Can self-help be bad for you? 2009-07-07T20:40:44.330Z · score: 3 (6 votes)
Instrumental Rationality is a Chimera 2009-04-16T23:15:43.765Z · score: 7 (24 votes)


Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes August 2011 · 2011-08-03T00:30:12.211Z · score: 11 (15 votes) · LW · GW

The only way to get rich from a get-rich book is to write one.

Brother Ty's seventh law

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes August 2011 · 2011-08-03T00:26:52.008Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Why might not whole communities and public bodies be seized with fits of insanity, as well as individuals? Nothing but this principle, that they are liable to insanity, equally at least with private persons, can account for the major part of those transactions of which we read in history.

Bishop Joseph Butler

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes August 2011 · 2011-08-03T00:23:17.080Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Friedman continues, but I shortened the quote to make it punchier. Essentially he says that, (1) given a large number of individuals irrationality will average out in the aggregate, (2) In most cases that an economist would be interested in (eg. investors, CEOs) the individuals have been selected to be good at the task they are performing, i.e. not irrational in that domain.

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes August 2011 · 2011-08-03T00:08:43.680Z · score: 27 (29 votes) · LW · GW

A writer on structuralism in the Times Literary Supplement has suggested that thoughts which are confused and tortuous by reason of their profundity are most appropriately expressed in prose that is deliberately unclear. What a preposterously silly idea! I am reminded of an air-raid warden in wartime Oxford who, when bright moonlight seemed to be defeating the spirit of the blackout, exhorted us to wear dark glasses. He, however, was being funny on purpose.

Peter Medawar

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes August 2011 · 2011-08-02T23:51:02.519Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think Mencken was using it in the sense of, "A peasant; a rustic; a farm servant.", (see also). It's an unusual usage.

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes August 2011 · 2011-08-02T23:43:36.503Z · score: 12 (22 votes) · LW · GW

Suppose we know someone's objective and also know that half the time that person correctly figures out how to achieve it and half the time he acts at random. Since there is generally only one right way of doing things (or perhaps a few) but very many wrong ways, the "rational" behavior can be predicted but the "irrational" behavior cannot. If we predict the person's behavior on the assumption that he is rational, we will be right half the time. If we assume he is irrational, we will almost never be right, since we still have to guess which irrational thing he will do. We are better off assuming he is rational and recognizing that we will sometimes be wrong. To put the argument more generally, the tendency to be rational is the consistent (and hence predictable) element in human behavior. The only alternative to assuming rationality (other than giving up and assuming that human behavior cannot be understood and predicted) would be a theory of irrational behavior - a theory that told us not only that someone would not always do the rational thing but also which particular irrational thing he would do. So far as I know, no satisfactory theory of that sort exists.

David Friedman, Price Theory, An Intermediate Text

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes August 2011 · 2011-08-02T23:15:38.264Z · score: 10 (20 votes) · LW · GW

The inferior man's reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex - because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meagre capacity to take in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plough can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged - and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple - and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him. The popularity of fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogenies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be be as vain to try to teach the peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogeny of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.

H. L. Mencken, Homo Neanderthalensis

Comment by tom_talbot on New Discussion section on LessWrong! · 2010-10-01T23:39:37.775Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The day we allow biochauvinism to overtake Less Wrong is the day I leave for good.

Comment by tom_talbot on Intelligence Amplification Open Thread · 2010-09-16T18:53:58.543Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Biofeedback for ADHD.

Comment by tom_talbot on Intelligence Amplification Open Thread · 2010-09-16T07:56:44.961Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you, I stand corrected.

Comment by tom_talbot on Intelligence Amplification Open Thread · 2010-09-15T23:40:03.777Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I know, there are none. I mention it because I find I tend to be fresher and more motivated in the morning, so if I wanted to take up a new habit such as practicing dual n-back, I would schedule it in the morning. I'm really just throwing out ideas for the wiki.

Comment by tom_talbot on Intelligence Amplification Open Thread · 2010-09-15T23:32:49.340Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Mindfulness Meditation#Scientific_research).

Comment by tom_talbot on Intelligence Amplification Open Thread · 2010-09-15T23:19:36.317Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Wake up early.

