Hi. I'm Gareth McCaughan. I've been a consistent reader and occasional commenter since the Overcoming Bias days. My LW username is "gjm" (not "Gjm" despite the wiki software's preference for that capitalization). Elsewehere I generally go by one of "g", "gjm", or "gjm11". The URL listed here is for my website and blog, neither of which has been substantially updated in about the last four years. I live near Cambridge (UK) and work for a small technology company in Cambridge. My business cards say "mathematician" but in practice my work is a mixture of simulation, data analysis, algorithm design, software development, problem-solving, and whatever random engineering no one else is doing. I am married and have a daughter born in mid-2006. The best way to contact me is by email: firstname dot lastname at pobox dot com. I am happy to be emailed out of the blue by interesting people. If you are an LW regular you are probably an interesting person in the relevant sense even if you think you aren't.

If you're wondering why some of my old posts and comments are at surprisingly negative scores, it's because for some time I was the favourite target of old-LW's resident neoreactionary troll, sockpuppeteer and mass-downvoter.


The consequentialist case for social conservatism, or “Against Cultural Superstimuli”

I am unconvinced by this:

[trans people's] suicide rates are still some factor ~18 higher than the rest of society, and you cannot possibly expect me to believe that this has nothing to do with them being constantly told by trans activists that the world hates them and that there is nothing they can do about it

... "Unconvinced" is too weak a word. There are so many things about the argument I think you're making that seem badly wrong to me.

1. Haven't trans people's suicide rates been tremendously high since before there even were any trans activists to speak of?

2. The survey report you link to includes the following figures: (1) about half of all respondents in their survey who had experienced >= 4 instances of discrimination and violence in the last year attempted suicide in that year; (2) among all respondents in their survey, 7.3% attempted suicide in the last year. To me, that looks as if suicide rates among trans people are much more to do with actually being treated badly than with fearing they will be treated badly. (If so, I am cautiously optimistic that those terrible trans activists trying so hard to raise awareness of transness and reduce the extent to which trans people are regarded as strange and sinister are in fact making it less likely that any given trans person attempts suicide.)

There are a whole lot of other findings in that survey with the same sort of shape: it seems like every sort of mistreatment-by-others trans people might experience is associated with a substantial increase in suicide attempts.

(Of course, for obvious reasons the survey won't find people who successfully committed suicide, which makes interpreting these figures trickier, but I think they still mean what they appear to: much of what makes trans people commit suicide more than not-trans people is that other people treat them in ways they find distressing.)

3. This survey was exclusively of adults and it is not at all obvious how well it generalizes to the "impressionable young people" you're talking about; from your references to parents and teachers, I take it you're thinking of people who are not yet adults. (I don't mean to imply that this difference necessarily means that those people are less at risk of suicide; just that generalizing from one population to another is unreliable.)

4. So far as I can make out, "trans activists" are not telling those impressionable young people "that the world hates them and that there is nothing they can do about it".

5. Let us suppose that those "trans activists" are finding impressionable young people who don't think of themselves as trans and persuading them to think of themselves that way. It seems obvious to me that these people (1) are not typical of the not-trans population before this happens, because most not-trans people would not easily be persuaded that they are trans, and (2) are not typical of the trans population after it happens, because most trans people didn't need to be persuaded by trans activists; they experienced years of miserable gender dysphoria and figured it out for themselves. (#2 might be becoming less true, if a large fraction of today's young trans people were persuaded to be that way by "trans activists", but to whatever extent that's so the current young trans population is in turn not typical of the 2015 adult trans population studied by that survey.) In particular, wouldn't you strongly expect these people to be more at risk of suicide than the general population even before starting to identify as trans, and less at risk of suicide than the trans population as a whole after starting to identify as trans?

Social-conservative arguments along the lines of "Trans people have bad lives, so it is irresponsible for progressives to try to normalize transness" ring false to me, because so much of the badness of those lives is because those same social-conservatives are working hard to make those lives bad, or at least to stop them being made less bad. (They used to say the exact same thing about gay people, and I'd say the same about that case as about this one.)

