Author Archives: Benquo

LLMs for language learning

My current outlook on LLMs is that they are some combination of bullshit to fool people who are looking to be fooled, and a modest but potentially very important improvement in the capacity to search large corpuses of text in response to uncontroversial natural-language queries and automatically summarize the results. Beyond this, I think they’re massively overhyped. The most aggressive hype is that they are an AGI development project - in other words, that they’re close to being conscious, generative minds on the same order as ours, which can do as wide a range of tasks as a human. This is clearly false. The more moderate hype is that they can do meaningful generative work within the domain where they were trained: written language content (which can of course be converted to and from audio language content pretty well). For instance, they might in some limited sense be able to internally represent the content of the language they're indexing and reproducing. This would necessarily entail the capacity for "regular expressions for natural language." I believe that even this much more limited characterization is false, but I am less confident in this case, and there are capacities they could demonstrate that would change my mind. Language learning software seems like a good example. It seems to me that if LLMs contain anything remotely like the capacity of regular expressions for natural language that take into account the semantic values of words, they should make it relatively easy to create a language learning app that is strictly better than the best existing automated resources for smartphone users trying to learn the basics of a new-to-them language.

Continue reading

Gentrification and Nationalism

In the Feudal system that succeeded the old Roman empire, owning land predominantly meant holding the right to tax the people who lived on that land. One could in principle do other things to those people (if you can't credibly threaten to destroy or expel them, it's hard to collect taxes), but for the most part, taxes and labor levies were the best use feudal lords knew how to or cared to make of their lands. There were some limitations and exceptions, determined by a combination of custom, law, and explicit contracts. Peasants farmed to survive, and often improved the land they lived on because of a customary expectation that they'd get to benefit from the improvements.

The bourgeois revolution of the 17th century, pioneered by the Dutch Calvinists, replaced the old feudal property system with one oriented around owner-operators, whose clear title to the land they interacted with meant that they could more profitably improve it, and borrow against their assets to finance such improvements. This led to a productivity advantage for areas that operated on the new rules.

Theodore Herzl is widely regarded as the founder of modern Zionism. His substantive proposal was for Jews to buy cheap land in Palestine from people living under Ottoman rule, improve it, and live in the newly valuable land. This was expected to be a sustainable trade in part because wealthy Ottoman landholders were in practice operating according to older, feudal customs, collecting rent from peasant tenants. Herzl's Ashkenazi Jews, well positioned to convert this land to a bourgeois system, could capture more economic value than they paid the land's prior owners.

These trades were mutually beneficial among the explicit parties to the transaction, but since peasants who were thereby forced off the land frequently had no legal claim to it under Ottoman law, they were generally not compensated for their loss. This sort of change in property regime is similar to Britain's earlier experience with the Enclosure Acts, and created similar sorts of social dysfunction. It is also similar to smaller-scale processes of displacement called "gentrification," in which people with access to new higher-wage jobs in an area - or more generally, people with a relation to the state that allows them to capture more of the value created by activities they are involved in - rent or buy homes that used to be occupied by people with lower incomes, thus driving up home rents and forcing the old tenants in an area to move elsewhere. The situation is also similar to cases where leveraged buyouts allowed outside investors to purchase companies, and increase shareholder profits by breaking promises made by management to employees.

In all these cases, part of the profit of the trade comes from exploiting the difference between the older customary mode of cooperation, and the explicit rights recognized by the central enforcing authority.

Whether the people thus disenfranchised were defenseless because they had been operating according to higher-trust assumptions, or whether they had simply accepted a bad deal because they didn't have the power to negotiate a better one with their oppressors, it is reasonable for such people to interpret their displacement in terms of conflict rather than economics. If the trade is genuinely one that increases total value, it ought to be possible to compensate the losers adequately for their loss, and not to do so constitutes a sort of aggression, even if lawful. And if the trade cannot be structured in a way that leaves everyone better off, then it is simply a transfer of wealth from some people to others, and thus zero-sum.

