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OT88: Homage To Threadalonia

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server.

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909 Responses to OT88: Homage To Threadalonia

  1. Scott Alexander says:

    JRM is still looking for people willing to help him with his campaign (site, Facebook), in particular “campaign donations, quality political advice, and graphic artists”. If you’re interested, let him know on the site, or here on this thread.

    • JRM says:

      Thanks, Scott!

      It’s a local election (I need about 25,000 votes to win in June, but the top 2 of 3 will probably go to November; there I need more votes.) I’ve gotten good advice that I should raise about $170K. I do not expect to raise that amount.

      I’m finalizing some logos; if you want to vote on the final version, send me an email at jrmayne4da which is at gmail. Or just send me an email. I’m a Republican 51-year-old lawyer, and I’m not the demographic of this nice place, but we’ve got things in common as far as process – I like things that work.

      Notes of interest to folks here are:

      1. I’m very skeptical of jail snitches. I have heard of situations where people will lie for their own benefit. The current administration is less skeptical.
      2. We’ve prosecuted some people who clearly weren’t guilty of the crimes charged (we eventually dismissed them, or the court helpfully dismissed them for us.) I would like to stop doing that. Start with not prosecuting people for murder when we do not have a legal basis to do so.
      3. Public meeting once a year, livestreamed. Learn law, find out about what’s going on.
      4. I am an underdog (running against the unpopular incumbent, but still the incumbent) but got a major law enforcement endorsement am not a ridiculous underdog.
      5. There’s more, and if you like, send me an e-mail.

      Finally, if you’re for good/rational government, please consider liking my Faceboook page. This actually matters, and I’d appreciate it. My election would be a tiny step toward a better future. Very big thanks to Scott for his support.

      • CatCube says:

        We’ve prosecuted some people who clearly weren’t guilty of the crimes charged (we eventually dismissed them, or the court helpfully dismissed them for us.) I would like to stop doing that. Start with not prosecuting people for murder when we do not have a legal basis to do so.

        What’s the reason for continuing a prosecution when there’s no clear basis for believing the defendant is guilty? Usually when I see nonsense like this in other bureaucracies, there’s some internal office-politics type reason or a requirement to satisfy some arcane rules (usually two sets of rules drafted for different conditions that interact poorly). However, nothing comes immediately to mind for this particular situation. Well, other than the person pursuing it is simply corrupt and using their office to stomp on their enemies, but I’ve found that to be less common than people would like to imagine though it could certainly apply here.

        • Rick Hull says:

          What’s the reason for continuing a prosecution when there’s no clear basis for believing the defendant is guilty?

          Career advancement based on performance evaluation based on numbers. Also, it’s shameful to admit a mistake, particularly in terms of pervasive adherence to the sunk cost fallacy.

          • CatCube says:

            But doesn’t losing at trial have a downward effect on the numbers being evaluated, plus it’s even more obvious a mistake when you have a jury come back with a “Not Guilty” verdict?

            Or are the prosecutors relying on the fact that if they stick it out they might be able to get most of these defendants to confess to a smaller crime or one they didn’t commit as part of a plea bargain?

          • albatross11 says:

            It’s always seemed to me that false convictions are a huge issue we should care a lot about, but it rarely seems to get a lot of traction. I’m not sure why.

          • dndnrsn says:


            -people who plead guilty because despite being innocent pleading was the better option “admitted they were guilty”
            -people who were coerced or tricked into confessing confessed, and a lot of people can’t get why an innocent person would confess
            -even subconsciously, someone accused of a nasty crime will have some of it rub off on them, so people don’t want to defend them
            -even moreso someone who was convicted
            -even if they’re innocent of the crime in question, a decent number of these people are otherwise sketchy, and so people don’t want to defend them

        • Brad says:

          What’s the reason for continuing a prosecution when there’s no clear basis for believing the defendant is guilty?

          In some cases either line prosecutors or their bosses don’t want to piss off either the putative victim(s) or the cops that made the arrest or both. So they let the court be the bad guy instead of dropping it themselves.

          • JRM says:

            There are two issues.

            I’m talking, primarily, about legal innocence, where the legal standard is biffed. When Scott and I robbed the drugstore and Scott (as he is prone to do) pulls a gun out and gets shot to death in return, I am not guilty of felony murder in California, despite every cop show on TV.

            Precommitment to cases is also fairly rare, but I have seen it happen.

            You shouldn’t lose cases at preliminary hearing based on undisputed facts as a rule.

            Virtually all prosecutors I know want legally innocent people to go free, even if the suspect’s behavior was dodgy.

          • CatCube says:


            That makes sense. Still extremely bad that they’re going to force somebody to spend thousands of dollars and emotional energy defending themselves from a court case they shouldn’t be in, obviously, but trying to pawn your job off on others is a common problem.


            Under that fact pattern, it *should* be felony murder, but if California’s laws don’t support that, yeah, the prosecutor shouldn’t be charging it to begin with.

            Is the problem here primarily being driven by the elected DA, or is he just not stopping the natural tendency to pawn difficult or controversial decisions off on others? Because if it’s the first, you’re going to have an easy time fixing it, where if it’s the second you’re going to have a brutal fight every day. You should still have that fight, of course, but success will take a lot longer and be a lot more draining.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            Virtually all prosecutors I know want legally innocent people to go free

            Do prosecutors ever talk among themselves about things like the “satanic preschool” cases, when outsiders are not listening?

      • Deiseach says:

        I have never understood why or how jail confessions are considered reliable. “So I could get a reduction in my sentence if I can help you guys out? How much? Oh, really? Well, just so happens this guy who maintained all through his arrest and trial that he was innocent, even when questioned by the cops, was my cell-mate for one night and he told me in detail how he totally did the crime. Remind me again of a few details of the offence, my memory is kinda fuzzy – oh yeah, yeah, that’s exactly what he said to me!”

        I’ve always thought this was pure cynical pragmatism on the part of the system: yeah we don’t have really good evidence so we’re gonna stitch you up because we’re sure you did it, what could possibly go wrong with rewarding snitches?

        What’s the reason for continuing a prosecution when there’s no clear basis for believing the defendant is guilty?

        Again, I’m cynical about this: (1) well we don’t have any other likely suspect for this, so you will do (2) the papers and TV news are screaming blue murder over this one and yelling about incompetent cops and prosecutors, and being as how this is an elected office and we rely on the voters to put us in and keep us in office, we need to have a trial for this fast to assure the public that Something Is Being Done.

        • albatross11 says:

          I suspect the other part of this is that a whole lot of crimes fit a common pattern–the ex-husband with the restraining order on him showed up and shot the victim and her new boyfriend, say. So probably 95% of the time in this situation, the ex husband is the murderer. But if this is one of those rare 5% times when it was the drug dealer that the new boyfriend owed a lot of money to, well, the ex-husband had better have a good alibi, because the cops are going to be pretty sure he must have done it. And then they break out the witness to the jailhouse confession (who then gets probation instead of jail time), or the Ouija-board-level forensic evidence, and Mr Ex is headed to prison. And the police and prosecutors and judge will all be pretty sure they’ve done the right thing, because this is the pattern they’re used to seeing.

        • JRM says:

          Jail snitches are not considered reliable and there are usually instructions saying so. Accomplice testimony must be corroborated (and accomplice testimony *is* sometimes reliable, especially if they confess before striking a deal. But caution there is warranted, too.)

          Jail snitch problems in LA and Orange County were serious.

          In most of the really troubled prosecutions you hear about like (McMartin,
          or the Central Park Jogger prosecutors thought the person/people were guilty. I’m less sure about the Duke lacrosse case.

          You’ve got to be diligent and careful. I’ve seen one case dismissed where someone was charged with murder and didn’t do it but no one really made a mistake; there was more information that was non-obvious and surprising. You’ve got to be willing to dismiss if that happens, and it’s certain to happen even to some careful people.

          But you’ve also got to punch people out even if the case seems very hard on its face, like a staged car crash by a popular pastor.

      • ashlael says:

        Good luck! I hope you win. Also, $170k just to compete in an election for a position most countries would simply fill by appointment is insane.

  2. Aspiring Catgirl says:

    The rationalsphere is having a bit of an identity crisis right now- the extensive post “The Craft & The Community – A Post-Mortem & Resurrection” on the new LessWrong site goes into this in detail.

    The heart of our community is seeing flaws.

    That is what we do.

    That’s the first step.

    Now we work on making things better.

    But the solution offered at the end of the post above isn’t the only one on offer.

    Some of us have been living in a new cultural frame for the last few months. We are still building it out, but it is taking shape quickly.

    It’s called Origin.

    Our discord server: https://discord.gg/2F6GkQY

    Introduction post: https://hivewired.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/an-introduction-to-origin/

    • outis says:

      So if traditional progressivism is a rape/molestation cult (see Weinstein, Weiner, Wiesel, etc.), and LessWrong was a polygamy/polyamory cult (Yudkowski), what kind of sex cult is this? I feel like at this point that’s the important question before getting into a new cultural frame.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Given that every past attempt to engineer the perfect society has failed, why do you believe yours will succeed ?

      • Ratheka says:

        I think it’s pretty clear at this point in human history that there are no single pass, perfect solutions. Anybody who goes into cultural engineering with the idea of the one solution that will Solve Everything Forever has been chasing something that I think is pretty clear it’s beyond humans to actually make, or at least make on a timeline compatible with implementing it in your lifetime. I don’t think we mean to be perfect, we aspire to move in the direction of perfection, in the understanding that we won’t start there, and we won’t end there.

      • albatross11 says:

        Just because you can’t get a perfectly efficient engine doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend time figuring out ways to make better ball bearings and lubricants.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I think it takes a massive amount of confidence to say, “humans have been experimenting with different kinds of societies for 10,000 years, but I bet I could do it better”. To be sure, such confidence can sometimes be justified, but you know what they say about extraordinary claims…

          • Cerby says:

            Counterpoint: if everyone thought “it would be arrogant of me to believe I can do it better than everyone else, therefore I shouldn’t do it”, nothing would ever get done.
            Also, consider the consequences of a loss (yet another fail thrown in the trash of human history) versus a success (a perfect society).

          • Bugmaster says:

            There’s a difference between saying, “I will be the one to usher in Utopia”, and e.g., “there’s too much infighting over social media, I’ll try to stay out of it as much as possible”, or “lying to people all the time is not scalable, I’ll try to do less of that”. Socially engineering one’s own self is already incredibly difficult; socially engineering a bunch of people at the same time is almost impossible. Even with massive amounts of coercion at one’s disposal, the results are never any good.

      • Aspiring Catgirl says:

        That is the very long term. I am personally actually less inclined in that particular aspect, and would not necessarily expect it to actually implement that. It doesn’t have to ever reach perfection to succeed.

        I think that growing the rationalist community such that it is both in a position where it can affect large scale change and giving it the tools to increment itself towards something better at every step (while actively experimenting and hedging against various failure modes) will get us enough of the way there that the difference can be ignored from our current scope.

        I personally haven’t looked into past attempts at engineering societies, but now that you mention that, definitely going on our todo.

        I think these aspects are crucial:
        1) living in it without following it blindly, the fact of keeping in mind current best practices (which so far have been often ‘do the thing that makes you feel comfortable and make sense’ and ‘this is too complex a problem, here is what we care about right now’)
        2) The most fundamental aspect is changing how we do things to best accommodate the situations we find ourselves actually facing. At the same time, keeping to our values.
        3) People follow it voluntarily because it is better than what they were doing before.
        4) We can continually experiment with different variants to see what works in which situations
        5) We’re starting with a community that deeply cares about doing things better, and is willing to change behavior to accommodate the ideas they take seriously.

        It isn’t a magic bullet, but I think it is enough to make progressively better versions of itself that are more effective and correspond closer to things that are closer to our values than the last.

        I can’t say where if ever it’ll implode, but I think asking the question ‘how do we stop all these bad things from happening?’ is necessary in preventing it in the first place. If our current setup is insufficient, then we need to figure out where it is deficient and correct that.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I personally haven’t looked into past attempts at engineering societies, but now that you mention that, definitely going on our todo.

          Given that you unironically start your video by saying, “we’re a small group of like-minded individuals”, I’d say you need to do quite a bit more research before embarking on this venture. The track record for such organizations is, shall we say, suboptimal.

          I think that growing the rationalist community such that it is both in a position where it can affect large scale change

          What is it that you actually want to achieve ? Do you have some measurable goal in mind ? Something like “I just want to hang out with my friends” is a perfectly reasonable goal; so is e.g. “I want to introduce a mandatory critical thinking curriculum into 3rd-grade classes”. But simply saying “effect large scale change” is nowhere near specific enough to be achievable by anyone. Also, you’ve got to pick one goal, because most of the time they will be in conflict.

          By the way, “I want to create a community where everyone thinks alike, and where people are free from the distractions of the outside world” is also an achievable goal. Many communities in the past have achieved it… briefly. I’d advise against it.

          • Rick Hull says:

            Alternatively, this could be analogous to the creation of the first modern universities, like Cambridge and Oxford. An institution, a place, an academy, a set of values, and possibly inclusive of residence.

          • cassander says:

            >By the way, “I want to create a community where everyone thinks alike, and where people are free from the distractions of the outside world” is also an achievable goal. Many communities in the past have achieved it… briefly. I’d advise against it.

            I think that’s a bit harsh, some monastic communities date back more than 1000 years.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Rick Hull:
            Modern universities had a set of specific goals in mind: education and research. They were not insular communities just focused on remaining pure, or anything of the sort.

            See above; in addition, I am reasonably sure (though I could be wrong) that those monsatic communities that survived, did so at least partially because they cultivated positive relationships with the outside world.

            Just to reiterate: neither universities nor monastic communities were focused solely on community-building. Instead, they had an external goal in mind, and their social structures arose and/or were maintained out of the need to achieve that goal.

      • tsutsifrutsi says:

        Engineering the perfect open-membership society (where any society containing the entirety of a local population is inherently open-membership, because people can have kids) has pretty much always failed.

        Engineering the perfect closed-membership society (e.g. a large club that you voluntarily join; that acts like your primary community; and that new members are never automatically welcome into but must always be individually evaluated for fit) has often worked, AFAIK.

    • Aapje says:

      @Aspiring Catgirl

      I cannot find this “The Craft & The Community – A Post-Mortem & Resurrection” post. Can you provide a link?

        • Aapje says:

          Ah, I thought that Aspiring Catgirl was referring to the revamped lesswrong.com, but it’s actually a different site she was referring to. Thanks.

        • vV_Vv says:

          I don’t get why it was even a goal to make the “rationalist community” essentially a closed religious community, as if it was the Jews 2.0 or the Mormons 2.0 or whatever, where members are expected to live close to each other, even in the same houses, date each other, work on communal projects, worship the Scripture, and so on.

          And yes, I know that the accusation “LessWrong is a cult” is trite, but come on, even in your call to reform, what you propose is to:

          1) move the Holy See to a place which gives the adherents more time and money to pursue spiritual work (“the Craft”) and they don’t have to live in dhimmitude under a hostile religion (Social Justice).

          2) bend over backwards to attract more women: e.g. by making the conversation “pink”, because unattached celibate men don’t make good, stable, committed church members, and of course the idea of dating outside the community is unthinkable.

          3) push for authoritarian elements such as “Benevolent Paternalism”, social shaming of low-commitment participation, and so on.

          4) promote aggressive in-person recruitment (I suppose stopping short of knocking at people’s doors like a Jehovah’s Witness)

          Why can’t we instead have a loose-knit community of people who share some intellectual interests, but for the most part live in different places, work on different things, date other people, and generally have a life outside the community?

          And sorry if I sound too harsh, but if you are a super-awkward forever alone who can’t make friends or find dates in the “real world”, I doubt that congregating with similar people can do you much good. The likely result is that you and your people will end up reinforcing your negative traits, resulting in the socially dysfunctional group dynamics that you correctly diagnosed. Moving to a place where the rents are cheaper and the SJWs are less rabid will not solve it. Making resolutions to attract more women and develop basic social skills such not being flaky will not solve it. Your problems, to the extents that they are correctable, will be corrected by interacting with the “normies”, not more people like you.

          • Hunter Glenn says:

            Supposing you did have widely applicable way of improving life for yourself and everyone else…what would you properly do with it?

            Lots of groups pretend to be in that situation, and they act like it; they try to share it and build community around it. But that doesn’t mean those things are inappropriate if you really are in that situation

          • vV_Vv says:

            Share it yes, but why should you build a close-knit religious-like community around it, with people living together and dating each other?

            Keep your identities small.

          • Drew says:

            I agree, and would go further: The “social,” “impact-focused,” and “self-improvement” communities should be separate.

            For rational self-improvement, I want honest, blunt feedback. I want to open up without worrying about maintaining an attractive image.

            From friends, I want compassionate support. They’ll tell me if they think an idea is terrible. But otherwise, I like having people who are “in my corner.”

            For colleagues, I want professional distance. We’re working together because we have a common goal. Any disagreements about philosophy and religion should get set aside as irrelevant distractions until they become relevant to the common goal.

            There are very good reasons that we’d tell someone not to date their therapist, or immediate co-workers. Some relationships are best separate. That seems to apply here, too.

          • 天可汗 says:

            Why can’t we instead have a loose-knit community of people who share some intellectual interests, but for the most part live in different places, work on different things, date other people, and generally have a life outside the community?

            Mormonism and Orthodox Judaism work, that’s why. There are very real benefits that you get from coordination, and without religion, the only coordination you can get is on the level of “you have friends who can check in on your cats while you’re away”. I know this seems counterintuitive, but it’s an old and well-known result. Here’s Nordhoff:

            it is true that a commune to exist harmoniously, must be composed of persons who are of one mind upon some question which to them shall appear so important as to take the place of a religion, if it is not essentially religions; though it need not be fanatically held.

            Of course, no one is proposing a commune. But no one is entirely sure how communistic these societies are supposed to be, so surely there’s something to learn here…

          • vV_Vv says:

            Mormonism and Orthodox Judaism work, that’s why. There are very real benefits that you get from coordination, and without religion, the only coordination you can get is on the level of “you have friends who can check in on your cats while you’re away”.

            But if you long for this you can always go to your local church or synagogue or whatever. They’ve got women, benevolent paternal figures, normies with good social skills to keep the community up and running and who you can try to learn from, and so on. They have been doing this religion thing for thousands of years and they’ve got very good at it.

            If you can’t fit in because they all look like aliens to you, or you can’t stand the supernatural nonsense, but you still want something like that for the people from your planet, then fine, make your own church, and good luck trying to convince the female aliens to interbreed with your species, but please keep it separate from the discussion forums and other venues where people just want to hang out and discuss about some shared intellectual interests and then go on and live their lives. Because it gets in the way: you can’t have lengthy discussions about topics that are highly technical and sometimes controversial if you have to walk on eggshells not to upset some social outcast or risk driving away the precious womb-bearers.

            Of course, no one is proposing a commune.

            If I understand correctly, the Bay Aryans mostly live in communes. If the proposal is to move to Manchester and instead of living in communes just meet once a week to read the Sequences under the direction of a benevolent father-like figure, well, as I said, you might want to look at pre-existing solutions.

          • 天可汗 says:

            But if you long for this you can always go to your local church or synagogue or whatever.

            I live in a major city on the East Coast. The only churches here that speak English are somewhere to the left of Lenin. And who the hell do you think is going to them? All the real social networking is done in political groups that don’t pretend to believe in God nowadays, and they’re also somewhere to the left of Lenin.

            “You could just move to Oklabraska…” The problems with ceding every region in this country with an economic future to the enemy are, I hope, obvious.

            For people in the Eastern Corridor or on the West Coast, I don’t think there are any other options than engineering a new religion, sucking up atomization, or giving up and joining one of the sects that want your family to be processed into chunky giblets by a horde of rabid victim studies majors. But who knows, maybe there’s a big Southern Baptist presence in San Francisco.

            you can’t have lengthy discussions about topics that are highly technical and sometimes controversial if you have to walk on eggshells not to upset some social outcast or risk driving away the precious womb-bearers.

            Oh, no, I’m also sick of the pattern of the rationalist community eating outcasts with potential and leading them even further down the outcast toilet. Like, congratulations on proving the Turing-completeness of your gender, but rationality actually has real-world applications and what the hell are we even doing if none of us can demonstrably outcompete the pointy-haired boss? What precisely do you think capitalism is if not a rationality engine? FFS, I hear the general sentiment of “shut up and multiply” more at work than around here. And is there any actual management experience behind LW 2.0, or did the dude just leverage his cadre status for a chance to boost his portfolio and stick React on his resume? I’ve seen too many weird nerd projects fail because the weird nerds behind the projects just instinctively figured that management was actually trivial.

          • Brad says:

            The only churches here that speak English …

            Surely that’s not an issue for 天可汗.

          • johan_larson says:


            I live in a major city on the East Coast. The only churches here that speak English are somewhere to the left of Lenin.

            That doesn’t seem to be true. A quick trip to Google shows two Southern Baptist churches in New York City, one in Manhattan and the other in Brooklyn. They should be plenty to the right of Lenin. If one can find such in the very belly of the blue beast, you should be able to find them elsewhere too.

            Or were you exaggerating for rhetorical effect?

          • 天可汗 says:

            That doesn’t seem to be true. A quick trip to Google shows two Southern Baptist churches in New York City, one in Manhattan and the other in Brooklyn. They should be plenty to the right of Lenin. If one can find such in the very belly of the blue beast, you should be able to find them elsewhere too.

            Or were you exaggerating for rhetorical effect?

            Two for a population of 8 million, so one for every 4 million. Less than 4 million people in this city. (Metro area is unreasonably large. I added up the populations of the city and the suburbs near me and rounded up to the nearest million.)

            I make a note of the churches I see when I walk places. I’ve seen six so far. Two obviously serve immigrant populations, and the other four have ostentatious leftist signaling. Google turns up three more immigrant churches, one Episcopal church, two Presbyterian churches, one that I’m guessing is either Episcopal or Catholic, and two mystery meat.

            Since AFAICT “Catholic church” on the East Coast means “immigrant church for white people” and I really can’t fake cultural Catholicism, my options here are either mystery meat or being unreasonably optimistic about the Presbyterians.

          • For people in the Eastern Corridor or on the West Coast, I don’t think there are any other options than …

            You are missing an important set of options–social networks organized around something other than politics or religion.

            The one I know best is the SCA, a group that does historical reenactment for fun. For people seriously immersed in it, it serves lots of the same functions. A weaker version my wife used to be part of was the folk dancing community. For others, science fiction fandom. Bridge. Horses.

            There are lots of little worlds out there, most of which I don’t know about.

        • Nornagest says:

          I endorse the concerns that’ve been raised here, but I’m deeply suspicious of the proposed solutions.

          If I may be flippant for a moment, there’s always been a lot of tension between the rationalist community as a dojo for teaching ninja brain magic and the rationalist community as a support group for hopeless nerds. The state it settled into over the first ~5 years of its existence was to conceive of itself as the former and actually function as the latter, but, as we’ve seen since, that’s not stable in the long run.

          Now we’re starting to burn out, but we’ve still got a large body of people who’re used to a community that functions that way, so any attempt to say “ninja brain magic, really, we mean it this time” is going to have a lot of trouble with founder effects. I don’t think this is a problem that can be solved by attacking some of the symptoms of being a support group for hopeless nerds, like poor gender balance or Geek Social Fallacies-type issues or being based in the software engineering capital of the world. The skillsets we need just do not exist in the community, and our prospects for attracting them get worse all the time.

          • johan_larson says:

            I’m not part of the movement, if I may call it that, but from the outside looking in there is a strange cultishness to the Rationalists. Why is there this talk of group homes? Why this obsession with AI risk? Where did all this counter-SJW talk come from.

            There’s clearly some good stuff here. People are concerned with getting things right, and that’s noble. And they want others to get things right, and that’s even more noble.

            But I think these purposes would be better served by thinking of it as a social and intellectual discipline rather than a lifestyle or a burgeoning ethnic group. Think of it as Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, but slightly broader, addressing the following issues with techniques from applied psychology, philosophy, and mathematics:
            – how to be right
            – how people tend to get things wrong
            – how to get along with others
            – how to get your way with others
            – how to set goals and achieve them
            I could see there being books addressing these topics, and maybe self-help seminars and certifications too.

            If the Rationalist movement could teach this material to large numbers of people, I think it would have done some real good in the world.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            As I understand it, rationalism started with AI risk.

            Eliezer Yudkowski concluded that AI risk was a serious problem, but he found people weren’t following his arguments about why AI risk is important.

            So he started explaining how to think more clearly….

            At least some rationalists find other rationalists much easier to live with than non-rationalists, hence the interest in group homes.

            For what it’s worth, rationalists in group homes are a tiny minority and I haven’t seen pressure to live in a group home.

          • rationalism started with AI risk.

            Not with, I dunno, Plato?

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            AI risk is goofy and dumb.

            But to the extent that Rationalism is a doomsday cultadvocacy group whose ultimate purpose is to get out the word about AI doomsday, then it is not succeeding in its current form, due in no small part to how much it smells like a doomsday cult.

            You all have a local optimization problem. You found a small hill and optimized to get to the top of it. There are no small steps to more influence from where you are — all the small steps are to lesser influence. But you need to go through a trough of lower influence in order to find a hill that has a summit that’s much higher influence than you have right now. That will necessarily mean alienating and sloughing off many of your current members.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            For what it’s worth, I see AI risk being a part of public discourse in a way it wan’t a few years ago.

            This doesn’t mean a lot of people think it’s the most important thing to work on.

          • publiusvarinius says:

            But to the extent that Rationalism is a doomsday cultadvocacy group whose ultimate purpose is to get out the word about AI doomsday, then it is not succeeding in its current form

            It’s succeeding just fine. AI safety is now an accepted subfield of academia, with multiple research institutes at world-leading universities such as Oxford. Given the likely timescales, that’s perfectly reasonable success.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            Okay, so if you’re happy with where you are now… mission accomplished I guess?

          • publiusvarinius says:

            Okay, so if you’re happy with where you are now… mission accomplished I guess?

            So your argument is essentially these people who I don’t like are not accomplishing their goals, they should do what I suggest instead? It’s a rather common trope these days, those obnoxious Trump voters are voting against their own self-interest, they should vote Democrat being the popular variant.

            Leaving aside the fact that such reasoning is rarely correct, your thesis is still implausible. Given current trends in the big research universities, AI risk has good potential to become a major field of study, and is unlikely to be the bottleneck stopping the growth of the rationalists movement. There are such factors (see e.g. the suggestions of Nornagest for much better candidates), but the focus on AI risk is probably not one of them.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            Aww, I like you guys. I think that your obsession with AI risk is goofy and dumb. I’ve been pretty impressed with Rationalists on other subjects.

            Nancy suggested that the entire point of Rationalism as a movement was to advance the profile of AI Risk. This thread as a whole has been about how the Rationalism can reform itself. I put those two things together. It appears that I misunderstood Nancy and she actually thought that everything was hunky dory!


            PS: If you are trying to convince people that AI risk is a real thing, and you don’t think that the current profile of AI risk is sufficiently high, you might need to engage people who think that AI risk is goofy and dumb.

            PPS: If in fact AI risk is as solved as it needs to be, could we hear a little less about it? Like… maybe 75% less? I get that you need to maintain interest, but if the “raise status” mode is over and the “maintain status” mode is on, could we tone it down to a dull roar?

          • Nornagest says:

            Nancy suggested that the entire point of Rationalism as a movement was to advance the profile of AI Risk.

            This is… not exactly true. Nancy’s version of events is basically accurate; Eliezer started posting the Sequences (and, later, created Less Wrong) because he felt the people he was talking to were missing some cognitive tools, and that giving them those tools would leave them better disposed to support his AI risk agenda. He was at least partly right, given that most of the people now working at MIRI got there through the rationalist community.

            But that doesn’t mean that rationalism was about AI, any more than building a shed because you want somewhere to put your lawnmower means that sheds are about lawnmowers. A lot of the people that got involved in rationality remained neutral-to-skeptical on the whole AI thing and just wanted tools to improve their thinking — or remained neutral-to-skeptical on the whole thinking thing and just wanted to hang out with other nerds.

            At this point I think AI risk as a project has done better than rationality as a project, or at least shown more tangible progress.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:


            It seemed to me that you were treating AI risk as a pointlessly weird add-on to rationalism. What I was trying to say was that AI risk was there at the beginning and isn’t going away.

