Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss related topics that haven’t appeared in recent posts.

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  • babar

    Implicit in some recent posts seems to be the assumption that the concepts of a person, personal utility (of a recognizable form), and maximizing personal utility, are robust with respect to long-horizon growth.

    If, say, you are trying to maximize a utility function on all subsets of particles in the universe rather than on each particle in the universe, you would have much more potential.

    There is also the possibility that local utility maximization will, for some future state, be accomplished by eliminating innovation and controlling population. having institutions and structures which support innovation is costly, and at some point the best way to achieve social progress may be to stop paying for innovation.

    • utility? Do you mean acquisition or experience? Experience and the binding of experiences together will build a robust intuition.

      Potential is maximized through concurrent flows and it is here where we talk of complexity. Only a rational paradigm has this ability.

      If you want to stop population growth then create surrealism. Build layer upon layer of license where people are to busy trying to stay alive that they do not have time to screw.

      Could you define social progress please.

  • Sam Wilson

    Under what conditions is meta-rationality likely to become a dominant strategy?

    • Innate, intrinsic and abstract conditions.

  • Buck Farmer

    Most economics I know takes welfare to be synonymous with a wide or ever widening choice set. The idea being that with a wider choice set we can better choose what we want.

    However, usually the ramifications of these choices occur over time.

    I’d say time inconsistency is one of the best proven results of experimental economics.

    This points to the complication. When I’m talking about an individual’s welfare, who am I talking about?

    How does everyone feel about whether and in what way identity exists over time?

    • When one talks about economics they are in the surreal. A surrealism is undefinable because of the lack of an intrinsic condition. This condition refers to the ability for movement. Economics is an arbratary relationship and is constantly being attributed to too determine who, what, when, where and why gets rewarded. We are now talking COMPLICATED big time.

      I can not tell you what you are talking about when you ask ” When I’m talking about an individual’s welfare, who am I talking about?”

  • Robin, I imagine you have given some thought to the posts at lesswrong on updateless or timeless decision theory. e.g. Wei Dai and Vladmir Nesov have made important contributions as well.

    I’d really appreciate it if you wrote a post giving your perspective on this.

    • Decision theory is fundamental, so we expect changes in it to be rare. Efforts to develop a better normative decision theory can be well worth it even if the odds are low. I haven’t yet been persuaded to switch from the current standard decision theory, but I also haven’t considered those proposals in as much detail as I would like. I’d probably rather have an in-person conversation to hash them out, but perhaps won’t get a chance for that anytime soon.

  • Pwno

    What do you guys think of this interpretation of laughter?

    In conversation people constantly make status-challenging messages. Whether it be lowering or raising someone else’s status. When people laugh at a status-challenging message, they signal their validation of that challenge. They accept a change in status in the direction of the challenge.

    Laughter can only act as a validating-mechanism for status challenges. When there is a status challenge, there is always an attacker, a victim, and sometimes an audience. The attacker is the winner when the attack weakens the victim’s current status (i.e. when the audience believe an attack caused the status of the victim to lower). Status is a zero-sum-game so this makes the loser lose status and the winner gain status. People laugh when the attacker wins because they raise their own status by taking away status from the victim and supporting the status gainer. When the attack doesn’t weaken the victim’s current status, the attacker loses status and the victim gains. People don’t want to lose status by supporting a status loser so they don’t laugh. This is why the presence of laughter (from only the audience) (dis)confirms whether the attacker wins or loses.

    • josh

      Could you use it to explain a particular example. For example:
      Lt. Frank Drebin: It’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girls dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.

      Jane: Goodyear?

      Frank: No, the worst.
      First, why is this so funny when Leslie Nielson says it? Why is it not when I read it. Or does your theory not apply to this kind of laughter?

      • Pwno

        Part of it is that you don’t get to experience how she says it. She attacks the girl’s status by showing that she doesn’t deserve sympathy. We would only laugh if we accept this status transaction. For instance, if Obama was the victim instead, I doubt it would illicit laughter; the attack wouldn’t be successful. Maybe you didn’t laugh because 1) you didn’t get there was a status attack in the first place 2) you didn’t accept the status transaction.

