Black Lives *Do* Matter

In the wake of the recent Dallas shootings Facebook is ablaze with memes to this effect:


The rhetoric of the BLM movement and the overall tone of their outrage leads me to believe that they consider white people, and especially white law enforcement, to be one of the single biggest threats to black people.

I don’t buy this, and I want to explain why by bracketing the data on police shootings with more general data on inter- and intra-racial homicide. Unfortunately the most recent (mostly) complete data I could find is from 2013, but I don’t think that’s a serious challenge to my thesis.

How many black people were killed by police in 2013? From [1] I count 181 black males and 7 black females killed between the months of May and December. That’s 23.5 per month, so let’s round that up to 24 and add this many deaths for the months of January, February, March, and April. That yields a total of 284 (188 + (4 x 24)).

To be safe let’s round that up to 300. And, for the sole purpose of disadvantaging my argument, I’m going to arbitrarily double that number to 600.

Bear in mind, this assumes each and every black person killed by the police in 2013 was innocent and includes those cases when the officer responsible for killing a black person was also black.

From the Expanded Homicide Data Table 6 from the FBI [2] I count 2,245 intra-racial black homicides and 189 white-on-black homicides. Let’s round the latter figure up to 200 and round the former figure down to 2,200. Again, just to disadvantage my argument.

That makes (600 blacks killed by cops) + (200 blacks killed by whites) / (2,200 blacks killed by blacks) = (800)/(2,200) = 36%.

Even when I have stacked the statistical deck against my argument in every conceivable way the total number of cop-on-black and white-on-black homicides is only a little over a third of the number of black-on-black homicides. If you remove my rounding and doubling, it’s more like 21%.

The conclusion seems inescapable: by far the single biggest threat to black people is black people. Not cops, not whites, not privilege, but other black people.

So far I haven’t found anyone who takes issue with my statistical analysis, but one objection that keeps cropping up is that none of the above is relevant because what BLM supporters are angry with is a pervasive and systemic bias against black people in modern society. When making this claim there is usually the implication, sometimes stated explicitly, that this bias is what is driving higher rates of criminality and even intra-racial homicide.

Now, my degree is in psychology. I took classes on evolutionary psychology, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and social cognition, and have read very widely in these fields in the years since I’ve graduated because I have a deep-seated interest in improving my ability to reason. I am aware of the fact that people have a natural tendency to trust those who look like them, that biases can be unconscious and nearly impossible to perceive, and that when summed across an entire majority population can exert major pressure on a minority population.

But I have two problems with this reply. The first is that so far every Leftist with whom I’ve discussed this issue seems comfortable treating ‘systemic bias’ as though it’s a universal and totally unambiguous explanation for every interracial disparity we might observe. Not long ago a Leftist made the claim that despite similar rates in drug usage blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for drug possession. I noted that patterns of drug use could be different even while rates of drug use could be the same. That is, if black people are more likely to sell and use drugs on a street corner with their friends while whites are more likely to do so in their basement, it isn’t surprising that they’d be arrested more often.

I want to be clear here: I have no idea if this hypothesis is true or not. While I have presented this hypothetical a number of different times I have always made it clear that it is conjecture and nothing more. What disturbs me is simply that I haven’t yet encountered a Leftist who has even momentarily considered this possibility. If they observe an inter-racial difference in arrests for drug possession, white-on-black racism must be the explanation, QED.

My second problem with ‘systemic bias’ as sole explanation for intra-racial violence is that it doesn’t account for why other historically oppressed groups seem to have assimilated into modern society without astonishing amounts of violence in their communities.

