All of J_Thomas's Comments + Replies

Chris and Ben, we create axiom systems and we discover parts of "mathematics". There are probably only a finite number of theorems that can be stated with only 10 characters, or 20 characters, or 30 characters, provided we don't add new definitions. But the number of possible theorems quickly gets very very large. Will each independent group of mathematicians come up with the same theorems? Probably not. So we get different mathematics.

How different could alien mathematics be? I don't know. We could look at a variety of alien mathematics and see.... (read more)

Usually, if a die lands on edge we say it was a spoiled throw and do it over. Similarly if a Dark Lord writes 37 on the face that lands on top, we complain that the Dark Lord is spoiling our game and we don't count it.

We count 6 possibilities for a 6-sided die, 5 possibilities for a 5-sided die, 2 possibilities for a 2-sided die, and if you have a die with just one face -- a spherical die -- what's the chance that face will come up?

I think it would be interesting to develop probability theory with no boundaries, with no 0 and 1. It works fine to do it the way it's done now, and the alternative might turn up something interesting too.

"To say that human beings "invented numbers" - or invented the structure implicit in numbers - seems like claiming that Neil Armstrong hand-crafted the Moon. The universe existed before there were any sentient beings to observe it, which implies that physics preceded physicists."

No, there's a conflation of two things here.

Have you ever really looked at a penny? I'm looking at a 1990 penny now. I know that if you look at the front and you see the bas-relief of Lincoln, and the date 1990, and it's a penny, then you can be sure that the b... (read more)

Robs, religions tend to thrive among people who work hard and behave well and such. The two tend to go together. But just as priests do well in that environment so do politicians. How can we tell whether these people are helping to maintain the prosperity, or merely parasitising it? In general parasites do better with healthy hosts.

I do not claim that religion is useless. I claim that you are assuming your conclusion that it is not. Ideally we might find some sort of data. We might for example look at examples where people who previously had no religion ge... (read more)

Razib, I see you argue that different religions can compete, and what they compete for is converts who perhaps are comparing the benefits the competing religions provide them. Whether individuals make rational choices or whether they irrationally gravitate to the religions that appear to bring prosperity, either way the religions compete.

But I'm talking about how religions could have gotten their start. If people who are predisposed to religion are better at living in larger-than-kinship groups, and if people who live in larger groups survive better, then the spread of predisposition-for-religion can be explained by individual selection without requiring group selection arguments.

Lots of people think that the main thing religions do is to bind people together. The etymology of the word works that way, right? re-ligio.

If they think that's what religion does, then it's only natural they'd think that's what it gets selected for. No mystery there.

Does it take group selection? People can stay in family groups with kin selection. No mystery. Suppose that people in groups all tend to survive better than loners. That's plausible. Then anything that helps people work together in larger groups (without too many side effects) could be individ... (read more)

I didn't think it was tremendously funny. But I thought it was funny enough to recite the whole thing to my wife while she sat at her own keyboard, instead of just send her a link. She didn't think it was tremendously funny. But she politely stopped typing to listen, and she laughed some.

It seems to me like at least a B effort. The humor was in everybody wanting to believe.

In reality, wasn't there a claim that the midwife confirmed Mary was a virgin? If I lived in the village I'd probably accept that as sufficient evidence, though in my namesake's traditio... (read more)

"If you want to see an example of a measured response, take a look at the UK's after the London Underground bombings of 7th July 2005. Admittedly the bombings weren't of the same league as the September 11th attacks, but virtually nobody in the UK was saying "let's bomb the f*ers" And a month or two later (at the most) it was as if nothing had ever happened."

Mike K, I tend to agree with you, but....

The fact is, the british empire is gone and the british are ex-colonialists. As a nation they're old and tired and wimpy. It's different for... (read more)

"If you believe invading Afghanistan was a correct choice then I'm not sure how you could say Iraq was a complete mistake. The invasion of Afghanistan was aimed at eliminating a state that offered aid and support to an enemy who would use that aid and support to project power to the US and harm her citizens or the citizens of other western states. Denying that aid and support would hope to achieve the purpose of reducing or eliminating the ability of the enemy to project power.

"Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would e... (read more)

"I would have preferred, for example, that the U.S., Russia, China, UK, Israel and perhaps France announced that in one year they will declare war an any other nation that either has weapons of mass destruction or doesn't allow highly intrusive inspections to make sure they don't have weapons of mass destruction."

James D. Miller, I think your idea has possibilities. However, it would be very hard for it to succeed with israel on the list of nations that has nukes but denies them to others. Israel would have to be one of the nations that would be ... (read more)

Freely after Ian M Banks
The 4-step logic you talk about may be difficult to implement--you describe a Prisoner's Dilemma, but suggest playing Cooperate. Empirically, this can be tough to maintain.

"I'd say they were cowards. Suicide isn't an act of bravery."

R U Kidding, I agree in this particular case.

If they had lived, we would have caught them and slowly tortured them to death. They were taking the easy way out by dying. Similarly with palestinian suicide bombers. By dying they avoid the treatment they'd get as prisoners of the israelis -- they get off easy.

"I still remember a kid who hit me from behind on the street once, because he was too much of a pussy to come up to my face about it."

He was expressing his feelings. Did he ... (read more)

I know this comment is very old, but I'm a bit incredulous at this.

If they had lived, we would have caught them and slowly tortured them to death.

If they had lived, they would have been among the highest profile prisoners America has ever seen. Torture is officially illegal in the United States, and whatever we get up to out of sight and off our turf, the government doesn't like to show the public how we torment our hated enemies.

Timothy McVeigh got a lethal injection, one of the most painless methods of execution which we can contrive. This was, cont... (read more)

"But there is never an Idea so true that it's wrong to criticize any argument that supports it. Never. Never ever never for ever."

Was it wrong for the guy who thought Buzz Aldrin helped fake the moon landing to present his arguments to Buzz?

One of the hungarian Manhattan-project physicists had a slogan that went "It is not enough to be rude, one must also be wrong." When it comes time to decide whether to answer a verbal argument with violence, does it matter whether the argument is wrong, or is it enough to be rude?

-2Bruno Mailly5y
We are not fooled : Moon landing hoaxers do not "present arguments", they hammer and they monologue. Nothing, absolutely NOTHING Buzz could have answered or done would have worked, because they are so deep down the spiral that absolutely EVERYTHING is taken as confirmation.

GW, to what extent should we treat people as we want them to treat us, and to what extent should we treat them the way they say is right and the way they treat others?

Sometimes it's polite to treat other people by their own standards, and it isn't an admission that their way is right and ours is wrong.

in the human art of rationality there's a flat law against meeting arguments with violence, anywhere in the human world

"No. You're confusing rationality with your own received ethical value system. Violence is both an appropriate and frequently necessary response to all sorts of arguments."

I want to note that Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, famously encountered a man who denied that humans have ever gone to the moon but that the videos of Buzz on the moon were filmed in arizona. Buzz's response when the man presented his argu... (read more)

I realize that this comment has been up for a long time, but just in defense of Buzz Aldrin: the punch was less in response to the man claiming that he was wrong, and more in response to the man being verbally abusive (don't believe everything you hear, search on Google for Buzz Aldrin Punch and you can get a video for yourselves.) There's a difference between violence being the appropriate response to reasoned argument and violence being the appropriate response to abuse/someone else's violence/etc.

This generalises. Since you don't know everything, anything you do might wind up being counterproductive.

Like, I once knew a group of young merchants who wanted their shopping district revitalised. They worked at it and got their share of federal money that was assigned to their city, and they got the lighting improved, and the landscaping, and a beautiful fountain, and so on. It took several years and most of the improvements came in the third year. Then their landlords all raised the rents and they had to move out.

