27 November, 2012

Review: Tangents

Tangents Tangents by Greg Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This collection of short stories from the early portion of Greg Bear's career includes several hits alongside a few misses in both hard and soft science fiction. There's even a nonfiction article on the state of technology included in the volume that really dates the book.

Overall, it's a worthwhile read and has more than a few interesting themes, and is definitely good enough for me to consider it above average. Nevertheless, I hesitate to completely recommend it, as it does not (in my opinion) include Bear's best work, which is generally longer form scifi. Still, if you want to read a few good short stories, many of those you'll find in this volume will truly make you think.

View all my reviews

15 November, 2012


Ghostwriting for companies, organizations, and people that you don't really believe in is soul-wrenching work. Some of the things I've done for money recently are pieces that I am not at all happy about writing.

When I left as webmaster of one national nonprofit in particular (while it's easy to use Google to find out which, I'll leave them unnamed here for reasons that will become explicit), I had very specific ideas on the kinds of things I wanted to do. I never liked how that organization would use misleading language on the severity of child hunger in America (food insecurity for one day in a year should be prevented, but to call the 1 in 5 statistic for this a "hunger" statistic seems disingenuous to me), and the sheer amount of money it spent on getting high profile celebrities to represent the brand utterly floored me. I was completely flabbergasted when I first saw just how much of people's donations were going toward paying for obscure extravagancies that celebrities insisted on. Yet it's hard to fault them for this behavior, since the celebrities did bring in additional donations that more than made up for the thousands spent on keeping whiny celebs happy. If what matters is getting the most money to spend on the cause, then I suppose they were justified in wasting money on severely overpriced hotel rooms and other shockingly "wasteful" expenditures that celebrities insisted on, such as additional empty hotel rooms next door to theirs. I put "wasteful" here in quotes because, in the end, the organization raised money by catering to such asshole celebrities. So, in a way, these "wasteful" costs were worthwhile. But the fact that these celebrities insisted on spending a child hunger charity's money in this way really made me feel uneasy.

As a consequentialist-style revisionist, I really do feel that outcomes are what matters in the end. So it's hard for me to fault this organization's practices. Their mission is well intentioned, and they do a very good job of raising money for it, but it always felt so slimy when I had to write cop on their website or in their newsletters about the issue of child hunger in America. Every time I made it seem like the issue was more severe than it actually is, I cringed inside. And yet I performed this function for years, drafting language that would best turn into donations instead of language that would best reflect the truth.

After I left, I desperately wanted to work in optimal philanthropy community. I figured I could accomplish some real good if I at least worked in a field that was smart about how it allocated funds. But the job market is tough, and instead I've been ghostwriting ever since. Ironically, I seem to be writing for sleazier and sleazier groups all the time. Maybe it's because I'm good at it, but I suppose it's more likely that I'm just not trying hard enough to do what I really want to do.

[Edit from October 2015: I later came to the field of Effective Altruism mostly due to the negativity experienced at traditional nonprofits discussed in this entry.]

11 November, 2012

My Philosophical Positions

As promised in a previous entry, I have decided to make my answers to the 2009 PhilPapers Survey public on my blog. These answers were previously made public in a LessWrong poll, but in the interest of making my specific positions easy to read, I've compiled them all here. Note that this post is intended solely to give my position on each of these issues, and does not currently have commentary on why I feel as I do. However, in future entries I intend to zero in on each issue; as I do so, I plan to link to those entries from these position statements in order to more explicitly share why I hold these particular philosophical positions.

My answers are given in bold. The distribution of answers from the 2009 PhilPapers survey is given as a percentage after each answer. Note that percentages for "accept" and "lean toward" are combined here, although more finely grained results are available on the PhilPapers site. A short explanation (thanks to pragmatist & PhilPapers' clarifications for help) of each question is provided for any readers that are not well versed in these issues. Links to future blog posts on why I hold each position will be made available as I write them. Links to relevant SEP articles are provided.

The 2009 PhilPapers Survey

A priori knowledge: yes or no?
  • Accept: yes (71.1%)
  • Lean toward: yes
  • Accept: no (18.4%)
  • Lean toward: no
  • Other (10.5%)
Yes: There exist facts we can know without our knowledge being based on sensory experience.
No: Justification of knowledge requires sensory experience.

Abstract objects: nominalism or Platonism?
  • Accept: nominalism (37.7%)
  • Lean toward: nominalism
  • Accept: Platonism (39.3%)
  • Lean toward: Platonism
  • Other (23.0%)
Abstract objects are objects that do not correspond to any pattern of matter/energy in space-time.
Nominalism: Abstract objects do not exist.
Platonism: Abstract objects exist.

