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New Year's Meme, 2013-2014 [Dec. 31st, 2013|10:06 pm]

It has been my tradition since the beginningless past, circa 2006, to complete the same New Years' meme each year, and so record my growth as a person or lack thereof as the case may be (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It is a tradition so strong it must defy even death, in this case the death of this LiveJournal (I'd feel silly posting it on my blog). So here goes:

End of Year MemeCollapse )
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Closed [Mar. 9th, 2013|05:51 pm]

This blog is now closed and locked.

Since part of the reason I closed it is to make myself less stalk-able, I'm not linking from here to the new blog. If you really want to know where it is, message or email me and I'll probably tell you.

If you really want to read something on here and you know me and there's a good reason to trust you, email me with your LJ username and I'll add you to the permissions.
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February meta-blogging [Feb. 5th, 2013|12:17 am]

I request advice.

Several people have suggested I move off LiveJournal because it has a negative prestige aura surrounding it and a lot of people are unwilling to read or link to LiveJournals.

Further, one of the interviewers at one of the hospitals I visited found my blog and told me that if I got hired it would be unacceptable to have a blog that was easily traceable back to my real name. Even if I never talked about medicine on it, it's still probably not a good idea to have patients know too much about my personal life. Also, if I expressed any controversial political opinions (me? controversial political opinions? really?) it might bring someone into disrepute or something, or even offend patients and destroy the therapeutic relationship.

I originally deliberately linked this blog and some of my other writings to my real name in order to bury Google evidence of certain stuff I did online when I was a dumb teenager, but that mission is pretty thorougly accomplished and now I agree with my interviewer that even if I don't get hired (cue serious of elaborate ritual hand gestures to ward off unthinkable misfortune) it is to my benefit to switch back to my normal totally un-Google-able pseudonym of Scott Alexander (well, actually just my first and middle name).

So things I need to know:

1. What blogging platforms are good? I've heard good things about Blogspot as easy to use and set up. Anyone have extremely strong feelings on this matter?

2. NAMES THAT ARE NOT HORRIBLE. This has always been my Achilles' heel and it continues to be so. alicorn24 suggests that blogs should be an anagram of one's name (hers is Hyaena Hell Infusion). A good blog-sounding anagram of "Scott Alexander" is Astral Codex Ten, and this is my current top contender for future blog name. If you don't like it, come up with a better one. Note: my habit of hating other people's ideas is still in force.

3. Are people going to keep reading this if it switches off of LiveJournal? If a lot of LiveJournalers say they would desert me once I live this bubble of easy syndication, I can always just get a different LiveJournal under a different name. Answer in the form of a poll:

Do you prefer this blog be on Livejournal or elsewhere?

I would prefer it be elsewhere
I don't care
I prefer it on LiveJournal
I would stop reading this blog if it were elsewhere
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A truly superlative link [Feb. 3rd, 2013|02:10 pm]

My top source for superbowl pictures and information continues to be thesuperbowl.reddit.com.
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Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns [Feb. 2nd, 2013|10:37 pm]
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My review of The Great Stagnation provoked sufficient discussion of Kurzweil and whether his ideas made sense that a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) offered to do the research if I would write a post about him. This post is mostly zir research, which explains why it is unusually complete.

Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns is the opposite of the Great Stagnation theory. It says that instead of technological change gradually sputtering to a halt as all the interesting ideas are exhausted, technological change builds on technological change to produce even faster technological change. Some technologies allow other technologies, as the combustion engine allowed the airplane. Other times they make research itself more efficient, like computer-assisted design of new circuits. And other times they allow society to become richer and more populous, driving future growth.

Most people think of technological advance as linear; technology advanced a little bit in our parents' generation, it's advancing another little bit our generation, and it'll advance another little bit in our kids' generation. Kurzweil's ideas imply it's exponential; our generation will have more and more exciting advances than our parents', and our childrens' more still, until eventually things go crazy and we're having new world-shaking technologies every minute (this could either be a reductio ad absurdum, or an argument for a technological singularity).

One of his most common arguments is that the obvious and basic insight that things happen slowly in geologic time, a little quicker in evolutionary time, quicker still in human time, and very quickly indeed in modern times is actually another way of saying there's exponential growth in novelty. One of his books includes this graph:

And despite agreeing with the basic insight, I want to mention just how terrible this graph is.

The horizontal axis is time before present, a perfectly valid measure. But the vertical axis is "time to next event". This moves cherry-picking from a potentially annoying but nondisastrous error to the force driving the entire argument. That is, once you use "time to next event" as a measure, you can't just pick a couple of representative data points and let the human ability to draw lines through a scatter plot do the rest.

