then since it is internally inconsistent, it cannot be used as a reliable source of moral rules (as Shakespeare said, the devil can quote scripture to suit his purposes), only best guesses. If it is human interpretation, then we should assign its passages as much credibility as we assign any other interpretation of weird phenomena experienced by the ancients: not much, since we readily discount their views on almost everything else regarding the nature of this universe. Either way, we're left in a world where even if he does decide it, God hasn't actually given us a way to know what is or isn't good. We have to guess, and be rewarded or damned forever in response to the quality of our guesses, but we have to do it while deliberately not using the faculties we use to determine everything else in life about what is true.

Comment by AnthonyC on How can there be a godless moral world ? · 2021-06-21T20:36:01.680Z · LW · GW

I would add to pay close attention to the part about God hardening Pharoah's heart in order to ensure that he will refuse to let Moses' people go. God deliberately ensures the course of events that leads to the genocide of the newborns.

Also, the story of the fall from Eden starts from the premise that before the fall, man was incapable of knowing good from evil. Which, if God decides which is which, means man was incapable of knowing he was supposed to obey God. Then man disobeys god, and all humanity forever must suffer for it, because God said so. This isn't a God that wants people not to suffer, it is one who sets things up so that great suffering is inevitable.

Comment by AnthonyC on How can there be a godless moral world ? · 2021-06-21T20:29:33.377Z · LW · GW

I realize Hell as commonly understand in recent centuries doesn't really show up in the Bible, but I suggest reading Psalm 58, and then reading the part of St. Augustine's Summa Theologiae where he discusses how the blessed will rejoice in the suffering of the wicked. 

If hell isn't as bad as actual torture, then the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13 must be both very metaphorical and very exaggerated. I highly doubt a priest would want the faithful to discount other parables so much - we don't interpret the Good Samaritan's story to mean "Helping people is great and all, but really is mostly supererogatory." That kind of thinking is something that St Francis of Assisi railed against, and that the camel/eye of a needle metaphor warns against.

Also, going back to St Augustine, he believed in Purgatory, which I assume would be less bad or at least no worse than Hell in some sense(s) other than just temporal, and said of the cleansing fires of purgatory that "yet will that fire be more grievous than anything that man can suffer in this life whatsoever."

Hell as the absence of God reads like Limbo from Dante's inferno, or like the Hell CS Lewis describes. If you know of any premodern account of Hell that aligns with this view, let me know. Otherwise, what you're discussing is a modern change to Christian doctrine, which if valid means either God lied to the early church, or changed his mind, or he takes Matthew 16:19 very seriously. In the first two cases God proves himself untrustworthy as a lawgiver (though we already knew that from many cases where God deceives people, sometimes to terrible effect), while the latter case would imply God turned the duty of establishing morality over to mankind.

Comment by AnthonyC on How can there be a godless moral world ? · 2021-06-21T14:25:28.059Z · LW · GW

It isn't clear from your post how the existence of God relates to the world being moral. It could be:

  1. God decides what is moral, and only god's decisions on the matter count, either because of some inherent property of divinity or your definition of morality or because of consequences God imposes
  2. God has no choice in what is or isn't moral, god's nature or the definition of morality predetermine that, but god somehow makes it real, or meaningful, or existent in the world
  3. God created a world in accordance with whatever morality is, and a non-god-created world wouldn't have been , and so would be vanishingly unlikely to have moral value

I've mostly come across the first line of thinking in the past, not exclusively, but enough that I'll assume it here. Let's try a least-convenient-possible-world thought experiment. As you requested, let's assume there exists exactly one God. This weekend, a joyful chorus rings out from the sky, and a beam of light shines down onto each and every human, young and old, and an angel appears before each of us and pronounces that God wants to reveal the true divine commandments to the people of Earth, which we have forgotten. (If you want to add more conditions to make the evidence more convincing that this experience is genuine and not aliens or delusions or drugs or something, be my guest). Actually, God says, the Aztecs were the people that originally received the true revelation, the world was made through divine sacrifice, human sacrifice is needed to pay the debt, and we have a lot of accrued debt we haven't been paying off, so make with the pyramid-building and heart-removing and live-flaying.  God gives no details on the afterlife, if any, or on what happens if we fail to carry out these orders.

What's your next move?

If you believe such a scenario is impossible, that God couldn't do such a thing, then God lacks the freedom to choose the moral law. How, then, could that law depend on God's existence?

If you believe God simply wouldn't do such a thing, why not? I don't know of any religion whose gods don't demand some form of unpleasant sacrifice from their followers, so what precludes this one, given that God has freedom of choice?

