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“Killing Rabbits”, Válek 2019

Killing-Rabbits: “Killing Rabbits”⁠, Miroslav Válek (2019-05-06; ⁠, )

“Littlewood’s Law and the Global Media”, Branwen 2018

Littlewood: “Littlewood’s Law and the Global Media”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2018-12-15; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Selection effects in media become increasingly strong as populations and media increase, meaning that rare datapoints driven by unusual processes such as the mentally ill or hoaxers are increasingly unreliable as evidence of anything at all and must be ignored. At scale, anything that can happen will happen a small but nonzero times.

Online & mainstream media and social networking have become increasingly misleading as to the state of the world by focusing on ‘stories’ and ‘events’ rather than trends and averages. This is because as the global population increases and the scope of media increases, media’s urge for narrative focuses on the most extreme outlier datapoints—but such datapoints are, at a global scale, deeply misleading as they are driven by unusual processes such as the mentally ill or hoaxers.

At a global scale, anything that can happen will happen a small but nonzero times: this has been epitomized as “Littlewood’s Law: in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month.” This must now be extended to a global scale for a hyper-networked global media covering anomalies from 8 billion people—all coincidences, hoaxes, mental illnesses, psychological oddities, extremes of continuums, mistakes, misunderstandings, terrorism, unexplained phenomena etc. Hence, there will be enough ‘miracles’ that all media coverage of events can potentially be composed of nothing but extreme outliers, even though it would seem like an ‘extraordinary’ claim to say that all media-reported events may be flukes.

This creates an epistemic environment deeply hostile to understanding reality, one which is dedicated to finding arbitrary amounts of and amplifying the least representative datapoints.

Given this, it is important to maintain extreme skepticism of any individual anecdotes or stories which are selectively reported but still claimed (often implicitly) to be representative of a general trend or fact about the world. Standard techniques like critical thinking, emphasizing trends & averages, and demanding original sources can help fight the biasing effect of news.

“Open Questions”, Branwen 2018

Questions: “Open Questions”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2018-10-17; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Some anomalies/​questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find existing explanations to be unsatisfying.

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A list of some questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find existing ‘answers’ to be unsatisfying, categorized by subject (along the lines of Patrick Collison’s list & Alex Guzey⁠; see also my list of project ideas).

“My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s”, Branwen 2018

Improvements: “My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2018-04-28; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

A list of unheralded improvements to ordinary quality-of-life since the 1990s going beyond computers.

It can be hard to see the gradual improvement of most goods over time, but I think one way to get a handle on them is to look at their downstream effects: all the small ordinary everyday things which nevertheless depend on obscure innovations and improving cost-performance ratios and gradually dropping costs and new material and… etc. All of these gradually drop the cost, drop the price, improve the quality at the same price, remove irritations or limits not explicitly noticed, or so on.

It all adds up.

So here is a personal list of small ways in which my ordinary everyday daily life has been getting better since the late ’80s/​early ’90s (as far back as I can clearly remember these things—I am sure the list of someone growing up in the 1940s would include many hassles I’ve never known at all).

“Loyal to the Group of Seventeen’s Story—The Just Man”, Wolfe 2018

1983-wolfe-thecitadeloftheautarch-thejustman: “Loyal to the Group of Seventeen’s Story—The Just Man”⁠, Gene Wolfe (2018-01-20; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Short story on the limits of propaganda and ‘Newspeak’ using a constructed language; from Chapter 11 of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, volume 4, The Citadel of the Autarch.

“Loyal to the Group of Seventeen’s Story—The Just Man” is a philosophical short story told in Chapter 11 of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, volume 4, The Citadel of the Autarch, on the topic of the Ascian language & political control of language for brainwashing.

The story is told by a prisoner of war from a totalitarian society based on Maoist China, which has gone past Orwell’s Newspeak to speak only in quotations from propaganda texts. The prisoner is nevertheless able to flexibly order & reuse quotes to tell a story about the struggle of a good man oppressed by injust officials, criticizing the government and his society’s failure to uphold its ideals.

