A Map that Reflects the Territory

The best LessWrong essays from 2018, in a set of physical books

A beautifully designed collection of books, each small enough to fit in your pocket. The book set contains over forty chapters by more than twenty authors including Eliezer Yudkowsky and Scott Alexander. This is a collection of opinionated essays exploring argument, aesthetics, game theory, artificial intelligence, introspection, markets, and more, as part of LessWrong's mission to understand the laws that govern reasoning and decision-making, and build a map that reflects the territory.

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Recent Discussion

Back in December, I asked how hard it would be to make a vaccine for oneself. Several people pointed to radvac. It was a best-case scenario: an open-source vaccine design, made for self-experimenters, dead simple to make with readily-available materials, well-explained reasoning about the design, and with the name of one of the world’s more competent biologists (who I already knew of beforehand) stamped on the whitepaper. My girlfriend and I made a batch a week ago and took our first booster yesterday.

This post talks a bit about the process, a bit about our plan, and a bit about motivations. Bear in mind that we may have made mistakes - if something seems off, leave a comment.

The Process

All of the materials and equipment to make the vaccine...

As someone considering taking it, I'd be interested in whether you have models of particular side effects or severities that might happen and why? Do you just have vague "accidents and harmful unknown unknowns aren't that unlikely here"?

I have not currently read the paper or looked into anything very hard. But one question I'd have is "given the ingredients you're working with, is there are particularly obvious way to mix these on purpose that'd result in something harmful happening?" 

I wanted to be able to link people to a guide on early retirement that succinctly covered everything I thought was important, but I couldn't find one that I was satisfied with.  So I made this.

There are tons of communities and resources out there for anyone who wants to read more about retirement, investing, financial independence, etc -- many of which I'm cribbing from.  You might start here: https://www.reddit.com/r/financialindependence/wiki/faq.

This is an opinionated guide, which means a lot of it is kind of made up -- but I think it's ~95% in line with what you'll find in financial independence communities across the internet.  Even if some numbers are wrong, I have decent confidence nothing here should lead you too far astray.

Also, disclaimer: I'm a random guy on the...

1Baisius5hIs this true? I don't think it is. From irs.gov [You may deduct charitable contributions of money or property made to qualified organizations if you itemize your deductions.]: "You may deduct charitable contributions of money or property made to qualified organizations if you itemize your deductions."
1Ericf4hFrom https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/how-the-cares-act-changes-deducting-charitable-contributions [https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/how-the-cares-act-changes-deducting-charitable-contributions] Here's how the CARES Act changes deducting charitable contributions made in 2020: Previously, charitable contributions could only be deducted if taxpayers itemized their deductions. However, taxpayers who don't itemize deductions may take a charitable deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions made in 2020 to qualifying organizations. For the purposes of this deduction, qualifying organizations are those that are religious, charitable, educational, scientific or literary in purpose. The law changed in this area due to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The CARES Act also temporarily suspends limits on charitable contributions and temporarily increases limits on contributions of food inventory. More information about these changes is available on IRS.gov.
1Baisius4hThree hundred dollars is a pretty minimal deduction. I expect there are at least a few effective altruists on here who have significant enough charitable contributions that it still makes sense to itemize deductions even with the increase in the standard deduction.

Mentally, I categorize "donating half your income" as "exceptional circumstance" and trust people in that 1% sliver of the population to make the right choice for them. Also, too, heavy donors probably aren't the same people looking to retire early


  • Same level of technology as today
  • Basic human psychology is the same
  • But you are allowed to change prevalent institutions, cultural assumptions etc.

So e.g. if you think that the modern school system is oppressive and traumatizing, you can describe a world that has something else instead. But you should describe the alternative at least a bit - what kids do with their time instead and how they learn skills and are selected into jobs. Don't just say "no school", give us a positive alternative vision.

Within those constraints, you're allowed to change as much as you like and can think of.

What's your utopia like?

Aldous Huxley's introduction to the unfinished 'Hopousia' by JD Unwin was always inspiring, I can't come up with a good block quote to leave here, but if you're into utopias, you might like it. I haven't gone and read the rest of the book, so maybe as far as forwards go, it isn't so great.


Original Post Here

The VIX is a unit of information within the financial market system that investment professionals use to make investment decisions. There are derivatives (options and futures) of that unit of information that market participants can use as tools to trade and / or invest within the financial market ecosystem.

What unit of information does the VIX track? the volatility of the S&P 500 index over the next 30 days, annualized. What does this mean?

