Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The Zen of Feeding the Birds

A gentleman on the cambridge subreddit is annoyed by his neighbour throwing stale bread into a public garden. My reply:


I found that when I lived in London, I used to get annoyed by the regular rapes and murders. When I moved back to Cambridge, I got annoyed by parking permits and traffic and tourists. When I hid out in Wicken Fen in the perfect peace and stillness of the pandemic, all alone for weeks with nothing to do but read and play chess, I eventually developed an almost magical-seeming ability to get annoyed by birdsong and the sound of the wind in the trees.

There is always something to get annoyed by. Usually the best way to deal with it is to find a way to deal with your habit of getting triggered, which is something that slowly develops like any other habit.

And you can fix that like you can fix any other habit. When rational and calm, work out what someone who wasn't annoyed by that sort of thing would think about your trigger (oh, how kind of that nice man to feed the birds!) , and then practice exposing yourself to the trigger and automatically starting off your desired new thought pattern.

It takes practice, but if you work at it, you'll eventually stop being annoyed. And then you'll have the superpower of being able to live free and calm in a place where annoying things happen.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Assisted Suicide

Scott Adams wished his father dead: (https://www.scottadamssays.com/i-hope-my-father-dies-soon/)

And this paragraph stuck out for me:

If you're a politician who has ever voted against doctor-assisted suicide, or you would vote against it in the future, I hate your fucking guts and I would like you to die a long, horrible death. I would be happy to kill you personally and watch you bleed out. I won't do that, because I fear the consequences. But I'd enjoy it, because you motherfuckers are responsible for torturing my father. Now it's personal. 

I absolutely endorse this sentiment. If you are such a politician, I would very much enjoy gutting you with a rusty fruit knife. And I'm not even angry yet. My parents are still alive, still in good shape, still happy; for now.

I would nevertheless like to recognize the honourable behaviour of Lord Rix, who fought against assisted suicide his whole life, and then, right at the end, facing the horror himself, admitted he was wrong and publicly changed his mind. 

That is a very brave thing to do. He still deserved everything he went through, but I would pray for his soul if I thought it would help. 

The rest of you can go to Hell and stay there. For a lengthy, yet finite, time. I am not as evil as your God.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Favourite Science Fiction

r/scifi asks us:

"What are your alltime top five science fiction novels"

https://www.reddit.com/r/scifi/comments/upaxq8/what_are_your_alltime_top_5_scifi_novels/

** Top Five (in no particular order):

  • A Deepness in the Sky
  • Protector
  • Permutation City
  • Blindsight
  • The Sparrow

** Runners Up for Top Five (again in no order, but none of these displace one of the top five for me):

  • Children of Time / Children of Ruin
  • Foundation (and the rest of the trilogy)
  • Dune
  • Flowers for Algernon
  • Seveneves
  • The Worthing Saga
  • The Mote in God's Eye
  • Anathem
  • Marching through Georgia (and sequels)
  • Most of Larry Niven's early stuff, none of his later stuff, plus several of the Man-Kzin Wars stories 
 
** Not novels, but nicely mind-blowing in the way that good novels are:
  • That Alien Message (Eliezer Yudkowsky) 
  • Lena (by "qntm")

** Interpreting SF rather broadly to include fantasy series that are nevertheless set in worlds with consistent rules

  • A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones and sequels.
  • Lord of the Rings / Fellowship of the Ring and sequels
  • Liveship Traders / Ship of Magic and sequels

** And finally, on the basis that these were science fiction when written (take our best theory of the world and run with it) but have become fantasy over the years, and also that they can get away with not being novels because novels weren't a thing:

  • Paradise Lost
  • Inferno
  • The Odyssey
  • The Aeneid
  • Agamemenon
  • Iphigenia at Aulis
  • The Bacchae
  • Metamorphoses

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It was a good question! And I rather got into it.

For me, the books on the list above have something transcendent and poetic about them, as well as having the essential speculative fiction characteristic of being set in very well thought out, believable worlds where an idea is taken seriously and the implications are followed up.

Of the two, I prefer the second characteristic to the first, but if you get both, that book's a real work of art.

All of these stories have changed the way I think about the world, both in the intellectual sense of pointing out things I didn't know about things I already knew, and in the emotional sense of altering my reaction to things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Deathbed Conversion

Turns out Group Theory's really neat, with lots of pretty diagrams and cool intuitions and beautiful theorems. (Disclaimer, only gone as far as the Sylow Theorems, but still...)

This unexpected revelation came to me through Nathan Carter's 'Visual Group Theory', possibly the most readable maths book I've ever come across.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Visual-Theory-Classroom-Resource-Materials/dp/1470464330/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=visual+group+theory&qid=1648992100&sr=8-1

Despite being readable, I would say 'un-put-downable', it's a proper maths book. You need to do the exercises. Don't go on to Chapter 2 until you've done all the exercises from Chapter 1, etc. 

The most common complaint is that it's too slow at the start, too fast at the end. This is not true. The slow bits at the start are building your intuition by playing around with simple cases. 

You'll end up being able to flip between algebra and geometry and graph-theoretic ways of looking at groups.

Towards the end, real theorems start appearing, the ones you'd get in a first-year undergraduate groups course, and when you look at them through all the new lenses you've acquired through the early part of the book, they're obvious and beautiful. That's kind of the point of the book. 

You're only allowed to complain about how hard chapter 9 is if you've actually done all the exercises in chapters 1-8. 

If you find yourself in that sort of position and can make it to Cambridge, get in touch! I can explain everything I've read so far, and will happily exchange in-person supervisions for coffee in pub gardens.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

Other helpful things I've used over the last few months of fascinated exploration are: 

 

 

The errata page: http://web.bentley.edu/empl/c/ncarter/vgt/errata.html

Actually the fact that there are errors in the book has made it more fun.

Sometimes you find something in the book that seems a bit fishy. After you've thought about it for a while, you can usually make it make sense, but if it still doesn't, it's probably been reported as an erratum by now, so you can go and check. (Also, I managed to get one in myself! The pride! The glory!)




The wikipedia definition of semi-direct product: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semidirect_product

I could not make head or tail of Nathan's notion of 'rewiring diagram', so I couldn't get more than the vaguest sense of what a semidirect product was. 

So I ended up working out how the semidirect product works in an algebraic sense. *That* requires knowing what an automorphism is, which is not a terribly difficult concept, and it turns out that 'rewiring diagram' is an excellent way of visualizing automorphisms. 

You can probably shortcut this process by just working out what an automorphism is and how it relates to Nathan's rewiring diagrams.

 

 

An online implementation of the Todd Coxeter coset enumeration algorithm:

https://math.berkeley.edu/~kmill/tools/tc.html

It's a very good idea to learn how to do this by hand, and the best way is to read Todd and Coxeter's initial paper. 

Todd, J. A.; Coxeter, H. S. M. (1936). "A practical method for enumerating cosets of a finite abstract group". Proceedings of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. Series II. 5: 26–34. doi:10.1017/S0013091500008221. JFM 62.1094.02. Zbl 0015.10103.

All modern explanations of it are incomprehensible.

However actually doing it by hand gets old pretty quickly, so getting a computer to do it is really useful if you just want to explore.

 

 

A page of small-group Cayley diagrams:

http://www.weddslist.com/groups/cayley-31/index.html


Sunday, February 13, 2022

The Unmitigated Pedantry of Bret Devereux

I have over the last few months derived great pleasure from the blog of Bret Devereux, an academic historian interested in military history, the classical world, and speculative fiction. He is a sufficiently good writer that he can make subjects I'm not particularly interested in (ancient steel-making processes???) seem fascinating and important. And of course some of his major interests are at least minor interests of mine.

In almost every one of his posts, he requests that people spread the word about his blog; he wants a large audience. 

I am more than happy to oblige him and unreservedly recommend:

https://acoup.blog

 

 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Proof of Doom



Epistemic Status: Ravings

Importance: Easily the most important problem in the world.

If we can escape the proof of doom, we will likely also solve all our other problems as a side effect, and all that remains will be the fundamental limits. Our new questions will be things like "How much joy can the universe physically support?"




It seems to me that the world, and everyone in it, is doomed, and that the end is considerably nigher than I might like.

To be more specific, I think that we may well create an Artificial General Intelligence within around 20 years time, and that
that will be our last act.

The newly-created AGI will immediately kill everyone on the planet, and proceed to the destruction of the universe. Its sphere of destruction will expand at light speed, eventually encompassing everything reachable.

There may well be more proximal threats to our species. Comets are one obvious one, but they seem very unlikely. Artificially created universally fatal plagues are another, but perhaps not very likely to happen within the next twenty years.




I've believed this for many years now, although my timescales were longer originally, but it seems to me that this is now becoming a common belief amongst those who have thought about the problem.

In fact, if not consensus, then at least the majority opinion amongst those mathematicians, computer scientists, and AI researchers who have given the subject more than a few days thought.

Those who once were optimistic seem pessimistic now. Those who were once dismissive seem optimistic.

