Tag Archives: eliezer-yudkowsky

The Virtues of Rationality

The name Eliezer Yudkowsky immediately conjours in my mind the word rationality (thanks to his addictive piece of fan fiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality). On a recent visit to his site, this connection has now be strengthened after I saw his excellent essay on the twelve virtues of rationality:

  1. Curiosity: A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth.
  2. Relinquishment: Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs.
  3. Lightness: Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can.
  4. Evenness: You are not a hypothesis, you are the judge. Therefore do not seek to argue for one side or another.
  5. Argument: In argument strive for exact honesty, for the sake of others and also yourself […]Do not think that fairness to all sides means balancing yourself evenly between positions; truth is not handed out in equal portions before the start of a debate.
  6. Empiricism: Always know which difference of experience you argue about.
  7. Simplicity: When you profess a huge belief with many details, each additional detail is another chance for the belief to be wrong.
  8. Humility: To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors.
  9. Perfectionism: The more errors you correct in yourself, the more you notice.
  10. Precision: More can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world. The narrowest statements slice deepest.
  11. Scholarship: Each field that you consume makes you larger.
  12. The Void

I believe that the ninth virtue, perfectionism, is the most elegant and I implore you to read the full essay if only to read that description in full (and, I guess, to discover what The Void is). However the eleventh virtue of rationality, scholarship, almost perfectly describes why I write here and may go some way to explaining my diverse reading habits:

Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you consume makes you larger. If you swallow enough sciences the gaps between them will diminish and your knowledge will become a unified whole. If you are gluttonous you will become vaster than mountains. It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory. But these cannot be the only fields you study. The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

The First Law of Fanfiction states that every change which strengthens the protagonists requires a corresponding worsening of their challenges. […] stories are about conflict; a hero too strong for their conflict is no longer in tense, heart-pounding difficulty. […]

The Rationalist Fanfiction Principle states that rationality is not magic; being rational does not require magical potential or royal bloodlines or even amazing gadgets, and the principles of rationality work for understandable reasons.

That’s Eliezer Yudkowsky in an introduction to his acclaimed Harry Potter fan fiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The piece of “serial fiction” looks at cognitive science and rationality in a Harry Potter-type world where Harry, having been raised by a scientist stepfather, is a rationalist, entering the wizarding world “armed with Enlightenment ideals and the experimental spirit.”

Currently 63 chapters long–including chapters such as A Day of Very Low Probability, The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Unknown and the Unknowable and Title Redacted, Part I–the Methods is a fantastic read.

There’s a “book-style” PDF available, ePUB and MOBI versions for those on e-readers, and a great TV Tropes entry. You can find more resources on the unofficial homepage, hpmor.com.

Although listen to Eliezer when he says “This fic is widely considered to have really hit its stride starting at around Chapter 5. If you still don’t like it after Chapter 10, give up”.

via Hacker News

The 50th Law

Power is greater than happiness, contends Robert Greene in an online discussion with Eliezer Yudkowsky about Fear, Power and Mortality (quality summary thereof), as happiness is fleeting and unremitting.

Also discussed in this conversation is strategist Robert Greene’s latest book, The 50th Law: 10 Lessons in Fearlessness, which is the result of an unlikely collaboration with hip hop artist 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson).

Initially (very) sceptical of such a collaboration (hip hop and its culture is completely alien to my tastes), I’ve heard The 50th Law called a “hip hop bible” and a “how-to for applying The 48 Laws of Power” and so had to look deeper.

With the life of Curtis Jackson as the narrative, the book looks at “how to succeed in life and work based on a single principle: fear nothing”. Based on the text of the chapter headings, there’s an ebook introduction available on Slideshare that gives you a good idea of what the book is like.

I found the following excerpts rather inspiring on multiple levels and wanted to share them:

On self-reliance:

When you work for others, you are at their mercy. They own your work; they own you. Your creative spirit is squashed. What keeps you in such positions is a fear of having to sink or swim on your own. Instead you should have a greater fear of what will happen to you if you remain dependent on others for power. Your goal in every maneuver in life must be ownership, working the corner for yourself. When it is yours, it is yours to lose – you are more motivated, more creative, more alive. The ultimate power in life is to be completely self-reliant, completely yourself.

