Population of old (1900) American West: 4.277.402
Number of Red Dead Redemption 2 sales: >24 million.
Population of old (1900) American West: 4.277.402
The first time I felt confused about morality was as a child. I was about six, and saw a D&D-style role-playing magazine; On the cover, there were two groups preparing to fight, one dressed as barbarians, the other as soldiers or something1. I asked my brother “Which are the goodies and which are the baddies?”, and I couldn’t understand him when he told me neither of them were.
When I was 14 or so, in the middle of a Catholic secondary school, I discovered neopaganism; instead of the Bible and the Ten Commandments, I started following the Wiccan Rede (if it doesn’t hurt anyone, do what you like). Initially I still suffered from the hubris of black-and-white thinking, even though I’d witnessed others falling into that trap and thought poorly of them for it, but eventually my exposure to alternative religious and spiritual ideas made me recognise that morality is shades of grey.
Because of the nature of the UK education system, between school and university I spent 2 years doing A-levels, and one of the subjects I studied was philosophy. Between repeated failures to prove god exists, we covered ethics, specifically emotivism, AKA the hurrah/boo theory, which claims there are no objective morals, and that claims about them are merely emotional attitudes — the standard response at this point is to claim that “murder is wrong” is objective, at which point someone demonstrates plenty of people disagree with you about what counts as murder (abortion, execution, deaths in war, death by dangerous driving, meat, that sort of thing). I don’t think I understood it at that age, any more than I understood my brother saying “neither” when I was six; it’s hard to be sure after so much time.
Then I encountered complicated people. People who could be incredibly moral in one axis, and monsters in another. I can’t remember the exact example that showed it first, but I have plenty to choose from now — on a national scale, the British empire did a great deal to end slavery, yet acted in appalling ways to many of the people under it’s rule; on an individual scale, you can find scandals for Gandhi and Churchill, not just obvious modern examples of formerly-liked celebrities like Kevin Spacey and Rolf Harris. In all cases, saying someone is “evil” or “not evil”, or even “0.5 on the 0-1 evil axis” is misleading — you can trust Churchill 100% to run 1940 UK while simultaneously refusing to trust him (0% trust) to care about anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant, though obviously your percentages might be different.
I’ve been interested in artificial intelligence and artificial neural networks for longer than I’ve been able to follow the maths. When you, as a natural neural network, try to measure something, you do so with a high-dimensional vector-space of inputs (well, many such spaces, each layered on top of each other, with the outputs of one layer being the inputs of the next layer) and that includes morality.
When you ask how moral someone else is, how moral some behaviour is, what you’re doing is essentially a dot-product of your moral code with their moral code. You may or may not filter that down into a single “good/bad” boolean afterwards — that’s easy for a neural network, and makes no difference.
1 I can’t remember exactly, but it doesn’t matter.
This list was created November 14th, 2015. In retrospect, mum was already starting to show early symptoms of Alzheimer’s even before this, but we only became sure of her condition in late 2016.
Mum was born in ’43, in the UK town of Horsham, and this is what she remembered of her childhood years:
Take all of this with a few pinches of salt. The thing about vegetarianism being “almost unheard of”? Although it might well have been extremely rare, she previously told me her brother was ‘officially’ vegetarian during WW2 because vegetarians got better rations.
Homeopathy: for those who have never learned the details, claims that the potency of a treatment can be increased by repeatedly diluting it. There are many scales — the C-scale is “how many times has this been diluted by a factor of 100”, the X-scale “…by a factor of 10”. I’d say “clearly nonsense”, but I fell for it when I was a teenager.
Fermi paradox: there are so many stars in the observable universe — tens of sextillions (short scale) — that even fairly pessimistic assumptions imply we should be surrounded by noisy aliens… so why can’t we see any?
One of the most common resolutions to the Fermi paradox is that there are one or more “great filters” which make it entirely unlikely that any of those stars have produced intergalactic expansionist civilisations. There are good reasons to expect direct intergalactic expansion rather than starting with ‘mere’ interstellar expansion, and (rather more surprisingly) good reasons to think we’re within spitting distance of the technology required, but that only makes the non-technological problems all the more severe. There are a lot of unknowns here, obviously we’ve only got ourselves as an example, so the space between “where we are now” and “owning the universe” is filled entirely with underpants gnomes, and that’s where homeopathy fits in, in two separate ways.
First, as a categorical example. Homeopathy represents an archaic way of thinking, yet it’s very popular. It’s simple, it’s friendly, it is a viral meme. There are many of these, some of them are quite destructive, and while it’s nice to think nature is in a balance — especially when we’re thinking of something we’re really proud of such as our own minds — the truth is nature (including humans) often goes off the deep end and only sometimes recovers. It’s very easy for me to believe that an anti-rational meme such as homeopathy can either destroy a civilisation entirely, or prevent it developing into a proper space-faring civilisation.
