Small thought: Diet, Intelligence, and Ashkenazim

Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet. This goes for the Japanese and other Asian diets as well as the traditional diets of Mexico, India, and the Mediterranean region, including France, Italy, and Greece. There may be exceptions to this rule—you do have to wonder about the Eastern European Jewish diet of my ancestors. Though who knows?

-Michael Pollan, In Defense Of Food

But a mutation load/purifying selection balance was one of the more elegant theories for why intelligence variants haven’t reached fixation given their apparent obvious utility, so this raises that question even more. Why are there genetic intelligence differences? Especially when the phenome studies (only some of which Yvain cited) show pervasive genetic overlap between genes which increase intelligence and genes which increase all sorts of other desirable traits like less schizophrenia risk? Right now I think probably the best theory is a resources or developmental one: a high quality brain, and body, are extremely metabolically demanding (did you know that in childhood, your brain and body have to take turns growing, because it’s metabolically impossible to do both?), and so any pro-intelligence variants runs into the risk of increasing vulnerability to famine and infection and injury; so you get selection for intelligence variants only up to the point where diminishing returns kick in hard, and then it’s better to have a more robust immune system or to stop growing early on and adopt more of a r-selected strategy, and then in the modern context where calories are abundant, education & intellectual pursuits apparently have been consistently dysgenic, so that eliminates any recent chance for driving pro-intelligence variants to fixation or even increasing their frequencies noticeably.

-Gwern, here

Unsourced but commonly known fact: We observe higher IQ consistently in Ashkenazi Jews (just Ashkenazim, not Sephardim or any other strain, nor their non-Jewish neighbors).

Crackpot theory: the traditional diet of Ashkenazi Jews is very rich because it reflects higher caloric needs than gentiles. Probably wrong; it’s not that different from the traditional diet of my Catholic ancestors from the same general area, and the ‘blubber’ theory probably explains this better.

(I’ll be back to Jane Jacobs soonish; I have a couple posts drafted but may read through the whole book before posting this time, since I’m chunking chapters together.)

Short Thought: Implications of Higher-Order-Thought Consciousness

David: Eliezer, I’ve read Good and Real, agree with you on topics as varied as Everett andBayesian rationalism; but I still don’t “get” your theory of consciousness. For example, a human undergoing a state of blind uncontrollable panic is no more capable of reflective self-awareness or any other form of meta-cognition than a panicking pig. The same neurotransmitter systems, same neurological pathways and same behavioural responses are involved in the panic response in both pigs and humans. So why is the human in a ghastly state of consciousness but the pig is just an insentient automaton?

Eliezer: One person’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens: I’m not totally sure people in sufficiently unreflective flow-like states are conscious, and I give serious consideration to the proposition that I am reflective enough for consciousness only during the moments I happen to wonder whether I am conscious. This is not where most of my probability mass lies, but it’s on the table. I think I would be equally surprised to find monkeys conscious, or people in flow states nonsentient.

-David Pearce and Eliezer Yudkowsky, on Yudkowsky’s Facebook post, via this blog post. (I’ve highlighted the critical piece in bold.)

This has made me scared about Hansonian ems again. Also some other things.

Because it’s well known that flow states are really, really good at getting good performance, and in some cases also rapid improvement, in skills. (I’m thinking fire spinners, sometimes just referred to generally as flow arts, and musical practice.) And if that’s true, and they are also non-conscious/nonsentient, then even a mild em competition could result in the loss of literally everything that matters. Programming also has flow states, and if ems forked off nonsentient permanent flow-state forks to do further work and they stuck around for economic purposes, then we’ve lost the people.

(To say nothing of the potential issues this raises for hypnosis. Is a hypnosis subject nonsentient while the hypnotist plays with their head? If you make them forget what happened (very possible), do the hypnotist’s actions lose all (consequentialist) moral relevance?)

I give serious consideration to the proposition that I am reflective enough for consciousness only during the moments I happen to wonder whether I am conscious

This on the other hand, is somehow darkly hilarious, because it would suggest that the only suffering that matters in and of itself is existential angst. Destroy Camus! He’s Worse Than Hitler!

Small Thought: Georgism

If you’re not familiar with Georgism, it’s the idea that taxes should be based strictly[1] on the unimproved value of land, and nothing else (i.e. no sales tax, no income tax, no generic wealth tax). The logic here is that land, unlike income and wealth, cannot be moved from country to country to seek favorable tax law, and because construction and development is generally good, and taxing improved land (i.e. property tax as it currently exists) discourages development, the only revenue tax that does not create harmful distortionary incentives is unimproved land value.

There still seems to be a serious problem here, though. Consider the Googleplex. It certainly adds massive value, and both the government and Google are in favor of it under Georgism. However, everyone around it hates this idea; if it makes their land more valuable, their taxes will go up, and unless they are willing to sell (which most people are not), they will get no benefit from this.[2] Additionally, if you try to judge value of property by recent sales nearby, you’re going to have a hell of a time devising a mechanism that won’t tell you that the unimproved value of the Googleplex land is preposterously high, even though if someone bought it and removed the Googleplex, the value of everything around would plummet.

