Life, the Universe, and Everything

The point of this blog post feels almost too obvious to be worth saying, yet I doubt that it’s widely followed.

People often avoid doing projects that have a low probability of success, even when the expected value is high. To counter this bias, I recommend that you mentally combine many such projects into a strategy of trying new things, and evaluate the strategy’s probability of success.

1.

Eliezer says in On Doing the Improbable:

I’ve noticed that, by my standards and on an Eliezeromorphic metric, most people seem to require catastrophically high levels of faith in what they’re doing in order to stick to it. By this I mean that they would not have stuck to writing the Sequences or HPMOR or working on AGI alignment past the first few months of real difficulty, without assigning odds in the vicinity of 10x what I started out assigning that the project would work. … But you can’t get numbers in the range of what I estimate to be something like 70% as the required threshold before people will carry on through bad times. “It might not work” is enough to force them to make a great effort to continue past that 30% failure probability. It’s not good decision theory but it seems to be how people actually work on group projects where they are not personally madly driven to accomplish the thing.

I expect this reluctance to work on projects with a large chance of failure is a widespread problem for individual self-improvement experiments.

2.

One piece of advice I got from my CFAR workshop was to try lots of things. Their reasoning involved the expectation that we’d repeat the things that worked, and forget the things that didn’t work.

I’ve been hesitant to apply this advice to things that feel unlikely to work, and I expect other people have similar reluctance.

The relevant kind of “things” are experiments that cost maybe 10 to 100 hours to try, which don’t risk much other than wasting time, and for which I should expect on the order of a 10% chance of noticeable long-term benefits.

Here are some examples of the kind of experiments I have in mind:

  • gratitude journal
  • morning pages
  • meditation
  • vitamin D supplements
  • folate supplements
  • a low carb diet
  • the Plant Paradox diet
  • an anti-anxiety drug
  • ashwaghanda
  • whole fruit coffee extract
  • piracetam
  • phenibut
  • modafinil
  • a circling workshop
  • Auditory Integration Training
  • various self-help books
  • yoga
  • sensory deprivation chamber

I’ve cheated slightly, by being more likely to add something to this list if it worked for me than if it was a failure that I’d rather forget. So my success rate with these was around 50%.

The simple practice of forgetting about the failures and mostly repeating the successes is almost enough to cause the net value of these experiments to be positive. More importantly, I kept the costs of these experiments low, so the benefits of the top few outweighed the costs of the failures by a large factor.

3.

I face a similar situation when I’m investing.

The probability that I’ll make any profit on a given investment is close to 50%, and the probability of beating the market on a given investment is lower. I don’t calculate actual numbers for that, because doing so would be more likely to bias me than to help me.

I would find it rather discouraging to evaluate each investment separately. Doing so would focus my attention on the fact that any individual result is indistinguishable from luck.

Instead, I focus my evaluations much more on bundles of hundreds of trades, often associated with a particular strategy. Aggregating evidence in that manner smooths out the good and bad luck to make my skill (or lack thereof) more conspicuous. I’m focusing in this post not on the logical interpretation of evidence, but on how the subconscious parts of my mind react. This mental bundling of tasks is particularly important for my subconscious impressions of whether I’m being productive.

I believe this is a well-known insight (possibly from poker?), but I can’t figure out where I’ve seen it described.

I’ve partly applied this approach to self-improvement tasks (not quite as explicitly as I ought to), and it has probably helped.

Descriptions of AI-relevant ontological crises typically choose examples where it seems moderately obvious how humans would want to resolve the crises. I describe here a scenario where I don’t know how I would want to resolve the crisis.

I will incidentally ridicule express distate for some philosophical beliefs.

Suppose a powerful AI is programmed to have an ethical system with a version of the person-affecting view. A version which says only persons who exist are morally relevant, and “exist” only refers to the present time. [Note that the most sophisticated advocates of the person-affecting view are willing to treat future people as real, and only object to comparing those people to other possible futures where those people don’t exist.]

Suppose also that it is programmed by someone who thinks in Newtonian models. Then something happens which prevents the programmer from correcting any flaws in the AI. (For simplicity, I’ll say programmer dies, and the AI was programmed to only accept changes to its ethical system from the programmer).

What happens when the AI tries to make ethical decisions about people in distant galaxies (hereinafter “distant people”) using a model of the universe that works like relativity?

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I wrote this post to try to clarify my thoughts about donating to the Longevity Research Institute (LRI).

Much of that thought involves asking: is there a better approach to cures for aging? Will a better aging-related charity be created soon?

I started to turn this post into an overview of all approaches to curing aging, but I saw that would sidetrack me into doing too much research, so I’ve ended up skimping on some.

