Category Archives: Personal

Caplan-Hanson Debate Tuesday

This Tuesday I’ll debate Bryan Caplan at GMU on “Liberty vs. Efficiency”:

We don’t actually disagree that much; basically we both like debates but couldn’t find anyone else to debate us.  So we looked for something we sorta disagree on, and will at least have fun discussing it.  Hey, I’ll be happy if Bryan changes my mind.

The topic, as I see it, is the relative value/importance for economists of pushing “liberty,” i.e., a policy of minimal government interference, and “efficiency,” a standard policy evaluation metric that attempts to neutrally weigh policy consequences for different people.  The “debate” will be recorded, and I’ll post a link when I can.

Added 12Apr:  Bryan responds here.

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My Cryonics Hour

To encourage people to sign up for cryonics, I've offered to debate influential bloggers on the subject.  Spurred by recent successes, and failures, I'll up the ante:

I hereby offer to talk for one hour on any subject to anyone who can show me they've newly signed up for cryonics.  You can record the conversation, publish it, and can sell your time to someone else. 

Yes, I know, this may not exactly be a huge incentive to most people, but its what I have to offer. 

Added: The Blogging Heads TV folks are interested in a cryonics debate, if that tips any of you influential bloggers over the line.

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Six Months Later

Six months ago I asked here what Tyler Cowen and I should discuss on Blogging Heads TV.  I got sick on our scheduled day, but we are finally on again for Tuesday.  Your suggestions from before are fine, but an awful lot has happened since – not quite 28 Days Later scale, but a lot.  So I thought I'd ask again; Tyler also asked at Marginal Revolution

Also, March 24 I will debate Bryan Caplan at GMU on "Liberty vs. Efficiency."  What a fun month!

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Tell Your Rationalist Origin Story… at Less Wrong

(A beta version of Less Wrong is now live, no old posts imported as yet.  Some of the plans for what to do with Less Wrong relative to OB have been revised by further discussion among Robin, Nick, and myself, but for now we're just seeing what happens once LW is up – whether it's stable, what happens to the tone of comments once threading and voting is enabled, etcetera.

Posting by non-admins is disabled for now – today we're just testing out registration, commenting, threading, etcetera.)

To break up the awkward silence at the start of a recent Overcoming Bias meetup, I asked everyone present to tell their rationalist origin story – a key event or fact that played a role in their becoming rationalists.  This worked surprisingly well.

I think I've already told enough of my own origin story on Overcoming Bias: how I was digging in my parents' yard as a kid and found a tarnished silver amulet inscribed with Bayes's Theorem, and how I wore it to bed that night and dreamed of a woman in white, holding a leather-bound book called Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (eds. D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, and A. Tversky, 1982)… but there's no need to go into that again.

So, seriously… how did you originally go down that road?

Continue reading "Tell Your Rationalist Origin Story" at Less Wrong ยป

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Against Maturity

I remember the moment of my first break with Judaism.  It was in kindergarten, when I was being forced to memorize and recite my first prayer.  It was in Hebrew.  We were given a transliteration, but not a translation.  I asked what the prayer meant.  I was told that I didn't need to know – so long as I prayed in Hebrew, it would work even if I didn't understand the words.  (Any resemblance to follies inveighed against in my writings is not coincidental.)

Of course I didn't accept this, since it was blatantly stupid, and I figured that God had to be at least as smart as I was.  So when I got home, I asked my parents, and they didn't bother arguing with me.  They just said, "You're too young to argue with; we're older and wiser; adults know best; you'll understand when you're older."

They were right about that last part, anyway.

Of course there were plenty of places my parents really did know better, even in the realms of abstract reasoning.  They were doctorate-bearing folks and not stupid.  I remember, at age nine or something silly like that, showing my father a diagram full of filled circles and trying to convince him that the indeterminacy of particle collisions was because they had a fourth-dimensional cross-section and they were bumping or failing to bump in the fourth dimension.

My father shot me down flat.  (Without making the slightest effort to humor me or encourage me.  This seems to have worked out just fine.  He did buy me books, though.)

But he didn't just say, "You'll understand when you're older."  He said that physics was math and couldn't even be talked about without math.  He talked about how everyone he met tried to invent their own theory of physics and how annoying this was.  He may even have talked about the futility of "providing a mechanism", though I'm not actually sure if I originally got that off him or Baez.

You see the pattern developing here.  "Adulthood" was what my parents appealed to when they couldn't verbalize any object-level justification.  They had doctorates and were smart; if there was a good reason, they usually would at least try to explain it to me.  And it gets worse…

Continue reading "Against Maturity" »

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The Thing That I Protect

Followup toSomething to Protect, Value is Fragile

"Something to Protect" discursed on the idea of wielding rationality in the service of something other than "rationality".  Not just that rationalists ought to pick out a Noble Cause as a hobby to keep them busy; but rather, that rationality itself is generated by having something that you care about more than your current ritual of cognition.

So what is it, then, that I protect?

I quite deliberately did not discuss that in "Something to Protect", leaving it only as a hanging implication.  In the unlikely event that we ever run into aliens, I don't expect their version of Bayes's Theorem to be mathematically different from ours, even if they generated it in the course of protecting different and incompatible values.  Among humans, the idiom of having "something to protect" is not bound to any one cause, and therefore, to mention my own cause in that post would have harmed its integrity.  Causes are dangerous things, whatever their true importance; I have written somewhat on this, and will write more about it.

