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How dangerous is Long COVID for kids? 2021-09-22T22:29:16.831Z
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Where do LessWrong rationalists debate? 2021-04-29T21:23:55.597Z
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RationalWiki on face masks 2021-01-15T01:55:49.836Z
Impostor Syndrome as skill/dominance mismatch 2020-11-05T20:05:54.528Z
Viliam's Shortform 2020-07-22T17:42:22.357Z
Why are all these domains called from Less Wrong? 2020-06-27T13:46:05.857Z
Opposing a hierarchy does not imply egalitarianism 2020-05-23T20:51:10.024Z
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Rationality Vienna Meetup June 2019 2019-04-28T21:05:15.818Z
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Does anti-malaria charity destroy the local anti-malaria industry? 2019-01-05T19:04:57.601Z
Rationality Bratislava Meetup 2018-09-16T20:31:42.409Z
Rationality Vienna Meetup, April 2018 2018-04-12T19:41:40.923Z
Rationality Vienna Meetup, March 2018 2018-03-12T21:10:44.228Z
Welcome to Rationality Vienna 2018-03-12T21:07:07.921Z
Feedback on LW 2.0 2017-10-01T15:18:09.682Z
Bring up Genius 2017-06-08T17:44:03.696Z
How to not earn a delta (Change My View) 2017-02-14T10:04:30.853Z
Group Rationality Diary, February 2017 2017-02-01T12:11:44.212Z
How to talk rationally about cults 2017-01-08T20:12:51.340Z
Meetup : Rationality Meetup Vienna 2016-09-11T20:57:16.910Z
Meetup : Rationality Meetup Vienna 2016-08-16T20:21:10.911Z
Two forms of procrastination 2016-07-16T20:30:55.911Z
Welcome to Less Wrong! (9th thread, May 2016) 2016-05-17T08:26:07.420Z
Positivity Thread :) 2016-04-08T21:34:03.535Z
Require contributions in advance 2016-02-08T12:55:58.720Z
Marketing Rationality 2015-11-18T13:43:02.802Z
Manhood of Humanity 2015-08-24T18:31:22.099Z
Time-Binding 2015-08-14T17:38:03.686Z
Bragging Thread July 2015 2015-07-13T22:01:03.320Z
Group Bragging Thread (May 2015) 2015-05-29T22:36:27.000Z
Meetup : Bratislava Meetup 2015-05-21T19:21:00.320Z

Comments

Comment by Viliam on Nuanced and Extreme Countersignaling · 2022-01-25T21:21:38.159Z · LW · GW

I guess there is a continuum between "I am doing this because I genuinely enjoy it, and as a side effect it also sets me apart from those who can't afford it" and "I actually hate this; the only good thing is that it sets me apart from the losers". Even different people from the same social class may be at different positions -- for both of them it is a symbol of their social class, but one of them likes it, and the other hates it.

Take away people's ability to control their public image, and their incentive to do so, and guess what? They'll stop trying!

Makes sense.

Comment by Viliam on TurnTrout's shortform feed · 2022-01-25T13:20:40.686Z · LW · GW

Makes sense, with the proviso that this is sometimes true only statistically. Like, the AI may choose to write an output which has a 70% chance to hurt you and a 30% chance to (equally) help you, if that is its best option.

If you assume that the AI is smarter than you, and has a good model of you, you should not read the output. But if you accidentally read it, and luckily you react in the right (for you) way, that is a possible result, too. You just cannot and should not rely on being so lucky.

Comment by Viliam on Nuanced and Extreme Countersignaling · 2022-01-25T13:13:40.484Z · LW · GW

Thank you! I would want Robin Hanson and Theodore Dalrymple to sit down and write a book together on the topic of how signaling battles between people near the top of the social ladder influence perceptions of people below them. Because that's where the idea comes from -- I was recently reading Life at the Bottom (a collection of Dalrymple's essays), where among other things he laments the fact that in the past, educated and successful people acted as role models for the aspiring lower-class people, while today, it seems like successful people are imitating the dysfunctions of lower class as a fashion statement, which in turn means that the lower class is now left without role models, so even those who aspire to do better, often don't know how.

And while reading your article, it clicked to me... the answer to Dalrymple's question is counter-signaling, obviously. But the missing part of the puzzle is: why now, and not in the past? I can only guess:

Maybe the reason is that the educated/successful class has increased in size, so while in the past they were mostly busy signaling that as a group they are different from the less successful, these days there is a pressure to signal intra-group distinctions. "I am so super-successful, I don't even need the approval of the normal-successful ones, and I can flout their norms" is a way to countersignal.

Or maybe in the past the educated elites and the common folks lived closer to each other physically (the same small cities; different roles in the same jobs), so there was a pressure to distinguish themselves behaviorally (discuss different topics, enjoy different culture). These days the physical bubbles are quite strong (if you are educated, almost everyone you talk to is educated; if you are a programmer at Google, there are probably also some janitors working there, but you are unlikely to interact with them, and most likely they are technically employed by a different company), but we have mass culture (movies, internet) that appeals to both the poor and the rich; which makes countersignaling a more salient option and a safer thing to do.

But this is just my speculation; I don't have enough data to distinguish between these options; and maybe I overlooked something else that is even more important.

Also, sometimes it could be just the plain old costly signaling: I do this thing, because it is nice and I can afford it, but if you try to copy me, it will probably ruin you. For example, polyamory... it is an attractive idea if you are financially secure and good at using contraception, so the outcome "I got pregnant, the guy who made me pregnant left me for his new girlfriend, and now both me and my child are starving" is unlikely (a typical bad outcome is a broken heart; in extreme case, becoming a single parent but without literally starving). But you don't want poor people to get the idea "worrying about marriage is stupid, look at the rationalists in the Bay Area, they don't need it either", if in their case, marriage seems statistically like a good protection from the worst poverty. (By the way, I am not really sure where exactly is the line between costly signaling and countersignaling.)

Comment by Viliam on Nuanced and Extreme Countersignaling · 2022-01-25T08:26:25.667Z · LW · GW

I think the purpose of signaling (done by a person at level N) is to show how different you are from those losers at level N-1, and how actually you could and should be treated the same as level N+1 because those guys are no better than you, they only think so. The levels beyond that are just too far; if they are used at all, they are used instrumentally.

For example, you could say: "Consider people at levels N-2 and N-1, in my opinion they are pretty much the same." The idea is that everyone in your bubble agrees that N-2 are losers, so making an analogy between N-2 and N-1 supports your argument that N-1 are losers.

