A Trolley Problem Dialogue

Epistemic status: bad and wrong. Not worth reading.

Oberstein: The ethical thing to do is to pull the lever. The result is one dead person instead of five.

Kircheis: I guess. But who set up this situation? Why should I, if I have any agency at all, use it to indulge some psychopathic moral psychology experimenter's fancies?

Oberstein: Regardless of how you got into the situation, you should operate in the manner that results in the most lives saved.

Kircheis: I'm sure it's not right to treat human lives as tokens to be traded...

Oberstein: This is the same situation. You take the action that results in one corpse rather than five.

Kircheis: It's completely different! When you have to do it with your own hands, the emotional impact of that action will haunt you for the rest of your life! You know as well as anyone how much easier it is to kill someone with the push of a button.

Oberstein: Suppose the permanent emotional impact is so great that it's just as bad as dying. Then there's still the equivalent of two corpses, instead of five. Would you not sacrifice your precious feelings for the greater good?

Kircheis: You know I would.

Oberstein: Yes.

Kircheis: It's a different situation. But even if it weren't, my notion of justice doesn't allow killing people to save others. It's barbaric, or heartless. People like you can never understand it, because you think it's as simple as setting certain utilitarian weights to infinity, to the detriment of consequences. But it's not. You'll never understand deontology if you think of it as a perverse form of utilitarianism.
 At this point, Grognor materializes in a puff of manliness
Kircheis: What the hell? Who are you?

Grognor: I know it is gauche for an author to appear in his own platonic dialogue, but Kircheis is right, but he isn't smart enough to understand why. So I'm going to enhance his intelligence so he can see it. *BZZHORT* Okay Kircheis, now you can explain it to him.

Oberstein: Kircheis's position always leads to absurdities. Mine only leads to repugnances. I don't see how his can be right.
SuperKircheis: I see. Part of the reason people have different intuitions about what to do in trolley problems is that they fight the hypothetical to different degrees. People like Oberstein allow themselves to work within the assumptions of the philosopher's case, whereas people like me do not. And we are right not to, even though we usually don't know it or even realize we are doing it. Because decisions don't happen in a vacuum, and we shouldn't pretend they do.

Oberstein: Even if you can't see all the consequences of your actions, you should still act in the best interests of all within the consequences you can see, subject to your own moral and empirical uncertainty.

SuperKircheis: You are always so proud of seeing everything with those mechanical eyes. When you decided to let millions die at Westerland, did you foresee the long-term consequences of such a precedent? Did you not think of the stain it would leave on His Majesty's honor?


SuperKircheis: If you say you did foresee, and sincerely believed it was worth the price, I'll believe you. But you're not seeing all the consequences of killing people in trolley problems. Your robot eyes have a myopic dysfunction.

Oberstein: Oh?

SuperKircheis: By setting a precedent where fat men are pushed off of overpasses, you make fat men afraid to cross overpasses. By being the sort of person who plays along with trolley problems, you give psychopathic moral psychology experimenters an incentive to give you trolley problems. In general, when you let yourself be exploited, you let yourself be exploited.

Grognor: So the correct action in the trolley problem where you're just flicking a switch depends on whether this implies some sort of submission to a hostile agent. Those unfortunate enough to just happen to find themselves in the position of having to choose between one death and five deaths should choose one, in situations where refusing to choose would be like refusing to allow time to pass. However, I find the epistemic state where I know exactly how many corpses will result from a decision pretty unlikely. I'm pretty confused in general.

Oberstein: I have no morals, only goals. I don't understand how I ended up in a dialogue about ethical philosophy. But, since I'm here. From an ethical point of view, don't you have a responsibility to make the best of your situations, regardless of how you got into those situations?

SuperKircheis: No, because how you respond to situations influences whether or not you get into those situations, in worlds where there are other agents who do not have the same goals as you do. I think your failure to appreciate this is why you lied to Reinhard that day. He should have punished you severely for it.

Oberstein: So you're saying evil agents who set up inevitable deaths can't simply shift culpability onto people involved in the situations they create? That is interesting. But the people involved must still choose. Refusing to choose is like refusing to allow time to pass. And they should choose based on the expected consequences.

SuperKircheis: I won't say, "To hell with the consequences!" because I'm smart enough now to know that they matter. I can't explain updateless decision theory to you right now, so let's stick with the framework where the expected consequences are the only thing that matter. If you'll allow it, the whole reason our ethical intuitions and ratiocinations take the form of strong rules instead of just figuring out what's going to happen is because we can't figure out what is going to happen. And I'm smart enough now to know that there is no amount of intelligence sufficient to figure it out. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. Well, that's half of the reason. The other half is that we constantly delude ourselves about the consequences and need strong injunctions to prevent self-serving biases from taking over our decision process. Anyway, you need an incredibly high standard of certainty before making decisions on a naive utilitarian basis is justifiable, one that mere humans, even ones as smart as I currently am, cannot attain.


