Effective altruism definitions

Everyone has their own, it seems:

…the basic tenet of Effective Altruism: leading an ethical life involves using a portion of personal assets and resources to effectively alleviate the consequences of extreme poverty.

From the latest Life You Can Save newsletter.

Tracks or albums pushing musical boundaries

Here’s a playlist of tracks or albums pushing musical boundaries, released in 2012 or later:

This list is exclusive to rock-descended music. My knowledge of jazz and contemporary classical is less comprehensive than my knowledge of rock and its descendents, so I’m less able to tell what is genuinely new for jazz and contemporary classical.

And no, I don’t know why the artists named above all begin with a letter in the first half of the alphabet.

Elon Musk on saving the world

On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert asked Elon Musk if he was trying to save the world. The obvious, transparent answer is “yes.” But Elon’s reply was “Well, I’m trying to do useful things.” Perhaps Elon’s PR person told him that trying to save the world comes off as arrogant, even if you’re a billionaire.


“Fewer Data, Please”

The BMJ has some neat features, such as paper-specific “instant responses” and published peer-review correspondence.

The latter feature allowed me to discover that in their initial “revise and resubmit” comments on a recent meta-analysis on sugar-sweetened beverages and type 2 diabetes, the BMJ manuscript committee requested the study’s authors to provide fewer data:

There is a very large number of supplementary files, tables and diagrams. It would be helpful if these could be reduced to the most important and essential supplementary items.

What? Why? Are they going to run out of server space? Give me ALL THE DATA! Finding the data I want in a huge 30mb supplementary data file is still much easier than asking the corresponding author for it 3 years later.

Is this kind of reviewer feedback common? I thought the top journals were generally on board with the open science trend.

Some books I’m looking forward to, September 2015 edition

* = added this round

Books, music, etc. from August 2015


López’s Dog Whistle Politics was rarely persuasive. A lot of stuff like “Reagan said these two race-baiting things, and then people voted for him and didn’t mind his regressive tax policies, because they were racist and fell for his dog whistle statements.” I assume lots of Americans are fairly racist, and I assume politicians use racist dog whistles from time to time, but I don’t know how important those dog whistles are for American politics, and López didn’t put much effort into supporting his claims on that question.


Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:


Ones I really liked, or loved:

Yudkowsky on science and programming

There are serious disanalogies, too, but I still like this, from Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Lots of superforecasters [link] are programmers, it turns out, presumably for the same reason lots of programmers are correct contrarians of any other stripe. (My hypothesis is a mix of a lawful thinking gear, real intellectual difficulty of daily practice, and the fact that the practice of debugging is the only profession that has a fast loop for hypothesis formulation, testing, and admission of error. Programming is vastly more scientific than academic science.)

And later:

You’d need to have lived the lives of Newton, Lavoisier, Einstein, Fermi, and Kahneman all put together to be proven wrong about as many facts as a programmer unlearns in one year of debugging, though admittedly they’d be deeper and more emotionally significant facts.

Operators sleeping at the wrong time

An interesting sentence from Monk (2012):

Perhaps the two most dramatic examples of operators being asleep when they should have been awake are the airliner full of passengers that over-flew its U.S. West Coast airport and headed out over the Pacific with all of the flight crew asleep, and the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, where regulators made an unexpected visit one night only to find everyone in the control room asleep (Lauber & Kayten, 1988).

Films I’m looking forward to

  • Swanberg, Digging for Fire (Aug 21, 2015)
  • Perry, Queen of Earth (Aug 26, 2015)
  • Villeneuve, Sicario (Sep 25, 2015)
  • Mendes, Spectre (Nov 6, 2015)
  • Haynes, Carol (Nov 20, 2015)
  • Sohn, The Good Dinosaur (Nov 25, 2015)
  • Abrams, The Force Awakens (Dec 18, 2015)
  • Tarantino, The Hateful Eight (Dec 25, 2015)
  • Russell, Joy (Dec 25, 2015)
  • Iñárritu, The Revenant (Dec 25, 2015)
  • Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! (Feb 5, 2016)
  • Nichols, Midnight Special (Mar 18, 2016)
  • Stanton, Finding Dory (Jun 17, 2016)
  • Edwards, Rogue One (Dec 16, 2016)
  • Scorsese, Silence (TBD 2016)
  • Reeves, War of the Planet of the Apes (Jul 14, 2017)
  • Cameron, Avatar 2 (Dec 2017)
  • Audiard, Dheepan (TBD)
  • Haneke, Flashmob (TBD)
  • Dardenne brothers, The Unknown Girl (TBD)

Replies to people who argue against worrying about long-term AI safety risks today

More replies will be added here as I remember or discover them. To focus on the “modern” discussion, I’ll somewhat-arbitrarily limit this to replies to comments or articles that were published after the release of Bostrom’s Superintelligence on Sep. 3rd, 2014. Please remind me which ones I’m forgetting.