Similarly, you could say: "There is huge difference between levels N+2 and N+1, and those guys at N+1 are crazy if they don't see it." Again the idea is that everyone in your bubble agrees that N+2 is way out of your league, so you exaggerate the difference between N+2 and N+1 to show that people at N+1 are really not that different from you. -- In both cases, the levels N-2 and N+2 were only used instrumentally, to make a point about levels N-1 and N+1, which are the ones you actually care about.

(But this all is a bit circular and unfalsifiable, because there is no definition of what exactly "+1" and "+2" refer to, so I can always change their meaning to make the statements seem true.)

For example, in American politics, if you imagine that minorities are at level 0, white working class is at level 1, educated elites are at level 2, and millionaires are at level 3, that would explain some of the observed behavior. Democrat politicians present themselves as level 2, trying to get votes of levels 2 and 0, both of them having level 1 as a common natural enemy. Trump presented himself as level 3, and made level 2 his enemy, which allowed him to get those mostly untapped level 1 votes.

Comment by Viliam on Nuanced and Extreme Countersignaling · 2022-01-24T16:05:06.538Z · LW · GW

Seems to me that countersignaling almost necessarily creates a lot of confusion. Not just because it requires precise calibration and some people fail to calibrate precisely. But also because your audience is often larger than you intended, therefore even a well-calibrated countersignal (for your intended audience) is ill-calibrated for the rest of the audience. The resulting chaos does not require bad intent; it is just a side effect -- an economist might call it a negative externality -- of the very mechanism of countersignaling.

Let's take a simple example, where people at level N are poor, have bad behavior, and wear ugly clothes. The ugly clothes are partially caused by poverty (nice clothes cost more) and partially by the bad behavior (even originally nice clothes quickly get ruined). People at level N+1 pay lot of attention to wearing nice clothes, as a signal of good behavior, which helps them get some job and stay out of poverty. People at level N+2 are independently rich, they do not care about impressing employers, and they wear ugly clothes (actually their quite expensive imitations created by famous designers) to countersignal.

A level N+2 person: "Look at me, I am the king! I don't give a fuck about what anyone thinks (except for my equally awesome peer group, of course), unlike those stupid boring level N+1 sheeple. Fuck you, losers!"

A level N+1 person, processing the message correctly: "I hate that asshole! Not only is he filthy rich, but he can't for a moment stop rubbing it in my face. Oh, and that annoying deniable way, when he is pretending that this is actually about aesthetics and independent thinking... fuck him!"

A confused level N person: "Wow, have you seem that awesome guy?! My stupid parents keep telling me that wearing nice clothes is the way out of poverty, that you are supposed to get a job and save money and whatever, but what do they know? Clearly, that guy knows better than they do, and he dresses just like me."

In this example, the person at level N was not the target of the message, but he caught the broadcast anyway, and now he is harmed by it, although no one really wanted to harm him.

I wonder how often something like this happens... a countersignal aimed at certain level causing collateral damage at lower levels. And I wonder whether our society makes it worse than it was historically, when people at level N were not privy to signaling that level N+2 aimed at level N+1.

Comment by Viliam on plutonic_form's Shortform · 2022-01-24T11:12:37.098Z · LW · GW

With limited intelligence and limited time, I will never be correct about everything. That sucks, but such is life. I can still keep trying to do better, despite knowing that the results will never be perfect.

I try to listen to people who are not my friends (or to make/keep friends outside my usual bubbles), even if they are obviously wrong about some things... because they still might be right about some other things. I try to listen to it all, then filter it out somehow. But time is limited, so I do not do this too often.

A typical outcome is that my opinions are similar to the opinions of my smart friends, but with way less certainty; plus an occassional fringe belief. And yes, even this is not perfect.

Comment by Viliam on Is AI Alignment a pseudoscience? · 2022-01-24T10:45:46.720Z · LW · GW

Sorry, I used the quote marks just as... brackets, kind of?

(Is that a too non-standard usage? What is the proper way to put a clearly separated group of words into a sentence, without making it seem like a quotation? Sometimes connecting-by-hyphens does the job, but it seems weird when the text gets longer.)

EDIT: Okay, replaced by actual brackets. Sorry for all the confusion I caused.

Comment by Viliam on Hyperpalatable Food Hypothesis: A LessWrong Study? · 2022-01-24T10:21:41.197Z · LW · GW

Eating good food is the side dish to the main course of my life. I am very sure that I put on extra weight in 2014 because I was lonely, understimulated, and didn't have anything else to do. If food is your primary source of dopamine, etc. etc. etc.

The body-mind connection should not be underestimated. I started (very slowly) losing weight after I quit my last job. (No, it's not because I would be too poor to eat.) The primary source of dopamine + the rest of your day sucks = almost impossible to resist temptations.

(Next time someone makes an UBI experiment, please also measure the impact on obesity.)

Comment by Viliam on Hyperpalatable Food Hypothesis: A LessWrong Study? · 2022-01-23T13:13:48.063Z · LW · GW

As a Christmas present I got a rice cooker, with the recommendation to use for things other than rice.

For those unfamiliar with this kind of device, it basically heats the water until it evaporates, and then it automatically turns itself off, so the food is actually cooked in the vapor rather than in hot water. (With the rice it provides instructions on how much water for how much rice to get it right. With other food, you are on your own, but in my experience 1 dl water was enough for everything.)

Turns out, vegetables cooked this way are super delicious. (Also, according to doctors in my family, more healthy than vegetables cooked in water, because the nutrients stay inside, and fewer vitamin C is destroyed compared to traditional cooking. Of course, raw vegetables would be even better, but whatever.) The recipe is to take some subset of {potato, carrot, beetroot, onion, celery, broccoli, cauliflower}, peel and cut to smaller pieces, sprinkle with salt and oil, add 1 dl water, and turn the cooker on. Twenty minutes later, the meal is ready and delicious. (I typically eat it with some meat or yogurt, for proteins.)

For the last month, I am using this almost every day. Never before I have eaten so much vegetables. Not only I have eliminated sweets from my diet (I used to eat sweets a lot), but I even mostly stopped eating bread and pasta (not on purpose, I just like the vegetables more now).

And... uhm, my weight remains exactly the same. (Too bad, because I would need to lose about 20 kg.)

