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For the foreseeable future I’ll be blogging along with Robin Hanson and Katja Grace over at OvercomingBias.com. My ‘effective altruism’ work will be written primarily for the 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can (forthcoming) blogs where they have previously been cross-posted.

All of that content will eventually arrive here too as a central repository of my work whenever I get around to it.

It has been fun blogging on my own and having full control over the site and its content. However, those groups blogs have more readers and good contributors to bounce off of. People like blogs that offer something new to read every day, and individually writing a substantive post every day would just leave me with too little time for everything else. So update your RSS subscriptions, or get onto my Twitter/Facebook!

Here are the podcasts I’m tracking at the moment, with a link to a notable recent episode.

EconTalk – Lengthy interviews with experts on economics and social science. e.g. Acemoglu on Why Nations Fail

In Our Time – Panel discussions on random topics from history and science. e.g. Voltaire’s Candide

Planet Money – News coverage of economics that presents complex ideas quite simply. e.g. Cage Match: Coin Vs. Bill

Surprisingly Free – Interviews with experts on the internet and new technologies in general. e.g. Naomi Cahn on the digital afterlife

This American Life – Stories from Americans on random topics from current affairs to childhood memories. The best show of its kind. e.g. Retraction

More or Less – Entertaining investigations into numbers that appear in the media from Tim Harford. e.g. Austerity, border queues and bank holidays

Savage Love – Relationship and sex advice show. Equal parts entertaining, useful and disgusting. e.g. Savage Love Episode 287

While we are talking about  it, I also use BeyondPod to keep the episodes on my phone up to date! Podcasts are good for commuting and exercising, if you’re not yet hooked on them.

An academic has backed up my guess from a few months back that meat eating must result in more rodent deaths from plant agriculture than eating plants directly. His article makes such similar points I wonder if he read them here first!

It means young people alive now count for less than old people alive now. Via John Quiggin:

Much of the debate on the question of whether a pure rate of time preference can be justified is concerned with determining the appropriate way to balance the interests of “current” and “future” generations. The central question, in this framing of the problem, is whether, and to what extent, members of the current generation have the right to allocate resources in their own favour, at the expense of unborn future generations.

The central point of this note is to observe that this way of posing the problem is invalid, because members of different generations are alive at the same time. Any policy that discounts future utility must discriminate not merely against generations yet unborn but against the current younger generation. Assuming that members of any given generation are concerned about their own lifetime utility, rather than myopically concerned with current utility alone, a social allocation rule that incorporates pure time preference gives higher weight to the lifetime utility of earlier born generations than to their later born contemporaries. Assuming a 3% pure rate of time preference, as above, and 25 years between generations, the lifetime welfare of those aged 50 or more is valued twice as highly as the welfare of their children, and four times as highly as the welfare of their grandchildren, all of whom may be alive at the same time. This is obviously inconsistent with any form of utilitarianism in which all those currently alive are valued equally.

Furthermore, by the nature of overlapping generations, there is no point at which a coherent distinction between current and future generations can be drawn. In the absence of some general catastrophe, many children alive today will still be alive in 2100, at which time people already alive will reasonably be able to anticipate the possibility of survival well into the 22nd century.

ImageLast year I published a mostly positive review of John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics in Policy magazine, which I never got around to cross posting here. Here it is:

In a recent, noisy debate between Princeton economist Paul Krugman and Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, Krugman scolded Ferguson as belonging to a ‘Dark Age’ of pre-Keynesian economics. In justifying his thoughtful reply, Ferguson retorted cheekily: ‘A cat may look at a king, and sometimes a historian can challenge an economist.’

Around the time of that well-publicised tiff in mid-2009, a dike was breached: at least since then, an ongoing squabble has occurred about the value of economists’ analysis in society, given the degree to which the global financial crisis was unanticipated by the profession. Into this debate, John Quiggin—certainly a king within the Australian economics profession—released his book Zombie Economics.

Quiggin is one of the most influential economic theorists in Australia. His most well-known contribution to the field, in expected utility theory, launched him in the early 1980s to international fame (or at least as much fame as could be gained in the sub-discipline of expected utility theory); since then, he has written several popular books on industrial relations, microeconomic reform, and taxation as well as a large number of papers on a diverse range of issues, including risk pricing and environmental economics. Since 2002, he has been a figurehead in the Australian blogging community, and with Zombie Economics, he pioneered a new editing strategy, publishing chapters on his blog to solicit criticism from readers. Since 1996, he has been a regular columnist for the Australian Financial Review, and he is a federation fellow at the University of Queensland.