This story demonstrates the hope that control of thought by control of language is necessarily weak, because a new language can be constructed out of the old one to communicate forbidden thoughts.

“On the Existence of Powerful Natural Languages”, Branwen 2016

Language: “On the Existence of Powerful Natural Languages”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2016-12-18; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

A common dream in philosophy and politics and religion is the idea of languages superior to evolved demotics, whether Latin or Lojban, which grant speakers greater insight into reality and rationality, analogous to well-known efficacy of mathematical sub-languages in solving problems. This dream fails because such languages gain power inherently from specialization.

Designed formal notations & distinct vocabularies are often employed in STEM fields, and these specialized languages are credited with greatly enhancing research & communication. Many philosophers and other thinkers have attempted to create more generally-applicable designed languages for use outside of specific technical fields to enhance human thinking, but the empirical track record is poor and no such designed language has demonstrated substantial improvements to human cognition such as resisting cognitive biases or logical fallacies. I suggest that the success of specialized languages in fields is inherently due to encoding large amounts of previously-discovered information specific to those fields, and this explains their inability to boost human cognition across a wide variety of domains.

“Drugs 2.0: Your Crack’s in the Post”, Power 2013

2013-power: “Drugs 2.0: Your Crack’s in the Post”⁠, Mike Power (2013-10-19; ⁠, ):

May 2013 overview of Silk Road 1’s rise, powered by Tor & Bitcoin, enabling safe and easy online drug sales through the mail.

This is an annotated transcript of the chapter “Your Crack’s in the Post” (pg219–244) & an excerpt from the chapter “Prohibition in the Digital Age” (pg262), of Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High⁠, Mike Power (2013-05-02); it is principally on the topic of Bitcoin⁠, Tor⁠, and Silk Road 1⁠.

Note: to hide apparatus like the links, you can use reader-mode ().

“Radiance: A Novel”, Scholz et al 2013

2002-scholz-radiance: “Radiance: A Novel”⁠, Carter Scholz, Gregory Benford, Hugh Gusterson, Sam Cohen, Curtis LeMay (2013-07-06; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

E-book edition of the 2002 Carter Scholz novel of post-Cold War science/​technology, extensively annotated with references and related texts.

Radiance: A Novel is SF author Carter Scholz’s second literary novel. It is a roman à clef of the 1990s set at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory⁠, centering on two nuclear physicists entangled in corruption, mid-life crises, institutional incentives, technological inevitability, the end of the Cold War & start of the Dotcom Bubble, nuclear bombs & Star Wars missile defense program, existential risks⁠, accelerationism, and the great scientific project of mankind. (For relevant historical background, see the excerpts in the appendices⁠.)

I provide a HTML transcript prepared from the novel, with extensive annotations of all references and allusions, along with extracts from related works, and a comparison with the novella version.

Note: to hide apparatus like the links, you can use reader-mode ().

“Cultural Drift: Cleaning Methods”, Branwen 2013

Sand: “Cultural drift: cleaning methods”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2013-05-07; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Forgotten chores and their use by Romanticism

Some old books mention sandy floors and sprinkling water on the ground; these asides seem to go unnoticed by most/​all readers. I highlight them, explain and discuss their use as now-obsolete cleaning practices, poll Internet users to see how forgotten they are, and ponder implications. In an appendix, I discuss a similar issue I encountered in pre-Space-Race American science fiction.

“2012 Election Predictions”, Branwen 2012

2012-election-predictions: “2012 election predictions”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2012-11-05; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Compiling academic and media forecaster’s 2012 American Presidential election predictions and statistically judging correctness; Nate Silver was not the best.

Statistically analyzing in R hundreds of predictions compiled for ~10 forecasters of the 2012 American Presidential election, and ranking them by Brier, RMSE, & log scores; the best overall performance seems to be by Drew Linzer and Wang & Holbrook, while Nate Silver appears as somewhat over-rated and the famous Intrade prediction market turning in a disappointing overall performance.