Comment by tom_talbot on Intelligence Amplification Open Thread · 2010-09-15T23:10:37.608Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I recommend O'Reilly's Mind Performance Hacks and the accompanying Mentat Wiki. I was particularly interested in the exoself which is really just a combination of the Hipster PDA and a Motivaider.

Also, touchtyping is the closest thing to a Direct Neural Interface you can get today. If you don't know how to do it, learn!

Comment by tom_talbot on Intelligence Amplification Open Thread · 2010-09-15T22:57:29.007Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Tim Ferris' speed reading tutorial.

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: July 2010 · 2010-07-02T13:05:38.099Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Does Clippy maximise number-of-paperclips-in-universe (given all available information) or some proxy variable like number-of-paperclips-counted-so-far? If the former, Clippy does not want to move to a simulation. If the latter, Clippy does want to move to a simulation.

The same analysis applies to humankind.

Comment by tom_talbot on Less Wrong Book Club and Study Group · 2010-06-11T13:46:48.203Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'll have a go. I'm in Oxford.

Comment by tom_talbot on Free copy of Feynman's autobiography for best corny rationalist joke · 2010-04-07T20:11:55.274Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

A pickup line: "I want to update on your posterior."

Recommended accompaniment: the "buddy" gesture

Comment by tom_talbot on Free copy of Feynman's autobiography for best corny rationalist joke · 2010-04-07T19:52:44.452Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW · GW

A pickup line: "I'll maximise your utility if you utilise my virility."

Comment by tom_talbot on Free copy of Feynman's autobiography for best corny rationalist joke · 2010-04-07T19:08:33.213Z · score: 33 (35 votes) · LW · GW

Awww... Don't downvote YYUUUU, It's rationalist anti-humour! What a great idea!

How do you prevent a rapidly self-replicating em from driving wages down to subsistence level?


A p-zombie walks into a bar but is fundamentally incapable of perceiving its situation and so to derive humour would be exploitative.

A guy walks into an AI conference and says he thinks he can create Friendly AI using complex emergent chaotic simulated paradigms.

So I stabbed him.

Comment by tom_talbot on Free copy of Feynman's autobiography for best corny rationalist joke · 2010-04-07T18:42:29.196Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

The obscurity of that rationalist pun is abayesing.

Comment by tom_talbot on Undiscriminating Skepticism · 2010-03-16T09:21:50.930Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I was genuinely trying to be helpful. I apologise for lack of context/social skills. The fact that you said it was orange made me think of street lighting, and the v-shape of migrating birds.

Anyway, I googled and this explains what I meant:


Individually and in flocks, birds can catch out the unwary. Many fuzzy, elliptical UFOs captured by chance on photographs have been attributed to birds flying unnoticed through the field of view just as the shutter was pressed.

Migrating flocks of birds can create UFO ‘formations’, particularly if lit up by streetlights at night.

As a boy, I was fooled by an orange UFO that zig-zagged over the roof of my parents’ house one night. Not until many years later did I realize that it must have been an owl lit up by sodium lighting, which was newly installed in our area at that time."

Comment by tom_talbot on Undiscriminating Skepticism · 2010-03-15T13:04:52.239Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

On second thoughts the sun would provide too much light, street lights maybe?

Comment by tom_talbot on Undiscriminating Skepticism · 2010-03-15T12:59:16.788Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Was the sun setting? It could have been illuminating the underbellies of a flock of geese.

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes: February 2010 · 2010-02-01T19:11:06.451Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW · GW

"If the tool you have is a hammer, make the problem look like a nail."

Steven W. Smith, The Scientist and Engineer's Guide to Digital Signal Processing

Comment by tom_talbot on Lesswrong UK planning thread · 2010-01-26T16:45:35.130Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think book discussions are an excellent idea, particularly for technical topics.

Comment by tom_talbot on Lesswrong UK planning thread · 2010-01-24T01:49:53.249Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oxford is good for me, but London is fine. Anywhere with a whiteboard is going to cost money to book, so take that into account.

As far as I could tell, the multiplicity of AIs thing came from people objecting to hard takeoff scenarios, so that confusion should be soluble, given more time to explain the subject (Roko was packing a massive number of ideas into that talk.)

