Open Thread: March 2009

by CarlShulman1 min read26th Mar 200972 comments


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Here is our monthly place to discuss Less Wrong topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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So I've got to ask... do my posts not get voted up as much as the other regular posters' because an upvote doesn't seem to signal much, or because people actually don't like my posts that much? Vote up if the former explanation, down if the latter.

7HughRistik12yI've often used voting to encourage posters that I like. Since I know that Eliezer has a long history of blogging, I don't see him as needing the same level of encouragement that new posters might need, so I'm not always so quick to upvote his posts even when I think it is deserved.
7Scott Alexander12yI often catch myself using "other Eliezer posts" as the reference class for an Eliezer post, versus "posts in general" as the reference class for everyone else's posts. That holds you to a much higher standard, especially since I best remember your early Overcoming Bias posts where you were picking off low-hanging fruit. It's unfair to you and I'm trying to stop it. Anti-kibbitzer doesn't work here because I go to new posts from the Recent Posts sidebar, plus your writing style's hard to miss. I guess that counts as an upvote.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky12yThat's generally fine, since I still get information out of which of my posts are being upvoted versus downvoted. I just have to know whether I should consider that signal commensurate with the signals other posts are getting (because if so that implies I should hurry up and finish this arc, then write less). But it sounds like the answer is no, on the whole.
6AlexU12yThe latter. Write shorter posts. Write in a simpler and less oracular prose style. And write more substantive posts -- at times, it seems as if you believe your every passing thought deserves 2,000 words. I'll often read your posts and, while recognizing some germ of a worthwhile idea there, regret the time and effort it took to locate it.
6PhilGoetz12yMy impression is that your posts get voted up as much as anybody's. Just look at the Karma score list. Look at the "Recent Posts": 3, 4, 2, 22, 3, 5, 7, 18, 0, 25. You have the 22. You might keep in mind the "Do I want my time back?" criterion that someone posted recently. Your posts are very long. Shorter posts will get more up-votes from people using that criterion. Also, although I fear you will abuse this viewpoint, I think that everyone has their own "IQ window", and they will down-vote posts that are either below or above their window.
6SoullessAutomaton12yTo anyone who agrees with an upvote not signalling much: Please reconsider to what extent the value of upvoting is to communicate to the author vs. to other readers. One would assume that, eventually, we'd like LW to have a healthy population of people who haven't necessarily read OB for years and may not be familiar with Eliezer's previous work, so won't realize the higher standard being applied. Furthermore, I'm pretty sure that Eliezer is capable of reading the comments and comparing scores between articles, so holding him to a higher relative standard isn't actually providing substantial additional feedback to him. Based on this, it seems to me that rating Eliezer differently than you would other authors is strictly suboptimal.
2Paul Crowley12yI can imagine an argument that holding him to a higher standard does provide more information, because he gets more information the closer to the probability of an upvote is to 50%. However, in practice I suspect this is an argument in favour of more upvotes, and in truth I'd be surprised if there isn't a name for the cognitive bias about judging a thing against a narrower category even when you're asked to judge it against a wider one.
3anonym12yYour idea about getting closer to 50% probability of an upvote in order to get more information identifies a weakness in the voting system. It doesn't matter as much for comments, but I think it is inadequate for articles. Much better than having to put every article into one of three categories -- up, down, or neither -- would be to have a slider that starts at 0 and can take values between -100 and +100. What we have now is equivalent to something like having -100 to -33.3 all mapped to 'down', -33.3 to +33.3 all mapped to neither, and +33.3 to +100 all mapped to 'up'. Obviously, lots of information is being discarded by design. Another problem is that votes aren't normalized with respect to the user that cast the vote. An up vote from a user who rarely votes up should be worth more than one from someone who votes everything up. Also, there could be distorting effects due to different subsets of readers preferentially reading different subsets of articles. If readers coming to LW without having read OB tend to vote differently (which is plausible since OB folks have not voted for years and may think of not voting up or down as the default, with a vote being for special emphasis), and they tend to read different sorts of articles (simpler articles on easier topics), the articles they read will appear to be wildly more popular.
2PhilGoetz12yHaving a slider requires a more-sophisticated data analysis, because different people use different rating scales. Typically psychologists use a multi-point scale, then use Rasch analysis (also called multi-item response theory) on the data. I would say from my experience that a 5-point scale is not big enough; almost everything gets 3 or 4 points, except from the people (about 2% of raters) who binarize the scale by giving everything either a 1 or a 5. Also, people will not use negative ratings, so don't try to center them on zero. People (or at least Americans) just can't say "zero is average".
3anonym12yMy instinct would be to have the numbers not be visible to the user. You just have a rectangle with two colors, initially red on the right side and green on the left side. Clicking anywhere inside the rectangle changes the dividing line to be at that location. So clicking 90% of the way towards the right would make the left 90% be green and the right 10% be red. The backend would know that it corresponds to whatever number it corresponds to (+80 according to the scheme I gave earlier), but the user just has a qualitative feel for how much of the mass they've allocated to the good (green) color and how much to the bad (red) color.
0Paul Crowley12yTwo things you could do about that: * As you hover over the rating button, the text below changes to indicate what that rating would mean. Zero stars means "don't bother", one star means "good enough to stay visible", two stars means "above-average" and so on * Allow half stars for more information. We would use percentile score to make the best use of the votes of binarizing voters without giving them more influence than high-information voters.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky12yThe slider is an interesting notion. It adds user-interface complexity, and may have incentive problems for users who desire to exert control, but potentially garners a substantially more useful form of information.
3Paul Crowley12yAt the moment the current score is a strong influence on how I vote on comments: I vote to move the score to the value I'd like it to have. This is somewhat unstable; directly specifying a personal score and taking a median would be less problematic.
