Entries in ideas (10)

Tuesday
Jun112013

Predicting the Present

Idea #7: The best way to accurately predict the future is to accurately predict the present.

I was listening to Democracy Now! this morning about the NSA scandal (ongoing) and the (now long-established) use of private contractors to analyze digital records, the sort of activity that would be obviously illegal if physical documents were involved instead of digital ones, when I was suddenly struck by the memory of Cory Doctorow’s comment about science fiction writers predicting the present. Because, in fact, Cory Doctorow wrote this one before, a short story called “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” (after the Jonathan Coulton song), published in 2008.

The story hits all the key points: Private contractors analyzing vast quantities of metadata for the surveillance state, and the sort of conflict between hired geeks and their authoritarian masters that results. Of course, in that story the private contractors are a cloistered society of lifehacking monks, but obviously a good science fiction has to push those predictions of the present a little in a future-weird direction. Doctorow’s story is a bit of a warning, too. The story at least raises the question of whether the withdrawal of the nerds into their own sousveilence society removed their effectiveness as an obstacle to the security state (in more way than one).

Well worth a read. And worth pointing out, especially since I’m not the only one thinking about fiction as warning in light of recent revelations.

Thursday
Nov032011

The Robot Revolution

Pithy:

Idea #6: The history of the 21st century will be one of technological singularity and collapse.

More accurate:

The history of the 21st century will be shaped by, on the one hand, labor-saving technologies (with vast and unpredictable effects on society), and on the other hand, peaks in resource production and attendent problems in maintaining complex systems in the face of random disasters, demographic shifts, increasing population, and so on.

For now, let’s focus on the former.

The history of capitalism is one of labor displacement and capital accumulation.  Really expensive tools make increased productivity possible.  Only the rich can afford really expensive tools.  The way to get guaranteed access to work is to sell most of the product of your labor in exchange for access to such tools.  Those that don’t make the trade are out-competed.  The rich get richer.  The new unemployed (since productivity increases exceed demand increases (which are at least somewhat constrained by population increases, but that’s a whole other post)) end up in newer, cooler jobs made possible by the same sort of technological development.  Or so the story goes.

The question is what happens when the newly-created labor demand from technological development is less than the labor-displacement from technological development.  A related question:  What happens when labor saving technology just creates demand elsewhere for not labor but more labor saving technology?

Or: What happens when having your job outsourced to Chinese robots just creates jobs for more Chinese robots?  (The robots are also built by Chinese robots.  In China.)

I’d argue that the marginal cost of adding production through labor-saving technology has probably been lower than the marginal cost of labor in many areas of production for a while.  However, there were a few mitigating factors delaying the robot revolution.  Both have to do with “developing markets”.  First, there was the desire to expand quickly into new markets.  If hiring people is quicker than building more-automated factories, it might be better to do the former than let your competitors beat you to the punch.  Second, there was a desire to produce stuff in areas that didn’t have the infrastructure to support highly-automated production (especially since many of those areas have fewer regulations and lower labor costs).

I think that’s no longer the case.  The most promising developing markets are developed, first-to-market incentives are diminished (i.e. the resource grab is over).  Infrastructure development has also come a long way.  Hence stories like this.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed this trend:

A faltering economy explains much of the job shortage in America, but advancing technology has sharply magnified the effect, more so than is generally understood, according to two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

[…]

During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.

Corporations are doing fine. The companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index are expected to report record profits this year, a total $927 billion, estimates FactSet Research. And the authors point out that corporate profit as a share of the economy is at a 50-year high.

Productivity growth in the last decade, at more than 2.5 percent, they observe, is higher than the 1970s, 1980s and even edges out the 1990s. Still the economy, they write, did not add to its total job count, the first time that has happened over a decade since the Depression.

They concluded on an optimistic note:

Yet computers, the authors say, tend to be narrow and literal-minded, good at assigned tasks but at a loss when a solution requires intuition and creativity — human traits. A partnership, they assert, is the path to job creation in the future.

But that misses both that many people are not capable of “intuition and creativity” jobs (at a high enough level to make a living at it) and, at any rate, that the demand for such jobs will never equal the previous demand for industrial-labor jobs.  Intuition and creativity don’t scale.

