I’m Gavin, a PhD candidate in AI at Bristol. 18 I like technical solutions to philosophical problems.

Technically an EA blog, though I don’t consider this a blog. (Blogging is more speech than writing.)

If you want to talk, get in touch by email, or anonymously here, or extremely privately (via PGP) here.

Research

I'm interested in keeping an eye on AI. By sheer good fortune my advisor is Laurence Aitchison.

Some things I'm working on:

  • The emergence of emotion-like behaviour in ordinary RL agents.

  • Better ways to communicate preferences to RL agents.

  • The cost-effectiveness of anti-COVID measures.

  • How inductive logic programming measures up in terms of other ML paradigms

Change my mind

I offer bounties for errors:
  • $1 for nitpicks (typos, ambiguities, misreadings, exceptions, technicalities).
  • $10 for an error which falsifies a sentence.
  • $50 for an error which invalidates an argument or a post.

Factual and logical errors are most likely to resolve cleanly; I probably won't cough up if you just tell me I'm an idiot for believing or not believing in e.g. Meinongianism. That would get a smile.

I'm not sure how to handle claims that have changed truth-value since I made them; half of this blog might be false if you return in 30 years. Leaning towards $1 to $5.

Also, if I make a claim you want to bet against, get in touch for odds.

Payouts

Page Error Person Payout
About Was unclear about the required size of error for a bounty, leading to a prima facie contradiction. Loki Sempere $10 to EA Funds

Giving

I'm a member of Giving What We Can, people who pledge substantial amounts of their lifetime income to the most effective charitable causes. I'm donating 10% this year, aiming at 50% overall 2. My reasoning on the most important causes, and my present basket of charities is forthcoming.


I am cause-neutral (in the sense that I will support whatever is highest value, to the extent that objective evaluation is possible) and cause-sceptical (in the sense that we don't really know what the best thing to do is).

Books

I try to review every book I read.

Most book reviews are vacuous, blocklike expressions of approval or disapproval. There is nothing in them except the reviewer, their squeals. I do some of those, but I try to do some of the other kind too.

Favourite books

Ficciones (1944) by Jorge Luis Borges
What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (2014) by Randall Munroe
Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo (2004) by Werner Herzog
The Precipice (2020) by Toby Ord
Terra Ignota (2016 - 2021) by Ada Palmer
Brewer's Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages (2002) by William Donaldson
Factfulness (2018) by Hans Rosling
Doing Good Better (2015) by William MacAskill
Library of Scott Alexandria (2015) by Scott Alexander
Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung (1987) by Lester Bangs
Poems of the Late T'ang (1965) by A.C. Graham
Oxford Book of Essays (1991) by John Gross
Right Ho, Jeeves (Jeeves, #6) (1934) by P.G. Wodehouse
Famine, Affluence, and Morality (1972) by Peter Singer
Save Yourself, Mammal!: A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Collection (2011) by Zach Weinersmith
Incerto: Antifragile, The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, The Bed of Procrustes (2011) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The God That Failed (1949) by Richard Crossman
Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8; City Watch #1) (1989) by Terry Pratchett
Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs (2004) by John Pilger
The Book of Disquiet (1982) by Fernando Pessoa
What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (1999) by Charles Bukowski
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (2006) by Christopher M. Bishop
Stories of Your Life and Others (2002) by Ted Chiang
Tales from Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #5) (2001) by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) by Ted Honderich
Computing machinery and intelligence (1950) by Alan Turing
Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall (1995) by Jeremy Bernstein
Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner (1987) by Alistair Reid
Blindsight (Firefall, #1) (2006) by Peter Watts
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) by David Foster Wallace
The Hedonistic Imperative (2015) by David Pearce
The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth (2016) by Robin Hanson
The Patrick Melrose Novels (2012) by Edward St. Aubyn
Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) by Herman Melville
Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace
The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (2018) by Kevin Simler
Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) by Cormac McCarthy
The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975) by Ursula K. Le Guin
What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night (2014) by John Brockman
Collected Poems (1988) by Czesław Miłosz
How to Actually Change Your Mind (2018) by Eliezer Yudkowsky
Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007) by Clive James
Reliable Essays: The Best of Clive James (2001) by Clive James
Excession (1996) by Iain Banks
Travels With Myself and Another (1979) by Martha Gellhorn
Collected Poems (1988) by Philip Larkin

Misc

Epigram


It is equally fatal to the spirit to have a system and to not have a system.
One will likely have to combine the two. 1
— Friedrich Schlegel


...there is in men and women a motivation stronger even than love or hatred or fear. It is that of being interested — in a body of knowledge, in a problem, in a hobby, in tomorrow’s newspaper.
— George Steiner


Favourites

Site

I love making this site better. I'm no designer but I enjoy the results, and the feedback (n=6 friends) is good. Here's a list of my design decisions.