That one was predictable in hindsight, b... (read more)

I agree, just because something MIGHT backfire, it doesn't mean we automatically shouldn't try it. We should weigh up the potential benefits and the potential costs as best we can predict them, along with our best guesses about the likelihood of each. In this example, of course, the lessons we learn about "genies" are supposed to be applied to artificial intelligences. One of the central concepts that Eliezer tries to express about AI is that when we get an AI that's as smart as humans, we will very quickly get an AI that's very much smarter than humans. At that point, the AI can probably trick us into letting it loose, and it may be able to devise a plan to achieve almost anything. In this scenario, the potential costs are almost unlimited. And the probability is hard to work out. Therefore figuring out the best way to program it is very very important. Because that's a genie... {CSI sunglasses moment} ... that we can't put back in the bottle.
I think the unlimited potential for bad outcomes may be a problem there. After all, the house might not explode, instead a military transport plane nearby might suffer a failure and the nuclear weapon on board might suffer a very unlikely set of failures and trigger on impact killing everyone for miles and throwing your mothers body far far far away. The pump isn't just dangerous to those involved and nearby. Most consequences are limited in scope. You have a slim chance of killing many others through everyday accident but a pump would magnify that terribly.

Skilling was selecting badly. The 10% he discarded each year might have included some he should have kept, and vice versa.

Similarly, God at one point said he was going to get rid of evil people and keep good people and so people would get better. I don't see much evidence that's worked well.

Evolution happens, but if you want to harness it for your own goals you have to be very careful. Try to arrange it so you can throw away your mistakes.

There are lots of examples of unexpected selective outcomes.

A story -- a long time agon a swedish researcher tried to increase wheat yields by picking the biggest wheat kernels to plant. In only 5 generations he had a strain of wheat that produced 6 giant wheat kernels per stalk.

When scale insects were damaging citrus fruits, farmers tried to poison them with cyanide. They'd put a giant tent over the whole tree and pump in the cyanide and kill the scale insects. Plants can be immune to cyanide but no animal that depends on respiration can be. And yet in on... (read more)

Me: "in principle you ought to consider the entire state of the future universe when you set a terminal value."

Douglas: 'Yes, and in practice we don't. But as I look further into the future to see the consequences of my terminal value(s), that's when the trouble begins.'

Me: Doctor, it hurts when I do this.

Doctor: Then don't do that.

'Our modern transportation systems have effectively eliminated most of the barriers between human populations. All of our eggs are in one basket. If a highly lethal virus that will spread throughout an entire population and kill it arises, that basket will be dropped.'

This is a strong argument to change that situation. We have a communications system that lets us transmit data widely without needing personal contact. We could do some sorts of trade without a whole lot of risk, and minimise both the risk and the amount of trade for the rest.

It would be hard... (read more)

"Doesn't this count as a case of group level selection?"

Yes, when it works. Divide the population into smaller groups with strictly limited breeding between groups, and that's one way that segregation distorters can be limited.

Better mechanisms might arise too, but until they do this is what you've got. There might be some other advantages to a population divided into small groups with limited interbreeding, too.

And once you have a population divided that way, it leaves the possibility for other group selection. However, rats are mammals, and mammals are a small minority group that are unimportant in the bigger scheme of things. How often are species divided up like that?

'I would still be loath to call it "evolved to death". Where is the "evolution"?'

It happens because of a change in gene frequencies. That's what evolution is defined as -- changes in gene frequency. The mutant allele spreads and takes over. The population dies, but that doesn't keep the mutant allele from taking over among survivors while there are survivors.

Someone said the mutant allele isn't competing with X chromosomes. It's competing with both X and Y alleles. The mice start out with on average 3 X alleles per Y allele. At the end ... (read more)

Mark, altruists have to deal with their costs too.

It's possible for an altruist to value the thousandth altruistic meal as much as the first, but as his resources shrink the value of the alternatives rises. If I provide meals for a hundred thousand starving people and then I have nothing left and I become a starving person myself, that isn't good. At some point I want to keep enough capital to maintain my continuing ability to feed starving people.