SuperKircheis: You're also not even taking into account structural uncertainty and metamoral uncertainty.

Oberstein: You'll have to explain what those are.

SuperKircheis: Even that wouldn't be enough, you still have to have at least a cursory understanding of the game-theoretic foundations of morality, the etiology of...
 Grognor presses the button on his device again. *BZZORRRT*
SuperOberstein: Ah. I understand now. You were right all along.

Grognor: Isn't it nice when one of these doesn't end in aporia!


A History of Weird Sun Twitter

As Baccano! admirably demonstrates, deciding where to start a story can be a tricky matter. The obvious place to begin a history of Weird Sun Twitter is the appearance of Instance Of Class, the primeval sun from which imitators later emerged. Instead I'm going to tell you about something seemingly unrelated.

In early 2011 a YouTube account called ImmaVegeta appeared, having named itself after an old meme whose syntax was IAMX, where X was some person. IAMVEGETA was taken. It posted clips of Vegeta from Dragonball Z, which were somehow timed to be hilarious. At the time you could have public tags on videos, and he exploited that for further humor. I found this content addicting and watched all the videos.

Beginning around summer of that year, I started seeing more accounts. ImmaPiccolo. ImmaGoku. A lot of them were pretty good as well, but none matched the original. After all, how could anyone? You can't become the best at something someone else invented. I could tell you a lot more about this, but that's not what you're here for.

Before I move on to weird sun twitter proper, another phenomenon. Popular youtube user Kripparian posts lots of Hearthstone videos. Their format was usually him talking about the game, followed by clips of himself playing the game. In the comments section appeared an account called Skipperino Kripperino who just posted the timestamp of when the game clips start. Betcha thought the imitators were going to be of the youtuber. Not this time!

This doesn't explain anything. I have no idea why there were so many ImmaVegeta clones or Skipperino clones. Knowing that there's more than one example of a bizarre phenomenon doesn't explain that phenomenon. However, I noticed the comparison and want credit for that. Give it to me.

Before beginning the story proper, I will digress with one last preliminary.

In August 2012, twitter user @aristosophy appeared, along with less-filtered account @tipsfromkatee, creating a minor sensation with her extremely good tweets that displayed very high intellect and knowledge of the extended Less Wrong memeplex. This will prove relevant later.


Anecdotes from my Past

When I was a child, I befriended a black kid named Justus. I can't remember much about him, but I remember one time I saw him getting the shit beat out of him by three other kids. I rode my kick scooter up to them and immediately started attacking them with the scooter. Justus got up and I don't know what he started doing. The assailants called me a coward for using a weapon, so I threw it on the ground and kept attacking with my fists. I remember thinking of the situation at the time as 2 vs. 3, so of course, we as the 2 were going to win, since we were the protagonists. Now I realize, Justus probably didn't want to keep fighting after being beat up so bad, so it was more like 1 vs. 3. Odds in that case were even better for me. They didn't want to fight me and just sort of went away. Justus reunited with his mother. I can't remember anything about what caused this incident, or what the repercussions, if any, were.

In middle school one of our assignments was to make a powerpoint presentation about any writer and present it to the class. One of my screen transitions was a fist coming out of nowhere and punching the screen, complete with sound effect. One of the girls in the class freaked out about this. I probably made fun of her for that at the time, and genuinely disdained her fearing something on a screen. Now that I'm an adult I can see that she had probably been abused.

Also in middle school I had this group of four girls who would sometimes find me and harass me. Can't remember much of what they did, but I remember the teasing being relentless and encountering them was one of the most unpleasant things about my life at the time. I remember one question, "do you want to be the friction in her pants", one girl asking of me of another, which even in retrospect I don't really understand (like, if I'd been suave about saying yes, would I have been able to... well, nevermind). One morning my wonderful lutino parakeet, Pashmina, died in my hands. I was a broken mess that day. The girls found me crying by myself in the cafeteria. They switched from bullying to asking me what was wrong. I told them, and flustered and crying, told them to leave me alone. They kept trying to offer comfort, having discovered some humanity in themselves, but I just kept saying "leave me alone!" They never bothered me again.