      • josh

        not bad.

    • Mikko

      I have found it useful to consider laughter and humor separately. It seems that humor is often a status transaction, i.e. aggression (it may be self-aggression).

      I participated in improvisation workshop a week ago. The teacher has been studying Johnstone’s teachings since 70s, has translated Johnstone’s book to Finnish and has written another book on status.

      His explanation of laughter was that it is a release of tension. Something surprises you, in some sense scares you, which creates tension. When you learn that there is no need to be scared, the tension releases as laughter.

      For example, if you throw a child in the air, he will supposedly look scared until you catch him, and then he will laugh. I have not personally observed this.

      Some books that I have found interesting on this subject:

      Provine: Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. A friend who is doing a dissertation on laughter suggested this to me.

      Levitzer: Comedy Writing Secrets. This seems to be popular in the PUA circles.

      • Make’s me wonder about tickling. It does make one laugh, but it is basically abuse. This was more the case as a child, when tickling always made you laugh, so you seemed like you were enjoying, and then everyone joined the enjoyment. Then, at least I, felt that i had the responsibility to not to be angry at the tickler, because everyone was having fun.

        And status laughter is usually rather under control. Is the laughter that is uncontrollable and violent the same thing? Like having a fractured rib, and then still finding something so funny, that you laugh even though you don’t want to because of the pain.

        Sorry about my fractured english. I hope you still understand my point.

      • I’ve heard the ‘tension’ theory many times, which is surprising considering how little of laughter it explains. Standup comedians often use tension, and jokes of a particular kind that involve repetition use some tension. But it’s not a resolution of tension; it’s just timing, where you expect some answer, and they make you wait for it, and give you a different answer than you expect. Puns don’t involve tension, except Ferdinand Feghoot puns. Most humor nowadays come in the form of comics or humorous books, in which the humor seldom involves the release of tension. An xkcd strip is usually only one panel, so it barely even has a temporal dimension.

        I wonder if this tension theory is respectable only because of a single joke. When it was invented, one of the two most-famous, most-accessible jokes in the Western world was from a radio show, where a mugger tells Jack Benny, “Your money or your life!”, and Jack Benny pauses, and pauses. And the mugger says again, “Your money or your life!” And Jack says, “I’m thinking!” That joke fits the tension theory. But very, very few do.

        (The most-famous joke at that time probably being Henny Youngman’s “Take my wife. Please!” Which does not resolve tension.)

    • I think it depends on where you hang out. Some humor is certainly about lowering status (and it can be classified by whether it’s about further lowering the status of low status people or about lowering the status of high status people), but sometimes it’s about gaining status by being the first person to think of something clever.

      • wedrifid

        Good poing Nancy. I had been trying to account for (typically nerdy) jokes that didn’t actually involve people in them within this model without much luck.

      • Mikko

        wedrifid: Do you have an example of such a joke? According to Johnstone, objects also have status. For example, some common object which is associated with somebody famous has higher status than same object without the association. Of course Nancy is also right. But these two explanations are not mutually exclusive.

  • Robert Koslover

    Here’s an interesting perspective along with anecdotes, from a physician, on the choices that some patients make in regard to their health care spending. See

    • It’s interesting, but I’m not sure the person who won’t cover a test for cancer that she can’t afford to treat is actually being irrational.

  • josh

    There’s been a lot of talk about status lately. Do you guys think that there exists a meaningful, objective standard for status? I lean toward yes.

    Is status, whatever it means, transitive? Is it transitive in face-to-face interactions?

    • Pwno

      I would say, status is perceived power over people. You have power over people when you control something they want. The more status someone has, the more power they have over people.

    • marc

      Yes. I think it’s complicated and situation dependent, at least to some extent, but it’s real. Since it’s social and zero-sum it’s necessarily going to be complicated as different agents compete using different strategies.

      I’m reminded of an excellent experiment. Apparently if you release two pigeons together to fly home one will always lead. Do this with other pigeons and they will find their own ordering. Mix the groups up and the property of ‘leadership’ is completely transitive i.e. if A leads B and B leads C then A will always lead C.

