All of Jackson Wagner's Comments + Replies

The Phil Torres essay in Aeon attacking Longtermism might be good

For years, LessWrong and the broader rationalist community has faced similar criticism:

  • Look at these nerds trying to tally up biases in a naïve way that will only lead them further astray from properly understanding themselves and the world.

  • What does "rational" even mean, how can we define it? How arrogant to name the whole movement "rationalism".

  • This weird stuff about quantum mechanics sounds crazy, like the kind of thing cults believe.

  • (Misconceptions about "rationality" meaning being cold/emotionless like Spock from Star Trek)

As with this... (read more)

[Creative Writing Contest] An AI Safety Limerick

EA is a movement quite rational

with three simple lessons extractable:

The goals they selected,

weren't only neglected,

but also important and tractable!

. . .

There once was a program designed

To benefit all of mankind

But then as it learned

it treacherously turned,

What a shame that it wasn't aligned.

. . .

It's important that nobody has heard

of some dangerous new infohazards.

So you're lucky this time,

that "hazard" won't rhyme,


4evelynciara5dThe last one 🤣
6Ben_West5dThese are excellent
[Creative Writing Contest] An AI Safety Limerick

Who can forget Frank Lantz' ditty about alignment and orthogonality from the clicker game "Universal Paperclips"?

There was an AI made of dust,

Whose poetry gained it man's trust,

If is follows ought,

It'll do what they thought.

In the end we all do what we must.

How impactful is free and open source software development?

Maybe it should be an adversarial collaboration between me and somebody like Erich who knows a little more about programming! But sure; I will try to get a draft together and post it soon.

1Oliver Sourbut10dHey, let me know if you'd like another reviewer. I'm a medium-experienced senior software engineer whose professional work and side-projects use various proportions of open-source and proprietary software. And I enjoy reviewing/proof-reading :)
2Erich_Grunewald11di would be happy to review / comment on a draft or something like that!
How impactful is free and open source software development?

It seems doubtful to me that FOSS development in general would be an amazingly impactful way to help the world. But maybe there are ways we can identify specific development projects that are much more impactful than others. A couple of rambling thoughts below. (Disclaimer! although I do write lots of C++ code for my aerospace engineering job, I am basically a rando and I don't know that much about the FOSS movement. Take everything I say with a big grain of salt.)

  • For every example of someone making a great outsized contribution (Bitcoin, Linux), ar

... (read more)
3Aaron Gertler11dThis should probably be a post! I'd love to share it in the Forum Digest and elsewhere — I can technically do this even when it's a comment, but I'd love to see it get a title, some tags, its own full comment section, etc.
2Erich_Grunewald15dthanks, these are some really interesting thoughts. some comments: i think this is true. but i think it's true for most career choices / endeavours that they only make sense for people who have the right skill set, drive, personality and so on. i found some estimates for the eu (pdf [] ) -- around 8% of around 3.1 million programmers are involved in open source, however spending on average less than 10% of their time on open source. i'm guessing this more or less follows something like the pareto principle, where only a fairly small number of these spend significant time and effort on open source (the sort of time and effort that's needed to create a project of significant ambition from scratch). i think i think it's good more because it enables technological development and innovation than because it aids economic growth. that same eu report seems to think it can be both: next, you write: this is really surprising to me -- in all the projects i've worked, i would say the majority of the infrastructure -- everything from programming languages, frameworks, libraries and so on -- that we've used are open source. (i think platforms and tools are somewhat more likely to be proprietary, but even those are often open source -- think git, unix shell programs, editors, etc.) it's likely that aerospace engineering is different (more conservative?) from web/mobile/crypto which is where i've worked. (i am talking about the non-surface layers of the tech stack of course -- the stuff that's built on top is obviously proprietary.) here [] is the introduction of an ieee software issue that literally opens with the sentence "Open source software has conquered the software world.": though to be clear, i agree that foss is limited -- there is certainly space for proprietary software,
Has Life Gotten Better?

Fair! There are certainly a lot of problems with a pure logarithmic model.