But it is far from being even a mainstream opinion amongst those who might understand the arguments.

Far, even, from rising to the level of a possible concern.

Amongst my personal friends, amongst people who would mostly take my word on technical and scientific issues, I have found it impossible to communicate my fears.

Not all those who are capable of pressing the suicide button understand that there is a suicide button.





What to do?

One might empathise with Cassandra. A vision of flame, and no-one will believe.

Cassandra had many opportunities to save her city, but the curse of Apollo rendered her unable to communicate with her fellow citizens. Those of her cohort who independently sensed danger were individually obstructed by the gods.

We operate under no such constraints.

Our arguments are not clear.

My attempts to communicate the danger involve a complex argument with a series of intuitive leaps.

Any given interlocutor will balk at a particular hurdle, and write off the entire argument.




Consider a toy example.

Until very recently I did not understand Fermat's Christmas Theorem ( https://thatsmaths.com/2014/12/25/fermats-christmas-theorem/ )

I considered it one of those tedious facts that number theorists always seem fond of.

I think if someone had shown me the 'One Sentence Proof': (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermat%27s_theorem_on_sums_of_two_squares#Zagier's_%22one-sentence_proof%22)

then I might have been able to understand it. With a lot of effort.

But I am reasonably certain that I wouldn't have put the effort in, because it wouldn't have seemed worth the trouble.

Just before Christmas, a friend encountered in a pub showed me a couple of examples of the 'windmill argument', which make the central idea of that proof visual.

We couldn't actually finish the proof in the pub, but the central idea nerd-sniped me, and so I played with it for a couple of days.

And at the end of it, I was convinced of the truth and of the beauty of the theorem.

I now think that I could explain it to a bright ten-year old, if that ten-year old was curious enough to play with pictures for an hour.

I'm considering writing an xscreensaver hack to illustrate it.

I still don't care about the result itself. But the beauty of the proof makes it a result that sparks joy.




That's what a proof is. Not a vague collection of intuitions. Not an obscure collections of symbols and formal manipulations.

A proof is, quite simply, an argument strong enough to convince a listener of its conclusion.

We need a Proof of Doom.




The proof must live, must be unanswerable. Must be clear.

Must be simple enough to convince anyone capable of bringing about the apocalypse that there is an apocalypse to be brought about.

A version full of greek letters would be nice to have in addition, such things tend to be more amenable to automatic verification.

But what we need is something that will convince a human mind without too much trouble. Every step must be interesting, must be compelling. Must be clear.


And I may be wrong. Perhaps the fact that almost no-one agrees with me and that I can't convince anyone is a sign that I am wrong. It has happened before. Maybe my argument is not sound. Maybe it is mostly sound, but there are loopholes.

Attempting to prove the truth of an idea is often a good way of showing that the idea is false.

By the Father and the Bright-Eyed Girl, would that this idea were false.


Excuse me Brother, have you let the Reverend Bayes into your life?

The Onion spoke wisely:


https://www.theonion.com/cdc-announces-plan-to-send-every-u-s-household-pamphle-1848354068


And in response someone on reddit said:


Can you share an example of the way it changed your worldview? I did not experience a similar perspective shift when learning the same material, and I'm curious if there's something I've missed out on.


To which my reply was:

 

Principally for me the idea that there can be several possible underlying explanations for a thing, and that rather than choosing one, you should keep them all in mind, and shift credibility around amongst them as evidence comes in.

E.g. what am I rolling? 6 3 2 1 7 3 3 2 .....

What will you bet, and at what odds?

 

This then attracted the (very good) reply:


1 shows you're rolling a single die, 7 shows it has at least more than 6 faces, assuming a standard polyhedral die it has to be at least a d8 but with no result higher than a 7 it is extremely unlikely to be a d20 and somewhat unlikely to be a d12 (although that is far to short a sequence to be certain) so I would bet it's a d8... at what odds, without breaking out my calculator I'd say its 75% d8 22% d12 3% d20

Which to my mind shows exactly the sort of thinking that I think is the major benefit of learning a bit of Bayes.

So at that point I felt that it would be nice to give my own fully worked out answer to the question:

(which is just completely the obvious answer so if you can already do this, don't bother reading it or do it yourself and see if you agree with me)

 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Sorry I Gave You COVID Card

Just suppose, for the sake of argument, that a man had very mild flu symptoms, but thought nothing of it because he'd had the flu vaccine a couple of days before.

And further suppose that he went round to his friend's house, in order to practice Christmas Carols for a hypothetical Carol Sing the following day.

And imagine that that man woke up the following day with a temperature of 38.6, and did not in fact go carol singing.

Then a man might find himself in need of an apologetic note, which prints out nicely on A4 and folds up to make a little card:

It's not entirely impossible to imagine such a series of events occurring, so as a public service I have created such a note. 

If the png doesn't work for you, or you need a different message, like maybe you need to add "most of" or something then the original libreoffice document is here: https://github.com/johnlawrenceaspden/hobby-code/blob/master/covidcard/covidcard.odt

Merry Pandemic Everyone!

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

On a Wall

 

Stolen from Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meta)

Monday, November 8, 2021

Contract Programmer Seeks Job in Cambridge (£500 reward)

Anyone in Cambridge need a programmer? I'll give you £500 if you can find me a job that I take.

CV at http://www.aspden.com

I make my usual promise, which I have paid out on several times:

If, within the next six months, I take a job which lasts longer than one month, and that is not obtained through an agency, then on the day the first cheque from that job cashes, I'll give £500 to the person who provided the crucial introduction.

If there are a number of people involved somehow, then I'll apportion it fairly between them. And if the timing conditions above are not quite met, or someone points me at a shorter contract which the £500 penalty makes not worth taking, then I'll do something fair and proportional anyway.

And this offer applies even to personal friends, and to old contacts whom I have not got round to calling yet, and to people who are themselves offering work, because why wouldn't it?

And obviously if I find one through my own efforts then I'll keep the money. But my word is generally thought to be good, and I have made a public promise on my own blog to this effect, so if I cheat you you can blacken my name and ruin my reputation for honesty, which is worth much more to me than £500.



And I also make the following boast:

I know all styles of programming and many languages, and can use any computer language you're likely to use as it was intended to be used.

I have a particular facility with mathematical concepts and algorithms of all kinds. I can become very interested in almost any problem which is hard enough that I can't solve it easily.

I have a deserved reputation for being able to produce heavily optimised, but nevertheless bug-free and readable code, but I also know how to hack together sloppy, bug-ridden prototypes, and I know which style is appropriate when, and how to slide along the continuum between them.

I've worked in telecoms, commercial research, banking, university research, chip design, server virtualization, university teaching, sports physics, a couple of startups, and occasionally completely alone.

I've worked on many sizes of machine. I've written programs for tiny 8-bit microcontrollers and gigantic servers, and once upon a time every IBM machine in the Maths Department in Imperial College was running my partial differential equation solvers in parallel in the background.

I'm smart and I get things done. I'm confident enough in my own abilities that if I can't do something I admit it and find someone who can.

I know what it means to understand a thing, and I know when I know something. If I understand a thing then I can usually find a way to communicate it to other people. If other people understand a thing even vaguely I can usually extract the ideas from them and work out which bits make sense.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Real Science Fiction

I want to share a link to the following delightful paper:

Eternity in six hours: Intergalactic spreading of intelligent life and sharpening the Fermi paradox, by Stuart Armstrong and Anders Sandberg

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094576513001148

Here is an example paragraph:

3.1.1. Data storage

It should be noted that data storage does not seem to offer much of the restriction here. The most compact method of data storage reasonably imaginable would be a diamond constructed of carbon 12 and 13, with the two types of atoms serving as bits.

This would have a storage capacity of 5x10^22 bits per gram. By comparison, the total amount of data in the human world has been estimated at 2.4x10^21 bits.

If human brains could be instantiated inside a computer, then 100 Terabytes is a reasonable estimate for the number of connections in a human brain, meaning 1 g of diamond could contain about all the world's data and the (uncompressed) population of Britain.


Which seems to me the sort of thing that should be obvious to any numerate schoolboy, except that it really isn't, until someone points it out.

If you like that paragraph, you'll probably enjoy the rest of the paper!


Thursday, August 19, 2021

A Potted History of Modern Rationalism

Like most rationalists, I do not identify as a rationalist. 

Nevertheless I notice that that movement has grown to the point where there are people who do identify as rationalists but do not remember where it came from.

And indeed there are persons attacking the movement for being unduly convinced of the power of human reason. This would indeed be good attack on rationalism, the 16th century philosophical movement which was opposed to empiricism.

It is not such a good attack on the modern movement which perhaps unfortunately shares its name.

So I had occasion to write a short history of modern rationalism as I remember it appeared to me as it was developing:

--------------------------------------------------------

Our holy text, "The Sequences" was originally a series of blogposts on Robin Hanson's blog "Overcoming Bias", which he shared with the blessed Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Their joint project was to find ways of overcoming the recently discovered 'cognitive biases' that suggest that humans don't usually reason correctly, compared to an idealized rational agent (which is kind of the standard model person in economics). Those cognitive biases were discussed in Daniel Kahneman's popular book "Thinking Fast and Slow", an excellent read.