            While I’m not sure myself about AI being a huge risk, I think it’s probably a good thing that people are working on it.

            Nornagest is also correct that rationalists don’t necessarily agree about the importance of AI risk– learning and teaching cognitive tools has also turned out to make a big difference, and if it pays off, this will be a really worthy legacy.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            I think you’re trying to have it both ways. Is AI risk separable from Rationalism or not? Like, is it a historical footnote, “Oh, the origin of our weird subculture was AI risk, but now we aren’t really into it,” or is it in fact impossible to remove? Similarly Yudkowski, come to that.

            If I have a shed and that shed has this weird lawnmower in it and it gets, I don’t know, its lawnmower-y oil and grass cuttings on everything else in the shed and every time someone mentions my shed, I say, “Oh, did you read the Lawnmower Progressions?” and whenever anyone says, “Hey, this shed would be super nice except it’s got a lawnmower in it,” I reply, “NO, THE LAWNMOWER IS ESSENTIAL,” then I’m starting to suspect that the purpose of the shed is in fact to to house the lawnmower. And anything else in the shed is incidental.

            And if your response to that is, “I love this lawnmower and I want to keep rain off it, and my shed is doing that just fine,” then okay!

            And if your response to that is, “But I want to keep more things in my shed,” then, I mean, I’m just some asshole on the internet, but “cult” is such a non-novel critique of your culture that it is in fact a cliche. I’m not the only guy saying that maybe you should get rid of the fucking lawnmower. I get that the lawnmower is a big deal, and that removing it from the shed is a big move, but this is my original point: I think this shed has come as far as it can go with the lawnmower.

            And for that matter, if you think that the shed isn’t doing a good enough job of keeping rain off your lawnmower — and I have to say, as an interested outsider, your community’s behavior suggests strongly to me that you don’t think it’s doing a good enough job — then I think the shed has come as far as it can go, and you need to build a new structure and put the lawnmower in that. Which is, again, I get it, a big move. But that’s my best advice to you guys, from the point of view of someone who, after all, comes here and comments and genuinely is pretty impressed with your shed in a lot of ways.

          • Nornagest says:

            I think you’re trying to have it both ways. Is AI risk separable from Rationalism or not? Like, is it a historical footnote, “Oh, the origin of our weird subculture was AI risk, but now we aren’t really into it,” or is it in fact impossible to remove? Similarly Yudkowski, come to that.

            That depends entirely on what context you’re asking in. In historical terms, the rationality subculture would absolutely not have happened without AI risk. In practical terms, on the other hand, most of the skills it’s (at least nominally) focused on have very little to do with AI. In cultural terms, some parts of the rationalist diaspora are really into AI and some aren’t. This is fundamentally one of the parts that aren’t, but we get enough traffic from the rest of the community that the parts that are will be noticeable, and our rightful caliph over there is on friendly enough terms with those parts that he wants to give them at least lip service sometimes.

            Or to put it another way, I think Less Wrong, or Lesser Wrong or whatever it’s calling itself now, is not really separable from AI. But I think the SSC wing of the community probably is.

          • Aapje says:


            If there is room in the shed for much more stuff, then why does it matter that there is a lawnmower in there? You can ignore it if you are more into grass-free gardens.

          • AI risk is goofy and dumb.

            For what it’s worth, I discussed the issue in a book published nine years ago, before I knew anything about Eliezer’s view of the subject. It was one of the three ways technological change could wipe out the human race that I covered in a talk at Google after the book was published.

            The idea may turn out to be wrong, but it isn’t a crazy idea that only comes out of nutty rationalism.

        • Aapje says:


          I thought that the idea about writing a relatively short self-help book based on rationality is very good (although probably very hard to do). A well-written, useful book with a clear progression of ideas can help many people. It can also recruit many people into the community, perhaps especially women, who AFAIK very often read self-help books.

    • the verbiage ecstatic says:

      It seems like you’re primarily thinking about this project in cultural terms, rather than economic?

      It seems like that problems you’re trying to solve are fundamentally economic in nature, though. Would it be fair to sum up the main problem as: “mainstream society is atomized and individualistic, leading to lack of coordination and community, with talent failing to go to the most meaningful, important problems?”

      If so, I’d guess / argue that this flows from the incentive structure created by capitalism, which has successfully dissolved traditional cultures going back thousands of years. In a world where the basic API is money and the assumption / legal framework where money belongs to the individual, there’s always going to be incentive pressure to defect from any closed cultural unit.

      Are you guys planning to work within the existing capitalist framework, or to supplant it in some way, and if so, how?

      • Aspiring Catgirl says:

        The question of money is one I’ve been struggling with for a while.

        You’re right: if we had significant amounts of money we could make things happen many times faster and easier. But we don’t. While we’re adjacent to silicon valley with its huge cash flows, we currently as a group have budget of ~0$.

        Unsure about the individualistic culture component, and don’t think proper talent allocation quite fits. I’m also not sure that lack of coordination and community as a general cultural component quite hits the mark either, but you could be right on the money and I’m just not pattern matching right. I’ll have to think about this.

        Current cached thought on the topic: if it is in our power to help each other without imposing too large a burden, then we should. Because Origin is all about best practices, existing capitalist framework for a start. We don’t need to go around demanding everyone’s money.

        People’s personal security nets are really important, and we don’t want to leave people significantly worse off if the structure implodes, but there are gains to be made by taking that risk.

        We also have to be wary of our own incentive structures leading us into traps. If we say, house and feed people in the community, those funds trend towards the people least able to support themselves. If they later decide to stop following Origin, then they’re in our member-only-housing but can’t support themselves, so we’d be caught between kicking them out and generating more incentive structures to be a free rider. In the general case we can say ‘you must pay rent to stay here,’ but that’s not always plausible.

    • gph says:

      >In a sense, 4chan is a proto nation-strat, it’s a collective formed by voluntary association online for the purpose of…whatever it is they do there, it seems to vaguely resemble social interaction? I don’t quite see the appeal, but as the internet ages and becomes more substantial, and the API layer gets thicker, more things like this are probably going to start popping up.

      For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, that paragraph made me cringe hard. I don’t have much of an opinion on 4chan either way, but that sort of dismissive passive aggressive comment felt super awkward. And what are you talking about when you say the API layer gets thicker? What’s the API layer supposed to mean? I know what an API is, I should actually right now be working on one. I’m not going to be super pedantic and act like you can’t use a technical term in a non-technical capacity to describe a different novel concept in a new way. But I’m completely lost by what you mean in this scenario, and it sounds a bit like some handwavy verbiage you added because you don’t quite know what you mean either.

      On top of that I disagree with the conclusion of that paragraph. I see the internet becoming more restricted and corporate, the complete opposite of the environment and culture in which 4chan grew. In fact I don’t think any new communities like 4chan will grow organically like that again. And this attempt at growing a community is really nothing like that, this is a concerted effort with an organized leadership to specficially create and nurture a new community with a semi-agreed upon ideology and culture (rationalism). There might have been some sub-communities that found their identity and grew out of 4chan, but largely it seems to me like a massive anonymous free for all. With recent trends it probably looks like it’s some sort of planned community for the alt-right, but really it’s just a free for all and that happens to be the best environment for those types of folks to congregate.

    • Drew says:

      I’m looking into this. I’ve also read @magicalbendini’s post. In both cases, I have a concern about adverse-selection and demographics.

      Existing projects, like Bendini’s effort, or Berkeley seem great for anyone who’s a new-grad or already has a bunch of deep, personal ties to the community. But, to be blunt, I’m suspicious of people who are willing and able to join an “optimal community arrangement” and not in one of those two groups.

      I’m in my 30s. I have a family and a reasonably good job. I’m free for about 2 nights a week, plus half of a day on Saturdays. My other time is claimed by obligations.

      I could spend 1 night a week playing board games, hanging out online, or helping run an event. This would cost me an existing hobby. Even 1 night a week is a significant allocation of very limited time.

      But one night a week isn’t enough for anything as grand as a society, and promising more would mean that I was lying, shirking my existing obligations, or totally unattached.

      High barriers to entry seem like they’ll select against anyone who’s past their mid 20s with a healthy personal life.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        High barriers to entry seem like they’ll select against anyone who’s past their mid 20s with a healthy personal life.

        I guess if they’re doing the group home thing they could start some kind of poly cult where the kids are cared for communally. And a school. If you’re making a new society, you really need high birth rates, because you’re not going to convert a lot of people until you have a track record of success (of the things people want in a society, which is stability, resources, and children). And you’ll need to socialize the rationalist kids with other rationalist kids so they’ll grow up and have more rationalist kids. If they’re socializing with the larger culture and going to the larger culture schools they’re going to end up like the larger culture.

        I don’t know how many women would find this amenable.

    • It’s called Origin.

      Like the evil fake religion in Stargate SG1?

  3. Scott Alexander says:

    Re: the theme – what’s everyone’s predictions for Catalonian independence?

    Mine: Catalonia being de facto independent a year from now (ie monopoly on force in its territory) is about 10% chance. A real war (let’s say 500+ deaths including armed combatants on both sides) is more like 2%. Both would have been higher a week or two ago, but whatever Madrid is doing seems to be working.

    • johan_larson says:

      I’m betting the Spanish government just bought themselves a Catalan IRA. Hope they’re happy.

      I think the better approach would have been to be open to secession in principle, but insist that it happen by due process. Require one referendum to begin negotiations, and another to accept the negotiated terms of secession. Then draw out the negotiations as long as possible, making secession seem like a horribly complicated business of unsexy bureaucratic minutia that will cost the secessionists much of their support.

    • Wrong Species says:

      How would independence even happen? Catalonia wouldn’t go to war and if they did, they would lose. They aren’t going to get other countries to back them up, because no one cares that much. And obviously Spain isn’t going to just let them go. Are there any other options?

      • Scott Alexander says:

        The Catalonian police threaten to shoot any Spanish troops who come into Catalonia, there are a few small battles and the Catalans don’t back down, Spain decides it doesn’t want a full civil war?

        Catalans keep protesting and going on strikes and setting fire to things, it’s a huge crisis for the Spanish government, they decide they don’t need the aggravation and let them go?

        Spain overreacts and kills some peaceful Catalan demonstrators, there’s massive widespread anti-Spanish / pro-independence sentiment, they manage to hold another referendum and this time it’s clear that practically all the population wants to go, Spain loses international support, they decide to let them go?

        • nzk says:

          Well, I have been to Catalonya 4 years ago, and in the countryside
          there is a lot of resentment against Spain.
          “Catalonia no esta en Espana” was a phrase I heard a lot – it means “Catalonia is not in Spain.”
          In Barcelona is was a lot less felt – there are tons of Spanish and other Euro immigrants, and also just immigrants. I think that it would be hard to lead a Catalan movement that is based in Barcelona.
          However – Are they willing to die for it? I would guess not.
          So, small chance for Independence right now, and the Catalonia economic success actaully reduce their chances – as it attracts immigrants from the rest of Spain.

        • Ninmesara says:

          The Catalonian police threaten to shoot any Spanish troops who come into Catalonia, there are a few small battles and the Catalans don’t back down, Spain decides it doesn’t want a full civil war?

          I think the Catalans would back down. I remind you: support for independence is not that high (50-60%).

          Catalans keep protesting and going on strikes and setting fire to things, it’s a huge crisis for the Spanish government, they decide they don’t need the aggravation and let them go?

          It’s not that huge a crisis. The losses from what you describe pale when compared to the losses from independence of Catalonia. Losing Catalonia would be the real aggravation.

          and this time it’s clear that practically all the population wants to go, Spain loses international support, they decide to let them go?

          This is the crucial point. No matter what the reason is, independency is only likely when “practically all the population” wants it.

          I seriously doubt that the Spain will kill peaceful demonstrators. I’m defining peaceful demonstrators quite strictly: if someone is engaged in property destruction or another crime, it’s possible that the police accidentally kills someone while trying to prevent the crime, but firing against a peaceful demonstration is very unlikely.

          Also, it’s possible that people die in a stanpede in reaction to a police charge or somethting like that (e.g. people are blocking the street and the police needs to clear the way).

          But I reiterate that the Spanish government killing peaceful protestors is realy unlikely.

          • arandur119 says:

            No matter what the reason is, independency is only likely when “practically all the population” wants it.

            The American Revolution appears to contradict this point. From Robert Calhoon via Wikipedia:

            Historian Robert Calhoon said the consensus of historians is that between 40 and 45 percent of the white population in the Thirteen Colonies supported the Patriots’ cause, between 15 and 20% supported the Loyalists, and the remainder were neutral or kept a low profile.

          • Ninmesara says:

            @arandur119 I was specifically talking about the case of Catalonia in the present day, sorry if that wasn’t clear. I’m not saying this applies anywhere else.

            Catalonia is unlikely to be able to win a real war against Spain, and I think the only way they’d ever be let go without a war would be if independence had overwhelming support like I said above. If Catalonia had a way of succeeding militarily, this wouldn’t apply. The majority can just ignore the minority, win the war by force and then the minority remains stuck with them.

          • quaelegit says:

            @arandur119, ninmesara —

            another obvious major difference in comparison to the American revolution is lack of international support. Even if Catalonia could win a war against Spain on their own (which remember the 13 Colonies didn’t — they got a lot of help from France and a little from some other powers) it seems possible* that the international community would side with Spain.

            (*Unless I missed some major announcement recently? I haven’t been following the news closely.)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            To further clarify why Catalonia and the American colony aren’t analogous, the gap in relative logistical distances between the two is immense.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Another difference: the Thirteen Colonies were big and sparsely-populated, making it much harder to keep control of them.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Spain has massive advantages over Catalonia. For one thing, they have an army. To lose, they essentially have to have lost the political will to fight while the Catalans have to have a strong desire for independence regardless of the number of deaths that transpire. Are they willing to die for their nationalism? As far as international support, it’s highly overrated. As long as no one is threatening them economically, they’re fine.

        • sustrik says:

          What about Russian intelligence services? One wouldn’t expect them to miss an opportunity to hurt EU by supporting extremists on both sides. Yet, I haven’t heard anything like that so far.

          • Anonymous says:

            What about Russian intelligence services? One wouldn’t expect them to miss an opportunity to hurt EU by supporting extremists on both sides.

            This actually sounds like the modus operandi for the Russians, especially given their Soviet subversion methodology. They probably are promoting division by supporting extremism on both sides of whatever divide happens to be in any given country hostile to Russia.

          • Perico says:

            Well, we had Julian Assange strongly promoting the independentist cause on Twitter last month, and that got significant coverage from Russian-backed media and, apparently, some Russian-affiliated bots. But I don’t think Russia is treating this as a high priority issue at the moment.


      • Wency says:

        Recent events have shown that Catalonia will not achieve independence “illegally”. Not many people are willing to die for independence from a country whose democratically-elected parliament they send representatives to. So as long as Spain is willing to respond with any kind of force at all, they will win.

        Secessionists will have to be patient and wait for the opportunity to get a referendum on independence that’s backed by Spain. This could happen for reasons of public opinion or for reasons of realpolitik/sausage-making. They might have to wait a long time though.

        Meanwhile, expect the Catalan language to diminish over time and with it, interest in independence. It’s a lot of effort to learn a second language and only be able to communicate with zero additional people. But the existence of the Catalan language probably has a lot to do with why this movement has gone so far.

        • rlms says:

          I don’t think Catalan will go away any time soon. It is spoken by 84% of people in Catalonia, 38% natively.

          • Perico says:

            And it’s not like Catalan usage is trending down – it’s been mostly stable for the last decade. Education is a major factor here – regional government controls education policy, and classes are in Catalan for the most part.

          • Wency says:

            Catalan as a language has momentum in the short term for reasons closely related to why Catalan independence has momentum. Or had momentum.

            But the long-term trend is for such languages to fade away. They teach Gaelic in Irish schools, and my understanding is almost no one can really speak it.

          • Perico says:

            The comparison with Gaelic really undersells the status of Catalan. Based on a quick search, ~5% of Irish students are in Irish schools, whereas 100% of public schools in Catalonia are in Catalan (with just a couple of hours per week of Spanish language). There’s also a matter of learning difficulty – Gaelic doesn’t look terribly easy to learn, whereas Catalan is quite similar to Spanish, and can be understood, with some effort, by any Spanish speaker.

        • Winter Shaker says:

          So here’s a thought: Is a big state like Spain (the UK, France, China etc) more or less likely to experience agitation for succession from its minority language speaking regions such as Catalonia (Wales, Occitania, Tibet etc) if it actively encourages the preservation of those minority languages (making the minority language speakers feel like their region is more of a partner in a federation), if it actively tries to suppress the minority language (making the minority language speakers feel like their region is a subjugated colony, but, if successful at replacing the minority language, ending up years down the line with people who don’t actually have a linguistic connection to their home region as opposed to the country as a whole), or if they do nothing either way (albeit ‘doing nothing’ is pretty difficult if you are a modern state that mandates universal education – someone has to decide what language that education will be in)?

          [Edit – and does the calculus change if the ‘minority language’ is actually a majority somewhere else, such as Russian in Latvia, Hungarian in Romania etc?]

          • AlphaGamma says:

            Interesting subsidiary point- it is debatable whether Scotland is a minority language speaking region. Gaelic is only spoken by a very small, though reasonably geographically concentrated, minority (1.1% of people in Scotland speak Gaelic, though they are a narrow majority in the Outer Hebrides). And whether Scots is a language or a dialect of English is subject to politically-charged debate- it is certainly different from even Scottish Standard English, but they are mutually intelligible and exist on a continuum.

            There have been various oddities thrown out of this as Scottish nationalists try to emphasise linguistic differences (among other differences) between Scotland and England, such as bilingual English/Gaelic signs in areas of Scotland where Gaelic has not been spoken for almost a millennium, if it ever was, and a certain sort of nationalist who makes all of their online postings in broad Scots.

          • rlms says:

            Franco forbade the use of Basque, but it continued to be taught underground and Basque separatism is now fairly popular (I assume the situation is the same with Calatan). There has been quite a lot of effort put into preserving Welsh, but I get the impression that the Welsh independence movement isn’t going to succeed any time soon. However, cases of separatism vary in a lot of ways and I don’t think there is strong evidence that attitude to minority languages has a single strong effect either way.

          • Machine Interface says:

            It can be interesting to look at Corsica here, which keeps strong nationalistic and separatist feelings, occasionally flaring up into violence (though mainly against public buildings rather than against persons). The Corsican language is said to be spoken natively by about 10% of the population.

            But furthermore, the current Corsican language seems to be a relatively recent import of Tuscan (the basis of standard Italian) that took hold in the island during the Renaissance and Early Modern era. In the middle ages, it seems Corsicans were spoken an entirely different romance language, more closely related to Sardinian than to Italian. Thus , between the Roman conquest of Corsica in 237 BC and modern times, there has been at least 3 language shifts on the island, with (speculatively) Etruscan and/or Punic first replaced by Latin, this Latin evolving into Old Corsican which was then replaced by Tuscan, which evolved locally into the modern Corsican language, only to be again replaced by French.

            What is interesting to note here is that the reputation of the Corsicans as an unruly people with a fierce island mentality dates back to Roman times. In there case, it seems that language policy was neither a cause for nor a counter to separatist feelings, and the Corsican ethos would have taken ethno-cultural nationalism and ran away with it no matter which language they were actually speaking.

        • philwelch says:

          > Secessionists will have to be patient and wait for the opportunity to get a referendum on independence that’s backed by Spain. This could happen for reasons of public opinion or for reasons of realpolitik/sausage-making. They might have to wait a long time though.

          They’ve waited a long time already.

          > Meanwhile, expect the Catalan language to diminish over time and with it, interest in independence. It’s a lot of effort to learn a second language and only be able to communicate with zero additional people. But the existence of the Catalan language probably has a lot to do with why this movement has gone so far.

          The Catalan language has actually had a major resurgence since the end of the Franco regime.

        • Deiseach says:

          Meanwhile, expect the Catalan language to diminish over time and with it, interest in independence.

          Pep Guardiola would like a word 🙂

    • Markus Ramikin says:

      Independence is not gonna happen. Nobody powerful outside favors it. In the unlikely case of civil war, they’re just gonna lose.

    • onyomi says:

      I reiterate my contention that Western democracies no longer have the stomach to wage a real war to prevent secession, so I’d say your 2% odds are about right.

      If we accept the premise that they won’t go to war to stop it, it really all depends on how persistent the Catalonians are, how conciliatory Madrid is, and how much pressure the international community does or does not bring to bear. I’d rate it better than 10%, though a good deal less than 50%, since my most-likely scenario is some modest concessions are offered and accepted.

      As for whether the rest of the world cares, I don’t think most care enough to go to war over it, but I will say I saw student flyers in HK to the effect of “first Catalonia, then… Hong Kong!” In other words, the world of people thinking about secession is watching.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Do the Catalans have the stomach to start a war? Because if they do, you will be amazed at how quickly the the Spanish government (and people) develops the stomach to respond…

        • albatross11 says:

          Well, Spain was okay with sending in paramilitary police to try to stop an election, and they’ve put out arrest warrants for a bunch of the Catalonian leadership, dissolved the Catalan parliament, and otherwise seem to be pretty successfully suppressing an actual independent Catalonia. That created some bad-looking media images, and maybe it will cause problems for Rajoy and the PP in the future, but it seems to be working pretty well. I think part of the reason why it is working is that their steps so far signal pretty clearly that the Spanish government is, in fact, willing to go still further if necessary.

    • Watchman says:

      I think it depends on the population of Catalonia. No democratic nation has successfully kept a long-term majority moverment for independence under wraps, so if the Catalan population continue to push for independence I think it will happen. I’d also suggest the continued persecution of Catalan politicians for basically fulfilling their electoral manifestos is likely to increase the chance of independence.

      • Ninmesara says:

        Theyare not being arrested for “fulfilling their electoral manifests”. They are being arrested because they voted to declare independency and declared it. They’ve basically commited a crime on live TV. We can argue forever whether the law is just and the punishment proportional, but please let’s keep things clear.

        They have always been able to advocate for independence (spain has freedom of speech after all), they just can’t declare that they ae independent (which is a crime).

        • Watchman says:

          I have a huge issue with this though – it’s using the courts to constrain democratic opinion (by making certain options illegal), which is essentially anti-democratic. I don’t doubt this is technically a crime, but as a crime it has some major flaws, not the least of which is it can be used to catch politicans doing exactly what they promissed to do. And that in itself is likely to limit freedom of speech.

          Anyway, regardless of the legality of the case, the fact that they are about to create political martyrs (hopefully not in the full sense of the word) is likely to increase the chances of independence.

          • gph says:

            But unless a country goes to full direct democracy the courts and legal system will always be the ones defining the system through which democracy will function, and that system will have to constrain democratic opinion in one form or another.

            It’s perfectly reasonable in the republican/representative form of democracy that most western nations follow to say it’s illegal for representative to perform certain actions, no matter if they have the majority of their constituency on their side. This is one of those scenarios.

          • Lambert says:

            I think that kind of declaration constitutes more than an opinion.
            After all, one could say that it was merely the Kaiser’s opinion that Belgium should be invaded.

      • Aapje says:


        No democratic nation has successfully kept a long-term majority movement for independence under wraps

        Native Americans?
        Northern Italy?

        • Watchman says:

          Native Americans – do they really want sovereign independence? I’d not heard this, with my awareness of the issue being of campaigns for recognition and self-governance, and control of lands. It might be some nations want independence, but I need links for this.

          Scotland – we know there is not a majority, since they voted on it recently. And I’d point out that this is an excellent counterexample, since the UK was leaving the choice to the Scots (or the inhabitants of Scotland, to be accurate).

          Frisia – A quick Wikipedia search suggests that Frisian nationalism is not that strong – it’s not even a majority in the rural areas where it does best. This ties in with the couple of Frisians I have acquitance with, who are happily Dutch as well (this might be because they are liberal academics mind you).

          Northern Italy – Again, no majority here, and indeed there is not even a single identity here.

          Only Scotland and Flanders in western Europe approach the level of support Catalan independence apparently has according to anything I’ve seen.

          • Aapje says:

            But doesn’t that simply turn your statement (“No democratic nation has successfully kept a long-term majority movement for independence under wraps”) into a truism?

            You seem to define the seriousness of a desire to be independent by the same metrics you use to argue that they are not kept under wraps. So doesn’t your claim boil down to: a group of people who are so unhappy that they want independence are not effectively kept from desiring to be independent?

          • Watchman says:

            Possibly – but there is the example of Slovakia at least for a peacable separation where the majority wanted it.

            What this discussion does somewhat illustrate is how few independence movements have majority support. That Catalonia might be at about that point should therefore flag up something different might happen here.

          • quaelegit says:

            >Slovakia as a peaceable separation where the majority wanted it

            Do we know this? I thought there was no referendum at the time, and I can’t find anything in English about popular at the time. My impression was that the government(s?) kind of decided to split without popular input.

            Wikipedia suggests that people are happy with the situation now, but if anything this seems like an example of non-democratic secession.

            (Tibor? Do other Czechs or Slovaks here know more?)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            My impression was that essentially everyone wanted a Czech/Slovak split, on both sides. Those are easy, especially when both of them remain in the EU (and therefore there is very little cost in borders terms).

          • Anonymous says:


            Those two split in 1993, and the EU got expanded to include both in 2004. Your post made it sound as if Czechoslovakia was in the EU when it split.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            That is a good point. I didn’t check the dates on that.

            I wonder whether the two maintained an essentially open border, regardless. I would think that most likely, but I don’t know.

            @Tibor is from the Czech Republic, IIRC, maybe he will chime in.

          • pivo says:

            Slovak here.

            My impression is that majority was against the split in both republics, but at the same time not strongly against the split. There was a vocal minority in Slovakia for independence.

            I think the following is the reason for both the split and the fact that the split was peaceful. The geographic border between the republics was 1000 years old, perfectly obvious, ethnically and linguistically clear. (as opposed to the croatian/serbian border, and russian/ukrainian border). So, when after the elections in 1992 the dominant Czech party found the dominant Slovak party to be something unable to work with, and the dominant Slovak party had an incentive to go about privatization with their own people, they, the parties, both decided to rather split. Again, the split was amicable, because it was geographically+ethnically easy, there were no hurt feelings*. So, I wouldn’t give the dissolution of Czechoslovakia as a success story to study, because the situation was so much better suited for an easy split than in other cases.

            * Of course some feelings were hurt. I guess the greatest injustice about the split I’ve heard felt in Slovakia is that Czech republic kept the Czechoslovak flag :-). Yeah, compare that to land disputes elsewhere, and you see how easy it was to carry out the split.

          • pivo says:


            As I remember it, in fact, almost no one advocated a complete split of the federation. Rather, in Slovakia, it was a wide spectrum of opinions on the nature of the federation, with complete split being a fringe one; in the Czech part it was a confusion by “what do the Slovaks want”.

          • Tibor says:

            I was 4 at the time of the split but there definitely wasn’t a referendum. Basically the situation was roughly as this – the country became federal after the Velvet revolution. Despite that, Slovaks still had a feeling they’re getting the short end of the stick, I can’t say how justified it was or wasn’t. The federal government had a seat in Prague though. I think that for many Slovaks Czechoslovakia was in many ways just a stop on the road to independence (which they had never really had until 1993 unlike Czechs). The Slovak political representation pushed for independence and the Czech (and federal) political representation was sort of indifferent, slightly against it but not really willing to give Slovaks any extras for staying nor to make them stay by force. I’d say that eventually everyone realized that it doesn’t really matter that much whether it is one country or both as long as relationships remain cordial (which they have pretty much the whole time, in fact the split probably made them better than they were before). The EU had not existed back then (it was only founded in 1994) and both countries only joined it in 2004 anyway. But IIRC, Slovaks never needed work visas in the Czech Republic and the same for Czechs in Slovakia. Same for other restrictions and trade barriers. Spain and Catalonia could do the same, but Spain does not want Catalonia to leave mostly for sort of historical and nationalist reasons. Czechoslovakia had a very short history and the only precedent to it existed from roughly the 7th till the 9th century (or so, it can be googled – look for “Great Moravia”) and so splitting was not that big a deal for anyone.

