2017, Lists, and State of the Internet

  1. 2017 has been a busy year for this blog. I plan to continue the topics.
  2. I’ve updated my Movies and Video Games ratings lists. Dunkirk and Star Wars: The Last Jedi were tied for the best movie of the year. I might make a TV shows list someday.
  3. Rick Webb on the current state of the Internet vs early utopian visions:

Being generous to the prophets Brand and Kelly et al, it’s entirely reasonable to argue that this version of a global village is not what they proposed or envisioned. Minorities are still denied equal voices on the internet — harassed off of it, or still unable to even get online. Massive amounts of data is still hidden behind firewalls or not online at all. Projects to bring more information online (such as Google Books) have foundered due to institutional obstruction or a change of priorities in those undertaking them. Governments still have secrets. Organizations such as Wikileaks that showed early promise in this regard have been re-cast as political tools through some mix of their own hubris and the adversarial efforts of the governments they seek to expose.

It’s quite easy to see the differences between the internet world we live in and the utopia we were promised. And a fair measure of that is because we didn’t actually make it to the utopia. The solution, then, the argument goes, is to keep at it. To keep taking our medicine even as the patient gets more sick, on the faith that we will one day reach that future state of total-information-freedom and equality of voices.

Tabula Rasa, Extinction, and Electricity

Chess

AlphaZero was one of the bigger headlines recently. Google’s new chess AI taught itself for 4 hours starting from a blank slate—no opening or endgame tables—and crushed Stockfish, the world’s previous best computer. See chess website articles here and here, a lichess.org collection of the games here, and the original research paper here via arXiv. This obviously has lots of real-world implications.

The most interesting thing is the way it won games. Ever since the early days of chess programming, we thought that chess computers could understand basic tactics but never deep positional play. Even in the pivotal 1997 Kasparov vs Deep Blue match, the human world champion famously said that Deep Blue must have been getting help from human grandmasters as it was playing non-computer-like moves.

Watching two chess AI’s play each other is typically a boring feat. But AlphaZero plays in a very human-romantic style, at least in the games that were revealed (and there’s definitely some selection bias there). AlphaZero often gave up lots of material for tempo, and it worked. One of the most talked-about positions is the following, where AlphaZero (white) abandons the Knight on h6 and plays Re1. It went on to win the game.

alphazero_game10

 

There’s lots of caveats in terms of how “real” of a result this is. Namely, the example games had Stockfish set on suboptimal settings. But still, it increases my opinion of the complexity of chess. As computers have gotten better, the way they play chess became more and more boring. But maybe the curve is not monotonic and we might have a stage where the game becomes more interesting again. Though I fear that eventually it will degenerate into optimal play from move one.

Political Correctness

People have been talking about the Sam Altman blog post.

Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me.  I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco.  I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.

That showed me just how bad things have become, and how much things have changed since I first got started here in 2005.

It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year.  Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised.

And:

More recently, I’ve seen credible people working on ideas like pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension leave San Francisco because they found the reaction to their work to be so toxic.  “If people live a lot longer it will be disastrous for the environment, so people working on this must be really unethical” was a memorable quote I heard this year.

I don’t have any experience with the San Francisco discussion climate, but this seems weird. The fact that someone felt the need to write this post is a sign about the culture.

I’m probably way more in favor of politically incorrect ideas, mainly since I think the world vastly overvalues traditional ideas, and ironically because there is so much that you can’t say in China. Tyler Cowen points out, “…your pent-up urges are not forbidden topics any more.  Just do be careful with your mentions of Uncle Xi, Taiwan, Tibet, Uighur terrorists, and disappearing generals.”

So Altman’s general point about politically incorrect ideas is probably correct. I don’t have any problem with discussing unpopular ideas. But I just don’t see people moving form San Francisco to China as a reasonable solution. There are certain topics that we might be overly sensitive to, but the overall level of idea tolerance would seem very tilted in favor of the US.

Human Extinction

Obligatory shout out to 80000 Hours’ extinction risk article. The idea was to discuss various sources of extinction and estimate their chances of occurring.

What’s probably more concerning is the risks we haven’t thought of yet. If you had asked people in 1900 what the greatest risks to civilisation were, they probably wouldn’t have suggested nuclear weapons, genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, since none of these were yet invented. It’s possible we’re in the same situation looking forward to the next century. Future “unknown unknowns” might pose a greater risk than the risks we know today.

Each time we discover a new technology, it’s a little like betting against a single number on a roulette wheel. Most of the time we win, and the technology is overall good. But each time there’s also a small chance the technology gives us more destructive power than we can handle, and we lose everything.

And:

An informal poll in 2008 at a conference on catastrophic risks found they believe it’s pretty likely we’ll face a catastrophe that kills over a billion people, and estimate a 19% chance of extinction before 2100.

As a trader, the first thing that comes to mind is to create some betting markets on such events happening and have a bunch of people trade, but this leads to weird selection effects and the payout is too long-term. So looking at some polls and mentally adjusting is probably right.

xkcd_sun_exploded

In addition, their ordering of what to prioritize is interesting:

  1. AI safety
  2. Global priorities research
  3. Building the effective altruism community
  4. Pandemic prevention
  5. Improving institutional decision-making
  6. Nuclear security

Twitter Posts

I should maybe have a recurring Twitter section. Anyway, here is a tweet by Julia Galef, and I’ve also wondered about this topic a lot.

