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Links 12/14: Come Ye To Bethlinkhem

To the list of people who met their spouses online, add ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who met his wife Sujidah al-Dulaimi on the Internet. Possibly related: ISIS runs a jihadi dating site. I’m going to say it – niche dating sites have gone too far.

Well, that turned sinister quickly. Menthol, which I had always just assumed was added to cigarettes to make them taste better, tweaks the brain to potentiate nicotine addiction.

You probably heard about the successful Orion launch last week. On Reddit’s “Explain Like I’m Five”: Was The Space Shuttle Really So Bad We Had To De-Evolve Back To Capsules?. A lot of great discussion, but the answer is pretty much “yes” – the space shuttle started off unambitious, turned into a monstrosity loaded down with compromises to tick off every stupid constraint Congress and the Pentagon put on it, and probably set space exploration back for a generation because it looked so cool that no one was willing to admit it was useless. Capsules are cheaper, safer, and more likely to go somewhere. That having been said, Orion has an uphill battle – its main proposed mission, going to an asteroid, requires a conjunction of lots of things that probably won’t pan out, and so nobody really knows what it’s for except saying we’ve got one.

Lest you get too depressed, remember you live in an age where a private company with thousands of employees, billions of dollars in revenue and a proven record of success is at this very moment working on a spaceship called the Mars Colonial Transporter, intended to carry at least a hundred colonists and several tons of freight to the Red Planet by 2030.

I have had it with Omega-3 fats. As bad as the field of nutrition in general is, the study of Omega-3 fats is the worst. One day they show amazing results, the next day a similar study comes out showing no results at all. Depending on what research you believe they are either the cure for all psychiatric illness, or they’ll do nothing except make your burps smell like fish (exception: the research showing they decrease aggression in institutionalized settings is pretty strong). Now the latest such study shows that Omega-3 fats have a ginormous effect in preventing the development of psychosis.

New accusations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “‘Every night they release wild pigs against us,’ the president was quoted as saying. ‘Why are they doing this?'”

Carcinization somehow gets stuck defending that cultural evolution is real, because apparently some people doubt this.

After wars that kill off a lot of (primarily male) soldiers, a greater proportion of the babies born are boys, almost as if Nature is trying to make up the deficit. A new review tries to piece together why.

China bans puns on the grounds that they may mislead children and defile cultural heritage. Language Log is on the story, and discusses the (extremely plausible) theory that this is part of a crackdown on people who use puns to get around censorship. Obligatory link to the Ten Mythical Creatures here. There’s no censor sensibility to the law, and it seems likely to cause Confucian and dis-Orientation among punks and pundits alike in its wonton disregard for personal freedom and attempts to bamboo-zle the public. It’s safe Tibet that dissidents who just Taipei single pun online will end up panda price and facing time in the punitentiary or even capital punishment – but those Hu support the government can Maoth off as much as they want and still wok free. I Canton derstand how people wouldn’t realize that this homophonbic bigotry raises a bunch of red flags. In the end, one Deng is clear: when puns are outlawed, only outlaws will have puns.

I’m having trouble finding a non-horrible link to this that doesn’t participate in the behavior it’s discussing, but let’s go with this one by bizpacreview. The New York Times publishes the name of the street where Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson lives despite about a zillion death threats against him, then refuses to take it down. Conservative activists respond by publicizing the home addresses of the reporters who published the story. Reporters demand the police protect them, thus completing the circle of irony. How about a compromise solution of STOP DOXXING PEOPLE.

People with schizophrenia have a wide range of impairment, from “totally unable to function independently” to “actually pretty functional”. Here’s a profile of a schizophrenic programmer working on creating God’s temple in the form of a really weird operating system. Gives a good feel for what the condition must feel like from the inside.

So apparently if you inject human glial cells into mouse brains, you end up with a much smarter mouse. This raises at least two questions: first, what does this tell us about the oft-neglected role of glial cells in intelligence? Second, if you inject the glial cells of a supergenius into the brain of a moderately intelligent person, does the moderately intelligent person become smarter? I’m asking for, uh, a friend. Yeah. A friend.

I’ve written a couple of times about the promise of minocycline for treating schizophrenia. @TheTenthTendril links me to a new meta-analysis of 330 people confirming efficacy of minocycline.

Recent study: Summer jobs decrease violent crime among disadvantaged youth almost by half, effect remains after one-year followup. Cost-effectiveness still difficult to determine.

I’ve never written anything about poker before, but two very interesting things happened at this year’s Poker World Series. First, two winners, including the grand champion, were members of Raising For Effective Giving, a group of poker players linked with the effective altruism movement who have promised to donate 2-3% of their winnings to effective charity. Given the $10 million prize, that’s $200,000 right there. Second, the winner credited part of his success to the nootropic CILTEP. I’m a bit surprised, because I’ve tried CILTEP and found it totally useless; it also got very mediocre ratings on my nootropics survey. Maybe it’s a matter of personal variation. But nootropics now officially pass the xkcd test.

This, on the other hand, is exactly my aesthetic: new computer system uses game theory to remove social barriers to reporting sexual assault

The smoldering rebellion thing in Ukraine is killing a lot of Russian troops, but how many exactly? With the Russian government pretending the whole thing doesn’t exist it’s hard to say, but some estimates already place the number higher than Soviet losses in Afghanistan or US losses in Iraq.

Excess Success For Psychology Articles In The Journal Science. If I understand this right, they’re saying that psychology articles in Science get positive results so often that even if their hypotheses were always true, they still should get fewer positive results simply because of the expected rate of false negatives. This suggests that something fishy is going on, which at this point should be pretty unsurprising for published psychology articles.

How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant. I don’t know enough about sociology to have a strong opinion on the article, but I found interesting the descriptions of government programs. Moving To Opportunity, the program that moved poor families with children to nice neighborhoods? No effect on the kids’ futures (compare to the non-experimental neighborhood study in the last links roundup.) Building Strong Families, the program that gave parents counseling on how to keep their marriages together? Marriages fell apart exactly as quickly as everyone else’s. At some point we really need to get ourselves some better government programs. Which I guess is what the article is trying to tell us how to do.

Several readers sent me this article by Maradydd on the place of nerds in society, which I would have a lot more to say about if I had room left in my head for thoughts other than how frustrating I found the giant blocks of pictures inserted at random points throughout the web page. But other than that I think I approve.

The Conservative Case For Reforming The Police. Although I’m not sure how the conservative case for anything ended up on Slate. I hope the three conservatives who read it get inspired.

A while ago I praised the article/short story Libertarian Police Department as one of the funniest things I had ever read. I possibly have to take that back. I never would have imagined it possible, but this counter-story story in the Atlantic, Non-Libertarian Police Department, beats it by a mile and is even more worthy of your interest.

When Science Fiction Stopped Caring About The Future: “It’s no accident that the most ubiquitous, overwhelming sci-fi sub-genre around is the one that has the least to do with the future: superheroes. Much of the superhero genre, in fact, is devoted to the fantasy that [we can experience technological marvels] without the comfy old familiar world we know changing that much at all. Tony Stark invents new magical energy sources three times before breakfast, but he uses them mostly to punch Thunder-Gods in the head, rather than, say, to completely transform the world’s technology and economy. Aliens land on earth, and rather than conquering England with H. G. Wells or forming an utterly new human race through tentacle-sex gene splicing a la Octavia Butler, they perform minor acts of altruism while taking their shirts off to reveal the pecs of Henry Cavill. Superheroes are sci-fi wonders without consequences, the future resolutely flattened by today.”

You know how evidence showed that the minimum wage increased unemployment? And then evidence showed that it didn’t? Now evidence shows that it does again. If anyone ever studies the effects of the minimum wage on omega-3 fats, I don’t even want to know.

Another one of those timeless narrative motifs that recur across all ages and cultures: A Billionaire Dinosaur Forced Me Gay. The first review is my favorite.

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426 Responses to Links 12/14: Come Ye To Bethlinkhem

  1. Steve Johnson says:

    The New York Times publishes the name of the street where Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson lives despite about a zillion death threats against him, then refuses to take it down. Conservative activists respond by publicizing the home addresses of the reporters who published the story. Reporters demand the police protect them, thus completing the circle of irony. How about a compromise solution of STOP DOXXING PEOPLE.

    That’s not really a compromise.

    The NY Times doxxed Wilson. They egged on a mob to get riots to scare up votes in a midterm election. If they didn’t do that then obviously no one doxxes their reporters.

    Unless you mean the “compromise” is that the reporters shouldn’t have been doxxed?

    • suntzuanime says:

      I think what he’s trying to say is that the reporters should have been doxxed, to demonstrate what happens when you break the reasonable community compromise norm of “don’t dox people”.

      Waiting for the first person to unironically argue that doxxing should punch up instead of down.

      • Anonymous says:

        I feel like SJ is trying to twist the words one way, and you’re trying to twist them the opposite way.

        I think what he’s REALLY saying (not “trying to say”, it’s pretty clear) is don’t dox, in general, or the system falls apart, without making any claim for or against the tit-for-tat strategy for dealing with doxxing or supporting either side.

        Separately: The New York Times is definitely the one “punching down” here.

        • dirtyHippy says:

          I don’t understand the metaphor of punching one direction or the other and am too lazy too look it up, but I agree with your interpretation of Scott’s intent and am surprised anyone could interpret his words in any other way (yadda yadda assumptions of good faith yadda yadda)

          • Nornagest says:

            I don’t understand the metaphor of punching one direction or the other and am too lazy too look it up

            “Punch up”: attack groups more powerful than you. “Punch down”: attack groups less powerful than you.

            In the context this comes out of, relative power is supposed to be defined according to a privilege metric; but even if you think that’s a useful framing and that attacking more privileged groups is always laudable, we’re talking about the NYT‘s demographics here, and it’s kind of hard to say with a straight face that they’re less privileged than anybody.

        • stillnotking says:

          That isn’t a solution, it’s wishful thinking. Might as well say “Don’t fight wars!”

          Given the nature of the internet, it seems unavoidable that people will be doxxed. Most of the time, the perpetrators will be anonymous. Even when they’re not (such as when they happen to write for the NYT), how does one go about stopping and/or deterring them? That’s a serious question, not a rhetorical one. I assume we all agree that doxxing is bad in general, so what’s the best remedy? Civil action? Criminal law? Public shaming? Everyone becoming really paranoid about our online identities? (Too late for most of us, and probably impossible. If a million people are interested in knowing who you are, one of them will figure it out.) I don’t know.

      • friendly internet user says:

        Presumably you know about this infamous tweet?

        • suntzuanime says:

          Well then. I was already pretty cynical, so I guess I haven’t lost much faith in humanity.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m not sure why you find that remotely surprising.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Because “dox” is a negative affect word! It’s like saying “genocide up, don’t genocide down” and trying to figure out if the Hutus or the Tutsis have more privilege.

          • Anon256 says:

            @suntzuanime: Yes, that’s pretty much literally the story of Hutu-Tutsi relations. (Tutsis are a minority in Rwanda but traditionally held disproportionate wealth and power, so both groups felt oppressed.)

      • Oligopsony says:

        Waiting for the first person to unironically argue that doxxing should punch up instead of down.

        I won’t offer an argument, but I will unironically assert it.

        The corollary to this is that following this algorithm means my opponents will do the same thing. I am okay with this, because I think escalation and polarization are better in the long term (although I am too lazy right now to offer an argument for this either.)

        (I’m not personally engaged in doxxing anyone or doing other kinds of violence because I’m a coward.)

      • no one special says:

        (This seems like a good place to plant this flag.)

        No one punches up. People who claim to be punching up are punching down on people who happen to share a protected class with the powerful. When people attack “white men”, they are overwhelmingly attacking poor or non-neurotypical white men — aka, people who they can punch without retaliation.

        This is punching down, not up.

        • Oligopsony says:

          No, people punch up all the time, they punch up at politicians and financiers and the mainstream media and plenty of others who can’t be plausibly understood as down of them. The difference here is that people in possession of substantial amounts of power have little reason to care about the opinions of someone on twitter or whateverthefuckever, and if for some reason they did care, it would be against their interests to admit that they did.

        • Patrick Robotham says:

          Can you explain why it isn’t punching up when journalists/comedians attack:

          1. CEOs/founders
          2. Heads of state,
          3. Heads of religion,
          4. Royalty,
          5. Generals,
          6. Oprah

          (Note: I don’t believe that someone’s place int he hierarchy is a good justification for attacking them. What matters in attacking someone is whether or not they deserve it (because of the enormity of their misdeeds.))

          • Patrick Robotham says:

            A candidate explanation:
            “punching up” is ambiguous. It can mean “attacking someone superior in resources”, or “attacking someone with superior ability to retaliate.”

            The former happens often, the latter is bad tactics.

          • oneforward says:

            Another possibility: punching involves actually hitting someone and hurting them. The people you list can often ignore journalists swinging at them, so those don’t count as punches.

        • no one special says:

          Strong pushback in the responses has made me think harder. Award yourselves deltas for an update away from this idea.

          What follows is a multiclass defense/retreat to the motte.

          People who use the punch up/punch down rhetoric do not punch up. That rhetoric is used to defend arbitrary punches, most of which are down. P(Punching down | uses “punch up” rhetoric) > P(Punching down)

          Journalists and comedians are given a socially respected platform on which to punch up; Punching up could even be considered to be their job. But having that platform puts them pretty high up in the first place, making it easier for them to punch down. P(Punching up | Journalist or Comedian) > P(Punching up), which is a good thing to remember.

          On the question of if a punch has to be effective to count as punching up: Probably not, but (and it’s a _big_ but,) 1) Unsuccessful punches up are likely to be forgotten. 2) It’s a lot harder to punch up than to punch down. Combine these with the availability heuristic, and a whole lot of punching up will be “dark matter.”

          Also, does keying you’re boss’s car count as punching up? I feel like the answer is no, which means there’s a hidden variable of plausible effectiveness in order to count as punching up.

          Thank you all for making me think harder about this.

      • Daniel Speyer says:

        Isn’t there also supposed to be a community norm of not shooting people?

        ISTR the original anti-doxxing argument cited “Argument gets counter-argument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for.” But Darren Wilson did not make an argument. He fired a bullet. He’s forfeited that protection.

        I’m not saying he needs to be taken down by a vigilante firing squad, but since rule-of-law seems to have failed completely, it’s not a possibility to dismiss out of hand.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Given that I don’t recall any policeman being convicted of misdoing in any such incident, I think that negative attention by the public will have the needed good consequence of making other cops think twice before they shoot.

        • Jaskologist says:

          There’s a lot wrapped up in the statement “failed completely.” Are you absolutely, 100% sure Wilson wasn’t acting in self-defense? Because the Grand Jury did in fact have good reasons to think that he was.

          “Rule of law” is precisely the idea that these determinations get made by a panel presented with all relevant evidence, rather than ill-informed, stirred-up mobs with pitchforks.

          • Izaak Weiss says:

            Grand Juries do something different than I think you think they do. The saying is “a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich.” Grand Juries are specifically built so that it should be possible to indict anyone who maybe might possibly sorta be responsible for a crime. They DO NOT try to figure out if someone is actually guilty; that’s for a regular (Petit) Jury.

            “Rule of law” is precisely the idea that these determinations get made by a panel presented with all relevant evidence, rather than ill-informed, stirred-up mobs with pitchforks.

            Rule of law says nothing of the kind when it comes to Grand Juries. Grand Juries have nothing but a prosecutor, no defense, no judge. It’s literally supposed to be an ill-informed mob, stirred up however the prosecutor wants.

            There was no fair trial, no matter how you look at things.

          • nydwracu says:

            There was no fair trial, no matter how you look at things.

            Does every case go to a grand jury?

            If not, which ones do and which ones don’t? What determines this?

          • Multiheaded says:

            Does every case go to a grand jury?

            If not, which ones do and which ones don’t? What determines this?

            As a saying that you’ve likely heard these days goes, grand juries appear able to indict a ham sandwich, but not a whole pig.

          • Vegemeister says:

            Charges against ham sandwiches don’t usually come after massive public outcry.

        • William O. B'Livion says:

          Are you serious?

          I just need to be sure.

        • satanistgoblin says:

          So, screw the courts, just doxx and mayyybe shoot people you personally think are guilty? Surely, nothing could go wrong 🙂

          • Daniel Speyer says:

            Lots can go wrong. I’m not saying I like this option. But the alternatives are:

            Just accept that cops can kill (or otherwise harm) anyone they like with no repercussions.


            Overthrow the government and create a court system that actually handles these cases.

            Unless you’ve got a fourth option, these are all bad enough that they need to be weighed against each other carefully. I honestly don’t know which is least bad. But throwing out vigilante mobs on general principle — especially a principle designed for circumstances in which blood had not yet been spilled — is not thinking properly.

          • Susebron says:

            So, you’re saying that the options are:

            1. Let the cops kill anyone they like without repercussions.

            2. Let the vigilante mobs kill anyone they like without repercussions.

            3. Overthrow the government.

            You know, I don’t see why it’s better when it’s a vigilante mob rather than a cop.

          • nydwracu says:

            Just accept that cops can kill (or otherwise harm) anyone they like with no repercussions.

            Do you really think that there have been zero cases of a cop killing someone and getting repercussions?

          • Ialdabaoth says:

            Do you really think that there have been zero cases of a cop killing someone and getting repercussions?

            This is disingenuous and I think you know it.

            If we have to nitpick between “too damn often”, “almost always” and “exactly zero counterexamples exist”, no productive conversation will occur. You know what was meant, so try being more charitable.

          • nydwracu says:

            So is rhetorical overstatement.

            Anyway, are there statistics?

          • John Schilling says:

            According to the BBC, 41 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter in the US between 2005 and 2011. According to the FBI, there were approximately 2,750 justifiable homicides by police in that period (2005 data is missing/contaminated, I had to extrapolate). So, about 1.5% of fatal police shootings result in at least a manslaughter charge.

            Note that most US states generally require malicious intent for a manslaughter charge; the typical wrongful police shooting would be more properly classified as criminally negligent homicide(*), and I can’t find statistics for that. Nor, obviously, for police officers fired after an internal investigation but not charged with a crime.

            (*) Either because there was no malice or because there was no hope of proving malice beyond a reasonable doubt.

          • Anonymous says:

            Thanks! I had no idea that the number was even as high as 1.5%.

            Re malice: two of the three examples given in that article involving people shot in the back. That seems to me like pretty good evidence of malice. One of them was acquitted.

          • John Schilling says:

            Shooting in the back is evidence of malice, but not proof of malice. Same with shooting an unarmed man. Shooting an unarmed man in the back, still not proof but needs a convincing explanation, yes.

            And per the Burea of Justice, about 60% of people charged with murder are convicted of murder and another 10% are convicted of a lesser offence, no specific data for manslaughter charges but probably similar. So two out of three cops convicted suggests that the cases are being judged fairly once they get to court – if the BBC picked representative examples.

            If we arbitrarily guess that negligent homicide charges are twice as likely as manslaughter, then it and that cops trying to hide wrongdoing are about as good at it as cops trying to uncover wrongdoing,
            this is consistent with 9% of police shootings being unjust and the process being handled fairly at all levels, e.g.

            1/2 of 9% don’t meet preponderance of evidence because the bad cop won the hide/uncover wrongdoing game

            2/3 of remaining 4.5% indicted for negligent homicide instead of manslaughter/murder, either because that’s what they are actually guilty of or that’s what the DA thinks he can prove.

            2/3 of the manslaughter/murder charges, or 1% of the total, result in convictions.

            If you think the number of negligently or maliciously wrongful police shootings is significantly greater than 9%, this would be a sign that something is going wrong and some cops are being allowed to get away with murder, er, manslaughter at least. I’m willing to believe that cops actually get it right ~90% of the time when they pull the trigger, but that’s a hard one to find good statistics for.

          • Anonymous says:

            It is odd that the BBC quoted the figure of 41 indictments, but failed to summarize the results. The three examples are clearly chosen to represent different states: conviction, acquittal, indictment not yet having gone to trial.

            The guy who said 41 had previously said 71 for the same time period, or 81 including negligent manslaughter. Probably a good blog to look at for this topic.

          • Anonymous says:

            I figured out how to reconcile the 41 and 71 figures. The 71 figure includes arrests for off-duty killing. There were 31 arrests for murder or non-negligent manslaughter on duty and 40 off duty. There were 10 arrests for negligent homicide on duty. (Maybe there were 2 arrests for negligent homicide off-duty, but the post seems inconsistent.)

    • Banananon says:

      Presumably, as part of the compromise the NYT shouldn’t have doxxed Wilson. I didn’t read that as Scott expressing a solution going forward, more just aggravated that we (as a society or something grandiose like that) keep committing the same dumb mistakes over and over again.

      • Anthony says:

        Perhaps those same journalists who asked for police protection should be assigned Darren Wilson for their protection.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      I think the compromise is that NO ONE DOXXES ANYONE. Not Wilson, not the reporters, nadie.

      • Randy M says:

        That’s not a compromise, it’s a condemnation. If you put in an enforcement mechanism, then your getting somewhere.

    • Anonymous says:

      I thought the “compromise” bit was a joke. Not doxxing people isn’t a compromise, it’s just basic human decency.

  2. suntzuanime says:

    That Ten Mythical Creatures link was great. Memes from other cultures can be a lot of fun because they’re not as played out and eye-rolling as the ones from your own.

    • Wirehead Wannabe says:

      At first I was reading through seeing “X is a homophone of Y which is an imperfect homophone of Z” thinking “wow, that’s a bit of a stretch isn’t it?” Then I realized that I had just seen “Oh Come Let Us Adoge Him” and decided I was being hypocritical.

      • youzicha says:

        I liked this passage (from Wikipedia’s River Crab article):

        Since the Chinese Communist Party announced the goal of constructing a “Harmonious Society” in 2004, usually cited by the government of China as the reason for censorship, Chinese netizens began to use the word “Harmonious/Harmonize/Harmonization” (和谐) as a euphemism for censorship when the word for censorship itself was censored. And when the word “Harmonious” began to be censored, Chinese netizens began to use the [near homonym] word for “River crab”. Sometimes “Aquatic product” (Chinese: 水产) is used in place of “River crab”.

        I guess the key is that each word has to be recognized on its own before you can pun on it, so each new coinage is a mildly amusing variation on the last one.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hamilton died in 2000.

  4. Anonymous says:

    place the number higher than Soviet losses in Afghanistan or US losses in Iraq

    That phrasing implies that the second is greater than the first, when it is 1/3 the size.

    • Nestor says:

      Haven’t looked at the figures, but considering Vietnam and Afghanistan were almost decade long conflicts it’s surprising an undeclared intervention that started this year is even in the same ballpark in casualty figures.

      My knee jerk reaction is “no way”

      • Salem says:

        Soviet casualties in Afghanistan were less than 15,000. US casualties in Iraq were less than 5,000. You are the first person to bring up Vietnam, but even there, US casualties were less than 60,000. In all cases, the vast majority of deaths were suffered by local forces, who did the vast majority of the fighting, and the superpower had massive technological superiority.

