Human progress before the industrial revolution

Despite its prominence in Malthus’s and Cook’s work, social scientists interested in long-term economic history regularly ignore the food/nonfood calories distinction and, focusing solely on food, conclude that between the invention of agriculture more than ten thousand years ago and the industrial revolution two hundred years ago not very much happened. In one of the most widely cited recent discussions, the economic historian Gregory Clark explicitly suggested that “the average person in the world of 1800 [CE] was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC.”

But this is mistaken. As Malthus recognized, if good weather or advances in technology or organization raised food output, population did tend to expand to consume the surplus, forcing people to consume fewer and cheaper food calories; but despite the downward pressure on per capita food supply, increases in nonfood energy capture have, in the long run, steadily accumulated throughout Holocene times.

Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilization

January 2015 links

Supposedly “smart” characters (e.g. scientists) are, in movies, almost universally stupid. I assume this is true for novels as well. Thankfully Yudkowsky of HPMoR has now explained How to Write Intelligent Characters. I’m sure aspiring screenwriters will now rush to read this immediately after they finish Save the Cat.

What are philanthropic foundations for? Rob Reich, Tyler Cowen, Paul Brest and others debate.

The Scientist lists the “top 10″ science retractions of 2014.


AI stuff

FLI has published an open letter called “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence,” which says that AI progress is now quite steady or even rapid, that the societal impacts will be huge, and that therefore we need more research on how to reap AI’s benefits while avoiding its pitfalls.

Signatories include top academic AI scientists (Stuart Russell, Geoff Hinton, Tom Mitchell, Eric Horvitz, Tom Dietterich, Bart Selman, Moshe Vardi, etc.), top industry AI scientists (Peter Norvig, Yann LeCun, DeepMind’s founders, Vicarious’ founders), technology leaders (Elon Musk, Jaan Tallinn), and many others you’ve probably heard of (Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Joshua Greene, Sam Harris, etc.).

The attached research priorities document includes many example lines of research, including MIRI’s research agenda. (Naturally, the signatories have differing opinions about which example lines of research are most urgently needed, and most signatories probably know very little about MIRI’s agenda and thus don’t mean to necessarily endorse it in particular.)

You can sign the letter yourself if you want. Coverage at BBCCNBCThe IndependentThe VergeFT, and elsewhere.

Paul Christiano (UC Berkeley) summarizes his own ideas about long-term AI safety work that can be done now.

When people ask me what general-AI benchmark I think should replace the Turing test, I usually start by mentioning video games. This 2-page paper explains why that’s such a handy benchmark.

Books, and stuff I wrote elsewhere, in December 2014

Decent books finished in December:

Why the West Rules—For Now was quite interesting. I may have to return to this one later for some detailed analysis. Also see the 200+ page supplementary material PDF, which I guess was later expanded into a book.

I also read much of the nonfiction section of The David Foster Wallace Reader. It is excellent writing in many ways, but it’s not the kind of excellent writing I like. I prefer nonfiction writing closer to the “classic style” advocated by Thomas & Turner and Pinker. DFW’s style is, for me, too focused on clever language and clever constructions. I prefer writing that gets out of the way so that I can focus my attention on the subject matter rather than on the way it’s being explained. I guess a DFW essay is nonfiction for people who like reading artsy fiction like James Joyce, which isn’t me.

Carr’s The Glass Cage confirmed my suspicion that I wouldn’t like Carr’s thinking much, e.g. this passage on Facebook: “Zuckerberg celebrates [Facebook's features] as ‘frictionless sharing’… But there’s something repugnant about applying the bureaucratic ideals of speed, productivity, and standardization to our relations with others. The most meaningful bonds aren’t forged through transactions in a marketplace or other routinized exchanges of data. People aren’t nodes on a network grid. The bonds require trust and courtesy and sacrifice, all of which, at least to a technocrat’s mind, are sources of inefficiency and inconvenience.”

The Beginning of Infinity is David Deutsch’s account of his own philosophy of science. The basic claims seem to be that (1) moral and social progress comes from knowledge, (2) knowledge comes from good scientific explanations, and (3) good scientific explanations are those which fit the facts and are hard to vary. On (1) I think he neglects genuine information hazards on the one hand, and non-knowledge sources of social progress on the other. I think (2) leaves out other kinds of knowledge, like knowing a strong trend in data without having any theory of it. And as for (3), I can’t tell if he’s rejecting the standard Bayesian account of scientific explanation (Howson & Urbach 2005; Yudkowsky 2005), or if he just likes to emphasize the part of that which awards more points for models/predictions with hard-to-vary parameters. If he’s rejecting the Bayesian account, he doesn’t say why. There are also lots of long, rambling, often wrong tangents about memes and AI and other topics, e.g. this: “Most advocates of the Singularity believe that, soon after the AI breakthrough, superhuman minds will be constructed and that then, as Vinge put it, ‘the human era will be over.’ But my discussion of the universality of human minds rules out that possibility. Since humans are already universal explainers and constructors, they can already transcend their parochial origins, so there can be no such thing as a superhuman mind as such.”

I gave up on Life’s Ratchet. It seems pretty good, actually, but it had too much technical information for me to follow in audiobook form.

Stuff I wrote elsewhere in December:

Scaruffi’s rock criticism

Sometimes I do blatantly useless things so I can flaunt my rejection of the often unhealthy “always optimize” pressures within the effective altruism community. So today, I’m going to write about rock music criticism.

Specifically, I would like to introduce you to the wonder of the world that is Piero Scaruffi. Or, better, I’ll let Holden Karnofsky introduce him:

We can start with his writings on music, since that seems to be what he is known for. He has helpfully ranked the best 100 rock albums of all time in order…

If that’s too broad for you, he also provides his top albums year by year … every single year from 1967 to 2012. He also gives genre-specific rankings for psychedelic music, Canterbury, glam-rock, punk-rock, dream-pop, triphop, jungle … 32 genres in all. Try punching “scaruffi [band]” into Google; I defy you to find a major musician he hasn’t written a review of. These are all just part of the massive online appendix to his self-published two-volume history of rock music. But he’s not just into rock; he’s also written a history of popular music specifically prior to rock-n-roll and a history of jazz music, and he has a similarly deep set of rankings for jazz (best albums, best jazz music for each of 17 different instrument categories, best jazz from each decade). While he hasn’t written a book about classical music, he has put out a timeline of classical music from 1098 to the present day and lists his essential classical music selections in each of ~10 categories

So who is this guy, a music critic? Nope, he is some sort of mostly retired software consultant and I want you to know that his interests go far beyond music. Take literature, for example. He has given both a chronological timeline and a best-novel-ever ranking for each of 36 languages. No I’m serious. Have you been wanting this fellow’s opinion of the 37 best works of Albanian literature, in order? Here you go. Turkish? Right here. Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopian, ancient Egyptian, and Finnish? Got those too. 

Naturally, Mr. Scaruffi has not neglected film (he’s given his top 40 films and favorites for each decade starting with the 1910s, along with a history of cinema written in Italian) or visual art (see his 3-part visual history of the visual arts, his list of the greatest paintings of all time and his own collages and photographs) but let’s move on from this fluffy stuff. Because it’s important for you to know about his:

Does this guy just like sit inside and read and write 24 hours a day? Not to hear his travel page tell it: he’s visited 159 countries and is happy to give you guides to several of them along with his “greatest places in the world” rankings. He also has an entirely separate “hiking” section of his website that I haven’t clicked on and am determined not to.

But let’s focus on his rock music criticism, which I think is alternately silly, wrong, and brilliant.

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