Quiggin is a self-described social democrat who does not shy from public debate, welcoming opportunities to engage those he disagrees with. Quiggin’s writing, at least from the late 1980s, has been consistently critical of faith in ‘economic rationalism.’ Most recently, he has been a fierce public critic of the Queensland Rail privatisation. Zombie Economics is his latest salvo at the perceived oversteps of laissez-faire economists. The book takes aim at five big ideas that he believes should have been finally discredited by the global financial crisis: the so called great moderation in the business cycle since the mid-1980s; the efficient markets hypothesis that financial market prices incorporate all of the information we have about the future; the belief that dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models can describe the macroeconomy and wisely inform fiscal and monetary policy; the trickle-down theory that the poor can be effectively helped by policies that directly benefit the rich; and finally the belief that the public interest is best served through the privatisation of public enterprises. Quiggin builds his case against these ideas around the zombie motif, the zombies being the theories he believes should have been buried by experience but somehow dig out of their graves and shuffle onwards in the public debate. Quiggin clearly relishes the zombie metaphor and opens each chapter with zombie images to help break up the challenging combination of history, empirical evidence, and rhetorical flourish that make up the rest of the book.

Continued…

The current and potential future suffering of ‘wild’ animals is one of the most serious problems a utilitarian must confront. In spite of that it is basically ignored, even by most smart and compassionate people. Fortunately the number of people concerned with the matter is growing, though from a low base.

There are three new resources available for those who would like to spread the word. The Felicifia wiki offers a nice compendium describing the issue and what might be done about it.

Utilitarian Essays now hosts a detailed pamphlet called Life in the Wild, which aims to persuade people who are already concerned with captive animal welfare to offer the same empathy to wild animals.

It isn’t new, but Tyler Cowen’s paper Policing Nature offers responses to some common arguments against giving ethical consideration to wild animals, both from utilitarian and other perspectives.

Finally, Oscar Horta is looking for “a graphic designer and a web designer for a project aimed at spreading the word about animal suffering in the wild and animal ethics.”

Hopefully the stock of research and publications on the issue will continue to grow.

This is way off the usual topics, but I wrote it a while ago so it at least seems worth cross-posting:

The recent spat between the big retailers and the rest of society over the absence of a GST on imported goods brought into the public spotlight the fact that the internet is a bargain hunter’s dream. Here I’ll reveal some of the best sites that can save you money, sometimes a lot of it.

If you’re ordering books or DVDs, you can’t go past http://www.booko.com.au, which will search over 20 websites and automatically factor in the cost of shipping to Australia. Two stores that often come out the cheapest are http://www.bookdepository.com and http://www.abebooks.com. Book Depository is similar to Amazon but charges nothing to ship to Australia; AbeBooks is a huge catalogue of second hand and discounted books and often features the international versions of textbooks for a third the price at the Co-Op Bookshop. You will typically pay half the price found in Australia. Read the rest of this entry »

Here are two beautiful pieces of online art.

The first requires a reasonable computer, an up to date browser and will appeal to fans of the Arcade Fire. I won’t give away any more.

The second uses crowd-sourced frames to recreate a classic video clip. Bravo!

Nick Bostrom of the Future of Humanity Institute has a new interview in The Atlantic. It’s one of the more sophisticated discussions of existential risk I’ve seen in the mainstream press and is worth sharing and reading in full.

One possible strategic response to human-created risks is the slowing or halting of our technological evolution, but you have been a critic of that view, arguing that the permanent failure to develop advanced technology would itself constitute an existential risk. Why is that?

Bostrom: Well, again I think the definition of an existential risk goes beyond just extinction, in that it also includes the permanent destruction of our potential for desirable future development. Our permanent failure to develop the sort of technologies that would fundamentally improve the quality of human life would count as an existential catastrophe. I think there are vastly better ways of being than we humans can currently reach and experience. We have fundamental biological limitations, which limit the kinds of values that we can instantiate in our life—our lifespans are limited, our cognitive abilities are limited, our emotional constitution is such that even under very good conditions we might not be completely happy. And even at the more mundane level, the world today contains a lot of avoidable misery and suffering and poverty and disease, and I think the world could be a lot better, both in the transhuman way, but also in this more economic way. The failure to ever realize those much better modes of being would count as an existential risk if it were permanent.