“Biased Information As Anti-information”, Branwen 2012

backfire-effect: “Biased information as anti-information”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2012-10-19; ⁠, ⁠, ; similar):

Filtered data for a belief can rationally push you away from that belief

The backfire effect is a recently-discovered bias where arguments contrary to a person’s belief leads to them believing even more strongly in that belief; this is taken as obviously “irrational”. The “rational” update can be statistically modeled as a shift in the estimated mean of a normal distribution where each randomly distributed datapoint is an argument: new datapoints below the mean cause a shift of the inferred mean downward and likewise if above. When this model is changed to include the “censoring” of datapoints, then the valid inference changes and a datapoint below the mean can lead to a shift of the mean upwards. This suggests that providing a person with anything less than the best data contrary to, or decisive refutations of, one of their beliefs may result in them becoming even more certain of that belief. If it is enjoyable or profitable to argue with a person while one does less than one’s best, it is bad to hold false beliefs, and this badness is not shared between both parties, then arguing online may constitute a negative externality: an activity whose benefits are gained by one party but whose full costs are not paid by the same party. In many moral systems, negative externalities are considered selfish and immoral; hence, lazy or half-hearted arguing may be immoral because it internalizes any benefits while possibly leaving the other person epistemically worse off.

“The Iron Law Of Evaluation And Other Metallic Rules”, Rossi 2012

1987-rossi: “The Iron Law Of Evaluation And Other Metallic Rules”⁠, Peter H. Rossi (2012-09-18; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Problems with social experiments and evaluating them, loopholes, causes, and suggestions; non-experimental methods systematically deliver false results, as most interventions fail or have small effects.

“The Iron Law Of Evaluation And Other Metallic Rules” is a classic review paper by American “sociologist Peter Rossi⁠, a dedicated progressive and the nation’s leading expert on social program evaluation from the 1960s through the 1980s”; it discusses the difficulties of creating an useful social program⁠, and proposed some aphoristic summary rules, including most famously:

  • The Iron law: “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero”
  • the Stainless Steel law: “the better designed the impact assessment of a social program, the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.”

It expands an earlier paper by Rossi (“Issues in the evaluation of human services delivery”⁠, Rossi 1978), where he coined the first, “Iron Law”.

I provide an annotated HTML version with fulltext for all references, as well as a bibliography collating many negative results in social experiments I’ve found since Rossi’s paper was published (see also the closely-related Replication Crisis).

“Slowing Moore’s Law: How It Could Happen”, Branwen 2012

Slowing-Moores-Law: “Slowing Moore’s Law: How It Could Happen”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2012-03-16; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Weak points in the networks powering technological progress: chip factories

Brain emulation requires enormous computing power; enormous computing power requires further progression of Moore’s law⁠; further Moore’s law relies on large-scale production of cheap processors in ever more-advanced chip fabs⁠; cutting-edge chip fabs are both expensive and vulnerable to state actors (but not non-state actors such as terrorists). Therefore: the advent of brain emulation can be delayed by global regulation of chip fabs.

“Silk Road 1: Theory & Practice”, Branwen 2011

Silk-Road: “Silk Road 1: Theory & Practice”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2011-07-11; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

History, background, visiting, ordering, using, & analyzing the drug market Silk Road 1

The cypherpunk movement laid the ideological roots of Bitcoin and the online drug market Silk Road; balancing previous emphasis on cryptography, I emphasize the non-cryptographic market aspects of Silk Road which is rooted in cypherpunk economic reasoning, and give a fully detailed account of how a buyer might use market information to rationally buy, and finish by discussing strengths and weaknesses of Silk Road, and what future developments are predicted by cypherpunk ideas.

