Just in case you’ve been living under a rock (but checking my blog?), the worst pandemic in a generation is gripping the world. If you’re looking for the bare minimum of what you should do:

  • Stay home. Do not leave your home except to buy food or medication.
  • Wash your hands regularly. Properly. With soap.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Take it seriously. People you know will be dead before it’s over.

That’s pretty much it really.

I wanted that version to be punchy, so I simplified a little bit. Here’s a few elaborations:

  • Technically it’s fine to leave your home as long as you:
    • Stay 6 feet away from other people at all times.
    • Avoid enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces.
    • Don’t touch anything that other people have touched.
  • It’s possible that nobody you know will die from this, if:
    • You are a hermit who doesn’t know anybody to begin with.
    • You live in China, South Korea, or Japan. Those three countries are the only ones who have successfully contained the outbreak.

For a more in-depth look at the situation we’re in and possible outcomes I would recommend The Hammer and the Dance.

For statistics I would recommend WorldOMeter. Though be aware that with delays in incubation and delays in testing, any numbers are likely to be a week or more out of date. At least 4x any number you see.

For more information on your local situation and laws, check with your local government; I don’t know where you live. But do be aware that government response has been really really bad in most parts of the world (again excepting China, South Korea, and Japan). Take it more seriously than your government does.

For general advice on planning for disasters, I recommend this fantastic guide. It’s a bit late for a lot of the advice now, but some of it is still useful, and a lot of it will be useful if you survive this round.

International Conflict X-Risk in the Era of COVID-19

Jeremy Hussel had a great comment pointing out something which is easy to forget – major disasters often have multiple quasi-independent causes. Many things go wrong all at once, and any safeguards are overwhelmed by the repeated issues. COVID-19 could clearly be one of those root causes. What might be others?

Another clear source of turmoil for the western world right now is domestic politics. America has a historically unpredictable president and is heading into a divisive election year where the two candidates are both likely to be very old. The UK is finally going to leave the EU and hasn’t yet struck a deal to determine what that actually means. Canada (where I live, though less critical on the world stage) was in the middle of its own domestic crisis around Native American land rights and infrastructure projects before that got overshadowed by COVID-19 – our railroads and as such some parts of our supply chain had been shut down for weeks already by protesters.

A third source of problems might be the “oil war” between OPEC and Russia, but I don’t know enough about that to really write about it usefully.

With all that said, the thing that I am most afraid of right now is China. China has been very aggressive on the world stage in the last couple of days, and I fully expect them to continue that pattern. Why wouldn’t they? Just as their country is recovering from the virus and starting to pick back up, the crisis in America and Europe is still growing. They are feeling strong while Western democracies are weak, divided, and looking inwards, and we should fully expect them to take advantage of that power imbalance in the short term to do things like finally and properly annexing Hong Kong (predict 50% that by the time COVID-19 has run its course in North America, Hong Kong has lost whatever quasi-independence it might have had).

The question is how far they will go, and how will we (our governments) react? In normal times I would expect them to be cautious but I would also expect a cautious response from western governments. With the current volatility in the American system and the antagonism built up over the previous Chinese-American trade war, there is substantial risk of something escalating out of control. A full military conflict between world powers at this point in time would truly be something else going terribly, terribly wrong.

Link #84 – Compressionism: A New Theory of the Mind Based on Data Compression

Note: not that “new” anymore, this is from 2011. Both highly technical and philosophical, but gestures towards some ideas I find interesting as far as the question of what intelligence might be.

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Winning vs Truth – Infohazard Trade-Offs

This post on the credibility of the CDC has sparked a great deal of discussion on the ethics of posts like it. Some people claim that the post itself is harmful, arguing that anything which reduces trust in the CDC will likely kill people as they ignore or reject important advice for dealing with SARS-CoV-2 and (in the long-run) other issues like vaccination. This argument has been met with two very different responses.

One response has been to argue that the CDC’s advice is so bad that reducing trust in it will actually have a net positive effect in the long run. This is an ultimately empirical question which somebody should probably address, but I do not have the skills or interest to attempt that.

The other response is much more interesting, arguing that appeals to consequences are generally bad, and that meta-level considerations mean we should generally speak the truth even if the immediate consequences are bad. I find this really interesting because it is ultimately about infohazards: those rare cases where there is a conflict between epistemic and instrumental rationality. Typically, we believe that having more truth (via epistemic rationality) is a positive trait that allows you to “win” more (thus aligning with instrumental rationality). But when more truth becomes harmful, which do we preference: truth, or winning?

