Next Monday is Petrov Day (September 26), an annually observed Rationalist/EA holiday inspired by the actions of Stanislav Petrov:
As a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Army, Petrov manned the system built to detect whether the US government had fired nuclear weapons on Russia. On September 26th, 1983, the system reported five incoming missiles. Petrov’s job was to report this as an attack to his superiors, who would launch a retaliative nuclear response. But instead, contrary to the evidence the systems were giving him, he called it in as a false alarm.
It was subsequently determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites' Molniya orbits, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.
In explaining the factors leading to his decision, Petrov cited his belief and training that any U.S. first strike would be massive, so five missiles seemed an illogical start.
Petrov underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his actions. Initially, he was praised for his decision. Petrov himself stated he was initially praised by Votintsev and was promised a reward, but recalled that he was also reprimanded for improper filing of paperwork with the pretext that he had not described the incident in the military diary.
He received no reward. According to Petrov, this was because the incident and other bugs found in the missile detection system embarrassed his superiors and the influential scientists who were responsible for it, so that if he had been officially rewarded, they would have had to be punished. He was reassigned to a less sensitive post, took early retirement (although he emphasized that he was not "forced out" of the army, as is sometimes claimed by Western sources), and suffered a nervous breakdown.
For more information see 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident
Each year, people find ways to commemorate Petrov Day, e.g. with this ceremony written by Jim Babcock or Raemon's Modes of Petrov Day.
On LessWrong, we find our own way to celebrate, generally involving a large red button that brings down the frontpage for the duration of Petrov Day.
What does Petrov Day celebrate?
There isn't a canonical precise answer accepted by everyone. There's a cluster of virtues and actions that people find worthy of remembering with different degrees of emphasis. These include:
- Not doing things that would cause immense destruction (or the end of the world)
- Avoiding the dangers of unrestrained escalation
- Not taking unilateralist action
- Resisting social pressures in order to do the right thing
- Making the right decision even in the face of uncertainty
You might even say part of the Petrov Day tradition is debating which virtues Stanislav Petrov displayed and which ones we ought to celebrate. Personally, I like the underlying simple theme of "someone was in a high-stakes situation where they could have chosen a destructive path, and they didn't" and "things were close, but we survived". As far as the LessWrong celebration goes, each year I like the idea of exploring a different sub-element of surviving high-stakes scenarios and the virtues required to do so. This brings us to this year's plans...
The 2022 Plan
This is what I'm thinking:
- Every user with an existing LessWrong account (created before 2022-09-21) and non-negative karma is able to participate. We may manually exclude some known historical troublemakers.
- Your actions will be anonymous, including to the LessWrong team. This is a major change from last year. If you act counter to what other people think you should do, you'll only have to live with your own self-judgment and the mental simulation of others :P
- There is a virtue in preventing yourself from ending up in tempting situations where you'd have to apply a lot of willpower (e.g. facing an alluring red button that calls out to you like a siren). Also a virtue of distancing yourself from things you think are wrong. Accordingly, you can opt out of LessWrong's Petrov Day commemoration by checking the "opt out of Petrov Day" checkbox in your account settings. The checkbox will be hidden once Petrov Day starts to prevent people undoing their self-commitment in a moment of weakness.
- We will place a Big Red Button on the frontpage, as is customary. Pressing the button and entering a valid launch code causes the frontpage of LessWrong to be taken down and replaced with a "Game Over" screen (other pages will remain up).
- At the start of the 24-hour celebration, only those with 2,300 karma or more will be able to successfully launch. Every hour after that, the karma required to destroy the frontpage drops by 100 points.
I will post the launch code for the missiles in the comments below once The Button is displayed, starting at 8pm, Sunday, September 25 PST / 3am, September 26 UTC.
Should you press the button?
Personally, on net, I think you shouldn't. I think it destroys some real value and is symbolic of destroying real and even greater value. Plus, I think there's symbolic value in not pressing buttons that launch nukes. But that's what I think...I may write more in the comments about what I think so as not to overly privilege my own view here. I do think there are not-crazy arguments in favor of pressing it.
Yet many argue that Petrov's virtue lay in deciding for himself the correct thing to do, not going with what authority figures or social consensus dictated. To that end, this year's LessWrong Petrov day has been designed to more readily let you come to your own conclusion and act on that without fear of a public shaming.
