Life, the Universe, and Everything

Book review: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, by Nick Lane.

This book describes a partial theory of how life initially evolved, followed by a more detailed theory of how eukaryotes evolved.

Lane claims the hardest step in evolving complex life was the development of complex eukaryotic cells. Many traits such as eyes and wings evolved multiple times. Yet eukaryotes have many traits which evolved exactly once (including mitochondria, sex, and nuclear membranes).

Eukaryotes apparently originated in a single act of an archaeon engulfing a bacterium. The result wasn’t very stable, and needed to quickly evolve (i.e. probably within a few million years) a sophisticated nucleus, plus sexual reproduction.

Only organisms that go through these steps will be able to evolve a more complex genome than bacteria do. This suggests that complex life is rare outside of earth, although simple life may be common.

The book talks a lot about mitochondrial DNA, and make some related claims about aging.

Cells have a threshold for apoptosis which responds to the effects of poor mitochondrial DNA, killing weak embryos before they can take up much parental resources. Lane sees evolution making important tradeoffs, with species that have intense energy demands (such as most birds) setting their thresholds high, and more ordinary species (e.g. rats) setting the threshold lower. This tradeoff causes less age-related damage in birds, at the cost of lower fertility.

Lane claims that the DNA needs to be close to the mitochondria in order to make quick decisions. I found this confusing until I checked Wikipedia and figured out it probably refers to the CoRR hypothesis. I’m still confused, but at least now I can attribute the confusion to the topic being hard. Aubrey de Grey’s criticism of CoRR suggests there’s a consensus that CoRR has problems, and the main confusion revolves around the credibility of competing hypotheses.

Lane is quite pessimistic about attempts to cure aging. Only a small part of that disagreement with Aubrey can be explained by the modest differences in their scientific hypotheses. Much of the difference seems to come from Lane’s focus on doing science, versus Aubrey’s focus on engineering. Lane keeps pointing out (correctly) that cells are really complex and finely tuned. Yet Lane is well aware that evolution makes many changes that affect aging in spite of the complexity. I suspect he’s too focused on the inadequacy of typical bioengineering to imagine really good engineering.

Some less relevant tidbits include:

  • why vibrant plumage in male birds may be due to females being heterogametic
  • why male mammals age faster than females

Many of Lane’s ideas are controversial, and only weakly supported by the evidence. But given the difficulty of getting good evidence on these topics, that still represents progress.

The book is pretty dense, and requires some knowledge of biochemistry. It has many ideas and evidence that were developed since I last looked into this subject. I expect to forget many of those ideas fairly quickly. The book is worth reading if you have enough free time, but understanding these topics does not feel vital.

MIRI has produced a potentially important result (called Garrabrant induction) for dealing with uncertainty about logical facts.

The paper is somewhat hard for non-mathematicians to read. This video provides an easier overview, and more context.

It uses prediction markets! “It’s a financial solution to the computer science problem of metamathematics”.

It shows that we can evade disturbing conclusions such as Godel incompleteness and the paradox of the liar, by expecting to only be very confident about logically deducible facts (as opposed to being mathematically certain). That’s similar to the difference between treating beliefs about empirical facts as probabilities, as opposed to boolean values.

I’m somewhat skeptical that it will have an important effect on AI safety, but my intuition says it will produce enough benefits somewhere that it will become at least as famous as Pearl’s work on causality.

I started writing morning pages a few months ago. That means writing three pages, on paper, before doing anything else [1].

I’ve only been doing this on weekends and holidays, because on weekdays I feel a need to do some stock market work close to when the market opens.

It typically takes me one hour to write three pages. At first, it felt like I needed 75 minutes but wanted to finish faster. After a few weeks, it felt like I could finish in about 50 minutes when I was in a hurry, but often preferred to take more than an hour.

That suggests I’m doing much less stream-of-consciousness writing than is typical for morning pages. It’s unclear whether that matters.

It feels like devoting an hour per day to morning pages ought to be costly. Yet I never observed it crowding out anything I valued (except maybe once or twice when I woke up before getting an optimal amount of sleep in order to get to a hike on time – that was due to scheduling problems, not due to morning pages reducing the available of time per day).
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My first year of eating no factory farmed vertebrates went fairly well.

When eating at home, it took no extra cost or effort to stick to the diet.

I’ve become less comfortable eating at restaurants, because I find few acceptable choices at most restaurants, and because poor labeling has caused me to mistakenly get food that wasn’t on my diet.