Also in middle school, in P.E. class there was one kid who bullied me every day. One day I couldn't take it anymore and punched him in the neck. I got punished with in-school-suspension, basically two days of even more boredom than regular school, but he never bothered me again. It was easily worth it. You know, when you report someone for bullying you, the authorities don't fucking do anything. You have to make them stop yourself, and then you're the one who gets punished. That was my entire life for years and years. Fuck school.

In high school there was a moment where I had to walk through the narrow space between two tables and there were two dudes looking at me from one of the tables. Some part of me must have sensed their hostility and upped my reaction speed, or something, because when I walked through they tried to startle me with a sudden loud scream and movement, like a gimmick in a haunted house. But instead of flinching back I just automatically struck one of them with my outstretched and bent hand. It was a really slow arm movement that did no damage. All three of us laughed about it.

There's no purpose to this post, but if there were one, it would be: schools need to be burned down. The suffering of young people is great and it matters.


When Incapacity is an Advantage

Suppose X and Y are skills, and that Person A has skill X and person B has skill X and skill Y.

If A and B are working together, it makes sense for A to specialize on X and B to specialize on Y. That is how comparative advantage works. However, it's rather unfair to B if Y happens to be a lower prestige activity.

This happens all the time. Someone who is really great at coming up with new ideas gets more renown than someone who is good at explaining those ideas, for instance. You should think of your own examples before proceeding.

(The above insight is 100% stolen from someone else, but since their post isn't public, I summarized it in my own words.)

This dynamic means that if prestige is among your goals, you have an incentive not to learn skill Y, to prevent yourself from being able to learn skill Y, and to invent rationalizations for why skill Y is either useless or something only bad people would want to learn. It's another example of a game-theoretic situation where being less capable is an advantage, which will come as no surprise if you've read Schelling.

Note that you have to be at least somewhat selfish to not want to learn Y in order to gain this sort of advantage. Coalitions are always made better off when their individual members gain new knowledge and skills, even if those individual members are made worse off.

What's really interesting is that people who fail to learn skill Y aren't the only game-theoretic agents. There are other players, and those among them who do have skill Y are able to at least subconsciously notice the costs imposed among them by people who don't. Which means that people who know skill Y will get angry at people who don't and invent rationalizations and harangues and the other usual social moves for getting people to do things, so they don't have to be the only ones.

It seems like a lot of game-theoretic equilibria end up in basically the situation of the brightly-colored poisonous frogs, with a substantial portion of mimic frogs who have no poison at all.


Superstitions as Evolved Objects

It's common to mock superstitions to display one's Skeptic cred, but it's a mistake, because they are Chesterton fences.

It's bad luck to walk under a ladder. No, okay, it's not "bad luck", but ladders are dangerous.

It's bad luck to open an umbrella indoors. Or more accurately, it's inconsiderate, because open umbrellas are deceptively difficult to handle indoors and you're pretty likely to bump into someone or knock over a lamp. A fifteen-minute training course on umbrella safety and etiquette wouldn't be a waste of time.

Seven years of bad luck for breaking a mirror. Not really sure about this one but who wants broken mirrors? Mirrors are probably pretty hard to make.

I've heard that in some Islamic countries it is traditional to touch food only with the right hand, and reserve the left hand for disgusting activities like wiping the ass. For years I thought this was some sort of unprincipled discrimination, but somehow I spontaneously saw the purpose one day. It makes perfect sense to use only one hand for eating in a world where you can't wash your hands right before every meal. The practice makes enough sense to me that I do it.

Cultures exist in a world of slow meticulous selection pressures. Like organisms, they must adapt to them to survive. This is the basic tenet of the study of cultural evolution. It's a small insight, to realize that superstitions are part of culture, and thus also subject to, and created by, those pressures.

My hope with this article is that it produces a Baader-Meinhof effect in you for a little while, so that when next you see someone call some habit a 'superstition' you can think about whether or not there's a pretty obvious purpose like in the above four examples. But there may be a purpose even if you can't think of one, for reasons articulated here and in much more depth and generality here.


the thought to which all thoughts eventually return, as if it were the bottom of the cognitive bowl

See also: The Monster

I wish my mind were larger. Certainly it is larger than most people's; during manic episodes it feels like I can fit entire other human minds inside my own, and maybe that is not entirely mere arrogance. But it's not enough, it will never be enough, life is not graded on a curve. I can't fit in all the concepts, can't work tirelessly and efficiently and self-improvingly.