If you experienced this and did believe God had made such a revelation, and so did everyone else, would you obey? Would you expect and want others to obey? Is that the world you want to live in? 

My own opinion is that in this world, I would have a moral duty to defy this order, and if possible, overthrow and replace God, because this one isn't worthy of my worship or obedience. But I can only say that because I reject the premise that whatever is moral has no dependance on what any particular God wants.

Comment by AnthonyC on Are bread crusts healthier? · 2021-06-21T13:45:17.443Z · LW · GW

What kind of roll was it? And do you, personally, like the crust or crumb of said type of roll better? What about when you were a kid?

Over the past two years I've cut most of the more industrially refined oils, grains, sugars, and salt, as well as added natural and artificial flavors. Within a few months my taste buds shifted in several ways, and a lot of popular (in the US) foods I used to like now taste bland, off, unbalanced, or fake to me. It made me realize how much more, in the past, we could trust our sense of taste to tell us what was good for us. And as much as we try to follow the research on what humans know about good nutrition, it's really hard to find good advice that's actually useful and actionable. Bodies are complicated, there are a lot of variables, and the outcomes we really care about are ones that we sum up over a whole lifetime, not the ones we can easily and quickly measure.

So if the bread thought is about unpleasantness and virtue, I think it's probably cultural. Maybe something like that was once adaptive in a world of scarce good food, maybe it originated in all the diet crazes of the last few generations, maybe it comes from various bits of religious history. But it's also true in general that we get more calories from cooked food than raw food, so I wouldn't be terribly surprised if there's a mental link between more burnt-->more cooked--> more nutritious coming from that way as well, though that's pure just-so speculation from me.

That said, I do think there's real value (for health, physical and mental) in having a varied diet, and part of what we do when we feed kids is train them to accept variety and learn to enjoy variety so they can feed themselves a healthy diet later in life. At first we feed them a bland nutrient-rich fluid , then simple purees, and gradually shift away from that to new flavors and textures.

Comment by AnthonyC on There is no No Evidence · 2021-05-20T12:09:56.625Z · LW · GW

Yes, but I think making the distinction that way is going to be much harder for many people outside this community. I know very few people who don't read this website who even have any sort of probabilistic conception of "evidence" and "belief," and I have had (very conventionally well educated in STEM fields) people get angry at me for talking about things that way.

We are familiar with the ideas of rational evidence, scientific evidence, legal evidence, and so on, screening off some types of evidence for certain purposes, but most people aren't, at least not explicitly, and as far as I can tell have no idea that that's what our societal institutions are doing or why. 

Comment by AnthonyC on [deleted post] 2021-05-18T10:47:19.497Z

I expect any private business that implemented surge pricing on things like food without government backing would face serious repercussions - social and legal. Most people have no understanding of, or interest in, economics, and hate surge pricing, and see at as price gouging. Being in some sense wrong about it is irrelevant - the accusations, and public pressure, and possible legal defense costs if the gouging accusations make it that far, would get most businesses to back down.

Also: not everyone has much choice about when they shop. I know at my local supermarkets the residents of nearby assisted living facilities and senior centers get bussed in once or twice a week at fixed times - a vulnerable population on fixed incomes. They, as well as people working multiple jobs juggling child care and public transit schedules, have the least choice and the least spare resources to pay higher prices. 

That said, I think free delivery (or at least curbside pickup) will be commonplace long before the next pandemic. I doubt Amazon will stop with just Whole Foods for groceries, and others will need to follow suit. Covid is already accelerating this trend.

Comment by AnthonyC on [deleted post] 2021-05-18T10:34:46.756Z

I second that we don't really care about the flu. Setting aside the question of how much of a mistake that is, I'd just point to that we simply haven't tried to throw extra money at, and remove regulatory barriers from, using mRNA tech to make a better flu vaccine that can be rapidly updated without needing to predict what strains will be common, months in advance, and may be able to include a lot more strains at once. We still haven't committed to doing that or even made any significant public noises about it, now that we have so much more data on how well mRNA vaccines work.

That said: I hear Moderna is hoping to combine an annual flu vaccine with a covid booster, which is a great idea, but I hope that won't be the only option for either. I stopped getting the conventional flu vaccine after about 20 consecutive years where I was sick for about 10 days after doing so. Since then (and before that) I've gotten the flu and, for me at least, the actual flu's symptoms tend to be less severe than that. Covid has not given me confidence in Moderna's and Pfizer's ability or interest in properly calibrating dosing to minimize unnecessary vaccine side effects.

