Monthly Archives: November 2008

Beliefs Require Reasons, or: Is the Pope Catholic? Should he be?

In the early days of this blog, I would pick fierce arguments with Robin about the no-disagreement hypothesis.  Lately, however, reflection on things like public reason have brought me toward agreement with Robin, or at least moderated my disagreement.  To see why, it’s perhaps useful to take a look at the newspapers

the pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.”

What are we to make of a statement like this?

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Engelbart: Insufficiently Recursive

Followup toCascades, Cycles, Insight, Recursion, Magic
Reply toEngelbart As Ubertool?

When Robin originally suggested that Douglas Engelbart, best known as the inventor of the computer mouse, would have been a good candidate for taking over the world via compound interest on tools that make tools, my initial reaction was "What on Earth?  With a mouse?"

On reading the initial portions of Engelbart’s "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework", it became a lot clearer where Robin was coming from.

Sometimes it’s hard to see through the eyes of the past.  Engelbart was a computer pioneer, and in the days when all these things were just getting started, he had a vision of using computers to systematically augment human intelligence.  That was what he thought computers were for.  That was the ideology lurking behind the mouse.  Something that makes its users smarter – now that sounds a bit more plausible as an UberTool.

Looking back at Engelbart’s plans with benefit of hindsight, I see two major factors that stand out:

  1. Engelbart committed the Classic Mistake of AI: underestimating how much cognitive work gets done by hidden algorithms running beneath the surface of introspection, and overestimating what you can do by fiddling with the visible control levers.
  2. Engelbart anchored on the way that someone as intelligent as Engelbart would use computers, but there was only one of him – and due to point 1 above, he couldn’t use computers to make other people as smart as him.

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Abstract/Distant Future Bias

The latest Science has a psych article saying we think of distant stuff more abstractly, and vice versa.  "The brain is hierarchically organized with higher points in the cortical hierarchy representing increasingly more abstract aspects of stimuli"; activating a region makes nearby activations more likely.  This has stunning implications for our biases about the future. 

All of these bring each other more to mind: here, now, me, us; trend-deviating likely real local events; concrete, context-dependent, unstructured, detailed, goal-irrelevant incidental features; feasible safe acts; secondary local concerns; socially close folks with unstable traits. 

Conversely, all these bring each other more to mind: there, then, them; trend-following unlikely hypothetical global events; abstract, schematic, context-freer, core, coarse, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic concerns, confident predictions, polarized evaluations, socially distant people with stable traits. 

Since these things mostly just cannot go together in reality, this must bias our thinking both about now and about distant futures.  When "in the moment," we focus on ourselves and in-our-face details, feel "one with" what we see and close to quirky folks nearby, see much as uncertain, and safely act to achieve momentary desires given what seems the most likely current situation.  Kinda like smoking weed.

Regarding distant futures, however, we’ll be too confident, focus too much on unlikely global events, rely too much on trends, theories, and loose abstractions, while neglecting details and variation.  We’ll assume the main events take place far away (e.g., space), and uniformly across large regions.  We’ll focus on untrustworthy consistently-behaving globally-organized social-others.  And we’ll neglect feasibility, taking chances to achieve core grand symbolic values, rather than ordinary muddled values.  Sound familiar?

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The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ad Hominem

Stephen Bond writes the definitive word on ad hominem in "the ad hominem fallacy fallacy":

In reality, ad hominem is unrelated to sarcasm or personal abuse.  Argumentum ad hominem is the logical fallacy of attempting to undermine a speaker’s argument by attacking the speaker instead of addressing the argument.  The mere presence of a personal attack does not indicate ad hominem: the attack must be used for the purpose of undermining the argument, or otherwise the logical fallacy isn’t there.


A: "All rodents are mammals, but a weasel isn’t a rodent, so it can’t be a mammal."
B: "You evidently know nothing about logic. This does not logically follow."

B’s argument is still not ad hominem.  B does not imply that A’s sentence does not logically follow because A knows nothing about logic.  B is still addressing the substance of A’s argument…

This is too beautiful, thorough, and precise to not post.  HT to sfk on HN.

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Physicists Held To Lower Standard

In August I complained about vague LHC forecasts.  My oped based on that post just appeared in Symmetry, "A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication."  Its blurb: "Today’s LHC forecasts are no easier to score than the typical horoscope."  It ends:

But geez – the LHC costs more than $10 billion of public money. Shouldn’t we expect big-shot physicists who hope to crow to the public about LHC vindication to express their predictions in a more scoreable form? We don’t accept less from weather, business, or sport forecasters; why accept less from physicists?

My implicit answer: we hold physicists to lower standards.  As I posted two years ago:

Consider how differently the public treats physics and economics.   Physicists can say that this week they think the universe has eleven dimensions, three of which are purple, and two of which are twisted clockwise, and reporters will quote them unskeptically, saying "Isn’t that cool!"   But if economists say, as they have for centuries, that a minimum wage raises unemployment, reporters treat them skeptically and feel they need to find a contrary quote to "balance" their story.

That same Symmetry issue says:

Leon Lederman, a 1988 Nobel laureate and Fermilab physicist, plopped a folding table and two chairs on a busy New York City street corner and sat under colorful hand-scrawled signs offering to answer physics questions.  Even in a city of people too busy for impromptu sidewalk conversations, the sight was too tempting to resist. … Soon about 20 people formed a line down the block. They asked Lederman about the strong force, time and space, fusion, and even time travel. Some asked follow-up questions to get a clearer understanding, while others just seemed thrilled at the chance to meet a Nobel Prize winner.

