Monthly Archives: October 2008

Transparent Characters

Most characters in movies, television, and theater are relatively easy for audiences to read.  Actors learn to use their voice tone, gaze direction, body motions, etc. to clearly telegraph their characters’ feelings and perspective. But in the stories that are told, the characters themselves usually do not understand each other, or themselves, quite so well.   

For example, audiences enjoy seeing one character lie to another; the audience gets many clues that what is said is a lie, but the duped character just doesn’t notice them.  Similarly, characters often have large character flaws easily visible to the audience, such as arrogance or selfishness, but those characters just don’t see their own flaws.   

These acting tricks let audiences enjoy a sense of inside access, of being able to see more into the story’s world than they can usually see in their ordinary world.  But I fear prolonged exposure to such acting tempts us to overconfidence about how well we can read those around us.  We feel we can read ourselves well and read others better than they can read us.  And when we disagree, we think we can usually spot the flaw in their thinking, a flaw they have not even considered. 

Now I do think humans try to simplify themselves in order to be understood, and thereby trusted, by others.  It is hard to trust folks whose actions you can’t at least roughly predict.  But Beware: life is not a movie, and most people can’t actually read themselves and others nearly as well as they think they can. 

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Aiming at the Target

Previously in seriesBelief in Intelligence

Previously, I spoke of that very strange epistemic position one can occupy, wherein you don’t know exactly where Kasparov will move on the chessboard, and yet your state of knowledge about the game is very different than if you faced a random move-generator with the same subjective probability distribution – in particular, you expect Kasparov to win.  I have beliefs about where Kasparov wants to steer the future, and beliefs about his power to do so.

Well, and how do I describe this knowledge, exactly?

In the case of chess, there’s a simple function that classifies chess positions into wins for black, wins for white, and drawn games.  If I know which side Kasparov is playing, I know the class of chess positions Kasparov is aiming for.  (If I don’t know which side Kasparov is playing, I can’t predict whether black or white will win – which is not the same as confidently predicting a drawn game.)

More generally, I can describe motivations using a preference ordering. When I consider two potential outcomes, X and Y, I can say that I prefer X to Y; prefer Y to X; or find myself indifferent between them. I would write these relations as X > Y; X < Y; and X ~ Y.

Suppose that you have the ordering A < B ~ C < D ~ E. Then you like B more than A, and C more than A.  {B, C}, belonging to the same class, seem equally desirable to you; you are indifferent between which of {B, C} you receive, though you would rather have either than A, and you would rather have something from the class {D, E} than {B, C}.

When I think you’re a powerful intelligence, and I think I know something about your preferences, then I’ll predict that you’ll steer reality into regions that are higher in your preference ordering.

Continue reading "Aiming at the Target" »

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Trust Us!

Few experts in our society could pull off saying:

Emergency!!!  We will suffer terribly if you don’t spend a trillion dollars right now overpaying for stuff from our friends!  No, you don’t have time to study the problem, nor will we present an analysis for your review.  No, other experts in our field cannot actually see this problem, and there will never be data showing the problem really existed.  You just have to trust us and give us the trillion right now!!

US military experts said something similar on Iraq weapons of mass destruction, but at least they admitted we’d eventually be able to see if they were wrong (as they were).  Medical experts implicitly say something similar about the health value of the second half of medical spending that costs a trillion dollars a year, even when our best data show little value, but this is a steady problem not a sudden new problem.  Global warming experts have been trying, so far without much success, to get us to spend similar amounts on their problem, even though other experts can supposedly verify it.

Given how much less respect and deference economists get on most policy topics, relative to docs, physicists, or generals, I’m surprised to see some economists just got away with this sort of thing.  The US has given top government economists, such as Paulson and Bernanke, well over a trillion in mostly blank checks to spend saving their Wall Street friends from ruin, supposedly to prevent another great depression.  But it seems economists looking today at the data available then just can’t find clear evidence a massive buyout was needed.

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Belief in Intelligence

Previously in seriesExpected Creative Surprises

Since I am so uncertain of Kasparov’s moves, what is the empirical content of my belief that "Kasparov is a highly intelligent chess player"?  What real-world experience does my belief tell me to anticipate?  Is it a cleverly masked form of total ignorance?

To sharpen the dilemma, suppose Kasparov plays against some mere chess grandmaster Mr. G, who’s not in the running for world champion.  My own ability is far too low to distinguish between these levels of chess skill.  When I try to guess Kasparov’s move, or Mr. G’s next move, all I can do is try to guess "the best chess move" using my own meager knowledge of chess.  Then I would produce exactly the same prediction for Kasparov’s move or Mr. G’s move in any particular chess position.  So what is the empirical content of my belief that "Kasparov is a better chess player than Mr. G"?

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Expected Creative Surprises

Imagine that I’m playing chess against a smarter opponent.  If I could predict exactly where my opponent would move on each turn, I would automatically be at least as good a chess player as my opponent.  I could just ask myself where my opponent would move, if they were in my shoes; and then make the same move myself.  (In fact, to predict my opponent’s exact moves, I would need to be superhuman – I would need to predict my opponent’s exact mental processes, including their limitations and their errors.  It would become a problem of psychology, rather than chess.)

So predicting an exact move is not possible, but neither is it true that I have no information about my opponent’s moves.

Personally, I am a very weak chess player – I play an average of maybe two games per year.  But even if I’m playing against former world champion Garry Kasparov, there are certain things I can predict about his next move.  When the game starts, I can guess that the move P-K4 is more likely than P-KN4.  I can guess that if Kasparov has a move which would allow me to checkmate him on my next move, that Kasparov will not make that move.