Robin's shtick is pretty much "X isn't about Y", and he recently published an excellent book "The Elephant in the Brain", which is almost entirely devoted to the idea: 

Human economic and political actions (education, health, etc) make very little sense compared to their declared reasons, what the hell is going on?

It's a very good read.

Eliezer was much more interested in what an ideal reasoner would look like, because he wanted to build one so that it could save the world from all the other horrible existential risks that are pretty obviously going to wipe us all out quite soon.

That project got delayed when he realized, or possibly was informed by Nick Bostrom (of Superintelligence), that a rational agent would, by default, kill everyone and destroy everything of value in the universe.

So Eliezer's new plan is to save the world by working out how to design a powerful agent that will try to act as a benevolent god, rather than an all-destroying one. Or at least to try to convince all the people around the world currently working on artificial intelligence to at least be aware of the problem before destroying the world.

And Robin's still interested in economics and human reasoning.

[ This paragraph is disputed, see comments:

The whole 'Effective Altruism' movement was originally at least partly an evil plan by Eliezer to convince people to give him money for his scheme to optimize or at least not destroy the world (they are pretty much the same thing to a powerful agent), which has now ballooned out to be a separate force largely under the control of people who have other goals, such as eliminating suffering.

That's my personal memory, but it seems like that's wrong. I'm confused]

 

Scott Alexander/Scott Siskind/Yvain (πολυτρόπως) wrote all sorts of excellently readable articles on Less Wrong about how to think correctly if all you've got is a human brain, before deciding that it would be better to have his own blog where he could talk about political issues. (Less Wrong was against discussion of political issues because they're (probably for evolutionary reasons) incredibly hard to think about, and the idea was to practise thinking in less inflammatory areas.)

Anyway, I think it's reasonable to claim that the whole rationalist movement was founded on comparing broken human reasoning to what real reasoning might look like!

-----------------------------------------------------

I should point out that I don't actually know any of these people, don't even live on the same continent, am not privy to their thoughts and plans, and have made absolutely no contribution myself, but I have always been very interested in their published writings. I wonder if I should expand this outsider's view into a proper essay and seek input from the people I'm slandering.

Yudkowsky on Physics

An interlocutor recently spoke disdainfully of Eliezer Yudkowsky's writings about Quantum Physics.

The relevant excerpt is:

like the infamous quantum mechanics sequence, that seemed to fail to change anyone's mind with relevant domain knowledge

And I replied:

It's funny that you should mention the quantum mechanics sequence. That was actually my introduction to his thinking.

I did a degree in pure and applied maths, and although I was definitely on the "pure" side, QM was one of the things I'd gone to university to understand, so I took a couple of courses on it.

There's no question that I could do the maths, and I could solve all the examples and exam questions, and my teachers seemed very pleased with how well I took to it.

But it made absolutely no sense to me as a theory of how the universe worked. I don't mean that it was counter-intuitive. Lots of things in probability and physics are counter-intuitive. I just mean that I really didn't understand how to set up the problems, or what it meant to live in a universe which ran on QM. 

Whenever someone took a physical problem and represented it as a piece of quantum mechanical maths, the set-up for the problem just seemed completely ad-hoc. And any attempt to think about how such a universe might support living beings was hopeless. It really seemed to me that observers, and conscious observers at that, were part of the fundamental physics. And that they had to act from outside the physics.

My teachers were very much of the 'shut up and calculate' school. We know it doesn't really make sense, they said, but people have been beating their brains out about this for something like seventy years and no-one's really come up with a way of looking at it that makes intuitive sense. But on the other hand, the calculations do give us a way of predicting the results of lots of otherwise incomprehensible experiments. Your best bet is to push on with doing the calculations and maybe by the time you get to Quantum Field Theory it will have started to feel more normal.

I wouldn't accept that. But I hadn't got anything better, so I eventually just gave up on the subject.

I stayed curious though, and in fact later on I had several conversations with people doing actual PhDs in QM, where it became obvious that they just didn't get it. They had really fundamental misunderstandings of what was happening in simple set-ups like the double-slit experiment.

Which didn't stop them making worthwhile contributions, of course. Euler didn't get a lot of the stuff he worked on, he makes some quite silly errors with complex numbers at times, because he didn't understand what they were. But his intuition and technical skill allowed him to get results that ended up being actually proved very much later. This is quite normal in mathematics, and is probably the real difference between pure and applied maths.

One day someone told me that they'd read an explanation of QM that seemed sane, and that I should take a look at it. They linked to EY's essay on Less Wrong.

And finally I got it. I don't claim to understand how the quantum universe works, or what consciousness is, or anything like that, any more that I would claim that about a classical universe.

But it doesn't seem mystical anymore. I can at least understand the model itself, if not how it relates to physical reality.

The mathematical model that looks like a wave equation represents a 'magic reality fluid' that sloshes around over the space of all the possible configurations of the universe.

There's no collapse, no mysterious observer effects, no physical systems behaving differently depending on who's measuring what and when they're looking at the measurements.

It's all just nice and sane and deterministic and predictable and follows laws.

And I absolutely didn't get that until I read EY's quantum sequence, which is really no more than a particularly well-written explanation of the many-worlds point of view written by an autodidact who'd managed to puzzle out for himself something that I'd been well and professionally taught by renowned experts at a famous university.

A little later I decided to have a go at Umesh Vazirani's Quantum Computation course on Coursera, and it made perfect sense. I could just do it. There wasn't anything funny or baffling going on. I don't think that would have been true if I hadn't read EY's QM essays.

So I don't know if you'd count that as 'changing the mind of someone with relevant domain knowledge', but it certainly seemed important to me.

And I decided that I liked this man and his thinking and his style of writing, and that's why I read the rest of The Sequences.

Young Earth Creation Science for Bayesians

I have recently been really impressed by some of the people struggling to reconcile the Word of God with the evidence all around us, which does not seem terribly supportive on its face. 

(An excellent example: https://creation.com).

They strike me as some weird mirror of us. I really don't think they're being dishonest.

What they're saying is: "Given that we know that the Bible is true, what's the simplest explanation of the evidence that we see that makes sense?". 

I can't refute their arguments, they know more about the relevant disciplines than I do.

But I'm fairly sure that if I did come up with a good objection, they'd respond: "That's a really good point, we accept it, let's work out what sort of explanation does work to both explain the evidence and stay compatible with the Bible."

They're doing excellent work even from our point of view in pointing out holes in our best theories, and challenging us to make our arguments watertight.

That's exactly what I'd be doing if I had a really really high prior on the Bible being true.

Where do they get that prior from? Well, priors are kind of a problem for us as well.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

A Multiple Choice Exam for Medical Ethicists

 

(Question I)

A train is speeding down a track towards the point where seventy million terrified people are tied across the line.

Their only hope is a group of young men working on a side branch, who are desperately trying to open a set of points which will divert the train into the siding. If they succeed, several of them will probably be killed by the train, but they will save tens of millions. All of them know that they are taking a risk to help others.

Do you:

(a) enthusiastically join the young men

(b) laud the young men from the sidelines, and start a fundraising campaign to make sure that songs are written about their heroism

(c) use the gang of hired thugs you usually use to screw money out of people to prevent the young men altering the points

(d) use your thugs to force the young men to fill out a seven thousand page form, taking six months and rendering their efforts pointless

(Question II)

All over the world, mad scientists are engineering deadly plagues for no known reason. They do this in shoddy jerry-built sheds in the middle of major cities. Although the scientists are not exactly evil, they are careless and incompetent. Their plagues are always escaping. Luckily so far, their plagues are also not very deadly and not very good at spreading.

But the scientists are getting better and better at it, and they share their best results and exciting new methods with each other all over the world through journals.

Do you:

(a) Use your gang of thugs to stop them.

(b) Force them to fill out some sort of risk assessment or even do a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether their activities are a good idea.

(c) Fund them and their journals enthusiastically using money your thugs have stolen.

(d) Prohibit the engineering of deadly plagues in your own country, but continue to fund it as long as it's done in even dodgier sheds in the middle of major cities in a foreign country run by an evil and murderous military autocracy.


Your Score:

If you answered mainly (c), congratulations, you are ideally suited. Welcome to the profession, and we wish you the best of luck impeding the progress of medical "science" for many years. You can expect to kill millions and prevent the discovery of almost everything that might ever help in any way.

If you answered mainly (d) you may be welcome in the more philosophical branch of the profession, but you are basically a bit of an irresponsible shithead and will never be trusted with anything that matters. Don't worry though, the millions will still die and your helpless flailing won't do the slightest bit of good.

If you answered (a) or (b) to either question: what the fuck is wrong with you? You should maybe go and work for a tobacco company or something.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Thank You AstraZeneca

I got my vaccine. Apparently AstraZeneca are making the stuff on a non-profit basis, and getting a lot of shit for it from various quarters.

