Analysis of COVID-19 superspread events (linkpost) 2020-04-23T16:17:08.276Z · score: 4 (2 votes)


Comment by jay-molstad on Cultish Countercultishness · 2020-06-14T23:27:15.342Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This seems like a good place to mention the Bonewits scale (devised by a guy named Bonewits, whose name is perhaps too perfect for this) for evaluating the danger level of cultlike groups. It's for evaluating an organization against 18 criteria like "censorship", "isolation", and "dropout control"; higher scores indicate a more dangerous group.

Comment by jay-molstad on The abruptness of nuclear weapons · 2020-06-07T16:31:27.044Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Let's add 4: America was fighting on two theaters and the USSR was basically fighting on one (which isn't to deny that their part of the war was by far the bloodiest). Subduing Japan and supporting the nationalists in China (the predecessors to the Taiwanese government) took enormous amounts of US military resources.

I'd downplay #2: WWII had all kinds of superweapon development programs, from the Manhattan Project to bioweapons to the Bat Bomb. The big secret, the secret that mattered, was which one would work. After V-J day the secret was out and any country with a hundred good engineers could build one, including South Africa. To the extent that nuclear nonproliferation works today, it works because isotope enrichment requires unusual equipment and leaves detectable traces that allow timely intervention.

Comment by jay-molstad on Covid-19: My Current Model · 2020-06-02T11:04:30.919Z · score: 9 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Dishwashers treating restaurant plates like toxic waste is not based on a risk calculation, it’s based on our moral principles regarding purity.

I agree with most of what you're saying in the post, but this bit strikes me as a bad example. Used dishes are likely to contain significant amounts of saliva, which is the primary transmission vector of the virus. Spraying dishes with water could easily result in a virus-laden aerosol, and infection through small cuts is also a concern. If you handle dishes from hundreds of people a day, the risk starts adding up. Although I agree that surfaces are rarely a significant concern, it seems that a restaurant dishwasher is a worst-case scenario for transmission by surfaces and extra precautions are justified.

Comment by jay-molstad on English Bread Regulations · 2020-05-18T21:56:55.808Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect that fresh bread was actually a luxury food at the time, with pottages more common among the poor.

Comment by jay-molstad on Why COVID-19 prevention at the margin might be bad for most LWers · 2020-05-10T21:06:31.212Z · score: 15 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with many of your points, but have a few areas of disagreement that lead me to different conclusions:

  • There is considerable evidence of permanent lung damage, even in cases with no noticeable symptoms.
    • A one-time ten percent decrease in lung function will barely inconvenience a 20-year old. If the same person gets the same disease every year, (s)he won't live to 30.
    • The linked article quotes studies indicating potentially permanent lung damage in 77% to 95% of the test subjects.
  • The virus is mutating in ways that complicate the development of treatments and vaccines.
    • Each person infected has a tiny chance of becoming host to a problematic mutation, and passing it on.
    • The fewer infected people, the less of a problem this will be.
  • I do not know (at this time) whether we will have a vaccine in a year, or ever. AFAIK we've never created a vaccine for a respiratory coronavirus before (we have some veterinary vaccines for intestinal coronaviruses, but not respiratory ones). Some vaccine trials for the related SARS-1 coronavirus made the disease worse, not better.

To me, this adds up to "coronavirus is potentially much more serious than you think, even for young people, and it would be better to be very cautious until the uncertainties are resolved". I understand that the economy is doing very poorly, but I think the risks, at this time, militate against opening up. I strongly support measures to help those who've lost jobs because of the situation, though.

Note: This represents my opinion as of a particular time. As new information comes in, I expect to update my opinion accordingly.

Comment by jay-molstad on COVID-19 from a different angle · 2020-05-04T21:57:25.940Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Your baseline mortality rate implies an average life expectancy of 120 years. I'd double-check that source.

Also, COVID-19 can cause permanent lung damage, and possibly damage to other organs, even if people are otherwise asymptomatic. The possibility that many people, now young and with sufficient lung capacity to ignore the damage, may become disabled in 20 years or so is what worries me most.

Comment by jay-molstad on AI Alignment Podcast: An Overview of Technical AI Alignment in 2018 and 2019 with Buck Shlegeris and Rohin Shah · 2020-05-02T23:40:39.335Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How would you settle the bet?