This is not exactly what you wrote, because I use the oil, and the yogurt also contains fat. Perhaps I should go further in this direction, e.g. eliminate the oil from cooking (not really needed in the rice cooker). There would still be oil in the yogurt, but hey, you need some to dissolve vitamins A and D.

I guess I wanted to make the following points:

  • you can make surprisingly tasty meals from mostly vegetables;
  • switching from very unhealthy diet to a diet consisting mostly of vegetables can have surprisingly little effect (in my case, zero) on your body weight.
Comment by Viliam on Is AI Alignment a pseudoscience? · 2022-01-23T12:40:44.080Z · LW · GW

I think you get it mostly right, and then you just make a different conclusion.

The part where you agree is:

We do not have a scientific understanding of how to tell a superintelligent machine to [solve problem X, without doing something horrible as a side effect], because we cannot describe mathematically what "something horrible" actually means to us...

And the conclusion that AI safety people make is:

...and that is a problem, because in the following years, machines smarter than humans are likely to come, and they may do things with horrible side effects that their human operators will not predict.

While your conclusion seems to be:

...therefore people should be ashamed for talking about this topic.

So, if you want to be a proper Popperian, you probably need to sit and wait until actual superintelligent machines are made and actually start doing horrible things, and then (assuming that you survive) you can collect and analyze examples of the horrible things happening, propose falsifiable hypotheses on how to avoid these specific horrible things happening again, do the proper experiments, measure the p-values, and publish in respected scientific journals. This is how respectable people would approach the problem.

The alternative is to do the parts that you can do now... and handwave the rest of it, hoping that later someone else will fill in the missing parts. For example, you can collect examples of surprising things that current (not superintelligent) machines are making when solving problems. And the handwavy part is "...and now imagine this, but extrapolated for a superintelligence".

Or you can make a guess about which mathematical problems may turn out to be relevant for AI safety (although you cannot be sure you guessed right), and then work on those mathematical problems rigorously. In which case the situation is like: "yeah, this math problem is solved okay from the scientific perspective, it's just its relevance for AI safety that is dubious".

I am not familiar with the AI safety research, so I cannot provide more information about it. But my impression is that it is similar to a combination of what I just described: examples of potential problems (with non-superintelligent machines), and mathematical details which may or may not be relevant.

The problem with "pop Popperianism" is that it describes what to do when you already have a scientific hypothesis fully formed. It does not concern itself with how to get to that point. Yes, the field of AI safety is currently mostly trying to get to that point. That is the inevitable first step.

Comment by Viliam on Implications of Civilizational Inadequacy (reviewing mazes/simulacra/etc) · 2022-01-21T19:49:08.687Z · LW · GW

I'm not sure I trust a lot of the evidence that has been reported to me about "how functional is civilization?". Information about this is heavily politicized, and anecdotes that reach me are selected for being outrageous.

How easy it is to maintain and improve the civilization, seems to be a fundamental political question. To put it simply, "civilization is super difficult, we should be grateful for the one we have and protect it at all costs" seems like the essence of conservatism; and "civilization is quite easy, we just need to destroy the current power structures and it will automatically rebuild in much better way" seems like the essence of progressivism.

How functional is the civilization, that is a bit more nuanced. A conservative might say something like "about as functional as we can reasonably expect (which is not perfect, because making an imperfect thing is already quite difficult), minus the things recently introduced by the progressives"; while a progressive might say something like "the things we have introduced recently are great, but there is still a long way to go".

So in an ironic way, both would agree that we are kinda in the middle, but for very different reasons (in the middle of dismantling vs building the civilization). Similarly, both would provide outrageous anecdotes, but of a completely different type; and both would object against anecdotes provided by the other side.

Comment by Viliam on Vanessa Kosoy's Shortform · 2022-01-21T18:14:37.878Z · LW · GW

You seem to be implying that they will be terrifying for the exact opposite reasons why the previous epistemic revolution's philosophical implications were.

What do you mean by "exact opposite reasons"? To me, it seems like continuation of the same trend of humiliating the human ego:

  • you are not going to live forever
  • yes, you are mere atoms
  • your planet is not the center of the universe
  • even your sun is not special
  • your species is related to the other species that you consider inferior
  • instead of being logical, your mind is a set of short-sighted agents fighting each other

Followed by:

  • even your reality is not special
  • your civilization is too stupid to stop doing the thing(s) that will predictably kill all of you
Comment by Viliam on Speed Pasta Bake · 2022-01-20T12:42:52.792Z · LW · GW

For most people, active cooking time is a bigger cost than wall time.

Probably also depends on whether you cook for yourself, or for kids. For myself, whatever, if it takes 1 hour to cook, I will just read some internet in the meanwhile. For kids, needs to be done quickly.

Comment by Viliam on You Can Get Fluvoxamine · 2022-01-19T20:38:31.298Z · LW · GW

I suspect that if it would, this practice would soon spread to other kinds of illegal activities.

"Hands up! This is NOT a robbery!"

I guess what actually might protect you (other than "too many people saying stuff online, not enough prosecutors") is careful wording of the (non-)advice itself. Saying explicitly "this is not medical advice" is just the cherry on top; it may provide extra protection, but only when the rest of the text is written properly.

This is not a legal advice. ;)

Comment by Viliam on The unfalsifiable belief in (doomsday) superintelligence scenarios? · 2022-01-18T22:49:39.401Z · LW · GW

The problem with "Pascal's wager" is not that the value gain/loss is too big, but that the probability is so tiny that without that big gain/loss no one would care.

If I say "you need this surgery, or there is a 50% chance you will die this year", this is not Pascal's wager, even if you value your life extremely highly. If I say "unless you eat this magical pill, you will die this year, and although the probability of the pill actually being magical is less than 1:1000000000, this is the only life you have, so you better buy this pill from me", that would be Pascal's wager.

People who believe that AGI is a possible extinction level, they believe the probability of that is... uhm, greater than 10%, to put it mildly. So it is outside the Pascal's wager territory.

Comment by Viliam on Personal blogging as self-imposed oppression · 2022-01-15T22:06:04.616Z · LW · GW

Unless blogging is just pretense

It's glorified self-surveillance

Which soon leads to self-censorship

To keep your job, or remain hip

No secrets left makes you a bore

But mob demands that you write more

Comment by Viliam on How Bad Is QWERTY, Really? A Review of the Literature, such as It Is · 2022-01-15T21:47:24.014Z · LW · GW

It's better if consecutive taps are done with different fingers or, better yet, different hands. [...] Not so fast! Typing could be constrained by neurological not physical speed, for example.