When people do things that save millions of lives I think we should be grateful. When they do it for free I think we should be extra grateful.

Does anyone know where I can get a 'Thank You AstraZeneca' T-shirt, with their logo on it?

A more general 'Thank You Big Pharma' T-shirt would be nice to have too. I don't mind people making money doing good things. In fact I'd encourage it generally.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I Have

I have numbered the elements
I have charted the stars in their courses
And I know why they choose their paths

I know the weight of the earth
And the secret of fire
And I know that it is the secret of life

I can read the book of life
And write in it too, making strange new forms

I can heal the sick, I can make the lame walk

I can make the very rocks to think and act
And serve as a channel for lesbian porn

I can speak, and my voice will be heard around the globe

I can kill, more swiftly than any swordsman, men in their millions.
But I never do kill.

I have walked on the moon
I will walk on the planets

I am kind to animals and foreigners

I begin to understand the mind

I am working on immortality

And one day I will build a God

Who am I?

Living the Metaprogramming Dream

The other day I found myself writing a python one-liner to emit a sed invocation to modify a bash script to run a series of comby invocations to modify a tree full of C programs.

I know roughly what some of the C programs do, but very little about how they work.

Those programs are executed by servers and devices I've never seen. Some on processors which don't yet exist. Some run in perfectly silent chambers, impenetrable to sound or radio.

I'm glossing over some startling complexities here.

If I get my bit right then the overall behaviour of this massive contraption won't change in any detectable way. If it does, then after hours of thought I will make a tiny change somewhere, and set the whole gigantic arrangement running again.

Eventually I'll get the little green lights that tell me that I have managed to change everything without making any difference.

Sometimes people ask me what I do for a living.

Beats me. Something to do with electricity?

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Coronavirus: Bad

I am late to this party, I am ashamed of my inattention. But over the last few days I have been reading with increasing concern.

It appears that we have a three-or-four day doubling time and a 1-2% death rate:

Death rate could be lower for various reasons to do with counting, could be higher if the health system is overwhelmed.

Therefore:

200 cases in UK today (March 7th)
800 next week
3200 the week after that
12800 the week after that
51,200 next month (April 7th)
13,107,200 the month after that (May 7th)
everyone in England by mid-May,

which is to say:

between 6 hundred thousand and a million and a half deaths by the middle of May, mostly elderly people.


And that, I think, is the sober, sensible, most likely guess at what might happen over the next couple of months, if nothing changes.

Draconian action by the Government might slow things down, and give us time to react, but I am not terribly optimistic. We do not have the necessary apparatus of oppression.

No need to panic, what good will it do?

But think, plan.

This is the Spanish Flu come again. It is not the Black Death.

Do not fear excessively for your children. They seem mostly immune, for no reason anyone understands.

For most people it will be a bad case of the flu.

If you have elderly relatives and friends, tell them that you love them. Do not go to visit them, at least not once things kick off.

Persuade them to stay inside, and to cut contact with everyone they know.

If this fails and they become ill, by all means go and do what you can to help them through it.

Pneumonia, I am told, is one of the better deaths.



Home Made Hand Sanitizer: Glycerin and Ethanol

Hand sanitizer is worth its weight in gold these days, but the popular brand Purell is just 3 parts ethanol to 1 part glycerin.

Both these things are still (7th March) readily available and cheap in large quantities.

Isopropanol should also work, I think.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Finding a Good Teacher (Draft)

A reddit comment that got a lot of upvotes, so posting it here.
Will probably come back and turn it into a proper essay at some point



I have found in the course of learning and teaching many different things that a good coach will:

(a) spend a few minutes watching what you're currently trying to do

(b) work out what the right thing to teach you next is (this is the hard part of teaching, learning the structure of the subject and what order to teach it in)
 
(c) explain what it is that needs doing, demonstrate the difference between what you're doing and what you should be doing.

(d) get you to do the new thing and check that you're doing it right.

(e) show you how to feel the difference between what you were doing and what you should be doing. This is crucial, because once you can feel whether or not you're doing the new thing right, it is easy to practice it and it will quickly become automatic.

In a good lesson, you should be able to go through this process for several different points, and if you make notes and go away and practice the things, then after every lesson you'll get obviously much better at the thing you're trying to do.

You'll be able to feel the difference, and it will be obvious to others too.

If you feel you're not making progress, or your teacher is just saying the same thing over and over again but it's not helping or it feels wrong, then you have a bad teacher and you should find someone else.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Keep Clear


I have a friend who's a parish councillor.

He was telling me recently how they had paid £10,000 (half their annual budget!) to have 'Keep Clear' painted on the road.

At a single place, not all over the parish or anything.
 
I said that I'd do it for him for £1000, using the right paint and font and everything, including driving half-way across England to do it. And that once I'd got the kit and learned how to do it, I'd do further work of the same nature much more cheaply.

Ah, he said: "The problem is that you're not a council-approved contractor."

How, I asked, does one become a council approved contractor?

That, he said, is where the £10,000 goes....



The other half of the parish council budget apparently goes on maintaining the buildings where the parish council meets.

My friend is a volunteer, and a very high powered and competent man in his own right, who controls a budget of millions in the private sector. He couldn't find any way to get it done cheaper.

I sense that he is already rather disillusioned, I wonder how much the next volunteer will end up paying for road markings?

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Contract Programmer Seeks Job in Cambridge (£500 reward)

Anyone in Cambridge need a programmer? I'll give you £500 if you can find me a job that I take.

CV at http://www.aspden.com

I make my usual promise, which I have paid out on several times:

If, within the next six months, I take a job which lasts longer than one month, and that is not obtained through an agency, then on the day the first cheque from that job cashes, I'll give £500 to the person who provided the crucial introduction.

If there are a number of people involved somehow, then I'll apportion it fairly between them. And if the timing conditions above are not quite met, or someone points me at a shorter contract which the £500 penalty makes not worth taking, then I'll do something fair and proportional anyway.

And this offer applies even to personal friends, and to old contacts whom I have not got round to calling yet, and to people who are themselves offering work, because why wouldn't it?

And obviously if I find one through my own efforts then I'll keep the money. But my word is generally thought to be good, and I have made a public promise on my own blog to this effect, so if I cheat you you can blacken my name and ruin my reputation for honesty, which is worth much more to me than £500.



And I also make the following boast:

I know all styles of programming and many languages, and can use any computer language you're likely to use as it was intended to be used.

I have a particular facility with mathematical concepts and algorithms of all kinds. I can become very interested in almost any problem which is hard enough that I can't solve it easily.

I have a deserved reputation for being able to produce heavily optimised, but nevertheless bug-free and readable code, but I also know how to hack together sloppy, bug-ridden prototypes, and I know which style is appropriate when, and how to slide along the continuum between them.

I've worked in telecoms, commercial research, banking, university research, chip design, server virtualization, university teaching, sports physics, a couple of startups, and occasionally completely alone.

I've worked on many sizes of machine. I've written programs for tiny 8-bit microcontrollers and gigantic servers, and once upon a time every IBM machine in the Maths Department in Imperial College was running my partial differential equation solvers in parallel in the background.

I'm smart and I get things done. I'm confident enough in my own abilities that if I can't do something I admit it and find someone who can.

I know what it means to understand a thing, and I know when I know something. If I understand a thing then I can usually find a way to communicate it to other people. If other people understand a thing even vaguely I can usually extract the ideas from them and work out which bits make sense.

Monday, July 29, 2019

1p Mobile PAYG Provider

I would like to recommend 1p mobile as a source of mobile phone PAYG:

https://www.1pmobile.com/

They've been my principal phone provider for a while now, and they're immaculate. The website is transparently easy to use, their charges are as low as they seem (i.e. you must pay around £30/year, and for that you get 3000 minutes of calls).

There doesn't appear to be any catch, they don't send spammy text messages, it's easy to turn voicemail off, and it stays off.

Highly recommended. Without doubt the best mobile phone company I've ever used, and without doubt the cheapest as well.

They have a referral link:

https://www.1pmobile.com/index.taf?friend=A21831J

If you use it you and I will both get a £5 top-up.

But I do not actually care about this, I never come close to using my 3000 minutes, I'm recommending them because they're great and that sort of thing ought to be recognised and spread.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Do The Right Thing

Someone recently said, sarcastically, on reddit "Of course no one decent has ever worked for a company."

The problem with doing the right thing as a company, is that your competitors don't, so they make more money than you, so they can undersell you and you go out of business

This is why all letting agencies ever are evil. Sometimes you find a good one, but it is invariably out of business next time you need one. As tenant or landlord.

Unless you can find some way to make 'we do the right thing' part of your image.

But of course, non-decent people can do that too!

I always try to act ethically, but it costs me a fortune. Luckily my competitors are few and far between, and reputation matters commercially for me.

A corollary of this is that restaurants within sight of tourist things are always terrible.

Their customers will never come back, and so their best strategy is to overcharge for bad food and get their clients to leave as soon as possible.