        This is profoundly different to the situation in Ukraine, where the Russian army is only slightly more advanced than the Ukrainian, and where the Russians’ Ukrainian allies are few and have largely been defeated, so it’s Russian soldiers doing all the fighting – and dying. This is a shorter war (so far) than Afghanistan, but it’s much “hotter” from a Russian point of view, so it doesn’t take many deaths at all to surpass Afghanistan.

      • Tarrou says:

        I’m skeptical as well, but this is tempered by my knowledge of Russia and history. Arguably no nation ever is more free with the lives of their soldiers. Russian military strategy generally runs along the lines of “how can we get rid of as many of our troops as possible?”.

      • John Schilling says:

        The United Nations is claiming 4-5000 deaths total for the conflict, and most sources I have seen suggest the Russian Army has sent in only a few battalions of regulars and that the Ukranian army has shied away from engaging those.

        So, thousands of Russian Army deaths and Putin in danger of running out of soldiers seems like wishful thinking or conspiracy theory. This claim needs some serious evidence attached.

  5. Anon says:

    Re: Revealing Wilson’s approximate address:
    This is the least horrible link I could find which I’d argue is fairly good reporting. The author actually discussed (over email) the article with NYTimes’ associate managing editor for standards:

  6. Anonymous says:

    About that xkcd link, I’m pretty sure semiconductor circuit design requires no Quantum Electrodynamics. Just plain old non-relativistic Quantum Mechanics.

    • Jake says:

      Integrated Circuits require QM related considerations. Especially Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) circuits. As each element itself got smaller, QM effects started to mess with things.

      Now, you can’t do VLSI without it. (Or so my profs say)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      That’s no different than what I posted. They gave the street name, which is what I said. The marriage license seems to be a red herring.

      • youzicha says:

        I think the most significant difference with your account is that they say that the NYT article made clear that he was no longer living at that street, which should reduce the risk to his safety.

    • nydwracu says:

      Remember when news outlets kept reporting that George Zimmerman had done something completely un-newsworthy in some very specific location?

  7. Geist says:

    New accusations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “‘Every night they release wild pigs against us,’ the president was quoted as saying. ‘Why are they doing this?’”

    Not actually new:

    It’s also not as absurd as the Holocaust denial that Abbas is known for.

    • Tarrou says:

      Yeah the arab nations have a pretty long history of arresting animals for espionage, sometimes because they have hebrew-language tracking bands placed on them by scientists, sometimes just because arab conspiracy theory has the israelis behind every bush and wierd coincidence in the world.

  8. This is a new link, not a discussion of any of the ones in the post, but since it a) went very viral on social media today and b) is about topics known to be of interest to Scott and his commenters, I feel justified in posting it here: Parable of the Polygons: A Playable Post on the Shape of Society. (If it doesn’t load the first time, try again; the site has been under heavy load.)

    This is a cutesy interactive game-theoretic explanation of racial segregation, based on Thomas Schelling’s “Dynamic Models of Segregation”. It was created by noted explainer-of-really-cool-math-things Vi Hart and designer-of-games-that-make-some-kind-of-social-point Nicky Case.

    I’m not yet sure what I think of it. All the opinions I’ve read thus far are from random Facebook friends and such, and I’d love to hear some opinions from people who’ve actually thought about this stuff in detail.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      I thought it was a (slightly different) example of a coordination problem that we’re all so fond of here. If a society is perfectly non-racist after being racist in the past, problems still persist, even though no one wants them to.

      It was the first thing that made me ever go, “Oh. Now I actually support affirmative action, instead of vaguely thinking it’s a good idea without seeing any good arguments for it or against it.”

      • Herpaderp says:

        Funnily enough, I’m not sure I buy that. If the blue community has been persecuted by the green community, so the blue wealth distribution skews lower than the green’s, do you support affirmative action for the blues as a first-best policy if active persecution is all in the past?

        I don’t think you should. Affirmative action for the blues will aid advantaged blues (remember, only the distribution was skewed, there are still outliers) and ignore disadvantaged greens. If we instead implemented “affirmative action” based on individual wealth endowments, usually more accurately described as “redistribution” or “welfare,” then we get rid of these problems and the populations should equalize over time.

        You have to have continuing persecution to make affirmative action appropriate as a first-best policy, and even then you would probably like to rig things so that (using American blacks in the real world), it’s the ones who are disadvantaged the most on an absolute scale getting targeted instead of just Sasha and Malia Obama.

        And if there’s any genetic difference *at all* between populations, suddenly we have to do our homework and figure out the implications. A persistent inequality in the presence of redistribution no longer necessarily signifies racism. This is the sort of thing the HBD crowd is looking at.

        • Multiheaded says:

          Affirmative action for the blues will aid advantaged blues (remember, only the distribution was skewed, there are still outliers) and ignore disadvantaged greens.

          Certain American progressives have expressed a reasonable fear that this was part of the plan. Dividing-and-conquering the black political block with AA above and the War on Drugs below. Sounds a bit far-fetched… but you never know with Nixon. Nixon!

          • Anonymous says:

            I heard a program on NPR this evening that discussed Nixon’s expansion of government-provided resources to the poor (..and some other social initiatives). They presented him as not really caring. He had a strongly liberal social policy adviser and a strongly conservative economic guy who would fight all the time, and he just kind of enjoyed it… but didn’t really care too much how it turned out. It was a really interesting contrast to the caricature I have in my head of him being the shrewdest of schemers in every aspect of the long game.

          • Anonymous says:

            >It was a really interesting contrast to the caricature I have in my head of him being the shrewdest of schemers in every aspect of the long game.

            You break in to ONE building and suddenly everyone thinks you’re a master villain…

          • Randy M says:

            Anon 1, that sounds like the same contradictory stories told about Obama.

          • stillnotking says:

            Nixon didn’t really care about domestic policy at all. He saw himself as a great, globe-trotting statesman, playing the “real” political game of international relations. And you know, he actually was pretty good at it, asshole or not.

            Domestic politics was just a means to an end, a way to assure popular support. That’s why a lot of people still buy the “Nixon was a liberal” malarkey. Nixon was not a liberal; he was someone who was willing to pursue liberal policies (or break into hotels) simply because it helped him get elected.

          • social justice warlock says:

            Nixon being a domestic left-liberal because that’s what was politically optimal is actually better evidence for the gist of the “Nixon was liberal” ideas as I’ve seen it (i.e., as a slogan about rightward policy drift) than his being one by conscience or something silly like that.

          • stillnotking says:

            Oh, definitely, in the economic-policy realm at least, the 60s and 70s were far more liberal. Nixon knew his panderees.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            Multiheaded: That repeats the claim of Silicon Valley being all white, which of course ignores Asians. Silicon Valley is white at a rate below that of the general population of the US.

          • cassander says:

            to push back against the nixon was a liberal framework, nixon presided over a government with less progressive taxes, regulated dramatically less in most areas, spent more of its money on the military and less on social program than the modern. I cannot imagine the foulness of the things he would have said about the notion of gay marriage or gay troops in the military. He also ran on an explicit promise of new federalism, promising to devolve power to the states, but didn’t do a whole lot with it.

          • Tracy W says:

            Note that to some extent welfare spending was lower in the 1970s because the population structure contained more young adults than nowadays, and healthcare was less expensive, rather than any particular policy decisions.
            (Note, I’m not talking just about US healthcare, health care spending has been rising around the world).

          • RCF says:

            Regarding Silicon Valley race: in fact, Santa Clara county is 54% white, and the 17th District, which covers much of the Silicon Valley, is 49% Asian and had two Asians vying for the seat.

      • Shenpen says:

        I think segregation as such is not necessarily a bad thing, it becomes a bad thing only when one group controls resources so much that the other loses access to them through it.

        In other words, a segregation between equals could be an okay thing, it is the combination of segregation and power that creates bad outcomes.

        My point is, you should not be supporting AA because of segregation, but because of segregation + power. As AA tries to overcome disadvantages, but disadvantages appear only when one group has so much power and controls so many resurces that segregation results the other group being cut off from them.

        • Harald K says:

          Segregation is usually a bad thing because it limits options. You can see it illustrated well (and plausibly) in the model: all those people OK with a homogenous neighbourhood. They’d be happier in a diverse one but the emergent consequences of their choices mean they don’t have that option.

          If you follow the links below that article, there are some really interesting points, about the “Petrie multiplier” in particular.

          In brief: If there are interactions based on group membership, you’re going to be a target of disproportionately many of them if you are in a minority. If even a tiny number of squares act out “shapist” towards triangles, then that lone triangle in a square neighbourhood is going to get a lots of shapism, even though the vast majority of squares aren’t shapist.

          That is independent of whether squares and triangles are equally shapist or not, or indeed their power (as you bring up).

          What disappoints me a bit is that the people writing about these models, for the most part don’t seem to use them to criticize interventions. (For instance, the “Petrie” model that says gender diversity in the workplace leads to less of a problem with sexism, also indirectly says that making people less sexist is mostly a waste of time!)

          • Jaskologist says:

            Here are two menus:
            1. Pizza, lasagna
            2. Pizza, lasagna, human feces, a pail of soil, durian

            More choices != better. Limiting options may increase happiness.

          • Anonymous says:

            What’s wrong with Durians, besides it being a bad idea to serve them at restaurants?

          • BenSix says:

            I don’t know but I trust signs.

          • Nornagest says:

            I actually think durian’s pretty tasty, but the smell is… unique.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The problem with durians is that they are nasty, and I couldn’t resist taking a dig at them.

            Plus, I knew some people would feel compelled to speak up in their defense, too, and I couldn’t resist that either.

          • drunkenrabbit says:

            There’s alternatives to strict segregation, though. Think of early 20th century cities, where there were voluntary homogeneous ethnic enclaves, all of whom lived in close proximity to each other. That, one could argue, was the best of both worlds. You avoid the loss of social trust and engagement that comes with diversity, while allowing people to interact with people from different enclaves if they so desire.

          • Matthew says:

            If I was inclined to provoke the heterogeneity–>low social trust contingent, I might note that you can just as well end up with an effectively homogeneous population in the long run through increased rates of interracial relationships.

          • drunkenrabbit says:


            Only if all races and classes marry each other at equal rates. Someone once pointed out that the way interracial marriage in the US is taking place, it’s only creating new races: “Jeurasians”, an upper-class white/East Asian/Jewish amalgam, and “Redblex”, a poor white/Mestizo/black mix. Obviously that’s a bit of a comic exaggeration, but it makes a good point. If you actually wanted homogeneity, you’d have to assign marriages randomly by lottery. Otherwise interracial marriage just creates something like Brazil, where there’s no clear racial boundaries, but a color spectrum that still is related to class.

          • @drunkenrabbit, I agree that what you describe is ideal. Scale it up, and you have Patchwork/Archipelago. The problem is that voluntary segregation of the sort you describe is still “segregation” by the values of the people who made the program, and is therefore Not Okay. Witness all sorts of liberal tut-tutting over the resegregation of the last several decades, and the overt preaching at the end of the original article, which commands us to “demand diversity”.

          • nydwracu says:

            Segregation is usually a bad thing because it limits options. You can see it illustrated well (and plausibly) in the model: all those people OK with a homogenous neighbourhood. They’d be happier in a diverse one but the emergent consequences of their choices mean they don’t have that option.

            You don’t get to start a proof one step from the conclusion.

            Are people — actual people, not models cooked up specifically to make an argument for diversity — happier in diverse neighborhoods than homogeneous ones?

            Let’s break that down into some of its component questions.

            Are people happier in places where they have less or more inferential distance from the people around them?

            Are people happier in places where they have more or fewer cultural points of reference in common with the people around them?

            Are people happier in places where they share more or fewer norms of etiquette and purity, cultural proscriptions, etc. in common with the people around them?

            Are people happier in places where they have overlapping or conflicting loyalties with the people around them? (or perceive others to have overlapping or conflicting loyalties, or are perceived by others to have overlapping or conflicting loyalties, etc.)

            Are people happier in places where they have to expend less or more mental energy on every single interaction?

            And so on.

            What are the benefits?

          • Harald K says:

            @Jaskologist: that’s why I said generally. But your example isn’t even one of those where having more options hurt.

            @DrunkenRabbit: I don’t think the ghettoized towns of the early 20th century are desirable. You face exactly the Petrie multiplier there: If you’re, say, a black person who likes to hang out with Chinese people, then all the Chinese with anti-black sentiments are going to take it out on you if you venture into Chinatown . It doesn’t matter if it’s few of them, because there’s even fewer of you, so a disproportionate amount of racist interactions will happen with you on the receiving end.

            @nydwracu: The model was cooked up to explain how the segregation in US cities was much higher than you would naïvely expect from stated preferences. It wasn’t cooked up to justify diversity, they took that for granted. As do I, pretty much: I admit, that longing for early 20th century ghettoisation sounded pretty absurd to me.

          • Alsadius says:

            Jaskologist: I’m always suspicious of this line of argument, because it’s so often followed with “And we know which choices you really want, so we’ll just narrow that list down for you. You’ll be happier, I promise!”.

            nydwracu: Some people are xenophiles. When it comes to things like cuisine, a huge number of folks are. And frankly, we’re stuck with each other due to globalization anyways, so better to be living closer and reducing those distances between groups.

          • drunkenrabbit says:

            @Harald K,

            I guess that’s just where we differ. I don’t really see it as a problem when (local, organic) communities police who can interact with them and who they interact with.

          • social justice warlock says:

            local, organic

            *reaches for Browning*

          • nydwracu says:

            The model was cooked up to explain how the segregation in US cities was much higher than you would naïvely expect from stated preferences. It wasn’t cooked up to justify diversity, they took that for granted. As do I, pretty much: I admit, that longing for early 20th century ghettoisation sounded pretty absurd to me.

            Then they — and you — are starting from false premises.

            Most people around here are used to identifying only with small minority thedes. A lot of the people who live on the internet are the same way. That’s why they live on the internet: it’s the only place where they can find people who are like them, which is something that they want to do.

            You occasionally hear those people daydream about getting a lot of people from their thede from the internet and putting them all in one place. Reddit Island, a country for Tumblrites, rationalist group houses and so on.

            What drive underlies that? The same drive that underlies the results of freedom of association.

            There’s also the crime thing. The crime thing is important too. The correlation is somewhere near .8, so it can’t not be.

            Some people are xenophiles. When it comes to things like cuisine, a huge number of folks are. And frankly, we’re stuck with each other due to globalization anyways, so better to be living closer and reducing those distances between groups.

            People who work in restaurants don’t have to live in the building where their restaurant is. And if the primary good that diversity provides is restaurants, you only need as many minorities as are necessary to keep the restaurants open.

            There are a lot of places where the restaurant argument doesn’t support immigration. Does anyone in Minnesota go out for Somali food? There were a lot of Central American restaurants where I grew up, but I never even heard of white people going to them. It was always Eurasian or Chipotle, and anyone can run a Chipotle.

            For that matter, anyone can run anything, as long as they know what they’re doing. The local deli is run by Hispanics, the Japanese restaurant where I get lunch is run by Chinese, and apparently the Cambodians cornered the donut market in LA.

            (Yeah, I know, no white people. The solution to that isn’t to import cheap labor so we can become a market-dominant minority or whatever; it’s to stop overproducing useless elites. I bet there are some liberal arts majors who could make better donuts than the Cambodians if they went into donut-making.)

          • Harald K says:

            @social justice warlock 🙂

            Apropos that, it has occurred to me that the old phrase “When I hear the word [culture], I reach for my gun” is basically the proto-Downfall meme. It’s saying “this thing makes me furious and irrational like a nazi”.

            @nydwracu and @DrunkenRabbit yeah, I’m not going to get into a debate about the virtues of neo-tribalism. There’s a difference of values here. I’m individualist enough that retreating to the self-policed ghetto is just not an option, even if you think people on average are happier in it. I’m confident it’s possible for people’s need for community and belonging to be satisfied without returning to those particular chains.

          • Mary says:

            Segegration can also increase choices. Most obviously, if all the immigrants who speak the same native language clump together, they can find people to talk with at a level their halting grasp of the new country’s language does not allow.

            Also, for instance, it makes it profitable to have a specialty store that caters to the tastes of what ever group is clumped in a location. Again, immigrants can find foods from their native lands, etc.

        • Protagoras says:

          Indeed. Atheists are an unpopular minority, but many of them self-segregate into places where they are more numerous and accepted. Since those places actually tend to be unusually prosperous/influential rather than the converse, the occasional claims of atheists being oppressed seem hollow (even to atheists like myself, at least among those of us who are in fact self-segregated into such spaces).

          • Matthew says:

            Have definitely read an account of an atheist couple in a part of Texas not called Austin, who literally had to attend church and pretend to be religious because otherwise they would have been shunned and had no playmates for their small child.

            You may live in an enclave. That doesn’t mean atheists aren’t being oppressed (or that you actually know how many of them there are, since they are effectively in hiding).

          • Nicholas says:

            Although there is also the awkward social position of not fitting into any atheist enclave because of your low SES, out-group-tribe status while simultaneously being unwelcome outside of the enclave due to your, you know, atheism.
            (I was once unironically invited to “find a [homosexual male] and [commit manslaughter]”)

        • peterdjones says:

          We could do with different words for voluntary and involuntary segregation,, since they are such different things.

          Separate but equal only works when it’s voluntary. Apartheid was supposed to be separate but equal …nuff said,

    • fubarobfusco says:

      I think it’s interesting that the sandbox version has a chart for the amount of segregation in the populace, but not for the amount of contentment. (All the little shapes have smiley, neutral, or frowny faces, but it’s hard to eyeball the ratios and boring to count them.)

      But with the right (wrong) parameters — namely too narrow a band of contentment between “too many like me” and “too many unlike me” — you can pretty much get all the shapes to be constantly unhappy and moving around in search of a community that fits their precise demand for kinda-diverse-but-not-TOO-diverse.

      But if you do happen to arrive at a configuration that meets everyone’s wishes, the app does notice, which is pretty cool.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Diversity is more important than utility.

        Diversity is more important than breathing.

        • Nicholas says:

          Have you considered the irony that, for the purposes of this community, the local communal homogeneity would be increased most efficiently if you changed your opinions or left the community?

          • Matthew says:

            I can’t tell if you missed that STA is being sarcastic, or if you know he’s being sarcastic but wrongly assume he’s out of step with the modal view here (that diversity may be instrumentally good but is not a terminal good).

          • suntzuanime says:

            And the dual irony of the vigorous actions taken to ensure homogeneity of pro-diversity viewpoints, yeah, I’ve given it some thought. I’m not actually pro-homogeneity, though; I just value good things for people over diverse things for them, when the two conflict.

    • Harald K says:

      I learned about that thing in Coursera’s “Model thinking” course, so it isn’t new to me, but that’s a gorgeous demo.

      I know that one of the ways they try to fight the phenomenon is mixed income housing. Obviously that does nothing for purely racial bias, but racial and class-based preferences are connected.

      I live in a part of Oslo that was formerly a working-class bastion, and is now immigrant dominated. I’ve seen some of it in practice, both the segregation and the responses to government’s rehabilitation efforts.

      Social services are now so good here that it’s definitively the most affluent half of immigrants who live here. You get more house for your money out here thanks to lingering bad reputation/xenophobia, so progressive young people take advantage of it and move in. But as they get kids and they grow up, they tend to move out (much has been made of several politicians and reformists not practicing what they preach).

      • Mugasofer says:

        >A preference that is unexpressed is meaningless.

        Is it? Why?

        Anyway, they don’t “prefer diversity”, as such. They’re simply not opposed to it.

        (It would be interesting to see a “token” version where they all want at least one other-shape friend, actually.)

        • Mugasofer says:

          … ahem. It appears that your criticism is answered lower-down, actually.

        • You can implement a “token” requirement by setting the maximum “like me” level to >87% but less than 100%. (If you set the max-like-me level to 100%, you eliminate the diversity requirement entirely.) Since each square has 8 neighbors, 1 unlike neighbor is 12.5% of the total.

          What I find interesting about the “tokenism” strategy, as well as other diversity-requiring strategies, is that they very quickly render the board unsolvable. When the distribution of shapes is about 50:50, you can find an arrangement that satisfies all requirements, but if the ratio between triangles and squares is at all lopsided, you can get into a state where it’s impossible for all of the majority shapes to get close enough to a minority shape.

          More generally, lopsided ratios cause the segregation level to go up, even for the same level of homophilia. If the ration between triangles and squares is 60:40, then even a homophilia below 12% (the “one neighbor like me” requirement) causes segregation of about 15%. If the ratio goes up to 88:13 (representing the current white/black ratio in the US), then you get 62% segregation. Notably, this is driven by the homophilia on the part of the minority, who can only find the kind of neighborhood they want by all clumping together in one place.

          I leave applications to the real world to your imagination.

          • fubarobfusco says:

            Some simulation parameters seem less “race-like” and more “gender-like”.

            Specifically, some of them look like “all of the Ps want to sit next to a Q, but no Q wants to be surrounded by only Ps.”

    • youzicha says:

      I think the “playable blogpost” concept is interesting. It’s certainly good in some ways, but I also find it a bit frustrating because the storytelling is completely linear and railroading, even though it uses computer technology.

      Like, in the 1970s and early 1980s, people were hoping that personal computers would enable _simulations_, turning everyone into a kind of scientist. One of Alan Kay’s favourite stories is how a bunch of business executives were visiting his lab for a day, and they had prepared a little domain-specific language for writing agent-based simulations. One of the visitors spent a couple of hours building a simulation of his manufacturing line and playing with it, and said that he had some useful insights. This is sortof maximal agency education: the school child (or executive) decides what questions to explore, what model to use, and what conclusions to draw.

      Then a decade later, simulations were nerfed into sandbox games, e.g. Sim City. The player can still make experiments and see what happens, but the _model_ is fixed by the game designer. E.g. some people have complained that the tax mechanism in Sim City bakes in some conservative assumptions about high taxes stifling growth etc. The player “discovers” how a city works, including the hidden assumptions.

      And now this thing, which is sortof a railroad game: the main emphasis is on the “cut scenes” (i.e. the text between the simulations), and the outcome of each simulation is essentially predetermined. There is still some benefit of having the reader drag around the polygons manually instead of just embedding a Youtube video, because the tangible interaction makes it easier to understand what the rules of the simulation are. But there is essentially no agency for the reader — even in the final box, where you are told “go play with the percentages”, there is nothing to discover beyond what the article already said. If you do spend some time playing with the parameters, the main effect is just reinforcement so that you will remember the lesson more clearly.

      One of the authors of the polygon game has a blog post with game ideas, and many of them are of this style. E.g.:

      The American Dream: A game that promises to have fair rules & punishments, and if you follow them, you’ll succeed. It’s a lie. It’s all broken. The only way to get by is to break the fourth wall – and play these alternate games that are under the main game. Alt games like selling weed, or prostitution, or shoplifting. Moral: “criminals” break rules because the rules are already broken.

      I don’t feel super enthusiastic about this idea, because it seems more agitprop than art. Basically, providing a set of game mechanics which “organically” leads the player to a predetermined conclusion feels a bit phony to me.

      When I was in high school, we were given a D.A.R.E.-style anti-alcohol worksheet. It featured three columns of numbers, showing minimum drinking age, average alcohol consumption, and prevalence of cirrhosis in a few countries. The “exercise” was to look at the numbers and “conclude” that stricter alcohol laws lead to better public health, and I hated it. Science is supposed to be sacred, and playacting at science in the service of propaganda is sacrilege. 🙂

      • nydwracu says:

        I don’t feel super enthusiastic about this idea, because it seems more agitprop than art. Basically, providing a set of game mechanics which “organically” leads the player to a predetermined conclusion feels a bit phony to me.

