If it happens in the universe, it’s my problem.

– unknown

To err is human … do you want to err forever?

Frank Prengel

It has been stated that we are wrong to give the credit for building a great cathedral or palace to the architect. It belongs instead to the stonemasons and bricklayers whose labours raised the edifice. In my opinion, this insight has been rather hastily attributed to Bertolt Brecht, who is usually given as the author of it. Not enough credit has been given to the typesetters and printers not to mention paper-mill workers and lumberjacks of this world for this observation.

Guernsey McPearson

As long as you’re ready to face the possibility that everything that makes your spirits soar, everything that lifts you up and fills your heart with joy, everything that makes your life worth living … is a lie, is corruption, is meaningless — then you can never be enslaved.

– a Greg Egan character

[W]hereas ordinary politics wears a suit, religion wears a dress — and nobody wants to hit a girl.

– the Raving Atheist

I am a Norman, and the tradition of my people is to invade the neighbours, suppress their culture, sequester their land, and impose an aristocratic rule. By the principle of cultural relativity this is no less valid a way of life than any other.

– Brett Evill

A hypocrite is one who claims virtue beyond what he possesses, not one who recommends virtue beyond what he claims. If a man’s principles are no better than his character, it is less likely to be a sign of an exemplary character than a sign of debased principles.

Mark Thompson

Many people equate tolerance with the attitude that every belief is equally true, and that we should all simply accept this fact and go our separate ways. But I view tolerance as the willingness to come together, to face one another in the same room and hack at each other with claw hammers until the truth finally trickles out from the blood and the tears.

– the Raving Atheist

Awful Wastes of Space

Everybody says it’s a small world, nobody does anything about it.

In the words of Carl “awful waste of space” Sagan[1]:

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

You know what’s an awful waste of space, though? Earth having a surface area that, given its mass and composition, is the smallest mathematically possible[2]. According to respected scientists, more than 99.99995% of the planet is at least one meter below ground. You couldn’t cheat humanity out of more living space if you tried. That’s intelligent design for you.

Fear not. Some intrepid futurists have stepped up to the plate. Robert Bradbury has done the calculations on what it takes to disassemble a planet — for Earth, it takes all the sun’s energy output for “just” 22 days. Space settlements have long figured in both science fiction and futurist analysis. An art project called Globus Cassus, pictured above, even imagines us turning the Earth inside out.

In reality, I expect long-run expansion will be mostly into resource-cheap virtual worlds. There’s probably enough building materials outside Earth to make billions and billions of little worlds, so instead of eventually remodeling our planet, we may end up keeping it for sentimental value. I’m not invested in either possibility. I just would like us all to survive this century, so we’ll be around to make the choice.

[1]Yeah I know, he didn’t deserve that.

[2]Yeah I know, it’s not really a perfect sphere.

The Aumann Game

Aumann’s agreement theorem says that Bayesian agents cannot “agree to disagree” — their subjective probabilities must be identical if they are common knowledge. This is true regardless of differences in private knowledge. When agents take turns stating their estimates, updating each time based on the information contained in the other’s estimate, private knowledge will “leak out” and the probabilities will converge to an equilibrium.

This theorem makes some big assumptions. One is common knowledge of honesty. Another is common priors. Another is common knowledge of Bayesianity. However, Robin Hanson has shown that uncommon priors require origin disputes, and has discussed agents who are “Bayesian wannabes” but not Bayesians.

It may be interesting to see how this process plays out with real humans in a simplified test bed. Below are 25 statements.

To play, for each statement, you have to say your honest subjective probability that it’s true. Make sure to take into account the estimates of previous commenters. You are strongly encouraged to post estimates multiple times, showing how the estimates of others have caused yours to change. We will then see whether, as the theorem suggests, everyone’s estimates converge to the same equilibrium over time, and whether that equilibrium is any good.

I’ve divided the statements into a few categories. For the “statistics” category I used NationMaster and StateMaster. For “history” I used Wikipedia. For “future”, please answer all questions conditional on no disruptive technologies like molecular nanotechnology and artificial general intelligence being invented. This makes the questions rather vague, so I’m not really happy with this category. For “counterfactual”, please answer conditional on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics being true; even if it isn’t, it’s still a well-defined model, so the question is meaningful either way. For “internet”, I always included quote marks.

The answers in the “statistics”, “history”, and “internet” categories are easy to look up, but that would defeat the point. So no peeking allowed. Looking up any relevant information is peeking.

Discussion of the statements other than through stating probabilities is also against the spirit of the game. Feel free to ask for clarifications, though.

To reward honest estimates, in the end I may score people on the answers, using the rule where your number of points is the logarithm of the probability you assigned to the right answer.

(update: this was tried again less messily and with more suitable questions here, here, and here)



1. Oregon has more inhabitants than Slovakia.

2. Ghana has a greater GDP (PPP) than Luxembourg.

3. In 1900, Denmark had a greater GDP per capita than Spain.

4. Ohio emits more CO2 than Poland.

5. Afghanistan has more land area than Alaska.

6. Croatia has a greater GDP per capita than Mexico.


7. George Orwell was born before 1900.

8. Vladimir Putin was born before 1955.

9. The tenth emperor of Rome wore a beard.

10. More than 5000 Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.


11. If the USA has a president in 2067, it will be a woman.

12. A 1000-qubit quantum computer will exist in 2020.

13. A nuclear (fusion or fission) weapon will be used in an attack before 2010.

14. Switzerland will join NATO before 2100.

15. Proof of life on Mars (past or present, not originating on Earth) will be found before 2050.


16. In a randomly selected parallel Everett world splitting from ours on 1 Jan 1940, Hitler invades England before 1950.

17. IARSPEWSFOO 1 Jan 1940, Hitler invades the USA before 1950.

18. IARSPEWSFOO 1 Jan 1, a technological singularity happens before 1500.

19. IARSPEWSFOO 1 Jan 1, nuclear war kills at least ten million people in any five year period before 2000.

20. IARSPEWSFOO 1 Jan 1900, nuclear war kills at least ten million people in any five year period before 2000.


21. “brain” gets more google results than “heart”.

22. “Ray Kurzweil” gets more google results than “Sonic the Hedgehog”.

23. “John Paul II” gets more google results than “Ron Paul”.

24. “Iraq” gets more google results than “Italy”.

25. “death” gets more google results than “purple”.