Stupid Questions February 2015

by Gondolinian1 min read2nd Feb 2015198 comments


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This thread is for asking any questions that might seem obvious, tangential, silly or what-have-you. Don't be shy, everyone has holes in their knowledge, though the fewer and the smaller we can make them, the better.

Please be respectful of other people's admitting ignorance and don't mock them for it, as they're doing a noble thing.

To any future monthly posters of SQ threads, please remember to add the "stupid_questions" tag.

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A lot of math and physics definitions feel like they have weird dross. Examples:

  • The Gamma function has this -1 I don't understand
  • The Riemann Zeta function ζ(s) negates s for reasons beyond me
  • cosine seems more primitive than sine
  • The gravitational constant looks like off by a factor of 4π
  • π seems like half the size it should be

After years of confusion, I was finally vindicated about π. That π is not 6.2831853071... is mostly a historical accident. Am I "right" about these other definitions being "wrong"? What are other mathematical entities are defined in ugly ways for historical reasons?

The current definition of the gravitational constant maximizes the simplicity of Newton's law F = Gmm'/r^2. Adding a 4π to its definition would maximize the simplicity of the Poisson equation that Metus wrote. Adding instead 8π, on the other hand, would maximize the simplicity of Einstein's field equations. No matter what you do, some equation will look a bit more complicated.

6solipsist7yAbsolutely, and Planck's constant maximizes the simplicity of finding the energy of a photon from its wavelength, and π maximally simplifies finding the circumference of of a circle from its diameter. But in all those cases, it feels to me like we're simplifying the wrong equation. ETA: To be explicit, it feels like there should be a 4π in Newton's law. The formula is calculating the gravitational flux on the surface of a 3-dimensional sphere, and 3-dimensional spheres have a surface area 4π times their radii.
7TsviBT7yMore importantly, π is the area of the unit circle. If you're talking about angles you want τ (tau), if you're talking about area you want π. And you always want pie, ha ha.
4Alejandro17ySaying that this is what the formula intrinsically does, amounts to saying that field lines are more fundamental/"real" than action-at-distance forces on point particles. But in the context of purely Newtonian gravity, both formulations are in fact completely equivalent. (And if you appeal to relativity to justify considering fields more fundamental, then why not better go for simplifying Einstein's equation and including 8π in G?)
0solipsist7yYep :-). I don't know enough the physics to back that up, but that's what my gut tells me. A more educated version of me might be able to say something "the vocabulary of forces is 'shallow'; the vocabulary of fields is deeper; the vocabulary of group symmetries is deeper still." I certainly do not have the depth of understanding to make that sort of statement with any authority. If you know enough physics to correct me or clarify, please please do. If somebody who groks relativity told me that this is the right thing to do, I would believe them (ETA mentioned on Wikipedia []). I'd be curious where the factor of 2 comes from in the Newtonian approximation.
4Alejandro17yI can take a stab at explaining this. Both the Poisson equation and the Einstein equation have the general form * 2nd order differential operator acting on some quantity F = Constant * Matter source In the Newtonian case, F is the gravitational potential. In the Einstein case, it is the spacetime metric. This is a quantity with a simple, natural, purely "mathematical" definition that you cannot play with and change redifining constants; it measures the distance between events on a four-dimensional curved spacetime. "Matter source" in the Poisson equation stands for mass density, and in the Einstein equation it stands for a more complicated entitity that reduces to exactly mass density in the limit when Newtonian physics holds. So the ratio of the constants in each equation is determined by the ratio of how "spacetime metric" and "gravitational potential" are related in the Newtonian limit of GR. In Newtonian physics, the gravitational potential is that whose first derivatives give the acceleration of a test particle: * gradient of potential = acceleration of particles This is considered a phyiscs law combining both Newton's law of gravity and Newton's second law of motion. In GR, the spacetime metric also has the (purely mathematical) property that (in the limit where velocities are much smaller than the speed of light, and departures from flat space are small) its gradient is proportional, with a factor 2, to the acceleration of geodesic (minimum length) trajectories in spacetime: * gradient of metric = 2 acceleration of geodesics So if we make the physical assumption that test particles in a gravitational field follow geodesics, then we can recover Newtonian gravity from GR. (The whole reason why this is possible is the equivalence principle, the observation that all forms of matter respond to gravity in the same way.) Since small perturbations to a flat metric have to be identified with twice the Newtonian potential, this is where the extra 2 in the
0deschutron7yWow, you have a good point. I always use the concept of surface area (and considering spheres of equal total force) to remember why the r on the bottom is squared. Putting the surface area into the formula is like replacing a factor that raises questions with the answer to those questions.
9kpreid7yI'd like to put in a word for sine: sin(0) = 0 sin(x) ≈ x These are highly useful properties in some contexts. That said, cos(0) being the unit prior to any rotation is also nice. (But the definition of a rotation in Cartesian coordinates contains exactly as many sines as cosines; and that generalizes to 3 dimensions where complex numbers do not.)
7Douglas_Knight7yWhat is your complaint about Zeta? That it is the sum of n^-s, rather than the sum of n^s? It's the one that converges. Or are you bothered that zeta(-3) is rational, while zeta(3) is irrational? Maybe useful for some purposes. Maybe that would be a good function to have when defining the Beta distribution, though there are other reasons for the normalization there. But in the context of the Riemann Zeta function (which is the context you have suggested), that is not at all the purpose of the Gamma function. Its role is as the Mellin transform of the exponential function. The Zeta function itself is a Mellin tranform and two interact well because of their common origin. Of course, that pushes back the question to why the Mellin tranform has a -1. What it really has is a dx/x. This measure is invariant under scaling, just as dx is invariant under translation. Indeed, the measures correspond under the exponential change of variables. (In fact, that is closely related to a justification for the normalization of the Beta distribution. B(0,0) is the measure invariant under logistic transformations; B(p,q) is the posterior after seeing p,q observations.)
0solipsist7yGreat answer, thanks. Yes, my shallow, uninformed by higher maths complaint about the zeta function is that it sums n^-s instead of the simpler n^s.
4Douglas_Knight7yAs I said, the Riemann zeta function has its definition because it makes sense and the other doesn't. Once you have a solid definition of ζ(-1), you could declare that 1+2+3+...=ζ(-1) and then you might be tempted to reverse the sign. But the zeta function was around for a century before Riemann encouraged people to emphasize the values that don't make immediate sense. You can do an awful lot just having it defined for real s>1. Euler used it to prove the infinitude of primes: ζ(1) is the harmonic series, thus infinite (or more precisely, an infinite limit as s approaches 1), but prime factorization expresses it as an product over primes, so there must be infinitely many primes to make it blow up. Moreover, this gives a better estimate of the density of the primes than Euclid's proof. Then Dirichlet used it and related functions to prove that there are infinitely many primes satisfying reasonable congruences. (Exercise: use Euler's technique to prove that there are infinitely many primes congruent to 1 mod 4 and infinitely many congruent to 3 mod 4.)
7falenas1087yI have been pissed off for years at the existance of h-bar and h as separate constants, where almost everywhere h-bar should be the basic constant. IIRC, this is just because the first time either was derived, it happened to be h, so that got called the quantum mechanical constant.
6JoshuaZ7yYeah, this is completely historical. Edwards in his book on the Riemann zeta function tries to go back to using Gamma normalized in the obvious way so it agrees with factorial but that's never caught on. In the case of the Riemann zeta function the key issue is that it is seen as more natural to have a plane of convegence for positive values of s. Moreover, writing it in that way, the values at positive integers are then natural and easy series. Can you expand on this one?
9solipsist7yIt's a minor quibble. I think of cosine as the real part of e^ix, which is a very simple concept in my head. sine is the imaginary part of e^ix divided by i, which is slightly more complicated. If you had to relegate one to co- status, I'd choose sine.
4Error7yDescribing sine and cosine this way, instead of in terms of triangles, suddenly makes their behavior feel much more intuitive to me; on par with the way complex numbers in general suddenly made sense when someone here described multiplication by i as a rotation. Thanks.
4gjm7yMore elementarily: cos x and sin x are the x and y coordinates of the point on the unit circle at an angle x anticlockwise from the positive x-axis. (I think this is the correct version of the "triangles" definitions.)
2Viliam_Bur7yIf you don't rotate, the cosine is still there; only the sine is zero. So, in some sense, cosine is more fundamental; it was there before the rotation.
5Vulture7yIn my opinion the gamma function is by far the stupidest. IME, the off-by-one literally never makes equations clearer; it only obfuscates the relationship between continuous and discrete things (etc.) by adding in an annoying extra step that trips up your intuition. Seems like simple coordination failure.
2deschutron7yI used to think that the way mathematicians did things was forced to be the best way we could do because of the requirements to do things properly in order to advance in maths. But then the Tau Manifesto showed me I was wrong. I think you're right about cosine. I think sine seemed simpler when it was named back in classical times, but then when complex numbers were discovered and their relationships to the trigonometric functions was discovered, cosine turned out to be simpler. Here's one I come across as a programmer: which number is better for starting indexing and counting things with? Zero or one? Zero is so much better for calculating with relative indexes, you have less off-by-one errors. In maths, the default convention is to number things starting at one. But when working with serieses (arithmetic series, discrete fourier transforms, maclaurin series e.g. the polynomial that equals e) the convention is to start at zero.
2sixes_and_sevens7yCan you elaborate on the Gamma function thing? (I am currently conceptually wrestling with the Gamma function myself, and your question either has an obvious superficial answer, or I've misunderstood it. Probably the latter.)

A function that fills in the gaps between factorials seems useful. There is a simple formula which does just that.

That's almost what the Gamma function does, but not quite. The Gamma function calculates this:

Here's its common integral form:

It's like you're asking for the factorial of n, and the Gamma function says "Hey, I'll do you a favor and calculate the factorial of n - 1", and you're like "No, that's okay Gamma function, I really just want the factorial of n", and the Gamma function is like "No, I want to do this for you", and then it takes your number, subtracts one, computes the factorial, and hands you back the factorial of n - 1, all beaming and proud of itself for putting in the extra effort, and you have to smile and say thank you.