Comment by jay-molstad on Negative Feedback and Simulacra · 2020-04-29T16:29:49.875Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Sure. I just thought it was worth drawing a distinction between "level 1 happens, but not always and often commingled with other levels" (which is true) and "level 1 never happens" (which is a one-way ticket to cloudcuckooland, but which many people seem to believe anyway). If you find yourself in a situation where nobody ever operates at level 1, you should leave.

Comment by jay-molstad on Negative Feedback and Simulacra · 2020-04-29T10:43:37.368Z · score: 9 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Sure they do. If you ask a random stranger "where is the toilet?" or "when does the event begin?", you will probably get a level 1 answer.

If you are saying that no one operates exclusively on level 1, then I agree with you. I would even agree that communication often happens on multiple levels at once. But level 1 communication definitely happens; we often communicate actual, literal facts. In cases where there isn't any real emotion involved, like giving directions to strangers, we may operate only on level 1 for a moment.

Comment by jay-molstad on Analysis of COVID-19 superspread events (linkpost) · 2020-04-24T01:13:30.695Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think that's basically it. Medical research uses an extremely strict regime for patient safety, and that sort of research is much too risky to pass muster.

Comment by jay-molstad on Does the 14-month vaccine safety test make sense for COVID-19? · 2020-04-21T23:20:28.691Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The SARS-1 virus has been known for 15+ years now, and vaccine trials resulted in vaccine-induced infection aggravation (see also here). There is some reasonable concern that vaccination for COVID could trigger the cytokine storm effect. It doesn't help that the novel coronavirus is already mutating, which " raises the alarm that the ongoing vaccine development may become futile in future epidemic if more mutations were identified." Coronaviruses are hard to fight.

Comment by jay-molstad on Far-Ultraviolet Light in Public Spaces to Fight Pandemic is a Good Idea but Premature · 2020-04-18T13:58:41.249Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

People commonly reach into the little pockets behind seats for the in-flight magazines/barf bags/headphones/etc. People commonly secure things under their seats or in the luggage compartments. Armrests and seatbelts are commonly used for the stated purpose, and their geometry makes UV sterilization rather complicated. You may be underestimating the practical issues.

If you're mainly concerned about viruses in the air, ventilation is probably a better solution (while the plane is unoccupied on the ground).

Comment by jay-molstad on Far-Ultraviolet Light in Public Spaces to Fight Pandemic is a Good Idea but Premature · 2020-04-18T01:27:28.908Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Your link seems to be dead. But I'm not too worried about that; an ordinary person will respond to uncomfortable levels of visible light by squinting, looking away, wearing sunglasses, etc. without expert intervention.

Comment by jay-molstad on Far-Ultraviolet Light in Public Spaces to Fight Pandemic is a Good Idea but Premature · 2020-04-17T11:04:33.415Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If your flux is 1,558 times that of sunlight, that's definitely alarming. At that point, the wavelength might not matter very much; you might be dumping enough energy to sterilize surfaces by heating.

The paper indicates that the treatment generally works by stimulating porphyrins in bacteria or fungi of interest. Humans can have light sensitivity due to porphyrins, a condition called porphyria, but it's fairly rare. Unless the novel coronavirus has porphyrins in its chemistry, I wouldn't expect to this effect on the virus, as the paper notes. The reported data indicate that the effect is dependent on other elements of the mixture; something else in the solution may break down under the flux and attack the virus.

My reasoning was basically similar to this sentence from the paper: An alternative mechanism of inactivation when FCV is suspended in MM may be associated with the LED emission spectrum extending slightly into the UVA region, meaning the virus is exposed to very low-level UVA photons (~390 nm).

Comment by jay-molstad on Far-Ultraviolet Light in Public Spaces to Fight Pandemic is a Good Idea but Premature · 2020-04-16T21:52:13.157Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Remember that airplanes and taxis have lots of shadowed places. Elevators less so, so I'd expect that to work better. Sticking a UV lamp in a plane's ventilation (away from people) might help quite a bit, though.

