Metrics in Everything: “Human Lives”

Epistemic Status: Ranting with the fire of a thousand suns

I was on page 48 of the (so far) otherwise interesting and enjoyable Algorithms to Live By, a birthday gift from my friend Jacob who writes the blog Put a Num on It, in which the authors Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths was discussing the Explore/Exploit dynamic and the virtues of A/B testing, when I came upon the following passage, which caused a strong instinct in me to say ‘until you have properly ranted about this you are not allowed to continue reading this book’:

In fact, these distinctions turn out to matter immensely-and it’s not just presidential elections and the internet economy that are at stake.

It’s also human lives.

No. Big No. A thousand times no. Stop. Just stop. Seriously, no, just stop. Now. All of you.

Human lives that might come to a proximate end are not the trump card. They are not the one and only metric that determines worthiness. The world is not divided into non-overlapping magisteria, Things That Are Human Lives, and Things That Might Effect Humans But Are Not Directly And Explicitly At-Risk Human Lives, with everything in the first magisteria more important than everything in the second magisteria.

You also can’t solve this problem by shifting some group of additional things from the second magisteria into the first magisteria.

You cannot say: Yes, I understand that when we talked about raising $57 million dollars for a presidential campaign, we were talking about only politics or only money. When we were talking about the entire internet economy, we were only talking about a bit of technology or only money. All of that pales in comparison to this one marginal improvement I will show you in one tiny corner of health care, because that might save a life, and therefore I win.

I also note that some people are still wondering why we have a cost disease problem.

If I wanted to refute this particular example, I could point to the fact that the presidential campaign in question resulted, for good or ill, in the passage of a bill that gave health insurance to tens of millions of Americans. Human lives were at stake!

If I wanted to defend the internet economy, I could point out that it enables people to get better medical information, find doctors and insurance plans, find alternate solutions, get better treatment, and also hold up our entire economy thereby allowing us to keep paying for all that health care we keep buying. Human lives were at stake!

I don’t want to do either of those things, because I shouldn’t have to.

On one level, I shouldn’t have to because those truths should be obvious. But on a more important level, I shouldn’t have to because these truths should be unnecessary.

It is good and right that we disagree on the question “Conan, what is best in life?” and most of us strongly disagree with Conan’s answer, but I would hope we can all agree that “not dying”is, at best, a terribly incomplete answer.

We (almost) all know that, of course. Our aliefs (almost) all agree. Almost every day we get up and do things other than minimize people’s chances of death that day or maximize people’s expected future lifespan. And all of this is coming from a guy who thinks of ‘living longer than the expected lifespan of the Sun’ as not only a good idea but a life goal worth working towards.

It is not enough to know this. It is not even enough to act like it when you make decisions for yourself. You have to act like it to others. You must act like it when you make decisions for everyone. You need to speak like it, write like it, debate and judge argument like it. You must assign status like it. You need to actually vote for the torture over the dust specks if and only if that is the answer you  get when you shut up and multiply. No excuses.

If you hear someone say something like the quoted passage above, let alone say the exact words “but human lives are at stake!” then act the same way you would if someone had just said “think of the children.

Let us not belittle, or shame, or price into bare subsistence with insurance costs and regulations and moral obligations, the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker.

Now that we have this as a reference I and others can link back to, I can now resume reading the book. Good talk.






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The AI Paper with The Best Title Ever

Epistemic Status: Confident I understood the paper, but no promises on its implications

The title is “Learning to learn by gradient descent by gradient descent.” If anyone can top that title I am eager to hear about it. The idea is a good one on the merits, but I still suspect that one of the authors thought of the title and then decided to implement the technique in order to justify using the name as the title of a paper. That may sound like a lot of work, since it involved a lot of coding and eventually eight authors, but when you see a golden opportunity, it would be wrong not to seize it.

The paper is conceptually simple. Like most things that actually happen in AI (or elsewhere), the question in hindsight seems more like “why did it take so long for someone to do this?” rather than “how did you think of that?”

Machine learning is almost always done via gradient descent plus a few tricks. Gradient descent has a lot of parameters whose optimal values interact and are not obvious, and you can tinker with those parameters to try and improve its performance. That sounds a lot like a problem you can solve using… gradient descent.

They do this on some problems where gradient descent already gets a reasonable answer. They do what seems like the simplest thing, and use an LSTM optimizer on each parameter. It works. Performance is noticeably improved versus existing benchmarks.

One, two, three, victory! That is pretty cool.

Presumably the next thing to do is to learn to learn to learn by gradient descent by gradient descent by gradient descent, since the LSTM optimizer does not sound especially optimized but there’s this great idea for solving that particular problem. There might even be a clever trick that allows us to extend this to using a level of the network to tune itself, if you choose the right look-ahead for the optimization target.

This is what passes for meta-learning these days. How useful is it? How dangerous is it?

The process seems useful, but finitely useful. In the end, what you are left with is still a gradient descent algorithm that solves the original problem. We can find a better set of parameters, which should improve performance, but only if the problem was already solvable and only so much improvement will be available. In that case, you will find the best solution the system is capable of finding, and find it faster, assuming you don’t waste too much time meta-learning.

If the original problem was previously unsolvable, going into this recursion seems unlikely to turn it into a solvable one. I would be surprised if they could point to a problem and say “without this technique, our best efforts were completely useless, but then we tried meta-descent and now we have something reasonable” rather than “here is a problem we had a reasonable solution for, and here is a better one.”

This means it also does not seem especially dangerous in terms of assembling an AGI, except as a building block that makes the key insights easier to implement. The meta-learning we have is not the true meta-learning.