By me

  • My reply to critics in Edge.org’s “Myth of AI” discussion. (Timelines, malevolence confusion, convergent instrumental goals.)
  • My reply to AI researcher Andrew Ng. (Timelines, malevolence confusion.)
  • My reply to AI researcher Oren Etzioni. (Timelines, convergent instrumental goals.)
  • My reply to economist Alex Tabarrok. (Timelines, glide scenario.)
  • My reply to AI researcher David Buchanan. (Consciousness confusion.)
  • My reply to physicist Lawrence Krauss. (Power requirements.)
  • My reply to AI researcher Jeff Hawkins. (Self-replication, anthropomorphic AI, intelligence explosion, timelines.)
  • My reply to AI researcher Pedro Domingos. (Consciousness confusion? Not sure.)
  • My reply to AI researcher Yann LeCun. (Timelines, malevolence confusion.)

By others

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky replies to Francois Chollet. (Intelligent explosion, nature of intelligence, various.)
  • Matthew Graves replies to Maciej Cegłowski. (various)
  • Stuart Russell replies to critics in Edge.org’s “Myth of AI” discussion. (Convergent instrumental goals.)
  • Rob Bensinger replies to computer scientist Ernest Davis. (Intelligence explosion, AGI capability, value learning.)
  • Rob Bensinger replies to roboticist Rodney Brooks and philosopher John Searle. (Narrow AI, timelines, malevolence confusion.)
  • Scott Alexander replies to technologist and novelist Ramez Naam and others. (Mainstream acceptance of AI risks.)
  • Olle Häggström replies to nuclear security specialist Edward Moore Geist. (Plausibility of superhuman AI, goal content integrity.)
  • Olle Häggström replies to science writer Michael Shermer. (Malevolence confusion.)
  • Olle Häggström replies to philosopher John Searle. (Consciousness confusion.)
  • Olle Häggström replies to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. (Malevolence confusion.)
  • On the Impossibility of Supersized Machines,” a parody of bad arguments commonly made against the possibility of AGI.


Some books I’m looking forward to, August 2015 edition

* = added this round

Books, music, etc. from July 2015


Minger’s Death by Food Pyramid has some good warnings against the missteps of the nutrition profession, government nutrition recommendations, and fad diets. Minger is mostly excited by Weston Price ideas about nutrition. I haven’t examined that evidence base, but I’d be surprised if e.g. we actually had decent measures of the rates of cancer, etc. in the populations Price visited. His work might elevate some hypotheses to the level of “Okay, we should test this,” in which case my question is “Have we done those RCTs yet?”

Ansari & Klinenberg’s Modern Romance was mildly amusing but not very good.


This month I again listened to dozens of jazz albums while working on my in-progress jazz guide. This month, I started finally got to the stage where I hadn’t heard many of the albums, so I had lots of new encounters with albums I enjoyed a lot:

Albums I liked a lot, from other genres:


Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan (2014)
  • Noah Baumbach, While We’re Young (2014)
  • Abderrahmane Sissako, Timbuktu (2014)
  • Judd Apatow, Trainwreck (2015)

Wiener on the AI control problem in 1960

Norbert Wiener in Science in 1960:

Similarly, when a machine constructed by us is capable of operating on its incoming data at a pace which we cannot keep, we may not know, until too late, when to turn it off. We all know the fable of the sorcerer’s apprentice, in which the boy makes the broom carry water in his master’s absence, so that it is on the point of drowning him when his master reappears. If the boy had had to seek a charm to stop the mischief in the grimoires of his master’s library, he might have been drowned before he had discovered the relevant incantation. Similarly, if a bottle factory is programmed on the basis of maximum productivity, the owner may be made bankrupt by the enormous inventory of unsalable bottles manufactured before he learns he should have stopped production six months earlier.

