Blogs by Friends

Here’s a list of blogs that I enjoy written by friends. This doesn’t include blogs by people I haven’t met (eg. Marginal Revolution), or anonymous blogs. Of course, the topics and posting frequency vary a lot, so the categories are rough.

Hard science, physics, biology, etc.:

Andart, Anders Sandberg
Semantic Scribblings, Chelsea Voss
Eukaryote Writes Blog, Georgia Ray
ForeXiv, Jess Riedel
AI Impacts, Katja Grace
AI Alignment, Paul Christiano
Otium, Sarah Constantin
Parenting With Evidence, Sarah Constantin
Shtetl Optimized, Scott Aaronson
Geroscience, Tegan McCaslin
Deep Safety, Victoria Krakovna

Soft science, economics, sociology, etc.:

Reflective Disquilibrium, Carl Shulman
Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson
Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander
Optimize Everything, Spencer Greenberg
Don’t Worry About the Vase, Zvi Mowshowitz

Politics and morality:

Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy
Almost No One is Evil, Almost Everything is Broken, Jai Dhyani
Concept Space Cartography, Jim Babcock
Giving Gladly, Julia Wise
The Unit of Caring, Kelsey Piper
The Consequentialist, Matthew Gentzel
Nothing is Mere, Rob Bensinger
Fire and Pulse, Roxanne Heston

General thoughts and philosophy:

Compass Rose, Ben Hoffman
Teal Tensor, Elizabeth Morningstar
Aceso Under Glass, Elizabeth van Nostrand
Unstable Ontology, Jessica Taylor
Meteuphoric, Katja Grace
Minding Our Way, Nate Soares
Minds Aren’t Magic, Paul Crowley
Saner Than Lasagna, Sam Rosen and Eloise Rosen
Apophany, Tegan McCaslin
Becoming Eden, Will Eden and Divia Eden

Personal:

Ben Kuhn
Buck Shlegeris
Eliezer Yudkowsky
Holly Elmore
Jeff Kaufman
Luke Muehlhauser
Malcolm Ocean
Nancy Hua
Paul Christiano
Satvik Beri

Can Trump Fire Mueller?

Many have predicted that Trump might fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Right now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recused from the Russia investigation. But if Trump fired Sessions, and appointed a new attorney general, then the next one probably wouldn’t be recused. Trump could then order the next attorney general to fire Mueller, and if he was a Trump fanatic, he might obey that order.

While this might have been Trump’s plan, it’s unlikely to work now. Nothing is certain, but here are some obstacles for Trump.

Problem #1: General Kelly, recently appointed Trump’s chief of staff, most likely wouldn’t stand for it. Trump is technically his boss, so in theory he could fire Kelly. But for some mysterious reason, Kelly has been able to walk into the Trump White House and start ordering everyone around. Hence, given how much power Kelly has now, we can reasonably infer that Kelly has some kind of leverage to block decisions he opposes.

Problem #2: If Sessions quit, or was fired, a new attorney general would need Senate confirmation. The Republicans have a slim majority, and the Senate is down one member because of McCain’s cancer treatment. Getting a Trump loyalist past Senate confirmation hearings would be a three ring circus.

Problem #3: The Republicans in the Senate are writing a bill to explicitly protect the special counsel’s position. If the bill passes, Mueller couldn’t be fired by anyone without good cause (reviewable in court). The Russia sanctions bill passed Congress almost unanimously, showing that virtually no one there stands with Trump on Russia. Trump’s feuding with the Senate won’t help.

Problem #4: Even if Trump vetoed that bill, and managed to fire Mueller, Congress could then turn around and appoint Mueller as head of a congressional investigation, doing all the same things he was previously doing.

Problem #5: Right now, it’s in the interest of everyone who hates Trump and has damning information to keep it secret, to not compromise the investigation. For example, suppose I know for a fact that Trump met with Russians on a certain date. If I announce that publicly, then Trump can say yeah, I was there, but we “just talked about adoptions”, some excuse. If I keep it quiet, then an investigator can ask Trump, “so, what were you doing on day X?”. And Trump might try to lie, since he doesn’t know that I already have proof. If he does lie, I can then show proof that he’s lying. That’s an instant 18 USC 1001 felony charge, and it’s still a felony even if the meeting itself was legal. If the Mueller investigation is derailed, then this incentive for secrecy goes away. So then, a whole bunch more of it would leak to the press.

Problem #6: Without Mueller there, nobody in politics can use the excuse of “we’re just waiting for the special prosecutor to finish, don’t ask us to do anything, it’s not our department”. Politicians would either have to take action against Trump, or not do so and face the consequences. And those consequences can be very long term. In 1973, Solicitor General Robert Bork obeyed Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Fifteen years later, Reagan nominated Bork for the Supreme Court. But his firing of Cox was used against him, and Bork was denied Senate confirmation. That Supreme Court seat was filled by Anthony Kennedy, who still sits in it today.