Volatility is a measure of the severity of the return of an asset, regardless of whether the return is positive of negative. Lets say that on Monday Apple stock goes down 6%, Tuesday up 5%, Wednesday down 7%, Thursday up 8%, and Friday down 10%. Since Apple stock typically moves under 2% per...

Followup to Dealing with Network Constraints

Epistemic Status: I spent some time trying to check if Mysterious Old Wizards were important, and reality did not clearly tell me one way or another. But, I still believe it and frequently reference it and figured I should lay out the belief.

Three bottlenecks that the EA community faces – easily mistaken for each other, but with important differences:

Mentorship – People who help you learn skills, design your career, and gain important context about the EA landscape that help you figure out how to apply those skills.

Management – Within a given org or existing hierarchy, someone who figures out what needs doing and who should do it. This can involve mentorship of employees who are either new, or need to train in new...

Michael Nielsen calls something similar "volitional philanthropy", with some examples.

2deluks9175hI disagree with your interpretation of what happened with respect to talent constraints. In addition, I have a meta-critique. In your hypothetical people talk about 'talent constraints' without citing any articles. But you don't cite any articles either! I think quite a lot of the basis for 'EA is talent constrained came from the 80K hours surveys. 2017 [https://80000hours.org/2017/11/talent-gaps-survey-2017/] 2018 [https://80000hours.org/2018/10/2018-talent-gaps-survey/]. Both surveys were quite detailed and cannot be quickly summarized. But the 2017 report literally says the following: 'EA is talent constrained' was definitely not just a mistranslation, the explicit concept of 'talent constrained' vs 'funding constrained' was used on official surveys as recently as 2017. The surveys also make it clear that organizations considered keeping their recent hires to be worth seemingly incredible amounts of money. They were asked: Responses in 2017 and 2018 respectively for Senior/Junior hires: 80k Hours explicitly agrees the surveys were misleading for many readers and they will try to do better in the future. So there is no need to harp on them. But the meta point seems important here.
2Raemon4hOh, whoops! I totally meant the post to directly link to this post: https://80000hours.org/2015/11/why-you-should-focus-more-on-talent-gaps-not-funding-gaps/ [https://80000hours.org/2015/11/why-you-should-focus-more-on-talent-gaps-not-funding-gaps/] Which I have now properly edited in. Not sure that that changes the thrust of your critique but that was a straightforward error on my part.
2Raemon3hI probably agree with (or at least, would not be surprised if), 80k or CEA had also communicated poorly in contexts other than the initial post. (I also think there's still plenty of room for the initial post to have been more clear).

There’s a useful intuitive notion of “optimization” as pushing the world into a small set of states, starting from any of a large number of states. Visually:

Yudkowsky and Flint both have notable formalizations of this “optimization as compression” idea.

This post presents a formalization of optimization-as-compression grounded in information theory. Specifically: to “optimize” a system is to reduce the number of bits required to represent the system state using a particular encoding. In other words, “optimizing” a system means making it compressible (in the information-theoretic sense) by a particular model.

This formalization turns out to be equivalent to expected utility maximization, and allows us to interpret any expected utility maximizer as “trying to make the world look like a particular model”.

Conceptual Example: Building A House

Before diving into the formalism,...

2johnswentworth8hThen use an encodingM2which assigns very long codes to smooth walls. You'll need long codes for the greebled walls, since there's such a large number of greeblings, but you can still use even longer codes for smooth walls.

I don't see how to do that, especially given that it's not a matter of meeting some threshold, but rather of maximizing a value that can grow arbitrarily.

Actually, you don't even need the ways-to-arrange argument. Suppose I want to predict/control the value of a particular nonnegative integer  (the number of cubbyholes), with monotonically increasing utility, e.g. . Then the encoding length  of a given outcome must be longer than the code length for each greater outcome: . However, code len... (read more)