I expect this effect will also have a way of trickling up from industrial workers.  As everyone tries to avoid the industrial-work class if at all possible, the struggle for those “creative” jobs becomes more intense.  This analysis from Robert Cringley is telling:

In the near term how do we creatively respond to jobs going overseas? In the longer term what happens if Ray Kurzweil is correct and the Singularity rolls along in 2029 or so and humans suddenly become little more than parasites on a digital Earth?

The easy answer to this problem has been the same since the 1960s — become Paul McCartney. But how many Beatles can the world sustain?

[…]

Where you live counts as much as anything else, too, so position yourself in a city that has high serendipity.  Any kid living with his parents in Palo Alto can get a job today simply because he already has a place to live. No skills required.

[…]

Live in the coolest place, I tell Cole and his brothers. Have the coolest friends. Do the coolest things. Learn from everything you do. Be open to new opportunities. And do something your father hasn’t yet figured how to do, which is every few years take off 138 days and just walk the Earth. [emphasis mine]

Cringley takes an optimistic tone, but I find the content of his post rather grim.  He’s right.  Sure, there are some high-paying jobs that the robots can’t do for now, assuming that not too many others are trying to do the same thing.

But if you want to get into / stay in the middle class after the start of the robot revolution, you’d better be cool.  Have the right connections, be in the right place.  Hopefully have parents wealthy enough to facilitate that and smart enough to realize that it’s not about “job skills” anymore. Social skills are the new middle class job skills.  It’s hard to evaluate those “intuitive” and “creative” jobs, so appearances matter.  As the job search becomes more competitive, attributes not related to job performance matter more.

And be lucky (the repeated “serendipity”).  Maximize your opportunities to benefit from luck.  It’s all a gamble, victory goes to those who can roll (or rig) the most dice.

Hard enough for the middle class.  And for those not currently in the middle class, being either “cool” or “lucky” enough is going to be mighty tough.

Though angry may stil be an option.

Tuesday
Oct252011

How Can Occupy Wall Street Win?

Occupy Wall Street continues to be very interesting.  (On the economic side, see also.)

I previously mentioned that non-violent protests can only win by being economically or politically disruptive, but there are a few ways to achieve that goal:

Consumer Siege: Cut someone off from funding by refusing to do business with them (boycott) is the typical example.  Indirect boycotts can sometimes work (for example, see Color of Change’s successful campaign against the Glenn Beck Show, which worked by convincing advertisers that being associated with Glenn Beck was not a good idea for their brand (or at least that it would be better to spend their advertising budget’s elsewhere).  Divestment can also work, since the people running an institution tend to also be investors.  Of course, that only works if equity in the institution is publicly held and the protesters have a lot of it (not usually the case).

In the case of OWS, this is why I’m interested in this story in which a bunch of protesters who were Citi Bank customers tried to close their accounts, only to be locked in by guards and arrested by police.  Bizarre.  A question:  In the actual bank runs of the 1930s, did banks ever try to get police to arrest customers who were closing their accounts?

Disruption of Business: Protesters prevent the institution from doing business with anyone.  This either involves discouraging customers or actually preventing institutional activities from happening.  The strike is an obvious (and fairly mild) example of this type.  So is the picket line, in which customers and/or replacement workers are discouraged (but not actually prevented) from entering a place of business.

Given the name “Occupy Wall Street”, I’m surprised there isn’t more action of this type.  While seeing the protesters “occupy” Times Square was impressive, it’s a far cry from actually occupying, you know, Wall Street.  There’s no indication that OWS has been at all disruptive to the business activities of anyone working on Wall Street.

Petition: In general, just expressing one’s grievances, no matter how publicly is pretty useless unless you can effectively turn that to recruiting people for one of the activities listed in this post.  Getting arrested is only great if you emerge from jail with your numbers doubled.  (The IWW was great at this, Anonymous not so much.  (That topic might be worth its own post, but in the meanwhile, read this, which also includes some very good speculation about the possible outcomes of the protests.))

