Extinction risks

There are a lot of people worrying nowadays about the global energy crisis. Peak oil. The lack of alternative energies. The practicality of solar and hydroelectric and wind and the politics of actually getting it implemented. But why are comparatively few people concerned about the graver dangers facing humanity? Things like genetic engineering, which has the potential to allow a terrorist to create a supervirus, or nanotechnology, which could create something like a supervirus, only that acts much quicker and affects all life instead of just a few species (including humans). You would think people would be worried about this. Well, you would think that if you thought that people were rational. But they’re not, not, not, not. The field of heuristics and biases tells us that humans make scads of different errors, in predictable ways, when we do reasoning. The paper I link, by Eliezer Yudkowsky, gives a great overview, with a specific eye as to how they affect evaluations of global risks.

His next paper (to be published in the same book), deals with another specific threat facing humanity. That is, the creation of a smarter-than-human intelligence. A smarter-than-human intelligence is not simply an intelligence with a very large IQ. You see, IQ (as far is it really does measure general intellectual ability) covers the infinitismal range of intelligence from dumb human to smart human. That complete range, compared to the range from no intelligence to human intelligence, is an extremely tiny dot. And when we sucessfully program an AI, it starts out with no intelligence, and quickly travels along the line until it reaches human intelligence. Is there any reason it should stop there? No, if it gets to human intelligence in the first place, it’s quickly going to go far, far past that. (That’s even besides recursive self-improvement.)

Anyway, that’s just a small taste of the article. He has another great piece of writing here. What is truth?

More commenting

An Unfogged thread about astrology, religion, and rationality in which I argue that theism can be disproven and is irrational, and make other comments about the psychology of rationality. And pink elephants. ATM.

Baby naming

Wow, this is a really interesting resource, for parents and writers. It confirms that it’s really possible to place many people into an age group by their first name, which is something you hardly ever think about. But people tend to be really good at abstracting stereotypes based on visible qualities, and stereotyping someone’s age from their name is one example of that.

My name is the second most common for my decade. First is Michael, third is Matthew. It’s funny how so many people think they’re naming their kid something unusual, only for it to be in the top ten.

What I’ve been up to

I’ve been quiet on the blog. Stuff going on in real life, unfortunately. Also, spending a lot of time improving my dynamic compression plugin. Thankfully, the problem hasn’t been a lock of focus.

I’ve found my meds have made sleep a bit more difficult, and I’ve been a bit more anxious. But I really feel improved on them.

I’ll finish my changes to the plugin and maybe start blogging more in a few days.

Also, I’m moving from Mt. Pleasant to Austin. That will be a nice change.

Oh, yes. In the meantime here’s a kind of interesting thread I’ve been commenting on. I talk about masculinity and femininity, how society defines them, how I define them, and how people relate to them.

Just a dollar

Theoretically, money is the same thing as “value”. Some generic entity that can be transferred, in continuous quantities, between people. An entity that people are concerned with maintaining a rough balance, or even inflow, of.

In reality, when people do valuable things for each other, the context (whether it’s a business transaction) is very important in determining whether money can be exchanged for it. Non business transactions can be very much transactions, in the full sense that business transactions are. For instance, if you’re dating some guy, starting out expecting to spend some X number of hours a week together (determined implicitly and approximately, of course,) and he starts to blow you off, the reason you’re mad at him is because he violated an implicit contract, which is, in a restricted yet practical sense, the same kind of contract as any business contract. If you marry a guy on the expectation that he’s going to be an active parent, and then he turns out to be more interested in his career or his pub, then you’re going to be mad because he violated a contract.

In fact, these implicit contracts can really pop up all the time. If you bake some sort of dessert for an acquaintance, accepting it is going to indebt them to you, in your and their own minds, to at least maintain a certain level of friendliness and interest in your life until that debt is repaid. Now, people never put it in these terms, and rarely think about it in these terms, but the terms actually describe pretty well what goes on in these situations. People get offended if you don’t reciprocate a certain level of conversational interest in their life.

