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More Links for November

The gap between “silly joke about what the most unlikely computer game possible would be” and “computer game exists, you can download it for $4.99″ seems to be about five years. First it was the Great Gatsby sidescroller. Now there’s a Jane Austen MMORPG. Really the only place to go from here is a Finnegan’s Wake first person shooter where you make your way through a postapocalyptic Ireland shooting rocket-propelled grenades at legitimate English words.

I admire the disease threat research community for compiling strong and important findings that I nevertheless have trouble acknowledging because they’re so weird. Now they’re at it again with a paper (paper, NYT article) that finds that people more concerned about disease are more likely to favor attractive candidates for political office. First they do controlled experiments and find that priming people for disease – but not for other stressful things like violence – make people more likely to choose an attractive candidate in a mock election. Then they go through Congressional districts and find those with a higher disease burden more likely to elect attractive Congressors, even after controlling for income and education. The evolutionary argument is that attractiveness is a sign of not being diseased, and so people have an evolutionary preference to affiliate only with attractive people if there’s high disease risk.

Doing my part to help spread the latest medical panic: Prenatal Paracetamol Exposure and Child Neurodevelopment: A Sibling-Controlled Cohort Study. Children whose mothers used lots of Tylenol when they were pregnant have worse intellectual and developmental outcomes at age 3. Also, Emily Deans, a psychiatrist I respect the heck out of, is very suspicious of Tylenol herself – even though trying to do anything with ecological autism correlations is a “land war in Asia” level bad idea. I would agree with her that the most important message is that, although the risks are still questionable and preliminary, there aren’t that many benefits – trying to prevent your body from having a fever when it wants to have a fever is a bad idea anyway and likely prolongs illness. That makes the risk-benefit ratio pretty easy to figure out.

A good overview of the most morally questionable online dating sites. I really want to approve of these in principle, because there’s an obvious market failure in romantic relationships and more degrees of freedom in things with market failures are generally good. In practice, most of them seem pretty horrible, and I can’t imagine their dating pools contain a lot of people worth building a life with. Also, MyFreeImplants.com reaches Jane Austen MMORPG-level of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me.

You may remember that automobiles are banned in Raikoth. A Guardian article discusses one Colombian city’s “war on cars” and some of the benefits of being automobile free.

On a similar note, people with long commutes are almost half again more likely to get divorced. I feel like this ties in pretty well to the argument I was making against the Reactionaries where there are lots of complicated causes of rising divorce rate in a changing society and it’s probably not just feminism and kinglessness.

We know that high IQ people tend to live longer. The thought was that this is because they’re wealthier and better educated and they get nice jobs with good health insurance and eat their vegetables. But the relationship remains even when this is adjusted out, and a new study finds that the size of blood vessels in the retina, part of the same vascular network as the brain, is closely linked to intelligence. So what if both intelligence and lifespan are linked to the health of blood vessels? For one thing, intelligence amplification by hacking vasculature sounds a lot easier than intelligence amplification by hacking neurons (though probably less scalable).

On the same note, this story about a 107 year old veteran helped crystallize something I’ve been noticing. Old people seem to be almost bimodal – you’ll get 80 year olds who are really decrepit, demented, and on twenty medications, but by the time you get past 100 or so, they seem to be universally pretty healthy. This surprises me. It’s almost as if there’s some gene for stay-healthy-in-old-age, and everyone without the gene dies off early so that all the really really old people are in perfect health until they die of natural causes.

I didn’t realize there were already augmented reality games going on with thousands of players. And they sounds really fun.

Etienne Bottineau was an 18th century French guy who claimed to be able to ascertain the position of ships hundreds of miles away by looking really closely at the weather. So far, so dumb – except that over decades, he proved his ability to detect ships again and again in front of lots of different official people, and some of his students did the same. It’s an interesting historical enigma – but mostly I’m just linking to the article about him because of the pun in the title.

Crispr is apparently a revolutionary new genetic technique that will allow perfect pinpoint editing of any genetic code you want, according to extremely enthused experts. Even though it sounds like a stupid Web 2.0 social media site.