You're free not to participate (see opt-out above) and you're free to apply your own interpretation, different from mine. If you reason that it is in fact correct to press the button, earnestly believe that, and have reasoned well – then I commend you for pressing it.
A useful piece of info I think might help inform people's judgments is the practical cost of bringing down the LessWrong frontpage for a number of hours.
On average, a bit over 3,000 unique people visit the LessWrong frontpage each day. Equivalently, 100-150/hour. If the frontpage goes down halfway through Petrov Day, that is 1500 people who wanted to check latest posts, etc., who were not able to do so.
We've got a few more days before Petrov Day and while our plates are pretty full, it's not too late to make adjustments. I'd also be interested to hear alternative ideas, e.g. Ben Pace's An Idea for a More Communal Petrov Day in 2022
Let me know your thoughts! I look forward to surviving Petrov Day with y'all!
This is the frame of Petrov Day presented on LessWrong in 2019, though I found it then and still now an odd one.
The first couple of years of Petrov Day on LessWrong involved selecting a group for ~100-200 trusted users and giving them launch codes that would let them bring down the site, kind of exploring "how large is the circle of people we can trust?". Last year we played out the game theory of Mutually Assured Destruction by pairing up with the EA Forum.
To get more technical, there are two parts of launch: (1) pressing the red button, (2) entering a launch code and pressing "launch". The code will not record any user-identifying information with the second event. We do track which users have pressed the red button at all in order to persist the animation state (for historical reasons it was written that way). My guess is that with effort it might be possible for us to forensically determine the identity of someone who made a successful launch event, but I commit that we will not do so barring extreme circumstances (that I haven't yet imagined, but it's hard to think of everything in advance).
If you wish to opt-out once Petrov day has begun, message us.
That isn't to say I can't promise you there are zero consequences for your choices. That's not within my power. For example I can't promise no one else will ever ask you "did you ever press the LessWrong Petrov day button?", though you could glomarize.
Edit: This comment refers to the site going down at 11pm PT last night, not the site going down now at ~5:40pm PT.
Hah, surprise! It was just a false alarm, the site is actually still up. Definitely not because we suck at programming and flipped a boolean in a giant boolean logic expression that should have definitely been better factored and therefore allowed anyone with zero karma (but only exactly zero karma) to launch the missiles.
This was of course totally intended and part of a metaphor of how Petrov had to deal with shoddy software engineering and false nuclear alarms. Take this as a lesson in... something. I am sorry.
I do really wish good luck to whoever is managing the resolution of that manifold market.
I wondered about the same thing.
Just to clarify: Did the LW team discover a bug and take the site down while the bug was being fixed or did someone with zero karma actually push the button?
If it's the second case:
It was actually a pretty close call. I think the rest of the team had stopped working for the night and resigned themselves to the site going down so quickly, but I had a nagging doubt that something was wrong.
We currently have some code keeping track of what users pushed the big button, without launching the nukes (i.e. not entered any codes, or entered the wrong codes), mostly as a vestige from last years. By that point, already like 50 users had pressed it. I did a count on our database for any button pressed by users who were above the karma threshold, without returning any of the names, and it returned 0, so I knew that something had gone wrong.
I mean, I am sure glad we had it, given that it allowed me to debug this.
I also think de-facto, making it so I really couldn't tell who launched nukes would require many hours of effort and changes to our logging infrastructure that seem ill-advised, so ultimately the only thing that whoever launches the nukes can rely on is our word and promise here. I don't think it's worth it for me to make that information unrecoverable, given both the risk and time cost it would entail.
Next year, we should give the Sneerclub reddit a big red button to destroy LW, and have a big red button here to destroy Sneerclub. Nuclear war is more fun when it's not all like-minded people.
I am not sure why,but this comment made me suddenly realize how close we used to be to doomsday(and still are)!
Perhaps ironically/terrifyingly I think the LW/Sneerclub Petrov Day experiment is most interesting if it actually destroys the whole site forever, rather than symbolically taking down one page for a day. This is more analogous to the US/Soviets and their goals + level of hostility
(Although I expect that deal to still be heavily lopsided in favor of SneerClub, given that SneerClub's main goal seems more like "fuck LW" than "have a functioning nice community")
I do indeed explicitly think it is a bad idea.
Adjusting for the unilateralist's curse is good, but creating common knowledge about everyone's beliefs is even better. So: please agree-vote this comment if you think the site should be nuked and disagree-vote if you think it shouldn't. (Strong-vote if you feel strongly or have relevant private information.)
