All of jbay's Comments + Replies


I think my point is different, although I have to admit I don't entirely grasp your objection to Nostalgebraist's objection. I think Nostalgebraist's point about rules being gameable does overlap with my example of multi-agent systems, because clear-but-only-approximately-correct rules are exploitable. But I don't think my argument is about it being hard to identify legitimate exceptions. In fact, astrophysicists would have no difficulty identifying when it's the right time to stop using Newtonian gravity.

But my point with t... (read more)

2Said Achmiz5y
Oh, I don’t object to what nostalgebraist says! I think it’s entirely right. (Also, to be clear, his post was written some time before my comment, so it’s not in any way a response to the latter.) I say only that despite what he says seemingly being a serious challenge to (or even contradiction of) my post, nonetheless the post’s thesis survives the challenge intact, if not unscathed—mostly because no alternative approach to mine deals with the challenge any better. Actually… I think this is a much worse example—because, in fact, I think such difficulties are entirely fatal to utilitarianism! (In fact I think that utilitarianism’s inadequacy as a moral theory is overdetermined—that is, that there are several reasons to reject it, each one sufficient on its own—but the sorts of problems you mention are certainly among those reasons.) But let me return to your original examples—physics and business. Having thought about the matter a bit, it now seems to me that the position you are arguing against, which you (by implication) ascribe to me, is somewhat of a strawman. The sort of situation I am referring to is one where you have (a) a rule that is applicable to a given class of situations, and (b) some phenomenon by which exceptions to the rule [i.e., specific situations where you don’t follow the rule, but instead do something else] arise. The claim I am making at the end of the post is that (b) is not some unfathomable black box from which, unexpectedly and unpredictably, exceptional cases spring, but rather a comprehensible set of criteria; and that (a) and (b) together constitute the actual “rule”—which, by construction, lacks exceptions. (And then there is the additional claim that there’s a benefit to making all of this explicit, and basing your decisions on it; this is the primary subject of the post.) Now, it seems to me (and please correct me if I’m wrong here) that you are misreading me in two ways. Firstly, it seems as if you are reading me as saying th

In spirit I agree with "the real rules have no exceptions". I believe this applies to physics just as well as it applies to decision-making.

But, while the foundational rules of physics are simple and legible, the physics of many particles -- which are needed for managing real-world situations -- includes emergent behaviours like fluid drag and turbulence. The notoriously complex behaviour of fluids can be usefully compressed into rules that are simple enough to remember and apply, such as inviscid or incompressible flow approximations, or tables ... (read more)

5Said Achmiz5y
This is a very good point, thank you. I have some tentative thoughts in response, but I will have to think about it carefully. Here’s a question in the meantime: do you think that what you say is addressed in / is essentially the same as what I write in this comment elsethread? Or is this something else entirely?

You're welcome! And I'm sorry if I went a little overboard. I didn't mean it to sound confrontational.

You didn't. I appreciated your response. Gave me a lot to think about. I still think there is some value to my strategy, especially if you don't want to (or it would be unfeasible) to give full probability distribution for related events (ex: all the possible outcomes of an election).

X and ~X will always receive the same score by both the logarithmic and least-squares scoring rules that I described in my post, although I certainly agree that the logarithm is a better measure. If you dispute that point, please provide a numerical example.

Because of the 1/N factor outside the sum, doubling predictions does not affect your calibration score (as it shouldn't!). This factor is necessary or your score would only ever get successively worse the more predictions you make, regardless of how good they are. Thus, including X and ~X in the enumera... (read more)

The calibration you get, by the way, will be better represented by the fact that if you assigned 50% to the candidate that lost, then you'll necessarily have assigned a very low probability to the candidate that won, and that will be the penalty that will tell you your calibration is wrong.

The problem is the definition of more specific. How do you define specific? The only consistent definition I can think of is that a proposition A is more specific than B if the prior probability of A is smaller than that of B. Do you have a way to consistently tell wheth... (read more)

Thank you for your response.

Yes, but only because I don't agree that there was any useful information that could have been obtained in the first place.

Could you comment about how my strategy outlined above would not give useful information?