Earlier this month, a Whig was elected to public office for the first time in 150 years.

Paid maternity leave seems to have no detectable effect on child or parent outcomes.

Quote from Stephen Hawking (source): “When I gave a lecture in Japan, I was asked not to mention the possible re-collapse of the universe, because it might affect the stock market.”

Surnames can be used to measure long-term social mobility. For example, if a surname was associated with aristocrats hundreds of years ago, are its holders still disproportionately more likely to be wealthy? Answer – yes, very much so. Key quotes: “Even in famously mobile Sweden, some 70-80% of a family’s social status is transmitted from generation to generation across a span of centuries. Other economists use similar techniques to reveal comparable immobility in societies from 19th-century Spain to post-Qing-dynasty China. Inherited advantage is detectable for a very long time … Indeed, it may take as long as 300-500 years for high- and low-status families to produce descendants with equal chances of being in various parts of the income spectrum.”

Leading British addiction researcher David Nutt wants to create a drug that makes you drunk without the hangovers or health risks of alcohol – a sort of e-cigarette version of beer. Given the resistance faced by actual e-cigarettes, good frickin’ luck. Also, apparently he wants to base it on benzodiazepines? Which are also addictive and also carry serious health risks? I wouldn’t even have naively thought separating pleasure from addictiveness was necessarily possible. But Prof. Nutt is a very smart guy (for a good time, read his essay on Equasy) and if he thinks it’s worth trying, it’s worth trying.

Unfun fact: the stories of idiotic trials by ordeal for witchcraft – put a woman in water, kill her as a witch if she floats, exonerate her dead body if she drowns – are just stories. In fact, witch-hunters would tie a rope to the woman so they could pull her back up and acquit her if she seemed to be drowning. Which decreases the stupidity of the whole “dunk a woman in water to see if she is a witch” thing by maybe, like, ten percent. One thing I wonder, though – what exactly does determine whether a person sinks or floats in that situation? Is it percent of body mass fat? Wouldn’t the Inquisition have noticed that all their fat people were coming up witches? Are you allowed to dive to the bottom of the water and hang out there until they decide you’re not a witch and pull you back up? So many questions.

There was a big blogosphere to-do about the white guy in Texas who won an election by pretending to be black. But he is a rank amateur compared to the politician in India who convinced voters that electronic voting machines would give them an electric shock if they voted for his opponent.

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61 Responses to More Links for November

  1. James says:

    I’ve heard speculation that witch trials were entirely about theater; the signs that the accused were a witch were up to the interpretation of the person conducting the trial, and so they could essentially decide by themselves whether or not the person deserved to die (generally not) while soothing the anxieties of the townsfolk. Google and long-term memory are failing me–is anyone else familiar with this claim?

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    • I’ve heard that witch trials were meant to kill people who refused to confess.

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    • Eric Rall says:

      Most of the popular tropes about witch trials are derived heavily from the career of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General of England. He was a con artist who operated during the chaos of the English Civil War: he pretended to be a government official, went from town to town organizing absurdly showy witch trials, and collected from the town a purported tax to cover his expenses. I think there were also similar characters operating in Germany during the 30-years war.

      The actual government-sanctioned witch trials were generally a lot less absurd in their conduct. Most of them were conventional murder trials, where the alleged method of killing was a magical curse. Someone died of a mysterious illness, and someone with a motive to kill them as well as the purported means to place a curse on them was accused, and the trial hinged on witness testimony to establish the motive, means, and opportunity.

      Inquisition trials were somewhere in between the two extremes. They did make heavy use of testimony coersed under torture, but the methods were based on existing (and fairly successful) techniques for persecuting heretics. The methods were very effective when the heretics being looked for actually existed, but in the case of witchcraft, they had the tragic effect of creating the illusion of a conspiracy where none existed. Part of the problem was that the inquisitors gradually relaxed the procedural safeguards against false confessions (limits on the extent of torture, taking care not to tell the subject of torture what the “correct” answer was, never subjecting the same witness to more than one torture session, disregarding confessions under torture unless corroborated by outside evidence and confirmed by the confessor in open court after the torture had ended, etc) when they found that the safeguards were stopping them from producing evidence of the vast underground network of witches which they “knew” existed.