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?
  • Accept: objective (41.0%)
  • Lean toward: objective
  • Accept: subjective (34.5%)
  • Lean toward: subjective
  • Other (24.5%)

Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?
  • Accept: yes (64.9%)
  • Lean toward: yes
  • Accept: no (27.1%)
  • Lean toward: no
  • Other (8.1%)
Yes: Some sentences are true solely due to the meanings of the words.
No: Every sentence is open to empirical falsification or no sentence is open to falsification.

Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?
  • Accept: internalism (26.4%)
  • Lean toward: internalism
  • Accept: externalism (42.7%)
  • Lean toward: externalism
  • Other (30.8%)
Externalism: Belief can be justified even when the justification os not consciously available to the subject.
Internalism: Belief is only justified if there is conscious understanding of the justification.

External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?
  • Accept: idealism (4.3%)
  • Lean toward: idealism
  • Accept: skepticism (4.8%)
  • Lean toward: skepticism
  • Accept: non-skeptical realism (81.6%)
  • Lean toward: non-skeptical realism
  • Other (9.2%)
Idealism: Reality is not mind-independent.
Skepticism: Mind-independent reality exists, but we lack epistemic access to it.
Non-skeptical realism: Mind-independent reality exists, and we have epistemic access to its structure.

Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?
  • Accept: compatibilism (59.1%)
  • Lean toward: compatibilism
  • Accept: libertarianism (13.7%)
  • Lean toward: libertarianism
  • Accept: no free will (12.2%)
  • Lean toward: no free will
  • Other (14.9%)
Compatibilism: We can have free will in a deterministic universe.
Libertarianism: Incompatibilism is true and we have free will.
No free will: Free will does not exist.

God: theism or atheism?
  • Accept: theism (14.6%)
  • Lean toward: theism
  • Accept: atheism (72.8%)
  • Lean toward: atheism
  • Other (12.6%)
Theism: Gods exist.
Atheism: Gods do not exist.

Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?
  • Accept: empiricism (35.0%)
  • Lean toward: empiricism
  • Accept: rationalism (27.8%)
  • Lean toward: rationalism
  • Other (37.2%)
Empiricism: Only sensory experience gives us new information.
Rationalism: Some information exists that we can arrive at without sensory experience.

Knowledge claimscontextualismrelativism, or invariantism?
  • Accept: contextualism (40.1%)
  • Lean toward: contextualism
  • Accept: relativism (2.9%)
  • Lean toward: relativism
  • Accept: invariantism (31.1%)
  • Lean toward: invariantism
  • Other (25.9%)
Contextualism: The truth of a knowledge claim depends on the context in which it is uttered.
Relativism: Whether a subject possesses knowledge of a proposition is relative to a set of epistemic standards.
Invariantism: The truth of knowledge claims does not depend on context and is not relativized to epistemic standards.

Laws of nature: Humeanism or non-Humeanism?
  • Accept: Humeanism (24.7%)
  • Lean toward: Humeanism
  • Accept: non-Humeanism (57.1%)
  • Lean toward: non-Humeanism
  • Other (18.2%)
Humeanism: The laws of nature are compressed descriptions of salient patterns in the distribution of physical events.
Non-Humeanism: The laws of nature are not mere descriptions, but actually determine the distribution of physical events.

Logic: classical or non-classical?
  • Accept: classical (51.6%)
  • Lean toward: classical
  • Accept: non-classical (15.4%)
  • Lean toward: non-classical
  • Other (33.1%)
Classical: Standard logics, such as Boolean logic or first-order predicate calculus, are best (or correct).
Non-classical: The best logic is not classical (e.g., paraconsistent logic).

Mental content: externalism or internalism?
  • Accept: externalism (51.1%)
  • Lean toward: externalism
  • Accept: internalism (20.0%)
  • Lean toward: internalism
  • Other (28.9%)
Externalism: The representational content of our mental states is dependent upon properties of our external environment.
Internalism: The representational content of our mental states is fixed by our brain state.

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?
  • Accept: moral realism (56.4%)
  • Lean toward: moral realism
  • Accept: moral anti-realism (27.7%)
  • Lean toward: moral anti-realism
  • Other (15.9%)
Moral realism: Objective moral facts exist.
Moral anti-realism: Objective moral facts do not exist.

Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?
  • Accept: naturalism (49.8%)
  • Lean toward: naturalism
  • Accept: non-naturalism (25.9%)
  • Lean toward: non-naturalism
  • Other (24.3%)
Naturalism: All causes are natural.
Non-naturalism: Supernatural causes exist.