D&D.Sci April 2021: Voyages of the Gray Swan

Evidence against that theory is that

pirate attacks have changed somewhat in frequency, but ship-sinkings don't seem to have.

Problem Solving with Mazes and Crayon

I know someone who successfully used that "handy exam trick" in the International Mathematical Olympiad.

(Of course this isn't relevant to the actual discussion, but it might amuse you as it amuses me. Further details that I find pleasing: 1. He took care to make sure that the "seam" lay between the end of one page of working and the start of the next. 2. The people marking the script claimed to have found an entirely different error which was not in fact an error, but of course the country's team leaders didn't send it back and complain because they knew that if they did the much more serious error in logic was likely to be noticed. For the avoidance of doubt, the person in question was not me.)

D&D.Sci April 2021: Voyages of the Gray Swan

Thoughts after poking at the data for a short while:

The most notable thing, to me, is that plausible extrapolation of the distribution of damage from the encounter types listed is far from being sufficient to explain how many ships are lost. Crabmonsters don't usually do a lot of damage and it looks as if maybe 1% of crabmonster encounters are terminal. Demon whales are the most unclear -- the PDF is still increasing at 100% damage -- but it looks as if maybe 100% is approximately the peak, in which case we should expect about as many sinkings as we've seen non-sinkings. Harpies are never known to do >24% damage. Krakens are never known to do >78% damage. Merpeople seem like they have a bit of a right tail, but there's no way to know how far it extends. It doesn't look as if it's likely to account for a huge numbre of sinkings. Nessie has what looks like a normal-ish distribution whose right tail extends a bit beyond 100% but I wouldn't expect more than a few percent of encounters to result in sinking. Pirates are never known to do more than 64% damage. Sharks are never known to do more than 56% damage. Water elementals are always between 74% and 85%. These seem like we might have maybe 10-20 sinkings from crabmonsters, 330 from demon whales, a couple of hundred from merpeople, 25ish from Nessie, and none from anything else. But actually there are 2367 sinkings.

This suggests that most of the sinkings come either from encounters that are way beyond the known distribution of damage, or from entirely different types of encounters we don't have a record of.

For the first option, maybe the demon whale distribution keeps growing rightward for a while longer. Not terribly implausible. Maybe the merpeople have a really long right tail. The water elemental distribution is pretty weird; maybe there are other types of water elemental with similarly narrow distributions living beyond 100%. For the second option, maybe sometimes the gods get angry and smite ships with lightning so that everyone dies, or maybe there's some horribly dangerous geographical feature that isn't on the maps because once you get close enough to see it you're already doomed. Or maybe sometimes the captain or crew decides that they can sail far off course, sell the cargo, keep the proceeds, and live happily ever after.

What can we do about all these? We can completely stop merpeople attacking. Maybe merpeople are a lot of the mystery sinkings. Might be worth it. We can bring krakens and demon whales down by 2% per oar, and weirdly this stacks additively, so buying 50 oars might be worth it since demon whales are our leading "in-sample" candidate to explain the sinkings. Except that we top out at 20 extra oars. Better than nothing, probably worth it. Shark repellent is a terrible idea because sharks are among the nicer encounter options. Rifles for harpy protection seem dumb since harpies are never known to do much, but if we're battling unknown unknowns something that offers to prevent all damage done by harpies is tempting. (Though it's hard to know how we could actually know that they will prevent all damage even in hypothetical cases where the harpies do >4x more damage than they have ever done to any ship that's returned to tell the tale.) Water elementals are pretty common and the foam swords will always save a lot of damage when they attack -- and if indeed there are currently-unknown super-water-elementals doing >100% damage, they might save us.

As for the completely unknown unknowns, maybe we can bring a priest or institute big rewards for foiling mutinies, or something.

(Perhaps I should take the name of the ship as a hint that we're facing the first kind of scenario rather than the second.)