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    • Vertebrat says:

      Peter Leeson’s account of trial by ordeal says the trials were easy to manipulate, and usually acquitted (in the case of trial by water, because the accused were usually skinny men, who reliably sink), so their main function was to intimidate superstitious defendants into confessing iff they were guilty.

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  2. SapientPearwood says:

    The links for “Great Gatsby sidescroller” and “Jane Austen MMORPG” go to the same page.

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  3. Kevin says:

    From the Ingress Wikipedia page:

    The Resistance are represented by blue and the Enlightened are represented by green.

    Probably a coincidence, but still amusing.

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    • Yogonath says:

      There aren’t all that many options for contrasting color pairs if you don’t want either side to have connotations of good (white) or evil (black, red).

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  4. gwern says:

    This surprises me. It’s almost as if there’s some gene for stay-healthy-in-old-age, and everyone without the gene dies off early so that all the really really old people are in perfect health until they die of natural causes.

    Well, you have the phenomenon of compression of morbidity, where lifespans go up without extending the period where one is crippling and dying. And the risk of dying increases each year as bodies get more and more fragile and worn out. So perhaps there are no 110 year olds in terrible health because at 110 years old, if you get injured, you’re dead the next day. (And at age 110, the chance of surviving that year has dropped to something like 50%, so it’s not that implausible an interpretation…)

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  5. Said Achmiz says:

    So I’ve read the article about Dave Wilson, and I’m having trouble seeing any evidence that he actually “pretended to be black”. At most, I could see “very vaguely implied that he’s black” (but even that only if you make the assumption that only a black person could be a friend and neighbor to other black people).

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    • Patrick says:

      You’re missing the point. He only won by 26 votes. It isn’t implausible that at least 27 people in the entire electorate were influenced to vote for him due to the perception that he was black. Therefore, by the logic of American Racial Analysis of Elections, it is acceptable to ignore the orders of magnitude larger numbers of other groups of people voting for or against him for other reasons, and blame black people.

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      • Said Achmiz says:

        Uh, was that actually the point…? Blaming black people?

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        • Anonymous says:

          Taking into account that the Huffington Post wrote an article condemning his shenanigans, it’s pretty likely that liberals condemn what occurred. Since it’s liberals doing the condemnation, you can be assured they’re not doing it at black people.

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      • Yogonath says:

        Wasn’t he running for a really minor office, community college board member or something like that? 26 votes probably was a significant chunk of the electorate.

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  6. Doug S. says:

    Here’s an absurd game idea that’s ridiculous enough to work: a “Catch-22″ themed WW2 action game. Can you survive enough bombing missions to get a discharge?

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  7. Sniffnoy says:

    The Modern Whig party doesn’t seem much like the old American Whig party — at least, not going by this article about Whigs. (I’ll admit I don’t really know much about either; if people who actually know American history can say something on the matter they are probably more worth listening to.)

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  8. Allison Rea says:

    Not really sure what’s “morally questionable” about Carrot Dating. Sure, so they don’t contain people you, Scott, would want to build a life with, but that just means you aren’t the target audience. In addition, who’s to say the purpose of a dating site is to shuffle people off to lifelong partnerships?

    As for MyFreeImplants, that’s basically just a camgirl site with a gimmick. Male users pay for the titillation and prurient interest of interacting with a pretty lady. Woman users get funding for something they apparently want.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Carrot Dating sounds pretty similar to prostitution. I know a lot of people have a problem with prostituion, although I’m not really one of them. I used the phrase “morally questionable” rather than “morally wrong” for a reason, although I admit “morally ambiguous” might have been a better term.

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  9. Jack says:

    “a Finnegan’s Wake first person shooter where you make your way through a postapocalyptic Ireland shooting rocket-propelled grenades at legitimate English words.”