        Yeah, welcome to art games.

        Art games say more about art than about society. If there are any Serious Artists who make things just because they look interesting, I haven’t heard of them. Everything has to have a message, one that can be boiled down into two sentences and put on a little note next to the thing in case you missed the point.

        At least art still tries to be counterintuitive about it, unlike this thing and the few years of agitprop from Anna Anthropy and so on.

        Icycalm wasn’t completely right — Seiklus is a good example of a game version of the thing art should be but isn’t because it’s full of fucking hacks — but he had the right idea. These people have no idea what games can do. Doom was released in 1993 and it’s open-source now, so there’s no excuse for that.

        • Multiheaded says:

          Mah shitlord!

          I don’t like Twine games either! High-five!

          (Take dys4ia; it feels like a cutesy educational tool for… cis schoolkids, maybe? A hide-from-horrible-disgusting-monsters-but-don’t-look-at-them mechanic from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, on the other hand, would’ve been much better at actually simulating the experience in an engaging way. At least, in the opinion of this one bad, divisive not-trans-enough person.)

          (Depression Quest is still a good thing. Don’t talk shit about it.)

          • nydwracu says:

            (Depression Quest is still a good thing. Don’t talk shit about it.)

            Never played it, never will. Haven’t been interested in games for a long time — it’s a lot more than ninety percent that are crap, and the necessary time investment to get anything out of them is too high.

            I wish someone would make another Seiklus. There were a few knockoffs that were alright, but they didn’t really compare. And Knytt was crap.

            …wait, someone already did, and it was VVVVVV. I wish someone would make a third Seiklus.

            Or at least another DROD. If I ever actually buy a game, it’ll be DROD.

          • Barryogg says:

            >(Depression Quest is still a good thing. Don’t talk shit about it.)

            I will: it’s a webview written in Delphi. In 2014.

            On a more serious note, have you played Actual Sunlight? I haven’t played either, but I wonder how they stand in comparison to each other.

          • Anonymous says:

            DQ is a not a good thing. It is terrible as a game, a CYOA where the only thing you have to do to win the game (it claims there’s no winning, but getting less depressed at the end is winning DQ by any sensible measure) is choose the first available option at every point.

            The only thing the game taught me about depression is that you should just do the most obviously sensible thing (go to a therapist, keep in touch with your friends, etc.) and you’ll get better. And the only way you can fail to get better is by deliberately not doing sensible things. This seems like entirely the wrongest possible message to give about depression.

            The only way the game simulates a lack of motivation is by giving fake unavailable options before the real ones, which is cheap since many of those options were never really a part of the game system, such as it were, in the first place. (Many of the unavailable options are in the form “Do X.”, while the available one is “Do X, but feel bad.”. There is no actual difference.)

        • Harald K says:

          Never mind games, art says more about art than about society. Art can never reflect society, it can only reflect society as it looks like in the author’s eye.

          I have long been annoyed at people who use art (especially games) to “prove” a certain perspective. Especially if they try to bypass the recipients critical sense, for instance by inducing frustration or trampling over personal boundaries – both things that are easier to do in games.

          I’ve met many people who think that’s justified in a good cause – for instance, the creators this “role playing game” where you are supposedly a refugee, and a border guard shouts abuse at you, among other things. This is an attempt to bypass your critical defenses by overstepping boundaries, because no matter who you pretend you both are, truth is there’s a real person shouting abuse at a real person.

          I use to point out how easy it would be to construct a manipulative “game” with the opposite message. Say, one where one group of people (“citizens”) had to work hard at exercise bikes to get m&m’s, and another group (“immigrants”) could steal as many of those m&m’s as they wanted. That would be manipulation by inducing frustration, and redirecting it at the politically desirable target. I’m sure it would work great.

          • Nornagest says:

            Agitprop games are nothing new. Way back in 2003 or so, I remember a shooter being passed around where you play a Palestinian fighter attacking Israeli targets.

            And, of course, America’s Army came out around the same time, though that functioned more as general pro-military propaganda than as advocacy for any particular conflict — there wasn’t any specific OPFOR in the game, though the opposition models used AK-47s and looked like irregulars.

          • Multiheaded says:

            there wasn’t any specific OPFOR in the game, though the opposition models used AK-47s and looked like irregulars.

            Far more hilariously, and in yet another life-imitating-PKD twist, there was no OPFOR at all in the gameplay mechanics; both teams saw themselves as Americans and the enemy as insurgents – with mission objectives being likewise inverted, i.e. where one team would have to protect a facility from “saboteurs”, the opposition would fight its way to it and “secure” it.

            Seriously, this is an utterly Phildickian premise for the situation. Let’s see… a sci-fi short story could have military sim training as the only way to earn a living for young people in the dystopian future. Two friends who signed up for program would be drifting apart as one does well and is rewarded while the other’s team gets stomped all the time by the presumably instructor-controlled “insurgents”, and she sinks into despair and poverty. Until, in a dramatic conversation, they piece together that they’ve been on opposite but symmetrical sides all the time, and that the regime uses the simulation program to engender class divides and preserve artificial scarcity in society.

          • Nornagest says:

            Yeah, that’s why I said “models” — OPFOR existed only as the models and other resources you saw representing the other side in online play. Would have gone into more detail but it didn’t seem to matter in context.

            Because of that constraint, it wasn’t able to convincingly model asymmetrical warfare scenarios, which sunk large portions of its intended propaganda purpose. Made a decent realistic-ish shooter for its era, though, and the training missions it put you through to unlock abilities were a kinda cool solution to the familiarization problems that often come up around complex mechanics in online gaming.

            (Your scenario sounds more Margaret Atwood than Philip K. Dick to me, incidentally.)

      • Emile says:

        Agree with most of that, tho I think agitpropish games are still a step in the right direction.

        One of my long-term side projects / goals is to make a few nice little toy games for exploring interesting issues in economics or society without explicitly taking a side, or rather, by making it come through that something can be said for both sides. Haven’t been working much on that recently, it’s not on top of the list…

      • social justice warlock says:

        Agitprop, necessarily, is art. Most of it is bad, but only in the way most art is bad.

    • ThirteenthLetter says:

      Personally, I found myself wondering how, exactly, it is that we stop these shapes from having their evil unconscious shapeist attitudes. Do a bunch of triangles form a mob and try to get the insufficiently unshapeist squares fired from their jobs? Or maybe the user has to drag them into a second window which is a cute little shape concentration camp, guarded by pentagons standing on towers with high-powered rifles, until they “shape” up?

      I’m a big fan of Vi Hart and I was incredibly disappointed to see her name attached to this agitprop.

      • Multiheaded says:

        The existence of a really bad serious problem does not in itself imply the availability of a solution. The unavailability of a solution does not in itself imply that the really bad serious problem is not valid or not a problem.

        • ThirteenthLetter says:

          Not sure where you’re going with that. I didn’t say whether or not shapeist attitudes are a problem; I said that when people start making airy suggestions about changing human nature to get rid of something they don’t like, I get real suspicious.

      • Christopher says:

        For instance in England and Wales all newly built housing estates must provide a certain proportion of the houses for “social housing”, into which to be placed by local authorities our unterschicht, and my impression of the intent of the Parable of the Polygons was that it was (the USA mutatis mutandis version of) pro-this-sort-of-thing propaganda.

      • Harald K says:

        That’s funny, I wasn’t a fan of either of the authors, and when I look at their blogs I’m pretty dismayed at the SJW level. But I don’t consider the squares-triangles demo agitprop at all, it’s just a nice interactive demonstration of the Schelling segregation model. It’s just demonstrating mathematics, one of the few things you can actually learn from playing games.

        The model doesn’t assume people are racist at all, and as such it rejects a very fundamental SJW assumption. All it assumes is that people dislike sticking out like a sore thumb.

        Even if you call that racism (and note, the model assumes all “races” are equally racist in that case- another big difference from SJW values!), it’s clear that it’s not something you can fix, with your straw concentration camps or not.

        But what the model implicitly suggests, is that effort to reduce this “racism”/sense of loneliness/awkwardness, give little payoff in terms of reducing segregation, compared to a tiny expressed preference for diversity. Which sounds a lot easier.

        Here, the SJWs like the conclusion – sort of. (They would probably like a mandate of 40% women on panels, but the model suggests that maybe demanding one woman on the panel is sufficient to prevent these segregation effects.) Other times, they don’t – but refuse to see it.

        Take a look at the Petri model, that is linked below the demo. These people, pretty serious SJWs, seem to like that model because it gives an explanation for women in tech’s experience of sexual harassment. But what passes them straight by, is that the model also implicitly condemns any sort of sensitivity training or valiant attempts to become less sexist. Even if they were to be extremely successful, (say, reduce the incidence of sexists from 10% to 5%), it would matter little for how much sexism women experience.

        Another question is how well these simplified models fit reality. If you don’t like the conclusions, your challenge then is to come up with better ones… and so must the SJWs, unless they come to terms with the conclusions the models suggest that they DON’T like.

  9. Izaak Weiss says:

    So, if you could choose anyone, whose brain cells do you want?

  10. Pingback: Links for December 2014 | Too many thoughts, too little time

  11. Anon says:

    Re:Menthol Cigarettes: I buy the epidemiology, but the result doesn’t make sense.

    Up regulation of a receptor shouldn’t make something *more* addictive. If anything, it should make something *less* addictive as one would require less drug to stimulate the same response. For the most common addictive drugs** that are seen on a medicine ward, (part of) the problem is receptor down regulation. *(Opioids and the 3 Bs — (benzos, barbs, and booze.)

    The review article referenced in the posted article (, reveals this gem:

    “Two other studies published this year by Hans et al. (2012) and Ashoor et al. (2013) highlight a shared mechanism of action for menthol on nACh receptors. These studies show that menthol directly attenuates the activation of the nACh receptor by nicotine. Single channel recordings, combined with whole cell patch clamp analysis, reveal that menthol decreases the ability of nicotine to activate the nACh receptor. In the case of the α4β2 nACh receptor, interaction with menthol appears to be most favorable when the receptor is in the closed state (Hans et al., 2012). Similar findings are reported for the α7 nACh receptor, which demonstrate that menthol inhibits the responsiveness of the receptor to nicotine in cells (Ashoor et al., 2013). The amount of menthol used in the above experiments is consistent with one report on the levels of menthol detected in the brain tissue of mice (Pan et al., 2012). Together, these studies corroborate menthol’s ability to regulate nACh receptors in the brain2.”

    That may or may not be the dominant mechanism, but at least it makes sense.

    • Anonymous says:

      >Up regulation of a receptor shouldn’t make something *more* addictive. If anything, it should make something *less* addictive as one would require less drug to stimulate the same response.

      >For the most common addictive drugs** that are seen on a medicine ward, (part of) the problem is receptor down regulation. *(Opioids and the 3 Bs — (benzos, barbs, and booze.)

      That has nothing to do with how addictive a drug is. Increasingly-higher doses for the same effect is unrelated to addiction (insofar as being a cause or precursor to addiction — it certainly is a symptom or effect of addiction). The “problem” you mention is that increasingly-higher doses have increasingly-powerful side effects.

      • Anon says:

        You are correct that requiring higher doses of a drug isn’t addiction. It’s tolerance. Many, though not all, addictive substances also induce tolerance.

        Tolerance doesn’t imply that something is addictive. Yes, this is true. However, it is an empirically false statement to say “it has nothing to do with how addictive a drug is”. Addiction is not a simple phenomena, however tolerance can drive addiction.

        How? Take the example of opioids and gabaergic drugs. The body produces endogenous opioids and GABA. When receptors are down regulated, the body doesn’t make enough endogenous neurotransmitters for the person to feel normal. They need exogenous substances just to feel normal. The resulting compulsion is dependence. Add harm and you’ve got addiction.

        Tolerance isn’t the only thing that drives addiction. Fast onset and short duration of action increase addictive potential. Unpleasant physical withdrawal symptoms also contribute. For the reasons outlined above, tolerance certainly helps.

  12. Herpaderp says:

    I read the Atlantic’s story on sci-fi, and it seemed to me like it fell apart when I rejected the author’s premise that Star Wars isn’t fantasy. When you have knights dueling with swords in single combat for the fate of xyz, when you have a small subgroup of the population gifted with magical powers (so that they’re special without effort or any innate traits for easiest escapist appeal to the masses), you end up with something that doesn’t neatly fall outside fantasy.

    Probably you want to just accept Star Wars as a sci-fi – fantasy hybrid, but I ended up pretty unconvinced by his premise – and that was before I saw Interstellar, which is sci-fi on every aspect of the genre. With little data, I’d be amenable to the assertion that there’s never been a better time for sci-fi.

    • Ken Arromdee says:

      Why does having knights dueling with swords in single combat mean fantasy in the first place? Knights in single combat isn’t a sign of fantasy, it’s a sign of a heroic adventure story. So is having a small subset of the population with powers. Being a heroic adventure story is orthogonal to being sci-fi or fantasy, the same way being a romance, or a detective story, is.

    • Nornagest says:

      Aside from set dressing, I don’t see much that differentiates knights dueling with swords over the fate of something important from pilots dueling with space fighters; and “a small subgroup of the population gifted with magical powers” is a decent working criterion for the superhero genre, which I’m not sure I’d call science fiction but ain’t fantasy either. If genre is important at all, it’s got to depend on things other than the set dressing and the justification for plot devices.

      There’s a strong argument that Star Wars is a fantasy story, but that’s not it. (Personally, I’d focus on the “loss and restoration of just rule by the elect” plot thread.)

    • Jaskologist says:

      I like Mr. Plinkett’s distinction between science fantasy and science fiction (second video, 18:00 mark). Star Trek cares very deeply about, say, how the warp drive functions, and has a lot of stories which revolve around these technical details. Star Wars/space fantasy doesn’t care about technical details at all; spaceships just take you from one place to another. They never tell us how they work at all, because it doesn’t really matter. That kind of thing matters a lot in science fiction.

      • Nornagest says:

        Are we talking about the same Star Trek? The one I watched as a kid famously had notation like “[tech]” in the scripts to denote the places where junior writers would go back through and add the technical bits that don’t matter except to provide justification for the real plot.

        (The fans care about the details, but fuck those guys.)

        • von Kalifornen says:

          Strongly agree.

          Old Star Trek had integrity, it’s just “We have a spaceship!”. New Star Trek spams technobabble everywhere and ignores basic physics.

    • Kevin says:

      The plot of Star Wars very clearly centers on a Hero’s Journey/Coming of Age story, which is a typical fantasy trope. I just call it fantasy in space.

      Science fiction (or at least, good science fiction) explores the effects of new science or technology on society. Star Wars definitely does not do this, and it’s not that it fails at doing this: it never intends to do it.

      • Ken Arromdee says:

        Most Star Trek episodes don’t even try to explore the effect of new technology on society either. This is particularly so in the original series where the technology was used as an excuse to write an episode about some contemporary element, like space hippies or black-and-white cookie people used for a racism story.

        Besides, nobody ever says “that doesn’t count as a Western unless we are exploring the effect that the different environemtn of the old West has on society”.

        • David Hart says:

          black-and-white cookie people used for a racism story.

          That episode has to be about the most ham-handed metaphor I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying it wasn’t important to critique racial prejudice in a popular sci-fi series, but couldn’t they have done it less clunkily?

        • Kevin says:

          “X fiction explores the effect of X on society” is not a general principle.

  13. Daniel Speyer says:

    I doubt the human-human glial trick would work. When you chimerize a mouse with human glia, the transplanted cells take over. A human-human transplant would likely wind up with mostly the native astroglia, and only a few transplanted ones in the mix.

  14. von Kalifornen says:

    The Orion capsule. Not nearly as good as the original nuclear space warship of the same name.

    • John Schilling says:

      I thought the nomenclature represented the fact that these are two spacecraft that would both benefit from having a small atomic bomb set off next to them.

  15. That Libertarian Police Department story didn’t make a blind bit of sense to me. I wonder if there could be such a thing as a Satirical Ideological Turing Test. You can definitely tell that the author has next to no knowledge of libertarianism. Would libertarians even recognise that as being targeted at them if it weren’t for the title?

    EDIT: to put “satirical” in place of “satyrical”. Which would be an interesting thing, but not what I was talking about.

    EDIT 2: aaaand now I’m imagining what a Satyrical Ideological Turing Test would be like. You’d get conservatives to write erotic fiction in what they think is the style that Liberals would write it in, and then see if Liberals can tell the difference between that and erotic fiction written by actual Liberals. And vice versa.

    • Harald K says:

      I think the “Dinosaurs made me gay” guy is already conducting some sort of experiment in that vein.

    • Viliam Búr says:

      How can we best tell a difference between “This is a joke about group X that actually doesn’t make sense because it completely misunderstands X” and “Group X is oversensitive and can’t take a joke”?

      Pointing out factual mistakes can be countered by “of course it’s exaggerated, it’s a joke”, or by pointing out that what group X believes is not necessarily how members of group X typically behave so we are making fun of their hypocricy.

      As an example, imagine a caricature where a Pope is sexually abusing a small boy. Is this on the same level as the Libertarian Police Department story? Or is it somehow more “valid joke” because it is a metaphorical way to describe how church protects its rapists? But then how far can and in which direction can we take a metaphor on libertarians? Where is the line between a metaphor and a strawman?

      • Mugasofer says:

        I’m … pretty sure that the Pope cartoon is a less valid joke.

        The central criticism of the LPD story is that they protagonist is loyal to “selfishness” rather than the general public; and it’s arguing that society needs certain roles to be filled with people loyal to society, rather than themselves.

        There are also lesser arguments, like “libertarians care more about bankers than real harm” and “libertarian policies would logically lead to widespread use of harmful drugs”, but these aren’t really defended, just assumed. And a big ‘ol heap of stereotypical Things Associated With Libertarians, although this is relatively benign.

        The central criticism of the pope-abusing-a-child cartoon is that the pope is associated with the Catholic Church, and pedophiles are also associated (in the mind of the cartoonist, and presumably the readers) with the Catholic church, and pedophiles are bad. This is obviously, blatantly fallacious, and based on blatant stereotyping.

        Am I failing at the Principle of Charity here?

        • Creutzer says:

          Maybe. The Catholic Church is not only stereotypically associated in some people’s minds with pedophilia, but the real issue that many have with it is that its establishment is reputed to have helped to cover up incidents. That would seem to make the pope, as the perceived head of this establishment, at least a semi-valid target.

    • There were a few bits that rang false to me, but as satire, I thought it did pretty well, and I usually identify as a market geoanarchist, which is close to the form of libertarianism that seemed targeted. Also, given that ten libertarians usually have twelve opinions on any given subject, some things that ring false are to be expected.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Though Salon and the like will often troll the right by declaring their pet cause to be the true conservative answer (see: all the articles claiming that Obamacare is really a Republican bill), I don’t think that’s happening here. Reihan Salam has a pretty solid name as genuine conservative writer, to the point where he is a major contributor to National Review.

    • Ryan says:

      It’s an anarcho-capitalist police department. These people are out there, not too many, and they’re not libertarians.

      • Anonymous says:

        anarcho-capitalists are generally considered to be libertarians.

      • suntzuanime says:

        The article seemed like a mish-mash caricature of anarcho-capitalist and Randian positions. Both of these movements broadly fall under the umbrella of “libertarian”, but they’re highly divergent from the mainstream libertarian position, which makes it understandable that some libertarians would be nonplussed by the article.

        • Anonymous says:

          Could you spell out the Randian aspects?

          • suntzuanime says:

            Looking back on it now it seems more heavily ancap, but there’s a Fountainhead reference in there and aesthetic disdain for public works.

          • Anonymous says:

            Thanks! One reason I asked is that I don’t have much of a sense of Rand’s political philosophy at all. My vague sense is that it is more about motivation and less about policy.

    • onyomi says:

      As a libertarian myself, I can say that the author seems at least reasonably familiar with what many actual libertarians actually believe. Don’t believe me? Read Jeffrey Tucker.

    • Eden says:

      My reaction exactly; I’m not really sure what anyone initially saw in it to merit the tens of thousands of likes it got. (Well, okay, that’s a lie. In a world where I assume everyone to be rational and charitable, I’m not really sure what anyone initially saw in it. In the real world…)

      A disclaimer that I am a member of the group being satirized (libertarians) seems in order, but the article engages no form of libertarianism I’ve ever actually seen proposed before. If you squint your eyes hard enough and do a quick look-over before your brain starts to process the information it looks vaguely anarcho-capitalist, but the mechanisms of how it would work are several orders of magnitude sillier than the already-quite-silly mechanisms proposed in actual ancap writings. It is, literally for once, a straw man; it’s not even a weak man, which would still make for a fairly irresponsible subject of satire given the wide berth of the title, but could actually be credited with satirizing something which actually exists.

      A satire of a straw man used to misrepresent a fringe political movement, which serves the purpose of sneering at the very horrible, real tragedies perpetrated by an out-of-control, overzealous, militarized institution containing a large subset of individuals whose behavior is indistinguishable from common petty thugs – forgive me if I don’t see the value in it.

  16. guy says:

    Thanks for that story on the schizophrenic. It reminds me of me. I’ve had no willpower to do anything productive for the past three days. Maybe I should install Java now so I can prepare for interviews.

  17. Dan Simon says:

    I’m pretty sure there’s a good reason why the “xkcd test” specified “companies…using it to make a killing”, rather than, say, “possibly suggestible/superstitious/compensated competitors endorsing it as a performance enhancer”…

  18. In fairness to superheroes, sci-fi wonders are also sci-fi wonders without consequences (usually). For example in both Star Wars and Star Trek, the presence of human-level AI yields one or two memorable characters who bear a suspicious resemblance to quirky humans, but somehow fails to be the entire focus of the story.

    • Mugasofer says:

      Star Trek did have several episodes where their relevant AIs and their impact on society were the central focus, though.

      And “they would be slaves” isn’t the most interesting answer to “what would happen if we had AI”, perhaps, but it’s still a pretty major part of the Star Wars setting. Heck, the existence of mass-produced armies with no need for conscription is arguably the central focus of the Prequel Trilogy.

    • Doug S. says:

      In Star Trek, human-level AI is extremely rare. Nobody completely understands how Data works, the Enterprise-D computer couldn’t pull off a convincingly human Holodeck character until it got an upgrade from some aliens, and the Emergency Medical Hologram wasn’t intended to become what it did in the Voyager series…

  19. Pseudonymous Platypus says:
  20. Alex Godofsky says:

    the space shuttle … probably set space exploration back for a generation because it looked so cool that no one was willing to admit it was useless

    space shuttle : space travel :: space travel : science in general

  21. Alex Godofsky says:

    Recent study: Summer jobs decrease violent crime among disadvantaged youth almost by half, effect remains after one-year followup. Cost-effectiveness still difficult to determine.

    But really, anyone opposed to the minimum wage must hate poor people.

    • Salem says:

      Two thread-winning comments in a row. Sir, you are on fire.

    • Christopher says:

      I… think I detect sarcasm?