I saw those scores and thought I was about to witness the greatest exchange of constructive contrarianism in the history of the forums. (Pretty proud of a +7 -12 I posted recently. A real fine stinker. The blue cheese of comments.)
And the launch code is...
Aw, I was imagining that some heroes kidnapped the LW team to prevent the launch code from being published...
They couldn't hold us for long.
This is a classical example where having a prediction market creates really bad incentives.
If $10 of fake money is enough to blow up your Petrov Day celebration maybe celebrate differently.
A case for taking down the site as soon as you're able to (I don't necessarily endorse this action, since some people care a lot about LW Petrov Day rituals for reasons I don't understand):
Two years ago, Ben Pace said "it's plausible that we want to try very big stakes" sometime. This would be bad in expectation--potentially very bad--so we should decrease the probability that it occurs, and more Petrov Day failures (and more clear failures, like taking down the site sooner) would decrease the probability that it occurs.
(Nuking the site as soon as possible makes failure stronger; nuking the site later--e.g., just before Petrov Day ends--has slightly less benefit but also less cost in frontpage-being-down and slightly less cost in people-being-sad-we-nuked-the-site.)
Any other nonobvious consequences of nuking the site, positive or negative?
Incidentally, the latest xkcd
As someone who was very unhappy with last year's implementation and said so (though not in the public thread), I think this is an improvement and I'm happy to see it. In previous years, I didn't get a code, but if I'd had one I would have very seriously considered using it; this year, I see no reason to do that.
I do think that, if real value gets destroyed as a result of this, then the ethical responsibility for that loss of value lies primarily with the LW team, and only secondarily with whoever actually pushed the button. So if the button got pushed and some other person were to say "whoever pushed the button destroyed a bunch of real value" then I wouldn't necessarily quibble with that, but if the LW team said the same thing then I'd be annoyed.
I'm glad you're happier with this year's version!
I'm not sure I'd say primarily/secondarily, probably I'd guess more at 50-50 (that might be the Shapley attribution?) between LessWrong and the pusher, if someone pushes the button. But overall agree LW gets a bunch of culpability.
The LW staff are necessary to take down the site. If we assume that there are multiple users that are willing to press the button, then the (shapely-attributed) blame for taking the site down mostly falls on the LW staff, rather than whoever happens to press the button first.
According to http://shapleyvalue.com/?example=8 if there were 6 people who were willing to push the button, the LW team would deserve 85% of the blame. (Here I am considering the people who take actions that act to facilitate bringing down the site as part of the coalition.)
I am not quite sure how to take into account all the people who choose not to take down the website and thus delay, and there is some value in running the Petrov day event, so the above does not take everything into account.
Tweaking some values in the website to model this, where value = 7 if either LW and/or all the other users refuse to shut down the site, and 7-i where i is the highest numbered player that shuts down the site (higher meaning they shut things down sooner), I get these values:
The Shapley value of player 1(Low Karma button pusher) is: -0.023809523809524
The Shapley value of player 2 is: -0.057142857142857
The Shapley value of ... (read more)
Thread for people to publicly opt out after updating their LW settings.
I opted out. Not that I expect the site (or the world) to still be up at my Karma (or IQ).
This does not appear to be working, I can still see the checkbox.
I can also see the big red button. That is perhaps working as designed, but I was hoping to opt out of the whole thing, missiles and all.
I opted out as well; it seems like the best course of action to take if I really don't want to press the button
It's difficult to incentivize people to not press the button, but here's an attempt: If we successfully get through Petrov day without anyone pressing the button (other than the person who has already done so via the bug), I will donate $50 to a charity selected by majority vote.
I can successfully access the front page by using the highly sophisticated method of inspecting the front page and deleting the div element that corresponds to the Petrov Day loss screen.
It might be a good idea to make the front page getting taken down have more serious of an impact, as the time cost of clicking "inspect" and deleting the associated div element is pretty low, so the overall cost of submitting the launch codes is likely substantially reduced by this way of accessing the front page remaining available after a launch.
That didn't last long. What time zone did The Button run on? It's 07:42 here in the UK, which makes it not even September 26 yet in Pacific Time.
ETA: The button is back now (09:00 UK time). Was that just a test firing?
I’ve selected to opt-out of Patrov Day, not because I don’t want to participate, but because I think this is the most optimal strategy. The more people who opt-out, the less likely the button will be pushed.