It does seem dangerous in the sense that narrow AI is dangerous, in that the better we get at sniffing out local maxima out of our metrics, without being able to step outside of those metrics, the more we risk those overpowered metrics eating our under-specified goals. Getting the system to output a better number takes over, and we stop thinking. The more I think about such outcomes, the more worrisome they seem to be.

I am just getting started thinking about machine learning and the current state of AI; I was completely out of the loop for several years. For more, and better, thinking along these lines, from someone who has read, talked and thought about these issues a lot more, Sarah Constantin just came out with Strong AI Isn’t Here Yet.  When I have digested that, I hope to say more.



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Book Review: How Asia Works by Joe Studwell


How Asia Works has a theory about how development economics works: You must follow The Way. To the extent that you follow The Way, your country will prosper. To the extent that you fail to follow The Way, your country will languish. The Way is divided into three commandments:

  1. Thou shalt enact real land reform.
  2. Thou shalt protect infant industries and enforce upon them export discipline.
  3. Thou shalt repress and direct thine financial system.

The author is supremely confident in his conclusions, considering them “proven” by history. He takes us on tours of Asian countries, to show us the wonders that await the faithful, and the failures of those who strayed from The Way. He does not, however, expect us to take his prescriptions on faith. He explains why there is no other way but The Way, shows how each divergence leads to ruin. At each step of development, he has a model for what is going on, whether or not he quite describes or thinks of himself as having one, and all three models fit into a unified model of how to think about developing countries.

It also implies a lot about the developed world, along with other interesting consequences, but he never mentions this. My guess for why is that they are not conclusions he particularly likes.

From here on in, except where stated otherwise, I’ll be stating the book’s perspective rather than my own, and what seem like its implications.

Let’s take a look at the model’s components, starting with the first one: Agriculture.


The model goes something like this:

In America, farms are big. Really big. No, bigger than that. Farms are big! Labor, on the other hand, is expensive. Thus, we build our agriculture around being able to get a reasonable crop out of a large amount of land, rather than trying to maximize the yield on a farm of a given size.

In most other places, farms are small, and land is often a limiting factor. In places like Japan and South Korea, every inch of available farmland is in use, so it is vital to maximize yield on that land. If you get good farm yields, you can export food to generate precious foreign capital, whereas if you get bad yields, you need to import food, eating up the money you need to spend on industrialization. The question is, what determines yields?

The thesis of this section is that intensive, motivated labor is the most important input, with proper tools and equipment a distant but vital second place.

In order to get the most out of land, you need to know it inside and out, and be willing to work tirelessly day after day. You need to know where you can plant multiple crops at once, and when to weed them and how to scape them so they will both grow, and how to rotate them to never waste a day. You need to work to improve the soil, to rest and renew it, to learn new techniques. The hourly rate on all of this is, shall we say, not great, but it is also non-zero, and there aren’t any good alternative ways to turn your hard work into money.

Traditionally, the land in villages is mostly or entirely owned by the rich. These rich then rent out the land, or hire laborers to work it for them. Either way, this creates at least four problems. The first problem is that the poor workers are not properly motivated to maximize the crop, because even assuming they keep a portion of the crop, they are paying a tax, often 40% or more, to the landlord. What you sell, they’ll give you a terrible price for, since the local rich dude, likely sporting a villain mustache, is a monopsony buyer. The second is that they have even less incentive to maximize next year’s crop by learning about and improving the land. Why work hard to improve someone else’s land? If you make it thrive, they reap the benefits. Third, you won’t have the right equipment, tools or fertilizer. You can’t afford it! Even if you could afford it, you’d be paying to improve a crop you have to pay a huge tax on, so it wasn’t worth it. And if you’re short on funds, the only way to get more is to borrow it, at 100%+ yearly interest rates, from the local rich dude with the mustache.

In this world, the poor are always broke, always on the verge of starvation. Their crops are taxed, their profits cheated, their loans usurious. They have no chance to escape the trap, and will never be the producers of the surplus the country needs, nor the savers, spenders and consumers that are necessary for the next stage in the plan.

The good news is that there is a solution: Land reform!

Land reform is a simple idea. You take the land, and you give it to the farmers.

This tends to be unpopular with the rich dudes with the mustaches. You offer them compensation for the land you took, but it is in the form of money, you pay it out over time at a rate of interest far less than inflation, and it was already much less than land typically is sold for, so mostly you’re just taking the land by force.

They are understandably upset about this, so the landowners do everything they can to stop you. They will try to keep as much land as they can, and the best land, for themselves. Where that does not work, they will do their best to deny the new owners what they need to survive. They’ll buy their crops at bargain basement prices, lend them money for equipment and tools, and money for simple survival when the money runs out, at usurious rates, and cheat in every way you can think of, to get the poor to sell the land back to them.

By default, the rich will succeed. Even without most of the land, they’ll still have a lot more wealth and power. With no margin for error, every year is an invitation to disaster. One by one, the new owners will fall on hard times and have to borrow, or sell the land back. Once they start falling behind, it gets steadily worse. Because of this, the government needs to do more than just land reform. It also needs to make sure the new owners have a whole support infrastructure in place. They need buyers to ensure a decent price for their crops, irrigation and fertilizer for their land, a tractor they can share, new higher quality seeds, and other neat stuff like that. Otherwise, you fail – for example, Meiji Japan tried land reform without enough secondary help, and it worked for a while, but by World War II the old owners had back most of the land.

With enough help, the result is self-sustaining and rapidly pays for itself. With their own land to work and improve, and the tools they need, yields double and triple. Even in places where land reform mostly didn’t work, there are pockets – he looks at one in The Philippines – where it succeeds because an NGO or other source steps in and provides that help. Soon everyone is not only not starving but has a surplus, a surplus that creates a domestic market for your new industries, and savings and exports that will be your sources of hard currency.