For example, suppose that instead of using "art, early cities" as a single invention, he had split it into "art" and "early cities", with Early Cities being invented a few hundred years after art. In that case, "early cities" would be quite near bottom of the graph, a huge deviation from the line. In fact, note that the closer together early cities and art are, the worse his graph looks, but that if he assumes they were simultaneous and lumps them together into a single "early cities, art" category, his graph looks perfect.

This is super sketchy.

But he has a response. In order to prove he's not just cherry-picking events to fit his theory, he does the same thing with lists of important events put together by other people, and comes up with the following more colorful plot:

The black diamond on the graph above, Modis, writes a paper critiquing Kurzweil's methodology here as well. In it he protests that only one of the data sets (Sagan's) covered and dated the entire range of events from Big Bang to present, and that in fact some of the data sets on there are based entirely off the other data sets yet presented as independent confirmation.

A more damning critique is that in many of these data sets, the whole point was to talk about things at specific intervals. One of them (Heidmann, the purple square) is from a book explaining scientific notation by listing important events that happened 10, 100, 1000, etc years ago, so of course those are going to follow exponential laws. Even when the bias wasn't that blatant, it may be that people want to seem "fair" by giving representative events from each "era" - a list of "cosmic events" that included ten different scientific discoveries from the twentieth century, plus the Cambrian explosion, would seem pretty non-cosmic.

Overall I think it's obviously true that if you define "technological advance" broadly enough, it happens more quickly in the 21st century than back in evolutionary times when it took ten million years to come up with a slightly different enzyme configuration, and most of these criticisms are haggling over exactly how neat the line is.

A Moore Objective Measure

Besides, there is a much more measurable, non-cherry-pickable area where Kurzweil seems to have an equally strong proof. This is Moore's Law, which gets formulated in a couple ways but is usually something along the lines of "the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years".

Different formulations of Moore's Law have different doubling periods and different accuracy levels, but they all seem to be pretty much on track. Here are graphs of transistor counts and PC hard drive capacity, respectively:

There are some physical limitations on whether Moore's Law can continue in its current form indefinitely, but it might be possible for paradigm-shifting technologies to continue to capture the "spirit" of the law. For example, a quantum computer might not literally have more transistors, but it might be able to do more efficient calculations as if it did. In this spirit, Kurzweil replaces very specific measures like "number of transistors" with his own "million instructions per second $1000" measure. Annnnd

This also looks pretty good, and his data have been mostly confirmed by various other sources. Although there's some confusion about the measures used, most sources agree that MIPS is likely if anything to understate growth, and that if anything the trend is better than exponential.

"Information Technology"

You can generalize Moore's Law to lots of different aspects of electronics, from number of pixels on an average camera to capacity of optical fibers. Kurzweil wants to take it even further and say that exponential growth applies to all "information technologies". He believes that "information technologies" will eventually include all technologies even tangentially associated with data, which causes him to include for example medicine:
"Drugs are essentially an information technology, and we see the same doubling of price-performance each year as we do with other forms of information technology such as computers, communications, and DNA base-pair sequencing. AIDS drugs started out not working very well and costing tens of thousands of dollars per patient per year. Today these drugs work reasonably well and are approaching one hundred dollars per patient per year in poor countries such as those in Africa."

This does not really seem to mesh with what anyone else believes is happening in medicine right now. AIDS is sort of a huge exception in terms of being one of the biggest medical success stories of recent decades, and even AIDS drugs are not doing as well as he thinks. According to the WHO, the median treatment cost per year for AIDS drugs declined from $245 in 2003 to $140 in 2006 to $107 in 2009, and in the last three years has declined only slightly, to $93 in 2012. To fit Kurzweil’s prediction, there would need to have been a more than 30-fold increase in the effectiveness of AIDS drugs in the last six years (it’s not even clear what that would mean, given that by 2006 the drugs had long been effective enough to keep AIDS from being a death sentence for those who could afford them). And the declining price of AIDS drugs has had at least as much to do with successfully getting Third World countries exemptions from patent laws than with any tech increase.

MRI is also kind of like this. A paper by Sandberg and Bostrom claims that it's "impossible" to get a resolution better than about 8 micrometers unless you want to make people sit in an MRI machine for thirty hours. And in fact there has not been significant progress in this field in the last ten years.

(this is also a good example of how Kurzweil's book can be misleading. This version of the graph removes a data point from a previous version in 2000 which was about the same level as the 2012 data point and would have made it clear that, contrary to how it looks now, MRI progress has in fact stopped.)

Software is another information technology that just isn't doing as well as predicted. Computer scientist Ernest Davis writes of AI research:
Moreover, the success rates for such AI tasks generally reach a plateau, often well below 100%, beyond which progress is extremely slow and dicult. Once such a plateau has been reached, an improvement of accuracy of 3% — e.g. from 60% to 62% accuracy — is noteworthy and requires months of labor, applying a half-dozen new machine learning techniques to some vast new data set, and using immense amounts of computational resources. An improvement of 5% is remarkable, and an improvement of 10% is spectacular.