The Irish and the Chinese were both exploited and reviled in the early years of their immigration to the United States. The former group had it so bad that even many ex-slaves noted that their lives were much better than those of the Irish, who were used to do work considered too dangerous or difficult for valuable slaves [4]. And Wikipedia notes that [5]:

Chinese immigrants in the 19th century worked as laborers, particularly on the transcontinental railroad, such as the Central Pacific Railroad. They also worked as laborers in the mining industry, and suffered racial discrimination at every level of society. While industrial employers were eager to get this new and cheap labor, the ordinary white public was stirred to anger by the presence of this “yellow peril“. Despite the provisions for equal treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, political and labor organizations rallied against the immigration of what they regarded as a degraded race and “cheap Chinese labor”. Newspapers condemned the policies of employers, and even church leaders denounced the entrance of these aliens into what was regarded as a land for whites only. So hostile was the opposition that in 1882 the United States Congress eventually passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration from China for the next ten years. This law was then extended by the Geary Act in 1892. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race.[1] These laws not only prevented new immigration but also brought additional suffering as they prevented the reunion of the families of thousands of Chinese men already living in the United States (that is, men who had left China without their wives and children); anti-miscegenation laws in many states prohibited Chinese men from marrying white women.[2]

And yet both groups have more or less successfully become a part of modern America.

A further instructive example comes from the relationship between the Koreans and the Japanese. Throughout the history of the Pacific Rim the Japanese have repeatedly invaded the Korean peninsula and abused the Korean people. The most recent such episode occurred in the early years of the Twentieth Century, during which Japan occupied Korea, seized control of its government, and committed the usual slew of atrocities that tends to accompany such behavior [3].

This has lead to a significant and understandable distrust of the Japanese by the Koreans. But I can attest from personal experience that Korea is an exceptionally nice place to live, filled with courteous and good-natured people who seem not to have taken to killing each other as frequently as American blacks.

Doubtless racism does still exist and is a factor in rates of inter- and intra-racial homicide. But I think the above makes a compelling case that these simply can’t be the only major factors at work. I truly believe that black lives matter. That’s why I hope BLM will take an honest look at their own communities and search for ways that they make grassroots improvements there.






What To Do When You Feel Inadequate

There are times in life, usually when I’m struggling with a problem that I’m sure I’ll look back on as trivially easy, when I begin to feel a creeping sense of doubt in my own abilities.

I think to myself, “you are hoping to accomplish Big Dream X, and yet here you sit struggling to write a javascript program that prints out a chessboard”.

Concerns of this sort can be very difficult to brush aside, but when they happen to me, there are a couple of things I try to keep in mind:

1) Everything I’m good at I used to not be good at.

I don’t think it’s unfair or overblown to say that at the peak of my guitar playing abilities I was just a little shy of world class. Around the age of 21 or 22 I could easily handle Andy Mckee’s “Drifting”, and I even had a pretty convincing cover of Eric Johnson’s seminal “Cliffs of Dover” under my belt. But where I really dazzled was in my original compositions which, if you’ll permit me the indulgence of tooting my own horn a little, displayed a sensitivity and nuance that almost everyone who heard them found striking.

That’s not an assumption on my part. Back then it was a regular occurrence to perform at some college event and then be approached by a half-dozen people asking me questions and gushing about how they’d never heard anyone as skilled as me play in person.

Which is why it became easy, even for me, to forget how bad I was when I started and how hard I had to work to achieve what I did. I think I had been “playing” guitar for about two years before I even began to seriously practice. Even then, while my progress was fairly quick, it was far from spectacular.

The same guy who went on to excel musically spent many, many frustrating hours trying to get graceless fingers to coax something vaguely resembling music out of an uncooperative piece of wood. Perhaps the same guy who goes on to found a billion dollar company or helps reshape the foundations of AI theory will look back on those simple coding exercises and wonder why it ever seemed so hard.

This helps me put my struggles into context.

2) Constant failure is the price you pay for greatness.

A great way to avoid failure is to simply never try to do anything very hard. I could just start working at a Barnes and Noble, wait until I’m in middle management, and stay there for the next half century, and I bet I would experience very few embarrassing failures.

Since I’ve deliberately chosen not to take the easy way out, there’s no avoiding the fact that I’m going to bump up against my limits. I’m going to embark on a project that’ll wind up being too ambitious and at some point I’ll simply crash and burn.

But so what? Point me to anyone who has achieved great things, like solving a longstanding problem or remaking an industry, that also managed to avoid failure while they did so.