On opportunism:

Your lack of resources can be an advantage, forcing you to be more inventive with the little that you have. […] Do not let fears make you wait for a better moment or become conservative. If there are circumstances you cannot control, make the best of them. It is the ultimate alchemy to transform all such negatives into advantages and power.

On calculated momentum:

In the present there is constant change and so much we cannot control. If you try to micromanage it all, you lose even greater control in the long run.

On connection:

Most people think first of what they want to express or make, then find the audience for their idea. You must work the opposite angle, thinking first of the public. You need to keep your focus on their changing needs, the trends that are washing through them.

On mastery:

To [build the foundations for something that can continue to expand], you will have to serve an apprenticeship. You must learn early on to endure the hours of practice and drudgery, knowing that in the end all of that time will translate into a higher pleasure – mastery of a craft and of yourself.

Thanks, Ryan

Planning for the Worst Case Scenario

Eliezer Yudkowsky on planning for the abyssal.

Never mind hindsight on the real-estate bubble – there are lots of things that could potentially trigger financial catastrophes.  I’m willing to bet the American government knows what it will do in terms of immediate rescue operations if an atomic bomb goes off in San Francisco.  But if the US government had any advance idea of under which circumstances it would nationalize Fannie Mae or guarantee Bear Stearns’s counterparties, this plan was not very much in evidence as various government officials gave every appearance of trying to figure everything out on the fly. […]

It’s questionable whether the government should be in the position of trying to forecast the abyss – to put a probability on financial meltdown in any given year due to any given cause.  But advance abyssal planning isn’t about the probability, as it would be in investing.  It’s about the possibility.  If you can realistically imagine global financial meltdowns of various types being possible, there’s no excuse for not war-gaming them.  If your brain doesn’t literally cease to exist upon facing systemic meltdowns at the time, you ought to be able to imagine plausible systemic meltdowns in advance.

This got me thinking about planning for our own abyss (be it employment or health). Why don’t we have plans for the worst case scenario? After all, as the Financial Times’ Tim Harford states, “[A] recently published research paper [shows] that most unemployed people are too cocky about their prospects of finding a new job. On average, they expect seven weeks of unemployment, but eventually endure 23 weeks. And this is using data from the mid-1990s, not recession years”.

A case of the planning fallacy?

Debating Cryonics

Cryonics: the low-temperature preservation of humans and animals that can no longer be sustained by contemporary medicine until resuscitation may be possible in the future.

When one discusses cryonics, topics as diverse as futurology, medicine, technology and philosophy are debated. A few weeks ago a number of high–profile bloggers, headed by the excellent Overcoming Bias, have been doing just that. Here are a few posts in the conversation:

We Agree: Get Froze (Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias)

Even with modern anti-freezes, freezing does lots of damage, perhaps more than whatever else was going to kill you. But bodies frozen that cold basically won’t change for millennia. […] Since most folks who die today have an intact brain until the rest of their body fails them, more likely than not most death victims today could live on as (one or more) future ems. And if future folks learn to repair freezing damage plus whatever was killing victims, victims might live on as ordinary humans.

Cold Spouses (Bryan Caplan, Library of Economics and Liberty)

One unpleasant issue in cryonics is the “hostile wife” phenomenon. The authors of this article know of a number of high profile cryonicists who need to hide their cryonics activities from their wives and ex-high profile cryonicists who had to choose between cryonics and their relationship. We also know of men who would like to make cryonics arrangements but have not been able to do so because of resistance from their wives or girlfriends… As a result, these men face certain death as a consequence of their partner’s hostility.

You Only Live Twice (Eliezer Yudkowsky, Overcoming Bias)

Hated Because It Might Work (Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias)

The Best Sentence I Read Yesterday (Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution)

[On cryonics] my current view is this: one’s attention is extremely scarce and limited, as are one’s affiliations.  Insofar as you have the luxury of thinking “bigger thoughts,” those thoughts should be directed at helping others, not at helping oneself. […] Furthermore the universe (or multiverse) may be infinite, so in expected value terms it seems my copies and near-copies are already enjoying a kind of collective immortality. […] What probability of future torture would cause us to wish to die forever rather than be resurrected?  And should I therefore be scared by the idea of an infinite universe?  Do Darwinian selection pressures — defined in the broadest possible way — suggest it is worth spending energy on making entities happy?  Or do most entities end up as suffering slaves?

Tyler on Cryonics (Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias)