Content Warnings

Content warning: Discussion of false vacuum

Content warning: Discussion of Great Filter

Content warning: Discussion of potential apocalypse

Content warning: May systemically lower your estimation of humanity

Content warning: Applied utilitarianism

Content warning: Memetic resource-hijacking (e.g. earworms)

Content warning: Things you had not thought to worry about

Content warning: Nonconsensual awareness (don’t think about all the spots on your body that might be itching).

Content warning: Permanently altered perception (there’s an arrow in the FedEx sign).

Content warning: Artistic pattern awareness (TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life).

Content warning: May Induce Epistemic Learned Helplessness

Content warning: Curiosity Trap (you can’t not read this now that you’re curious about it – this warning is self-defeating)

Content warning: Description of embarrassing behavior

Thoughts on Ethereum Time Capsules

Ethereum is a forthcoming cryptocurrency. Like Bitcoin, it relies on a blockchain to generate distributed consensus about transactions and account values. What makes Ethereum different is that accounts are more than a keypair and a balance: Every ethereum account is a program which can autonomously store, manipulate, and send money or other data within the Ethereum network. For example, I could create an account that gifts 100 ether to anyone who sends a message containing the string “Jai is great” to the account (until the account runs out of money). If I really wanted, I could make this account autonomous and unchangable, so I couldn’t change it later even if I wanted to.

More practical example:

Alice wants to publish an encrypted message that can only be read after a certain date (the “embargo”). Maybe she wants to prove she predicted something in advance, or maybe she has a secret she wants told in the future. She creates a contract which contains a weakly-encrypted message – breakable, but only with a serious effort. The contract pays out a reward $R when someone submits the plaintext of the encrypted message, but only after the embargo ends.

A lot of the problems with this plan are the constraints $R has to fit:

  • Alice has to spend $R to set the whole scheme in motion
  • $R has to be more than the cost of decrypting the message ($D) at the decryption date
  • If anyone thinks the value of the secret ($S) is worth more than $D before the decryption date, the jig is up.
  • $D will change over time as advances in algorithms and hardware make decryption cheaper. This can be difficult to predict.

In short: This might work if $R>$D>$S holds for every point in time from encryption to decryption. The bigger $R is, the better Alice’s chances of everything working out the way she wants (bigger $R -> more motivated future decryptors -> stronger encryption -> higher cost of pre-embargo decryption).

A semi-trustworthy third party could make this cheaper, assuming it’s a semi-popular service. A Keymaker, K, publishes decryption contracts that correspond to every day in the next 20 years. Contract 1 pays out after tomorrow; contract 2 pays out in 2 days, etc. The content of each contract is just an encrypted private key. K also keeps all the public keys secret. If you have a secret you’d like to release on day n, you can pay K a certain amount and she’ll give you the public key for contract n. You encrypt your secret and make the ciphertext public, announcing that it will become readable when the corresponding K contract unlocks and the private key is revealed. You don’t even have to announce which day the unlock is – so no one except you and K will know how long you’re planning to keep your secret.

Problems in this new scheme:

  • K has access to all the private keys and can read all the secrets whenever she feels like it. An ethical/reputable K would generate all the private keys at once, encrypt them, upload the contracts, and delete the private keys immediately – before taking on a single customer. This is feasible, but there’s no way for customers to verify that K did that.
  • Once a customer gets the public key for day n, they can share it with all their friends, or even publish it publicly, creating a free-rider problem that wrecks K’s business model.

You could mitigate these problems with multiples key providers (K1, K2, K3). Alice encrypts her message n times.

I’m trying to think of other ways for people to cooperate on time-locking secrets, or how to line up incentives for high-frequency embargo contracts, or how to tune the difficulty of decryption after the fact (obviously you can only reduce the difficulty, but how granular can you make that reduction?) That could allow for overestimation of the initial key difficulty, with K scaling back the difficulty to accomodate technological progress (while still setting an upper limit on difficulty if K suddenly disappears for some reason).

Nice Guys, Nice Social Justice

I liked Scott’s most-recent (edit: Scott writes posts faster than I can think about posts, so it’s now his second-most-recent-post) post, an anti-anti-nice-guy treatise to the effect of “it is a bad idea to attack and shame people for being sad about being lonely, and assuming that complaints about loneliness are rooted in entitlement, misogyny, or other forms of bad-personitude is toxic”.

I can get behind this, as a prime example of almost-no-one-is-evil-almost-everything-is-broken. The world does not run on story rules, virtue doesn’t correlate with attractiveness, this is not anyone’s fault, and it’s okay to be sad about it. We humans have a nasty habit of writing in villains when telling the story of our problems (misogynists in this case), and any diagnosis of a problem that identifies the root node as “people being evil” should be suspect.

Which is my main issue with the post – that it identifies the root node of the backlash against “nice guys” as something-like “evil in feminism”, when there’s a much more charitable explanation of a world where almost everyone was and is trying to do the right thing. If you step back and blur your vision a bit, it becomes really easy to tell a story where a lot of people really have and are experiencing a lot of real pain, coming up with explanations of varying accuracy, forming political coalitions based on those explanations, becoming deeply invested in those arguments, and everyone ends up in more pain as a result.

Rebecca, in 1999. notices that in story after story, film after film, female characters aren’t really characters – they’re the reward that the hero gets for triumphing over evil and nastiness. Mario gets Peach. Luke gets Leia, except then she turns out to be his sister and he turns out to be a monk so Han gets Leia after he becomes a Good Guy. It would have been narratively unacceptable for that not to happen – the heroes deserve to get the girl after all they’ve been through. And this trope starts showing up in their personal life – Bob sticks up for her when she’s getting harassed, and she’s grateful to him. Then he asks her out, and she’s just not interested. She dates people who are sometimes rude, but she finds them charming. People seem irritated at her for not liking the people she’s supposed to like.