            It is probably correct that only a minority was for complete independence but there were few who were strongly against it – both among Czechs and Slovaks. The general Czech attitude was “what do those Slovaks want this time?” and eventually “let’s just go with it so we don’t have to keep dealing with nonsense like whether the country should be called Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia” (which was a real issue discussed in the parliament in 1992). Most Czechs probably wanted the federation to continue but not that really that much. In a sense it was a rather artificial construct, the two countries had a rather different history ever since the end of the Great Moravia in the 8th century or so. the Czech lands became the Kingdom of Bohemia and a member (and later prince-elector) of the Holy Roman Empire and Slovakia became a part of Hungary. That’s not to say that there aren’t cultural similarities, particularly Moravia (the eastern part of the Czech lands) and Slovakia are very close culturally.

            But Czechoslovakia was a country that had existed for 20 years, then stopped existing, then existed again for 40 years but under a communist dictatorship and then 4 years later it stopped existing. In this sense it was very different from Catalonia and Spain who had been together for much longer.

            In any case, I think the issue is that
            1) Most Castillians are very strongly against letting Catalonia leave. This is very different from the Czech attitude towards Slovakia.
            2) There are even quite a lot of Catalonians who really oppose independence. That might be more because they are afraid of Spanish repercussions rather than because they are against it in principle, but still that’s how it is. I don’t think there were many Slovaks who were so strongly against leaving the federation.

            As for the flags – originally neither country was supposed to use the Czechoslovak flag. In fact, the Czech Republic actually had a different flag for a few months after the split – the flag with the historical colours of the Czech lands which is very nice but which has the tiny disadvantage that it looks exactly like the modern Polish flag. I suppose we could have just put the Czech lion over it to differentiate it from the Polish flag in the same way Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian and Russian flags look the same, only the symbol over that changes (personally I would not mind having the same underlying flag as Poland, I would definitely not want to share it with Russia though). So we just reverted back to the Czechoslovak flag. The old interpretation of that flag was red and white for the Czech lands and blue for Slovakia. Now it is red for Bohemia, blue for Moravia, white for Czech Silesia (I think). But it is probably not an official interpretation, in fact I’m not sure there is an official interpretation at all.

            Another thing is that Czechs often view the Czech republic as successor state of Czechoslovakia, I am not sure if Slovaks also view Slovakia that way but I have a feeling that they do not or definitely much less so. For instance the foundation of Czechoslovakia is a national holiday in the Czech republic and is regarded as the date of the foundation of the country. In this sense, in 1993 Czechoslovakia did not split into two new countries but rather Slovaks left and Czechs just kept the state. This sort of mentality, seeing Czechoslovakia as first Czech and then Slovak is what probably led many Slovaks to want to leave. I would not say Slovak culture or language were really suppressed in any way or anything, but Czechs were definitely dominant. I know no Czechoslovak films which are in Slovak. Some characters speak Slovak sometimes but it is always mostly in Czech. Now the languages are mutually intelligible and during the Czechoslovak times you also had broadcasting in Slovak and Slovak was never translated so if a reporter was Slovak then he’d just talk in Slovak, but Czech was much more common in the media anyway. Partly due to there being almost twice as many Czechs than Slovaks (10 million to 6 million) and partly because Slovakia used to be much poorer than Bohemia (now they’ve almost entirely caught up though).

            By the way one of the suggestions for the Czechoslovak flag in 1918 was this. Sort of like a mix of US and Cuban flags. I suppose the 4 stars were supposed to be Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Transcarpathia (a part of Czechoslovakia between 1918 and 1938 for strange political reasons then annexed by the Soviet Union after WW2, now a part of Ukraine).

          • quaelegit says:

            Tibor and Pivo — Thank you very much!! Your accounts both line up with what I thought I knew about the split, but it’s nice to hear about if from the experts, along with a lot more than I knew 🙂

            >”The geographic border between the republics was 1000 years old, perfectly obvious, ethnically and linguistically clear.”
            Woah, a THOUSAND years? That’s really stable by European standards. I guess those mountains are really tall…
            >“let’s just go with it so we don’t have to keep dealing with nonsense like whether the country should be called Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia” (which was a real issue discussed in the parliament in 1992).

            And now we have Czechia vs. Czech Republic to worry over. You guys can’t catch a break with country names, can you 😛

            >”In a sense it was a rather artificial construct, the two countries had a rather different history ever since the end of the Great Moravia in the 8th century or so. ”

            Wow, now I’m wondering why they were grouped together after WWI at all? (Ok, according to this
            answer on AskHistorians
            the answer is “Czech nationalism”… but why did the Czechs prefer the Slovaks to the Poles or Hungarians? Cultural Similarity?)

            >”The old interpretation of that flag was red and white for the Czech lands and blue for Slovakia. Now it is red for Bohemia, blue for Moravia, white for Czech Silesia (I think). But it is probably not an official interpretation, in fact I’m not sure there is an official interpretation at all.”

            I’d heard about the three colors representing geographic regions, but didn’t know the historical blue = Slovakia. Thanks!

            >” (personally I would not mind having the same underlying flag as Poland, I would definitely not want to share it with Russia though).”

            No argument there. You’re current flag is really cool though, so I’m glad someone is still using it. (I also like the current one better than the sort-Cuba one, although thanks for finding it!)

            (Also for whatever its worth I find the crest is enough to distinguish Slovakia et al from Russia’s flag. The main problem is I ALWAYS mix up the flags of Slovakia and Slovenia…)

            >[re: radios]

            Cool, didn’t realize Slovak and Czech are mutually intelligible!

          • Tibor says:

            @quaelegit: Glad to be of some help (and sorry for the mistakes in English grammar, I am well aware of then but I rarely tend to read what I write here in the comments before posting it).

            As for why Czechoslovakia in the first place and not Czechohungaria or Czechopolonia or whatever? In fact both Hungary and Poland had more historical ties – several times in history either the Czech king was also the king of Hungary or the Polish king also the king of Bohemia (or you can view it the other way around). But culturally Slovaks definitely are the closest of these. The languages actually drifted closer to each other – in the 19th century when the Habsburg empire became the Austro-Hungarian empire* the empire was divided into two parts, one (roughly) to the west of Danube and the other to the east. In the western part German was made the only official language, so all schools were in German and so were all public offices. In the eastern part, the same held for Hungarian. So all other languages were suppressed and this fueled even further the nationalist sentiments that were growing everywhere in Europe. At this point in time few Czechs spoke Czech at all. Or at least among the educated “elites”. Czech was a language spoken in the villages and by the people with no schooling. A group of Czech intellectuals, many of whom spoke barely any Czech at all, decided first do conserve the language and then later to actually revive it, which meant partly reusing very old words (14-15th century Czech), partly loaning words from other languages such as Polish or Russian (a lot of these nationalists were also fascinated by Russia which they also knew nothing about, they imagined it as a shining example of an egalitarian enlightened constitutional monarchy…some of then then actually visited Russia and changed their mind completely – this sort of reminds me of the “useful idiots” that Lenin spoke about and Orwell criticized , the western left-wing journalists who praised the soviet union in the 1930s). The Slovaks, inspired by the Czechs did the same – and since their language was perhaps even in a worse state, they took a lot of Czech words and changed them a bit.

            Another thing is that if you look at the map, a Czecho-Hungary would not work simply because there is Slovakia in the middle. Of course, Slovakia could have stayed a part of Hungary. But Hungary lost the war (and Czechoslovakia, mostly due to clever international politics of the separatists as well as war contribution of the Czechoslovak legions during WW1, managed to convinced the Entete that they were basically on their side all along…even though more Czech soldiers actually fought for Austria than against it) and the Entete was going to punish it, not reward it. One way to do that was to break away parts of it – Slovakia and Transcarpathia (as well as Romania and Croatia). Why did not Slovakia become an independent country back in 1918 already? I think it was simply easier for the Czech and Slovak separatists to join forces and get an international recognition that way than to try the same independently. Whether it was a smart move in the long run is hard to say. Czechoslovakia was in many ways Austria-Hungary light. There was a Czech majority and then 3 large minorities – Slovaks, Germans and Hungarians (and a small minority of Transcarpathian Ukrainians). Only Slovaks had a proper recognition. In Bohemia all public offices only communicated in Czech and Bohemian Germans had to learn it to communicate with the state as well as to get any kind of state employment. So basically the Czechs just did exactly what the Germans had done a few decades before that. This helped the Henlein’s Nazi party considerably and eventually resulted in the Munich agreement. But I think I have already drifted quite far away from the original question, so I think I’ll stop here 🙂

            *Hungarians forced the emperor to elevate their status back to an equal partner in a union…and the Czechs tried the same and failed, mostly because of the opposition of the Bohemian Germans and also rather stupid way Czech politicians handled that situation in the Austro-Hungarian Reichstag – more or less the same as a parliament – their proposals were at first defeated and then as a sign of protest they boycotted the Reichstag entirely, kind of like the separatist Irish parties do that in the modern UK, thus losing all influence on what was done there).

          • pivo says:

            > “what do those Slovaks want this time?”
            I’ll try to elaborate on this question, as it may pertain to Catalonia as well. As I said, what Slovaks wanted was a wide spectrum of opinions, and while almost no one wanted a full breakup, almost all felt they wanted more RECOGNITION _abroad_. Picture this:

            French: Where you from?
            Slovak: Czechoslovakia
            French: Aaah, Czech.
            Slovak: Noooo, Slovak.
            French: Ok, didn’t know that existed.

            People, for whatever reason, like to watch sports and identify with their national team. And current best cyclist in the world happens to be Slovak and my compatriots are oh so proud of him. So before, he would be from Czechoslovakia, and thus considered Czech by all the international media, and all people abroad. Emotionally, that would be disastrous for much of the nation.

            I hope that explains why naming (the so called “hyphen war”) became such a big deal. The key word to remember is recognition.

            Perhaps, what Catalonia needs is a Catalan soccer team at the world cup.

          • RandomCatalanGuy says:

            @Pivo: You might actually be right about the soccer idea, oddly enough.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            You still can’t have Messi, though.

        • rlms says:

          And possibly Quebec. Or (trolling somewhat) Israel.

        • albatross11 says:

          How about the American South? (I’m not sure if a majority of Southerners would have supported independence if you’d counted the votes of blacks, though.)

          • Evan Þ says:

            It’s debatable whether even a majority of white Southerners wanted independence. Only Texas had a referendum; in most if not all of the other states, there were numerous convention delegates who got elected on an anti-secession platform but ended up voting for secession. Lincoln publicly speculated that secession would fail a referendum everywhere except South Carolina.

    • Linvega says:

      For what it’s worth, here’s the opinion of a colleague of mine who is a catalonian and has been in barcelona while independence was declared:

      Puigdemont got a call from madrid that if he really enacts (not just declares) independence, it WILL get violent. There were more than enough catalonians that were willing to protect the politicians and the buildings with their bodies should he enact it. If this had happened, madrid would have had no way except literally shooting into masses of unarmed civilians or it would play out like the vote itself. If they did it, europe couldn’t look away anymore, public opinion would probably massively swing in favor of the catalonians both in spain itself as well as in europe as a whole. Independence would have a real chance of being won, though maybe at a high cost. Important here is that the catalonians wouldn’t fight back; If they did, a regular civil war might break out and europe wouldn’t intervene.

      However, Puigdemont wasn’t willing to risk the lives of the catalonians. This led him to first try a different agreement, which got shot down by madrid again, and now to go to brussel to raise awareness in europe. What he completely misunderstood is that at least for the politicians, all the western values are mostly just fluffy talk and it’s mostly just power plays. Journalism mostly plays along with this. The only way to get them to act is if something excessively bad happens, like ‘shooting into masses of unarmed civilians’-bad, so that they can’t really claim stuff like ‘it’s both sides’ or ‘spain isn’t the third world so they’re fine’ etc. Rubber guns and the politicians going to jail for 10+ years is simply not bad enough, and the justice system being independent will be continously claimed no matter how obviously they’re favoring madrid.

      Puigdemont is also seen as paternalistic from a lot of catalonians. If they are willing to risk their lives for the independence, who is he to not allow them to do it?

      However, all is not lost. The next vote will bring some new leaders that might then enact indepence if need be. If madrid simply illegalizes all parties in favor of independence, this would result in a huge backlash even from a lot of people from spain who aren’t in favor of independence.

      Also, in his opinion, a catalonian IRA is what madrid wants the most. The basques were used to excuse lots of state violence, they need a new scapegoat.

      • outis says:

        Madrid could just cordon off the government buildings with the civilians around them and run the region from somewhere else.

        • Ninmesara says:

          Yes, this is basically what they’re doing now. The region is more or less beinh run from Madrid until the elections.

          • Linvega says:

            I disagree, you can’t really run a region from somewhere else if the people are unwilling and there is a local counter-regime. That has always been the point where a region breaks free, though the further away, the faster it happens. The only reason they can do it now is because the opposition is headless, and because the support for the independence isn’t quite big enough.

          • Ninmesara says:

            you can’t really run a region from somewhere else if the people are unwilling and there is a local counter-regime.

            The only reason they can do it now is because the opposition is headless, and because the support for the independence isn’t quite big enough.

            Yes, that’s the whole reason why I think that this independence movement isn’t going anywhere in the short term. If the Spanish state having control of your bank accounts and signing some papers is a real obstacle to independence, then you’re not going to become independent today. Or maybe ever…

            Support not being big enough is also huge. Seceding from a country with support around 50-60% isn’t easy. I’d argue you need more than that to move away the status quo (maybe 80-85%? maybe as low as 70-75%? IDK).

          • Watchman says:


            You are aware of the tendency for distant imposed government to become increasingly unpopular aren’t you? Especially since the Madrid government is conservative and Catalonia’s cities tend to be strongly socialist (and the countryside strongly nationalist), so direct rule is not going to be necessarily what people want it to be.

            Any independence movement would anyway guarantee bank accounts and the like – they aren’t stupid – leaving the Spanish state to play the bad guy and threaten them. And one thing we know from human history is that threatening the population tends not to get you what you want without actual violence.

          • Ninmesara says:

            You are aware of the tendency for distant imposed government to become increasingly unpopular aren’t you?

            Yes, and the Spanish Govt knows it too. That’s why they’ve scheduled elections in December (I think even the Constitution calls for early elections in this kind of situation, but I’m not sure; I’d have to check).

            But in any case, I’d argue it doesn’t matter. Put yourself in the role of the Spanish Govt. You have a duty to maintain territorial integrity (you’ve sworn to uphold the constitution and all that). If people want to split, at one point you’ll have to go against those people. You can negotiate whatever you want but if on their side is independence or bust, there’s a point where you just have to say No. Even if you become more unpopular. You can argue that this whole problem comes from some attacks on regional autonomy by Mariano Rajoy’s Govt, but it doesn’t matter. The stakes now seem to be “independence or bust”, so you have to impose direct rule.

            Any independence movement would anyway guarantee bank accounts and the like – they aren’t stupid – leaving the Spanish state to play the bad guy and threaten them.

            I don’t understand. Could you reformulate, please? Who is guaranteeing access to bank accounts?

          • Watchman says:

            Re the bank accounts – the independence movement will state that bank accounts will be honoured. They may not have a mechanism (although if independence did happen, I suspect the banks would still want to operate in Catalonia) but they only need to state the intent. So for bank accounts to become a political issue, they need to be threatened by the Spanish government (who may not be able to do this anyway, since the Euro is not a currency in their control).

            Appreciate the point about the Spanish government perspective, which I hadn’t considered properly before. I would point out though that the option of renegotiating the constitutional settlement also exists, so they are not trapped in one course of action with no way out.

      • Ninmesara says:

        I’m sorry, but this looks like pure independentist propaganda with little basis in reality… Are you sure your friend is aj unbiased source?

        • Linvega says:

          Well, that’s why I wrote the introduction the way I did. Since the media in my own country at least is blatantly favoring the spanish viewpoint, a catalonian view is at least interesting, even if it is also biased.

          I agree with him though that not really enacting independence and going to brussels was a mistake.

          • Ninmesara says:

            I’ve been following the thing mostly from TVE (public TV, probably controlled by the Spanish government). I think they’re very biased for never mentioning the fact that Catalonia recently lost some of its autonomy (under the current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy), and that might have been a trigger for the increase in support for the independentist movements. On the other hand, I don’t know how relevant the loss of autonomy was in practice (I haven’t had the time to research it properly, so even this “fact” might not be as “factual” as I’d like).

            I agree with him though that not really enacting independence and going to brussels was a mistake.

            Going to Brussels was certainly a mistake. I don’t think what was on his mind at that moment. Probably try to garner support for his cause internationally? I don’t know what he expected…

            Regarding not enacting independence, I don’t know what he could have done.

            Close the borders? With what army? The Catalonian police?

            Start printing Catalonian money in a rush? The economy would have to be based in cash, because the Spanish would just freeze all bank accounts with Euros in it.

            I think enacting independence was never the goal. It if it was, he would have been printing Catalonian money for weeks in secret, so that he had something to make the economy work. I wonder if the ubiquity of smartphones would allow him to have a digital-first economy based on tokens provided by the state instead of banknotes, but he and his group don’t have the know-how to build a scalable platform capable of supporting the Catalonian economy, especially in the face of the inevitable attempts at disruption.

            He would have been having secret meetings with chiefs of state to gauge the level of support he’d have. He’d be negotiating trade agreements outside the EU. He’d be acquiring weapons for the police (some people claimed he actually tried this) or using the state budget to finance a militia in secret.

            What puzzles me the most, is all the people dancing in the streets after he’s declared independence. That doesn’t seem like an occasion to dance in the streets. Cheerfully dancing in the streets is a privilege for someone who has an army protecting them. They should be enlisting in the army, looking for guns to defend their new state, etc. People treated that like it wasn’t serious, and that’s why IMO it never was meant to be serious.

          • vV_Vv says:

            I agree with him though that not really enacting independence and going to brussels was a mistake.

            The whole project of achieving independence from Spain while remaining in the EU, and even expecting support from the EU, was always ill-informed.

          • nimim.k.m. says:

            Cheerfully dancing in the streets is a privilege for someone who has an army protecting them. They should be enlisting in the army, looking for guns to defend their new state, etc.

            There’s still lot of people who remember the 1990s and the (initially) surprisingly peaceful Soviet collapse. First people of Baltics gathered in giant human chain holding hands, and then they were independent. The Berlin wall fell in a giant party.

            In Yugoslavia, where people enlisted in armies and militias, they had gods-know-how-many years of war and crimes against humanity.

            I can see why Catalonians would like that their independence declaration would go like in the first example and not in the other.

          • John Schilling says:

            There’s still lot of people who remember the 1990s and the (initially) surprisingly peaceful Soviet collapse. First people of Baltics gathered in giant human chain holding hands, and then they were independent. The Berlin wall fell in a giant party.

            And yes Yugoslavia turned out differently, though IIRC Slovenia’s independence was relatively painless. Then there’s Ukraine and Georgia to consider, where the happy fun version of independence turned out to be sadly transitory.

            Ninmesara’s “privilege of people with an army” theory would only hold water if there were some army that protects Berlin and the Baltics but not Ukraine or Georgia, and Slovenia but not the rest of former Yugoslavia. Clearly preposterous. But, refresh my memory, does independent Catalonia get automatic NATO membership, and if not how long do the negotiations take?

          • Ninmesara says:

            There’s still lot of people who remember the 1990s and the (initially) surprisingly peaceful Soviet collapse. First people of Baltics gathered in giant human chain holding hands, and then they were independent. The Berlin wall fell in a giant party.

            Yes, that’s what happens when your powerful oppressor collapses and is not so powerful anymore. Spain is as powerful as ever, isn’t near collapse and is feels very strongly that Catalonia is part of Spain.

          • Ninmesara says:

            Ninmesara’s “privilege of people with an army” theory would only hold water if there were some army that protects Berlin and the Baltics but not Ukraine or Georgia, and Slovenia but not the rest of former Yugoslavia.

            I’m not familiar with that part of history, but were the Soviets firmly against independence of the former Soviet block at that time? My impression is that they weren’t, and unlike the earlier riots at Prague and Budapest not willing to use force to keep the Federation together. Spain is very firmly and very strongly against the independence of Catalonia.

            I fon’t think the proper reaction to declaring independence from a powerful and stable country that feels strongly against your independence is to dance on the streets, if you’re serious about your unilateral declaration of independence.

            But, refresh my memory, does independent Catalonia get automatic NATO membership, and if not how long do the negotiations take?

            I think that it’s the opposite. Spain can probably ask for support against the territorial aggression of the Catalonian state. But I’m not sure, and they’d never feel the need to ask for such support.

          • nimim.k.m. says:


            I don’t dispute your analysis; the realpolitik situation is quite different.

            But I think that particular historical episode contributes to the popular perception that waving flags and celebrating on the streets and being peaceful and casting ballots in referendums might, sometimes, be just enough to gain them independence, especially if they don’t want to go the Balkans route. This is the 2010s, and moreover, in Western Europe, we are all living in peace-loving democracies.


            I’m not familiar with that part of history, but were the Soviets firmly against independence of the former Soviet block at that time? My impression is that they weren’t, and unlike the earlier riots at Prague and Budapest not willing to use force to keep the Federation together.

            Or maybe I’ll clarify: Gorbachev was not ready to go Katyn 2.0 to maintain the union. Several other high-ranking hardliners were, and attempted to depose him, but their coup failed. As a result, the failed coup rendered both them and Gorbachev as nobodys; Yeltsin (and other heads of other large republics) managed to establish themselves as de facto rulers in their respective spots of land. I’m myself a little fuzzy why Yeltsin was willing to let smaller republics go their merry way, aside that it legitimized his rule over Russia.

          • quaelegit says:

            > John’s NATO joke

            Heh. But wikipedia says the Baltics and Slovenia didn’t join NATO until 2004, so were they in preliminary talks (or some sort of unofficial understanding) in the 90s?

            Also wondering why Slovenia is “closer” to NATO (joined at least 5 years earlier) than any other Balkans (excluding Greece).

          • John Schilling says:

            Heh. But wikipedia says the Baltics and Slovenia didn’t join NATO until 2004, so were they in preliminary talks (or some sort of unofficial understanding) in the 90s?

            Late 90s, but yes. I think the important part is that by the time Vladimir Putin took office, which is a reasonable benchmark for when post-Soviet Russia was in any shape to go hardcore revanchist, the Baltic States were a year into a “Membership Action Plan” with NATO. That seems like a pretty clear signal that the most powerful military alliance in history would not really tolerate a Russian invasion of the Baltic States, if not quite an explicit statement of how that intolerance would manifest.

          • Ninmesara says:


            But I think that particular historical episode contributes to the popular perception that waving flags and celebrating on the streets and being peaceful and casting ballots in referendums might, sometimes, be just enough to gain them independence, especially if they don’t want to go the Balkans route.

            Oh, sure, you’re right about popular perception.

      • albatross11 says:

        I suspect one of the drivers of the international response here is that a *lot* of countries have would-be breakaway regions, and those countries are not terribly excited about establishing a precedent for those regions breaking away if they can get a majority in a declared-illegal vote where the opposition stayed home. And even if nobody succeeds in breaking away, you can easily get terrorist groups, civil unrest, and even civil war out of those attempts.

        The endpoint with Catalonia breaking away seems likely to me to be an actual civil war, with a lot of people dead and a massive amount of human suffering and lost wealth. Maybe at the end of it, Spain’s suffered enough bad press or losses that Catalonia ends up independent–probably with no trade and an armed, hostile border with Spain, no membership in the EU for many years, etc.

        As an outside power, I can see why it would be sensible to encourage that sort of thing to get the Kurds out from under Saddam’s secret police a couple decades ago, but doing it to get the Catalonians out from under paying more taxes to Madrid than they get benefits seems nuts to me.

        • philwelch says:

          > I suspect one of the drivers of the international response here is that a *lot* of countries have would-be breakaway regions, and those countries are not terribly excited about establishing a precedent for those regions breaking away if they can get a majority in a declared-illegal vote where the opposition stayed home. And even if nobody succeeds in breaking away, you can easily get terrorist groups, civil unrest, and even civil war out of those attempts.

          What most civilized Western countries do these days is to allow an independence referendum while having the PM of the central government openly campaign against it–Quebec 1996 and Scotland 2014, to name a couple. There was also the period between 1996 and 1999 when most civilized Western countries militarily intervened to protect separatist regions of Yugoslavia.

          The principle of self-determination is so well established that it’s strange that Spain is getting a pass on suppressing the referendum in the first place.

          • Ninmesara says:

            What most civilized Western countries do these days is to allow an independence referendum while having the PM of the central government openly campaign against it

            Spain’s constitution is fiercely against the possibility of splitting the country. It was drafted that way on purpose, precisely to make sure things like this don’t happen. Maybe this disqualifies Spain from being a civilized Western country (I don’t think it does but this is obviously subjective). Germany if I remember correctly has the exact same clause in its constitution.

            The principle of self-determination is so well established

            Even if you believe this principle of being of the highest importance, I’d argue that support for independence in Catalonia is still too low to consider breaking the country apart. Currently according to a comment above a little over 60% of the citizens of Catalonia support independence. This is not a very encouraging margin (for something as momentous as independence I’d ask for at least 85-90% support).

            An in any case the principle of self determination is a little weird. How small is too small? Can individual cities split? I’m pretty legalist on matters of secession, because I don’t think this “self-determination” thing can be determined accurately and objectively.

    • Ninmesara says:

      Theyre is something you’re missing here. Support for independence inside Catalonia is about 50%. This is probably not a good enough basis of support to seccede from Spain…

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        What % are opposed, and how many don’t care?

      • PDV says:

        It’s 60%+, extrapolating from total vote count and previous elections.

        • Ninmesara says:

          So high? I haven’t seen the latest polls. Still, I think that below 80% support for independence it’s hard for the process to happen in a legal way.

          • rlms says:

            Better tell that to the British government before Brexit happens.

          • Ninmesara says:

            @rlms In my opinion the margin of the Brexit referendum was very low, which is discouraging. With such low margins one should stick to the status quo instead of changing. If I were to organize the referendum, I’d demand for 66%-75% support for leaving the EU in order to trigger the process.

            There is a large difference here, of course. The UK is an autonomous entity, with the legal power to leave the EU, according to the treaties involved. The only people who needed to decide on the issue were the British, and they voted under conditions agreed upon by the Parliament. The government said it would follow the result of the vote even if it were a simple majority, so they were bound by it (it was refreshing to see a Government sticking by its promises for once, no matter how dire the consequences).

            I wouldn’t feel comfortable going forward with so little support, but those were the conditions agreed upon at the time of the vote, and they were respected.

            Better tell that to the British government before Brexit happens.

            Well, I think Brexit is inevitable now, right?

          • Blue Tribe Dissident says:

            Using election results is a little awkward because there a lot of parties and some of the smaller ones have ambiguous positions on independence. At the last elections, the two pro-independence groups that now form the government (Junts pel Sí and Popular Unity Candidacy) received a combined 47.8% of the vote and 53.3% of the seats in parliament. However, if two other groups that seem to be generally in favor of independence (Catalonia Yes We Can (now apparently called Catalonia in Common) and the Democratic Union) are included, the total rises to 59.3% of the vote and 61.5% of seats in parliament.

            From what I’ve seen of the polling, the December election is shaping up to give results that are quite similar. Note that Junts pel Sí, the senior partner in the governing coalition, was an alliance of the Catalan European Democratic Party and the Republican Left of Catalonia, which are apparently contesting the upcoming elections separately this time. No word yet on who the Judean People’s Front or the People’s Front of Judea will be throwing their support to.

          • Aapje says:


            The unique feature for Britain was that the EU changed its goal from a trade union to a federation after Britain already joined and has been gradually trying to ramp up the federal structure. The British people never got to speak out in a referendum on that major matter. That already makes it quite debatable whether the British people accepted a federalized EU in the first place.

            In contrast, the 1978 Spanish constitution was accepted in a referendum, where 95% of the Catalan voters spoke out in favor of the constitution, with a fairly healthy 67% turnout. So there is a very strong case that the Catalan people made a strong commitment back then.

        • RandomCatalanGuy says:

          @Aapje: the argument the separatists are making is that they basically ratified the ’78 constitution at gunpoint, which is not entirely true and not entirely false. Things were quite up in the air back then, only three years after Franco died, and the constitution definitely looked a whole lot better than what he had been doing for 36 years.

