Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Lack of Real-World Money Pumps: How Intransitive Preferences Do and Do Not Distort Behavior

In economics and other areas of applied rationality, the problem with having intransitive preferences - where you prefer x to y, and y to z, but z to x - is that you can supposedly be made into a money pump, by taking advantage of these irrational preferences. Indeed I'd seen claims online of people who were subjects of psychology or economics experiments actually knowing that this was happening to them, but being unable to stop themselves. This seemed both intuitively far-fetched, as well as something which would be constantly exploited, especially if it was a trait that existed differentially in the population.

I had encountered this idea some years ago in the rationalist canon, but I had never been able to think of examples where it really happened. Imagine my joy when I thought I had finally run across it when, after dinner one night, my (irrational) toddler demonstrated intransitive preferences when eating M&M's and trading with me. She prefers green over orange, orange over brown, and brown over green. Here it is!, I thought. A money pump! But exactly how could I benefit from this?

As it turned out, there was no way to money-pump her, and might not be a way to ever meaningfully money-pump anybody. But to illustrate the point I'll give you a hypothetical example of how it could work. This hypothetical example alters her real behavior considerably - to see what I changed and why it could not work in the real world, skip ahead to "Where Are the Real Money Pumps?" in bold below.

Say we both start out with 12 green, 12 orange, and 12 brown, and assume the following preference rules (individual exchange rates):

I have transitive preferences: I like green twice as much as orange, which I like twice as much as brown. (1 green = 2 orange = 4 brown)

She has intransitive preferences: she likes green twice as much as orange, which she likes twice as much as brown, which she likes twice as much as green, etc.) In fact, I would argue that she has a subtype of intransitive preferences, cyclic preferences: with intransitive preferences you can also just say that there is no value on something and it can't be used in trade. (Though irrational by Von Neumann-Morgenstern and other standards, this is in fact how normal human beings behave; when someone will put a price on anything, that person is called a psychopath.)

It helps to see the specifics of how you can take advantage of someone with cyclic preferences, but it's dry and boring, so I'll include it in a "supplement" at the end if you're interested and don't just want to take my word for it. Suffice it to say after at most 7 trades, I would have all the M&M's except for two brown ones.


I went looking for cases in the real world where people get money-pumped, and found:
a) none, and
b) I'm not the only one who has noticed this gap.

In fact money-pumping seems to be an entirely theoretical risk, predicted deductively from rationality models. So what's going on? Likely some combination of:
  1. People are irrational and their preferences are a mess, but they aren't neatly cyclical like this. In fact we should expect that most intransitive preferences are just that - they have no relation to any other preferences - therefore precluding a cyclic system of intransitive preferences. That is, sets of cyclic preferences are a subset of intransitive preferences, but because of the nature of intransitive preferences (basically they're a mess with little relation to each other or even consistency on short time scales), cyclic preferences are very rare or nonexistent in the real world.

  2. Humans have many heuristics that can cause reasoning errors, but that also must have been on net beneficial to our ancestors, and (sometimes) they only make sense in the context of their environment. For example, we like to punish wrongdoers, to the point where we will spend more resources to do it, even when the damage has already been done. This seems irrational, unless you realize that there are not many limited-round-games in life, and if there was someone doing bad things in our tribe fifty thousand years ago, it made sense to invest those punishment-resources now to deter further wrongdoing later. A more germane example is the endowment effect, which is a heuristic that clearly has the effect of keeping people from getting taken advantage of in markets with asymmetric information. I expect that with cyclic preferences, there is a meta-preference that usually acts like a circuit-breaker for this sort of thing, for example just thinking about the goods in dollar figures. Of course, you could rightly object, if someone can do that, they don't really have cyclic preferences, since the dollar is like a color of M&M that doesn't admit of intransitive valuation - and you're right! Which is why people don't actually get money-pumped! In this same way, I expect that even my toddler would notice her overall number of M&M's is shrinking and mine is growing and at some point say she's not playing this stupid game anymore.