There’s one exception, though.  If your grievances are expressed directly, in person, to an institution itself, then the actions the institution takes against you can effect the institution’s reputation enough to be disruptive.  That only works if the institution is considered to be in control of the action taken against protesters and the institution is perceived to have some sort of obligation to listen to protesters.  Here, that’s likely to be just government, and maybe not even that.

That tactic can also work as the political equivalent of “disruption of business”.  If hundreds of people are showing up in person to present their grievances at each congressional office every day, it does give Congress a bit more personal motivation to resolve the situation.

Elections: In a democracy, if you can mobilize enough support to actually get incumbent legislators replaced with legislators loyal to your position, then that’s one way to change things.  To do this at a large scale, you really need to establish an effective political party.  Specifically, it must be able to do two things effectively: Get candidates elected, and ensure that candidates who don’t toe the party line on important issues (the platform) are not reelected (and preferably are left with their careers in total ruin, such that they actually fear defecting).

I’ve heard suggestions that OWS needs a “non-partisan political party”, which is nonsense.  To the extent that the concept is coherent, we already have a non-partisan political party, the Democrats, which is wildly ineffective at whipping their members into going along with even the core of the party platform.  The Republicans, on the other hand, are wildly effective whips, at least on the limited platform of opposing Obama (or whatever non-Republican is in power at the time).  (They’re less effectively partisan when actually in charge, but you don’t really have to coordinate much on how to burn the place down in order to do so effectively.)

You also need a lot of political power to push around the bureaucracy, but I don’t think that’s an intractable problem in the case of OWS.  (At least not compared to the difficulty of getting legislators elected in the first place.)

Thursday
Oct062011

"Occupy" Where Now?

The Occupy Wall Street protest and related protests are interesting, but they mostly remind me of my first pithy generalization on this blog.  The protests have garnered some attention, but unless they can be economically or politically disruptive, they won’t get anything done.  As near as I can tell, the protests have not yet had a significant political effect and as far as economic effects go… well, if it’s still “business as usual” for the place allegedly occupied, the “occupation” probably isn’t doing a very effective job.

Saturday
Nov062010

On Grades and Unschooling

During my long public school career, I didn’t think much about the structure of public school.  The reasons for this are not exactly flattering for me.  I viewed school as the “one thing” I was good at (though that was not actually true), and I used my focus on academics to avoid paying attention to many of my problems.  If I wanted to do one thing dramatically different with my academic career, that would have been skipping grades, but I didn’t pursue that with any sort of determination, since I was happy to take the path of least resistance.

It wasn’t until college that I began to think about the issue seriously.  I came at it initially from the subject of grades.  I was obsessed with grades during my primary school career (obsessed with getting grades that were just barely good enough to be called “perfect” by some carefully chosen definition (e.g. 90%, “an A”); I told you this wasn’t flattering for me), and that got worse and worse until high school.  When I entered college, I resolved to not look at my grades for any class.

The college I went to was new and we took pride in being “innovative”.  But Olin’s grading system was strikingly conventional.  Evidently, the issue of grading came up during the school’s design process.  A substantial discussion led to a rough consensus favoring a very minimal “Pass/Fail/Excellence” grading system.  But the result was a temporary compromise on letter grades without +/- gradations, followed by a wholesale adoption of the conventional grading system.

The thing is, in my view, the conventional grading system is glaringly flawed.  There’s ample psychological research showing that rewards produce a lasting decrease in intrinsic motivation, long-term recall of information, and lateral thinking, and that to the extent that “good grades” are perceived as desirable, they produce the same effect.  Grades are also only minimally useful as feedback.  They’re not very useful in comparing students from different classes, much less different institutions.  (Concerns about “grade inflation” get some of that, but talk about focusing on the mote and missing the beam!)  To some extent, grades measure how well students conform to the idiosyncratic preferences of individual professors.

In other words, pretty much anything that puts grades less in the spotlight is a win in terms of the nominal goals of academia.

(Another point that would be particularly worrying for Moldbug:  To the extent that people change their behavior for the sake of grades while not believing that “good grades” are inherently worthwhile, that could serve as the insufficient justification that would make any ideological content contained in the lessons far more persuasive than it would otherwise be.  Also worth keeping that effect in mind when people emphasize how useful grades are to graduate schools and employers.)

