Monthly Archives: January 2009

31 Laws of Fun

So this is Utopia, is it?  Well
I beg your pardon, I thought it was Hell.
        — Sir Max Beerholm, verse entitled
        In a Copy of More's (or Shaw's or Wells's or Plato's or Anybody's) Utopia

This is a shorter summary of the Fun Theory Sequence with all the background theory left out – just the compressed advice to the would-be author or futurist who wishes to imagine a world where people might actually want to live:

  1. Think of a typical day in the life of someone who's been adapting to Utopia for a while.  Don't anchor on the first moment of "hearing the good news".  Heaven's "You'll never have to work again, and the streets are paved with gold!" sounds like good news to a tired and poverty-stricken peasant, but two months later it might not be so much fun.  (Prolegomena to a Theory of Fun.)
  2. Beware of packing your Utopia with things you think people should do that aren't actually fun.  Again, consider Christian Heaven: singing hymns doesn't sound like loads of endless fun, but you're supposed to enjoy praying, so no one can point this out.  (Prolegomena to a Theory of Fun.)
  3. Making a video game easier doesn't always improve it.  The same holds true of a life.  Think in terms of clearing out low-quality drudgery to make way for high-quality challenge, rather than eliminating work.  (High Challenge.)
  4. Life should contain novelty – experiences you haven't encountered before, preferably teaching you something you didn't already know.  If there isn't a sufficient supply of novelty (relative to the speed at which you generalize), you'll get bored.  (Complex Novelty.)

Continue reading "31 Laws of Fun" »

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BHTV: Yudkowsky / Wilkinson

Eliezer Yudkowsky and Will Wilkinson.  Due to a technical mistake – I won't say which of us made it, except that it wasn't me – the video cuts out at 47:37, but the MP3 of the full dialogue is available here.  I recall there was some good stuff at the end, too.

We talked about Obama up to 23 minutes, then it's on to rationality.  Wilkinson introduces (invents?) the phrase "good cognitive citizenship" which is a great phrase that I am totally going to steal.

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The Fun Theory Sequence

(A shorter gloss of Fun Theory is "31 Laws of Fun", which summarizes the advice of Fun Theory to would-be Eutopian authors and futurists.)

Fun Theory is the field of knowledge that deals in questions such as "How much fun is there in the universe?", "Will we ever run out of fun?", "Are we having fun yet?" and "Could we be having more fun?"

Fun Theory is serious business.  The prospect of endless boredom is routinely fielded by conservatives as a knockdown argument against research on lifespan extension, against cryonics, against all transhumanism, and occasionally against the entire Enlightenment ideal of a better future.

Many critics (including George Orwell) have commented on the inability of authors to imagine Utopias where anyone would actually want to live.  If no one can imagine a Future where anyone would want to live, that may drain off motivation to work on the project.  But there are some quite understandable biases that get in the way of such visualization.

Fun Theory is also the fully general reply to religious theodicy (attempts to justify why God permits evil).  Our present world has flaws even from the standpoint of such eudaimonic considerations as freedom, personal responsibility, and self-reliance.  Fun Theory tries to describe the dimensions along which a benevolently designed world can and should be optimized, and our present world is clearly not the result of such optimization – there is room for improvement.  Fun Theory also highlights the flaws of any particular religion's perfect afterlife – you wouldn't want to go to their Heaven.