    • David says:

      Seriously? “Listen son. Your parents are going to be destitute until you’re years old. Their marriage probably won’t work because your father’s feelings of powerlessness to provide for mother and child will result in disengagement. You’ll go to school with an empty stomach and struggle to focus (big surprise). Etc., etc., etc. BUT, when you’re 16, you’ll have a job waiting for you at $5/hour. If you work an 8 hour shift, and take a 45-minute commute to get there (you live in bumble-!@#$, because you’re dirt poor), you will spend 9.5 hours making $35 after bus fare (god knows what after taxes). Or, you can go sling dope on the street and make a few hundo. Now, what’ll it be?”

      • Alex Godofsky says:

        Even if, arguendo, your premise is fully granted (i.e. that eliminating the minimum wage would have all of the stated consequences for minimum-wage-earning parents and their families), most parents earn more than the minimum wage. Even most parents of disadvantaged youth earn more than the minimum wage. And elimination of the minimum wage improves employment prospects for all disadvantaged youth.

        Of course I actually think your premise is false, and elimination of the minimum wage will not generally have the consequences you describe.

        • Deiseach says:

          And elimination of the minimum wage improves employment prospects for all disadvantaged youth

          If the under-the-minimum wage job is only a temporary summer job, and your disadvantaged youth goes on to complete second-level education and either get an apprenticeship or get their foot in the door to what will be a decent paying job (third level education is even more important here, but as we’re talking about the disadvantaged, that may not be on the table until later).

          If, as seems to be the case, we treat jobs in service industries as increasingly more ‘under minimum wage’ = ‘job for teenager or school-going youth’ and not, as formerly, jobs that were possible to make some kind of a living from, then that may work.

          Temporary jobs that only the young, who are subsidised by not having to live on the wages because they’re likely still living at home with their parents.

          But those jobs as jobs are not going to advantage people if they’re the only jobs they can get, due to (lack of) education or for other reasons. That’s how you end up with people needing to work three of such jobs just to make ends meet.

          • Alex Godofsky says:

            That all seems very secondary to the OP, which is about evidence that summer jobs reduce violent crime. Committing a violent crime is, I expect, pretty bad for a disadvantaged youth’s future and preventing it should have long-term payoffs.

          • Tracy W says:

            Many violent crimes are also pretty bad for the victim’s future too.

  22. David says:

    HEY! The Washington Post published the name of the street where Wilson lived (not the house number) back in August. Why are we singling out the NY Times? Oh I wonder…

  23. Meredith L. Patterson says:

    Sorry you didn’t like the photographic section breaks in “When Nerds Collide.” I was aiming for a sort of metaphorical-photo-essay effect, but the aggregate feedback has been “that was just confusing” so I don’t think I’ll try that again.

    • Multiheaded says:

      It’s a great essay! I kind of disagree on a few… maybe a bit insensitive turns of phrase, but overall I loved it. (Disclaimer: I have nothing whatsoever to do with tech, and I’ve never been directly called “creepy”.)

    • anomdebus says:

      giant blocks of pictures inserted at random points throughout the web page

      Print preview is your friend..

    • I loved the photo breaks. Keep them! Never mind the haterz.

    • veronica d says:

      You have some good points, and I too am a Twitter-friend with @puellavulnerata . So, yeah.

      That said, I have some objections. For one, I’m a weird-nerd (and have been freaking forever) and at same time a geek-feminist. I think plenty of us are, and the idea that this is all entryism is BS. In fact, it is more the case that I developed a feminist consciousness as I began to see the rabid sexism in nerd-space. I’m not the only one. This conversation began before the Internet. I experienced it mostly in tabletop RPG spaces.

      Also, I developed some basic skills operating in “normal” social spaces. And sure not everyone can do this but a “growth mentality” is a fine thing to have and stop valorizing its lack.

      I think there is a nerd-myth that to be super-math-girl or mega-software-savant logically requires that you be a mess socially. But this is not true. If you have problems socially this is a fault that you might improve on. At least we should encourage improvement here.

      Furthermore, I kinda dislike the nerd-mythologizing. Yes, we need to feel good about ourselves, but we also need to be self-critical, which nerds raised on endless Paul Graham style uber-praise definitely are not. Nerds have problems. Our culture can be a fucking cesspool. Social skills actually matter.

      After all, ask yourself what social skills are. If you say, “Just shallow status play” you’re missing some important stuff. Missing important stuff is not a plus.

      • I think there is a nerd-myth that to be super-math-girl or mega-software-savant logically requires that you be a mess socially. But this is not true. If you have problems socially this is a fault that you might improve on. At least we should encourage improvement here.

        This is absolutely true. For a long time, the line for me was “wear clothes that fit and approximate current styles (or at least a consistent style)”. Once I started doing that, I reasoned subconsciously, I would be normal, and why would I give up on my specialness? My wife eventually got me out of that one. For others, the line of social acceptability that they’re afraid to cross appears to be “bathe regularly” or “make eye contact”.

        I should hope that even the most autistic[1] nerds can understand that you lose actual utils by not doing this stuff, and that basic social competencies like this are not actually a black art.

        [1] Used non-pejoratively, but not necessarily with clinical rigor, either.

        • Nornagest says:

          I should hope that even the most autistic[1] nerds can understand that you lose actual utils by not doing this stuff, and that basic social competencies like this are not actually a black art.

          Ha. I wish. The last time I tried explaining that, it got me a rant about authenticity and how e.g. wearing nice clothes or having basic social competencies is somehow a betrayal of your true self.

          Now, I don’t think there is a true self in that sense, and if there is I don’t think it cares about things like wearing things other than cargo shorts and anime tees or showering more than once a week. But after thinking about it a little more, I think the honesty issue might not be the whole story; rather, it’s the emotional manifestation of a self-image conflict.

          I think the real issue is that these people have adopted a certain version of “I’m a nerd” as their core identity, and that when they look for ways to reinforce that identity, they (unconsciously, of course) cross-reference against pop culture and come up with things like dressing badly and being socially useless. Doing otherwise feels dishonest because it’s wearing the colors of another tribe, and telling them that they don’t need to do that stuff to be a software savant or an anime fan is pointless because those skills and pastimes are in fact quite incidental to “nerd” as a social role.

          • Quixote says:

            The To be fair spending time effort and decisions on clothes is not free. All of those are limited resources.

            Obama wares the same thing every day because decision fatigue is real and it doesn’t make sense to waste decisions on clothes. Steve jobs did the same. This is probably the correct way to for every one to dress if they can “get away with it”. Part of the reason that so many people can’t is that a Person A can allways gain a little bit of status relative to Person X by investing slightly more resources into fashion. if A and X invest equally neither has gained relative to the other and both have fewer resources now.

            Beyond a certain point investing in fashion is defecting behavior as it contributes to a resource consumptive red queen race.

            The fact the people who take ideas seriously perceive this as being something wrong should not be strange. I think the ‘authentic’ talk is an unarticulated version of this argument.

          • veronica d says:

            Bullpuppets. You are assuming self-expression through dress is not its own reward, which is the “all minds are like my mind” error, or worse the “all minds should be like my mind” error. I love dressing well.

          • Nornagest says:

            I should really know better than to argue with someone calling themselves “Quixote”, but the Red Queen model proves too much; if you’re going to apply that to fashion you have to apply it to aesthetics in general, and I don’t think that assigning zero value to aesthetics is good psychology or leads to good policy.

            And it’s not just aesthetics. Dress is a communications channel; you can express all sorts of things about your social attitude and expectations through it, in a high-bandwidth broadcast format. Close off that channel and you either lose the data or end up needing to transmit it over slow, lossy, peer-to-peer channels. This is bad.

            Decision fatigue is a different issue. I’ve no idea if the meme’s even true (I’ve seen Obama wearing a lot of stuff in publicity shots, but I don’t know if this is typical or where the decisions come from if so), but most of us are not presidents or celebrity CEOs and do not face the same decision fatigue issues. Optimizing for them is probably the wrong move.

          • alexp says:

            Also, Obama says plenty of things with his clothes (though he’s probably got people to make the decisions for him).

            Obama wearing suit and tie is projecting a different image that wearing a suit and no tie, which is different from him wearing a tie but no jacket, which is different from his wearing a oxford shirt with no tie or jacket, but with the sleeves rolled up, which is again different from him wearing a bomber jacket. All the clothing choices convey a very effective image.

            Watch Matt Damon’s speech at the beginning of “The Adjustment Bureau” or Meryl Streep’s in the middle of “The Devil Wear’s Prada” or Kanye West’s line: “The Devil wear Prada, Adam and Eve wear nada, but I’m in between…”

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            Back when I was a minimum effort dresser, my stance always allowed for the possibility of people who actually enjoyed clothes. The unforgivable sin was caring about brand and cost more than design.

          • social justice warlock says:

            It’s probably worth distinguishing between social environments where fashion participation is optional (hence a fun artistic endeavor) or not (hence a sink for people who don’t find it fun.) As a guy in my social circles I get to be a slob, which is great, but my girlfriend regularly complains about having to obey a lot of fashion rules that are time-consuming and onerous, which seems unfortunate.

          • mkehrt says:

            (moved to correct thread)

        • veronica d says:

          Right, but if you instead define your specialness as “actually being good at math” then why can’t you also wear cool clothes?

          • Nornagest says:

            A hypothesis: being obsessed with math makes you good at math, which gives you status in nerd culture even if you don’t necessarily identify with it. It often also makes you dress badly because you don’t give a shit. Some people who are good at math will give a shit and will therefore not dress badly, but all else equal we expect these people to be rarer because attentional budgets are finite and obsession pays dividends.

            If you aren’t obsessed with math but do identify with the nerd culture, you look at the people with high status in it and want to emulate them. Since a lot of those people will be obsessed with one technical subject or another, this often means dressing like you don’t give a shit, even if you otherwise might.

          • veronica d says:

            @norganest — In high school I literally believed that if you were physically fit then you must be kinda dumb and if you were smart you were invariably an out-of-shape nerdly loner.

            It is pretty easy to see why I found this idea attractive, as a smart weird kid who never got kissed.

            One day I met this guy in gym class, and he was in great shape, worked out a lot. He looked good. He was also pretty darn smart and liked cool music. Now, he wasn’t so math-smart as I was, but still, he was definitely intellectual in other ways that surpassed me. He had read way more books. He had impressive insights.

            On meeting that guy (and then later many others like him) I decided that I was wrong, that a more complete person could pursue many goals at once, that while there was value in being singularly great, there was also value in being broad. It’s a choice.

            Since deciding this, I decided something else: both brains and body are admirable things. Beauty is a thing worth pursuing. Social skills are wonderful and not to be cast aside thoughtlessly. I decided that I could pursue my strengths and also put some effort into those other things.

            Which, I think about math a lot, but not literally all the time.

            (Although I do find myself at queer dance parties often ruminating on the graph theoretic difference between queer dating and straight dating. I REMAIN ALWAYS A NERD!)

            It worked out pretty well. I get kissed from time to time. I go to dance clubs and people like me. Sometimes I even make graph theory jokes. When people then give me a funny look, I shrug and say, “I’m kind of a nerd.” They laugh.

          • Nornagest says:

            …what is the graph-theoretic difference between queer dating and straight dating?

          • Anonymous says:

            The graph-theoretic difference is that one is a bipartite graph and the other a general graph. This has tremendous effects. For example not all queer preferences have stable pairings.

          • Nornagest says:

            Ha, you’re right. I should have thought of that.

          • veronica d says:

            And the stable marriage algorithm is totally sexist!

            Actually it kinda is, in the sense that CompSci texts typically present the “men” as those who offer and the “women” as those who accept/reject, and it turns out that on average the offering side achieves higher utility.

            Which, I guess it sucks to be a woman in CompSci texts.

            (I’m kinda joking, but I do wonder how much this applies to the oft-heard complaint from men that having to be the “aggressor” is unfair to them. Maybe on the whole that is not true.)

          • Hainish says:

            Alternative hypothesis: Wearing nice clothing and demonstrating social “competencies” don’t actually come easily to everyone. If someone is failing at either task, it may not be for lack of caring.

          • alexp says:

            I’m decently well dressed right now and 90% of that comes from having a girlfriend who knows better. I had to be a least ok dressed in order to get a girlfriend in the first place though.

          • von Kalifornen says:

            There seems to be a common failure mode for nerds who try to dress in an interesting way, where they end up going for an aesthetic that the general population will find cringeworthy. Part of the neckbeard sterotype is failed “badass” or “gentleman” overtones.

          • Nornagest says:

            @von Kalifornian — Yeah, my model doesn’t handle that too well. If I had to guess, though, I’d say it comes from a desire to signal via clothes without putting any real effort into finding out how one goes about signaling with clothes. More specifically, about half of it comes from a lack of appreciation for levels of formality or other aspects of the language of fashion (“waistcoats are classy, so I’ll just wear a waistcoat over this ratty black T-shirt to class it up”), a quarter from missing context (the cast of The Matrix would have looked ridiculous if they didn’t live in a world where everyone dresses like they’re on their way to John Woo Night at a kink club), and the last quarter from the unfortunate fact that action heroes are costumed to flatter a physique that almost all geeks don’t have.

          • mkehrt says:

            I’ve seen stable marriage algorithms taught “gender-reversed” exactly to fight the sexism of the standard presentation.

            Unrelatedly, Hilbert famously asked who von Neumann’s tailor was at the latter’s Ph.D. defense, so clearly “math nerds” can dress well. But it may help to be a Hungarian in 1920s.

          • Anonymous says:

            I am skeptical of the Hilbert quote.
            Can anyone provide a citation that identifies the location of the defense?
            (I doubt Hilbert was at von Neumann’s 1925 Budapest defense. Maybe, maybe, he was at the 1927 Berlin defense. But he’d known for years at that point!)

          • mkehrt says:

            Wikipedia cites the NY Times here:
            for a 1926 thesis defense. It looks like folklore; Hilbert is “said to have asked”.

        • ilzolende says:

          As a diagnosed autistic nerd, I’d like to point out that it costs utils to maintain eye contact in a high-tension conversation, and also uses a ridiculously excessive amount of cognitive resources that I could be using to, say, give non-canned responses.

          I do still make eye contact sometimes (looking at my friends is cheap), and sometimes even in high-stress situations (when I can prepare my responses at least a bit in advance, and it’s not only high-stress but also high priority).

          • von Kalifornen says:

            That sounds like me for the first 15 years of my life.

            Interestingly, I still cannot really tell who someone is making eye contact with if it’s not me.

          • Meredith L. Patterson says:

            FWIW, there’s a cheaper way to do fake eye contact. I look people directly in the nostrils. I know a few other people who prefer foreheads, because nostrils are close to mouths and other face parts that produce microexpressions I’m supposed to interpret, but if I can keep focusing on the little black dots, nobody can tell the difference.

            I’d still rather be looking at something completely blank, like a wall, if I have to talk, but when I can’t, the nostril trick totally works.

          • veronica d says:


            This is an area where NT people REALLY FUCKING NEED TO GET A CLUE. (Sorry, a rant here is appropriate.)

            Some people don’t look people in the eyes. This is okay. Some people stim and shit. This is fine.

            I can look people in the eyes sometimes. But sometimes, just, nope. I play with my hair constantly, unless I’m fiddling with some object sitting on someone’s desk.

            (If I’m in someone’s office and that have some knickknack on their desk that looks sufficiently durable, I’m going to fiddle with it. This is going to happen.)

            I can look people in the eyes and give a big smile. I can even do that face mirroring stuff. (I’m probably not strictly speaking autistic.) But in long conversation, it’s just weird.

            I have this game I play where I emote a lot, just like pretty girls do in TV shows, and kinda look around, give little brief eye flashes, tilt my head, and then stare into space in a practiced way. People seem to relate to it.

            I could be a fucking hollywood star!

          • anon1 says:

            I’ve never understood why looking at someone’s eyes is supposed to feel different from looking at the wall. But the contradictory advice of “make eye contact! stop staring!” confused the hell out of me as a kid.

        • Anonymous says:

          (wrong account, posting again)

        • Kevin says:

          This is absolutely true. For a long time, the line for me was “wear clothes that fit and approximate current styles (or at least a consistent style)”. Once I started doing that, I reasoned subconsciously, I would be normal, and why would I give up on my specialness?

          I offer the following post to prevent generalizing from one example.

          I have a limited aesthetic experience of clothing compared to most (neurotypical) people. How good or bad someone looks to me has very little to do with what they’re wearing. Really ridiculous-looking or ill-fitting clothes can make people look worse, but “nice” clothes don’t make people look significantly better. The addition of buttons, collars, etc. to a shirt a) does not make it look any better to me than a t-shirt and b) makes it more inconvenient and less comfortable to wear. (Shirts are just one obvious example; the same idea applies to basically any piece of fabric or material worn on one’s body.)

          I’ll cooperate with these stupid, arbitrary standards on Important Occasions where the social penalty makes it worthwhile, but the thought of wearing a button-down shirt every day is horrifying. That would be a source of significant disutility for me. (Luckily, I’m a physicist, so that is not required.)

          This has nothing to do with “feeling special”. I would be much happier if society got over its collective clothing fetish and abandoned fashion as the pointless waste of time that it is.

          • veronica d says:

            This is all good until your final paragraph when you become a douche.

          • If you’re anything like I used to be, your dress shirts are poorly made and ill-fitting, and for that reason are uncomfortable. But the most comfortable shirt that I own is a cotton button-down with a raised collar, which is downright comfy due to how good the material is. In any case, “nice” dressing does not necessarily mean button-down shirts. In some situations, a t-shirt really is plenty. It’s winter and very cold where I live, so my current daily outfit is a pair of slacks or dark-colored jeans with a polo and a v-neck sweater: not formal by any means, but comfortable and practical.

            Wearing nice clothes is like eating broccoli. When I was little, I hated both of them. Now that I’m old, I realize that broccoli is delicious, and that wearing nice clothes can also be pleasant, fun, and useful.

          • Anonymous says:

            Mai La Dreapta: Why do you say that you now “realize” that broccoli is delicious, rather than that your sense of taste has changed? The latter is much more plausible, grounded in the science, and explanatory of patterns of food-related preference in adults and kids, whereas the former is none of those things (and, imo, somewhat nonsensical, to boot).

          • Said Achmiz says:

            Oh, for… there has got to be a less annoying way to consistently post things under one’s name :/ (Above Anon is me, again)

          • nydwracu says:

            I’ll cooperate with these stupid, arbitrary standards on Important Occasions where the social penalty makes it worthwhile, but the thought of wearing a button-down shirt every day is horrifying. That would be a source of significant disutility for me.

            Being pressured into wearing a T-shirt every day would be a source of significant disutility for me.

            Also, they’re not arbitrary and most people do think that people who dress better look better.

          • drethelin says:

            Elaborating on not arbitrary: Dress shirts and suit jackets were literally designed by people to make the richest men in the world look good. They have a lot of features that accentuate traditionally valued parts of anatomy and hider other parts, like a rounder belly and broader shoulders.

            But even if they WERE arbitrary once upon a time, the fact remains that LOTS of people now like how they look, and looking like someone people like looking at is valuable, whatever the reason. Just like saying Please and Thank You is “arbitrary”, it’s still appreciated and useful and pleasant.

            Also, style is not the same thing as fashion.

          • YetAnotherAnon says:

            @drethelin: I’m happy wearing suits (either the “business” or “black tie” variety), which are indeed optimized in the way you mention and also are sufficiently codified by tradition that it’s hard to mess them up too badly. And of course I’m fine with “cargo pants and t-shirt” (and this is the mode of dress that feels most concordant with my identity).

            The trouble is the gaping uncanny valley between these two extremes, which seems to be a mess of signalling and countersignalling, changing and context-specific fashions, tribal markers, and things deliberately designed to be unflattering or ridiculous for handicap-principle-style reasons. I’ve never met a man wearing something from that intermediate space that I would say made him look more attractive than he would in a t-shirt or sweater, and when I’ve attempted to dress in such a way myself (relying almost entirely on the advice of my girlfriend) I found it excruciatingly squicky and mentally uncomfortable (moreso even than occasions when I have been naked in front of strangers), and the feedback on my appearance I got from others was still negative.

            I believe that it would be instrumentally useful to be able to dress more fashionably in informal contexts, but my observation and experience suggests that it is a high-effort signalling game that I am likely to lose badly, so I am better off not playing.

          • Nita says:

            The trouble is the gaping uncanny valley between these two extremes

            I think it’s meant to be filled with “looks” along these lines:


            (what do you think, by the way? still can’t beat a sweater?)

            But it does require more effort than either (formal/casual) extreme, and, just like in everything else, few people try and even fewer succeed.

          • @Said, I’m aware of those studies, and I fully believe that my sense of taste changed. However, I still had to try eating broccoli again as an adult in order for me to know that this change had happened, so I don’t think that it’s misleading to say that I “realized” that broccoli was delicious. In the same way, my argument about clothing basically boils down to, “Try it, you might like it.”

            @Nita, your posted picture is pretty close to the kind of thing I wear to work every day. These getups provide a lot of examples of outfits that aren’t hard to put together and nicely fill in the “uncanny valley”.

          • Luke Somers says:

            I used to wear T-shirts and sweaters at work when I was a physicist. Now that I’m a systems developer, I wear Polos or button-down shirts and sweaters.

            The difference in how I feel is approximately 0 – I still hardly think about my clothing.

          • YetAnotherAnon says:

            @Nita: Yes, worse than a sweater. I find the clothing in that picture vaguely offputting on other men; I think I would be less likely to interact with a man dressed that way than one dressed more simply. (Note: I’m around 2 on the Kinsey scale, and these feelings about clothing do influence who I’d consider sleeping with.) I would definitely be uncomfortable wearing such clothing myself.

      • Meredith L. Patterson says:

        Oh, I have some basic skills operating in “normal” social spaces. (I wouldn’t have made it through grad school or the military without them.) But they’re emulated in software, they’re expensive to emulate, and while I can have productive interactions with them, cycle for cycle I derive far more utils if I don’t have to. (I’m in an unusual position, though, in that I can choose not to.)

        Which led to paying more attention to and preferentially spending time in spaces where paying that sort of vigorish isn’t obligatory, which led to paying attention to the norms that form the mottes of those spaces, which is really the core of the piece, and if I were to go back and rewrite it I’d probably cut the preceding sections by at least half, because I’ve gotten your reaction and Mai’s often enough that it’s clear I buried the lede. But it can stand as an artifact; I’m sure I’ll tackle this topic again at some point.

        • von Kalifornen says:


          I don’t think that I have any autism spectrum thing…


          Eye contact was torture until age 12 and difficult until age 15. I still can’t tell when other people are doing it. (I also can’t tell very well what someone is pointing at except by sighting along their finger like the iron sights of a gun).

          I have to *plan ahead* to make myself take a shower.

          Asking people, even close friends, for basically anything is still something I can barely do.

          • Deiseach says:

            Re: eye contact, only the other day I had to make a mental note to myself “remember to blink occasionally”.