In a lot of these types of fields (machine translation is a similar one) it looks more like progress is approaching an asymptote than growing exponentially.

Stuart Armstrong did a pretty complete evaluation of some of Kurzweil's more specific predictions that can be found here


Overall the idea that there is more rapid change now than in deep geologic time seems correct, and although we can dispute particular data points there does seem to be something to the idea that the growth is exponential.

Moore's Law applies to various digital technologies, is at least exponential, and seems to still be in effect.

A lot of technologies are not growing exponentially, or started growing exponentially and then plateaued.

In general it does seem like in the best case technology can grow exponentially, and that an outside view that it will keep doing so can trump an inside view telling us that come on, computers can never have an entire ten megabytes of memory, that would be ridiculous. But it also seems that there is no hard-and-fast rule that all technologies will always grow exponentially and never plateau. I'm disappointed how little research there is in quantifying medical technology growth as that seems to be one area that a lot of people think is plateauing.

If I had to take one lesson from Kurzweil, it would be that once again, the absurdity heuristic doesn't work. Exponential growth can go on a lot longer and change things a lot more radically than someone who believes in linear growth would think remotely possible. But I don't think it would be a good idea to count on it.
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The Bostromian argument for a Peggy Sue timeline [Feb. 1st, 2013|08:41 pm]
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The Bostromian argument for a Peggy-Sue timeline
1. Most timelines contain the potential for enough technology or magic to allow someone to go back in time to fix the mistakes of the present [source: anime and fanfiction]
2. Most times people try this, they will only mess things up worse, sometimes requiring hundreds or even thousands of timelines before they complete their mission [source: ibid]
3. Therefore, the "original" timeline will spin off hundreds or thousands of Peggy Sue timelines, each with about the same population as the original.
4. The vast majority of person-instances will therefore be living in Peggy Sue timelines, rather than the original timeline.
5. Anyone without any special information on whether they are on an original timeline or a Peggy Sue timeline should conclude through anthropic reasoning that they are probably living in a Peggy Sue timeline.

The anti-simulationist corollary
1. Most simulations will not allow separate Peggy Sue timelines, since they require immense computational resources (and in cases where each Peggy Sue timeline allows other characters to spin off their own Peggy Sue timelines, potentially infinite computational resources before resolving).
2. Most Peggy Sue timelines will not allow simulations, as this will mean millions of suffering people being kept deluded, and any true hero or heroine would go back in time to prevent them from being formed.
3. Therefore, Peggy Sue timelines and simulated universes are mostly mutually exclusive.
4. There are few good reasons to run ancestor simulations, but many good reasons to go back in time to fix your past mistakes.
5. The number of simulations is limited by available computing power in the lowest-level universe, but the number of Peggy Sue timelines is limited only by the plucky determination of anime heroines to never lose hope, no matter how dark the path or many failures they have suffered.
6. Therefore, there are more Peggy Sue timelines than simulations.
7. Therefore, you are probably not living in a simulation.
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An analysis of the formalist account of power relations in democratic societies [Jan. 31st, 2013|07:12 am]
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[Epistemic Status | Sooooorta re-inventing the wheel here. Nevertheless, I feel I deserve tenure at a major university for managing to write an essay with this title. Somebody please make this happen.]

If Donald Trump and Rebecca Black got in a bar fight, who would win?

(Don't just answer "society". This is a serious question which will illuminate structures of dominance in modern culture.)

In the short-term, Donald Trump would easily beat up Rebecca Black. He's bigger, manlier, and it should be pretty easy for him to overpower a teenage girl.

In the medium-term, the ensuing media circus would be entirely in Rebecca's favor. No matter who started the fight or how justified their casus belli, the media would portray it as "Donald Trump beats up a little girl". The media optimizes for outrage, and "arrogant billionaire beats up poor sympathetic teenage girl" is more outrageous than "Poor sympathetic teenage girl rabidly attacks arrogant billionaire". Besides, Trump is a confirmed Person Whom It Is Fun To Dislike, and it seems very unlikely that a media mogul would receive angry self-righteous letters to the editor for picking on him. Rebecca could basically walk into a bar where Donald is drinking quietly, smash a chair over his head for no reason, and the media would still find a way to make sure it ended with him coming under irresistable pressure to apologize to her on national TV.

In the long-term, the media circus would die down. Trump would still live in a gigantic mansion from which he controls large parts of the world economy, and Rebecca Black would still be a B- or C- list celebrity desperately trying to avoid having everyone forget her.

So which of the two of them has more power?

If I correctly understand Mencius Moldbug, which is always a big 'if', I think he is arguing that the title goes uncontroversially to Ms. Black. From Unqualified Reservations:
"The truth is that the weapons of 'activism' are not weapons which the weak can use against the strong. They are weapons the strong can use against the weak. When the weak try to use them against the strong, the outcome is... well... suicidal.