So grades are interesting for a few reasons:

  1. It’s an example of academia pursuing a policy that doesn’t fit well the the nominal goals of academia.
  2. It’s a policy that promotes things that are very much not the overt goal of academic idealists (rote memorization, obedience, tolerance of pointless tasks, ideological conformity).
  3. It’s an example of academia conforming to an (in my opinion) obviously broken status quo because no one wants to take the cost of defecting first.

And as it turns out, there’s a movement that would apply those three points to many (if not all) of the structural features of the entire “education system”.

The Unschooling movement is heavily influenced by the teacher and educational philosopher John Taylor Gatto.  A good introduction to his view is the essay Against Schooling, originally published in Harper’s Magazine in September 2003.  This one is hard to excerpt, read the whole thing.  But here’s my attempt at extracting the kernel of it:

Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. […]

In the 1934 edition of his once well-known book Public Education in the United States, Ellwood P. Cubberley detailed and praised the way the strategy of successive school enlargements had extended childhood by two to six years, and forced schooling was at that point still quite new. This same Cubberley - who was dean of Stanford’s School of Education, a textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin, and Conant’s friend and correspondent at Harvard - had written the following in the 1922 edition of his book Public School Administration:   “Our schools are … factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned …. And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

It’s perfectly obvious from our society today what those specifications were. Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we’re upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don’t bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to “be careful what you say,” even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.

One frequent observation of mine is this:

Idea #5: A naive compromise between ideologies can produce worse results than a coherent implementation of either’s favored policy.

But naive compromises are often politically expedient, so they happen anyways.

To put it more cynically, liberals (especially) love half-measures.  (I’m not immune to this, myself.)

Gatto essentially agrees with Moldbug about the purpose of the schools, but Gatto’s description of the present state of affairs misses something crucial when he overstates his case:

The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

1) To make good people. 2) To make good citizens. 3) To make each person his or her personal best. These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. [emphasis mine]

But I’d say that view of the goals of the education system is in fact not totally wrong, which is what makes it pernicious.  Public schools do teach some about critical thinking, analyzing primary sources, the scientific method, distinguishing fact from opinion and so on.  To the extent that schooling is “education” (to some extent it is) and a diploma is (economically) valuable, schools convince people that education is valuable.  “Good people” believe that education is valuable.  Actually, I do believe that statement if taken at face value: Good people do (correctly) believe that education is valuable.  Convincing someone to agree with a true statement on a technicality, however, does not make them better people in any meaningful sense.

A strategy of “make education a good investment and people will realize it’s intrinsically valuable on its own” also starts having some serious problems when there’s a mismatch between the educational system and the economy.  I’ve read a lot of talk recently about a “higher education bubble” and of a mismatch between the education system and the “21st century economy”.  The former has some talk of unschoolers (it uses the term “edupunks”).  Unfortunately for unschoolers (and for reactionaries like Moldbug), the dominant force among education reformers seems to be the neoconservative/neoliberal/”free market” types (need a better name for that faction, and that probably deserves another post).  Their favored solution, charter schools, is the usual mix of privatized profits and socialized costs.  Charter schools may be more willing to be “innovative”, but I wouldn’t expect them to solve the problems above or defect from educational norms, no matter how counter-productive, when defecting first is costly.

(I wish I had a better way to wrap things up here.  I still need to read more Gatto and Holt and Illich and Llewellyn.  I want to know more about how compulsory education (in particular, as opposed to public education in general) took off—not just what interests that might work well for, but how it was argued and implemented politically.  I read and would recommend Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook to parents, adolescents, and those interested in unschooling.)

Monday
Aug162010

Compensating for Bias

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”  - Yogi Berra

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, I’ll say that being aware of one’s cognitive biases is a necessary but not sufficient condition for counter-acting them.  Because even if you’re aware of your biases, those biases still apply, both in how you perceive your own bias and how you judge your own counter-action.  To put it another way:

Idea #4: Predicting the future is harder than you think, even if you know why predicting the future is harder than you think.

(With thanks to Douglas Hofstadter.)