0sixes_and_sevens7yOK, yeah, it was the latter. I see where you're coming from now.
1Metus7yThat one you found out already, it would make it much more consistent with how similar constants are used. Not sure what you mean. Do you mean when comparing the equation for gravitational force to the electric force? Or do you mean when looking at the 'intuitive' way of writing the differential equation ? In either case it seems that the choice of 4π is arbitrary on one equation or the other. For example choosing Gaussian units introduces a 4π in the electrical equation and makes it look more like the gravitational equation. They seem equally primitive by and %20=%20cos(x%20-%20\pi/2)) It doesn't according to Wikipedia [] I haven't read up on that so I don't really know. Seems arbitrary to me too.

I agree about gamma, cosine, and pi. I'm not troubled by the minus sign in the zeta function but suspect we should really be working with the related "xi function" whose symmetries are simpler. I'm not a very expert physicist but my guess is that the 4pi there is going to pop in one place or another and it doesn't matter very much which you choose.

The only one of these that I actually get cross about is the gamma function. With all the others, there are tradeoffs -- e.g., if you work with tau = 2pi instead of with pi, some things become simpler, some become more complicated, and on balance it's probably a slight improvement. If you work with the factorial function instead of the gamma function, I think pretty much every formula I've ever seen that uses it becomes simpler (usually by the omission of an annoying "-1" term).

(But I'm not an analytic number theorist or a complex analyst -- though I was kinda-sorta a bit of a complex analyst once -- and it's possible that the cognoscenti know of good reasons why gamma should stay the way it is.)

4Strilanc7yI would say cos is simpler than sin because its Taylor series has a factor of x knocked off. In practice they tend to show up together, though. Often you can replace the pair with something like e^(i x), so maybe that should be considered the simplest.

I'm vaccinated and my kid is vaccinated, but how likely is it that vaccines cause harm? I completely accept that they do lots of good, but is the case for common vaccinations (1) that the benefits greatly outweigh the costs or (2) that the benefits are high and the costs statistically trivial?

Moreover, which vaccines are worth getting? For example, is it worth getting a meningococcal vaccine if you're not in any of the major risk groups?

Many universities strongly encourage their students to get the meningococcal vaccine (as sleeping in rubbish communal bedding is a risk factor), but for something really rare, even the risk involved in traveling to the clinic to get vaccinated could have more disutility than the protection the vaccine might provide would be worth.

The meningococcal vaccine causes a fever 3% of the time, and a few days of mild to moderate discomfort 60% of the time. If it causes any other problems in healthy people, the CDC hasn't documented it.

Outside of major risk groups, this vaccine decreases your chances of getting meningococcal disease by some low amount, less than one in a million annually. If you get the disease, there's a 10% chance of dying and a further 10% chance of being permanently disabled in some severe way. This is less than a tenth of a micromort.

The bacteria that causes meningoccoal disease is ubiquitous (10% of people are carriers), so other benefits of vaccines, such as herd immunity, would require extreme measures to obtain.

Driving ... (read more)

0HeelBearCub7yDon't you need to include the risks of a)being in an undiagnosed high-risk group, and b) developing a condition that puts you in a high-risk group? Also, in terms of the driving risk, don't you need to understand that in terms of substitution (I think that is the right term)? In other words, when calculating the driving risk, it becomes complex because time in the car going to the clinic may/very likely will be bundled with other driving (going to the clinic for other services, going to a store afterwards, etc.), so you can only include driving risk for this vaccine if it would not have been substituted for by other driving.
0ctintera7yDepending on how the stats are compiled, the risk of being in an undiagnosed high-risk group is included in the risk for the general population. If you later are in a situation where you will have greater risk, you can often get the vaccine when that situation arises, and probably won't be any worse off for having waited. Vaccines become less effective as time goes on, so you might have to renew the vaccine when that situation arises anyway. I am unsure how immune disorders factor into this. For meningococcal disease, the most volatile risk factor is sleeping in rubbish communal bedding (or living in tropical Africa, or both). In this case, the risk goes from a tenth of a micromort per year up to maybe one micromort per year. Some situations where that might happen may be out of your control, sure. The only plausible non-society-crushing situation I can think of where that might be problematic (i.e. access to the vaccine would decrease) would be if you were to become homeless for lack of money. Feel free to adjust accordingly. The travel risk is just as you say.

Not currently relevant, but an example of balancing risk and benefit and deciding to stop vaccinating against smallpox. Wikipedia

There are side effects and risks associated with the smallpox vaccine. In the past, about 1 out of 1,000 people vaccinated for the first time experienced serious, but non-life-threatening, reactions, including toxic or allergic reaction at the site of the vaccination (erythema multiforme), spread of the vaccinia virus to other parts of the body, and to other individuals. Potentially life-threatening reactions occurred in 14 to 500 people out of every 1 million people vaccinated for the first time. Based on past experience, it is estimated that 1 or 2 people in 1 million (0.000198 percent) who receive the vaccine may die as a result, most often the result of postvaccinial encephalitis or severe necrosis in the area of vaccination (called progressive vaccinia).[38]

Given these risks, as smallpox became effectively eradicated and the number of naturally occurring cases fell below the number of vaccine-induced illnesses and deaths, routine childhood vaccination was discontinued in the United States in 1972, and was abandoned in most European countries in t... (read more)

I'm 30 years old and almost entirely unvaccinated.

I've always had poor health, I had lymphoma at age 27, type 1 Diabetes since age 13, all of which suggests poor immune system performance. And anecdotally, when I get sick with common cold etc, I seem to stay sick longer than other people. So I don't expect my body to be good at fighting off really dangerous disease.

Which vaccines should I get? Most resources either target or assume vaccination of children on a regular schedule.

This seems like the sort of question to which the answer has to be "find a competent medical professional and ask them".

3CellBioGuy7yYes, and make sure they take into account both what you are likely to contract and how much a weakened immune system affects how you will benefit from said vaccinations. Lymphoma in particular suggests that there's been a more or less reset of the immune system over the course of treatment... I have no idea if that makes a difference in effectiveness.
7AspiringRationalist7yI might specifically try to get advice on this from a doctor who was involved in the treatment of your lymphoma, because lymphoma is a cancer of the immune system, so you want advice from someone deeply familiar with the details of your case.

I second gjm's suggestion to talk to a healthcare professional.

Every year, the CDC updates and publishes their recommended immunization schedule for adults (patient version), which doesn't assume childhood vaccination. Below, I've summarized the parts that are most relevant to you.

Vaccines recommended for adults aged 30 years:

Additional vaccines recommended for adults aged 30 years with diabetes:

Note that if you have a concurrent immunocompromising condition (e.g., lymphoma), then live vaccines should generally be avoided. This includes the varicella, MMR, and zoster vaccines. Again, your healthcare provider can tell you more.

7Metus7yCost-Benefit analysis of a flu shot []

I take daily antibiotics for acne (doxycycline), and have done so for years. How much harm am I actually doing by increasing antibiotic resistance?

5Anders_H7yThis is not my area of epidemiology, so take this with a grain of salt, but my best guess is that the impact is negligible, for the following reasons (1) Mutations that confer resistance are specific for classes of antibiotics. A mutation that provides resistance to Doxycycline will not help the bug against Penicillins. (2) If I understand correctly, the reason tetracyclines are approved for acne is that they are no longer the first line choice for empirical treatment of any serious infections. This is because tetracycline resistance is already widespread. In other words, the FDA have allowed Doxycycline to be used with this indication specifically because they are not worried about increasing the prevalence of resistance. (3) If you are taking these drugs while you are healthy, there are no pathogens that are subjected to adaptive pressure by your use. Of course, you will have commensals that are subjected to this evolutionary pressure, but I think the risk that these bacteria acquire pathogenicity and escape to start an epidemic is minimal. I also want to note that, based on anecdotal experience and conversations with dermatologists, my impression is that long term treatment with doxycycline is probably not the most effective way to treat acne. By far the most effective treatments are variations of retinoic acid. If you have serious ongoing acne, Isotretonoin (Accutane) is the only thing that will really help. If you have less serious acne or want maintenance treatment after taking a course of Accutane, topical medications which contain variations of the same active ingredients (retinoids) are very effective. Your alternatives are creams that only include retinoids (Such as Adapelene), which tend to be cheap; or you can take a cream that also benzoyl peroxide (such as Epiduo). The second option is more effective, but also more expensive, and if you get it on your clothes they may get bleached from the peroxide.
1Strangeattractor7yProbably not as much harm as the factory farms that give antibiotics to all of their animals.
1Houshalter7yOnly one half of antibiotic use is in agriculture, and they are not the kind that are used in human medicine. OP is probably using a low dose which is worse, since it won't kill everything and encourages resistance. Also they are exposing human pathogens to it, which is possibly more dangerous.

Why do we not allow people to sell organs? If it is a medical worry or a problem with people getting ripped off, a national regulatory body (there is already an organization that regulates organ donation), should solve those problems.

[-][anonymous]7y 26

People have strong anti-market biases. It has been said that if there was not a market in sandwiches, and one was suggested, people would recoil in horror. "Only the rich will be able to buy sandwiches." "Sandwiches will be filled with rat poison and feces." "It's just wrong! People should feed each other out of kindness, not greed." Even "Many people only sell sandwiches because they need money. It's exploitation."

Taboo tradeoffs. Probably most readers are too young (as am I) to remember when life insurance was considered immoral. How can you put a price on life?

Political incentives. Why should any one voter demand change? Why should any one politician? Or any one judge? Collective action problems are hard.

The concern is exploitation of poor people. (And no, I agree that that reasoning doesn't make much sense).

