Monthly Archives: September 2008

Politics isn’t about Policy

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

The above summarizes much of my contrarian world view.  (What else should go on this list?) When I say “X is not about Y,” I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more.  I won’t support all these claims here; for today, let’s just talk politics.

High school students are easily engaged to elect class presidents, even though they have little idea what if any policies a class president might influence.  Instead such elections are usually described as “popularity contests.”  That is, theses elections are about which school social factions are to have higher social status.  If a jock wins, jocks have higher status.  If your girlfriend’s brother wins, you have higher status, etc.  And the fact that you have a vote says that others should take you into account when forming coalitions – you are somebody.

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How Many LHC Failures Is Too Many?

Recently the Large Hadron Collider was damaged by a mechanical failure.  This requires the collider to be warmed up, repaired, and then cooled down again, so we’re looking at a two-month delay.

Inevitably, many commenters said, "Anthropic principle!  If the LHC had worked, it would have produced a black hole or strangelet or vacuum failure, and we wouldn’t be here!"

This remark may be somewhat premature, since I don’t think we’re yet at the point in time when the LHC would have started producing collisions if not for this malfunction.  However, a few weeks(?) from now, the "Anthropic!" hypothesis will start to make sense, assuming it can make sense at all.  (Does this mean we can foresee executing a future probability update, but can’t go ahead and update now?)

As you know, I don’t spend much time worrying about the Large Hadron Collider when I’ve got much larger existential-risk-fish to fry.  However, there’s an exercise in probability theory (which I first picked up from E.T. Jaynes) along the lines of, "How many times does a coin have to come up heads before you believe the coin is fixed?"  This tells you how low your prior probability is for the hypothesis.  If a coin comes up heads only twice, that’s definitely not a good reason to believe it’s fixed, unless you already suspected from the beginning.  But if it comes up heads 100 times, it’s taking you too long to notice.

So – taking into account the previous cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) – how many times does the LHC have to fail before you’ll start considering an anthropic explanation?  10?  20?  50?

After observing empirically that the LHC had failed 100 times in a row, would you endorse a policy of keeping the LHC powered up, but trying to fire it again only in the event of, say, nuclear terrorism or a global economic crash?

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Ban the Bear

I applaud the SEC’s courageous move to ban short selling.  Isn’t that brilliant?  I wonder why they didn’t think of that during the Great Depression.

However, I feel that this valiant effort does not go far enough.

All selling of stocks should be banned.  Once you buy a stock, you have to hold it forever.

Sure, this might make the market a little less liquid.  But once stock prices can only go up, we’ll all be rich!

Or maybe we should just try something simpler: pass a law making it illegal for stock prices to go down.

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Say It Loud

Reply toOverconfidence is Stylish

I respectfully defend my lord Will Strunk:

"If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!"  This comical piece of advice struck me as sound at the time, and I still respect it. Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?  Why run and hide?

How does being vague, tame, colorless, irresolute, help someone to understand your current state of uncertainty?  Any more than mumbling helps them understand a word you aren't sure how to pronounce?

Goofus says:  "The sky, if such a thing exists at all, might or might not have a property of color, but, if it does have color, then I feel inclined to state that it might be green."

Gallant says:   "70% probability the sky is green."

Which of them sounds more confident, more definite?

But which of them has managed to quickly communicate their state of uncertainty?

(And which of them is more likely to actually, in real life, spend any time planning and preparing for the eventuality that the sky is blue?)

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Bad News Ban Is Very Bad News

The SEC … said in a statement early Friday morning it is halting short selling on 799 financial stocks. The ban, which is effective immediately, is set to last for 10 days, but could be extended for up to 30 days.

That is, they have banned speculators from giving bad news about 800 finance companies.  Which seems to me to be very bad news about those companies – sell!  If not for the first amendment, would they also ban TV, newspapers, etc. from saying anything bad about these companies? 

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Overconfidence is Stylish

On William Strunk, author of the classic Elements of Style:

His original Rule 11 was "Make definite assertions." That was Will all over.  He scorned the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute. He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong.

An "irresolute" person is "Undecided or unsure how to act; Indecisive or lacking in resolution."  You couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration that we prefer overconfident people. 

