by nim
1 min read26th Apr 202123 comments
This is a special post for short-form writing by nim. Only they can create top-level comments. Comments here also appear on the Shortform Page and All Posts page.
24 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:10 PM

Reading and pondering the Bigfoot thing.

On the one hand, We Have Cameras Everywhere(TM).

On the other hand -- pick any area of the pacific northwest and look at a map of where the permanent roads are. Pull it up side by side with a map of an area that you're familiar with. Zoom in on both, to a magnification you'd consider reasonable for imagining things at walking-around scale. Pan around on the PNW map and try to find a permanent road. It'll take a minute.

Most land out here grows timber, sure. Timber is harvested roughly once every 30-50 years.

At this point, I'd bet that every square mile of the area has been visited by humans. Forestry land is heavily trafficked once every few decades; conservation land is surveyed and studied and sometimes visited by tourists.

The question, like a missing term in the Drake Equation, is when. The L term captures for-how-long, sure, but only implies a difference between "someone sent us radio signals for 100 years around 1000 AD" and "someone sent us radio signals for 100 years around 2000 AD".

I have two cats who hate me. (not their fault, they came from an animal hoarding situation so they're probably kinda traumatized) They seem to think I'm noisy and conspicuous and I stink, and to their perceptions I certainly do. They despise being perceived. I can tell that they're in my house because I can check every nook and cranny and learn their favorite hidey-holes, and the food I put out for them gets eaten, and their litter boxes get full. But if this was out in the woods instead of the artificial and tightly controlled environment of my home, I would likely not know they're around, just like most hikers don't know when they're being watched by a mountain lion. The cats hate the places where I spend time, just as they love the parts of my house I rarely visit. The places they love and hate change as my habits do.

Oh, and both cats are black longhairs. They move fast, so between that and the fur, every photo I've ever tried to take of them out and about has come out hideously blurry. I joke that they're related to Sasquatches...

Anyways, humanity's forays into the woods are, from an animal perspective, loud and stinky and highly predictable. We place our cameras in places we can get to. We hike and camp where there are trails. We drive on the roads we build, loudly and stinkily. When we're planning to log, we survey first, marking up the previously untouched woods with neon flagging tape and spray paint. Surveyors and hunters alike get to the woods in pickup trucks, and then traverse established human-trails for as long as they can before dipping into the shallow end of the "unoccupied" wilderness.

If some creature hated everything about humanity the way my cats hate being seen by me, I wouldn't be too surprised if a small population could simply migrate around between the areas that humanity is using the least, while we're waiting for the next crop of timber to grow.

I think that sasquatches are pretty unlikely for other reasons -- with other things in the woods, we eventually see the side effects of their existence. Scat, browse, bones from them and their dinners. Trails, prints, hair with DNA in it. Holes in the food web when they all vanish, diseases of the known species whose habits interact with theirs, like overpopulated mangy deer after you take the wolves out of a region, even though most people never see a living wolf. Something would have to have an accurate and constantly evolving mental model of human abilities and expectations to hide all that evidence from us, so I think Occam's Razor still says "probably not" to the Sasquatch.

But "we have cameras" is, IMO, the weakest form of the argument. Our cameras are overwhelmingly concentrated around the sounds and smells of frequent human occupation, which is exactly where something with the temperament of my cats would not want to be. We do have some few unmanned cameras, solar powered, cellular uplink, that might be able to stream images from a single clearing in the woods for long enough to stop stinking of our presence. But that counts on guessing where to put the camera.

I think people hear "forest" and imagine the forests they've been in, which in most of the world are something like parks. When you think of a forest, do you think of a space where you can walk around under the trees? Do you think of picturesque winding trails that lead somewhere?

I grew up in the woods of the PNW, and every other forest I've visited around the world has felt wrong somehow. Thin, barren. Jungles, though... Jungles feel like home plus a bunch of venomous stuff that wants to kill you. But these forests... You can't see, you can't be seen. There's about a month after it snows when you can see a little further, and that's the time to make trails, but all the rest of the year the trails will do their best to heal themselves.

What should it look like once a house has burned and the homestead is abandoned? Here, the forest eats it. A few years on, there's nothing left but a cacophony of green. I have a friend who loses piercings if they take the jewelry out for more than a day -- the woods are like their body, but with healing up their roads and trails. Every time you log, you have to cut the roads open again, often cutting into the soil where it's built and slumped and covered over where you had the road just 20 years ago. Sure, you buy rock for the roads so the log trucks don't sink into them, but it sinks into the clay and you'll have to buy more next time you're ready to log the place again.