Comment by tom_talbot on Normal Cryonics · 2010-01-23T23:47:42.222Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This extrobrittania video contains some financial details about cryonics in the uk.

Comment by tom_talbot on Frequentist Statistics are Frequently Subjective · 2009-12-05T00:39:28.076Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And they transpose the conditional! If a sample is likely given the hypothesis, it does not necessarily follow that the the hypothesis is likely given the sample. This always struck me as the most egregious failure of naive significance testing.

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes November 2009 · 2009-12-02T21:05:01.578Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Methusaleh lived nine hundred years. But who calls dat livin’ when no gal will give in, to no one who’s nine hundred years?

Attributed to Gershwin by Donald Knuth

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: December 2009 · 2009-12-02T20:54:35.464Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The conversion techniques page is fascinating. I'll put this to use good in further spreading the word of Bayes.

Comment by tom_talbot on 11 core rationalist skills · 2009-12-02T16:07:33.018Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

This is an excellent list, and would serve well as an introduction to Less Wrong.

Comment by tom_talbot on Better thinking through experiential games · 2009-10-23T18:39:06.412Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Squeak/Etoys takes a constructivist approach to teaching children. Is this the kind of thing you're thinking of?

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes: October 2009 · 2009-10-22T22:46:16.076Z · score: 7 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Besides porking (really) hot babes, flipping out, wailing on guitars, and cutting off heads, a ninja has to train. They have to meditate ALL THE TIME. But most importantly, each morning a ninja should think about going a little crazier than the day before. Beyond thinking about going berserk, a ninja must, by definition, actually go berserk.

Robert Hamburger, REAL Ultimate Power, The Official Ninja Book

Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes: October 2009 · 2009-10-22T21:59:33.405Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I won’t teach a man who is not eager to learn, nor will I explain to one incapable of forming his own ideas. Nor have I anything more to say to those who, after I have made clear one corner of the subject, cannot deduce the other three.


Comment by tom_talbot on Rationality Quotes: October 2009 · 2009-10-22T21:36:11.177Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW · GW

The unwillingness to tolerate or respect any social forces which are not recognizable as the product of intelligent design, which is so important a cause of the present desire for comprehensive economic planning, is indeed only one aspect of a more general movement. We meet the same tendency in the field of morals and conventions, in the desire to substitute an artificial for the existing languages, and in the whole modern attitude toward processes which govern the growth of knowledge. The belief that only a synthetic system of morals, an artificial language, or even an artificial society can be justified in an age of science, as well as the increasing unwillingness to bow before any moral rules whose utility is not rationally demonstrated, or to conform with conventions whose rationale is not known, are all manifestations of the same basic view which wants all social activity to be recognizably part of a single coherent plan. They are the results of that same rationalistic "individualism" which wants to see in everything the product of conscious individual reason.

Friedrich Hayek, Individualism: True and False

Comment by tom_talbot on Regular NYC Meetups · 2009-10-01T23:18:28.271Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

We could all just mark ourselves on a map like Frappr, that way we'd know where it was worth organising meets.

Comment by tom_talbot on The Scylla of Error and the Charybdis of Paralysis · 2009-09-26T17:25:26.226Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sounds fun! Easy to implement on a computer too. I wonder if players would discover the best strategy simply by practicing (and not by reasoning about the game).

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-03T22:56:30.449Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is what I thought everyone was going to say. I don't see why you'd be concerned about the paycheck though, a strong mathematics background could land you a job as a banker or trader or something. But looking at your upvotes it seems like plenty of people agree with you.

My next question would be what you'd like to have a basic introduction to. Plenty of LW posts tend to assume a grounding in subjects like maths, economics or philosophy - which is fine, this is a community for informed people - but it probably shrinks LW's audience somewhat, and certainly shrinks the pool of people who are able to understand all the posts. We probably miss this because nobody's going to jump into the middle of a thread and say, "I lack the education to understand this." espiecally not a casual reader.