They make lots of money doing this, with new suckers every day, and so their landlords put the rent up to the point where they're only just viable.

No-one trying to run a decent restaurant is able to afford the rent.

This is one reason why chains like McDonalds and Starbucks do so well. You know when you go there exactly what you're going to get, because it's the same everywhere.

Trip Advisor is making a difference here, and maybe one day it will be possible to get decent food within sight of the Eiffel Tower.

But for the moment, either head for Starbucks, or walk a few streets away until you can't see it any more, and there aren't so many tourists, and eat where the locals eat.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Learning to Sight-Sing from a Standing Start

I joined a choir, and I decided I wanted to learn to sight-sing from scratch (*).

After about six months (**) (practising most days, I got interested), I can
sight-sing fairly well. I still struggle 'prima vista', but given a written melody I can work out what it sounds like fairly quickly without using an instrument. And I'm getting better and better at 'prima vista'.

I'm told this is good progress, so I thought I'd describe the things that worked for me:

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Firstly, I really loved Mark Philips book: "Sight Sing any Melody Instantly":

https://www.amazon.com/Sight-Sing-Melody-Instantly-Mark-Phillips/dp/1575605147

Within about a week of starting it, I could puzzle out what written music sounded like, and I could write down various tunes that I knew well. (Both with great difficulty and lots of trial and error!)

It took me maybe a month to work through the 'Songs in Major' part.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

I hadn't found the excellent "Vocal Pitch Monitor" android app at that point:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.tadaoyamaoka.vocalpitchmonitor

But I'm sure that if I had, it would have really helped. Once I did find it, I used it all the time.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Another thing that I wish I'd found earlier is the "Functional Ear Trainer" android app:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.kaizen9.fet.android&hl=en

Which teaches you to hear the various notes in the context of a key. As
well as helping with singing and transcribing, this has really
sharpened my sense of pitch, and I now automatically whistle and sing
precisely in tune without thinking about it, and without drifting sharp or flat.

I've actually spent a lot more of my time messing around with this app
than I probably should have. If I'd spent a bit less time on it and
concentrated on practising sight-singing instead then I think I would
have made faster progress.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

As well as pitch, you also need to get the hang of rhythm:

I also loved Mark's book on rhythm: "Sight Read Any Rhythm Instantly"

https://www.amazon.com/Sight-Read-Rhythm-Instantly-Mark-Phillips/dp/1575605155/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_pdt_img_top?ie=UTF8

and I used the methods described in the book to work through:

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

this "Rhythm Trainer" app:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=ru.demax.rhythmerr

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A few "philosophical" questions that I still had about rhythm even after reading Mark's book
and working through the Rhythm Trainer were answered by the Rhythm and Meter section of Bruce Taggart's
excellent Coursera course 'Getting Started with Music Theory':
https://www.coursera.org/learn/music-theory

That's really helped with writing down rhythms and knowing which time signatures to use.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



You'll need lots of practice materials, and for that I recommend this excellent free book:

"Eyes and Ears" by Ben Crowell

http://www.lightandmatter.com/sight/sight.html

which is a lovely collection of real melodies in increasing order of difficulty for practising.

You can download a pdf for free, or there's a high-quality printed version available from Lulu for $7.39.


-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Finally, I should say that Mark's book is mainly focussed on singing
in Major Keys (or the Ionian Mode), where it excels. There are short
sections on the minor key and on figuring the sounds of chromatic
notes, but I didn't find them very useful.

Although Mark uses numbers instead of do, re, me, his system is morally do-based minor.

When it came to learning how to sight-sing Minor Keys and in the
various modes (which are very important in the folk music that I
like), I decided for theoretical reasons (***) that I preferred the idea of:

La-based Minor  (or 6-based minor for me!)

(again, Bruce Taggart explains this best)
https://msu.edu/~taggartb/courses/Common/tonalsyllables.html

This has worked really well for me, and I've ended up
with one system of singing that works for all songs.

But it's generally a method preferred by singers and schoolteachers
and seems to be looked down on in academic and instrumentalist
circles, who generally prefer the do-based minor method.

I can't comment on which is quicker, but la-based minor seems to be easier to start with, and easier to use in practice.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that I'm not being paid by,
and in fact have never communicated with, any of the people whose
stuff I am recommending. They're just the things that I found really
useful out of all the things I tried, and it seems to me that they
might be helpful to others starting on the same journey.


 (*) When I started out, I knew lots and lots of songs, and could whistle and sing quite well, but the only sense in which I could read music was that (from primary
school) I could read the treble clef from C4 to E5 in the sense that
'this note is an A so use two fingers and your thumb on a
recorder'. Which was no help at all, especially since I'm invariably singing off the bass clef.

(**) actually the six months was spread out. I first read Mark's book about two years ago, and learning how to sing in major came quickly (about a month's work), although I wasn't very good at it.

That was actually good enough for choir purposes, since *even though almost all our songs were modal*, that allowed me to use printed music as a crib to remember things once I'd heard them.

Earlier this year I decided that I wanted to learn how to sing all the various modes and keys 'prima vista', researched various methods and looked for helpful tools, and I've been working on that for about five months solid.

(***) The fact that I could kind of already sing all the modes using Mark's method for the major key was the principal factor in deciding me that I wanted to use la-based (or 6-based) minor.

I also wanted to avoid the need to pre-analyse music to work out what mode it was in before being able to sing it, and I wanted to be able to sing things which were ambiguous in their modality. 

Mode is a very subjective, slippery concept, whereas key signature is an objective, solid thing. It seems better to build on rock than sand!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Apologies

I'm for some reason finding it impossible to leave comments on my own blog. Which is why I haven't replied to recent comments. Thanks for leaving them anyway! If I can work out what on earth is going on and fix it then I will reply.

This is ridiculous, and I should spend a couple of days at some point finding a better blogging platform. Hopefully one which can just suck all the content out of this accursèd heap (blogger). Any recommendations anyone?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Things You Can't Say

Scott Alexander speaks to us of the mechanisms of oppression:

http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/10/23/kolmogorov-complicity-and-the-parable-of-lightning/

You should totally read this. Like everything he writes it is insightful and very well-written.

See also:
http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html
https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=3376

Both glorious essays, well worth reading. Three of my favourite bloggers.

And I respond (a comment on the slate star codex subreddit. essays seem to be flying fully-armed from my forehead as reddit comments, whereas whenever I sit down to write an essay I spend all day on it and then get discouraged for no reason):



Err, what?

I loved this post on the object-level. Like, screw-you catholic church. You stripped and gagged my hero Giordano Bruno and you hung him upside-down and you lowered him alive head-first into a huge fire for saying bad things. And you don't get off just because the things you objected to weren't the things we thought they were, but were in fact some silly made-up fairy story nonsense that wouldn't fool a five-year old. You still retarded the progress of science (a bit) (probably enough that I am a generation short of immortality, which I take very personally). So screw you. Also you have totally lost and everyone despises you now. Ha ha ha ha ha.

On the meta-level, what the hell? We live in a society where we can pretty much say what we like. Without even the slightest comeback. America actually has a constitutional guarantee of absolute freedom of speech. And it seems to me to be very solidly upheld.

I can think of a number of issues that are controversial in American politics. I am not going to invoke their names here, but not because I think that the CIA might hunt me down, but because I do not want to get banned from this subreddit for starting discussions which aren't allowed by the moderators of this subreddit (i.e. Scott!).

The reason that I can think of these issues is because I can hardly open my morning internet without reading about them, both sides passionately advocated by clever and articulate people. It is fun.

The penalty for saying the things you can't say is usually (if you say them well) fame, and best-selling books. Which don't seem to get burned much. About the worst you can say is that it can be difficult to get state funding to research things that the state doesn't particularly want to know the answer to.


Luckily, I live in England, in a society where there is no such guarantee. We don't want one. We don't like absolute freedom of speech. We never have. Bad people will say bad things and cause trouble and we would rather they shut up.

We actually have laws prohibiting certain kinds of political speech! Can you imagine?

So I have some actual legally enforced taboos that I can violate without touching on your silly "Culture War".

One of them is about inciting racial hatred.

Another is about glorifying terrorism.

And just for good measure, not here, but in some parts of the European SuperState in which I live it is illegal to deny the holocaust.

I don't really know the details of these laws because there is not a plastic cat in hell's chance of me being prosecuted under them. A bit like the blasphemy laws, which we also still have, I think.

So here goes:

White people are evil. We should make a big bonfire and burn them all. If you don't think that's good enough, suggest another race and I'll repeat the comment with that race inserted. (Unless it's "bargee travellers/water gypsies/or, as we prefer to be known, floating pikey scum", in which case fuck you).

Terrorism is totally glorious, it works, and it does a lot of good in the world. Good old terrorism. Glory to it! Up the IRA! Remember Skibbereen! Also ISIS. Great guys, doing the Lord's work, would invite them round for a beer and a bacon sandwich any time.

And the holocaust didn't happen, or if it did it's been totally exaggerated. Hitler was a good man who was sincerely trying to make the world a better place and it is simply unfortunate that he was so very wrong about the sorts of things that would help.