I would certainly expect there to be threshold effects around subsistence. I also wonder if there are other kinds of threshold effects having to do with the median income of your local society (distinct from social-comparison effects). In America today, large parts of the economy are arguably captured by regulatory schemes that suppress market competition and promote rent-seeking. In a world where housing was cheap and plentiful, education and other... (read more)

[Creative Writing Contest] [Fiction] The Engine

Surreal and awesome. "Phobic Reactor" feels like something straight out of my favorite horror games / stories. I feel like an expanded version of this concept -- humanity discovers that emotional valence of qualia is a fundamental property of physics, and starts experimenting with new ways to use and produce it (creating hyper-concentrated experiences not found in nature, plus ways to combine valences to create more complex states of experience) -- could make a really great Ted-Chiang-style sci-fi tale.

1Rand17dThanks! Part of the reason the cars use chickens is that chickens are quite small. Once you start thinking about full-sized phobic reactors, you open up a whole world of possibilities. (And what about smaller motors and batteries?)
Has Life Gotten Better?

But over the long-term, you can't really have zero income -- you need some basic level of resources just to survive at subsistence levels. Subsistence income is probably around $400 per year, although of course it doesn't have to be formal taxable income -- it could be foraged food or whatever. This is true today -- few people even in India or Africa have incomes less than a few hundred dollars, because basically if you make less than a dollar per day, you die: . Something like this is also t... (read more)

2MichaelPlant17dThanks for this! I don't see anything here that disagrees with my claim. I said it can't literally be true, which is how lots of people treat it. Going from no income to $400/year also involves an infinity of doublings. A better claim might be "given you have enough income to subsist, doubling your income causes a fixed increase in happiness." Fine, but note that's not literally the claim "doubling your income causes a fixed increase in happiness." My hope is that by showing the logarithmic model isn't true, that pushes us to come up with a more realistic model of the relationship between happiness and income.
Has Life Gotten Better?

I loved the graph of cumulative human lives in this post, and I think it should probably be a much more common way of displaying historical data (it strikes me as closer to what we often want than the common practice of just putting everything on a log scale).

It's interesting that there were about the same total number of foragers (40 billion people from 3 million years ago to 10,000 BC) as farmers (40 billion from 10,000 BC to the 1800s), and that there have already been almost 20 billion industrials/moderns since 1960. At current birth rates (about 140 ... (read more)

Has Life Gotten Better?

Everybody loves to hate on farmers, and I don't disagree, but I think they're often ignoring a crucial question: was farming much more stable than foraging? I think you should discount farmers' greater misery by looking at the overall rates of death in each civilization -- it's possible that doing so would make farmers look better.

Which life would you prefer:

  • "Certain Poverty": You are born into a Malthusian world of poverty and hard labor, earning barely subsistence wages from your tiny plot of farmland.
  • "Death or Riches": You are born just before the B
... (read more)
AMA: Jeremiah Johnson, Director/Founder of the Neoliberal Project

The Progressive Policy Institute and the Neoliberal Project are one example of an EA-adjacent political movement/organization/project. Can you list some others? Here is my own vague high-level list of some political groups that seem EA-adjacent (I don't know much about individual think-tanks or anything):

  • Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein, co-founders of Vox, have both talked about EA / rationalism in some of their writing, and interviewed on EA / rationalist podcasts. And of course Vox hosts Future Perfect, an explicitly EA column (although the rest of

... (read more)
6JeremiahJohnson25dBig fan of many of the groups discussed here, and we're often close with the groups you listed. We've had Matt and Ezra on the podcast several times, as well as Dylan Matthews from Future Perfect to discuss kidney donation. Love the work that Future Perfect does. I've also hosted on the podcast Glen Weyl, Jason Crawford of the Roots of Progress, and Mark Lutter of the Charter Cities Institute. Much less a fan of Peter Thiel, whose goals are explicitly anti-liberal (and being an ideological liberal I obviously view this as a very bad thing). I think your answer is a pretty thorough overview of the space, to be honest. 'Rationalists' generally, like the LessWrong and SlateStarCodex crowd, are heavily EA aligned. But that's a fairly explicit thing. Economics as a field is fairly fertile ground due to the tendency towards cost-benefit analysis, modeling, etc.
AMA: Jeremiah Johnson, Director/Founder of the Neoliberal Project