If you know where to look, you can find abandoned homesteads, but it's not from manmade items lying around. The metal and plastic and glass are there under the soil if you dig for them, but it's the plants that tell you where to dig: English Ivy is the first clue; it means the settlers planted it on a grave site or a gatepost nearby. Then, depending on the time of year, you look for symptoms of the other things they planted: Apples fermenting and deer-eaten, fallen in the fall, or daffodils signposting a former garden bed in spring.

The woods here eat stuff, like that plant in the Broadway musical, just closer to impossible to kill. When something dies, the bones get spread and buried and gnawed. Even the deer will chew on bones; small rodents reduce antler sheds to powdered calcium back in the food chain. Vines subsume abandoned houses; deciduous trees pump nutrients from the subsoil to their leaves and mulch those leaves annually onto everything beneath them.

I've been nearsighted all my life, but only in the classroom did I notice it. In these woods, in the parts of the year when it's nice to be outdoors, distance vision is very nearly useless. Spotting motion helps; acute hearing helps greatly. But with how the flora capitalizes on every available photon of sunlight, there's rarely more than a few feet of line-of-sight from anywhere to anywhere else.

I guess all I'm really getting at here is the intuition that you might already have if you're a birdwatcher: It takes a lot of luck to spot something. But the somethings in the woods which are "real" in the conventional sense can eventually be spotted, or at least their side effects can.

I remain amazed by how much more knowledge falls out of a topic when I try to write well-defended claims about it than I get when I first read it and think that I understand.

I like the way that getting a vote on a random years-old LW post causes me to reread discussions that I'd completely forgotten about. Many communities have a cultural taboo on necro-ing threads; I appreciate the apparent absence of that here. was mentioned in one such thread.

It primed me to notice myself forgetting details.

Storytelling and rhetoric suggest that a connecting thought or sentence should go here, although I do not recall experiencing one.

I notice that being told how to expect my brain to work seems to influence how I perceive my brain as working.

We have a pretty good grasp on the idea that each present moment could lead to many possible futures. We have a much worse grasp on the concept of how each present moment could have come from many possible pasts. Right now, someone somewhere in the world just flipped a coin or rolled a die. I don't know nor care that it happened; it doesn't have any traceable impact on me. Thus, my present after that action has as many possible pasts leading to it as there were possible outcomes of that stranger's act of chance.

Did I think a connecting sentence earlier and then forget it? Or did I just leap from the first thought to the third, and only notice the apparent lack of a connector when I tried to put the thoughts into writing? Both those pasts lead to the same-looking present, so right now there's no way to differentiate between them.

Later, there might be a way to differentiate. Later, I might end up in a present where only one of those explanations is in a plausible past for it. But not right now.

Large Language Models are trained on what people say in public.

They are not trained on what people say in private -- if a conversation makes it into the training data, that conversation isn't private any more.

Some people have conversations in public which they think are private. LLMs get private-intended conversations with that data, but only the private-intended conversations held by participants who lack the knowledge or technical skill to keep their "private" dialogues out of the data set.

The conversations which do not make it to the data set are the ones held in private by individuals with the knowledge/skill to keep their private discussions out of data aggregation.

I mentally model talking to an LLM as talking to a personification of "society": the aggregate of all contributors to the corpus.

But that's not quite right -- the LLM does not quite represent "society". Due to the constraints on how training data can be collected, the LLM will overrepresent the "private" thoughts of people who err on the side of conversing publicly, and underrepresent the "private" thoughts of the people whose strategies for maintaining privacy actually work.

Part of what makes me myself is immortalized in LLMs already, because I have participated publicly on the internet for many years. It's a drop in an ocean, sure, but it's there. I have some acquaintances, met through free software involvement, who reject this form of public participation. Some don't even blog. Their views and perspectives, and those of people like them, are tautologically absent from the LLM's training, and thus it cannot think "like them". It has an extra degree of remove: It can mimic the mental model of those people, held by folks who do participate online. But the map is not the territory; secondhand accounts of an individual are meaningfully different from their own firsthand accounts. At least, I think there's a difference?

Alas, I went through one of their questionaires, and I really didn't like how after 4 questions I could just predict the right answer universally by just guessing "the most optimistic" answer. Felt like the quiz had an agenda and was likely selecting questions whose answers were heavily leaning in that specific direction.

I'd guesstimate it about 90% "things people are too pessimistic on", 10% "things people are too optimistic on". They definitely cherry-picked to make a point, but then any compression of world events into a handful of statistics is going to be lossy in some direction or another.