But still – what is it, then, the thing that I protect?

Friendly AI?  No – a thousand times no – a thousand times not anymore.  It's not thinking of the AI that gives me strength to carry on even in the face of inconvenience.

Continue reading "The Thing That I Protect" »

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Hanging Out My Speaker’s Shingle

I was recently invited to give a talk on heuristics and biases at Jane Street Capital, one of the top proprietary trading firms ("proprietary" = they trade their own money).  When I got back home, I realized that (a) I’d successfully managed to work through the trip, and (b) it’d been very pleasant mentally, a nice change of pace.  (One of these days I have to blog about what I discovered at Jane Street – it turns out they’ve got their own rationalist subculture going.)

So I’ve decided to hang out my shingle as a speaker at financial companies.

You may be thinking:  "Perhaps, Eliezer, this is not the best of times."

Well… I do have hopes that, among the firms interested in having me as a speaker, a higher-than-usual percentage will have come out of the crash okay.  I checked recently to see if this were the case for Jane Street Capital, and it was.

But more importantly – your competitors are learning the secrets of rationality!  Are you? 

Or maybe I should frame it as:  "Not doing too well this year?  Drop the expensive big-name speakers.  I can give a fascinating and useful talk and I won’t charge you as much."

And just to offer a bit of a carrot – if I can monetize by speaking, I’m much less likely to try charging for access to my future writings.  No promises, but something to keep in mind.  So do recommend me to your friends as well.

Continue reading "Hanging Out My Speaker’s Shingle" »

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On Doing the Impossible

Followup toUse the Try Harder, Luke

"Persevere."  It’s a piece of advice you’ll get from a whole lot of high achievers in a whole lot of disciplines.  I didn’t understand it at all, at first.

At first, I thought "perseverance" meant working 14-hour days.  Apparently, there are people out there who can work for 10 hours at a technical job, and then, in their moments between eating and sleeping and going to the bathroom, seize that unfilled spare time to work on a book.  I am not one of those people – it still hurts my pride even now to confess that.  I’m working on something important; shouldn’t my brain be willing to put in 14 hours a day?  But it’s not.  When it gets too hard to keep working, I stop and go read or watch something.  Because of that, I thought for years that I entirely lacked the virtue of "perseverance".

In accordance with human nature, Eliezer1998 would think things like: "What counts is output, not input."  Or, "Laziness is also a virtue – it leads us to back off from failing methods and think of better ways."  Or, "I’m doing better than other people who are working more hours.  Maybe, for creative work, your momentary peak output is more important than working 16 hours a day."  Perhaps the famous scientists were seduced by the Deep Wisdom of saying that "hard work is a virtue", because it would be too awful if that counted for less than intelligence?

I didn’t understand the virtue of perseverance until I looked back on my journey through AI, and realized that I had overestimated the difficulty of almost every single important problem.

Sounds crazy, right?  But bear with me here.

Continue reading "On Doing the Impossible" »

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My Bayesian Enlightenment

Followup toThe Magnitude of His Own Folly

I remember (dimly, as human memories go) the first time I self-identified as a "Bayesian".  Someone had just asked a malformed version of an old probability puzzle, saying:

If I meet a mathematician on the street, and she says, "I have two children, and at least one of them is a boy," what is the probability that they are both boys?

In the correct version of this story, the mathematician says "I have two children", and you ask, "Is at least one a boy?", and she answers "Yes".  Then the probability is 1/3 that they are both boys.

But in the malformed version of the story – as I pointed out – one would common-sensically reason:

If the mathematician has one boy and one girl, then my prior probability for her saying ‘at least one of them is a boy’ is 1/2 and my prior probability for her saying ‘at least one of them is a girl’ is 1/2.  There’s no reason to believe, a priori, that the mathematician will only mention a girl if there is no possible alternative.

So I pointed this out, and worked the answer using Bayes’s Rule, arriving at a probability of 1/2 that the children were both boys.  I’m not sure whether or not I knew, at this point, that Bayes’s rule was called that, but it’s what I used.

And lo, someone said to me, "Well, what you just gave is the Bayesian answer, but in orthodox statistics the answer is 1/3.  We just exclude the possibilities that are ruled out, and count the ones that are left, without trying to guess the probability that the mathematician will say this or that, since we have no way of really knowing that probability – it’s too subjective."

I responded – note that this was completely spontaneous – "What on Earth do you mean?  You can’t avoid assigning a probability to the mathematician making one statement or another.  You’re just assuming the probability is 1, and that’s unjustified."

To which the one replied, "Yes, that’s what the Bayesians say.  But frequentists don’t believe that."

And I said, astounded: "How can there possibly be such a thing as non-Bayesian statistics?"

Continue reading "My Bayesian Enlightenment" »

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Awww, a Zebra

This image recently showed up on Flickr (original is nicer):


With the caption:

“Alas for those who turn their eyes from zebras and dream of dragons!  If we cannot learn to take joy in the merely real, our lives shall be empty indeed.” — Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.

“Awww!”, I said, and called over my girlfriend over to look.

“Awww!”, she said, and then looked at me, and said,  “I think you need to take your own advice!”

Me:  “But I’m looking at the zebra!”
Her:  “On a computer!
Me:  (Turns away, hides face.)
Her:  “Have you ever even seen a zebra in real life?”
Me:  “Yes!  Yes, I have!  My parents took me to Lincoln Park Zoo!  …man, I hated that place.”

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