We do not optimize for speed alone, but for "speed, while typing correctly".

I imagine that at high speed, there is a significant risk of typing keys in wrong order. If you wait until the first finger completes its job before starting to move the second finger, I assume this is slower that when your brain kinda sends the commands in parallel. I mean, when the second finger activates at the moment when the first finger is still somewhere in the middle of its action, so that the first finger still types its key first, but the delay between the first and the second finger is smaller.

BTW, this is all just my assumption. I didn't do or review any research, and I am not a competitive typist.

But if this is true, then I suppose that if consecutive keys are pressed by fingers on different hands, the coordination is more difficult, because both brain hemispheres need to coordinate on the timing. So it is not obvious to me that alternating hands is preferable, if your goal is to type as fast as possible (but correctly). Yes, you can get faster, but maybe at the cost of making more errors.

Comment by Viliam on I have COVID, for how long should I isolate? · 2022-01-14T22:30:57.587Z · LW · GW

Relying on the kindness of strangers is generally a bad idea, because some strangers are not kind.

(Also, not everyone who is infected knows that they are.)

Comment by Viliam on Doing "good" · 2022-01-13T22:40:01.742Z · LW · GW

Uncertainty doesn't necessarily mean absolute uncertainty. If you save a drowning child, who knows, may grow up to be the next Hitler. But we still assume that saving drowning children is, at least on average, a good thing.

Comment by Viliam on On Virtue · 2022-01-13T14:10:24.236Z · LW · GW

If you can achieve the same outcome using an easy way, or using a hard way, then the easy way is preferable, and you do not get any extra point for using the hard way. Your utility points depend on the outcome, your virtue points are proportional to the difficulty of the easy way -- whether you actually took it or not.

If you can achieve an outcome only using the hard way, your utility points depend on the outcome, your virtue points are proportional to the difficulty of the hard way.

That is, your utility points always depend on the outcome. Your virtue points... seem proportional to the easiest way that way possible to you. You get the virtue points for going towards the outcome (as opposed to not doing anything), but you do not get extra virtue points for making it more difficult than it needed to be.

If you are a Superman (all tasks are super easy for you), does it mean you can't get many virtue points? Not at all; you just need to do a lot of tasks. So much that it will be difficult to do all of them... which is kinda the point.

This is all about what you should do as an individual who works alone. Then we also need to consider implications (for virtue points and utility points) of dividing the labor (by trade or otherwise) between people who have different skills.

Intuitively, the group utility points depend on the total outcome produced. The group virtue points should be calculated based on the most reasonable division of labor (everyone following their relative advantages); there should be no extra points for being idiots and assigning each work to the person least fit to do it.

Trade allows you to increase total utility. I mean, if for person A it is easy to do X, but difficult to do Y; and for person B it is difficult to do X, but easy to do Y; if they agree that A does all X, and B does all Y, they can produce more in total.

But it seems like the trade does not allow you to increase total virtue. I mean, assuming that you spend 100% of your energy when you were working along, then whatever trade you arrange, ultimately you can only spend 100% of your energy doing your part, so even if you produce more... you don't get more virtue points.

But then, if we ignore the utility points for a moment, is there any point to engage in trade from the virtue perspective? I think the answer is that if you know there is an opportunity to trade, but you refuse it, you should be docked some virtue points for needlessly choosing the more difficult way (i.e. your virtue points now do not depend on how hard you actually work, but how hard would you have to work if you used the benefits of trade).

This all works out in short term -- each individual independently maximizing their virtue points is aligned with more output. What about long term? Virtue points are awarded for the fraction of your current capacity that you use, but in long term, there is a question of increasing your capacity (or refusing to do so). As you say, working on increasing your capacity is a virtuous thing. Having your capacity increased is not; you did the virtuous thing in the past, but you are not doing it now.

Comment by Viliam on Has anyone had weird experiences with Alcor? · 2022-01-12T22:37:43.347Z · LW · GW

Also: what if wife cannot be reached by phone, and the clock is ticking?

Comment by Viliam on Uncontroversially good legislation · 2022-01-12T22:28:08.421Z · LW · GW

Could this be done by a third party? If the text of the law is public, and the voting on changes is also public information, a third party could maintain this record.

Comment by Viliam on Uncontroversially good legislation · 2022-01-12T22:25:03.693Z · LW · GW

What are the exact rules?

A good law would be something like this: If you work at Walmart for $N, you get extra $X from government. If you work anywhere else for $N or less, you also get extra $X from government. If you stop working at all, you still get $X from government. -- Written this way, it is less of a support for Walmart, because you can take it anywhere else.

A bad law would be like this: you must keep working in Walmart in order to get extra $X from government. This can be done indirectly, for example if Walmart must pay a fixed fee or do some insane paperwork, which is nothing for them given their number of employees, but would ruin a smaller employer.

Comment by Viliam on Animal welfare EA and personal dietary options · 2022-01-08T20:09:22.134Z · LW · GW

In other words, the question is: Would you prefer to experience X, or spend the same amount of time in coma?

Comment by Viliam on Covid 1/6/22: The Blip · 2022-01-07T18:05:04.287Z · LW · GW

egregious examples of policy gone awry (eg Djokovic

Also, some comments at MR suggest that the situation is more complicated. If I understand it correctly, there are things you need to do in order to enter the country, and things you need to do in order to participate in the tournament... and while he did the latter (by getting an exception, but anyway), he failed to do the former.

Comment by Viliam on What I'm about · 2022-01-07T14:40:22.055Z · LW · GW

Somehow, I am undecided.

I guess the experience of "nothing could go wrong" is so foreign to me that I have no idea how it would make me feel with regards to needing or not needing other people.

Comment by Viliam on Animal welfare EA and personal dietary options · 2022-01-07T14:33:45.336Z · LW · GW

10%: Sentience-maximizing diets. If you think animals in factory farms have net-positive lives, then it makes sense to want to increase the number of animals (by eating the most meat-heavy healthy diet possible) while also working to improve their welfare.

You made a great point for canibalism.

Comment by Viliam on Newcomb's Problem as an Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma · 2022-01-07T14:29:33.553Z · LW · GW

Not sure whether this makes sense, but maybe Omega gets 1 utility if it correctly predicts your behavior (in the unrolled version), and 0 utility otherwise?

Comment by Viliam on Sex Versus · 2022-01-07T13:24:51.191Z · LW · GW

Yep. In the marketplace of ideas, some ideas are not playing fair -- they reward their users in ways beyond "having a good model of the world", for example by increasing their status. We should place an extra burden of proof on those ideas.