            I find that when I’m interested (or faking being interested), I tend to stare at the person without blinking, which occurs to me might be unnerving for the recipient of the glaring 🙂

      • Meredith L. Patterson says:

        Further, is it “valorizing” physical disability or mental illness to figure out how to communicate with deaf or intellectually disabled people? I certainly don’t think so; I think that’s basic human decency. I regard social disability the same way, and am frequently surprised at how often people who think regarding someone as lesser for suffering from depression is victim-blaming also think that people with social anxiety should just get over it or that people with Asperger’s should suck it up and learn the “rules” of neurotypical social interaction. (Which is really a key point here — you have to be able to consider the existence of alternative rulesets, and how to compare the utility of different rulesets for different participants and combinations of participants.) The weirdness you experience from socially awkward people is often the result of their having had to reverse-engineer a set of rules and done so badly.

        • veronica d says:

          Right. But nerd-space has never been only for autistic people, which, I say this as a life-long weird-nerd who is not autistic and can “code switch” between the spaces.

          But I remain super awkward and loveshy and this hurts me. And I’m sympathetic to the “guy who gawks in an awkward way” cuz I’ve been the girl who gawks in an awkward way and I actually quit this queer book club I really loved cuz there was a woman there I was crushing on hard and I couldn’t tell her cuz I suck and I got the sense I was creeping her the hell out. And it was just weird and after every book club I came home crying so I quit.

          Seriously I get it!

          So the point is, this has always been a spectrum of people, and women (in particular) have been complaining a long time and even if we are sympathetic there still need to be boundaries. It cannot be “well he’s autistic so he gets to touch girls” —


          My point is, these boundaries will be socially negotiated. I’m suggesting we value and encourage some foundational social skills even as we seek to understand why people fall short.

          But here is where I think we might agree: the Jezebel style malicious nerd-shaming really sucks and makes the situation worse.

          On the other hand the -chans exist.

          • Forlorn Hopes says:

            Nerd spaces were never exclusively for autistic people.

            Nerd spaces always were for people who believed in a certain set of social values – which might include a high tolerance for social ineptitude – that often appeal to autistic people.

            And people have every right[1] to believe in that ethos, and they have every right to seek out social spaces where others also believe in that ethos.

            [1] I use the word right in the most literal sense. The right to free association is a recognized and legally protected human right.

          • Meredith L. Patterson says:

            Oh absolutely! And I think one of the first steps is simply identifying those alternative social skills I feel like I alluded to above but on second read maybe didn’t quite. (Different rulesets are amenable to different sets of skills. There’s a parallel here to some ongoing HCI research I’ve been doing about UX affordances and discourse, but that’s a massive tangent.) This pulls double duty, because recognising “wait, I can operate without a lot of friction in a social context” is the first step toward “wait, maybe I can figure out ways to operate with less friction in other contexts too,” and also maybe if we can document some alternative interfaces some bold neurotypicals will help to bridge the gap from their end.

            But do you know how I learned how to operate with less friction in non-native contexts? Therapy. And that’s a privilege a hell of a lot of people don’t have, and being acutely conscious of that has a lot to do with my interest in the more broadly scoped problem. (I’m also in information security, and a couple years ago I developed an interest in social engineering that promptly took a hard right into psychology and sociology.)

          • veronica d says:

            [Edit: this was a reply to Forlorn Hopes]

            Perhaps, but that “safe space” cannot be (for example) the entire profession of software engineering. Nor do weird-nerds own all of gaming. Anita Sarkeesian should be able to post critique, and no doubt recieve counter-critique, but not ranting death threats from angry people.

            Somewhere beyond the “guy who stares” is the “guy who is hostile” all the way to the “guy who touches.” And nerd-space has a long history of defending the latter two guys.

            And regarding the first guy, if we can get past the Jezebel style nerd-abuse, can we at least talk about how (some) women feel around him and if we can find a better way?

          • Meredith L. Patterson says:

            FWIW, someone actively doing the work of translation is Ari Flynn, whose entire blog is essentially an extended meditation on what having a highly systematizing brain is like, from the inside and the outside.

          • veronica d says:

            @Meridith — That was a great post. I think I’ll go read everything on that blog.

          • Forlorn Hopes says:

            I didn’t actually call it a “safe space”[1]. You don’t have to be a safe space to justify defending your culture; nor do you have to be autistic to prefer a culture where social skills are deprioritised.

            If that deprioritisation goes so far as to defend the guy who touches. Then again, free association is an internationally recognized human right for very good reasons.

            You have the right to call the police, you have the right to try and persuade them to adopt different values, you can build your own community around gaming/software with different values and compete for members.

            But they have the right to respond to that with a firm “no”. (They can’t stop the police making an arrest, they can remain friends afterwords).

            Ultimately what bothers me about this, even more than the Jezebel style nerd shaming, is the lack of respect for diversity.

            You’re saying that it’s a moral imperative for a different culture to replace their values your values, that’s a line of reasoning that I can’t support.

            And I say that even though you’re right about the specific examples[2]. What’s happening is that you’re looking at a cultural value that has negative side effects (every cultural value has negative side effects) and suggesting that value needs to be completely replaced in order to remove that side effect.

            If you want to talk about the first guy, it’s not enough to get past Jezebel style nerd-abuse. You need to first get into the mindset that the cultural values of nerd culture are there for a good reason and any solution must be designed in the context of nerd culture.

            [1] There isn’t any theoretical reason why an entire profession can’t be a safe space, there are plenty of practical reasons limiting the size of a safe space though.

            [2]Though there was a lot of reasonable criticism directed at Anita in addition to the horrid threats. Her supporters just ignored it so it’s easily missed.

          • veronica d says:

            @Forlorn Hopes — You’re missing one important fact: I’ve been part of nerd culture forever and it’s mine as much as yours. Which is to say, these are conflicts within nerd culture. You are asserting ownership of a thing you do not own.

            I remember conflicts between the weird-nerds and the cool-nerds well back in the 80’s. I remember later when White Wolf got big and folks began Vampire LARPing and there was another divide, as the goths arrived. I remember nerds who could get dates and the nerds who could not get dates, and all kinds of shitty conflicts between them. I recall this one local gaming store that seldom had any women cuz some very weird men hung out there. (Mostly it was hygiene issues.) I recall other gaming clubs with a more mixed and socially skilled group. These were all nerds. Within the latter group there was plenty of good nerd weirdness.

            I remember computer class when there was that one guy who had all the cool pirated games and a girlfriend and rich parents and a car — and some of us hated him but so what. We kissed his ass anyway cuz we wanted software. So we sad-angry nerds built myths about how awesome we were, but most of us were little pots of seething resentment, not against the jocks, who were another species, but the nerds with money or nerds with girlfriends or nerds-who-had-something-we-thought-we-deserved.

            I liked this one person who ended up dating another person and I thought I was sooo much better than that person so I was horrible to them. This was nerd-life in the 80’s.

            Maybe it was different at your high school. For me this stuff was waaaaay pre-Internet and no one really knew much about anyone else.

            (I was poor-ish and never really got onto BBSes. I was jealous of the kids who did.)

            Point is, cultural conflict is natural and you may find your nerd friends want certain nerd women to join the group and you may find that those women do not want to deal with certain men and maybe those men lose.

            Or maybe folks talk about why they feel the way they feel and stuff works better. Or you can just say “no.”

            Let me know how it works out. I’ve seen what Wizchan is like.

          • Multiheaded says:

            Veronica, I certainly agree that there ought to be peace, diversity, necessary and proportional checks to individuals’ privilege (not being sarcastic!), and that people need to police for aggression and intrusive behavior.

            P.S.: there are actually quite a transwomen on the *chans, and people who seem to identify as (in words nowhere near as fancy) genderqueer/un-masculine males with autogynephilia.

          • Forlorn Hopes says:

            @veronica d – That doesn’t have any bearing on what I said.

            My key point was that there needs to be more respect for diversity. That before people Culture A criticizes the negative side effect’s of Culture B’s value; the As needs to understand and respect why that value exists and accept that any solution needs to fit into Culture B’s values.

            That remains true whether A is feminists and B is nerds; or whether A is socially adept nerds and B is weird nerds.

          • veronica d says:

            @multi — There’s this joke in certain trans feminist circles that we need to get all the girls off of 4chan and on to estrogen. 🙂

            I have to confess, I am not completely unfamiliar with the yuri forums (she says with a grin and a blush).

          • Harald K says:

            Veronica d: You describe a lot of stuff that’s familiar to me, sounds like we are nerds of the same generation. (I thought White Wolf was a bunch of pretentious garbage, by the way, had a bit of a disagreement with my best friend over that!) But what I think is this: there’s not one nerd culture, there’s many, and what for one person is a safe space may as well be an irradiated toxic dump for another.

            I’ve had – and have – sympathy with the nerdy girls. You stick out, and that is never easy. (Via Taymon A. Beal’s link above, I even came across a neat mathematical model showing why it is so – though I always assumed it).

            It’s just that, especially as I got older, I got more sympathy for the bigger losers, who are almost inevitably male. Those people with bad BO at the comic book store, etc. I was part of a regular open board game event for a while, which for reasons of venue got the occasional “odd” guest. We tried to make them feel welcome, which wasn’t always easy, even with the best intentions on both sides.

            Like the time a (mostly?) recovering drug addict showed up. He looked and acted as you’d expect an extremely shy homeless guy to look, but he was a great guy, we had fun.

            He only went a couple of times, though. In the end, I guess we were too different for him to truly feel at home. Just saying hi to us, with his social anxiety, must have been a tremendous effort.

            But “below” us, in the even more open group, were the Magic players. There you would find not just people with BO, but guys who talked too loudly and too quickly about their intrusive thoughts about violence, etc. It’s hard to imagine people being more uncomfortable to be around, without them actually doing something illegal.

            We need spaces for these people. I (and you, I assume) have elsewhere to go to, but they don’t. I’m not saying all nerd culture ought to be reserved for them, and we should not cover up for people doing anything illegal (incl. illegal harassment, threats etc.) but we must not decry the existence of spaces that make them feel welcome, even if they by being there makes the space uninhabitable for lots of other people.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Most nerds aren’t Asperger’s/mentally disabled in some way, and they need the message to shape up and pay a little more attention to their appearance. The payoff at that level is significantly higher than the effort needed. I know, I’ve been there.

          The trouble is there’s no easy way to distinguish the one with mental blocks from the ones who just need a good kick in the pants.

          • Drew Hardies says:

            The trouble is there’s no easy way to distinguish the one with mental blocks from the ones who just need a good kick in the pants.

            I think a larger problem is that you’re offering bullies a chance to kick unpopular people and be sanctimonious about it.

            Therapy by social pressure is fine when you’re giving the nudge to your friends.

            Things turn uniformly awful when the “kicks” are delivered by people who don’t really care about — or actively dislike — the person that they’re kicking.

          • Identifying those who need a kick in the pants can only be done at close range, preferably in-person, and with great care and humility. None of these conditions generally obtain on the internet. So while I agree that giving out kicks in the pants is often needed, I refrain from doing it online.

            Conversely, I usually refrain from fawning empathy with online neuroatypicals as well, precisely because at this distance I can’t tell if I’m giving someone needed support or just being an enabler.

          • Harald K says:

            “they need the message to shape up and pay a little more attention to their appearance. ”

            They know, believe me. They get that message all the time. What they need is a place where they can let their guard down and not feel unwanted.

      • Fadeway says:

        Better valorize autism than scorn lack of social skills.

        You say we should encourage the development of social skills and clothing style and whatever..but unless you were in charge of a hivemind of actors, there isn’t going to be any encouraging without a healthy amount of shaming

        • Jaskologist says:

          People talk about shaming like it’s the worst thing ever, to be avoided at all costs. This does not register with me at all; when I picture somebody trying to shame me, my gut reactions are either gratitude if I think they’re right, or something between amusement and annoyance if they’re wrong.

          These may well be differences of temperament/core values which we can’t bridge. At this stage in my life, I fear falling short a lot more than I fear pain. I’d much rather encourage people to advance than to wallow.

          So when in doubt, I will err on the side of valorizing achievement and scorning failure. (All the more so because of my contrarian nature and sense that society tips too far the other way.)

      • nydwracu says:

        Furthermore, I kinda dislike the nerd-mythologizing. Yes, we need to feel good about ourselves, but we also need to be self-critical, which nerds raised on endless Paul Graham style uber-praise definitely are not. Nerds have problems. Our culture can be a fucking cesspool. Social skills actually matter.

        After all, ask yourself what social skills are. If you say, “Just shallow status play” you’re missing some important stuff. Missing important stuff is not a plus.

        Yeah, I was raised in nerd culture — I had a copy of that Steven Levy book growing up, and by the time I started middle school I’d read it so many times that it would dump fifty-page chunks of itself on the floor whenever I picked it up — and this was one of the reasons I burned out on it.

        More specifically, I first realized that people were alright and not actually to be avoided in favor of computers; that made me realize that I should dress better and try to be presentable (I never missed a shower or anything, but all the clothes I owned were t-shirts); starting to do it made me realize that wearing t-shirts every day sucks; then I had to take a weightlifting class in college, liked it, and dumped the entire signalplex.

        (Well, that and I realized I liked the demoscene better, for reasons best explained by viznut somewhere on his blog that I can’t find right now. Probably scattered across a few different posts.)

        • veronica d says:

          I recall something from my late teen years. I worked with this dude, a tall, lanky prettyboy headbanger. Anyway, he was super cool and had smiles for everyone. I was into punk, but this was the thrash metal period and the punks and bangers got along. Plus he was just that sorta cool guy who got along with everyone anyhow. I played him a Stravinsky CD cuz I thought a metal guy would like that. He did.

          Anyway, one day we’re talking and I ask him, “Dude, when you meet people, do you assume they’ll like you?”

          The reason I asked was that he smiled and joked with everyone he met, while I was sullen and withdrawn with most people.

          He said, “Yeah, pretty much. Don’t you?”

          Which, like, no I did not. I assumed each person I met would dislike me and maybe abuse me. I was afraid.

          Which, I had reasons for feeling this way, tons of experience.

          Anyway, that was a long time ago and I don’t feel that way anymore. I got fit, learned some BJJ, changed my gender, all kinds of shit. I still get a fuckton of abuse from people, cuz the trans stuff. But I walk tall most of the time and try to give everyone a smile. And people like me for the most part.

          ’Cept for the people who fucking hate my guts. But whatevs to them.

          (It’s different late at night on the subway.)

      • anon1 says:

        I prefer to see a lot of weird nerd behaviors as a different and perfectly good protocol, not as defective/unskilled versions of the general standard. Several NTs in my weird-nerd friend group have picked up the habit of flapping their hands when they’re happy, for instance, and this is adorable and also much more reasonable than declaring that people who flap their hands instead of moving their mouths to express emotion have poor social skills.

      • Illuminati Initiate says:

        Assorted thoughts on arguments about nerddom, autism and weirdness above/below (I forget where newer comments go):

        OK, first off, fashion. There seems to be some conflation here between being concerned about your own physical appearance and being concerned about other’s physical appearance. The former is fine, the latter is not. Obviously this does not apply to sexual attraction and has exceptions for things like wearing shirts with sexist jokes on them. And the requirement to dress up for work is a self perpetuating harmful norm that everyone would be better off without. (I’m not saying people shouldn’t “dress up” if they want to!) Body odor is different in that it makes things less enjoyable for others, though (more on that below*).

        Second, “social skills”. No, they not just status games, but they are only important as a result of the harmful way our culture works. Currently, we live in a guess culture. Ask and tell cultures are much better. Non-reactionaries in this discussion, you wouldn’t encourage gender normativity due to its social usefulness in today’s culture, would you? Is it hard to understand that some view any social norm beyond “don’t harm people” (yes, harassment does count as harm) in this way? Of course special voluntary subcultures can be allowed to have norms beyond this, but only if there are alternative safe spaces for available. Parts of nerd culture seems to have been acting as this safe space (not completely, obviously, there are still other norms).

        *Yeah, the guys with bad BO. Apparently until fairly recently that was me. I reacted… badly … when I found out about this and now feel really bad about that. But now I do try hard to avoid smelling, and some people claim I still smell, but other people who I trust to not lie very much insist I don’t. I’m currently in a sort of semi-self imposed exile from a significant portion of my social life. I’m really not sure how to deal with this, does anyone (who’s not a neo, their values differ from mine way too much to be useful) have any advise about this situation? I basically can’t smell BO, mine or other’s, at all by the way, except on rare occasions and only then by sniffing my armpit directly (presumably those occasions were when it smells even worse than usual to others?).

        • Nita says:

          does anyone have any advise about this situation?

          Well, what do you currently do? IME, deodorant/antiperspirant makes a difference with armpits. (I prefer the “stick” format.) For feet (if necessary), there are special creams. For the rest of your skin, showers, perhaps an occasional wet wipe?

          Washing and airing clothes and bedding should help, too. Apparently the frequency varies a lot among people, so feel free to experiment.

          Also, do you sweat a lot more than others?

          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            I mean, I’ve been doing most of that, except the foot stuff.

            I don’t think I sweat any more than usual.

            Thanks, though. (not sarcasm)

    • Oligopsony says:

      Hated it; absolute cliched self-serving bullshit; the sort of thing the “identity politics” label is actually useful for. We poor nerds Care About Ideas while you fake nerds even though I won’t use those words are just interested in status games, even when the behavior is absolutely identical.

      • veronica d says:

        Agreed. I’m sick of the dismissal of much healthy social interactions as “status games.” Sure, shitty people exist, and some shitty people manage to be popular. But I’ve known some really lovely people who happen to be quite socially adept. There are people who are popular because they are kind. They step up, reach out, do nice things, and people like them for it. This is fairly common.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          I think this general idea is important but not the whole picture. It’s pretty clear that your average weird nerd isn’t going to get super popular through just increasing kindness in any usual sense of the word. I don’t think you meant to imply this, but it’s the reading I’d expect a socially unskilled weird nerd to take when you say there are people who are popular because they’re kind.

          The view I’ve been starting to take is in terms of “social attractiveness.” No one is obligated to be friends with a socially unattractive person, just as no one is obligated to date a physically unattractive person… But I’d want to be very gentle explaining this to either kind of unattractive person. Good news is that social attractiveness is probably more malleable in general than physical, and as far as I know there aren’t any known health disorders from pressure to be more socially attractive (though emotional issues house more easily than physical…), but we should still take care that we don’t use the possibility of change as an excuse to mock and shame.

          • veronica d says:


            To me the big puzzle is this: how do I say “Dude, you need to shower before you go to the game store” and at the same time deal with the fact that maybe this person really can’t.

            On the other hand, I’ve been around people whose body odor forced me to leave the room lest I become nauseous.

            Which is a deeply shitty situation and it makes me sad.

          • veronica d says:

            And let me add, I talk about kind and popular people merely to challenge the notion that popular people are shallow social climbers and status-game-players (which is evidently bad) instead of just being likable.

            Unpopular people who feel shut out of a scene will naturally feel pretty unhappy about it. And I get that. (Trust me I get that! OMG I get that so much I want to die sometimes.) But my point is that a critique of (for example) ingroup/outgroup dynamics is different from a reverse discourse that says popular people are “mundanes” or whatever.

          • Meredith L. Patterson says:

            Veronica, this may be a good time to point out that part of my interest in the general space we’re talking about (again cf. that Ari Flynn post) is that I definitely recognise the existence of genuinely likeable people who are just really good at interacting with all kinds of people over all kinds of spectrums. One of those people, who I basically consider a sister for complicated backstory reasons, leverages those skills for good in the world by helping run hacker conferences.

            So one of the things that’s interesting to me about this is that I get a bit of an over-the-shoulder view of what goes on in, essentially, temporary pseudo-autonomous zones[0] with varying individual structures, some explicit (like Codes of Conduct) and some implicit (like “be enough of a dick at DEF CON and you may well be thrown in the pool with all your electronics”). And one thing that’s obvious is that there are some genuinely charming people out there. And a small minority of those genuinely charming people use their charm in a predatory fashion, and that bothers me a lot. Being able to distinguish charming good people from charming sociopaths is a skill it takes a long time to learn, for neurotypicals as well as neurodivergent folks. My intent is certainly not to charm-shame! But, again — unwrapping these problems is like unwrapping an onion.

            [0] I mean, state law applies and stuff, cons aren’t anarchotopia or anything.

          • anon1 says:

            I can’t think of a single time I’ve looked back on a conversation and thought “oh god what did I just agree to?” that wasn’t with someone highly charismatic.* I can enjoy the company of charismatic people, but I’m definitely afraid of letting one get too much leverage over me again.

            *I think charming is the wrong word. Awkward weirdos are often charming in a way that makes them a joy to be around, but not usually in a way that gives them unfair social influence.

          • Meredith L. Patterson says:

            Macleans draws a detailed portrait of Jian Ghomeshi as charismatic predator. #NotAllCharismaticPeople but egad, him.

          • veronica d says:

            @Meredith L. Patterson — Yeah, I think I pretty totally agree with you.

      • Multiheaded says:

        Senpai, these people, the “incorrect” minorities, are lashing out because your strategic bombing campaign is hurting them. They are civillians, and many would’ve very likely been your civillians, had the people on your side not thrown them under the bus or threatened to execute them as collaborators after your somewhat inevitable victory. Your side has been systemically erasing them, occasionally gloating about how little it cares about collateral damage in the service of your (unironically!) glorious and wonderful cause.

        And you choose to focus on the not-so-rational identity politics, not on the expression of pain and fear?

        • social justice warlock says:

          I think it is useful to distinguish between 1) obsessive weirdos with no social skills and 2) those who employ perceived membership in (1) as a basis for corporate mobilization. I like you and everyone else commenting on this stupid debate/blog/etc belong to (1) but all members of (2) are uniformly reactionary.

          What complicated the civilian/combatant analogy here is that since nerds are like whites, men, and so on in terms of such corporate mobilization, attacks on reactionary nerds are easily expressed in terms of nerds in general, for the same reasons Scott discussed in terms of attacks on whites. Another similarity in this respect is that such denouncement is almost exclusively performed by nerds themselves. But nerd identity is more contestible (nerds, despite or perhaps because of being a subculture organized around conspicuous consumption, are obsessed with authenticity, as seen in this article,) which leads to dissimilarities.

          I suppose the more intriguing question here is why nerds qua nerds should be reactionary. This could be a historical accident, but my guess based on reference class forecasting would be something like that “nerd” is a parasitic social position based on nonparticipation in social upkeep labor (or something, I haven’t really thought about, much less researched, it much.)

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            I have no idea what “corporate mobilization” means here. The only things I can think of that you might be referring to are extremely narrow parts of controversies that are mainly about something else other than corporations, like Intel and G*******e (and G*******e lost and the SJWs won there anyway.)

          • Multiheaded says:

            Senpai means “corporation” in the sociological sense here, obviously. More or less meaning the Grey Tribe.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            If that’s the meaning, then s/he is claiming that being a politically active member of the Grey Tribe is being a reactionary, which is absurd.

          • social justice warlock says:

            If that’s the meaning, then s/he is claiming that being a politically active member of the Grey Tribe is being a reactionary, which is absurd.

            No – not all politically active women are feminists, nor all politically active Uzbeks Uzbek nationalists, &c. The latter form is what I mean by “corporate mobilization.”