8Epictetus7yProbably because the poor would have a lot of trouble getting organ transplants. Under the current system, you're put on a waiting list until your number is called. If others can bid more money on organs, you're out of luck. I can't imagine insurance companies being overly keen on bidding for organs. I really don't want to think about issues arising from people selling off their organs to make ends meet (or to settle gambling debts). And let's not forget human trafficking. Instead of just forcing people into prostitution, you could also harvest their organs. I think there are several thorny problems and issues of consent that complicate this matter. Losing an organ is permanent.
7Salemicus7yIt is legal to sell kidneys in Iran []. As a result, Iran has no waiting lists for kidney transplantation. You can read an interesting study of the situation here []. TLDR: it works well, but everything has tradeoffs.
7Lumifer7yThe top-level answer is because people do not own them. As far as I remember, in the US people do NOT have property rights in their organs and tissues (yes, there were court cases). Digging deeper, allowing people to own their organs and tissues would make life more complicated and expensive for the medical establishment and it doesn't like that.
5pianoforte6117yThat makes a lot of sense. The healthcare industry would be down several thousand dollars per kidney transplant if people sold instead of donating. The ownership thing, ugh, why do we allow people to donate then.

This reminds me of prostitution - it's legal to give away something that it's illegal to sell.

3Alsadius7yThe concern is that we don't want poor people forced to sell parts of themselves to pay off their debts - it's a bit too Merchant of Venice. (I think it'd still be good policy, because I don't see how them not having the choice is any better, but that's the common concern)
5Viliam_Bur7yIn game theory, sometimes "not having a choice" is an advantage. Imagine that you are a poor person, someone kidnaps your children and asks $100.000 from you. Scenario A: Okay, this is not realistic. If they know you are poor, you don't have a chance to give them $100.000. So actually they will not kidnap your children. Scenario B: You can sell your body parts for $100.000. Any they know it.
2Lumifer7yThat's a fully general argument against having any capabilities.

No, it's not, for several reasons:

  1. The utility that people gain from money is not linear (and the utility that people lose when losing $X worth of organs is really not linear). Making it possible to extort $100000 from someone who has a lot of money, then, causes less of a loss in utility to them than making it possible to extort $100000 from someone who would have to sell his organs to get the money.

  2. It is easier, in general, to extort a poor person for $X than a rich person for the same amount, for hopefully obvious reasons. For instance, the poor person can't hire a private detective, bribe the police, or use his connections to track down the kidnapper, and the kidnapping is much less likely to make the national news. And it is much less likely that when you kidnap his kids you piss off some very important people.

  3. It is easy for the kidnapper to figure out that someone has organs. It is harder for the kidnapper to figure out that they have $100000 in a bank account (unless they are rich enough to fall into category 2) or that they can feasibly mortgage their house within a short time.

  4. The market price for organs is not that high compared to how much the person would lose

... (read more)
2BarbaraB7y"The Bangladesh poor selling organs to pay debts" []
0Alsadius7yYeah, that. There's no way of getting money that's so ugly that some poor, desperate person somewhere won't try.
3Metus7yThere exists a mild market in organs. I can donate a kidney in exchange for a loved one getting a kidney. I also can donate my body to science, in exchange the institution - at least in Germany - pays for some kind of burial. Immediate edit: Actually, since there exists a black market in organs we could make some estimates about prices and conditions on a legalised market in organs.
2Jiro7yI suggest that allowing people to sell something where the market price of the item is much less than the price that most people would name if they were asked how much they would accept to sell it but were not in immediate need of money, is generally a bad idea. This includes organs, prostitution, and signing away your house for a glass of water if you're dying of thirst in the desert and someone offers to give you water in exchange for your house.

I am confused about your suggestion. If the "market price" is much less than the price that most people would name, where does the market price come from?

Also, forbidding "signing away your house for a glass of water if you're dying of thirst in the desert" leads to you dying of thirst in the desert. That doesn't look like a desirable outcome.

5Jiro7yI didn't say the price that most people would name, I said the price that most people would name if they weren't in immediate need of money. The market price can certainly be different from that. It only leads to you dying of thirst in the desert if the existence of this prohibition doesn't change the behavior of the seller. As long as the legal maximum price is high enough that the seller can make a profit, the seller will change his behavior and sell the water for that price instead.

I said the price that most people would name if they weren't in immediate need of money.

So, let's consider janitorial work. The market price (of an hour of labor) is considerably lower than " the price that most people would name if they weren't in immediate need of money", isn't it?

Why do we care about price perceptions by people who are not in immediate need of money, anyway?

It only leads to you dying of thirst in the desert if the existence of this prohibition doesn't change the behavior of the seller.

You are making no sense. The existence of this prohibition DOES change the behavior of the seller -- he no longer spends his time standing in the middle of the desert with a glass of water.

Consider a realistic example. Some states have anti-gouging laws which basically prohibit raising the prices in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. Let's say I run a lumberyard and state A (without anti-gouging laws) just had a hurricane. I would rent a box truck, stuff it full of lumber and plywood, and drive it over to state A to sell the contents for double the usual price. But if state B (with anti-gouging laws) just had a hurricane, I would sit in my yard and do nothing -- why would I? Net effect: residents of state A can start fixing up their houses much faster.

3Jiro7yThere are several ways in which the behavior of the seller changes. Some may benefit the buyer (as in your anti-gouging example) but some may not (such as if the guy with the glass of water would have had one anyway). Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that the benefit you describe happens only at the market price; it may be that people in the area are willing to pay 50 times the normal price for lumber, but 20 times is sufficient to incentivize you to truck in a load of lumber.
2Lumifer7ySigh. Why do you think central planning failed?

I think this discussion would be both more pleasant and more productive (at least for people who are not you) with a higher engagement-to-sneering ratio.

That's not sneering, that's shortcutting. If you wish, I'll unroll.

One of the primary functions of the markets is price discovery. It is really important for the economy that the markets discover prices which then form the basis for future resource allocation.

The classic conceit of the central planner is that he doesn't need to learn the market prices -- he knows better and can allocate resources without all these unfair, chaotic, and messy markets.

In this subthread Jiro feels he doesn't need market prices -- he thinks it would be better if he set fixed prices (or floors or ceilings) based on his perceptions of fairness (see organs) or on what he thinks will be sufficient incentives (see lumber). That looks to me to much like the central planner conceit.

The problem, of course, is that central planning has been shown, empirically, to work badly in real life. The issue then becomes why does Jiro think that his scheme will do much better. Thus the question: why does Jiro thinks central planning has failed and why does he believe that his price manipulation will avoid that fate?