      The fascinating part is that this ‘leadership ability’ has no correlation to quality of the chosen route. The pigeons are basing their decisions on something completely unrelated to successfully returning home.

    • Mikko

      Status in face-to-face situations is very real. I have learned to observe it in practically all social encounters. It is actually a dominance hierarchy. But such status is continuously maintained dynamically through actions, it is not something constant you have. It is like participating in running race: you can say that position in race at any moment is transitive, but it can also change at any moment.

      Dominance hierarchy is established immediately when people meet, and we continually adjust our status relative to others. It seems that most of our movements are actually such adjustments, or status transactions. During the encounter, positions in the hierarchy may change through these transactions.

      For example, if a woman checks that her handbag is properly closed it may be a “rationalization” for movement of her hand to cover her belly when she is feeling vulnerable. We do such movements constantly, and checking handbag the tenth time does not make much sense.

      I can heartily recommend Johnstone: Impro on this subject. Robin mentioned it here.

  • marc

    I’ve occasionally wondered why highly intelligent people, on average, tend to be less attractive, particularly with reference to things that are under their control like clothing/hairstyle.

    I realise that this isn’t universally true but walk into the physics department of a good university and you’ll see what I mean (full disclosure – I work in one).

    While we mature we learn a great deal from those around us. It seems a fair assumption that highly intelligent people would internalise this information better, even if it’s not explicitly taught at school.

    If it turns out that society has been teaching you bullshit (signalling) – it doesn’t matter what you wear it’s the person inside that people really care about – then you might be worse off if you’re more intelligent and behave according to the rubbish that you’ve been taught.

    You’d might also expect to find that these highly intelligent people were more prone to other types of behaviours that are often more about signalling. What could these be and how could you test them?

    • You might take a look at this essay by Paul Graham,, he suggests nerds are unpopular because they have better things to do with their time than suck up to the in-group. Similarly, I think many intelligent people have more interesting things to do than worry about how they look. Most of the more intelligent people I have known were usually clean and respectably dressed, but looked a bit disheveled most of the time.

    • Robert Koslover

      Here’s my guess. 1. Beautiful people are noticeable in our socieity than average, because they are beautiful. 2. Smart people are also more noticeable in our society than average, because they are smart. Of course, after we notice the latter (for being smart) we may also notice that some of them are not beautiful too. I’m betting that, on average, smart people are actually no less beautiful than people of average intelligence. But they are more noticeable. But not as noticeable as people whose dominant attribute is beauty. [Experimental tests are likely needed here. Show people pictures of randomly selected people and ask them who is or isn’t attractive. Separately rank the people in the pictures by more-objectively measured intelligence or intellectual achievements. I bet you will not find that intelligence goes with ugliness, nor that beauty goes with stupidity. In other words, I bet it is all an illusion.

      • Pwno

        Maybe smart AND good looking people are just labeled as good looking, .

    • Eric Johnson

      Interesting. In a similar way, some anthropologists have proposed that religious celibacy prescriptions might be a “scam” to sabotage the reproduction of others and direct more sexual opportunities to the perpetrators/perpetuators of the idea. I don’t know if these are a human universal but they occur in at least some hunter-gatherer societies, not just, say, roman catholicism and hinduism. Having never practiced celibacy I don’t know if the claims about its elevating effects have any truth of not.

      If this were a scam, we would predict that people should reveal to their own relatives, especially female ones (and to themselves) that it’s really not about the person inside – or at least, sexual desirability is not.

      > If it turns out that society has been teaching you bullshit (signalling) – it doesn’t matter what you wear it’s the person inside that people really care about – then you might be worse off if you’re more intelligent and behave according to the rubbish that you’ve been taught.

  • Pwno

    I am saying that laughter only has the validating function when there is a status challenge. In this case, laughter also is a relief of tension.

    When someone status challenges, people laugh as a sign that the attack on someone else brought about a status change that they are ok with. They don’t sympathize with the victim and so the act of aggression is harmless to them.

    When a status challenge causes the audience to feel sympathy for the victim, laughter doesn’t follow; the act of aggression caused actual damage to the audience.