Another reason I haven’t emphasized or advocated the retardation of technological progress as a means of mitigating existential risk is that it’s a very hard lever to pull. There are so many strong forces pushing for scientific and technological progress in so many different domains—there are economic pressures, there is curiosity, there are all kinds of institutions and individuals that are invested in technology, so shutting it down is a very hard thing to do.

What technology, or potential technology, worries you the most?

Bostrom: Well, I can mention a few. In the nearer term I think various developments in biotechnology and synthetic biology are quite disconcerting. We are gaining the ability to create designer pathogens and there are these blueprints of various disease organisms that are in the public domain—you can download the gene sequence for smallpox or the 1918 flu virus from the Internet. So far the ordinary person will only have a digital representation of it on their computer screen, but we’re also developing better and better DNA synthesis machines, which are machines that can take one of these digital blueprints as an input, and then print out the actual RNA string or DNA string. Soon they will become powerful enough that they can actually print out these kinds of viruses. So already there you have a kind of predictable risk, and then once you can start modifying these organisms in certain kinds of ways, there is a whole additional frontier of danger that you can foresee.

In the longer run, I think artificial intelligence—once it gains human and then superhuman capabilities—will present us with a major risk area. There are also different kinds of population control that worry me, things like surveillance and psychological manipulation pharmaceuticals.

If I wanted some sort of scheme that laid out the stages of civilization, the period before machine super intelligence and the period after super machine intelligence would be a more relevant dichotomy. When you look at what’s valuable or interesting in examining these stages, it’s going to be what is done with these future resources and technologies, as opposed to their structure. It’s possible that the long-term future of humanity, if things go well, would from the outside look very simple. You might have Earth at the center, and then you might have a growing sphere of technological infrastructure that expands in all directions at some significant fraction of the speed of light, occupying larger and larger volumes of the universe—first in our galaxy, and then beyond as far as is physically possible. And then all that ever happens is just this continued increase in the spherical volume of matter colonized by human descendants, a growing bubble of infrastructure. Everything would then depend on what was happening inside this infrastructure, what kinds of lives people were being led there, what kinds of experiences people were having. You couldn’t infer that from the large-scale structure, so you’d have to sort of zoom in and see what kind of information processing occurred within this infrastructure.

It’s hard to know what that might look like, because our human experience might be just a small little crumb of what’s possible. If you think of all the different modes of being, different kinds of feeling and experiencing, different ways of thinking and relating, it might be that human nature constrains us to a very narrow little corner of the space of possible modes of being. If we think of the space of possible modes of being as a large cathedral, then humanity in its current stage might be like a little cowering infant sitting in the corner of that cathedral having only the most limited sense of what is possible.

Earlier today I had the pleasure of a long Skype with Seth Baum about existential risk and how I could best contribute to reducing it. Among other things, Seth studies climate change as a global catastrophic risk at Colombia University. He is taking it on himself to work to help network people studying different aspects of global catastrophic risks across universities, governments and the private sector. He does not accept Nick Bostrum’s quip that “there is more scholarly work on the life-habits of the dung fly than on existential risks.” According to him there is a lot of research on some existential risks, in particular nuclear war and disease pandemics – it is just not organised into a cohesive literature on ‘global catastrophic risk’ as such. One of Seth’s goals is to connect people studying these risks and working in related fields in order to encourage them to study the characteristics and possible solutions they have in common. He is organising the global catastrophic risk symposium at the World Congress on Risk 2012 in July which I am looking forward to attending. Think about coming as well if you will be in the area.

He shared links to a number of organisations that were new to me which I thought I would pass along.

Seth and his colleague Tony Barrett are founding a new organisation, the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. Their hope is to evaluate which existential risks are most important to focus on, and which techniques are most likely to succeed at reducing them, for instance stockpiling food or building bunkers. Unlike GiveWell they will be rating strategies rather than organisations. The effectiveness of different approaches presumably varies by orders of magnitude, so this is incredibly important work. It will be a useful guide to those who become concerned about global catastrophic risk and make a big difference to the universe. Sister organisations, Blue Marble Space and One Flag in Space aim to promote space colonisation in order to reduce the risk of human extinction and conflict between nations, among other reasons.