            (Counterevidence that I just thought of is that there was plenty of corporate mobilization of geeks around net neutrality, which isn’t meaningfully reactionary (but still makes perfect sense given our corporate interests.) Still my gut reading would be that our objective interests qua nerds are reactionary on race/class/gender stuff, or at least that that would have the most explanatory power.)

          • Multiheaded says:

            I think that the most selfish thing that cis-het male nerds could strive for gender-wise would be a relaxation of gender roles for men but increased privilege over and exploitation of women?

            To my knowledge, this has never been in anyone’s explicit agenda; the male chauvinist New Left types of the 1960s onwards might come the closest, but then again, they deviated from hegemonic masculinity in a rather different direction than the stereotypical nerds do.

          • social justice warlock says:

            I think that the most selfish thing that cis-het male nerds could strive for gender-wise would be a relaxation of gender roles for men but increased privilege over and exploitation of women?

            Yeah. Obviously taking things in this direction entails its own particular contradictions (many of the individually unpleasant aspects of hegemonic masculinity are those that aid male solidarity vis-a-vis women,) but that’s true of anything, and it’s where the broad incentives lie.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            A bigger counterexample is not net neutrality, but SOPA.

            But I would question the premise. Nerds aren’t disproportionately reactionary. You only notice the instances where nerds are reactionary because 1) they are opposed to you, so you notice them, and 2) because being reactionary goes against the grain of the media and the blue city you live in, so they stand out more. The Dragoncon 2014 charity was the Atlanta Community Foodbank.

          • Who says reactionaries can’t support food banks? My wife and I volunteered every week at a soup kitchen for years.

          • Anonymous says:

            Soup kitchens aren’t food banks. The key difference is right wing vs left wing.

          • I’m genuinely curious as to why food banks are left wing and soup kitchens are right wing.

          • Anonymous says:

            I could speculate about reasons, and so could you. They might even be true, but the main phenomenon is a founder effect. People know which is which, so they choose the appropriate one when they volunteer.

          • Oligopsony says:

            Again, I do want to distinguish between nerds being reactionary on average and mobilization of nerds qua nerds being reactionary.

            Now, to be sure, “slans vs. muggles” (the inevitable rhetorical basis for such mobilization,) even if it is essentially aristocratic and reactionary, isn’t necessarily so in practice – after all, it’s a common frame for radical queers. But if the Special People are white guys who are good at computers the necessary results follow. Or at least that seems to be the case. I suspect this is why LW actually gets perceived as to the right of where it “actually” is, because it’s mired in that sort of mobilization framework.

          • veronica d says:

            @Oligopsony — It is indeed quite similar to much queer discourse. In fact, it has a name: “reverse discourse.” In small doses this is a powerful tool. In heavy doses it breaks down badly. (Julia Serano has an important critique of how this plays out in the trans community: I think it should be pretty easy to apply a parallel critique to nerd culture.)

            I don’t really care if we call it “reactionary” or not.

          • Oligopsony says:

            Ooh, a new crystalized concept! Thanks!

        • Multiheaded says:

          Overall I agree, senpai. Like, the “nerd”/neckbeard/legbeard identity, as Ozy and zir friends occasionally say, actually looks rather consistently socially liberal, proto-feminist, etc, compared to the mainstream, but the intersecting Grey Tribe identity is consistently being used to rally and unite evil people.

          Re: attacks on whites – somehow the attacks on poor whites are often stopped by the invocation of “class”, while no appeal to intersectionality ever seems to stop SJ people from indiscriminate nerd-bashing. Or compare – I know how far-reaching and insensitive this sounds – white dudes calling #NotYourShield “snowflakes” and getting away with it vs. white liberals being (rightly!) unable to call black rightists “Uncle Toms”.

          (Frankly, I think that’s mostly because of wider ableism and oppositional sexism, but a better SJ movement/institution would’ve caught itself perpetuating these instead of socially rewarding the participants.)

          I suppose the more intriguing question here is why nerds qua nerds should be reactionary. This could be a historical accident, but my guess based on reference class forecasting would be something like that “nerd” is a parasitic social position based on nonparticipation in social upkeep labor (or something, I haven’t really thought about, much less researched, it much.)

          Oh, it has always looked intuitively clear to me; I think it’s that plus, crucially, the promise of great social mobility at the cost of unusually little interpersonal engagement/licking up to people. (A promise mirrored in an entirely fictional and toxic way by whatever bullshit nerds are fed in the relationship sphere.) In a word, temporarily embarrassed startup founders.

        • Multiheaded says:

          P.S.: a related post on the nerd slapfight du jour.

          Please take the time to read this guy’s #NotYourShield tag, senpai; I don’t agree with everything but they’s far more insightful that you’d expect from a gamergator.

          • veronica d says:

            @mutli — The thing about that article, the poster seems to ignore the fairly strong currents of anti-feminism in GG, and yes the press has fucked up in how they attacked Eron, and sooner or later we SJWs are going to have to talk about that. But this guy is acting as if GG is his narrow conception, not this shitshow co-opted by the-most-terrible-people on the -chans plus opportunistic right wing journalists.

    • Peter says:

      Essay: interesting but not great, it was the sort of thing I alternately wanted to cheer for and got annoyed by.

      I think there’s a problem with picking out groups of people. On the one hand… “nerds” is now a sufficiently large and diffuse category that generalizations about the whole often run foul of large exceptions. On the other hand, picking out what exactly “weird nerds” means is difficult. I mean, am I one? On the one hand – Asperger’s diagnosis in adulthood, difficult school experience, protective of geek culture as space where I sort-of fit in, check. On the other hand, I don’t really dig the “hacker” thing, and I really don’t dig ESR. As for technology, I’m not sure where exactly it fits in my loyalty rankings, but behind science, certainly. I said “difficult school experience” but I got on just fine with the teachers; I think my attitude to authority is a bit more wishy-washy centrist than the stereotypical anarchic hacker’s.

      I think the central problem here is that the “has experiences sufficiently similar to mine that I would call them ‘one of my people'” relation isn’t transitive, and therefore doesn’t pick out groups. The friend of my friend isn’t necessarily my friend. However a distressingly large proportion of political-in-a-broad-sense-of-the-word discourse today hinges around groups, and this is a PITA.

      • Nornagest says:

        I do think hacker culture is distinctly different from what I’ve been calling “nerd culture” in these comments, but I don’t think it’s closely related to social acceptability or to weirdness relative to the mainstream; actually, the hackers I know are a lot better at making themselves look interesting and avoiding off-putting weirdness than the nerds-at-large, probably because making it as a hacker involves a lot of self-promotion. The subculture seems more gender-balanced, too.

        I expect that’s all more true of my generation than ESR’s, though.

        • veronica d says:

          Given that I straddle the generations, I say hell yeah, hacker culture is way better on gender now than then. Which, I mean it is still pretty fucking horrible for many women but at least there are enough of us (and enough male allies) that people will listen to our concerns. It’s hard work, but we are making progress.

    • Matthew says:

      Was kind of puzzled by being written out of existence by your essay.

      I was a “weird nerd” growing up, as were all of my friends, and yet…

      0 of us were big into computer programming in high school
      0 of us went on to major in STEM fields

      “weird nerd” != hacker (though I tend to sympathize with most of the values)

  24. Multiheaded says:

    Before having clicked on the Chronicle link, I confused it with the Chronicles magazine, and went “Duh, of course paleocons would always be saying something bad about sociologists.”

  25. goocy says:

    Second, the winner credited part of his success to the nootropic CILTEP

    Now that’s just selection bias. To figure out whether CILTEP has had any effect, you need to ask every poker player if they have taken it, not just the world’s best.

    • Nate Gabriel says:

      No, it counts, just like every baseball player crediting their favorite superstition for their successes means those also pass the xkcd test.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Here’s your test: do pro ball players practice a given superstition at a higher rate than the general populace?

  26. There are a lot of reasons to expect that employment loss from raises in the minimum wage take place of a period of years rather than immediately. It would be nice if we could just use wage subsidies instead like they do in (low unemployment) Germany.

    • DanielLC says:

      My problem with that is that you’re paying people to do things that are likely not worth doing. Just give them the money regardless of if they have a job. Although, given the context that this came up in, you do have a point.

    • Zubon says:

      It’s as if the studies were designed to avoid finding the effect of the minimum wage. No, businesses do not (usually) immediately fire people when the minimum wage rises. Instead, they hire fewer new workers, transition to skilled labor, invest in automation, reduce the workers’ compensation in other ways, etc.

      Barring very strong evidence to the contrary, we should expect an increase in the minimum wage to lead to reduced employment for unskilled and low skill labor. An increase in price leads to a decrease in the quantity demanded. Paul Krugman understands that math, and I hope he’s not too conservative a source. But the issue has been politicized, so it’s “red vs. blue” not “are there downsides to cutting the bottom rungs off the ladder of economic opportunity?”

  27. Anonymous says:

    …remember you live in an age where a private company with thousands of employees, billions of dollars in revenue and a proven record of success…”

    Do keep in mind that that ‘private company’ was only kept above water by big NASA bucks, and big NASA bucks still probably make up a majority of its profit. Just in case anyone wanted to turn this into “rah rah private sector good public sector bad.” In fact I would be interested if someone could name examples of companies that have done groundbreaking hardware R&D without government money – I don’t get the impression that the private sector is all that impressive without the government incentivizing that sort of thing.

    • John Schilling says:

      You mean aside from SpaceX? The Falcon 1 I would think constitutes the “groundbreaking hardware R&D” part of the project, and that was done almost entirely out of Elon Musk’s pocket.

      Falcon 9, less groundbreaking, and the dollar numbers are proprietary but to date there have been 13 launches, six paid for by NASA, six by private customers, and one self-financed by SpaceX.

      • Anonymous says:

        You mean aside from SpaceX? The Falcon 1 I would think constitutes the “groundbreaking hardware R&D” part of the project, and that was done almost entirely out of Elon Musk’s pocket.

        Really? I think the F9 and F9R are “groundbreaking” (in that they are progressing towards reusability) while F1 most certainly wasn’t.

        Falcon 9, less groundbreaking

        The useful, competitive launch platform that has successfully returned to the surface at ~zero velocity is “less groundbreaking” than the tiny, discontinued falcon 1? That’s a weird call.

        to date there have been 13 launches, six paid for by NASA, six by private customers, and one self-financed by SpaceX

        Yeah – and first of all, the company wouldn’t exist to create the F9 without NASA funding coming to the rescue in ’08, Musk made that clear. But second of all, the NASA launches are much more lucrative than the private launches at bottom of the barrel prices. And the NASA commercial crew money is still more lucrative, pure gravy to a company that would have to build a crew vehicle to achieve its goals in any situation.

        SpaceX without NASA, well, doesn’t get off the ground in the first place because it was entirely inspired by past NASA programs, but also fails in ’08 without ever creating a big, potentially reusable launch platform.

        SpaceX’s experience is an argument for public-private partnership and a very strong argument against “pure private” being viable. Of course that’s not much of an argument against “rah rah private sector good public sector bad” by itself, which is why I asked for examples that help the other side of the discussion.

        • John Schilling says:

          The Falcon 1 demonstrated the Merlin engine; I don’t know if you understand how huge that is. And building rocket stages out of friction stir welded aluminum-lithium, and pretty much everything else that goes into SpaceX’s ability to build rockets for maybe a quarter of the price of their competitors. That’s the core of their business model, and it was privately funded.

          If it is specifically the reusability you are enthusiastic about, then A: they haven’t done that yet and there’s still real doubt as to whether they will be able to, and B: their attempts are still self-financed. NASA isn’t paying them to build or test reusable rockets.

          The profits they are using, yes, some of that comes from selling stuff to the government. If that’s your definition of “public-private partnership” and a “strong argument against pure private being viable”, then what useful definition of “pure private” do you bring to the table? Does Steve Jobs cease to have been a private-sector innovator because we suddenly remember that he sold Macs to various government agencies and those profits helped fund iPhone development?

          So let’s clarify this. What exactly are the rules of your purity test, and why should the rest of us care?

  28. Well, STOP DOXXING PEOPLE only works if everyone does it. On the other hand, DOX EVERYONE levels the playing field in almost the same way, but is possible for only a few people to do. One frustrating thing about the panic around “doxxing” is that all the bad effects of doxxing are bad effects in and of themselves, and focusing on the doxxing just removes some of the pressure to fix the actually bad things that can result from being doxxed.

    More generally, we’re inexorably moving towards more information being available about everyone, and every partially-successful attempt to slow or stop that has so far meant that people in general are falsely reassured that transparency is not inevitable, while we lose the benefits of transparency, and in the meantime, those with access still privately get the benefits of transparency.

    Like the future, access to all the details of other peoples’ lives is here, but not evenly distributed. We can’t put that genie back in the bottle, so we should make sure that everyone gets to use the genie, not just those with power, inside knowledge, or money.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree wholeheartedly! But I don’t think ‘everyone gets to use the genie’ is a solution, because ‘the genie’ massively favors offensive moves over defensive moves. It’s easy to say ‘this guy makes me mad’ or something along those lines, without any risk to yourself, and if a crowd of people yell that at someone’s employer that’s a pretty big problem. I think this and other problems can be solved or ameliorated by making the quality of life floor much higher, through basic income or some other means. If losing your job does not mean putting your family in peril of poverty, it’s a lot easier to shrug off crowds of angry employer-emailing people.

      • I agree that as things are today, the genie favors offense. I think there are some mitigating factors, like that in a world where everyone’s life is essentially laid bare, everyone might well be more tolerant, and that publicized blowback might help prevent people from starting down the troll road (since they, themselves, will obviously be subject to the same tactics).

        But in the end I just don’t think it matters, because the world at large favors offensive moves over defensive. It’s easier to attack than to defend in almost every sphere, and this is no different.

  29. stillnotking says:

    That sci-fi article is ridiculous. Remind me when Ursula Le Guin was as popular as Star Wars? Don’t get me wrong — The Left Hand of Darkness is my all-time favorite sci-fi novel, but I’ve never met any fan of hers who wasn’t at least moderately immersed in geek literary culture, while Star Wars is ubiquitous. Commercial, theatrical sci-fi is not about pushing the boundaries of the imagination. It’s a subgenre of “action”, which means it’s about boobs and explosions. Always has been. This guy thinks The Hunger Games is a boring dystopian retread? Has he seen Rollerball?

    If he’s going to make this kind of intrinsically unfair comparison, he could at least pick commercial sci-fi that attempts literary merit (some of it even succeeds), not freaking Star Wars, which has never for one second pretended to be anything but a space opera. A children’s space opera, according to its creator. The reason it’s easy to mistake for fantasy is that commercial fantasy and commercial sci-fi are pretty much the same thing. Or, of course, he could bother to notice the brilliant authors of the modern era, like Peter Watts, who are admirably bearing the torch of “real”, literary sci-fi.

    • John Schilling says:

      There’s some overlap, but he seems to be namechecking books from before 1980 and movies from after. If Berlatsky were fifty or so, I’d say his gripe really reduces to not having had time to read since he got out of school and movies being shallow and superficial compared to books. In which case, duh.

      Possibly he’s older than he looks, or he favored classic SF writers when he was in school. No matter – as you say, anyone who judges science fiction on the basis of the Hollywood stuff alone probably doesn’t have anything worth saying to people who do still have time to read books.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, I thought the insight about superheroes was interesting but don’t really like his thesis in general.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        The reason that superhero sci-fi universes are “flattened by today” is that part of the conceit of superhero universes is that the are set in a universe that strongly resembles the present day. It is essentially a form of urban fantasy/sci-fi.

        Whenever that conceit is lifted superheroes change a lot. In “Elseworlds” type settings where superheroes are not bound by continuity, they are free to change the world.

  30. Jaskologist says:

    Harvard has a Science and Cooking lecture series online. I’m just starting it, but I think these are exactly the cooking lessons I’ve always wanted. Don’t give me a rote recipe; tell me the concepts behind how cooking works and how ingredients interact so I can figure it out on the fly.

    • Richard says:

      Check out modernist cuisine on Amazon. The at home version is even affordable

    • rehana says:

      You might also like Cook’s Illustrated and The Food Lab. (The cookie article is especially good.)

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      Good eats by Alton Brown had a similar idea. I think the host is very entertaining and the food is good. Because he focuses on explaining everything behind a dish, he usually cooks just one or two dishes per episode but he goes into the anthropology, history and science behind dishes and even tells you what equipment to buy (just simple things like, what pan gives the best ratio of versatility to cost for instance).

  31. Skeptical Enlightenment says:

    The NLPD story just made me sad. Did you note how the links throughout the story led to real-life examples of actual occurrences of the fictionalized behavior? The story just bound the threads of numerous police abuse scandals into a single tapestry. I’m ashamed of the country I call home. We’ve fallen so low.

    • Mugasofer says:

      Well, to be fair, no real police officer is involved in every scandal on earth simultaneously.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        And to be even fairer, any group of 750,000 people followed for many years is going to give you a lot of outrages.

        Even if the chance of one policeman doing something outrageous is 1/100,000 per year, you can write an article like that every decade.

        This seems to me to be an underappreciated problem with stereotyping – given large enough groups, the media can spread any stereotype it wants simply by focusing on the (potentially not significant) cases where it happens.

        I don’t think that’s happening here,. though.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          This is the problem with anecdotal evidence through media. I’m not particularly confident in American police, but I stopped reading that story because I consider it epistemically toxic, highly influential on system 1 with negligible Bayesian evidence to persuade system 2.

          I remember your warning to imagine a Facebook feed full of gay activists shooting up Family Research Council offices…

        • Zargon says:

          Sure, but it’s not actually the outrages themselves that are the problem. It’s the consistently-getting-away-with-nearly-anything-not-on-video-and-most-things-that-are that’s the problem.

          It would have been nicer if the article focused on that rather than simply “it happens”, but I guess that wouldn’t have been as punchy.

          • Jadagul says:

            To be fair, that article was a followup to Friedersdorf posting about those issues on a fairly regular basis for the previous couple of years.

  32. Jaskologist says:

    At some point we really need to get ourselves some better government programs.

    It saddens me that the Futurama “I’m sending in more trains!” clip doesn’t seem to be online, because this would be a good time to link it. I’ll have to fall back to Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s “this time will be different!

    The article basically says, “Sociologists have made themselves irrelevant because they have put politics above truth, and so avoided all the most fruitful lines of inquiry. Therefore, sociologists must become more involved in politics.” Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that not everything is solvable with a government program; humanity evolved many other societal organs for a reason.

    • stillnotking says:

      This particular moral panic is on its way out; the media are lagging indicators, if anything. I actually had a conversation about this in the office the other day, with an African-American woman whom I know to be extremely liberal, and she was very dismissive of the whole thing. She thought it ridiculous to claim that college white women are at a uniquely high risk of sexual assault, and hated the idea of watering down due process. I can hardly blame her for being concerned about that; as Freddie deBoer and others have pointed out, it’s invariably minorities who bear the brunt of such “hard-line” policies.

      • alexp says:

        I’m not sure you can say the moral panic is on the way out, when laws like affirmative consent, and policy changes like the Title IX cases for sexual assault have been implemented recently.

  33. John Schilling says:

    [The Space Shuttle] probably set space exploration back for a generation because it looked so cool that no one was willing to admit it was useless

    I would argue that it was Apollo that set space exploration back for a generation. Almost no science fiction writer of the 1950s dared to forecast a lunar landing by 1970, in large part because none of them forecast a lunar landing without first building the appropriate infrastructure – e.g. a space station in low Earth orbit to use as a logistics base. Or something akin to a space shuttle, but narrowly optimized for actually shuttling stuff to and from such a base.

    So, we made it to the Moon at a price we could barely afford, and left nothing in our tracks to make future voyages any less ruinously expensive. The Shuttle was part of a sincere attempt at a more sustainable program, but crippled as you note by unrealistic expectations that nobody was willing to scale back. And also, I would argue, by the perception that it was necessary to spend ten billion dollars to build a spaceship.

  34. WRT o3, perhaps they would find more consistent results if they stopped using crap supplements:

  35. Tom Womack says:

    I would be intrigued to know how the schizophrenic religious mania presents itself in other cultures; it’s come out for Terry Davis as an odd mix of the Old and New Testaments, I would be very interested to see how much of the Book of Mormon appears in people with a Mormon upbringing (or indeed of the Koran in people with an Islamic upbringing, though I suspect a vigorously idiosyncratic approach to the Koran is likely to bring worse secular consequences in many places).

  36. anon1 says:

    You’re on Language Log now, being accused of “do[ing your] best to generate sympathy for the Chinese authorities”:

  37. Shmi Nux says:

    > if you inject the glial cells of a supergenius into the brain of a moderately intelligent person, does the moderately intelligent person become smarter? I’m asking for, uh, a friend. Yeah. A friend.

    Actually, you should probably buy a helmet, your glia is in high demand.

  38. gwern says:

    No effect on the kids’ futures (compare to the non-experimental neighborhood study in the last links roundup.)

    Which could’ve been predicted by anyone who took Sariaslan more seriously than a regression which didn’t even try in any way to control for what sort of people would find themselves in a poor neighborhood… Note, BTW, that no one discusses one of the implications of that: if you took people from a high-violent-crime area and relocate them into a low-violent-crime area and the relocatees’ crime rates don’t go down, how many lives did you just damage by your experiment? The cost of vouchers is only one cost.

    I also like the ‘series of scathing reviews’. Talk about Occam’s butterknife. Or this gem:

    In probing for an explanation, the authors were led back to deep sociological analyses involving the study of family fragility and the cultural meaning of motherhood, fatherhood, and manhood among low-income African-American youth. Exceptional analysis—but again, why were sociologists only in on the program’s post-mortem instead of its design, which any competent sociologist of the family could have predicted was bound to fail?

    If you say so…

    A case in point: If you find that neighborhoods have no effects, you should be prepared to do the rational thing and go live in an inner-city neighborhood with its much cheaper real estate, or at least advise your struggling son or daughter searching for an apartment to save by renting there. If the thought offends you, then something stinks.

    This is actually an interestingly wrong argument (possibly related to overcontrolling bias and Simpson’s paradox). Let’s review what the results are: Sariaslan and MTO find that in a non-experimental analysis exploiting within-family shifts of neighborhood, and an experimental manipulation of neighborhood, families/individuals which started in poorer neighborhoods do not change on key metrics when moving to richer/better neighborhoods. Patterson argues that this implies the reverse: that people in richer/better neighborhoods randomly moved to a poorer/worse neighborhood will experience no worse outcomes, which intuitively sounds wrong (consider murder rates! how can you be as well off if you’re dead?) and so we ought to modus tollens the modus ponens of the studies.

    Except that there are asymmetries here: as I note about moving poorer people, they brought their outcomes with them, including engaging in violence against other people – ie. there aren’t neighborhood effects, there are people effects. The poorer people are not made worse off when they move because they’re already experiencing their own consequences and inflicting their outcomes on the people in the new neighborhood; this is untrue of a richer person who becomes exposed to more poor people. It’s true that someone rich who voluntary goes to live in an inner-city neighborhood may not see their salary drop and it’s also true that you wouldn’t expect them to suddenly turn into rapists, but that is irrelevant to larger questions like “will I be murdered by someone else?” Where the obvious answer is also the one supported by the study. There’s no paradox, just a misunderstanding of results and rhetorical equivocation.