Who was stronger - Dr. King, or Bull Connor? Well, we have a pretty good test for who was stronger. Who won? In the real story, overdogs win. Who had the full force of the world's strongest government on his side? Who had a small-town police force staffed with backward hicks? In the real story, overdogs win.

'Civil disobedience' is no more than a way for the overdog to say to the underdog: I am so strong that you cannot enforce your 'laws' upon me. I am strong and might makes right - I give you the law, not you me. Don't think the losing party in this conflict didn't try its own 'civil disobedience.' And even its own 'active measures.' Which availed them - what? Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi.

In the real world in which we live, the weak had better know their own weakness. If they would gather their strength, do it! But without fighting, even 'civil disobedience.' To break a law is to fight. Those who fight had better be strong. Those who are not strong, had better not fight.

And this is how Chomskyism killed Aaron Swartz and may yet get its hands on a similar figure, Julian Assange. You know, when I read that Assange had his hands on a huge dump of DoD and State documents, I figured we would never see those cables. Sure enough, the first thing he released was some DoD material.

Why? Well, obviously, Assange knew the score. He knew that Arlington is weak and Georgetown is strong. He knew that he could tweak Arlington's nose all day long and party on it, making big friends in high society, and no one would even think about reaching out and touching him. Or so I thought.

In fact, my cynicism was unjustified. In fact, Assange turned out to be a true believer, not a canny schemer. He was not content to wield his sword against the usual devils of the Chomsky narrative. Oh no, the poor fscker believed that he was actually there to take on the actual powers that be. Who are actually, of course, unlike the cartoon villains... strong. If he didn't know that... he knows it now!

Better to be a live dog than a dead hero. But had Aaron Swartz plugged his laptop into the Exxon internal network and downloaded everything Beelzebub knows about fracking, he would be a live hero to this day. Why? Because no ambitious Federal prosecutor in the 21st century would see a route to career success through hounding some activist at Exxon's behest. Your prosecutor would have to actually believe he was living in the Chomsky world. Which he can't, because that narrative is completely inconsistent with the real world he goes to work in every day."

I can think of at least two different problems with this passage.

The first is that it's outright false. Moldbug later uses the example of pro-lifers protesting abortion as an example of an unsympathetic and genuinely powerless cause. Yet as far as I can tell abortion protesters and Exxon Mobile protesters are treated more or less the same. In both cases, polite protesters who stick to the law are allowed to keep doing their thing, or occasionally get arrested and then immediately released, but those who actually hurt people or damage property are punished.

The second is that, even if it were true, it would be taking an overly simplistic view of "real power". Moldbug says we can determine the real power based on who wins. But what kind of winning? There are kinds of winning where you beat someone in a bar fight. There's the kind of winning where you get such overwhelming support of public opinion you can force them to apologize to you on TV. And there's the kind of winning where you go home to Trump Tower at night.

Suppose Rebecca Black starts a barfight with Donald Trump, the media spins it as sympathetic to Black and excuses her actions, and Trump ends up with egg on his face. Does that make Black more powerful than Trump?

Or to put it another way, suppose I throw my shoe at the President, and everyone is sympathetic to me, and the President suggests not pressing charges in order to look merciful, and the government is under lots of political pressure to pardon me. Does this make me more powerful than the President?

Or to put it another way, suppose I am a liberal activist lobbyist who says lots of mean things about ExxonMobil is and is a constant thorn in their side. I spend my entire life harassing them through bringing legal cases against them and convincing Congress to pass laws against them. I win all my legal cases, blocking some of their drilling, and Congress passes all the laws I want, raising their tax rate a little. Whenever ExxonMobil tries to condemn me in any way, there is a huge political outcry and they back off. Does this make me more powerful than ExxonMobil?

No. What I described would be pretty successful for a life of activism. But in the end, ExxonMobil is going to just drill somewhere else, and figure out some tax shelter policy that completely avoids whatever law I got Congress to pass against them. In the end, they will still be very rich and control the world economy, and I will probably get some award and feel good about myself but make zero difference. In the end, I'm the one winning the media circus, and they're the one going home to Trump Tower.

There are kinds of power where you lose every single fight you get into, maybe on purpose, and still end out more powerful than before, because the direction your power is growing is orthogonal to the direction people are fighting you in, or because the actual power structure is buried much too deeply for the theater of public relations to even notice. Indeed, this is the only kind of power worth having.

We will call this sort of gather-your-power-bit-by-bit-and-hide-it-places-no-one-knows sort of advantage that ExxonMobil and Donald Trump have structural power, and the sort of win-at-media-circuses-and-maybe-trials advantage that environmental activists and Rebecca Black have social power. An equally good term would be unconscious power and conscious power, because wherever anyone makes a conscious decision they will happily decide in favor of the environmentalists and Ms. Black, and it is only the unconscious non-decisions that skew the real world in favor of ExxonMobil and Mr. Trump.

