Hey, guys. Been meaning to write a blog for some time. Yesterday I promised a friend I would write a post explaining a thing I did called the Crackpot Bet. It seemed to be as good a place to start as any, so here’s the story. (Now I've decided to post it on Less Wrong, readers of which will be familiar with what CFAR, etc. is. Can't be bothered to fix it at the moment. Steel Man me, if you'd be so kind.)

One day I made a wild claim on a forum for graduates of a thing called CFAR. Someone on the list I will call “Bob” immediately emailed me to the effect that, on the evidence of apparently nothing except my post, I was either a crackpot or a genius, and he would bet all his limbs on the former. I laughed and emailed him I had no use for his limbs but would be willing to make a serious bet if we could find mutually acceptable terms. He immediately offered the following bet: If you’re right, as evidenced by winning the Nobel prize or the Fieldings Medal, he would happily give me all of his worldly possessions.

In the order of the story, here’s a side note I consider important. In the middle of all this, I sent a letter asking for a job at MIRI (the Machine Intelligence Research Organization) to several high-ups there and related people I knew. One of them, who is also one of my best friends, responded privately that he thought I was a crackpot. Back to the story.

Bob’s was obviously still a silly bet, and I was still in my Right Mind. But I still thought there might be a possibility of finding agreeable terms if there was better than 1000:1 odds I was right. I also needed money. So I wrote out the bet, had a good chuckle, and, carried away by self-amusement, decided to send it out to the whole list, as well as a related East Coast list called OBNYC. Here it is:

I offer a bet on the following terms: Give me a million dollars as defined below. If I lose, and can be reasonably labeled a crackpot and critically not anyone a reasonable person can label as a famous genius, as defined below, one year after I hit "send," I pay off the million dollars, with no interest, in monthly payments over a period of 20 years starting a year from today.

If I win, by which mean I am popularly declared to be a "Genius" (or words to that effect), by someone who should know, among most members of the forums to which I'm sending this Forum, in the popular press as defined by CNN, by one year from today, I keep the money and whatever IP I create related to the bet or whatever. Critically, the person who calls me a Genius as defined above must be a recognized expert in the field that can be reasonably interpreted to include whatever they're praising me in, but this field need not be in mathematics. (It could be in the field of farming, just to pick a joke example.)

I trust the people reading this are not morons, will act on this email in good faith, and realize I may be a crackpot but I'm not a moron. I can't be bothered to spell it out more clearly than that, but would be very happy to sign a legally binding contract providing we can reach mutually agreeable terms.

I offer this bet to the first person who is able to get a million dollars into my bank account, and reserve the right to give it to as many people as I see fit.

If you prefer to respond to me privately and/or wish to keep your identity confidential, please send me a private email. If you want to take the bet, I'm happy to give you whatever info you need to get the money into my account offline.

Yours Truly --Glenn

As one might reasonably expect, the recipients flipped out and started calling me names. I laughed, shut my laptop, and went away to do errands. Later, checking my email, I saw that a few more people had called me names. Still amused, I decided to tease people and offer something called the “one-box prize.” I told myself that if someone thought through the terms of the bet and called me the word “genius” as a result, I would send that person a copy of the book I was reading.

In the morning, no one had “won my prize,” so I emailed the list saying so. Someone on OBNYC asked why I hadn’t been banned from the list. My friend Zvi pointed out I was a “genius” for reasons anyone who had thought about it for 5 minutes could see, and warned me to stop posting such things. I promptly responded saying “please don’t ban me!”, tried to make clear I was doing all of this in fun, and announced that Zvi had won the 1-Box Prize.

People were still calling me names, so I became annoyed and the whole thing became a slight tempest in a teapot. I teased people by calling them “VSMs” (I leave it to the reader to work out what that stands for), made up a “2-Boxer Prize” I thought was guessable by a smart person, and brashly offered on Facebook to donate a million dollars to MIRI in the name of the first person who guessed it.

That was when close friends started delicately checking to see if I was “okay.” After politely replying I was fine, I promised one of them I would write a post explaining to my friends on the list what was going on. This is that post.

I plan to write another post on this subject, and publish it tomorrow, so—to be continued. Thanks for reading!

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20 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:23 AM

"That was when close friends started delicately checking to see if I was “okay.” "

I would suggest seeing some of your close friends in person and seeing if they think you are ok instead of 'reassuring' them that you are fine. Your 'explanation' is not at all reassuring on this front. The whole incident seems out of character from what I remember of you, and I'm guessing your friends are right to be concerned. I recommend not writing more in public forums for the time being.

Hey Laura, would love to talk by Skype if you are free. See my note to Ray below.

Seconding this. I hope I'm not overstepping bounds if I ask that anyone who knows him personally checks in on him.

So if I'm understanding the timeline correctly, you said things people find so unconvincing that even your friends warned you that you sound like a crackpot, you doubled down by trolling an email list with an obviously one-sided bet, got upset that your trolling made people angry, and now you're bragging about how smart you are? I don't know you, but if I was in control of this list I would have already banned you. Group cohesion is a hard enough problem without trolls trying to mess it up "for fun".

I did get upset at being called a Troll. That is the only part of your description I can agree with. The bet is not one-sided.

I get that the original version at least appears one-sided.

The bet is extremely one-sided. At the outset, you get a 21-year million dollar zero-interest loan, and if you win you don't have to pay it back. There's no upside for the other person at all. Even if you "lose", the "winner" is giving you several million dollars in interest.