Can’t think of any? Me either.

The tricky part, of course, is remembering this when you’re actually in the middle of an ongoing crisis and you’re beset by self doubt.

3) Titans rarely feel like Titans

Sometime last year or so I was reading “Almost a Miracle”, a history of the Revolutionary War by John Ferling. It was fascinating overall, but one thing that stuck out was the insight it gave me into the personality of George Washington.

Washington is about the closest thing American history has to a mythical figure. And yet he spent his entire life feeling insecure because of his lack of formal education, and he repeatedly questioned his suitably for the role he was asked to play in the war.

This is the man that went up against one of the greatest empires in world history and won, all while unsure as to whether he had the personal resources, wit, and wherewithal to succeed.

Why should I expect my own accomplishments to come easily?


I’ll level with you: you’re going to fail. You’re going to feel inadequate. That’s what happens when you hold yourself to a high standard and reach for the best within you in an attempt to accomplish big things.

You have to know when to throw in the towel, of course; not every idea is worth pursuing. But the majority of people I’ve encountered err on the side of quitting far too soon. Finding someone with sub-optimally high levels of persistence and grit seems to be pretty rare.

There’s another thing I remind myself of, as a last resort, when I feel like giving up. It’s not something I say often or when I’m feeling depressed, but it’s nevertheless true, and sometimes you have to be the person who’ll say the tough things you need to hear.

After a while spent futilely groping toward a solution to a problem, when I want to just let go and sink into mediocrity, I’ll think to myself:

If this is all it takes to break you, you would never have been worthy of greatness anyway.

Peripatesis: Controlling A God, Hannibal Leaves Italy.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N., Superintelligence, p. 127-144

In the sprawling chapter 9 Bostrom discusses and finds problems with several proposed means of controlling a Superintelligence. These include boxing it, setting up tripwires, and building our preferences into its motivational system.

I plan on touching on these topics substantially in the future, so that’s all I’ll say about them for now.

Goldsworthy, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 234- 244

Though Hannibal only received reinforcements on one occasion in 215, but his brother Hadsdrubal crossed the alps via the same path he did in 207 and his brother Mago landed in Genoa in 205.

Unfortunately for Hannibal, neither brother managed to accomplish much before being killed (or in Mago’s dying en route to Carthage of a wound sustained during combat). In 203 Hannibal received orders to evacuate and come to the defense of Carthage, which was being menaced by Roman invaders in North Africa.

Peripatesis: Superintelligent Motivation, Hannibal Captures Tarentum.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N., Superintelligence, p. 105-126

In chapters 7 and 8 Bostrom covers the relationship between intelligence and motivation and what the default outcome of the intelligence explosion would be, respectively.

The point of chapter 7 is to establish the Orthogonality Thesis, so called because the idea is that nearly any goal can be attached to nearly any level of intelligence. Intelligent humans might not want to spend all day making paperclips, but assuming that a superintelligent AI wouldn’t want to is anthropomorphism.

Chapter 8 gives a panoply of reasons for expecting a non-carefully-controlled intelligence explosion to be catastrophic. The basic idea is that when one human tells another human “make me smile” both humans come pre-equipped with a vast, shared cognitive machinery which means that neither party will interpret this command as ‘staple the corners of my mouth up so I’m always grinning’.

Assuming an AI would rule that option out is also anthropomorphism, and of a kind that’s very deadly if we’re dealing with a superintelligence.

Goldsworthy, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 222-233

This week I made it party through the section which covers the years 216 B.C.-203 B.C. The Romans and Carthaginians spent this period vying for control of major cities in southern Italy, such as Capua.

Hannibal finally managed to capture a port at Tarentum in 212 B.C., a goal he had been particularly interested in achieving for a while. This didn’t actually amount to much, as the Romans recaptured Tarentum in 209 B.C.

Peripatesis: Superintelligent Strategic Advantages, The Aftermath of Cannae, ‘Utility’ In Game Theory.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N., Superintelligence, p. 78-104

I made it through two chapters this week, in which Bostrom addressed the questions of what sort of strategic advantage superintelligence-development projects could expect to have and how this would impact the future.