The thought experiment I want to run is to throw together a racially diverse set of kids in a bubble, and expose the kids to roughly no knowledge of real world history or any hints of racism outside, and otherwise act like everything is normal. In this bubble world, would they start becoming racist against each other? I would guess no.

I think an underrated explanation in general of why people do something is because everyone else around them does it or that parents or teacher early on in their life do it. Social/cultural norm is a really strong incentive/disincentive for activities.

Cryptocurrencies and Electricity

There are definitely people worrying about the massive amount of world electricity consumption from bitcoin mining. Newsweek extrapolates that bitcoin will take up the world’s electric output by 2020. It’s currently at 0.15% according to some website. This is not small, giving how quickly it has been growing. Wired worries it will become the paperclip machine:

That’s bad. It means Bitcoin emits the equivalent of 17.7 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, a big middle finger to Earth’s climate and anyone who enjoys things like coastlines, forests, and not dying of mosquito-borne diseases. Refracted through a different metaphor, the Bitcoin P2P network is essentially a distributed superintelligence utterly dedicated to generating bitcoins, so of course it wants to convert all the energy (and therefore matter) in the universe into bitcoin. That is literally its job. And if it has to recruit greedy nerds by paying them phantom value, well, OK. Unleash the hypnocurrency!

I also stumbled upon a more optimistic viewpoint, claiming that bitcoin mining will trigger increased development and adoption of clean energy:

But electricity costs matter even more to a Bitcoin miner than typical heavy industry. Electricity costs can be 30-70% of their total costs of operation. Also, Bitcoin miners don’t need to worry about the geography of their customers or materials shipping routes. Bitcoins are digital, they have only two inputs (electricity and hardware) and network latency is trivial as compared with a truck full of steel. This particular miner moved an entire GPU farm across the U.S. because of cheap hydroelectric power in the Pacific Northwest and, in his words, “it’s worth it!” That’s also why we see miners in Iceland. Aside from beautiful vistas you can find abundant geothermal and hydraulic power in the land of volcanoes and waterfalls.

If Bitcoin mining really does begin to consume vast quantities of the global electricity supply it will, it follows, spur massive growth in efficient electricity production—i.e. in the green energy revolution. Moore’s Law was partially a story about incredible advances in materials science, but it was also a story about incredible demand for computing that drove those advances and made semiconductor research and development profitable. If you want to see a Moore’s-Law-like revolution in energy, then you should be rooting for, and not against, Bitcoin. The fact is that the Bitcoin protocol, right now, is providing a $200,000 bounty every 10 minutes (the bitcoin mining reward) to the person who can find the cheapest energy on the planet. Got cheap green power? Bitcoin could make building more of it well worth your time.

It’s very unclear in bitcoin’s case how good the upside is for the world, but it doesn’t seem anywhere close to being an extinction risk.

Recommended is Tyler Cowen’s post on crytocurrencies and social value.

Progress

previously wrote that we take modern life improvements for granted and sometimes erroneously yearn for the hunter-gatherer life. Well here is a Quillette article on precisely the romanticization of that.  Here are some examples:

In his later work, Lee would acknowledge that, “Historically, the Ju/’hoansi have had a high infant mortality rate…” In a study on the life histories of the !Kung Nancy Howell found that the number of infants who died before the age of 1 was roughly 20 percent. (As high as this number is, it compares favorably with estimates from some other hunter-gatherer societies, such as among the Casiguran Agta of the Phillipines, where the rate is 34 percent.) Life expectancy for the !Kung is 36 years of age. Again, while this number is only about half the average life expectancy found among contemporary nation states, this number still compares favorably with several other hunter-gatherer populations, such as the Hiwi (27 years) and the Agta (21 years). Life expectancy across pygmy hunter-gatherer societies is even lower, ranging from about 16-24 years, although this may have as much to do with pygmy physiology as with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

And:

11 of these 15 societies have homicide rates higher than that of the most violent modern nation, and 14 out of the 15 have homicide rates higher than that of the United States in 2016. The one exception, the Batek of Malaysia, have a long history of being violently attacked and enslaved by neighboring groups, and developed a survival tactic of running away and studiously avoiding conflict. Yet even they recount tales of wars in the past, where their shamans would shoot enemies with blowpipes. Interestingly, Ivan Tacey & Diana Riboli have noted that “…the Batek frequently recount their nostalgic memories of British doctors, administrators and army personnel visiting their communities in helicopters to deliver medicines and other supplies,” which conflicts with the idea that hunter-gatherer societies would have no want or need of anything nation states have to offer. From 1920-1955 the !Kung had a homicide rate of 42/100,000 (about 8 times that of the US rate in 2016), however Kelly mentions that, “murders ceased after 1955 due to the presence of an outside police force.”