I don't understand why there is so much resistance to the idea that stating "X with probability P(X)" also implies "~X with probability 1-P(X)". The point of assigning probabilities to a prediction is that it represents your state of belief. Both statements uniquely specify the same state of belief, so to treat them differently based on which one you wrote down is irrational. Once you accept that these are the same statement, the conclusion in my post is inevitable, the mirror symmetry of the calibration curve becomes obvious, and given... (read more)

I think it would be silly to resist to the idea that "X with probability P(X)" is equivalent to "~X with probability 1-P(X)". This statement is simply true. However, it does not imply that prediction lists like this should include X and ~X as possible claims. To see this, let's consider person A who only lists "X, probability P", and person B who lists "X, probability P, and ~X, probability 1-P". Clearly these two are making the exact same claim about the future of the world. If we use an entropy rule to grade both of these people, we will find that no matter the outcome person B will have exactly twice the entropy (penalty) that person A has, so if we afterwards want to compare results of two people, only one of whom doubled up on the predictions, there is an easy way to do it (just double the penalty for those who didn't). So far so good: everything logically consistent, making the same claim about the world still easily lets you compare results aftewards. Nevertheless, there are two (related) things that need to be remarked, which is what I think all the controversy is over: 1) If, instead of the correct log weight rule, we use something stupid like a least-squares (or just eyeballing it per bracket), there is a significant difference between our people A and B above, precisely in their 50% predictions. For any probability assignment other than 50% the error rate at probability P and at 1-P are related and opposite, since getting a probability P prediction right (say, X), means getting a probability 1-P prediction wrong (~X). But for 50% these two get added up (with our stupid scoring rules) before being used to deduce calibration results. As a result we find that our doubler, player B, will always have exactly half of his 50% predictions right, which will score really well on stupid scoring rules (as an extreme example, to a naive scoring rule somebody who predicts 50% on every claim, regardless of logical constency, will seem to be perfectly calibrated). 2)

"Candidate X will win the election with 50% probability" also implies the proposition "Candidate X will not win the election with 50% probability". If you propose one, you are automatically proposing both, and one will inevitably turn out true and the other false.

If you want to represent your full probability distribution over 10 candidates, you can still represent it as binary predictions. It will look something like this:

Candidate 1 will win the election: 50% probability

Candidate 2 will win the election: 10% probability

Candidate 3 wi... (read more)

Seems like you're giving up trying to get useful information about yourself from the 50% confidence predictions. Do you agree?

I'm really not so sure what a frequentist would think. How would they express "Jeb Bush will not be the top-polling Republican candidate" in the form of a repeated random experiment?

It seems to me more likely that a frequentist would object to applying probabilities to such a statement.

I have updated my post to respond to your concerns, expanding on your lottery example in particular. Let me know if I've adequately addressed them.

I intend to update the article later to include log error. Thanks!

The lottery example though is a perfect reason to be careful about how much importance you place on calibration over accuracy.

Failing to assign the correct probability given your information is a failure both of accuracy and of calibration. Suppose you take a test of many multiple choice questions (say, 5 choices), and for each question I elicit from you your probability of having the right answer. Accuracy is graded by your total score on the test. Calibration is graded by your log-score on the probabilities. Our lottery enthusiast might think they're 50% likely to have the right answer even when they are picking randomly - and because of this they will have a lower log score than someone who correctly thinks they have a 1/5 chance. These two people may have the same scores on the test, but they will have different scores on their ability to assign probabilities.

Thanks, that is indeed a better scoring rule. I did check first to see if the squared error was proper, and it was (since these are binary predictions), but the log rule makes much more sense. I will update the above later when I get home.

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your well-considered post. Your departure will be a loss for the community, and sorry to see you go.

I also feel that some of the criticism you're posting here might be due to a misunderstanding, mainly regarding the validity of thought experiments, and of reasoning by analogy. I think both of these have a valid place in rational thought, and have generally been used appropriately in the material you're referring to. I'll make an attempt below to elaborate.

Reasoning by analogy, or, the outside view

What you call "reasoning by analogy&... (read more)

Upvotes and downvotes should be added independent of the post's present score [pollid:950]

Upvoted because I think this is a really good point, which is almost totally missed in the surrounding discussion.

For example, it's interesting to see that a lot of the experiments were directly attempting to measure C: The researcher tries to persuade the child to believe something about A, and then measures their performance. But then that research gets translated in the lay press as demonstrating something about A!