I'm not claiming that it's true that no altruist experiences diminishing returns, or even that there is an altruist who doesn't experience diminishing returns. But the behavior doesn't prove that there couldn't be, and so this isn't a killing blow.

Douglas, in principle you ought to consider the entire state of the future universe when you set a terminal value. "I want my sister not to be killed in the next few weeks by flesh-eating bacteria" is a vague goal. "My sister not being killed by flesh-eating bacteria because the world fell into a black hole and tidal effects killed her" is not an adequate alternative.

In practice we set terminal values as if they're independent of everything else. I assume that giving my sister penicillin will not have any side effects I haven't consider... (read more)

Brendon, I find your reasoning plausible. I don't know how true it is. I don't want to give myself pernicious anemia to test it, so I'll settle for saying it looks plausible.

If you have a vitamin deficiency, and you get a dose of the vitamin that makes you somewhat less deficient, will you feel better within a few hours? If so then it might be reinforced. On the other hand, one single experience of nerve poisoning a few hours after eating a particular new food can be enough to establish a lifelong distaste for that food.

Brendon, you can't expect a learning system to quickly get an exact solution to a problem in N simultaneous equations. But when improvements result in a sense of well-being, they might tend to gradually zero in on solutions. So for nutrition you need sufficient energy and your body might have pre-programmed goals for repair and growth, and whatever helps meet those targets could provide that sense of well-being that announces something worked.

Simpler than having thousands of individual goals programmed in.

Just as an aside, fitness maximizers usually have to accept a finite population size in a finite biome with a finite carrying capacity. There's the possible goal of expanding into the galaxy and neighboring galaxies, but in the short run we have a finite carrying capacity.

And a fitness maximizer that is too successful has to accept it needs to preserve a lot of diversity in its gene pool or else face problems that would essentially reduce carrying capacity.

A conscious fitness maximizer at some point must realise that it survives by maintaining its numbers in a diverse population, rather than maximizing the frequency of its genes.

Douglas, your ideas are reasonable but unproven.

It certainly makes sense that new proteins with new functions should arise by recombination among old proteins with old functions. Start with functional groups that do things -- hold a calcium ion, hold a magnesium ion, fit to a lactam group, etc -- and fit them together in just the geometry that gets a result, and then fiddle with the details to change that geometry slightly. Sure, that makes sense.

And to get brand new protein structures you need to evolve them special -- to get selected starting with a prot... (read more)

Billswift, after thinking it over some I'm surprised how much one person could do, if they knew not to follow any blind alleys. Like, you could do all the experiments needed to support Maxwell's equations in a reasonably short time if someone helped you set up the equipment.

It took a lot of people a long time to do it, but that's because they didn't know what they were doing ahead of time.

I don't know where the limits would come but they might be a lot broader than I first thought.

Sure there's time to do all the experiments - If you already know what to do. There isn't time to learn all physics again from scratch, which is what the thread was basically talking about.

"I doubt a person who now found themselves in this situation would develop this revulsion."

By about the second generation a lot would. They would mostly be descended from people who hadn't used them. There is a minority that has a revulsion for condoms now. The idea of giving up practically your only change to have children, deliberately, would start seeming strange when everybody in the world had parents who hadn't done it. Cultures change faster when that happens.

"If we want to know how objects fall, though, we shouldn't ask people with the socially-awarded status of authority, we should look at falling things - like bricks."

But now we don't do much of that, we read physics books and work out the homework. There isn't time to repeat all the experiments. When it comes to supercolliders etc it would take years to work out the math and deal with the confounding variables and such.

xoc, the names of commenters are at the bottom of their comments, not the top. The commenter you were responding to was actually Buzzcut, not Eliezer.