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-03T22:01:45.514Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I read this and at first I was like, "Damn! Not only did my anti-sexism plan fail, it made me even more sexist!" but then I was all, "No way! I'm going to find a bunch of evidence that genies can't be neuter! That'll show 'em! Show all of them." but then I read the Wikipedia article and it goes, "The pre-Islamic Zoroastrian culture of ancient Persia believed in jaini/jahi, evil female spirits thought to spread diseases to people." and I was totally like, "God fucking damnit! That's like... sexism squared!"

Well you might have won this round, Yudkowsky. But you haven't seen the last of me!

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-03T21:41:40.615Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've been thinking about educational games as well. The main problem, it seems to me, is that trying to make learning fun for someone who isn't already interested and motivated is a waste of time because you're just trying to hide the teaching under a sugarcoating of computer game, and that never works. On the other hand trying to make learning fun for someone who is already interested and motivated is pointless, because they already want to learn and the game just adds needless hassle like completing levels in order to reach the next piece of knowledge, or whatever game mechanic you're using. It's a pity, because I think of the way games like Portal build up complex puzzles from simpler ones and use the level itself to ask the player leading questions, like a kind of visual/spatial socratic method, and I think there must be a way to use that to teach, espiecally mathematics where visual/spatial metaphors could easily translate into mathematical metaphors... but I just can't come up with a concrete version of the idea that wouldn't be boring or stupid.

Lately I've been thinking that the fastest way to get to grips with a new subject is probably just to memorise big chunks of information without trying to understand it, using techniques like a memory palace and spaced learning programs like Mnemosyne and Anki, then think about what you've learned later, and insight might strike you. This would be espiecally effective if you combined it with a social precommitment to teach your knowledge to someone else, or to take part in a competitive quiz.

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-02T19:28:11.010Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

OK, I see where you're coming from. Learning to play the violin is frustrating, but it's probably fun once you can do it.

So if we could find a way to make learning easier, hypothetically speaking, you would use that opportunity to be a better generalist rather than further specialising in your chosen area? That's interesting because specialists are usually better paid. I wonder if that's a common point of view.

LWers are generalists, in general. Most of us know some psychology, some economics, some philosophy, some programming and so on. But I wonder what Less Wrong would be like if we all specialised, while remaining united by the pursuit of rationality. I think Robin Hanson said something similar in that post where he compared us to survivalists, trying to learn everything and failing to reap the benefits of specialisation and cooperation.

Anyway sorry for rambling like this. I tend to use these open threads as an opportunity to think out loud, and nobody's told me to shut up yet so I just keep going.

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-02T18:55:32.728Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So you wouldn't pick instant expertise in philosophy because that would take the fun out of it. Do you think that if studying philosophy was easier, it would be less fun? I'm not convinced because no matter how much of an expert you are, there's still more to learn. The genie is offering you the chance to be at the cutting edge of your field.

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-02T18:28:45.957Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So you pick the area with the highest expected monetary payoff? I'm not sure that skills in singing or creative writing serve that end, since the competition is so intense and the selection process for successful singers and writers seems somewhat arbitrary and random.

I see what you mean about the amount of effort required changing which area you would pick, and that was part of what I was getting at. I wonder how many of us choose to study a particular subject because it's easier than the alternatives, then rationalise it later as what we really wanted. If effort wasn't a factor and you could have chosen to study anything, what would it have been? If we on Less Wrong find ways to make learning easier, what will you do?

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-02T18:10:30.418Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This comment doesn't really go anywhere, just some vague thoughts on fun. I've been reading A Theory of Fun For Game Design. It's not very good, but it has some interesting bits (have you noticed that when you jump in different videogames, you stay in there air for the same length of time? Apparently game developers all converged on an air time that feels natural, by trial and error). At one point the author asserts that having to think things through consciously is boring, but learning and using unconscious skills is fun. So a novice chess player gets bored quickly having to think through all the moves, while an expert 'just sees' the right moves, and has fun. It made me think of the concept of flow and of Alan Kay's work on Squeak and Etoys, making learning more fun and intuitive with computers (particularly learning mathematics) I think it's called constructionist learning.

It does seem though that we don't have much of a theory of fun, most of the stuff we know we learn through trial and error. If we had a decent model of fun we might be able to make boring learning activities fun, which would help with motivation and akrasia and so on.