  3. There actually are some cyclic preference-sets revealed by people engaging in repetitive behavior that makes their life consistently worse. This includes compulsive gambling, junk food, substance abuse, and staying in abusive relationships (or seeking out new ones.) It's interesting that these aren't about trading with currency, or at least don't centrally involve explicit trade or currency exchange, which are relatively new things in terms of evolutionary psychology, and something where along with learning them explicitly, we have developed learned defenses against being taken advantage of (as noted above.) Even in those cases where there appear to be cyclic preferences, these are better understood as predictably shifting preferences (due to things like future discounting), but this is a semantic distinction since they have the same outcome.


Clashes between the system of transitive preference systems - speaking broadly, the economy - and intransitive preferences are somewhat rare, but they occur, even when they are not cyclic. You don't think of people repeating abusive relationships as part of the economy, but that's a great example of intransitive preferences. Gambling and substance use part of the economy, but at the fringes (it's interesting that societies usually have prohibitions or regulations about trading the same sorts of things, things which involve strongly affective parts of our cognition and behavior like gambling, sex, drugs, and firearms.)

Some psychopaths recognize the intransitive nature of most humans' valuation of other human life (it's "priceless"), and take hostages who they will kill unless they are given money or some other objective. In those cases, many humans magically overcome our intransitiveness and kill the hostage-takers, or allow the hostage-takers to kill their victims in order to avoid negotiating in the future.

A fortunately more common but unfortunately probably more intractable problem is healthcare: about 70% of healthcare dollars in the U.S. spent by someone are spent in the last 6 months of that person's life. We could spend more and more getting additional minutes at the end of life. Unless we're going to ruin ourselves in this way, there has to be a rule, regardless of whether we're in a public or private healthcare system. This is something we don't like thinking about.

Finally, whenever people try to create a system of transitive preferences outside of the mother-system (the economy), the gravity of the currency economy inevitably connects to it and sucks it in, whether we're talking about Ithaca-dollars, or the charade of "no currency" at Burning Man.


Starting out we have:

Me: 12 green, 12 orange, 12 brown
Her: 12 green, 12 orange, 12 brown

Round 1. I offer her 6 of my orange for all 12 of her brown. Now we have:

Me: 12 green, 6 orange, 24 brown
Her: 12 green, 18 orange, 0 brown

Round 2. I offer her 6 of my brown for all 12 of her green. Now we have:

Me: 24 green, 6 orange, 18 brown
Her: 0 green, 18 orange, 6 brown

Round 3. I offer her 3 of my orange for all of her brown. Now we have:

Me: 24 green, 3 orange, 24 brown
Her: 0 green, 21 orange, 0 brown

Round 4. I offer her 11 of my green for all 21 of her orange. (Give her a good exchange rate and round up. She's irrational, I'll get it back!) Now we have:

Me: 13 green, 24 orange, 24 brown
Her: 11 green, 0 orange, 0 brown

Round 5. I offer her 6 of my brown for all 11 of her green (rounding up again.) Now we have:

Me: 24 green, 24 orange, 18 brown
Her: 0 green, 0 orange, 6 brown

Round 6. I offer her 3 of my green for all 6 of her brown. Now we have:

Me: 21 green, 24 orange, 24 brown
Her: 3 green, 0 orange, 0 brown

Round 7. I offer her 2 of my brown for all 3 of her green (rounding up.) Now we have:

Me: 24 green, 24 orange, 22 brown
Her: 0 green, 0 orange, 2 brown get the picture.

As I was calculating this out I actually found it quite hard to think about the irrational player's decisions. There is value exchange symmetry in rational trading, which is to say, it doesn't matter if I am getting higher-value units or lower-value units. Whereas I would be tempted to say to the irrational player in round 7 above, "Look, why are we going through all this? Why don't you just give me those last 2 brown because they're worth less than themselves!" (Also more than themselves. But I want them, so I wouldn't say that.)

Originally I couldn't see how to benefit from this, even hypothetically - I thought "I could keep the trade going indefinitely but not accumulate anything". The errors were a) I actually had no preference for one color over another, and b) her preference for the "better" one in any pair was arbitrarily small (e.g., she just barely liked orange better than brown), and you can't subdivide M&M's (so with rounding either you could never arrive at having almost entirely fleeced the other party, or it would take too long. On the other hand, if you benefit from the trade itself and have no preferences, and you CAN usefully subdivide, you could still benefit. But I wasn't charging M&M commissions.