Buzzcut, if you pay more for water than you do for gasoline, I want to suggest you find a cheaper source for your water. I can buy certified water in gallon jugs for not much over $1/gallon, but gasoline here is $3/gallon. I can get water cheaper in larger quantities, and I could buy a cheaper brand but then I find myself wondering about the certification. Kind of like buying the cheapest gasoline....

Reinforcement learning isn't trivial, but it might be kind of modular. Evolution doesn't have to create reinforcement learning from scratch every time, it can re-use the existing structures and just hook in new inputs.

Learning takes a lot of overhead. Much less overhead if you can simply be born knowing what you need to know, instinctively. Konrad Lorenz believed that instincts somehow develop out of learned behavior. He looked at related species where one had an instinctual behavior and the other had to learn the same behavior. It takes so long to learn i... (read more)

The mechanism seems straightforward: evolution by mutation and natural selection. If a species is in a stable (enough) environment, and the learning process is costly in energy, time, or both (and there will necessarily be some cost), then those who don't have to learn as much will be selected for.

A long time ago I read a newspaper article which claimed that a Harvard psychological research project had women chew up chocolate and spit it out, while looking in a mirror and connected to some sort of electrodes. They claimed that after that the women didn't like chocolate much.

I tried it without the electrodes. I got a 2 pound bag of M&Ms. I usually didn't buy M&Ms because no matter how many I got they'd be gone in a couple of days. I started chewing them and spitting them out. Every now and then I'd rinse out my mouth with water and the flavor... (read more)

Another possibility is that there's something about chewing things and spitting them out that tends to make them less appealing. (E.g., the whole thing looks and feels kinda gross; or you associate spitting things out with finding them unpleasant -- normally if you spit something out after starting to eat it it's because it tastes unpleasant or contains unpleasant gristle or something like that.)
Seth Roberts' diet was really about this insight. []
Most of our taste buds are actually in the part of the tongue that food only reaches after swallowing. I'd hazard a guess that this is also where most of the positive reinforcement circuitry eventually happens, but that might be inferring too much based on what I know. I wish I had a psychoanatomy textbook handy. It might also be that the negative reinforcement circuitry happens mostly on the pre-swallow taste buds, which would handily explain your temporary aversion to chocolate -and- the "taste test" phenomenon wherein humans taste something once and, prior to swallowing, proclaim a permanent dislike of that flavor. A caution: anyone who reads this comment should not take either J_Thomas's hypothesis or mine as actual evidence. I provided one to illustrate just how reasonable the exact opposite of what he said sounded, i.e., that nothing about digestion provides reinforcement.

I first read about adaptive radiation in 1965 or so, I believe it was in Ralph Buchbaum's Basic Ecology. Or maybe it was World Book encyclopedia. It said that we get lots of speciation events right after a big extinction event, and then they slow down for a long time. You say that this is a special case. Because somebody hypothesised that it had something to do with genetic drift, while nobody hypothesised that PE had anything to do with genetic drift?

There is nothing you have described about PE that isn't true about adaptive radiation. Can you say what's ... (read more)

"A definition? That a substantial amount of speciation occurred during (geologically) relatively short periods of time, between which were long periods of relative stasis without actual speciation, although gradual changes were always occurring."

Mr. Rosser, This definition is very much like that in Wikipedia, true. As stated, it follows directly from observed adaptive radiation -- which has had explanations involving genetic drift. There is nothing new in this definition. It is not a new observation. Tnere is no new idea expressed here beyond the... (read more)

'Would "innovation" in genetic error correction, or changes to the proteins responsible for allowing greater or fewer mutations in DNA...'

'...would such "meta-changes" (changes to the mechanisms of DNA replication) be the basis for group selection?'

If they can't interbreed, then you get selection like that between two different clones of bacteria. Either the better species survives, or they both survive in their own ecological niches.

If they can interbreed then you might get evolution by group selection but it isn't the way to bet. You'... (read more)

Barkley, you have given us no idea what idea it is you say is so important.