I like Jacob's articles. They are nicely written, contain interesting insights, and I generally like reading about sex. But I don't think they pass the extra burden of proof. -- What I wish would happen here, is that each article would get a skeptical opposition. But yes, the social incentives are set in such way that the debate would reward Jacob and punish his opponents. Which may be a reason why the debate doesn't happen.

I don't mind also posting criticism on your object-level claims if I'll get approval from mods to go to very uncomfortable places.

Perhaps if you post the criticism somewhere else, and only post a link here, that would protect LW from the status hit of "hosting objectionable content". Yes it is hypocritical, but there is a difference when a third party quotes something as "this was written on LW" or "this was linked from LW". (I am not a moderator, I am just trying to consider their incentives.)

For me, a useful intuition pump is to imagine the same debate, only replacing sexual marketplace with money. Because the (liberal part of?) society has opposing intuitions here: losers at the sexual marketplace should be laughed at and shunned (unless they are a sexual minority, then the rules are different), losers at the financial marketplace should be empathised with and defended. (Kicking the homeless does not get the same reaction from the crowd as kicking the incels.) Then the analogical article would be something like: "Hey, my name is Donald Trump, and I want to tell you that becoming rich is actually quite easy. Most importantly, you need to be a nice and friendly person, and the first step towards that is overcoming your bitterness from your (frankly, mostly self-inflicted) poverty." Even if this came with many good insights on the financial markets, it probably wouldn't be received well. -- Then of course many people reject this analogy (no analogy is ever perfect), because the lack of sex does not kill you, and the lack of money could. (They would probably still feel bad about a world where each poor person gets exactly as much money as they need to literally survive, but not a cent more.)

The first step towards a high-quality criticism would be to extract the list of statements that Jacob seems to be making, and ideally check that he approves of this interpretation. Then, post the arguments to the contrary. (I am too lazy to actually do this, I am just expressing my preferences about what I'd like to read.)

Now some object-level objections:

Compare this picture (source) with this one. In the first case, Jacob explains (in my opinion correctly) how a small initial imbalance on the dating market (in the specific subculture, in favor of men) can translate into huge disparity of power. In the second case, where the imbalance is in favor of women, Jacob just ignores the huge difference in the gray part of the graph, and concludes that "overall the differences are just not that big" (referring only to relative differences between the non-gray parts of the graph, of course).

So, when an imbalance makes it difficult for some women to find a partner, "I find this genuinely sad. I strongly believe that relationships are preferable to aloneness." But when an imbalance makes if difficult for some men, that is not even worth noticing. -- I assume that Jacob really has a blind spot here, not that he did it on purpose. But that's exactly the meta point, that pointing out a bias, even on a rationalist website, carries a status penalty ("why is Viliam spending his time caring about incels? does this mean he is...?").

Similarly both sexes have a preference for men to be more proactive in flirting and escalating to sex, and there’s also enough variance to allow shy guys and assertive gals to find each other.

Well, this assumes that (1) there are at least as many assertive gals as the shy guys, and that (2) the assertive gals will use their assertivity on the shy guys, as opposed to just any guys they like. Hypothetically, each of these statements could be true; I just don't see any evidence, so this reduces to a just-world assumption.

Comment by Viliam on Viliam's Shortform · 2022-01-07T11:29:50.438Z · LW · GW

Yes. Not sure if its vision was to ultimately cover everything (like Wikipedia) or only MIRI-related topics. But yes, that is the spirit.

EDIT: After reading the entire postmortem... oh, this made me really sad! It seems like a great idea that I didn't understand/appreciate at the moment.

Comment by Viliam on Viliam's Shortform · 2022-01-06T22:50:15.196Z · LW · GW

That is "(Simple English) Wikipedia", not "Simple (English Wikipedia)".

I will check it later. The articles that prompted me to write this, they don't exist in the simple-English version, so I can't quickly compare how much the reduction of vocabulary actually translates into simple exposition of ideas.

Comment by Viliam on MackGopherSena's Shortform · 2022-01-06T20:41:51.105Z · LW · GW

What about legality of mana usage? My life could be dramatically changed by adding a few zeroes to my bank account, which would only require changing a few bits, which are probably not even that difficult to find. That is, this task is probably cheaper than either sterilizing or boiling the glass of water.

There is an issue with "difficulty" of finding some bits. Like, difficulty for whom? A hypothetical agent who has what knowledge exactly? I was thinking about self-improvement, which (within human boundaries) has a nice upper limit -- in worst case, you need to change all qbits in your body; but in most reasonable cases a fraction of them would probably suffice. The question is, how to find the relatively few qbits in my brain which would increase my intelligence, or willpower.

Alternatively, modifying other people could be quite profitable. Any person willing to help you is a multiplier for your abilities. The secular alternative to this is social skills (or manipulation).

Comment by Viliam on Viliam's Shortform · 2022-01-06T19:13:34.995Z · LW · GW

Project idea: ELI5pedia. Like Wikipedia, but optimized for being accessible for lay audience. If some topics are too complex, they could be written in multiple versions, progressing from the most simple to the most detailed (but still as accessible as possible).

Of course it would be even better if Wikipedia itself was written like this, but... well, for whatever reason, it is not.

Comment by Viliam on Viliam's Shortform · 2022-01-06T19:09:24.840Z · LW · GW

Sadly, I have no statistics, just a few anecdotes -- which is unhelpful to answer the question.

After more thinking, maybe this is a question of having a platform. Like, maybe there are many experts who have crazy opinions outside their area of expertise, but we will never know, because they have proper channels for their expertise (publish in journals, teach at universities), but they don't have equivalent channels for their crazy opinions. Their environment filters their opinions: the new discoveries they made will be described in newspapers and encyclopedias, but only their friends on Facebook will hear their opinions on anything else.

Heterodox people need to find or create their own alternative platforms. But those platforms have weaker filters, or no filters at all. Therefore their crazy opinions will be visible along their smart opinions.

So if you are a mainstream scientist, the existing system will publish your expert opinions, and hide everything else. If you are not mainstream, you either remain invisible, or if you find a way to be visible, you will be fully visible... including those of your opinions that are stupid.

But as you say, fame will have the side effect that now people pay attention to whatever you want to say (as opposed to what the system allows to pass through), and some of that is bullshit. For a heterodox expert, the choice is either fame or invisibility.