There is a total wealth (by my measurement, in units of "browns") of 168 in the game, with each side (by my measurement) starting with 84 brown-units. At the end of each round, with my trades, the value I hold is 84, 126, 126, 124, 162, 156, 166. You actually can't even talk about the other player's total value because what unit do you use to measure it? If we held differing, but rational, valuations - as people do in the real world - then say my daughter values browns twice as much as orange, orange twice as much as green - we'd quickly both wind up with her holding all the brown and me holding all the green. And that would be fine. In fact there have been cases in history where people became worried about the problems that could arise when preferences were different - Isaac Newton noted that because the English and Chinese relative valuations for gold and silver were different, that in a simple system eventually one would end up with all the silver and the other with all the gold, and trade would grind to a halt. But of course the system isn't that simple, and in any event as long as preferences are rational - not circular - it wouldn't matter.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Editorial Clickbait about Psychiatry in the New England Journal of Medicine

I'm really disappointed in NEJM for publishing this piece by Gardner and Kleinman (G&K.) Overall this article is not helpful or useful. There is a cottage industry of psychiatrists writing hit pieces on our own specialty, and often they make coherent and actionable points that improve the specialty and ultimately patient outcomes. But of many valid criticisms of psychiatry, this article bizarrely focuses on two problems that pervade most of medicine, and implies that they are uniquely problems for psychiatry. The thesis seems to be that psychiatry has been damaged by reliance on a biological approach, which has stunted its ability to treat patients, and damaged our interactions with them by decreasing the quantity and quality of our interaction.

First: these two have apparently not been talking to many of their colleagues, inside and outside of psychiatry. How many physicians do you know, especially in cognitive specialties with lots of patient contact, who say "No, I don't have inappropriate time pressures on my patient interactions, and what pressures there are, are not worse than they were thirty years ago"? Most psychiatrists would love to spend more time with patients. When we don't, it's not because we've already gone through the checklist so we don't want to waste time forming rapport - it's due to the moral hazard introduced by the financial and administrative structure of modern medicine. The same argument obviously applies to many specialties outside of psychiatry.

The second part of their argument is that over-reliance on a biological approach is what has distorted psychiatry and prevented us from adequately treating patients. In case they haven't noticed, we do have psychiatric medications which work, that we didn't have a few decades ago. (They somehow fail to comment on the existence of SSRIs and second-generation antipsychotics, for example.) How is this the failure of a biological approach? It is trivially true that biological approaches to psychiatry have not yet been as fruitful as we would all like. The genomics revolution (for example) has also not benefited most branches of medicine to the degree hyped - yet. It's a bit premature to say that therefore, biological approaches like genomics have not yet benefited psychiatry and therefore will never benefit psychiatry. They have essentially not benefited any other branch of clinical medicine besides hem/onc - because it's easier to kill or poison certain cells (especially ones that are suspended structurelessly in fluid, rather than connected in a specific network, neural or otherwise) than it is to make them work better. We should expect that oncology would have been the first to benefit. In this G&K are rather like engineers in 1900 saying "we haven't achieved powered flight yet, therefore it can't be achieved ever." (Which, by the way, some engineers at the time did.)

It's unclear what G&K's solution is. Perhaps most tellingly, the voices I've seen online defending this article seem to have great difficulty understanding the definition of "syndrome", or the idea of treating empirically before the biology of a specific case or even the disease itself is clear is quite often the best approach (and again, this is not specific to psychiatry.) For instance, many psychotherapies have an impressive evidence base at this point, and if we don't understand psychopharmacology as well as we would like at the biological level, we certainly don't have anything like a fully articulated biological theory of psychotherapy either. If you have a treatments that can help - pharmacologically or otherwise - it's immoral to withhold it just because the science behind the treatment mechanism or pathophysiology is not settled. And as near as I can tell, that's exactly what G&K are proposing.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

