Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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    I’ve been doing some thinking on views of morality and responsibility. In many societies (possibly because of the abrahamic religions) people tend to see addiction as a “disease” and consciously liking something (which is in some cases just an acceptance of an addiction because of a lack of rational objections to the addiction) as a “choice”. Of course neither are really choices (we do not get to choose our personalities/preferences), but most of us still do believe conscious preferences and actions are a choice, inspiring the idea of divine judgment and hell (though some Christian and Islamic sects do believe people are “made” and cannot escape destiny) and even today many justice systems are still based on the idea of metaphysical free will, for example in the US it’s still possible to get a death penalty commuted to life in prison through a confession. I suppose an addict is someone who consciously resists their addiction while in far mode but their preferences change enough when triggered into near mode to overcome conscious resistance. All of this makes some sense since people who we call addicts will not go looking for trouble while in far mode, making their behavior safer if that which triggers the near mode act is rare/hard to find, plus we can recondition addicts, “curing” their addiction without significantly altering their far mode personality (which is the aspect of a person’s personality we care most about).

    Robin, do you think far/’near mode thinking can be applied to addiction triggers and what are your general thoughts on stuff like what I wrote above?

    • In far mode we are more able to control ourselves, more insist that other people should be able to control themselves, and less tolerant of their failures to do so.

    • Ari

      Related to addictions, I think I would recommend book called Power of Habit. The author speculates that 40% of what we do are habits (brain’s way to conserve energy by not using conscious thought). Once a habit loop is formed, (such as browsing Overcoming Bias to pick a random example) is formed, it’s hard to get rid of it if the same clues and rewards are present.

      Actually the book had interesting idea, the far-mode belief, even irrational (such as belief in God) is required to overcome habit routines when the temptation is very strong.

      But yeah in far-mode we tell idealistic stories how we can and do behave better but probably do not live up to the expectations in near-mode. I have been aware of habit loops for long time but changing them is sometimes very hard, and more often than I’d like to admit I fail to do so.

      We tell many kinds of idealistic moral stories in far-mode to for signaling reasons but our near-mode actions can be in complete opposition to those. I don’t want to condemn morality here, I’d take Tyler’s approach that things are complicated, and certain immorality probably corrupts your character even though we hurt others indirectly in many ways.

      Related to addictions, here’s a an interesting piece about our addiction economy:

  • Robert Koslover

    With reference to:
    Do you have any comments on the economic policies, principles, and/or fallacies currently being experimentally tested in Venezuela?

  • Marc Geddes

    Some extraordinary stuff happening with Bitcoins. A massive 60 million pound heist has just gone down at ‘Sheep Marketplace’ – it appears the whole site was a scam, they’ve cleaned out the accounts of everyone.

    “One of the largest heists in bitcoin history is happening right now. 96,000 bitcoins – that’s roughly £60m as of the time of writing – was taken from the accounts of customers, vendors and administrators of the Sheep Marketplace over the weekend.

    Sheep was one of the main sites that came to replace the
    Silk Road when it closed in October, but it too has now closed as a result of this theft. It’s a little hard to work out exactly what’s happened, but Sheep customers have been piecing it together on reddit’s r/sheepmarketplace.

    Here’s what happened: someone (or some group) managed
    to fake the balances in peoples’ accounts on the site, showing that they had their bitcoins in their wallets when they’d actually been transferred out. Over the course of a week the whole site was drained, until the weekend when the site’s administrators realised what was happening and shut everything down.”

    • Robert Koslover

      Thanks for posting and linking to this interesting story.

  • Alexander Stanislav

    What do you think of effective altruism/ how it is currently being implemented? Is optimizing for number of life years saved really the best cause right now? I’m wondering whether or not its better to invest in things that could eradicate poverty entirely rather than slightly increase the health of the poorest populations.

    If I could invest in human genetic engineering I would because its the only thing I can think of that has the potential to fix world poverty. Obviously there are possible problems and I haven’t thought that hard on the matter, but its the only measure I can think of right now that has a chance of getting rid of poverty. I’m somewhere around 15% sure that no amount of non-biological interventions could cause the poorest country in the world to become a self sustaining developed country within the next hundred years.

  • JW Ogden

    How is it that if you compare the North East and South, in the South the white homicide rate is much higher than in the north but the black homicide rate is much lower in the South (BTW there are 2 exceptions Louisiana and NY.) Could it be a status issue due to there being a higher percent of blacks in the south blacks have higher average status despite the fact that it the south is generally believed to be more prejudiced. How does this fit into Robin’s model were status drives health and other life outcomes?

  • Doug

    An apparent paradox. The vast majority of parents have very strong preferences for healthy children. Most parents would sacrifice many resources to prevent their children from being smokers, obese or heavy drinkers. Yet being born male is a worse health detriment than any of these factors (at least in terms of impact on life expectancy). Given this one would expect that new parents would overwhelmingly prefer new born girls to boys. Who wouldn’t want their child to have an extra seven years of life expectancy.

    Yet this is not the case. In fact it seems as if the preference for boys is equal, if not stronger than the preference for girls. Thoughts?

    • IMASBA

      Your numbers are off, at least for Western European countries. A female smoker in Western Europe has a shorter life expectancy than a male non-smoker and women don’t live 7 years longer on average. Plus, don’t you think it would suck to be a woman in a world with a severe shortage of men?