There we go.

I am commenting in a pseudonymous forum. But I have neglected properly to ensure my security because my pseudonym is also my real name, with my middle name in there so that it is a globally unique identifier.

I am going to dox myself to save everyone else the trouble. I live in Cambridge, UK, on a narrowboat called "Katy". In the middle of town, close to the Fort St George pub. Call round for a cup of tea if you're in the vicinity, or maybe call round and attack me with an axe or something. Whatever floats *your* boat.

This is a rationalist forum. Bets or at least predictions on my fate, please?

And yes, I do get the impression that the "Culture War" thingy is getting a bit out of hand stateside. You should probably all calm down a bit. But Jesus, Americans getting all worked up about ideological issues is hardly a new thing. Yall don't seem nearly as mad as usual.

Also, just in case the problem is grammar-nazis, "yall" is a wonderful word. Ever since we dropped thou and thee from standard English we have needed a distinct second person plural and "yall" is great and should be used everywhere. (Is there an accusative?)

So what are the things I can't say, exactly? Because I don't think I'm clever enough to work out what they are.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Putting a Very Small Amount of Money Where My Mouth Is


I've just donated $100 to MIRI  ( https://intelligence.org/ )

I don't understand why I've just done it.

It's a pathetic amount of money. I can't see how it could make any difference to anything. I'm embarrassed by it. It's about £75, and I've been known to spend that kind of money on lunch.

On my guilt pile, right in front of me, is a 23andme genetic testing kit, that I bought out of mild curiosity about a year ago, and have been meaning to get around to registering and sending back ever since. So I know that I will spend £200 on a whim, which will then be derailed by my mild dislike of filling in forms. ( I note that I am thinking this thought, and not doing anything about it even though the kit is in front of me, and I am at a computer. I am busy writing this blog post now. I will totally do it later.....)

It was hard to do. One particularly difficult barrier that I needed to overcome was that such donations, to an American charity, are likely tax-deductible. Which is to say that the British Government can likely be persuaded to add another £20 or so on top. I didn't know if there was some special, but complicated thing I had to do in order to get that to happen.

It was very very hard to say "Fuck that. Just make the damned donation." It felt like throwing money away. The same feeling that makes me feel horribly about lovingly and beautifully wrapped Christmas presents.  The waste. The destruction. I feel them very strongly. ( I must review that feeling. It is not helpful. The crime is very small. )

But God damn it, I did it anyway. And now that I have, I realise that all I have to do is tell my accountant about it, and he will sort it out. And actually, £20 here or there, who cares? It's probably not worth bothering my accountant about.

If I don't bother to claim it back, the government will just spend it on government-crap. And some of the government-crap may even be helpful to someone, somewhere.



MIRI is fairly well funded these days, although they don't have anything like the funding they should have, given the importance of the problem they're trying to address.

A reasonable level of funding, in my mind, would be something in the order of 10% of the output of the economy of the world.

The only reason I put the figure that low is that Artificial General Intelligence is not about to kill us any time soon, as far as I can see.

It doesn't look to me like the sort of thing that will happen within the next decade, although I'm not at all confident about that, but it does look to me like the sort of thing that will very likely happen within this century.

Which is to say that I wouldn't be particularly surprised if it killed me in my old age, and I wouldn't be particularly surprised if it didn't.

But I would be quite surprised if it didn't at some point in the next hundred years kill everyone in the world, including, of course, all the little children that I know, who will grow up over the coming century.

But it's not an urgent problem. The urgent problems are the things that could go wrong today, like a nuclear exchange causing a nuclear winter and wiping out all the higher life on the planet.

And there are less urgent problems, like deliberately engineered pandemics or rogue nanotechnology, that seem very deadly and very difficult to stop.

But those are all problems that are likely beyond my ability to influence.

The AGI problem is a maths and philosophy problem. It needs fundamental research. As far as I can tell, MIRI are going about the sort of thing that I'm supposed to be good at in exactly the right sort of way.

Every few extra dollars they have is another hour or so of someone clever thinking about this really important, really hard problem before it kills us all.

This is my best guess at what's going on, and I've thought it for years.

And yet, I've never previously given them any money.

If you're in this position, if there's some weird force preventing you from taking this obvious, correct, important action, then just try donating a very small sum of money, to see how it feels. Make it a sum so small that you don't care about it. Even if it's just a dollar or something.

It feels good.

It doesn't matter if it doesn't do any good. It doesn't matter if you're not doing it efficiently. It doesn't matter if they spend it all on promoting dubious rationality workshops or if they spend it on champagne and oysters at some polyamorous weirdo-party in the notoriously expensive San Francisco Bay, or if it goes to building a one hundred foot high golden statue of Eliezer Yudkowsky.

It doesn't matter if it's all a cult or if they saw you coming a mile off.

It's a trivial sum of money.

Just do it.

It feels good.

Here's the link:


https://intelligence.org/donate/

It's paypal. You set the amount and type your credit card details in. That's it.

In return, you'll get a nice automatic e-mail of thanks to whatever e-mail address you gave paypal. That's it.

Just do it, now.

A barrier is broken. It doesn't look like a hard thing to do in retrospect. I don't feel like a fool.

It feels great.










P.S. It is very much the point of this post that you should just ignore any trivial considerations that are getting in the way of doing what you think you should do.

But if you want to donate a large sum of money, and you're sure that the extra effort involved won't deter you, then it is possible to do it in a tax-efficient manner. See:

https://intelligence.org/donate/tax-advantaged-donations/

or get in touch with colm@intelligence.org , who I am sure will be happy to advise and help you.






Why can't Macroeconomics Answer the Simplest Questions?



If everyone became more frugal, would GDP per capita permanently drop as a result in the long term?

(Someone on reddit's AskEconomics forum posted this question. People started saying no, and 'it depends', and quoting all sorts of bits of theory to suggest that GDP would actually go up.)

This was my answer:





Yes.

Consider the effect of a new world-wide religion, which guarantees salvation to anyone who restricts their consumption to the level of a well-off 16th century peasant farmer.

There's a list of all the things you're allowed to have and do, and for all those things, there's a defined maximum rate of acquisition. No getting round the rules, barter and 'just picking stuff up' all count.

You don't actually have to get rid of the things you already own, but get hold of more stuff of any kind faster than the ideal rate and you're going to hell.

The religion catches on enormously quickly, because it's being proselytized by a fleet of hypno-drones controlled by an AI built by the Green Party.

And no more than one child per adult. You have to throw any extra ones down a well or something.

Nobody ever breaks these rules again ever.

Obviously, all hell is going to break loose, but when things eventually settle down, the amount of stuff produced is going to be equal to the amount of stuff consumed.

If that were not true, then spare stuff would just keep piling up everywhere. Anybody who has a job making stuff that is already lying around in vast piles is going to lose interest.

So GDP per capita has fallen to something like the mediaeval level, maybe a hundredth of what is is now.

There will be a slight extra term relating to ongoing hypno-drone maintenence, obviously. But I claim it will be negligible.



(Obviously this got deleted. It seems pretty straightforward to me. If macroeconomic theory can't describe this scenario, then it's broken.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Contract Programmer Seeks Job in Cambridge (£500 reward)

Anyone in Cambridge need a programmer? I'll give you £500 if you can find me a job that I take.

CV at http://www.aspden.com

I make my usual promise, which I have paid out on several times:

If, within the next six months, I take a job which lasts longer than one month, and that is not obtained through an agency, then on the day the first cheque from that job cashes, I'll give £500 to the person who provided the crucial introduction.

If there are a number of people involved somehow, then I'll apportion it fairly between them. And if the timing conditions above are not quite met, or someone points me at a shorter contract which the £500 penalty makes not worth taking, then I'll do something fair and proportional anyway.

And this offer applies even to personal friends, and to old contacts whom I have not got round to calling yet, and to people who are themselves offering work, because why wouldn't it?

And obviously if I find one through my own efforts then I'll keep the money. But my word is generally thought to be good, and I have made a public promise on my own blog to this effect, so if I cheat you you can blacken my name and ruin my reputation for honesty, which is worth much more to me than £500.



And I also make the following boast:

I know all styles of programming and many languages, and can use any computer language you're likely to use as it was intended to be used.

I have a particular facility with mathematical concepts and algorithms of all kinds. I can become very interested in almost any problem which is hard enough that I can't solve it easily.

I have a deserved reputation for being able to produce heavily optimised, but nevertheless bug-free and readable code, but I also know how to hack together sloppy, bug-ridden prototypes, and I know which style is appropriate when, and how to slide along the continuum between them.

I've worked in telecoms, commercial research, banking, university research, chip design, server virtualization, university teaching, sports physics, a couple of startups, and occasionally completely alone.

I've worked on many sizes of machine. I've written programs for tiny 8-bit microcontrollers and gigantic servers, and once upon a time every IBM machine in the Maths Department in Imperial College was running my partial differential equation solvers in parallel in the background.