Comment by Viliam on AnnaSalamon's Shortform · 2022-01-05T22:52:15.474Z · LW · GW

Not the question you asked, but... is it possible to somehow make your writing easier, and then you perhaps wouldn't have to choose between writing X or Y, because you could just write both?

For example, not sure how much time you spend writing and editing, but maybe you could just record yourself talking and writing on blackboard, and then someone else (willing to donate their time) could transcribe it, and then you would just do the final editing and submit the thing?

trying to write about it involves much much use of the backspace

There is no backspace if you talk. What would you do if the same thing happened to you during a lecture? Maybe say "oops, I was wrong about this, because..." -- but this also can be included in the text. The entire wrong part could then be given a heading like "my first (unsuccessful) attempt", which would make the reader less confused.

Comment by Viliam on Unreal's Shortform · 2022-01-05T22:06:50.739Z · LW · GW

I find this ironic to compare to the first part you quoted.

People don't recycle, keep the fridge door open, don't register to vote... but, you know, from certain perspective this is actually great, because it shows their determination to do the actually important stuff.

The same people then also don't buy groceries, don't keep their promises...

Both of these examples signal the lack of Hufflepuff virtues. The first one is easy to rationalize; the second one has a personal impact on the author.

Comment by Viliam on hamnox's Shortform · 2022-01-05T18:58:12.326Z · LW · GW

A mobile rational community? (Not sure how relatively important are the other things you mentioned.)

I like this idea, because it seems to solve some issues I was thinking about. Such as, how difficult it is to coordinate with other rationalists to live near each other -- well, if you all live in caravans, it is quite easy. The price for joining is buying your own caravan. Leaving one mobile rationalist group and joining another one (optimistically assuming that more than one such group exists) is easy. If you get disappointed with all communities, either move your caravan to a separate location, or sell it and return to the usual life.

How will the group decide when and where to move? Maybe you don't actually need explicit rules for that, it's just that people with very strong preferences can move unilaterally, and everyone else decides whether/whom to follow. The group can split, and later join or regroup. Maybe the rules would gradually evolve -- the least agreeable people leaving the group without being followed, the remaining ones developing some kind of consensus making.

For those who can (e.g. software developers), it would probably make most sense to have fully remote jobs. Then you can move freely while keeping a reliable income.

What about costs? You would need to adopt some degree of minimalism, because there is only so much you can put in your caravan. (Though you could buy a larger one, or another one, if necessary.) This lifestyle would also hurt your social relations outside the group, or rather limit them to temporary or online relations.

Comment by Viliam on How the response to a pandemic affecting mainly children would look like? · 2022-01-05T17:04:05.589Z · LW · GW

I think that things would be approximately the same.

The government [in]competence is a result of how the entire system works, what are the individual incentives, etc. The entire system would start in the same position.

Looking at historical examples, no matter how serious the disease, many people always believed that vaccination was just government's secret plot to murder them. So even assuming that people would care more if it was mostly about kids... we would get some people more hysterically pro-vaccine, and other people more hysterically anti-vaccine. Social networks would be full of pictures of disfigured and/or dead children, but some people would claim they were killed by the disease, and other people would claim they were killed by the vaccine, and these groups would block each other.

Comment by Viliam on Chris_Leong's Shortform · 2022-01-05T16:43:33.378Z · LW · GW

Trying to think about what is required to be a good debater:

  • general intelligence -- to quickly understand the situation and lay out your response;
  • "talking" skills -- large vocabulary, talking clearly, not being shy, body language and other status signals;
  • background knowledge -- knowing the models, facts, frequently used arguments, etc.;
  • precomputed results -- if you already spent a lot of time thinking about a topic, maybe even debating it.

These do not work the same way, for example clear talking and good body language generalize well; having lots of precomputed results in one area will not help you much in other areas (unless you use a lot of analogies to the area you are familiar with -- if you do this the first time, you may impress people, but if you do this repeatedly, they will notice that you are a one-topic person).

I believe that watching good debaters in action would help. It might be even better to focus on different aspects separately (observing their body language, listening to how they use their voice, understanding their frames, etc.).

Comment by Viliam on Viliam's Shortform · 2022-01-05T10:47:07.665Z · LW · GW

What is the actual relation between heterodoxy and crackpots?

A plausibly sounding explanation is that "disagreeing with the mainstream" can easily become a general pattern. You notice that the mainstream is wrong about X, and then you go like "and therefore the mainstream is probably also wrong about Y, Z, and UFOs, and dinosaurs." Also there are the social incentives; once you become famous for disagreeing with the mainstream, you can only keep your fame by disagreeing more and more, because your new audience is definitely not impressed by "sheeple".

On the other hand, there is a notable tendency of actual mainstream experts to start talking nonsense confidently about things that are outside their area of expertise. Which suggests an alternative model, that perhaps it is natural for all smart people (including the ones who succeeded to become mainstream experts at some moment of their lives) to become crackpots... it's just that some of them stumble upon an important heterodox truth on their way.

So is it more like: "heterodoxy leads to crackpottery" or more like: "heterodoxy sometimes happens as a side effect on the universal way to crackpottery"?

Apparently, crackpots are overconfident about their ability to find truth. Heterodox fame can easily contribute to such overconfidence, but is its effect actually significantly different from mainstream fame?

Comment by Viliam on COVID Skepticism Isn't About Science · 2022-01-05T10:20:22.117Z · LW · GW

Please note that "infant IQ" is a very non-standard use; the article says "ability to process information" instead.

Before three years, things are so difficult to measure that even mental retardation is not diagnosed at that age. I am not surprised by the correlation being low; but from my perspective it simply means "if you try to measure a baby's mental life, you will get a lot of noise".

infant cognitive development measures are pretty bad for predicting adult IQ

They are probably also pretty bad for predicting IQ at the age of five years.

(I don't have evidence for this that I could link; it's just my understanding of how things work.)

One of the reasons is that in people 3 and more years old, we can distinguish between someone being generally smart/slow vs someone having a specific talent/disorder (e.g. "a genius kid with dyslexia"); but a baby does not have a sufficiently wide range of specialized activities to diagnose this.

Comment by Viliam on Should I blog on LessWrong? · 2021-12-30T00:34:38.366Z · LW · GW

If I understand it correctly, you have a professional blog where you self-censor for professional reasons. This would be your second blog. What is the chance that you would really want to write something that would fit in neither of these blogs? I mean, not just something personal and silly (that would be accepted here, assuming it is not the only kind of content you would ever produce), but something actively against the LW norms, such as strongly political content, or your thoughts about how Jesus is the actual truth and the way.

