Comment by Doug_S.2 on Two More Things to Unlearn from School · 2007-07-12T19:21:08.000Z · LW · GW

My father is a college professor and he's going to be teaching an introduction to engineering course to future electrical engineering students. He's planning on making the students learn basic electromagnetic theory by forcing them to try to perform their own experiments with a pile of stuff that would have existed around 1900 or so.

"Today's assignment: In 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted discovered a relationship between electricity and magnetism. Replicate his experiment and demonstrate that a relationship exists."

Hopefully, some student will eventually connect a wire up to a battery and put a compass near the wire, causing the compass needle to deflect. (The compass is included in the collection of stuff the students will be given.)

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Open Thread · 2007-07-03T03:07:11.000Z · LW · GW

This is interesting and somewhat relevant to the topic of this blog:

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Are Your Enemies Innately Evil? · 2007-06-26T23:30:50.000Z · LW · GW

I agree; there may very well be the rare innately evil person, but promoting or implementing an ideology that is based on false premises that turns out to have evil consequences does not require "innate" evil. The 9/11 hijackers might very well be described as "neurologically intact people with beliefs that have utterly destroyed their sanity" but, if the beliefs they had about the state of the world were actually true (which they weren't!) then many value systems would endorse their actions.

If there were a diety that condemns unbelievers to Hell and cannot be caused to do otherwise, it's not hard to argue that it it is morally necessary to kill people who try to persuade people to become unbelievers. Given the existence of such a diety, a utilitarian perspective might easily reduce to something like "Do whatever it takes to minimize the number of souls in Hell."

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Think Like Reality · 2007-05-04T16:48:41.000Z · LW · GW

Does anyone have a book they can recommend that explains the actual math of quantum mechanics? Once I actually see the equations, things always start making sense to me. For example, my introductory modern physics course talked about the Schroedinger equation and had an optional section on operators and wave functions. Having suffered through Fourier analysis in my electrical engineering courses, the way the Heisenberg uncertainty principle comes from the application of transformations to wave functions made a kind of intuitive sense. I know an awful lot of math - and am very good at it - so I want to find some way of understanding modern physics on the level of mathematical formalization other than taking lots of physics courses in a university. I could try reading university physics textbooks, I guess, but I'm worried about what they might assume I already know; you can't Google the symbol for a partial derivative in order to find out what it means.

Comment by Doug_S.2 on New Improved Lottery · 2007-04-14T19:40:44.000Z · LW · GW

Surely one could easily replicate this "lottery" by buying path-dependent options with low exercise probability on the financial markets. People are not doing this, so this service must be less appealing than it intuitively seems.

I wonder what the odds actually are on "striking it rich" in a short period of time by treating financial markets as a gambling game. Is it better or worse than, say, the roulette wheel in a casino? If you bet $30,000 on a single number in a roulette wheel, you have a one in 38 chance of getting a 35x payout of $1,050,000. Can the financial markets give you a better than 1 in 38 chance of turning $30,000 into over $1,000,000 within a year before you lose your initial stake?

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Lotteries: A Waste of Hope · 2007-04-13T09:00:08.000Z · LW · GW

It's an uncommon viewpoint, but one could, perhaps, justify the purchasing of lottery tickets as a "donation to charity" of sorts; the money goes to support the activities of the government that runs the lottery, which is (hopefully) going to use that money for good purposes. As a financial investment, though, lottery tickets are generally a bust; I suspect you'd do better playing slot machines at a Las Vegas casino. (There's the complication of rollover jackpots, but they don't have to matter here.)

Speaking of "wealth without effort"... I seem to find myself in the situation of having a strong aversion to the idea of working for a living, and although my current occupation of "mooching off my parents" satisfies my immediate needs, it is not a viable long-term career choice. This leaves me with two basic options.

1) Figure out a feasible strategy that will enable me to avoid needing to work for a living and is not less desirable than working for a living. (Going to graduate school counts as working for a living.) "Win the lottery" is an example of a strategy that fails the feasibility test; "become a prison inmate" would be an example that fails the desirability test. (I am as yet undecided about both the feasibility and desirability of marrying for money.)

2) Figure out a way to want to work for a living. "Become very afraid of the consequences of not working for a living" is one way I've considered accomplishing this, but deliberately inducing a fear of not working that's stronger than my current aversion to work would be, well, unpleasant, scary, and would require experiencing something that actually is worse than working. As I currently regard working for a living as only marginally better than the proverbial fate worse than death, it would take an awful lot to scare me into working.

Any advice? Bear in mind that I am, in fact, a lazy bum with time-inconsistent preferences and little willpower who once deliberately skipped an exam in college to play video games - and doesn't regret it.

Comment by Doug_S.2 on The Error of Crowds · 2007-04-01T23:02:55.000Z · LW · GW

If this were anything like my high school math class, everyone else in the class would decide to copy my answer. In some cases, I have darn good reasons to believe I am significantly better than the average of the group I find myself in. For example, I give one of my freshman chemistry midterms. The test was multiple choice, with five possible answers for each question. My score was an 85 out of 100, among the highest in the class. The average was something like 42. On the final exam in that class, I had such confidence in my own answer that I declared that, for one of the questions, the correct answer was not among the responses offered - and I was right; one of the values in the problem was not what the professor intended it to be. I was also the only one in the class who had enough confidence to raise an objection to the question.