Land reform also has the side benefit of killing support for a communist revolution. Since communist revolution is the actual worst thing that can happen, that is a pretty great side benefit.

This already has lots of interesting implications. Huge, if true!

Once you have this under control, your country is ready for step two.


In the How Asia Works model, industrialization is fragile and requires careful guidance. By default, you will do all the wrong things, because the most short-term profitable things to do don’t lead to long term success. Long term success depends on developing the skills and knowledge to compete on the international stage, and not rely on foreigners for the highest value parts of the production chain. The problem is that this is a long-term project, and it will lose money for a while.

The first step of The Way is to protect your infant industries. The book says everyone has always done this: England, America, Germany are the prime examples outside Asia, and the book claims there are no exceptions. Without protection, your first attempt at a product will suck and no one will buy it when they could import something instead, so you have no market, no profits, not even reasonable feedback loops for learning, and you never get off the ground on your own. Instead, all you do is make your labor available to foreigners who will run the factories, keep all the vital knowledge to themselves, and also keep most of the profits.

Now that you have protected yourself with tariffs and used land reform to create a rural surplus, you now have a captive domestic market for your goods. That starts with textiles because they are low skill and can actually be competitive, so everyone always starts with textiles, but the quicker you move beyond that, the better. They will need your cars, your steel, your widgets of all shapes and sizes. This provides the incentive necessary to build a factory that produces crappy cars and another that produces crappy steel, so you can learn how to make cars and steel that aren’t as crappy.

By granting an oligopoly the right to produce for the domestic market, and giving them access to low-interest loans, you make sure that production happens, and soon you have captains of industry. The problem is, captains of industry do not want to be captains of industry. That sounds like a lot of work, and not that much profit. Sure, they will happily use foreign expertise to sell their crappy cars and crappy steel to a protected domestic market. That part sounds great! But learn how to compete for real? Invest in the future? Why do that when you can make a quick buck and use it to build casinos and luxury condos?

In cases where these seekers of rent are allowed to do that, that’s exactly what they do. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good poker game and I love me a good luxury apartment, but they are not the path to industrialization and a modern economy. On a fundamental level, they don’t produce anything. They are consumption goods, without the positive externalities you are looking to compound over decades.

A smart government, therefore, will make sure that doesn’t happen. In exchange for the right to sell to this captive domestic market, the captains need to invest in the future. The government will decide what industries and technologies are important, and guide them, using the levers of finance and regulation to force compliance. The captains must take on the projects of Vital National Interest, even if the returns are not as good. Year by year, they must use more domestic inputs, even if they need to develop those inputs themselves. They must use every deal as a way to get the foreign devils to give you access to their technology, and you reverse engineer everything you need and learn to operate it on your own, even if that slows you down. If you don’t understand it, you don’t do it, period. Remember, you’re getting massive subsidies from the government, so doing things the hard way is survivable.

Most importantly, they must be subject to export discipline.

Export discipline is the magic that makes all of this work. If you don’t have to export, you never get the feedback on what the consumer market wants, and you never stop producing crap. The Soviets learned this the hard way, and never learned how to produce consumer goods. But if you make the exporting a condition of the massive (and oh boy are they massive) subsidies you are throwing at these captains, they will sell their products overseas no matter what. They will take a loss. They will find no one wants to buy, even then, and they will ask why, and they will learn. They will iterate. And over time, they will figure out how to make something that can compete.

Other countries will of course try to tell you that this isn’t fair, and you can’t be doing this, but you just don’t listen to them and you do it anyway. They won’t be happy, but they benefit enough from trading with you that they’ll put up with it.

The companies that can’t or won’t export, you cut off from the free flow of cheap money. They die.

Thanks to export discipline, together with massive subsidies, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan learned what the global market wanted, and figured out how to provide it, reaching the technological frontier in the places their governments led them. At this point, you have a Sony or a Samsung, and you can (mostly) let them find their own way.

Think of the model as saying that some investments have massive positive externalities for the country. The captains of industry won’t capture those gains, so they will make choices that are right for them but wrong for you, the same way that the mustache-twirling lords of the countryside were doing things that were good for them but horrible for the country. Once again, you must force them to do what you want. Using massive bribes everywhere, and outright coercion when necessary (e.g. General Park of South Korea showing he was willing to throw his capitalists in jail if they didn’t do what he wanted) you can correct the incentives, point them towards your country’s long term needs, avoid the easy paths that don’t have a future, and be on the road to success.

There is just one more problem you need to solve, and that’s finance.


Finance has the same nasty habit as the captains of industry do, which is the desire to make as much money as possible. Like the captains, the bankers get to use their position to make tons of money. They have a captive source of savings that they can pay negative real interest rates. Financial repression makes sure of that. On top of that you have even more cheap funding from the government because the government needs you to make even more loans than that so it can keep subsidizing all those captains of industry it wants to build shiny new factories that take a decade to make any money.

The government even has to bail the bankers out if they fail. So being a banker is a pretty nice work if you can get it.

The problem, from a development perspective, is that the way to make as much money as possible is to do one of two things.

Option one is to loan money out at the highest possible rate of interest. They then tend to go out and create things like casinos and luxury condos, often not even in your country. That’s the fair and honest play.

Option two is to loan money to your friends and engage in massive corruption. That’s the natural outcome if you’re not careful.

You want neither of these things to happen. Instead, you want your bankers making loans to people who will produce things, in your country, that lead to industrialization via the learning process in part II, and further improve the fiscal situation. You especially don’t want the money leaving the country for projects elsewhere.