The question of strategic advantage is closely related to the question of take-off speed, because if we can expect a fast takeoff then it’s likely that the first project which creates an AI capable of recursive self-improvement will also give rise to the first superintelligence. If, on the other hand, the takeoff is slow then there might be many different AIs improving themselves on the path to superintelligence.

As Bostrom believes that a takeoff will probably be fast, he also believes that first superintelligence will probably be the only superintelligence. Any such agent will be capable of utilizing various superpowers, or abilities far beyond those possessed by competing agents, to disproportionately affect the future.

Using conservative estimates for the computational ability required to simulate human minds and how much of the available matter in the universe can be converted to computational substrate, Bostrom makes the case that the future is a truly vast place inhabited by a near-uncountable number of minds.

Given this, a strong argument can be made that the development of the first superintelligence is the most important project a group of humans will ever undertake.

Goldsworthy, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 214-221

Following his astonishing victory in the battle of Cannae, Hannibal faced the question of whether to march on Rome or to spend some time resting his troops and planning his next move.

Hannibal chose the latter, giving rise to one of the great ‘what-if’s’ of world history. It is far from clear that Rome would’ve been able to repel a full assault on the city itself, and equally unclear that Hannibal could’ve taken Rome.

In any case Rome ignored the delegation Hannibal sent to negotiate, choosing instead to begin the process of rebuilding their army.

For his part, Hannibal gained many new allies in Southern Italy, and with them a means of drawing supplies to feed his army, meaning he no longer needed to constantly be on the move.

From this point on it was to be a markedly different war between these two titanic enemies.

Luce, R., Raiffa, H., Games and Decisions, p. 12-38

As the concept of utility is essential in gaining an understanding of game theory, the entirety of Chapter 2 is devoted to it.

The following conceptual distinctions are made: an individual can be thought of as any entity or entities with a unitary goal, and a group is one comprised of members with competing goals. Decisions can be made under conditions of certainty, risk, or uncertainty.

A situation is certain when each action leads invariably to a known outcome, risky when each action leads to a set of possible outcomes which have known probabilities, and uncertain when it isn’t clear what the outcome of an action will be.

The authors then turn to analyzing decision making under certainty and under risk before laying out a number of axioms central to game theory.

Peripatesis: Intelligence Explosion Dynamics, The Battle Of Cannae.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N., Superintelligence, p. 62-78

In Chapter 5 Bostrom examines several different shapes an ‘intelligence explosion’ or ‘takeoff’ could have. The two most important factors governing this shape are the optimization power of the system and its recalcitrance, or resistance to improvement; in conjunction, optimization power and recalcitrance can give rise to slow, moderate, or fast takeoffs.

Different sorts of potentially superintelligent systems have different recalcitrance profiles. For example, the recalcitrance of developing nootropics would initially be low as little in the way of nootropic research has been done, but would likely to start to rise rapidly after most of the low-hanging fruit had been picked. An emulated mind on the other hand might have low-to-moderate recalcitrance for quite a while if it were able to absorb increasing amounts of hardware to run copies of itself on.

AI could play a role in the development of several different kinds of superintelligent systems, for example a network of knowledge workers whose output is vastly improved in terms of quality and quantity by the aid of an AI research assistant. As such, it makes sense to analyze the dynamics of an AI takeoff in some depth.

The recalcitrance of AI systems is hard to judge, because it may turn out that the key to making an AI smart enough to begin self-improving may be many little insights, each of which requires more and more effort to uncover, or it may be a single insight that eludes everyone for a long time. In the latter case, there may not be much improvement in the system at all until the last piece of the puzzle drops into place, and then change may start happening very quickly.

Bostrom believes that AI recalcitrance will not prove to be very high. Earth spends a lot of time developing new and more powerful computers, so once a human-level AI system is developed it will probably be able to make use of extra computing power laying around to run itself more quickly. It could also avail itself of the truly vast quantities of information available via the internet to fashion an knowledge base far in excess of anything possessed by a human being.