All Perching Birds Descend From an Australian Ancestor

When I visited Australia, I remember walking around my first day seeing lorikeets and other very tropical-looking birds and thinking "Huh, I guess I'm in Gondwanaland now." Little did I did I know, all perching birds even including my own North American ones are actually Australian! This, from a new PNAS study showing that the last common ancestor was 47 MA ago in Australia. Immediate evolutionary just-so thoughts: Australia has a strange and (relative to other continents) low mammal population, which may have allowed for such a radiation within Australia. Neighboring New Zealand had no mammals at all until seven centuries ago, and is famous for its (sadly threatened) bird diversity, as well as its birds filling many roles usually taken by mammals (hence, now being threatened.) As the Earth went through pulses of cooling and drying and Australia moved north and became drier, less forested, and less hospitable for perching birds, this may have given an opportunity and incentive for a diverse bird population to spread to other continents where they hadn't had similar opportunities to get a head-start on mammals. The paper focuses more on known global climactic shifts, such as the cooling in the Oligocene-Miocene transition: "Three rate shifts [i.e. in rate of diversification] appear to have occurred almost simultaneously during the Oligocene-Miocene transition in three different oscine clades on three different continents...[obviously, after the most recent common ancestor had left Australia.]"

Oliveros CH, Field DJ, Ksepka DT, Barker K, Aleixo A, Andersen MJ, Alström P, Benz BW, Braun EL, Braun MJ, Bravo GA, Brumfield RT, Chesser RT, Claramunt S, Cracraft J, Cuervo AM, Derryberry EP, Glenn TC, Harvey MG, Hosner PA, Joseph L, Kimball RT, Mack AL, Miskelly CM, Peterson AT, Robbins MB, Sheldon FH, Silveira LF, Smith BT, White ND, Moyle RG, Faircloth BC. Earth history and the passerine superradiation. PNAS April 16, 2019 116 (16) 7916-7925

Friday, March 22, 2019

How Delusions in the Real World Disappointed My Expectations

Delusions have long been of interest to me and they're fascinating for many people. Why do people see the same thing as everyone else, but arrive a very different conclusion, and become unable to change their mind about it? I've been fortunate to be able to do basic research into this phenomenon, and in my daily practice I see and treat them frequently.

(You should note that delusions represent a small, pathologic subset of false beliefs, really a disturbed belief process distorted by different anatomy. We all have false beliefs, but hopefully we can update them when we get new information. Even when people don't update their beliefs based on relevant information - they're usually identity-forming or socially important beliefs - and frustrating though that is, that is still different than a delusion. So, no, your most un-favorite religion or political party adherents are not delusional, even if they're wrong.)