The way you do this is that you directly reward banks that make loans to the industries and companies you like, by rewarding them with more cheap funds and renewing their charters. The banks that try to make loans to people who want to borrow money for “non-productive” purposes, or who loan to cronies or other projects that don’t prove themselves, find themselves on the outside looking in, without additional funds. You take the money from taxes, and the money from financial repression, and funnel it into development.

Where you do this, the financial system is an asset and works for you. With so much subsidy, the fact that these loans are at moderate interest rates, often negative real interest rates, is fine; the bank is de facto acting as a branch of the government much of the time. If you do not do this, you get banks using the people’s money to build casinos and condos, or worse, outright stealing the money via corruption.

Capital controls are also vital. If you allow foreign money to flow freely in and out, three very bad things happen. First, they will use that money to produce the dreaded consumption goods, which will then get consumed and will consume people’s money, hurting your development. Second, to the extent the money is productive at all, it will go towards exactly the short-term kind of production that doesn’t teach your country how to do things for themselves, letting the foreigners to reap the benefits. Third, because the money is constantly seeking the best possible returns and moves in giant flows of greed and fear, when trouble comes, all the money will run away and turn a manageable situation into a crisis like in 1998.

Now you know The Way.


The natural enemy of The Way is The Washington Consensus. Largely because of the ideological commitment to capitalism and struggle against communism, people like the IMF are fanatically pushing “free markets” which means not protecting your industries, not controlling the flows of money, and counting on everyone’s self-interest to fix all your problems. The model says this is disastrous, because the externalities involve steering resources in all the wrong directions.

Alas, the IMF is one of the only sources of badly needed money, so once South Asian countries fell behind, they had no choice but to kowtow.

The other enemy is lack of understanding of what must be done. The South Asian states like Indonesia and Malaysia understood that Japan and South Korea had a good thing going, but they did not realize what caused their success. Export discipline was dropped. Land reform was incomplete. If you do a half-baked job of The Way, The Way will do a half-baked job of getting you there, and you will fall further and further behind. This also forms the fully general excuse: If something went wrong, something wasn’t done correctly.

He also makes some comments about China, but I will skip those as they did not seem especially insightful.


Now that we have Studwell’s perspective, it is time to turn this into a model of a how one might develop a country. At the start, there is a giant pool of unused and under-utilized labor. By giving those workers land and other complements to their labor, you allow them to work extra hard. By default, you earn huge returns on your investments, because rural interest rates are effectively over 100%, even if you can’t capture those gains directly. Labor stops being wasted and starts producing more output, which creates a surplus of goods and labor. Using financial repression and protected markets, you then capture much of that surplus, which you can use to hire the labor, and to industrialize.

Industrialization and finance create natural oligopolies, which means those who get to participate will make economic profits. You increase those profits by feeding the system the rural surplus. By controlling who gets to participate in these inherently profitable activities, you have immense leverage over their activities. You use that leverage to steer them towards actions that drive production rather than consumption, and that have positive externalities in the form of technological know-how to produce more. You also steer them towards creating jobs, because that is also a strong positive externality; you ensure labor isn’t standing idle.

All of these activities then create productive capacity and technological catch-up. You avoid buying things that do not do this, so your balance of payments is good. The longer you can steer everyone away from consumption, or from taking their surplus elsewhere, the longer you can enjoy this compounding interest, and your country rapidly gets richer. Eventually, you’ve caught up, at which point you can engage in free trade and free capital markets and let your people have nice things.

Export discipline is necessary for two reasons. One, it forces industry to learn what people actually want and how to produce it, in real competition. They get the benefits of a competitive marketplace. Second, it allows you to judge whether industry is doing real things, and cull those who are not performing. In theory, this is a way around the socialist calculation problem as well as give people the incentive to work.

That is the heart of the trick. The system aims to simultaneously give everyone a surplus, and also get the incentive and discovery benefits of robust markets. That is when markets work best. Everyone has slack, and externalities and market failures are mostly being fixed.

Rural markets break down because there isn’t enough density to create competition, allowing the local rich to use monopoly power to capture all or more than all of the surplus. Rather than destroying free markets, smart redistribution creates them.

Local markets provide a place to develop and test early stage manufactured goods without being wiped out by foreign competition. Export discipline then allows you to get the price signal and other information that full competition gives you, without getting wiped out by competitors that have a huge head start, or allowing outsiders to extract the rural surplus.

Financial markets under this system are more heavy handed, with banks serving mostly to execute industrial policy, but if that policy is staying sensitive to price signals and can remain free of corruption, maybe that is all right. The system guards against finance capturing the surplus, or creating a financial crisis every few years.


Should one buy any of this?

Good question. Studwell believes something. Clearly, he is massively overconfident. He considers his thesis “proven” by the historical record, as if that was even a thing. He is also being selective and presenting facts that support his thesis, taking us on tours of carefully selected portions of carefully selected regions, and not even trying to be even handed. His theory has a central concept that reduces his complexity penalty, but it’s still a pretty big penalty. At each step, there is a correct set of things to do, and the extent to which you comply perfectly determines success. You can rank countries from most compliant (Japan and South Korea, then Taiwan) down to least compliant. No doubt the details are overfit and given oversize importance.

That is true even without checking his facts, or looking for things he so conveniently overlooked to strengthen his case. Two colleagues saw me reading the book. Both commented that the book seemed small, given its title.

My answer, despite all of that, is a tentative ‘partially.’ I think there’s true and important things being pointed at, especially with regards to agricultural policy and its role in success. I extracted a useful model, another perspective on how things can work. Given what I normally get out of similar books, that has to be considered a roaring success.