Is your claim that what it means is that there are some times when evolution of bony parts is fast, and other times when it is slow? That follows directly from "adaptive radiation", which has been known for a very long time and which suggests a reason. Nothing new there.

If it's such an important idea surely you can tell us what it means. Take all the time you want. Don't worry about it scrolling off, we'll wait for you.

At this point the argument isn't whether PE is important. The question is whether you know what it says. We can talk about how important it is after you show us you know what it means.

Douglas, I don't claim that Gould's theory was wrong or unimportant. I claim that Gould's theory was incoherent to the point that there's no way to tell whether it was wrong or unimportant.

It's like deciding whether a horoscope or a Rorschach test is wrong or unimportant.

Eldredge's theory of Punctuated Equilibrium was unimportant. Eldredge explained it well enough to see what he was saying. Gould apparently was talking about something else.

"A definition? That a substantial amount of speciation occurred during (geologically) relatively short periods of time, between which were long periods of relative stasis without actual speciation, although gradual changes were always occurring."

That's it? But we've known about adaptive radiation for a very long time. What's the new idea here, beyond this obvious observation?

I didn't quote those three to say they were important new ideas, I quoted them to give an idea what sort of explanation I'd accept. Reasonably short, showing what it was abou... (read more)

It's vitally important when spreading a new scientific idea to come up with a catchy name for it. "Punctuated equilibrium" was very good. However, the idea behind the name was very very fuzzy. It was a grab-bag of ideas, that never quite fit together. Where did the "hopeful monster"s fit in? It turns out they didn't. Punctuated equilibrium did not make sense in any unified way though a collection of disparate ideas were supposed to be it.

I finally found the concepts expressed clearly in a book by Eldredge. All the various obvious explan... (read more)

"Now with DNA, the mutation rate is fixed at ~10^-8."

Well no, it isn't. Not to get too complicated, usually the mutation rate is lower than that, but occasionally things happen that bring the mutation rate rather higher. We have things like DNA repair mechanisms that are mutagenic and others that are less so, and when the former get turned on we get a burst of mutations.

"Since we need to be able to weed out bad mutations, this imposes an upper bound of ~10^8 on the number of functional base pairs."

Definitely no more than 10^8 sites that... (read more)

Eliezer, could you provide a link to this result? Something looks wrong about it.

Fisher's fundamental theorem of natural selection says the rate of natural selection is directly proportional to the variance in additive fitness in the population. At first sight that looks incompatible with your result.

You mention a site with selection at 0.01%. This would take a very long time for selection to act, and it would require that there not be stronger selection on any nearby linked site. It seems implausible that this site would have been selected before, with th... (read more)

However, mutation rates vary and can be selected. They aren't simply a constraint.

Also, it's been a long time since I've thought about this and I may be wrong, but aren't you talking about 1 bit per linkage group and not one bit per genome? (And the size of linkage groups also varies and can be selected.)

Some viruse genomes face severe constraints on size -- they have a container they must fit into -- say an icosahedral shape -- and it would be a big step to increase that size. And some of those make proteins off both strands of DNA and sometimes in more t... (read more)

Douglas, I see nothing about strain w that's surprising. Would you like to suggest a blog and a thread to discuss this?

Douglas, I see nothing about strain w that's surprising. Would you like to suggest a blog and a thread to discuss this?

Michael Vassar, yes! Thank you for putting it so clearly.

Douglas, my own bias is to think that evolution has given us 3 billion+ years of selection for evolving faster. And multicellular organisms (a small minority of the total but interesting to us) have found ways to make genetic "modules" that result in phenotypes which fit together in a modular way. Chordates build a variety of structures from keratin. Arthropods build a big variety of limbs. Etc. The body plans that are most flexible speciate into the largest variety of niches -- nematodes, arthropods, mollusks, and chordates, and you have the big... (read more)

When people can't explain themselves they often make up answers.

"What the hell? A blue tentacle?"

"I must have gotten it from a toilet seat."

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