    KICKSTART THIS NOW!

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    • Vertebrat says:

      Rocket-propelled grenades are so mainstream. They should shoot role-playing games instead: devise RPGs which will change the meaning of the “legitimate English words”, much as D&D changed the meaning of “rogue”.

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  10. Konkvistador says:

    Gregory Cochran’s take on genetic load explains the IQ and health correlation quite well.

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  11. Louis Burke (@LaochCailiuil) says:

    “For one thing, intelligence amplification by hacking vasculature sounds a lot easier than intelligence amplification by hacking neurons (though probably less scalable).”

    Is this an argument against Computational Theory of Mind I wonder?

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  12. Cyan says:

    I wouldn’t even have naively thought separating pleasure from addictiveness was necessarily possible.

    Whut?

    A University of Michigan study analyzed the brains of rats eating a favorite food. They found separate circuits for “wanting” and “liking”, and were able to knock out either circuit without affecting the other… The wanting system is activated by dopamine, and the liking system is activated by opioids. There are enough connections between them that there’s a big correlation in their activity, but the correlation isn’t one…

    you

    (Re: Japan — wow, those are some loooong time horizons.)

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      You’re right. I like it when I look at a problem from two different angles and have two different opinions – it means I know at least one algorithm is wrong.

      My thought here is that pretty much all the drugs I know of that have results similar to alcohol – decreasing anxiety, decreasing inhibition, making you feel good – are addictive. This is true across a lot of drugs from a lot of different classes, especially short-acting ones. It seems plausible that anxiety-decreasing itself is an addictive thing, because it might build tolerance and then when you don’t take it you’re anxious which is unpleasant.

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  13. Julia says:

    You just won Jeff a point in our long-standing debate about fever treatment. I don’t think we’ve ever encountered an actual case where we disagreed about what to do, but it could happen someday.

    >We know that high IQ people tend to live longer.
    Modal human theory?

    >what exactly does determine whether a person sinks or floats in that situation?
    Women of the time were wearing probably at least one petticoat, skirt, and apron. A densely woven wool skirt is pretty watertight – I bet if it spread out right, it could keep you pretty buoyant.

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    • gwern says:

      A densely woven wool skirt is pretty watertight – I bet if it spread out right, it could keep you pretty buoyant.

      One of the neat things the Boy Scout camp at Yawgoog taught me was that you can actually do this with ordinary clothes; jeans work well. You can twist the legs shut and use them as little floaters.

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  14. Julia says:

    Wait, that “paid maternity leave has no benefits” study was done in Norway. They found no benefits of *expanding* from 18 weeks paid leave to 35 weeks. Not exactly the same thing.

    It’s surprisingly hard to figure out how much leave to take. I get no paid leave, except what vacation and sick days I’ve saved up. I was thinking of taking 4 weeks at first, but all the parents I talked to thought that was crazily low. I can’t really imagine what you do for more time than that, but I decided to take the outside view and plan to take more (though still not sure how much).

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    • Randy M says:

      ” I can’t really imagine what you do for more time than that, but I decided to take the outside view and plan to take more (though still not sure how much).”

      You, ah, find ways of keeping busy. Lol. Or do you mean what you do for pay if you extend it beyond that time?

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  15. >Surnames can be used to measure long-term social mobility.

    Intelligence is hereditary. I expect that ability to attain and maintain nobility is correlated with intelligence, like everything else. Thus nobility is likely genetically heritable as well as socio-culturally. Very interesting.

    I don’t know if anecdotes count, but the most intellectually impressive and financially successful (self-made) person I know is descended directly from English nobility.