I feel that if emr's post were put as a header to Scott's, the amount of confusion in the rebuttals would be reduced considerably.

Incidentall... (read more)

That sounds beyond terrible. I really wish I could be of more help. I know exactly how awful it is to have a migraine for one hour, but I cannot fathom what it must be like to live with it perpetually.

Well, here is some general Less Wrong-style advice which I can try to offer. The first thing is that since you have been coping with this for so long, maybe you don't have a clear feeling for how much better life would be without this problem. If these migraines are as bad for you as I imagine they are, then I would recommend that you make curing yourself alm... (read more)

Well, I've actually grown a bit as well. I can successfully put most of the pain to one side whilst I'm doing something, but my general cognition goes down quite a lot. There is little I can do about that besides resting, which is when the migraine pain train comes full speed. The major lifestyle changes sound nice, but they are beyond my current capabilities. I am not yet even 20, and I have some important exams in about a month and a half. That is what I am most worried about. I can still do well, but not nearly as well as I could do if I didn't have this condition. But I will definitely do things like a radical alteration of diet. Also, I've stayed in other countries for over a month, and that didn't seem to help, but maybe it was the environment. And trust me, I will do everything in my power to get rid of these damn things. Thanks for the reply! I really hadn't thought about some of the things you mentioned. I'm going to have the year after my exams free to do whatever I want, so if I can, I'll try something like you mentioned. There's got to be something similar I can do in my situation.

I suffered from severe migraines for most of my life, but they were much more frequent when I was younger -- about two or three times a week. During high school they decreased in frequency a lot, to maybe once a month or once every two months, and now that I am in my late '20s, I only get migraines once or twice a year. Unfortunately I can't give you much rationalist advice; although I discussed migraines with my doctor and we worked together to find a solution, to my understanding it's still not a scientifically well-understood problem. So all I can tell ... (read more)

I've had glasses for about a decade now, and my eyes have remained stable for over a year. The MSG recommendation had popped up a few times, so I'll try cutting it out. Sadly, my migraines have evolved to some beast that constantly gnaws away at me, so I can't really take preventative measures. I would just love to have a break for a few days so I can get the edge in this struggle. Thanks for replying; every data point helps.

The sentence after the Mere Exposure Effect is introduced does not quite parse. Might want to double check it.

Good catch, thanks - I'll change that to "This term refer to our brain’s tendency to believe something is true and good just because we are familiar with it, regardless of whether that something is actually true and good."

A possible distinction between status and dominance: You are everybody's favourite sidekick. You don't dominate or control the group, nor do you want to, nor do you even voice any opinions about what the group should do. You find the idea of telling other people what to do to be unpleasant, and avoid doing so whenever you can. You would much rather be assigned complex tasks and then follow them through with diligence and pride. Everyone wants you in the group, they genuinely value your contribution, they care about your satisfaction with the project, and w... (read more)

I'm not sure I see what "dominance" is here. If you mean something like the OP's "general purpose ability to influence a group", then my guess is that this person is only "not-dominant" to the extent that they choose not to overtly use it. For instance, I expect the answer to the following questions would be "yes": When the group is uncertain about an outsider, or someone new, is this person's support more important than that of the average member of the group? Regarding trivial choices, like ambient temperature or where to go for lunch, do this person's preferences count more than the average, or do they get their choice more than the average member of the group? In times of change or crisis, would this person's voice carry more weight than the average voice?

Ah, hmm.... Maybe! If you include the entire history of the atom, then I'm not actually sure. That's a tough question, and a good question =)

That is not at all true; for example, see the inverse problem ( Although the atom's position is uniquely determined by the rest of the universe, the inverse is not true: Multiple different states of the universe could correspond to the same position of the atom. And as long as the atom's position does not uniquely identify the rest of the outside universe, there is no way to infer the state of the universe from the state of the atom, no matter how much precision you can measure it with. The reason is that there... (read more)

Thx so much for the link above! Since I am not a scientist I didn't know about the inverse problem, but I had thought about that intuitively. I think it's true that a current state of an atom, in a 3 dimensional context, may be achieved through multiple histories or even manipulated by a living being who wants to "cheat the system". But in a 4 dimensional context, where the coordinates on a base field (maybe Higgs field), which could also be called time, are included, that would eliminate the possibility of recreating the same position for different stories since time happens only once, in a forward motion, and thus making that state unique and irreplaceable. I think a position of height x, width y, and depth z is replicable the way you say above. But, is a position of height x, width y, depth z, at time w (considering a single time line since the big bang) replicable? If yes then the inverse problem refutes my original idea in this thread, if not IMO it is still possible to reverse-understand the universe that way.