The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is only one of many tales based on the assumption that the agencies of magic are literal-minded. There is the story of the genie and the fisherman in the Arabian Nights, in which the fisher- man breaks the seal of Solomon which has imprisoned the genie and finds the genie vowed to his own destruction; there is the tale of the “Monkey’s Paw,” by W. W. Jacobs, in which the sergeant major brings back from India a talisman which has the power to grant each of three people three wishes. Of the first recipient of this talisman we are told only that his third wish is for death. The sergeant major, the second person whose wishes are granted, finds his experiences too terrible to relate. His friend, who receives the talisman, wishes first for £200. Shortly thereafter, an official of the factory in which his son works comes to tell him that his son has been killed in the machinery and that, without any admission of responsibility, the company is sending him as consolation the sum of £200. His next wish is that his son should come back, and the ghost knocks at the door. His third wish is that the ghost should go away.

Disastrous results are to be expected not merely in the world of fairy tales but in the real world wherever two agencies essentially foreign to each other are coupled in the attempt to achieve a common purpose. If the communication between these two agencies as to the nature of this purpose is incomplete, it must only be expected that the results of this cooperation will be unsatisfactory. If we use, to achieve our purposes, a mechanical agency with whose operation we cannot efficiently interfere once we have started it, because the action is so fast and irrevocable that we have not the data to intervene before the action is complete, then we had better be quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire and not merely a colorful imitation of it.

Arthur Samuel replied in the same issue with “a refutation”:

A machine is not a genie, it does not work by magic, it does not possess a will… The “intentions” which the machine seems to manifest are the intentions of the human programmer, as specified in advance, or they are subsidiary intentions derived from these, following rules specified by the programmer… There is (and logically there must always remain) a complete hiatus between (i) any ultimate extension and elaboration in this process of carrying out man’s wishes and (ii) the development within the machine of a will of its own. To believe otherwise is either to believe in magic or to believe that the existence of man’s will is an illusion and that man’s actions are as mechanical as the machine’s. Perhaps Wiener’s article and my rebuttal have both been mechanistically determined, but this I refuse to believe.

An apparent exception to these conclusions might be claimed for projected machines of the so-called “neural net” type… Since the internal connections would be unknown, the precise behavior of the nets would be unpredictable and, therefore, potentially dangerous… If practical machines of this type become a reality we will have to take a much closer look at their implications than either Wiener or I have been able to do.

Powerful musical contrasts

For a couple months I’d been listening almost exclusively to jazz music, while working on my jazz guide. Then on a whim I decided to listen to a song I hadn’t heard in a long time, Smashing Pumpkins’ brutal rocker “Geek USA,” and it absolutely blew my mind, as if I was listening to the first piece of rock music invented, in a world that had only previously known folk, classical, and jazz.

The experience reminded of my favorite scene from Back to the Future, where Marty — who has traveled back in time to 1955 — ends a 1950s rock-and-roll classic with an increasingly intense guitar solo that completely bewilders the 1950s crowd that has never heard hard rock virtuoso guitar before:

[Read more…]

Rhodes on nuclear security

Some quotes from Rhodes’ Arsenals of Folly.


In the 1950s, when the RBMK [nuclear power reactor] design was developed and approved, Soviet industry had not yet mastered the technology necessary to manufacture steel pressure vessels capacious enough to surround such large reactor cores. For that reason, among others, scientists, engineers, and managers in the Soviet nuclear-power industry had pretended for years that a loss-of-coolant accident was unlikely to the point of impossibility in an RBMK. They knew better. The industry had been plagued with disasters and near-disasters since its earliest days. All of them had been covered up, treated as state secrets; information about them was denied not only to the Soviet public but even to the industry’s managers and operators. Engineering is based on experience, including operating experience; treating design flaws and accidents as state secrets meant that every other similar nuclear-power station remained vulnerable and unprepared.

Unknown to the Soviet public and the world, at least thirteen serious power-reactor accidents had occurred in the Soviet Union before the one at Chernobyl. Between 1964 and 1979, for example, repeated fuel-assembly fires plagued Reactor Number One at the Beloyarsk nuclear-power plant east of the Urals near Novosibirsk. In 1975, the core of an RBMK reactor at the Leningrad plant partly melted down; cooling the core by flooding it with liquid nitrogen led to a discharge of radiation into the environment equivalent to about one-twentieth the amount that was released at Chernobyl in 1986. In 1982, a rupture of the central fuel assembly of Chernobyl Reactor Number One released radioactivity over the nearby bedroom community of Pripyat, now in 1986 once again exposed and at risk. In 1985, a steam relief valve burst during a shaky startup of Reactor Number One at the Balakovo nuclear-power plant, on the Volga River about 150 miles southwest of Samara, jetting 500-degree steam that scalded to death fourteen members of the start-up staff; despite the accident, the responsible official, Balakovo’s plant director, Viktor Bryukhanov, was promoted to supervise construction at Chernobyl and direct its operation.