Comment by AnthonyC on Vaccine Rollout as Wheeled-Luggage Problem · 2021-05-15T02:03:42.627Z · LW · GW

"First, we need to consider planning and regulation failures prior to 2020. What failures of planning and regulation prevented us from setting up sufficient emergency vaccine production capacity before COVID-19 emerged? Could we have had a global network of pandemic vaccine factories on standby back in 2015?"

I am of the opinion that such failures are more than sufficient, given that there have been successful human trials for mRNA vaccines (for cancer immunotherapy, mostly, AFAICT as a layman) dating back to the early 2000s, and even more so to the early 2010s. The fact that designing the Moderna vaccine took two days and could be scaled up in a matter of months once it became clear that the vaccine would work and get used implies that all the critical technical and production problems already had known solutions. It would require a very large coincidence for there to have been very significant problems that just happened to get solved or become solvable within a few months of the first pandemic of this scale in generations.

But no, I don't think there is a reasonable regulatory and planning framework that would have vaccine factories "on standby" in case of a pandemic. That would be very inefficient. Rather, I think a better regulatory and planning framework would have long since approved and scaled up at least a few and possibly many mRNA vaccines/other therapeutics, such that the factories that were already in use and operating profitably could be quickly repurposed or duplicated. This version of Earth would already have established protocols for testing and approving mRNA therapeutics, reducing the hand-wringing CYA antics of our regulatory agencies in the face of what outsiders saw as clear evidence of safety and efficacy. It would also have already built public trust and awareness of mRNA therapeutics, reducing hesitancy in much of the population. 

Personally I really don't care whether the world-as-it-was-in-January-2020 could have developed a vaccine more than a couple of months faster given better emergency regulatory changes or government funding or whatever. The correct solution to a pandemic is to have a better designed our regulatory infrastructure, and the innovation culture built around it, going back decades. We could have recognized that the FDA correctly declined to approve thalidomide in the 1960s instead of ignoring that and adding new hurdles for subsequent drugs. We could have learned from the AIDS crisis that it really doesn't matter what group first suffers from a disease. We could have not thrown away the already-developed well-regarded pandemic playbook the US developed within the past decade.

Comment by AnthonyC on Is driving worth the risk? · 2021-05-15T01:01:03.258Z · LW · GW

The standard $10M figure is not about the value of a life. I don't value my or any other human life at $X/yr,. I value them much more than that. What I don't and can't do (individually, or for everyone as a collective) is try to spend much more than that on preserving them, because the limiting factor isn't intrinsic value it's resource availability. I'm not going to pretend my life is anything close to an optimal arrangement of my resources for preserving said life, but even if it were, I don't think I'd get as far as "never drive" by the time I ran out of money. 

Comment by AnthonyC on Convict Conditioning Book Review · 2021-04-10T13:36:17.401Z · LW · GW

On the shoulder squat; I agree with you. I can do that no problem, since I was a kid, but many people can't. I know several yoga teachers who have completely removed shoulder pose from their routines for that reason.

Comment by AnthonyC on Monastery and Throne · 2021-04-09T15:46:51.425Z · LW · GW

Yeah, I totally left that part out. I don't remember the specific situation, but it had to do with starting from a base assumption of factors like institutional inadequacy meaning I expect lots of seriously suboptimal decisions that lead to bad results that no one wanted, and public figures often being incompetent at their supposed jobs because they're picked by selection criteria force them to optimize for something way different from the supposed job requirements, and everyone just constantly talking past each other without even trying to really understand the other side (either due to ignorance, lack of interest, or various forms of group identity signaling).

For context, on an individual level, she's vastly better than me at intuiting what other people are thinking and how they're likely to act. And she does understand the social psychology of groups of people very well. She just doesn't instinctively consider politics in terms of the dynamics and evolution of systems.

Also note: after years of grappling with ideas like that, I've gotten much closer to not always being depressed by this kind of thing, or seeing it as an inescapable trap (and trying, whenever possible, to focus on the side of "Wow, look what we managed to accomplish anyway!"). But it definitely had that effect on me for a long time.

Comment by AnthonyC on Preventing overcharging by prosecutors · 2021-04-08T22:54:30.619Z · LW · GW

On those points I completely agree.

Comment by AnthonyC on Covid 4/1: Vaccine Passports · 2021-04-08T22:53:39.340Z · LW · GW

I agree. I'm not sure if I said otherwise anywhere, but if I did, it was a mistake. I do not support enforcing any kind of vaccine passport. I might, if the vaccine rollout were much slower than it currently is and there were an institution I trusted enough to roll out and enforce one thoughtfully enough. But as things are in the US, we're approaching the point where anyone who wants a vaccine is allowed to get one. To me that means that within a month or two, it mostly stops being a valid argument that the unvaccinated-by-choice are putting anyone but themselves at risk, unless they're working directly with vulnerable and un-vaccinatable populations.