Friday
Jun112010

On the Numbered Ideas

About the ideas I list and number in some of my posts here:

Those are ideas / themes / patterns I keep coming back to in my thought, listed in order of appearance on this blog.  I thought it might be a nifty idea to list them in some pithy way, maybe come back around to ones I’ve mentioned before in future posts.

Don’t know if that structure is a good idea, I’m just winging it.

Thursday
Jun102010

Democracy Lives

One of the things I’ve been listening to lately is a series of video essays by Stefan Molyneux, an anarchist thinker.  I have very mixed feelings about his arguments for a variety of reasons.  I am in some ways sympathetic to anarchist polticial philosophy (which includes concepts like volunteerism, consensus decision-making, and free association while managing to avoid some of the pitfalls of naive libertarianism), but on the other hand I’m a big fan of democracy.  He rants a good rant, but his argument can be less than watertight.  For example, in Molyneux’s first “Statism Is Dead” essay, he states:

[presenting an argument for statism] “People won’t be voluntarily charitable, but they will vote for the violent theft and transfer of their wealth.”  I mean, it’s like a Kafkaesque dream sequence, these arguments, right?. People don’t want to help the poor, but they will vote for people to put a gun to their head and force them to help the poor.  […] The existance of the wellfare state is certain proof of the fact that people want to help the poor, and will.

It’s a bit of a straw-man, that argument.  I can think of two reasons why people might pursue policies democratically instead of through volunteerism.  First, they might think that a democratic government is better able to carry out that policy than a non-governmental organization. Second, they might be more willing to support a policy in a decision process where everyone is bound by the results, as opposed to volunteering to support a policy supported only by the volunteers.

Of course, the uncharitable way of describing that is to say that people will voluntarily support charity so long as they can require the “violent theft and transfer” of non-volunteers’ wealth (Molyneux does not say that, presumably, because he’s trying to persuade and does not want to (indiscriminately) insult his audience).  A better way of describing that, in my opinion, is that people in a democracy participate in a decision-making process where they pre-commit to be bound by the result of the process, even if they don’t get their way on a specific issue.  In the world as it is, that may not be a voluntary pre-commitment.  Moving to another democracy can be hard, moving to a libertarian/anarchist society may be impossible.  Still, I would argue that people have a right to participate in a democratic decision-making process and a corresponding responsibility to abide by the results or willingly face the consequences, even though current conditions don’t allow for participation in society to be truly voluntary.

(But here’s a recurring idea of mine, which might apply to this situation:

Idea #3: People tend to worry too much about freeloaders.

So maybe you could run a modern society on volunteerism and consensus without tax collectors and then the police knocking on someone’s door when they say, “Screw the decison-making process, I didn’t agree to that policy,” and that would be even better.  I’m skeptical, though.)

* Of course, to hear Molyneux say it, it’s even worse than that:  Democracy is a sham, all political progress merely granted to the masses by a monolithic political class to improve productivity, the equivalent of “free-range” livestock.  Even given his argument that the US is that sort of government, I don’t think that’s reason to support anarchy over democracy in the abstract.  Nor do I think a bunch of virtuous non-voters will be very effective at achieving political change.

Wednesday
Jun022010

#Flotilla

This Monday, Israeli forces boarded and captured the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, a convoy of ships carrying food and medicine to the besieged territory of Gaza.  Nine activists were killed, many more activists and some Israeli soldiers were injured.

Gaza has been under a near-total blockade since 2007, though Israel formally ended their occupation in 2005 and denies that their near total control of the land, sea, and air borders, complete blockade (save for limited humanitarian aid imports), and complete prohibition of any kind of military development qualifies them for any of the responsibilities of an occupying power.  It’s not clear at all that the blockade is legal under international law.

Meanwhile, the organizers of the flotilla had a stated intention of breaking the Israeli blockade, but they were sailing under the Turkish flag (the lead ship was a Turkish ship, the convoy departed from a Turkish port, though the vessels in the convoy were from a bunch of different countries) and attacked in international waters.  The activists claim that Israeli soldiers fired on them before boarding, Israel claims the soldiers only returned fire after coming under attack (with improvised weapons and their own weapons).

