This post is a container for my short-form writing. See this post for meta-level discussion about shortform.
I am now reasonably convinced (p>0.8) that SARS-CoV-2 originated in an accidental laboratory escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
1. If SARS-CoV-2 originated in a non-laboratory zoonotic transmission, then the geographic location of the initial outbreak would be drawn from a distribution which is approximately uniformly distributed over China (population-weighted); whereas if it originated in a laboratory, the geographic location is drawn from the commuting region of a lab studying that class of viruses, of which there is currently only one. Wuhan has <1% of the population of China, so this is (order of magnitude) a 100:1 update.
2. No factor other than the presence of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and related biotech organizations distinguishes Wuhan or Hubei from the rest of China. It is not the location of the bat-caves that SARS was found in; those are in Yunnan. It is not the location of any previous outbreaks. It does not have documented higher consumption of bats than the rest of China.
3. There have been publicly reported laboratory escapes of SARS twice before in Beijing, so we know this class of virus is difficult to contain in a laboratory setting.
4. We know
This Feb. 20th Twitter thread from Trevor Bedford argues against the lab-escape scenario. Do read the whole thing, but I'd say that the key points not addressed in parent comment are:
Data point #1 (virus group): #SARSCoV2 is an outgrowth of circulating diversity of SARS-like viruses in bats. A zoonosis is expected to be a random draw from this diversity. A lab escape is highly likely to be a common lab strain, either exactly 2002 SARS or WIV1.
But apparently SARSCoV2 isn't that. (See pic.)
Data point #2 (receptor binding domain): This point is rather technical, please see preprint by @K_G_Andersen, @arambaut, et al at http://virological.org/t/the-proximal-origin-of-sars-cov-2/398… for full details.
But, briefly, #SARSCoV2 has 6 mutations to its receptor binding domain that make it good at binding to ACE2 receptors from humans, non-human primates, ferrets, pigs, cats, pangolins (and others), but poor at binding to bat ACE2 receptors.
This pattern of mutation is most consistent with evolution in an animal intermediate, rather than lab escape. Additionally, the presence of these same 6 mutations in the pangolin virus argues strongly for an animal origin: https://biorxiv.o
The most recent episode of the 80k podcast had Andy Weber on it. He was the US Assistant Secretary of Defense, "responsible for biological and other weapons of mass destruction".
Towards the end of the episode he casually drops quite the bomb:
Well, over time, evidence for natural spread hasn’t been produced, we haven’t found the intermediate species, you know, the pangolin that was talked about last year. I actually think that the odds that this was a laboratory-acquired infection that spread perhaps unwittingly into the community in Wuhan is about a 50% possibility... And we know that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was doing exactly this type of research [gain of function research]. Some of it — which was funded by the NIH for the United States — on bat Coronaviruses. So it is possible that in doing this research, one of the workers at that laboratory got sick and went home. And now that we know about asymptomatic spread, perhaps they didn’t even have symptoms and spread it to a neighbor or a storekeeper. So while it seemed an unlikely hypothesis a year ago, over time, more and more evidence leaning in that direction has come out. And it’s wrong to dismiss that as kind
First, a clarification: whether SARS-CoV-2 was laboratory-constructed or manipulated is a separate question from whether it escaped from a lab. The main reason a lab would be working with SARS-like coronavirus is to test drugs against it in preparation for a possible future outbreak from a zoonotic source; those experiments would involve culturing it, but not manipulating it.
But also: If it had been the subject of gain-of-function research, this probably wouldn't be detectable. The example I'm most familiar with, the controversial 2012 US A/H5N1 gain of function study, used a method which would not have left any genetic evidence of manipulation.
I agree that this is technically correct, but the prior for "escaped specifically from a lab in Wuhan" is also probably ~100 times lower than the prior for "escaped from any biolab in China"
I don't think this is true. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is the only biolab in China with a BSL-4 certification, and therefore is probably the only biolab in China which could legally have been studying this class of virus. While the BSL-3 Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing studied SARS in the past and had laboratory escapes, I expect all of that research to have been shut down or moved, given the history, and I expect a review of Chinese publications will not find any studies involving live virus testing outside of WIV. While the existence of one or two more labs in China studying SARS would not be super surprising, the existence of 100 would be extremely surprising, and would be a major scandal in itself.
[I'm not an expert.]
My understanding is that SARS-CoV-1 is generally treated as a BSL-3 pathogen or a BSL-2 pathogen (for routine diagnostics and other relatively safe work) and not BSL-4. At the time of the outbreak, SARS-CoV-2 would have been a random animal coronavirus that hadn't yet infected humans, so I'd be surprised if it had more stringent requirements.