Even in charity situations, this analysis holds a good deal of insight. If it’s a church giving assistence to some person in difficult circumstances, the expected form of payment is in either fulfilling the church member’s religious obligations (which itself is seen as a sort of debt, to God), or perhaps an expectation that the assisted will renew their own faith/efforts in piety. In secular charities, often the idea is that the assisted have been taken from unjustly by society (or at least have had particularly bad luck), and so society as a whole owes them a debt, which the charity aims to partially repay to the assisted.

So why does it seem so weird-funny to put things in these terms? Why is money not used as generic “value”? I really can’t offer a well-reasoned explanation, but I imagine the answer lies in the direction of the association of greediness and cutthroat competetiveness with money, as well as problems with the real incompatibility of negotiation with geniality. Disagreements about the value of some favor could leave a bad taste in a person’s mouth that could be avoided by sticking to less tangible forms of repayment. Also, with the inefficiency (time consuming—annoying) of the overhead of that negotiation when value transfers are small and frequent. (As in blog commenting.) Also, such negotiations, when undertaken beforehand, would really interfere with the spontaneity of whatever favor is being made. Also, people exchange value in myriad ways not commonly recognized by money, and even just being aware of all the ways in which one exchanges value is a pretty tall order.

So there are issues that make actually putting a dollar value on many types of things impractical. And thus, they are never done. Then social expectations around the proper role of money form, and money comes to be associated with certain negative things, and eventually attempting to pay someone for a behavior comes to be viewed as an insult. After all, money is something you give to people who do things for you, so that you don’t have to get to know them. So giving money to someone you know could be seen as a message that you don’t really want to know them anymore! Seems like a pretty natural process.

So what is it that gets exchanged instead? Expectation of reciprocity. Expectation of religious or karmic reciprocity. Duty to religion, or society. (Those last two can be similar sometimes.) Social approval and popularity. Time, attention, interest, transportation, paying for food and entertainment, gifts, extra physical sexual or non-sexual intimacy, extra friendliness, smiles, kind words/recommendations, praise, sharing of duties.

These are all things that probably have a dollar value. People keep scores in their heads. (Not in terms of dollars, of course, and very fuzzy scores, but still.) But they do have a big advantage over money. They’re much easier to work with. The transaction costs are a lot smaller. Especially given how we’ve probably evolved to keep very good track of a lot of these things. It’s one of the things humans are good at. So it makes a lot of sense to take advantage of our built-in accounting circuits.

But hard money has advantages, too. It (generally) ensures that the two people are on the same page about they each value of the thing in question. (Since people value money differently, it doesn’t ensure that they’ll understand exactly.) It has much wider currency. And it often allows for a more objective, impartial resolution of disputes about contract violations.

So are there any situations where the advantages of money would be really useful, but where money doesn’t get used because it’s just not occurred to anyone, or the idea seems inappropriate? Dunno. Might make another post on it.

My take on the singularity

You can add two numbers together. Adding bigger numbers results in bigger sums. Adding more numbers results in bigger sums. But when you generalize the process, to multiplication, you now have the ability to succinctly represent huge numbers, much more easily than with addition. Multiplication can be generalized, to exponentiation, and exponentiation can be generalized as well. Even the processing of creating new generalizations can be generalized.

A generalization is like a paradigm shift. In the history of the universe, human language, especially the written word, was a paradigm shift, from unintelligent directed processes evolving complexity, to directed intelligence creating complexity. The next paradigm shift is with directed intelligence creating intelligence, and it’s just as large as the previous one. Much bigger than the printing press. Much bigger than the industrial revolution.

I don’t think any arguments about the “rate of change” really hold water, because a paradigm shift causes a discontinuity in many trends. At best, rate of change arguments can show how specific technologies that will help us understand the nature of intelligence, and eventually to recreate it, are being developed at a rate to where by year X we will have Y resources available to throw at the problem of intelligence.

