Comment by Ford on The Least Convenient Possible World · 2016-05-19T16:46:44.944Z · LW · GW

I tend to agree, but it depends on how something was tested. In "Darwinian Agriculture", I argue that testing by ability to persist is weaker than testing by competition against alternatives. Trees compete against each other, but forests don't. Societies often compete and their moral systems probably affect competitive success, but things are complicated by migration between societies, population growth (moral systems that work for bands of relatives may not work as well for modern nations), technological change (cooking pork), etc.

Comment by Ford on Rebutting radical scientific skepticism · 2014-07-14T15:57:12.848Z · LW · GW

There are so many possible coincidences, it would be surprising if none of them happened.

I observed 2012 transit of Venus, right on schedule.

Don't know an easy way to prove changing earth-moon distance, but changes in speed of earth's rotation can be seen as changes in number of days per year, visible in growth layers in fossil coral. Taking a magnifying glass to the right museum might allow individual verification.

Comment by Ford on Rebutting radical scientific skepticism · 2014-05-02T21:38:30.849Z · LW · GW

Great post!

Evolution of antibiotic resistance is indeed fairly easy, but how about evolving something visibly different? Evolution of simple multicellularity from a unicellular ancestor is easier than you might think:

If we can solve the earth-orbits-the-sun problem, we don't need to measure the parallax of stars accurately to show that they're really far away, which seems like an important scientific truth.

Comment by Ford on The Extended Living-Forever Strategy-Space · 2014-05-02T15:56:37.973Z · LW · GW

Since most of these would, if successful, result in an imperfect copy of yourself, rather than extending your own consciousness, you could include "have children." If you really want a perfect copy, rather than a genome enriched by a partner, then human cloning is closer to feasible than cryopreservation of adults. Cryopreservation of embryos actually works. I wonder if there would be a market for a service that promises to keep embryos frozen until life human expectancy reaches 110, say, then bring the embryo to life by whatever methods they are using then, sharing some of the trust fund with the foster parents.

Comment by Ford on Post ridiculous munchkin ideas! · 2013-05-21T18:02:44.361Z · LW · GW

Tax-deferred retirement accounts make sense if you expect your tax rate to be lower in retirement than now. I expect tax rates to increase, so would rather pay the tax now than when I take the money out. In US, Roth IRA allows that.

"Your Money or Your Life" is worth reading. Build up your savings and decrease your spending until earnings on savings equal spending. After that, you don't have to work for money. Worthwhile work still enhances health and happiness, though.

Robert Frank's books on economics make the point that relative income is more important than widely recognized. Two examples he may have missed: 1) it's not just how much education you have, but how it compares to the competition. So the best-educated get the best jobs, but that doesn't mean everyone would have a good job if everyone was better educated. 2) losing health insurance is a disaster if you are competing for health services with the insured. But if everyone loses health insurance (e.g., Medicare collapses), doctors will have to lower their fees.

Comment by Ford on Fake Optimization Criteria · 2013-02-22T19:59:14.524Z · LW · GW

You might like the "simple practice cases" in my recently published book, Darwinian Agriculture. Has natural selection favored solar tracking by leaves because it increases photosynthesis, or because it decreases the photosynthesis of competitors? What sex ratio (in reindeer, say) is favored by natural selection, and what sex ratio maximizes meat production from a given amount of lichen? Why do rhizobial bacteria provide their legume hosts with nitrogen, if healthier plants will indirectly help other rhizobia infecting the same plant -- their most-likely competitors for the next host?

Comment by Ford on The Tragedy of Group Selectionism · 2013-02-22T19:33:15.822Z · LW · GW

It's even a little trickier than that. If overall population is increasing then one offspring this year may lead to greater proportional representation in the gene pool than two offspring next year. What few people recognize is that the opposite can be true if the population is decreasing.

But I think the original post assumed "all else being equal", to allow focus on the main points.

