Category Archives: Meta

Moving Hiatus

This evening at midnight Eastern Daylight Time, this blog will begin to move to a new hosting site.  For a smooth transition, please don’t comment from then until 2am EST.

Added 26May: So do you think of the new format?

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Less Wrong: Progress Report

Less Wrong is emerging from beta as bugs continue to get fixed.  This is an open-source project, and if any Python-fluent programmers are willing to contribute a day or two of work, more would get done faster.

The character of the new site is becoming clear.  The pace of commenting is higher; the threaded comments encourage short replies and continuing conversations.  The pace of posting exceeds my fondest hopes – apparently not being able to post automatically on OB was a much greater barrier to potential contributors than I realized.

We've had 12,428 comments so far on 113 articles, 100 of them posted since contributing was enabled for all users over 20 karma on March 5th.

Browsing to the Top Scoring articles on Less Wrong will give you an idea of how things are developing.  A quick view of all posts can be found here, with the current top scorer being "Cached Selves" by Salamon and Rayhawk, followed by "Rational Me or We?" by Hanson.  If this looks like a blog you like, go ahead and add it to your blog roll now, please!

Continue reading "Less Wrong: Progress Report" »

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NYC Meetup Friday 7pm

As I'll be in New York City for a conference, let's have a meetup there this Friday.  We'll start 7pm at Georgia's Cafe & Bake Shop, 2418 Broadway.  When that closes at 9:30pm, we'll head somewhere else mutually agreeable.

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Posting now enabled on Less Wrong

Posting is now enabled on Less Wrong, with a minimum karma required of 20 – that is, you must have gotten at least 20 upvotes on your comments in order to publish a post.  Or an adminstrator such as myself or Robin (by default you should bother me) can temporarily bless you with posting ability – in the long run this shouldn't happen much.

For those of you who haven't yet subscribed to / gotten in the habit of checking Less Wrong:

  • Test Your Rationality by Robin Hanson.  It's easy to find reasons to believe yourself more rational than others, but most people do this; what real ways can be found to test your rationality?
  • Unteachable Excellence and Teaching the Unteachable by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  The rare superstars are rare because their skills are currently hard to transfer.  A large number of Nobel laureates are students of other Nobel laureates.  How do you teach skills you can't put into words?
  • The Costs of Rationality by Robin Hanson.  Rationality can be useful for many things, but humans aren't really designed for it, and a true effort to believe truly can get in the way of many aspects of ordinary life.  Are you willing to pay the real costs of ratonality?
  • No, Really, I've Deceived Myself and Belief in Self-Deception by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  A woman I met who didn't seem to believe in God at all, while honestly believing that she had deceived herself successfully – which may bring most of the same placebo benefits.
  • The ethic of hand-washing and commuity epistemic practice by Steve Rayhawk and Anna Salamon.  Diseases become more virulent in the presence of poor hygiene, since they can jump hosts more easily.  Are there analogous effects for ideas?  What is the equivalent of washing our hands?

The five most recent LW posts now appear in OB's sidebar (and vice versa), but aside from this you shouldn't expect further regular summaries of LW on OB.

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The Most Frequently Useful Thing

What's the most frequently useful thing you've learned on OB – not the most memorable or most valuable, but the thing you use most often?  What influences your behavior, factors in more than one decision?  Please give a concrete example if you can.  This isn't limited to archetypally "mundane" activities: if your daily life involves difficult research or arguing with philosophers, go ahead and describe that too.

Continue reading "The Most Frequently Useful Thing" at Less Wrong »

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The Most Important Thing You Learned

My current plan does still call for me to write a rationality book – at some point, and despite all delays – which means I have to decide what goes in the book, and what doesn't.  Obviously the vast majority of my OB content can't go into the book, because there's so much of it.

So let me ask – what was the one thing you learned from my posts on Overcoming Bias, that stands out as most important in your mind?

Continue reading "The Most Important Thing You Learned" at Less Wrong »

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Tell Your Rationalist Origin Story… at Less Wrong

(A beta version of Less Wrong is now live, no old posts imported as yet.  Some of the plans for what to do with Less Wrong relative to OB have been revised by further discussion among Robin, Nick, and myself, but for now we're just seeing what happens once LW is up – whether it's stable, what happens to the tone of comments once threading and voting is enabled, etcetera.

Posting by non-admins is disabled for now – today we're just testing out registration, commenting, threading, etcetera.)

To break up the awkward silence at the start of a recent Overcoming Bias meetup, I asked everyone present to tell their rationalist origin story – a key event or fact that played a role in their becoming rationalists.  This worked surprisingly well.