Your OP currently states: "a lab studying that class of viruses, of which there is currently only one." If I'm right that you're not currently confident this is the case, it might be worth adding some kind of caveat or epistemic status flag or something.
In a comment here, Eliezer observed that:
OpenBSD treats every crash as a security problem, because the system is not supposed to crash and therefore any crash proves that our beliefs about the system are false and therefore our beliefs about its security may also be false because its behavior is not known
And my reply to this grew into something that I think is important enough to make as a top-level shortform post.
It's worth noticing that this is not a universal property of high-paranoia software development, but a an unfortunate consequence of using the C programming language and of systems programming. In most programming languages and most application domains, crashes only rarely point to security problems. OpenBSD is this paranoid, and needs to be this paranoid, because its architecture is fundamentally unsound (albeit unsound in a way that all the other operating systems born in the same era are also unsound). This presents a number of useful analogies that may be useful for thinking about future AI architectural choices.
C has a couple of operations (use-after-free, buffer-overflow, and a few multithreading-related things) which expand false beliefs in one area of the system i... (read more)
Despite the justness of their cause, the protests are bad. They will kill at least thousands, possibly as many as hundreds of thousands, through COVID-19 spread. Many more will be crippled. The deaths will be disproportionately among dark-skinned people, because of the association between disease severity and vitamin D deficiency.
Up to this point, R was about 1; not good enough to win, but good enough that one more upgrade in public health strategy would do it. I wasn't optimistic, but I held out hope that my home city, Berkeley, might become a green zone.
Masks help, and being outdoors helps. They do not help nearly enough.
George Floyd was murdered on May 25. Most protesters protest on weekends; the first weekend after that was May 30-31. Due to ~5-day incubation plus reporting delays, we don't yet know how many were infected during that first weekend of protests; we'll get that number over the next 72 hours or so.
We are now in the second weekend of protests, meaning that anyone who got infected at the first protest is now close to peak infectivity. People who protested last weekend will be superspreaders this weekend; the jump in cases we see over the next 72 hours will be about *
For reducing CO2 emissions, one person working competently on solar energy R&D has thousands to millions of times more impact than someone taking normal household steps as an individual. To the extent that CO2-related advocacy matters at all, most of the impact probably routes through talent and funding going to related research. The reason for this is that solar power (and electric vehicles) are currently at inflection points, where they are in the process of taking over, but the speed at which they do so is still in doubt.
I think the same logic now applies to veganism vs meat-substitute R&D. Considering the Impossible Burger in particular. Nutritionally, it seems to be on par with ground beef; flavor-wise it's pretty comparable; price-wise it's recently appeared in my local supermarket at about 1.5x the price. There are a half dozen other meat-substitute brands at similar points. Extrapolating a few years, it will soon be competitive on its own terms, even without the animal-welfare angle; extrapolating twenty years, I expect vegan meat-imitation products will be better than meat on every axis, and meat will be a specialty product for luddites and people with dietary restrictions. If this is true, then interventions which speed up the timeline of that change are enormously high leverage.
I think this might be a general pattern, whenever we find a technology and a social movement aimed at the same goal. Are there more instances?
According to Fedex tracking, on Thursday, I will have a Biovyzr. I plan to immediately start testing it, and write a review.
What tests would people like me to perform?
Tests that I'm already planning to perform:
To test its protectiveness, the main test I plan to perform is a modified Bittrex fit test. This is where you create a bitter-tasting aerosol, and confirm that you can't taste it. The normal test procedure won't work as-is because it's too large to use a plastic hood, so I plan to go into a small room, and have someone (wearing a respirator themselves) spray copious amounts of Bittrex at the input fan and at any spots that seem high-risk for leaks.
To test that air exiting the Biovyzr is being filtered, I plan to put on a regular N95, and use the inside-out glove to create Bittrex aerosol inside the Biovyzr, and see whether someone in the room without a mask is able to smell it.
I will verify that the Biovyzr is positive-pressure by running a straw through an edge, creating an artificial leak, and seeing which way the air flows through the leak.
I will have everyone in my house try wearing it (5 adults of varied sizes), have them all rate its fit and comfort, and get as many of them to do Bittrex fit tests as I can.
I suspect that, thirty years from now with the benefit of hindsight, we will look at air travel the way we now look at tetraethyl lead. Not just because of nCoV, but also because of disease burdens we've failed to attribute to infections, in much the same way we failed to attribute crime to lead.
Over the past century, there have been two big changes in infectious disease. The first is that we've wiped out or drastically reduced most of the diseases that cause severe, attributable death and disability. The second is that we've connected the world with high-speed transport links, so that the subtle, minor diseases can spread further.