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here.  Legally, the act was either a crime commited by Israeli soldiers on a Turkish vessel or an act of war by Israel against a Turkish ship.  Israel argues that the flotilla presented a danger to Israel that justified acting in international waters instead of waiting.  Turkey is understandably upset that an ostensibly friendly country expects them to ignore such a provocation, and is threatening to send a naval escort with the next such attempt.  It’s brinkmanship, it’s not clear that the Turkish navy would stand by while Israel attacked a Turkish ship in international waters, not clear that Israel would wait until the ship entered their territory (since that would demonstrate that their decision-making was affected by something as trivial as the Turkish navy), and it’s not clear that an actual naval battle between warships wouldn’t lead to a war.  Which would be an awkward situation for the United States, to say the least, given that Israel and Turkey are both allies.

Brad Hicks, one of my favorite essayists, has an excellent analysis of the incident.

An interesting question is to what extent did the flotilla activists succeed in their goals.  They failed to break the blockade, and the supplies were not delivered because Hamas would rather make political points than accept another shipment of aid.  Then again, the flotilla protesters clearly shared that objective, they didn’t accept Israel’s offer to allow the supplies in through an Israeli port.  Another shipment of supplies won’t end the chronic food and water shortages in Gaza, won’t restore the destroyed economy.  So here’s an idea that’s worth highlighting:

Idea #2: Nonviolent direct action succeeds when it is disruptive politically or economically.  Getting attention isn’t enough.

Was the flotilla disruptive?  It’s certainly caused a lot of noise.  Turkey aside, Ireland is pulling out the diplomatic threats over a lagging Irish vessel following the flotilla.

But brinkmanship and talk are nothing new, actual war or significant sanctions wouldn’t be.  The former is (fortunately) unlikely, the latter… well, the relevant question is what exactly would it take to cool unconditional US support for Israel?  (Note that attacking a US navy ship was not sufficient to cool US-Israel relations.)

Friday
May282010

Chill Out!

This post is entirely unrelated to my last post, expect that to be a theme.

So, I’ve been reading a lot from Less Wrong lately, it’s a blog on “human rationality” and quite the wiki walk.  One of the major posters is Eliezer Yudkowsky, an AI researcher for SIAI, the creator of the AI Box thought experiment, and a fiction writer of some considerable skill.  The reason I’ve been reading Less Wrong recently is that I ran into Yudkowsky’s work in a rather unexpected place and followed it back.

Anyways, I was going to write about some of the logic puzzles from Less Wrong, but then ran into something more interesting, this post from some months ago in which Yudkowsky talks about attending a conference for those signed up for post-mortem cryonics (the really short definition: a procedure in which the body is frozen immediately after legal death in the hopes that improvements in technology will allow the person in question to be somehow revived at some future point):

after attending this event, and talking to the perfectly ordinary parents who signed their kids up for cryonics like the goddamn sane people do, I’m going to come out and say it:  If you don’t sign up your kids for cryonics then you are a lousy parent. [emphasis mine]

That claim struck me as irritating, frustrating.  Pushed my buttons, you could say.  Some things that bother me:

  • Claims that all people not following some fringe idea are lousy people.  Whatever the merits of the idea in question, it’s actually quite hard to distinguish between fringe ideas that are great ideas and fringe ideas that are terrible; that most people favor the status quo is not surprising.  (Not that I necessarily expect the mainstream to be correct, but being on the fringe doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right, either.)
  • Assertions that one is (approximately) the Only Sane Man, especially immediately following an appeal to emotion / explanation why the speaker might not be thinking clearly on the topic in question.  Yes, it’s appropriate to feel emotions that fit the facts, but strong emotion can cloud thinking as well, and people who feel emotions based on false premises tend to think that their emotions fit the facts, too.
  • Lauding one’s self as “a hero”.  (Literally!)
  • Overstatement before consensus.  That is, it’s not enough to state that one is correct while (most of) the rest of the world is wrong, one must state that their chosen conclusion is obvious, True, “massively overdetermined”.

The above isn’t to say that Yudkowsky’s position in favor of cryonics is wrong, necessarily, just that his rhetoric is terrible.  And I don’t think his argument is as strong as he thinks.