Both Moldbug and liberal activists seem to understand this distinction sometimes, although other times they can be bizarrely pigheaded about conflating the two types of power. Moldbug's shtick as I interpret it claims that social power should be more in line with structural power. Liberal activists seem to think that structural power needs to change and social power can change it.

Taking Silver In The Oppression Olympics

Here is another of my favorite graphs

The solid gray line is white people rating how much discrimination they think there was against black people at different periods. The dashed gray line is white people rating how much discrimination they think there was against white people at different periods. We see that the average white believes that around the year 2000 there started to be more discrimination in America against white people than against black people.

If we extrapolate - which would be kind of irresponsible from this study as it is retrospective, but humor me - it looks like quite soon, and maybe even today since the graph is several years old, that the average white person will actually feel more discriminated against than the average black person does.

The people on the Reddit thread pretty much used this to conclude that white people are dumb and should never be allowed to talk about race.

I think that might be part of it but also that there is a more subtle problem. Social power is much easier to notice than structural power, especially if you're not the one on the wrong end of the structural power.

To give a very timely example, every February there's this boring low-level repetitive argument about "Why is there a Black History Month but not a White History Month?" "No, every month is White History Month, that's the whole reason a Black History Month is necessary." Even if the latter statement is true, it's a lot easier to notice that black people get an Officially Endorsed Month (social/conscious power) than that white people tend to come off better during the eleven theoretically neutral months (structural/unconscious power).

Or to give another example, there are Official Laws saying that women should be privileged over men in some sorts of employment and college admission determinations; anyone who claimed that men should be officially privileged over women by law in any field would be ostracized (social/conscious power). On the other hand, actual hiring decisions tend to favor men over women, and this is mediated by subconscious assessments of competence (structural/unconscious power).

As I said before, I bet I'm reinventing the wheel here and somebody else has come up with this idea long ago and given it a different name that I just don't recognize (it seems possible that "privilege" might just be a really horrible failed attempt at raising awareness of unconscious/structural power)

The Obvious Liberal and Conservative Responses

But even if this is well-trodden ground, I have yet to hear anyone on either side give their respective obvious responses.

The Obvious Liberal Response is this: We like claiming that activists and minorities are powerless and oppressed. And we can see why the fact that they really have all the social/conscious power could be jarring, and even upsetting to very literal-type people with unrealistically high expectations for how honest discourse is supposed to be.

But this doesn't make us wrong. Social/conscious power, in and of itself, is kind of a booby prize. Having a History Month dedicated to your race is not a terminal goal.

The things people actually care about, like money, success, influence, and psychological health, come entirely from structural/unconscious power. A city may spend your tax money on colorful "We Love Minorities And Want More Of Them" posters, but if the mayor and all five city councillors are straight white men, then not only are the straight white men not oppressed on net, but they're not even suffering in any discernible way at all.

The only point of having social/conscious power is to try to influence the distribution of structural/unconscious power. Social/conscious power is a lever that can be used to move structural/unconscious power.

So the goal in distributing social/conscious power isn't to give everyone an exactly equal amount, the way a nice but naive person might expect. The goal in distributing social/conscious power is to distribute it in whatever way causes everyone to end up with an equal amount of structural/unconscious power. Since straight white men continue to be winning the structural/unconscious power game, no matter how unfairly biased the social/conscious power is toward genderqueer minority women, it's obviously not biased enough.

If someone had told me this was the liberal argument ten years ago, it would have saved me a crazy amount of hand-wringing. But there's a missing conservative argument too, and that would be this:

Okay, we've been trying for let's say fifty years to use social/conscious power as a lever to move structural/unconscious power.

Just to use race as an example, fifty years ago, there were explicit laws keeping black people down, and scientific racists in universities were blithely speculating on the cranial capacity of "Negroids" without a second thought. Today, an impressive amount of the Western world's academic output by weight is now devoted to yelling about how much we hate racism and homophobia. We have successfully reached the point where a single ambiguously racist comment can bring down pretty much any politician in the country, and where people who use the word "fuck" like it's going out of style are terrified even to quote, let alone use, ethnic slurs. In terms of progress in deploying social power against racism, we have come pretty darned far.

Yet the black/white income gap, which is probably the best objective measure we have of structural/unconscious power, worse today than forty years ago when good records first started being kept. Fifty years of feminists telling people to rape less has resulted in a trend line for rape that looks exactly like that for every other violent crime. The biggest success of the anti-inequality movement, higher incomes for women, seems to be an economic transition that had only a little to do with any kind of a social justice movement (citation admittedly needed, but that'd be a whole post in itself).