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    • Brian says:

      The generation-on-generation heritability estimates of IQ that I’ve read are usually in the .5 to .8 range. That’s more or equal to Scott’s heritability estimates of wealth, but over a much shorter timespan; it’s likely part of the feedback loop, but it doesn’t seem plausible for it to be carrying most of the causal weight here. Particularly since we know of causal arrows going in the other direction, in the form of nutrition, better parental care, and all the other usual non-genetic suspects.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree that’s likely part of the effect they’re finding. But I have always been skeptical of theories that the nobility was genetically more intelligent, not because I don’t think intelligence is hereditary but because I haven’t heard a good explanation of why the original nobility should have been very intelligent. As far as I know most nobility is descended from the barbarians who took over a particular area (eg Normans) and especially their war chiefs. Although there’s certainly a selection effect where clever plotters and rich people can win noble titles for themselves, I don’t know if that’s big enough to have a major effect.

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      • Eric Rall says:

        A few possible explanation:

        1. The original barbarian war chiefs generally attained their positions through a combination of election by their peers and a sort of entrepreneurship (forming a small group and recruiting followers), both of which could plausibly select for heritable talent. Furthermore, there’s a survivor bias where the stupider barbarian war chiefs were less likely to establish themselves as nobles.

        2. Female lines of inheritence. The male lines were largely established through accident of birth, but there was a fair amount of lattitude for women from well-off commoner families (untitled landowners, merchants, and successful practicioners of “gentle” professions (lawyers, etc)) to marry into the nobility, and plenty of incentive for noble families to marry themselves to partners who would a) be useful partners in running the family estates, and b) have good traits that would be expected to be passed on to the kids.

        3. Selective pressures to remain in the nobility. There were a lot of ways for an unsuccessful noble family to lose their titles, and it was very common for younger sons of a successful family to attain additional titles.

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        • Eric Rall says:

          In terms of actual research, not just speculation, I’d recommend taking a look at Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms. It’s been a while since I read it, but as I recall the main thesis is that a major factor in the development of first-world economies was the spread of certain traits from the aristocracy to the general population over the course of several generations as the descendants of the aristocracy came to dominate the general population.

          The main mechanism it discusses is that the nobility tended to have a lot more surviving offspring than the gentry, and the gentry more than the yeomanry, and so on. With two effects: the surplus from each layer got pushed down to the layer below, and there was a selective effect as to who stayed in their own layer and who got pushed down.

          A few key differences:
          1. I don’t remember any argument for particular merit among the top levels of the nobility. The selective effect being argued for seemed to be the strongest amongst the gentry.

          2. Clark appeared to be agnostic as to whether the factors being selected for were genetic or cultural, and seemed to incline a bit more towards the cultural hypothesis.

          3. Clark seemed to indentify the key trait as conscientiousness, not intelligence.

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        • Empirical: How much turnover in nobility has there been between about 1600 and 1900? In Renaissance, some areas (incl. France) saw replacement of war cheifs (Sword Nobility)’s influence with the more bureaucratic robe nobility. Plus bourgeoisie, etc. This was reflected in things such as the interplay of art meant to please the esoteric, to please the senses, and to appeal to a pretension of taste.

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        • Eric Rall says:

          How much turnover in nobility has there been between about 1600 and 1900?

          Just looking at England/Britain:

          There were 112 baronies created in the 17th century.

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        • Eric Rall says:

          [continuing incomplete comment after accidental button-press]

          How much turnover in nobility has there been between about 1600 and 1900?

          Just looking at England/Britain:

          As of 1605, there were 47 barons in the English peerage.

          There were 112 baronies created in the 17th century. 51 of those 112 still exist today.

          There were 223 baronies created in the 18th century. 104 of those still exist today.

          There were

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        • Eric Rall says:

          [continuing incomplete comment after accidental button-press]

          How much turnover in nobility has there been between about 1600 and 1900?

          Just looking at England/Britain:

          As of 1605, there were 47 barons in the English peerage.

          There were 112 baronies created in the 17th century. 51 of those 112 still exist today.

          There were 223 baronies created in the 18th century. 104 of those still exist today.

          There were 451 baronies created in the 19th century. 209 of those still exist today.

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      • >I haven’t heard a good explanation of why the original nobility should have been very intelligent. As far as I know most nobility is descended from the barbarians who took over a particular area (eg Normans) and especially their war chiefs.