What does this then imply about potential interventions now? What does it suggest about first world policies?

There is a clear intervention being suggested heavily, which is land reform and rural aid. The book mentions that there are NGOs that do this. One can go in, buy land, and then distribute it to local farmers, and give them the tools and equipment, and market access, they need to succeed. If we model the rural poor as existing in a world where interest rates are over 100% per year, then investing in them should have very good returns. If they can stop borrowing money at those rates, or selling their crops at harvest time when they have to accept steep price discounts, what was a failure to make ends meet suddenly is a surplus that can be used to improve the farm or send kids to school. If it works as advertised, this becomes self-sustaining.

The other intervention is less personally actionable and more well-known: allowing free trade with developing nations, even if they are not giving us symmetrical terms. If export discipline is key to success in development, and development is the best way to lift people out of poverty, then shutting people out of our markets, or demanding that they engage in ‘fair’ practices that effectively shut them out, is the worst thing you can do. These developing nations are effectively buying an education from us, making little or no (or less than no) profits to get the benefits of real market tests. That’s win-win, so denying them this isn’t just cruel, it’s downright evil.

For the first world’s internal house, there are a number of parallels that imply policies.

A big implication is that government should work to shape the incentives of companies and individuals in a way that better accounts for the externalities they have on the economy (also externalities on other things, of course) while retaining strong market mechanisms. For example, if you believe that creating jobs creates a large positive externality, those that create jobs should get paid for doing that, the same way that a company should be taxed or punished for polluting a river. We should tax consumption rather than production, and in particular we should seek to heavily tax consumption of positional and signaling goods. This also happens to have lots of other nice properties for other reasons.

The market mechanisms are even more important. Everywhere in the book that a government tried an intervention without forcing the participants to face a continuous market test, the results went nowhere. Everywhere around us today we see areas of developed economies that no longer face good market tests, and thus we get the recent discussions of cost disease in health care, in education, in housing costs, in subway construction. Export discipline is a great trick because it means that not only the participants must pass a market test. The rules and regulations you impose must also pass a market test. If outsiders have to choose to buy our products, without any compulsion to do so, that forces us to get our house in order, no matter whose ‘fault’ it is.

The key insight here might be that the market test can be distinct from the bulk of how you distribute the good. So long as some purchasing is done in a free and open market, you can use those market prices and standards as a baseline. Maybe instead of throwing the entire health care market open, we can create some sort of smaller test world (any state want to volunteer?) where we can ‘export’ our care into a free market (foreigners who come here for health care definitely help, but their willingness to pay is through the roof, so they’re not going to solve our cost problem for us), and pay only a fraction of the costs while getting much of the benefit of market signals. Then use the same trick in other places. Maybe.

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Things that want to be posts

Epistemic Status: Attempting Epistemology

Structural Status: Necessary but pretty probably terrible

I was at an unconference this past weekend. One of the things that became clear to me was that I need to be writing again, and writing more, and that I was not doing that because I was afraid of it. Which is further evidence I should probably be doing it. And it is known that the best way to do it, is to start doing it.

I also realized that real conversations are better than fake conversations, and that this distinction was actually a thing, which means I should be worried less about getting something correct and good enough exactly, or getting it ‘done’ than in actually sharing my thought process and reasoning and so forth. It is not like I didn’t know that real was better than fake or that this thing that we called real was more real than the fake but I did not have the names for the concepts so even though I did understand that this was what my best conversations had and what my Magic articles had (and was what allowed me to output so many of them) it did not properly resonate.

I suspect that is also why the sequences worked even though they choose horrible examples and have tons of things that now seem like mistakes, and when Eliezer later sat down to try and write a book, it didn’t work right.

I would sit and think: I should write something but I don’t know what and feel out of ideas which is insane because I’m Zvi Mowshowitz and I’m full of ideas, or at least curiosity and attempts to understand things, except when I’m not, and that was pretty awful and I should get on fixing that and I had help doing that and this seems way better now and hopefully I can hang on to that.

I didn’t know what to do first but I also wanted to make sure I set myself up to do a lot so I wanted to put down and make public that I had put down seeds to other things that I want to think about by writing about them. I think most of my best writing works that way: I don’t know what I am going to say not because I have not decided what to say, but because I actually don’t know the things until I start saying them, at which point I figure them out, or if those aren’t the things I am going to say, I figure out something else. That also happens.

So to motivate myself, here is a list of things in my head right now that want to be blog posts, or at least have aspirations of wanting to be blog posts, or that I want to think about in the form of blog posts. Feel free to add additional suggestions or give +1s, and this does not include reacting to other people’s things, which I think is on the top of my mental stack often and which is important to do in long form for reasons that want to be a blog post.

So without further ado, noting that there’s a lot of “for some value of one or more of these words” that is implied, and that it’s perfectly OK to have zero idea what many or most of these are, since that’s probably my fault, but I think if for example Scott or Sarah or Ben wrote one of these I’d quite enjoy being confused by it, so here goes:

True conversations and how to have them online

Theocratic anarchism (still hazy or worse on the theocratic part)


Summer Children that need to chill the **** down (but, wolf) and also they need more hot tubs

Stopping Bad Brain Interventions, especially ones that take away necessary false definitions

Blindsight (the thing, not the book, that book was awful and everyone is wrong and that probably does NOT want to be a blog post)

Common Crux (formerly/currently Double Crux)

Model of (rationalist and similar) community lifecycle, and how to save them, and if they should be saved

Should everyone be in one place?

How to timeshift (and therefore potentially overcome) analysis paralysis

What to do with AGI ideas that probably are worthless but just might kill us all


Hand squiggly motions (CFAR thing)

Utility function time ranges and feedback cycles for optimal optimization

Open circuit 7! Shut down 4 (not permanently)?