The constraints were strict enough that I lost about 4 pounds during 8 days away from home over the holidays. That may have been healthier than the weight gain I succumbed to during similar travels in prior years, but that weight loss is close to the limit of what I find comfortable.

In theory, I should have gotten enough flexibility from my rule to allow 120 calories per month of unethical animal products for me to be mostly comfortable with restaurant food. In practice, I found it psychologically easier to adopt an identity of someone who doesn’t eat any factory farmed vertebrates than it would have been to feel comfortable using up the 120 calorie quota. That made me reluctant to use any flexibility.

The quota may have been valuable for avoiding a feeling of failure when I made mistakes.

Berkeley is a relatively easy place to adopt this diet, thanks to Marin Sun Farms and Mission Heirloom. Pasture-raised eggs are fairly easy to find in the bay area (Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods, etc).

I still have some unresolved doubts about how much to trust labels. Pasture-raised eggs are available in Colorado in winter, but chicken meat is reportedly unavailable due to weather-related limits on keeping chickens outdoors. Why doesn’t that reasoning also apply to eggs?

I’m still looking for a good substitute for Questbars. These come closest:

For most people, it would be hard enough to follow my diet strictly that I recommend starting with an easier version. One option would be to avoid factory farmed chicken/eggs (i.e. focus on the avoiding the cruelest choices). And please discriminate against restaurants that don’t label their food informatively.

I plan to continue my diet essentially unchanged, with maybe slightly less worry about what I eat when traveling or at parties.

My alternate day calorie restriction diet is going well. My body and/or habits are adapting. But the visible benefits are still small.

  • I normally do three restricted days per week (very rarely only two). I eat 800-1000 calories on those days (or 1200-1400 when I burn more than 1000 calories by hiking). On unrestricted days, I try to eat a little more than feels natural.
  • I have an improved ability to bring my weight to a particular target, but the range of weights that feel good is much narrower than I expected. My weight has stabilized to a range of 142-145 pounds, compared to 145-148 last year and an erratic 138-148 in the first few weeks of my new diet. If I reduce my weight below 142, I feel irritable in the afternoon or evening of a restricted day. At 145, I’m on the verge of that too-full feeling that was common in prior years.
  • My resting heart rate has declined from about 70 to about 65.
  • For many years I’ve been waking in the middle of the night feeling too warm, with little apparent pattern. A byproduct of my new diet is that I’ve noticed it’s connected to having eaten protein.
  • I’m using less willpower now than in prior years to eat the right amount. My understanding of the willpower effect is influenced by CFAR’s attitude, which is that occasionally using willpower to fight the goals of one of my mind’s sub-agents is reasonable, but the longer I continue it, the more power and thought that sub-agent will devote to accomplishing its goals. My sub-agent in charge of getting me to eat lots to prepare for a famine can now rely on me, if I’m resisting it today, to encourage it tomorrow; whereas in prior years I was continually pressuring it to do less than it wanted. That makes it more cooperative.

The only drawbacks are the increased attention I need to pay to what I eat on restricted days, and the difficulties of eating out on restricted days (due to my need to control portion sizes and to time my main meals near the middle of the day). I find it fairly easy to schedule my restricted days so that I’m almost always eating at home, but I expect many people to find that hard.

Mission: Heirloom is a cafe in Berkeley which is serious about paleo food. Their meat and eggs meet my ethical standards (no factory farmed animal products).

Their burgers are unusually tasty, and have a better texture than any other grass-fed beef I’ve tried.

They have a nice outdoor area in back – I recommend going there when it is warm outside.

The main drawback is limited variety in their entrees.

I wish there were more cafes like this.

I’ve recently noticed that dietary zinc/copper ratios may be important (e.g. may influence Alzheimer’s), and that my diet has had ratio which is too low (mine got down below 3 last year, when it should be more like 8 or 10).

The main contributors to lowering the ratio are chocolate, macadamias, and almonds. Each of those seems like a healthy food in moderation (i.e. as many nuts as I’d be willing to shell manually). But I often overeat them.

Animal products are about the only practical way to improve the ratio. Despite the stereotype of a paleo diet consisting of mostly animals, I’ve been getting most of my calories from foods that are fairly similar to what hunter-gatherers eat, while eating a below-average amount of animal products. Since that diet gave me more than the RDA for all nutrients except vitamin D, it seemed unimportant to eat more animals.

