Zac Hatfield Dodds

Researcher #3ainstitute, interdisciplinary, interested in everything; ongoing PhD in CS (learning/testing/verification), open sourcerer, more at


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Covid 4/15: Are We Seriously Doing This Again

I don't think we're actually disagreeing much about outcomes (which I agree have been great!), or even that Australia has competently executed at least enough of the important things to get right. Of the five items you mention I'd include borders, quarantine, snap-lockdowns, and testing as part of the local elimination policy; we haven't done them perfectly but we have done them well enough.

I understand "using good epistemics to make decisions" to require that your decisions should be made based on a coherent understanding and cost-benefit analysis of the situation, even if both might change over time. "Merely" getting good outcomes doesn't count!

For example, we still encourage pointless handwashing and distancing while iffy on masks or ventilation - and because we got to zero transmission in other ways, that's OK. Similarly, it's true that Australia's slow vaccine rollout hasn't cost many lives so far and I hope that neither winter nor variants change that. The cost-in-expectation of an unlikely outbreak should still drive faster vaccination efforts IMO, especially from resources that can't be used elsewhere.

Are there opportunities for small investors unavailable to big ones?

Some factors which I think are both important and missing from your model:

  • Risk. You probably cannot convince me that, in a liquid market, your outperforming trading strategy does not round to "picking up pennies in front of a steamroller".
  • Availability of capital. If you have to lock up $10K for a year per 20-hours-of-research deal, you're probably more constrained by money than time.
  • Opportunity costs. If you have sufficient quant and business skills to make money trading, you can probably make more working somewhere and investing the proceeds in index funds.
  • Transaction costs, taxes, etc.
Are there opportunities for small investors unavailable to big ones?

On the other hand, there's some suggestive evidence that seed-stage returns have a power-law distribution with - implying that the best strategy is to filter out the obvious duds and then invest in literally everything else.

Covid 4/15: Are We Seriously Doing This Again

Worldwide demand should be easily big enough to justify [subcontracting manufacturing]

If it was legal to sell vaccines for the market price, or anywhere near their actual value, of course. Thanks to monopsony purchasers (i.e. irrationally cheap governments), we instead see massive underproduction.

Covid 4/15: Are We Seriously Doing This Again

The hypothesis that Australia succeeded because it was using good epistemics to make decisions is not holding up well in the endgame.

From Australia, this hypothesis was only ever plausible if you looked at high-level outcomes rather than the actual decision-making.

We got basically one thing right: pursue local elimination. Without going into details, this only happened because the Victorian state government unilaterally held their hard lockdown all the way back to nothing-for-two-weeks, ending our winter second wave. Doing so created both a status quo and (having paid higher-than-if-faster costs) a very strong constituency for elimination.

Victoria remains the only area with non-neglibible masking. Nationwide, we continue to make expensive and obvious mistakes about handwashing, distancing, quarantine, and appear to be bungling our vaccine rollout.

Zero active cases and zero local transmission covers a multitude of sins. I attribute the result as much to good luck as epistemic skill, and am very glad that COVID is not such a hard problem that we can't afford mistakes.

Raemon's Shortform

Important for what? Best for what?

In a given (sub)field, the highest-cited papers tend to be those which introduced or substantially improved on a key idea/result/concept; so they're important in that sense. If you're looking for the best introduction though that will often be a textbook, and there might be important caveats or limitations in a later and less-cited paper.

I've also had a problem where a few highly cited papers propose $approach, many papers apply or puport to extend it, and then eventually someone does a well-powered study checking whether $approach actually works. Either way that's an important paper, but they tend to be under-cited either because either the results are "obvious" (and usually a small effect) or the field of $approach studies shrinks considerably.

It's an extremely goodhartable metric but perhaps the best we have for papers; for authors I tend to ask "does this person have good taste in problems (important+tractable), and are their methods appropriate to the task?".

What weird beliefs do you have?

Excellent question!

I'm not personally concerned about what Bostrom called 'risks of irrationality and error' or 'risks to valuable states and activities'. There are costs of rationality though, where knowing just a little can expose you to harms that you're not yet equipped to handle (classic examples: scope sensitivity, demandingness, death). This rounds to common sense - 'be sensitive about when/whether/how to discuss upsetting topics'.

Mostly though, I'm inclined to keep quiet about data, idea, and attention hazards where my teenage self might have wanted to share interesting ideas like the antibiotic-gradient trick, at least without some benefit beyond having a fun discussion. Threat models for election security, yes - there's a clear public interest in everyone understanding the tradeoffs involved in paper vs electronic ballots, or remote vs polling-place voting. Ideas for asymmetric warfare, not so much.

What weird beliefs do you have?

At a more concrete level, I've spent the last ~14 months holding strong and unusual views on most pandemic-related matters, though I don't think any of them would raise eyebrows on LessWrong. A minority are probably now mainstream, the others - unfortunately - remain weird.

What weird beliefs do you have?

Taking information hazards seriously.

This can range from the benign (is it a good idea to post very weird beliefs here?) to the more worrying (plausible attacks on $insert_important_system_here), and upwards.

Ben Goertzel's "Kinds of Minds"


The entire project description is full of "we will", "we aim to", "we are creating"... without visible evidence that the project has actually made a novel technical thing, I tend to assume that it's just a cash grab using a pile of buzzwords.

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