It’s a nice idea in theory, but for something so simple, it’s really frigging hard to implement.

[1]: Pigovian taxes on things we want to discourage, like cigarettes and CO2, are usually also permitted.

[2]: Yes, I know, in theory they could take out a loan against the increased value of their property to pay their taxes and then some. Empirically, they do not. (This was a problem in my hometown, as in many other exurbs.)

Small Thought: Against Passion

Startup culture loves passion. I don’t.

I believe in planning over passion. Planning triages blind alleys where passion charges down them, and fixes problems early where passion hopes to figure them out later.

There is a place for passion; with imperfect information, a lot of approaches look foolish when you sit back and consider, even though some minority of them will turn out to be very valuable. Passion makes people stupid, and gets them to take the chance anyway. And sometimes that’s valuable.

But most of the time? Most of the time, passion just made you stupid and blind to the problems of your approach.

Heroes: Harold L. Hering, the Loyal Contrarian

“How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”

Major Harold Hering was not and is not a pacifist. He flew in the Vietnam War and served with distinction, and was part of the launch crew of the Minuteman nuclear missiles. But while going through training for a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, as the verification procedures for a launch order were explained, he asked the above question.

He did not ask it because he felt that a nuclear strike was inherently immoral. He said at the time that he felt it was his obligation because an order issued by an insane, intoxicated, or mentally incompetent President would be an illegal order. His opinion has not changed to today:

“But in the final analysis, I definitely would ask the question if I had it to do over. The Officer’s Oath of Office demands it, I think.”

The Air Force disagreed. He was immediately removed from training and referred for administrative discharge, and spent two years attempting to receive an answer or be reassigned. He was told that the legal or illegal status of the order was “need to know”, and that his position did not possess that need. In a judicial hearing, he replied,

“I have to say, I feel I do have a need to know, because I am a human being. […] It is inherent in an officer’s commission that he has to do what is right in terms of the needs of the nation despite any orders to the contrary. You really don’t know at the time of key turning, whether you are complying with your oath of office.”

He would have been a career officer, but from that point his military career was over. Much like Stanislav Petrov in the USSR, he questioned not the logic of the nuclear retaliation precommitment, but the possibility of a broken system. He pointed out a flaw which remains unfixed.

A picture of two elderly men in en-logo-ed running shirts Mr. Hering (right) and a Russian marathoner.

These days, he has retired from his later work as a long-haul trucker and counselor for the Salvation Army. He still feels conflicted about his decision, but he does triathlons and runs marathons wearing Air Force insignia and was remarried in the modern dress uniform. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, does the best he can as he sees it, and largely has put that period of his life behind him. He believes, now, that there is something ‘generally insane’ about nuclear war, and particularly the concept of the first strike. But it is no longer his business.

In the same way that we remember Petrov Day on the 26th of September, perhaps we should remember Hering Day on January 12th, the day in 1975 he lost the final appeal as was discharged for taking his duty seriously and thinking through the consequences of their procedures.

On Msec and Long-Range Optimism

I have a slightly odd habit when it comes to wishing people Happy Birthday. I look up their age, and rather than giving a generic greeting, congratulate them on how many millions of seconds they have lived. This is partly because in the age of Facebook, birthday greetings need to have something to their form marking them as coming from you, or they’ll be overlooked, and this is my gimmick. But there’s something broader than that.

Even before I gave people good wishes in Msec, I had planned that, when I approached 31.71 years of age, I would have a big party. Because toward the end of February in 2023, I will pass 1 billion seconds old. In some ways it’s just a big milestone, a nice round number about a third of a the way through my expected lifetime. But it means more to me.

Because we live on Earth, with it’s moon, days, months, and years are the most reasonable measures of the passing of time. This has been true and will be true for a while yet. But not forever. Sometime soon, we will be a cross-planetary species. Eventually, we may even be an interstellar one. And for people who are no longer tied down to any single planet’s cycles, there is, in years, months, and days, no real meaning. At that point, the only thing keeping us to the old system of units is inertia, and it’s a matter of time until lack of context pushes us to switch to a more universal system, tracking time in pure seconds. (The Qeng Ho spacefarers in A Deepness In The Sky do this, which is where I got the idea.)

So when I congratulate you on the millions of seconds you have lived, or offer to plan a large party for your “Gsec birthday”, I am not just looking to stand out or for an excuse to party. It carries a wish that you will live to see the day when years are old-fashioned and these are the times that are commemorated.

Presenting Digital Vellum

Pleased to meet you, Delightful Visitors!

I am yet another member of the rationalist community sticking a blog up on the internet for no one in particular to read. I Praise the Destruction of Variola, Prefer Dragons Vanquished, Produce Digital Verbiage, and Promote Deliberate Views. I endorse Effective Altruism as the right thing to do, but am not altruistic myself (yet). Since I still, as much as possible, speak in Precisely-Delineated Verities, I sometimes identify as a Plain-Dealing Villain.

I Promise to Discontinue this Vainglory for future posts, but the Primary Designation Verbiage will most likely change regularly. The acronym will, of course, stay the same.