There are two reasons that offering this bet doesn't make you look smart:

1. The problem with the bet is extremely obvious and doesn't win you any cleverness points

2. In context, you appear to be using this bet to flout rationalist conversational norms.

3. You may also be violating the norms of the mailing list you're using (sending jokes, sending the same email to multiple lists)

Specifically for the second point, rationalist argument norms generally expect people to do some combination of providing evidence, making a (real) bet, or acknowledging the lack of evidence (which is fine! not everything is legible, and sometimes you need time to acquire evidence).

In this situation, it seems you made an argument that at least one other person found unconvincing. They responded in a way that (from your account) sounds pretty rude. At this point you have two options, either responding to the unnecessarily personal attack or respond to their argument.

For example, it would be completely reasonable to say something like "I realize you're not convinced by my argument, but I'd ask that you respond to the argument itself, and not generalizations about me (calling me a crackpot)".

You decided to respond to them with a counterargument (that you are in fact a genius), at which point the conversational norms above come up. "Bob" seems to have picked "make a bet", and you decided that "winning a Nobel Prize" is an unreasonable standard. I think you're completely justified in turning down an impossible bet, and there are several productive responses available to you:

  • Turn down the bet, and choose a different avenue to make your argument ("I'm not sure if we can come up with a reasonable bet for this, but I'm working on something exciting right now. Let's table this for now and we can see what you think when my paper/project/whatever is published.")
  • Come up with a new, more reasonable bet (some options: a paper of yours is published in a sufficiently prestigious form; you're invited to give a talk somewhere sufficiently prestigious; a neutral expert is chosen to adjudicate the bet in one year -- but knowingly, not just by the accident of saying the word "genius").

Instead, you countered with an even more unreasonable bet, sent it to multiple mailing lists, and doubled down when people asked you to stop (although they were also rude, from your account).

I hope this overly-detailed response is helpful. To be clear, I've never been on any of these mailing lists so I'm entirely relying on your account. My advice to you is:

1. Find a friend who participates on these mailing lists and get their opinion on whether you should apologize to the list or if just ending this thread is enough (I suspect a short "Sorry for the annoying messages / fake bet" would be helpful, but in some contexts people may just want the thread to end and would prefer not to get any more messages about it). I don't know the full context but if this is everything, I suspect people will get over this fairly quickly if you stop making it worse.

2. In the future, if something like this comes up, don't argue about vague things. You're perfectly within your rights to ask people to be nicer, but in a situation like this I think it would be far more productive to go with the "Please don't generalize about me; is there something you don't like about the argument?" response.

3. When you are arguing a point, be aware that sarcasm is dangerous, and trying to play it straight is even more dangerous. In particular, the bet you made and the arguments around it are highly suspect in rationalist circles. No one wants to argue with someone who is being intentionally misleading. This sort of thing *might* be ok with friends and in person, but it's almost never the right thing to do on a mailing list. If someone is arguing a point you disagree with, either give your evidence or defer the argument until you can collect more evidence.

Thank you Korin43! I found this feedback super-useful.

FWIW I am attacking certain community norms, and I’m trying to use humor to do that. I can understand how this can shock and offend people I care about in the community. I’ve been through similar things before and it sucks, but I sometimes choose to do it anyway. Gadflies are important. I’m not talking about this dumb bet, exactly, but the “bet” has inspired me to work on more elaborate things that play off it. For instance: https://rokosbasilisknovel.com. Seeking constructive feedback.

To repeat what was said in the CFAR mailing list here: This "bet" isn't really a bet, since there is no upside for the other party; they are worse off than when they started in every possible scenario.

That is what was said. I’m also pretty sure it’s wrong FWIW... but I can’t explain why without spoiling the joke. I know this will get me downvoted. Shrug

Yeah, I'm on the OBNYC mailing list and the emails were as annoying as korin43 says. It doesn't really help matters that the day before this bet email was sent out, he sent out another email purporting to answer the question "Why is there something instead of nothing?" using Goedel's incompleteness theorems. In his defense he acknowledged that the argument was probably flawed and thanked people for critiquing it, but it still came across as really crankish.

Also, nobody called him a genius. People said that if someone accepted the "bet" he'd be a genius who got a million dollar loan interest-free, but nobody called him a genius.

Steve, I see how this was an offensive way to describe what Zvi wrote. He did use that word but not in the way I implied. All my (secret) criterion required was that he use the word “genius” somehow in his email and point it at me. To be clear: He meant if I won the bet, then I would be a genius.

Further clarification: Zvi put quotes around the word “genius” and meant it ironically. Neither he nor anyone in the rationalist community has ever to my knowledge actually accused me of higher than average intelligence.

I am so confused...what was the answer Zvi had in mind that "anyone who thought about it for 5 minutes" could see? Keep in mind I have absolutely no context here and just wondering if there is in fact an interesting puzzle here whose answer I didn't figure out.

If he wins the bet, he gets a million dollars. If he loses the bet he gets a 21-year interest-free million dollar loan. Taking investment into account, the other party gives him several million dollars either way, and it doesn't really matter if he wins or loses the bet.

Even if Glenn is having a mental breakdown letting him continue to spam people on various forums is not helping him. In particular because he is currently burning a ton of social capital and cultivting a very negative reputation. At least he needs to take a break from public posting.

FYI I'm leaning towards giving him a temp ban on LW but haven't checked in with other LW team members since we're all recovering from EA Global.

Ray, I just tried calling you and Zvi. I would love to talk with someone who can set me straight. I understand well that people are upset and I almost certainly did something “bad” by some definition of that word. I don’t get all the hostility now that I mostly explained it.

BTW: Presently trying to Steel Man the attacks against me.