The gentrification story is incomplete; it cannot explain why Europe's Jews were the ones executing this trade - and as an explicitly collective enterprise. This happened in part because bourgeois capitalist revolution coexisted with zero-sum territorial competition among emerging European states.

Continue reading

Discursive Warfare and Faction Formation

Response to Discursive Games, Discursive Warfare

The discursive distortions you discuss serve two functions:

1 Narratives can only serve as effective group identifiers by containing fixed elements that deviate from what naive reason would think. In other words, something about the shared story has to be a costly signal of loyalty, and therefore a sign of a distorted map. An undistorted map would be advantageous for anyone regardless of group membership; a distorted map is advantageous only for people using it as an identifying trait. Commercial mapmakers will sometimes include phantom towns so that they (and courts) can distinguish competitors who plagiarized their work from competitors who independently mapped the same terrain. Point deer make horse can catalyze the formation of a faction because it reduces motive ambiguity in a way that "point deer make deer" could not.

"Not Invented Here" dynamics are part of this. To occupy territory, an intellectual faction has to exclude alternative sources of information. I think you're talking about this when you write:

LessWrong rationalism might be able to incorporate ideas from analytic into its own framework, but the possibility of folding LessWrong rationalism into analytic, and in some sense dissolving its discursive boundaries, transforms the social and epistemic position of rationalist writers, to being more minor players in a larger field, on whose desks a large pile of homework has suddenly been dumped (briefing on the history of their new discursive game).

2 Individuals and factions can rise to prominence by fighting others. You can make a debate seem higher-stakes and therefore more attractive to spectators by exaggerating the scope of disagreement.

The opposition to postmodernist thought on LessWrong is enacting this sort of strategy. Analytic philosophy attracts attention in part by its opposition to Continental philosophy, and vice versa. LessWrong is broadly factionally aligned with the Analytic party, in favor of Modernism and therefore against its critics, in ways that don't necessarily correspond to propositional beliefs that would change in the face of contrary evidence. Eliezer can personally notice when Steven Pinker is acting in bad faith against him, but the LessWrong community is mood-affiliated with Steven Pinker, and therefore implicitly against people like Taleb and Graeber.

These two functions can mutually reinforce.

Continue reading

Why I am no longer anti-Trump

The first time Trump was the Republican nominee for President of the United States, I strongly advised readers to vote against him in the 2016 election. I no longer think that there is strong reason to believe that he's an exceptionally bad actor or likely to be exceptionally harmful. Paul Christiano has asked via Facebook1 for the best arguments against Trump's exceptional criminality or destructiveness, and this seems a good time for me to render an account of how and why I changed my mind.

Continue reading

Happy Birthday to My Firstborn Baby Boy: A Memoir

Once I had my first couple of gout attacks, I read somewhere that people who'd experienced both said it was more unpleasant than childbirth, that supposedly indescribable suffering by which women martyr themselves for the continuation of the human race. Gout sure is painful, but not indescribably or infinitely so. It just hurts a lot in one spot, and more if there's even slight pressure on it - enough pain that at times I experienced it as patterns of light rather than an embodied sensation. There is no virtue in suffering, but if I could thereby make a new person, composed of a mixture of the core instructions for building my own body and those for somebody else I loved who would help me care for and cultivate that new person, then I would go off allopurinol for long enough to endure a few days of pain. My reproductive partner can speak for herself if she wishes, but my impression of labor was that it bore little resemblance to the acute panicked episodes depicted on television and in popular movies. Several months of deep massage by Valentin Rozlomii doubtless helped, as did some movement exercises she found on YouTube (some curb walking earlier in the day, and the Miles Circuit later at night), and half a tab of acid shortly before labor. By the time we arrived at the hospital, she was fully dilated and ready to give birth.