        Who, out of a group of people, would you want to bet on becoming a successful warlord? Would that person have higher or lower than average intelligence? What’s your median guess for their percentile intelligence? I would guess ~95%.

        This is consistent with the evolutionary fact that historically, people with higher intelligence had enough power to have significantly more children. (evidence being that intelligence exists and happened rather quickly).

        I would guess that being a successful warlord shares a lot with becoming a successful businessman; it involves planning, people management, many domains of competence, etc, etc.

        Further, once a nobility is established, my impression is that most of them are dynamic enough to ennoble accomplished outsiders (historically it is a very bad idea to oppress ambitious and competent people; it is much more practical to give them title and for their loyalty and incentive alignment instead), and for substandard noble families to eventually lose title (downward mobility). Obviously it’s not a perfect meritocracy, and there are examples of kings who were basically retarded by dysgenic tendencies in nobility, but I would expect that nobility like everything else is partially a game that can be played, and intelligence tends to win social games.

        You’re right it would be interesting to come up with a more quantitative model of this situation to see what we can learn.

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      • Randy M says:

        I would love to see a study that analyzed every recorded noble in a certain area over a certain time period and noted what fraction of them obtained the title for what reasons. Also perhaps occupation or pasttime.

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    • Douglas Knight says:

      You can try to separate intelligence by comparing noble surnames to ones like “Clark” which indicate literacy. Someone has looked at such names, but I don’t know of a comparison.

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    • Julia says:

      Probably most people of European descent are descended “directly from the nobility” and also directly from a lot of peasants.

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    • Aaron Brown says:

      Your comment is germane, but just in case you didn’t notice, the word in the Economist article, Scott’s link to it, and the papers it references is not “nobility” but “mobility”. (Clark’s “Evidence from the Information Content of Surnames” paper does refer to nobles a couple times.)

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  16. Platypus says:

    I played Ingress for close to a year. It was a lot of fun!

    At low levels, the main experience is like “I wandered about in a sculpture park for two hours poking at my phone, and I tesselated the park with invisible triangles, and I gained twenty thousand experience points for it!”

    At high levels, the experience is more like, “Our team needed some more L8 bursters, so eight of us arranged a clandestine meetup in a sculpture park at 10pm, and we wandered about for an hour socializing and poking at our phones, and then an enemy agent showed up and blew up all our portals so we called it a modest victory and went home.” Ideally there’s a team dinner before or afterward.

    In a big city, this sort of meetup happens every night, so you’re never without a social activity.

    For myself, I caught a group of eight enemy agents wandering about in a park at 10pm trying to generate L8 bursters. I blew up all their portals, but rather than leaving, one of them discovered that by intimidating me physically he could get me to go away. I haven’t really wanted to play since.

    Maybe when the weather gets better, though.

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    • Brian says:

      Ingress is fun, but it’s very very dependent on living or at least working in a dense urban area. If you’re anything like me and you happen to spend a lot of time in suburbs or God forbid rural areas, you’ll quickly get bored; game-significant points are so far between out there that you’ll need to spend most of a day or combine it with a trip to the city if you want to make any significant contribution. When I gave it a try, I earned more points over two hours in San Francisco’s financial district than over two weeks in the Berkeley suburbs.

      I got bored enough to quit shortly after earning my L2 access. Unfortunate, since suburbs and rural areas are exactly where I’d get the most value added from augmented reality.

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  17. Nestor says:

    I had heard that the Spanish inquisition did not in fact believe in witchcraft and dismissied it as “female vapours”. I can’t find anything definite but this account of the 1500s Basque witch trials paints the Inquisitor as the good guy, stopping executions, giving blanket pardons and adivising restraint:

    http://courses.washington.edu/hsteu205/Spanish%20witch%20trials.htm

    “By 1500’s Inquisition has consolidated its control over witchcraft: majority of cases given light punishments
    or acquittals. There are even records of cases in which Inquisition tried to move an accused witch from a village where
    they were known as witches to another to mitigate effects of reputation and to “rehabilitate” the witch.”

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      It’s nice that they were acquitting people, but it’s hard to fathom, except for reasons of political convenience, how you could convict with a light sentence.