Problem #7: If the federal investigation is blocked, Mueller can likely finangle a way to pass it to the state attorneys general also investigating him, such as New York’s Eric Schneiderman. Trump has no control over them, and any charges they brought could not be pardoned, since presidents can only pardon federal crimes.

Problem #8: If Trump did get rid of Mueller, and another investigator was appointed afterwards, Trump has just created additional obstruction of justice charges for himself. He’s also created additional proof of previous obstruction charges, which require evidence of “corrupt intent”.

Problem #9: It’s hard to predict the specifics, but there would also be a likelihood of general chaos, rioting, and so on. This might not happen at all, but it might also escalate unpredictably, as in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. MoveOn is organizing hundreds of Schelling points in advance, to make coordinated action easy if Mueller ever is fired.

The Joy of Links

Below are some interesting links I posted to Facebook this year. I’m putting them all here so they won’t vanish into the Facebook black hole. Facebook is also super inconsistent about what gets visibility, so many of these might not have been seen before. Links are roughly in chronological order.


There are many, many problems with the “EmDrive” reactionless propulsion idea. Despite media hype, the overwhelming majority of physicists don’t consider it credible.

The average age of scientists at Los Alamos was 29. In modern times, a grad student once told me that his advisor, one of the most-cited chemists ever, felt disrespected because he was “too young” at age 50. Source: Alex Wellerstein’s fantastic blog, Nuclear Secrecy.

There are separate Wikipedias for hundreds of languages, including Scottish. It’s close enough to English to be readable, but almost every word is spelled differently. Some exceptions are long, formal words, like “coterminous”, “metropolis”, “measurement”, and “international”.

Why zombies would have no chance against any modern military. The Mk-19, the automatic-fire grenade launcher shown here, isn’t even really a heavy weapon. It’s man-portable, so it can be carried into battle and used by a single infantry squad.

The Inner Ring“, a great essay on how social groups work, by CS Lewis.

That time the Catholic Church smuggled 300,000 copies of an anti-fascist essay into Nazi Germany, so they could all be read simultaneously at church on Palm Sunday, before the Gestapo knew what was going on.

The US military has officially confirmed that “Roswell UFO” stories came from the coverup of a secret high-altitude balloon program, codenamed “Project Mogul“. The aim of Project Mogul balloons was to carry microphones into an atmospheric layer with long-distance sound propagation, to detect of Soviet nuclear tests. When one balloon crashed, the government falsely claimed it was a weather balloon to ward off suspicion.

The idea that medieval people only drank wine or beer, not water, is a myth. They were more likely to talk about drinking alcohol (as people are today), but there is no reason to think they drank less water than modern people.

The biggest landlord in Berkeley exploited his wealth and influence to run a child sex slave ring. After getting out of prison, he simply resumed being a landlord. Don’t rent from “Everest Properties” or “Raj Properties”.

Litigation Abuse Under CEQA“, or the California Environmental Quality Act, by law firm Holland & Knight. Choice quote: “Anti-abortion protesters used a CEQA lawsuit in an attempt to block a Planned Parenthood clinic proposed to be located in an existing building in a neighborhood that already offered abortion services, asserting that the city violated CEQA by failing to appropriately consider the noise nuisance that the protesters would themselves create in the neighborhood if the clinic was allowed to open.”

By far the most successful pop-music songwriter is a middle-aged Swedish guy named Martin Karl Sandberg, stage name “Max Martin”.

9% of all trolling and personal abuse on Wikipedia comes from 34 “highly toxic” editors.

Thomas Jefferson on how “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper“, 1807.

Anyone can file a restraining order against companies sending junk mail. If they violate the order, it’s a federal criminal offense. This started when a law passed letting people block “lewd and obscene” mail, with the recipient having “sole discretion” to determine what was offensive. Some clever people decided that, since they could be offended by whatever they wanted, they’d use it to opt out of catalog mailings. This went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Rowan v. USPS that this loophole abuse is 100% legit.

Drone company Lily Robotics was raided, is under criminal investigation after failing to deliver its promised product.

In California, Daylight Savings Time still legally starts in April. The government can’t change it without a state-wide referendum.

That time the United States invaded Russia. American troops parading in Vladivostok, 1918.

In 1975, the San Francisco Police Department went on strike. Courts ruled against the strikers, but the police ignored all court orders while terrorizing the city. Mayor Alioto conceded to police demands, overriding the Board of Supervisors, after a bomb was detonated at his house.

Zvi Mowshowitz’s comprehensive guide to pizza.

Lightsail Energy’s wind power storage project in Liverpool, Canada has been delayed. Founder Danielle Fong says the company is pivoting towards producing high-pressure gas storage tanks.

Distill is a new journal dedicated to clear explanations of machine learning.