On the other hand, there are situations in which I would reasonably expect my estimate to be worse than average. If I wandered into the wrong classroom and had no idea what the professor was talking about, I'd definitely defer to the other students. If you ask me to predict the final score of a game between two well-known sports teams, I probably wouldn't have heard of either of them and just choose something at random. (The average American can name the two teams playing in the Super Bowl when it occurs. I rarely can, and I don't know whether to be proud or ashamed of this.) I also suspect that I routinely overestimate my chances of winning any given game of Magic. ;)

I'm not a random member of any group; I'm me, and I have a reasonable (if probably biased, given the current state of knowledge in psychology) grasp of my own relative standing within many groups.

Also, when you're told that there is a hidden gotcha, sometimes you can find it if you start looking; this is also new information. Of course, you can often can pick apart any given hypothetical situation used to illustrate a point, but I don't know if that matters.

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization · 2007-03-17T06:03:45.000Z · LW · GW

As a rabid game player, I find that the stimulation I get from playing some of my favorite video games is basically the same as the stimulation that I get from reading some of my favorite novels. There are some authors that I find to be more addictive than even some of the best games. (Terry Pratchett comes to mind.) Oddly enough, though, I find television oddly lacking when compared to print media and interactive media, as I keep wanting to DO something instead of watch passively. (Having another person watching along with me that I can talk with seems to satisfy that urge.)

Regarding the video game deaths, well, I've done marathon gaming sessions, and it helps to have food within easy reach. I've joked with my family about the "video game diet" - when you get hungry, ignore it and keep playing video games. ;) Once upon a time, I skipped a midterm exam in college to play Final Fantasy X - and I regret nothing! (I ended up passing the course anyway, thanks to some fast talking. The magic words are "psychiatrist" and "antidepressant.")

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Burch's Law · 2007-03-09T04:32:24.000Z · LW · GW

Hedge funds might very well buy lottery tickets in certain circumstances if it were easy to buy them in large numbers. Sometimes the jackpots go so high that if you were to buy a ticket of every single possible lottery combination, it would cost less than the total prize money given out. However, states that run lotteries deliberately make it very difficult to buy millions of tickets, making this strategy impossible to execute in practice.

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Burch's Law · 2007-03-08T18:54:06.000Z · LW · GW

Rollover lottery jackpots can end up with prizes large enough so that the expected dollar value of a ticket is greater than the cost of a ticket; it's not necessarily foolish to buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot gets really large.

Comment by Doug_S.2 on You Are Not Hiring the Top 1% · 2007-03-03T04:29:31.000Z · LW · GW

There are an awful lot of awful novice writers out there, though; just go to and start reading. On the other hand, there are a couple of really brilliant writers there, too.

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Just Lose Hope Already · 2007-02-25T06:19:59.000Z · LW · GW

"Never give up" is bad advice?

Probability of success if you continue: small. Probability of success if you give up: zero.

Small is better than zero, am I right?

On the other hand, this analysis only matters if the cost of failure is no worse than the cost of giving up. The "rational" thing to do would be to give up if and only if (probability of success utility of success) + (probability of failure utility of failure) < (utility of giving up).

There are a lot of things that one can achieve through sheer persistence, but there are others that, well, you can't do, period. The trick is to be able to tell the difference. I suspect that I'm not going to be a star athlete no matter how much I practice, but I just might qualify for the Pro Tour some day.

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Outside the Laboratory · 2007-01-24T07:08:13.000Z · LW · GW

"Those not willing to examine this evidence are following in the footsteps of Cardinal Bellarmine with his refusal to look through Galileo's telescope. And the refusal is for the same essential reasons: sociology and arrogance."

From the Crackpot Index: "40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case, and so on."

Anyway, based on what I've read, Sheldrake's experiments do return statistically significant results, but there tend to be problems with the experiments themselves that suggest the results are not caused by anything currently unknown to physics. For more details, just check out and search for Sheldrake's name.

Comment by Doug_S.2 on Outside the Laboratory · 2007-01-21T05:40:34.000Z · LW · GW


Q) Why do I believe that special relativity is true? A) Because scientists have told me their standards of evidence, and that the evidence for special relativity meets those standards.

I haven't seen anything contract when moving close to the speed of light. I haven't measured the speed of light in a vacuum and found that it is independent of the non-accelerating motion of the observer. I haven't measured a change in mass during nuclear reactions. I simply hear what people tell me, and decide to believe it.

George Orwell put it far more elegantly, and you can read what he wrote at

I can try to apply filters to determine who I can regard as a legitimate authority on various topics. Anyone whose arguments are logically inconsistent is obviously right out. I can check credentials. I can ask people why they accept a claim, and if I disapprove of their standard of evidence, I can give their claims less credence. I can see if the topic is controversial among those whose standards of evidence I respect, and if it is, I can refrain from judgment on the grounds that if there were strong evidence either way, there would be no controversy.

Many things tend to be such that we have to act without anywhere near the amount of evidence that even the social sciences demand. How should I invest my money? What will make me more attractive to potential mates? Who should I vote for? Is (insert enemy here) really a dire threat that my country needs to fight and defeat? What career should I pursue? Which person should I hire? It's really hard to design and perform experiments to answer questions like this. Heck, we still don't even know what kind of food is best to eat!