I strongly suspect that a significant portion of unattributed and subclinical illnesses are caused by infections that counterfactually would not have happened if air travel were rare or nonexistent. I think this is very likely for autoimmune conditions, which are mostly unattributed, are known to sometimes be caused by infections, and have risen greatly over time. I think this is somewhat likely for chronic fatigue and depression, including subclinical varieties that are extremely widespread. I think this is plausible for obesity, where it is approximately #3 of my hypotheses.
Or, put another way: the "hygiene hypothesis" is the opposite of true.
Eliezer has written about the notion of security mindset, and there's an important idea that attaches to that phrase, which some people have an intuitive sense of and ability to recognize, but I don't think Eliezer's post quite captured the essence of the idea, or presented anything like a usable roadmap of how to acquire it.
An1lam's recent shortform post talked about the distinction between engineering mindset and scientist mindset, and I realized that, with the exception of Eliezer and perhaps a few people he works closely with, all of the people I know of with security mindset are engineer-types rather than scientist-types. That seemed like a clue; my first theory was that the reason for this is because engineer-types get to actually write software that might have security holes, and have the feedback cycle of trying to write secure software. But I also know plenty of otherwise-decent software engineers who don't have security mindset, at least of the type Eliezer described.
My hypothesis is that to acquire security mindset, you have to:
I'm kinda confused about the relation between cryptography people and security mindset. Looking at the major cryptographic algorithm classes (hashing, symmetric-key, asymmetric-key), it seems pretty obvious that the correct standard algorithm in each class is probably a compound algorithm -- hash by xor'ing the results of several highly-dissimilar hash functions, etc, so that a mathematical advance which breaks one algorithm doesn't break the overall security of the system. But I don't see anyone doing this in practice, and also don't see signs of a debate on the topic. That makes me think that, to the extent they have security mindset, it's either being defeated by political processes in the translation to practice, or it's weirdly compartmentalized and not engaged with any practical reality or outside views.
I am working on a longer review of the various pieces of PPE that are available, now that manufacturers have had time to catch up to demand. That review will take some time, though, and I think it's important to say this now:
The high end of PPE that you can buy today is good enough to make social distancing unnecessary, even if you are risk averse, and is more comfortable and more practical for long-duration wear than a regular mask. I don't just mean Biovyzr (which has not yet shipped all the parts for its first batch) and the AIR Microclimate (which has not yet shipped anything), though these hold great promise and may be good budget options.
If you have a thousand dollars to spare, you can get a 3M Versaflo TR-300N+. This is a hospital-grade positive air pressure respirator with a pile of certifications; it is effective at protecting you from getting COVID from others. Most of the air leaves through filter fabric under the chin, which I expect makes it about as effective at protecting others from you as an N95. Using it does not require a fit-test, but I performed one anyways with Bitrex, and it passed (I could not pass a fit-test with a conventional face-mask except by taping the edges to my skin). The Versaflo doesn't block view of your mouth, gives good quality fresh air with no resistance, and doesn't muffle sound very much. Most importantly, Amazon has it in stock (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07J4WCK6R) so it doesn't involve a long delay or worry about whether a small startup will come through.
Bullshit jobs are usually seen as an absence of optimization: firms don't get rid of their useless workers because that would require them to figure out who they are, and risk losing or demoralizing important people in the process. But alternatively, if bullshit jobs (and cover for bullshit jobs) are a favor to hand out, then they're more like a form of executive compensation: my useless underlings owe me, and I will get illegible favors from them in return.
What predictions does the bullshit-jobs-as-compensation model make, that differ from the bullshit-jobs-as-lack-of-optimization model?
When I tried to inner sim the "bullshit jobs as compensation" model, I expected to see a very different world than I do see. In particular, I'd expect the people in bullshit jobs to have been unusually competent, smart, or powerful before they were put in the bullshit job, and this is not in fact what I think actually happens.
The problem being that the kind of person who wants a bullshit job is not typically the kind of person you'd necessarily want a favor from. One use for bullshit jobs could be to help the friends (or more likely the family) of someone who does "play the game." This I think happens more often, but I still think the world would be very different if this was the main use case for bullshit jobs- In particular, I'd expect most bullshit jobs to be isolated from the rest of the company, such that they don't have ripple effects. This doesn't seem to be the case as many bullshit jobs exist in management.
When I inquired about the world I actually do see, I got several other potential reasons for bullshit jobs that may or may not fit the data better:
In particular, I'd expect the people in bullshit jobs to have been unusually competent, smart, or powerful before they were put in the bullshit job, and this is not in fact what I think actually happens.