American trust in the mass media is on a steady long-term decline, from 55% in 1999 to 32% in 2016. “What cannot continue forever must stop.”

Arbital, a web knowledge project by Eliezer Yudkowsky and Alexei Andreev, is going into maintenance mode.

RIP Harry Huskey, a computer pioneer who helped build ENIAC back in 1945. He was one of the last living people to have worked on computers with Alan Turing. He might have been the first person to have a commercially-built computer in his house (the Bendix G-15, in 1956).

San Francisco will soon finish the Transbay Terminal, one of the most expensive train stations in the world. It will cost $2.6 billion, and use five blocks’ worth of downtown land. However, there will be no trains for at least ten years, and almost certainly longer. The station was built despite not having any money to put tracks into it, and nobody knows where funding for tracks would come from. After four months’ delay, San Francisco allocated $5 million for a “tunneling options study”. In the meantime, the station will be used as a bus stop.

There are many engineering obstacles to molecular assemblers, as envisioned by Eric Drexler. However, this frequently gets confused with weak criticisms from people with no technical background, like “physics proves any atomic assembler is impossible” (even though that would disprove biology), or “macro scale principles don’t work at the nano scale” (Drexler spends a whole chapter on scaling laws, so it’s not like he didn’t know that). This blog post lays out some of the real, technical challenges Drexlerian manufacturing would face, from someone who has read the relevant papers and is familiar with the field. It’s somewhat out of date (2005), but is vastly better than most easily-Googleable, easily-readable material on this subject.

Why Germany Lost, an informative and entertaining talk by Prof. Jonathan House. Busts some common myths, like “Hitler could have won if he listened to his generals”, or “the Soviets out-numbered the Germans five to one”.

United We Blame“. Everyone to blame for airline problems, courtesy Zvi Mowshowitz.

A startup is now offering unlimited private jet rides for $11,000 a year, plus $4,000 sign-up fee. Catch: the scheduling is a lot more limited than with commercial flights, so there might not be a flight on any particular day, or even one at all. (Except for chartering a plane, but that’s not included in the price and is super costly).

Security deposits are heavily regulated under California law. Know your rights as a renter.

Real train robberies have returned to the Old West. Next, we’ll have gun duels at high noon, and pirates prowling the waters of San Francisco Bay. That would at least be cool.

May 1st, International Victims of Communism Day.

Patrick McKenzie on doing business in Japan, which at times sounds like a caricature of the 50s. “It is socially mandatory that your boss, in fulfillment of his duties to you, sees that you are set up with a young lady appropriate to your station. He is likely to attempt to do this first by matching you with a young lady in your office. There are, at all times, a number of unattached young ladies in your office. Most of them choose to quit right about when they get married or have children.”

How To Count Past Infinity, an introduction to infinities and the ordinal numbers. Also, a proof of the famous Banach-Tarski theorem in video form.

Jamaica: Come for the beaches, stay for the teen kidnapping.

Problems with the famous “fire in a crowded theater” quote thrown around in free speech discussions.

Raqqa, the capital of ISIS, is under siege by the Syrian Democratic Forces, with US support. Over half of the city has been captured to date.

No Scrum“, a music video by Jess Sorrell at UCSD. Also, an accurate and hilarious video guide to Scrum. “If, for example, your product serves a large number of customers at once, it’s recommended that you fuse them together under spectacular heat to form one giant supercustomer.”

Trump’s political strategist, Roger Stone, was the youngest person involved in Watergate. He has Richard Nixon tattooed on his back, and has the world’s largest private connection of Nixon memorabilia. Get Me Roger Stone, a recent Netflix documentary, shows just how much Stone self-identifies as a villain.

International Energy Agency projections keep underestimating solar power. Every year since 2002, they’ve undershot solar growth, adjusted upwards, and then undershot again.

BART Withholding Surveillance Videos Of Crime To Avoid ‘Stereotypes’“.

The “hungry judge” effect in parole hearings was almost certainly overestimated.

No matter what Twitter says, Elon Musk did not get government approval for Hyperloop. More on the technical, financial, and political problems with Hyperloop.

Apprente, my new AI startup. Still in stealth mode.

Yet another Bitcoin indictment. The operator of BTC-e, Alexander Vinnik, was a Russian national arrested in Greece on money laundering and other charges.

AltspaceVR, a social VR startup co-founded by Gavan Wilhite, is closing down.

My attempt to take a train from the 2017 eclipse back to Berkeley, as recorded by the great Alon Levy.

A weather guide for all solar eclipses until 2024. Don’t get clouded out! The next “easy” total eclipse is April 2023 in Exmouth, Australia, which has lots of good hotels and a commercial airport.

Laura Deming’s Longevity Fund has raised another $22 million for anti-aging R&D. To quote Jon Snow, “We’re all on the same side. We’re all breathing.”