Continue reading "The Fun Theory Sequence" »

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Avoid Vena Cava Filters

Shannon Brownlee warns us:

We tend to reward innovation in medicine for innovation's sake. Here's an example: there are, oh, on the order of at least 10 different companies all making a device called a vena cava filter. Each one claims superiority on the basis of some innovation in design. But do vena cava filters actually improve outcomes? Surgeons have been using these things for decades, yet they've never actually put them to the real test of efficacy. The French finally did, and it looks like for most patients the devices don't add value, they just add risk and cost. Now, we probably want to do another study just to be sure, but what's the value of innovation in vena cava filters if you aren't going to find out if they actually help patients.
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Rationality Quotes 24

"A wizard may have subtle ways of telling the truth, and may keep the truth to himself, but if he says a thing the thing is as he says.  For that is his mastery."
        — Ursula K. Leguin, A Wizard of Earthsea

"Neurons firing is something even a slug can do, and has as much to do with thinking as walls and doors have to do with a research institute."
        — Albert Cardona

"Mental toughness and willpower are to living in harmony with the Tao, as the ability to make clever arguments is to rationality."
        — Marcello Herreshoff

"Destiny always has been something that you tear open with your own hands."
        — T-Moon Complex X 02

"When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then…  The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me."
        — Pascal, Pensees

"Goals of Man:  ☑ Don't get eaten by a lion ☑ Get out of Africa ☐ Get out of Earth ☐ Get out of Solar System ☐ Get out of Galaxy ☐ Get out of Local Group ☐ Get out of Earth-Visible Universe ☐ Get out of Universe"
        — Knome

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Higher Purpose

Previously in series: Interpersonal Entanglement
Followup toSomething to Protect, Superhero Bias

Long-time readers will recall that I've long been uncomfortable with the idea that you can adopt a Cause as a hedonic accessory:

"Unhappy people are told that they need a 'purpose in life', so they should pick out an altruistic cause that goes well with their personality, like picking out nice living-room drapes, and this will brighten up their days by adding some color, like nice living-room drapes."

But conversely it's also a fact that having a Purpose In Life consistently shows up as something that increases happiness, as measured by reported subjective well-being.

One presumes that this works equally well hedonically no matter how misguided that Purpose In Life may be – no matter if it is actually doing harm – no matter if the means are as cheap as prayer.  Presumably, all that matters for your happiness is that you believe in it.  So you had better not question overmuch whether you're really being effective; that would disturb the warm glow of satisfaction you paid for.

And here we verge on Zen, because you can't deliberately pursue "a purpose that takes you outside yourself", in order to take yourself outside yourself.  That's still all about you.

Which is the whole Western concept of "spirituality" that I despise:  You need a higher purpose so that you can be emotionally healthy.  The external world is just a stream of victims for you to rescue.

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Investing for the Long Slump

I have no crystal ball with which to predict the Future, a confession that comes as a surprise to some journalists who interview me.  Still less do I think I have the ability to out-predict markets.  On every occasion when I've considered betting against a prediction market – most recently, betting against Barack Obama as President – I've been glad that I didn't.  I admit that I was concerned in advance about the recent complexity crash, but then I've been concerned about it since 1994, which isn't very good market timing.

I say all this so that no one panics when I ask:

Suppose that the whole global economy goes the way of Japan (which, by the Nikkei 225, has now lost two decades).

Suppose the global economy is still in the Long Slump in 2039.

Most market participants seem to think this scenario is extremely implausible.  Is there a simple way to bet on it at a very low price?

If most traders act as if this scenario has a probability of 1%, is there a simple bet, executable using an ordinary brokerage account, that pays off 100 to 1?

Why do I ask?  Well… in general, it seems to me that other people are not pessimistic enough; they prefer not to stare overlong or overhard into the dark; and they attach too little probability to things operating in a mode outside their past experience.

But in this particular case, the question is motivated by my thinking, "Conditioning on the proposition that the Earth as we know it is still here in 2040, what might have happened during the preceding thirty years?"

Continue reading "Investing for the Long Slump" »

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Tribal Biases and the Inauguration

Regardless of your feelings about the election, inauguration, or national politics in general, they do make for great settings in which to explore the classic themes.  No, not Hope and Change and Unity and Freedom, those are themes for Presidents, not Overcoming Bias.  I mean the ways in which our monkey brains lead us into messes, and how sober reflection can lead us out.