How is so weak and imperfect a creature as individual man, isolated and wretched, shorn from community, ejected from egregore and unable to assimilate, supposed to make the world a better place? It would be hard enough if I were some competent ubermensch unsurpassed in self-control and diligence, but I am a languid slovenly slob barely able to brush my teeth or shower. Again and again I return to this thought. I can't escape. Multidimensional metasphex.


reason #21,066 reason to distrust all scientific studies

Originally posted November 21, 2016

 I see a lot of people claiming that jobs are good for people, because jobs give life more meaning. They point to studies "showing" that people are happier when employed than unemployed, even when "controlling" for just giving people money. Needless to say I haven't read any of these, because I am not in the habit of filling my brain with motivated bullshit.

Now first of all, really? Do you expect me to believe that someone who cleans toilets for a living is happier than they would be if they didn't have to do that? That's retarded.

But more importantly, this motivated reasoning is failling to take into account that not having a job gets you yelled at all the time. "Get a job!" people yell at mendicants. They really do that, all the time. And it's not just yelling. The whole American culture is infused with an ethos that being unemployed makes you worth less, that you're not earning your keep, that you don't deserve to exist. Unless you're a child, woman

I've spent years unemployed before, and I'll be unemployed again, probably soon. My quality of life is easily lower having to work all the time than not. Work sucks. This is the most obvious thing in the world. Which is one reason everyone wants to get counterintuitiveness points for pretending it doesn't. But the bigger reason, as far as I can tell the reason it's achieved memetic fixation, is that people who have jobs really hate them, and resent people who are able to get away without having them, and resolve the cognitive dissonance by telling themselves that jobs are actually good.



Originally posted October 24, 2016

 Look at these fucking buttons:

I have to hit these buttons many times per day, always with the same overworked left thumb. They are terrible buttons and I have a mild repetitive strain injury as a result.

I don't understand. This steering wheel is in a 2013 vehicle, but the problem of "making buttons that are nice to press, even thousands of times a day every day" was solved by video game manufacturers in the late 1970s. Do engineers who make vehicles think about ergonomics at all? Does anyone other than video game console manufacturers??

Look at this beautiful goddamn artifact:

Look at it. It actually looks like it was made by people who have hands, for people who have hands. Even my unusually large and hammy doom-fists can comfortably hold this, and play with it, for hours. The Nintendo Gamecube controller is the finest nonliving thing I have ever held. How I miss it.

I don't know anything about ergonomics in practice, but it's like architecture in how prevalent it is, affecting humans always and everywhere. The only book I've even heard of about it is The Design of Everyday Things, which popularized the useful concept of affordance. Hopefully I can at least listen to the audiobook some day.

I play video games on my prematurely aging laptop with a Logitech F310. It's no Gamecube controller, but I can still use it for any amount of time without any pain whatsoever. You could literally rip off a piece of the steering wheel and put the controller in, Megas XLR-style, and create a much nicer experience. If I had a lot more experience at DIY engineering, and I owned the truck I drive, I might just have tried something like that. Because it would be cool.

Well, bye



Originally posted October 23, 2016

You should probably read Scott Aaronson's post Umeshisms before reading this post.

Concentrate on the higher-order bits.

Back in the day, this sentence took me a long time to understand, and nobody would explain it when I asked, so this is what it means:

Look at the following number: 12,345,678.

All it means is something obvious, which is that the underlined digit is a lot more important than the bolded one. If you want to make a big difference to what the number represents, you need to change the digits closer to the underlined one than to the bold one.

(As an aside, you might consider something like ?___________________________________________12345678, in order to think a little more scope-sensitively about impact magnitudes. Try to make the question mark digit positive, if you want the number to increase.)

I'm writing this for three reasons. First because I used to think umeshisms had achieved memetic fixation, but when I talk to people about them they've almost never heard of it. I googled it just now and was sort of shocked to find it has only 29 results.

Second because when I tell people about umeshisms, and give examples, statements like "If you've never been arrested, you're not doing enough interesting things," or "If you've never broken a bone, you're not doing enough dangerous physical activity," they don't seem to get it. Trying to come up with their own examples, they fail. Something counterintuitive about the idea that a successful strategy includes nonzero probability of unimportant bad things happening.

Pop quiz: Is "If you've never falsified an umeshism, you're not being badass enough," an umeshism? Answer at end of post.

Third because I want to explain the umeshism mindset, as distinct from umeshisms, the type of aphorism. I don't want this post to be a repository of umeshisms (though it'd be super cool if someone made one, like quotedb or the erstwhile limerickdb where people could submit and vote on them). Umeshism is so named like pragmatism, stoicism, or agnosticism, not in the philosophical school sense, but in the state of mind sense.

"Don't sweat the small stuff," is umeshism, but so is, "sweat the big stuff." Effective altruism is umeshism applied to doing material good. Rejection therapy is for getting your system 1 to be more umeshic in the context of asking for things.