          • Aapje says:

            That is like blaming your wife for accepting to marry her after being hounded by your parents to get married. It’s not her fault and it’s unfair to expect to be able to just walk away if she now has a baby.

          • RandomCatalanGuy says:

            Well, I don’t necessarily agree with their argument, but I am trying to see it from their point of view.

            A better analogy then would be, you are a member of a Miner Union, and after years of strikes getting crushed by the police, you get offered a minor wage increase. Sure, you are not forced to take it, you can keep the strike going (and likely get crushed by the police again). But taking it doesn’t preclude you from doing any more strikes a few years down the line either.

    • Murphy says:

      Mine for the year mark:

      Significant increase in membership of separatist movements.
      Both peaceful / violent and including a boost in other regions of spain. : 90%+

      Birth of some significant new violent separatist group/s: 50%+

      Birth of a violent loyalist movement similar to some of the loyalist northern ireland groups: 5% ish if things carry on as they are. 10%+ if the separatists look likely to succeed.

    • rlms says:

      I think the chance of de facto independence is somewhat higher, but not that high (say 20%).

    • vV_Vv says:

      Yep, at least in the short term Catalan independence has failed.

    • John Schilling says:

      Your numbers seem about right to me, but I haven’t looked at the matter too closely. There are credible paths to Catalan independence, but they mostly involve the Spanish government screwing up in a big way. Madrid seems to be handling this pretty well, and the EU and non-Catalan Spanish population seems to be giving them enough latitude for the inevitable minor missteps and the necessary degree of head-bashing, so that’s not likely. The only credible path I can see for Catalan independence if Madrid does everything right, is a general strike of unprecedented duration and discipline, with a side order of very carefully managed protests, and I don’t think the independence movement’s leadership can pull that off. So 10% seems about right; I could be persuaded 5% or 20% but it’s not going to be 50%.

      Barring foreign intervention, a Catalan civil war is exceedingly unlikely because there’s nobody for the Spanish Army to fight and no interest in raising a rebel army for them to fight. That comes only after a catastrophe of missteps on both sides, so again 2% is a good fuzzy right-ish number.

      The interesting question is whether anyone on the outside will see this as an opportunity to make trouble for either the Spanish or EU governments. A proper intelligence service supporting the Catalan independence movement with intelligence and propaganda could change things. So could enough money in the right places, e.g. into a strike fund. Weapons and military advisors to the more hot-headed Catalan independence activists seems particularly unlikely, but also particularly damaging if it does occur.

      Vladimir Putin would be the obvious candidate for this sort of thing, and all else being equal he’d rather see a weak and distracted EU/NATO than a strong and focused one, but the potential for blowback may be enough to dissuade him. Sir Humphrey Appleby would no doubt have the UK meddling in Catalonia on general principles, particularly in the Brexit era, but that doesn’t actually seem likely. Are there any other plausible candidates?

    • RandomCatalanGuy says:

      So Catalan guy against independence (and *very* against unilateral secession) here. So feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt, though I will try to be as objective as I can.

      The currently governing party, PP, traditionally has a hard stance on regionalism, and might as well get zero votes from Catalunya during general elections. That, plus the semi-authoritarian stance their voters have against minorities, means that they have no incentives to compromise with the Catalan authorities, but rather to remain strong in their uphold of the Constitution. Notably, ten years ago they shot down a reform of the regional law that concerned Catalunya that was proposed and already agreed upon by the Generalitat (Catalan government) and the previous Central Government (the Socialists at the time, more open to regionalism), but that hadn’t been implemented yet. This didn’t sit very well with the nationalists. A “popular consultation” was organized five years ago in Catalunya to gauge interest for independence, but again it was shot down by the Central Government, though it happened anyway (with a low turnout).

      On the other hand, the independence movement in Catalunya has been used by the ruling class there to keep popular support despite the corruption and mismanagement of the region (which has lead to the Generalitat accruing a lot of debt with the Central Government). The Generalitat controls both the education system and part of the local media (TV and radio come to mind), and especially in the case of schools they’ve been accused of excessively politicizing the curriculum in their favour (the TV and radio too, but everyone does that, so…). After the reform of the regional law was shot down and the economic crisis of 2008 hit Spain hard, the independence movement got increasingly populistic, with slogans such as “Spain robs us” (Catalunya is among the richest regions of Spain, so it contributes more to the national economy that it gets back in subsidies).

      About the referendum itself: it was a publicity stunt. The Central Government outlawed it, so anyone against independence simply didn’t show up, and the Generalitat knew that. In fact, if anything, they were hoping for clashes between voters and national police, to improve their narrative of “democracy against autocracy” (the regional police was ordered by Madrid to intervene to remove ballot boxes too, but they decided to sit that one out instead). Let’s note here that all the legislation passed by the Generalitat to allow for the referendum was approved in a hurry by bulldozing over any of their *own* laws that would have prevented it from happening, despite complaints from the opposition. The separatist politicians have been accused of promoting a “the worse, the better” strategy: the worse everything gets, the better independence looks. That is not to say that I approve of Rajoy’s idea to sent riot policemen into a vote, of course, which could only make things worse. In any case, polls show that support for independence is slightly below 50% (mostly , and so is support for uh unionism).

      After the (only realistically possible) outcome of the referendum, Puigdemont delayed and as much as possible an independence claim, and twice sorta-kinda declared it but not really, until finally Rajoy decided to temporarily take control of the region until new elections could be organized and starting talking prison. Then, to the surprise of absolutely everyone, Puigdemont appeared in Belgium but kept talking about winning the 21Dec elections (why would you legitimize elections imposed by what was another country after your independence claim?). I believe this to be the main turning point of the current push for secessionism: when your leader appears to be more interested in survival than in his movement. I don’t doubt that images of him being forcefully and violently removed from the Generalitat by the national police would have galvanized even further the movement.

      So what happens in the immediate future depends on whether Madrid screws up or not, and how the 21Dec elections go. If turnout is reasonable and independence parties do not win the elections, we could have some stability for a bit. Problem is, the seeds have been planted now, and this will happen again, unless the Central Government opens up to Catalunya, which is not going to happen under the PP. And if independence parties win the coming elections, then it’s anyone’s guess, though probably won’t be good times.

      And to the people that talk about “arresting politicians for following their electoral manifesto”: what if their manifesto included rounding up all the redheads? You can’t promise anything you want and expect to be safe because you got elected, and in this case, they were promising to secede (unilaterally if necessary, which would be catastrophic for everyone involved), despite having no idea what the actual support for such a move is. While close to half of the population wants independence (which might be more or less than the other side, depending on which poll you believe), much, much less than that would be in favour of a unilateral secession.

      In my opinion, the best course of action, now that we’re sadly where we are, would be for both the ruling parties in the Generalitat and the Central Government to change, and to start talks about a Madrid-approved referendum (and hopefully separatists lose, and we start getting politicians that worry about paying what they owe to pharmacies, rather than rouse the people). Not looking terribly likely right now, though.

      • RandomCatalanGuy says:

        Also, odds of things going into armed violence are vanishingly small. The ghosts of the Civil War and of ETA are still present in the collective memory, and every single call to resistance by the independence leaders specifies that resistance has to be “civil and non-violent”, because this fight is won by PR, not by weapons.

      • philwelch says:

        Canada and the UK both allowed separatist referendums to happen in similar situations. Why not Spain?

        I’m being a bit of an idealist here, but there were very good reasons that Quebec independence was treated as a question for the Quebecois, and Scottish independence was treated as a question for the Scottish, so why can’t Catalan independence be a question for the Catalans? You could even compromise and allow a referendum with only a supermajority of 60% or so to actually justify independence. Obviously Spain isn’t allowing that and they’re getting away with it, but why?

        • rlms says:

          In a counter-factual world where Westminster didn’t allow a vote on Scottish independence, I don’t think we’d have seen much of an international response.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            Depends what we mean by “not allow”. Sending in troops or English police (the UK, unlike Spain, has no national police force and Scottish police are under the control of the Scottish government) to prevent a vote taking place? Or just refusing to recognise the result?

            (I don’t know if the Scottish government staging an unrecognised referendum counts as misappopriation of public funds).

        • RandomCatalanGuy says:

          Why Madrid doesn’t want a referendum is probably because Catalunya is one of the richest parts of the country, so it would be a painful loss for the country. On a different scale, rightwing voters are attached to the notion of “one” Spain, so any politician on the right would be committing political suicide by allowing a referendum. There’s also the fear that the whole country might implode if a region becomes independent: there’s Galicia, Basque Country that might also want to get out, and it’s slippery slope argument afterwards.

          I don’t think “Spain” is getting away with anything here. Nothing is being solved, it’s just left as a problem for the next government.

      • WarOnReasons says:

        The disadvantages of unilateral independence for Catalonia are obvious, but
        can you give some details on why you are against independence in general?

        • RandomCatalanGuy says:

          In an ideal world where the relationship between Spain and Catalunya is cordial, both countries find a way to handle the newly-foreigner population on their land, society is not divided by independence, the Catalan government rules the new country efficiently, Catalunya becomes member of the EU instantly, and the markets don’t get cold feet over it, I do not have that much against it, beyond the extra amount of paperwork I would need to do to get my situation in order after the split.

          In practice, I expect societal and economic problems even if both countries collaborate as closely as possible, for a gain that could just as easily be achieved by better dialogue within a single country, with the added benefit of extra weight in the international scene. The risk of a total balkanization of Spain is also very real.

    • Regarding whether the rest of the world cares about the Catalan situation, I don’t know about other places, but the U.S. doesn’t seem to care much; there are rarely any mentions of it in the various places where political matters are discussed, debated, joked about, etc., such as the “serious” Sunday morning talk shows and “comedic” late night ones. I’m only taking interest myself because I was just in Barcelona a few months ago, so it’s about a place I’ve actually been (which makes it feel “realer” than some part of the world I’ve never been).

    • apollocarmb says:

      I dont know why you are putting the odds so low. When you beat up people for trying to vote, jail politicians etc you tend to radicalise people. The same happened in Ireland with the IRa. The catholic population was discriminated against by the government and the british were ruthless and so from the ashes the IRA arose.

      I would say say it is matter of when not if

    • ashlael says:

      My bet is that Catalan independence (de facto or otherwise) is less likely and civil war is more likely (though still unlikely). The Spanish government has made it abundantly clear that independence cannot be achieved peacefully and are betting most Catalans don’t want it enough to inspire an unmanageable violent struggle. They’re probably right, but gee, that’s a high stakes bet.

    • Another Throw says:

      Any discussion of the likelihood of Catalonia independence should take into account the likelihood of Gibraltar independence.

      Despite the fact that Spain ceded sovereignty over Gibraltar over 300 years ago which has been reaffirmed in multiple treaties since, and 99% of people actually living in Gibraltar want nothing to do with Spain—in two separate referendums no less!—Spain still claims that its right to territorial integrity trumps the right of self determination of the residents. (Also despite the fact that arguing for territorial integrity rights over something that is not part of your territory is absurd on its face.) In addition, Spain does not currently appear to have any qualms about ignoring the treaties it has signed in order to pursue the objective of reunification; consider, for example, the persistent refusal of Spain to recognize Gibraltar’s territorial waters despite despite having ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982… which guarantees those territorial waters.

      Independence from Spain basically requires the dissolution of the Spanish state. Experience demonstrates that losing a few successive wars with the military protector and a few hundred years of de jure lapsed sovereignty is not a sufficient condition.

      • RandomCatalanGuy says:

        I think you are comparing apples and oranges here. While there is still some resentment over how Gibraltar was lost*, and disputes over territorial waters and tax evasion, both of those are irrelevant compared to what Gibraltar really represents: a bargaining chip. Spain can’t realistically expect to recover Gibraltar when the local population feels overwhelmingly British (as you rightly mention), and when Spain herself has two such enclaves in Morocco (Ceuta and Melilla). However, dredging up this topic every so often (such as when Brexit documents forget that Gibraltar is part of the UK) allows for a better position in the negotiation table, so that’s why it still comes up despite how absurd it is.

        I am not particularly proud of the behaviour of my country in this respect, but the image you are presenting is not accurate, and not at all useful to understand what is going on in Catalunya.

        *Over the War of Succession, the French claimant to the throne promised parts of the Kingdom to the English if they helped him win the war against the Austrian claimant to the throne (anecdotically, this same French monarch outlawed Catalan after he won the war, because the region sided against him in the war). Menorca was eventually recovered, but not Gibraltar, which was basically settled by the British. I am however unaware of any war between Spain and the British Isles after this, unless you are counting the Napoleonic Wars, when Spain was occupied by France, but I could be forgetting something else.**

        **After a quick trip to Wikipedia, apparently there were two attempts to recover Gibraltar from the English in the 18th century, though the first one can hardly be called a war (with both countries failed to achieve what they set out to do), and the second one being apparently instigated by the French as part of the War of Independence of the future USA. Dunno, seems like trying to argue for the self-governance of Gibraltar using anything else than the fact that everyone there wants to remains British seems like muddying the waters for no reason.

        • Another Throw says:

          The fact the Gibraltar is a bargaining chip at all is because the international community at large, and the EU in particular, doesn’t actually give a shit about self determination. If the UN actually cared about self determination, they would have laughed Spain out of the room instead of passing (multiple?) resolutions calling for the British to return to the bargaining table after the first referendum rejected Spanish sovereignty. If the EU actually cared about self determination, Gibraltar would be a non-issue w.r.t. Brexit. If anybody cared about upholding international law, Spain would be taken to one of the international courts for its violations of the Law of the Sea. But those things are manifestly not the case.

          Everyone is willing to tacitly countenance the possibility of ignoring the resident’s of Gibraltar because it is not in their interest to do otherwise. Values in international relations are flimsy pretexts to do whatever it is you want to do, and violently ignored the rest of the time (and this is exactly what the independence movement in Catalonia seems to be missing); however, countenancing Spain’s argument for Gibraltar is dangerous. How many places would Russia, for example, like to claim are part of their immortal patrimony, regardless of the treaties they have signed to the contrary and the wishes of the residents? Man, not having to stage rigged elections in strategically important peninsulas is such a relief!

          If everyone is willing to equivocate about self determination in Gibraltar, where some of the arguments are (dangerously) absurd, then expecting action to be spurred by self determination in Catalonia is a fantasy. Nobody else wants to do Catalonia independence so the wishes of the residents are largely immaterial in the first place, and the case that the referendum was a genuine expression of self determination is pretty dang flimsy to boot. Whatever happens in Catalonia will be studiously ignored by the rest of the world.

  4. liskantope says:

    Meant to say this on the last OT but forgot: I want to provide one voice in favor of the early December date for this year’s NYC solstice celebration (or the solstice anywhere else), rather than something closer to December 21st. It doesn’t matter for me at the moment because I live on the other side of the Atlantic from the cities where such things are hosted, but I’ll very likely be back in the US again one of these years. December 20/21st is too close to Christmas Day, which I always spend with family (very far from any rationalist hub) for me to be traveling to such an event.

  5. Markus Ramikin says:

    Considering investing in bitcoin, never done before. Those of you who have: any advice, or resources I should look at? Trustworthy/recommended clients and wallet providers? Obvious newbie errors to avoid? Thanks.

    • Yakimi says:

      My advice: buy it and just forget about it.

      I first bought some Bitcoin near the peak of a local maxima in June. I chickened out shortly after and sold it all during a dead cat bounce at a small profit. The price continued to fall before the fork, and I thought I was clever to have dodged the bear market. Then it started rising again but I hesitated, thinking that its sudden rise was too rapid and that it would soon correct. The correction never came, and I lost a lot of potential profit.

      My investments would be worth so much more had I just held.

    • Wency says:

      To be clear, you’re considering SPECULATING in Bitcoin. One speculates in currencies and commodities and invests — perhaps — in productive assets.

    • Tibor says:

      I’ve bought and sold bitcoins on localbitcoins.org many times, they have a good reputation system for users (which by the way demonstrates quite nicely that reputation often works better than regulation – provided you can make it available to everyone at a zero or very low cost) and it seems to have a good security as well for your wallet.

      I also have a coinbase account. The chief difference between localbitcions and an auction such as coinbase is in liquidity. If you want to sell or buy immediately, coinbase is better – the volume is much larger and the margins much smaller. But if you feel like reselling bitcoins then perhaps buying them on coinbase and selling on localbitcoins with a higher margin can be an option. With the BTC price being so volatile, that strategy is quite risky.

      I bought some bitcoins in 2013 at about 400 USD/BTC then I sold them at the local peak of 1000. I bought some more this year, so far I’ve doubled my investment. Now I feel like selling them and making an easy buck but I think I will keep them longer this time. As others mentioned, it is indeed a speculation. I do think that there is a reasonable chance BTC actually ends up being used in some form. The market has grown considerably but it is still relatively small. The reason I believe it will not plummet to zero is because it has survived so far, even the recent Chinese ban did little to it. Unless a lot of countries outright ban bitcoin (yes, you cannot enforce it entirely but if, say, every government declared all BTC exchanges illegal, the price would go down sharply) it is likely to attain at least “virtual alternative to gold” mainstream status. In fact, I’d say that gold is currently the closest analogue to bitcoin in the way it is traded. Gold has some use as a resource but industrial demand consists of only a minor fraction of its price. It is mostly used as a reserve asset. I have some doubts about bitcoin actually being used as a currency any time soon. But I think it is quite likely it will be eventually seen as a sort of a virtual gold. The bitcoin market capitalization is now at about 2% of the one for gold. Provided that gold, being tangible, seems more “serious” to people, I don’t think it will reach the same capitalization, but I think that 10-20% of that of gold might be realistic in the long run.

      As for storage:

      If you are really paranoid or if you have a lot of money in your wallet, you can actually make a paper version of it. Then nobody can hack it (but someone can steal it from your flat or you might lose it). Another offline option is provided by TREZOR (which literally means safe (as a noun) in Czech) – a company which makes this little thing.

      Another option is to have a wallet in your computer, there are various clients, some of which download the whole blockchain (by now that is probably quite unbearable, because it fills up too much space) or a “light” version that only downloads a bit.

      Here is a nice overview of how to store bitcoins.

      I think that unless you have hundreds of bitcoins an online wallet at one of the auctions with all security measures enabled is enough. I have a wallet like that, with a 50 character long password (which I don’t remember and which I store offline under a long nonsensical passphrase which I do and I also have a analogue backup), two-step authentication (so that I have to insert a code which I get sent to my phone and which is only valid for about 30 seconds and then changes to a new one) and another authentication in case the web browser and location do not match the authorized ones. This is much better protection than in my bank account, assuming that the online auction does not store my password in an idiotic way. But by now the still existing auction websites had to withstand constant attacks for quite a long time, some went bankrupt and the rest probably have a solid defence. I think the chances are higher I’d lose my paper wallet than that my online wallet would be hacked.

      • Tibor says:

        And if you really want to gamble you can try one of the dozens of “altcoins”. I know close to nothing about them though. Perhaps one could invest a little in a lot of them, lose money in 20 cases but multiply it by 50 times in the 21st? But that you might also lose everything 21 times and while some of them might be slightly technically better than BTC, currency is a bit like a social network and if one cryptocurrency is going to be actually adopted as a proper currency, then it will be bitcoin simply by the virtue of being first and adequate (Facebook was second but it surpassed Myspace technically in a way that I don’t think an altcoin can surpass BTC).

        • rlms says:

          Ethereum is the only plausible competitor to bitcoin.

          • Can anyone explain to me why this must be the case? I understand that right now ethereum and bitcoin have much more name recognition than other altcoins, but why must this necessarily be the case? Aren’t there plenty of other altcoins that have pretty much identical features and uses as bitcoin?

            This is the main factor that has prevented me from getting involved in bitcoin. From my standpoint, bitcoin isn’t scarce at all, since anyone can essentially copy the bitcoin protocol and call it something else…or heck, even just copy the entire blockchain (i.e. fork it) and create a nearly identical version. The eventual 21 million bitcoin limit means nothing. And as for the uses of bitcoin, those uses can likewise be duplicated by an infinite variety of competitors. If you want to transfer and/or store value digitally, why use speculation-laden and expensive bitcoin rather than some out-of-the-way low-price altcoin?

            Here’s a metaphor for how I currently see bitcoin: it is like a collectin of 21 million oxygen molecules that a group of people have labeled “Super Oxygen Deluxe.” And yes, this “Super Oxygen Deluxe” has some very useful properties (as do any oxygen molecules). And yes, the total number of oxygen molecules that will ever be labeled as “Super Oxygen Deluxe” is a tiny 21 million, making “Super Oxygen Deluxe” seem very scarce…except that, as long as you are not wedded to the idea of holding Oxygen molecules that carry the specific label “Super Oxygen Deluxe,” you can get your hands on identically-functional oxygen molecules elsewhere (under names like “lite-oxygen” or “doge-oxygen,” etc.) for a fraction of the price.

            So, what reason is there for buying the “Super Oxygen Deluxe” molecules, except for the fact that everybody else seems to be doing so as well and temporarily bidding up their price? (i.e. how is this not just another tulip mania?)

          • Iain says:

            Network effects are a big thing. The only difference between Bitcoin and Iaincoin (the brand new crypto-currency I just introduced) is that Bitcoin has a lot more “name recognition”: more participants, more miners, more investors, more startups, and so on. Bitcoin is popular because you can spend it in more places, because it is popular.

          • @citiencokane

            Like the person above me said: network effects. What you are saying is analogous to “Why does the US dollar have value, anyone can just start printing their own money with identical features.” Sure, but you can’t spend identical-to-US-dollar-coins anywhere. Bitcoin is valuable because lots of people are willing to accept it, just like Facebook is important because everyone else is using it. Ethereum or Litecoin might have better features, but if it’s hard to spend, then it’s missing important features of a currency like a medium of exchange or unit of account.

            Note, of course, this is also the argument against Bitcoin: the dollar and Euro have much better network effects, and while you might argue that Bitcoin has better “features” than those currencies, it’s missing some of the most important ones.

          • I don’t think it is analogous to the dollar because the dollar and other paper currencies have value due to the assets that back them. See, for example, JP Koning and Mike Sproul on this issue:


            The Federal Reserve, for example, stands ready to redeem dollars for the assets on its balance sheet, should the dollar’s exchange rate with commodities (the price level) drift above or below the Federal Reserve’s inflation target. Take away the Fed’s assets (AND the Fed’s implied ability for its balance sheet assets to be recapitalized by the Treasury), and all the network effects in the world wouldn’t save its value.

            In other words, the dollar has a fundamental value, not just use as an instrument of liquidity. However, I see no fundamental value for bitcoin. There is no institution promising to redeem assets or commodities for bitcoin.

            Nor is bitcoin like gold. Gold has a price of production—a price for an ounce of gold at which a typical gold producer earns an average rate of profit. If the price of gold falls below its price of production, such that a typical gold producer ceases to obtain an average rate of profit, gold production will decline, or even outright cease if the profit rate falls far enough for long enough. Insofar as there is any ongoing demand for gold at all, the stockpiles of willing gold sellers will decline and would-be buyers of gold at any price will be increasingly out of luck. It matters not how badly the would-be buyers of gold want the gold, or how much these would-be buyers would be willing to pay. They will simply not receive any gold until the price of gold returns to its price of production and persuades some capital to reinvest in gold mining to earn at least average rates of profit. The only way in which the magnitude of the demand for gold will matter is to determine what quantity of buyers will be willing to pay at least the price of production, and thus what quantity of gold will be produced for sale at or around the price of production once again.

            In this way, the prices of gold or any other commodities are, in the long run, impervious to changing demand. Demand only determines the quantity that the market will supply at the price of production. The price itself is tightly constrained by this price of production. Demand to purchase at existing prices could fall by 90% for any commodity such as gold, and the only long-term effect of that fall in demand would be to decrease the quantity supplied by 90%. The price itself would remain unchanged in the long-run because the price is constrained by the price of production.

            Bitcoin’s price, however, appears to be entirely subject to the whims of what is fashionable, and there is no price of production or fundamental value to anchor its price over the long term, or to indicate whether it is currently “overpriced” or “underpriced” with respect to that fundamental value (i.e. whether it has a higher chance of going further upwards or going downwards from here).

          • actinide meta says:

            I think more important than the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet for supporting the value of the USD is the fact that hundreds of millions of people have to come up with a big pile of dollars every year to pay to the US government to stay out of jail.

            It’s not clear whether a “fiat currency” like Bitcoin can survive long term without the support of a taxman. But it sure will be interesting to find out!

            I don’t think your analysis of the price of gold is quite right, though it’s interesting. It seems logically possible that mining of gold could cease forever, with all future demand being met by shuffling already mined gold around. (Your argument proves too much: Insofar as there is any ongoing demand for gold at all, the stockpiles of [gold atoms in the solar system] will decline and would-be buyers of gold at any price will be increasingly out of luck. So therefore gold must cost as much as the creation of new gold atoms by nuclear transmutation.)

          • Tibor says:


            I don’t agree with your analysis. The price of production cannot be treated as a constant either. If the demand is very high it pays the gold diggers (I know that’s not how they’re called but I will call them that anyway 🙂 ) to conduct terrain surveys to find new veins of gold. A particularly rich vein which is particularly easy to mine can decrease the production costs significantly. Or, in the extreme case someone might come up with a way to actually create gold artificially at a low price.

            Yes, since gold has some real-world uses there will always be a demand, but if people decided that silver is a lot more cool than gold and that they don’t want to use gold for storing wealth, the price would plummet. It would not reach zero, but the price of gold has tripled over the past 15 years which is likely driven pretty much entirely by the same sort of demand which increases the price of bitcoin. An ounce of gold, if seen by everyone as just any other metal would probably cost less than 100 USD. One bitcoin, if seen by everyone just as a collection of zeros and ones, would cost nothing. But compared to the actual prices it means that with bitcoin you can go from 100% to 0% and with gold you can go from 100% to maybe 5-10%? The remaining 90-95% of the gold price is a network effect.

          • JayT says:

            @citizencokane, two things: one, not all US dollars are backed by assets. I’m not sure it invalidates your point, but I still think matters that a lot of the value of the USD is just on the assumption that it will continue to be worth something. My recollection is that less than 10% of USD are backed.

            Secondly, there is definitely a price of production in acquiring a new bitcoin. I knew a bitcoin miner that was paying something like $10,000 a month on electricity alone. I believe he got out of it because it was getting too costly to mine new coins in comparison to the value of the coins.

          • Brad says:

            I agree that the price of gold makes no damn sense. But it has made no damn sense for thousands of years. Bitcoin’s price makes no damn sense but it has only made no damn sense for 7 years. The likelihood of people collectively agreeing that the emperor has no clothes is much higher for something that’s only been going on for such a short period of time.

            I bitterly regret having been so skeptical back in 2011 when I first heard about bitcoin and could have mined them with a PC. But I’m still skeptical for essentially all the same reasons.

          • @Tibor: the “price of production” does not refer to any individual producer’s “cost of production.” The two concepts are distinct. The “price of production” is a *typical* producer’s cost of production + the world average rate of profit. It is an abstraction, albeit one used by Adam Smith in his “Invisible Hand” metaphor. (Although Adam Smith referred to this concept as the “natural price” of a commodity. Calling it the “price of production” was Karl Marx’s invention).

            As for whether higher market prices would alter the price of production…perhaps. I expect it would raise the price of production, as more marginally-productive gold mines were discovered and tapped into (assuming that the better gold deposits would tend to have already been discovered and used), bringing the average or typical cost of production upwards (and thus the price of production upwards, assuming an unchanged world average rate of profit). Marx talks about this complicating factor in one of his chapters of “Capital”…I forget which one off the top of my head.

            I don’t think your analysis of the price of gold is quite right, though it’s interesting. It seems logically possible that mining of gold could cease forever, with all future demand being met by shuffling already mined gold around. (Your argument proves too much: Insofar as there is any ongoing demand for gold at all, the stockpiles of [gold atoms in the solar system] will decline and would-be buyers of gold at any price will be increasingly out of luck. So therefore gold must cost as much as the creation of new gold atoms by nuclear transmutation.)

            If nuclear transmutation were indeed the only way to obtain new deposits of gold, then gold’s price would indeed tend to astronomically skyrocket because its price of production would be increased likewise.