There’s an extremely strong correlation between the rate of housing construction in a city, and how expensive housing is there. This is true both across all US cities, and for tech hubs specifically.

Extra History is a great YouTube “cartoon documentary” show, on some of history’s obscure-but-fascinating parts. The current series is on the Great Northern War and the end of the Swedish Empire.

Deir ez-Zor, the biggest city in eastern Syria, has been under siege by ISIS for over three years now. ISIS has attacked dozens of times, and they’ve split the city into two pockets, but the defenders continue resisting. The 2017 Syrian offensive against ISIS has been very successful, so hopefully the city will be relieved in the next few months.

Inside Robert Mueller’s Army” describes the elite team of lawyers investigating Trump, his family, his campaign staff, his business partners, and his administration. This investigation is now huge. It covers dozens of topics, and has as many federal prosecutors as might normally be assigned to whole states. Wikipedia has more details.

Winlink is a free email provider that sends and receives messages over long-distance radio. With some equipment, it can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

Moving To The Bay Area

Many Effective Altruists think about moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, or have already done so. There are many good reasons to move; San Francisco is, by a significant margin, the global hub of both the technology industry and the EA community. I personally live in Berkeley. However, since EA has such a large student population, I think many EAs get a skewed impression of the Bay Area. The Stanford and UC Berkeley campuses are paradisical, but in many ways, they aren’t representative of “day-to-day life” here. While many people do enjoy living in the Bay Area, I thought it would be good to write up some of the “negative factors” for an average resident that aren’t discussed as much. I encourage everyone thinking about moving to do their own research here; caveat emptor.

1) Cost of living. If you’ve thought about moving to San Francisco, you’ve probably heard rumors about how expensive it is, but the numbers still shock a lot of people. By some metrics, San Francisco is literally the most expensive city in the world.[1] As of February 2017, the average rent for a one-bedroom SF apartment is $3,368 a month.[2] For a single person, if you make $125,000 a year and rent an average one-bedroom apartment, over half your after-tax paycheck will go to rent;[3] expenses go up much more if you have any children. It’s possible to find cheaper apartments, but getting one will almost certainly make the other issues discussed below worse. (On the plus side, most buildings in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley are rent-controlled. If you get a rent-controlled unit, the landlord is required to renew your lease every time it ends, it is nearly impossible to evict you, and inflation-adjusted rent will go down every year you live there.[4] This does not apply to most of the suburbs.)

2) Traffic. You can find cheaper apartments, for example, in the Outer Sunset neighborhood, which is only eight miles from downtown. However, driving those eight miles can take more than an hour, each way.[5] The San Francisco area has the second-worst traffic in the US, after Los Angeles.[6] A major contributor is that San Francisco and surrounding cities have the worst roads in the US, with 71% of roads in “poor” condition, significantly worse than Detroit.[7] Parking is also difficult and expensive to find; the city of Berkeley gets 5% of its annual budget from parking tickets.[8] If you mess up and your car gets towed in SF, getting it back will cost at least $500, usually more.[9] It’s easier to park in suburbs and outlying areas, but some of them are very far-flung; eg. driving from the nVidia campus in Santa Clara to San Francisco can take over two hours.[5] These may seem like small issues – ones you would ignore on a week-long visit – but they add up when you’re forced to deal with them, multiple times a day, for month after month. By some metrics, the San Francisco area is #1 for “mega-commuters”, workers who spend at least three hours per day communting.[10] Long commutes are scientifically shown to damage personal well-being.[11]

3) Public transportation. Unlike many American cities, San Francisco’s public transit is “high coverage” – most places are in walking distance of a bus stop. However, it is also the slowest service in the US, with an average speed of 8 mph.[12] Over 40% of buses are either at least five minutes late, or will leave early (causing missed transfers), and most trips require transfers between multiple bus routes.[13] In addition, 89% of Bay Area residents live outside San Francisco itself;[14] in many of these places, transit service is spotty or non-existent. Bay Area public transit service is run by 33 different government agencies,[15] plus a smattering of private companies like Chariot and Tideline. These agencies do not generally talk to each other or coordinate their schedules. A trip from downtown Novato, a northern suburb about 30 miles from SF, to the main Apple campus in Cupertino would require using three independent bus systems, plus two independent train systems, and would take nearly four hours (assuming every ride was on time, and not including rush-hour traffic).[5]

4) Crime. Although San Francisco’s murder rate is not terrible, it has the highest property crime rate of any major US city.[16] Street harassment, vandalism, car break-ins, open-air drug dealing, and public heroin use are extremely common, especially in the areas near downtown where most offices are. Public defecation is so frequent that subway escalators are routinely shut down to remove large amounts of fecal matter;[17] a convenient heat map shows the hundreds of spots where human waste is cleaned up in any given month.[18] Needless to say, the streets are frequently dirty, smelly, or have used needles on them; this is made worse by San Francisco’s otherwise excellent summer, which often means three or more months with no significant rain. There are many distant suburban areas which don’t have this problem at all, and are very safe and pleasant to walk around in; however, because of extremely strict zoning laws, offices, stores and factories are usually not allowed there either, raising again the problem of commuting long distances.