      • Doug

        You appear correct, I was using older numbers. In 1980 in the US the gender gap was slightly above years. However it appears to be down to under 5 years today. The primary cause seems to be that heart disease (a male heavy disease) mortality is declining fast relative to cancer (a relatively gender neutral disease).

    • Many smokers, fat people, and heavy drinkers, themselves, would prefer to be otherwise. Yet, how many men would prefer to be women?

    • Maximum Liberty

      Maybe the preference being expressed is actually for descendants. So, it might be better to think of healthy grandchildren, rather than healthy children. A high-status son can father many more grandchildren than a high-status daughter can birth. I recall reading about studies that found that the preference between male and female children, and the level of investment in them, often had to do with the status of the parent, and thus the parent’s reproductive strategy.
      Bias warning: What I read was a summary, not the studies, so the actual science could have been misrepresented. And I like stories that key on these kinds of things, so I could have remembered a misinterpretation that I liked, rather than the interpretation of either the summary or the study.

      • This is an extremely interesting point, as it could also explain the preference for being male. Freud held it derives from possession of a large reproductive organ; most usually, we think of male physical strength. But merely being male endows one with an astoundingly greater reproductive advantage. But then, why is the equilibrium close to 50-50? (Seems this must be discussed by evolutionary biologists, but the considerations are new to me.)

      • It is of course discussed by evolutionary biologists, the total fitness of males & females must be equal. This helps to explain why the natural sex ratio tends toward 50:50. Razib Khan elaborates here:

  • stevenearlsalmony

    Dear Friends, Could someone kindly focus on “original research” and “new knowledge” regarding the human species? Take the example of human population dynamics/overpopulation. The ‘science of the anthropocene’ appears to be ignoring the elephant in our planetary home. After all, human beings are a part of, not apart from, Earth systems, are we not? The way this matter is ‘overlooked’ is incredible. Extraordinary claims call out for extraordinary evidence. I get that. Let’s discuss the research and the extant knowledge. Thank you. Always, Steve

  • Maximum Liberty

    It seems to me that one could characterize the past as having had civilizations rise then fall, particularly in the extent of trade, and thus the gains to specialization, which tend to correlate to technological change. In the past, new civilizations rose from the ashes of old ones over time periods that seem to have been on orders of magnitude that were comparable to the civilizations themselves (hundreds of years, generally).

    Would that be possible if modern civilization fell back to the extent of trade, gains to specialization, and technological change that prevailed in, say, the middle ages? (I.e. pick any cause of that fall you like and focus on the outcome.) Here is one particularity that makes me think the answer could be no. Mining was historically critical for both fuel and metals. When population got to the point that wood-based charcoal was rising quickly in price, mined coal stepped in. But at the point when this happened, the deposits were near the surface. As surface deposits were used up, mining technology only had to advance incrementally to allow mining at deeper levels. If technology collapsed, there would be no similar incremental approach available for successor civilizations. They would have to jump from scavenging our landfills to mile-deep mines. I think the same would hold true for oil and gas drilling. (And I don’t know much about either mining or drilling. Experts should feel free to contradict me.)

    Maybe this means that technology would just take a completely different path. One could say in theory that it might be much less intensive for certain types of resource (such as transportable fuel and metals). Maybe I am blinded by history, but I can’t see that.

    If this technological problem would be insurmountable, then the failure of our current civilization would assure one of the extinction or equivalent outcomes for humanity discussed in Global Catastrophic Risk because humanity would never escape earth or have any other ability to prevent some eventual species-level doom (asteroid impact or whatever).

    I don’t recall seeing this scenario in Global Catastrophic Risk, but maybe I just don’t remember. In any case, I don’t recall seeing anything on it recently. If anyone has seen it, can you point me to it?


    • Maximum Liberty

      I also meant to say that any assumption that the past cycle of civilizations rising, falling, then rising again is a form of bias. Current civilization is unprecedented. The rises after falls of prior civilizations is not precedent for a rise after the fall of the current civilization. This makes the “recurrent collapse” scenario seem unlikely to me. (Recurrent collapse discussed in section 2.2 at


    • IMASBA

      “If technology collapsed, there would be no similar incremental approach available for successor civilizations. They would have to jump from scavenging our landfills to mile-deep mines. I think the same would hold true for oil and gas drilling.”

      Some of the survivors would remember (not in the least through archaeology) what is possible technologically and they would know about deep lying resource deposits. Technology could advance with far less initial resource consumption because the search for new resources and technologies could be directed (they wouldn’t need an entire consumer society to support innovative enterprise because governments and businesses would already know a lot of inventions are possible and commercially viable: investment where profit is assured.) Even if everyone forgot about the old world they’d eventually rediscover scientific principles but development would be slow because science would be less profitable.

  • Marc Geddes

    The secret identity of ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ could be Wei Dai, Nick Szabo and Hal Finney (together) – the joint creators of Bitcoin.

    I won’t post or link to the evidence, but for those interested, the hacker community /reddit seem to have some convincing evidence that these folks are indeed the joint creators of Bitcoin.

    These folks are known to the transhumanist community. Wei Dai in particular, is known to be involved in AGI research and has made real independent research breakthroughs on his own (‘Less Wrong’ top-rated poster).

    Point of interest: ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ could control 1 million bitcoins, with an estimated value currently approaching $US 1 billion. This is more than enough to run a secret Manhattan-style AGI project that no government agency or corporation could match.