One of the defining philosophies of the local Singularity Institute community here is “Munchkining at life”. Where I come from we would call it min/maxing your life, or hacking your life. It refers to winning (making money or happiness) by unconventional or unexpected means. You’re following the rules (laws and ethics) but not obeying societal expectations.
Eliezer Yudkowsky and Michael Vassar proclaim (loudly and to anyone who will listen) that there are a huge number of munchkining opportunities for anyone to take. Low-hanging fruit, in other words. They believe this strongly enough that they’ve told us that one of the goals of Rationality Boot Camp is to produce millionaires, by teaching us the skills we need to notice and take advantage of these munchkin opportunities.
If Michael and Eliezer are correct about the low-hanging fruit, and if they can successfully teach the appropriate skills, then it makes sense that SingInst is paying for us to be here: they expect to get a lot of big donations, either from us directly in a few years, or through us because we end up in powerful positions.
Anyway, we had a session about munchkining today, called “The World is Mad.” Eliezer first polled us about how much weight we assigned to the implication that “nobody else is doing X” should mean that X is a bad idea. I gave the weight four out of ten, and the answers were quite varied. Eliezer then gave lots of examples of things people weren’t doing which were obviously a good idea (and things which people were doing which were shown to be retarded):
- shangri-la diet which is apparently super effective according to Eliezer
- the many-worlds quantum physics interpretation which is obviously correct if you consider the alternative explanations and Occam's Razor
- checklists in hospitals, which were banned in some places because of unethical medical experiments
- awful psychiatric diagnosis (the Rosenhan experiment) as well as the pseudoscientific Rorschach tests
- making ethanol from corn, which takes more energy than the resulting ethanol provides
- the worldwide monopoly on diamonds
- minors can be forced to register as sex offenders for taking explicit photos of themselves; two minors engaging in consensual sex can both be charged with statutory rape (no citation, sorry - let me know if you find one)
- alcohol is legal, addictive, and dangerous. marijuana is illegal, but not addictive, and incredibly safe.
- there is a war going on in Congo that I have never heard of, which has killed maybe 5 million people (and I read the news)
- kids get raped in juvenile prison and it would be incredibly cheap to install webcams to stop this
For each of these we rated how much this caused us to believe the “world is mad” hypothesis. For me the most impressive one was the hospital checklist one, followed by prison rape. How much do each of these cause you to update?
I guess the experiment is to determine whether people can really internalize that “the world is mad”. Eliezer and Michael were saying that they present people with all this data, and yet people still look at what others are doing to determine whether something is a good idea. I can see what they’re saying, because despite all this, I haven’t updated more than a couple points on that scale. I initially answered 4 out of 10; I would now put my estimation of “the world is mad” at about 6 or 7. I am still not fully updated to that view; it’s hard for me to internalize.
Apparently one science fiction author, Jack Vance, treats this view as a skill, “zs’hanh”, which is defined as “contemptuous indifference to the activity of others”. Eliezer tweaked this definition to “contemptuous indifference to the inactivity of others. I expect to make a lot of progress learning this skill this summer.