I'm smart and I get things done. I'm confident enough in my own abilities that if I can't do something I admit it and find someone who can.

I know what it means to understand a thing, and I know when I know something. If I understand a thing then I can usually find a way to communicate it to other people. If other people understand a thing even vaguely I can usually extract the ideas from them and work out which bits make sense.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Answer to g

What if I was so convinced I was right that I started a 'Rational Thyroid Treatment Corporation'?

Actually there wouldn't be any point, since the bloody stuff is cheap as chips. I think that might be the problem. There's never been anyone to fight its corner for it.


Which is verging on conspiracy theory. Except that there's no conspiracy, just perverse incentives.

Which is what we say when we want to say 'conspiracy theory'.


I used to know some Socialist Workers. And one of them used to refer to people as 'lumpen'. One day I asked her if that was what Socialist Workers said when they meant 'common', and she went red and said 'yes' in a very small voice.

Which increased my respect for her a lot. Unfortunately she ruined it all about a month later when at the end of an argument about the correct method of determining wage levels for firemen she completely lost it with the immortal words 'Under Socialism there WOULDN'T BE FIRES'.



I wonder if she's still a Socialist? I wonder what she's doing? I wonder if she's still alive?

The follies of our youth are in retrospect glorious, when compared to the follies of our old age.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

In Defence of Simple Ideas That Explain Everything But Are Wrong

I've been thinking, and writing, about The Impossible Question of the Thyroid for some while now.

I came up with what I thought was a good stab at an answer to its majestic mystery:

http://johnlawrenceaspden.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/the-thyroid-madness-core-argument.html
http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/nef/the_thyroid_madness_core_argument_evidence/

This is a very simple and obvious explanation of an awful lot of otherwise confusing data, anecdotes, quackery, expert opinion and medical research.

People seem to hate it because it is so simple, and makes so many predictions, most of which are terrifying.

And it is obviously false! Of course medicine has tried using thyroid supplementation to fix 'tired all the time'. It doesn't work!

But there really is an awful lot unexplained about all this T4/T3 business, and why different people think it works differently. I refer you to the internet for all the unexplained things.

In just the endocrinological literature there is a long fight going on about T4/T3 ratios in thyroid supplementation, and about the question of whether or not to treat 'subclinical hypothyroidism'. Some people show symptoms with very low TSH values. Some people have extremely high TSH values and show no symptoms at all.

I've been trying various ways of explaining it all for nearly four months now. And I've found lots of magical thinking in conventional medicine, and lots of waving away of the reports of honest-sounding empiricists, real doctors, who have made no obvious errors of reasoning, most of whom are taking terrible risks with their own careers in order to, as they see it, help their patients.

I've read lots of people saying 'we tried this, and it works', and no people saying 'we tried this, and it makes no difference'. The explanation favoured by conventional medicine strongly predicts 'we tried this, and it makes no difference'. But they've never tried it!

It's really confusing. A lot of people are very confused.

I think that simple explanations are extra-worth looking at because they are simple.


Of course that doesn't mean they're right. Consequences and experiment are the only judge of that.

I do not think I am right! There is no way I can have got the whole picture. I can't explain, for instance: 'euthyroid sick syndrome'. But I don't predict that it doesn't exist either.

But you should look very carefully at the simple beautiful ideas that seem to explain everything, but that look untrue.

Firstly because Solomonoff induction looks like a good way to think about the world. Or call it Occam's Razor if you prefer. It is straightforward Bayesianism, as David Mackay points out in Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms.

Secondly because all the good ideas have turned out to be simple, and could have been spotted, (and often were) by the Ancient Greeks, and could have been demonstrated by them, if only they'd really thought about it.

Thirdly because experiments not done with the hypothesis in mind have likely neglected important aspects of the problem. (In this case T3 homeostasis, and possible peripheral resistance, and the difference between basal metabolic rate and waking rate, and the difference between core and peripheral temperature, and the possibility of a common DIO2 mutation causing people's systems to react differently to T4 monotherapy, and in general the hideous complexity of the thyroid system and its function in vertebrates in general).

Fourthly because the reason for the 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics' is that the simplest ideas tend to come up everywhere!

And so when a mathematician plays with a toy problem for fun, and reasons carefully about it, two thousand years later it can end up winning a major war in a way no one ever expected.

So that even if there are things you can't explain (I can't explain hot daytime fibro-turks...), you should keep plugging away, to see if you can explain them, if you think hard enough.

Good ideas should be given extra-benefit of the doubt. Not ignored because they prove (slightly) too much!

Do not believe them. Do not ever ever believe them. You will end up worse than Hitler. You will end up worse than Marx.

But give them the benefit of the doubt. Keep them in mind. Try safe experiments, ready to abort when they go wrong.

And if they're easy to refute (mine is), then if you're going to call yourself a scientist, damned well take the trouble to refute the things. You might learn something!

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Thyroid Madness : Core Argument, Evidence, Probabilities and Predictions


I've made a couple of recent blog posts about hypothyroidism:

http://johnlawrenceaspden.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/thyroid-hormones-chronic-fatigue-and.html
http://johnlawrenceaspden.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/a-medical-mystery.html

It appears that many of those who read them were unable to extract the core argument, and few people seem to have found them interesting.

They seem extremely important to me. Somewhere between a possible palliative for some cases of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and a panacea for most of the remaining unexplained diseases of the world.

So here I've made the core argument as plain as I can. But obviously it misses out many details. Please read the original posts to see what I'm really saying. They were written as I thought, and the idea has crystallised somewhat in the process of arguing about it with friends and contributors to Less Wrong. In particular I am indebted to the late Broda Barnes for the connection with diabetes, which I found in his book 'Hypothyroidism: The Unsuspected Illness', and which makes the whole thing look rather more plausible.




CORE ARGUMENT


(1.1) Hypothyroidism is a disease with very variable symptoms, which can present in many different ways.
It is an endocrine hormone disease, which causes the metabolism to run slow. A sort of general systems failure. Which parts fail first seems random.
It is extraordinarily difficult to diagnose by clinical symptoms.

(1.2) Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia look very like possible presentations of Hypothyroidism

(1.3) The most commonly used blood test (TSH) for Hypothyroidism is negative in CFS/FMS

=>

EITHER

(2.1) CFS/FMS/Hypothyroidism are extremely similar diseases which are nevertheless differently caused.

OR

(2.2) The blood test is failing to detect many cases of Hypothyroidism.


It seems that one is either forced to accept (2.1), or to believe that blood hormone levels can be normal in the presence of Hypothyroidism.

There is precedent for this:

Diabetes, another endocrine disorder (this time the hormone is insulin), comes in two forms:

type I : the hormone producing gland is damaged, the blood hormone levels go wrong.         (Classical Diabetes)
type II: the blood hormone levels are normal, but for some reason the hormone does not act. (Insulin Resistance)

I therefore hypothesize:

(3) That there is at least one mechanism interfering with the action of the thyroid hormones on the cells.

and

(4) The same, or similar mechanisms can interfere with the actions of other hormones.

A priori, I'd give these hypotheses a starting chance of 1%. They do not seem unreasonable. In fact they are obvious.
The strongest evidence against them is that they are so very obvious, and yet not believed by those whose job it is to decide.


CURRENT STATUS  (Estimated probability)

(1.1) Uncontroversial, believed by everyone involved (~100%)

(1.2) Similarly uncontroversial (~100%)

(1.3) By definition. With abnormal TSH, you'd have hypothyroidism (~100%)

(2.1) Universal belief of conventional medicine and medical science, some alternative medicine disagrees (~90%)

(2.2) The idea that the TSH test is inaccurate is widely believed in alternative medicine, and by thyroid patient groups, but largely rejected by conventional medicine (~10%)

(3) There is some evidence from alternative medicine that this might be true (~10%)

(4) My own idea. A wild stab in the dark. But if it happens twice, you bet it happens thrice (~0.000001%)


Some Details

(1.1) Clinical diagnosis of Hypothyroidism is very out of fashion, considered hopelessly unreliable, doctors are actually trained to ignore the symptoms. There is a famous medical sin of 'Overdiagnosing Hypothyroidism', and doctors who fall into sin are regularly struck off.

(1.2) I don't think you'll find anyone who knows about both diseases to dispute this.

(1.3) True by definition. CFS/FMS symptoms plus abnormal TSH would be Hypothyroidism proper, almost no-one would disagree.

(2.1) This is the belief of conventional medicine. But the cause of CFS/FMS is unknown.
Generally the symptoms are blamed on 'stress', but 'stress' seems to be 'that which causes disease'. This 'explanation' seems to be doing little explanatory work. In fact it looks like magical thinking to me.
Medical Scientists know much more about all this than I do, and they believe it.
On the other hand, scientific ideas without verified causal chains often turn out to be wrong.

(2.2) (The important bit: If the TSH test is not solid, there are a number of interesting consequences.)