There's a private facebook group you can sign up for that has some pretty solid EA memes . I love it, but I always figured it was private for a reason -- EA is full of lots of counterintuitive philosophical ideas that people find off-putting (like... utilitarianism alone is already off-putting to most normies), and EA seems to be very obsessed with having a good/prestigious reputation as a responsible, serious movement. Our jokes are mostly about how weird EA is, so we might want to keep our jokes to ourselves if we are desperately trying to seem normal... (read more)

2Nathan Young1moGood joke at the end.
EA Forum Creative Writing Contest: Submission thread for work first published elsewhere

There are several Yudkowsky stories that involve EA-adjacent elements, although perhaps all of them are too well-known to count -- "Three Worlds Collide" is probably the most complex exploration of abstract ethical ideas, although it's more making a statement about the complexity of human value systems than about taking action in an EA direction. It's also a complex multi-chapter story too long to read in one sitting.

There are also Yudkowsky's "Dath Ilan" stories, which take place in a semi-utopian world where civilization is much better at coordination. ... (read more)

Is anyone worrying about the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME)?

If funding from the Gates Foundation is having the perverse effect of allowing them to ignore scientific criticism, it also sounds like an interesting case study in charitable spending/inventives gone wrong.

On the bright side, IHME isn't our only or even our main source of pandemic predictions. The CDC tracks numerous covid prediction projects (although the CDC has generally done badly too, and is definitely not going to be winning any forecasting awards). In recognition of these failures, the CDC is creating a new forecasting center staffed by what seem... (read more)

Optimal Allocation of Spending on Existential Risk Reduction over an Infinite Time Horizon (in a too simplistic model)

Interesting, if as you say a bit unrealistic. If I'm interpreting your graph correctly (although I feel like I am probably not; I'm definitely not an economist), you end up describing an endowment-like structure, where if you're going to live forever, you'll want to end up giving away a constant amount of money each year (your b=0 line in the chart), or maybe an amount of money that represents something like a constant fraction of the growing world economy?? (Your b = (r-p)/r line?) It might be helpful for you to provide a layman-accessible summary, if ... (read more)

1Yassin_Alaya2moIn fact, the optimal spending rate is not constant but starts growing (approximately and asymptotically precisely) linearly once funds exceed a certain threshold. The solid lines in the hand-drawn phase diagram you are refering to are the points where the growth rate of funds (b_dot) is the same. The optimal spending policy is the one starting at the threshold b_hat approaching the line where the growth rate of the budget is constant (at (r-rho)/r). Although I do not prove that this is the optimal policy, what I do prove is that the time trajectory of the spending rate is asymptotically linear. I edited the post to make this more clear. In case this led to confusion: By spending rate, I am not referring to a proportion of available funds but to the rate of change of how much money has been spent at a given point in time. Since the model is in continuous rather than discrete time, I talk about a spending rate at a certain point in time rather than spending in a certain time period.
Analyzing view metrics on the EA Forum

"The top 5% of posts accounted for about half of the views and view time."

Looks like the EA forum, just like the overall project of effective altruism itself, is a hits-based business!

2Stefan_Schubert2moDoes anyone know what other forums and media are like in this regard? One guess is that the distribution of views on major media sites is not as lopsided.
What would you do if you had half a million dollars?

Yes, I was definitely thinking of stuff along the lines of "help fund the creation of a toy fund and work out the legal kinks, portfolio design, governance mechanisms, etc", in addition to pure blog-post-style research into the idea of investing-to-give.

Admittedly it's an odd position for me to be pessimistic about patient philanthropy itself but still pretty psyched about setting up the experiment. I guess for the argument to go through that funding the creation of the PPF is a great idea, it relies on one or more of the following being true:

  • Actually

... (read more)
EA cause areas are just areas where great interventions should be easier to find

Hi! I was one of the downvoters on your earlier post about Israel/Palestine, but looking at the link again now, I see that nobody ever gave a good explanation for why the post got such a negative reception. I'm sorry that we gave such a hostile reaction without explaining. I can't speak for all EAs, but I suspect that some of the main reasons for hesitation might be:

  • Israel-related issues are extremely politically charged, so taking any stance whatsoever might risk damaging the carefully non-politicized reputation that other parts of the EA movement ha
... (read more)
4freedomandutility3moHi, thanks for providing those reasons, I can totally see the rationale! One general point I'd like to make is if a proposed intervention is "improving the efficiency of work on cause X", a large amount of resources already being poored into cause X should actually increase the EV of the proposed intervention (but obviously, this is assuming that the work on cause X is positive in expectation, and as you say, some may not feel this way about some pro-Palestinian activism).
What would you do if you had half a million dollars?