Moral Mazes claims that this is exactly what happens at the transition from object-level work to management - and then, once you're at the middle levels, the main traits relevant to advancement (and value as an ally) are the ones that make you good at coalitional politics, favor-trading, and a more feudal sort of loyalty exchange.
This tweet raised the question of whether masks really are more effective if placed on sick people (blocking outgoing droplets) or if placed on healthy people (blocking incoming droplets). Everyone in public or in a risky setting should have a mask, of course, but we still need to allocate the higher-quality vs lower-quality masks somehow. When sick people are few and are obvious, and masks are scarce, masks should obviously go on the sick people. However, COVID-19 transmission is often presymptomatic, and masks (especially lower-quality improvised masks) are not becoming less scarce over time.
If you have two people in a room and one mask, one infected and one healthy, which person should wear the mask? Thinking about the physics of liquid droplets, I think the answer is that the infected person should wear it.
This was initially written in response to "Communicating effective altruism better--Jargon" by Rob Wiblin (Facebook link), but stands alone well and says something important. Rob argues that we should make more of an effort to use common language and avoid jargon, especially when communicating to audiences outside of your subculture.
If you're writing for a particular audience and can do an editing pass, then yes, you should cut out any jargon that your audience won't understand. A failure to communicate is a failure to communicate, and there are no excuses. For public speaking and outreach, your suggestions are good.
But I worry that people will treat your suggestions as applying in general, and trying to extinguish jargon terms from their lexicon. People have only a limited ability to code-switch. Most of the time, there's no editing pass, and the processes of writing and thinking are comingled. The practical upshot is that people are navigating a tradeoff between using a vocabulary that's widely understood outside of their subculture, and using the best vocabulary for thinking clearly and communicating within their subculture.
When it comes to thinking clearly, some of t... (read more)
The discussion so far on cost disease seems pretty inadequate, and I think a key piece that's missing is the concept of Hollywood Accounting. Hollywood Accounting is what happens when you have something that's extremely profitable, but which has an incentive to not be profitable on paper. The traditional example, which inspired the name, is when a movie studio signs a contract with an actor to share a percentage of profits; in that case, the studio will create subsidiaries, pay all the profits to the subsidiaries, and then declare that the studio itself (which signed the profit-sharing agreement) has no profits to give.
In the public contracting sector, you have firms signing cost-plus contracts, which are similar; the contract requires that profits don't exceed a threshold, so they get converted into payments to de-facto-but-not-de-jure subsidiaries, favors, and other concealed forms. Sometimes this involves large dead-weight losses, but the losses are not the point, and are not the cause of the high price.
In medicine, there are occasionally articles which try to figure out where all the money is going in the US medical system; they tend to look at one piece, conclud... (read more)
Suppose LessWrong had a coauthor-matchmaking feature. There would be a section where you could see other peoples' ideas for posts they want to write, and message them to schedule a collaboration session. You'd be able to post your own ideas, to get collaborators. There would be some quality-sorting mechanism so that if you're a high-tier author, you can restrict the visibility of your seeking-collaborators message to other high-tier authors.
People who've written on LessWrong, and people who've *almost* written on LessWrong but haven't quite gotten a post out: Would you use this feature? If so, how much of a difference do you think it would make in the quantity and quality of your writing?
Among people who haven't learned probabilistic reasoning, there's a tendency to push the (implicit) probabilities in their reasoning to the extremes; when the only categories available are "will happen", "won't happen", and "might happen", too many things end up in the will/won't buckets.
A similar, subtler thing happens to people who haven't learned the economics concept of elasticity. Some example (fallacious) claims of this type:
This feels like it's in the same reference class as he traditional logical fallacies, and that giving it a name - "zero elasticity fallacy" - might be enough to significantly reduce the rate at which people make it. But it does require a bit more concept-knowledge than most of the traditional fallacies, so, maybe not? What happens when you point this out to someone with no prior microeconomics exposure, and does logical-fallacy branding help with the explanation?
Building more highway lanes will cause more people to drive (induced demand), so building more lanes won't fix traffic.
Is this really fallacious? I'm asking because while I don't know the topic personally, I have some friends who are really into city planning. They've said that this is something which is pretty much unambiguously accepted in the literature, now that we've had the time to observe lots and lots of failed attempts to fix traffic by building more road capacity.
A quick Googling seemed to support this, bringing up e.g. this article which mentions that:
In this paper from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, author Todd Litman looks at multiple studies showing a range of induced demand effects. Over the long term (three years or more), induced traffic fills all or nearly all of the new capacity. Litman also modeled the costs and benefits for a $25 million line-widening project on a hypothetical 10-kilometer stretch of highway over time. The initial benefits from congestion relief fade within a decade.