2[anonymous]12yThe problem of the desire to exert control makes me think that a better option is giving a limited number of double/super/special votes that users can ration out as they see fit. Extra votes that actually mean something.
0anonym12yThat's a good idea. Though I didn't say it originally, when I mentioned normalization of a vote with respect to the user that cast it, I meant not only that it should be normalized against the average rating of a vote for that user but also against how much the user votes in general -- users who rate everything would then have less influence per vote than users who vote less frequently. If that were the case, then people who prefer to ration their votes and use them only for things they feel very strongly about (or have thought carefully about) would not have much less influence on what is popular and the direction of the site, as they currently do.
0JulianMorrison12yAmazon ranks stuff between ★☆☆☆☆ and ★★★★★ with a simple Javascript mouse hover / mouse click to set the value. LW could copy that pretty easily. I suggest that 5 categories would be enough.
2Paul Crowley12ySee PhilGoetz's point below: "almost everything gets 3 or 4 points".
3SoullessAutomaton12yWell, let's look. The top scoring articles seem to rated in the 50-60 range, indicating at least 60 users who have voted. Eliezer's articles seem to tend to be rated around 10-20, so that's probably closer to a 30% chance of upvoting. As far as I could tell none of the top three rated posts are by Eliezer. Yvain seems to be the most consistently highly rated poster overall, with typical scores seemingly ranging from 20-40. Since Yvain roughly mimics Eliezer's writing style and content, we could probably expect an unbiased rating of Eliezer's posts to be similar. All around, as a very rough approximation, we can say that Eliezer's posts are getting an upvote penalty of 50%. Take all that as you will. I'd imagine there is a name. Whatever it is, I consistently fall prey to it with most intuitive self-evaluations (comparing myself mostly to groups of which I am not a representative member).
2anonym12yOne thing you don't mention is that Yvain's posts and writing style are simpler and easier to comprehend than Eliezer's. Yvain has also presented some posts on fairly basic topics that are probably familiar to most longtime OB readers but are new to readers just joining LW. [EDIT: I retract the last point. I was thinking of the 'priming' post and that there were others like this on basic heuristics and biases topics, but that seems like the only one.] That is not to say that there's not also some bias. I think many of us probably consciously or unconsciously hold Eliezer to much higher standards than anybody else. All the recent talk about cults and cult-like behavior has probably made some people more hesitant to vote up anything by Eliezer as well.
2SoullessAutomaton12yNot to be contrary, but I actually find Eliezer's posts easier to comprehend, partly due to better structure and pacing, partly due to a typical slightly higher informational content holding my attention better. I suspect this is mostly a function of Eliezer having more practice, and of my own short attention span, heh. I was going to say that I expect the cultishness discussion to be more directly relevant to the upvoting penalty, but looking quickly at post scores doesn't seem to support that theory.
2[anonymous]12yIt sounds like a form of availability bias, but I agree it needs a more precise term.
6whpearson12yI choose option C, I don't think your current posts are as important worth discussing as much as some other current posts. The sequence on getting people to work together is only interesting if you are trying to form a specific type of fractious group. A group that cares about the world in 20-30 years will be very fractious because predicting the future is hard and has no particular methodology (and most people get it wrong) so most people will have different ideas of the future and hence different strategies for what should be done now. Edit: You seem to be in a filler arc at the moment where as other people are starting their main sequences, to put it in anime terms.
4Paul Crowley12yI like the current season, as it were :-) - I'm very interested in group organising stuff and I think it's important. I'm looking forward to the next season from the newer contributors - it often takes a season to find your stride...
2thomblake12yI like your 'anime terms' explanation - I also pick option 'C', along with a bit of agreeing with Yvain.
4CarlShulman12yI think you'd get higher ratings for more substantive posts, things in the vein of the posts on quantum physics, zombies, pebblesorters, etc. Also, I consciously try to correct for bias in your favor, and I suspect others do the same (your posts are recognizable, even with Yvain imitating your style).
2anonym12yI think you'd get higher ratings for more substantive posts, things in the vein of the posts on quantum physics, zombies, pebblesorters, etc. That should apply to everybody, not just Eliezer. I think you're comparing Eliezer's LW writings to his most substantive OB writings, but that's not a standard that is applied to anybody else. LW is intentionally more casual and more tolerant of shorter, less substantive posts.
1CarlShulman12yThe cited text was a general prediction.
1anonym12yMy point was not very clear. I realize you made a general prediction. What I mean is that if you made the prediction as a way of explaining the discrepancy, then it doesn't explain it, because Eliezer's posts are no less substantive than other posts with higher ratings, and if more substantive posts raised the scores of his posts, it would raise the scores of other posts too, and the disparity would remain -- unless different standards are being applied to Eliezer than to others (such as other posts being rated relative to all LW posts as a whole, and Eliezer's posts being rated relative to his OB posts as a whole).
2Jonathan_Graehl12yReading the RSS feed, it's a significant extra step to vote. I'm more inclined to do that for new authors than those I already think highly of. I also assumed that, as admin, your posts were automatically promoted. But maybe that's something you only sometimes elect. Since you're using the data to judge reactions to your work, I hereby promise not to employ any (counter)-biasing strategy in praising you.
1Eliezer Yudkowsky12yAgain, that's fine! You don't need to change anything! I just need to know whether LW is telling me to shut up or not. The relative data on which posts of mine people like more is still good.
2Roko12yI think I hold you to a higher standard than others too.
1[anonymous]12yA little of both I suspect. You had a bit of a quiet time there where you weren't posting many 'important' posts while (for example) Yvain was letting out years of repressed blogging brilliance.
0Larks11yI definitely do the former, because I presumed that everyone knew you were God ± 10%, so I ought to vote to give you information on the utility of different styles, topics, and the like. If your karma vis-a-vis other posters is also significant, I suppose I'll try to upvote you more than I do now, but still less than I do for others; otherwise I'd end up upvoting practically everything you write.

