Author Archives: Benquo

Talents

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
- The Gospel according to Matthew

r > g
-Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

From Jesus to Piketty, it is a commonplace that wealth is a positive feedback loop.

Under one model, differential ability to steward capital, plus compounding gains, implies that perfectly benevolent people with more money than most should keep it more often than a naive expected utility maximization would suggest. On the other hand, conquering empires also experience compounding gains; the ability to leverage force into more force implies that this is a harmful positive feedback loop.  Continue reading

Oops Prize update

I'm overdue to publish an update on the Oops Prize. It fell off my priority list because I received exactly one nomination. I followed up with the nominee and couldn't get enough clarification to confirm eligibility, but my sense was that while the nominee clearly changed their mind, it wasn't a particularly clear case of public error correction as specified in the prize criteria.

Since the Oops Prize remains unclaimed, I'm offering it again this year. To clarify, I don't think the prize amount is enough to incentivize overt error-correction on its own, but it might be enough to give people an incentive to bother informing me if such error correction is in fact happening.

If anyone at an EA Global conference this year publicly repudiates an old belief, and the efforts they made and asked others to make on this basis, and explained what they're doing differently, then I'd like to celebrate this. Since talk is cheap, I'm offering $1,000 in prize money for the best example of such error-correcting; $900 to the person who most clearly reports changing their mind about something big they’d already invested their time or money or credibility in and asked others to invest in, and $100 to the first person to nominate them. Self-nomination is encouraged.

To qualify, an entry has to have the following attributes:

  • It is explicitly error correction, not an account that spins things to look like a series of successes evolving over time, or "I used to think X, and now I think X'."
  • The nominee successfully encouraged a public commitment of resources based on the original belief (e.g. funds raised or volunteer hours).
  • There is a record of the error-correction statement. If it's not a recorded talk, an independent witness (neither the nominator nor prizewinner) is enough evidence.
  • It happened at EA Global, and either was part of a scheduled talk, or an independent witness (neither the nominator nor the nominee) believes that at least ten people were present.

Anyone who speaks at EA Global this year is eligible for the prize, including leaders of EA organizations such as CEA, EAG leadership, and GiveWell / Open Philanthropy Project staff. If no qualifying entries are submitted, then no prize will be awarded. I am the sole, unaccountable judge of this, but will get people to check my work if I don't think anyone's eligible or feel like I'm too close to the person I think should win.

You can send nominations to me by email at benjaminrhoffman@gmail.com. If the error-correction is already publicly available, or if the nominee gives me permission, I’ll announce the winner by the end of the year. If there is no public recording and the nominee isn’t OK with the error-correction being publicized in this way, then I reserve the right to award them only a partial prize or none at all.

Humans need places

If, when you try to improve the world, you think about people but not about communities, you will tend to favor unsustainable net outflows of resources from your community. I wrote about this in Why I am not a Quaker. Effective Altruist (EA) and Rationalist communities such as the one in the San Francisco Bay Area suffer from this problem. Occasionally individuals - more often than not women, more often than not uncompensated and publicly unacknowledged - do something constructive about this problem. I’m now aware of one such effort where the person involved (Sarah Spikes) is publicly willing to accept support: The Berkeley REACH. The fundraiser page is here.

Continue reading

Kidneys, trade, sacredness, and space travel

To the trader mindset, sacred values are nothing but a confusion; if you don’t like the deal, you just haven’t been offered a high enough price.

There’s something important the trader mindset can’t see. Its modus operandi is to take two different representations of value and profits from resolving discrepancies. It is agnostic as to the validity of those representations. Thus, the trade orientation tends to collapse the map-territory distinction, and in particular confuse exchange rates (i.e. prices) and stores of value.

Consider this music video:

The protagonist is fixated on an image that's been marketed to her by someone wealthy enough to control a planet. The image isn't very detailed, and she's willing to undertake a dangerous and arduous journey, which implies that things aren't very good back home.

She's in a world where travel is expensive. Somehow, improbably, in outer space, she has to pay a toll. This should clue us in that something sketchy is going on. Continue reading

What strange and ancient things might we find beneath the ice?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
-Hillel

Nature is not good, only proto-good.
-Paolo Soleri

Epistemic status: literally a dream

I awaken.

I am in the desert, alone.

I see the ribcage of a long-since-dead animal. I see a long row of such bones, twisted in a way that reminds me of - but is definitely not - the double helix.