I’ve ordered the various approaches that I mention from most directly focused on the underlying causes of aging, to most focused on mitigating the symptoms.

I’ve been less careful than usual to distinguish my intuitions from solid research. I’m mainly trying here to summarize lots of information that I’ve accumulated over the years, and I’m not trying to do new research.
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I tried the Plant Paradox diet, and didn’t notice any significant effects on my health. I was mainly hoping for improvements in my homocysteine and LDL-P, and I saw little change there.

My thyroid levels declined during that time – I expected some decline due to reasons relating to the inflammation which increased my thyroid levels earlier in the year, but the actual decline was larger than I expected. Most likely that was unrelated to the diet, and may have confounded my attempt to evaluate the diet.

Robert’s walnut allergy seemed to be eliminated or substantially reduced (although he doesn’t test that often enough to provide strong evidence that the Plant Paradox diet was what made the difference), and maybe some improvement in his acne (but probably less so than with the SCD diet). He experienced some discomfort when he resumed eating commercial burritos (due to gluten?), but less than after quitting the SCD diet.

I have concluded that this diet has small benefits compared to other reasonable attempts at a paleo diet, and those benefits vary a good deal from person to person. Since it’s a bit less convenient than a typical paleo diet, I’ve abandoned it.

Book review: Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past, by J. Storrs Hall (aka Josh).

If you only read the first 3 chapters, you might imagine that this is the history of just one industry (or the mysterious lack of an industry).

But this book attributes the absence of that industry to a broad set of problems that are keeping us poor. He looks at the post-1970 slowdown in innovation that Cowen describes in The Great Stagnation[1]. The two books agree on many symptoms, but describe the causes differently: where Cowen says we ate the low hanging fruit, Josh says it’s due to someone “spraying paraquat on the low-hanging fruit”.

The book is full of mostly good insights. It significantly changed my opinion of the Great Stagnation.

The book jumps back and forth between polemics about the Great Strangulation (with a bit too much outrage porn), and nerdy descriptions of engineering and piloting problems. I found those large shifts in tone to be somewhat disorienting – it’s like the author can’t decide whether he’s an autistic youth who is eagerly describing his latest obsession, or an angry old man complaining about how the world is going to hell (I’ve met the author at Foresight conferences, and got similar but milder impressions there).

Josh’s main explanation for the Great Strangulation is the rise of Green fundamentalism[2], but he also describes other cultural / political factors that seem related. But before looking at those, I’ll look in some depth at three industries that exemplify the Great Strangulation.

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[Warning: this post contains lots of guesses based on weak evidence. I’d be surprised if I got more than 80% of it right.]

I’ve long acted as if a good diet is fairly important, and I’ve gathered lots of relevant evidence. But until recently I classified that evidence into many small topics related to specific nutrients and health problems, and never organized those ideas into an overall assessment of how important a good diet is.

Comments by Jim Babcock prompted me to investigate a broader overview.

This post will mainly focus on evaluating the importance of nutrition for adults in wealthy nations, then will summarize my guesses about how to achieve a good diet.

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Book review: The Plant Paradox, by Steven R. Gundry.

This book describes a good diet, which Gundry seems to have put together by combining ideas from other competent nutritionists, testing many variations on himself and his patients, and keeping the components that showed the best results.

Unfortunately, his rhetoric is designed to convince us that he’s got brilliant, revolutionary theories. That rhetoric bears little resemblance to careful reasoning. It seems more likely that he tried a bunch of arguments on his patients, and kept the ones that more effectively scared them into following his diet.

His puns are mightier than his scalpel (“No More Mr. Knife Guy”).

I first noticed Gundry via the ApoE4 website, at about the time I gave up hoping that I could eat coconut fat without raising my cholesterol. I saw that Gundry recommended no coconut fat for my genotype, but liked coconut fat for others. That led me to think: here’s a paleo-friendly nutritionist who knows more than average.

Then I switched for 5 or 6 weeks to a diet more in line with his Apoe4 advice [1], and was surprised at how much more my cholesterol levels dropped than I expected. I only have modest evidence suggesting that that dietary change was the main reason for the cholesterol drop, but it’s still a bit of evidence that Gundry knows something valuable that I would have otherwise have overlooked.
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No, this isn’t about cutlery.

I’m proposing to fork science in the sense that Bitcoin was forked, into an adversarial science and a crowdsourced science.

As with Bitcoin, I have no expectation that the two branches will be equal.

These ideas could apply to most fields of science, but some fields need change more than others. P-values and p-hacking controversy are signs that a field needs change. Fields that don’t care much about p-values don’t need as much change, e.g. physics and computer science. I’ll focus mainly on medicine and psychology, and leave aside the harder-to-improve social sciences.