Curious about Eliezer's claim that his posts were voted up less than others, I did some statistical analysis on the scores of Less Wrong posts. I took the list of all posts as of midnight Mar 28, excluding posts with negative scores (which weren't available to me), the ten most recent posts (which people haven't had a chance to vote on yet), and the twenty oldest posts (from when the site was brand-new, and people weren't around to vote or hadn't established their criteria for voting), for a total of 93 articles. Of these, 20 consist primarily of a link an... (read more)

Just a general hint: if you go to , you can see all comments that have been posted in response to your comments. Discovered it by accident, but it really does make using LW easier.

1orthonormal12yVery useful! Could it be added to one's User page, perhaps?

Requesting rationalist assistance:

Somebody is talking to me about either advanced physics or magic, and I can't tell which one.

He mentions electron tunneling, superstring theory and quantum mechanics, in explaining why positive thoughts attract positive things, he mentioned a book called The Physics Of Consciousness, something about a quantum level of the brain.

I know there's benefit to thinking positive, but isnt that explained by evolution? I didn't think that quantum mechanics or a universal attraction of things to other things was involved.

The underlying assertion of most of these goofy new-age claims is that consciousness is a quantum process. Of course, in a trivial sense it is quantum insofar that every process in the physical world seems to obey quantum mechanics. The exact claim is that something "essentially quantum" is behind the phenomenon of consciousness, that the computations of the brain actually exploit uninuitive quantum behaviours that cannot be explained by a classical physics picture -- the claim is that we're quantum computers.

You build a quantum computer by exploiting the fact that a simple, perfectly isolated physical entity does not act like a tiny billiard, but rather as a complex-valued wave that isn't in any particular place at a given time, it's spread out. We say that small systems can be in "superpositions" of multiple states. Now when the system interacts with the environment, by hitting a photon from our lasers, say, it will "collapse" into one state, we will see the photon bouncing off as though the particle had been at one particular place. (Parenthetically, It should be noted that "collapse" is not a real a-priori physical process, but only... (read more)