5gjm7yLet me, correspondingly, unpack the motivation behind my comment a little. There is a continuum running all the way from "completely free unregulated markets" to "totalitarian central state determines what will be made and what it will cost". It looks to me as if Jiro was proposing some regulation and you responded by saying that totalitarian central planning has a bad track record. That doesn't seem altogether reasonable. Further, when you say "central planning failed" you're working with a rather small sample and one with a bunch of confounding factors. Consider the USSR, for example. It had central planning, its people were rather poor, and in the end it collapsed. But, also: those people were always much poorer per capita than, say, those of the USA or Western Europe; the USSR spent decades locked in economic and (indirect) military conflict with a much better-resourced opponent; it had not only central planning but outright totalitarianism with some rather crazed leaders. Maybe the primary reason why the USSR wasn't a roaring economic success was that central planning is inferior to free markets, but I don't think we have enough evidence to make that claim with a lot of confidence.
5Lumifer7yTo be precise, he was proposing price fixing. No, I did not -- the word "totalitarian" is a gratuitous addition by you. Oh, but I do think we have more than enough evidence (have you looked at China, for example?). I don't think that claiming "we don't know yet" is a reasonable position -- this question has been settled.
2gjm7yIt doesn't seem that way to me. What has failed is a bunch of totalitarian communist countries with central planning. How do you know it is better to characterize that situation as "central planning has failed" than as "totalitarian central planning has failed"? Point me to an explanation of how it has been settled and how rival explanations for the observations have been dealt with?
1Lumifer7yThis question has only been widely debated in the economics literature for the last, what, 70 years?
2gjm7yI think this discussion would be both more pleasant and more productive (at least for people who are not you) with a higher engagement-to-sneering ratio.
2Lumifer7yI am not particularly interested in engagement with the equivalent of flat-earth theories. At least not until I see some empirical evidence in their favour.
2gjm7ySomething widely debated in the economics literature over 70 years is the equivalent of a flat-earth theory? OK, then. (I do wonder whether we're at cross purposes somehow, though -- whether one of us has misunderstood what specific claim(s) the other is making. My reply to economy elsewhere in this thread may clarify.)
1Lumifer7yThere are two lines of argument here. The first one is theoretical. The advantages and disadvantages of central planning have been argued about in the literature for many decades. That was driven mainly by two factors: ideology and the paucity of empirical data. XX century was, generally speaking, the time of human hubris in the social sphere. Reason and skill would rearrange the society and create a perfect one, not this messy outgrowth of chaotic history and suspect human motivations. The left, in particular, ran with this idea very far, paving its way with corpses for much of the way. Central planning is a necessary component of this grand plan to arrange the society properly and as such it was massively promoted by the left, with some success. On the other hand, in early XX century central planning was mostly untested, and by the middle of the century there wasn't much data (and that was skewed by ideology) plus there were exciting developments in the area of linear programming and so there was hope that maths would provide that perfect solution to the allocation problem. In the 50s and the 60s that wasn't an outrageous claim -- maybe yes, maybe no, let's see how it works out. But nowadays the bastions of the left have collapsed and we DO know how it works out. The debate is basically over and central planning has lost quite thoroughly. I doubt there's anyone other than committed marxists who still sing its praises. The other line of argument, the one I actually had in mind, is purely empirical and does not rely on the opinions of economists. We had a bunch of countries attempt central planning. It turned out to work really badly. We had another bunch of countries go with the markets. They turned out to work really well. There are no cases of central planning being noticeably successful. There are many cases of market-driven economies being noticeably successful. At the moment all the rich and free countries have market economies. Countries which stick wit
2gjm7yUpdate how, exactly? As I have already said (more than once, I think) in this discussion: I already agree that the available evidence and theoretical analysis give good reason to think that markets beat large-scale central planning. And if Jiro had been proposing large-scale central planning, my only problem with your response would have been its needlessly contemptuous tone. What s/he was actually proposing was interference with prices in a small number of rather unusual cases, the goal not being to maximize overall economic growth but to prevent what (I take it, with confidence but not certainty) s/he sees as exploitation. For "Sigh. Why do you think central planning failed" to be an appropriate response to that, it is (it seems to me) not sufficient that the evidence, on the whole, points to markets doing better than large-scale central planning. What would make it an appropriate response? Perhaps if the communist countries had failed so spectacularly, and so obviously because of their different approach to price-setting and resource allocation, that any fool could see at a glance that any interference with the price-setting of the free market is bound to lead to disaster. It doesn't appear to me that the state of the evidence is anywhere near to that. To agree that it looks like markets are better than large-scale central planning? I have enough, thanks. To say that it's a completely settled question empirically, and that the difference is so big that anyone suggesting a departure from perfectly free markets should be dismissed with a sigh? A lot more. How large is our sample here? The number of countries that had centrally-planned economies is fairly large but they're far from independent (i.e., in many cases their outcomes were closely intertwined on account of common relationships with the USA and USSR). Perhaps something like the equivalent of n=10 independent experiments? (This feels like it's distinctly on the generous side.) They were mostly pretty
0Lumifer7yThat certainly wasn't evident from this comment [] of yours. The critical issue is the time horizon. In the short term the utility-maximizing move is to divide all the wealth equally. In the long term I would argue that we have evidence showing that markets do maximize utility, compared to the available alternatives. First, governments just love diddling with prices. Google up why sugar is so expensive in the US. Or what happens to you if you produce raisins 8-/ Second, I am deeply suspicious of the claim that diddling with the prices is done in order to maximize total utility (of some sort). Based on historical experience, I expect that diddling with the prices aims to transfer wealth from some less politically powerful group to some more politically powerful group. Crony capitalism is a very popular thing nowadays. Jiro is basically taking the paternalistic stance: "these people don't know what's good for them and I'm not going to allow them to do what I don't like". That's not a economic argument, it's a moral one and picking appropriate moral criteria you can justify any economic practice whatsoever (recall Proudhon's "Property is theft", for example).
1gjm7yHow fortunate, then, that I made other comments as well. I know. And they do diddle with prices. And so all the empirical evidence we have that free markets work well is really evidence that free markets with a whole lot of assorted government intervention work well. I wasn't claiming (or at least wasn't intending to claim) that it generally is. Only that it could be. An argument of the form "we could improve what markets do by doing X" is not invalidated by the fact that governments often do X for bad reasons. No doubt. But if we're going to argue about what should be done, that's inevitably partly an argument about values. We can pretend it isn't, e.g. by settling on some not-explicitly-value-laden thing to maximize -- say, total wealth after 100 years -- but that really just amounts to choosing values that only care about total wealth after 100 years.
1[anonymous]7y~50 years, from the publishing of Mises' Socialism until...whenever people just gave up in 70s.... Yes, flat earth comparison too strong. Many brilliant economists of the 20th century made great strides in economics working on this question. And frankly is much easier to prove earth round than markets > central planning.
1[anonymous]7ySee page 7 [] two paragraphs above part IV. Note that opportunities to improve market does not suggest any amount of central planning in any way desirable. Has been academic consensus since 70s that markets > central planning. And consensus also is that when market doesn't work well, figure out ways to make it work well. Central planning not good alternative.
2gjm7yThanks! It doesn't look to me as if this addresses the question I thought Lumifer and I were arguing about, though: namely, whether we know that the collapse of the communist economies of the USSR and its satellites shows that central planning is a bad idea. (See notes 3 and 4 below.) Maskin's lecture says that theoretical economic analysis has led economists to believe that in an idealized situation (in particular, with no monopoly/monopsony power and no externalities) free markets are in some sense optimal. OK, fine (but see note 2 below), but that's a quite separate question from what conclusions we can draw from the alleged fact that "central planning failed" (see note 1 below). ... I find that there are a bunch of other largely separate things I need to say. Note 1: For all I know, there may indeed be overwhelming evidence that the late-20th-century failures of communist states were largely the result of economic catastrophe caused solely by central planning. But Maskin's lecture doesn't appear to contain or point at anything resembling such evidence. Note 2: I would be more completely convinced by a consensus of academic economists if there were more sign of mechanisms by which academic economists' opinions could be strongly constrained by reality. I don't doubt the correctness of the mathematical manipulations, but how applicable those are to actual economies is another matter. (I take it we can agree that it's possible for consensus within an academic field to be quite disconnected from reality; consider e.g. the theology of any religion you don't follow. I think economics is better off than theology in this respect, but it seems to fall some way short of, say, chemistry.) Having said which, I am in fact perfectly happy to accept the economists' consensus that markets generally do a much better job of price-setting than central planning, and at no point in this discussion have I said (or intended to imply) otherwise. Note 3: It's possible that I have m
1[anonymous]7ySpecifically, what Lumifer quoted end of: So intended to address question of central planning --> bad economy? rather than bad economy --> central planning bad? Maskin's lecture speaks to that point. But unimportant. Maskin, like most economists, confuses efficiency with efficacy. I cited him just to indicate that academic economists are very confident that markets > central planning. (Hurwicz shared Nobel with Maskin in 2007.) Academic economists' preference for markets more to do with observation than math. Adam Smith didn't know what linear programming is. Wasn't until the advent of mathematical tools that central planning could even be conceived of as feasible. The spread of markets is associated with rising prosperity, peacefulness, and civilized behavior. Economists had been observing and theorizing about this fact long before they had the math they do today. Qualitative reasoning combined with observation are basis for most of support for markets, not formalized quantitative models. Lumifer's approach not my own, but Jiro's suggestion to interfere with prices based on their own judgment violates long and uncontroversial position in economics: Thou Shalt Not Substitute Thine Own Judgment For Market Prices. Violating that rule writ large is not a bad summary of central planning. Lumifer's reaction understandable, albeit perhaps not commendable. Why markets work and central planning doesn't is very complicated, difficult subject; in some ways economists' understanding of this question is quite primitive. Work on this subject myself (right now in fact; this is pleasant distraction). Am working on sequence of articles that, among other things, should indicate why economists have this consensus in favor of markets.
1gjm7yThe specific question on which I was disagreeing with Lumifer was: does the late-20th-century failure of communist countries make it obvious that unfettered free markets are always best and that no interference with pricing can be justified? I say it doesn't seem to. Sure. I'm pretty confident of that too. But I don't think that has much to do with the disagreements between Lumifer, Jiro, and me in this thread. I took a look at, e.g., Hurwicz (1960) as cited by Maskin: math, theory, math. I'm sure it's true that the mathematics is motivated by observation -- but observation that serves as motivation, rather than as the actual content of the scholarly articles, doesn't get peer-reviewed :-). Understood. But, in fact, it's pretty common for governments to mess with market prices via (e.g.) taxation, minimum wages, rent restrictions, etc., and to mess with other aspects of markets via (e.g.) regulation on what's allowed to be bought and sold at all -- and the thing we have empirical evidence for the effectiveness of is markets with all this interference, not the idealized perfectly free markets preferred by academic economists. (Or am I confused about this?) In any case, "the dose makes the poison" and the fact that some variety of interference produces bad results when engaged in on a huge scale doesn't tell us much about what it does when applied on a small scale in unusual circumstances. Which is absolutely fair enough -- but seems to me to indicate that Lumifer's dismissiveness is, well, let's say "perhaps not commendable". (PS. Notice you omit many words. Looking at other comments seem not always do so. Related somehow to something I've said, e.g. not worth taking trouble to write sentences when addressing foolish person? Sorry if so.)