Seeing things by filtering other things out (like the Guide in Mostly Harmless?!)

Word overloads especially ones that make your sentences all sound like contradictions (paging Michael Vassar even more than usual)

Elephant in the golden room

Lightning talks

Trio walks (2 vs. 3 vs. many)

The AI paper with the best title ever

How to assume enough information

Clarification culture vs. Specification culture (which is not guess vs. ask, which is misnamed) which may relate to Arbital

Responses to sacred spaces (gendered and otherwise)

Ism and the ists

Book Review: How Asia Works (use both sides of paper if necessary)

Zvi watches the Pro Tour (that’s a sequence)

Kids are better except they’re stupid

This is the foom

Density of time, (dis?)utility of shorter thoughts

Lateral metaknowledge transfer

Fear: of writing, acting, consequences, stakes, and possibly quoting multiple really bad movies

Was Colossus right about Deadpool?

“There is only one science.”

Feedback cycles and maybe when to yell at people

Time and sleep management with respect to FOMO

Guess so you will guess iff the guess is right: A culture

Merging friend context groups

The fire of a thousand suns

The art of the ARPG

Super Bowl Thursday

I know you think choices are really bad, but they’re even worse than that

The effectiveness part is great (but, often, misnamed)

Step one become worthy. Step two avoid power.

…and other neat stuff like that. Maybe I’ll edit this post.


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On Cutting Wages

This post is a response to Bryan Caplan’s request that I share my experiences cutting wages. It was not fun.

While I was CEO of MetaMed, we were continuously short of revenue. We started the company thinking we would be able to sustain ourselves through sales, but those sales did not materialize. In order to survive long enough to give the sales force a chance, we needed to cut pay.

To do this, the business of the company had to be put on hold while we worked out what would be done. I had to take my core employees aside, one by one, and get them on board with the idea. They were all willing to pitch in, provided the others were as well; if any of them had balked, it is likely all of them would have refused. The conversations went about as well as one could hope, but even then, the amount of stress and tension involved was huge.

From that point on, the cut was a constant drain on the company’s morale, but an even bigger one on its time. The question of when full salaries would be restored came up constantly, as people had committed to expenses on the basis of those salaries. It forced finances to be an open book; every week I was pleading poverty to a different person. Every person who didn’t get a pay cut had to be continuously explained and justified, as discussions of who we would lose, who needed the money, and which contacts were not negotiable took the time and energy we needed elsewhere.

Everyone was constantly comparing their pay to everyone else’s pay, their cuts to other people’s cuts. When we agreed to salaries and an equity division, everyone put their personal incentives aside to play for the same team, but once pay was fluid, that became impossible. Even if they weren’t consciously doing it, almost everyone was signaling how valuable they were to the company, what they were worth in the market, and/or how much they needed the money or how much pay would be fair.

If we couldn’t pay full salaries, that meant we were in deep trouble (which we were, of course) so that was yet another reason to jump ship. Lots of time was spent holding the team together and preventing or postponing key people quitting.

A quality employee is worth far more than you pay them. A bad employee is often actively harmful. Figuring out who is who is expensive. Once you have both invested in finding a good match, there’s a lot of surplus, without which few companies can survive, and a huge zone of possible agreement.

Cutting pay is considered harmful for good reason. Bryan did an interview that went into some of the reasons why. I will affirm all the answers he gets, but would tie it together differently. When you decide what everyone is paid, your primary goal is to finish the discussion with everyone content so you can get on with business. By closing the door on the question of money, you can focus on the job at hand. By credibly committing to a deal, you can take actions that would cause problems in a future negotiation: Making someone indispensable, or investing in their skills and relationships, or giving up on other connections and opportunities to help the business.

Giving small nominal nominal raises, and mostly basing pay on your job title, makes that possible. This frees up time, gives better incentives, and lowers stress. People do not have to worry about being able to pay their bills, and they do not have to worry they are being cheated by someone who negotiated harder or gained leverage. Breaking the deal is high stress, destroys morale, and pits people against each other.

If I had to do it over again, even though it went well, I would not ask my employees to take pay cuts. If that had killed the company, the company was likely doomed in any case, and it would have let us all move on faster. Losing a job is a major disruption, but staying in one with little pay and no future is a trap; even if it did maximize our chances of success, keeping MetaMed alive for so long though such methods was in hindsight clearly a mistake.


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Wizards Implements Ochlocracy

Today, a player who recently made the Top 8 at a Grand Prix was banned for life from tournament Magic: The Gathering. His account on Magic Online was seized, and he will be given a check for what Wizards thinks that account was worth.

Wizards does not discuss the reasons for bans, but in this case everyone knows the reason: Then years ago, when he was 19, this person entered a guilty plea for aggravated sexual assault. He served three months in prison, and now does dozens of hours per week of community service, has married and is applying for admission to the bar.

This man, for the past ten years, has as far as we know committed no crime, violated no rules of Magic or its tournaments (other than accidental minor rules violations), done nothing wrong on any front.

Other than, it seems, his failure to die in a fire, which bugs the hell out of a certain group of people. These people, including one Drew Levin, took to Twitter and Reddit to demand that Something Be Done about this Rapist In Our Midst, when he had the audacity to actually do well in a tournament and come to the Twitter Mob’s attention.

In response to a quite small number of outspoken people, a person has been entirely purged from the game. No rule has been established that convicted felons, or sex offenders, or violent offenders, or those who inflict rare diseases on cute puppies (in order, of course, to soak up all the charity dollars as inefficiently as possible, thus denying those in need their Malaria nets and microloans!), will not be welcome at Wizards events.