The arguments for cryonics strike me as a sort of cross between Pascal’s Wager* and the Drake Equation.  Take a bunch of numbers (odds that one will be successfully cryopreserved, odds that it will be done in such a way that allows some sort of reanimation, odds that the organization doing the preserving will remain economically stable enough to continue to function, odds that technology will get good enough in the future that they’ll start to revive people (even given the potential for legal consequences in the event of failure… or success!)), multiply that by infinity (live forever in a future paradise!), disregard equally (im)plausible dystopian possibilities as “exotic” and unlikely.  Is it worth paying a few hundred dollars a year to have access to some small (how small? who knows?) chance at something really good in the event of the development of some plausible (but not necessarily possible) future technology?  Maybe?

The Alcor (cryopreservation organization) FAQ states (excerpted for brevity):

Q: Why isn’t vitrification reversible now?

A: To vitrify an organ as large as the brain, Alcor must expose tissue to higher concentrations of cryoprotectant for longer periods of time than are used in conventional organ and tissue banking research. The result of this exposure is biochemical toxicity that prevents spontaneous recovery of cell function. In essence, Alcor is trading cell viability (by current criteria) in exchange for the excellent structural preservation achievable with vitrification.

The nature of the injury caused by cryoprotectant exposure is currently unknown. […]

Q: Has an animal ever been cryopreserved and revived?

A: […] it should be obvious that no large animal has ever been cryopreserved and revived. Such an achievement is still likely decades in the future. […]

(An actual example of a human being put into cryostasis and revived would strengthen Yudkowsky’s argument quite a bit, putting the lower bounds on the probability of successful reanimation above zero.)

As far as getting you to this state of “biochemical toxicity that prevents spontaneous recovery of cell function” from which no mind has ever been recovered, well, those odds at least seem a bit better.  Of the nine patients Alcor preserved in 2009 and early 2010, three were cryopreserved within hours, the rest moved to moderately cold storage within hours and actually cryopreserved within days.

A recent post by Will Newsome critiquing Yudkowsky and other’s position on cryonics puts it well:

Signing up for cryonics is not obviously correct, and especially cannot obviously be expected to have been correct upon due reflection (even if it was the best decision given the uncertainty at the time) […] That said, the reverse is true: not getting signed up for cryonics is also not obviously correct. The most common objections (most of them about the infeasibility of cryopreservation) are simply wrong. Strong arguments are being ignored on both sides. The common enemy is certainty. [emphasis theirs]

They go on to note:

I don’t disagree with Roko’s real point, that the prevailing attitude towards cryonics is decisive evidence that people are crazy and the world is mad. Given uncertainty about whether one’s real values would endorse signing up for cryonics, it’s not plausible that the staggering potential benefit would fail to recommend extremely careful reasoning about the subject, and investment of plenty of resources if such reasoning didn’t come up with a confident no.  Even if the decision not to sign up for cryonics were obviously correct upon even a moderate level of reflection, it would still constitute a serious failure of instrumental rationality to make that decision non-reflectively and independently of its correctness, as almost everyone does. I think that usually when someone brings up the obvious correctness of cryonics, they mostly just mean to make this observation, which is no less sound even if cryonics isn’t obviously correct.

That’s an interesting thought.  What should be the threshold for giving ideas “extremely careful reasoning”?  Plausibility?  Potential?  I think that might be a hard standard to live up to, there could be a lot of plausible ideas with “staggering potential benefit”.  Plenty of utopian schemes, for example.  Even if you insist on that benefit including immortality for yourself, lots of ideas to consider.

However, I will agree that at least scientists in the field should be seriously thinking about plausible ideas with staggering potential benefit in their field, which is not happening in this case.  The paper at that link mentions ethical and PR concerns as reasons for the rejection of cryonicists by cryobiologists, often under-informed by actual science.  But it fails to note how cryonicists’ rhetoric might also contribute to that effect.

Idea #1:  Have an idea that could change the world?  Pay attention to rhetoric.

* Since Yudkowsky has a reply to an argument along that line, I will say that’s not the argument I’m making; I don’t think the probablility of being revived into a future (approximate) utopia is vanishingly small because that would be really awesome.