6MichaelHoward12yLevskaya, if this first comment is anything like your usual standard, please post more!
1Za3k11yAlthough I am no expert, I think your quantum computing comments are incorrect. To explore branches, retaining all histories, you need a "nondeterministic" computer that branches freely. This gives an exponential (2^n) speedup over a classical computer. Quantum computers apparently give only a polynomial one. For more detail, check out Scott Aaronson's blog "Schtetl-Optimized": []
1Liron12yWow, this comment is incredible. Thanks for solidifying my previously vague understanding.
7Emile12yQuick heuristic : if someone is trying to relate quantum physics to a topic outside of physics, it's probably (99% ?) bullshit. (Eliezer's series on QM would fall in the remaining 1%) So unless you have other independent reasons to believe he isn't full of it, it's probably not worth investigating.
6Eliezer Yudkowsky12yMagic.
5MBlume12yYour friend is suffering from a confusion of levels. Electron tunneling occurs on a vastly different level of organization than do positive thoughts. Anyone speaking of the two in the same sentence should at least set off warning bells. ETA: I think I can state that a bit more clearly. Positive thoughts are invisible to a tunneling electron in the same way that New York is invisible to an ant in Central Park. The pattern of the whole is simply not accessible from that lower level. ETA2: It is sensible to say "the sky is blue because dipole radiation is frequency dependent," despite the fact that "blue sky" occurs at a larger scale than "dipole radiation". However, this is because the contributions from the lower level add in a simple way: a blue sky is built from a mole of deflected blue photons. A happy thought is not composed of a mole of "happy" electrons.
4sketerpot12yI took a brief look at that book. The author seems to be saying "There just has to be quantum magic in the brain somewhere", and then he goes looking for places he could plausibly imagine some. He's trying to justify what he wants to believe.

A psychic medium.

My colleague, let’s call her Sally, tells me she is a psychic medium. She tells me she first spoke to a dead person when she was three: she was talking to a woman on the stairs, and her mother was concerned when she went to tell her mother about it. Now, she tends not to see people, she realises they are not physically present in the way that a living person is present, but she senses them.

She reports three ways in which the Dead communicate. Normally, it is as if she hears them speaking, and relays the message to the living. During her... (read more)

1Paul Crowley12y []
1thomblake12yIt might be worth a post, if you can relate it to rationality in general, and make an interesting point or two. You have the karma for it.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky12yI wouldn't suggest it. This seems like the sort of thing generally handled better at a skeptic's forum. From LW's perspective this is pretty basic [].

Quick Poll: How many rationalists meditate? It seems like the mental discipline involved could be highly useful.

For those who do: what sort of training did you use? Did you teach yourself, or find a teacher? What benefits do you perceive from the practice?

1Scott Alexander12yAnother "occasionally but not systematically".
1Emile12yI occasionally meditate but not systematically. It would probably do me good, I just don't have that many quiet occasions to do so.

This is in response to Yvain's comment requesting an Open Thread.

1MBlume12yAn excellent plan. Is there perhaps a way we can sticky this thread, or otherwise keep it linked from the front page as the month goes on?
7CarlShulman12yI was applying a standard anti-bias heuristic I have internalized: when the costs are low and a beneficial action clear, be the person who ignores the bystander effect []. You can always drag it onto the top bar of your web browser for a direct link. I recommend that for your inbox [] (showing private messages and replies to your posts/comments) as well.
1Paul Crowley12yIs there a reason you put it that way, rather than "be the person who ignores the bystander effect, especially when the costs are low and/or a beneficial action is clear"? Obviously one doesn't want to start to act like an underpowered superhero, but it sounds like there's more to your thinking than that.
1CarlShulman12yI prefer to use more detailed analysis and consultation rather than a precomputed rough-and-ready heuristic like that in high-cost and uncertain situations, since the expected value of deliberation increases.
0Paul Crowley12yThat makes sense, thanks.

Why didn't this post show up in the RSS feed?

I just happened to see someone comment about it on another post...

In Google Reader I searched the history to make sure I hadn't missed it, but it appears it never showed up.

2Eliezer Yudkowsky12yYou're subscribed to the RSS feed for "promoted" posts only. You need the RSS feed for "new" posts.

Could someoone make a "Less Wrong" Facebook group, please?

0pre12ySeriously? Why? To encourage the Facebook masses to come here? * shudders *
2timtyler12yFor reasons associated with signalling affiliations - the same as with most such groups.
1pre12yOh, so like a badge to put on your profile page. I did wonder why people joined so many pointless groups. I think it would likely bring more facebook randoms here. Not really sure what the aims of the place are in that regard. Presumably we DO want to encourage rationality outside our own little clique, so bringing more people here would be good. But presumably we also don't want to drown in trolls and noise and idiots and spam which is what tends to be the final result of that kinda recruitment drive. Probably should figure out what the plan is for that before you start, effectively, advertising on facebook I reckon.
1timtyler12yThe OB group has 231 members. There will be a LW group - but who will make it?
1timtyler12yIt's arrived. To quote from its "wall": "Wow, I am so happy that there is a Facebook group!" * []

This is a kludge. We need proper forums.

6Emile12yI don't think so, it's probably best to keep most of the community focused on the posts. With forums the attention would be divided. An occasional open thread is a good way to fit in the lower-threshold stuff, and that's common to many blogs.
4SoullessAutomaton12yForums are also more prone to accreting semi-off-topic crud. Do we really want to deal with "ITT: post your rationalism-themed cat macros"?