And:

So, what explains the popularity of this notion of an “original affluent society”? Why do people in societies with substantially greater life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, greater equality in reproductive success, and reduced rates of violence, romanticize a way of life filled with hardships they have never experienced? In wealthy, industrialized populations oriented around consumerism and occupational status, the idea that there are people out there living free of greed, in natural equality and harmony, provides an attractive alternative way of life.

I also definitely live in a bubble, as I don’t know anyone openly in favor of hunter-gatherer society.

This also reminds me of Joseph Stiglitz’s book, The Price of Inequality. Most of the book is very methodical or at least numbers-driven. Then comes this absurd passage on the Bhutanese (p. 155 of the Norton edition):

Bhutan, the remote Himalayan state to the northeast of India, for instance, is protecting its forests as part of a broader commitment to the environment. Each family is allowed to cut down a fixed number of trees for its own use. In this sparsely populated country, I asked, how could one enforce such an edict? The answer was simple and straightforward: in our jargon, social capital. The Bhutanese have internalized what is “right” when it comes to the environment. It would be wrong to cheat, and so they don’t.

I’ve been waiting for years to quote this paragraph, but here it is. There is in general some weird sacred reverence of non-Western cultures. Is this related to the Altman political correctness theme? Can I just pick a well-off small community in America and say “it would be wrong to cheat, and so they don’t”? Anyway, it’s really easy to say some society works pretty well, and then take all the modern improvements for granted.

Internet Context, Natalism, and the Me Too Movement

 

xkcd_wrong_on_the_internet
via xkcd

Random Posts on Facebook

previously wrote that there is a meaninglessness in most things on the Internet, particularly due to the lack of context:

A lot of “arguments” I see these days are made in short Facebook posts, tweets, or viral stock images with a sentence of text on them. This is actually fine in certain cases, precisely because there is context spanning much more than a sentence. If Nate Silver tweets one line about a something about an election, I can say “Hmm that’s interesting.” However, if the same tweet were made by a random person, I would immediately start thinking instead, “What are the credentials of this person? On what evidence is this claim based? Does this person have a political agenda? Do I expect certain biases to exist?” This isn’t to say that Nate Silver is a perfect being, but when I see a tweet from him, I really have much more to consider than just one sentence.

I generally consider most issues in the world to be very complicated; if they were simple, they would have been solved and we wouldn’t be talking about them. And threads on Facebook are fairly non-intellectual in this sense. You just can’t get into any complex substance. Ironically, I prefer reading Twitter—despite the 280 character limit, prominent posts on Twitter often come from public people whose motives and core beliefs are easy to contextualize. And thus, a single tweet can convey more content than an entire Facebook thread. (Or blog post.)

Generally Facebook debates aren’t worth getting into for this reason. Someone presents 1% of the argument for their side, and there’s so much missing context that you will basically have no idea what your real disagreement is about. And there’s also Poe’s Law, which says any sufficiently advanced satire is indistinguishable from serious argument, and which always leads to needless disagreement.

Anyway here is an opinion piece in the NYT with a similar point about how to read:

Many of these poor readers can sound out words from print, so in that sense, they can read. Yet they are functionally illiterate — they comprehend very little of what they can sound out. So what does comprehension require? Broad vocabulary, obviously. Equally important, but more subtle, is the role played by factual knowledge.

All prose has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. Consider “I promised not to play with it, but Mom still wouldn’t let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.” The author has omitted three facts vital to comprehension: you must be quiet in a library; Rubik’s Cubes make noise; kids don’t resist tempting toys very well. If you don’t know these facts, you might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but you’ll miss why Mom forbade the toy in the library.

The article goes on to point out that having a broad knowledge base is incredibly helpful in reading comprehension. The knowledge can allow people with generally worse reading comprehension skills to outperform when the literature in question is on a familiar topic.

I had a lot of trouble understanding certain books when I was younger. One that particularly comes to mind is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. In retrospect, I had a weird childhood and probably had a lot of trouble figuring out how any of the character interactions in that book made sense. On the other hand, I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card at a much younger age and it made a lot of sense, and the childhood dynamic there is much different.

Another striking passage from the article:

First, it points to decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades. Third-graders spend 56 percent of their time on literacy activities but 6 percent each on science and social studies. This disproportionate emphasis on literacy backfires in later grades, when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension. Another positive step would be to use high-information texts in early elementary grades. Historically, they have been light in content.

I strongly agree with this, considering broad-based knowledge in science and history in the general population seem really, really lacking. Moreover, I wonder if the time spent on “literacy activities” actually has a negative effect in popular discourse, in that students are so used to reading and answering questions about things they have no knowledge about, and that makes it socially acceptable to confidently and publicly make assertions in things which one lacks knowledge in—e.g., climate, vaccines, and economics.

Basic Income

Here is an article (via Medium) advocating a popular idea these days: universal basic income. While the arguments on the economics side are not new, I found this moral plea convincing:

There are many other questions, and most all have likely answers for those willing to spend the necessary time to study the available evidence, but for me personally, these questions are translated in my brain at this point to sound more like, “What are the potential downsides of abolishing slavery? Will cotton get more expensive? Will former slaves just kind of sit around reading and dancing all day? Will the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free decide to walk in greater numbers through our lamp-lit golden door?” This is what I hear as someone who already has a basic income, so it’s not to say such questions aren’t valid, it’s that the very fact we’re asking them is itself something to question.