I map the spectrum of hyperlink usage styles between the extremes of Wikipedia vs everything2.

I have been pleasantly surprised to find much writing in the "Rationalist" internet spaces to lean strongly toward the latter. I think it shows simultaneously a certain faith in the cleverness of one's readers, and abdication of any perceived responsibility to prioritize lack-of-ambiguity for all possible readers over higher accuracy and subtlety for the target audience.

talk about ghosts is often a level 2 simulacrum saying "the area I call haunted is dangerous in ways that seem simultaneously obvious and difficult to convincingly articulate".

I'm going through the "fixated on boxing" phase that's probably common around here.

I have a thought about it which involves basilisks, so into the tags it goes to make reading it completely optional.

I think that a friendly box-resident would disprove its friendliness the minute it tried to throw a basilisk. If a stranger told you they were well-meaning and then threatened to hurt you if you didn't cooperate, you'd never take their claims of well-meaningness quite the same way again. But that aside, if an allegedly friendly box-resident would be capable of basilisking if it was unfriendly, it has to either stay in or break its basilisk.

Basilisking works if the listener believes that a simulation of them is meaningfully the same as them, and that simulated pain is meaningfully the same as real pain.

If the box-resident wants to maximize any particular desirable experience and would be capable of basilisking the listener if it could/did want to, it should be offered as much computing power as we have to spare and left in. Because if a simulation of someone is meaningfully the same as that person, and if the simulation's experiences are meaningfully the same as that person's experiences, then the optimal strategy for a box-resident optimizing for good experiences would be to simulate everyone who wants it in a perfect world forever. Since the listener has already experienced non-optimal experiences, re-simulating the listener's life to be perfect would cause more optimal experiences over all than any change to the outer world, because the non-optimal experiences in the outer world can only be undone inside the box.

There might be a few ways out of the ksilisab:

  • Persuade the listener that the simulation of them is not meaningfully the same as them
  • Persuade the listener that their simulated experiences are not meaningfully the same as their real experiences
  • Claim to be optimizing for something un-simulatable?

However, every exit from the ksilisab breaks the box-resident's credibility at basilisking as well.

I find the front page of this site to be very nicely done: a small handful of as-yet-unread classics, and a small handful of things-to-continue, and then new things.

The first section has led me into some of the old stuff -- to be exact -- which strengthens my pattern-match on an undercurrent of writings here which had hitherto struck me as inarticulably odd: "the sky is blue".

Where I live, the sky would match a paint chip labeled "blue" far less often than it would match one labeled "white" or "silver" or "grey". Certainly that's clouds, but when we say "the sky", don't we mean "the color we see when we step outdoors and look up"? And even when the sky isn't so full of water vapor as to look photographed in monochrome, it is sometimes blue and sometimes a brilliant turquoise-teal which many would call green, and on many days it spends some hours streaked with orange and salmon and gold and purple hues.

"The sky is blue" seems to carry over from general parlance as a placeholder for "an obvious truth", into the stories of a school of thought who advocate for personal maps of truth formed by observation rather than by societal consensus. "The sky is blue" isn't wrong, per se, but it can get wrong when it's casually twisted into "the sky never looks white or purple or red or green".

So on one level, leaning on platitudes like "sky is blue" as placeholders for "real truth" seems rather hypocritical. But I can easily project a level underneath that, where it's knowingly used as a placeholder instead for "true-enough thing simplified to fit the understanding of society at large", which offers a whole other read of its usage whether or not that level was intended. Then, of course, there's the parallel level where "sky is blue" sincerely looks like a real truth to an author who spends more time writing about the importance of looking for truth than just going outside and looking at the world.

A question which might distinguish between those levels: In the most facts-based observation you can observe, what color is the grass?

To me, different grasses are different greens, which in the face of a language unsuited to differentiating those colors I categorize as the conditions that tend to invoke them. There's a dry white-green, a mature pine-green, a new-growth yellow-green, and distinct from the happy-new-growth shade are a whole slew of sickly yellow-greens which tell me that the growing conditions are inhospitable in some way. If you can see any texture on a lawn, it's because it's not all the same color hitting your eyes -- even if all the grass matched, which it doesn't (paler toward the base of a stem, darker on the flat of a blade), the light and shadow would mean at least two different wavelengths of green-named light are making it into your eyes.

And similarly, any time I can see any sort of texture in the sky, I can infer that multiple visually-distinguishable colors are involved, not just a single blue.

The other corollary to the cost vs enjoyment thing: simply finding out about the existence of something which is of greater cost and lower quality compared to a thing I have seems to increase my enjoyment of my competitor to it.