Second, as an analogy. Dilution. It’s not the first dilution of a homeopathic preparation which removes all atoms of active ingredients from the result, but the repeated dilution. If there are, say, twenty things which have an independent 50% chance of holding back or wiping out a civilisation out before it can set up a colony — AI; bioweapons; cyber-warfare; global climate change (doesn’t matter if artificial warming or natural ice age); cascade agricultural collapse; mineral resource exhaustion; grey goo; global thermonuclear war; cosmic threats collectively from noisy stars whose CMEs make electricity impractical to asteroids and gamma ray bursts; anti-intellectualism movements, whether deliberate or not; feedback between cheap genetic engineering and genetically-defined super-stimulus making all the citizens a biologically vulnerable monoculture … — twenty items each with a 50% chance adds up to million-to-one odds (million-ish, but if you care about the difference you’re taking the wrong lesson from this).
Yes, one-million-to-one is almost irrelevant compared to ten sextillion. Odds of (100e9)^2-to-one would require 73 such events, not 20, but this combines with the previous Fermi estimates, it doesn’t replace them. 20 such events reduces the overall problem by a factor of a million, no matter what your previous estimate was, and both 20 events and 50% chances are just round numbers, not a real ones. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many small-filters we might face: as the Great Recession was starting, someone said that no two recessions are the same because we learn from all our mistakes and so each mistake has to be a new one. Sadly it’s worse even than that, as humanity as a whole does repeat even its economic mistakes, so even if we weren’t re-rolling some of our previously-successful dice because we keep thinking “we’re too big to fail“, humans don’t know all the ways we can fail to survive.
The Great Filter doesn’t have to be something that civilisations encounter exactly once and in much the same way a sentence encounters a full stop — it can be the death of a thousand paper-cuts.
If we do finally reach the stars, we may find the universe is much more interesting than it currently seems. Instead of Vulcans and warp drive, we might find hippy space-elves communing with their trees via mind-warping drugs… and if we don’t, instead of wiping ourselves out, we might become the hippy space-elves that some sentient octopus discovers while going boldly where no sentient octopus has gone before.
There are 2.5 billion seconds in a lifetime and (as of December 2018) 7.7 billion humans on the planet.
If you fight evil one-on-one, if you refuse to pick your battles, if only 1% of humans are sociopaths, you’ve got 21 waking seconds per opponent — and you’ll be fighting your whole life, from infancy to your dying breath and from when you wake to when you sleep, with no holiday, no weekends, no retirement.
Conversely, if you are a product designer, and five million people use your stuff once per day, every second you save them saves a waking lifetime of waiting per year. If you can relieve a hundred thousand people of just 5 minutes anxiety each day (say, about social media notifications), you’re saving six and a half waking lifetimes of anxiety every year.
When people complained about the cost of the Apollo programs, someone said Americans spent more on haircuts in the same time. How many Apollo programs of joy are wasted tapping on small red dots or waiting for them?
— My first proper original joke, updated.
You meet a Tarot reader. Roll a d6:
1. The fortune teller predicts the UK will cancel Article 50 and remain in the EU.
2. The fortune teller predicts Westminster will reject May's Deal, but instead call for the UK to join the EEA.
3. The fortune teller predicts Westminster will agree May's Deal.
4. The fortune teller predicts Westminster rejects May's Deal. Project Fear turns out to have been an understatement, as 10% of the UK's electricity is supplied by France under EU-specific rules, and the UK requires a reliable electricity supply to keep water mains running because it doesn't use water towers to pressurise the system.
While Westminster isn't paying attention, NI has a referendum under the Good Friday agreement and decides to reunify with the Republic of Ireland; Scotland unilaterally becomes independent and takes the nuclear submarines with it; and Wales, Yorkshire and Cornwall give it a go too.
5. The fortune teller predicts Westminster considers repeating the trade strategy that was highly successful in China in 1839–1842 and 1856–1860.
The UK accidentally becomes a military dictatorship after the British armed forces say "no" to this plan on the grounds that the Opium Wars were in fact wars, and as most of the EU is in NATO and the UK is also in NATO, the UK would have to declare war on itself.
6. Like 5, but instead of the second paragraph, the fortune teller predicts the UK is forced to declare war on itself under NATO article 5.
America takes over and the UK is forced to have a written constitution. Lots of people very unhappy because it's a copy of the American one and the UK population hates guns so much even the police aren't routinely armed.
If you have ITEM:NEWS that COUNTRY:NORWAY has rejected UK membership of the EEA, then if the Tarot reader rolls a 2 you may instead collect ONE BOWL OF POPCORN as compensation.
No, it’s not a prediction. It’s just a text adventure…