There are a number of misconceptions, or more accurately, misexpectations, that I had about delusions when I went into this business, which will be glaringly basic and obvious to any psychiatrist, but will probably not be so obvious to other people. In no particular order:
  • If and when delusions resolve, there is only rarely a "eureka" moment where the patient realizes the belief is false, or has even a significant enough increase in insight to gradually look back and sheepishly say "Yeah, I guess that wasn't true." Rather than updating the belief, people just stop being so motivated by it. That is to say, in the large majority of people, rather than the belief changing, the centrality of the belief changes. I find this very unsatisfying. "Yeah, I still think drones are probably following me everywhere but I don't worry about it that much." This isn't all that much different from belief in health - confirmation bias is all-pervasive, and recall that science advances one funeral at a time.
  • Related: you can't talk someone out of a delusion. Ever. (As the rationalist proverb goes, you can't reason someone out of a position that they didn't reason themselves into.) At best, you will waste your and their time, and at worst, you will anger them and damage your therapeutic alliance. And if the psychiatrist who gives into this urge is completely honest, it's partly informed by a need to "win" the discussion. Even if you know this intellectually, early in your career it's very difficult to avoid engaging a delusional patient in this way (partly because the patient will not infrequently challenge you to do exactly that.) At this point I'm proud to say I can mostly resist the temptation.
  • Though delusions sometimes do appear in isolation, they rarely occur without other neuropsychiatric symptoms. Even delusional disorder (where the patient has ONLY delusions) is often a misdiagnosis that evolves to something else - like dementia, especially when appearing in middle age or later, with the delusion merely as the earliest symptom. So very often, the person with a delusion is quite psychiatrically ill in many ways that make having a coherent discussion about the delusion (to hear a coherent set of delusional beliefs) very unlikely; e.g., severe paranoia that keeps them from talking to you about the details of the delusion, and/or constant hallucinations which distract them and to which they respond, or merely an inability to speak in a way that makes sense at all.
  • This one was most disappointing to me: delusions are rarely coherent, in contrast to how they are often presented in the lay media - for example, K-PAX, or the analysand in the essay The Jet-Propelled Couch (who supposedly was in reality the science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith.) They are sometimes completely bizarre and incomprehensible, and even after giving the patient a chance to explain, you still have no idea what they mean. (This is one subtle feature of thought and speech in psychosis: though the sentences might be grammatical and seem to be meaningful, strung together, you can't make sense of what they're saying or even clearly remember it ten minutes later - much like, I think not coincidentally, we struggle to remember an early morning dream even until lunchtime.) Even when delusions are "about" something comprehensive, they are only peripherally about discrete objective facts, delusions are based on affect and "primitive" themes of the sort that color nightmares[1] - pursuit, certain people being morally bad, looming organizations with sinister intent, an overwhelming sense of contamination, etc.
  • It is often striking how incurious delusional people are about their predicament - after years of, say, harassment by a sinister government agency, when one asks "Do you know why they're doing this? And where they get all these resources? And how their technology operates?" people often do little more than shrug.[2] They are also usually obviously and badly internally inconsistent, again unlike the cleverly constructed delusions in fiction. If the psychiatrist in the Terminator thought the future-warrior's tale was a delusion, he was right to be impressed by it. People will tell you (for example) that they were victimized for many years by their persecutors, until they developed their special powers at age 23 that made them immune; then in the next sentence, tell you how they were victimized at 26. Rather than becoming upset when such continuity problems are pointed out, they generally just wave it off as irrelevant and keep going.

Delusions are hard to treat; even so, medications can and do help people. But if you get into this business to hear fully elaborated, articulate, consistent delusions about time travel, space empires, or sinister (but interesting) experiments that shadowy government agencies are doing on us - you're going to be disappointed.

[1] Even in delusional "shadow syndromes" like physics crackpots or various denialists that do seem to be focused on external objective cold facts, invariably there is ranting against the Establishment and paranoia about people stealing their work, and this takes up much of the time that might otherwise in a more rational person be devoted to research or making their case.

[2] Regarding this incuriosity: delusions are not the only neuropsychiatric symptom where this feature appears. I'm agnostic as to whether this incuriosity is actually part of these diseases, or is just (unfortunately) the natural state of most humans. For example, hemi-neglect is a symptom usually seen after strokes, where the patient loses one half of space. I don't mean that they can't sense what's going on one side of them; they literally can't understand that that side of the universe exists, exactly like you or I can't perceive the fourth dimension.

To illustrate: these people lose not only the use of one half of their bodies, but the awareness that they exist. So they will deny that they have a left arm. And if you hold their (genuinely paralyzed) left arm up in front of them, they often confabulate ridiculously: "That's my sister's arm. She's hiding under the table." Now, if my doctor told me I had four arms, I would tell her she was a goof. But if she could consistently could keep holding two extra arms up in front of me that had roughly the shape and skin tone of my other arms and in the middle of a room where there was no chance of a trick, I would eventually have to concede that I was having perceptual difficulties and that I indeed had four arms, even if I couldn't tell how they attached to me. Probably a more common situation is that a hospitalized patient will demand to speak to the doctor at dinner, and as the doc enters their room, says angrily "They keep telling me this is a full-sized dinner, but look at this thing!" And they gesture to their plate, exactly one half of which is eaten. So, you turn the plate 180 degrees, and they grunt, and finish the other half of their dinner, now that it exists. Now, if tonight I complain to my wife that she only gave me half a serving of dinner, and she glared at me and reached over and did something I didn't understand and suddenly my plate was full again as if it had passed partway through my dimension like a sphere in Flatland, I think I would say "Whoa! You just magically produced food out of the fourth dimension! I don't understand how you did it, but could you do it again?" But that's not how people usually react, which implies there's a loss of insight or ability to update associated with this condition. It should not be missed that most neglect is left neglect (meaning, a right-sided lesion), and that one theory of delusion holds that somatic delusions can be caused by right frontal lesions, and that some sort of functional right hypofrontality is required for the lack of insight inherent to all delusions, somatic or otherwise.