Really good ending chapter. The presence of Hermione's character totally changes the tone of the story, and reading this one, it became really clear how heavily the Sunshine General was missing from the last ~third or so of the story arc. Eliezer writes her very well, and seems to enjoy writing her too.

I thought Hermione was going to cast an Expecto Patronum at the end, with all the bubbling happiness, but declaring friendship works well too.

Irrelevant thought: Lasers aren't needed to test out the strange optics of Harry's office; positioning mirrors in known positions on the ground and viewing them through a telescope from the tower would already give intriguing results.

The presence of Hermione's character totally changes the tone of the story, and reading this one, it became really clear how heavily the Sunshine General was missing from the last ~third or so of the story arc. Eliezer writes her very well, and seems to enjoy writing her too.

Harry's world was bleak without Hermione. Harry's love for Hermione, and even love for Humanity in general, had been missing for a while. He largely went into young Tom Riddle mode for a long time, without Hermione's influence.


Being friends with you means that my life doesn'

... (read more)

I hope that somebody (well, Harry) tells Michael MacNair that his father, alone among those summoned, died in combat with Voldemort. It seems sad for him not to know that.

That would have to be a pretty selective report, carefully obscuring how staggeringly stupid the thing that McNair did was. His suggestion had little chance of working unless he was correct that casting the Killing Curse was Voldemort's plan anyway, in which case it was redundant at best, and in fact risky even then (since authoritarian bosses prefer ideas to come from them, not subordinates). I have trouble imaginining how he imagined that conversation would go. "That hadn't occurred to me, Mr. Sallow, but an excellent suggestion, thank you"?

According to Descartes: for any X, P(X exists | X is taking the survey) = 100%, and also that 100% certainty of anything on the part of X is only allowed in this particular case.

Therefore, if X says they are Atheist, and that P(God exists | X is taking the survey) = 100%, then X is God, God is taking the survey, and happens to be an Atheist.

A note about calibration...

A poor showing on some questions, such as "what is the best-selling computer game", doesn't necessarily reflect poor calibration. It might instead simply mean that "the best-selling game is Minecraft" is a surprising fact to this particular community.

For example, I may have never heard of Minecraft, but had a large amount of exposure to evidence that "the best-selling game is Starcraft", or "the best-selling game is Tetris". During the time when I did play computer games, which was before t... (read more)

Well... this can get into philosophical territory. It seems cleanest to describe confidence in something wrong as "false," although it may have been the best possible answer for you to give at the time. Saying "the confidence wasn't false because it was from a systematic bias" seems like it opens up a host of problems. An idea that seems useful here is "being predictably surprised." You can't stop yourself from being surprised without omniscience, but you probably can stop yourself from being predictably surprised with a well-trained outside view. If the question had asked about, say, the median price of a meal at a restaurant, and you hadn't frequented restaurants in 10 years, you would probably have very low confidence in the specific price you remember, since you expect things to have changed in 10 years; a similar approach would have worked here. ("Well, Starcraft was super popular, but it's been a while; let's say Starcraft with, say, 10% probability.")

A tennis ball is a multi-particle system; however, all of the particles are accelerating more or less in unison while the ball free-falls. Nonetheless, it isn't usually considered to be increasing in temperature, because the entropy isn't increasing much as it falls.

Oh good point! And if you don't know the context when performing the translation (perhaps it's an announcement at an all-girls or an all-boys school?), then the translation will be incorrect.

The ambiguity in the original sentence may be impossible to preserve in the translation process, which doesn't mean that translation is impossible, but it does mean that information must be added by the translator to the sentence that wasn't present in the original sentence.

Sometimes I do small contract translation jobs as a side activity, but it's very frustrating when a client sends me snippets of text to be translated without the full context.

Yes..... you may be right, and it is a compelling reason, for example, not to admit terrorists into a country.