            As for why existing gold is not sufficient to satisfy demand for gold, that is because gold is not desired simply for its industrial or fashionable uses, but as a universal equivalent. In order for participants in the world economy to, on average, earn a positive profit in terms of this universal equivalent, new gold must actually be accumulated. Without new gold being accumulated, the average rate of profit in terms of gold would fall to zero, which would constitute a fatal crisis for world capitalism. See, for example, Sam Williams’s recent article on gold’s continuing role as world money.

          • actinide meta says:

            As for why existing gold is not sufficient to satisfy demand for gold, that is because gold is not desired simply for its industrial or fashionable uses, but as a universal equivalent.

            Well, sure, but now you’re back to relying on network effects. This argument seems to apply m.m. to Bitcoin.

          • @citizencokane, two things: one, not all US dollars are backed by assets. I’m not sure it invalidates your point, but I still think matters that a lot of the value of the USD is just on the assumption that it will continue to be worth something. My recollection is that less than 10% of USD are backed.

            Here we must distinguish between “checking account” dollars and “Federal Funds” dollars. Federal funds dollars are the electronic dollars that banks have on account with the Federal Reserve, plus the paper dollars and coins in circulation, and these dollars are 100% backed by assets on the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet. Checking account dollars, on the other hand, are dollars that ordinary individuals have on account at private banks, and these are NOT backed by the Federal Reserve’s assets (at least, explicitly. There is, arguably, an unspoken, implicit promise to print more Federal Funds dollars if banks should ever be unable, en masse, to honor their checking account promises to their depositors…although this same operation would, in turn, dilute the Fed’s backing of the Federal Funds dollars (and thus threaten to depreciate those Federal Funds dollars) unless the Federal Reserve was likewise capitalized with additional assets worth tens of trillions of dollars…which would ultimately depend on the U.S. State’s ability to acquire such assets via taxation).

            The real question, then, is why the checking account dollars of private banks continue to trade at par with Federal Funds dollars. Right now, the public perceives a negligible chance that banks will be unable to redeem any checking account dollar for a Federal Fund dollar on demand, and checking account dollars are generally more convenient to have than physical paper, so people accept these conversions at par rather than demanding a greater quantity of checking account dollars for the deposit of each physical Federal Fund dollar in a bank. It is not a given that this will forever remain the case….

            Secondly, there is definitely a price of production in acquiring a new bitcoin. I knew a bitcoin miner that was paying something like $10,000 a month on electricity alone. I believe he got out of it because it was getting too costly to mine new coins in comparison to the value of the coins.

            This is not a price of production because new bitcoins will continue to be produced according to a pre-determined algorithmic schedule, regardless of how much computing power is devoted to it (if less computing power is devoted, the algorithm adjusts to make the next block easier to compute). In contrast, if gold’s market price drops below its price of production, gold production will decline or cease altogether. Think of the “price of production” as “the price society must pay to incentivize a unit of X thing to be produced.” For bitcoin, there is no such price, as bitcoins will continue to be produced at an already pre-determined rate at any price.

            I agree that the price of gold makes no damn sense. But it has made no damn sense for thousands of years. Bitcoin’s price makes no damn sense but it has only made no damn sense for 7 years. The likelihood of people collectively agreeing that the emperor has no clothes is much higher for something that’s only been going on for such a short period of time.

            Gold’s price makes no damn sense only if you believe in the subjective theory of value, or the idea that it is the utility of things that determines their prices, rather than their costs of production + the average rate of profit. I accept that the subjectively perceived utility of things determines the level of demand for commodities, but supply is a variable as well as demand, and supply is determined by profitability. If demand increases so as to temporarily increase the market price above the price of production, supply will follow suit, bringing the relative “scarcity” of the commodity (its relation between its supply and demand) back to its old ratio and restoring the market price back to the price of production. Likewise if there is a drop in demand. The long-term market price of a commodity is, in either case, determined by the price of production, and this is a purely objective statistic that depends only on the typical cost of production and the average world rate of profit, which arise independently of any consumer tastes or utilities of the commodity in question.

            For commodities such as gold, network effects have nothing to do with their prices. The price of gold is, over the long run, objectively determined. If the market price should ever stray from the price of production due to temporary subjective factors (such as if gold suddenly becomes less fashionable to hoard as a universal equivalent), the supply will be altered accordingly (in this case, the supply will decrease or cease altogether) so as to eventually restore the price of gold to its price of production.

          • Brad says:

            Eventually in this case being a very long time given the stock of horded gold versus the annual demand for useful gold.

          • Eventually in this case being a very long time given the stock of horded gold versus the annual demand for useful gold.

            I agree. If this market ever tried to “call gold’s bluff” and make gold prove that it (or any commodity) has a fundamental, objective value, it would take a long time for this process to play out. Perhaps decades.

            But eventually those who shorted gold would be in for a nasty surprise, and those who went long on gold would be rewarded. A lower price of gold would, in fact, encourage more industrial and fashionable uses of it, so I expect that the gold stockpiles would be depleted quite a bit more quickly than one would expect. And as soon as gold stockpiles became depleted, the price of gold would increase again. And as its price increased, more and more people would be reassured that gold had passed the test and proven its fundamental value, and the desire to hold gold as a universal equivalent would return with a vengeance, and, with the growth in the world economy in the intervening time period, even surpass its former level.

            Another factor that would work to increase gold’s market price well above its price of production for a short time period at this point would be the fact that, after such a prolonged period of gold production having been unprofitable, capitalists would be initially wary of investing in gold production again. Initially, the renewed demand for gold would be met with very little increased production, sending the price even higher above the price of production. And in the preceding decades, gold was not being produced, so there would be a huge backlog of missed production, causing even more of this (formerly latent, now conscious) demand to hold gold as a universal equivalent to be unmet, sending gold’s price even higher (temporarily). Gold’s price would, temporarily, head into the stratosphere.

            But then, of course, the invisible hand would kick in again. Capitalists would spare no expense to find and produce more of this immensely profitable material. Urged on by huge above-average rates of profit, supply would increase so much as to even make up for the backlog of missed production. Soon, the price of gold would return to turbulently fluctuate around its price of production.

            That said, it is unlikely that the market will ever try to “call gold’s bluff” in this way due to backward-induction. Because gold will have a fundamental value 50 years from now, it is seen as having a fundamental value today.

            I expect this same factor of “backward-induction” that works in gold’s favor to, sooner or later, work against bitcoin because, without a fundamental value 50 years from now, bitcoin will sooner or later be (correctly) perceived as having no fundamental value today.

      • Markus Ramikin says:

        Woohoo, useful info. Thanks for taking the time!

    • JayT says:

      I just bought my first bitcoin a few weeks ago, and I went with Coinbase. It was super easy to use and the fees aren’t outrageous. It isn’t instantaneous, but I am going to long my bitcoin, so that isn’t really an issue for me.

    • tocny says:

      I’m going to jump in here with my own question. I’m looking for reputable and impartial analysis on bitcoin/altcoins. I’m educated and in finance. I don’t need training wheels, but I would like some impartial articles or blogs on the subject. Something that isn’t clearly a pump and dump scam.

    • Argos says:

      So given the given the efficient market hypothesis (either the weak or the strong formulation of it):
      how do you guys justify investing/speculating in bitcoin?

      I guess one could argue that since most of the funds are not from hedge funds but from retail investors the market is less rational than usual. However, to me it seems very hard to believe that bitcoin would actually be undervalued, given the recent surge and media attention towards it.

      • Nornagest says:

        The efficient markets hypothesis is a heuristic; you don’t follow it off a cliff. And the situation with Bitcoin is not typical. Normally, whether you’re long or short on some asset depends on what you think some fairly well-defined baseline is going to be doing in the future — a company’s dividends, a country’s monetary policy, the price of pork bellies. That type of behavior, for various assets, has been studied for hundreds of years, it probably has more raw brainpower pointed at it than anything else in the world, and as a result it’s quite well understood.

        Cryptocurrency is an entirely new asset class, though, and the tools that traders have developed for analyzing monetary policy and pork bellies are not well suited to it. That places people with some knowledge of how it does work in a better-than-average position for arbitrage relative to them. This is increasingly less true as cryptocurrency market cap grows and it becomes more attractive to institutions — four years ago, “knowing it exists” would have been a solid edge, and I don’t think we can say that anymore — but I think it is still basically true.

        That said, I’m not going out and buying any more Bitcoin right now, even though I’ve made a decent amount of money off it so far.

  6. OptimalSolver says:

    Are their any moral realists who don’t believe that “objective morality” lines up perfectly with their own moral instincts?

    I.e. are their any realists who say “I personally believe x is morally abhorrent, but I also believe that on an objective, fundamental level, x is completely right.”

    • Anonymous says:

      “I personally believe x is morally abhorrent, but I also believe that on an objective, fundamental level, x is completely right.”

      That sounds like fodder for cognitive dissonance to me. Any examples?

      Or did you mean that in the “I feel that X is right, but I intellectually know that X is wrong” sense?

    • pipsterate says:

      Oh yes, lots of things. For example, I’d rather see ten strangers die than see one family member or close friend die, even though there’s no objective logic behind that.

      I’m not actually sure if objective morality exists, but I do certainly think it’s possible that a more logical system of ethics could exist than the one that humans instinctively use, including myself.

      • Hunter Glenn says:

        But do you think that preference is moral? I think there’s a distinction between thinking something is moral and not living that morality versus thinking something is objectively moral and not being persuaded that it’s worth living up to in the slightest

      • Anonymous says:

        For example, I’d rather see ten strangers die than see one family member or close friend die, even though there’s no objective logic behind that.

        It’s perfectly logical. You care about the family member, you don’t care about strangers. Strangers die ALL THE TIME. Ten more strangers won’t make a whiff of difference to you.

        (And this is before even going into concentric obligations, responsibility for the deaths, or consequences to you.)

        • pipsterate says:

          There’s logic to it, but I just don’t think I’d call it fully objective logic. There’s absolutely no way I could convince an impartial observer that 1 of my family members is worth 10 strangers.

          I certainly wouldn’t be ok with someone sacrificing 10 members of my family for 1 member of their family, even though, objectively, their choice wouldn’t be any different from mine.

        • Randy M says:

          Your preferences are certainly logical, but they don’t match up with your loved ones objectively mattering the same as a stranger. Assuming one believes in an equivalent, objective worth of a human being.
          (Again, not getting into the fact that you may have duties towards loved ones you do not have towards strangers)

          • Anonymous says:

            Assuming one believes in an equivalent, objective worth of a human being.

            Yeah, I’m not sure I do.

    • Wency says:

      Look at male disgust reaction towards homosexuality vs. acceptance of it.


      You could surely find people (especially men) who say, “Although it provokes a disgust reaction in me, I recognize objectively that love between two men is a beautiful thing.”

      And human moral intuitions are very much tied up in the disgust reaction.

      • RDNinja says:

        Hey, I was about to give the opposite example. As a Christian, I know that God has condemned homosexuality as abhorrent, while I’m aware my culture has conditioned me to feel that it’s not a big deal.

        • arandur119 says:

          NB: Not all Christians would agree with you. It may be somewhat misleading to start that sentence with “As a Christian,” since considering one’s self a Christian does not necessarily imply that one believes homosexuality to be sinful.

          Mind, my sect does (Mormon). But I know that there are others who would disagree.

          • Davide S. says:

            I feel this is somewhat relevant:
            As progressive atheist who finds progressive Christians fairly unconvincing I wonder how many of them don’t believe homosexuality is sinful NOW but believe (or at least willing to imply) it was back then.

            Sure, they don’t condemn homosexuals today. Great. But do they actually believe it was objectively right for the Old Testament to put them to death because ‘it was a different time’?
            I suspect that is the case sometimes, considering their unwillingness to simply claim the Bible was wrong (for obvious reasons – that’d imply it could be wrong about many other things).

            And I don’t think historical relativism works at all when God is calling the shots…

            Of course divine command moral theory solves this; homosexuality was bad back then but is ok right now because that’s God will… but progressive Christians don’t really like this kind of theology, either.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            And I don’t think historical relativism works at all when God is calling the shots…

            Sure it does. Those were God’s commands to those specific people at that specific time. They were not general rules for everyone, for all time (that came later, from Jesus). So one can absolutely say “that’s what God told those people to do back then, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what God wants me to do today.”

            Also consider the context of the Levitical law. This was stuff handed to Moses and the Israelites while they’re wandering in the desert. This is “survive,” not “thrive.” So I can understand people ridding themselves of those who are not engaged in the pro-social activity of forming heterosexual families and reproducing, which is the thing you really need if your culture and people are going to survive. They were spending weirdness points in a time when no one is afforded weirdness points.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @Conrad Honcho,

            That’s not much of an out, given that God is responsible for the material conditions there.

            I don’t want to get into the weeds of theodicy but you can’t really justify “these are rules meant to survive a time of hardship” with the fact that the Israelites were eating a diet of manna at the time. Just tap a few more land cards if people are getting hungry, then there’s no need to stone anyone.

            I’m not a Christian but if I was the most straightforward solution would just be Marcionism. Start the story with “Jesus descended into Capernaum” and leave the Old Testament to the Jews.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Davide S.

            A historical-context argument can be made, based on the fact that in the ancient Mediterranean world (whether at the time of whenever Hebrew Bible prohibitions stem from, or from the time the Pauline epistles date from) homosexuality existed in a form that would not be acceptable today – male homosexuality (iirc it is only Paul who condemns female homosexuality) of the sort we see today, where you have relatively equal partners, did not exist. What is condemned in the Bible would be understood as child molestation or coerced/forced prison-sex type stuff. The ancient Mediterranean world’s understanding of homosexuality was very much an “it’s not gay if you’re on top; bottoming is super shameful” situation, and bottoms were largely boys, slaves, or boy slaves. So a modern progressive Christian can easily say “well, these prohibitions apply to kiddy diddlers and prison rapists, not to Adam and Steve who live down the street and say hi when they’re walking their dog.”

            @Conrad Honcho

            Leaving aside the various historical-critical scholarship concerns (the Exodus probably never happened and the traditional attributions of who wrote what when are incorrect), the life of Israel as a settled state (or, really, everywhere for most people) was one of barely surviving. Subsistence agriculture is like that.

            @Nabil al Dajjal

            Problem there is that the teachings of Jesus are far less conducive to running a society than the Hebrew Bible, because he believed that history would end and God’s rule would radically change everything, within the lifetime of some of those hearing him.

          • Davide S. says:

            @Conrad, this isn’t about ‘understanding’ the killers and the context; that’s just basic historical relativism.

            I’m talking the objective morality of homosexuals who were punished back then.
            Unlike standard historical relativism, the religious version here blames the victims, because the laws supposedly came from God, so the people put to death for them deserved it.

            Is “Homosexuality today is objectively ok, but there was a time and place when it was objectively right for some people to kill other people for it” a fair summary of your position?

            If so can you see why this could be morally repellent to people who are non-religious and who think homosexuality was always ok?


            I am familiar with such arguments – although in my experience they often focus more on homosexuality as part of pagan/Gentile religious rituals – but I don’t find them convincing at all because I strongly doubt all or even most homosexuality took that form;
            even if that was the case biblical law is often quite specific and could easily have condemned some but not all forms of it.
            Why not just ban raping children & prisoners instead of “‘lying with man as with a woman”?

            Also if your reading was correct, then a (perhaps very rare, but certainly possible) equal partnership between men would have been tolerated, if not outright accepted.
            Do you believe that was the case?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Is “Homosexuality today is objectively ok, but there was a time and place when it was objectively right for some people to kill other people for it” a fair summary of your position?

            No, I don’t think homosexuality today is objectively okay. However, killing people for sexual deviancy (or, really, any reason other than “they’re killing/hurting people right now”) does not jive with my moral intuition. As for Levitical law, I shrug. I wasn’t there, I don’t know what the society was like, I can make up a Just So story as to why they did these things, and generally just be glad I have an easy excuse for why those rules don’t apply to me or my society in 2017 in the USA.

          • Nick says:

            I swear, every time this discussion happens here it gets more bizarre.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Davide S

            I’m not saying this reading is correct – it’s not my reading; I’m not a Christian except culturally – but it’s an argument that can be made from the scripture and historical knowledge, and it’s hardly flimsier than a lot of theological arguments with long pedigrees. But it’s better than what a lot of people do, which is simply ignore stuff they don’t want to deal with.

            Personally, I think the most likely explanation for why homosexual behaviour was forbidden is that most people were grossed out by it, and thus banned it.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Personally, I think the most likely explanation for why homosexual behaviour was forbidden is that most people were grossed out by it, and thus banned it.

            I’m sure that was part of it, but also if I’m Moses, I need men in my society who are forming families and having children. Once a man has a child he is invested in the society. His time horizon expands to infinity. These sorts of men are useful to me in my society. The sorts or men who would rather just screw around with each other are not. And this would be a much bigger problem when you’re a primitive tribe, barely subsisting, and surrounded by hostile enemies.

            Our modern tolerance is a type of moral luck. When the Zombie Apocalypse hits, I will not be shocked at all if tolerant urbane moderns get suddenly much more racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, etc.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:


            Problem there is that the teachings of Jesus are far less conducive to running a society than the Hebrew Bible, because he believed that history would end and God’s rule would radically change everything, within the lifetime of some of those hearing him.

            That’s not necessarily a bad thing though.

            Hard coding the rules of how to avoid trichinosis into your holy books definitely works but early Christianity had dumped most of that sort of hygienic stuff already. If you’re going to drop those rules in order to appeal to Romans and (eventually) Germans then you might as well just adopt their folkways wholesale without worrying about it being in the Bible.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            The evidence suggests that it’s fertile women rather than men who are the vital limiting factor, given the obvious differences in reproductive system – and ancient Israel had polygamy. And yet the focus is on male homosexuality.

          • Jaskologist says:


            Fertile women are the limiting factor when it comes to pure reproduction, but I’d bet “men who are working for their sake of their families” are the limiting factor when it comes to economic/societal advancement.

          • Davide S. says:


            Sure, it’s an actual argument people make all the time, but I don’t think appeals to context and ‘it didn’t mean ALL homosexuality’ work very well we have a general prohibition in a book which is full of very specific rules, showing they were perfectly able to make complex distinctions, yet decided not too.

            I think it’s more reasonable to believe that these rules were also against people whose sexual practices we would likely find acceptable today, rather than look as hard as possible for the just-so explanation that happens to fit best our modern sensibilities.
            Even if I understand why, psychologically, people who want to be Christian and progressive need that.

            Of course if you’re not actually Christian or a Christian who still thinks homosexuality is wrong there is no no moral problem at all – either you think homosexuality was ok (and still is) or it wasn’t (and still isn’t).

            Personally I have grown very wary of context-based theology considering how often it’s used only to dismiss problematic passages.

            Context is rarely brought up when the passage appears to support the speaker’s point of view.

            My favorite example is how some people will quote ‘Thou shalt not kill’ against the death penalty or meat-eating, despite context making it really obvious the commandament actually means ‘Thou shalt not murder’, implying some forms of killing are morally acceptable.

            I suspect shrugging (even if only to themselves) and being happy these rules don’t apply anymore is how most progressive Christians deal with this too.
            I think many genuinely dislike the Old Testament, considering how dismissive they seem of it.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Davide S

            My background was secular study, not theology, so you’re not going to find much disagreement with me on the subject of theology – a fair bit of it is tripe used to ignore stuff that’s actually in the books or find stuff there that isn’t there. It’s kind of like constitutional law.

          • pontifex says:

            You could make the same arguments about pretty much all of Deuteronomy, though. Do modern Christians and Jews wear tassels on their clothing? Put children to death for disrespecting their elders? Treat menstruating women as ritually unclean? Etc, etc. If not, then they aren’t following the book literally. Checkmate, biblical literalists!

            If I were a progressive Christian, I would point out the inconsistency of clinging fiercely to one crazy rule, while choosing to ignore all the other crazy rules. And the fact that the New Testament has basically nothing to say about homosexuality.

          • Davide S. says:


            Well, that makes Deuteronomy look quite bad, doesn’t it?

            And we’re back to the issue I brought up: were these rules *objectively* right back then?
            Should the modern progressive Christian believe these rules today would be wrong while simultaneously believing that they *were* right – objectively right, as they came from God?

            That’s obviously a repellent conclusion to me.
            And the alternative seems to simply act as if these laws never actually existed, or look for elaborate explanations of how they were only applied to the ‘wrong’ kind of homosexual.

            Since elsewhere we have a discussion on how to best introduce resurrected people to modern society, I wonder what Christians who believe the above would say to Ancient Israelites who were killed according to these laws.

            Just “You deserved to die, as you were going against God’s plan?”
            I can’t picture any liberal Christians saying something like that!

            (assume for a moment the Christian didn’t have their faith shaken by seeing humans resurrected through non-divine power and so still felt like they had to justify OT laws)

            Anyway I remember arguments from conservative Christians claiming *these* rules didn’t apply, but the ones about homosexuality still do.
            I don’t remember if they were actually good argoments, mind, but progressive Christians aren’t the only one who can invoke context to selectively invoke or dismiss OT rules.

            As for homosexuality in the NT, I remember Paul had quite a few things to say about it.

        • Anonymous says:

          Hey, I was about to give the opposite example. As a Christian, I know that God has condemned homosexuality as abhorrent, while I’m aware my culture has conditioned me to feel that it’s not a big deal.

          And I was thinking of a homosexual, who – while remaining a homosexual, since he has very little (or none at all) choice in the matter – believes that homosexuality is wrong.

      • Deiseach says:

        You could surely find people (especially men) who say, “Although it provokes a disgust reaction in me, I recognize objectively that love between two men is a beautiful thing.”

        Eh, I’d be more inclined to say “We’re not talking about love, we’re talking about sex (and more usually, we’re talking about fucking).” I don’t think love is bad per se, but it can be a tyrant in its own way. And I’m pretty damn fed-up of people lecturing me that it’s all about love when the fact of the matter comes down to “we wouldn’t accept a sexless relationship if that was all that was socially accepted and personally when I’m having sex with a casual pick-up off Grindr there’s nothing about love there, but don’t you dare tell me I’m doing something wrong!”

        I’d happily admire a “we love each other but we can’t be together” gay romance as much as any other romance. I still think Launcelot and Guinevere were adulterers who should not have consummated their affair, great glorious love be damned. And I’m not going to accept “two guys on Hampstead Heath are all about great glorious love” false equivalences.

        • Murphy says:

          Most heterosexual relationships don’t last terribly well if they’re sexless either and most people wouldn’t be terribly inclined to accept it if they were being castigated for heterosexual sex with their husband/wife.

          It would kind of suck to be held to a higher standard than the rest of the population: if Jack and Jill are ok to have met through Craigslist but Adam and Steve, their love must be pure as the driven snow with no lust involved, a poetic ideal where they love each other for their minds and nothing else.

          Or to be more precise if those enforcing social norms insist that Jack and Jill are also technically breaking the rules but remain super quiet about it while loudly damning Adam and Steve every chance they get for the same thing because the latter triggers their disgust reaction while the former gets a pass as long as they get hitched before the baby-bump is too noticeable.

          • ashlael says:

            I think Deiseach is more reacting against the “love is love” and “all love is equal” type rhetoric. The real argument is over sex, but “sex is sex” and “all sex is equal” arguments are harder to make.

            Of course gay marriage proponents are far from the only people to round off to an easier and more palatable principle adjacent to the one they’re actually supporting.

    • joncb says:

      I doubt i’d qualify as a moral realist but in the same vein as all the other comments listing things that give them that kind of feeling… realpolitik.

      It’s like, imagine Eliezer’s Three Worlds Collide but there’s only Humans and Baby-eaters and the Baby-eaters had the military capabilities of the super happies. We may not like looking the other way from atrocities but the alternative is that most nations wouldn’t be able to talk to one another and i’m pretty sure we’d have WAY more world wars. I like to tell myself the whole not-consuming-the-world-in-nuclear-fire thing balances out.

    • Philosophisticat says:

      Moral realists think that moral beliefs are beliefs about the objective facts, so saying “I personally believe that X is wrong but also believe that on the objective level it is right” is like saying “I believe that the the earth is round but also I believe it isn’t round”. So the second way you had of putting it isn’t right.

      But lots of realists think that their own moral instincts – where that refers to their moral intuitions, don’t line up with the moral facts. Almost all of them, actually, since it’s pretty widely accepted that ordinary moral intuitions are inconsistent. I know a lot of realist utilitarians who think that we should be highly and generally skeptical of our (and their) intuitions.

      • Murphy says:

        I dunno, you might believe that there is indeed a creator of the universe who chiseled the rules of an absolute morality into the fabric of reality itself… while also believing that said entity is an asshole.

        Like someone who wholeheartedly believes god exists but decides to become a satanist.

    • JohnofSalisbury says:

      There is quite a bit going on here.

      Do moral realists believe that they have some false moral beliefs? Yes, I’m sure they pretty much all believe that, insofar as they think that morality is hard and they are not morally infallible.

      Do moral realists believe, of some specific moral belief P that they hold, that P is false? No, you’d have to be pretty *** confused to believe both P and that P is false.

      Do moral realists believe, of some specific moral instinct/sentiment/intuition/preferred-mental-state-that-tends-towards-belief-but-doesn’t-quite-get-there that they have, that it tends towards falsehood? Sure, plenty of moral realists are prone to intuitions (eg, don’t harm innocents even to secure a greater good, for squeamish utilitarians) they consider misleading.

    • Deiseach says:

      For me, it’s more that “I believe there is an objective morality which is correct, and where my instincts disagree with it, it is because my instincts are imperfect or corrupted; being a human, there are things I like/like to do which I don’t want to think are immoral/sinful but that doesn’t change the fact that these things are wrong”.

      • BillG says:

        Basically this. I think a metaphor of what I believe is of objective morality as a tower in the distance that many see from different angles. There are enough features of it we basically all agree upon to acknowledge its existence, and it’s possible to get closer to it and see more detail, but also possible to see it poorly enough to misread that detail. Those misreadings, in no way changing whether it exists.

      • bean says:

        Seconded. I’m not sure how it could be otherwise with a perfect God and imperfect humans.

      • albatross11 says:

        Without the idea that there are things you desire but which would be wrong to do, it’s kind-of hard to see what the point of talking about morality is. You’re just talking about prudence.

        If you don’t rob banks because it would be wrong to do so, you’re talking about morality.

        If you don’t rob banks because you’d probably get caught and go to prison, you’re talking about prudence.

    • Shion Arita says:

      I’m one.

      but not in the sense that you say in the second paragraph. What I say is more like:

      I have personal beliefs about morality, but since I’m not omniscient and perfectly rational some of those beliefs are probably not quite correct. I don’t know which beliefs they are though, since if I did I’d change them.

      I think that human morality is quite a bit like scientific knowledge: incomplete but improving over time.

    • Standing in the Shadows says:

      I have a bunch of them. Most of them have to do with sexual behaviors, which I cold-eyed rationally cannot objectively prove are morally abhorrent, but my argument of ick continues to insist that they are morally abhorrent.

      I won’t list them, because even naming them would be a mind killer.

      Everyone has a line where their argument of ick wins, even progressives with very low Sanctity set points.

      • lvlln says:

        Everyone has a line where their argument of ick wins, even progressives with very low Sanctity set points.

        I’m of 2 minds about this.

        On the one hand, my observations of others largely match what you say – even progressives, whose arguments against non-progressives often invoke the irrationality of the ick-response and the suffering caused by following it, seem to be slaves to their own ick-response as long as it crosses a certain threshold. Obviously you see it a lot with respect to people-who-have-beliefs-I-deem-violent/hateful/harmful today, but I’ve seen it in non-partisan issues such as on incest, which I’ve seen progressives argue it should be illegal because it’s icky (at best, a post-hoc rationalization that only applies to some specific subset of cases, such as imbalance of power, is invoked without justification). Or the thought experiment of someone using chicken breasts as a fleshlight before eating it, which I think Jon Haidt used in some experiments about purity.

        It really caught me by surprise, because back when we were fighting for gay marriage and the like, I took our arguments and ideas seriously: as long as there’s informed consent among all parties, it isn’t morally abhorrent or even something to frown upon, whether that be having sex with people of the same gender, having sex with people related to you, or having sex with a dead piece of bird flesh which you then clean, cook, and eat. I thought everyone on board the gay marriage train would be just as willing to accept that none of the other examples were at all objectionable, morally or otherwise.