Mind: non-physicalism or physicalism?
  • Accept: non-physicalism (27.1%)
  • Lean toward: non-physicalism
  • Accept: physicalism (56.5%)
  • Lean toward: physicalism
  • Other (16.4%)
Physicalism: A physical duplicate of our world must necessarily also be a mental duplicate.
Non-physicalism: Mental states are not dependent on physical states.

Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?
  • Accept: cognitivism (65.7%)
  • Lean toward: cognitivism
  • Accept: non-cognitivism (17.0%)
  • Lean toward: non-cognitivism
  • Other (17.3%)
Cognitivism: Moral statements have truth conditions.
Non-cognitivism: Moral statements have no truth conditions.

Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?
  • Accept: internalism (34.9%)
  • Lean toward: internalism
  • Accept: externalism (29.8%)
  • Lean toward: externalism
  • Other (35.3%)
Internalism: A necessary connection exists between sincere moral judgment and either justifying reasons or motives.
Externalism: Any connection that exists between moral judgment and motivation is purely contingent.

Newcomb's problem: two boxes or one box?
  • Accept: two boxes (31.4%)
  • Lean toward: two boxes
  • Accept: one box (21.3%)
  • Lean toward: one box
  • Other (47.4%)
Omega appears before you with two boxes and says you may take Box A or take both Box A and Box B. Omega has almost certain predictive power and does not lie. Omega has predicted which you will choose; if Omega predicts you will take just Box A, then Box A will contain $1,000,000. Box B always contains $1,000. How many boxes do you take?

Normative ethics: consequentialism, deontology or virtue ethics?
  • Accept: consequentialism (23.6%)
  • Lean toward: consequentialism
  • Accept: deontology (25.9%)
  • Lean toward: deontology
  • Accept: virtue ethics (18.2%)
  • Lean toward: virtue ethics
  • Other (32.3%)
Consequentialism: The morality of actions depends only on their consequences.
Deontology: There are moral principles that forbid certain actions and encourage other actions purely based on the nature of the action itself, not on its consequences.
Virtue ethics: Ethical theory should not be in the business of evaluating actions, but in the business of evaluating character traits.

Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?
  • Accept: disjunctivism (11.0%)
  • Lean toward: disjunctivism
  • Accept: qualia theory (12.2%)
  • Lean toward: qualia theory
  • Accept: representationalism (31.5%)
  • Lean toward: representationalism
  • Accept: sense-datum theory (3.1%)
  • Lean toward: sense-datum theory
  • Other (42.2%)
Disjunctivism: In normal cases, when a person is perceiving something, the object of their perception is a mind-independent object.
Representationalism: Perceptual experience is representational.
Sense-datum theory: The objects of our perception are not mind-independent entities, they are mind-dependent objects called sense-data.
Qualia theory: The phenomenal character of our perceptual experience is non-representational.

Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?
  • Accept: biological view (16.9%)
  • Lean toward: biological view
  • Accept: psychological view (33.6%)
  • Lean toward: psychological view
  • Accept: further-fact view (12.2%)
  • Lean toward: further-fact view
  • Other (37.3%)
Physical view: The maintenance of personal identity requires bodily continuity.
Psychological view: The maintenance of personal identity requires continuity of psychological states.

Politics: communitarianism, libertarianism, or egalitarianism?
  • Accept: communitarianism (14.3%)
  • Lean toward: communitarianism
  • Accept: libertarianism (9.9%)
  • Lean toward: libertarianism
  • Accept: egalitarianism (34.8%)
  • Lean toward: egalitarianism
  • Other (41.0%)

Proper names: Fregean or Millian?
  • Accept: Fregean (28.7%)
  • Lean toward: Fregean
  • Accept: Millian (34.5%)
  • Lean toward: Millian
  • Other (36.8%)
Fregean: The meaning of a proper name is a way of conceiving of its bearer.
Millian: The meaning of a proper name is its bearer.

Science: scientific anti-realism or scientific realism?
  • Accept: scientific anti-realism (11.6%)
  • Lean toward: scientific anti-realism
  • Accept: scientific realism (75.1%)
  • Lean toward: scientific realism
  • Other (13.3%)
Scientific anti-realism: There are no strong reasons to believe in their theoretical claims about unobservable entities (though epistemic justification of predictions exist).
Scientific realism: There are strong reasons to believe in the theoretical claims about unobservable entities made by our best scientific theories.

Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death?
  • Accept: survival (36.2%)
  • Lean toward: survival
  • Accept: death (31.1%)
  • Lean toward: death
  • Other (32.7%)
You are placed in a machine that will instantaneously disintegrate your body, in the process recording its exact atomic configuration. This information is then beamed to another machine far away, and in that machine new matter is used to construct a body with the same configuration as yours. Would you consider yourself to have survived the process, and teleported from one machine to the other ("survival")? Or do you think you have died, and the duplicate in the far away machine is a different person ("death")?

Time: B-theory or A-theory?
  • Accept: B-theory (26.3%)
  • Lean toward: B-theory
  • Accept: A-theory (15.5%)
  • Lean toward: A-theory
  • Other (58.2%)
B-theory: Specifying the temporal ordering of all events in space-time exhausts all the objective temporal facts about those events.
A-theory: Specifying the temporal ordering of all events in space-time does not exhaust all the objective temporal facts about them.

Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching): switch or do't switch?
  • Accept: switch (68.2%)
  • Lean toward: switch
  • Accept: don't switch (7.6%)
  • Lean toward: don't switch
  • Other (24.2%)
There is a trolley traveling along a set of tracks. The driver has lost control of the trolley. On the track ahead of the trolley are five people who cannot get off the track in time and will all die if the trolley gets to them. You are standing next to a lever that can switch the track the trolley will take, preventing the deaths of the five people. On the other track is a single person who also cannot get away in time and so will die if you switch the track. Do you refrain from switching the track or do you switch the track?

Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?
  • Accept: correspondence (50.8%)
  • Lean toward: correspondence
  • Accept: deflationary (24.8%)
  • Lean toward: deflationary
  • Accept: epistemic (6.9%)
  • Lean toward: epistemic
  • Other (17.5%)
Correspondence: A proposition is true if and only if it bears some sort of congruence relation to a state of affairs that obtains.
Deflationary: Ascribing truth to a proposition amounts to no more than asserting the proposition.
Epistemic: To say that a proposition is true is just to say that it meets a high standard of epistemic warrant, and that we are thereby justified in asserting it.

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?
  • Accept: inconceivable (16.0%)
  • Lean toward: inconceivable
  • Accept: conceivable but not metaphysically possible (35.6%)
  • Lean toward: conceivable but not metaphysically possible
  • Accept: metaphysically possible (23.3%)
  • Lean toward: metaphysically possible
  • Other (25.1%)
A zombie is physically identical to a human being but does not possess phenomenal experience. There is nothing it is like to be a zombie.

Inconceivable: We cannot fully conceive of a zombie.
Conceivable but not metaphysically possible: One can arrive at a coherent conception of zombies, but objects that match this conception cannot possibly exist, not even in worlds with different laws of nature than ours.
Metaphysically possible: The existence of zombies is possible.

08 November, 2012

Test Results

When I was young, I was a fan of The Spark, an online community that revolved around taking tests and quizzes about one's personality. It was silly, but I was serious enough about it to actually stay on the site for years, even after they switched over to OkCupid, which is primarily a dating and friendship finding community site.

While most of those tests are now the kind of thing that I don't take seriously at all, there are quite a few that nonetheless have some minor level of legitimacy to them. As I was taking the 2012 LessWrong Census/Survey, quite a few of these test results were requested, and so I ended up retaking several of the more scientific ones. It seemed wasteful to only allow that information to be used for CFAR, so I thought it might be appropriate to pull together these results here in a blog post. Consolidating this data is probably not worth reading for most of my blog subscribers (feel free to close this page now, all of you), but if you're the Eric of the future who is wanting to compare results from these tests taken years later, this is as good a place as any for me to compile the data.

So, without further ado, I present the results of several personality (and other) tests taken this year.

Big Five (OCEAN)

The Big Five test scores on openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. (Hence why it is sometimes referred to as the OCEAN test.) These personality traits are often used by psychologists as a model of human personality. I took the test at outofservice.com/bigfive. My scores are available there, and reproduced below.

  • Openness: 96%
  • Conscientiousness: 96%
  • Extraversion: 4%
  • Agreeableness: 87%
  • Neuroticism: 1%

Political Compass

Political stances differ widely between most people, not just in terms of economic Left and Right, but also in terms of social libertarian/authoritarian values. The test at politicalcompass.org does an exemplary job of tracking one's political views on a two-dimensional grid. My results are available there, as well as below.