The Hamming questions translate to, "Why aren't you being more umeshistic?" From Richard Hamming's You And Your Research:
Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, ``Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, ``What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, ``What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, ``If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.
Umeshism is prioritization. It's caring more about more important things than about less important things. It doesn't mean caring a lot, or a little, in full generality; it means caring in the right order. It means not spending all your time on social media if you have anything useful to do. But it also means not spending all your time setting up intricate systems to prevent you from wasting your time.

What distinguishes umeshism from just naively trying to be more efficient is deliberately letting avoidable bad things happen as part of the overall strategy, because the harm from those things is outweighed by the cost of preventing all of them.

What's the correct number, taking resource tradeoffs into account, of deaths by electrocution per year in the United States? I don't know what the specific number is, but it's not zero.

If you understand everything you read, you're reading too carefully. (Though I must say that if you never notice any misunderstandings, you're not reading nearly carefully enough.) If you don't get it yet, here are some good blog posts that explain it: Focus on the Higher-Order Bits and Why We Should Err in Both Directions

Answer to quiz: No


Originally published July 12, 2016

Lists are really, really appealing for some reason, perhaps because they are so simple and orderly and thus memorable.

Peter McIntyre wrote an article (listicle, is the pejorative) called 52 Concepts to Add to Your Cognitive Toolkit. Despite being written in pandersome newspeak it's really good; I endorse it. Most of those concepts are essential to thinking and if you don't know any you should familiarize yourself post-haste. I cannot emphasize this enough. Fluency in these concepts is by my account an adulthood developmental stage. No such listicle could ever be complete, and to my reckoning the most important omissions are:
Wow, a list. So shiny, so nice. Very compelling.

Some of these concepts are monster-topics that take weeks to understand. Others take less than an hour. Caveat emptor.

I am fascinated by the concept of a "cognitive toolkit" or "conceptual ontology" or "insight collection" or "conceptual vocabulary" or whatever you want to call it. It should probably be on a list of essential concepts! The fascinating thing is that it seems to comprise a list of concepts. Like the way you think is partially embedded by something as simple as a communicable list of ideas.

The 'vocabulary' metaphor for the conceptual ontology helped me realize something important. Earlier I had the minor insight that the set of words you can use is much smaller than the set of words you can recognize. The same is true for concepts. To understand other people's thinking, you only need to be able to recognize the chunked concepts involved, but to think, you have to be able to use these concepts, which requires practice. Pen-and-paper exercises and spaced repetition thereof might help. I nearly put spaced repetition in my above list, but worried it would start to become a list of all the concepts I know and utilize. Like, did you know spaced repetition helps all kinds of knowledge, not just declarative? God damn, son.

Richard Feynman attributed much of his research success to using a 'different box of tools'. It makes sense. Exploring in a different way than everyone who has come before is probably a prerequisite for finding new things. It seems to me that humans, even the brightest, mostly think the same thoughts, over and over, in the same ways, and have only a few tools and heuristics for thinking. Quoth Gian-Carlo Rota:
Every mathematician has only a few tricks.

A long time ago, an older and well known number theorist made some disparaging remarks on Paul Erdos's work. You admire Erdos's contributions to mathematics as much as I do, and I felt annoyed when the older mathematician stated, in flat and definitive terms, that all of Erdos's work could be ``reduced'' to a few tricks which Erdos repeatedly relied upon in his proofs. Actually, what the number theorist did not realize is that other mathematicians, even the very best, also rely on a few tricks that they use over and over. Take Hilbert. The second volume of Hilbert's collected papers contains all of Hilbert's papers in invariant theory. I have made a point of reading some of these papers with care. It was very sad to note how some of Hilbert's beautiful results have been completely forgotten.

But it was surprising to realize, on reading the proofs of Hilbert's striking and deep theorems in invariant theory, that Hilbert's proofs relied on a few tricks that he used over and over. Even Hilbert had only a few tricks!
The way I see it, the way humans have different incommunicable cognitive habits is in large part responsible for differences in quality of their intellectual work, and an important proximate cause of people's uniqueness. I often see deep links between my thinking and other people's thinking, always so deep that I can't articulate them. It makes me wonder whether I have some ultra-deep grognor-only intuitions that languish, unused, because I never see them in anyone else and thus they never get reinforced.

Anyway these deep thought-structures are definitely not simply lists of cognitive habits or heuristics. If you could condense Erdos's briliance into such a thing, you would be as brilliant as him. Even so, lists seem, surprisingly, to compose a large part of people's cognitive faculties.