Wizards statement on the matter was this:

“We work hard to make sure all players feel welcomed, included and safe at our events so that they can have fun playing Magic. We don’t generally comment on individuals or provide position statements in the abstract, but we take action to address player issues and community concerns when we feel it is necessary.”

In other words, Wizards has become an Ochlocracy: Mob rule, and that mob is an internet Twitter mob, which doesn’t even have the decency and costly signaling power to show up in person and procure a decent supply of physical pitchforks.

Whereas it turns out that the actual vast majority of the community does not see it this way. In response, the community is currently making it very clear that this effort to making everyone feel welcome is actually making us feel quite unwelcome, and that we are deeply unhappy about it. We are deeply unhappy that there is no announced policy. We are deeply unhappy that Wizards has bowed to a Twitter mob, thus encouraging more Twitter mobs, and emboldening exactly the wrong kind of toxic tactical behavior. We are upset that the system doesn’t care about due process of law at all, when that has been the excuse for not banning actually highly toxic people who ruined the tournament experience of everyone they played against, and who made the game look like it was filled with a bunch of scummy cheaters. 

Someone came back from a ban and wrote “Miss me?” on his top 8 form, and listed his favorite card as the one he was caught cheating with on camera. Welcome back! Someone was elected to the Hall of Fame, then banned and had it revoked. Welcome back! Things are no better than when Ryan Fuller spat in our collective faces and stomped all over the game’s good name for years before he was finally caught sufficiently red handed to be showed the door. Magic has had cheaters, but Ryan managed to actively make you want to quit Magic after every match against him. It was an art form. Where was our ‘answering community concerns’ and ‘good for the game’ back then?

The defenders of this act only highlight the problem. I was pointed to what I was told was a high-quality defense of the act. I responded thus:

If “rape is trump, rapist evil and if you disagree you’re pro-rapist” talk is the best argument for, that’s pretty sad.

That seemed accurate to me, and it is a very common tactic to say, if you do not like what I am doing, you can be equated with the worst trait of the person I am attacking.

I was informed that no, it was actually a better argument:

I would agree that logic is bad. I read it as “we should be glad a racist is gone, not defending his right to play Magic: The Gathering”.

But to me that is almost as bad. It is, as I put it, saying:

“These means are bad and we need to stop.” “But look at this sweet end! Isn’t it cool?” Even if I agree it is cool, #BigNo.

If I complain about the way you go about doing something, and you respond by saying I should instead be celebrating your accomplishment, that is in no way addressing my true objection or argument, which is that your means are awful and that we cannot abide this sort of thing if we want to keep having Nice Things and go about our days in peace. The counterargument to that seems to go along the lines of my original summary of the opposing argument, that rape is trump, rapist evil and I did something bad to a rapist so it was automatically awesome and why are we letting them sleep so close to those bridges anyway?

Where does all this lead? More Twitterstorm mobs, of course. Those who did this will not be satisfied to have justice done; they will feel emboldened to move on to their next target. The next time I want something done, my own first temptation and thought will be to start or stoke a Twitterstorm mob. Which is, effectively, what I did a decent amount of today in reaction to this event.

Hopefully the antidote to a Twitterstorm mob is an equal and opposite, or even larger, Twitterstorm mob in reaction. If giving in is clearly worse than standing firm, maybe some people will grow a spine and stand up to these mobs. This is the second time in recent memory this has happened in Magic, even, as another storm forced a website to retract an article and issue an apology, rather than saying “here is something some people disagree with, so let’s have a discussion.” The mob does not want discussion. The mob does not want debate. The mob wants scalps and apologies and agreement on everything, and it has zero interest in listening to your well-reasoned arguments, which are no match for their puny catchphrases.

This doesn’t just apply to Magic. This applies everywhere, to everyone. Just this past week I was discussing with my fellow aspiring rationalists ways to either harness or destroy the internet hate-mob, as it has become a clear and present danger. My proposal was to sufficiently subsidize or support (in various ways) victims of the mob, so that destroying someone simply wouldn’t work; it does not take very many people who like you to make everything all right, if they are willing to stand with you. I do not care that the vast majority of people would not enjoy my company, nor I theirs, nor must we do business.

The plan has some obvious giant glaring flaws (such as what happens when people try to false flag against themselves) but at its core, there seem to be three options. Two of them seem awful: we can let those You-Know-Whos that decide what the offense of the month is scare us all and control our behavior lest we be purged, or we can attack those who attack and make them pay. The third is to stand up and say: Hold. What you do is wrong. Why do you do this thing? Say it loudly every time anyone gives in to such a mob, and make sure they know they are giving in to a small minority, and by doing so they are destroying the trust and relationship they have with the vast majority.

The mob’s goal is to make you think it is them against their victim, because they choose unsympathetic victims: We have to make it clear that standing up against these tactics does not mean we agree with the actions of your victim. I do not care if the victim was asking for it. I don’t even care if the victim was a horrible person. I do not even care if we are better off with him being driven away. Hold. What you do is wrong. Stop doing this thing.

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The Thing and the Symbolic Representation of The Thing

Let’s assume there is a thing that all would agree is, in context, a Good Thing(tm) that someone in your situation would want.

Do you want the thing, or do you want the symbolic representation of the thing?*

This sounds like an easy question; obviously you want the thing! Alas, it is often not that simple. Even when the thing itself would be most valuable, often the symbolic representation of the thing is what is in demand and gets produced.