Comment by jay-molstad on Far-Ultraviolet Light in Public Spaces to Fight Pandemic is a Good Idea but Premature · 2020-04-16T21:44:01.734Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

DNA has an absorption peak at 254 nm. Light of that wavelength or below causes chemical changes to DNA that are fatal to any organism.

This is also (very nearly) the maximum absorption of the ozone molecule. The formation of the ozone layer seems to have been a prerequisite to non-aquatic life.

But 405 nm shouldn't be a significant issue, especially with LEDs. That's within the visible spectrum, and if visible light was going to kill us we'd have noticed by now. If the flux is alarmingly high, sunblock and sunglasses should do it.

Comment by jay-molstad on The Samurai and the Daimyo: A Useful Dynamic? · 2020-04-15T02:22:50.386Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you're not good at discernment, how will you choose whom to follow? There are many lousy leaders to be followed.

Comment by jay-molstad on How special are human brains among animal brains? · 2020-04-05T15:53:33.920Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are other apes, including Washoe and Kanzi, who have been observed to use language.

Admittedly, they weren't very good at it by human standards.

Comment by jay-molstad on Are US treasury bonds liable to fail? · 2020-03-31T00:50:53.579Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'll add that Section 4 of the 14th amendment of the US Constitution makes it unconstitutional for the US government to default on its debt. However, the US government is currently printing money at prodigious rates; the possibility that the dollar may not hold its value is a realistic concern. Naturally this would impact the value of dollar-denominated bonds.

Comment by jay-molstad on "No evidence" as a Valley of Bad Rationality · 2020-03-30T21:45:04.682Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, we can say that 27/30 (90%) patients improved. With a very high level of confidence, we can say that this disease is less fatal than Ebola (which would have killed 26 or so).

Comment by jay-molstad on "No evidence" as a Valley of Bad Rationality · 2020-03-29T02:58:42.068Z · score: 30 (15 votes) · LW · GW

I've definitely seen this in the academic literature. And it's extra annoying if the study used a small sample; the p-values are going to be large simply because the study didn't collect much evidence.

OTOH, chemotherapy isn't a very good example because there are other factors at work:

  • Chemotherapy has serious side effects. There are good reasons to be cautious in using extra.
  • There are also not-as-good reasons to avoid using extra chemotherapy. Medical care is highly regulated and liability-prone (to varying extents in various areas). In the US, insurers are notoriously reluctant to pay for any treatment they consider unnecessary. Departing from standard practice is likely to be expensive.
Comment by jay-molstad on Simulacra and Subjectivity · 2020-03-28T11:21:24.761Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'll add that this is a cycle; Stage 5 is Stage 1. People operating in Stage 4 are paying very little attention to objective reality. Accordingly, their objective situation is usually deteriorating; competitors operating at lower levels gradually eat their lunch without them really noticing. The cycle restarts when objective conditions deteriorate to the point that they can no longer be ignored and the complicated games of social signaling are abandoned. To extend Strawperson's comment:

Level 1: "There's a lion across the river." = There's a lion across the river.
Level 2: "There's a lion across the river." = I don't want to go (or have other people go) across the river.
Level 3: "There's a lion across the river." = I'm with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.
Level 4: "There's a lion across the river." = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

Level 5/Level 1: "There's a lion right here" = There's a lion right here (We really should have been paying more attention to the actual lion and focus groups no longer seem important).

Comment by jay-molstad on Ubiquitous Far-Ultraviolet Light Could Control the Spread of Covid-19 and Other Pandemics · 2020-03-27T01:39:49.119Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I was curious about how much we could rely on that safety, and it turns out there are threshold limit values (see the sixth slide) for UV-C. Between 200 and 220 nm the TLVs are .02 to .08 J/cm^2 (200 to 800 J/m^2), according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. At 5W/m^2 (your suggested irradiation) that gives you 40 to 160 seconds of reasonably safe human exposure.

Comment by jay-molstad on Breaking quarantine is negligence. Why are democracies acting like we can only ask nicely? · 2020-03-25T10:28:19.323Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My major worry is that around week 15 (if not earlier) empty store shelves will become a more pressing emergency than the virus.