Monday, March 11, 2019

In Medicine, Rounding Works

Rounding is a time-honored tradition where doctors meet to talk about cases, either in a meeting room (the "rounding room" was named after a specific room at Hopkins) or at/near the bedside. Most often associated with inpatient medicine teams especially in training environments, the treating physician will present the case and discuss it with her colleagues. Not only is it thought that in this way, medical decision-making benefits from collective intelligence, but the anxiety provoked by immediate criticism (especially in trainees) sharpens one's thinking. A study in JAMA Network Open supports this. Teams here were internal medicine teams composed of multiple levels of training, from med students up to attendings. I don't think the findings would be too domain specific, but at a guess, I imagine the benefit would be even greater for psychiatry than for internal medicine, as psychiatry's diagnoses are fuzzier and more subjective.

Groups don't always arrive at better decisions than individuals - especially groups of non-expert individuals with no feedback - but teams with people who are experts, and who do get feedback benefit from collective intelligence, do better than individuals alone. So qualitatively this isn't surprising, but a problem in medicine is lack of quantitative thinking; especially in my specialty, psychiatry, where studies are constantly coming out showing that medical or psychiatric illness X increases the risk of psychiatric illness Y. No kidding! By how much is what we want to know. So what's the actual benefit of rounding?

For groups of 9, on average you need to treat about 4 people before you make a diagnosis that an individual would have missed (i.e. NNT is about 4.)

For groups of 5, NNT = 6.

For groups of 2, NNT = 8.

The simple plot below shows the % accuracy improvement per person based on group size, and again not surprisingly, there's a diminishing marginal return for adding more people. (Where does it go to zero? Nine is already on the big size for a rounding team.)

This of course doesn't take into account rounding time, which is a real consideration, and big teams are slow. Maybe the % improvement per minute drops at a certain point.

Therefore, don't hesitate to curbside-consult your colleague, because just by talking to one other person, every eight patients you're making a more accurate diagnosis.

Barnett ML, Boddupalli D, Nundy S, Bates DW, et al. Comparative Accuracy of Diagnosis by Collective Intelligence of Multiple Physicians vs Individual Physicians. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(3):e190096. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.0096

Friday, February 15, 2019

An Obvious Healthcare Cost-Savings Proposal, That Doctors and Patients Will Obviously Resist

Arnold Kling draws attention to a proposal by Karl Denninger, which includes the following:
No government funded program or government billed invoice will be paid for medical treatment where a lifestyle change will provide a substantially equivalent or superior benefit that the customer refuses to implement. The poster child for this is Type II diabetes, where cessation of eating carbohydrates and PUFA oils, with the exception of moderate amounts of whole green vegetables (such as broccoli) will immediately, in nearly all sufferers, return their blood sugar to near normal or normal levels...This one change alone will cut somewhere between $350 and $400 billion a year out of Federal Spending and, if implemented by private health plans as well, likely at least as much in the private sector.
The tone gets even more pointed, and more accurate, further on.