So what if social/conscious power just isn't that good a lever? We know that in at least in a business environment,
promoting diversity has zero positive impact and in fact may just make people more racist. If this is true on a social level, it would fit nicely with the stagnant/disimproving structural/unconscious power situation despite the vastly improved social/conscious power situation.

This makes the last sentence of the liberal argument above sound suddenly terrifying. "Since straight white men continue to be winning the structural/unconscious power game, no matter how unfairly biased the social/conscious power is toward genderqueer minority women, it's obviously not biased enough." Although biasing the social/conscious power situation toward minority groups is not nearly as big a disaster as my conservative friends seem to think, I don't think it's completely effect-less either, especially if the results from the business case continue to apply and the more people talk about racism the more racist people become.

Combining the conservative contention "Giving more social/conscious power doesn't increase structural/unconscious power" with the liberal contention "We need to keep giving more social/conscious power until the structural/unconscious power increases to the right level" means that we will just end up giving infinite amounts of social/conscious power, to no positive effect. This, the conservative might argue, would at the very least be an inefficient use of resources, not to mention such an easy and attractive solution that it would prevent us from looking for things that do have an effect.

And Back To The Original Question

So I think the Moldbuggian paradigm of "groups with social/conscious power who appear to achieve easy victories in obvious social contexts are the overdog" is flawed. Activists and universities have lots of social/conscious power, but social/conscious power is the booby prize and even in cases where it looks like it has had an effect, it has very likely just happened to fortuitously coincide with social/technological forces that changed things at the same time [again, citation needed]. If correct this observation would make a lot of reactionary thought, which focuses on activists and universities and their ilk having too much power, kind of misguided.
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Probabilistic placebo: something that shouldn't work, but might [Jan. 29th, 2013|11:27 pm]
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[Epistemic Status | Speculation only. The data in all of these studies are too noisy and confusing for my liking, and I'm not even sure I'm interpreting them correctly, especially in the case of the last one.]

Here is a cute little graph that purports to be about the effect of nicotine patches on quitting smoking but is actually much more interesting:

The graph compares three different conditions from two different studies. In the first study, participants were randomized to either get a real nicotine patch or a fake (placebo) nicotine patch. As you can see, at 24 weeks 2.8% of people with the fake patch quit and 5.6% of people with the real patch did. Because there were a lot of people in the study, this was a significant result and provides evidence that nicotine patches really do help you quit smoking beyond just a placebo effect.

The last number is what happened to people who weren't in a placebo-controlled trial. They were told outright that they were definitely getting a real nicotine patch. 8.2% of them managed to stay off cigarettes. Note that this number is better than the people who got the real nicotine patch in the placebo-controlled study.

So it looks like even though the people getting that 5.6% number were getting real nicotine patches, the fact that they couldn't be sure it was real lowered the effectiveness of the patch a little below its effectiveness on the satisfied and confident people openly receiving the real patch.

Papakostas and Fava (2008) study this from a different and much cooler angle. They analyze like two hundred studies of antidepressants, a drug notorious for suffering from a very strong placebo effect. In particular, they're looking for studies with different numbers of active and passive "arms", which means their subjects have a different chance of receiving placebo.

They find that people getting real antidepressants do a little better than people getting placebos, which is what most people find. But they also find something much more interesting, which is that antidepressants do worse in proportion to how likely people think they are to be receiving a placebo. In studies where most people get the real drug, the drug is very slightly more effective than in studies where most patients know they'll probably be receiving placebo. Neater still, the same is true of placebo effects.

In the most drug-heavy studies, where people had a greater than 4/5 chance of getting the real thing, about 51% of people respond to drug and 38% to placebo. But in studies where people had a 1/2 chance of getting a placebo, suddenly only 49% of people respond to drug and 31% to placebo - a significant difference given the 36,000 patients they're looking at. The two authors regress their data and state that "For each 10% increase in the probability of receiving placebo [there will be] a 1.8% and 2.6% decrease in the probability of responding to antidepressants or placebo, respectively." The significance of the probability on the placebo effect, in particular, was less than .01.

So people not only change their drug responses based on knowing they're in a placebo-controlled trial, but also based on what their precise numerical probability of getting placebo is.

One could complain that researching depression is kind of like playing the "study the placebo effect" game on easy mode. And nobody lied to any of the participants in this study, stuck their bodies into gigantic high-tech machines, or pumped their blood full of radioactive chemicals, which means it barely qualifies as real science at all. Luckily, we have another experiment that solves all three of these defects.

Lidstone et al (2010) took some patients with Parkinson's Disease, which is associated with low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Then they told them they might give them medications that would raise their dopamine. In fact, they told the patients that they had a 25%, 50%, 75%, or 100% of receiving this medication; otherwise they would receive a placebo.