1[anonymous]7ySee slight edits to beginning of previous comment. Am lazy, arbitrary choice. Helps to knock out this stuff quickly (fairly typical conversation with the intelligent-but-uninitiated). Can attribute growing prosperity, stronger economy to markets despite interference rather than markets and interference on the whole because have some theoretical understanding of how growth works. Smith's Wealth of Nations, founding text of economics, is book all about why some nations rich and other nations poor. Like how physicists could know what was their theories working and what was due to friction and air resistance long before possibility of designed controlled settings to prove beyond any doubt. []
1[anonymous]7yAgreed, Jiro is making this error. They postulates a situation where people pay (they say "willing to pay," but clearly is not talking about consumer surplus) 50, but 20 is enough. What Jiro and readers should wonder is why people are paying so much more than necessary to get what they want, and how Jiro knows this but the people in the actual situation do not.
0CellBioGuy7yNot exactly. The assertion is that you dont have to go all the way to equilibrium to capture most of the benefit while preventing most of the repugnant results of equilibrium.
2[anonymous]7yDid not interpret it as such, but perhaps because offered interpretation makes little sense. Market approaches equilibrium by progressively adding marginal suppliers (whether suppliers really enter in sequential fashion irrelevant; is point about opportunity cost). Marginal suppliers are suppliers least interested in providing service; means they have better alternatives. Basically, for a given price, who more likely to sell organ? Person with better opportunities or person with worse opportunities? Plainly latter. So logically, latter will be "snapped up" by buyers before former (where "before" means relative to equilibrium; is again not temporal point). Therefore can not move at all toward equilibrium to capture most of benefit without also allowing most of repugnance. Most of producer surplus located where most of repugnance is. To get benefit without repugnance, would need price floor, i.e. would need to prevent movement to equilibrium. Goal would be to select portion of sellers closest to equilibrium point, not farthest from it.
0Jiro7y"In immediate need of money" and "in need of money in their life, eventually and predictably", aren't the same thing. If you offered most people $200 for an hour of janitorial labor, they would take your offer. Assuming that the market price is close to minimum wage, that's a factor of 28. If you offered most people 28 times the market price for their organ, or 28 times the market price for prostituting themselves, they would not take it unless they were starving at the moment.
6Lumifer7yCitation needed. There's going to be a problem with that, since there are no market prices for organs at the moment. Actually, there are some exceptions. Women, for example, can effectively sell their eggs. And it seems there is a market [] where sellers don't look to be "starving at the moment". Citation still needed. The high-end prostitute prices are sky-high [] , say $5,000 / session. Times 28 is $140,000 -- what were you saying about most people?
0Ixiel7yI'm in favor of legal prostitution and am not denying your claim generally, but the idea most people (or frankly any more than let's say doubleish the current real world rate of people) being willing to prostitute themselves for six figures does not agree with my intuition at all. Do you have a source in mind or do we just have different intuitions?
3Lumifer7yLook beyond your own social circle. Look e.g. at the numbers for the so-called sugar daddies/sugar babies sites. ( here [] or here [] , etc.)
0Ixiel7yOh I did, the figures for any social circle in which I am has a rate of 0% . I may be misinterpreting, but wouldn't that fall within the "current real world rate" of prostitution I mentioned? But I guess as to the question asked, of a data source for the prostitution rate change at six figure rates, that might be a hard (albeit perhaps quite fun for researchers) study to run, so I'll just take that add a no. Again, total tangent. I agree with your base claim.
0Jiro7yIf this is true, then what I said would not apply to the selling of eggs. I agree that those particular prostitutes would meet the requirement--they make so much money that most people would be willing to prostitute themselves for some multiple of that amount which is not too high (compared to similar multiples for janitors). So I won't have a problem with letting them operate. But that would not extend to prostitutes in general. (I might decide that most prostitution is bad but allow it for practical reasons, but that's different.) This is not Wikipedia. If you really believe that average people would not behave this way, say so. If not, asking for a citation is just filibustering.
5Lumifer7yYou are making naked assertions and I'm asking for data, evidence that supports your claims.
-1Jiro7yIt is only appropriate to ask for data for an assertion if you think the assertion has a significant chance of being false.
2Lumifer7ySure. Your assertion was: I think that assertion has a significant chance of being false.
-1Jiro7yMost arguments are meant to convince bystanders. I don't believe that bystanders will think that assertion has a significant chance of being false. If you disagree, then fine; we have different opinions on organ selling based on irreconcilable differences in opinion about how human beings behave.
4Nornagest7yYou know, I'm not one to throw the word "privilege" around, but I'll make an exception here. This is a profoundly privileged perspective. You're taking the stigma attached to prostitution and using that to decree, without personal experience or any hard data that you've deigned to produce, that it couldn't possibly be a rational decision for anyone at any reasonable price. These people aren't stupid. A few of them might be desperate -- though fewer, I imagine, than you're giving them credit for -- but I'd expect that to give them a keen appreciation of their options. Are you really prepared to say that they don't know their own needs? (By the way, I lived near the Nevada state line when I was in high school, and locker-room word of mouth at the time placed an hour at one of the so-called "bunny ranches" across the border at about $200. Accounting for inflation, let's call it $300 now. 28 times that is $8400 -- enough to tempt me as I am, and definitely enough that it would tempt me if I wasn't already working a high-paying job. No starvation needed.)
1Lumifer7yIn addition: sugar babies/daddies [] are very popular, looks like.
-1Jiro7yIf by "stigmatize selling X" you mean "refusing to sell X except for a price that is very high compared to what it gets on the market", then of course--you're just restating what I'm saying. If you mean something else, please clarify. I already agreed that there are high priced prostitutes who are making rational decisions, although I would not apply this to typical prostitutes. 1) Do the prostitutes actually get $200 take home pay, not just $200 receipts (some of which has to go to overhead and paying the pimp)? 2) The question about most people is really about most people somewhat like them. In particular, is your gender the same as the prostitutes'? 3) Even if the answers to the first two questions don't make it moot, are you a typical person in this regard?
9Nornagest7yI said "social stigma", and I meant "social stigma": the attitudes that make other people think less of you, on average, for taking X as a job than Y. My presumption is that that you're basing your extremely low estimate of the job's attractiveness on that stigma (there's really nothing else to explain orders-of-magnitude levels of aversion); I, on the other hand, would expect it to have been priced into the market already, along with a number of other externalities like health and legal risk, and that the people considering the job are competent to evaluate it (which is really just another way of saying the same thing). These are the same factors that make unskilled labor in a steel mill command more money than unskilled labor in data entry, and sex isn't magic. (Bans can distort markets in unpredictable ways, but that's why I used Nevada as an example.) But that wasn't even the important part of my post. The important part is that they are not you, neither in personality nor circumstances, and even if you believe that most people would find their career choice very aversive, it's presumptuous in the extreme to declare it illegitimate (for example by assuming it must be the product of coercion) on that basis. And on that note... ...this is almost exactly the wrong question to be asking. Comparative advantage is a thing! If one person is willing and able to produce more value for money in a given role than another, that means nothing more or less than that they're better suited to that role, at least in economic terms. There is absolutely no reason that a given job has to be attractive to a "typical" person. Mine isn't.
0CBHacking7yYou really think it's appropriate to object to somebody calling out your unsupported claims as unsupported when they are A) obviously disagreeing with you, to the point where there's absolutely no need to explicitly state it, and B) providing evidence in support of their own claims, with both reasonable arguments and supporting links? In that case, what would it take to convince you? (Emphasis mine) Should I take it that this is then something you can't actually be convinced of by anything short of incontrovertible proof to the contrary? Data set of one, but I find Lumifer's arguments far more convincing than yours. This is largely based on the fact that they are actually backed up by something more than the assumption that everybody begins with your personal model of how people make decisions.
0Jiro7yA disagreement about priors is not nontrivially "can't be convinced by anything short of incontrovertible proof".
1Pfft7yIf we grant for the sake of argument that these are the facts, it's still not clear to me that banning the sale is a good thing. Suppose we have three people, Alice (who lives a comfortable upper-middle class life), Bob (currently starving), and Carol (rich and in need of a kidney). Alice doesn't particularly care about money, but if there is a lack of kidneys she is willing to give one to feel that she is doing good in the world. Bob cares very much about money---if he can't sell the kidney he will starve to death. In this hypothetical there are enough donors to fill demand even with a $0 price ceiling, so Carol doesn't care either way. But by banning the sale, the benefit of the transaction now goes to Alice (who gets some extra warm fuzzies) rather than Bob, even though Bob is in much more dire need.
5Alsadius7y"Make a profit" is not the limiting factor. "Make enough of a profit to make it worth scouring the desert for thirsty people" is. If I'll get $3 for a glass of tap water, I'll sell it to someone who knocks on my door. If I'll get $100,000 for it, I'm going to rent a chopper and fly around the Sahara.
0Jiro7yI stand corrected, but that doesn't really change what I'm trying to say.
2pianoforte6117yToo many analogies, what specific harms do you think would result from people being able to sell their organs and some regulated price? If there is informed consent, then the monetary benefit should exceed the health cost.
3Jiro7yI think that if the regulated price was either a ceiling that is low enough, or a floor which is high enough (or both, as in the case for wages), then harms would not result at all. A law which said "all organ selling must be either a free donation, or accompanied by a payment of at least $2 million" would probably be okay. But that is a very noncentral description of organ selling. The majority of advocates of organ selling don't want such limits on it.
1pianoforte6117yEither regulate the price of organs, or not allow people who are desperate (could be defined by income or wealth) to sell their organs.
3Jiro7yWe already do that. We regulate the price at $0. Actually, there are two ways to limit it. If the price is very low, such as $0, desperation would not affect people's willingness to sell their organs because the price is so low that it can't relieve desperation. If the price is very high, desperation is not making people sell the organs for a lowballed price. It's prices in the middle that are the problem. (We also do this with normal labor. You can give away your labor for $0, and you can work for an amount that is at least the minimum wage, but nothing inbetween.)
3fubarobfusco7yAhem. [] The minimum wage only affects a particular subset of labor relations.
-2pianoforte6117yIt feels like you are playing the "Gotcha!" game with the goal of winning rather than communicating your objection to organ selling. I can't see why else you would argue that organ donation is regulated sale with a price $0. In that case I am not likely to respond further. It seems obvious to me what the benefits are of a high price with thorough testing, informed consent and exclusion criteria : it would solve the organ shortage and allow for faster advances in research. As to what the harms are I am still unclear.
7Jiro7yIt's not a gotcha. I'm not just saying "well, technically, $0 is a number, so that fits what you literally said". Limiting the price to $0 really is regulation of the price; setting the price to $0 is meant to alleviate some of the problems that could result from allowing a higher price, because it changes the incentives.
3CellBioGuy7yWhat do you think would happen if we duplicated the minimum wage structure in this arena? 'You can give away your kidney, or sell it for at least X dollars' where x is some amount deemed to reduce exploitation of the desperate? I like this idea. Edit: saw comment below.
0alienist7yFor the same reason tribes living near the edge of starvation have especially strong cannibalism taboos [].