        So yeah, it seems that even people who espouse tolerance for things that make one viscerally feel icky have some threshold beyond which they’ll say that their visceral reaction of ickiness fully justifies labeling that as morally abhorrent.

        On the other hand, I like to think that I’m the type of person who doesn’t let one’s own visceral reaction of ickiness determine what he considers morally abhorrent. And as far as I can tell, I haven’t found anything that I feel is morally abhorrent because it’s just too darn viscerally icky, lack of harm to people be damned. But of course I would think that, because of the 1st sentence in this paragraph. Most likely, I’m just really good at coming up with rationalizations for why the things I consider to be morally abhorrent for reasons of ickiness are actually for reasons of rational logic, in much the same way that some people fool themselves into thinking that power differentials is a satisfactory reason to consider incest morally abhorrent. From the outside, I’m pretty darn sure this must be the case, that I’m just fooling myself. But from the inside, it seems to me that it really is possible not to let the “argument of ick” win, as demonstrated by myself.

        • Jiro says:

          The reasons for opposing incest are:

          1) Conflict of interest between family relationships and sexual relationships (power relations are a subset of this but not all of it)

          2) In practice, the Westermarck effect means that people are not normally attracted to close blood relatives, so if someone wants to commit incest (and the two parties weren’t separated at birth) there is likely to be something wrong quite separately from whether incest itself is wrong.

          • lvlln says:

            Those seem like post hoc justifications that don’t actually address the issue at hand, but rather add in other things not in the issue in order to justify a particular conclusion.

            If there’s an argument that family relationships and sexual relationships are necessarily in conflict (and that in such cases of conflict, the family relationship portion necessarily should win out), that would be a decent argument that incest is morally abhorrent to some extent. It wouldn’t even have to be 100% necessarily – just close enough such that the exceptions are negligible and extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve seen such an argument, and it’s hard for me to imagine a convincing one, considering just how idiosyncratic and weird humans can be with respect to family and sex. A familial relationship could be one that’s indistinguishable from that between strangers who have never met each other or it could be identical twins who spend every waking moment with each other, or anything in between, because “family relationship” only implies closeness on the genetic family tree, with no interpersonal social contact implied (as it pertains to incest, anyway).

            In practice, thought experiments involving incest always seem specifically designed to exclude cases where whatever familial relationship there is conflicts with the sexual relationship. This fact doesn’t seem to play into people’s judgment that incest is morally abhorrent when engaging with such though experiments, at least IME.

            I think, at best, one could argue that it’s a useful heuristic to say that, sans any other information, knowing that a sexual relationship is incestuous, it should make you suspect that there’s something wrong going on. The heuristic could even go as far as say that you should presume that something wrong is going on unless you can find other evidence that contradicts that presumption. I think that’s your point with (2), which is a good point. But this is significantly and meaningfully different than the proposition that incest is morally abhorrent.

  7. Nancy Lebovitz says:


    Sarah Constantin taking a look politics and psychology that attempt to start from an understanding (not necessarily accurate) of what people are really like.

    What occurred to me after reading it is that one of the things about the modern world which tends to be rough on people is the amount that people relocate. While this does enable people to get away from bad social networks and/or to social networks which suit them better, much of this relocation is more about education and better jobs.

    Telecommuting hasn’t worked out to be as useful as a lot of people hoped.

    The problem is that having people move so much is that it’s hard on social networks.

    I don’t think this gets much attention because no one has any idea what to do about it and it’s not easy fodder for moralizing.

    • BillG says:

      An interesting twist in this line of thinking is that the percentage of Americans that are movers in a particular year is steadily declining since WW2. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-189.html

    • Garrett says:

      Telecommuting hasn’t worked out to be as useful as a lot of people hoped.

      Do you have any idea why this is? I work as a software engineer. There’s no reason why I should be going into the office every day, other than that I “have to”. I’m told that this fosters better spontaneous interactions, yet most of my co-workers are in some meeting, conference room, or whatever other than in a location where it would be good to have a “spontaneous” conversation.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I have no strong opinions about why telecommuting isn’t doing better. One possibility is that bosses prefer being able to see whether employees are working, even though this isn’t very effective. I’ve heard that telecommuters are less likely to be promoted.

        • BillG says:

          A few speculations:
          1) Managers are risk adverse. Some percentage of employees (perhaps even some large percentage) are unproductive. Moving away from traditional models of policing productivity (“I walk around the office and see my people working”), places burden of risk on the manager that she may not be able to overcome no matter what she does.
          2) Few jobs are quantifiable enough to promote or reward based purely on “results”. Careers where there is more easily quantified work can be moved to work from home, but management has too little ability to judge if not.
          3) People sometimes are unhappy working from home and feel isolated.

        • John Schilling says:

          In any disagreement between a person and an email, the person has a huge edge. And there are always going to be disagreements, e.g. whether the bug that Jill found in Jack’s code or the improvement that Jack suggested to Jill’s user interface are important enough to delay shipping the project. If Jill is in the manager’s office or better still sharing lunch with him while Jack manifests as email, Jill is going to “win” most of those disagreements. Jack’s plans aren’t going to be carried out, Jack isn’t going to look very productive, and Jack isn’t going to get promoted.

          Jack being a voice on the speakerphone or even a face on a videoconference usually isn’t enough to level the playing field.

      • balrog says:

        Try working on a bug in team with a person from California, Europe and India/China at same time. In end everybody works for 2 hours, gets problem and waits for 6-24hours for appropriate person to wake up.

        On less dramatic scale, you want knowledge to disseminate among employees. Not check off things in bug tracker. A bug got fixed 10 years ago. And the guy who fixed it originally is not in company any more. And guy who reviewed it is not in company any more. And then you just start going from table to table asking if anyone remembers what the hell was that bug all about, and why was it improperly fixed, and why the hell is there only a magic number being written to memory as a fix. And it turns out somebody told somebody else during lunch what was the issue and now you have starting point for your problem.

      • pontifex says:

        Why does telecommuting not work well? I think the biggest problem is that, in general, it’s much harder to have social interactions online. And social interactions are a big part of what we call “work”– yes, even for software engineers. Maybe once virtual reality gets really good, things will change. But it probably has to be really, really good– like, holodeck level good.

    • albatross11 says:

      I think there’s something really ugly that has happened to US society over the years, as we’ve increasingly lost social ties (church membership, clubs, neighborhoods where everyone knows each other, local political involvement, boy/girl scouts, lodges, etc.). Mobility and media culture are two parts of that, but probably there are a dozen more factors driving it.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I believe there’s another thing going on which I call the rise of troll culture. It’s not just a bunch of malicious people, it’s a bunch of people who present malice as a virtue and any effort to shut malice down as weakness and/or evil.

        • albatross11 says:

          Troll culture as it exists on the internet is a problem, but the atomization of Americans predates the internet. But there was previously a lot of that same troll culture in US media (and it’s still there)–basically the whole genre of “look at this idiot” stories.

    • Baeraad says:

      That’s an excellent essay. Thank you for linking to it.

    • LukeReeshus says:

      What occurred to me after reading it is that one of the things about the modern world which tends to be rough on people is the amount that people relocate. While this does enable people to get away from bad social networks and/or to social networks which suit them better, much of this relocation is more about education and better jobs.

      In the past nine years, I haven’t lived in the same state for longer than two, and I can attest it is quite lonely. I currently have one close, long-time friend in proximity, which is enough to get by socially, but I do pine, now and then, for when I had more. Meh. It is what it is (which is my way of saying I have “no idea what to do about it.”)

      Going back to the essay, I’d have to agree with their definition of psycho-conservative, and recognize myself as one. Her criticism’s of it are valid, although they all seem to boil down to, “While X is generally correct, keep an eye out for specific instances where it isn’t.” Which is a criticism one could make for just about any broad, well-thought-out philosophical stance.

      I personally don’t see this kind of conservatism as all that prescriptive though, since I still try to think like an optimistic liberal when it comes to policy. Rather, I see it as a useful—essential, at times even—antidote to the blank slate theory of human nature, which has been the cornerstone of left-wing politics since the time of Karl “History is but a continuous transformation of human nature” Marx, and which is still sowing so much confusion in our political discourse.

  8. Nancy Lebovitz says:


    I’m having problems with logging in at LW2.0 (yes, I’ve taken it up with them) and I have a couple of object-level comments about putting bright lights up all over the house.

    One is that there’s a variable I don’t see mentioned– people seem to usually sit in front of lightboxes. Perhaps bright light plus moving is more effective against depression than bright light and sitting. While I’m dubious about claiming very much about the ancestral environment, I think it’s safe to bet that people moved a fair amount when it was sunny– not necessarily exercise, but not being static either.

    Also, if I wanted to capitalize on bright lighting the whole house, I wouldn’t be trying to prove it, I’d just be selling bright-light-the-house kits with some carefully worded claimed and a money-back guarantee.

  9. OptimalSolver says:

    What is the lowest probability event that has ever happened to you?

    This excludes being born.

    • Alethenous says:

      And presumably excluding things like shuffling packs of cards. So answer like a human, essentially.

    • Fluffy Buffalo says:

      When I was in High School, one day I listened to a Crimson Glory album, which contained a song “Masque of the Red Death”. I was aware that this was a reference to a short story, and I thought, “I’d like to know what that story is about.” On the same day, I took the book that we were reading in my English class, “The Bonfire of the Vanities”, and opened it on a random page that had never been opened before. Bingo: “Chapter 15: The Masque of the Red Death”, in which one of the characters recounts a summary of the short story.

    • Watchman says:

      Probably coming across the correct control (a small orange and white flag) in thick forest whilst orienteering on an occasion – if you loose orientation on a long and technically difficult leg, you could be a meter from the contol and it could be obscured, but I have on occasion come straight across it. At the time it’s not remarkable, but finding it straight away as opposed to relocating off a nearby feature is perhaps unlikely.

      Or perhaps one of the occasions when I’ve stuck a foot out whilst playing football (not soccer – I’m playing in England) and scored a goal, when the ball could literally have gone anywhere.

      Basically, I think sports is probably the best arena for this – if you do any sport for a while, low probability events occur quite a lot by the laws of average.

    • John Schilling says:

      With the caveat that uncorroborated memories of low-probability events are not highly trustworthy:

      During a middle-school phys ed class, we were all forced to play softball, a sport I found sufficiently disinteresting I spent essentially all of my time daydreaming and paying zero attention to the game. While deep in right field (I think), one of the opposing batters hit a line drive directly into my glove.

      • quaelegit says:

        Idk how unlikely this is, but my softball experience:

        My school had a traditional sixth-graders-vs-teachers softball game that the rest of the school would go watch. Someone thought it was a good idea to make me shortstop (or more likely, the sixth graders who knew baseball thought “none of us want to do it and QL is clueless enough that she’ll take whatever role we give her”). I managed to get hit square in the face by the ball pretty early in the inning in front of the entire school. (Fortunately the ball wasn’t moving that fast, and I was fine, just humiliated.)

        • John Schilling says:

          Somewhere in Everett’s many worlds is the one where you opened your mouth to scream, and the ball wedged itself neatly in your teeth without falling to the ground. While the experience may have been painful, in that world you are a legit badass about whom tales are still whispered in locker rooms to this day.

    • Acedia says:

      Won about $20k from a lottery ticket.

    • Vermillion says:

      During bar trivia, talking to my friends about how much I liked bar trivia because it gave me the rare opportunity to show off all the useless trivia I had amassed over the years e.g. the proper name for a stamp collector which was then of course the very next trivia question asked.

      We didn’t win, but that still felt pretty amazing.

    • Brad says:

      I understand exactly what you mean, but I wonder if it is possible to formalize this question or not.

  10. Alethenous says:

    Why is modern poetry so terrible?

    Yes, yes, it’s a matter of taste, butcome on. There’s a very real sense in which modern poetry seems at least very different from anything I know of that’s come before from anywhere, though I may well be missing something.

    • johan_larson says:

      Poets for whatever reason decided to discard time-tested techniques of meter and rhyme to focus on imagery, wordplay and inside-the-academy status games. (Roughly the same thing happened in visual art.) More conservative poets wandered off to become songwriters, and most of the audience drifted away to pop songs and novels and comic books and all the new artforms the 20th century offered. As a result poets today barely have an audience. They are therefore either amateurs or academics and either way are generally more concerned with impressing other practitioners than entertaining readers.

      • outis says:

        So it’s like architecture.

      • harland0 says:

        That’s such a dick move by poets. Now our whole culture has lost poetry, just so they can play status games. They’ve deliberately made it inaccessible to the common man. Such a great crime.

        • DrBeat says:

          This is what happens to literally every single thing.

          • Alethenous says:

            So why hasn’t it happened to, say, novels or video games?

          • Futhington says:

            Recent enough or have enough of an audience to still cater to someone other than “people who write novels/make video games”?

          • DrBeat says:

            You don’t think novels and video games are actively, at this exact moment in time, being devoured by Those Who Play Status Games so they can become nothing but a vessel for status games?

            Do you ever pay attention? Ever? To any event?

          • Aapje says:


            Don’t be unnecessarily unkind, please.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            So why hasn’t it happened to, say, novels or video games?

            Because it’s too easy to publish a novel, and too expensive to make a video game.

            Or, equivalently, it’s already well on it’s happened to literary fiction, but there are too many plebes who ungratefully insist on purchasing copies of novels that are pleasurable to read that are being written by people who make a living writing them, and the status-gamers havn’t figured out how to shame Jeff Bezos into closing down the Kindle division.

            And as for video games, it’s very hard and expensive to write video games. Large ones are larger productions than big movies, and you can’t motivate investors and publishers to pay large teams of developers to write a game that’s all head-in-ass-status-signalling, and you have a hard time motivating developers to write them, even with money.

            On the small game side, the video game equivalents to Kindle, such as Steam, do in fact have a collection of single-developer crappy-experience socjus and status-signalling “games”, but nobody wants to actually, you know, *play* them.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Can’t tell if this blatant sarcasm, or genuine feeling.

          If genuine, seems like just hating on the outgroup.

        • Nornagest says:

          It’s not a dick move. There is no conspiracy of poets sitting in a room somewhere full of clove cigarette smoke and discarded berets, plotting to impoverish culture. This is just what happens when an artform starts becoming disconnected from the broader culture while still retaining some vestiges of its original status.

          The good news is, you can fight it by going out and buying non-pretentious poetry. Or by writing it yourself. Or even by reblogging “I lik the bred” on Tumblr, if you’re into that.

      • JonathanD says:

        I think this mistakes the causality. I think poets lost their audience to radio and later TV, and then started writing for each other and the academics, who weren’t as interested in the time tested stuff. They therefore started experimenting and that’s how we got modern poetry.

    • pipsterate says:

      People still occasionally write old fashioned poems, like The Cold Behind The Curtain, which I found on reddit a only month ago. If someone had told me that was written in the early 20th century, I might have believed them, and thought it was good. But in the modern era something just feels false about writing traditional poetry, so it’s usually only done in a half joking way.

      I think some things just become outdated over time. Clinging to outdated artistic formats gives the impression that you’re refusing to grapple with the modern world. The Louisiana Castle comes to mind.

      In many ways the past was more beautiful than the present, which is probably part of the reason why medieval fantasy and steampunk are common in books and games. You get to indulge in the aesthetic pleasures of the past (even enjoying new poetry, architecture, et cetera in old styles), without fully removing yourself from the modern era. There needs to be some kind of way to detach yourself from tradition, even while enjoying it, to preserve your image as someone well integrated with the modern word.

      • Alethenous says:

        Outdated? Novels are thousands of years old and songs predate literacy. Why has poetry in particular changed so dramatically – I’d say virtually died – whereas other ancient art forms seem to be doing fine? It’s not as though it’s even a long-term trend: as far as I’m aware it’s a twentieth-century thing.

        • Protagoras says:

          Novels are thousands of years old? Which works are you thinking of as examples of more than one thousand year old novels?

          • Pseudodionysius says:

            Apuleius’ The Golden Ass is usually described as a novel. Though I guess it’s technically only about 1850 years old.

          • Protagoras says:

            OK, I guess including the Roman novels does take things back almost 2000 years, but they seem to be regarded as edge cases (people often call Tale of Genji the first novel, presumably on the basis that the Roman novels are a little too different from the modern genre).

          • DarkTigger says:

            I once read an claim that there were Egyptian literature, that looks a lot like the things we call novels, back before the bronze age collapse.

            But I can’t find any sources for that right now.

        • pipsterate says:

          Has poetry necessarily changed much more than music? If you compare a classical orchestra performance to a Ke$ha music video, it hardly seems like the same thing. Just because a medium is old doesn’t mean particular styles can’t become outdated fairly quickly.

          (To the extent that modern poetry is aesthetically worse than traditional poetry, I’m not sure if there’s a specific explanation for that. It seems to be part of the same general trend as painting and architecture. Probably Alex Sloat’s answer below is the best explanation of that general trend. I’ve noticed that the art forms which do still prize aesthetics highly are mostly younger art forms, relying on newer technology. For example, videogames, and their obsession with advanced graphics. Perhaps in a century the most highly regarded games will be abstract and aesthetically unappealing, but we haven’t had time to reach that point yet.)

          I also wouldn’t consider poetry as a whole to be dead, just certain styles (and even they’re not dead, just on life support.) I would consider most rap to be a form of poetry, and it’s quite popular.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Has poetry necessarily changed much more than music?

            Plenty of modern music scans to Greensleeves, and modern acoustic instruments are easily recognizably as descended from older ones, so I’d say yes. There are forms of modern music which would be equivalent, but they’re still considered experimental forms.

          • massivefocusedinaction says:

            There’s quite a bit of linkage between certain classical forms and wide swaths of modern pop.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Has poetry necessarily changed much more than music? If you compare a classical orchestra performance to a Ke$ha music video, it hardly seems like the same thing. Just because a medium is old doesn’t mean particular styles can’t become outdated fairly quickly.

            But there is more to modern music than lowest-common-denominator Ke$ha music videos and cacophonic noises that only the snobbiest elites seem to appreciate.

            If anything, the elites still appreciate classical music, while metal, the genre with the reputation for being the most noise-like, is more popular with the working class and social outcasts.

          • pipsterate says:

            I think the people pushing back on parts of my previous comment are probably right, actually. There have been big changes in music over the last few centuries, but I think those changes have been more superficial than the changes that happened to poetry. There probably are smaller differences between Pachelbel and Ke$ha than there are between Chaucer and most modern poets.

            I do think both have changed significantly, and I think that’s important to acknowledge, but it’s not fruitful to just say “well both have changed, so there’s no need to discuss the difference in the amount of changes or the reasons behind that.” I think it actually is valid to ask why changes in certain art forms (poetry, painting, architecture) have been more significant than changes in others (music and literature).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            The comparison between Ke$ha and Chaucer is probably as relevant as comparing her to Pachelbel.

            Modern poets can’t write for a mass audience. Except slam poetry, some of which will probably survive (and then be compared favorably to then modern poetry inaccessible to the layman).

          • Dissonant Cognizance says:

            Perhaps in a century the most highly regarded games will be abstract and aesthetically unappealing, but we haven’t had time to reach that point yet.

            Dwarf Fortress remains the most engaging game I’ve ever played, to the point where I avoid it for the sake of having any time at all.

          • 天可汗 says:

            metal, the genre with the reputation for being the most noise-like,

            draws heavily and explicitly from classical music — especially black metal (and of course ‘orchestral’ or ‘symphonic’ metal), and that goes all the way back to Varg Vikernes listing Tchaikovsky as an influence.

            …as well as Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream — technically black metal is a subgenre of new age. This seems reasonable.

            (The deal with Liturgy is that HHH went “hey, you know, we’re Americans, we ought to be drawing on American classical music” and swapped out Tchaikovsky for Philip Glass.)

          • albatross11 says:

            I wonder if it’s just that poetry, art, music, etc., go through good and bad phases in a culture. We’re just not in a very poetic phase of our culture. Few people read poetry for pleasure, so few people write it, so few people know about it, etc.

      • Nornagest says:

        The Louisiana Castle comes to mind.

        Ugh. That thing’s the architectural equivalent of bad fanfiction.

    • alexsloat says:

      I blogged about this a while ago.

      tl;dr, artists spent centuries forced to make things that were good by normie standards by economic pressure, and then in the 19th century they finally had enough money to make whatever they wanted. By that point, they were bored to death of normie stuff, and decided to head off into unexplored hinterlands in search of novelty, without much regard for whether or not they were finding anything good in the process.

      Then the sort of people who liked that approach took over the art community, and started giving all the credibility and prominent awards to other folks like themselves, instead of the stuff that was popular among normies.

    • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

      Traditional poetry’s niche was taken over by music, so the medium was taken over by people with weird preferences that sort of exist in a closed circle for and by them.

      See also, “modern art”.

      • 天可汗 says:

        I think the real question is why poetry split off from music in the first place, seeing as how 15th-century Scotland had things that are recognizable as modern-day rap battles

        • vV_Vv says:

          After mass-printing and widespread literacy, distributing text was much easier than distributing music, which created a market for text-only poetry.

          Since the mid 20th century, making and distributing music has become easier, and in fact music is more accessible than written text, since you can listen to it in background while doing other stuff, therefore poetry returned to its musical origin, and what was left of text-only poetry became a weird elitist niche.

      • harland0 says:

        Don’t forget the ideological subversion of the West by the Soviet Union. This isn’t a crazy conspiracy theory, it was for real. The uglification of art wasn’t something that just happened, it was deliberate enemy action.

        Communist Goals (1963)

        23. Control art critics and directors of art museums. “Our plan is to promote ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art.”

        [In] this country there was a time when virtually all intellectual vitality was derived in one way or another from the Communist Party. If you were not somewhere within the party’s wide orbit, then you were likely to be in the opposition, which meant that much of your thought and energy had to be devoted to maintaining yourself in opposition. In either case, it was the Communist Party that ultimately determined what you were to think about and in what terms.

        This was written not in the Soviet Union or one of its satellites, but in New York in 1947 by Robert Warshow in Commentary magazine about the American culture of the previous decade.

        • BBA says:

          Two can play at that game, and did.

          • 天可汗 says:

            Yes, that’s right: while Moscow conspired to uglify American art, Washington conspired to… uglify American art.

          • BBA says:

            Not such a faceplant as you imply, both were trying to influence the worldwide art scenes. And, for that matter, I like Abstract Expressionism better than most of what came later, and many others agree – “the CIA and NEA should switch jobs” was somebody’s snarky reply to that story.

    • Anatoly says:

      1. Survivorship bias.

      2. Free verse took over in the early 20th century and it seems to be a vortex from which poetry cannot, so far, escape. “Free verse” means poetry that has no prior constraints on form, such as rhyme, meter (iambic pentameter etc.), syllabic counts (French or Japanese poetry), alliteration (Old English), long/short syllables (ancient Greek/Latin), etc. There are many different kinds of constraints on form, and free verse is the movement in poetry which rejects all of them as a matter of principle (though specific lines in a free verse poem might still have meter or rhyme or whatever, as a narrowly targeted device).

      2.1. This is culture-specific; there are languages and cultures in which this takeover by free verse hasn’t happened till now. But it does seem to be a phenomenon that once free verse takes over (as the default form for high cultured poetry), it doesn’t go away. Thus free verse may be seen as a culture virus (or meme) slowly taking over “poetries” over the world, with modern poetry in free verse sounding largely “the same” in those different languages and cultures.

      2.2. This description is not neutral – modern poets and fans of poetry would dispute it and say that free verse is as nuanced and varied as forms that were used before it, but you need to know it better and understand it deeper to see those distinctions and variations.

      2.3. At roughly the same time as free verse took over poetry, modern poetry became less important culturally (than it used to be in the 19th century), and its readership diminished. Again it’s highly disputed whether free verse was a direct cause of that, or it would have happened/did happen anyway because of other cultural reasons.

      The second class of explanations is more interesting to think and argue about, but I think survivorship bias is also very important to anyone’s judgement of “modern X is terrible”, and I don’t have a confident estimate on its contribution to that vs. that of the second class.

      • Qays says:

        One poetic tradition that hasn’t yet been taken over by free verse is Arabic poetry, which has almost unfathomable mass market appeal compared to poetry in most other languages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_of_Poets (sample episode here)

        The Arabic free verse movement was a stillbirth in the 40s and 50s

      • Alethenous says:

        [Disclaimer: the only poetry I know even a tiny bit about is Classical.]

        1. There’s definitely going to be some of this, but I’ve never seen any old-school poetry even in the same class of awfulness as modern poetry. Admittedly, I’m anything but an expert, but still, it would be awfully convenient if by sheer luck I’ve only ever been exposed to good old poetry and miraculously missed all the good modern poetry. The poetry of Cicero (brilliant orator, dodgy poet) is widely considered mediocre by modern classicists and was often mocked when it was written. But by comparison to even generally lauded “poetry” today…

        2. If we accept that it’s free verse that’s to blame… why is free verse working?! How has it survived this long, let alone been actively infectious? If nobody likes it – and if we’re accepting the general consensus of this thread, that in general people don’t, and certainly if the possibility you raise that it’s directly responsible for poetry waning as an influential art form is true, why is it still here and not kicked out of the meme pool? Where’s Cthulhu when you need Him?

        2.1. I am automatically suspicious of “Oh, if you really understood it you’d comprehend the deep meaning of [x]”, admittedly partly for the unvirtuous reason that I just don’t like intellectual elitism. And there are definitely deeper layers and meanings to older poems without which they’re perhaps harder to appreciate, but the difference is that those are generally at least somewhat explicable, whereas this argument seems to revolve around the deep nuances of the form only being visible to an adherent. Which… isn’t impossible I suppose, but feels distinctly like being Eulered. Except Euler just says “Maths definitely proves God exists. Absolutely.” and then runs away.

        • rlms says:

          You’ve only been exposed to good old poetry because no-one bothered to record the Roman equivalent of “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
          Alas! I am very sorry to say
          That ninety lives have been taken away
          On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
          Which will be remember’d for a very long time.” (which itself is a counterexample to the claim that all pre-20th century poetry is good).

          • Alethenous says:

            I think I miscommunicated. We do have some surviving Roman poetry that was definitely considered bad in its day and is considered bad by modern scholars, and it’s still not even in the same league of dreadful as any modern poetry. Survivorship bias can’t explain that kind of difference unless I’m conveniently missing all the good modern poetry (even after looking at the stuff that wins you awards and positions like Poet Laureate?)

            (PS: It’s amusing you bring that one up, because one example I was considering was that if Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay appeared in a collection compared to modern poetry it would be unusually good.)

    • BillG says:

      I think it’s important to be careful with terms here– what do you mean by “modern poetry”?

      That is, are you referring to “modern” in the sense that a literary critic would (i.e., Eliot, Pound, roughly 1880s-1930s)? Or are you referring to it as “the poetry I see made today”?

      If you mean the former, then I would argue that some of the deepest and most meaningful poems in the English language fit within the period. If the latter– then we get into some of the answers below.

    • Urstoff says:

      That’s a good question. I read Tin House, and while the fiction and essays are generally pretty good, most of the poetry is downright embarrassing, particularly since Trump won the election.

      Speculative: music with lyrics replaced whatever mass market there was for rhyming poetry, so the only people who read poetry are poets, resulting in highly inaccessible forms.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I don’t think modern poetry is a universal phenomenon– my impression is that poetry is still a live art form in Spanish-speaking countries and Israel. Would people who are from other cultures care to say what the state of poetry is?

      For purposes of this discussion, I’ll call a poetry a live culture if it’s more orderly than ordinary language, not set to music, and read/listened on a substantial scale by non-poets. And especially if some poets can make a living from poetry without teaching or grants.

      For me, the interesting question isn’t so much why unsatisfying poetry gained status as why there isn’t still low-status conventional poetry that people like. Music took two paths instead of collapsing.

    • vV_Vv says:

      Probably the same reason why modern art and modern architecture are so terrible.

      I think it is an elitism spiral.

      Instead of trying to appeal general audiences, even educated ones, modern poets, artists and architects try to appeal a small circle of people consisting of themselves, professional critics, and a small number of big-pocket patrons who, unlike the patrons of past classical art and literature, seek to distance themselves from the masses rather than win their approval. This has created a spiral where creatives try to constantly outdo each other in going against established norms and tastes by being controversial, offensive, or outright incomprehensible just for the sake of it.