I’ll bet none told Lederman he was wrong.  Imagine how a Nobel-winning economist would be received. 

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Thinking Helps

Published in 2005

Most people believe that they should avoid changing their answer when taking multiple choice tests.  Virtually all research on this topic, however, has suggested that this strategy is ill-founded: Most answer changes are from incorrect to correct, and people who change their answers usually improve their test scores.  Why? …. Changing an answer when one should have stuck with one’s original answer leads to more "if only …" self-recriminations …[making such events] more memorable.   

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…Recursion, Magic

Followup toCascades, Cycles, Insight…

…4, 5 sources of discontinuity.

Recursion is probably the most difficult part of this topic.  We have historical records aplenty of cascades, even if untangling the causality is difficult.  Cycles of reinvestment are the heartbeat of the modern economy.  An insight that makes a hard problem easy, is something that I hope you’ve experienced at least once in your life…

But we don’t have a whole lot of experience redesigning our own neural circuitry.

We have these wonderful things called "optimizing compilers".  A compiler translates programs in a high-level language, into machine code (though these days it’s often a virtual machine).  An "optimizing compiler", obviously, is one that improves the program as it goes.

So why not write an optimizing compiler in its own language, and then run it on itself?  And then use the resulting optimized optimizing compiler, to recompile itself yet again, thus producing an even more optimized optimizing compiler –

Halt!  Stop!  Hold on just a minute!  An optimizing compiler is not supposed to change the logic of a program – the input/output relations.  An optimizing compiler is only supposed to produce code that does the same thing, only faster.  A compiler isn’t remotely near understanding what the program is doing and why, so it can’t presume to construct a better input/output function.  We just presume that the programmer wants a fixed input/output function computed as fast as possible, using as little memory as possible.

So if you run an optimizing compiler on its own source code, and then use the product to do the same again, it should produce the same output on both occasions – at most, the first-order product will run faster than the original compiler.

If we want a computer program that experiences cascades of self-improvement, the path of the optimizing compiler does not lead there – the "improvements" that the optimizing compiler makes upon itself, do not improve its ability to improve itself.

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When Life Is Cheap, Death Is Cheap

Carl, thank you for thoughtfully engaging my whole brain emulation scenario.  This is my response.

Hunters couldn’t see how exactly a farming life could work, nor could farmers see how exactly an industry life could work.  In both cases the new life initially seemed immoral and repugnant to those steeped in prior ways.  But even though prior culture/laws typically resisted and discouraged the new way, the few groups which adopted it won so big others were eventually converted or displaced.

Carl considers my scenario of a world of near-subsistence-income ems in a software-like labor market, where millions of cheap copies are made of a each expensively trained em, and then later evicted from their bodies when their training becomes obsolete.  Carl doesn’t see how this could work:

The Alices now know that Google will shortly evict them, the genocide of a tightly knit group of millions: will they peacefully comply with that procedure? Or will they use politics, violence and any means necessary to get capital from capital-holders so that they can continue to exist? If they seek allies, the many other ems who expect to be driven out of existence by competitive niche exclusion might be interested in cooperating with them. … In order … that biological humans could retain their wealth as capital-holders in his scenario, ems must be obedient and controllable enough that whole lineages will regularly submit to genocide, even though the overwhelming majority of the population expects the same thing to happen to it soon. But if such control is feasible, then a controlled em population being used to aggressively create a global singleton is also feasible.

I see pathologically-obedient personalities neither as required for my scenario, nor as clearly leading to a totalitarian world regime.

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Polisci Stats Biased

The 0.05 significance standard biases results in top polisci journals:

We examine the APSR and the AJPS for the presence of publication bias due to reliance on the 0.05 significance level. Our analysis employs a broad interpretation of publication bias, which we define as the outcome that occurs when, for whatever reason, publication practices lead to bias in the published parameter estimates. We examine the effect of the 0.05 significance level on the pattern of published findings using a "caliper" test, a novel method for comparing studies with heterogeneous effects, and find that we can reject the hypothesis of no publication bias at the 1 in 32 billion level. Our findings therefore raise the possibility that the results reported in the leading political science journals may be misleading due to publication bias. We also discuss some of the reasons for publication bias and propose reforms to reduce its impact on research.

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Cascades, Cycles, Insight…

Followup toSurprised by Brains

Five sources of discontinuity:  1, 2, and 3…

Cascades are when one thing leads to another.  Human brains are effectively discontinuous with chimpanzee brains due to a whole bag of design improvements, even though they and we share 95% genetic material and only a few million years have elapsed since the branch.  Why this whole series of improvements in us, relative to chimpanzees?  Why haven’t some of the same improvements occurred in other primates?

Well, this is not a question on which one may speak with authority (so far as I know).  But I would venture an unoriginal guess that, in the hominid line, one thing led to another.

The chimp-level task of modeling others, in the hominid line, led to improved self-modeling which supported recursion which enabled language which birthed politics that increased the selection pressure for outwitting which led to sexual selection on wittiness…

…or something.  It’s hard to tell by looking at the fossil record what happened in what order and why.  The point being that it wasn’t one optimization that pushed humans ahead of chimps, but rather a cascade of optimizations that, in Pan, never got started.

We fell up the stairs, you might say.  It’s not that the first stair ends the world, but if you fall up one stair, you’re more likely to fall up the second, the third, the fourth…

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