First, IOZ nicely captures why Obama's economic program is counterproductive:

The central conceit of Obama's inauguration and the crisis-wracked program he began to lay out is that given our troubled times, we must put aside difference in favor of "unity" and seek common purpose in collective action. Subsumed beneath an overwrought paean to national character and responsibility is the notion that only through centralization can crises of such magnitude be met and bested. This is precisely the wrong lesson to draw. Each of our current crises, whether imperial overreach or economic calamities, are at root problems of scale. If you really wanted more a more flexible, resilient, and self-sustaining economy, you would seek means to increase regional and local enterprise at the expense of State-subsidized national and transnational corporations; you would notice, for instance, that most small banks are doing just fine, and you'd let Citigroup go belly-up.

It would be foolish to lay this at Obama's door – I think Hillary would do worse, and quite possibly McCain as well. The erroneous focus on scale and centralization and "pulling together in times of crisis" is a general human irrationality which politicians specialize in catering to.

Like many (?most?) irrationalities, it is likely a relic of our tribal past.  In the ancestral environment, pulling together to help the tribe in a time of crisis was the best way for an individual to survive.  In our modern environment, however, we are often led to identify with an entire nation as our "tribe", and it turns out that this is an inefficiently large group for most types of collective action.  We evaluate the prospect of unity with ancient mental modules optimized for Dunbarian tribes, and that sphexishness leads us into disastrous collective ventures.

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Who Likes What Movies

In The New Yorker, Tad Friend on what movie marketers say about who likes what:

Young males like explosions, blood, cars flying through the air, pratfalls, poop jokes, "you're so gay" banter, and sex – but not romance. Young women like friendship, pop music, fashion, sarcasm, sensitive boys who think with their hearts, and romance – but not sex (though they like to hear the naughty girl telling her friends about it). They go to horror films as much as young men, but they hate gore; you lure them by having the ingénue take her time walking down the dark hall.

Older women like feel-good films and Nicholas Sparks-style weepies: they are the core audience for stories of doomed love and triumphs of the human spirit. They enjoy seeing an older woman having her pick of men; they hate seeing a child in danger. Particularly once they reach thirty, these women are the most "review-sensitive": a chorus of critical praise for a movie aimed at older women can increase the opening weekend’s gross by five million dollars. In other words, older women are discriminating, which is why so few films are made for them.

Older men like darker films, classic genres such as Westerns and war movies, men protecting their homes, and men behaving like idiots. Older men are easy to please, particularly if a film stars Clint Eastwood and is about guys just like them, but they’re hard to motivate. "Guys only get off their couches twice a year, to go to `Wild Hogs' or `3:10 to Yuma'."

This seems a nice set of "stylized facts" to explain. Must we invoke age and gender specific random cultural drift to explain these, or can we find more systematic and functional explanations?

I can roughly understand young men liking action, violence, and sex while young women like fashion, gossip, and romance.   But why do old men like darkness and idiocy while old women like critical praise, "doomed love and triumphs of the human spirit"?   Can you, for example, tell a plausible story of how this helps them learn about something useful, or helps them signal a valued characteristic?

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Failed Utopia #4-2

Followup toInterpersonal Entanglement

    Shock after shock after shock –
    First, the awakening adrenaline jolt, the thought that he was falling.  His body tried to sit up in automatic adjustment, and his hands hit the floor to steady himself.  It launched him into the air, and he fell back to the floor too slowly.
    Second shock.  His body had changed.  Fat had melted away in places, old scars had faded; the tip of his left ring finger, long ago lost to a knife accident, had now suddenly returned.
    And the third shock –
    "I had nothing to do with it!" she cried desperately, the woman huddled in on herself in one corner of the windowless stone cell.  Tears streaked her delicate face, fell like slow raindrops into the décolletage of her dress.  "Nothing!  Oh, you must believe me!"
    With perceptual instantaneity – the speed of surprise – his mind had already labeled her as the most beautiful woman he'd ever met, including his wife.

Continue reading "Failed Utopia #4-2" »

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