Asymmetry of passion

Some time ago I first read the phrase “asymmetry of passion” in an article (in Wired via Kottke) about so-called “keyword voids” in internet search engines. The article starts by discussing the internet search results for “vitamin K shots”, a routine injection that newborns get.

This is a routine practice—ask your pediatrician, your obstetrician, or the CDC. “Babies are born with very low stores of vitamin K, and without the Vitamin K shot … they do not have enough Vitamin K in their blood to form a clot,” the CDC says on its website.

But new parents who turn to search engines to understand the practice will find an aberrant—and dangerous—strain of thinking. Google “vitamin K shot” and the first result advises “Skip that Newborn Vitamin K Shot.” It isn’t until below the fold—the fourth result—that the CDC website appears.

This is blamed on an asymmetry of passion; anti-vaxxers put much more effort into writing blogs stating that the shots are unnecessary or even dangerous than government organizations like the US’ CDC do to refute their claims. Hence the search results get populated with all-natural anti-science lies. (I just tried the search and my results page only has a single anti-vax result. The Wired article made more scientifically literate websites write about the shots.)

Asymmetries of passion happen more often. One good example is blockchain technology, which has no use-cases apart from cryptocurrency, and possibly not even that.  Other examples include conspiracy theories and the alt-right.

The “marketplace of ideas” is a cute idea, but it is too bad that you can’t short.

Language policy for this blog

See also: content policy for this blog.

I have a habit of using ableist slurs. I used to think those words weren’t ableist at all, or maybe that ableism in that sense wasn’t bad. I have learned to think otherwise, mainly from this series of blog posts. Those posts highlight one important reason for avoiding certain words: it’s lazy language.

 “stupid” isn’t constructive. You’re not criticizing… you’re just denigrating. The other person can’t learn anything from being told that their idea is “stupid”. Like I said before… it’s lazy. It elucidates absolutely nothing.

Instead, you could be constructive. You could say “that’s a bad idea, and here’s why” or “I think you made a big mistake there. You should have done this, instead” or “I don’t know if I like that choice. Here’s a better one.” Explain why you don’t like whatever it is, instead of just calling it “stupid”.

Don’t have the time to go into specifics? It’s still better to just say something like “nah, that’s a bad idea” or “you know what? No. I’m against that” and move on than to say “that’s stupid”. Even when you’re using it against ideas or actions or such, there’s still splash damage.

Avoiding certain words forces you to be more articulate. To be more constructive in your criticism. To apply a growth mindset towards the outgroup.

(I am NOT saying that intelligence is a completely non-existent property. Some people are mentally impaired in ways that chronically prevent them from functioning normally, and it is harmful to think that this is not the case. I am saying that for most people, most of their usage of those words is inappropriate and harms their communication.)

Not only is there a practical advantage; using inherent properties of people as slurs is not so nice. I don’t feel welcome if I hear people use “gay” as a slur, so I should probably not use ableist language either.

Want to try this as well? Do read a list of alternative words like this one.  My favourite default replacements are:

  • Stupid -> willfully ignorant/frustrating/obnoxious/unfathomable
  • Crazy -> fascinating/amazing/extreme
  • Lame -> bad/awful/inadequate

Book review: The Hunger Games

My favourite book I’ve ever read is by far The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I first read it as a kid back in 2009, but I still love it. The book reframes some big societal issues in a way that makes the reader take a good look at themselves from an outside view. The fact that the setting is fictional and the social commentary is left implicit makes it all the more disarming and convincing.

The book follows Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from Panem, a country consisting of 12 poor districts that are ruled by the rich Capitol. Katniss lives in the very poorest district 12, in which most people are employed to mine coal for the rest of Panem. The protagonist herself provides for her family by illegal poaching and selling the spoils on the black market.

The plot of the first book revolves around the eponymous Hunger Games, a yearly televised bloodsport involving one teenage boy and one teenage girl from every district, chosen by an ingenious classicist lottery. Katniss and OneDimensionalBoyCharacter1 (ODBC1) are participating in this year’s game.

Katniss and ODBC1 are taken to the Capitol to prepare for the game. The citizens of the Capitol are decadently rich. After finishing dinner they will vomit so that they can get another extravagantly delicious serving, all while they are aware that the people in the poorest districts are literally starving to death.

The Hunger Games themselves take up most of the book. Everyone faces physical hardship, kids get killed. Katniss is doing pretty good, killing a couple of kids herself. Eventually she and ODBC1 team up, and eventually they start acting romantically affectionate towards each other. ODBC1 is sincere, while Katniss is just acting to get the viewers to like her, playing up a “star-crossed lovers” angle that was set up earlier.