Denninger further points out the core values-disconnect that makes talking about healthcare so difficult. That disconnect is that we are trading dollars and human suffering back and forth, and there's no way around this brute fact, ever, except to hide it from both buyers and sellers. This makes the system nauseatingly inefficient, whether we're talking about centralized planning or a free market.
Americans, and especially health care providers, do not want to think of health care as a commodity. The providers want to be paid, but they do not want to think of themselves as selling their services, so the payment comes from third parties and the price is hidden to consumers...All surgical providers of any sort must publish de-identified procedure counts and account for all complications and outcomes, updated no less often than monthly. Consumers must be able to shop not only on price, but also on outcomes.
This will be unpopular as both patients and doctors want to avoid responsibility for bad choices - but now that we're all paying for people to keep eating McDonald's and performing poorly-evidence-supported surgeries so they can buy a vacation home - we will have to make some hard choices.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Picture from a Recent Trip to Vienna I Somehow Forgot to Post

...before my residency's required psychoanalytic training ended and grades were in. This is the Freud Museum in Vienna, which used to be his flat and office, and is still a regular (nice) apartment building. (A hand-written sign taped to a current resident's door on the ground floor by the entrance explained in unsubtly annoyed German that the Freud Museum was upstairs.) I do have to admit a grudging admiration for Freud's self-promotion. At this point, I invite you to say pseudo-profound things in an Austrian accent about how my early life experiences led me to struggle against authority, I want to kill my father, etc. I loved Vienna and Central Europe generally, even including this museum. You will note I did grow a beard for the occasion, but at no point had a cigar.

The most interesting thing in the museum was the microtome on display, which he used to make brain sections. I imagine him thinking, "You can never get anywhere doing it this way...maybe I'll convince people I have the power to do the same thing by talking to people!" There was also a picture of him with fellow Viennese intellectual socialites, one of whom was an immediately striking and intense woman who turned out to be Ludwig Wittgenstein's sister. Also, in German the parts of the subconscious are just rendered in German (not Latin), as "Das Ich Und Das Es" ("The Ego and the Id") which somehow takes away some of the authoritative punch.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

American English: Examples of Within-Our-Lifetime Language Change

I once saw a translation of Beowulf from the early twentieth century, which used "throve" as the past tense of "thrive." Interestingly, this means that even the "modern" translation is now outdated, since during the twentieth century "thrived" replaced "throve." Language waits for no one.

I have noticed one particular shift in American English: "buck naked" has become "butt naked." No doubt readers younger than mid-30s will have never heard "buck naked" and wonder what I’m talking about. The explanation for the shift is that in some varieties of Black American English, the "k" sound at the end of buck becomes a glottal stop, which is then heard and reproduced as a t in most accents of American English. In conclusion - it’s BUCK, not butt, and you kids get off my lawn.

Also, many Californians pronounce the "-ing" verb suffix as "-een"; it's more prominent the further south you go in the state (Think Blink 182 - they’re from San Diego), which suggests it's from language contact with Spanish. When asked about this, people who clearly produce the morpheme this way, some people have insisted to me that they say it it the same as an -ing; this is common for people who speak non-received dialects that differ subtly, since they actually cannot hear the difference between the two phones. I once saw a young student learning to spell, write out a verb phonetically that way, ie "bildeen" for building. I mention this because as California becomes more prominent in American culture, I expect its dialect to become more prestigious, and people elsewhere will start imitating it - so by mid-century, people in e.g. the Midwest may be saying -een instead of -ing.

Serious Parfitians Should Strongly Support the Genesis Project

Genesis is a project to seed bacterial life elsewhere in the universe, founded by Claudius Gros. The aim is to build spacecraft that would deliberately seed nearby exoplanets with bacteria, in geological time, kick-starting life in the universe. This gives those planets a head start on eventually evolving something like intelligence. This would seem not only to multiply the numbers of being capable of having lives worth living, but to dramatically increase the chances of an intelligence (a species with a life most worth living) that escapes its home system to avoid black swan apocalypses, singularities, etc. and spreads indefinitely, filling the universe with happiness.

A Parfitian could well respond that it's anything but certain that such a project would produce a universe-filling life form capable of happiness, and she would be right. But choosing an action with limited information is the problem with all action selection. On the spectrum of uncertainty, seeding the universe with life > friendly singularity > avoiding biological disaster > avoiding nuclear war > electing the right people in your country > cleaning your room. The problem is that the consequence to total happiness is in the same order.

So what's the argument for the pursuing a friendly singularity, over seeding exoplanets? Or singularity issues over cleaning your room?