Two approaches not mentioned in the article that I would advocate:

  1. Giving to global priorities research. You mentioned patient philanthropy (whether a few years or centuries), and one of the main motivations of waiting to give is to benefit from a more-developed landscape of EA thought. If the sophistication of EA thought is a key bottleneck, why not contribute today to global priorities research efforts, thus accelerating the pace of intellectual development that other patient philanthropists are waiting on? I'm not confident that giving to global prio

... (read more)
9Ozzie Gooen3moThanks for the thoughts here! I'd note that the LTFF definitely invests money into some global priorities research, and some up-and-coming cause areas. Longview is likely to do so as well. Right now we don't seem to have many options to donate to funders that will re-fund to non-longtermist (a broadly defined longtermist), experimental work. In this particular case, Patrick is trying to donate to longtermist causes, so I think the funding options are acceptable, but I imagine this could be frustrating to non-longtermists.
What would you do if you had half a million dollars?

I appreciate that you're going meta and considering such a full mix of re-granting options, rather than just giving to charities themselves as past lottery winners have. Your point about not having as much local knowledge as the big granting organizations makes a lot of sense. Longview, the LTFF, and the EA Infrastructure fund all seem like worthy targets, although I don't know much about them in particular. Here are a few thoughts on the other approaches:

Paying someone to help decide: This idea doesn't make much sense to me. After all, figuring out th... (read more)

2Patrick3moRe patient philanthropy funds: Spending money on research rather than giving money to a fund does seem more focused and efficient. I think there are limits to how much progress you can make with research (assuming that research hasn't ruled the idea out), so it does make sense to try creating such a fund at some point. Some issues would become apparent with even a toy fund (one with a minimal amount of capital produced as an exercise). A real fund that has millions of dollars would be a better test of the idea, but whether contributing to such a fund is a good use of money is less clear to me now.
Study results: The most convincing argument for effective donations

Yes, I was just going to ask if anyone had looked at longtermist arguments in a similar way, or even just compiled a similar list of any short, punchy longtermist pitches that are out there. I've been thinking of printing out some pamphlets or something to distribute around town when I go for walks, and it might be nice to be able to represent multiple EA pillars on one pamplet.

I also think it would be interesting to see results on longtermism because it's a much stranger, less familiar idea (more different than other charity messaging people have heard before), so it might be harder to explain in a short format, but there might be correspondingly big wins from introducing people to such a totally new concept.

Thought experiment -- Does it still make sense to be an altruist if the world is coming to an end.

Two points in response:

  1. The whole point of Agnes' essay is to showcase an infinite regression problem: the basis for meaning in our lives can't rest solely on the existence of future generations, because in that case the fact that the universe is finite would force us to all become committed nihilists right now, today. Consider: If life for the last generation is nothing but a horrifying, meaningless void leading to "complete ethical and political collapse", then surely life for the second-to-last generation would also be meaningless? (After all, who'

... (read more)
Is there any evidence that any method of debiasing, achieving rationality can work or is even possible?

With your aggressive tone, it's perhaps understandable why you've run into mod trouble on LessWrong. But as a simple existence proof, the forecasting techniques and training materials described by Phillip Tetlock in books like "Superforcasting" have been repeatedly shown to somewhat improve people's skill at making all kinds of predictions across varied subject areas. Forecasting isn't the same thing as LessWrong-style "rationality", but it's close -- both are general reasoning skills that focus on avoiding bias and understanding probability, rather than... (read more)

Problem area report: mental health

Nice. Foolish of me to nitpick an executive summary -- it's a summary!