Comment by Ford on Philosophical Landmines · 2013-02-22T19:23:55.765Z · LW · GW

I think that only works if you say "even if that were true, which we don't need to discuss now, I would argue that..." It's much harder to get someone to accept "for the sake of argument" something they strongly disagree with.

For example, I would only accept "morality comes from the Bible" if I had a convincing Bible quote to make my point.

Comment by Ford on Welcome to Less Wrong! (July 2012) · 2013-02-20T21:20:13.176Z · LW · GW

You may find this story (a scientist dealing with evidence that conflicts with his religion) interesting.

Comment by Ford on Helpless Individuals · 2013-02-20T21:12:17.657Z · LW · GW

In addition to the emotional issues you raise, there's the question of thresholds and scalability. If the puppy program already exists, giving $10 will help more puppies. But, for many scientific research projects, there's no point in even starting with less than $100K in hand. That could be $10 each from 10,000 people. An easy decision, perhaps, for the 9999th person, but who wants to give the first $10?

Elsewhere I've suggested "Social Escrow" as a solution. You pledge a certain amount, contingent on enough other people doing so and perhaps on other objective criteria. "Send us two checks. We'll tear up both if not enough other people send checks. We'll tear up the second if the research doesn't meet kilometerstone X by date Y."

Kickstarter has some of these features, but doesn't seem to fund science.

Comment by Ford on Counterfactual resiliency test for non-causal models · 2012-09-13T17:25:22.538Z · LW · GW

I agree that some "limits" have proved illusory. But do you have an example where a limit based on conservation of matter or energy was surpassed?

I assume solar technology will continue to improve, but it would take several orders of magnitude of improvement for food-from-solar cells to be cost-competitive with cattle grazing low-value land. What does an acre of solar cells cost?

Comment by Ford on Counterfactual resiliency test for non-causal models · 2012-09-13T17:17:57.376Z · LW · GW

Yes, we should start with the low-hanging fruit. For example, nutrients in human waste are a small fraction of what's in animal waste, and the latter should be easier to capture. Even so, much of the manure still gets applied at pollution-causing rates near barns and feedlots, rather than paying the cost of transport to where it is most needed.

But your point about food availability and social stability is more important. Recycling urine seems like a good idea. But a society that needs to recycle urine will be a society where many people are spending most of their income on food and others are going hungry, as was the case for the societies mentioned above.

Comment by Ford on Counterfactual resiliency test for non-causal models · 2012-09-11T18:21:52.492Z · LW · GW

Whatever past trends were, the rate of progress must slow as we approach physical limits. For example, there must be some minimum size for a reliable resistor. So even if we accept the inevitability of certain past trends, extrapolation is risky.

Once we've used most of the oil (or phosphate, for which there's no substitute), past trends driven by culture, technology, or economics won't continue. In agriculture, best-farmer yields haven't increased much since 1980, although averages go up as they buy their neighbors' land. (My recent book on Darwinian Agriculture discusses some prospects for improvement, but still within limits.) Cheap computer power may substitute for previous forms of education, entertainment, and travel, but not for food. I doubt that enough people will upload their brains to make a difference.

Comment by Ford on So You Want to Save the World · 2012-01-06T23:24:28.197Z · LW · GW

I agree with your main points, but it's worth noting that corporations and governments don't really have goals -- people who control them have goals. Corporations are supposed to maximize shareholder value, but their actual behavior reflects the personal goals of executives, major shareholders, etc. See, for example, "Dividends and Expropriation" Am Econ Rev 91:54-78. So one key question is how to align the interests of those who actually control corporations and governments with those they are supposed to represent.

Comment by Ford on Hack Away at the Edges · 2011-12-12T20:11:24.539Z · LW · GW

Would the first AI want more AI's around? Wouldn't it compete more with AI's than with humans for resources? Or do you assume that humans, having made an AI smarter than an individual human, would work to network AI's into something even smarter?

Either way, the scaling issue is interesting. I would expect the gain from networking AI's to differ from the gain from networking humans, but I'm not sure which would work better. Differences among individual humans are a potential source of conflict, but can also make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. I wouldn't expect complementarity among a bunch of identical AI's. Generating useful differences would be an interesting problem.