It’s important to note that many people won’t be bothered by these. If you’re a student, independently wealthy, retired, a freelancer, or work exclusively remotely, you can get a (relatively) cheaper apartment in a good neighborhood, a long way from San Francisco itself. Since you don’t have to commute, it won’t frustrate you. You’ll probably visit downtown SF rarely, so you won’t be screamed at or assaulted on the street. Rent will be a lot lower. You can probably get groceries and other stuff delivered most of the time, and if you do go out shopping, you can go at lunchtime or late at night when the traffic’s less bad. However, I think that for a lot of people, these are factors that should be seriously considered before choosing to move.

Sources:

1. http://sf.curbed.com/…/san-francisco-rents-highest-world-pr…
2. https://www.rentjungle.com/average-rent-in-san-francisco-r…/
3. https://smartasset.com/taxes/california-paycheck-calculator
4. https://www.sftu.org/tenants-rights/
5. https://www.google.com/maps for distance and time estimates
6. http://www.mercurynews.com/…/worst-traffic-top-10-congeste…/
7. http://www.sfgate.com/…/Crumbling-roads-in-San-Francisco-Oa…
8. http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/…/FY%202016%20and%20FY%202017%…
9. http://www.sfgate.com/…/SF-s-huge-towing-fees-can-be-devast…
10. http://www.allgov.com/…/california-communities-dominate-lis…
11. https://www.scientificamerican.com/…/commuting-takes-its-t…/
12. http://archives.sfweekly.com/…/the-muni-death-spir…/Content…
13. https://sfbay.ca/…/01/04/muni-in-2016-less-crime-more-on-t…/
14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_Bay_Area
15. https://en.wikipedia.org/…/Transportation_in_the_San_Franci…
16. https://www.nytimes.com/…/san-francisco-torn-as-some-see-st…
17. http://www.sfgate.com/…/Human-waste-shuts-down-BART-escalat…
18. http://mochimachine.org/wasteland/

Long-Term World Improvement

There’s a lot to like about Effective Altruism, but ultimately, I fundamentally disagree with a core assumption EA makes. I’d like to explain why, what my plan is to improve on EA, and why I think it’ll be more effective at shaping the world than EA.

Effective altruism, like most groups, is based on synergy: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. You form a group because you can do more with teamwork than by yourself. You start a company because if you pool everyone’s money, you can make more products. You put the aluminium smelter next to the dam, because one feeds into the other. You win by taking advantage of positive externalities, division of labor, and splitting large fixed costs. However, no matter how much business schools use the word, not everything has synergy. You don’t put a pizza restaurant and the aircraft warehouse in the same building. You wouldn’t put physics and dance students in the same classroom. There’s no point. They’d just get in each others’ way.

A central belief of EA is that there’s synergy from all different ways of doing good. The EA message is that people donating to fund insecticide nets, campaigning for veganism, and doing research on unfriendly AI can all benefit from each other. They can all be more effective if they share websites, go to the same events, plan strategy together, fundraise together, cooperate in recruiting new members, and so on. And to some extent, I agree with that. Even projects that sound very different can, sometimes, benefit from teaming up.

However, I think there’s very little synergy between doing good on a short timescale (say, one year or less), and a long timescale (five years or more). Doing good in the long term means you must consider how systems evolve over time, and that’s a very different mode of thinking. If a charity buys cancer drugs for patients, they need to know how cancer treatment works. But if a pharma company develops a new cancer drug, they need to analyze not just how things work now, but all the ways they *might* work, five or ten or fifteen years later. A competitor could make a better drug before they release theirs. The FDA might change its rules for drug approval. The economy could crash, and make banks pull their funding. Insurers could get together, and force companies to lower prices. Courts could change how they enforce patents, the AMA might recommend more or less aggressive treatment, the tools scientists use for drug discovery could be replaced, it goes on and on and on. If anything big happens, the charity’s donors can just give elsewhere; the pharma company’s investors are mostly stuck.

And that’s a tame example. When there’s even more change, you have to make plans with no obvious connection between cause and effect. For example, suppose someone said they wanted to replace Boeing in the airplane industry, and their strategy was to sell Boeing fuel pumps. At first glance, that makes little sense. But it’s essentially what Microsoft did with computers. Sell an apparently minor, but critical, component to the industry’s leader, and expand on that component until the original leader is irrelevant. This type of indirect maneuvering has almost no connection to, say, doing a controlled study of vegan diets or polio vaccines; the time horizons, and the uniqueness of each situation, make statistical research impossible.