The title is an Iain Banks allusion: his powerful protagonists tease pompous people by taking names with as little gravitas as possible. To take the arg min of something is to find the thing which results in its lowest value.

Psychology

Morality as Co-operation (questionnaire): (Really not a fan of evolved morality.)


Oxford Utilitarianism Scale
  • Impartial Beneficence: 33 out of 35
  • Instrumental Harm: 21 out of 28


Intrinsic Values Test


Moral Foundations:


The Big Five



Myers-Briggs Type: FOAD.

Coding

I've been employed to code for 6.4 years 5. Of which, I've been employed in machine learning for 3.7 years.

It is some career. So far I have worked on a precision methadone pump, a website generator for bed & breakfasts, secure off-site credit card storage, procurement streamlining for e.g. 'aerospace' companies, a metre-precise 3D model of Britain's rivers, a performance dashboard for use by secondary school teachers, medical risk scoring models, countermeasures against machine-learning model extraction...

Experience with

Antagonism between language communities is a really clear example of how strong identities cause perversities.

I have written production code in
  • Python (raw, SciPy/Pandas, PySpark): 9
  • C# 11
  • Typescript 12
  • nodeJS 13
  • Pig Latin 14
  • bash 15
  • Oozie XML 16
  • PHP 17
I also have side projects in
  • Java : All my Master's degree work: Game of Life, Vigenere cipher, .
  • Scala : Just Project Euler so far.
  • Rust : Just Project Euler so far.
  • Powershell: e.g. a web scraper (before Python was provisioned).
  • bash : An archiver for hyperlinks.
  • Jekyll : this itself.

Frameworks, tools, stacks, hardware

Stored as JSON here.

Elsewhere

Endorsements


Utterly charming. In the nature of such lists, one does not expect to agree with every, single one---of course not. But the lists exhibit a lively and critical mind, unwilling to follow the usual party lines.
– Deirdre McCloskey 6


I'm honoured to be on your list [of favourite books].
– Robin Hanson 7


Nice image, young man. You may be a writer.
– Will Self 8



Also, my mum says I'm cool.

Identity

I try not to identify as things. My premises, projects and preferences say overwhelmingly more about me than my social identity does.

Tone

I'm sometimes told I'm too strident. I'll accept this, because constant hedging is unreadable, more annoying than authoritativeness. Also because strong claims galvanise opposition: as long as they're reasonable as well as strong, hopefully this stimulus creates value.

Anyway I'm not as sure as I sound: there's a comment box under every piece, call me out.

Why so many quotations?

Well, they're the densest store of insight. We are not empiricists by nature or by culture, so they are my concession to the apeish narrative side of mind. That quotes page is like a message digest of 10 years of me reading and learning.

I sometimes regret my instinctual distrust of Twitter: a lot of contemporary aphorists must be whiling away the years on there.

Metrics

Here are scales for rating all kinds of things.

Loss function

Above all I hope to beat the trend spotted by Robin Hanson about independent scholars:

over time amateurs blow their lead by focusing less and relying on easier, more direct methods. They rely more on informal conversation as analysis method, they prefer personal connections over open competitions in choosing people, and they rely more on a perceived consensus among a smaller group of fellow enthusiasts. As a result, their contributions just don’t appeal as widely or as long.

Gavins Leeches

Illnesses

I suffer from degenerative DNA scrambling, irreversible methylation, increasingly lazy kinases, and oxygen poisoning, like everyone.

What's with all these accordions?

Information hiding is a basic condition of good large software; these accordions are a prose analogue. The hope is that, by tucking away wires, I can write long things without triggering anyone's TL;DR reflex.

It also sort of simulates a dialogue with the reader: I plant a question, and then they prompt for the response.
  1. Es ist gleich tödlich für den Geist, ein System zu haben, und keins zu haben. Es wird sich also wohl entschließen müssen beides zu verbinden.
  2. (or an equivalent value of my labour.)
  3. If you count SAS. (If you do, I was employed to code before I learned to Code.)

    Note that just being 'employed to code' says surprisingly little about your ability. And almost nothing about your possession of the spiritual advantages of technical life.
  4. Comment on my "vade mecum" book list including Age of Em.
  5. Here, 21/11/14.
  6. e.g. a computational linguistics wrapper
    e.g. a full notebooked ML pipeline, from sparse raw csvs to GBM to policy implications.
  7. e.g. An ironclad medicine pump controller with WPF.
  8. e.g. A CRUD procurement app with Angular and .NET.
  9. e.g. a secure pharmacy record ("Rx") system.
  10. e.g. Various YARN batch jobs, processing a few TB then emailing out regular tabular summaries.
  11. e.g. Debugging HDFS schema issues with Avrotools.
  12. e.g. chaining Shell and Pig scripts to crunch and mail reports.
  13. e.g. fairly complex websites, Laravel prototyping, a cURL handler for a credit card storage API.
  14. A conflict of interest: I am (indirectly) funded by the EPSRC and so really by the British government.