I know what this means.

Evolution, on the margin, always eats free energy, to make more energy-eaters. It is a race with no upper bound, and there will be no victory. Instead, the cosmic commons will be exhausted by resource-claimers with no plan to do anything with the resources. Not that there will be anything left when the race is over.

If I do not take the next step in the dance of life, my line ends. I am just a corpse along the way.

If I do take the next step in the dance of life, then I do no better than life.

And if not now ...

Then I look again. Instead of bones I see a railroad. For longitudinal bones, metal tracks laid by the hand of industrial humanity, stretching in a straight line towards infinity. For ribs, the crossties that allow the uneven ground to support those even rails.

I know what this means.

The economic logic of global capitalism. Another race towards infinity, leaving nothing. Quarterly returns. Goodhart's law. Accountability and automation replacing judgment wherever they can, culminating in a Disneyland with no children. The symbol of this, the train, no natural place for the line of tracks to end, stations but no terminals, stretching on forever.

I look again. I see a road.

I awaken.  Continue reading

Cash transfers are not necessarily wealth transfers

Here’s a common argument:

The problem with the poor is that they haven’t got enough money. There’s ample empirical evidence backing this up. Therefore, the obviously-correct poverty intervention is to simply give the poor cash. You might be able to do better than this, but it’s a solid baseline and you should often expect to find that interventions are worse than cash.

There are technical reasons to be skeptical of cash transfers - which is why it is so important that the cash transfer charity GiveDirectly is carefully researching what actually happens when they give people cash - but until fairly recently, these objections seemed to me like abstruse nitpicks about an intervention that was almost analytically certain to be strongly beneficial.

But they’re not just nitpicks. Cash isn’t actually the same thing as human well-being, and the assumption that it can be simply exchanged into pretty much anything else is not obviously true.

Of course, saying “X is possibly wrong” isn’t very helpful unless we have a sense of how it’s likely to be wrong, under what circumstances. It’s no good to treat cash transfers just the same as before, but be more gloomy about it.

I’m going to try to communicate an underlying model that generates the appropriate kind of skepticism about interventions like cash transfers, in a way that’s intuitive and not narrowly technical. I’ll begin with a parable, and then talk about how it relates to real-world cases. Continue reading

Nightmare of the Perfectly Principled

My actual literal nightmares about civilizational collapse somehow manage to be insanely optimistic about human nature.

I dreamt that in response to the news of the Trumps’ probable successful intimidation or bribery of their New York prosecutors, the US devolved into a lawless hellscape, since the last shreds of pretense of “we’re punishing you because it’s what the law says” were gone. In my dream, I successively wished I’d transferred more of my assets to paper, then money, then gold, then firearms, as I realized how far things had gone.

If I’d been thinking sanely, the thing I should have wished I’d accumulated is the only real source of safety in a state of war: a bigger, better gang. But fundamentally, I should have known better than to imagine that things would collapse quickly.

What was I getting wrong? I was tacitly assuming that the majority of people were perfectly principled. Continue reading

Poets are intelligence assets

Aeschylus’s Oresteia is an ancient Greek tragedy about the dialectic between the natural desire for vengeance, order, and the rule of law. This is most likely what contemporaries thought the play was about, including Aeschylus himself.

It is also a play about sexual politics, and the relationship between the idea of the rule of law as actually implemented in the West, and patriarchy.

This is a good example of the well-known phenomenon in which literary criticism and other forms of textual analysis frequently get something “out of” the text that the author had no apparent intent of putting into it - and that many coherent narratives can be extracted from the same text. Far more than an author could plausibly have meant to put into the text. This is often taken as evidence that such readings are spurious.

Robin Hanson argued that one way to extract information from published studies that was comparatively uncontaminated by publication bias, was to look at the coefficients of control variables. The idea is that if your study is about, say, the effect of alcohol on life expectancy, journals may be unwilling to publish it if you get an improbable-seeming result, or no significant result. But less scrutiny is applied to the estimated effect of alcohol if you’re studying something else, and simply “control for” alcohol (i.e. include it in your model as a possible predictor).

Likewise, great literature is typically an integrated, multi-dimensional depiction. While there is a great deal of compression, the author is still trying to report how things might really have happened, to satisfy their own sense of artistic taste for plausibility or verisimilitude. Thus, we should expect that great literature is often an honest, highly informative account of everything except what the author meant to put into it. Continue reading