I suppose that if a particular individual's admission into the country would depress the entire country by a sufficient amount, then that's a fair reason to keep them out, without worrying about valuing different peoples' utilities unequally.

That's fine. Do you consider yourself a utilitarian? Many people do not.

For that matter, following Illano's line of thought, it's not clear that the amount that poor people would appreciate receiving all of my possessions is greater than the amount of sadness I would suffer from losing everything I own. (Although if I was giving it away out of a feeling of moral inclination to do so, I would presumably be happy with my choice). I'm not sure what George Price was thinking exactly.

No, I don't. The Price endgame is one reason why. The complexity of value is another. I do what seems good to me. That may be informed by theorising, but cannot be subservient to it.

Yes, of course. But the net average quality of life is increased overall. Please examine the posts that I'm replying to here, for the context of the point I am making. For convenience I've copied it below:

How many billion people would be better off if allowed to immigrate to GB? Utilitarianism is about counting everyone's utility the same...

You can't fit billions of people in the UK.

If you are entering the argument with a claim that the UK's current inhabitants can be utilitarian and simultaneously weigh their own utility higher than those of other ... (read more)

I'm not sure this necessarily holds true. In very broad strokes, if the quality of life is increased by X for a single immigrant, but having that immigrant present in the country decreases the quality of life for the existing population by more than X/population, then even if a specific immigrants quality of life is improved, it doesn't mean that the net average quality of life is increased overall.
If that is an argument for doing it, it's also an argument for managing one's own home the same way. That ended badly for George Price. I don't recognise an obligation to give my stuff away so long as anyone has less than I do, and I take the same attitude at every scale. There's nothing wrong with anyone trying to emigrate to a better place than they are in; but nothing wrong with No Entry signs either.

You can't fit billions of people in the UK. ( I guess that's not what you meant, but that's what it sounds like)

The gain in quality of life from moving to the UK would gradually diminish as the island became overcrowded, until there was no net utility gain from people moving there anymore. Unrestricted immigration is not the same thing as inviting all seven billion humans to the UK. People will only keep immigrating until the average quality of life is the same in the UK as it is anywhere else; then there will be an equilibrium.

That quality will be substantially less than it is in the UK right now. That is why the current population of the UK, and any other developed country (i.e. any country with a standard of living much higher than the world average), does not want unrestricted immigration.

I admit that I found this really disturbing too.

I think that it is intended as an exercise. Put yourself in the mindset of an average 18th or 19th-century individual, and imagine the 21st century as an idealized future. Things seem pretty wonderful; machines do most of the work, medicines cure disease, air travel lets you get anywhere on the planet in a single day.

But then, what?! Women can vote, and run businesses? And legalized gay marriage?!! How shocking and disturbing.

It's almost a given that the future's values will drift apart from ours, although we... (read more)

The easiest way to experience something close to what someone from the past would think of modern culture, is to imagine how you would feel about their culture. "There are no nuclear weapons, Al Qaeda is a nonentity, the NSA can't spy and taxes are very low. On the other hand medicine is in a horrible state, there's no gay marriage, religion is everywhere, and women can't vote."
Sure. They will continue to drift in the direction of the values of descendants of New England Puritans, as they've been doing for the last few centuries.

Aside from the fact that having godly power doesn't necessarily correlate well with an ease of understanding life-forms...

The universe less like a carefully painted mural in which humans and other life forms were mapped out in exquisite and intricate detail, and more like a big empty petri dish set in a warm spot billions of years ago. The underlying specifications for creating the universe seem to be pretty simple mathematically (a few laws and some low-entropy initial conditions). The complex part is just the intricate structures that have arisen over time.

Exactly. Which reminds me of the computational irreducibility of the universal cellular automaton a la Wolfram.

Ah, too bad! I'm just about to move out of Tokyo. I would have loved to participate in a LW gathering here otherwise.

There's a ~20% chance that I will be back in Tokyo next year, for a period of a few years. So you can count me as 1/5th of an 'interested' response

Player 2 observes "not A" as a choice. Doesn't player 2 still need to estimate the relative probabilities that B was chosen vs. that C was chosen?

Of course Player 2 doesn't have access to Player 1's source code, but that's not an excuse to set those probabilities in a completely arbitrary manner. Player 2 has to decide the probability of B in a rational way, given the available (albeit scarce) evidence, which is the payoff matrix and the fact that A was not chosen.