      “We hereby find this woman guilty of being an agent of Satan, sworn by demonic pact to use unspeakable magic to destroy her friends and neighbors and send them to the depths of Hell. The fine will be *checks table* twenty florins.”

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      • Eric Rall says:

        The primary mission of the Inquisition was not to punish heretics (and witches, etc), but rather to save souls from heresy. They would almost always spare the lives of first-time convicts whom they believed to have sincerely repented their heresies, as an incentive to repent (and thus to make it possible for the convict to receive God’s forgiveness). The death penalty was generally reserved for those who refused to renounce their heresies or who were convicted a second time after already having been granted a lenient sentence by the inquisition.

        Secular witch trials were a different story: executions were very common, because the authorities were generally focused on punishing the conduct rather than pressuring the sinner into seeking God’s mercy.

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      • Dave says:

        It reminds me of “Well, on the one hand, Obama is the Anti-Christ. On the other, do I really want four years of Romney?”, which I often quote.

        (Incidentally, googling “lizardman Obama Romney antichrist” was oddly enjoyable in its own right.)

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      • Nestor says:

        Catholics dude, we’ll forgive anything.

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  18. rsq says:

    I’m told that Dr. Nutt’s article is actually an elaborate satire designed to point out inconsistencies in British drug laws. No idea of the truth of this.

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  19. Anthony says:

    Maybe the witch hunters were all proto-Roissys, so a mechanism which let them keep the skinny women and burn the fat ones was a feature, not a bug?

    More seriously, if someone had asked the witch-hunters why the fat ones were more likely to be found to be witches, they’d say something about using witchcraft to unjustly provide themselves with more food, possibly by magically stealing it from the rest of the community.

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  20. US says:

    “Old people seem to be almost bimodal – you’ll get 80 year olds who are really decrepit, demented, and on twenty medications, but by the time you get past 100 or so, they seem to be universally pretty healthy. This surprises me. It’s almost as if there’s some gene for stay-healthy-in-old-age, and everyone without the gene dies off early so that all the really really old people are in perfect health until they die of natural causes.”

    This doesn’t sound right to me. A few observations:

    “A long-held myth regarding development is that as people age, they all become alike. This view is refuted by the third principle of adult development and aging, which asserts that as people age, they become more different from each other rather than more alike. With increasing age, older adults become a more diverse segment of the population in terms of their physical functioning, psychological performance, and conditions of living. […] Research continues to underscore the notion that individuals continue to become less alike with age. Such findings suggest that diversity becomes an increasingly prominent theme during the adult years, a point we will continue to focus on throughout this book.”

    From Whitbourne & Whitbourne. Not bimodality, just greater variance. More:

    “Over a 3-month period, even a moderate training program can augment muscle strength and maximal aerobic power by 20% or more, 25,26 — equivalent to a reversal of approximately 20 years of normal aging.26 […] The muscle force and aerobic power required to undertake many of the tasks important to the independence of an elderly person (for example, rising from a chair or climbing a flight of stairs) are almost directly proportional to an individual’s body mass. Thus, a 10% reduction in body mass will effectively increase muscle strength and maximal aerobic power by some 10%, equivalent to a 10-year reversal of the effects of aging. […] It has been suggested that declines in functional capacity with age reflect age-related reductions in physical activity. Inactivity has been estimated to account for 50% of the age-related loss in function.”

    That is to say that to the extent that large differences exist, environmental factors – in particular physical activity – remain really important even in old age – i.e. it’s not just genetics. Quotes above are from Gender, Physical Activity, and Aging, by Shephard et al).

    Also, on the same topic one meta-review on Alzheimer’s in the very old found that 40% of those aged 95 suffered from Alzheimer’s. It was noteworthy that risk didn’t increase past that point (i.e. in people older than 95), but when 2 out of 5 of the people you’re looking at suffer from dementia I’m not sure ‘pretty healthy’ is the best way to describe that population. The proportion of males having (prostate) cancer at that age is also, well, high…

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