I like that the LessWrong team is trying to iterate on this holiday. I like the theme of Petrov day and even if this isn't the perfect implementation, I like that they are pushing through. I think that the small chance of one day having a really broadly-accepted Petrov day is better than 50% chance of losing LessWrong 1 day a year for the next 10 years.
Is there anywhere to see the history of lesswrong Petrov day? I'd be interested in whether we've ever succeeded before.
Also, I think most people know that the real cost of 1500 people not being able to check lesswrong for 12 hours is essentially 0. It may even be net positive to have a forced hiatus. Perhaps that's just a failure to multiply on my part. Anyway, I view this exercise as purely symbolic.
As a note, I've just found out that I can simply adblock the Petrov Day overlay and frontpage functionality returns to normal.
The front page going down doesn't actually make people who want to check the latest posts unable to due so; it's so easy to circumvent that I think the front page going down is nearly costless
That said I do think the symbolic meaning is neat
If all goes according to plan, I will share a message in nine hours. The SHA-512 hash of the body of my post will be 4bcd648f64509bad281053ab84305ed281cb2767c30e8ad2faabfc1fd9ea289a1601bf9795e4670e3d6cdfb0981ff1258f7209aea1a829edfaf4aef91acfeee7.
Copying that code so you can't edit after the fact: 4bcd648f64509bad281053ab84305ed281cb2767c30e8ad2faabfc1fd9ea289a1601bf9795e4670e3d6cdfb0981ff1258f7209aea1a829edfaf4aef91acfeee7
(This isn't a commentary on how much I trust you, it just seems good on general principles.)
On mobile with my throwaway acc the current karma threshold needed to push the button for me is 1600, but on desktop from my main account it is 1800. (Though while the page is loading 1600 appears but changes, users above threshold changes similarly) Possible bug?
Upd: now its the same with 1500 and 1700
Upd2: there is no discrepancy now
LessWrong is currently deciding to do something that will have an estimated 90%+ chance of blowing up the home page. This decision is 90% as bad as just blowing up the home page.
What is the utility function that might cause LessWrong to take such a decision? I can't come up with anything that fits other evidence. This has confused me in prior years but now there's a prediction market I can quantify my confusion more easily.
If we calibrate so that "taking down the homepage" (redirects to 404 error or whatever it is) for 24 hours is of badness 1 (goodness = -1).
Then the "game over" page is of badness <1 (maybe 0.75?).
Then the whole red-button game is fun, and gives people (like both of us) something interesting to talk about, which is worth some goodness (-X badness). Plus the homepage might be down for less than 24 hours.
So they think : X >~ 0.75
IE The Lesswrong team appear to have decided that the fun of the game (playing/speculating) is worth more than a few hours of homepage plus the time spent implementing the game.
well crap, that was fast. does anyone know what karma threshold the button was pressed at?
Thanks so much for posting about this year's Petrov Day -- i just reminded me that I had my one year anniversary of being on LessWrong (and on the journey towards becoming a better rationalist) just a few days ago!
I suppose I'll be celebrating how this website changed my life for the better today, and then the fact that humanity is still alive (which in itsef is something that would deserve a yearly holiday) on Monday.
I like this post. We should be able to practice collective adequacy without public shaming. In the real world, policies that rely on public shaming are quite imprecise, often cruel, and frequently ineffective.
As a nitpick, in 2019 and 2020 the button was said to bring down the frontpage for 24 hours. In 2021 it was said to be for the remainder of the day, like this year.
2019: "the Frontpage will go down for 24 hours"
2020: "The Frontpage was taken down for 24 hours."
2021: "cause the EA Forum homepage to go down for the duration of Petrov Day"
Aaand I forgot to come back and check the site before the day was over. Sigh…
This year Petrov day almost sneaked past me. This strikes me as weird on account of the biggest proxy war since the 80s being underway, putting us closer the same stakes in realspace.
Last yeartwo years ago, when the front page went down, I was still able to access posts at the direct link. Since that is my normal bookmarked link, I didn't even realize the button had been pressed until people started commenting about it. What is the reasoning for just the front page being affected?
The button isn't showing up for me. Well, it shows up for like a second after I re-load the page but then it's gone. I tried Opera GX browser and Chrome, it happens in both. Is this intended behaviour? I use Windows 7, maybe thats why...