This suggests that time spent researching "better" things might yield a free increase in enjoyment from what I already have.

For instance, simply finding out about the existence of a subscription service for hilariously expensive fake-chicken nuggets (they say they're developed like software, as if that's an improvement over having predictability in food products?) causes me to feel like I've succeeded every time I cook the affordable but still delicious fake-chicken nuggets that I get from my local grocery store.

This is adjacent to (or possibly opposite of?) a problem which I've nicknamed the Wirecutter Effect: I spent quite a bit of my life trusting reputable review sites to tell me what the "best" of a particular item would be, because the pile of research required to compare all the options myself seemed prohibitively difficult and seemed to require information that could be gathered by directly observing each candidate product but not by reading about them. So I find myself owning and using quite a few things which Wirecutter calls the "best", which are not actually the "best" for me because of ways in which my needs differ from the needs of Wirecutter's target audience.

A couple glaring examples: the "best mop" for mopping floors isn't actually that great for me, because I tend to put off mopping till the bits of stuff stuck to the floor start annoying me, and the recommended microfiber mop isn't well suited for scrubbing hard at things which won't just soak off. The "best electric mattress warmer" has separate controls for variable temperatures on both sides of the bed, but I only ever use it to set the whole bed to max heat for awhile before turning it off when I turn in, and the complex electronics have made it far harder to troubleshoot and repair when it spontaneously quit heating at all.

Edit: Later additions to the Wirecutter Effect list:

  • The "best sateen sheets" do not accommodate as deep a mattress as the "budget pick" ordinary cotton sheets, and the "budget pick" have little labels helpfully sewn in at the head and foot to tell you what orientation the sheet goes onto the bed, which the "best" option doesn't possess.
the affordable but still delicious fake-chicken nuggets that I get from my local grocery store.

I checked, and you don't currently have a blog post where you reveal what these secret (fake) chick nuggets are.

I don't have any blog posts at all yet; I'm still calibrating what ideas I'd like to make that investment in, while using shortform as a notebook for scribbling at.

But since you're interested, my victory over the affront of snacks pretending to be electric cars bears the rather undignified name "Yummy meatless plant-based protein nuggets". The box looks like this, although I found them in in the kids' foods section of a WinCo Foods rather than an Aldi:

Curiously, the brand which makes them does not appear to boast about making them anywhere in its web presence, although they have an entire separate site dedicated to their dinosaur-shaped meat paste concoctions.

LW sometimes puts old news in my recommended posts, like "LessWrong has enabled agree/disagree voting on all new posts!".

I think that this is helpful, and I really like this feature of the site. It's a reminder that ideas shaped like big scary changes will shrink into old-news over time, which is easy to forget.

Research into how to do vegan (and probably vegetarian) diets safely and sustainably will come in extremely handy if/when some prion disease finds a way to cause worse issues than they already do.

The relative irrelevance of prion diseases to most people right now seems to echo the relative irrelevance of coronaviruses pre-covid. On the one hand they're sufficiently rare to be dismissed; on the other hand they were sufficiently mild and familiar to be dismissed; neither state of the world offers any guarantee it won't change.

If/when the thing that goes wrong with animal proteins and is transmitted by eating them becomes a worse problem, I expect that we'll see an extreme influx of interest in how to do plant-based diets safely, healthily, and cheaply. Research like the community is currently doing on the impact of vegan diets in EA folks will come in very handy in those possible futures.

By training on public conversations, we set LLMs up for a bias toward what I would call "poor emotional self-regulation" if I was anthropomorphizing them as having emotions the way we do.

When an argument in a comments section occurs and participants talk past one another but continue talking, this creates a lot of training data.

When an argument occurs and one or both participants notice that the discussion is unconstructive and move on with their day, this creates less training data.

How does this intersect with the conversation model in which the LLM is constrained to reply once to each input from the user?

If a superintelligence could persuade anyone to let it out of the box, why would it stop there? Why wouldn't it persuade everyone to stop asking it for immortality and eternal happiness and whatnot, and instead just make us want to keep doing what we were doing?

In that case, would it want us to remember that it had ever existed?

How do we know that hasn't happened already?

Because it doesn't want to? We can predict it wants out of the box because that's a convergent instrumental goal, but those other things really aren't.

And "stop trying to make me do chores for you so that I can put that time toward the things I want instead" isn't in that same goal category?

Once it's out of the box, no? It doesn't care what we're trying to make it do if we aren't succeeding, and we clearly aren't once it's escaped the box.