(Alternatively, is there an audience that hates LW, and you would want to write something for them?)

What I am asking is, whether it is likely that tomorrow you will need a third blog. If the chance is negligible, go ahead, start blogging here, and see what happens. Worst case, you can start your own blog later and move your LW articles there. The advantage is that you can start blogging immediately with no extra work.

However, if the chance of needing the third blog is high, then you might instead start a new independent blog, and crosspost some of its articles to LW. (There is some method to import articles from other blogs automatically, though I am not familiar with technical details.) Actually, you might crosspost selected articles from both your blogs.

But you can also start blogging here... and if a need for a third blog arises later, then start it later.

By the way, it is not just about articles, but also about comments and moderation. Are you okay with your readers having to create an LW account if they want to comment on your articles? Are you okay with the LW audience voting on your commenters? Some people feel uncomfortable writing on LW; this might prevent them from replying to your articles.

Comment by Viliam on COVID Skepticism Isn't About Science · 2021-12-30T00:26:25.304Z · LW · GW

It is a general argument against workplace safety being optional. And we already have many regulations against traditional dangers in various jobs. The difference is that covid is new.

Do you have estimates of the rate at which that happens (and subsequent harms), vs people who don't want to wear masks being forced to do so (and subsequent harms)?

I can't provide high-quality estimates, only anecdotal evidence. Calculating harm would also be difficult, because a lot of it is indirect. For example, for me the greatest worry about getting covid was not that I would die of it, but that I would unknowingly infect my old relatives with whom I am in frequent contact.

Intuitively, "killing my mother" feels more important than "the mask is annoying". But this is speaking from the position of work-from-home privilege. If I instead had to wear a mask 8 hours a day, every day, I would probably either find some rationalization, or reduce the contact with my mother to phone calls and leaving the groceries in front of her house.

Comment by Viliam on What are the pros and cons of seeking a formal diagnosis of autism? · 2021-12-29T23:47:55.712Z · LW · GW

If you are officially labeled as an autist (or anything else), some people or institutions may use this information to discriminate against you.

Perhaps the risk is extremely low given the current British law and culture; I don't know. But how much you are willing to bet that the law and culture will remain the same 20 years later? Once you get the official diagnosis, you might be later legally required to disclose it, so this step is irreversible.

I have checked the situation in Slovakia (which of course has a very different law and culture), and there are institutions that quite openly discriminate against autists. Like, medical schools that require you to declare that you do not have any mental condition mentioned in a list (autism included), or internal rules of police departments not to hire autists. I wasn't aware of that previously. I am not really interested in police work, and I am already too old for school, but this made me update strongly against seeking formal diagnosis for my children, should any autistic symptoms manifest at them. I want to keep their options open; and I also worry about what else may happen 20 years later.

In 2019 there was a scandal in Czechia, where a high-status psychiatrist Jaroslav Matýs said in an interview for a newspaper (article paywalled) that autists are "unable to distinguish between good and evil". He then proceeded to talk about psychopaths in politics, which kinda implied, although he didn't say that explicitly, that the conditions are kinda related. (The topic of the interview was Greta Thunberg, and as we all know, politics is the mindkiller.) There was a public outrage, and the guy resigned from his position as a chairman of a child section of Czech psychiatrist association. He still insists that the only mistake he made was "talking publicly in a manner accessible to lay audience" (source). Okay, the guy was punished for his idiotic opinions, but the fact that he was previously able to hold such position while having such opinions, is disturbing. (Imagine a parallel universe, where instead of giving a public interview, he just kept writing expert reports on people like you or me.)

To address the other things you mentioned:

A formal diagnosis means you can ask for special consideration and usually get it, even if you don't strictly need it.

Do you have detailed information about what specific accomodations would actually be available for your diagnosis? (Maybe you are too optimistic.)

Many people seem to find a formal diagnosis helpful for understanding themselves (are there advantages over a self-diagnosis?) and for explaining themselves to others.

I think it is relatively easy for an intelligent and sane person to correctly diagnose themselves as having "autism or something similar". The problem is, you probably have no idea what exactly "something similar" involves. An expert could potentially tell you that you have "X, which is similar to autism, but not the same thing", or perhaps that you have "autism and X". I hope you agree that such diagnosis would be even better for understanding yourself. (An example of X could be ADHD.)

I could just explain to people that eg I don't like last-minute changes of plans. Is there an advantage to explaining to other people that it's because I'm autistic, rather than just saying it's part of my personality? 

The diagnosis implies a difference between "mere preference" or "just something you never tried to overcome", and "something that is really difficult (maybe impossible) for you to overcome".

Because, in general, it is sometimes good to tell people "you know, if you overcome your dislike for X, it will allow you to get all these things that you may like a lot". (I don't like exercising. But I do it anyway, because of health concerns.) But if I know that X is simply not an option for you, I won't waste your time talking about how useful it could be. Though, different people will react differently. Some believe that any diagnosis can be overcome by sheer willpower.

Is it socially responsible to seek diagnosis for borderline cases?

Yes. Suppose that autism is on a spectrum from 0 to 10, where 0 is "obviously not an autist" and 10 is "obviously an autist". Your worry is that it is socially irresponsible for a 3 or a 5 to seek diagnosis, because they are obviously not a 10. But if this becomes a norm, then tomorrow a 6 will also feel guilty for seeking diagnosis. And after tomorrow, so will a 7 and maybe an 8; which is probably not the outcome that you want.

Also, consider the fact that you are (I assume) highly intelligent, which means you are better able to cope with your symptoms. You can partially overcome your missing social instincts by reading literature that explains human behavior explicitly, and then applying the lessons to specific situations; sometimes you get things right. Imagine a person with the same degree of autism, but IQ 100. Their situation would be much worse, do you agree? So maybe instead of "not too autistic" you are "intelligent enough to overcome or alleviate some symptoms of autism". You may think of yourself as 3 on the autistic scale, but you might actually be a smart 6 who is able to function at the 3's level.

You don't have to be a "perfect autist" in order to be an autist; not all autists have all symptoms. Leave the diagnosis to an expert.

Conclusion: I think the best way would be to get diagnosed (also for adjacent disorders) by an actual expert, so that you can benefit from the self-knowledge... but somehow without leaving a written record of the diagnosis, so that you can deny it later. Not sure how difficult it would be to arrange that.