If short-term and long-term plans have little synergy, that implies each group ought to pick one, and focus on that. I’m picking long term. Partly because it plays to the strengths of me and my friends, who are mostly younger and more intellectual. And partly because I have long time horizons; I don’t put a huge discount on the world in ten or twenty years, compared to the world now. This preference seems to be pretty rare, and supply and demand mean it’s easier to achieve rare goals than common ones. Since many EAs share these traits, I think a lot of them would benefit from picking long-term along with me.

Right now, as I’m writing this, there are also two extra advantages to long-term. The first is that it’s been in a slump recently, so a small number of people can have a bigger impact. (Eg., to my knowledge, the only serious attempt to forecast AI trajectories in the last three years was by AI Impacts, and it’s unfortunately still unpublished.) The second is that, compared to EA, it makes developing new ideas much easier. The defining EA question for any new plan is, “does it do the most good?”. But that’s very hard to answer. Partly because “the most good” really depends on who you are, and what you value. And partly because, to say something is “the most good”, you also have to know how much good everything else is, which is a lot of work. It’s not a coincidence that the three biggest EA causes – global poverty, factory farming, and AI risk – are all ideas that came from elsewhere (and were brought into EA afterwards), not invented from a first principle of “do the most good”. Of course, effectiveness and benefit-per-dollar are still important. But if the *first* question asked is “how long does this plan take?”, it’s much easier to explore the space.

As a first step, I’m creating a new private Facebook group, called “Long Term World Improvement”. Like the plans it will discuss, it’s an experiment; it may fizzle, or transform into something very different. Topics might include, but are not limited to:

– Curing disease, ending aging, and human enhancement
– Long-term government and policy work (not the next election)
– Strategies for long-term income or influence, eg. $10 million in the next decade
– AI capabilities and safety, although I’d like to avoid generic rehashes of Bostrom/Yudkowsky
– How to build a society with non-human general intelligences
– Scientific research, tools, and meta-science
– Space exploration and colonization
– Building new cities, or large-scale relocation to an existing city
– Robotics, neuroscience, nanoscience, and brain-machine interfaces
– Rational forecasting and extrapolation methods
– Biosecurity, nuclear security, and disaster preparedness (both personal and global)
– Any new technology that’s not yet well-known, but might be very impactful (eg. lab-grown meat circa 2006)
– Historical examples and analyses of long-term plans, and what worked or didn’t
– Long-term strategies you’re personally doing or considering (encouraged)

While these projects are very different, they all take place in a single, shared future. And their success all depends on understanding that future. This links them all together, in a way that’s impossible for “doing good” as a pure abstraction.

Off-topic items include, but aren’t limited to:

– Redistribution of existing personal assets, or close equivalents (eg. bed net donation)
– Political news stories, except specific, direct impacts on plans (eg. if X has a coup, that affects political strategy there)
– Marketing products that already exist
– Rare, edge-case ethical scenarios, like the proverbial trolley problem
– Various forms of “ethical consumption” and “ethical divestment”
– Generic, “routine” news that appears very frequently (eg. new “potential cancer cures” are announced daily)
– “Long term” strategies whose core is a pyramid scheme (recruiting people to recruit people to recruit people to…)
– Generic “junk food” news, such as sports, crime, or outrage-bait

Hacker News moderation rules will apply. (For non-Hacker News users, check out https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html; you can also create an account, turn on “showdead”, and browse https://news.ycombinator.com/threads?id=dang to get a feel for how it works.) To join, message me on Facebook, email me at alyssamvance@gmail.com, or chat me on Signal (203-850-2427). If you don’t know me, please include a short summary of who you are, and what you’re interested in. As moderator, I reserve the right to not add people, or to remove existing people if they break the rules. Feel free to message me with questions. Good luck, and may tomorrow be brighter than today.

Quixey Is Shutting Down

The app search startup Quixey is shutting down; it was previously valued at $600 million in a 2015 financing round. Since the only English article covering the shutdown is paywalled, the below is a (bad, sorry) translation from Chinese websites. Wikipedia has more background information on the company. Quixey founder Tomer Kagan stepped down as CEO last year, and is now running a new startup named Sigma.


Quixey, a mobile search firm that has received investment from Alibaba, is currently closed and a large number of employees have been fired two weeks ago, according to informed sources. Quixey was founded in 2009 to provide application search capabilities for large vendors, operators, search engines, and web applications. It was known to have earned $400,000 in seed investment from Innovation Endeavors (Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s investment firm) at the beginning of its history.

The reports have been confirmed. In response to inquiries, Alibaba said: “Alibaba has been Quixey and its founders’ largest financial support. Unfortunately, because the company’s development did not meet expectations, the board of directors made a decision to close the company’s business. We will continue to invest in the US market, support entrepreneurs and innovate.”