I think capitalism is generally underrated (e.g. there’s a pretty obvious solution to house prices in the Bay Area), but the questions above highlight some of the problems.

This type of reasoning applies to many other areas. Solving climate change might cost the world some percent of GDP, but it’s also literally saving the world we live on.

To Be or Not To Be?

I’ve roughly never encountered the topic of natalism as a serious point of debate before, but I stumbled onto two articles in the past week, one against (New Yorker) and one for (Medium).

On the anti-natalist side:

David Benatar may be the world’s most pessimistic philosopher. An “anti-natalist,” he believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place,” he writes, in a 2006 book called “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.” In Benatar’s view, reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible—not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is “permeated by badness.” In part for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether.

Here’s another good excerpt for the anti-natalist:

Like everyone else, Benatar finds his views disturbing; he has, therefore, ambivalent feelings about sharing them. He wouldn’t walk into a church, stride to the pulpit, and declare that God doesn’t exist. Similarly, he doesn’t relish the idea of becoming an ambassador for anti-natalism. Life, he says, is already unpleasant enough. He reassures himself that, because his books are philosophical and academic, they will be read only by those who seek them out. He hears from readers who are grateful to find their own secret thoughts expressed. One man with several children read “Better Never to Have Been,” then told Benatar that he believed having them had been a terrible mistake; people suffering from terrible mental and physical afflictions write to say they wish that they had never existed. He also hears from people who share his views and are disabled by them. “I’m just filled with sadness for people like that,” he said, in a soft voice. “They have an accurate view of reality, and they’re paying the price for it.” I asked Benatar whether he ever found his own thoughts overwhelming. He smiled uncomfortably—another personal question—and said, “Writing helps.”

Meanwhile, the pro-natalist article doesn’t really put out any arguments in favor of natalism, though it repeatedly points out that the US fertility rate is dropping fast and assumes that readers are pro-natalist and would be as alarmed as the author is.

I am worried about fertility in 2017. I am very concerned about fertility in 2018. I am scared of what fertility numbers will be in 2019, especially if a recession hits somewhere in that period. Our fertility decline is on par with serious, durable fertility declines in other big, developed countries, and may be extremely difficult to reverse. I have no happy ending to this blog post.

I personally agree with parts of the anti-natalist view, and would identify as somewhere down the middle but closer to the anti-natalist side.

Conditional on reading this post, you’ve probably had a good life, a relatively good one among the lives that have been. But there are people now and people historically with far worse fates. Millions of people were marched into concentration camps to be brutally tortured and murdered. Billions throughout history lived at the subsistence level, repeating their lives day and night, all the while dealing with injury and disease. As a species we endured unfathomable pain in disease and in war, in confinement and in archaic laws. Hobbes wrote that life outside society was “nasty, brutish, and short.” But for many people, even within society, was it any better?

I generally consider myself a positive utilitarian, though I think it might be good to have a small but well-off society for a while to figure out how to make progress technologically and socially, and then resume normal population growth so we don’t lock in huge populations with terrible moral practices. In addition, I would venture that the reason most people have children is the combination of social norm and biological drive, and not because the parents thought, “Oh you know what would be positive utility for the world? If there was a smaller version of us!” I’m very unconcerned with any contemporary problem in fertility decline, as that might very likely have positive value for the world.

Me Too

Rebecca Traister (via The Cut) on the Me Too movement:

This is not feminism as we’ve known it in its contemporary rebirth — packaged into think pieces or nonprofits or Eve Ensler plays or Beyoncé VMA performances. That stuff has its place and is necessary in its own way. This is different. This is ’70s-style, organic, mass, radical rage, exploding in unpredictable directions. It is loud, thanks to the human megaphone that is social media and the “whisper networks” that are now less about speaking sotto voce than about frantically typed texts and all-caps group chats.

Really powerful white men are losing jobs — that never happens. Women (and some men) are breaking their silence and telling painful and intimate stories to reporters, who in turn are putting them on the front pages of major newspapers.

It’s wild and not entirely fun. Because the stories are awful, yes. And because the conditions that created this perfect storm of female rage — the suffocating ubiquity of harassment and abuse; the election of a multiply accused predator who now controls the courts and the agencies that are supposed to protect us from criminal and discriminatory acts — are so grim.

[…]

This is part of what makes me, and them, angry: this replication of hierarchies — hierarchies of harm and privilege — even now. “It’s a ‘seeing the matrix’ moment,” says one woman whom I didn’t know personally before last week, some of whose deepest secrets and sharpest fears and most animating furies I’m now privy to. “It’s an absolutely bizarre thing to go through, and it’s fucking exhausting and horrible, and I hate it. And I’m glad. I’m so glad we’re doing it. And I’m in hell.”

I can’t relate to this directly, but as someone who has gone through hard times in life, I hope there can be more people “seeing the matrix.” A lot of anecdotes are in the form of “one time this happened, and at the time it was weird, but only now are people talking about this and I realize how bad it was and I’m angry.” I can relate to that, but another time.