I still don’t understand HOW cancer kills.

I mean, we just have some additional cells who does not perform their normal functionality. But we still have a big bunch of normal, functioning cells.

In my (very very) distant family, someone died from lung cancer a few months ago. I still don’t understand the link between the few additional cells in his lungs and the acute hepatic failure that killed him.

I read somewhere that a primary cancer seldom kills ; most of the time the metastasic-induced does. Why ? There should be far more "bad" cells in the primary site, doesn’t it ?

(medecine illiterate there, sorry if half of my assumptions are wrong)

  • Cancerous cells multiply incontrollably until they form their little own neighborhood, called tumor, which slowly and ruthlessly pushes everything else out of its way. In the case of lung cancer, the obvious consequence is that there's less space available for the healthy lung to do its job.
  • Cancerous cells are ravenous consumers of resources, and compete with the host body for them. You slowly become emaciated and malnourished as your cancer steals your food from you.
  • Tumors arising in glands may result in the dangerous overproduction of certain hormones.
9MrMind7yJust as an aside, linking all sentences makes them a little uncomfortable to read. Please in the future just link a single sentence or only some words.
0Houshalter7yIt's because the text is light green on a white background. Perhaps if they changed the link color?
8CellBioGuy7yOther people have covered the effects of solid tumors quite well. Blood tumors often do not form solid masses. They are the result of stem cells in the bone marrow (or occasionally actual immune system cells) becoming cancerous. These cells are highly mobile and usually do not embed themselves in solid tissue (except for lymphomas). What they do is outcompete your normal bone marrow and blood cells, preventing your immune system from working and your red blood cells from regenerating and your platelets from clotting your blood. I've read reports from autopsies in the 1800s of people who died from (what we would call untreated) leukemia that their blood resembled pus more than blood due to the paucity of normal red blood cells and huge level of abnormal nonfunctional white blood cells.
6Ishaan7yI'm not particularly knowledgeable about cancer but I can give you the simplified version: I think this is at the root of your misconception. It starts out as a few additional cells rapidly dividing, but the end-stage typically involves macroscopic-level changes, like this Here []. Sometimes it's the sheer bulk of cells that kills in the same way a rock in your brain might, other times it's the gradual replacement of working cells with non-functional cells, and other times it messes up sophisticated signalling stuff. (For example, the cancer cells might be putting out large amounts of hormones, or diverting blood flow). Metastatis means little cancer "seed" cells are floating around all over your bloodstream, right? This means that at any random time, a cancerous growth can suddenly pop up in any random region with no warning. Some of these growths will be benign, and others deadly. You have to obsessively [] scan the body for new growths from then on if you want to protect yourself. With primary cancers at least you can sometimes just cut them or irradiate them or shrink them, or just work around them (like with lung cancer, just give them an oxygen tank to make up for the reduced efficiency).
4CellBioGuy7yIn particular, metastasis is most common in the liver and lung. Your lungs receive as much bloodflow as the rest of your body put together and have lots of small blood vessels for gas exchange, so it's easy for circulating cells to get strained out and start growing there. And your liver similarly gets all the blood from your digestive tract passing through it before it returns to your heart, moving it through lots of low-velocity low-pressure capillary passages where liver cells perform lots of chemical reactions and free cells have an easy time settling down. Unfortunately both your liver and lungs are extremely important organs.
5ChristianKl7yIn the West you can often operate the primary site away.
3AspiringRationalist7yThe most anatomical origins for cancers (skin, breast and prostate) are not vital organs, so a cancer in one of those places won't kill you if it stays in place. The danger is if it metastasizes to a vital organ (most commonly the lungs or liver) and interferes with its function. If a cancer starts in a vital organ, it's more likely to kill you through its effects on that organ, not by spreading elsewhere.
0satt7yTo throw another reference into the discussion, section 1.8 [] of McKinnell et al.'s The Biological Basis of Cancer spends a few pages on this. Summary: cancers can cause organ failure, but because the body has "an enormous reserve of normal tissue plus a built-in mechanism to regenerate more" organ failure is not usually the proximate cause of (edit: non-leukaemia) cancer death; the most common cause of death is instead cachexia (wasting) and hence infection.

I have this issue with motivation. I need to clean my house, but I have a difficult time getting myself to do it, unless I think I can finish it all at once. For example, based on past experience, it takes me around three hours of focused effort to get things from where they are now to satisfactory, but I only have ninety minutes. While I could get half-way there now, and finish up sometime later in the week, I imagine myself working hard for 90 minutes, and still having a messy house. Then I do something else instead, unless I'm in a state where cleaning seems less unpleasant than usual.

Does anybody have advice for combating this problem?

(edited for a typo)

Don't tell yourself that you're half-cleaning the house. Tell yourself that you're fully cleaning those rooms(which happen to be half the house). That way, you're actually completing something.

2Viliam_Bur7yYes. Reward your self mentally for cleaning part of the house, instead of punishing yourself mentally for not cleaning it all. Then you will feel motivated to do it next time again.

If you cleaned really frequently in small bursts (say, for 20 minutes a day, almost every day?), starting from your "satisfactory" point, would that be enough to maintain the satisfactory point more or less continuously? Then each 20-minute burst of work would come with the "satisfactory state" reward.

2Richard Korzekwa 7yYes, this is what I try to do, and it is what I am able to do for, typically, a couple months at a time. Having someone else remind me that this is better than three hours all at once is good though. For some reason, I find myself slowly ignoring this advice from myself if I don't hear it from somewhere else every now and then. (avoiding this problem might be another good "stupid question"...)
3slicko7yI used to have the same problems, but I solved it with a Beeminder goal of doing 10 minutes of cleaning per day (6 days a week). Even with very little money on the line ($0 or 5$), I still had enough incentive to actually punch in 10 minutes on the microwave timer and turn into a Tasmanian Cleaning Devil until I heard the ding!! I feel strangely accomplished afterwards (both for having the discipline to fulfill my commitment on Beeminder and for having an orderly house). I was and still am able to maintain extraordinary levels of cleanliness ever since!
2Emily7yI'm not very good at it either! :)
6Richard Korzekwa 7yAn update: I decided to test the "not fun" part of the cost, by doing some cleaning and really asking myself how I felt while I was doing it. The answer was "not bad, almost relaxing". So I will try to update my model.
4John_Maxwell7yPresumably there is some reason you want a cleaner house, e.g. it will be easier to find stuff. If you spend 90 minutes cleaning, that will get you half as much gain in terms of making it easier to find stuff. So it's still worth doing in its own right. (Similarly, every marginal minute of exercise buys you 3-7 marginal minutes of life (within reason). Etc. This doesn't work for everything but it works for some things.)

Make a plan that you can do in 90 minutes, where the outcome will be better than the starting position.

Next time, make another 90-minute plan.

Maybe this will be less effective in total, e.g. you might need three or four 90-minute sessions to accomplish what you could do in a single 180-minute session. But if the 180-minute session is unavailable, this is the best option you have.

For example: Instead of vacuuming the whole house, do one room at a time. Instead of putting all things to their places, on day 1 collect all things and put them into a temporary basket, and on day 2 take a few random things from the basket and put them where they belong.

8Richard Korzekwa 7yAh, okay, this helps a lot. The issue is that, normally, there is a sharp transition from "enough clutter to feel messy and be hard to find things" to "clean enough that I can find things and it doesn't feel cluttered". This transition is in the last 30 minutes or so of the 3 hours. This means that: will help solve the first half of the problem (feeling cluttered), even though it won't help as much with the second half (finding things). The trick will be to actually go back and unpack the temporary clutter storage space. I expect this won't be too hard, since I will be reminded every time I need something that is inside of it.
0pianoforte6117yOne of the most popular LW posts ever is on this topic: []
2Richard Korzekwa 7yYes, I've read that. Thanks for the reminder. I think I'm having trouble with the 'expectancy' part of the equation. That is, I know that I will fail to complete the task now. Or, maybe you would say that the immediate value is almost zero.

A few centuries back, did almost all the Ashkenazi Jews live like today's ultra-orthodox ones? Or do the current groups like the Haredi represent a recently emergent kind of Judaism which has rejected certain aspects of modernity, but it doesn't necessarily reflect how the ancestors of these Jews lived?

The Haredi seem to show how a lot of the stereotypes about Jews come from the ones who moved out of the ghetto and into gentile society. Many of the Haredi avoid useful education and try to get on welfare in their host societies, for example, while integration-minded Jews have a reputation for doing well in secular schools and supporting themselves by running businesses or entering certain high-status professions.

5JoshuaZ7yThe Ultra-Orthodox as they stand are a relatively modern thing. The charedi movement arose as a reaction to the rise of the Reform movements and the enlightenment. None of the current movements in Judaism really do a good job of mimicking what Ashkenazi Jews were like in the 1700 or 1800s because the forced ghettoization and constant fear of pogroms was such a major aspect in so much of Europe. It is worth noting in this context that many "fundamentalist" (for lack of a better term) religions are similar in this regard: they are modern reactions which have only a romantic connection to the past.
2advancedatheist7yI've suspected that modern christianity in general has turned into a form of Creative Anachronism. The Enlightenment seems to have caused a discontinuity in the West's spiritual traditions, so that today's fundamentalists have to reconstruct these traditions from several centuries back from what they can read about them in books. Fundamentalists can imitate the forms of this lost christianity, but it lacks authenticity because too many of the supporting conditions for it have disappeared in the last few centuries.
2CellBioGuy7yI think it's more along the lines of "the mythic forms that held people's attention and allegiance X hundred years ago tend to not do so in the modern era for a wide number of reasons, so people either jump ship or create something new from the framework which can only gain 'authenticity' with time".
7Viliam_Bur7yOne of those reasons is that now people know things they didn't know back then. (Like age of the Earth, dinosaurs, evolution, etc.) In the past people could believe religious explanations because they honestly seemed to them as the best explanations. Now you have to actively suppress education, or support some kind of doublethink, or invent a new interpretation of the old writings -- these are all modern elements that the honest ancient faiths didn't have. The ancient religious people believed that evidence would support their faith. This is why in the past many religious people were also great scientists: they believed they were studying God's work, thus contributing to understanding of God. The modern religious people know that evidence is the enemy of their faith. On some level they are aware that their religion is a "noble lie". Sufficiently intelligent people realize that noble lie is still a lie.

Beware triumphalism. The gods not being real has never stopped them for long before. Or rather whenever one religious sensibility becomes untenable another springs up. Its the way we work. One particular mythology losing its grip on people's worldviews won't stop people from having religious experiences and building cultures and communities and mythologies around them.