      And they were largely successful at it: they created a “high culture” that reliably signal a certain upper-class/elite subculture, but is repulsive to all us peons, who instead consume what is disparagingly designated as “pop culture”.

      • Urstoff says:

        Although there isn’t any money (and definitely no patrons) in the poetry scene. That may not be essential to the elitism spiral, though, as there still is prestige in getting published in the biggest literary journals or having your own collection published at a good press.

      • John Nerst says:

        I think it’s an elitism spiral.

        Probably. I think it’s the same as with art in general. I wrote this (here) a couple of months ago:

        Imagine artists and art critics/enthusiasts as two interacting communities where the artists create works and the critics validate the artists’ creations as good and successful. They depend on each other. Crucially, one’s position in one community is partly dependent on playing along with the other. Critics earn status by being skilled at interpreting art — the subtler and more difficult the better — while artists get critics’ attention and praise by making works that let them show how skilled they are.

        This sets up a feedback loop where critics cultivate increasingly sensitive mental faculties specialized in perceiving artistic messages, while artists make increasingly subtle and ambiguous works to match the audience’s increased sensitivity.

        To get good art there needs to be a mechanism that counteracts the push towards the two extremes of “lowest common denominator crap” and “unintelligible specialist circlejerk”. I’m not sure how to ensure that, but making the mass market and academia the two main arenas are probably not the best way. Something where artists are subjected to market forces but somewhat protected from its most brutal economic judgment might be needed.

        • vV_Vv says:

          I’d say that market forces are doing fine for most forms of artistic expression: music, films (*), tv shows, video games, novels, etc. In all of these you can find works for all kind of tastes, from lowest-common-denominator to specialized niches.

          (* yes, i know about Hollywood sequelitis. But this seems to be driven by the opening of the Chinese market, and there is more to the film industry than Hollywood)

          The elitism spiral mostly affected art forms that have become largely obsolete: text-only poetry is superseded by mass-distributed songs, canvas painting is superseded by photography and illustrations, theatre is superseded by films and so on.

          Architecture is doing worse because it is less subject to market forces due to the highly-regulated monopoly nature of large buildings. Brutalist concrete box abominations seem to be a thing of the past, but they are being replaced with slightly less horrible glass boxes. I blame city planners.

          • John Nerst says:

            I guess what I’m concerned about re: mass market crap is that the low brow stuff seem to be getting worse, stupider and more lowbrow (I guess what you call Hollywood sequelitis) and that this is a consequence of an extreme fixation on (and great skill in) market research and audience appeal optimization. It shrinks the space in which actual artistic purpose can exist. I.e it’s good when artists can create somewhat freely with audience feedback that isn’t too direct and detailed.

          • Futhington says:

            @John Nerst

            I’ve heard it put forward that part of the reason mass market film especially seems to be getting way dumber is again because of the foreign market, especially in China. Making things intricate and complicated causes not only issues with translation but also with cross-cultural comprehension.

          • John Nerst says:

            Yes, clearly a factor but I’m doubtful it’s the only one.

          • vV_Vv says:

            One of the issue with the Chinese market is that until 15 years or so ago, very few foreign films were allowed in the country. Today, while there are still quotas and censorship, the criteria are much more lax, therefore for many types of movies, the Chinese market is very profitable, nearly as much as the US one, but films that are sequels or remakes to Western audiences look original to the Chinese since they’ve never seen the first installments. This effect, associated with the increasing production costs, incentives Hollywood to play it safe and put their money on tried formulas.

            Add to this a certain amount of oligopoly: high production costs and political protectionism resulted in high barriers to entry, which turned Hollywood into an aristocracy rather than a meritocracy, and all aristocracies are conservative.

            Hollywood being an aristocracy is also the reason why widespread sexual misconduct was covered up for decades: in an environment where personal relationships are more important than talent, you really don’t want to get on the bad side of powerful players, who can therefore get away with pretty much anything.

            But there is reason to hope: as profits are falling and the aristocrats are getting #metooed, the film industry may soon undergo a realignment.

        • Urstoff says:

          TV has been the model for good middle-brow art over the last decade or two. What are the forces at work there that aren’t in poetry or, to choose another market-driven industry, film? Novels also seem to be producing pretty good middle-brow art. It poetry insufficiently commodified, whereas films, due to their huge costs, have become over-commodified?

          • John Nerst says:

            I think movies have been overcommodified, and I worry that TV risks going the same way. I can’t prove it or even put my finger on it, but a lot of stuff that comes out now, like the stuff you can find browsing Netflix, seem just a tad overengineered.

            Like you can smell the market research behind it, and there’s an air of boring competence, well done but devoid of vision, like it has little to say and the purpose is simply to appeal to the audience. Not everything is like this but it’s a feeling I get.

    • John Schilling says:

      Musical instruments and recordings became cheap enough that pretty much everybody who wanted to entertain their non-poet audience added at least some melodic or rhythmic accompaniment to the words. That leaves poets who only want to entertain other poets, and poets who face unusual format constraints that rule out musical accompaniment.

      Written publication used to be the format constraint that preferred poetry to music, but we’re long past the point where publishing a CD or MP3 is as cheap as publishing a book or ebook. But if you e.g. want to embed a poem in a novel, a la Tolkein, you may still have to do it the old-fashioned way and to do it well if you want it to sell.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I forgot to mention poetry slams.

        My impression is that some of them use structure by way of repeated phrases, but I don’t think I’ve run across any that use structure as tight as traditional poetry.

        On the other hand, I might not notice it. Some writers amuse themselves by slipping sonnets or whatever into prose novels, and readers don’t seem to mention noticing it.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Some writers amuse themselves by slipping sonnets or whatever into prose novels, and readers don’t seem to mention noticing it.

          Some of us notice. It tends to be doggerel beneath mention, however; at least it’s bad in easily-understood ways.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Indeed, before print and mass literacy, poetry used to be associated with music.

        Text-only poetry may have become popular for some time just because distributing text was easier than distributing music, but now poetry has just returned to its musical origin, and text-only poetry is just a self-referential niche for the initiates.

      • Doesntliketocomment says:

        This is 100% the answer to “Where has the rhyming poetry gone?” In fact we have an entire genre of mass-market, culturally relevant rhyming poetry with minimal musical accompaniment, it’s called rap.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’m not sure about “minimal musical accompaniment” there. Rap and rock use vocals differently, but there’s some complicated stuff going on in the beat either way, and there are star producers and DJs in rap just like there are star MCs.

          But I think you’re basically right that the kind of language skills that used to drive literary poetry now go mainly into songwriting. Leonard Cohen was only a competent singer, but he was really good at playing with English.

          • Doesntliketocomment says:

            I’m kind of discounting beat, since beat has always been a component of poetry, what is iambic pentameter but a beat? I guess I’m thinking more of musical flourish, and while much of modern rap has incorporated a lot more in that regard, the essence is still structured around the lyrics.

          • Nornagest says:

            Well, by “beat” here I mean “everything that isn’t the vocals”, which is consistent with how hip-hop uses the word but not how rock uses the word.

            At this point, I think your average hip-hop track has as much effort going into that as your average rock song does.

    • maldusiecle says:

      It’s easy to forget how bad poetry in general has always been. We only remember a minuscule portion of the poets active at a given time, with the number we remember being larger as the time approaches present. When you move off the beaten path, the quality drops off abruptly.

      There might be a lot of unreadable garbage in Tin House every month. There was just as much unreadable garbage every month of the 17th century, only it rhymed more and leaned even more heavily on stereotyped imagery. You can’t get a good idea of the medium’s health from the monthlies. We’ve had Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Robert Creeley. It was a very rich century.

      • Urstoff says:

        The fiction and essays in the monthlies aren’t garbage, though, which is why the state of poetry is confusing.

        • maldusiecle says:

          Not if one grants that the bars for success in short fiction and essays are much lower than in poetry, which is what I’d argue. Nearly any decent poet can turn out a strong essay; the reverse is not true.

          • Urstoff says:

            Sounds more like you’re saying that poetry is harder, rather than the bar for prose being lower. I guess that could be true, although I don’t know how we’d determine that that’s the reason for most modern poetry being execrable.

    • Brad says:

      Poetry is dead as a commercial art form. That means there’s no market based discipline imposed to cater to mass taste. In situations like that where you have a sealed, self selected group of enthusiasts speaking only to each other, novelty ends up being prized above all. That process quickly leads to output that incomprehensible and alienating to the non-initiated.

      I don’t take the position that this is the product of some degenerate age. I myself respect the great poems of history but never much enjoyed them. I am among the vast majority of people that would almost certainly not buy a book of modern poetry no matter how good (Shel Silverstein for kids’ gifts aside.)

      • Randy M says:

        I myself respect the great poems of history but never much enjoyed them. I am among the vast majority of people that would almost certainly not buy a book of modern poetry no matter how good

        I agree, although I partially suspect it’s a deficiency in myself, perhaps due to lack of exposure or insufficient knowledge of cultural referents, etc. I feel the same about Shakespeare (although perhaps that is included in poetry). I tried to read through Hamlet not long ago after hearing someone gush about the profound themes and so on, but that project didn’t last, unfortunately.

        • Brad says:

          Take it for what it is worth, but in my opinion if you want to enjoy Shakespeare you need to watch it. There’s value in reading it, especially with some guidance from either a teacher or reference book, but that is like eating vegetables rather than eating a steak.

          Although I liked it best on the stage, the Branagh movie is quite good in my opinion. Although also very long, you may want to watch over two nights.

          • bean says:

            I’ll second this. I hated Shakespeare in early high school. Senior year, we did Hamlet, and it was not horrible. Then, I went to St. Louis’s public Shakespeare festival the following summer, and they were doing Hamlet. It was fantastic. Knowing the play probably helped, but they really do work best live.

          • Randy M says:

            I suspect part of that is that you can’t dwell on every stanza until you get what it is saying, so you don’t tire of it as quickly, and also you can see the action, expression, etc. so you aren’t lost if you “skim” or miss the meaning of some lines.

          • Urstoff says:

            Aside from seeing it on stage, drama is best read out loud while imagining how you would stage it. Reading drama doesn’t have to be a dry experience.

          • Randy M says:

            That’s true of non-narrative poetry as well, in my experience. Always enhanced when read aloud, with the possible exception of in the middle of 9th grade English class.

    • rahien.din says:

      Poetry also used to be terrible. Harken back to eras in which poesy was widespread and celebrated, and most of that verse is irredeemably maudlin.

    • Ketil says:

      What makes art (or, well, anything?) good? Earlier, Scott wrote about how we (maybe) receive “raw” sensory input, and it gets processed into more abstract representations at higher and higher levels of our minds. Simultaneously, the upper layers have a conception or model of how the world is, and propagates the expected inputs in the opposite direction.

      (Sorry if I totally misrepresent this)

      And when expectations don’t match with the inputs, it causes stress – and we suddenly have to respond to an unexpected situation, or learn something new.

      I think the point of art is to strike the correct balance here. Too predictable, and it is boring. It becomes easy listening, pop music. Muzak, if you will. Too unpredictable, and it makes no sense, it is just a confused jumble of noise – avant-garde jazz or abstract painting. For art to work, it needs to be predictable enough that the unpredictable elements still make sense. An aesthetic Overton window, maybe? Art should be provocative, but not by being obscene or offensive (as I feel this is often interpreted), but by challenging existing aesthetics by just the right amount – by putting known pieces in a new configuration, and one that is surprising but – in retrospect – makes sense.

      And of course, this depends on the consumer (listener, reader, spectator, audience) as much as it does on the artist. You need to understand the references, the plays on existing structures, to appreciate art.

      Which is not to say that there isn’t a whole lot of emperor’s clothes in contemporary art as well – in-the-know artists nodding appreciatively as the “get” each other’s obscure references, and looking down their noses at the mixed crowd of people either not getting it, or realizing it just isn’t very good.

    • Randy M says:

      This thread needs examples. Post the worst poetry you know of, along with the date/era it was written.

      • rlms says:

        This page has some good (bad?) ones. I was about to say that the worst/best is A Tragedy, from 1874, beginning:

        The barges down in the river flop.
        Flop, plop.
        Above, beneath.
        From the slimy branches the grey drips drop,
        As they scraggle black on the thin grey sky,
        Where the black cloud rack-hackles drizzle and fly
        To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop
        On the black scrag piles, where the loose cords plop,
        As the raw wind whines in the thin tree-top.

        but on rereading I semi-unironically liked it.

    • bassicallyboss says:

      I think it’s a situation of “you can ignore the rules, but only if you know them”.

      Writing good poetry requires a certain kind of deep and narrow attention to compositional elements: The effect of line breaks on attention and rhythm, the conceptual bleed between neighboring verses, the careful selection of each individual word within a line. This is a skill, and every kind of poetry benefits from its application. However, writing even bad structured poetry (e.g., metered verse) encourages-bordering-on-requires this kind of attention, so writing it builds the skill automatically. But writing bad free verse requires no skill at all; you can literally just scribble some words on a page and call it poetry. Nearly all bad modern poetry is free verse.

      Good free verse poetry and good free verse poets do exist–Sylvia Plath and ee cummings are two good examples, no matter how much I dislike the latter’s unconventional formatting. But the good free verse tends to be concentrated at the beginning of the free verse era; cummings died in ’62, Plath in ’63. This is the time when the people writing free verse poetry would have been trained on structured poetry, so my hypothesis is that they learned to write good poems in the old style, and their skill transferred to the new style. On the other hand, later people learned by writing in the new style, and so never developed the skill to begin with. (cf. David Chapman’s take on postmodernism.)

      I note that the “elitism signalling spiral” hypothesis explains that evidence just as well, though. The reason I don’t think it’s the whole picture is that I have very often heard free verse poets express that they have tried and found themselves unable to write structured poetry. Even professional poets say this: I once went to a poetry reading where the poet (a professional writer of free verse) explained how she proud she was of a sestina she’d written, because she never had the knack for structure. (Sestinas have no meter, and are the closest structured poetic form I know of to free verse.) On the other hand, I’ve never heard a structured poet bemoan their inability to compose in free verse. The pattern seems so one-sided that I don’t believe it can be taste or fashion alone, even wacko elite-signalling taste.

      • powerfuller says:


        I think this is spot on. It’s helpful to read juvenilia to get a sense of how good poets learned how to write well. Like you said, the best free verse poets grew up on formal verse, and to follow your mention of Plath, take her poem Ennui, which IIRC she wrote while still an undergraduate. You can tell she has chops, well before her free verse poems. Today, poets may know about sestinas or sonnets, but they hardly know them. To add to what you said, I think part of the decline of poetry is that people don’t memorize poems anymore. Memorizing and reciting a poem is one of the best ways to assimilate and understand its structure or meaning. I think it’s unfortunate this is no longer a part of primary education.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Not that it is relevant to your point, but while “Ennui” may count as unpublished juvenilia, “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” a villanelle from her college days, may well be her most read poem, if only because it is included in The Bell Jar.

          • powerfuller says:

            Oh, I had forgotten about that poem! “Ennui” really isn’t a good example of juvenilia as it good enough to be considered a mature poem, but I didn’t think of any other examples off the top of my head.

    • Aapje says:

      Turing test for AI poetry. See if you can distinguish the modern poetry written by a human from AI-generated poetry.

      Another turing test for AI poetry.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        I got full marks at the first link, but only 6/10 at the second. I think that the second one has been more carefully selected for ‘humans writing in a slightly non-human looking manner’.

    • powerfuller says:

      Oooo this is a subject I love to complain about, but I’m pretty late to the party, so rather than reiterate what a lot of people have said, I’ll just add:

      1) I think the Master of Fine Arts in writing poetry has done a great disservice to the art, as it has turned (or accelerated the turning of) poetry into an obscure academic discipline, and fostered a culture of mediocre professionalism, where poets put out a slim volume every few years and spend the rest of the time writing fellowship applications or back-of-the-book blurbs for their friends. The only people who read poems are people who write poems, and what’s exciting to a practitioner is often anathema to the casual audience. And then academics talk about how Longfellow is not a real poet, since he wrote a lot pleasant stories in verse for the general public to enjoy.

      2) The dominance of free verse and the social/moral frameworks of the journals has become as constraining as poetry in the late Victorian poetry, where every poem seemed required to be rhymed quatrains about the virtues of domesticity. It seems like every poem today must be in free verse couplets about how the body is a good thing. I exaggerate, but it seems like all poetry that gets talked about is poetry that already conforms to the vanishingly small readership’s worldviews and moral sentiments. So, modern poetry is like greeting cards.

      3) Here is an excellent place to mourn the passing of Richard Wilbur, who died a few weeks ago, and was (IMHO) the best poet alive. He worked a lot in traditional forms, so if you dislike modern poetry, you would probably enjoy some of his poems.

      4) Read David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. It covers a lot of what’s been said here in greater depth and is quite fun to read.

    • Glen Raphael says:

      Why is modern poetry so terrible?

      Are you familiar with the poet Les Barker? He’s still alive, still writing poetry that is clever and hilarious, and making a living selling poetry books and touring the world reading his poems to people. So it’s clearly possible to make a living writing good poetry that people like. Maybe the problem is that poetry awards don’t go to people who are good at that?

      Here’s Les reading An Infinite number of Occasional Tables.

      A couple more: Guide Cats For The Blind, Spot of the Antarctic.

  11. SJAnon says:


    I’m an occasional SSC poster and regular SSC reader, I live in the (California) South Bay, and I’m worried I may need psychiatric help. I remember that a long time ago here people were posting recommendations for psychiatrists but I can’t find it, and I’d like advice on finding someone good (or just “someone good”) in my area.

    I have, as I think of it, two problems: On the one hand, I suffer from fairly minor stress and depression. This is not a serious problem, it is not crippling my life, and I think of it as being ‘under control’, and online tests seem to agree with me on this – though I’d like to get an expert’s opinion, and would even kind of like it if it went away.

    On the other hand, I have some kind of ADD or ADHD problem, or something along those lines – I don’t know what the nature of it is – that is seriously messing with most of the things I want to do with my life. Instead of “decide what I want to do, do it,” I have extreme difficulty concentrating, getting easily distracted and stuck into things; not just the normal way people do with the internet and video games and such, I mean the “have probably never done eight hours of actual work in any day of my life,” sense; that after *having* to concentrate on something for only two hours (for a college test, say), my eyes are unfocusing and my willpower is wrecked for the rest of the day. I’d like to be able to spend at least eight hours a day on projects I want to do, instead of getting sucked into whatever happens to be easy, and I’m hoping a psychiatrist might be able to help with this.

    (The point at which I started seriously considering that I might actually have a problem was the point when I took adrafinil, decided what I wanted to do, and then did it – until the drug wore off – with no ill effects. It would be Helpful if the doctor in question knew that -afinils existed.)

    At any rate – does anyone have any recommendations? Thank you very much in advance.

    • Doesntliketocomment says:

      Best of luck to you, I’ve been trying to solve the same problem for myself for years, with not a lot of success. As far as finding a psychiatrist, there isn’t much to do but get some recommendations and try one out. Ideally what you are looking for is one that is pro-drug, but is more than a walking prescription pad. If you have an interest in a drug, they should be able to talk it over with you, but they should also be interested in what your goals are for that drug, and yourself in general.
      The problem with the -afinals, is that adrafinal is not really prescribed as far as I can tell, and modafinal is stupidly expensive (in the US), so if that’s what you need you might have to tussle with your insurance. If adrafinal has worked for you, be sure and bring that up.

  12. Alkatyn says:

    Meta question: Didn’t there used to be a search option on the front page? That was very useful for when i wanted to find a specific article for someone

  13. outis says:

    Catalonia is boring, let’s talk about Saudi Arabia. What do you guys think about Mohammad bin Salman? Are the events of the last few days a soft coup against the more integralist side? Is the regime’s attempt to modernize itself going to be successful?

    • Watchman says:

      It looks to me like a desire to remove obstacles to the current programme of rebasing the Saudi economy on skills (note the huge spending on upgrading universities, with a focus on downgrading theological studies vis-a-vis other subjects), but it also concentrates power in one branch of the royal family. I doubt there will be adverse effects on non-Saudi involvement in the country, because the entire philosophy of bin Salman is to create a more diverse and interconnected conomy.

    • Protagoras says:

      To the last question, no. Saudi power is based on oil money. They have no particular advantage in other economic areas, so their efforts to diversify will not be as profitable as their core business. As their core business declines, as it inevitably will in the long term (though only in the long term; I believe their short term position still may be reasonably good, as they still have a lot of oil that they can get at cheaply) their power will also decline.

    • johan_larson says:

      Everyone seems to be interpreting the arrests as an attempt to consolidate power. Why are people sure it isn’t what it is claimed to be: an anti-corruption effort?

      • Watchman says:

        Because (and here we go again with the postmodernism) the very effort to clamp down on corruption is an expression and exercise of power. It may not be that the power is being held or used illegitimately (indeed, corruption tends to be more illegitimate than most state responses) but by removing the ability to act (this is what power is) of the corrupt you are automatically centralising power in the hands of those who are not corrupt.

        So it is possible that this is both what it appears to be and an attempt to consolidate power at the same time.

      • Deiseach says:

        Why are people sure it isn’t what it is claimed to be: an anti-corruption effort?

        Because the royal family is soaked in corruption, nepotism, and tribalism. Putting Your Guy in charge of the National Guard is all about having someone in an important position personally loyal to you and placating the tribe:

        Prince Miteb bin Abdullah was detained and replaced as minister of the National Guard, a pivotal power base rooted in the kingdom’s tribes. That recalled a palace coup in June which ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister.

        The moves consolidate Prince Mohammed’s control of the internal security and military institutions, which had long been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family.

        Seizing the assets of those accused of corruption is also a way of putting money and power into your grasp, and offering the people an excuse for their dissatisfaction over economic slump/lower standard of living due to low oil prices by “it’s all down to corruption and greed and look, here are the scapegoats” is a lot easier and more popular than “okay, we screwed up by blowing the oil revenues on playboy lifestyles and investment fund piggybanks for the members of the royal family instead of properly investing it”.

        A populist “cracking down” programme is an easy sell, particularly since there seems to be a groundswell of opinion about “foreigners coming here taking our jobs“. True reform would be getting rid of an awful lot of the royal family, even if they wished to keep the monarchy, as was the case in Britain where a lot of the minor royals were rigorously pruned off the Civil List. Until we see that happening in Saudi Arabia, then all the modernisation and anti-corruption campaigns are only to prop up the status quo.

      • Brad says:

        Because I don’t even know what it means for a Saudi prince to be corrupt. The entire point of the enterprise since at least the days of Ibn Saud has been to benefit of the House of Saud.

        From the outside view it looks like the new King (only in power for two years) and his son are changing the rules of the game. We may be in favor of that or opposed to that for our own reasons, but it seems not quite accurate to call people playing by the old rules corrupt.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think it’s dressed up in the language of reform and modernisation, but it’s good old fashioned palace politics: instead of sending rival claimants to the headsman’s block, now they’re all being taken out by “house arrest on corruption charges” and stripped of their authority over very lucrative investment firms, etc.

      The new Crown Prince is establishing himself and getting rid of the competition; since, as far as cursory reading tells me, he wasn’t the favoured candidate as heir until relatively recently, but a cousin was, this is not surprising. The only question is will he remain as Crown Prince until the king does abdicate/die and ascend the throne, or will some other candidate from within the family oust him? Again, from cursory reading, not everyone in the family is thrilled with him being the designated heir, and some ruthless plotting is not out of the question (which is probably why he’s cracking down right now and weeding out any likely candidates to lead conspiracies to overthrow him).

    • James Miller says:

      The long-term fall in the price of oil is cancerous to the Saudi government, and it’s seeking to mitigate the damage by confiscating the wealth of a few of its richest citizens.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      I don’t know enough about the kingdom’s unwritten constitution to make predictions. Westernizing Muslim monarchs have been able to make sweeping changes, but outside of Jordan they eventually failed. He’s going to have to fight an ulema and imams more fundamentalist than modern Jordan ever had. If he wants to give women the right to drive, work and party without a male relative while going bareheaded in short sleeves and knee-length skirts, it’s feasible in the short term. Whether he can make his country look like Jordan in the long term depends on how effective he can be at replacing and silencing the Wahabi imams and speaking power to the ulema.

    • Vorkon says:

      Personally, I think they’ve just fallen under the influence of the seductive power of The Orb.

  14. Vladimir Slepnev says:

    Hi! We (Paul Christiano, Zvi Mowshowitz and me) have just announced the AI Alignment Prize. Would love to get entries from folks here, as well as suggestions on how to make the prize have more impact.

    • Daniel says:

      Wow, cousin_it? Where on the net do you hang out nowadays, if you don’t mind me asking?

      • Vladimir Slepnev says:

        I didn’t go anywhere! I’m on Reddit as want_to_want, on HN and LW (both old and new) as cousin_it, and on IAFF and Facebook under my real name. Mostly preoccupied with work, family and various offline creative stuff, but also wrote some traditional LWish content in the last months, like this and this. And now got myself involved in this prize thing. Life goes on 🙂

    • ravenclawprefect says:

      As someone familiar with a moderate amount of the research on AI alignment (but far from an expert on it), my default assumption for any new idea I might have is that it’s already reasonably well-known in the literature, simply because more people have been thinking about these topics for longer than I have. Is there an efficient way to get a sense of which questions have already been asked and answered in the field? Would reading the abstract of every MIRI publication to date, for instance, suffice to gain a fairly good idea of what the current state of knowledge is?

      • Vladimir Slepnev says:

        I’d look at 5-10 writings each by Eliezer (on Arbital), Wei (on LW), Paul (on his blogs) and Stuart (on IAFF). That should give you an impression of what’s known or not. If you’re in doubt whether your idea is new, feel free to contact me!

  15. Machine Interface says:

    Thought: life is a primitive paperclip optimiser, except its “paperclips” are polymers.

    • raj says:

      Except not really. To the extent that you can refer to life as a monolithic entity, ‘it’ would gladly dispense with polymers if ‘it’ happened on a better design.

    • Skivverus says:

      Through a similar lens, the universe is a primitive (the primitive?) vacuum-optimizer.

    • Rick Hull says:

      I don’t think it’s a coincidence that polymers satisfy life-slash-human preferences in an economical way. We have terminal values like shelter for which polymers provide the answer in the most economically efficient way. Unlike paperclips, polymers themselves are not a terminal value.

  16. abstractapplic says:

    I made an educational Bayesian turn-based open-source in-browser probably-some-other-hyphenated-adjectives-too game, and I thought this blog’s readership would want to know about it. I’m very interested in getting feedback, especially of the kind that tells me what you think I could do better.

    • Incurian says:

      First impression (played through tutorial and a round into campaign): very cool concept.
      I’d like to see the probabilities on the turrets so you don’t have to hover over them to remember. On the mines you show the probability they will hit, but why not also the probability they will be destroyed vs captured? Does that defeat the purpose? Maybe on higher levels you could start giving less information to test if the probabilities have been internalized. I would like to see some method for helping me determine the timing of falling mines vs the rate of fire of my turrets, since presumably the idea is to focus on probability and prioritization and not on my skill in guessing exactly how fast a mine is moving. Something like “will hit in X shots.” Lastly, if it was in the tutorial I missed the fact that you could change the order the turrets fire in skip over certain turrets in the planning phase, which is pretty important.

      • abstractapplic says:

        Your first suggestion is already implemented: you can enable display of destroy/capture probabilities under Options, but the text clutters the screen enough that I decided to leave it off as a default. I guess I could make this feature more obvious by having a reference to it be referenced when you hover over Options on the titlescreen.

        I actually asked one of my playtesters if I should indicate how many turns you have to stop the mines when you hover over them, and they said the constant flickering would be more annoying than the display would be useful. But now I think about it, there’s no harm – and potentially a lot of good – in having this as another off-by-default option. Thanks; I’ll implement that in the next build.

        Regarding your last point: you can’t change the order your turrets fire in, or at least you really shouldn’t be able to. (the third level is even based on playing with this fact in a weird way)

        . . . seriously, did you find a way to make the turrets fire in a different order? Because if so that’s a bug and I need to kill it with fire and/or pesticide.

        Oh, now that makes more sense. The purple text does mention offhand that you don’t need to target every turret every turn, but I could probably do with spelling it out more blatantly. Also: I just realised I never mention, anywhere, that people playing via the keyboard can press space to skip a turret; I should add that too while I’m tweaking things.