2johnswentworth8hI think what's really going on in this example (and probably implicitly in your intuitions about this more generally) is that we're implicitly optimizing only one subsystem, and the "resources" (i.e. energy in this case, or money) is what "couples" optimization of this subsystem with optimization of the rest of the world. Here's what that means in the context of this example. Why is putting rocks on the top row "harder" than on the bottom row? Because it requires more work/energy expenditure. But why does energy matter in the first place? To phrase it more suggestively: why do we care about energy in the first place? Well, we care about energy because it's a limited and fungible resource. Limited: we only have so much of it. Fungible: we can expend energy to gain utility in many different ways in many different places/subsystems of the world. Putting rocks on the top row expends more energy, and that energy implicitly has an opportunity cost, since we could have used it to increase utility in some other subsystem. More generally, the coherence theorems typically used to derive expected utility maximization implicitly assume that we have exactly this sort of resource [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/RQpNHSiWaXTvDxt6R/coherent-decisions-imply-consistent-utilities?commentId=GyE8wvZuWcuiCaySb] . They use the resource as a "measuring stick"; if a system throws away the resource unnecessarily (i.e. ends up in a state which it could have gotten to with strictly less expenditure of the resource), then the system is suboptimal for any possible utility function for which the resource is limited and fungible. Tying this all back to optimization-as-compression: we implicitly have an optimization constraint (i.e. the amount of resource) and likely a broader world in which the limited resource can be used. In order for optimization-as-compression to match intuitions on this problem, we need to include those elements. If energy can be expended elsewhere in the world to reduce
4johnswentworth8hNote for others: link to the paper from that post is gated, here's the version on arxiv [https://arxiv.org/abs/2101.00683], though I did not find links to the videos. It is a very fun paper.

By "upside risk" I mean: more upside risk than just holding the market.

By "reasonable" I mean: will not require an arbitrarily long education process to understand/carry out. I work a day job and have other commitments in my life, and I'm not that fundamentally interested in finance/investing. I'm not trying to get anywhere near an efficient frontier, I just want to be able to get upside risk more systematically than "some smart seeming EA/LWer drops a stock/crypto tip in a facebook group".

By "average": I assume I'm close to the LW median: I'm comfortable making kelly bets in the $1k - $100k range, depending on details. Mostly in the $10k range.

Are IPO ETFs a good candidate for this? SPACE SPAC ETFs? Buy and hold cryptocurrencies that aren't BTC/ETH? Buy and hold BTC/ETH? Sell random call and put options? Something else? Emerging markets ETFs?

Anatomy of a bubble. 

1. People are not interested
2. People ask for advice on getting into the market.  
3. People give experienced traders advice on trading.
4. Crash.

I'd say we are between (2) and (3) at this stage.

2waveman2hThe average retail trader underperforms the market by 4-5% per annum before costs. Far worse than this after costs. Yes they have negative skill. The average professional fund manager outperforms the market by less than 1% before the costs they charge to the punters. After costs they underperform. The average professional fund manager works very hard and has studied finance for years. My point is you need to do a lot better than average to win.

This Sunday, Anna Salamon and Oliver Habryka will discuss whether people who care about x-risk should have children.

A short summary of Oliver's position is:

If we want to reduce existential risk and protect the cosmic commons, we have some really tough challenges ahead and need to really succeed at some ambitious and world-scale plans. I have a sense that once people have children, they tend to stop trying to do ambitious things. It also dramatically reduces the flexibility of what plans or experiments they can try.

And a short summary of Anna's position is:

Most human activity is fake (pretends to be about one thing while being micro-governed by a different and unaligned process, e.g. somebody tries to "work on AI risk" while almost all of the micropulls come from


Scott Alexander reviewed his Covid-19 predictions, and I did my analysis as well. 

It was a quiet week, with no big news on the Covid front. There was new vaccine data, same as the old vaccine data – once again, vaccines still work. Once again, there is no rush to approve them or even plan for their distribution once approved. Once again, case numbers and positive test percentages declined, but with the worry that the English Strain will soon reverse this, especially as the extent of the drop was disappointing. The death numbers ended up barely budging after creeping back up later in the week, presumably due to reporting time shifts, but that doesn’t make it good or non-worrisome news.

This will be a relatively short update, and if...

1Timothy Johnson3hOn wearing glasses: Do you think contacts would also be helpful? I've noticed, for example, that my eyes aren't nearly as affected by chopping onions when I'm wearing contacts. That seems vaguely similar to COVID transmission by aerosols.

Nonzero helpful almost certainly, also almost certainly much less effective than glasses.


In a previous post, I argued for the study of goal-directedness in two steps:

  • Defining goal-directedness: depends only on the complete behavior of the system, and probably assumes infinite compute and resources.
  • Computing goal-directedness: depends on the internal structure, and more specifically what information about the complete behavior can be extracted from this structure.

Intuitively, understanding goal-directedness should mean knowing which questions to ask about the complete behavior of the system to determine its goal-directedness. Here the “complete” part is crucial; it simplifies the problem by removing the need to infer what the system will do based on limited behavior. Similarly, we don’t care about the tractability/computability of the questions asked; the point is to find what to look for, without worrying (yet) about how to get it.

This post proposes...