Comment by jay-molstad on Breaking quarantine is negligence. Why are democracies acting like we can only ask nicely? · 2020-03-24T23:25:33.411Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

True, but there are some anti-assembly laws being passed and enforced anyway. They're clearly unconstitutional and, if left in place very long, will be struck down. Emergency actions are often more political than legal; if you do something illegal but the people who could check and balance you decide not to (hopefully because your actions make sense), you can get away with a lot.

There are limits; the perceived benefit of the action has to overcome the insult to legal propriety in the relevant minds. Banning meetings for a few weeks will probably fly, especially if the internet can substitute.

Comment by jay-molstad on Breaking quarantine is negligence. Why are democracies acting like we can only ask nicely? · 2020-03-24T23:08:58.451Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's the "someone is in fact harmed" that is the tricky part in this case. If somebody who was previously asymptomatic got coronavirus a week after Bob walked past them, how do you propose to determine whether they got it from Bob? If you're proposing a criminal penalty in the U.S., then you will need to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. Probabilities of less than 99% won't do, and there may be a few jurors who think 99.9999% still gives a reasonable doubt (the jury system has been described as "trial by people you would not normally consider your peers").

Comment by jay-molstad on Breaking quarantine is negligence. Why are democracies acting like we can only ask nicely? · 2020-03-24T22:47:22.585Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Quarantine actually is the same thing as imprisonment, because you can't leave. You are deprived of liberty. The justification is different, but a justification and $3 would get you a coffee if Starbucks weren't closed. The US Constitution was written with the understanding that politicians are prone to lying when convenient.

Negligence can be an element of a crime. You need a guilty act and some level of guilty mind (purpose, knowledge, recklessness, or negligence, in declining order of culpability). Walking around isn't a guilty act. Homicide is a guilty act, but you'd have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's actions caused the death. It will be very hard to prove that the victim's infection came from the defendant and not from any of the large number of other infectious people that are the defining feature of a pandemic.

Endangerment might work, depending on circumstances and jurisdiction, but I would expect courts to be skeptical. Walking around isn't reckless or wanton, by conventional definitions.

Comment by jay-molstad on Breaking quarantine is negligence. Why are democracies acting like we can only ask nicely? · 2020-03-24T22:06:58.262Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Bob walks around most days. People die every day. Sure, Bob might have been unknowingly transmitting COVID, or any of a thousand other viruses. Bob was definitely, by the act of breathing, affecting the course of every hurricane for the rest of time. How do you assign culpability?

Comment by jay-molstad on Breaking quarantine is negligence. Why are democracies acting like we can only ask nicely? · 2020-03-24T21:58:38.322Z · score: 18 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Legally, there are two reasons (in the US):

1) The Fifth Amendment: No person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Quarantine looks very much like imprisonment, and the power to indefinitely imprison without due process is an extremely dangerous one.

2) Negligence is a tort**, not a crime, and torts have to prove damages by a preponderance of the evidence. You can't successfully sue Bob for giving you COVID unless you can prove it more likely than not that your COVID came from Bob. That's basically impossible.

** As it should be. People slack off very frequently, and if inconsequential slacking off was criminally punished then civilization would collapse.

Comment by jay-molstad on Ubiquitous Far-Ultraviolet Light Could Control the Spread of Covid-19 and Other Pandemics · 2020-03-23T22:17:24.449Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

1) 254 nm is the same part of the spectrum that the ozone layer protects us from, and also the absorption peak for DNA. IIRC non-aquatic life didn't take off until the ozone layer formed, probably for that reason. UV does bad things to DNA, and I wouldn't bet on dead skin providing adequate protection from large exposures. The DNA spectrum has another peak around 212 nm (although the dropoff at low energy may be from the limitations of the optics rather than from lower absorption by the molecule).

2) The absorption spectrum for melanin shows its strongest peak between 270 and 220 nm. I'd say it depends on whether the dropoff below 220 nm was due to the absorption characteristics of the molecule or was an artifact of the measurement (spectrometer, cuvette, solvent, etc.). I'm inclined to guess artifact; such a sharp dropoff toward higher energy doesn't make physical sense (unless I'm missing something).

Comment by jay-molstad on Ubiquitous Far-Ultraviolet Light Could Control the Spread of Covid-19 and Other Pandemics · 2020-03-23T21:44:59.902Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If the number of photons per Joule* is higher for UVC, that means that each photon carries less energy.