Neopets

Apparently many people (especially young women as the article points out) learned to code by playing Neopets (via Rolling Stone). This is carefully selected evidence of my crazy hypothesis that that video games are very good for society. Disclosure: I too in the early 2000’s learned some HTML by setting up a Neopets shop.

Evil, Progress, and the Sun

Good vs Evil

I suspect no rationalist takes Hollywood movies seriously, but certain norms are worth talking about, and these norms definitely influence us subconsciously. The one on the chopping block today is good vs evil. There is so often an obviously good side and an obviously evil side. Fortunately, they’re more subtle today—compare the original Star Wars (1977), a painfully old-fashioned good vs evil story, with Rogue One (2016), where it’s not clear some of the protagonists are actually good. But you still know exactly who to root for.

Having thought recently about political polarization/internet bubbles/the attitudes of certain people on both sides of the spectrum, I think a lot of it comes down to people on both sides strongly having the belief they are on the good side and the other side is straight-up evil. I don’t mean someone thinking “the other side is well-meaning but doesn’t understand”, I mean “the other side is evil.” I mostly see the liberal side of this, and when people literally advocate for violence against conservatives, that’s a problem. They don’t see the other side as people to have discourse with, but as an evil menace.

Worse yet, they find no rationalization for the other side. After last year’s election, I saw some people genuinely express that they didn’t know a single Trump supporter and that they couldn’t possibly imagine anyone voting for Trump. Like there’s a dark, mysterious force out there. I voted for Clinton too, but I can very well explain why many people would vote for Trump.

There is a famous quote, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” which I think is an excellent guiding principle to understanding the other side.

Meanwhile, here is a recent New Yorker article on the root of cruelty by Paul Bloom (h/t Julia Galef), who argues that the long-held view that dehumanization is the cause of cruelty is wrong.

At some European soccer games, fans make monkey noises at African players and throw bananas at them. Describing Africans as monkeys is a common racist trope, and might seem like yet another example of dehumanization. But plainly these fans don’t really think the players are monkeys; the whole point of their behavior is to disorient and humiliate. To believe that such taunts are effective is to assume that their targets would be ashamed to be thought of that way—which implies that, at some level, you think of them as people after all.

And

If the worst acts of cruelty aren’t propelled by dehumanization, not all dehumanization is accompanied by cruelty. Manne points out that there’s nothing wrong with a surgeon viewing her patients as mere bodies when they’re on the operating table; in fact, it’s important for doctors not to have certain natural reactions—anger, moral disgust, sexual desire—when examining patients.

In fact, it is sometimes not the “evil” people, but the masses that dehumanize:

Early psychological research on dehumanization looked at what made the Nazis different from the rest of us. But psychologists now talk about the ubiquity of dehumanization. Nick Haslam, at the University of Melbourne, and Steve Loughnan, at the University of Edinburgh, provide a list of examples, including some painfully mundane ones: “Outraged members of the public call sex offenders animals. Psychopaths treat victims merely as means to their vicious ends. The poor are mocked as libidinous dolts. Passersby look through homeless people as if they were transparent obstacles. Dementia sufferers are represented in the media as shuffling zombies.”

Progress

I feel like I write many posts on progress, but here is one of the more harrowing articles in the past week (via Gizmodo), featuring polio and people who still rely on iron lungs:

Martha Lillard spends half of every day with her body encapsulated in a half-century old machine that forces her to breathe. Only her head sticks out of the end of the antique iron lung. On the other side, a motorized lever pulls the leather bellows, creating negative pressure that induces her lungs to suck in air.

In 2013, the Post-Polio Health International (PHI) organizations estimated that there were six to eight iron lung users in the United States. Now, PHI executive director Brian Tiburzi says he doesn’t know anyone alive still using the negative-pressure ventilators. This fall, I met three polio survivors who depend on iron lungs. They are among the last few, possibly the last three.

But what about before we had polio vaccines:

Children under the age of five are especially susceptible. In the 1940s and 1950s, hospitals across the country were filled with rows of iron lungs that kept victims alive. Lillard recalls being in rooms packed with metal tubes—especially when there were storms and all the men, women, adults, and children would be moved to the same room so nurses could manually operate the iron lungs if the power went out. “The period of time that it took the nurse to get out of the chair, it seemed like forever because you weren’t breathing,” Lillard said. “You just laid there and you could feel your heart beating and it was just terrifying. The only noise that you can make when you can’t breathe is clicking your tongue. And that whole dark room just sounded like a big room full of chickens just cluck-cluck-clucking. All the nurses were saying, ‘Just a second, you’ll be breathing in just a second.’”

This is yet another reminder of the immense amount of progress that society has made even in the recent past. I’ve written previously, “…many problems of the past we now don’t ever think about—the diseases that have been conquered, a scientific understanding of the world, advances in healthcare, access to modern technology, democratic society, much lower chance to be murdered, not taking months to communicate with someone on a different continent, instantaneously looking up information from the sum total of human knowledge from a device in your pocket, and so forth.” The fact that the problem is gone is precisely what makes it attractive. This is why anti-vaxxers are not scared of disease, why young people are not afraid of communism, why people want to go back to being hunter-gatherers, why people who have never seen a war are excited to go to war.