Comment by AnthonyC on Monastery and Throne · 2021-04-08T22:18:53.764Z · LW · GW

This explanation of the experience of Rationalist vs non-Rationalist thinking accurately describes a lot of my experiences in recent years. The following are the first examples that come to mind, of interactions with very smart people, good at thinking, who don't identify with the Rationalist community.

Something my wife last month: "Is this how you think about politics all the time? No wonder you're depressed."

Something I told a coworker two years ago: "Most people really, truly aren't consequentialists. They don't do things because they expect a certain outcome, they do them because that's what's customary in that situation in their community, full stop. That results in behavior that looks like they're implementing something like separate magisteria for each context."

Something I told a different coworker three years ago: "Most people don't actually know how to think. They do something that superficially looks like thinking, but isn't."

Something I told yet another coworker four years ago, "The client asked me X, which is the wrong question for what they're trying to accomplish, but it's his boss that made him ask it, and he's not socially allowed to challenge it, so I answered Y, which hopefully will trickle back in a way that gets the message across about what they actually need to ask, which is Z." Result: they came back and asked Z a few months later. Note: this is dangerously close to trying to "nudge the public" and I'd much prefer to have have to do things like that.

Comment by AnthonyC on Is there any plausible mechanisms for why taking an mRNA vaccine might be undesirable for a young healthy adult? · 2021-04-08T20:24:21.759Z · LW · GW

I'm not a biologist, and bodies are complicated enough that I'd like an answer to this too.


But to a first glance from a layman: I have a hard time understanding what mechanisms there might be, especially age-dependent ones. The sugars, salts, acids, and stabilizers all either occur naturally in the body or have been used medically long enough to have their risk profiles known. I don't know about the specific lipids used, can't comment there. mRNA only survives in the body for a matter of hours, after that what's present is just the proteins you made from the mRNA, which should work the same way as identical viral-derived proteins would, generating an immune response by the same mechanism.

Comment by AnthonyC on Preventing overcharging by prosecutors · 2021-04-08T15:00:23.068Z · LW · GW

It takes a lot of effort to understand all the evidence that goes into all the cases where a prosecutor charges people to evaluate the prosecutor. If you have the prosecutor summarize the strength of the evidence that evaluation gets easier.

That's true, but I think you're being very optimistic, both in the ability of defendants and defense council to ignore or evaluate information the other side in an adversarial system claims is their true opinion, and in the ability and interest of the public in properly evaluating the job performance of prosecutors in local elections based on actual data. I think both are possible, and would be very valuable, but can't be achieved without much deeper and broader reforms to make the underlying justice system more open, transparent, and trustworthy.

I don't think you can easily do a trial because it's a systematic intervention that needs to run a few years for people to adept to the new system before it leads it's provides most of it's benefits.

Sorry, I didn't mean a trial as an experiment, I meant literally running legal trials this way, where in general the prosecutor that tries a case is not the one that produces the conviction probability estimate. Then, grade each both on the accuracy of their assessments, and separately on their conviction rates in trials they prosecute. I'd say either the one trying the case or a separate third prosecutor should have final say on which charges to bring. I think this would eliminate a lot of the potential for perverse incentives.

Comment by AnthonyC on Is there a mu-like term that means something like "why is this any of my business?" · 2021-04-08T14:46:12.871Z · LW · GW

It's very hard to have a word for a concept that doesn't exist in the cultural milieu you share with your conversation partner. Here on LW it might be relatively easy, I'm sure we could coin one, and maybe we use it enough in our own circles and adjacent to those circles that it starts to trickle out. Words are paintbrushes, and all that.

For now I'm amused just imagining trying to explain the concept of "teleology of forming an opinion" to, say, some of my less inquisitive and curious aunts and uncles. I think (after the maximum amount of time I'd be able to sustain the conversation) they'd come away with something like "Oh, he's not really interested in current events, and has his head in the clouds thinking about abstract things I can't understand."

That said, I think a lot of the people I talk to would understand if I said, "I think having an opinion either way is a distraction, since I don't know enough to add anything that hasn't already been said, and in any case it's not something that I can affect or that affects me in any way. [This next sentence is one I would add, but may not apply to you, IDK] And since there are so many stories where similar things do happen, and others where they didn't but people think they did, I care a lot more about why the heck these kinds of things keep happening." Then the next time something comes up, like "What do you think about Meghan Markle?" or "What do you think should/will happen to each member of the Loughlin family?" you can say, "Remember what I said about Woody Allen? I feel the same way about this." You change the local culture by putting that idea into the air enough times that it becomes a concept you can point to.