*A Watt is a Joule per second; sustaining a Watt of power for one second requires a Joule of energy.

Comment by jay-molstad on What should we do once infected with COVID-19? · 2020-03-23T00:37:40.600Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That all seems solid, but I'd still call ahead before going to the hospital. If they have more critical cases than they can handle, a mild case could wind up waiting indefinitely.

P.S. Medical types use the word "normal" to mean "not meeting the criteria for a diagnosis".

Comment by jay-molstad on The questions one needs not address · 2020-03-22T18:38:45.450Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Married sex is a sacrament, unmarried sex is a grave sin. (Married being a social state that is easy for two people to enter but hard for them to leave)

You realize that they didn't have birth control, right? Sex makes babies. Marriage provides the legal infrastructure for parents to raise kids; for example a married woman is likely to have a man around when she's too pregnant for agricultural labor. All known human societies have something like marriage (in considerable variations), and it's hardly surprising that they thought sex without marriage was a bad idea.

Conceiving children is important and good.

If our ancestors hadn't, we literally wouldn't exist. Also remember that sex and conception back then were one decision, not two separate decisions.

The details of 'sex' are explicitly left undefined.

Even squirrels figure out sex well enough to get by. They seem to have managed.

Overall, the Puritan attitude toward sex doesn't seem that irrational to me. There are fairly obvious reasons to adopt each of their policies, even if they were substantially ignorant of biology.

carefully chosen, but objectively false, beliefs

If you believe they're objectively false, you don't believe them. You believe that they're convenient, not that they're worth living for. If you ever get in a situation where everything has gone sideways and you really need an answer to what it's all about, as most people eventually do, they won't be enough.

Life has been way better since becoming an adherent of (Warhammer 40K lore)

If you have any pull with Nurgle the Plague Lord, could you ask him to knock it off?

Comment by jay-molstad on The questions one needs not address · 2020-03-22T18:12:47.974Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Logical positivism asserted only statements verifiable through direct observation or logical proof should be considered meaningful. As a philosophical position, it's self-refuting (if it's true, it's meaningless). As a rule of thumb about which questions are likely to reward investigation, it works pretty well.

For example, "AI risk" is incredibly vague. "AI" is a large class of possible devices and there are many forms of "risk". If a problem can't be clearly stated then logical proof is not a useful approach, and direct observation only works on things that actually exist. So I'd say that "AI risk" is not likely to be a tractable question, although "the effect of algorithmic trading on US agricultural commodities markets" or "the effect of social media ranking algorithms on the 2020 US elections" probably are.

Comment by jay-molstad on What should we do once infected with COVID-19? · 2020-03-22T12:51:43.162Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Personally my oxygen saturation always reads 91-93%. I'm 47 years old with no known lung problems who never smoked. People vary. I'm an unusually large man, so it may be a square-cube law effect or a finger-thickness effect. It may be some other confounder.

Under normal circumstances I would agree with the rest. In the very near future healthcare providers are expected to be absolutely swamped with coronavirus cases; apparently corpses have been piling up in Italy. I think my thresholds for action are stricter than yours because I'm trying to minimize strain on the system. But at 90% your plan is to go to the hospital and my plan is to call a doctor to find out if I should go to the hospital. That's not a huge difference.

Related: the mayor of Baltimore has requested his citizens avoid senseless gun violence for similar reasons. Things are getting weird out there.

Comment by jay-molstad on What should we do once infected with COVID-19? · 2020-03-21T18:28:41.883Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Me too. If there's something wrong with my plan, I'd prefer to find out the easy way.

Comment by jay-molstad on What should we do once infected with COVID-19? · 2020-03-21T12:09:31.578Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I asked my dad, a doctor (internal medicine). My blood oxygenation is usually around 92-93%. It can vary for a number of reasons. Anything under 90% is considered hypoxia, but the high 80s can be "normal" in a long time smoker.

The hospital is likely to be very busy and not have time for mild cases. Blood oxygenation of 92% does not warrant their attention. I'd give my doctor (or the emergency room) a call at 90% oxygenation. At 85% it's definitely time to go to the hospital (unless they tell you otherwise). Below 80% brings a severe risk of organ failure, so that's a life threatening emergency.