It’s hard to argue with certain groups that society has made progress, despite all the plain evidence lying around us. This is certainly one reason—we never stop to think about all the problems that have already been solved.

Heliocentrism

Copernican_theory.png

I never thought I’d be writing about how Earth orbits the Sun, but here is one of the most thought-provoking articles, on precisely that. The argument is that the popular story of “People thought everything orbited Earth, and then Copernicus figured out it was the other way, and by the way, people were very resistant to change so nobody believed him for a while until Newton appeared,” is wrong. Namely, if we threw a modern-day rationalist in the time, our rationalist might, even with the evidence, side with what everyone else generally thought and not the Copernican theory.

I generally agree with the argument though there is a lot of oversimplification that is at times misleading. In particular, the way the author cites the Coriolis effect in response to the “tower argument” is extremely misleading. In addition, I do agree that the author’s account is “less wrong” than the 1-paragraph popular account (so it certainly fits with the website), but the author fails to apply the “less wrong” mentality to the astronomical models in question. The basic argument is that the (old) Ptolemaic model was wrong, and the Copernican model was also wrong. But the point is that the Copernican model was less wrong (the author admits “Ptolemy’s system had required huge epicycles, and Copernicus was able to substantially reduce their size”), and to claim that they are equally wrong is really really wrong!

Still, the author poses two very good questions:

  1. If you lived in the time of the Copernican revolution, would you have accepted heliocentrism?
  2. How should you develop intellectually, in order to become the kind of person who would have accepted heliocentrism during the Copernican revolution?

To (1), I would suspect no with very high probability, because few people at the time would have known enough mathematics and astronomy to even understand the debate in question. But if  it’s not a “random person” and it specifies that I know enough math to understand, then it’s still not clear. Even if I thought the data were in favor of heliocentrism, would I dare defy religious authority in writing?

As for (2), you would need to both know enough advanced math to know what you’re even debating in the first place (how many people do you personally know could do this even today?), and have a strong disregard for authority. Other than that, I agree with the author that it would have been very hard to be someone who actually supported heliocentrism at the time.

Even today the question is not obvious. If you kept all other knowledge of science and just forgot astronomy, which theory would you believe (based on first principle and not data)? It might be impossible to say, though there could be some version of an argument where you know most of our energy today is generated via fossil fuels, which eventually got their energy from plant photosynthesis which came from the Sun, and combined with other things like solar power, infer that the Sun must provide a lot more energy than the Earth, and therefore the Sun must be much more massive. And then apply center of gravity to that. But it’s still not obvious.

In addition, even assuming everything in the article to be true, the narrative of science winning over dogma is still the same. The winning just didn’t happen until later (Kepler & Newton, rather than Copernicus).

Microtransactions, Speed Learning, and Absent-Mindedness

Reddit Threads

Last week was a historic one for Reddit. A reply by Electronic Arts on unlocking heroes in Star Wars Battlefront 2 became the most downvoted post in history, currently standing at -675k. It was in response to a customer’s complaint about microtransactions (paying for individual things within the game). Here is the original post:

ea_reddit_battlefront

And the infamous response:

ea_reddit_downvotes

I am generally on the side of EA, mainly because (1) money fuels game development, and (2) the Internet and especially sites like Reddit are prone to witch hunts. That said, I think the timing and bluntness of this particular response are mistakes. A vocal portion of the gaming community hates microtransactions, and defending the concept on a public platform like Reddit seems like an ill-conceived move.

As someone who plays a lot of videogames, I thought this drama really illustrated the debate on microtransactions. I used to be on the fence about it but now I’m clearly in favor of them.

  1. Microtransactions reduce the cost elsewhere. Games like Dota, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm (and just last week, Starcraft II) are free to play, where you aren’t at an in-game disadvantage if you are playing for free (though for some of them you don’t fully get the option to play all the heroes at a given time). Without microtransactions, the games would cost money up-front, and would be less popular and probably make less money overall.
  2. Companies make profits. That’s what they do. If a company spends a lot of money on a game and releases everything for free, you might have a good one-time bargain, but the company will go out of business and the long-term equilibrium state will be worse as there will be fewer competitors. On the flipside, if a company charges too much and nobody buys it, then it will also go out of business, and therefore the invisible hand pushes prices towards reasonable levels.

On the more social side, we all know that we live in political bubbles on social media, and it’s really the way the platform works. Facebook perpetuates bubbles by connecting real life groups of people together, and generally real life networks lean towards one side. Tumblr makes it very hard to argue a dissenting opinion. In addition, Facebook and Tumblr have only upvotes and no downvotes. Reddit is better in comparison, but even so, the combined effects of selection bias of who visits a subreddit and who cares enough to vote leads to populist inquisitions like this.

Speed Learning

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on “speed learner” Max Deutsch who, despite being a chess novice, challenged world champion Magnus Carlsen to a game with one month to learn the game. Carlsen accepted.