Katniss and ODBC1 end up as the last living players and decide to eat deadly poisonous berries together because they don’t want to kill the other to win. The game makers quickly stop the game because they fear that it would ruin the public perception of the Hunger Games as a fun and non-cruel game. Katniss and ODBC1 get to share the win and go home traumatized. The establishment is not pleased about their ploy though, and the visible opposition to the rule of the Capitol is the first spark towards a revolution later in the book series.

What always hit me about the story is how it portrays the Hunger Games as a popular event among the citizens of the Capitol, and how shamelessly the Capitol enriches itself over the backs of the districts. The book implicitly asks “What should a morally conscious Capitol citizen do if they disagreed with the state of the world?” The story is so far removed from the real world that it allows you to ponder this question without immediately grasping the similarity with the countless real-world analogues.

I’ve found the Capitol/district relation very insightful and it got me to critically consider the state of the world. I estimate a decent probability that this book counterfactually made me an EA.

Evaluating the AI Safety cause area: a two-year plan

My pretending to have readers makes this blog a self-commitment scheme: if I write that I will do something, the imagined possibility of social shaming will make me more committed to actually doing the thing. That is why I’ll line out my plans for evaluating whether I believe the AI Safety cause area as perceived by EA’s is any good.

I used to think the arguments were pretty convincing, and I liked how it made my skills in math and CS super relevant for a morally important thing. But then I listened to Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies and found the book’s arguments thoroughly lacking. There is an asymmetry of passion in the AI risk circles where the believers are hyping the cause area while the non-believers don’t interact with the ideas at all.

The following step plan is based on the assumption that the LW-aligned view of most EA’s is misguided, but that there is important work to be done to make sure that what we are currently calling AI is used properly. Every step in the plan is meant to defend part of my beliefs, and I trust myself to notice when my argumentation is shaky. If my view changes, I should feel free to change the plan to look into my new views instead.

After completing a step, I will write a blog post describing the outcome and related thoughts. I will try to complete at least one step every two months so that the plan is done before you re-enter the job market after the end of your PhD. I don’t have to do the steps in the listed order.

  1. Make a plan listing the steps to think through the AIS cause. Completed.
  2. Uneducated guessing: directly oppose the astronomical waste argument. See if you can collect the necessary entropy to argue that, even if astronomical waste would be astronomically bad, supporting the AI Safety cause is still bad in expectation. Read at least what Bostrom, Beckstead and FRI have written on the topic, maybe more.
  3. Reread Superintelligence. Try to list the major points in the arguments and list objections. Does it actually argue for a Yudkowsian view, or is everyone misinterpreting it and does it secretly argue for a more mainstream view?
  4. Read various online sources to get more of an idea of what the mainstream view is among AIS EA’s. See if you can list research agendas on AIS different from MIRI’s.
  5. Argue that MIRI is not an effective charity regardless of the status of AIS as a field. I am not sure I truly believe this, but they seem so deeply incongruent with the standard academic practice that I should spend some time thinking about them. I kind of expect that this post will feel like punching down.
  6. I think Paul Christiano is a smart and serious person. He co-authored one of the best papers in your field of the past decade so he is not a crank. Read some of his writing on AIS to see if it holds up to scrutiny.
  7. Argue that average utilitarianism is superior to total utilitarianism, and astronomical waste cannot exist.
  8. Argue in more familiar terms why a paperclip maximizer wouldn’t act as some people fear they would.
  9. Argue that the capitalist’s alignment problem, insofar as it is meaningful and solvable, will be solved by the market.
  10. The social democrat’s alignment problem is a meaningful concept.
  11. Educated guessing: redo the entropy gathering from earlier, but now while having more knowledge.
  12. Cast mainstream “AI” related research in TCS in terms of the social democrat’s alignment problem. See what is out there at conferences like STOC/FOCS, COLT and NIPS. Check O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction, Dwork et al’s line of work on algorithmic fairness, the work on learning non-discriminatory predictors, etc.

On gatekeepers, hormones and unethical research practices?

Background

Many, though not all, trans people who transition get hormone replacement therapy (HRT).  For transmasculine people, testosterone. For transfeminine people, estrogen and (before surgery) testosterone blockers. HRT can affect most secondary sex characteristics in a way that makes a person more comfortable with their body and helps them in being seen as their preferred gender.