[Read more…]

Chomsky on the Peters-Finkelstein affair

More Chomsky, again from Understanding Power (footnotes also reproduced):

Here’s a story which is really tragic… There was this best-seller a few years ago [in 1984], it went through about ten printings, by a woman named Joan Peters… called From Time Immemorial.1 It was a big scholarly-looking book with lots of footnotes, which purported to show that the Palestinians were all recent immigrants [i.e. to the Jewish-settled areas of the former Palestine, during the British mandate years of 1920 to 1948]. And it was very popular — it got literally hundreds of rave reviews, and no negative reviews: the Washington Post, the New York Times, everybody was just raving about it.2 Here was this book which proved that there were really no Palestinians! Of course, the implicit message was, if Israel kicks them all out there’s no moral issue, because they’re just recent immigrants who came in because the Jews had built up the country. And there was all kinds of demographic analysis in it, and a big professor of demography at the University of Chicago [Philip M. Hauser] authenticated it.3 That was the big intellectual hit for that year: Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, everybody was talking about it as the greatest thing since chocolate cake.4

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  1. For Peters’s book, see Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine, New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Scarcely eight months after its publication, the book went into its seventh printing, and Joan Peters reportedly had 250 speaking engagements scheduled for the upcoming year. []
  2. Some of the reviewers’ blurbs reprinted in the paperback edition of the Peters book include:

    • “This book is a historical event in itself.” (Barbara Tuchman)
    • “A superlative book… To understand what is happening in the Middle East, one must begin with its past, which Miss Peters traces to the present with unmatched skill.” (Theodore H. White)
    • “Every political issue claiming the attention of a world public has its ‘experts’  news managers, anchor men, ax grinders, and anglers. The great merit of this book is to demonstrate that, on the Palestinian issue, these experts speak from utter ignorance. Millions of people the world over, smothered by false history and propaganda, will be grateful for this clear account of the origins of the Palestinians.” (Saul Bellow)
    • Joan Peters’ book provides necessary demographic and historic perspectives which have been inexplicably and substantially ignored until now, but without which misconceptions and policy distortions are inevitable. The reader will be most impressed with the thoroughness and prodigious input this work entails, as I was.” (Philip M. Hauser, Director Emeritus, Population Research Center, The University of Chicago; former Acting Director of U.S. Census)
    • “Joan Peters strikes a heavy blow against the broad consensus about ‘the Palestinians’ and the assumption that Palestinian rights are at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict… From Time Immemorial supplies abundant justification for reversing the moral and legal presumptions that have cast Israel in the role of defendant before the court of world opinion.” (William V. O’Brien, Georgetown University)
    • “The massive research Ms. Peters did… would have daunted Hercules. In the course of it she turned up a great deal of interesting material from Ottoman records, the reports of Western consular officers and observant travelers and other sources.” (New York Times Book Review)
    • “A remarkable document in itself…The refugees are not the problem but the excuse.” (Washington Post Book World)
    • “Everything in this book reads like hard news… One woman walks in and scoops them all… The great service provided here by Mrs. Peters — if only attention is paid — is to lay a groundwork for peace by clearing away the farrago of lies.” (National Review)
    • “This book, if read, will change the mind of our generation. If understood, it could also affect the history of the future.” (New Republic)
    • “The reader comes away not only rethinking the Middle East refugee problem, but also the extent to which propaganda can be swallowed whole for lack of information.” (Los Angeles Times)
    • From Time Immemorial is impressive, informative, absorbing. All those who are interested in the Arab-Israeli questions will benefit from Joan Peters’s insight and analysis.” (Elie Wiesel)
    • From Time Immemorial will surely change the way we think about that still fiercely contested land once called Palestine. For Joan Peters has dug beneath a half-century’s accumulation of propaganda and brought into the light the historical truth about the Middle East. With a wealth of authoritative evidence, she exposes the tangle of lies and false claims by which the Arabs have tried to justify their unending violence. Everyone who hopes for peace in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs will want to read this book — will have to read this book.” (Lucy Dawidowicz)


  3. On professor Hauser, see footnotes 19 and 25 of this chapter. []
  4. For Tuchman’s and others’ jubilation about the Peters book, see footnotes 19 and 25 of this chapter. []


From Wired:

[Remote-controlling a Jeep] is possible only because Chrysler, like practically all carmakers, is doing its best to turn the modern automobile into a smartphone. Uconnect, an Internet-connected computer feature in hundreds of thousands of Fiat Chrysler cars, SUVs, and trucks, controls the vehicle’s entertainment and navigation, enables phone calls, and even offers a Wi-Fi hot spot. And thanks to one vulnerable element… Uconnect’s cellular connection also lets anyone who knows the car’s IP address gain access from anywhere in the country.