A similar organisation is Saving Humanity from Homo Sapiens which is attempting to link donors concerned about existential risk with organisations that can most effectively use extra funding. This will hopefully in the future also involve evaluating their effectiveness.

Skill Global Threats Fund is a charitable foundation aiming to support those dealing with a range of catastrophic risks such as climate change and nuclear war. It’s goal is to “work proactively to find, initiate, or co-create breakthrough ideas and/or activities that we believe will have large-scale impact, either directly or indirectly, and whether on cross-cutting issues or individual threats.”

The Tellus Institute engages in future scenario mapping, including potential collapses of humanity and growth into post-human or space-faring civilizations. The paper Great Transitions is an example, though I am yet to read it.

The UPMC Biosecurity is a leading research organisation on catastrophic biosecurity threats. The Cultural Cognition project at Yale is moving into studying duel use problems in technology, including Nanotechnology Risk Perception.

Finally, if you haven’t checked out Nick Bostrom’s personal site then you really should. He has some excellent papers on existential risk, among other futurist issues. I hope to blog about some of the highlights in the near future.

“In forming my view that school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination, I rediscovered the view of the ‘76 book Schooling In Capitalist America:
Schools produce future workers; … schools socialize students to accept beliefs, values, and forms of behavior on the basis of authority rather than the students’ own critical judgement of their interests.”

School Attitudes

“The Israeli raid on a flotilla bound for Gaza was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.


The purpose of the convoy was not primarily to bring aid to desperate Gazans, but to call attention to the Israeli blockade and turn world opinion overwhelmingly against it—as Greta Berlin, a leader of the Free Gaza Movement, made clear before the ships set sail. By this standard, the incident could not have gone better. The flotilla was bait, and Israel took it—a classic triumph of civil disobedience over state power. So it doesn’t really matter that the “humanitarians” on the ship immediately resorted to violence: what the world will remember is that Israel’s first impulse was direct confrontation with civilians bringing aid, regardless of the effects on either the ship’s passengers or its own reputation. This revealed a greater moral obtuseness than firing missiles into civilian areas in the middle of a war. It’s not always the bloodiest incidents that evoke the strongest reaction and bring the most lasting consequences.”

Interesting Times: Israel Takes the Bait : The New Yorker

“In an ultimately futile act some have described as courageous and others have called a mere postponing of the inevitable, existentialist firefighter James Farber delayed three deaths Monday. “I’m no hero,” Farber said after rescuing the family from a house fire on the 2500 block of West Thacker Street, and prolonging for the time being their slow march toward oblivion.

“Like any other man, I am thrown into this world, alone and terrified, to play a meaningless role in an empty life…. Though the cause of the fire remains unknown, and can perhaps never truly be known, sources close to the investigation said that no foul play is suspected, only the haphazard, amoral processes inherent in nature itself.

“I tried to explain to them that what I did was really nothing more than an expression of despair, and thus absurd, but they just kept saying ‘thank you, oh my God, thank you, thank you so much,'” Farber continued.””

Existentialist Firefighter Delays 3 Deaths

“Why don’t there exist companies that explicitly sign contracts with individuals or other entities for a fee, which would handicap the entities in some way that cannot be easily overturned and consequently give them negotiating leverage as a result. One example I can think of is pertaining to wealthy individuals in California and other US States with Community Property laws. Given the high divorce rates in the US, it would be prudent for such individuals to have as tight prenuptial agreements as possible prior to getting married, to minimize financial loss in the event of a divorce and also to avoid financially incentivizing one’s spouse to initiate a divorce with a promise of a financial windfall.

The individual in question could sign a contract with this company stating that if they were to get married without a bullet proof pre-specified prenuptial agreement, the company could lay claim to half their net worth immediately after the wedding were registered. Ideally, the individual in question could sign such a contract when they were single or not seriously seeing anyone with the intention of getting married.”

Less Wrong: Taking the awkwardness out of a Prenup – A Game Theoretic solution

A goldmine of scathing movie reviews

Scientists Successfully Teach Gorilla It Will Die Someday

New Age terrorists develop homeopathic bomb

Phantom traffic jams

“The ability to make accurate generalisations about categories of ideas, objects, practices, etc is naturally useful and regarded as a sign of intelligence. But in the Western world the same skill naively applied to categories of people (races, cultures, genders, classes) is a faux pas at best and condemned at worst.”

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

All opinions expressed here are at most mine alone, and have nothing to do with any past, present, future or far future employers.

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