In fact this was all a total lie; everyone got the placebo. Then they pumped everyone's blood full of radioactive chemicals and stuck them into a PET scanner, which measured the amount of dopamine released in their brains. They found that the higher the probability of receiving real medication, the higher the amount of dopamine released (trend did not reach significance) except in the 100% case, where dopamine was lowest of all. These are pretty weird results.

The authors noted that along with being useful for motor activities and facial expression, the functions harmed in Parkinson's, dopamine is involved in risk and reward evaluation. So perhaps the experiment ended up measuring not just a probabilistic placebo effect on the release of dopamine, but the fact that the release of dopamine mediates the probabilistic placebo effect.

(fun fact: any paper on which you print the results section of this experiment spontaneously transforms into a Moebius strip)

So in retrospect that was probably the worst possible condition to to study probabilistic placebo effects on and I'm sorry I mentioned it. It may be the depression trial cited above is the only really solid work that has been done in this very interesting area.

This is probably good, because studies from boring foreign neuropsychopharmacology journals rarely make it to bioethicists, and the bioethicists must on no account be allowed to hear about this. Imagine if they realized that the possibility of receiving a placebo decreased the efficacy of an active treatment. Randomized controlled trials would be banned within a week.
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The long road home [Jan. 26th, 2013|10:32 pm]

I am back home at last.

Left New York early on the 24th. On the way to the airport, I had a taxi driver who might have been psychotic. It's hard to say. He was telling me how he wanted to leave New York, but the people here needed him, that he brought some kind of happiness wherever he went, just like a horse (?), and that I should believe in myself to achieve my dreams. He told me that now that I'd met him and absorbed his positive energy, I would be able to achieve all my dreams from now on. If this really ends up happening, I'm going to feel bad about only giving him a 20% tip.

I got on the plane to Salt Lake City, where I was going to connect to Oakland. I woke up to an announcement that the plane was beginning its final descent into Minneapolis. It was later explained to me that the flight was diverted because of bad weather. I sat in Minneapolis for about five hours before they found a plane to San Francisco to put me on.

Upon reaching San Francisco I was told my luggage would arrive the next night, into Oakland. I decided to log on the luggage-progress-site they gave me, only to find out that sometime during the flight the water bottle I had bought past the security checkpoint had leaked into my backpack and everything was moist, including my laptop.

I learned exactly twenty-four hours too late that if you take a moistened laptop to the computer repair store before turning it on, they can usually save it, but if you take it after turning it on it fries itself and there is no help for you. Exactly twenty-four hours before learning this, I turned on my laptop and it self-fried.

I tried to get a new laptop at the Staples in Berkeley, but they had such loud annoying music that I couldn't hear myself think and so couldn't trust myself to make a good choice. I went home intending to buy it on Amazon, but then I realized that would mean I would literally be up to three days without a laptop and this sent me into an existential panic. So instead I went to the inauspiciously named Fry's Electronics in Concord, read every single laptop review I could find on my phone, and picked the one with the highest rating and no obvious defects.

This might be a good point at which to mention that all laptops have names like "Sony Excita E4R3G1Q3-Q21V53" and that if you search "Sony Excita" it will be hopelessly vague and there will be 200 completely different models of laptop in the Excita series. But if you search "Sony Excita E4R3G1Q3-Q21V53" it will be so hopelessly specific that no one else has ever thought about that exact model of laptop before. To get the review you have to randomly try different string lengths until you find that "Sony Excita E4R3G" brings up reviews for the "Sony Excita E4R3G series of laptops". Did I mention that my phone requires you to switch modes when switching between typing letters and numbers?

After a long series of string-shortenings and mode-switchings I finally found a laptop with no obvious reported defects. Attempting to buy it triggered a long argument with my credit card company. This credit card company had found it totally okay that just a week earlier, I had bought expensive things in New York City, Salt Lake City, Boise, Seattle, and Boston literally on five consecutive days. But suddenly it is deeply suspicious that I was trying to buy a laptop from an electronics store twenty miles from my house. After giving them my previous few addresses and letting them call my mother, they grudgingly admitted that purchasing goods and services was not technically an illegal use of a credit card, and I was allowed to buy a brand new No-Obvious-Reported-Defects-According-To-The-Internet computer.

I brought it home and it immediately started making clicking sounds. Those of you who know me know that unexpected small sounds drive me nuts to the point where I have switched residences just to decrease them slightly and I force everyone around me to mute their computers. So I look this up on the Lenovo Solution Center site and thank goodness, I immediately get a page about Hard Drive Clicking Sound.

And I give the link to that page to prove that I am totally not joking when I list Lenovo's helpful troubleshooting advice:
Solution: None. This is not a problem.


So now I'm either going to have to return it (with nothing to go on except an Officially Confirmed Non-Problem) or learn to live with it. Since the former option once again runs the very real risk of having to be without a computer for several days, I'm trying to live with it, which if it works might helpfully falsify my implausible hypothesis that I was somehow born without a noise habituation response.