Bob is definitely irritated – he notices that his life isn’t going the way every story he was raised on said it should. He is trying to be a good person, but he is lonely. Loneliness is painful. Eventually some of the less-nice iterations of Bob do the human thing and seek out a villain to blame for their troubles: Women are purposefully rewarding evil people and punishing good people out of some deeply-rooted malice. Lots of Bobs get together on Digg to collectively blame their troubles on those bitches. Many more Bobs don’t do this – they’re sad about being lonely, and maybe sometimes they see the blame directed at “bitches”, but they don’t take part in it – they’re just sad and confused on their own. Let’s call these non-participant Bobs “Robert” from now on to avoid confusion.

Rebecca is really irritated. She doesn’t have an obligation to be attracted to anyone, and she really resents the implication that her dating choices make her a bad person. Eventually some Rebeccas do the human thing and seeks out a villain: Clearly, entitled mysoginists are making unreasonable demands on women – and this includes every guy who is sad about being lonely in spite of their niceness (or “niceness”). Rebecca’s case is stronger than the first group’s – she wasn’t the first to pick out a villain – but most of the people she’s attacking are innocent of any wrongdoing. Again, most would-be Rebecca’s don’t take up this flag – we’ll call these non-participants “Becca”.

The rest of the story is familiar: Bob and Rebecca form stronger, more strident, and larger coalitions (though Rebecca is much better at this). The Roberts look on from afar and get told about what horrible people they are and keep on feeling horrible. The Beccas look on and, to a lesser degree than the Roberts, have it insinuated that they’re bad people for not rewarding good behavior with dates. Over time, these constant low-level background attacks convert more Beccas and Roberts into Rebeccas and Bobs.

Eventually, Scott notices that a bunch of Roberts are being accused of being horrible people by a bunch of Rebeccas, does the human thing, and picks out the villain: Clearly, it’s the social justice movement.

Rebecca has a good point: Pretty much all media since forever has depicted women as rewards for men. This is wrong and broken and justifiably upsetting to a lot of people who would rather not be thought of as prizes to be won. But this does not justify telling all men who are hurting and wondering why virtue doesn’t correlate with attractiveness that they are horrible people. It’s a mistake, and an obvious one when it’s pointed out, but it’s a very human and understandable mistake.

No one was evil. Everything was broken.

Predictable Ethical Outcomes

It’s been obvious for over a decade that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is doomed; it’s been only slightly less obvious for slightly less time that discrimination based on gender identity is also doomed, and I expect it won’t be too much longer before it becomes obvious that people should have the right to alter any aspect of their body as much as they have a right to pick a hairstyle.

Predictions are hard, especially about the future, but I’m willing to stick my neck out and take bets on some future ethical consensuses:

  • Sexual orientation should not matter (e.g. there should be no legal distinctions about relationships between people based on the sex or gender of its members; to be legally implemented across the US within the next 10 years).
  • Gender identity should not matter (e.g. you can use whatever bathroom you want, you don’t have to specify M/F on documents).
  • Gender isn’t binary (but it may be bimodal).
  • People have a right to determine their physical body (gender reassignment is a legal non-issue, reduced social stigma for cosmetic surgery).
  • Where you are born should not matter (I’m less certain about this one, but hopeful; this entails easier immigration, reduced nationalism).
  • Children should probably have some more rights.
  • Non-human animals should probably have some more rights.
  • Non-human suffering is ethically important.
  • Death is bad.
  • Creating new life is a Big Deal. Creating new life accidentally is A Very Bad Thing.
  • Knowingly creating life with genetic diseases is a horrible crime.
  • Things like happiness and conscientiousness are almost-impossible to change by will, are are distributed unequally according to a complicated lottery we do not yet fully understand. To mitigate this, people in general should have a limited right to mind-altering drugs (e.g. ADHD medication, antidepressants). Limited to avoid Beggars in Spain or Red Queen-type scenarios. (I’m aware that there is a gaping lack of Schelling Fence here that I’ve grazed over with the word “limited”. Hence I’m less sure about this one as well).

Humans are complicated

Epistemic status: I’m less confident than I sound about this. 

I feel like you can generalize from sexism/racism/all-the-other-isms to a few general principles governing how we ought to interact with our fellow human beings:

  1. Do not make inferences about internal, hidden features based on external, obvious features. This is necessary to ensure fairness and avoid positive feedback loops (if feature X is associated with trait Y, people with trait X will be incentivized to match trait Y, making the correlation a self-fulfilling and self-accelerating prophecy). This is true even (especially) when there exist statistical correlations between obvious external features and hidden internal features at a given moment.
  2. Your System 1 is probably going to break Rule 1. Compensate accordingly.
  3. People are complicated and vary widely in their experience. Your experiences are not necessarily indicative of what other people’s existences are like. Some people have abstract imaginations and some people have visually-specific imaginations, with a full spectrum running between them. What people find sexually attractive varies among any number of dimensions. For any combination of traits generally associated with one gender or another, there will be people who experience a grabbag of those traits that don’t conform to the expected clustering. And so on.
  4. There are probably a bunch of societal norms, formal and informal, that ignore 1-3. This hurts a lot of people. Be aware of systems founded on incorrect assumptions, and how the systems founded on these assumptions have impacted (probably negatively) the people whose existences disprove the faulty assumptions.