Some people will just decide to value truth more than winning as an axiom of their value system. But for most of us, ultimately I think this also boils down to an empirical question of just how bad “not winning” will end up being. It’s easy to see that for sufficiently severe cases, natural selection takes over: any meme/person/thing that prefers truth over winning in those cases will die out, to be replaced by memes/people/things that choose to win. I personally will prefer winning in those cases. It’s also true that most of the time, truth actually helps you win in the long run. We should probably reject untrue claims even if they provide a small amount of extra short-term winning, since in the long run having an untrue belief is likely to prevent us from winning in ways we can’t predict.

Figuring out where the cut-over point lies between truth and winning seems non-trivial. Based on my examples above we can derive two simple heuristics to start off:

  • Prefer truth over winning by default.
  • Prefer winning over truth if the cost of not winning is destruction of yourself or your community. (It’s interesting to note that this heuristic arguably already applies to SARS-Cov-2, at least for some people in at-risk demographics.)

What other heuristics do other people use for this question? How do they come out on the CDC post and SARS-CoV-2?

Multiple Meanings in “I don’t know how I feel about that”

I noticed an unexpected form of ambiguity recently in the context of the phrase “I don’t know how I feel about that”. In common English, that sentence and its many permutations and variants have a fairly specific meaning, which is almost but not exactly the literal meaning. I was trying to specifically communicate the literal meaning, and realized I couldn’t without a bunch of explanation. This post is that explanation, for future reference.

As an example, let’s say you were offered a piece of food. We can roughly map your emotional reaction down to a simple scale from -100 (very negative; you would not eat the food under any circumstances) to 100 (very positive; you desperately want to eat the food). A score around 0 would be neutral, or ambivalent. This loses a lot of nuance of course, but that’s OK for the purposes of the example.

Given this scenario, if you say “I don’t know how I feel about that”, that’s generally taken to mean your reaction is around 0; you are roughly ambivalent. But literally taken, you do actually know how you feel: you know that you’re ambivalent. What you’re really expressing uncertainty about is which side of 0 you’ll fall on (ever so slightly positive, or ever so slightly negative), and thus whether you should eat the food.

However, in the specific case I ran into recently, I didn’t want to express “I’m close to neutral on this”. I wanted to express “I literally do not know what number I am feeling”. I could have been anywhere on the scale between -100 and 100, and I simply didn’t know. This not knowing was a very weird experience in itself, since it doesn’t seem common to be that out of touch with your own emotions. But apparently it can happen. Who knew.

An Open Critique of Common Thought

[I was going through a bunch of old files and found this gem of an essay. If the timestamp on the file is accurate it’s from February 2010, which means it’s almost exactly ten years old and predates this blog by about three years. Past me was very weird, so enjoy!]

I am writing this essay as a critique of a fundamental and unsolvable problem in philosophy today. Our greatest minds refuse to acknowledge this problem, so I have humbly taken it upon myself to explore more fully this hidden paradox.

Amongst all of the different philosophies, religions, and world-views, there is one common theme, so utterly pervasive that it has never before been questioned, yet so utterly false upon deeper inspection that it boggles the mind. It is my hope that this short essay will act as a call to arms for the oppressed masses in the field of higher thought, and prompt them to action demanding an end to this conspiracy.

The problem, ladies and gentlemen, in long and in short, is that of existence. Every thought, every idea, every concept that humankind has ever had rests on the central pillar, the core belief, that we exist. Not content, of course, with this simpler sophistry, humankind has embarked on an even more heinous error of logic – we assume not only that we exist, but that other things exist as well.

It is at this point, of course, that your conditioning takes over – “Of course we exist”, you say, “how could it be otherwise”? This is the knee-jerk reaction typical of an oppressed thinker today, and the prevalence of this mindless assertion – calling it a failure of an argument would be too kind – worries me more than I can say about the future of our society. Beyond the obvious lack of critical thinking evidenced by such lemming-like idiocies, this simple error is the cause of deeper, more dangerous problems as well.

But I digress. I will leave the deeper analysis of this crisis to the historians who survive it, and turn my own meagre talents to the task of alerting the public of this travesty. It is with heart-felt distress that I type my final plea to you, the thinking public – “Do you believe”?