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. Pubs and code and teaching here.

Some things I'm working on:

  • Tensors for fast sampling in big latent variable models.

  • Emotion-like behaviour in ordinary RL agents.

  • Better ways to communicate preferences to RL agents.

  • 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
/psych Overstated the consensus against Milgram. It's still shaky, and not really about obedience, but it's wrong to say there's no evidence, just that the original experiments were terrible. Matt Edwards $5

Bets

Bet Bettor Odds Resolution
Jan 2016: Trump finishes term. CR 1:1. Nice bottle of whisky. To me.
June 2020: Biden wins election. CR 1:1. Nice restaurant dinner. To me.

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 5% 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.

Currently reading

Favourite books

Title
<i>Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy</i> (1997) by Dave Hickey
<i>Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs</i> (2004) by John Pilger
<i>Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall</i> (1995) by Jeremy Bernstein
<i>Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne</i> (1592) by Michel de Montaigne
<i>Bad Science</i> (2008) by Ben Goldacre
<i>Meditations</i> (180) by Marcus Aurelius
<i>The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable</i> (2007) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
<i>Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner</i> (1987) by Alistair Reid
<i>The Oxford Companion to Philosophy</i> (1995) by Ted Honderich
<i>How to Actually Change Your Mind (Rationality: From AI to Zombies)</i> (2018) by Eliezer Yudkowsky
<i>Ficciones</i> (1944) by Jorge Luis Borges
<i>Oxford Book of Essays</i> (1991) by John Gross
<i>Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus</i> (1921) by Ludwig Wittgenstein
<i>A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments</i> (1997) by David Foster Wallace
<i>Rationality: From AI to Zombies</i> (2015) by Eliezer Yudkowsky
<i>What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions</i> (2014) by Randall Munroe
<i>Stories of Your Life and Others</i> (2002) by Ted Chiang
<i>The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota, #3)</i> (2017) by Ada Palmer
<i>The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant</i> (2005) by Nick Bostrom
<i>The Hedonistic Imperative</i> (2015) by David Pearce
<i>The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth</i> (2016) by Robin Hanson
<i>Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think</i> (2018) by Hans Rosling
<i>Mortal Questions</i> (1979) by Thomas Nagel
<i>Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back</i> (2015) by William MacAskill
<i>Library of Scott Alexandria</i> (2015) by Scott Alexander
<i>Famine, Affluence, and Morality</i> (1972) by Peter Singer
<i>Save Yourself, Mammal!: A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Collection</i> (2011) by Zach Weinersmith
<i>Incerto 4-Book Bundle: Antifragile, The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, The Bed of Procrustes</i> (2011) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
<i>The God That Failed</i> (1949) by Richard Crossman
<i>Brewer's Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages</i> (2002) by William Donaldson
<i>Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8; City Watch #1)</i> (1989) by Terry Pratchett
<i>The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse</i> (<NA>) by Robert Crawford
<i>What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire</i> (1999) by Charles Bukowski
<i>Tales from Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #5)</i> (2001) by Ursula K. Le Guin
<i>Map and Territory</i> (<NA>) by Eliezer Yudkowsky
<i>Computing machinery and intelligence</i> (1950) by Alan Turing
<i>Watchmen</i> (1987) by Alan Moore
<i>Beyond Good and Evil</i> (1886) by Friedrich Nietzsche
<i>The Penguin Book of English Verse</i> (2000) by Paul Keegan
<i>Lolita</i> (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov
<i>Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung</i> (1987) by Lester Bangs
<i>Blindsight (Firefall, #1)</i> (2006) by Peter Watts
<i>Small Gods (Discworld, #13)</i> (1992) by Terry Pratchett
<i>Brief Interviews with Hideous Men</i> (1999) by David Foster Wallace
<i>Right Ho, Jeeves (Jeeves, #6)</i> (1934) by P.G. Wodehouse
<i>The Book of Disquiet</i> (1982) by Fernando Pessoa
<i>The Patrick Melrose Novels</i> (2012) by Edward St. Aubyn
<i>Bartleby the Scrivener</i> (1853) by Herman Melville
<i>Infinite Jest</i> (1996) by David Foster Wallace
<i>The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life</i> (2017) by Kevin Simler
<i>Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West</i> (1985) by Cormac McCarthy
<i>The Wind's Twelve Quarters</i> (1975) by Ursula K. Le Guin
<i>Poems of the Late T'ang</i> (1965) by A.C. Graham
<i>What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night</i> (2014) by John Brockman
<i>Iain Crichton Smith: Selected Poems</i> (1986) by Iain Crichton Smith
<i>Collected Poems</i> (1988) by Czesław Miłosz
<i>Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo</i> (2004) by Werner Herzog
<i>Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts</i> (2007) by Clive James
<i>Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings</i> (1962) by Jorge Luis Borges
<i>Reliable Essays: The Best of Clive James</i> (2001) by Clive James
<i>Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened</i> (2013) by Allie Brosh
<i>Travels With Myself and Another</i> (1979) by Martha Gellhorn
<i>Collected Poems</i> (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 7.0 years 5. Of which, I've been employed in machine learning for 4.4 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, increasingly lazy cells, irreversible methylation, terribly tangled proteins, disappearing stem-cell nooks, and ultimately 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 UKRI and so really by the British government.