Use common sense - if your doctor is telling you one thing an a random internet comment is telling you differently, believe the doctor. Also, if your readings are going down rapidly, call your doctor. Don't drive if you're significantly impaired.

Comment by jay-molstad on Ubiquitous Far-Ultraviolet Light Could Control the Spread of Covid-19 and Other Pandemics · 2020-03-19T21:21:21.356Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Three points:

1) Any risk-benefit calculation should consider that COVID-19 appears to be only minimally harmful to the young and healthy. Deep UV can cause skin cancer at any age, which seems like a good reason to be careful here. Human DNA is not fundamentally different than virus DNA where UV light is concerned.

2) It might be safer in Africa or India where melanin protects the local populations from UV. Yes, that's what melanin is for.

3) Can we do the same thing, but safer, with a detergent mist?

Comment by jay-molstad on Coordination as a Scarce Resource · 2020-01-28T01:21:34.750Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Of course, just because decreasing coordination costs is good in general doesn't mean it's good for you in particular. There may well be somebody in India who can do your job better than you for a fifth the pay (telecommuting, probably), and it would be disastrous for you if someone solved your boss's coordination problem with that person. Trump campaigned on a platform of erecting barriers to foreign competition, and his election says quite a bit about how many people dearly wanted such a thing.

Comment by jay-molstad on How Doomed are Large Organizations? · 2020-01-22T20:54:34.086Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think mazes are related to the sorts of extreme principal-agent problems that are common in real life but AFAIK understudied by economics. Suppose I [1] invest my retirement savings with a financial company [2] who invests it with an American business [3] that contracts its manufacturing to a Chinese company [4] and sells to American retailers [5] who sell to American consumers [6]. That's six numbered agents, most of which are complex entities with their own internal principal-agent problems. There are countless interactions of that level of complexity in the real economy.

Comment by jay-molstad on How Doomed are Large Organizations? · 2020-01-22T20:39:30.127Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know if maze-nature can be resisted, but the same factors that bring maze-nature also allow economies of scale and desirable types of complexity. All of the armies in WWII had considerable maze-nature, but that doesn't mean that fielding a smaller army would have worked better. Bigger armies usually win, despite the added levels of (mis)management. And the processes that turn natural materials into an iPhone are necessarily going to take millions of people, because phones are incredibly complex. Sometimes maze-nature may be an acceptable cost to pay, at least for a while.

Comment by jay-molstad on How Doomed are Large Organizations? · 2020-01-21T23:37:25.848Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A high maze level makes a fixation on object-level results impractical. Middle management has three defining characteristics:

  • It's remote from object-level interactions. It rarely deals with individual customers or particular bits of inventory. Its knowledge of the business process is largely abstract, and its concrete knowledge is often outdated (because it was accumulated before promotion). Object level outcomes (e.g. sales or new products) are not easily attributable to specific middle managers.
  • It is responsible to upper management, who is even more out of touch on the object level but demands "results" in the form of plausible data that can be spun to the markets as good results. Upper management also demands obedience to its narratives; when upper management tells the market your firm is going big into Fad X, then middle management needs to be seen to support Fad X. (Note 1)
  • Its staff have object-level information. They often have strong incentives to distort management's perspective of this information. When accurate information is available, it's often contrary to middle management's narrative. E.g. "Fad X? Yeah, we tried that twelve years ago. We could never monetize it."

If your organization gets big enough to need many layers of management (note 2), these effects will show up.

Note 1- A friend of mine at an Army lab told me that he was once asked by higher management how they would use nanotechnology in infrared sensors. My friend responded that, since infrared photons have micron-sized wavelengths, it didn't make sense to use nanotechnology. My friend was ordered to use nanotechnology anyway, and one of his experiments was eventually published (billed as an effort to use nanotechnology for this purpose). The experiment had actually been regarded as a failure because it had grown useless nanostructures instead of doing what it was supposed to do.

Note 2- It varies with activity, but generally a good manager can handle about six staff each. Since each six managers need an upper-level manager, you can use the base-6 logarithm of your worker count for a lower bound of the number of levels you need in your hierarchy. Note that this includes all workers in your process, even the work you contract out (contracting generally adds at least one level in practice).