For trans youth, puberty suppressing medication exists. These medications pause puberty for as long as you use it without other consequences. It is completely reversible: stop taking the medication, and your puberty will resume as if nothing happened. (All medications have side effects, but this stuff is super mild.) Puberty suppression is fantastic because it can prevent breast growth, voice deepening, beard growth and male pattern baldness, which are all expensive and time-consuming to undo after they happened. Puberty blockers are for young people who want to go on hormones but are considered too young for that, or for people that are undecided about starting HRT.

Puberty suppression medication and testosterone blockers are only legally available with a prescription in every (?) country in the world. If you want it, you have to get a medical professional to prescribe them.

Doctors have specialisations and avoid treating patients for things outside their area of expertise. That is why historically and presently you probably have to go to a specialised transgender endocrinologist to get a prescription for hormone suppression meds.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) publishes a document called the Standards of Care (SoC), in which they give widely followed guidelines for medical professionals on how to best treat trans people. They say that, before medically treating an individual,  they need a diagnosis (3-12 months of counselling) and go through the hazing ritual known as the real-life experience (3+ months, no longer recommended since 2011). And not just for HRT, but also to get these puberty suppression medications. This practice is often called the gatekeeper model, in contrast to the informed consent model in which the doctor is only there to inform you of what the medications do and then gives them to you without requiring you to jump through any hoops.

Many places that treat trans people have waiting lists measured in years.

Imagine you are 14. The first symptoms of puberty start to happen, and you find out you don’t want those. Even if your parents are supportive and you can immediately get a referral from your GP, it might take two or more years before you get puberty blockers. Entirely unnecessarily, you have two years of unwanted puberty happening to you. Everyone involved knows this is unnecessary. Too bad, you’ll have to do voice therapy and laser hair removal to fix it later.

(DIY medication exists, but it is technically illegal, 95% of trans people recommends against it for reasons unknown to me, and treatment providers threaten that they will no longer help you with anything when they find out you self-medicated.)

Section of Doubt

To my best understanding, the above is a more or less accurate description of the state of affairs for many people. I consider it grossly negligent of medical professionals and policymakers to force trans people through unnecessary additional puberty, and of trans advocates that they are not making more of an issue out of this.

I do believe that people, in general, have reasons for doing what they do and believing what they believe. Considering that my view of the situation is very different from most people, I am probably missing something important. I have no idea what it might be or who is right.

Storytime

I was almost 18. I was in the process of convincing my gatekeeper/psychologist to write me a prescription for testosterone blockers. It was not going super well. I am not traditionally feminine. I didn’t desire to wear female clothing. I don’t “feel like a woman.” I wasn’t sure whether surgery would be right for me, nor whether I wanted voice therapy to sound more feminine. I just knew that I did not want any of testosterone’s further effects. I wanted HRT. I needed HRT. Only after that, I would have the time and peace of mind to think about additional steps.

I was unable to articulate the required narrative and too honest to tell the proper lie on 100% of the hundreds of arbitrary, unrelated or stereotyping questions that were supposed to measure transness. What should have been six months of counselling for getting my diagnosis, had already lasted eight months. The end was not in sight. My therapist was not planning to help me soon, not even with puberty blockers.

But then it happened. The clinic was running a scientific study on differences in brain structure between cis and trans people, and whether taking hormones affected that. They needed trans participants aged 14-19, who just started puberty blockers, to do some mental tasks in an MRI scanner, with a follow up a year or so after going on hormones. I was asked to participate in the study. If I said yes, I would get the puberty blockers and my continued masculinization would stop. If I said no, I would not start medication for months. I would probably have started growing facial hair before I would get medical help.

I felt so lucky; I immediately said yes. My body would be mine, without nature forcibly intruding on my happiness. For the first time in years, I did not want to die. I was so grateful to the researchers for letting me participate in the study. They allowed me to get my hormones.

Epilogue

This event happened over five years ago. The details might be off, but I am confident about the general outline. I am still very pleased with having HRT. I changed my name at that time as well. My old name was ugly; my new name is the best name. These days I am consistently gendered female. I’m happy about being gendered female; it saves me from a lot of transphobia and toxic masculinity.

Today, I first thought back to what happened all those years ago. Only now I realise that this story can be accurately reframed as “my doctor withheld me my treatment to force me to participate in a study”, and that ethics boards probably don’t appreciate extortion of patients. On the other hand, ethics boards do approve of the gatekeeper treatment model, so their opinion might not be the best guideline for what is good or bad. I don’t know what to think of this.