It seems reasonable to imagine a space of strategies which would lead player 1 to n... (read more)

How does this work for a binary quantity?

If your experiment tells you that [x > 45] with 99% confidence, you may in certain cases be able to confidently transform that to [x > 60] with 95% confidence.

For example, if your experiment tells you that the mass of the Q particle is 1.5034(42) with 99% confidence, maybe you can say instead that it's 1.50344(2) with 95% confidence.

If your experiment happens to tell you that [particle Q exists] is true with 99% confidence, what kind of transformation can you apply to get 95% confidence instead? Discard some of your evidence? Add noise into your sensor readings?

Roll dice before reporting the answer?

We're not talking about a binary quantity.

I think my opinion is the same as yours, but I'm curious about whether anybody else has different answers.

Good! I'm glad to hear an answer like this.

So does that mean that, in your view, a drug that removes consciousness must necessarily be a drug that impairs the ability to process information?

Yes. Really to be completely unconscious you'd have to be dead. But I do acknowledge that this is degrees on a spectrum, and probably the closest drug to what you want is whatever they use in general anesthesia.

Maybe you're on to something...

Imagine there were drugs that could remove the sensation of consciousness. However, that's all they do. They don't knock you unconscious like an anaesthetic; you still maintain motor functions, memory, sensory, and decision-making capabilities. So you can still drive a car safely, people can still talk to you coherently, and after the drugs wear off you'll remember what things you said and did.

Can anyone explain concretely what the effect and experience of taking such a drug would be?

If so, that might go a long way toward nai... (read more)

I can almost picture it. Implicit memories -- motor habits and recognition still work. Semantic and episodic memories are pretty separate things. You can answer some factual questions without involving your more visceral kind of memory about the experience later. Planning couldn't be totally gone, but it would operate at a much lower level so I wouldn't recommend driving...
That doesn't make any sense to me. If you were on that drug and I asked you "how do you feel?" and you said "I feel angry" or "I feel sad" ,,, that would be a conscious experience. I don't think the setup makes any sense. If you are going about your day doing your daily things, you are conscious. And this has nothing to do with remembering what happened -- as I said in a different reply, you are also conscious in the grandparent's sense when you are dreaming, even if you don't remember the dream when you wake up.

Well, unlike a fundamental theory of physics, we don't have strong reasons to expect that consciousness is indescribable in any more basic terms. I think there's a confusion of levels here... GR is a description of how a 4-dimensional spacetime can function and precisely reproduces our observations of the universe. It doesn't describe how that spacetime was born into existence because that's an answer to a different question than the one Einstein was asking.

In the case of consciousness, there are many things we don't know, such as:

1: Can we rigorously draw... (read more)

Since GR is essentially a description of the behaviour of spacetime, it isn't GR's job to explain why spacetime exists. More generally, it isn't the job of any theory to explain why that theory is true; it is the job of the theory to be true. Nobody expects [theory X] to include a term that describes the probability of the truth of [theory X], so lacking this property does not deduct points.

There may be a deeper theory that will describe the conditions under which spacetime will or will not exist, and give recipes for cooking up spacetimes with various pro... (read more)

Yes, I agree! Along the same lines, it is not the role of any theory of consciousness to explain why the subjective experience of consciousness exists at all.

I am intrinsically contrarian.

Is this a reason, or a bias?

Climate scientists have never made a public falsifiable prediction.

How would you update your beliefs if you learned that this statement is false?

Oil is cleaner than coal, so if C02 emissions are restricted, the oil industry will probably benefit.

Would you therefore like to offer me the odds on a prediction that, if we investigated the funding sources of various pro- and anti- AGW campaigns and think tanks, we would find that oil companies are predominantly sponsoring pro-AGW think tanks and stronger emissions legislation?

A prior ;)

Good, I just wanted to be clear. In my experience that "alarmist" usually does strongly imply that the predictions of danger are unjustified, and that interpretation (which I presume most readers default to) risks changing the intended meaning of your statement that "climate scientists[...] are often quite alarmist."

Now that I re-read your top-level post knowing what you meant, I think I understand much better what you are saying.