Oysters have by far the best zinc/calorie ratio. I find that adding oyster sauce to a stir fry is nicer than having whole oysters, but many brands have little oyster in them. Lee Kum Kee is a common brand that lists oysters as the first ingredient, so I’m using that regularly.

Should I take zinc supplements? I’m reluctant to trust nutrition from something that doesn’t resemble a whole food, but that would be the most convenient solution.

Alternate day calorie restriction seems to be one of the most effective ways of increasing my life expectancy, but it isn’t easy. I tried it about three years ago, but gave up because it interfered with my sleep. I started it again three weeks ago, and this time I seem to be adjusting to it.

One important difference is that this time I’m better informed about what it takes to adjust to the diet. I planned a strict induction phase of 7 down days (about 550 calories) and 7 up days (unlimited food), followed by a less strict pattern of 2-3 days per week on which I’m limited to around 1000 calories a day. (I ended up adding an extra up day after each of the first two down days, then switched to strict alternation for the remainder of the induction phase). The severity of the induction phase may be important at triggering adaptation to this kind of diet.

The second difference is that this time I’ve been obsessive about measuring my food intake to the nearest gram. I suspect that when I intended to eat 1200 calories a day in my prior attempt, I was actually getting at least 1400 calories and fooling myself into thinking I was following the diet. This time I’m using a good scale to weigh each serving.

After the first down day, I slept poorly (as expected), getting impatient for sunrise to bring me an excuse to get up for food. After about the fourth down day, waking with an empty stomach seemed normal enough that it doesn’t provide a motive to get out of bed, or to get food quickly when I do get out of bed. I hardly notice the feelings of hunger then, even though I ought to be hungrier than late in the previous day when I did notice some of the standard hunger feelings. My sleep isn’t quite back to normal, but it seems close to normal and improving.

I’ve been feeling full about 50% of the time. I felt noticeably hungry about 30% of the time at first, and now it’s more like 20% of the time. Hunger feels a bit less important now than it used to feel (i.e. it affects my attention less).

Weight loss wasn’t an important motive for changing my diet, but I hoped I would lose about 7 pounds. I lost at least 5 pounds by the end of the 5th down day (my weight fluctuated enough that it’s hard to evaluate it precisely). I couldn’t comfortably eat enough on the up days to make up for what I lost on the 550 calorie days, even when I became mildly alarmed at my rate of weight loss.

Then my weight rebounded within a few days, without any apparent change in my diet, to roughly what it was at the start. The obvious guess is that my metabolism slowed down to compensate for the reduced calories. I did feel noticeably colder in bed after down days. I also felt less mental energy, and when doing an easy hike on the day after the 6th down day I felt a need to take rest breaks that was unusual in that it wasn’t caused by anything like muscle fatigue.

During the induction phase, I practiced strict protein fasting (< 15 grams of protein per day) on down days due to guesses that protein restriction is more effective at causing beneficial metabolic changes, which might cause faster psychological adaptation. My results seem to provide weak evidence in support of this guess. My diet on down days was mostly sweet potato and lettuce, with modest amounts of other vegetables and sugar-free chocolate. This provided more bulk to fill my gut than is typical for this kind of diet, but that was likely offset by the lack of protein related satiety. I’m not restricting protein now that I’m out of the induction phase (although I expect to do so maybe once a month).

My heart rate variability mysteriously increased after the first down day, then declined to a much lower than average level after the fourth down day, and has fluctuated a lot since then (averaging somewhat below normal).

Why did I have enough willpower to get this far, when I probably didn’t have the willpower needed to do it right three years ago?

One factor is that I now consider the CFAR community to be an important tribe to belong to, so my sense of self-identity has changed to attach more importance to being able to make big changes to my life.

Another factor is having information that led me to be somewhat confident that by a specific, not too distant, date it would become a good deal easier.

A third factor is being more obsessive about measuring how well I was complying with the rules I set down.

The induction phase cost me a fair amount of productivity. For 17 days I wasn’t close to having enough willpower/ambition to start writing a blog post (and had similar problems with most other non-routine tasks). But now I feel that writing this post is easier than normal. It’s too early to tell whether that means I have more mental energy than before.

I don’t know how to get strong evidence about whether it is worth the effort. I seem to feel more self-efficacy. I now think I can set my weight to any reasonable target simply by changing my calorie target on 2 or 3 down days per week. But in order to be clearly worthwhile it needs to improve my long-term health. I won’t know that for quite a while.