Comment by AnthonyC on Preventing overcharging by prosecutors · 2021-04-07T11:28:59.254Z · LW · GW

that's not the issue my post is addressing. 

Sorry, then I think I made a bad assumption about why you were trying to solve the problem of overcharging. I added that at the end of my comment and probably shouldn't have. Still, it's not the reason I initially rejected the proposal. I honestly don't think your proposal actually solves the overcharging problem or would make plea deals much fairer.

Then when I'm in the court room my lawyer can ask the prosecutor "Why did you bring that case when you only think that there's a 10% chance that my client will be found guilty?" Journalists could write story "Prosecutor Smith brings a case against Joe to trial even so he only believes that there's a 10% chance that Joe would be convicted". 

Journalists could write that, true. But if we're relying on juries and voters to properly evaluate that kind of statistic as a reflection on the prosecutor's job performance or the case's merits, then hopefully they'll also understand that the data point is immaterial to the question of whether the defendant is guilty. I can be very confident a policeman is guilty of murder, or a politician is guilty of accepting a bribe, or a frat boy is guilty of rape, and still correctly believe the probability of conviction is low. I'm not sure how a court would regard such an argument, but to this layman it seems that to whatever extent the percentage is based on the evidence, giving the number as an additional data point is double-counting evidence (or a way of introducing information based on evidence not presented at trial or inadmissible at trial, which is just as bad or worse), and to whatever degree it is based on assumptions about the judge and jury's behavior and thinking, it's speculation.

Overall I'm very skeptical that the enforcement mechanism you proposed to incentivize prosecutors to be honest is anywhere near strong enough. It might be better to scale the prosecutor's pay to how well calibrated their estimates are, for those cases that make it to trial, with additional penalties like removal from office for being too far off. Or better yet, do a literal randomized trial where the prosecutor who offers the plea deal and makes the estimate is different from the prosecutor who goes to trial, and evaluate the former by accuracy and the latter by conviction rate. 

Comment by AnthonyC on Is there a mu-like term that means something like "why is this any of my business?" · 2021-04-06T14:22:32.574Z · LW · GW

"I haven't taken the time to look into it" can sometimes serve the role of redirecting the conversation, but doesn't convey the general sense of "It's a waste of both our time to even be discussing this."

In the specific case of Woody Allen, you could try something like, " I don't know if he's guilty, legally or morally, but either way I think the real problem is that we live in a society where it's likely enough to even be plausible." 

But yeah - I don't know of such a word or phrase. I think establishing one would be much easier in a community where most people were familiar with the kind of ideas in Politics is the Mind-Killer and Your Price for Joining. I say that because I think most people are viewing these kinds of discussions as being, not about the factual question but about tribal affiliation and group identity. In that context, just refusing to state an opinion either looks suspicious or like you're trying to seem wise and high status, like a judge.

Comment by AnthonyC on Preventing overcharging by prosecutors · 2021-04-06T14:02:40.784Z · LW · GW

How would prosecutors be trained and incentivized to make and report accurate predictions? Who would be funding the defense attorneys, especially overworked public defenders, to learn to properly evaluate prosecutor's claims? The US legal system already isn't exactly known for being honest today even in terms of things like rules about disclosing exculpatory evidence to the defense. Also, the famous saying about indicting a ham sandwich is anecdotal evidence about how much credit (grand) jurors give prosecutors' likelihood assessments in a pre-trial, non-adversarial environment, and I don't find it encouraging. 

Also, I understand that one of the big issues with plea deals is that it is often in a defendent's individual interest to plead guilty to a lesser charge they're innocent of, even if they're pretty sure they wouldn't be found guilty at trial, either because they're risk averse (not necessarily unreasonable when years of your life are on the line), or because the agreed-on punishment will be less than the time in jail, and cost in fees, they'd incur just by going to trial even if exonerated. Data on likelihood of conviction wouldn't help with that.

At a more basic level, I think this solves the wrong problem. If, as you say, it is in society's best interests to keep legal costs low, then it follows that there is little benefit to society from the larger penalties imposed by overcharging defendants. This suggests that the problem lies in the criminal code and sentencing guidelines, and that these need serious updating. 

And given how biased our legal system is and has historically been, I believe a proposal based on conviction odds has basically the same problems as current AI tools for criminal sentencing and risk assessment. Large racial and economic biases, among other problems.

Edit to add: I do like the idea of giving defendents honest info about their likelihood of conviction if a case goes to trial. I'm extremely skeptical of the idea of having prosecutors provide that evidence, and wary of letting prosecutors, juries, or judges see it.