Comment by jay-molstad on Inner alignment requires making assumptions about human values · 2020-01-21T00:42:04.868Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'll note that we are using the term "human values" as if all humans had the same values. Even in fairly trivial cases humans can differ in what tradeoffs they'll accept. E.g Adam gets food at a convenience store because it's convenient, Beth goes to Whole Foods for healthy* foods, and Chad goes to Walmart because he's cheap. All of them value convenience, nutrition, and cost, but to varying degrees.

*And with varying levels of information and disinformation about the actual nutritional needs of their bodies.

Comment by jay-molstad on What is Life in an Immoral Maze? · 2020-01-06T00:19:49.135Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There are also financial barriers. Managers generally have mortgages, kids in private school or college, etc. They have debts to pay and mouths to feed.

Comment by jay-molstad on [Book Review] The Trouble with Physics · 2020-01-05T15:02:33.325Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Look for a system where the predictions of GR contradict, or at least interact with, the predictions of QM. If there is no such system, then the contradictions are more metaphysical than empirical.

I've wondered for a while if the gravitational anomalies ascribed to dark matter/energy could be the result of linear frame dragging through the quantum fields. The basic idea is:

1) QM says there's a lot of "zero-point energy" surrounding us in every direction related to the quantum fields.

2) This energy has no gravitational consequences because it's pulling equally in every direction.

3) Relativistic linear frame dragging might break that symmetry with gravitational consequences.

I don't have the background to go further with the idea, or even to tell whether it's blatantly stupid. It's a stray thought; if you can make something of it, feel free.

Comment by jay-molstad on Don't Double-Crux With Suicide Rock · 2020-01-03T00:20:50.241Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I frequently find myself in situations where:

1) I disagree with someone

2) My opinion is based on fairly large body of understanding accumulated over many years

3) I think I understand where the other person is going wrong

4) trying to reach convergence would, in practice, look like a pointless argument that would only piss everyone off.

If there are real consequences at stake, I'll speak up. Often I'll have to take it offline and write a few pages, because some positions too complex for most people to follow orally. But if the agreement isn't worth the argument, I probably won't.

Comment by jay-molstad on Is Rationalist Self-Improvement Real? · 2019-12-15T14:54:27.776Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think we should be clear to distinguish between person-level and population-level improvements. Individual-level improvement is relatively easy (for the young); just head to the gym or the library. Population-level improvement is much harder; eventually all of that self-improvement is lost to age. The improvements have to be continually replenished by training the young (unfortunately ignorance is a renewable resource). There's no intrinsic conflict between the belief that individuals can improve themselves through rational effort and the belief that society as a whole is in a steady state where self-improvement among the young roughly offsets declines due to age and infirmity.

Comment by jay-molstad on Affordance Widths · 2019-12-05T00:08:53.384Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is a good name for a concept I've encountered in other fields. Consider climate change. {B} is the amount of fossil fuels we burn. {X} is "climate change breaks agriculture beyond repair and billions die". {Y} is "we do not have enough energy to run civilization as we know it and billions die". We're Adam if we can create abundant renewable energy in a short timeframe and also develop effective carbon sequestration technology, and we're Edgar if we remain dependent on rapidly-depleting fossil fuels.

Comment by jay-molstad on How common is it for one entity to have a 3+ year technological lead on its nearest competitor? · 2019-11-24T17:19:50.552Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

In practice, it is often hard to tell the difference between "far ahead of the competition" and "off on a weird tangent". You could make the case that NASA is 50 years ahead of the competition in manned lunar space travel, and at the time being ahead of the Soviets was a huge part of the appeal. But over time manned space travel was all but abandoned because there didn't seem to be enough value in it. The USAF is in a similar position with stealth aircraft; competing countries never heavily invested in stealth and radar improvements have made it increasingly obsolete.

If you're three years ahead of intelligent, well-funded competition, they may be waiting to see if the game is worth the ante.

Comment by jay-molstad on How common is it for one entity to have a 3+ year technological lead on its nearest competitor? · 2019-11-19T00:32:19.112Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It took about 4 years from America going public with the existence of nuclear weapons (Hiroshima) to the first Soviet nuke. If a technology is hugely impactful (so that money is no object) and proof of concept is public knowledge, three years is a really long time.