Since my top priority is to survive, I buy off the merpeople (45gp) and fill up on extra oars (20gp). Now I could get rifles (35gp) just in case there are occasional super-harpies, but it's not clear that that's more likely than occasional super-elementals so I'll get the foam swords instead (15gp) since that does much more to reduce damage in the non-fatal cases. I have 20gp left, with which I can halve crabmonster damage (saving, by eyeball, maybe 20% damage on average in the 4% of cases when they attack) or knock 20% off Nessie-and-pirate damage (saving, by eyeball, maybe 16% of damage in 4% of cases when Nessie attacks, plus maybe 12% of damage in 20% of cases when pirates attack); the latter is clearly better damage-wise and might be better sinking-wise too. So: tribute to the merpeople, max extra oars, foam swords, two cannons.

But I am still painfully aware that I don't know where those sinkings are really coming from, and if there were some way to get more information about that (e.g., fit some ships with lifeboats) it would be a hell of a good idea to do it first.

I didn't see any obvious sign of large seasonal or directional effects. There are some long-term drifts; e.g., pirates seem to be becoming less common, harpies, merpeople, sharks, and maybe krakens seem to be becoming more common. I don't think these effects are large enough to change the decisions above. I haven't looked for correlations (e.g., maybe when a ship has been attacked by pirates it becomes more or less likely that the next ship going the same way will be). I do have more detailed notes on what the damage-distributions look like for the various kinds of encounter, but the level of detail above seems sufficient. (They don't appear to vary much with month, year, or direction.)

[EDITED to add:] Hmm, but buying off the merpeople might be risky? It would mean more attacks by other things that might turn out to be potentially ship-sinking. In particular, more demon whales, and our best demon whale countermeasure isn't very good. I'm not terribly sure that paying the merpeople is actually wise.

D&D.Sci April 2021: Voyages of the Gray Swan

Is the quip about Vaarsuvius' Law intended to be taken seriously here? I.e., are we to assume that without exception every voyage involves exactly one encounter? (And that that's why there are no entries in our records saying "no encounters"?)

Similarly, are we to assume that every voyage does have an entry in our records?

D&D.Sci April 2021: Voyages of the Gray Swan

... Ah, no, those are the "100%+" lines, right? So for those we know that the ship sustained enough damage to sink it, we don't know what amount of damage it "would" have suffered if it had been tough enough to take more than 100%, and (after looking briefly, haven't looked more carefully yet) in all these cases we don't know what the cause was, only that something caused the ship to sink.

D&D.Sci April 2021: Voyages of the Gray Swan

Do I understand correctly that if a ship sank we simply have no record for it at all?

Rationalism before the Sequences

In this you differ from the average rationalist but maybe not so much from Eric; see e.g. his essay "Dancing with the Gods".

Daniel Kokotajlo's Shortform

"Are you in the zone right now?"

"... Well, I was."

Don't Sell Your Soul

It's about 15 years since I was a religious person, but here's something I wrote a few months before my deconversion:

My view is that "soul" can usually be replaced by "mind" without loss of meaning, and that the mind is to the body roughly as a computer program is to the hardware it runs on, or as a piece of music is to a particular performance. If the hardware is destroyed -- if the performers are killed by a freak accident -- the program, or the music, can be set in motion again with a different substrate.

And something else from around the same time:

The language of "souls" is a useful shorthand sometimes, but it's wrong if taken at face value. "Soul" in the Bible sometimes seems to mean more or less the same as "being" ("and man became a living soul") and sometimes to mean something like "deepest part of the mind" ("now is my soul troubled").

So I'm fairly sure that late-Christian-me would have said (1) that to whatever extent people "have souls", if you make me into an em then I "have" the same soul as before, but (2) that ownership of "souls" in this sense is not a thing that can be transferred by signing a contract and (3) that if you're concerned that selling someone your soul gives them rights to future ems made from you, you should also be concerned that it gives them rights to your mind right now.

(This was not, and is not, a common point of view among Christians, though I have one Christian friend who I suspect would say more or less exactly the same things.)

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