Schlosser on nuclear security

Some quotes from Schlosser’s Command and Control.


On January 23, 1961, a B-52 bomber took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, for an airborne alert… [Near] midnight… the boom operator of [a refueling] tanker noticed fuel leaking from the B-52’ s right wing. Spray from the leak soon formed a wide plume, and within two minutes about forty thousand gallons of jet fuel had poured from the wing. The command post at Seymour Johnson told the pilot, Major Walter S. Tulloch, to dump the rest of the fuel in the ocean and prepare for an emergency landing. But fuel wouldn’t drain from the tank inside the left wing, creating a weight imbalance. At half past midnight, with the flaps down and the landing gear extended, the B-52 went into an uncontrolled spin…

The B-52 was carrying two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs, each with a yield of 4 megatons. As the aircraft spun downward, centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard in the cockpit. The lanyard was attached to the bomb release mechanism. When the lanyard was pulled, the locking pins were removed from one of the bombs. The Mark 39 fell from the plane. The arming wires were yanked out, and the bomb responded as though it had been deliberately released by the crew above a target. The pulse generator activated the low-voltage thermal batteries. The drogue parachute opened, and then the main chute. The barometric switches closed. The timer ran out, activating the high-voltage thermal batteries. The bomb hit the ground, and the piezoelectric crystals inside the nose crushed. They sent a firing signal. But the weapon didn’t detonate.

Every safety mechanism had failed, except one: the ready/safe switch in the cockpit. The switch was in the SAFE position when the bomb dropped. Had the switch been set to GROUND or AIR, the X-unit would’ve charged, the detonators would’ve triggered, and a thermonuclear weapon would have exploded in a field near Faro, North Carolina…

The other Mark 39 plummeted straight down and landed in a meadow just off Big Daddy’s Road, near the Nahunta Swamp. Its parachutes had failed to open. The high explosives did not detonate, and the primary was largely undamaged…

The Air Force assured the public that the two weapons had been unarmed and that there was never any risk of a nuclear explosion. Those statements were misleading. The T-249 control box and ready/safe switch, installed in every one of SAC’s bombers, had already raised concerns at Sandia. The switch required a low-voltage signal of brief duration to operate — and that kind of signal could easily be provided by a stray wire or a short circuit, as a B-52 full of electronic equipment disintegrated midair.

A year after the North Carolina accident, a SAC ground crew removed four Mark 28 bombs from a B-47 bomber and noticed that all of the weapons were armed. But the seal on the ready/ safe switch in the cockpit was intact, and the knob hadn’t been turned to GROUND or AIR. The bombs had not been armed by the crew. A seven-month investigation by Sandia found that a tiny metal nut had come off a screw inside the plane and lodged against an unused radar-heating circuit. The nut had created a new electrical pathway, allowing current to reach an arming line— and bypass the ready/ safe switch. A similar glitch on the B-52 that crashed near Goldsboro would have caused a 4-megaton thermonuclear explosion. “It would have been bad news— in spades,” Parker F. Jones, a safety engineer at Sandia, wrote in a memo about the accident. “One simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe!”

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Chomsky on overthrowing third world governments

Noam Chomsky is worth reading because he’s an articulate, well-informed, sources-citing defender of unconventional views rarely encountered in mainstream venues. It’s hard for me to evaluate his views because he isn’t very systematic in his presentations of evidence for his core political theses — but then, hardly anybody is. But whether his views are fair or not, I think it’s good to stick my head outside the echo chamber regularly.1

Personally, I’m most interested in his perspectives on plutocracy, international relations, and state violence. On those topics, Understanding Power (+450 pages of footnotes) is a pretty good introduction to his views.

To give you a feel for the book, I’ll excerpt a passage from chapter 1 of Understanding Power about overthrowing third world governments. I’ve also reproduced the (renumbered) footnotes for this passage.

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  1. Just to get this out of the way: Yes, it seems Chomsky initially misread the evidence for the scale of the Cambodian genocide, and he was slow to admit his error, and that’s pretty bad. That doesn’t make him an “apologist” for the Khmer Rouge, and it doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything else he has said. []