“Reasons of State: Why Didn’t Denmark Sell Greenland?”, Branwen 2011

Greenland: “Reasons of State: Why Didn’t Denmark Sell Greenland?”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2011; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Denmark turned down 100m USD from the USA; I discuss how this was a bad idea

After WWII, the Cold War motivated the USA to offer $1,249.8[^\$100.0^~1946~]{.supsub} million for ownership of Greenland, which was declined. The USA got the benefit of using Greenland anyway. I discuss how the island otherwise remained a drain since, the dim prospect it will ever be useful to Denmark, and the forgone benefits of that offer. I speculate on the real reasons for the refusal.

“The Ones Who Walk Towards Acre”, Branwen 2010

The-Ones-Who-Walk-Towards-Acre: “The Ones Who Walk Towards Acre”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2010-12-21; ; backlinks; similar):

Short story on assassination markets.

This story came to me suddenly one night as a few lines; unhappily did I labor to write the rest of it and make it worthy of the original. Only when it was done did I realize I had written part of Cloud Nine, akin to the earlier tale-within-a-tale, “The Palace of Wonders”⁠, but the short can stand on its own.

To the extent that this story has a message, it is an examination of the assassination market concept, Ursula K. Le Guin’sThe Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and cognitive biases⁠; see also the contemporary debate over drone strikes (“What if drone warfare had come first?”), & the dark utopia Friendship is Optimal⁠. Discussion: LW⁠, Reddit⁠.

“Life Contracts”, Branwen 2009

Life-contract: “Life contracts”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2009-11-02; ; similar):

How I reinvented longevity insurance, which provides payouts if one lives to a certain point and thus might run out of savings.

I wrote this essay many years ago, after some reading about observer bias; to my dismay, several months later I would discover that this was actually a well developed field of insurance—life annuity or more specifically, longevity insurance⁠. I still find it interesting that I got ‘here’ from ‘there’, though, and it was a good intellectual exercise[^1^](/​Life-contract#fn1){.footnote-ref role=“doc-noteref”}⁠; so it is preserved for your amusement. It remains a reminder to me to thoroughly research any idea that I’ve had—I’m not so smart that my every idea must be good and novel![^2^](/​Life-contract#fn2){.footnote-ref role=“doc-noteref”}

“Terrorism Is Not Effective”, Branwen 2009

Terrorism-is-not-Effective: “Terrorism Is Not Effective”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2009-04-14; ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

More effective ways to kill = terrorists are stupid, or killing not most important thing to them

Terrorism is not about causing terror or casualties, but about other things. Evidence of this is the fact that, despite often considerable resources spent, most terrorists are incompetent, impulsive, prepare poorly for attacks, are inconsistent in planning, tend towards exotic & difficult forms of attack such as bombings, and in practice ineffective: the modal number of casualties per terrorist attack is near-zero, and global terrorist annual casualty have been a rounding error for decades. This is despite the fact that there are many examples of extremely destructive easily-performed potential acts of terrorism, such as poisoning food supplies or renting large trucks & running crowds over or engaging in sporadic sniper attacks.

“Terrorism Is Not About Terror”, Branwen 2009

Terrorism-is-not-about-Terror: “Terrorism Is Not About Terror”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2009-04-09; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Terrorists act irrationally from a rational activism perspective, and groups act in ways most consistent with terrorism being about social status and belonging

Statistical analysis of terrorist groups’ longevity, aims, methods and successes reveal that groups are self-contradictory and self-sabotaging, generally ineffective; common stereotypes like terrorists being poor or ultra-skilled are false. Superficially appealing counter-examples are discussed and rejected. Data on motivations and the dissolution of terrorist groups are brought into play and the surprising conclusion reached: terrorism is a form of socialization or status-seeking.

“Modafinil”, Branwen 2009

Modafinil: “Modafinil”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2009-02-20; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Effects, health concerns, suppliers, prices & rational ordering.

Modafinil is a prescription stimulant drug. I discuss informally, from a cost-benefit-informed perspective, the research up to 2015 on modafinil’s cognitive effects, the risks of side-effects and addiction/​tolerance and law enforcement, and give a table of current grey-market suppliers and discuss how to order from them.

Miscellaneous