Labor, it turns out, is aptly named. It is not inherently torturous; it is a great deal of work, which calls for strength, flexibility, and stamina, for which one can be more or less ready for. Like many sorts of labor, birth labor is more of a distressing ordeal if one is simultaneously attempting to maintain a class persona with its attending stereotyped patterns of stiffness and selective dissociation. And like many other sorts of labor, it can be made onerous by various efforts at coercive extraction.

On the "due" date, my partner's ob/gyn did not consult with her about her preferences, her situation, or likely risks and benefits, but simply informed us that she was scheduling an induction in a week's time. The expedients mentioned above were a successful attempt to autoinduce just before the deadline, after which we had been advised that induction might not be available if we didn't accommodate the schedule. We remain skeptical that they would have refused in a true medical emergency; it was most likely a compliance scare tactic. Even so, it worked at least a little.

Once we were set up in a hospital room, the nurses issued strident instructions to my partner about how to pose, and how to push. Afterwards, my partner told me that she wished I'd advocated harder to give her space, as the instructions had served only to confuse her, contradicting her own experience of her body - especially, instructing her to experience pushing out a baby as though it felt like defecation, even though she could tell perfectly well that a different pattern of muscular activity was needed. Such instructions might perhaps be helpful for women who do not understand their own bodies well enough to distinguish between their reproductive and digestive musculature - though I suspect there is no clear, intersubjectively verifiable evidence for this like a randomized controlled trial - but were actively harmful in this case. Eventually, the nurses relented and gave her some time to rest, and my partner was able to tune in to her own body and make measurable progress on freeing our baby from her body, but she was so exhausted from following bad instructions that she agreed to a vacuum-assisted extraction, which, fortunately, not only succeeded at bringing the baby out into the world, but does not seem to have inflicted any lasting harm.

I had likewise heard and read many times that caring for a newborn is a torturous ordeal, like a forced march or sleep deprivation torture. What I have found is that caring for my baby in his first year of life was not torture or an unnatural-feeling ordeal. What it is, is a lot of work, which limits how much other work one can do at the same time without compromising one's health.

Continue reading

There seems to be a market failure in cultivating children's agency.

Watching this monkey eating a banana has me thinking about the market for nondestructive education:

Video 1

Video 2

My son is learning to orient in space by manipulating the banana. There's a natural reward involved in figuring out how to rotate the banana correctly, distinguishing between the sides in an internal model rather than gradient-descending towards one end (which may or may not yield the sweet flesh inside), figuring out the difference between bringing the peel to his mouth and bringing the inside.

The biggest thing that distinguishes this from how I mostly see people treating babies is patience - I had to sit through him getting confused and a little frustrated multiple times, and distinguish between challenges big enough for him to process, and the point where he was about to spiral into helpless sadness, and only intervene in the latter case. And of course I had to make other active choices as well, like giving him a banana, and not "baby food."

For some particular skills or fields that a child expresses an interest in, it may make sense to employ domain experts, but - especially at the beginning - it seems to me like what's most needed is someone to arrange an enriched environment in the first place, and give the child both the stimulation and the room to investigate freely the sorts of things that would be valuable for them to investigate.

More recently, he responded to me playing a few simple songs for him on the ukulele at first by bucking his hips in a simple "dance," but soon afterwards by deciding he'd rather figure out how to pluck the strings himself.

Another example - at early ages, the "language program" that would make most sense, would be to hire native speakers of the target languages, chosen on the basis of how valuable the target language is and the availability of suitable native speakers, just like my partner and I choose his foods and toys based on suitability. These native speakers wouldn't mainly have the job "language teacher," but "playmate" - around and willing to play with the children exclusively or primarily in their native language. Depending on the scale of the overall program, children could to some extent choose how much to engage with this, just like my son chooses to play with some objects more than others.