I’ve always thought of chess as an interesting game to think about in the context of learning, both human learning and machine learning. Like many other activities, it takes a lot of practice and mistakes to intuitively spot recurring patterns and motifs. Humans are very limited by computation speed, so a lot of the human aspect of the game is having good intuition, whereas computers can roughly calculate everything. I’ve also thought chess is something where a human cannot just read the rules, think about it logically for a long time, and then be really good at it. A thought experiment I always imagined is the following:

Take a young, smart person who doesn’t know how to play chess, and lock them in a room for 20 years. Give them access to all chess rules, chess books, articles, and so forth, but with the caveat that they are not allowed to play a single practice game. Provide them with sustenance and somehow incentivize them so that their only goal is to become the best person in the world at chess. At the end of the 20 years, sit them down across the board from Carlsen and go.

I would expect this person to get crushed in the game. Even if you change Carlsen to a lower ranking grandmaster, or even down to an IM, I think the no-experience person would be overwhelmingly likely to lose. The game requires so much practice and the brain version of muscle memory—reading about it theoretically only gets you so far.

In the article, Max Deutsch had only 1 month, though he could play games with people or computers. As expected, he got totally crushed. The WSJ article makes it sound like an interesting game, as if Deutsch had the advantage for a few moves, but that is nonsense. Carlsen played an odd opening to get Deutsch out of opening book (so by construction Deutsch had an “advantage”), and once Deutsch was out of theory, he makes multiple blunders that immediately sealed the game. It was clearly over on move 14. The blunders were the kind that most tournament players would have caught just from experience.

Chess is a game where, from a human vs human perspective, experience and intuition vastly outweigh theory. For now.

Absent-Mindedness

Here’s an article that argues the “absent-minded professor” is really a social dominance behavior. (h/t Marginal Revolution.)

All of this has persuaded me that absent-mindedness should be viewed in much the same way that Talcott Parsons viewed illness. At its root, it is a form of social deviance. Basically, everyone would love to be absent-minded, because it allows you to skip out on all sorts of social obligations. (Again, I have colleagues who miss meetings all the time, or show up hours late saying “I could have sworn we agreed to meet at 5pm…” No one ever shows up early because they forgot what time the meeting was at.) More generally, remembering things involves a certain amount of effort, it’s obviously much easier just to be lazy and forget things. The major reason that we don’t all act this way is that most people get sanctioned for it by others. Absent-mindedness, after all, is just another form of stupidity, and when ordinary people do things like forget where they parked their cars, they get punished for it. People say things to them like, “what are you, stupid?” It’s in order to avoid being seen as stupid or incompetent by others that they feel motivated to make the effort to do things like remember where they parked their car.

Becoming a university professor, however, is a pretty good way of exempting oneself from suspicion of outright or base stupidity. When university professors do stupid things, people don’t say to them “oh my god, you’re so stupid,” or “stop being such an idiot,” instead they start making excuses, like “there he goes with his head in the clouds again,” or “he must have more important things on his mind.” In other words, they give you a free pass. Not only can you get away with being stupid, you wind up with social license to become even more stupid.

I feel like this has some truth to it, but I would also guess there’s another good explanation that accounts for a lot of it—people generally want to fit in, and if there are other absent-minded professors around, new ones will tend to be more absent minded. Similarly, we all know famous stories of great scientists/academics who made great discoveries while being absent-minded (the Archimedes “Eureka” story being the archetypal, even if apocryphal). Emulating the great minds of the past seems like something we encourage.

In addition, there are plenty of absent-minded people who don’t hold much power if any, and the article’s explanation obviously doesn’t apply to them.

But I will agree that probably part of absent-mindedness in certain areas of academia is influenced by this. I would take it further and say that a lot of minor personal details, not just absent-mindedness, are all partly social dominance behaviors. Overall, the article is an interesting read, though I mostly disagree.

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: Population and Technology

There is an old saying in physics that “nature abhors a vacuum,” as the stuff around the vacuum would just fill in the vacuum and remove it. If a random cubic meter of air suddenly disappeared above Manhattan, the surrounding air would immediately fill it.

A variant of this saying appears in political history, that power abhors a vacuum. When you have some equilibrium and remove a powerful state or leader from the world and leave no one in charge, you create a power vacuum where surviving people rush (often violently) to seize control. (This is why I think despite having an inordinate amount of US taxpayer money going to the military, getting rid of it immediately would make the world even worse.)

But there is one more sense of the vacuum that I’m worried about and it’s that of population growth. It is the Malthusian worry but I would frame it in more abstract terms that also allow for extreme technological innovation. The idea is that for most of human history, the population grew at a slow rate, limited by disease and lack of technology. But as technology exploded in the last 300 years, so did population. Every time we innovated—every the population became capable of expanding—it did so.

The worry argument goes like this:

  1. The human population will always expand to its current carrying capacity based on current technology and environmental conditions. (Nature abhors a vacuum.)
  2. Technological growth will likely push the apparent carrying capacity higher than now. (However, it may have already slowed down significantly, i.e. will we have another Green Revolution?)
  3. There is some overall limit on the human population as determined by Earth’s finite resources.
  4. Eventually (if it has not already happened), (1) and (2) will raise the population to well above that of (3), and a global crisis may eventually follow.

Disclaimer: I’m a long-term optimist and this post represents more of a worry than a prediction.