By "alarmist", I meant making dire predictions, not sounding panicked when they do

If you don't mind, I would like to probe your usage of this term...

What distinction do you draw between "alarmist" and "alarming"?

If the hypothetical situation is such that the truth really is properly dire, are accurate reports of this dire truth best classified as "alarmist"?

How should you react when, one night in the laboratory, you make an alarming discovery with fairly high confidence? After having them independently verified, would you consider yourself an "alarmist" for reporting your own findings?

Maybe I should have avoided the term "alarmist" in that context, since it often implies unjustified predictions of danger, which I obviously did not mean to imply. I'm not interested in arguing over definitions.

Yes and I fully agree with you. I am just being pedantic about this point:

I can only update my beliefs based on the evidence I do have, not on the evidence I lack.

I agree with this philosophy, but my argument is that the following is evidence we do not have:

Due to Snowden and other leakers, we actually know what NSA's cutting-edge strategies involve[...]

Since I have little confidence that, if the NSA had advanced tech, Snowden would have disclosed it; the absence of this evidence should be treated as quite weak evidence of absence and therefore I w... (read more)

I do think you're probably right, and I fully agree about the space lasers and their solid diamond heatsinks being categorically different than a crypto wizard who subsists on oatmeal in the Siberian wilderness on pennies of income. So I am somewhat skeptical of CivilianSvendsen's claim.

But, for the sake of completeness, did Snowden leak the entirety of the NSA's secrets? Or just the secret-court-surveillance-conspiracy ones that he felt were violating the constitutional rights of Americans? As far as I can tell (though I haven't followed the story recentl... (read more)

Right, what you are saying makes some intuitive sense, but I can only update my beliefs based on the evidence I do have, not on the evidence I lack. In addition, as far as I can tell, cryptography relies much more heavily on innovation than on feats of expensive engineering; and innovation is hard to pull off while working by yourself inside of a secret bunker. To be sure, some very successful technologies were developed exactly this way: the Manhattan project, the early space program and especially the Moon landing, etc. However, these were all one-off, heavily focused projects that required an enormous amount of effort. When I think of the NSA, I don't think of the Manhattan project; instead, I see a giant quotidian bureaucracy. They do have a ton of money, but they don't quite have enough of it to hire every single credible crypto researcher in the world -- especially since many of them probably wouldn't work for the NSA at any price unless their families' lives were on the line. So, the NSA can't quite pull off the "community in a bottle" trick, which they'd need to stay one step ahead of all those Siberians.

I don't know much about the NSA, but FWIW, I used to harbour similar ideas about US military technology -- I didn't believe that it could be significantly ahead of commercially available / consumer-grade technology, because if the technological advances had already been discovered by somebody, then the intensity of the competition and the magnitude of the profit motive would lead it to quickly spread into general adoption. So I had figured that, in those areas where there is an obvious distinction between military and commercial grade technology, it would ... (read more)

I think there are some important differences between the NSA and the (rest of the) military. 1. Due to Snowden and other leakers, we actually know what NSA's cutting-edge strategies involve, and most (and probably all) of them are focused on corrupting the public's crypto, not on inventing better secret crypto. 2. Building a better algorithm is a lot cheaper than building a better orbital laser satellite (or whatever). The algorithm is just a piece of software. In order to develop and test it, you don't need physical raw materials, wind tunnels, launch vehicles, or anything else. You just need a computer, and a community of smart people who build upon each other's ideas. Now, granted, the NSA can afford to build much bigger data centers than anyone else -- but that's a quantitative advance, not a qualitative one. Now, granted, I can't prove that the NSA doesn't have some sort of secret uber-crypto that no one knows about. However, I also can't prove that the NSA doesn't have an alien spacecraft somewhere in Area 52. Until there's some evidence to the contrary, I'm not prepared to assign a high probability to either proposition.

I think that a 'reductive' explanation of quantum mechanics might not be as appealing as it seems to you.

Those fluid mechanics experiments are brilliant, and I'm deeply impressed by them for coming up with them, let alone putting it into practice! However, I don't find it especially convincing as a model of subatomic reality. Just like the case with early 20th-century analog computers, with a little ingenuity it's almost always possible to build a (classical) mechanism that will obey the same math as almost any desired system.

Definitely, to the point that ... (read more)

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