Comment by Ford on Hack Away at the Edges · 2011-12-09T00:11:19.368Z · LW · GW

That may be a faster route to AI. But my point was that making an AI that's smarter than the combined intelligence of humans will be much harder (even for an AI that's already fairly smart and well-endowed with resources) than making one that's smarter than an individual human. That moves this risk even further into the future. I'm more worried about the many risks that are more imminent.

Comment by Ford on Hack Away at the Edges · 2011-12-08T23:47:50.787Z · LW · GW

Does this have implications for the risks associated with AI? Tao is a lot smarter than we are, but he doesn't seem to be plotting to harvest us for our phosphorus, or anything.

This example and others mentioned also suggest that interactions among intelligent agents may be at least as important as intelligence per se. If we can learn to work together more effectively, I think we'll be able to out-think computers for a long time (where "a long time" is defined as long enough for over-population, climate change, nuclear war, etc. to be serious risks).

Comment by Ford on Minneapolis Meetup: Saturday May 14, 3:00PM · 2011-05-12T23:27:13.068Z · LW · GW

If you park near the St. Paul campus, there's a free shuttle bus that stops across the street from Coffman.

I'm somewhat interested, but have plans already.

Comment by Ford on Church vs. Taskforce · 2011-04-06T00:21:27.071Z · LW · GW

A "church-like organization that has local congregations and meets weekly to listen to talks on rationality, the latest scientific discoveries, lectures on philosophy, the state of the world, etc."?

Sounds like a Unitarian fellowship, at least the ones I know. Some may be closer to their Protestant roots, though. Of course, they also have talks on irrationality ("spirituality") and, while atheists and other rationalists are certainly welcome, aggressive promotion of any particular world-view is discouraged.

Comment by Ford on Bayesians vs. Barbarians · 2011-03-27T01:45:53.207Z · LW · GW

I see how the first part of my post could be read as "we need to motivate girls to go to school", which wasn't my intent. More a matter of motivating tradition-bound parents to see educated girls as a major source of income. But I understand that going to school can be risky in Taliban-dominated areas, which is why the second part of my post was all home-based and therefore hard for the Taliban to detect. Even so, I agree that any obvious link to the US government could be a problem.

Comment by Ford on Bayesians vs. Barbarians · 2011-03-26T23:05:59.946Z · LW · GW

We do use mercenaries:

But there might be cheaper options. If we paid Afghan girls $10/day to go to school, would the Taliban collapse?

We could be a little more subtle. Start by offering jobs to do something the Taliban wouldn't consider threatening -- Mechanical Turk work-from-home stuff not requiring literacy, via some kind of specialized radio or satellite link with no access to porn or feminism or anything the Taliban would object to. Every family wants one of those terminals and they can make twice as much money if the girls work (from home) too. Gradually offer higher pay for higher skill levels, starting with nonthreatening stuff like arithmetic but escalating to translating the Koran and then to tasks that would involve reading a wide variety of secular material, analyzing political and judicial systems of different countries (still maybe disguised as a translating job)...

Comment by Ford on Crime and punishment · 2011-03-26T22:20:14.920Z · LW · GW

Yes, literal feuds. Cycles of tit-for-tat revenge that involve violence or are likely to escalate to violence unless the injured party (or their surviving relatives) perceive that "justice has been done" through state-imposed punishment. I lived in West Virginia, which such feuds were common before effective law enforcement was substituted for private revenge.

This is clearly not an argument for punishment in the case of victimless "crimes" or offenses unlikely to provoke escalating retaliation.

Comment by Ford on Crime and punishment · 2011-03-25T19:52:19.930Z · LW · GW

I agree that we should imprison as few people as possible.

My point was that having murders punished by the state rather than by the victim's families leads to fewer people in prison. If we don't jail Bob for killing Ken, then Ken's brother kills Bob, so then Bob's brother kills Ken's son, and so on. At least, that's what tends to happen in societies without effective law enforcement.