Comment by Viliam on COVID Skepticism Isn't About Science · 2021-12-29T20:22:50.421Z · LW · GW

Masks are not very effective, but they are cheap and easy, so they're probably worth it. It is probably sufficient to recommend them without mandating them.

Sadly, it doesn't work like this. You can say "yes" to the masks, but then your boss says "no"... and you either remove the mask or lose your job. And the bosses will say "no" for all kinds of reasons; maybe they are antivaxers, or maybe some Karen complained about feeling uncomfortable not seeing your face.

Comment by Viliam on Internet Literacy Atrophy · 2021-12-28T11:31:16.684Z · LW · GW

Spending lots more attention-effort to get a small amount more useful information isn't a tradeoff I'll make most of the time.

This makes it generally a worse medium for a rational debate. Few people are willing to spend dozens of hours to become familiar with the arguments of their opponents. So instead the vlog debate will degenerate into "each side produces hours of convicing videos, everyone watches the videos of their side and throws the links to the opponents, but no one bothers watching the opponents' videos".

Comment by Viliam on A good rational fiction about IT-inspired magic system? · 2021-12-27T17:42:27.216Z · LW · GW

If energy is not a constraint, such world would quickly get destroyed. Whatever effect you made, just yell "now, 1000 times more of the same". If it does not destroy the world immediately, repeat this two or three times.

For example, the world can be easily destroyed by creating a sufficiently high temperature (which will warm up the atmosphere and burn everyone), or sufficient amounts of matter (black-hole amount, gravity-changing amount, or just enough water to create a global tsunami and/or rise ocean levels).

Possible fix -- if we assume magic, we might as well have a magical solution, right? -- if the side effects of a spell kill the wizard, time is reverted and the wizard just immediately dies instead. (Question is, how fast and how directly must the wizard be killed; e.g. in case of the global tsunami created on a different continent. Magical answer: 3 days, any cause of death. Among other things, this allows you to reset the timeline by assassinating the wizard after the spell was successfully cast.)

Comment by Viliam on Internet Literacy Atrophy · 2021-12-27T17:21:01.308Z · LW · GW

Thanks, I learned yet another way to scam people. But no such thing happened. My mother understands the concept of SMS, she says this did not happen, and she keeps the old messages on her phone, I checked them. Someone simply made a Whatsapp account with her phone number without her receiving any SMS message. I have no idea how that is possible -- but that is exactly my point. (And, as usual, Whatsapp does not have any customer service that we could contact and ask.)

She already changed her number, so unless the same thing happens again, we consider this problem solved. It was just an illustration how difficult to understand things are (even for an IT guy such as me).

Comment by Viliam on Internet Literacy Atrophy · 2021-12-26T22:53:37.025Z · LW · GW

Also, 3-year olds do not worry whether they might break something -- their parents would fix it.

Older people know that things can go wrong in various ways, but they are not sure how exactly. New scams are being invented every day. If you spend most of your time playing with the technology, you have a good idea about what is dangerous and what is not. If you only use it once in a while, it's a minefield.

For example, if you notice that you missed a phone call and you call the person back... it can cost you lots of money (if the person is a scammer, setting up a paid service, then automatically calling up thousands of people and hanging up, expecting some of them to call back). When you see the missed call, is this something you consider before calling back? Most old people do not have a sufficiently good model; they are aware that some seemingly innocent things are dangerous, but they do not know which ones exactly.

If you teach a 70 years old person how to use a smartphone, do you also explain to them all possible things that can go wrong? Heck, I am not sure I could even list all the dangers. I rely on being an active online reader, so when a new scam is invented, I will probably read about it before someone tries it on me; hopefully. But that old person is just thrown into a pool with sharks. Same if you teach someone browsing the web. Same if you teach someone shopping online. All the tech is full of scams, and if you get scammed, well it sucks to be you, you should have been more tech savvy.

(Recently, someone impersonated my 70-years old mother on Whatsapp and a few other online messengers. I don't even know how it is possible to create a Whatsapp account using someone else's phone number; when I try to create an account, it checks the number by sending me a verification SMS. But apparently it is possible to do somehow, because someone did exactly this; created accounts with my mother's phone number, and some young woman's photo; then used them to sell some cars. We have no idea how; my mother only uses her smartphone for calling, and sending/receiving SMS. We just reported the whole thing to the police, and my mother changed her phone number.)

The tech is hostile, but if you keep using it every day, you get used to it, and learn to navigate it. You recognize the most frequent scams, and you get lucky that the more rare ones avoided you.

Comment by Viliam on How to select a long-term goal and align my mind towards it? · 2021-12-25T12:08:25.259Z · LW · GW

Please notice that some long-term goals are in conflict, but some are not - see the examples provided by lsusr here.

In jobs, there are often two types of knowledge: company-specific and company-independent. An example of the former would be knowing who is who in the company structure, or some specific details about navigating company bureaucracy (who needs to approve your vacation, how to file expense reports, how to buy tickets for business trips and how to get them reimbursed), or products that were developed withing the company and will never be used outside of it. An example of the latter is general profession-related skills (if you are a programmer: programming skills, or knowledge of generally used tools and libraries), or social-skills, or other general skills (such as math).

So, yeah, if you find yourself pushed towards spending too much time (small amounts are inevitable) obtaining company-specific knowledge, that is unlikely to be profitable in long term (useless outside the job, which also worsens your negotiation position within the job), so try to avoid it, or quit. But if you spend your time learning general skills (e.g. becoming a better programmer), then there is no conflict: you become better at your current job and improve your position on the job market.

(Ironically, company-specific things can be useful for you, if you are the one who creates them. For example, using a software framework developed internally in the company usually sucks a lot. But if you are the one who develops it, that is great, because you learn the general skill of designing and developing software frameworks. It just sucks to be everyone else in the company, because they are spending their time adapting to the outputs of your work. You get better; they get stuck with the things you designed before you got better.)

Not a complete answer (also I am running out of time now), but perhaps choose a more generally useful skill. There is an article I currently can't find, written by Paul Graham, about how you should choose skills that keep more options open. For example, math in general has lots of uses, programming is more specialized, programming in Java is even more specialized, programming in Java Server Faces version 1.0 is utterly useless... therefore, unless there is a good reason to do otherwise, study math. This is more important the younger you are, when you have more time to get long-term benefits of the general skills. (If you are five years before retirement, just learn whatever will get you most money in short term, when the thing becomes obsolete, it will no longer be your problem.)