I've been spending the last day trying to make Windows 8 look like anything except Windows 8. I found a cute program called Classic Shell which does most of the work for me, and beyond that I just have to get rid of all their "apps" (DEAR MICROSOFT: A COMPUTER IS NOT A CELL PHONE).

On Monday I go to the Data Recovery place to see if they have managed to recover my data. I was pretty good about backups and the only thing I risk losing besides a few lists and downloads is the new Dungeons and Discourse. I'm hoping even if I lose that enough of the thinking-work has been done that reconstructing the writing work won't be too painful.

But beyond that, I think I have solved the immediate crisis. My luggage made it safely to Oakland. The mighty civilization of cardboard boxes that takes over large portions of my house whenever I am gone has had its power broken and been consigned to the recycling bin of history (also to the literal recycling bin). My earplugs block out the clicking. And if I squint really hard at my computer I can pretend it is Windows 7. I think I can start to relax now.

And so at long last and after much yearning I am back in Berkeley. Everyone whom I said I couldn't do things for because I was traveling, ask me again and this time I will give you a different excuse.
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Postcynicism is the new idealism [Jan. 22nd, 2013|11:18 pm]
[Epistemic Status | This article is brought to you by the just world fallacy.]

IDEALISM: The TSA protects us from dangerous terrorists. And that's great!

CYNICISM: The TSA is just "security theater", designed to make people feel better and totally ineffective at anything beyond that. And that's an outrage!

POSTCYNICISM: The TSA is just "security theater", designed to make people feel better. And it's so effective that the American people, not a people known for their reluctance to have stupid panics that ruin everything, are still totally on board with being hurled through the sky in rickety metal boxes that known scary people are definitely trying to blow up. This allows the airlines to continue operating the wide variety of cheap plane flights vital both to national industry and to the convenience of the ordinary American. And that's great!

* * *

IDEALISM: Prozac cures my depression. And that's great!

CYNICISM: Antidepressants are probably no better than placebo in most (although not all) of the cases in which they are prescribed. Yet we continue to prescribe them anyway. And that's an outrage!

POSTCYNICISM: Antidepressants are probably no better than placebo in most (although not all) of the cases in which they are prescribed. By which we mean "Like placebo, they are very very effective, because psychiatric conditions are unusually susceptible to placebo effect". Attempts to prescribe traditional sugar pill placebo would collapse as soon as news of the deception got out and so be worthless. Antidepressants provide a plausibly deniable alternative so convincing that not even the researchers who study them are really sure whether they're placebo or not; this allows millions of people to be safely and effectively treated. And that's great!

* * *

IDEALISM: My political party represents me! And that's great!

CYNICISM: This country isn't a true democracy. Parties ignore the people and mostly just listen to elites and established interest groups. And that's an outrage!

POSTCYNICISM: This country isn't a true democracy. Parties ignore the people and mostly just listen to elites and established interest groups. And thank God, considering how over half the people believe evolution is a lie and mostly just vote for whoever has the nicer haircut and will cut taxes/increase spending the most. Elites and established interest groups may be kinda evil, but at least they have a vested interest in making the economy not explode too catastrophically, and they don't let creationism get taught in schools because that would be embarrassing. And that's great!

* * *

IDEALISM: Jesus loves me! And that's great!

CYNICISM: Religion is just a stupid crutch intended to make people feel better and give them a sense of belonging. And that's an outrage!

POSTCYNICISM: Religion is just a stupid crutch intended to make people feel better. And it works so well that the religious have higher self-reported life satisfaction, longer lives with less disease, less psychopathology, and more friends. And that's great!

* * *

IDEALISM: My candidate stands for real values, unlike that awful other guy. And that's great!

CYNICISM: Both candidates are pretty much the same; elections never offer any real choice. And that's an outrage!

POSTCYNICISM: Both candidates are pretty much the same. This is exactly what the median voter theorem would predict if both candidates are trying to optimize to match the prevailing opinions of the American people as closely as possible. This proves that the system has done its work even before the final choice between the last two people, and that whoever is elected will agree the values of the majority of Americans. And that's great!

* * *

IDEALISM: I learn lots of useful things in school. And that's great!

CYNICISM: School teaches primarily how to do repetitive tasks even when you don't want to, and to trust other people's opinions rather than thinking for yourself. And that's an outrage!

POSTCYNICISM: School teaches primarily how to do repetitive tasks even when you don't want to, and to trust other people's opinions rather than thinking for yourself. But consciousness at unpleasant tasks is a heck of a lot more important to know than the capital of Bulgaria, and trusting establishment professionals is usually the right choice for most people and something many people are very bad at. Our children get a head start on both of these vital skills. And that's great!
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