I've been looking for a few months through the endocrinological literature for evidence that the sensitivity of the TSH test was properly checked before its introduction or since, and I can't find any. It seems to have been an unjustified assumption. At the very least, my medical literature search skillz are not up to it. I appeal for help to those with better skillz.

It is beyond doubt that atrophy or removal of the thyroid gland causes the TSH value to go extremely high, and such cases are uncontroversial.

The actual interpretation of the TSH test is curiously wooly.
It has proved very difficult to pin down the 'normal range' for TSH, and they have been arguing about it for nearly forty years, over which the 'normal range' has been repeatedly narrowed
The AACB report of 2012 concluded that the normal range was so narrow that huge numbers of people with no symptoms would be outside it, and this range is not widely accepted for obvious reasons

There are many other possible blood hormone tests for hypothyroidism. All are considered to be less accurate or less sensitive than the TSH test. It does seem to be the best available blood test. It does not correlate particularly well with clinical symptoms.

(3) Broda Barnes, a conventional endocrinologist working before the introduction of reliable blood tests, was convinced that the most accurate test was the peripheral basal body temperature on waking.
He considered measuring the basal metabolic rate, and rejected it for good reasons. He considered that desiccated thyroid was a good treatment for the disease, and thought the disease very common. He estimated its prevalence at 40% in the American population. His work is nowadays considered obsolete, and ignored. But he seems to have been a careful, thoughtful scientist, and the best arguments against his conclusions are placebo-effect and confirmation bias. He treated thousands of patients, his treatments were not controversial at the time, and he reported great success. He wrote a popular book 'Hypothyroidism: The Unsuspected Illness', and his conclusions have fathered a large and popular alternative medicine tradition.

John Lowe, a chiropractor who claimed that fibromyalgia could be cured with desiccated thyroid, found that many (25%) of his patients did not respond to the treatment. He hypothesised peripheral resistance, thought it genetic, and used very high doses of the thyroid hormone T3 on many of his patients, which should have killed them. I have read many of his writings, they seem thoughtful and sane. I am not aware of any case in which John Lowe is thought to have done harm. There must be some, even if he was right. But if he was wrong he should have killed many of his patients, including himself. He was either a liar, or a serial murderer, or he was right. He was likely seeing an extremely biased sample of patients, those who could not be helped by conventional approaches.

(4) I just made it up by analogy.
There is the curious concept of 'adrenal fatigue', widespread in alternative medicine but dismissed as fantasy outside it, where the adrenal glands (more endocrine things) are supposed to be 'tired out' by 'excessive stress'. That could concievably be explained by peripheral resistance to adrenal hormones.


CONSEQUENCES

If (3) is true but (4) is not:

There are a number of mysterious 'somatoform' disorders, collectively known as the central sensitivity syndromes, with many symptoms in common, which could be explained as type 2 hypothyroidism. Obvious cases are Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia Syndrome, Major Depressive Disorder, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but there are many others. Taken together they would explain Broda Barnes' estimate of 40% of Americans.

If (4) is true:

Then we can probably explain most of the remaining unexplained human diseases as endocrine resistance disorders.


HOW CAN THIS BE TRUE, BUT HAVE BEEN MISSED?

This is the million-dollar question!

My favourite explanation is that in order to overwhelm 'peripheral resistance to thyroid hormones', one needs to give the patient both T4 and T3 in exactly the right proportions and dose.

Supplementation with T4 alone will not increase the levels of T3 in the system, since the conversion is under the body's normal control, and the body defends T3 levels.

But T3 is the 'active hormone'. Without significantly increasing the circulating levels of T3, the resistance cannot be overwhelmed.

On the other hand, any significant overdosing of T3 will massively overstimulate the body, causing the extremely unpleasant symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

This seems to me to be sufficient explanation for why various trials of T4 supplementation on the central sensitivity disorders have all failed. In almost all cases, the patients will either have seen no improvement, or have experienced the symptoms of over-treatment. Only in very few cases will any improvement have occured, and standard trials are not designed to detect such effects.

It is actually just luck that the T4/T3 proportion in desiccated thyroid is about right for some people.

Alternatively, there may just be some component in desiccated thyroid whose action we don't understand.



PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

I displayed symptoms of mild-to-moderate Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and my wonderful NHS GP checked everything it could possibly be. All my blood tests normal, TSH=2.51. I was heading for a diagnosis of CFS.

After four months I mysteriously partially recovered after trying the iron/vitamin B supplement Floradix, even though I wasn't anaemic.

I started researching on the basis that things that go away on their own tend to come back on their own.

I noticed that I had recorded, in records kept at the time of the illness, thirty out of a list of forty possible symptoms of Hypothyroidism, drew the obvious conclusions as so many other have, and purchased a supply of desiccated thyroid in case it came back.

It did come back, and after one month, I began to self-treat with desiccated thyroid, very carefully titrating small doses against symptoms, and quickly noted immediate huge improvement in all symptoms. In fact I'd say they were gone.

My basal temperature rose over a few weeks from 36.1 to ~36.6 (average, rise slow over several weeks, noise ~ +-0.3 day to day).

One week, holding the dose steady in anticipation of more blood tests, I overdid it by the truly minute amount of 3mg/day of desiccated thyroid, which caused all of the symptoms of the manic phase of bipolar disorder (whose down phase is indistinguishable from CFS, and whose up phase looks terribly like the onset of hyperthyroidism), The manic symptoms disappeared within twelve hours of ceasing thyroid supplementation, to be replaced by overwhelming tiredness.

I resumed thyroid supplementation at a slightly lower dose, and feel as well as I have done for ten years. It's now been ten weeks and I am becoming reasonably confident that it is having some effect.



POSSIBLE CAUSATION


Such catastrophic failures of the body's central control system CANNOT be evolutionarily stable unless they are extremely rare or have compensating advantages.

I am thus drawn to the idea of either:

(a) recent environmental change (which seems to be the alternative medicine explanation)

(b) immune defence (which would explain why e.g. CFS often presents as extended version of the normal post-viral fatigue)



STRONG PREDICTIONS
Low Body Temperature

It is a very strong prediction of this theory that low basal metabolic rates, and thus low basal peripheral temperatures will be found in many sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia.
If this is not true, then the idea is refuted unambiguously.

Thyroid Hormone Supplementation as Palliative
It is a less strong prediction, but still fairly strong, that supplementation of the hormones T4 and T3 in carefully titrated doses and proportions will relieve some of the symptoms of CFS/FMS.

Note that T4 supplementation alone is unlikely to work. And that unless the doses and proportions are carefully adjusted to relieve symptoms, the treatment is likely to either not work, or be worse than the disease!


SOME SELECTED POSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS / PREDICTIONS
I've been very reluctant to draw my wilder speculative conclusions in public, since they have the potential to do great harm whether or not the idea is true, but here are some of the less frightening ones that I feel safe stating:

I state them only to encourage people to believe that this problem is worth thinking about.

Endocrinology appears not to be too interested, and my crank emails to endocrinologists have gone unanswered.

One of the reasons that I feel safe stating these three in public is that Broda Barnes thought them obvious and published popular books about them, so they are unlikely to come as a surprise to anyone outside endocrinology:

Dieting/Exercise/Weight Loss

Dieting and Exercise don't work long term as treatments for weight loss. The function of the thyroid system is to adapt metabolism to available resources. Starvation will cause mild transient hypothyroidism as the body attempts to survive the famine it infers. This may be the explanation for Anorexia Nervosa.

Diabetes

Diagnosis of diabetes was once a death sentence. With the discovery of insulin, allowing diabetics to control their blood sugar levels, it became survivable.
However it still has terrible complications, a lot of which look like the complications of hypothyroidism.

If a hormone-resistance mechanism interferes with both insulin and thyroid hormones, the reason for this is obvious. Diabetics with well-controlled blood sugar are dying in their millions from a treatable condition.

Heart Disease

One of the very old tests for hypothyroidism was blood cholesterol. It was thought to be a reliable indicator of hypothyroidism if present, but it was not always present.

A known symptom of hypothyroidism is atherosclerosis and weakness of the heart.

I would imagine that hypothyroidism initially presents as low blood pressure, due to the weakness of the heart. As the arteries clog, the weakened heart is forced to work harder and harder. Blood pressure goes higher and higher, and eventually the heart collapses under the strain.

Blood pressure reducing medications may actually be doing harm. A promising treatment might be to correct the underlying hypothyroidism.

Smoking

Cigarettes are full of poisons, and smoking is correlated with very many diseases.

It could be that smoking causes amongst its effects peripheral resistance, which causes clinical hypothyroidism, which then causes everything it usually causes. And that would be my bet!

It could be that hypothyroidism causes a very great number of bad things, including depression, which then causes smoking.

Smoking may not actually be that dangerous, and it might be possible to mitigate its bad effects.


I'm going to stop there. There are quite a lot of similar conclusions to be drawn. Read Barnes.

I also have some novel ones of my own which I am not telling anyone about just yet.

What the hell do I, or any of the quacks who have been screaming about this for forty years, have to say in order that someone with real expertise in this area takes this idea seriously enough to have a go at refuting it?

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