Ethical diets

I’ve seen some discussion of whether effective altruists have an obligation to be vegan or vegetarian.

The carnivores appear to underestimate the long-term effects of their actions. I see a nontrivial chance that we’re headed toward a society in which humans are less powerful than some other group of agents. This could result from slow AGI takeoff producing a heterogeneous society of superhuman agents. Or there could be a long period in which the world is dominated by ems before de novo AGI becomes possible. Establishing ethical (and maybe legal) rules that protect less powerful agents may influence how AGIs treat humans or how high-speed ems treat low-speed ems and biological humans [0]. A one in a billion chance that I can alter this would be worth some of my attention. There are probably other similar ways that an expanding circle of ethical concern can benefit future people.

I see very real costs to adopting an ethical diet, but it seems implausible that EAs are merely choosing alternate ways of being altruistic. How much does it cost MealSquares customers to occasionally bemoan MealSquares use of products from apparently factory-farmed animals? Instead, it seems like EAs have some tendency to actively raise the status of MealSquares [1].

I don’t find it useful to compare a more ethical diet to GiveWell donations for my personal choices, because I expect my costs to be mostly inconveniences, and the marginal value of my time seems small [2], with little fungibility between them.

I’m reluctant to adopt a vegan diet due to the difficulty of evaluating the health effects and due to the difficulty of evaluating whether it would mean fewer animals living lives that they’d prefer to nonexistence.

But there’s little dispute that most factory-farmed animals are much less happy than pasture-raised animals. And everything I know about the nutritional differences suggests that avoiding factory-farmed animals improves my health [3].

I plan not to worry about factory-farmed invertebrates for now (shrimp, oysters, insects), partly because some of the harmful factory-farm practices such as confining animals to cages not much bigger than the animals in question aren’t likely with animals that small.

So my diet will consist of vegan food plus shellfish, insects, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised birds/mammals (and their eggs/whey/butter). I will assume vertebrate animals are raised in cruel conditions unless they’re clearly marked as wild-caught, grass-fed, or pasture-raised [4].

I’ve made enough changes to my diet for health reasons that this won’t require large changes. I already eat at home mostly, and the biggest change to that part of my diet will involve replacing QuestBars with a home-made version using whey protein from grass-fed cows (my experiments so far indicate it’s inconvenient and hard to get a decent texture). I also have some uncertainty about pork belly [5] – the pasture-raised version I’ve tried didn’t seem as good, but that might be because I didn’t know it needed to be sliced very thin.

My main concern is large social gatherings. It has taken me a good deal of willpower to stick to a healthy diet under those conditions, and I expect it to take more willpower to observe ethical constraints.

A 100% pure diet would be much harder for me to achieve than an almost pure diet, and it takes some time for me to shift my habits. So for this year I plan to estimate how many calories I eat that don’t fit this diet, and aim to keep that less than 120 calories per month (about 0.2%) [6]. I’ll re-examine the specifics of this plan next Jan 1.

Does anyone know a convenient name for my planned diet?

footnotes

0. With no one agent able to conquer the world, it’s costly for a single agent to repudiate an existing rule. A homogeneous group of superhuman agents might coordinate to overcome this, but with heterogeneous agents the coordination costs may matter.

1. I bought 3 orders of MealSquares, but have stopped buying for now. If they sell a version whose animal products are ethically produced (which I’m guessing would cost $50/order more), I’ll resume buying them occasionally.

2. The average financial value of my time is unusually high, but I often have trouble estimating whether spending more time earning money has positive or negative financial results. I expect financial concerns will be more important to many people.

3 With the probable exception of factory-farmed insects, oysters, and maybe other shellfish.

4. In most restaurants, this will limit me to vegan food and shellfish.

5. Pork belly is unsliced bacon without the harm caused by smoking.

6. Yes, I’ll have some incentive to fudge those estimates. My experience from tracking food for health reasons suggests possible errors of 25%. That’s not too bad compared to other risks such as lack of willpower.

Book review: A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss.

This book has a few worthwhile sections, such as a good explanation of how virtual particles imply that matter came to exist in a previously empty region of space. But the book has much less substance than Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe (in particular, Tegmark comes much closer to answering why there is something rather than nothing).

One puzzling claim he makes is that scientists of the far future (when the visible universe is 100 times the current size) are likely to falsely conclude there was no big bang. Whatever problems they might have with new experiments, why wouldn’t they use results of experiments done when the universe was younger?