At present, I don't know how to pay for that kind of curation and facilitation oriented child care at any scale that would free up my time. I keep hearing good things in the abstract about things like Montessori schools, but in practice, it doesn't seem like the people I know have access to this sort of thing, no matter how much money they're willing to throw at the problem, no matter how well-connected they are - to the contrary, the success rate in having one's child accepted by any school as worthy of attention seems surprisingly low. People tend to talk around the problem, using language around developmental disability or autism - but they do so in cases where their child is very obviously not autistic, just very slightly rambunctious and uncowed. The majority of the families I'd have regarded as most promising seem to only barely have access to schooling at all.

Which would suggest offering to sell it instead - but my impression is that there's no market for it either at a price that would satisfy the Law of Iron Wages, i.e. be adequate to pay for the reproduction of my skilled labor.

Related but not the same thing:

What is a republic? A Roman aristocratic perspective.

Colleen McCullough was a well-respected mainstream novelist (The Thornbirds), with a background in neurology, and a personal interest in Roman history. I found out about her on a Reddit thread when I was looking up terms for Roman military commanders for my in-progress book on Spinoza.

McCullough seems to have been mainly trying to make sense of the late Republican period and the transition to the Imperial model. Some things in the secondary sources didn't make total sense to her, so she resorted to the primary sources, and reasoning. She used the idea that everything happens for a reason to infer events not explicitly recorded, when they were the best explanation for the historical record. The sorts of inferences she permitted herself include reasoning backwards from their words and actions about the likely character, motives, and unobserved circumstances of the people involved. For instance, she infers from Marius's occasional incapacitating fits, and changed, erratic behavior late in life, that he suffered a series of strokes. And she infers from the signs of an unlikely friendship between Marius and Sulla, connections between Sulla and the Dictator Julius Caesar, and some extant marriage records, that Marius and Sulla married into the Julius Caesar family and thus became friends. She also considered the possibility that the record could be distorted, so long as that was consistent with the motives, circumstances, and characters producing that record. For instance, she has to alter the date of one of Cicero's speeches for the purposes of her story, but permits herself to do so because it was a speech that would have been embarrassing for Cicero, but less so if its date were misrecorded, so he had a motive to get the date wrong.

Masters of Rome is her attempt to lay out what she thinks actually happened, in the form of a series of historical novels. And while the series has some literary flaws*, especially in the first book, it's also by far the best vampire story I've encountered.

More precisely, it seems like an attempt at a realistic, historically accurate account of the kinds of people and events that very obviously would have inspired a vampire myth.

Continue reading

Guilt, Shame, and Depravity

Everyone knows what it is to be tempted.  You are a member of some community, the members of which have some expectations of each other.  You might generally intend to satisfy these expectations, but through a failure of foresight, or some other sort of bad luck, feel an acute impulse to consume something that is not yours to take, or in some other way break commitments you would generally want to honor.

Continue reading

It is immoral to condemn the player but decline to investigate the game.

Context: Sadly, FTX

FTX defrauded users in a way that is normal for cryptocurrency. But the FTX fraud is a function of the normal system working normally. Like ordinary financialized firms, FTX grew by making leveraged promises. Spotty regulatory attention to cryptocurrency gave it sufficient legal cover to make it easy for people to speculate on it, while effectively allowing participants puff up a speculative bubble by engaging in more aggressive leverage than is tolerated in other areas, often shading into overt fraud.

If you were to randomly audit the books of institutions run by people who look from the outside like Bankman-Fried did prior to the FTX blowup, the level of shenanigans he engaged in would not look like an outlier; his ability to do unusual things with a disproportionate amount of capital was approximately titrated to his willingness to take on liability, i.e. borrow more than he could pay.

I do not have a strong opinion on whether South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was too merciful, but I do not think anyone can legitimately think that it was not merciful enough; amnesty extended to those who have not yet confessed, and continue to occupy positions of power that can choke off their critics' access to resources and attention, is not part of a reconciliation, but license to continue to offend. If the investigation of the FTX fraud goes no farther than the individual at its nominal head, then it is extending such a license to those who created and endorsed the system in which Bankman-Fried was trying to do the right thing.

Continue reading