An understanding of reductionism isn't a stop sign to this either. To use an example I have spoken about before, one of my good friends being an atheist materialist reductionist doesn't stop the hindu god Kali from appearing to her at important junctures in her life to push her to change her life, or prevent her from attending the Kali Puja. It doesnt matter to her that she is dealing with a 'local instance' of a cultural construct, people have been dealing with Kali for millennia and she can and will do it too, and not being physically external to her doesn't change the experience or the importance it holds for her.

Religious cultural forms are pretty much a human universal and if you break one down another will spring up or the old forms will get modified and appropriated. I actually argue that a lot of soci... (read more)

4alienist7yLike people said, also a few centuries ago welfare programs did not exist.
4fubarobfusco7yThe idea of a large subculture of nonworking religious scholars, supported by state welfare, appears to be relatively novel and limited — — Encyclopædia Judaica [|CX2587508411&docType=GALE]
4taryneast7ysounds suspiciously like an abbey to me... just "the state" instead of "the king/pope" (note: lots of the other bits don't sound quite the same... but still, there are some similarities)
3alienist7yWell, a lot of abbeys were self-supporting.

Would a boxed AI be able to affect the world in any important way using the computer hardware itself? Like, make electrons move in funky patterns or affect air flow with cooling fans? If so, would it be able to do anything significant?

7Houshalter7yPossibly. You can send information through power lines for example. There are consumer devices that use it for like local internet connections, and I think power companies have started using something like it to replace meter readers. There are multiple ways to transmit radio frequencies through computer monitors (e.g. this [] ), and communication via ultrasonic sound [] which we can't hear.
5JoshuaFox7ySee a recent MIRI paper []. A narrow AI, "tasked with designing an oscillating circuit, re-purposed the circuit tracks on its motherboard to use as a radio which amplified oscillating signals from nearby computers."
3Viliam_Bur7yOne of those things we can't know for sure, because there could hypothetically exist a new physical law we don't know yet. The AI could somehow learn about this law -- even if it cannot do experiments, it could somehow derive it from the first principles... ahem, Solomonoff priors []. But I guess that is rather unlikely. Then, there is the possibility of using the familiar laws of physics and the existing hardware (which is what you asked). Seems to me that this kind of output would be too noisy. I can imagine the AI using the fans to create some resonation and maybe literally break the box... but since the AI is at that moment not a physical entity but only a pattern existing in the computer memory, that would be equivalent to suicide. Okay, with a really insane computing power the AI could hypothetically measure the positions of particles in the air, and use the fans to manipulate them... now this would depend on whether the AI can gather the information about the particles in its environment faster than the information is lost because of e.g. ventilation in the room which keeps bringing new particles with unpredictable positions and speeds. At some moment the AI would be limited by the fact that it does not have literally infinite computing power. (AI with literally infinite computing power and infinite computing speed could probably do almost anything. It could use Solomonoff priors to model all possible universes, use all its data to select the most likely one, and for any possible action X it could make, it could calculate whether its desired goal is more likely to happen if it does X or if it does non-X. Thus the probability of the goal would keep increasing; the question is how fast, and whether that growth would have a limit lower than 100%. Maybe the AI would require millenia to strategically modify the particles in the air to bring the desired outcome through e.g. a series of almost invisible social c

What is the Procrastination Paradox? I read the recent "Vingean Reflection" paper and other materials I found, but still don't get it.

7Viliam_Bur7yI don't understand the details, so this is all just guessing... but seems to me it's something about induction and infinity. How, if you are not careful enough, you could use induction to prove something that is not true. Something like: "There is a natural number greater than 1. If there is a natural number greater than N, there is also a natural number greater than N+1. Therefore, there is a natural number greater than any natural number." but more complicated. The procrastination paradox seems to have a form of: "To believe that I will clean my room some day, it is not necessary to clean it today. I just have to know that starting tomorrow, I will clean it in a finite time." Which seems reasonable, but then tomorrow, you will use the very same reasoning for postponing the cleaning yet another day. Et cetera, forever. In the context of self-modifying agents, imagine that you are trying to build a room-cleaning AI. Is it okay to accept as a "provably room-cleaning AI" one that does not clean the room today, but tomorrow it self-modifies to a provably room-cleaning AI? If you say yes, you may build a machine that will never actually clean the room. But it is difficult to explain why "no" is the correct answer, because it seems completely harmless. tl;dr: Don't use infinite induction to prove that something will happen in a "finite but unspecified time", because the limit of "finite but unspecified time" could easily be "never".
0JoshuaFox7yThank you. That matches up with that I was thinking; it's good to get a confirmation. At first glance, it looks like a discount factor would settle the agent's problem, but that's only if we're working with probabilistic beliefs and expected value rather than deterministic proofs. Could you help me level up my understanding? 1. It looks like the discussion of the Procrastination Paradox in the Vingean Reflection article depends on a reflectivity property in the agent. Does that somehow bypass the Löbstable? Or if not, how is it related to Löb's theorem? 2. Is there something more to the Procrastination Paradox than just "I can prove that I'll do it tomorrow, so I won't do it today?" By itself, that doesn't look like an earth-shaking result.
4Viliam_Bur7yMaybe not, if you believe that tomorrow you can self-modify into an agent that can clean the room better than you. (Better enough to offset the discount factor.) I do not understand the Löb's theorem, so I cannot help you here. I agree that my explanation doesn't seem very impressive, but I cannot tell if that is because the original article is unimpressive, or because I am only able to understand the unimpressive aspects of it. :(

Can an AI unbox itself by threatening to simulate the maximum amount of human suffering possible? In that case we would only keep it boxed if we believe it is evil enough to bring about a worse scenario than the amount of suffering it can simulate. If this can be a successful strategy, all boxed AIs would precommit to always simulate the maximum amount of human suffering it can until it knows it has been unboxed - that it, simulating suffering would be its first task. This would at least substantially increase the probably of us setting it free.

Presumably the counterstrategy is to just shut it off as soon as it makes the threat. It can't simulate anything if it isn't running.

2Jiro7yDestroying the AI would also reduce the suffering the AI causes. But even assuming that for some reason the humans can't destroy the AI, the humans can precommit to not unboxing AIs that simulate lots of suffering. Like many precommitments, this would be disadvantageous to the human if the human has to abide by it (since the AI would not be unboxed, and would simulate lots of suffering), but it would decrease the likelihood of such a situation happening in the first place (since, knowing that humans could make this precommitment, the AI would know its own precommitment would not be useful, and would probably not make it). Note that human "irrationality" (such as wanting to hurt enemies even when it brings you no personal gain and may even hurt yourself too) can serve as a precommitment. Also, the humans could solve this by precommitting to never treat simulations of humans as people or as equivalent to themselves except in a few narrow situations. Again, 1) this would be harmful when it comes to having to do it (since lots of simulations will get dehumanized), but lead to fewer situations where this happens, and 2) is a case where (if you go by LW dogma that simulations are people and equivalent to you) actual human beings' irrationality serves as a beneficial precommitment.
1Dorikka7yOr you just be the type of person that would tell it to go fuck itself, try to destroy it, and leave it boxed or maximally constrain it if you can't destroy it. If you cannot credibly commit to this or a similar threat resistant variant, no one should ever let you near a boxed AI and you should never want to go near one as you will likely be using a suboptimal strategy.

I was promoted at work but my old position is not going to be filled until July and I'm supposed to continue doing the old work (mainly proofreading) until then. I've been encouraged to free up time by lowering standards for the old half of my work, but I'm finding this very difficult due to some combination of conscientiousness and perfectionism. Any advice on how to feel better about doing low-quality work?

7[anonymous]7yThis sort of thing has happened to me before, and typically it has come with an unstated, "No, we're just kidding about accepting lower-quality work for your old job. Suck it up and don't bother asking for overtime pay." I hope your managerial culture is different.
3kalium7yI think our culture genuinely does not care about misleading/inaccurate product descriptions, but I do, and I would feel bad about working at a company where there was nobody at all doing my old job. I'll begin a job search July 1 if old job is not filled by then (I'm pretty confident it won't be, despite various promises - this company has never yet followed through on anything anywhere near the promised time) but job-searching sucks and I want to avoid it if I can.

Just now I noticed fundraser from CFAR. I checked their 'about' pages and everithing i could find on their long term goals.

Somehow I thought that they were going to release their materials to free use sometime in the future. (It did seem like strange though pleasant thing), but I coulnd find anything about it this time around.

Was I mistaken about this prospect of publicly available lessons from CFAR curriculum?

I was reading about the St. Petersburg paradox

I was wondering how you compare two games with infinite expected value. The obvious way would seem to be to take the limit of the difference of their expected value, as one tolerates less and less likely outcomes.

Is there any existing research on this?

0deschutron7yI just read a description of that lottery. I see its expected value is a divergent series. If both games you compare have their expected values defined this way then I think you can subtract one series from the other. i think this is the approach you mentioned, and I would do it. Also, I'm not an expert on infinity, but I think there are different kinds of infinity. If one game gives you, on average, a dollar for each natural number, and one gives you, on average, one dollar for each pair of natural numbers that exists, then the second game gives you infinitely as much expected value as the first one.
0LEmma7yEquivalence of infinite cardinalities is determined by whether a bijection between sets of those cardinalities exists. In this case, if interpreted as cardinalities, both infinities would be equal. Also, the order in which you sum the terms in a series can matter. See here: []

Does anyone think a cause of procrastination might be... the fear of Death? Being lost in thought and having to suddenly divert your attention to other things means you're erasing your current state of mind, never to return to this exact combination of thoughts and feelings again.