    BTW, may I spam yet again a link to Rossi’s Iron Laws for those who haven’t read it yet?

    Recent study: Summer jobs decrease violent crime among disadvantaged youth almost by half, effect remains after one-year followup. Cost-effectiveness still difficult to determine.

    Fulltext: / /

    During the 16-month follow-up period, ~17% of the control group (n = 155 youth) is arrested for any crime, with an average of 0.30 arrests per youth. The main ITT results are presented in Fig. 1. Violent-crime arrests among the treatment group decrease by 43% relative to the control group (0.0395 fewer arrests, or almost 4 fewer per 100 youth; P = 0.022). There are no significant changes in other types of arrests (39). The results are robust to accounting for the number of hypothesis tests conducted, allowing youth outcomes to be correlated within schools and using a nonlinear specification for count data (supplementary materials, section 2.5)

    Not robust to multiple-correction, though. (Tests 4 different crime categories; a Bonferroni-adjustment would pull 0.05 down to 0.0125 (0.05/4), and obviously 0.022 is not smaller than that hence is not statistically-significant.) And Figure 2 is interesting; author spins it as

    The time path of the violence decrease is shown in Fig. 2 in greater detail. It graphs the cumulative treatment effect over time, with each point adding an additional month of data to the prior effect. The drop in arrests becomes statistically different from zero around month 6, 3 months after the end of the program, and continues to grow through month 11, after which it flattens out. The downward slope of the effect makes it clear that the bulk of the drop in violence accrues between months 5 and 11, well after the end of the program at month 3.

    But I don’t see any decrease. I see a cherry-picked metric which during the actual program is decidedly non-statistically-significant, and which occasionally regress to non-statistical-significance (month 14, eg)

    The existing employment literature might suggest that this kind of low-dosage jobs program is unlikely to change criminal behavior.


    • Scott Alexander says:

      I feel like the reason “anyone who believes this should move to the inner city” is wrong is much simpler – the study did find that moving to nicer neighborhoods (unsurprisingly) increased happiness.

      I’m perfectly comfortable saying “If I moved to a worse neighborhood, it would make me miserable – but not change my propensity to commit crime or my children’s likely educational outcome”. Still wouldn’t do it.

      • Hainish says:

        Scott, seem to I remember reading somewhere that the original program/study that motivated MTO involved stricter selection criteria for the families that were offered vouchers. (It’s referred to, in passing, here.) I wonder if you’d come across anything that confirms this?

        Also sort of relevant: boys vs. girls in the MTO program

    • Anonymous says:

      if you took people from a high-violent-crime area and relocate them into a low-violent-crime area and the relocatees’ crime rates don’t go down, how many lives did you just damage by your experiment?

      If they are bad for their neighbors, that’s true regardless of where they live. You’ve made their old neighbors better off by removing them. The question is whether there are increasing or diminishing returns to concentration.

      • gwern says:

        If they are bad for their neighbors, that’s true regardless of where they live.

        Forewarned is forearmed, and making a dump more of a dump isn’t as big a problem as taking productive areas with productive people and degrading them.

    • Deiseach says:

      Going by the Wikipedia link, although the “moving poor famlies to nicer neighbourhoods” didn’t have an effect on education/jobs, it did have a positive effect on health and happiness.

      Which is about what I’d expect: (A) you’re probably moving relatiely stable families to the nice neighbourhoods (B) which means that they’re probably more likely to be two-parent families with at least one of the parents working and (C) unless the money goes up, nicer neighbourhood doens’t mean more opportunities: are the kids going to school in the nicer neighbourhood or still attending their old school? Even so, going on to college (which is what I’m assuming is the improved education outcome) is expensive if your family an’t afford it. So the kids may stay on and complete high school, but they’ll probably be looking for work after they finish, which iwll be blue-collar or lower-skill ‘white’ or ‘pink’ collar work (e.g. secretarial work).

      • Anthony says:

        You don’t need stable families or “nice” people to make this work. Moving a poor person or family to a nice neighborhood doesn’t directly fix why they’re poor. But it does move them away from lots of other poor people, many of whom are real crap neighbors.

        • Tom Womack says:

          That gets close to an argument that antisocial behaviour ought to be dealt with by segregation from society (IE something shaped like imprisonment) until demonstrably no longer antisocial.

          Which, from time to time, particularly after having my bike stolen and reading newspaper articles about someone pleading guilty to the theft of thirty bikes despite having been briefly imprisoned for bike theft in the past, doesn’t seem so horribly bad an idea.

          Obviously it turns into a nightmare once not-voting-Orange is codified as antisocial behaviour; and probably imprisoning bike thieves is more expensive over time than improving cheap bike locks.

      • Nornagest says:

        are the kids going to school in the nicer neighbourhood or still attending their old school?

        In the US, your eligibility for attending a particular public school is usually determined strictly by where you live. And it can be pretty fine-grained; between second and third grade, for example, I changed primary school districts after my mother moved less than five miles. Public school funding formulas, meanwhile, vary widely between states and often get fiendishly complicated, but because a big chunk of funding often comes from local property taxes, communities with a lot of land value relative to their population (generally meaning rich suburbs) are often better funded.

        So the poor kids in this example would be going to good schools. Obviously that doesn’t give them the money for college by itself, but secondary school funding is often hailed as an important source of indirect support in American politics, the sort of thing that for example allows teachers to give poor but high-performing students the help they’d need to make a case for scholarships or student loans on good terms. If long-term educational outcomes aren’t meaningfully affected by the move, that’s a serious challenge to that idea.

  39. cassander says:

    I bow to no one in my hatred of the shuttle program, but I’ll make an even stronger claim, that the Apollo program was bad for space exploration, and it is what doomed the shuttle.

    Apollo was an amazing human achievement, don’t get me wrong, but the way we did it was terrible. Chemical rockets are, just barely, good enough to get people to the moon. they aren’t good enough to get people anywhere else. Prior to apollo, rocket scientists had figured this out, which is why guys like von braun were working on projects like NERVA. But these were new technologies, and would take time to develop. Jim Webb, the exceedingly capable guy in charge of NASA during apollo, knew that he had a deadline to make, so he shunted aside all development of new technologies that were not absolutely essential to the moonshot. this meant that vast sums of money (NASA consumed about 1% of GDP in its peak years) got spent on brute forcing a dead end technology.

    That is bad enough, but because the government was doing the spending, a huge rocket industrial complex developed with an interest is perpetuating its existing business model. Boeing and Lockheed would happily lobby in support of the shuttle they would build, they weren’t going to lobby in favor of technologies that made their existing facilities and knowledge obsolete. The shuttle designers would go on to make mistakes of their own, some excusable some not, but the basic shape of the thing was determined by the need to cut costs combined with the established interests left over from Apollo. the question the designers were asking was not “what should be do next” but “what’s the biggest thing we can get funding to do next”, which meant no new technical development. And worst of all, just a few years later the anti-nuclear movement got going, which totally killed any possibility of atomic rocket engines.

    Had it not been for apollo levels of funding, going to the moon, or anywhere besides orbit, simply wouldn’t have been possible. this would have forced NASA to spend its more limited budget on engine technologies with more oompf. the chemical rocket industrial complex would never have developed. This definitely would have delayed landing on the moon, possibly by decades, but when we did land there, it would have been the result not of a single spasm of effort, but as part of a sustainable expansion into space.

    • John Schilling says:

      Actually, Von Braun never worked on NERVA. When other people came up with it, he came up with ways it could be used. But more than a decade before the first NERVA test, Von Braun was seriously planning to go to Mars in style, seventy men in ten ships for three years, in his lifetime and hopefully in person.

      Using not just chemical rockets, but what we would consider laughably obsolete hydrazine/nitric acid rockets. There were obviously technical flaws in his plans; you can’t set something like this down on paper in 1952 and get the details right. In particular, he didn’t understand reentry aerodynamics (nobody did), and he overestimated the thickness of the Martian atmosphere (like everybody else). But his 1952 plan was basically sound and had enough margins to work around the difficulties.

      I do advanced spacecraft propulsion for a living, and I’ll ask you to trust me on this. If you’ll settle for now on reaching Mars and the nearer asteroids, any sort of propulsion system will get the job done. NERVA will get the job done, if you have it, but it’s not as wonderful as you think it is. Various sorts of ion and plasma drives, whether nuclear or solar powered. And chemical rockets, whether LOX/hydrogen or LOX/hydrocarbon, will get the job done. In style, with vast fleets of ships carrying hundreds or thousands of people at a price that won’t bankrupt small nations.

      What will not get the job done, is the wrong mission architecture or inadequate systems engineering. And that’s what NASA’s haste bought them, and us.

      If the only city in the Western Hemisphere is St. Louis, and you want to visit Europe, you absolutely need two things up front: Reliable, affordable, utilitarian riverboats, and the city of New Orleans. Or at least some sort of seaport at the mouth of the Mississippi. If you head out onto the high seas on the most majestic riverboat ever to sail the Big Muddy because you’re in too much of a hurry to stop and change boats, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re arguing whether square-rigged sails or fore-and-aft or one of those newfangled steam engines is the best way to take a flat-bottomed riverboat on a one-way trip across the Atlantic, you missed the part where you did it wrong a few steps ago. And if you don’t pay attention to the details because it is more important to do it fast than to do it right, you won’t be able to keep doing it.

      NASA did it wrong almost half a century ago, and made it as far as Cuba, barely, six tries out of seven. They convinced almost everyone on Earth that nobody could have done it better. And they broke Von Braun’s spirit, because he did know better but had to stand on the sidelines and watch his dreams die.

      • cassander says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that NERVA was the be all end all solution, merely to cite it as an example of propulsion concepts that were shunted to the side. As for settling, it isn’t how far you can get that I care about, it’s how cheaply, reliably, and commonly you can do it. building sized chemical rockets with cryogenic fuels are never going to cheap, reliable and common. for that we need something fundamentally better. I don’t pretend to know what that is, but it isn’t what we have.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          FACT: The answer is ALWAYS moar boosters.

          Except when it’s moar struts.

          (Seriously. If Kerbal Space Program has taught me one thing, it’s that NTR-SSTO is a terrible idea. SSTO is actually really sweet for shuttling passengers to your big-ass cruise liner, which is of course NERVA-powered and huge and majestic, but you get the cruise liner into orbit with good ol’ Kerolox boosters – preferrably in like, six pieces which you then assemble in orbit.)

          • cassander says:

            this is true, but it’s worth pointing out that KSP nerfs the NTR in two ways. first it kills its low atmo performance, and two, more importantly, the smaller size of the KSP solar system makes high ISP less important. when getting into orbit takes 9000 deltaV not 4500, the calculation changes.

          • Ialdabaoth says:

            I play with mods to simulate a realistic environment (including having to use actual hydrogen fuel densities, actual atmospheric Isp, realistic aerodynamic drag, and a reasonably-scaled Kerbin)

          • John Schilling says:

            Ialdaboth is right. Nuclear thermal rockets are at their very worst if you try to use them for launching from Earth to Orbit. If you juggle the assumptions just right, you can maybe make them look a little better than chemical rockets, but they aren’t the overlooked revolution that would have unlocked the heavens. And no, better reactors don’t help much, because too much of the weight is in the pumps and turbines and plumbing and cooling systems, all rather mature technologies.

            The natural domain of NTR is deep space propulsion, where you don’t need a thrust:weight ratio of better than 1 to get off the ground and you don’t need to haul those unbelievably bulky fuel tanks through thick air. At hypersonic speeds, while trying to keep the contents below 20K…

            And even in deep space, the benefits of NTR are fairly modest, almost certainly not worth the costs of developing a very complex new technology. Not to mention convincing people to let you have a very significant quantity of highly enriched uranium which you promise to never use for evil even as you take it far beyond the reach of any DOE agent or UN inspector.

          • cassander says:

            NTR isn’t the ultimate solution, it’s the start of the journey. the laws of physics simply preclude building rockets much better than the ones we have if we rely on chemical propulsion. if there were, the TWR ratio or ISP of chemical rockets would have improved somewhat since apollo.

            If you want more power, you need to crack atoms, not just molecules. NERVA was a prototype developed just a few years after the invention of nuclear reactors. judging the potential for all NTR reactors based on its specs is like judging the potential for chemical rockets based on what jon goddard could cook up in his lab in the 30s. But even if you are right, and none of the massive improvements in reactor design are meaningful for NTRs, they would still start us down the path towards serious use of nuclear power in space. Whether its improved NTRs, JIMO’s nuclear electric, gas core rockets, or something else, all are potentially huge steps up from what we have now. to say that there simply is no meaningful use for nuclear power based on the stats of a 50 year old prototype strikes me as completely crazy

          • John Schilling says:

            I don’t recall saying that there was “no meaningful use for nuclear power” in the space propulsion arena. Indeed, I have been fairly consistent in saying that nuclear power is modestly advantageous for in-space propulsion in the inner solar system and will be necessary for major operations in the outer Solar System. What I have been asserting is:

            No nuclear propulsion system* that could plausibly be built in the 1964-2034 timeframe would be of any significant value for Earth-to-orbit transportation or of more than modest value for space transportation in the inner Solar System.

            I have carelessly used “NERVA” and “solid-core NTR” as synonyms, and probably should not have. But it doesn’t change much, as there is not much chance of any nuclear thermal rocket offering performance much beyond that of the later NERVA design studies. Nuclear thermal rockets are fundamentally limited by factors that are not unique to solid-core NTR, e.g. the performance of expander-cycle liquid hydrogen turbopumps. We use those in chemical rockets too, so the relevant technology has been pushed as far as it is going to be even as we abandoned solid-core NTR after NERVA. There’s no alternate history where aggressively developing NERVA in the 1960s gives us super-NTRs today.

            And nuclear propulsion technologies other than solid-core NTR, are largely orthogonal development paths. Yes, including gas-core NTR. Abandoning solid-core NTR after NERVA did not stop us from continuing to look at all of the alternatives. Nor even from looking at whether or not e.g. the latest generation of expander-cycle LH2 turbopumps made NTR worth revisiting again. The closest we have found to anything worth doing is nuclear-electric, e.g. your Prometheus example, but that’s not much better than solar-electric if you aren’t going out past Mars.

            [*] Orion-style nuclear pulse propulsion being a possible exception, if you don’t mind that your glorious extraterrestrial adventures leave you unwelcome to return to the desolate wasteland than was your launch site 🙂

          • cassander says:

            first, let me say how much I’ve enjoyed this exchange john, I don’t get to talk about this topic much with knowledgeable people. I fully admit to being a dabbler, but I still have some points to make..

            First, yeah, I’ve also been lazy about terminology regarding NTRs. And I’ll grant that NERVA ISP represents close to peak. but as I understand it, your objection to NTRs is that their TWR is lousy. But if there is one area where advancements in reactor design would help, it would be in TWR. you say it won’t help because a lot of the weights are the same as in chemical rockets. That’s true, but the additional weight of the reactor isn’t nothing. if we can drive that down, then we get much closer to the TWR of a standard chemical rocket, while keeping the double ISP. Now sure, it might still not be good enough for SSTO, but so what? I wasn’t talking about building an SSTO, I’m satisfied with just dramatically improving payload ratio.

            Second, let’s say you’re right at the end of the day NTRs end up only being marginally better for Earth to LEO missions. I would still call it a big win. why? because we’d have a large community of nuclear engineers hanging about the space program and industry eager to do nuclear engineering. I realize that there is no tech tree style advancement from solid to gas core engines from a pure engineering perspective, but there from a political and mindshare sense perspective. I’m not an engineer, I have no idea how long it would take to develop a gas core engine. But I do know that it would happen faster if there was a large group of nuclear engineers in the space program with a vested interest in building one.

            Last, to address your fuel first plan. Yes, the SLS is a stupid boondoggle sadly typical of NASA. Your plan would mean more voyages for the same amount of money. But that’s focussing on the wrong thing. even if we make musk dictator of space and get down to 1000 bucks a pound, it still costs 200 grand to get my ass into space, more if I plan to come back. you’re trying to optimize an equation, maximizing the number and distance you can fling monkeys given the current restraints. Frankly, that’s the thinking that led to apollo. their biggest constraint was time, not cost, so they just massively scaled up what they were currently doing because that seemed the most predictable route. What I want to do is focus on that 1000 dollars a pound figure. drive that down, and NASA will be able to do more for the same money even if they insist on using big manly rockets, because their big manly rockets will be better. drive it low enough, and people other than NASA will be able to go to space. And frankly, if we can’t drive down that cost, I don’t care about much about space. at 1000 dollars a pound, space is never going to be more than a side show. we’ll have some some scientific missions and communications satellites, but no real human presence.

          • Nornagest says:

            at 1000 dollars a pound, space is never going to be more than a side show. we’ll have some some scientific missions and communications satellites, but no real human presence.

            That’s within spitting distance of what passage to the earliest American colonies cost in contemporary money. I think you might be underestimating the kinds of resources people are willing to throw at relocation if there’s a good reason for it.

            Of course, there’s nothing in space right now or in the foreseeable future that’d make a $200,000 ticket worthwhile for your average schlub without scientific or technical skills, but that might change.

          • Trivial Gravitas says:

            Really your argument is that SSTO NTR wouldn’t work?

            Of course SSTO NTR is bunk, its the worst possible application of NTR. Even chemical SSTO is a bad idea.

            NTR is there for *after* you break free of the Goddard problem.

        • John Schilling says:

          Why are building-sized chemical rockets never going to be cheap, reliable, and common?

          Buildings, after all, are common. And buildings are made of things like brick and wood, which cost real money ($200/tonne or so). Most of what makes up a building-sized rocket is liquid oxygen, which is close enough to free as makes no difference. And most of the dry weight is sheet metal, or maybe carbon fiber wound about a cylindrical mandrel, which costs more than brick but shouldn’t break the bank.

          If your plan is to get off the ground with nuclear-thermal rockets, granted, the rocket might be lighter. It will still be building-sized, on account of the propellant density being so low. There will be no cheap LOX anywhere in the system; instead you’ll be using liquid hydrogen at thirty times the cost. The dry weight, the metal parts that really dominate your budget, will be heavier for the nuclear-thermal rocket, and an awful lot of it will be metals like zirconium and tungsten rather than aluminum, and there will be a lot of very specialized, very expensive fiddly bits of machinery.

          Chemical rockets are simpler, and cheaper.

          And again, please take my word for it that there is no propulsion system that is going to change this. Particularly not for Earth-to-orbit transportation, which is the hardest part of the trip. If you want something better than what we have, well, I do pretend to know what that is, and I’ve given you some hints, and it isn’t propulsion. Look elsewhere.

          • Alex Godofsky says:

            Buildings are common because they are really valuable and last approximately forever. Rockets are almost useless and can be used once.

          • John Schilling says:

            And you know this, how exactly?

            To paraphrase Chesterton, reusable rockets have not been tried and found wanting, they have been found difficult and not tried. When they have been tried, mostly in obscure corners of the industry, they have generally worked quite well.

            With the conspicuous exception of the space shuttle, but as already noted the Space Shuttle was specified to be a reusable rocket-powered Winnebago NASCAR heavy tractor-trailer utility pickup truck. It would be a mistake to conclude from this that “reusable rocket power” has been found wanting.

          • Alex Godofsky says:

            I’m perfectly willing to concede on the “reusable” point taken literally, as you appear to have much more detailed knowledge on that point than I do. However that doesn’t refute [that half of] the point being made, viz. that buildings are extremely-long-duration investments (they are basically the longest-duration investments we can make on a mass scale), with durations from decades up to a century or more. By contrast, even a reusable rocket presumably has fairly large depreciation in the form of fuel and other bits and pieces you have to replace after each launch.

            But even if we could make rockets that were as “reusable” as a skyscraper, it wouldn’t matter because rockets just aren’t very useful. There just isn’t that much worthwhile stuff to do in space, particularly not at the energy cost of getting there.

          • cassander says:

            In addition to Alex Godofsky’s point, buildings are built from cheap materials to hold people. rockets are built from expensive materials to hold cryogenic or toxic liquids at extreme pressures and temperatures. it isn’t the fuel that is expensive, it’s the engineering and precision manufacturing that is required to contain the fuel. I’ve built houses. If I have a bad day and install a window a bit screwy, the house will be a bit draftier than it should be, but it will still function as a house. If you do that on a rocket, it explodes. houses built to the standard of rocket engines would be just as expensive, and just as rare.

            More generally, I think judging all potential NTR reactos based on the TWR of the first prototype is a bit harsh. there have been dramatic increases in reactor efficiency since the 60s, and at least some of those are translatable into lower weight.

          • Anon256 says:

            Why are we comparing to buildings and not to aircraft?

        • Hey John – really enjoying this discussion as a non-rocket expert.

          Question: what do you think of nuclear saltwater rockets? In principle the scheme seems much saner than NERVA but with similar theoretical advantages on SPI and thrust.

          But I’m not enough of an expert to tell if it’s just bullshit.

    • Daniel Speyer says:

      What are the viable technologies besides chemical rockets? Outside of nuclear, chemical wins on energy density, and nuclear tends to have huge overheads. Is there any viable power-source-on-the-ground technology?

      • John Schilling says:

        For launch to Earth orbit, chemical rockets are about it. You can maybe run some of your chemical fuel through an airbreathing engine; that probably just adds cost and complexity but there’s a credible minority opinion that if you do it right it makes your job a little bit easier.

        Nuclear-thermal rockets can be made to work for Earth-to-orbit launch; they just won’t do it any better than chemical rockets, and they will cost more. The improved efficiency of the engine does not compensate for the increased weight of the engine and the weight and bulk of the propellant tanks (NTR only works well with liquid hydrogen, which has about the density of rice krispies but needs to be kept at 20 K or below).

        For beamed power, the most realistic proposal I have seen is Jordin Kare’s laser heat exchanger system. But like all beamed-power systems, this works best if you scale it for large numbers of small payloads – you’re spending a couple billion dollars for the lasers it will take to launch a hundred kilos of cargo. If you’ve got a logistics base in equatorial orbit and you can send up a hundred kilos every ninety minutes, that’s a great pipeline for food, water, and rocket fuel but you’ll need something else for people and heavy equipment. And for setting up the logistics base in the first place.

        For travel beyond Earth orbit, things open up and you can use solar-electric or nuclear-electric propulsion; I gave some links in my first post. Or you can use nuclear-thermal at lower thrust levels where the engine weight doesn’t hurt you quite so much.

        But, as Heinlein pointed out, Low Earth Orbit is halfway to anywhere in energy terms. So long as you have a staging post in LEO, and you’re willing to wait on efficient trajectories, whatever brought you to LEO will work for the rest of the trip. The gains from advanced propulsion technologies are substantial and worth pursuing, but they aren’t revolutionary or critically necessary unless you’re doing something like a manned mission to Jupiter and can’t spend three years coasting on an efficient trajectory.

        • youzicha says:

          I think that saying is misleading. LEO is roughly halfway to anywhere in terms of delta-v, not energy. And because of the exponential in the rocket equation, that’s way less than halfway in terms of propellant required. E.g. the Mars Climate Orbiter weighs 338kg, and was launched on a Delta II. According to Wikipedia a Delta II can lauch 6100kg to LEO, so it seems that LEO is about 6% of a Mars trip.