The Green Revolution

In 1970 Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for breakthroughs in agricultural production. He is often credited with the saving of a billion lives.

But the cynical side asks: Did the Green Revolution actually save a billion people, or did it merely postpone and inflate a much bigger crisis? Did the human population simply increase to the new carrying capacity, leaving us back where we started? In fact, some people would argue we are now worse than where we started, due to environmental impact and loss of biodiversity.

Borlaug himself was very aware of this. In his Nobel speech:

The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only. Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster”…Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth… (Nobel Lecture 1970)

Keynesian Leisure Society

I think this is also a reason we don’t live in the Keynesian dream of the “leisure society”. The Keynes argument goes, since productivity (since 1930) will increase by many many factors to now, by this time we should be working two days a week to obtain the same productivity and spending most of our time in leisure. Yet obviously, we still work the same hours as before.

There are some common answers to this including how people increase their wants as soon as they get what they want (which is sort of related to this topic), and relatedly that people care more about relative wealth than absolute. Another explanation is rising inequality (which will be mentioned later). But a third explanation is just population growth. The technology made the carrying capacity a lot higher, and the population filled in the vacuum. And the work required to sustain similar relative conditions might still be 5 days a week.

Why We Shouldn’t Be Worried (Objections)

I’ll go through a couple of objections.

  • Earth doesn’t have a limited carrying capacity because technology will keep improving.

It’s true that technology will continue to improve for the foreseeable future. But eventually there must be a limit. Every time people have said this before, that the population couldn’t possibly double again. they were wrong, so I’ll make no claim about where that limit is. But eventually you can do some basic math on consumption requirements for a human at modern standard of living, and just multiply that by some number. I don’t know if the limit is 10 billion or 100 billion. But it’s there.

This is also a dangerous objection in that the potential problem becomes much worse as the population grows. If the Green Revolution did not happen, we could already be in a crisis, but it would be a crisis with 3 billion people. Now imagine the same crisis but with 20 billion.

  • The world eventually reaches the demographic transition everywhere.

I’d be very happy if this happened. The demographic transition is the phenomenon that has occurred in most Western countries and some other industrialized countries like Japan, where the fertility rate (children born per woman) has started to approach the replacement rate of 2.1 and in some cases drop below it. In the long run, every country reaching 2.1 would mean a constant population.

There are still three concerns. One is that there is strong religious pressure in some places to not use contraception. If you imagine a world where nobody changes religions (not too unimaginable), and that certain religions have a higher fertility rate, then in the long run that religion will dominate the world population and we will have this problem again. Though, it’s not clear which effect is bigger between the demographic transition and “Be fruitful and multiply.”

A second concern is that high inequality could be partly keeping the population in check. That is, the US population is not growing as fast as it can, because many people are in poverty and don’t have enough resources, but once we solve inequality, the population increases rapidly again.

The third concern is that the demographic transition might not be the the complete phenomenon. We don’t know the future, and maybe beyond some point, the demographic transition reverses and the population rises again.

The negative association of fertility with economic and social development has therefore become one of the most solidly established and generally accepted empirical regularities in the social sciences. As a result of this close connection between development and fertility decline, more than half of the global population now lives in regions with below-replacement fertility (less than 2.1 children per woman). In many highly developed countries, the trend towards low fertility has also been deemed irreversible. Rapid population ageing, and in some cases the prospect of significant population decline, have therefore become a central socioeconomic concern and policy challenge. Here we show, using new cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses of the total fertility rate and the human development index (HDI), a fundamental change in the well-established negative relationship between fertility and development as the global population entered the twenty-first century. Although development continues to promote fertility decline at low and medium HDI levels, our analyses show that at advanced HDI levels, further development can reverse the declining trend in fertility. (Myrskylä 2009)

Future Population

UN_world_population

Finally, current projections of world population have the growth rate slowing down (United Nations Graphs). But I worry that this goes against basic intuitions of human nature and the vacuum. I worry it will keep increasing until it can’t.

The Good Old Days of the Internet (Circa 2010)

I made a claim recently at a dinner that the Internet was clearly good for the world up to 2010, and it was bad after that. And I’m wondering if this actually has any truth.

google-website-old

The main argument is that in the (relatively) early days of the Internet, you were generally an individual interacting with random strangers. This was good because you were exposed to new ideas, beliefs, and cultures you never knew even existed. And because people are naturally curious and empathic, you got to understand one another and could see where they were coming from. Then around 2010, social media achieved dominance and we now live in polarized bubbles where you are roughly never exposed to new ideas, beliefs, or cultures. And when you do, you are making fun of them with your group of like-minded individuals. To reach out across the aisle would draw ostracism from your group. I would guess the primary cause of this recent polarization and tribalism comes from how people interact on social media.

The Internet used to be a technology that, in addition to providing services like email and information searching, also fostered a global understanding of ideas. Now it is a tradeoff between the services which are clearly positive and the societal effect which at this point is probably negative.

Today I stumbled upon an chatroom that really reminded me of the old days. There were random people talking about philosophy and heatedly debating questions of existence. This is what the Internet was and could be. But really, we just wished to feel secure in our bubbles of belief. And that wish was granted.