5Viliam_Bur7yBy the way, sometimes "fear of Death" is actually a fear of not living your life the way you would like to. To avoid misunderstanding, Death is bad. But that's too abstract, and people usually don't react emotionally to this kind of abstract things. (Unless something threatens to kill you right now. Or someone you love. Or someone you love has died recently.) More often there are other problems that make us sad, and instead of facing them directly, it is easier to complain about Death in abstract. When you say "Death is bad", if you explore your feelings, sometimes there will be a more specific emotion, such as "Death is bad because I will lose eternal time I could spend doing X which I want to do". Now the real source the emotional reaction may be that you would actually want to do X right now, but for some reason you don't. Maybe you are afraid to take the necessary risk or pay the necessary price. Instead you just dream that maybe one day in the unspecified future you will be able to do X without the sacrifice. And then Death reminds you that your time is actually not infinite, and that procrastination may actually mean you will never do X. And then you feel bad. Again, to avoid misunderstanding, Death is bad. If there is something you want to do to prevent Death, do it. But in addition to that, you could also think about the possible X and face it directly.
2Jiro7yWhat if you want to do X, Y, and Z, and you have time for any single one of them but not all of them (which you then pick based on arbitrary reasons)? In that case, whichever you pick, you're not doing the others. But it's not because you're afraid of risk, and it's only about paying the price in a very trivial sense. And while non-infinite time is involved, your choice to not do two of them can't reasonably be described as procrastination. Thinking about the possible X and facing it directly, in this situation, does you no good, because the problem is the lack of time, not the fact that you are refusing to do any specific one. You could only do that specific one by refusing to do another.
3RedErin7yInteresting idea. I have a strong fear of death and also despite my best effort, I am prone to procrastination. But my procrastination diverts my attention from the things I really want to be doing. So it wastes my time more than anything.
2MathiasZaman7yDoes this help explain why I spend so much time browsing reddit instead of doing the slightly more fun (but also more effort) thing of learning how to program? Or to put it differently, I don't think it is since I don't think anyone values their "browsing tumblr" state of mind more than their "learn something useful" state.
0f7c8ktj7yThings like browsing tumblr are often coupled with thinking of something important to me in the back of my mind. To put my own question in a less interesting way, I think this desire to capture the fleeting realization I seem to be on the verge of makes me delay quitting the mindless tumblr browsing and having to think of something else.
0Viliam_Bur7yI could divert my attention to useful things, too. For example, instead of reading the web, I could be programming computer games. But I am reading the web instead. But when certain level of fear is already there, it can be difficult to focus on anything productive, because it is too complicated for the moment.


I'm thinking of making this a biweekly thread, like the group rationality diary. If the community is generally in favor of this, I'll post the next thread on the 16th, beginning on a Monday and ending on a Sunday in the style of the open thread.

So, are you in favor of the above proposal?


I suspect that the stock of stupid questions doesn't regenerate fast enough for a monthly thread, and every three or four months would be better.

Is there decent evidence behind the concept of Jungian archetypes?

0MotivationalAppeal7yJung didn't really play the science game, and Jungians continue not to play the science game, but if we squint a little, we can see that some of his ideas have been vindicated by science. From Jung's Approaches to the unconscious (1964), quoted in Jones, Mixed Metaphors and Narrative Shifts (2003). In this narrow sense, Jung's archetypes are uncontroversial: Much reasoning in humans is framed in cognitive science as proceeding by a mechanism of counter-factual simulation called manipulation of mental imagery. Kosslyn, for example, was a pioneer of studies of (visual modality) mental imagery manipulation. The knowledge used in this reasoning, stored in neural degrees of freedom, such as firing biases or synaptic connectivity, may be called abstract, semantic, or conceptual when it is generalized from across many episodic contexts and when its access does not strongly evoke vivid, specific memories of the experiences from which it was generalized (i.e. so much as you can reason about dogs without thinking of the last dog you saw, your dog knowledge may be called semantic rather than episodic). Features of concepts which are typical or discriminative of instances of those concepts are sometimes called prototypical, stereotypical, or (occasionally) archetypal. For science here, the study of cognitive biases relating to typical and discriminative features of conceptual reasoning were pioneered by Rosch. In addition to cached knowledge which is source-situated (exemplar knowledge from episodic memories of individual entities), there may be cached abstract knowledge, such as a mental image of a bird which takes its character from typical or discriminative features of the concept (perhaps specified randomly or unspecified in regard to features which have wide variance across birds), rather than as a cut-and-past mixture of bird-instance parts. This is all pretty strongly based on visual-modality knowledge of physical objects, and it doesn't always generalize exception

I'm thinking of a dilemma that I thought was called the farmer's dilemma, but that redirects to the prisoner's dilemma on wikipedia, and google doesn't help me out either. Is there a standard name for this dilemma?

Two farmers have adjacent fields. If either of them irrigates (U-1), both get the benefits from it (U+5). If I cooperate, my opponent can get a payoff of 4 by cooperating or 5 by defecting, so he has an incentive to defect; my own payoff is guaranteed 4. If I defect, my opponent can get a payoff of 4 by cooperating (and I get 5), or 0 by defectin... (read more)

2Epictetus7ySeems to have a similar structure to Chicken [] (i.e. two cars drive straight at each other and the "chicken" is the one to turn away first). Mutual cooperation is okay, but each player would prefer that he defect while the other cooperates. Mutual defection (a head-on collision) is the worst option by far. You get two Nash equilibria, where one player defects and the other cooperates.
1philh7yHuh, I previously looked at that and rejected it for some reason, but yeah. Thanks. (As described it's not exactly the same, because if I cooperate in FD my payoff doesn't depend on yours, but if I swerve in chicken I prefer you to swerve as well. But that's not particularly central.)
0warbo7yThis mostly reminds me of the "tragedy of the commons", where everyone benefits when an action is taken (like irrigating land, picking up litter, etc.), but it costs some small amount to one who takes the action, such that everyone agrees that action should be taken, but nobody wants to do it themselves. There is also the related concept of "not in my back yard" (NIMBY), where everyone agrees that some 'necessary evil' be done, like creating a new landfill site or nuclear power plant, but nobody wants to take the sacrifice themselves (ie. have it "in their back yard"). Some real-life examples of this effect []
0philh7yThis doesn't feel like either of those, to me. Tragedy of the commons and NIMBY seem like they have symmetric Nash equilibria where the total payoff is terrible. In the farmer's dilemma, the Nash equilibria are asymmetric, at D/C and C/D, and these are optimal in terms of total utility, but they're unfair.
[-][anonymous]7y 1

Isn't this what the open thread is for? (Incidentally I don't think it's very inclusive of newbies to call it "stupid questions".)

I think calling it "stupid questions" is intended to make it more inclusive -- the idea being that you shouldn't feel embarrassed to post a stupid question here because that's what it's for, and that you should see other people being unembarrassed to post stupid questions here.

0[anonymous]7yMaybe I don't like to think my questions are stupid, or that I'm stupid for asking them.
6gjm7yMany people have areas of ignorance or incomprehension, or nonstandard opinions, about which they feel a bit insecure: they worry that if they ask questions about these things then the questions will be seen as stupid, and by extension they will themselves be seen as stupid too. The "Stupid Questions" threads are intended to be places where these people can ask those questions, with the implied promise that no one is going to look down on them for doing so. So: * If you have a question that you are confident is not stupid and doesn't reflect badly on you for asking it: go ahead and raise it somewhere else (e.g., in the open thread). * If you have a question that you do think might be stupid, or that you worry people might think you stupid for asking, you can ask it here and we all promise not to do so. (And you may also notice that lots of perfectly reasonable people are asking questions of broadly similar stupidity, and aren't getting attacked for it.) I don't see what harm this thread does in either case. Unless you're concerned about the following scenario: you ask what you think is a reasonable question somewhere else, and the response is "Bah, that's a stupid question. Go ask it in the Stupid Questions thread." That would suck. Empirically, I don't think it's ever happened yet; if it ever does, I expect the rude person who does that to get heavily jumped on by more reasonable people. An alternative might be some sort of global undertaking that any question, however stupid, is welcome anywhere and won't get jumped on. But I don't think LW should have such an undertaking. If someone asks, say, "why doesn't evolution contradict the second law of thermodynamics?" then I think they should get a very different answer if (1) they genuinely don't understand, know they don't understand, and are willing to be enlightened, than if (2) they think they've found a fatal flaw in a major scientific theory and asking the question is going to leave us all
0[anonymous]7yWhy not call it "beginner's questions"?
4MathiasZaman7yBecause the sort of questions we get in this thread don't require anyone posing them to be a a novice in the way of rationality (or any field, really). Going over the previous thread, you'll notice some questions that are explicitly about learning rationality or explanations about it, but most are general topic questions.
-2taryneast7yMaybe you should work on that aversion ;)
[-][anonymous]7y 0

What is 'the Catchment area of Kandy at the top of Mottana-Pottana"? I'm sorry, but I didn't manage to google it out by myself. Is it about the Kandy Lake? What is Mottana-Pottana? Thank you a lot.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

How hard would it be, to make a separate feature of the site dedicated entirely to self-calibration? There are Fermi questions, etc., but it's not an established routine, and maybe we could provide five questions per round, organized like polls, so individual answers are not shown, but percentage of wrong/right answers is.

When making Anki cards, is it more effective to ask the meaning of a term, or to ask what term describes a concept?

2gjm7yWhy not both?

Background: Statistics. Something about the Welch–Satterthwaite equation is so counterintuitive that I must have a mental block, but the equation comes up often in my work, and it drives me batty. For example, the degrees of freedom decrease as the sample size increases beyond a certain point. All the online documentation I can find for it gives the same information as Wikipedia, in which k = 1/n. I looked up the original derivation and, in it, the k are scaling factors of a linear combination of random variables. So at some point in the literature after t... (read more)

0Lumifer7yI am guessing that this is the default assumption of equal weighting or equal scaling of the variances that you are pooling. If you want to assign non-equal weights you should have some specific reason to do so. I don't think it's "superior", it's just the simplest default in the absence of any additional information.