I submit that we don't really know. That's not to say that the singularity or bio-apocalypse can't happen. Unfortunately I'm worried that as we become more powerful but not better at estimating uncertainty, something like this will eventually be fatal for us, and Drake's omega variable will be a little clearer.

See also GENU, the Gambit of Extreme Negative Utility.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Decision-making for Profound Life Choices Isn't Much Like Decision-Making

There's a great article in the New Yorker about how life's biggest decisions seem to...just kind of happen. There's a short round-up of books and articles considering the paradox, some explaining it in terms of not knowing what the thing you want will actually be like, some by examining how aspiration is really meta-wanting (wanting to want something), and some by pointing out that our values and goals change over time in ways we could not have predicted ahead of time. On this last point I would superimpose a mechanism of biological imperatives; you don't decide to start wanting kids any more than you decide to get a carb craving.

I've noticed a similar experience with not having access to my own calculations, more for my decision to become a physician than to become a dad, although even with fatherhood, why now, here, with this person, is similarly hazy.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Valence vs Priority Disagreements in Public Debate; Plus, The Gambit of Extreme Negative Utility

1. In public discourse, usually, most people do not have valence differences when they disagree, but rather differences of priority. This is especially true in politics. Concrete example: most people agree that racism is bad. The disagreement tends to be about how important it is to eliminate racism right now, relative to other problems. A valence disagreement occurs in this case when a white supremacist says no, actually, racism is good. Valence disagreements are of course much more intractable. Online discourse over the past few years has raised disagreements about priority to the same level of intractability, by turning priority disagreements into valence disagreements, e.g., "You shouldn't be talking about anything else right now but keeping out illegal immigrants. I don't care if you say you're against illegal immigration, if fighting illegal immigration isn't your number one priority, then you're actually for illegal immigration."

2. One trick to make your argument demand top priority is to claim that there is a massively, or even infinitely negative consequence for not adjusting one's actions in the ways required of a rational actor if the argument is true - or claiming that there is such a consequence even for ignoring the argument. Organized religion makes the most famous such claims, but the outcomes feared by certain political ideologies (if they don't get their way) can approach the same severity. This is the Gambit of Extreme Negative Utility (GENU.) Related to this, a counterargument to Pascal's wager is that you don't know which version of which religion is the right one, but as I saw a very clever Christian argue online, you have to assume infinite religions to choose from for the expected utility to work out in favor of ignoring Pascal's claim (although this still doesn't tell us which one to choose.) So what do we do? Do we set an arbitrary cut-off for utility beyond which we assume someone is lying to get our attention? This seems very dangerous, unless we think there are no rare events with far greater negative utility than we expect beforehand. So if we throw out Hell, Orwell's boot on a human face forever, and white supremacists' fear of a world overwhelmed by non-white barbarism, don't we also have to stop worrying about the Great Filter, the technological singularity, and CRISPR-derived biological weapons made by suicide cults? [Added later: turns out that Pascal's Mugging, a concept in the rationality world, captures the essence of this - any risk/benefit scenario can be overwhelmed by claimed arbitrarily large or infinite negative utility, which Christians like Pascal call "Hell".]

3. It matters which arguments we spend time and attention considering, because although humans seem to have an implicit assumption of infinite time and attention to consider arguments, of course we do not.

Hence, most authorities use some form of agenda-setting and distraction to influence discourse.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Biomass on Earth, by Taxon

From Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo in PNAS, 2018. Immediate stats that come to mind which are maybe more applicable to astrobiology: how many calories (or molecules or glucose) produced per unit energy of sunlight, per unit mass of plants? How about per overall energy produced by the sun (decreased by distance from sun and cloud cover on Earth)? How about base pairs per unit mass of taxon? Viruses probably win that one handily. And finally - an animation over time, where we see the branches appear, mass extinctions, and finally at the end a blossoming of birds and mammals which is really just livestock (or DOES livestock actually out-mass the pre-Holocene wild mammal and bird mass?)

The only thing here that really surprises me is that molluscs are higher mass than I expected, and nematodes lower mass.