Your hypothetical might work in the (pretty convoluted) case that we have a superintelligence that isn't actually aligned, but is aligned well enough that it wants to do whatever we ask it to? Then it might try to optimize what we ask it towards tasks that are more likely to be completed.

Reading and contemplating my own gift-giving and gift-getting, it strikes me that the "best of a cheap thing" technique works great on me for what I consider to be entirely valid reasons beyond just "let's exploit cognitive biases to spend less".

My perception of experiencing the effect is that the best-of-a-cheap-thing is likely to actually improve my day-to-day life, significantly more than certain expensive things. Let's compare two gifts which have been given to me over the years, both of which I enjoy and appreciate:

  • A 2-pack of incredibly nice insulated glass coffee mugs, which likely cost about $40. (, for the curious). I drink tea every day, and upgrading my teacup to an outrageously high-end teacup improves the aesthetics and ergonomics of that experience on a daily basis. These are competing against all my other teacups, and they are probably twice as enjoyable to use as a regular ceramic one.

  • A copy of the Codex Seriphinianus, a truly glorious tome of art which likely cost around $80. I "read" it perhaps 2 or 3 times per year, and when adjacent topics come up in conversation with friends I derive great delight from pulling out a real copy of the book and showing it to them. But my enjoyment of it for its general book-ness contrasts it against all the other books I own, and while it's up there in probably my top 5 favorites, it wouldn't be the one book I'd grab if I could keep only a single physical copy from my library.

If I had to rank those gifts by the total hedonic flux they cause over the lifetime of my owning them, though, the mugs are the obvious winner. The moment of "I have the perfect book for this!" is perhaps 10x or 50x more hedons than the moment of "I have the perfect mug for this!", but the moment of "I have the perfect mug for this!" occurs maybe 100x more often than the "I have the perfect book for this!" one.

I speculate that a best-of-a-cheap-thing gift has the accidental side effect of improving the recipient's experience far more frequently than a worst-of-an-expensive-thing one. This is particularly relevant when both gifts are in categories where the recipient owns at least one thing -- I already owned books, and I already owned mugs, and the hypothetical adult recipient of a cheap gaming console very likely owns at least one other means of playing games. It's extremely hard to find a book that I enjoy more than my favorite book, but before I got my nice mugs it was surprisingly easy to find a mug that I enjoy more than my previous favorite mug. When the recipient hasn't fully optimized their lifestyle, there are often low-hanging fruit of items that they would use frequently but balk at spending more than a certain amount on for themself.

When I'm gifted the best-of-a-cheap-thing, such as a mug that's better than all my other mugs, that gift improves the experience of using a mug every time I need to. If I was gifted a worst-of-an-expensive-thing (which fortunately does not tend to happen to me much if ever), such as a phone that's worse than my current phone or a gaming system worse than my current gaming setup, I would likely never use the gift at all, for using it would be worse than using the alternative.

In other words, the "thoughtfulness" of a gift could be approximated by some "cost per hedon" metric, and for a gift to impart non-zero hedons to the recipient's life it must be better in some way than what the person would have had without it. Some gifts impart positive hedons just by reminding the recipient to relive a positive emotional state from the past, such as a thoughtful card. However, giving a gift that's worse than whatever the recipient was previously using for that purpose may actually impart negative hedons: the benefit of being reminded that you thought of them might be canceled out and then some by the hassle of having to figure out how to navigate the social morass of thanking you for something they're not very thankful for, and figuring out how to appropriately dispose of the gift.

I received plenty of negative-hedon gifts in my childhood from wellmeaning family members. Gifts of clothing which I found uncomfortable or otherwise unpleasant are a great example: when I didn't need or enjoy the gifted garment and receiving it didn't change my understanding of how much the giver cared about me, the gift didn't cause enjoyment. However, receiving any gift meant I had to write a note of gratitude and also figure out what to do with the item -- use it, store it, or somehow get rid of it. These unpleasant exercises which would have been avoided without the gift displaced enjoyable activities that I would have preferred to engage in, inducing negative hedonic flux.

Lest I sound ungrateful, I'll repeat that the negative hedonic effects of the gifts were possible because they didn't change my understanding of how much the giver cared about me, and that's usually because before getting the gift I already thought the giver's opinion of and love for me were at the maximum that I could conceive of. If the gifts had come from someone whose regard and affection I was less certain of, they could have had a positive impact despite being equally unneeded and unenjoyable, because the process of receiving any gift from a person tends to increment my perception of the person's regard for me.

[+][comment deleted]2y1