One of MetaMed’s biggest mistakes was not realizing that this applied to health care. As Robin Hanson put it, health care is not about health: The system is more concerned with making sure everyone is able to signal, to others and to themselves, that they care deeply and that they are doing everything they can. This drives people’s decisions strongly enough to usually dominate decision making when the stakes are high. The actual health effects of the decisions involved are often a secondary concern, and the costs a distant third. The risk of not doing the standard thing, or what your doctor told you to do, looms larger than the fact that you believe that the decision is wrong; if you go against that advice, then you are not doing the responsible thing, you don’t care for yourself or your loved ones, and everything that happens to you after that is your fault.

Unsurprisingly, this leads to some very poor decisions when looked at in terms of what has a positive impact on the people’s health. And of course, everyone involved being afraid of being sued (far beyond the statistical danger of actually being sued) every time they deviate from the standard of care makes this that much worse.

MetaMed’s central thesis was that people cared enough about their health that if the information on how to save their life was available to them, they would have to buy it, and they would be willing to pay at least a small fraction of what that information was worth.

This theory was tested, and was conclusively falsified. Or rather, the following was conclusively falsified:

If a person is convinced that information could become available that might save their life, that person will often be willing to buy that information for a small fraction of what that belief implies the information is worth to them.

The experiment was not a randomized controlled trial, nor was the sample size all that big, but the data was clear and conclusive: A non-zero number of people will do this, but the vast majority of people will not.

Two points of failure are being explicitly excluded here.

The first is: Did we actually have that information? I would argue that we did, and believe we very much did right by those who hired us in terms of getting them the information they needed and/or requested, but of course I am biased, and we will never know for sure.

The second is: Did we manage to convince people that we had or could acquire this information? Our success rate on this was not all that high; certainly the majority of people who considered this hypothesis rejected it, most of them doing so quickly. Like any good start-up, and many bad ones, we did not let this stop us, and we kept pitching. Eventually we found a decent number of people who we did convince. We should have been able to do this more often, and were improving at it, but that is another story.

The important thing is that while it was only a fraction of the people we attempted to convince, many people explicitly said that they believed we had or could acquire this information in exchange for money, and I have no reason to doubt them. We have a sample size well into the triple figures of such people.

The majority of them did not buy. Of those who did buy, the majority of them chose a project far smaller than their problems justified, and intensely haggled to make that size as small as possible.

Then, in the end, many were dissatisfied because we had given them the thing rather than the symbolic representation of the thing. In one case, the person went so far as to show us the symbolic representation of the thing that the person was hoping to buy – a very colorful and nicely formatted informational packet that did not contain the information this person needed to deal with their very serious health problem, in part because the packet was completely out of date.

It took us over a year, and over forty cases, to realize that when we delivered a report, it was not being evaluated on the basis of whether the information would improve health outcomes. It was being evaluated on the basis of whether it looked like an expensive report should look, and whether it looked like they had ‘gotten their money’s worth’ in terms of the work that was visible. The work that was visible, of course, was mostly distinct from the work that could make them healthier.

Over time, we moved from spending almost all our time and effort into helping find ways to improve people’s health, and inventing a system to make that happen efficiently without wasting money on other things, to figuring out how to make people feel listened to and show them (ideally grey-haired and well-credentialed) doctors that spoke with proper authority and confidence, and then give them reports that were laid out as beautifully as possible and looked expensive and professional, and do that as efficiently as possible so we could deliver our actual research payload that might actually help them. Everything depended on convincing the right people that we were capable of presenting the proper symbolic representations, so we could get continued funding for our operations and improve our symbolic representations in the hopes of finally being able to get more sales at the now much higher price point that was necessary in order to deliver the symbolic representation of our product, without which our product would never get to help anyone, as well as also deliver the actual product.

We had a bunch of people who care very deeply about helping and making sure the product actually works, and were deeply concerned about every minute spent on anything else, so the temptation was never there to only deliver the symbolic representation and stop actually helping people. I think that people who would have been capable of that would have never founded MetaMed in the first place! But that is the natural outcome of such a process after enough rounds of selection pressure: Only the symbolic representation remains.

A number of the products and services we attempted to buy, or which others attempted to sell to us, had either gone through this process or had skipped it entirely by never being real in the first place. Instead, they existed so that people could tell themselves they were doing a Responsible Business Thing that businesses needed to do, rather than working to get the benefits that thing would provide if it was actually done. Most times we hired people from outside the core team to complete key tasks, and those tasks could not be fully and explicitly specified, those tasks did not actually get done. Instead, the people involved did things symbolically representative of the task, and billed us or collected their salaries continuously until we realized the things involved never got done. When we then investigated, it became clear the decisions being made did not make any sense if one was looking to help a company succeed; they only made sense in terms of what would superficially look like doing the job if not examined too closely, or would be vaguely associated with the job getting done if one never thought about how things would physically progress from point A to point B.

Michael Vassar speculates that this has overtaken giant sections of the economy, and that many or even most products and services are symbolic representations of themselves first and the product or service itself second or not at all. I certainly find examples of this all around me. This last week, my wife and I went on vacation to a place that charges quite a bit of money for things that I see no value in, but which she enjoys greatly, and I believe that what she enjoys is that it symbolically says “Vacation” to her. I see the actual thing, and so I do not get it. That is fine. I am not the target (a powerful mantra!). Sometimes, what one needs are not expensive wines but expensive wine bottles. Other times one wants the wisdom, or lack of wisdom, to know the difference.

*The problem with talking about this topic is that I realized that every time I wanted to talk about the details, it would involve accusing someone of fraud or at a minimum completely missing the point, and be at least deeply insulting if not fighting words or grounds for a lawsuit. Thus, the motivating example of this post is completely missing, and a lot of details are being left out that would make this a lot easier to grok. But I’d rather post it this way than not post at all.

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