The company raised 60 million US dollars in 2015, in a round led by Alibaba and Softbank. Twitter, Goldman Sachs, GGV Capital, Google founder Eric Schmidt, George Soros, and investment institutions have also invested. Through now, Quixey has raised $130 million.

It is understood that, unlike Google and Baidu and other keyword-based search engines, Quixey is a functional search engine specifically for mobile applications, built on a variety of platforms and based on rich functional applications. Quixey’s application search is not based on an application’s title, metadata, or application description, but based on what the user wants to do, what features are needed to search. For example, if you search for the keyword “book a hotel,” Quixey will return a list of all the applications that provide this feature and select and filter the appropriate platform. Search results may include [???], and it supports iOS, Android and other operating systems, somewhat similar to Baidu’s light application distribution platform.

Quixey also works with major companies., such as the US Q&A website ask.com, Singapore’s largest telecom operator star Hub, and has reached agreements with many North American businesses to install it in their default toolbar.

Moreover, with Quixey deep learning, the scope of the index is not limited to the major app stores, but aimed at the app of “the world around.” Search covers the major sites, blog comments, evaluation, forums and so on, searching through the user comments to finally return a result. Its ambition was to achieve full platform coverage.

Since its establishment seven years ago, Quixey’s financing has been relatively smooth. Alibaba led in the C round with a 50 million US dollars stake, and continued with the support, quickly became the largest investor. In November 2016, Quixey also had a series of turbulence. John Foster was appointed as a replacement to become the new CEO. Due to not achieving revenue targets, two executives, the COO and CTO, left.

Four Layers of Intellectual Conversation

(By Eliezer Yudkowsky; posted here with permission)

Building an intellectual edifice requires ongoing conversation, and that ongoing conversation needs four layers of speech to be successful.

(Yes, four. Not three. Later I’m going to pretend I didn’t say that, but right now I’m serious and this is important.)

There is a widespread traditional notion that the total absence of critique is bad; that it is a bad sign to have a conversation consisting of people saying X and nobody saying “hey maybe not-X”.

Why is this bad? Well, because people could say stupid things about X, and nobody would call them on the stupidity. Yikes!

Okay, so here’s the thing: If the people saying “hey maybe not-X” don’t anticipate losing points from being called out on stupid critiques, that doesn’t create a conversation either. I am speaking here from awful experience and many people reading this will have seen the same.

A conversation that successfully builds an intellectual edifice has four *necessary* layers. I’m not saying “necessary” as an emphasis-word for how nice it is to have more layers. I mean, “If you eliminate the fourth layer, the mechanism falls apart.”

You need:

0: People saying X.
1: Critics saying “hey maybe not-X”.
2: Responses/counter-critiques saying “well maybe X after all”.
3: Counter-responses saying “but maybe not-X after all”.

If you eliminate layer 3, that means the conversational record doesn’t include critics responding to critiques of their criticism.

In other words, the critics saying “not-X” won’t anticipate needing to defend their “not-X” claims.

Layers 0-2 being visible in the record, but not layer 3, is the sort of situation you have when biologists speak of evolution (0, object-level claim), and a priest says something about evolution being true but only God being able to create the first life that started it (1, critique), and biologists reply with a detailed account of the current thought on abiogenesis (2, response/counter-critique); and the priest does not reply with detailed thoughts explaining why the current thinking on abiogenesis is technically flawed (absence of 3, the counter-response).

0-2 is what you have when, say, Eric Drexler is writing detailed technical books about molecular nanotechnology; and a famous chemist says something profoundly stupid indicating they have not read very far into this literature (e.g. “but the sticky-fingers problem!”); and Eric Drexler writes a response dissecting the critique, which doesn’t receive as much media attention; and the chemist doesn’t care or replies with something that is visibly not very detailed or thought-out.

Conversational layers 0-2 being visible in the record, but not much layer 3 or an unimpressive layer 3, generally represents a situation where the critic doesn’t expect that their criticism will come under harsh scrutiny to which the critic will be socially obliged to respond intelligently as part of the widely seen public record. On the critical side, that’s just as bad as there being just layer 0.

When I say layers 0-3 need to be there, I mean that there must be a social incentive to do them well; people must lose status points for saying dumb things at any of these layers. When as an outsider you look at the conversational record, all of these layers should not just be merely present as a checkmark on a list. You should be looking for the same standards of impressive technical-sounding words, or abiding by epistemic norms and discourse norms or whatever, as you would demand of the ground-level statements.

Now here’s the dire part: the current academic journal system, in practice, operates at layers 0-2. You submit your paper, and the reviewers offer a response, and you’re expected to have an intelligent response to the review. But these reviewers (often anonymous) do not expect to lose huge social brownie points if their critique is stupid. Even if the reviewer is supposed to offer some kind of counter-response for the record, it can be a casual and stupid counter-response, and nobody will go “Hey what the hell are you doing” at that.