          • John Schilling says:

            Your use of the rocket equation implicitly, and your MCO example explicitly, assumes that the trip will be made nonstop and without refuelling.

            Since my attempts to be less than blunt on this subject have apparently been unsuccessful, let me be blunt. Flying a rocket from Earth to Mars without stopping to refuel along the way, is mind-bogglingly stupid. Flying a rocket anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit without stopping to refuel is stupid. The great sin of Apollo, the one that has crippled space exploration for fifty years, is that it convinced even people who really ought to know better, that Great Big Rockets Which Never Stop For Fuel are the only way to do the job, and that only pansy girly-men who want to hobble the Glorious Exploration of Space with their pointless delays and petty conservatism would waste time and money on something as silly as setting up a gas station at the halfway point between where we are and where we want to be.

            If you do want to set up a gas station, Low Earth Orbit really is about the halfway point and it is where the first gas station goes. There should probably be a few more beyond that, and they should really be full service truck stops, but you start with the propellant depot in LEO. Everybody who wrote either serious mission proposals or hard science fiction in the 1950s or early 1960s, understood that. Apollo made them stupid, or if it didn’t make them stupid it made them afraid to speak their mind in forums dominated by the stupids.

            And yes, assuming you stop for fuel whenever appropriate (i.e. before the rocket equation goes seriously exponential), Delta-V is the appropriate metric. Really, it’s almost always the appropriate metric, but sometimes the effects are nonlinear. You want to try and figure out how to avoid that.

          • cassander says:


            My understanding is that whenever multiple launch missions are considered, they always end up costing more money than a bigger single launch mission because of the somewhat lower efficiency of indirect injections/transfers and the immense cost of individual launches. Now I will grant that these estimates were all made using current equipment stocks and that had different infrastructure been built things might be different, but there is a more fundamental problem. A gas station in LEO only saves you money if you have a relatively cheap way to get fuel to it. If you don’t, nothing changes.

            Yes, with enough chemical rockets you can go almost anywhere you want in the solar system, but the cost is immense. von braun’s plan was brilliant, but insane. it would have required the equivalent of hundreds of saturn V launches. The cost would have been hundreds of billions then, trillions today. The tragedy of apollo wasn’t the method, it was that it threw a ton of money down a rathole and in doing so convinced everyone that that rathole such a fantastic way to go to space that they shouldn’t even bother looking at alternatives.

          • youzicha says:


            If you have a fueling station in LEO, where does the fuel come from? If you still have to launch it from earth, then there does not seem to be any dramatic savings between launching it in 10 small rockets or one big rocket? Is the idea that economies of scale will make it cheaper?

            I know that early plans for going to the moon (and recent plans for going to Mars) include assembling/fueling the rocket in orbit. My impression was that the reason for this was mostly that they didn’t think they could build a big enough rocket to do it in one go (particularly before they had settled on the lunar orbit rendezvous idea, and were planning on landing the entire rocket on the moon surface). The pdf you linked suggests another advantage, that we could use existing small commercial rockets instead of designing a new big one, which is true, but also doesn’t seem like a _dramatic_ cost saving.

            I could see the fueling station as a big saving if you could get the fuel from somewhere other than Earth (the moon? asteroids?), or if you could launch it with something other than chemical rockets (laser ablation? space elevator?).

          • John Schilling says:


            In the long run, the fuel does come from the lunar south pole, or from volatile-rich near Earth asteroids. Or possibly from Earth via laser launch, the Kare heat exchanger system I linked to earlier was pretty much designed for that.

            In the near term, fuel gets to orbital depots in rockets that are designed to deliver fuel (or other bulk cargo) to orbital depots. These are much more efficient than rockets that are designed to go to the Moon and, oh, by the way, carry some fuel into LEO along the way because you’ll need it to go to the moon. This is, after all, how actual gas stations work. You can deliver gasoline in a car stuffed with jerrycans, but tanker trucks are much, much cheaper per gallon delivered. So instead of telling people “a motor vehicle is a motor vehicle, stop dicking around asking for pointless infrastucture at someone else’s expense and stuff your trunk with however many jerrycans you need”, we put up gas stations along the interstates. This works better.

            But nobody builds the rocket equivalent of a tanker truck. The Russian Energia came pretty close, as did some of the Shuttle-derived heavy lift launch vehicles we never got around to building. Mostly, all of our big rockets are optimized for going to the Moon (or to Geostationary orbit, or to deep space, all of which are roughly the same degree of difficulty). And nobody builds space stations which are designed to service spaceships; only scientific outposts whose occupants scream if you mess up their precious microgravity with clumsy industrial activities.

            And don’t underestimate the benefit of using commercial rockets vs. custom government jobs. Even if NASA goes all in on SLS, they are likely to spend $65 billion to launch thirteen rockets over the next twelve years, carrying at most 1,630 tonnes of payload to LEO. For $65 billion, you could buy one thousand sixty two Falcon 9.1 rockets at the advertised commercial price carrying just under 14,000 tonnes of payload to LEO. Or, if you discount SpaceX as doomed to fail or a fraud depending on hidden government subsidies, three hundred thirty eight Ariane 5 ECAs and 7,100 tonnes of payload. If, on the other hand, SpaceX delivers the Falcon Heavy as advertised, $65E9 gets you seven hundred sixty four Heavies and over 40,000 tonnes to LEO. This despite the fact that none of those rockets were optimized for payload delivery to LEO.

            OK, maybe $10 billion to build a large commercial depot, $25 billion to deliver 15,000 tonnes of fuel, leaving $30 billion left over to build the sort of spaceships that could do interesting things if they start in Low Earth Orbit with 15,000 tonnes of fuel to play with.

          • John Schilling says:


            “…whenever multiple launch missions are considered, they always end up costing more money than a bigger single launch mission”

            Just to clarify the pluralization there, that’s plural instances in which a single mission is considered. And yes, if you’re going to the Moon once, or to Mars once, it usually is cheaper to buy one big rocket. Just like, if you were going to drive across an uninhabited North America once, it would be cheaper to buy a Peterbilt with a 7,000 gallon tank trailer, towing a pickup truck with about twenty jerrycans and a small motorcycle in the bed, than it would be to set up even a single gas station where St. Louis is supposed to be. You’d wind up littering the landscape with discarded automotive hardware, but if the plan is to abandon the gas station after you fill up one car…

            Going interesting places once is sort of NASA’s stock in trade; they keep expecting that once they have done something once Congress will pay full price for them to keep doing it forever, but that trick never works.

            If you’re planning on repeat business, and you delegate the planning to someone who doesn’t have a license to print money but does know how to run a profitable business, I linked to ULA’s answer about two posts back.

            Oh, and let me preemptively address another mind-bogglingly stupid but common criticism of smart mission architectures. They are doomed to fail because they are impossibly complex; rockets explode about 2% of the time and if your mission requires fifty rockets (especially those cheap commercial ones that probably blow up more often than our special custom jobs), one of them will almost certainly blow up and then where are you?

            Where I am is, if my mission needed fifty rockets most of which were fuel tankers, I budgeted at least fifty-three and so I still have two spares. And if I’m planning more than one mission, any spares I don’t use on mission N become part of the baseline for mission N+1, so the only net cost is the marginal interest costs for bringing a few launches forward a few months or years.

          • youzicha says:


            I see! That makes a lot of sense.

        • Lambert says:

          Pfft. going upwards by throwing stuff downwards really fast? I’m just gonna build me a space elevator.

        • AlphaCeph says:

          I think there are better ways to get *very* large amounts of payload/year from earth to LEO.

          For example, if you were willing to invest in a huge mass driver, you could have a fleet of easily reusable vehicles.

          Or you could have a tether-based system such as a bolo.

    • vV_Vv says:

      My criticism is even more radical 🙂
      I argue that manned space missions are a dead end technology, at least for the foreseeable future: there is nothing valuable that humans can currently do in space better than machines can do.

  40. Jaskologist says:

    I was trying to figure out what it would even mean to not believe in cultural evolution. Would you think that societies don’t change, generally in an incremental fashion?

    So I went to the original article, and I think what he’s actually arguing against is Whig History. He seems to have misconstrued “evolution” as “progress.” See, for example “Bad ideas like racism seem to hang around forever” as evidence against cultural evolution, which hinges on judging racism as bad, whereas evolution would only care if it is useful.

    Admittedly, people make this mistake all the time with biological evolution, too. Bacteria as just as evolved as you (if not much more so, given their reproductive speed).

    • William O. B'Livion says:

      RE: Bacteria and evolution.

      When I lived in Australia we drove up Stuart Highway from Alice Springs to Darwin.

      Starting (from memory) somewhere north of Tennant Creek we started seeing these termite “mounds”, except they aren’t “mounds”, they’re more like little (and not so little ) skyscrapers.

      We saw thousands of these mounds (the ones we saw were about 2 feet to 4 feet, not the monsters like in that picture) fading off into the distance for about 300km of road. That’s *Brazilians* of termites just within site of the road in the smaller mounds.

      Yeah, Humans are the most highly evolved creatures on earth. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.

  41. Drew Hardies says:

    I think the real reason sociologists are irrelevant is right here:

    The second is this: If you end up with findings that have policy implications that you would never dream of advocating for yourself or your loved ones, be wary of them.

    Not only is the author admitting that he’ll fight unpalatable results, he’s advocating this sort of confirmation-bias as a research technique.

    Of course people won’t ask him to weigh in on research design; he’s doing apologetics, not research.

    • Anonymous says:

      Is “them” here (in “be wary of them”) the findings, or the policy implications? The sentence seems ambiguous (and could stand a rewrite). Perhaps the author is only advocating being wary of ill-considered, un-compassionate, or naive policymaking made on the basis of sociological findings alone.

    • Anonymous says:

      My probably-too-charitable interpretation is that if your results seem to defy common sense, you should be extra skeptical of them because your bias might be affecting the quality of your research.

      • Alex Godofsky says:

        Yes, your interpretation is too charitable, and Drew’s explanation was spot-on. The actual consequence of that rule is “if your findings suggest the Republicans are right about something, you need to either get new findings or come up with a clever rationalization.”

  42. William O. B'Livion says:

    How about a compromise solution of STOP DOXXING PEOPLE.

    They aren’t doxxing people, they’re doxxing the enemy.

  43. Anonymous says:

    Carcinization is you, isn’t it Scott? It’s OK. You can admit it.

  44. satanistgoblin says:

    Not useless, but arguably suboptimal.

  45. Eli says:

    When Science Fiction Stopped Caring About The Future:

    Kinda a stupid article, because it ignores the rather flagrant trade-off in trying to film real sci-fi: just how far from the present in lifestyle-space can you make your possible-future before it so thoroughly weirds-out popular audiences that you can’t make money selling it?

    Consider what would happen if someone tried to make a film version of Accelerando, of which it was once said that you could not understand what was going on without marinating in Slashdot memes for years at a time.

    And then, of course, there’s the fact that we have lots and lots of social science fiction (predictions of technologically and socially plausible futures), they’re just labeled dystopias. Snowpiercer is about the contradictions of capitalism, The Hunger Games is about government and media run awry (again), and so on and so forth. Writing properly good scifi just got a lot harder when you stopped being able to exponentially extrapolate from “We now travel larger distances and utilize more energy than we used to” to “We will travel vastly larger distances and utilize vastly more energy than we currently do. What will that be like?”

    To imagine a mere extrapolation of present trends is easy and common. To imagine a significant and plausible divergence from present trends is harder. To imagine a worse world than reality is extremely easy, since most possible worlds are awful. To imagine a significantly better world than reality requires real understanding of oneself and humanity, which is very hard. To draw plausible paths from the present day into interesting futures, ones that are fun to examine rather than boring (for instance, possible-worlds without any people in them), is actually very difficult, even when you take the easy route and just posit that life got worse in some trivial way rather than better in some complex way.

  46. I’ve had a fair bit experience interacting with sociologists and I can share a bit of history that might allow further insight.

    Sociology is probably best thought of as a loose association of methodologies, ideologies and frameworks for studying the human social world. Quite a few of the early big names were leaned a little conservative, motivated trying to understand the troubling (for them) social upheaval occuring around the transition from monarchy to democracy, the rise of nation-states etc, while others like Marx had left wing motivations. Within the field there is a massive variety of focuses from whole of society stuff down to speech analysis and everything in between, and people come up with a dizzing array of theories to explain stuff.

    It’s influence has never been massive, but it probably peaked when it presented itself (to government) as an objective body of knowledge about how society works. Durkheim was the best example of this IIRC, and got quite a bit of funding for research etc. when such funding was rare. Possibly Talcott Parsons too if IIRC.

    Problem was, there was a fair bit of stuff presented as objective analysis that was interesting but non-rigorous stuff that just imagined itself to be objective (eg. “structural functionalism”). In the 60s/70s there was a big backlash to this and there was an “anti-positivist” turn. The idea that some sociology was opinions dressed up to appear objective turned into one more along the lines that all social theory/opnion was inherently subjective and that one should instead embrace that and instead use that as a motivator for insight and noble work (eg. advocating an opinion that favours the disadvantage) (this ideas was always a stream, but it became dominant). Generally speaking this has translating to the field being mostly dominated by the cultural left, shades of post-moderism, SJW elements etc. Not all their ideas are bad, there’s still a big variety of views, and there’s a few quite brilliant people, but there’s a considerable anti-science and anti-objectivity culture in the field now.

    This author represents this culture to a certain degree IMO. I disagree with his main suggestion here. Sociology has little influence because most people perceive it as a series of political opinions and ideas, instead of an attempt to provide a politically neutral knowledge base about society. I don’t disagree with all those opinions neccessarily, but as far as I can see the idea that there should more advocacy/opnions/politics (“public sociology”) won’t do anything to increase its influence.

    Actually the field has a whole heap of really really interesting ideas if your interest and motives are genuine. And I don’t think they’re wrong in all of the things they call for by any means. Its just worth remembering that the dominant culture in the field is a little anti-science at times. I often wince when I hear STEM people propose really really half-baked ideas about society that they don’t realise have been trashed or done-to-death years ago in sociology (oblig xkcd is oblig). Some of these ideas seem to gain consdierable traction too.

    My own theories are pretty simple/straight forward in some ways too, but AFAIK they’ll stand fairly solidly against pretty much all the legitimate (imo) ideas in sociology and a rudimentary knowledge of hard science’s contribution to social science.

    Scott, IIRC sociology has quite a lot to say about your field, mostly negative I think, along the lines of “medicalisation of mental illness”. Foucault did a lot of study into how the history of the field shaped the way of looking at mental illness today, though I haven’t read what he actually said. It could be interesting if you’re in the right mood I guess lol.

    EDIT – Whoops maybe that should have been a blog post lol
    EDIT – Now a blog post.

  47. Douglas Knight says:

    The paper on the sex ratio in Germany has a time series that is intended to demonstrate war trends, but it also has year to year changes that seem unrelated, often 0.5%. Today, the birth rate is 8 per mil, almost 700k births, a standard error of 0.06%. So these bounces are not sampling error. (Except that the Baby Boom years of 1955-1965 are smoother, suggesting that I erred in my calculation.)

    If you wanted to understand what controls sex ratio at birth, would it be better to look at the huge (2.5%) change due to rare historical events, or the many smaller changes in years with more and better data? I imagine parallel issues arise often.

  48. 27chaos says:

    In one of the links Carcinization provided, there was this:

    A number of authors have argued that the outcomes in cultural evolution are strongly shaped by “inductive biases” created by human cognition (Sperber and Claidière 2007, Boyer 2008, Griffiths and Reali 2011).We agree that such biases probably have important effects, at least in some domains,andhave referred to these as “content” or “direct” biases (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Henrich and Henrich2010).The way that this works is beautifully illustrated by the transmission chain experiments conducted byTomGriffiths and his collaborators (Griffiths et al 2011). For example, in one experiment, subjects are first shown 50 pairsof numbers. Sometimes these are the x,y coordinates of a straight line, sometimes a curve, and other times they are drawn at random (figure7). Then the subject is given 50 x-values and asked to produce the associated y-value. These fifty pairs are then used to train a second subject, who then is given 50 x-values and asked to produce they values learned during training. This procedure is then repeated for eight more subjects. As can be seen in figure 7, transmission is strongly shaped by a bias in favor of straight line relationshipswith a positive slope. The initial data has no effecton the ultimate outcome. Human learning has an inductive bias that causes people infer straight lines from data, and when combined with error prone learning, this bias gradually causes people to see straight lines where none existed.

    Found that amusing.

    Edit: something else amusing: in the 5 misconceptions about cultural evolution paper, there was this line: “But, and this is a big “but,“”. It occurs to me that I could probably get away with a covert Sir-Mix-A-Lot reference in an academic paper by modifying that phrase slightly.

    • Anonymous says:

      That experiment is from this paper. The nine stages of results are shown in figure 4, but PMC graphs suck and you might as well go to the pdf (p 8 aka 3510) or a screen shot.

      • Nita says:

        The actual experiment is described in an earlier paper: Iterated learning: intergenerational knowledge transmission reveals inductive biases.

        The set-up seems a little convoluted, which may have influenced the results:

        On each trial, a filled blue bar 1 cm high and
        from 0.3 cm (x 5 1) to 30 cm (x 5 100) wide was presented as the
        stimulus. The stimulus was always presented in the upper portion of
        the screen, with its upper left corner approximately 4 cm from the
        top and 4 cm from the left of the edge of the screen. Each participant
        entered a response magnitude by adjusting a vertically oriented unmarked
        slider (located 4 cm from the bottom and 6 cm from the right
        of the screen) with the mouse; the slider’s position determined the
        height of a filled red bar 1 cm wide that could extend up to 25 cm.
        During the training phase, feedback was provided in the form of a
        filled yellow bar 1 cm wide placed 1 cm to the right of the response
        bar, which varied from 0.25 cm (y 5 1) to 25 cm (y 5 100) in height
        and was aligned so that the height of the bar was aligned with the
        correct response.

        So, the participants were not actually “shown 50 pairs of numbers” as the book summary says. Nevertheless, it does provide some evidence in favour of the proposed bias, IMO.

  49. Tom Womack says:

    @John Schilling: The ‘space transportation infrastructure supported by propellant depots’ paper appears to be proposing using four Delta IV Heavy launches, at a quarter-billion dollars each, to repair a GEO satellite of the kind that costs about a quarter-billion dollars to build and launch.

    I could see it almost making sense if you needed to make a straightforward repair to one of the NRO’s truly expensive GEO satellites; but there is fairly clearly already research going on in robots for interacting with GEO satellites – there have been a couple of launches to GEO in the last decade where the satellite-tracking community has seen something go up to near one satellite and then move to near another – and it’s not obvious that having DARPA spend a billion dollars on better robots isn’t the right answer.

    • John Schilling says:

      That’s Smitherman and Woodcock 2011 you are referring to?

      They propose using four Delta IV heavy launches costing roughly a billion dollars to build a propellant depot. Which they explictly point out can be used to stage GEO satellite repair missions and lunar exploration and development missions and deep space and asteroid missions and manned Mars missions. Plural, as in you can do each of those as many times as you want, using just the one propellant depot.

      Well, OK, if you want to launch more than e.g. ten lunar missions a month, you’d need a second LEO depot. But they cost, as you note, about a billion dollars to launch and probably a couple billion more for the hardware. And that’s if you buy from Boeing, which is one of the most expensive launch providers in the business.

      Again, if you just want to do one mission one time, you buy one big rocket. If someone keeps buying big rockets for a big fraction of a billion dollars each time, over and over, I reserve the right to call them stupid. And they’ll say, “but each time I was only wanting to do one mission so I made the right decision each time, OBTW I want to do another deep space mission, what sort of big expensive rocket should I buy?”, which is just more of the same stupid.

      Also, not sure why you think robots are an alternative. Robots are orthogonal; if you want to send robots to repair a geostationary satellite, the best way to do that is still to start with a robot transport ship parked at a (possibly smaller) LEO propellant depot. Unless you really, genuinely want to do this only one time ever, in which case buy your strait-to-GEO rocket and hand in your resignation and be done with it.

      • Tom Womack says:

        Yes, this is Smitherwood-Woodcock ‘Space Transportation Infrastructure Supported By Propellant Depots’. The viewgraph on page four certainly seems to be showing three Delta IV Heavy launches as the per-mission cost to take the propellant for the LEO-to-GEO tug up to a pre-existing propellant depot; there is no viewgraph for the initial launch (or in-orbit assembly) of the depot and the tug.

        The crucial question is how much cheaper a device for delivering twenty tons of hydrazine or RP1 or LOX or liquid xenon to a pre-existing propellant depot in LEO can be than a device for delivering twenty tons of fuelled-up general-purpose spacecraft to LEO, and I don’t see Smitherman/Woodcock addressing that.

        The relevance of the robots is that a robot for repairing a GEO satellite doesn’t need to be attached to twenty tons of life-support and re-entry equipment, and (assuming there’s enough thickness of polythene and tantalum around the CPUs and the flash memory) doesn’t mind if it takes a month to spiral up to GEO. So it can be small enough to go up on Falcon 9, it can probably be small enough that the propellant for refuelling it per-mission can go up on Falcon 9, it doesn’t mind living on-orbit, and you just give it enough extra xenon each time to take itself from GEO back to being docked at the propellant depot.

  50. Tom Womack says:

    I presume that it is a subtle and deliberate bit of discourse-curation that means that, as soon as I post a comment, all the green boxes indicating which comments are new since I last read the page vanish and are replaced by ‘one new comment’.

    But I’m not sure that its annoyingness is necessarily proportional to its effectiveness.

    • Nita says:

      That side-effect is unlikely to be intentional. The usual workaround is to open the “Reply” link in a new tab.

      • no one special says:

        Also, the “new” calculation is determined by the date in the box floating in the top right, which is editable. So if you note the date and time that is says before you submit, you can set it back to that after the page reloads.

        • Tom Womack says:

          There is an actual bug here, which I only didn’t notice because I was posting on December 12th!

          It appears that the dates are read in locale format and then parsed in US format, so if it is 14 December it will give me a list of everything posted since the 12th day of month 14, IE nothing, unless I manually change to 12/14/2014.

    • Bakkot says:

      (Scott’s not the one who manages the script; I am. It lives over at github and I will be much more likely to see comments and issues there.)

      This is unintentional, and there’s not really a good fix – it’s not practical to consistently tell the difference between “reloaded the page” and “submitted a comment” from the client side, which is where the script works.

      As for the date issue, I’m not doing any of the parsing manually; to the extent that it’s wrong, it’s because your browser isn’t parsing input the same way it’s formatting output. I might at some point write some custom parsing, but in the mean time you might try another browser.

  51. Since the number of workers who actually make exactly the minimum wage is pretty small, it seems that whatever effect changing it would have on the economy is not likely to be very big on current margins. Small effect size + politically charged topic + no good way to do experiments = just give up on empirics on this topic; there’s no way they will tell you anything worth knowing.

  52. Art says:

    My understanding is that conventional and well accepted economic theory predicts that minimum wage does increase unemployment.
    It could be that the theory is wrong, or that it is incomplete, or that in aggregate the positives outweigh the negatives, etc.
    But by omitting this piece of information you leave readers with the false impression that there is about equal amount of evidence in either direction.

    What we do have is lots of studies where some of them support the conventional theory, and some that do not.