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-02T17:50:13.439Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I checked with the genie and he said fine. Not very rationalist-y of you, though.

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-02T17:41:24.813Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Imagine you find a magic lamp. You polish it and, as expected, a genie pops out. However, it's a special kind of genie and instead of offering you three wishes it offers to make you an expert in anything, equal to the greatest mind working in that field today, instantly and with no effort on your part. You only get to choose one subject area, with "subject area" defined as anything offered as a degree by a respectable university. Also if you try to trick the genie he'll kick you in the nads*.

So if you could learn anything, what would you learn?

*This example is in no way intended to imply that women are less worthy of the right to be attacked by genies. Neither is it intended to imply that there could never be a female genie. That would be stupid. Where else could baby genies come from?

Comment by tom_talbot on Open Thread: August 2009 · 2009-08-02T17:23:33.668Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

On the subject of advice to novices, I wanted to share a bit I got out of Understanding Uncertainty. This is going to seem painfully simple to a seasoned bayesian, but it's not meant for you. Rather, it's intended for someone who has never made a probability estimate before. Say a person has just learned about the bayesian view of probability and understands what a probability estimate is, actually translating beliefs into numerical estimates can still seem weird and difficult.

The book's advice is to use the standard balls-in-an-urn model to get an intuitive sense of the probability of an event. Imagine an urn that contains fifty red balls and fifty white balls. If you imagine drawing a ball at random from that urn, you get an intuitive sense for an event that has fifty percent probability. Now either increase or decrease the number of red balls in the urn (while correspondingly altering the number of white balls so that the total number of balls still sums to one hundred) until the intuitive probability of drawing a red ball seems to match your intuitive probability of the event occuring. The number of red balls in the urn equals your (unexamined, uncorrected) probability estimate for the event.

Once you teach a person how to put numbers on their beliefs, you've helped them make a first step in overcoming bias, because numbers are easy to write down and check, and easy to communicate to other people. They can also begin to quantify their biases. Anyone can learn to repeat the phrase, "The availability heuristic causes us to estimate what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples." (guessing the teacher's password) but it takes a rationalist to ask: how much, on average, does the availability heuristic reduce the accuracy of my beliefs? Where does it rank on the list of biases, in terms of the inaccuracy it causes?

Comment by tom_talbot on Of Exclusionary Speech and Gender Politics · 2009-07-21T11:51:01.142Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Have you ever learned a useful fact from the PUA discussions here?

Comment by tom_talbot on Sayeth the Girl · 2009-07-20T20:05:47.531Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Basically, assigning certain attributes to either sex effectively prohibits those attributes in the other sex. That is not useful or rational, that is just limiting the potential.

Upvoted for this but... in a way this reminds me of the Tversky and Edwards experiment mentioned in the Technical Explanation where participants are shown a sequence of red and blue cards and asked to guess the next in the sequence. Since 70% of the cards are blue the best strategy is to always guess blue, but participants irrationally guess a mixture of blue and red as if they could predict the sequence.

So, if you are confident that a group exists (confident that you are 'carving reality at its joints'), are confident that an individual is a member of that group, have good evidence that more than half of the members of the group have Trait X, and no further information about a member-of-the-group and you must make a decision based on available information with no opportunity to gather more information (or it is prohibitively expensive to gather information), you should assume that member-of-the-group has Trait X. In all other cases it is not rational to operate under the assumption that the individual has Trait X.

(Reading back through that my point seems kind of pedantic. But that's what we do here, right? Anyway.)

Using gendered language or (much worse) thought experiments in a discussion that has nothing to do with gender adds noise and impedes understanding. This is the danger of using PUAs as examples of winners in "rationalists should win"* discussions. It brings in irrelevant assumptions and excludes women by using an example most of them can't relate to (technical details about picking up women in bars or bookstores or the singularity summit or whatever.) So what I'm saying is discussions about sex (in both senses of the word) should be deliberately kept seperate from other discussions of rationalism, and that allowing irrelevant sex talk to bleed into our discussions distorts them and our conclusions.

*This phrase bugs me so much!