  • Jeff

    I’m curious whether you’re aware of the Oregon study. Last year most recipients of the Oregon Health Plan, a government provided and subsidized health insurance plan, were removed. Only a small percentage of folks got their health insurance continued, and that percentage were chosen by lottery.

    So this year, there’s a study gathering as much data as possible on the two cohorts (or, I think, around the cohorts of who was offered health insurance vs. not offered, because some were offered who couldn’t be found to answer and thus receive it). They’re gathering a shitload of data, and they have many many partners.

    This, unlike the RAND study, will look at the difference between having health insurance and not. The RAND study looked at the effect of various copays. Robin and others on this blog: what do you expect this study to show, and what would you bet on those expectations?

    • I’d love to bet on it, and I’d bet that as usually there at most a tiny effect. If you can find out exactly what sort of results might be expected, I might be able to get Intrade to list it.

  • Why aren’t prediction markets already common? Is it possible that doing the research and thinking is generally not enough fun to make the financial and reputational risk worthwhile? You can’t stop people from betting on sports, so there’s got to be some difference.


    Any theories about how groups chose the signals they consider valid? Frex, most societies signal status with clothing and jewelry. While we still do that, we do a tremendous amount with body type (lean/muscular) and body modification. It’s still possible to have clothing so elaborate that it would signal status, but something happened.

    • Buck Farmer

      Body type/modification signals are considered better markers of genetic quality than clothing/jewelry which better signal resources.

      Since women have joined the workforce and largely been emancipated male resource displays are no longer as relevant to distinguish between potential mates as genetic displays.

      Question: In more gender-traditional subcultures are clothing displays stronger signals than in less traditional ones?

      Far left subcultures tend both to strongly value non-gender-normative language (many recognize a variety of non-traditional genders as well) and tend to highly value do-it-yourself (DIY) material possessions which are signals of skill (genetic) instead of wealth (resources).

      Investment bankers, consultants, etc. tend more towards resource displays than genetic displays and are also usually considered more gender-traditional.

      Not sure about religious groups and what not.

  • Matthew C.
  • fenn
  • fenn

    follow up to my link (which is the same at Matt C’s).
    Looks like this story is from a tell-all book by a former Alcor executive detailing all sort of shoddy practices. Isn’t Alcor the more expensive of the 2?

    Pretty sure this will further affect the public’s perception of wannabe future Unfrozen Cavemen Lawyers

    • gwern

      Yes, that’s very interesting. If Alcor can’t be trusted to hire technicians above the simian level, or any of the other allegations, while many of the original proponents are still alive & active, and has degenerated in the relatively short period it has existed, then that bodes very ill for the long future ahead.

      Of course, the allegations need to be proven, though Alcor’s response doesn’t fill me with confidence that Johnson is a con:

      (eg. the release’s main response to the allegations regarding Williams’s head is that Johnson wasn’t there when Williams was first processed, yet the article says Johnson witnessed the tech damage the head long *after* Williams was originally processed, during a transfer of some sort while Johnson was there, so the response is simply a non sequitur; and much of it focuses on whether Johnson legally acquired his evidence – which is irrelevant to those who care whether the allegations are true or not)

      • gwern

        I should note that the Alcor press release has changed substantially since my second comment was posted; if you follow the link, you won’t see the same thing I did.

  • Woyzeck

    I have a question that I would like to share in this open-thread.

    I ask the questions with great humility, because I know that there are far greater and more experienced minds participating in this blog.

    1. Real life only happens in the globally shared present moment.
    2. It is same second passing all over the world.
    3. We can only act and think in the continious present moment.
    4. Our subjective motives, routines and thoughts are often in the past or future, but not in the now.

    How can the macro-level be understood in consideration of these claims?

    If 1. is true, the macro-level has to be included.

    How can the macro-level be thought correctly without relying on models which place it “above our heads”?

  • Doug S.

    We need a November open thread now.

    More on U.S. health care:

    People in the U.S. spend more for the exact same procedures than people in other countries.

    • Doug S.

      In other words, between countries, health care spending is uncoupled from the amount of health care actually delivered.