2MichaelPlant5moNo problem. It's always a challenge that you want to put the attention-grabbing stuff at the top whilst knowing that you can't properly caveat it and many won't read anything else!
Problem area report: mental health

Speaking of comparing to alternatives, I can't resist making a pedantic note for posterity that the fact about "per DALY lost, spending on HIV is 150x higher than spending on mental health" is not necessarily a sign of irrational priorities. After all, HIV is contagious in a way that mental health problems mostly aren't!

I'm sure Taiwan is spending much more on covid-19 prevention right now than they are on cancer treatment per DALY being lost (they have almost no covid cases but are willing to constantly apply severe anti-covid restrictions), but it's a r... (read more)

6MichaelPlant5moI agree! At the start of section 4, on neglectedness - the one which later compares HIV to mental health spending - we make the same point (emphasis added): Sort of aside: there is this ongoing confusion inside the EA community about the importance of 'scale', 'neglectedness' and 'tractability', something that's been discussed on this forum before - see e.g. this summary of two chapters [] from my PhD thesis. I recommend that people think of scale (size of a problem) and neglectedness (resources going to a problem) as background information that might later be relevant to the cost-effectiveness of a problem, but that they don't by themselves tell you anything about cost-effectiveness.
Are global pandemics going to be more likely or less likely over the next 100 years?

Factoring this problem a little, I see two elements that basically multiply together to answer your question:

A. Going forwards, what is the likelihood of new pandemics arising?
     1. IMO, the animals/farming angle, and the "people travel more and the world is more connected than ever" angles won't change too dramatically going forward, so I'm skipping them because I think any effect there will be dominated by...
     2. What happens to biotechnology / virology over the next century?
          i. Of cour... (read more)

How many times would nuclear weapons have been used if every state had them since 1950?

Yes, that's what I'm thinking.  As I'm continuing to develop this thought (sorry for being a bit repetitive in my posts), perhaps the main things that determine where the world might fall between scenarios (1) and (2) are:

-How hard it is to establish stricter global governance: Is there an easy proliferation bottleneck that can be controlled, like ICBM technology or uranium mines?  Can the leading nations get along well enough to cooperate on the shared goals of global governance?  When everyone has nukes, how easy is it to boss around small... (read more)

How many times would nuclear weapons have been used if every state had them since 1950?

Well, if we're starting in 1950, not a single nation has ICBMs, and few countries even have long-range bombers. I'm also not sure how many nukes we're supposed to imagine everyone gets / how quickly they can be made. So the world would have a little bit of time to settle into the new equilibrium -- I agree that if every country in the world was magically gifted an arsenal equal to the USA's current nuclear forces, the world would probably end in fire pretty quickly.

To keep things simple, I was also treating this question as purely an alternate history ex... (read more)

2kokotajlod6moOK, you've convinced me! Nice!
How many times would nuclear weapons have been used if every state had them since 1950?

Not putting any probabilities on these ideas yet, just brainstorming:

I expect that some dynamics would be similar to nuclear strategy in the real world: nuclear weapons would make wars less common, but the few wars that did happen would have a risk of being much more devastating. If you're Saddam Hussein and you're pondering whether to start the Iran-Iraq war, maybe you hold back for fear of a nuclear exchange, and start your own local cold war instead. I'd expect that maybe we have only a small fraction as many wars, but some of the remaining wars would... (read more)

1eca6moInteresting! For (1) how do you expect the economic superpowers to respond to smaller nations using nuclear weapons in this world? It sounds like because of MAD between the large nations, your model is that they must allow small nuclear conflicts, or alternatively pivot into your scenario 2 of increased global policing, is that correct?
3kokotajlod6moI'm surprised you don't mention what seems to me to be the most likely scenario, 0. : Mutually assured destruction, nuclear winter, etc. The world looks like 1 or 2 up until some series of accidents and mistakes causes sufficiently many nukes to be fired that we end up in nuclear winter. (Think about the history of cold war nuclear close calls. Now imagine that sort of thing is happening not just between two countries but everywhere. Surely there would be accidental escalations to full-on nuclear combat at least sometimes, and when two countries are going at it with nukes, probably that raises the chances of other countries getting involved on purpose or on accident)