Vitamin D reduces the severity of COVID-19, with a very large effect size, in an RCT.
Vitamin D has a history of weird health claims around it failing to hold up in RCTs (this SSC post has a decent overview). But, suppose the mechanism of vitamin D is primarily immunological. This has a surprising implication:
It means negative results in RCTs of vitamin D are not trustworthy.
There are many health conditions where having had a particular infection, especially a severe case of that infection, is a major risk factor. For example, 90% of cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV infection. There are many known infection-disease pairs like this (albeit usually with smaller effect size), and presumably also many unknown infection-disease pairs like this as well.
Now suppose vitamin D makes you resistant to getting a severe case of a particular infection, which increases risk of a cancer at some delay. Researchers do an RCT of vitamin D for prevention of that kind of cancer, and their methodology is perfect. Problem: What if that infection wasn't common in at the time and place the RCT was performed, but is common somewhere else? Then the study will give a negative result.
This throws a wrench into the usual epistemic strategies around vitamin D, and around every other drug and supplement where the primary mechanism of action is immune-mediated.
What those drug-abuse education programs we all went though should have said:
It is a mistake to take any drug until after you've read its wikipedia page, especially the mechanism, side effects, and interactions sections, and its Erowid page, if applicable. All you children on ritalin right now, your homework is to go catch up on your required reading and reflect upon your mistake. Dismissed.
(Not a vagueblog of anything recent, but sometimes when I hear about peoples' recreational-drug or medication choices, I feel like Quirrell in HPMOR chapter 26, discussing a student who cast a high-level curse without knowing what it did.)
It's looking likely that the pandemic will de facto end on the Summer Solstice.
Biden promised vaccine availability for everyone on May 1st. May 1st plus two weeks to get appointments plus four weeks spacing between two doses of Moderna plus one week waiting for full effectiveness, is June 19. The astronomical solstice is June 20, which is a Sunday.
Things might not go to plan, if the May 1st vaccine-availability deadline is missed, or a vaccine-evading strain means we have to wait for a booster. No one's organizing the details yet, as far as I know. But with all those caveats aside:
It's going to be a hell of a party.
Twitter is an unusually angry place. One reason is that the length limit makes people favor punchiness over tact. A less well-known reason is that in addition to notifying you when people like your own tweets, it gives a lot of notifications for people liking replies to you. So if someone replies to disagree, you will get a slow drip of reminders, which will make you feel indignant.
LessWrong is a relatively calm place, because we do the opposite: under default settings, we batch upvote/karma-change notifications together to only one notification per day, to avoid encouraging obsessive-refresh spirals.
Some software costs money. Some software is free. Some software is free, with an upsell that you might or might not pay for. And some software has a negative price: not only do you not pay for it, but someone third party is paid to try to get you to install it, often on a per-install basis. Common examples include:
This category of
Lack-of-adblock is a huge mistake. On top of the obvious drain on attention, slower loading times everywhere, and surveillance, ads are also one of the top mechanisms by which computers get malware.
When I look over someone's shoulder and see ads, I assume they were similarly careless in their choice of which books to read.
Some people have a sense of humor. Some people pretend to be using humor, to give plausible deniability to their cruelty. On April 1st, the former group becomes active, and the latter group goes quiet.
This is too noisy to use for judging individuals, but it seems to work reasonably well for evaluating groups and cultures. Humor-as-humor and humor-as-cover weren't all that difficult to tell apart in the first place, but I imagine a certain sort of confused person could be pointed at this in order to make the distinction salient.
There is a rumor of RSA being broken. By which I mean something that looks like a strange hoax made it to the front on Hacker News. Someone uploaded a publicly available WIP paper on integer factorization algorithms by Claus Peter Schnorr to the Cryptology ePrint Archive, with the abstract modified to insert the text "This destroyes the RSA cryptosystem." (Misspelled.)
Today is not the Recurring Internet Security Meltdown Day. That happens once every month or two, but not today in particular.
But this is a good opportunity to point out a non-obvious best pra... (read more)
The Diamond Princess cohort has 705 positive cases, of which 4 are dead and 36 serious or critical. In China, the reported ratio of serious/critical cases to deaths is about 10:1, so figure there will be 3.6 more deaths. From this we can estimate a case fatality rate of 7.6/705 ~= 1%. Adjust upward to account for cases that have not yet progressed from detection to serious, and downward to account for the fact that the demographics of cruise ships skew older. There are unlikely to be any undetected cases in this cohort.