I think I've already told enough of my own origin story on Overcoming Bias: how I was digging in my parents' yard as a kid and found a tarnished silver amulet inscribed with Bayes's Theorem, and how I wore it to bed that night and dreamed of a woman in white, holding a leather-bound book called Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (eds. D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, and A. Tversky, 1982)… but there's no need to go into that again.

So, seriously… how did you originally go down that road?

Continue reading "Tell Your Rationalist Origin Story" at Less Wrong »

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Against Propaganda

Communications we read or see produce four kinds of changes in our beliefs:

  • Random – uncorrelated with much else of interest,
  • Info – more correlated with the world as it is, vs. as it might be,
  • Persuasion – more correlated with beliefs authors prefer us to have, and
  • Other – correlations with anything else of interest.

When choosing what to read (or see) how carefully, many of us prefer info to persuasion, and weakly dislike random and other changes. So we watch for signals indicating lots of info relative to persuasion. In contrast, readers who prefer persuasion over info seek signals indicating their favored mixture.

For example, consider contexts where people reaffirm their religious and patriotic allegiances, where coaches inspire teams or warriors inspire troops, or where "inspirational" speakers persuade folks to stick to their diets, try harder to succeed in their careers, or hold out for their romantic ideals. In such propaganda contexts, impressive charismatic leaders tend to speak in simple repetitive eloquent poetic vague emotional language, often with rambling structures, engaging stories, vivid colorful flashy emotional music and visual aids, and artistic impressive comforting communal surroundings.

In contrast, when possibly-hostile and expert critics are addressed by lawyers supporting clients, engineers presenting designs, accountants presenting financial accounts, or academics presenting analyses, styles are more "no-nonsense."  They avoid colorful flashy emotional visual aids and music, use precise concise technical and unemotional language, make structured and standardized arguments, explicitly summarize and address opposing views, make methods and premises explicit, and warn early of conclusions and structures.

These differing styles occur not just because differing communication contexts have differing style requirements, but also because authors try to credibly signal their intentions. Authors who want to be seen as minimizing the propaganda element of their communications avoid using flashy styles, eloquent language, or compelling stories, even when such things would make it easier for readers to assimilate the presented info. After all, readers who cannot easily see that deviating from the usual non-nonsense style here actually promotes info may think worse of them.  One must furthermore worry about being quoted out of context by hostile parties.

Continue reading "Against Propaganda" »

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…And Say No More Of It

Followup toThe Thing That I Protect

Anything done with an ulterior motive has to be done with a pure heart.  You cannot serve your ulterior motive, without faithfully prosecuting your overt purpose as a thing in its own right, that has its own integrity.  If, for example, you're writing about rationality with the intention of recruiting people to your utilitarian Cause, then you cannot talk too much about your Cause, or you will fail to successfully write about rationality.

This doesn't mean that you never say anything about your Cause, but there's a balance to be struck.  "A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."

In previous months, I've pushed this balance too far toward talking about Singularity-related things.  And this was for (first-order) selfish reasons on my part; I was finally GETTING STUFF SAID that had been building up painfully in my brain for FRICKIN' YEARS.  And so I just kept writing, because it was finally coming out.  For those of you who have not the slightest interest, I'm sorry to have polluted your blog with that.

When Less Wrong starts up, it will, by my own request, impose a two-month moratorium on discussion of "Friendly AI" and other Singularity/intelligence explosion-related topics.

There's a number of reasons for this.  One of them is simply to restore the balance.  Another is to make sure that a forum intended to have a more general audience, doesn't narrow itself down and disappear.

But more importantly – there are certain subjects which tend to drive people crazy, even if there's truth behind them.  Quantum mechanics would be the paradigmatic example; you don't have to go funny in the head but a lot of people do.  Likewise Godel's Theorem, consciousness, Artificial Intelligence –

The concept of "Friendly AI" can be poisonous in certain ways.  True or false, it carries risks to mental health.  And not just the obvious liabilities of praising a Happy Thing.  Something stranger and subtler that drains enthusiasm.

Continue reading "…And Say No More Of It" »

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Three Worlds Collide (0/8)

"The kind of classic fifties-era first-contact story that Jonathan Swift might have written, if Jonathan Swift had had a background in game theory."
        — (Hugo nominee) Peter Watts, "In Praise of Baby-Eating"

Three Worlds Collide is a story I wrote to illustrate some points on naturalistic metaethics and diverse other issues of rational conduct.  It grew, as such things do, into a small novella.  On publication, it proved widely popular and widely criticized.  Be warned that the story, as it wrote itself, ended up containing some profanity and PG-13 content.

  1. The Baby-Eating Aliens
  2. War and/or Peace
  3. The Super Happy People
  4. Interlude with the Confessor
  5. Three Worlds Decide
  6. Normal Ending
  7. True Ending
  8. Atonement

PDF version here.

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