So, is it possible to create intelligence? Yes. It logically follows from naturalism. Evolution created intelligence, and intelligence is simply a computational process, (as every physical thing is,) so humans can create intelligence using any Turing complete machine, i.e. a sufficiently fast computer. The question of whether we will have the ability to create intelligence within the next twenty or two hundred years requires a lot more argument, but this is the starting point.

Classical music in your car

I’ve written a plugin, designed to be used with the free audio editor Audacity, that makes it easier to listen to classical music, or other music that has a wide range of volumes, at low volumes or in high noise conditions (such as in your car) so that you can still hear the soft parts.

For a long time now, I’ve listened to classical music less than I might like to. A lot of that is because listening to classical music is hard. You have to turn the volume up to hear the soft parts, and then either turn it down when it gets loud or have it be loud enough to be distracting (or painful). For instance, in the car, there’s a lot of noise from the road, so even at normal volumes it can be difficult to hear some of the soft parts. And some albums and songs are so quiet that many players can’t be turned up loud enough to hear the music, even in quiet conditions!

I’ve sort of put up with this problem for a long time, but it really hit home how inconvenient it is the other day when I was driving with some friends. I changed my mp3 player to some Debussy piano solos (from his Children’s Corner suite, really nice stuff) and tried to play some of it for them. Well, it failed pretty miserably. It was so quiet, even with the volume all the way up, that you couldn’t even hear anything below a mezzo-piano, and the tape adapter was already so noisy (not to mention the harmonic distortion) that enjoying the music was basically impossible. And I realized: if only this music were as loud as normal music, they probably would have really liked the tracks. So the low volume of those songs actually turned two people off of classical music. What a shame!

Go to the project page.


I know it’s trite, but it’s about me, so deal. For some people, it’s hard to just hold on, to make ends meet. They have a lot of opportunities to make mistakes and those mistakes can cost them a lot. For more fortunate people, they often make the very same mistakes, but they get bailed out by supporting family, friends, etc. Too much of this is a bad thing, but too little is also a bad thing.

But some people, (perhaps often the more fortunate ones, I’m not sure,) seem to make a different mistake. An error of omission. An overly conservative and fearful approach to life. Not enough risk-taking. And avoiding all those mistakes are nice, but really. It’s too easy for many people, me included, to avoid all the good stuff too. You have top put yourself out there and really live sometimes. People thrive on adversity. Adversity is the only thing that gives meaning to life.

Now, I’m not saying I’m against welfare and safety nets and universal healthcare. The adversity of cancer is something no one needs to deal with. Adversity isn’t something society needs to introduce so that people have something to overcome. It’s something both society and people need to overcome. And when it is overcome, people find new adversity to create for themselves. They seek out challenges, and they go experience more things.

Some people are lucky. Situated comfortably. No real adversity to face. No real challenges. And some of those people are afraid of adversity. They run from it. And that is dull, and boring, and pathetic. Depressing. If you’re situated comfortably, you’re not trying hard enough. You need to aim higher, put more at stake. Because that’s what makes human beings happy. Happiness is about pain. Life is about pain.

Life and Mushrooms

Isn’t life wonderful?

Forming impressions

It seems like the kind of people that usually go to hostile forums tend to have above average debate skills. Thus, they tend to form a low opinion of the debate skills (and thus general intelligence) of the other people in those forums, since those people will have average skills. Now, people tend to overlook logical fallacies supporting positions they already hold (which they can often justify using better reasoning), so they’ll also tend to overestimate the debate skills of people whose conclusions they share. Now, people who don’t go to hostile forums will tend to pick up a lot of their opinion of “the other side” from the people who do, because they don’t have any direct experience with the other side, but they do have exposure to the contrarians’ opinions of the other side.

Oh, look! Polarization! Insularity! Woah, where did that come from?