  • Economic: -10.00
  • Social: -8.62

Intelligence Quotient

First of all, IQ is not really a useful measure. A simple search through the skeptical literature on how IQ tests are used in our society will easily show this. However, it does have the minor legitimate use of determining one thing in particular: the aptitude of the person taking the test in how well they perform on IQ tests. That sounds silly, but hey: at least it's true. The IQ test I took is available at iqtest.dk, and is wholly pattern oriented, with all cultural questions removed. I scored 122, which is about twenty points less than the score I received in independent testing during my childhood. I'm not sure if this rather dramatic drop says something about the earlier test, this test, or specifically about me.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

Jungian typological theories are underneath the MBTI questionnaire, and break down the personality in terms of sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking. The validity of this test is about on par with IQ; it is currently used, but the evidence for it being useful is lackluster in comparison to how often the test is given. Nevertheless, mainstream opinion seems to be neutral, as opposed to for or against, so it is included here as well. I took the test at Humanmetrics Jung typology test, and received an INTJ classification.
  • Strong preference of Introversion over Extraversion (78%)
  • Strong preference of Intuition over Sensing (100%)
  • Moderate preference of Thinking over Feeling (25%)
  • Moderate preference of Judging over Perceiving (44%)

Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R)

While all of the above tests were taken in early November of 2012, the results of the PCL-R I record here come from a self-test administered in May of 2012. The PCL-R is a checklist for sociopathic tendencies, and has both adherents and critics in the field, making it unclear as to how seriously one should take the results. The vast majority of people score a 3 or less on the test; sociopaths generally score 25+. I scored 8. Among all friends that I've talked into taking the test, I am by far the highest. (The highest any of my friends has so far scored is 3.) I'm not sure what this says about any sociopathic tendencies I may or may not have, though I should take pains to assure readers that most people consider me to be a very moral person in general.

Final Notes

If for some reason someone is still reading who isn't me in the future, then you might possibly be interested in knowing where you can find more data from tests I've taken or questions I've answered. I will direct such people to my OkCupid profile, which has well over a thousand questions published that I've answered publicly. While OKC is branded as a dating site, the sheer amount of public data there on questions ranging from personality to morality, everyday outlook to political persuasion, and even metaphysical philosophy to aesthetic tastes can be useful for any number of non-relationship purposes. Also related is my Combosaurus account, which has several additional data points. Combosaurus is currently in alpha, so may not be visible to most people yet. They're run by the same engineers behind The Spark and OkCupid.

Also of interest may be my responses to the PhilPapers Survey of philosophers, which lists just about every philosophical position I have on mainstream philosophical questions.

04 November, 2012

Review: The Rapture of the Nerds

The Rapture of the Nerds The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Post-singularity scifi is always weird, but Doctorow & Stross do an excellent job of describing the weirdness rationally in a way that feels more scifi than fantasy. It's definitely a fun read, though I doubt I'd ever choose to pick up the book a second time.

While the largest defect of the novel was (for me at least) an inability to really empathize with the main character, the most visible defect was certainly the sheer number of obscure references packed into the book. Those not moderately versed in physics, philosophy, computer science, political philosophy, science fiction culture, and (of course) the singularity, will undoubtedly miss out on several references the authors make within. Whether it's Nightcrawler or daleks, Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov or Ayn Rand, this novel never stops calling back to outside ideas that most people will not be fully up to speed on, even as the plot relentlessly moves forward.

The profundity of obscurity in most of these references can only be intended as a way of letting the authors reward those readers who catch each reference again and again in an ever-increasing paroxysm of positive reinforcement that makes the reading of this book more akin to playing a video game than visually scanning a physical text. While I can't fault Doctorow & Stross for achieving what they've set out to do here, I can object on the ground that I'm not particularly into this kind of reference-intensive writing. I don't even like it particularly when James Joyce does it in Ulysses, so I hope it's understandable why I dislike how it is done here.

As such, I have decided upon giving this book a mediocre score. Not because it is mediocre per se, but because the area in which it excels is one that I'm just not all that impressed by. I can recommend this book only to those people that are into Joyce-style reference gang-bangs of pop culture mixed with science and philosophy alongside really, really weird post-singularity scifi. If you're into that stuff, read this. If not, stay away. And if, like me, you are slightly interested but not particularly amused by the FLCL-style hijinks, then it might be worth a read, even though it'll never be on your favorites list.

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03 November, 2012

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolutely wonderful collection of science fiction stories that cut across the genre, from soft to hard scifi, and even venturing into that rarest of subgenres: hard fantasy. These stories made me laugh, cry, and even shudder in ways that most books can't. I'm quite impressed with the highly rational way Chiang writes, and it's doubly impressive when you consider just how much emotional force he imbues in every passage.

If I have any complaint, it is that these are short stories that end all too quickly. Maybe I'm spoiled by the endless series other authors put out, but it really tugs at me when I reach the end of one of Chiang's stories and realize that there's nothing else to read.

I highly recommend this short story collection to anyone and everyone reading this review.

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