Comment by Ford on Crime and punishment · 2011-03-24T23:23:33.092Z · LW · GW

Yes, preempt is better.

Comment by Ford on Crime and punishment · 2011-03-24T21:07:20.207Z · LW · GW

One reason we punish criminals is to deter private revenge, which tends to escalate into long-lasting feuds. This function isn't incompatible with rehabilitation in prison, though, teaching people life skills that will keep them out of trouble after release.

Comment by Ford on The trouble with teamwork · 2011-03-24T20:58:11.145Z · LW · GW

I'd rather have a motivated group that's poorly organized than a well-organized bunch of goof-offs. Given motivation, though, I wonder whether some forms of organization (especially voluntary organization) work better than others.

I'm particularly interested in situations where there's a significant opportunity cost to collaboration, that is, where any time participants spend on collaborative project X comes at the expense of time they would otherwise spend on worthwhile project Y. How can we get things done together while wasting as little of each others' time as possible?

Comment by Ford on death-is-bad-ism going a little bit more mainstream? · 2011-03-24T18:33:35.979Z · LW · GW

If I wanted to be revived, I'd hide a bunch of gold and tattoo a note to that effect on my chest before being frozen.

Comment by Ford on Ranting about Representative Democracy · 2011-03-24T18:10:58.012Z · LW · GW

Randomly grouping voters into districts might be worth considering. With geographic districts, incompetent and corrupt incumbents get reelected by bringing their district more than its share of national resources or by playing to regional prejudices (religion, etc.). If those options were off the table, character and competence might win more often.

Comment by Ford on The trouble with teamwork · 2011-03-24T17:55:05.786Z · LW · GW

Post and comments seem useful for students and teachers, but I was hoping for hints or links for teams of motivated adults. The teams I've been on mostly produce scientific publications (original research or reviews). Some observations: 1) work doesn't need to be divided equally, so long as each team member makes an essential contribution, but major contributors need to get more credit; 2) "you do most of the work and we share credit" can work if the one doing most of the work is essentially an apprentice (e.g., a grad student or postdoc) -- it's understood what the roles were -- but maybe not for two people with similar status; 3) two (or maybe three) people can brainstorm effectively without needing much structure; 4) big teams are tricky; if one or two people do most of the work with small contributions from many others (each getting a little credit), that seems to work OK. But I would have no idea how to organize a project that took major effort from more than 3-4 people; 5) email works OK, especially with collabators many time zones away; I always wonder about shared-screen-plus-audio tools, though.

Comment by Ford on Marginally Zero-Sum Efforts · 2011-03-18T20:07:06.612Z · LW · GW

If we assume that the time wasted writing multiple grants outweighs the benefits of stiffer competition (stimulating creativity or harder work?), there are several ways success rates could be increased: more total funding, smaller grants, limiting grants/researcher, or fewer researchers. One reason we have so many researchers is that overhead payments to universities exceed the marginal cost of doing more research. So they keep hiring more researchers, independent of teaching needs.

Comment by Ford on Conjuring An Evolution To Serve You · 2011-03-17T20:56:14.170Z · LW · GW

As an evolutionary biologist with an interest in practical applications to agriculture and to human longevity, I think your emphasis on the slow pace of evolution is misplaced. It took most of life's 3.85 billion year history to evolve multicellularity, but that slowness seems to mainly reflect lack of selection for multicellularity over most of that period. With strong selection, primitive multicellularity can evolve quickly under lab conditions ( Boraas,M.E. 1998 "Phagotrophy by a flagellate selects for colonial prey: A possible origin of multicellularity" and current work in my lab).

Your point about individual vs. group selection is correct and important, though. Individual selection, like free-market competition, is an effective way of making certain kinds of improvements. But some form of group selection (the chicken example, or small-plot trials in plant breeding) is often key to improvements missed by individual-based natural selection. See my 2003 review article and forthcoming book on Darwinian Agriculture.