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The Sheer Folly of Callow Youth

Followup toMy Childhood Death Spiral, My Best and Worst Mistake, A Prodigy of Refutation

"There speaks the sheer folly of callow youth; the rashness of an ignorance so abysmal as to be possible only to one of your ephemeral race…"
        — Gharlane of Eddore

Once upon a time, years ago, I propounded a mysterious answer to a mysterious question – as I’ve hinted on several occasions.  The mysterious question to which I propounded a mysterious answer was not, however, consciousness – or rather, not only consciousness.  No, the more embarrassing error was that I took a mysterious view of morality.

I held off on discussing that until now, after the series on metaethics, because I wanted it to be clear that Eliezer1997 had gotten it wrong.

When we last left off, Eliezer1997, not satisfied with arguing in an intuitive sense that superintelligence would be moral, was setting out to argue inescapably that creating superintelligence was the right thing to do.

Well (said Eliezer1997) let’s begin by asking the question:  Does life have, in fact, any meaning?

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Who To Blame

Since I’m an economist, people ask me who to blame for this finance mess.  I’m with Michael Lewis:

Christopher Cox … [is] chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and so has the job of regulating these companies that helped make it possible for every poor American to get a mortgage and are now, as a result, falling apart. … He went as far out of his way as he could to enable the brokerage firms by harassing the small group of informed financial people who have been trying to tell the truth to the markets: the short sellers. They bet against the stock price of a company and so have always had a bad reputation with the public. But in this case, they are the closest thing we have to heroes.

A man named David Einhorn is a case study. He runs a hedge fund called Greenlight Capital, which sells short some stocks and buys others. That is, he doesn’t just bet against companies but for them, too. Still, for some time now, he’s been standing up in front of large audiences, announcing that he was short Lehman Brothers stock, and then explaining in great detail its dubious accounting practices. The SEC responded by demanding to see his firm’s e- mail, hinting darkly that he was part of some conspiracy to drive Lehman Brothers out of business, and generally making him feel that he’d pay a price for telling the truth.

Hat tip to Hopefully Anonymous.

Added: Far from being sorry, they are working hard to make things worse!

Federal regulators yesterday took measures aimed at reining in aggressive forms of short-selling that were blamed in part for the demise of Lehman Brothers and that some feared could be used against other vulnerable companies in a turbulent market. … In a further move, SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said he planned to ask his four fellow commissioners to consider on an emergency basis a new rule that would require hedge funds and other large-scale investors to disclose their short positions … Critics say the SEC action comes too late to stem a tide of short-selling attacks that have felled huge, venerable companies. They want a prohibition on all naked short-selling.

Putting more restrcictions on short than on long trades is trying to shoot the bad-news messenger.  If we had instead been encouraging people to come forward with bad news, maybe we could have dealt with this problem earlier, when it was a smaller. 

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A Prodigy of Refutation

Followup toMy Childhood Death Spiral, Raised in Technophilia

My Childhood Death Spiral described the core momentum carrying me into my mistake, an affective death spiral around something that Eliezer1996 called "intelligence".  I was also a technophile, pre-allergized against fearing the future.  And I’d read a lot of science fiction built around personhood ethics – in which fear of the Alien puts humanity-at-large in the position of the bad guys, mistreating aliens or sentient AIs because they "aren’t human".

That’s part of the ethos you acquire from science fiction – to define your in-group, your tribe, appropriately broadly.  Hence my email address,

So Eliezer1996 is out to build superintelligence, for the good of humanity and all sentient life.

At first, I think, the question of whether a superintelligence will/could be good/evil didn’t really occur to me as a separate topic of discussion.  Just the standard intuition of, "Surely no supermind would be stupid enough to turn the galaxy into paperclips; surely, being so intelligent, it will also know what’s right far better than a human being could."

Until I introduced myself and my quest to a transhumanist mailing list, and got back responses along the general lines of (from memory):

Continue reading "A Prodigy of Refutation" »

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Money Is Serious

Finances are on everyone’s mind this week.  Consider that just hearing money mentioned changes our behavior dramatically:

Participants reminded of money were less helpful than were participants not reminded of money, and they also preferred solitary activities and less physical intimacy. On the other hand, reminders of money prompted participants to work harder on challenging tasks and led to desires to take on more work as compared to participants not reminded of money.

It seems we’ll all be working harder, and getting less, this week.  And I guess I should take my wife’s frequent money reminders as indicating she’d rather I worked harder even if that makes me less helpful, social, and intimate. 

This seems another important clue to understanding seriousness vs. silliness.

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