With respect to the other part of the equation, optimization power, it seems most likely that it will increase during the takeoff because people will begin investing huge amounts of effort in any AI system that shows promise. At a certain point the system will become capable enough that most optimization pressure is coming from the system itself. This might result in an improvement cascade, wherein each improvement makes further improvements easier, and the takeoff could be very fast indeed.


Goldsworthy, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 198-214

In this section of Goldsworthy’s history of the Punic wars I learned about one of the most epic defeats ever dealt to the Roman empire: the battle of Cannae.

After a string of humiliating defeats the Roman senate had decided to put the two incoming consuls, Caius Tarentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus in charge of the largest army Rome had ever fielded. Each consul was to have four larger-than-normal legions, instead of the usual two, and the consuls were to face Hannibal together.

Hannibal waited until crops had ripened before heading south, eventually setting camp in the former stronghold Cannae. The Romans followed, taking great care to avoid spots where they could be ambushed.

The roman plan was to punch through the center of Hannibal’s army, scattering his infantry. Roman cavalry, notably inferior to their Punic counterparts, were only supposed to prevent flanking maneuvers for long enough to allow victory in the center.

Hannibal anticipated this and strengthened his center, bulging it outward towards his enemy.

After hours of intense fighting the Romans had managed to push the Carthaginian center backwards, eventually routing them. In the process their originally neat formations began to lose shape until the Roman soldiers were in one great mass hacking away at retreating Gauls. At this point the Libyan infantry on either side turned inward to face the Romans, and the real butchery started.

Disorganized and surrounded, the Romans were unable to make much use of their superior numbers. Though they inflicted ghastly casualties on the Carthaginians, Hannibal emerged victorious over the greatest fighting force Rome could muster.

For centuries thereafter the defeat at Cannae would be a Roman yardstick for measuring other losses.

Peripatesis: Narrow And General AI, Maximus ‘The Delayer’ Avoids Battle With Hannibal.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N. Superintelligence, p 1-22

The book’s far-ranging introduction spends most of its time taking a high-altitude look at the history and state-of-the-art of AI. After its founding the field was beset by boom periods of high investment and optimism followed by ‘winters’ during which funding disappeared and AI research fell out of favor. Behind the scenes, however, the actual nitty-gritty of AI development continued, resulting in more sophisticated expert systems, better neural nets, and numerous problems of the ‘computers will never do X’ variety being solved.

While surveying some of the astonishing successes of modern AI Bostrom introduces the distinction between a ‘narrow AI’, one with extremely high performance in a single domain like chess playing, and ‘general AI’, software able to reason across a wide variety of domains like humans can. No matter how impressive Watson or Deep Blue might be, they are only able to outperform humans in very limited ways; the real interest lies in machines that are as good or better than humans in lots of different ways.

Chapter 1 ends with a discussion of three different surveys taken of the opinions of AI experts. One survey was on when the experts thought human-level AI would be developed, one was on how long it would take human-level machines to become superintelligent, and another was on the overall impact of superintelligent AIs. It is notoriously difficult to predict when and what progress will be made in AI and so expert opinions were, predictably, all over the place. But the results do hint that the problem of AI safety is worth thinking seriously about.

Goldsworthy, A. The Fall of Carthage, p. 190-196

In the face of several crushing defeats the Roman government elected a dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who would spend his six-month term carefully avoiding engagements with Hannibal, a passivity for which he received the nickname ‘the delayer’. This strategy, while causing much consternation among war-hungry Roman aristocrats, later came to be seen as Rome’s salvation, giving her time to recover from the defeats at Trebia and Trasimene.

Hannibal spent this period criss-crossing the Appennines, pillaging and looting freely. During one particularly crafty maneuver, he managed to move through a pass blocked by Fabius’ army by first tying wooden branches to the horns of oxen and then lighting the branches on fire, sending them into the pass first. The Roman troops occupying the pass believed the Carthaginian army was on the move and so descended to engage. In the resulting confusion Hannibal managed to slip the main column of his army through to the other side, carrying with them the spoils of war gathered over the previous weeks.