Absent any incentive to be smart, the reviews are often really, really stupid; especially if the original paper doesn’t look to be authored by a high-status person. Though I’ve heard from more than one person with very high status in their field that even the reviews *they* get are stupid.

Modern academics treat stupid bad reviews as an environmental hazard. It’s not *conversation*. It’s not building the edifice of knowledge.

So where does the real conversation happen, in scientific fields, when there’s a proposition worthy of debate and not just another unquestioned fact to be recorded?

Maybe it happens in the bar at conferences, where people are speaking in realtime in front of their friends, and would actually lose status points if they uttered a dumb critique that was shot down and their counter-response looked stupid. Or maybe it happens on email lists. It could be happening on Facebook, for all I know of any particular field.

But the journals merely record an intellectual edifice that was built elsewhere. The real conversation that creates the intellectual edifice in the first place couldn’t happen with the journals as a medium.

The only time I’ve seen a stream of journal articles that looked like they were seriously *building*, not just *recording*, an intellectual edifice, it’s been in analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy is about debating, qua debating, in a way that chemistry isn’t. I could be wrong, but I expect that editors of analytic-philosophy journals *do* expect intelligent counter-responses; and that reviewers expect to lose status points if they can’t come up with intelligent counter-responses. (Though this could be confounded by analytic philosophers having the highest IQ of any graduate group in academia, yes that happens to be a thing that is true.)

Unfortunately analytic philosophy lacks the ability to settle on any answer and declare it settled. So be it noted that just because you ought to demand high standards of both counter-critiques and counter-responses, it doesn’t mean that nobody’s right. Or that there isn’t such a thing as one side having an overwhelming weight of argument. Or that so long as both sides are writing long technical arguments they must have equally socially respectable positions which is all there is to epistemics, etcetera.

Mainstream media that pretends to be serious pretends to have layers 0-1, though journalists often just make up their own critiques, or twist the quoted critics to make the criticism look like the cliche they expect the reader to expect. And when the media is not pretending to be serious they operate at unvarnished layer 0.

It’s sad, it’s really sad, to compare the current academic conversation about AGI alignment–not that the academics know they should be calling it that nowadays–with the informal conversations I saw on email lists in the late nineties. Email lists where you knew that if you said something dumb, even if it was an ohmygosh virtuous “critique”, Robin Hanson might reply with an email pointing out the flaw, and everyone else on the mailing list would see that reply. On those mailing lists there was a real conversation, and that’s what built up the early edifice of thought about AI alignment. There’s been more theory built up since those days, but almost everything the public got to see in Bostrom’s _Superintelligence_ just records the edifice of thought built up on those email lists where a real, actual conversation took place.

By comparison, academic discourse on AGI comes from the void and is cast into the void. It shows little awareness of previous ideas, it is not written as if to anticipate obvious responses, the obvious responses go unpublished in the same public record, and certainly there is no detailed and impressive counter-response.

When you publish a journal article claiming to have shot down the so-called notion of the intelligence explosion once and for all, and your article is about hypercomputation being impossible, then you are clearly not operating in an environment where you expect to be socially obliged to come up with an intelligent response to counter-critique. Perhaps the thought crossed your mind that somebody might say “Hey maybe the intelligence explosion doesn’t require hypercomputation, and you made little or no effort to establish that it did, and if you say that’s true by definition then this is not the definition anyone else in the field uses.” But if so it was a fleeting thought and you didn’t expect to be troubled, to lose reputation, if any of your prey tried to reply that way to your predation. When you published your “critique”, you were done scoring all the points you expected to score off them, and you didn’t expect to lose any points for responding casually or not at all to their counter-critique.

So the academic conversation hasn’t gotten anywhere near as far as the informal conversation on those old email lists in the late 90s, never mind everything built up since then.

Unfortunately, the traditional scientific upbringing speaks only of the importance of criticism.

EAs used to ask: “Has there been critique of MIRI’s ideas? Who are the critics?” If you take this literally, they were asking to see a record of a conversation that included layers 0-1. Implicitly, they were asking to see 0-2; they would have been surprised if I showed them critique but couldn’t point to anything that responded to the critique.

But if you want to know that critics are a part of the conversation, you need to be able to point to serious-looking counter-responses by critics. Back in the old days I’d always reply “Robin Hanson is the serious critic, there isn’t really anyone else worth pointing to”, because nobody else was writing detailed counter-responses to detailed counter-critiques.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re trying to judge the strength and health of an ongoing conversation… or, this is very important, *or* when you’re wondering how seriously to take a critic. Don’t ask, “Is there a forum where both sides of the story can be heard?” Rather ask, “Is there back-and-forth-and-back-*and*-forth?” Don’t ask, “Has somebody performed the duty of critique?” Ask, “How impressed am I by the counter-response to the counter-critique?”

(Facebook discussion)