What do we mean by the word Science?

The term “science” has a range of meanings.

One extreme focuses on “perform experiments in order to test hypotheses”, as in The Scientist In The Crib. I’ll call this the personal knowledge version of science.

A different extreme includes formal institutions such as peer review, RCTs, etc. I’ll call this the authoritative knowledge version of science.

Both of these meanings of the word science are floating around, with little effort to distinguish them [1]. I suspect that promotes confusion about what standards to apply to scientific claims. And I’m concerned that people will use the high status of authoritative science to encourage us to ignore knowledge that doesn’t fit within its paradigm.

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Experts have been debating the causes of the industrial revolution for a long time, with few signs of agreement. I suggest that’s due to a human-centric bias which assumes that no other species could have caused human progress.

I became curious after reading that, while dogs were domesticated, cats intermixed with humans while showing few signs of domestication. Cats have cooperated with humans for long enough that I’d expect at least a little bit of co-evolution. If it wasn’t the humans selecting for the most docile or friendly cats, then maybe it was the cats selecting for the most docile or friendly humans.

One interesting hint is that various human cultures tell different stories about how many lives a cat has. As far as I can tell, the cultures that were most advanced in the 18th century (Britain, China) say cats have 9 lives, the more southern parts of Europe say 7, and Arab cultures say 6. That’s a fairly striking correlation between how highly cultures think of cats and how prospurrous they were near the start of the industrial revolution.[1]

People feed me, shelter me and love me ... I must be God

The hardest aspect of explaining the industrial revolution is explaining why the China’s level of development around 1800 didn’t enable it to lead the world. Why did Europe do better than China? Britain seems to have stopped eating cats sometime in the 18th century, while cat-eating has only started to become controversial in southern China this century. I’m less sure what the story is for northern China, where cat-eating apparently doesn’t happen today, but I haven’t found evidence about when cat-eating became unpopular there. Southern China is the region that’s generally said to have been advanced enough that it could have experienced an industrial revolution around 1800. Maybe northern China was backwards then for reasons unrelated to cats, maybe they were held back by their cat-eating southern compatriots, or maybe they adopted a cat-safe culture quite recently – could that have been the change that triggered China’s impressive growth over the past 40 years? Can anyone point me to better evidence on this topic?

Another possible reason for China’s lag is that a completely different species of cat (the leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis) acted as “pets” in China about 5000 years ago. Felis catus may have pawsed their human domestication plans in China due to distractions from their struggles with the leopard cat.

I can imagine many strategies that the cats could have used to purr-suade humans to change:

  • Cats probably have some influence over who the spread diseases to.
  • They could influence human mating choices, by causing distractions when “bad” humans court each other, versus purring peacefully when “good” humans court.[2]
  • Cat “ownership” can show trustworthiness, once cats establish conditions under which humans recognize cats as high status and/or recognize that cat-friendliness implies a person is less prone to pointless conflict. Cats exert some influence on who they associate with, and they can use that to increase the status of “good” humans, and/or increase the mating opportunities of “good” humans.
  • They could influence which areas have more or less rodents, thereby causing “bad” villages to have more food eaten by rodents than was he case with “good” villages.
  • Eating rodents protected nearby humans from diseases spread by rodents. This was especially important during the black plague.

What benefits would the cats have been selecting for?

I presume an important part of their plan would have been selecting for a wider moral circle, since that would make humans safer for cats to live near.

A wider moral circle is correlated with higher trust, and lower violence. These are likely important for cooperation among groups that are much larger than the Dunbar number. See Fukuyama for more on why that mattered.

So, regardless of whether cats planned to advance human civilization, or were merely protecting themselves, their interests in domesticating humans helped generate conditions that were conducive to an industrial revolution.

[1] – A more exotic version of this story is that we’re living in a simulation, and cats are the avatars of the beings who run the simulation. They’re arrogant enough to taunt us by reusing the same avatar just enough for humans to suspect something, but they stop before leaving enough evidence for anything to be proven.

[2] – I don’t want to express any opinion here about the nature-nurture debate, since there are many ways in which cats could have changed human behavior, and I have little hope of tracking down enough evidence to show which strategies the cats actually used. Feline influence on mating could achieve its results via genetic selection – that would require unusual patience, but produce the most stable results. Or the cats could have focused on making the good humans higher status, and the bad humans lower status – that could potentially produce faster results, but is more likely to depend on continuing feline manipulations of human culture.

See also the book A Farewell to Alms for a more detailed argument that British society has long been subjected to selection pressure which made it ripe for the industrial revolution. Alas, it neglects cats.