Much less reliably, I can guess that Kasparov will not make a move that exposes his queen to my capture – but here, I could be greatly surprised; there could be a rationale for a queen sacrifice which I have not seen.

And finally, of course, I can guess that Kasparov will win the game…

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Trust But Don’t Verify

Aimone and Houser find we are willing to pay to avoid knowing that we have been betrayed: 

Here we report data from one-shot two-person binary investment games in which investors can choose not to know the decision of their particular trustee, and instead receive payment according to a random draw from a separate pool of decisions identical to the pool of trustees’ decisions. Note that the probability of receiving the "cooperative" outcome is identical in the two cases, and participants understand this is the case. … Our main finding is that investors systematically prefer to remain ignorant of their specific trustee’s decision. Moreover, when avoiding this information is not possible investors are substantially less likely to make trusting decisions. These results are convergent evidence that outcome-based models cannot fully explain economic decision making in strategic environments.

Added 25 Oct: Can this help explain why we rely so little on incentive contracts for docs, real estate agents, etc.? 

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San Jose Meetup, Sat 10/25 @ 7:30pm

It’s on Saturday 7.30pm at Il Fornaio, 302 S Market St (in the Sainte Claire Hotel), San Jose. All aspiring rationalists welcome. The reservation is currently for 21 but can be changed if needed.  Please RSVP if you haven’t already.

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Inner Goodness

Followup toWhich Parts Are "Me"?, Effortless Technique

A recent conversation with Michael Vassar touched on – or to be more accurate, he patiently explained to me – the psychology of at least three (3) different types of people known to him, who are evil and think of themselves as "evil".  In ascending order of frequency:

The first type was someone who, having concluded that God does not exist, concludes that one should do all the things that God is said to dislike.  (Apparently such folk actually exist.)

The third type was someone who thinks of "morality" only as a burden – all the things your parents say you can’t do – and who rebels by deliberately doing those things.

The second type was a whole ‘nother story, so I’m skipping it for now.

This reminded me of a topic I needed to post on:

Beware of placing goodness outside.

This specializes to e.g. my belief that ethicists should be inside rather than outside a profession: that it is futile to have "bioethicists" not working in biotech, or futile to think you can study Friendly AI without needing to think technically about AI.

But the deeper sense of "not placing goodness outside" was something I first learned at age ~15 from the celebrity logician Raymond Smullyan, in his book The Tao Is Silent, my first introduction to (heavily Westernized) Eastern thought.

Michael Vassar doesn’t like this book.  Maybe because most of the statements in it are patently false?

But The Tao Is Silent still has a warm place reserved in my heart, for it was here that I first encountered such ideas as:

Do you think of altruism as sacrificing one’s own happiness for the sake of others, or as gaining one’s happiness through the happiness of others?

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Obama Donors As News

What motivates campaign donations?  Discussions of campaign finance reform are dominated by a private interest theory, that donations are in trade for favors.  Here donations in support of interests besides yours are bad news; they says the candidate has implicitly promised to help those interests at your expense.

The main alternative is a public interest theory, which says we donate to signal private info about candidate quality.  Under this theory people who get private info suggesting a candidate would be good at promoting the general public interest donate money to signal confidence.  Here campaign donations are good news.  Now consider that Big Donors Drive Obama’s Money Edge:

The record-shattering $150 million in donations that Sen. Barack Obama raised in September represents only part of [his] financial advantage. … [It] is compounded by Obama’s ability to continue to raise money through the election because he decided not to participate in the federal financing program. McCain opted in, meaning he received $84.1 million in federal funds to spend between the Republican National Convention and Nov. 4, and he must rely solely on the Republican National Committee for additional financial support. …

The Democratic Party created a separate committee to capture millions of additional dollars from individuals who had already given Obama the most the law allows and who had also anted up $28,500 to the Democratic National Committee. … The Committee … has become a vehicle for ultra-rich Democratic donors to distinguish themselves from the 3.1 million others who have put $600 million behind Obama’s presidential candidacy. … Only a quarter of [this] has come from donors who made contributions of $200 or less. … That is actually slightly less, as a percentage, than President Bush raised in small donations during his 2004 race. 

Obama supporters seem to have these alternatives:

  1. Reject the private interest theory, and thus reject campaign finance reform, or
  2. Accept the private interest theory, and
    • A. See Obama’s donors as an unusual aberration, or
    • B. Agree this is bad news, but see enough other good news about Obama, or
    • C. See this as good news as they share private interests with Obama’s rich donors.
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Which Parts Are “Me”?

Everything I am, is surely my brain; but I don’t accept everything my brain does, as "me".

Though I don’t like the fact, it does seem in my case to be true, that reflecting upon a passion can diminish it.  It does seem that in taking a step back from myself to look at what my brain is doing, that this introduces a greater emotional distance from the world, than when I am not reflecting.  Though I am extremely cautious when it comes to the moral issue of how to modify human nature, this is one thing that I would change, I think.

The point at which you start thinking that not everything that goes on your brain is to be identified with "you", is something of a Rubicon, I fear.  And those who prize the intensity of a simple passionate existence, above success in life or a complex layered personality, should not cross that Rubicon.

(Though in this case you should accept advice from rationalists about practical policies for guarding yourself, because this is a dangerous world in which to be unreflective.  For example: if you don’t follow the link to the rest of this post, then sign the #$!@ up for cryonics regardless of what your simple passions say on the subject.)

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