        Thanks for the feedback, I’ve been pretty short on playtesters during development so this is a lot more valuable to me than you probably think.

        • Incurian says:

          Nope, I was wrong about the re-ordering.

          Clutter distracts and occludes. In this game, the art is the clutter. You could draw directly on the turrets F:00%, D:00%, C:00% in rows. Maybe the turrets need to be bigger to accommodate the text, but surely it’s the text that’s important, and not the gray polygons? On the mines you can do the same, and the time to impact can just be a small number off to the side, don’t require a hover over.

          • abstractapplic says:

            I actually think the gray polygons are kind of important, because of the way they get re-purposed in the later levels. I suspect you might change your mind once you’ve played the whole game; if not, let me know!

            Yeah, with the turns-to-hit thing I’m thinking three options: one which displays it below the mine with the autocalc data, one which has it as a hover-over, and one which just leaves it up to the player’s memory.

    • pipsterate says:

      Interesting game. As for feedback, I think the main issue is that the graphics and music aren’t especially great.

      Would you be interested in having some help with the graphics? I am a nonprofessional but semi-competent pixel artist with a bit of free time, and I could try making some sprites if you’re interested. You can see some of my previous work in this imgur gallery.

    • dodrian says:

      After the tutorial and a few minutes of the campaign, it’s a fun little game, I would personally like a way to tell which mines are closer to hitting. If you don’t want to use text they could change color the closer they get (for example red- will hit next turn, orange – 1 turn away, yellow- 2 turns, blue- 3+).

      • abstractapplic says:

        Noted, and thanks; as per my replies to Incurian, I’ll add some options for this in the next build.

        • dodrian says:

          I’ve finished through the campaign, some more feedback:

          The animations are a bit slow – that’s fine in the tutorial or as new gameplay elements are introduced, but towards the end of levels it gets irritating. This is especially true on the level where the turrets are in reverse order, as sometimes I was only firing the last one, but it felt like it was still using time to cycle through and run a (nonexistant) animation on the first three. Related – it would be helpful to have the fire button grey out or change color when clicked, until it’s the player’s next turn.

          The instructions for intro-deduction were partially cut off, and I had to play through the level a few times before I really understood what was happening & what I was meant to be doing.
          It might actually be more helpful (esp for that level) to have the turret info appear in a sidebar / below the game, because once the ships are hidden you can’t see the probabilities of each. It matters less when the autocalc comes up again though, but it would still help you think through the probabilities of your ship taking damage.

          It was fun to think through the outcomes and put together a strategy, thanks for sharing!

          • I’m glad to report that the cutoff in the instructions is fixed in the new build, that there are multiple ways to explicitly see how many turns a mine is from hitting, and that I’ve added options for speeding up the game (which may cause performance issues if you overclock it on a less modern computer, so be warned).

      • secret_tunnel says:

        Agreed on the color thing–anywhere you can convey info through art rather than text, you should! Being that this is a really number-focused game, that might be hard. Try though!

        Early on, it’s not immediately clear if the probability of capturing mines will end up altering the way I play; does this have a big impact on players’ strategy? If not, I say axe it.

    • elRobbo says:

      Thanks for the link, it’s a fun game! One suggestion – I wanted to turn off the music, and I was on round 5 of the first campaign mission. When I went back in I had to start over from the beginning of the mission. It would be nice if there was a way to either get to the options without leaving the current level, or for it to remember your progress on a particular level.

      One other idea – it would be nice to somehow highlight which mines will hit your shield on the next turn.

    • carvenvisage says:

      Shouldn’t you be able to see what mines are coming later in a wave? Seeing as the idea is to be about the maths. Starting out I find myself having to go by vague intuitive feel of what might come up later.

      For example, in wave 1 of level 2, there are two mines at first, then one, then two, etc. If it was one then three, that would be a different balance of odds, but I can’t know which it is when I first make my decision. (also applies to how many subwaves waves there are, if that varies)


      Sound toggle, in addition to the slider, would be good. If I leave the window open and return to it I could then pop the sound straight back on instead of messing about in the menu.

      I like the art.

      Wouldn’t mind a button to reset turrets.

      Seems like a bad idea to make spacebar a “yes that is my final answer” button as well as a “next turret” button. Maybe make that a toggle in options too?


      edit: as I play on the, lack of knowledge of upcoming waves is putting me off. If the game isn’t going to focus on explicit probability/maths, why don’t I just play any of a number of professionally made card games? -which provide the same gameplay split between intuition and probability. (different leaning, more towards intuition, but still, it’s the same basic mix)

      I’ll probably come back to the game, but I’m leaving it for now because its too hard for me to focus on the basic maths/probability side when it there is another half of the game that depends on opposite skills. Should be a “twist” level imo, like the turrets in reverse order.

  17. Aapje says:

    I saw this comedy bit about different ways in which men and women supposedly communicate their preferences to their partner/others.

    The argument is that men prefer directness:
    – I would like my partner to make a hot cocoa
    – I ask for a hot cocoa
    – I get a hot cocoa or an explanation of why I can’t get a hot cocoa

    While women prefer indirectness:
    – I want a blanket
    – I send (increasingly obvious) signals that I am cold
    – I get a blanket or a cold shoulder that I then have to interpret

    So essentially, it’s ask culture vs guess culture. Both strategies have their upsides and downsides. Ask culture encourages making your desires explicit and thus make you less likely to misconstrued. However, it also makes it very explicit where the limits of the partner’s willingness to do something are. Mismatches between demands and willingness to cater to demands has to be talked about explicitly. People who cannot verbalize their needs well probably fail at this more often and can end up in an abusive or one-sided relationship, as they cannot fight to get their needs met, sufficiently.

    Guess culture encourages being perceptive of the needs of the other and many people enjoy (the illusion) of getting something without having to ask for it. It avoid confrontations and enables some pro-social dishonesty to hide unpleasant truths behind ambiguity. It probably works better for people who have strong emotional needs and for people who are bad at knowing what they need (and need their partner to figure that out for them). However, it’s going to fail if the partner is not sufficiently perceptive and because the partner has to guess, you may not get exactly what you want (a sweater instead of a blanket, for example). Figuring out the reason for a denial also requires guessing. So there is great potential for miscommunication. Less perceptive people and/or those who are bad at sending signals may end up in a passive-aggressive or one-sided relationship.

    So I see value (and negatives) in both strategies. In practice, surely pretty much everyone uses a (varying) mix of both.

    Now, is there a gender difference here? I haven’t seen any studies that examine this, so I don’t know to what extent this observation is a gender difference vs a personal preference independent of gender vs a cultural preference. The latter two almost certainly explain a substantial part of the differences between people.

    Some evidence that speaks in favor of the theory that women may prefer guess culture more often than men:
    – Men seem more autistic by nature and thus less capable of recognizing and sending subtle signals (also see Simon Baron-Cohen’s “extreme male brain” theory)
    – Men seem more systematizing and women more people-oriented. I expect that people-oriented individuals tend to place more value on pro-social dishonestly, having people do something for them without being asked, etc
    – Men seem a lot more willing to make explicit offers in dating and women seem to generally be pushing back against this. Gays seem extremely willing to be explicit, unlike lesbians.
    – Quite a few studies show that women are less likely to initiate negotiations (= demand). However, there are also studies that show that women are a bit less likely to get their demands met, so this may partially or fully be conditioned.
    – It’s the stereotype. Studies show that stereotype accuracy is generally quite high.

    So, the above is somewhat suggestive, but hardly solid evidence. AFAIK, academia have not adopted the conceptual framework of ‘ask culture vs guess culture,’ although I’m sure they have done more specific studies into behavior that is part of ask or guess culture. Would anyone be familiar with such research that checks for gender differences, to have some more hard evidence one way or the other?

    • liskantope says:

      Men seem a lot more willing to make explicit offers in dating and women seem to generally be pushing back against this. Gays seem extremely willing to be explicit, unlike lesbians.

      I’m not sure if men are actually more willing to be the aggressors, rather than men having been conditioned to take the initiative in this context (and probably other contexts as well, accounting for some of the other points you suggested). It’s a societally enforced role and I don’t know how many men particularly like it.

      As for women generally pushing back against this, well… I hate to open this can of worms again, but it looks to me like what women are pushing back against is harassment and predation, not the explicit initiating / implicit signal-sending gender roles which (to my view) have led to this widespread problem of harassment and predation.

      • Aapje says:

        Preferring ask culture doesn’t mean that you want to be the asker every time. A man who favors ask culture more can also prefer to have women approach him bluntly and be upset about a society where this rarely happens. He can also simply be upset about his success ratio.

        I’ve seen quite a few men complain about having to negotiate guess dating culture, although due to the asymmetry in dating, you can’t really know if women would complain just as much (and about the same things) if they would approach men more.

        but it looks to me like what women are pushing back against is harassment and predation, not the explicit initiating / implicit signal-sending gender roles

        Those concepts are fuzzy though. Men generally seem way less likely to view overt sexual behavior or crude signals as harassment or predation than women, which is consistent with men preferring more overtness. Of course, the male gender role also encourages men to have sex and to not see themselves as victims, which probably explains at least part of the difference.

        In general, I agree that the evidence I gave has alternative explanations, which is why I’m interested in research that more directly measures ask/guess culture behavior or preferences.

      • The Nybbler says:

        it looks to me like what women are pushing back against is harassment and predation, not the explicit initiating / implicit signal-sending gender roles which (to my view) have led to this widespread problem of harassment and predation.

        Motte/bailey. The motte is they’re pushing back against “harassment and predation”. The bailey is that any unwanted advance on a man’s part counts as “harassment and predation”. It’s to high-status people’s advantage to add a minefield to “guess” culture — guess wrong and you suffer severe consequences. For the women it adds a filter so they don’t have to deal with as many advances, for the men it eliminates lower-status competitors in other realms. That is, a guy who guesses wrong with a woman is not only no longer a romantic competitor for that particular woman, but also no longer a professional or social competitor of any sort at all, because he’s ruined, at least in that social group.

        • Matt M says:

          The bailey is that any unwanted advance on a man’s part counts as “harassment and predation”.

          And not just that, but also that a lack of advances from wanted men is due to cowardice or a lack of “real men” or whatever.

          I know plenty of women who simultaneously complain about all the harassment they have to put up with AND insist that “guys never flirt with me or ask me out.” They absolutely do not see this as contradictory in any way.

          • Baeraad says:

            True. “That sort of behaviour can’t POSSIBLY be anything but an intentional effort to make me feel uncomfortable!” goes the theory.

            To which I can only say, er… that’s giving a lot of men way too much credit. I mean, I hope that the high-brow crowd in this community are capable of slightly more subtlety, but for a lot of guys, metaphorically waving their dicks in a girl’s face and going “UGH! ME SO HORNY!” really does seem to be their idea of coming on to her.

        • Aapje says:

          @The Nybbler

          Ask culture can be abused too by high status people (see Weinstein, who was quite overt).

          I think that most people in this community prefer ask culture due to personality reasons, but I think that it’s important not to idealize it as it also has downsides and guess culture has upsides. Many people will want to keep those upsides of guess culture, especially if their personality doesn’t match ask culture. I think that it’s the same mistake that is the basis of a society-wide push to affirmative consent, where it is just assumed that people will naturally prefer that kind of ask culture over guess culture, but are conditioned into guess culture. I think that is the typical mind fallacy at play.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I think you’re ignoring the subtext here.

      If your girlfriend is upset that you didn’t get her a blanket and you tell her that it’s her fault for not using her words like an adult, what’s the first thing she’s going to say? “You should have just known that I was cold!”

      That’s what they want. Women have arms and legs after all; they’re more than capable of getting themselves blankets. What she wants isn’t to have a blanket, it’s to have a boyfriend who anticipates her wanting a blanket and proactively brings her one. Getting her the blanket is a sign of affection.

      (That’s not to say that you should get the blanket 100% of the time. It’s better to be a little unpredictable if you want to avoid complacency IMO.)

      • Aapje says:


        I tried to touch on that in my post, but I may have been too subtle about it.

        In itself, it is quite valid to want a partner who has a good perception of your needs. I also think that pro-social rituals and dishonesty are necessary for many people. Better to get your partner to massage your emotions and/or pretend a bit and have a good relationship, than to ignore your emotional needs and build up resentment or other negative emotions.

        However, like all desires, people can desire too much and/or become too dependent on others for emotional validation. Furthermore, there has to be some level of quid-pro-quo. There is also a risk that if one partner doesn’t send very many subtle signals or when his or her overtness is resented as being demanding, that this person’s emotional and/or practical needs get neglected.

    • alwhite says:

      Guess culture effectively destroys marriages. In couples therapy the number one issue to work on is communication, because neither partner is actually verbalizing their wants or needs and then blaming the partner for failing to meet them. The example you gave of the blanket is actually very common and one of the first things that has to be dismantled because it is toxic to the relationship.

      Men actually do the same thing but in a different way. Men fail to ask for their needs because they’re conditioned to ignore their needs. Then they get mad at their partner for reasons they aren’t really aware of and are confused by. It often looks like anger management issues but it’s effectively the same thing, expecting the partner to guess their needs and meet them.

      A starting place for research then is family therapy models.

      • Aapje says:


        I think that we need to be wary of merely blaming guess culture, because it probably matches some people’s personalities and/or is the best way to meet their needs. Ultimately, it’s important for people to gain awareness of what they are doing, to be able to fix the dysfunctional parts.

        Taking a model and declaring it the solution for everyone and everything is a classic mistake. So is ignoring the advantages of the model that people already use.

        I think that many people can be in perfectly functioning relationships even if they have strong mismatches in some way, as long as they are aware that the other person has different needs and both have a strategy to meet the other person’s needs, without hurting themselves. That can include having one partner learn to become better at guess culture for the benefit of the other and the other partner learning to become better at ask culture; in addition to understanding that mistakes don’t necessarily mean a lack of love/concern, but are caused by different personalities, which makes people express their love/concern differently.

        And in case where no such strategy can work, understanding can at least lead to a respectful, rather than incriminating separation.

        Men fail to ask for their needs because they’re conditioned to ignore their needs.

        Yes, but I would argue that this is mostly orthogonal to ask/guess culture and comes from stoicism and/or a self-hatred and/or putting the other person on a pedestal.

        There is a difference between not effectively asking for your needs vs a denial that you have needs or a belief that you don’t deserve to have your needs met (within reason).

        I would also argue that this is not exclusive to men, as women can also get into a ‘sacrifice everything for the other person’ or self-hatred mindset. Then they can also “get mad at their partner for reasons they aren’t really aware of and are confused by,” as you said.

    • Futhington says:

      My instinct would be to say it’s true purely based on one thing: gay men vs women flirting. In my experience with gay men who try to hit on men, you know you’ve been hit on with very little ambiguity. Women tend to be more indirect and worry that very non-obvious hints are “too obvious”.

    • Baeraad says:

      I think I actually prefer guess culture, while simultaneously sucking at it. I get those very stereotypical “girly” feelings of, “I shouldn’t have to tell you to think about my needs! If you care about me, you should be making a habit of having them in mind!” a lot. And it makes sense, because ask culture – “oi! Here I am! Care about me NOW!!!” – leaves it very uncertain whether someone genuinely wants the best for you or whether they’re just too timid to push back against your bossiness. But at the same time, well… I have no idea what people want from me most of the time, so it seems kind of unreasonable for me to expect them to read my mind.

      Is there such a thing as guess-when-to-ask culture? Because that’s really the best I’ve been able to come up with – asking “is there something you want me to do for you right now?” a lot. I fail as a man and a woman both.

      • Aapje says:

        You should keep in mind that guess culture and ask culture are abstract concepts at opposite extremes. In practice, pretty much everyone is somewhere in between and does both to some extent.

        Is there such a thing as guess-when-to-ask culture? Because that’s really the best I’ve been able to come up with – asking “is there something you want me to do for you right now?” a lot.

        That is what often happens when an person who is bad at guess culture recognizes that a guess culture person has a need, but doesn’t have the tools to properly ‘solve the riddle.’ So they fall back to ask culture. That doesn’t mean that they/you prefer ask culture.

        I think that we need to distinguish between ‘being’ and ‘acting,’ in the same way that a person in a homophobic society can ‘be gay’ and yet ‘act straight.’ Just because people prefer something, doesn’t mean they can get away with acting that way.

    • akc09 says:

      (disclaimer: I’m just one person, and probably one with some mild social anxiety, so take that into account)

      I started thinking about this, and one of the big reasons I take the “indirect” route with my spouse sometimes is I’m afraid that if I plainly put my requests out there, especially ones that have to do with cleaning/house maintenance, I’ll be fulfilling the stereotype of a “nagging wife,” and avoiding that is important to me for some reason.

      I guess I’m just fulfilling a different stereotype by not plainly putting requests out there though? 🙂

      I’ll admit it does sometimes lead me into silly games, e.g. where I’ll let dishes pile up just to see if he’ll eventually do them (answer: yes! Just after a longer period than I would have, and that’s okay), but I try to keep in mind that it’s just an experiment for myself and not a reason to actually get mad at anybody.

      Also, in the female-centric spaces I’ve hung out, I haven’t really encountered that attitude Nabil was talking about of, “You should have just known that I was cold!” That seems extreme, but maybe I hang out in a bubble—do you guys actually hear that from women in a non-joking way?

  18. johan_larson says:

    I’m finding I rarely leave the house for entertainment any more. I used to go to the movies a lot, but between iTunes and Netflix I have access to a lot of good stuff at home and movie theatres have started showing a lot of ads before the show, which is really annoying, so I mostly stay home. Sometimes I go out for live entertainment, but with ticket prices close to three figures, it really has to be something special to be worth the trouble. Anyone else noticing the same?

    • James Miller says:

      Me too. Also, I like the option of multitasking when watching video (Internet or exercise) which I can’t do at movies. Seeing movies with other people risks my losing interest in the movie but getting stuck watching it to the boring end.

      • ShemTealeaf says:

        That’s exactly why I do like going to the movies on occasion. Social pressure forces me to actually watch the damn movie instead of screwing around with my phone.

    • zz says:

      I’m a classically-trained (but nonprofessional) cellist and I’ve never been able to stand attending live performances (except for Rite of Spring). Playing live, sure, but I normally can hit flow states pretty easily, but can’t just by listening to music, so the entire affair is pretty miserable. Contrast to spending hours that sort of disappear when I’m arranging a piece, a significant portion of which I’m spending listening to the same ~3 minutes and can’t help but be in flow during.

      And at this point, not only do I not go to see movies, but I usually just watch the Red Letter Media review of them, which seem to be invariably more interesting than the films themselves.

      Not sure if it counts as “live entertainment”, but I leave the house at every opportunity I have for pickup ultimate, weather and commute permitting.

    • Murphy says:

      I found a similar shift when we moved to a large city.

      When i visit where I grew up I can still get a pair of movie tickets for about 1/4 the price of tickets where I live now.

      I’m also more price sensitive now since there’s always a list of domestic things to spend money on at home. Fixing that radiator, replacing that carpet etc etc etc.

      1 pair of movie tickets with 1 drink costs enough to buy 3 months of netflix subscription and enough softdrinks to drown a man. Staying home also doesn’t involve a pack of teenagers in the row in front of us waving mobiles around talking loudly about how Carla is such a slut and totally blew Mike at the party.

      So we stay home a lot more.

    • Walter says:

      No, I still go to the movie theater. It is a social experience, good as an antidote to endless hours in front of the screen.

      Disclaimer: I have a computer programming job, though, so I am less interested in sitting in front of my CPU netflixing or whatever.

    • balrog says:

      So first question would be if you are old enough to go out regularly in pre-netflix (or other watching-on-computer ways)?

      Movies are becoming luxury items (their price has gone up faster than inflation would do on its own). That means that it’s demand should go down (ie. you should go less to cinema). Ads in the beginning (and in some countries in middle as well) are reducing the value down further, making it even worse bargain. On the other hand netflix is cheap and addictive, so it should rise in your mix. So if I have applied my awfully bad economical skills correctly, movies are a dying business, and what you are experiencing is normal optimization behavior.

      But for reference I would also check if you are maybe going out less. Beer prices have not increased as far as I know (in a way that you could always get drunk for little money). That would mean that your movie watching preferences haven’t shifted as much as your hanging-out preferences.

      Disclaimer: I have never been to cinema alone, for me it was always a social activity which I did approximately once a year.

    • Baeraad says:

      Yes, though I’ve been blaming it mostly on being older, busier and more tired than I used to be.

  19. bean says:

    I’ve been rather busy over at Naval Gazing, but I’ll consolidate everything here.
    1. New Post: Ballistics
    A sort of Part 3 of fire control, detailing forces on the projectile.
    2. Update: US Battleships in WWII
    Heavily revised, to the point of almost being a new post, but I wanted it out as background for other stuff.
    3. Request for Feedback: Topics you’d like to see
    I’ve been generating ideas a lot faster than I can write them over the past few weeks, so I’d like input on what you guys want me to do first. No promises, of course, but I’ll take it into consideration.
    I’m only going to mirror this to the third one, at least for now.

    • Eltargrim says:

      That’s a hell of a list. If I had to pick one that sounds the most interesting to me, it would probably be “So you want to build a battleship”.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Amphibious warfare would be interesting.

    • veeloxtrox says:

      Random question, how did they calculate the mussel velocity of guns during this era?

      • bean says:

        I can’t think of an appropriate joke for your misspelling, so moving on:
        The device in question was called a chronograph. Basically, you’d set up two points a known distance apart, and measure how quickly the shell went from one to another. By WW2, the detection was magnetic, picking up when the shell went past. The actual recording was done with a rapidly-spinning drum with a piece of paper around the edge. When each coil was passed, it fired a spark plug, marking the paper. Knowing the speed of the drum meant you had the time.
        I’m just going to give the link for the method they used before that.
        (Both are very similar to the methods used for small arms at the time. These days, it’s usually radar.)

      • John Schilling says:

        Depending on the size of the gun, either ballistic pendulum or electromechanical clock. Ballistic pendulums were, well, pendulums with a large, known swung mass incorporating a bullet trap and a ratchet to hold them at the maximum upward swing. Conservation of energy allows you to convert the height reached during the upswing to the velocity of the pendulum at nadir, and conservation of momentum gives you the velocity of the projectile alone from the velocity of the pendulum+captured projectile. This could be applied to the smaller cannons, and was because it is a simple, elegant, and pretty much foolproof, but I don’t think anyone ever built a ballistic pendulum for say a 12″ naval gun. If they did, I’d like to watch.

        But use of simple electric circuits for this sort of thing goes way back, to sometime in the mid-19th century. Set up a (fast) mechanical clock that can be started or stopped or at least timestamped with a simple electromagnet. Clock starts when electromagnet #1 turns off, and stops when electromagnet #2 turns off. The circuit for electromagnet #1 runs through a wire stretched across the gun’s muzzle, and #2 runs through a wire some known distance downrange. Connect batteries, set clock, fire gun, look at clock, do math. Works for guns of any size.

        Ed: Ninja’d by bean, of course. Not sure when they switched from wires to magnetic pickups, which requires a more sophisticated level of electrical technology.

    • Nornagest says:

      Typo in “US Battleships in WWII” — “Where the fast battleships really shown” should be “shone”, I think. And there’s a [check percentages] in there that looks like it slipped through editing.

  20. actinide meta says:

    Mechanism Design: Constitutional Anarchy

    First, a just-so story.

    Imagine a Hobbesian state of nature: all war against all. The strong prey on the weak and sleep with one eye open. Occasionally a few strong men band together, the better to prey on others, but such alliances quickly fall, to treachery from within or the jealousy of outsiders. Life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and people speak of summoning the demon Leviathan to rule them.

    But one day a strong group tries a different kind of “alliance”: they publically agree not to fight one another or anyone else who so agrees. Others find it in their interests to join in this agreement (for protection against the people already in it), and this incentive gets stronger as the group grows. Defections against the agreement are swiftly punished by opportunists (who see the opportunity to profit from violence without breaking the agreement and opening themselves to retaliation). Perhaps eventually the agreement spreads enough, and the level of violence drops enough, that a civil society can start to form. Yet there is no sovereign, and no state.

    An omnilateral peace treaty is an agreement that:
    a) Anyone can join as an equal party
    b) Binds only its parties
    c) Incentivizes non-parties to join, by limiting the behavior of parties toward other parties more strictly than the behavior of parties toward non-parties

    An OPT can serve as something like what people want to call a “social contract.” That terminology smuggles in an unjustified presumption of justice: a true contract is probably (though not necessarily) just, because the parties made it voluntarily for their mutual benefit. But an OPT (like other “social contracts”) is not a contract: by definition an omnilateral peace treaty is a coerced agreement, as likely to be unjust as to be just. Any justice will have to come from the content, not the form, of the agreement.

    An OPT is a powerful mechanism for stabilizing an equilibrium that doesn’t specifically depend on a monopolistic organization (thus, an “anarchy”), but can also (for better or worse) enforce principles that might not otherwise arise or be stable. You might call this kind of society a constitutional anarchy. Let’s try to come up with a less crude example.

    This is the Pax, version 0.1 (not for production use!):

    1. I will not use or threaten violence against anyone who abides by the Pax
    2. I will respect the property of anyone who abides by the Pax.
    3. I will pay restitution for damages that I do to anyone who abides by the Pax.
    4. Whenever possible, I will submit my disputes with any person to a fair and neutral arbitrator.
    5. I will carry effectively unlimited insurance for my liabilities to others.
    6. I will give away one eighth of the value of what I consume to charitable causes of my choice, receiving nothing in return.
    7. I will not threaten the freedoms of others by obtaining or attempting to obtain a monopoly of violent power or property
    8. I will commit in a public and non-repudiable way to abide by the Pax, and to my choices of arbitrators as they may change from time to time.

    What does this buy us? 1-2 give us non-aggression and property rights between signatories. The latter restriction provides self-enforcement. These rules apply to everyone in the society, so they also place important restrictions on the behavior of security providers. 3-4 provide a foundation for tort law. 5 is a small imposition on freedom which deals with the challenge of recklessness – it is the insurance market that will decide whether you can own a tank – and makes safety regulation the business of people with proper incentives. Liability insurers will also be a stabilizing force in the arbitration market, because they get stuck with a good part of the bill for any private wars! 6 is fiscal anarchy, another small imposition on freedom that provides for public goods and for those in need. I think it makes this society much stronger and better able to defend itself against invaders and defectors, but I would be happier with an endogenous way of setting the optimal “tax rate”. 7 serves three purposes: it reifies the common sense intuition that if someone is clearly trying to conquer the world you don’t have to wait until they are ready to attack to do something about it, it provides a check on the possibility of defense or security services being a natural monopoly, and it provides some peace of mind to people like @Wrong Species who are afraid that people will, through individually peaceful steps, obtain so much property as to be able to oppress others. I think the latter concern is unlikely to ever be realized, but I could be mistaken and it does no harm to make it clear that it shouldn’t be allowed. 8 adds a reputational cost to defecting, creates common knowledge that the Pax is the law of the land, and makes the arbitration market run a little more smoothly since if you want to insist on a weird arbitrator you at least have to pay the social (and insurance!) cost of that in advance rather than waiting until you are in a dispute.

    A lot of important things are deliberately omitted because I think the arbitration, insurance, charity, or security markets can best decide them: contract law, all the details of property law, redistribution, how two people and their respectively chosen arbitrators agree on actual arbitrator(s) and process, some equivalent of class action lawsuits, which would serve a vital function in this society as a defense against diffuse negative externalities (I’m personally charmed by @David Friedman’s description of a society (medieval iceland?) where rights to sue can be traded and aggregated, and I think that approach would scale really well with modern technology and institutions), the exact definitions of “effectively unlimited” insurance, “receiving nothing in return” or “monopoly”. As a “constitutional” document, there is a delicate tradeoff between the OPT being clear enough that people know when someone is defecting, and being vague enough to permit the evolution of institutions for the better. The hope is that the civil institutions of this society, all of which are subject to vigorous market competition, would tend to push the law in a better direction than political institutions do, while the explicit protections in the “constitution” protect against broad classes of market failures.

    The details of these institutions matter at least as much as the text of the OPT! This post is already long enough without my recapping all the ideas others have suggested for anarcho-capitalist institutions. Many of these ideas could coexist (and, therefore, compete) under the Pax. For example, you could have Machinery-of-Freedom-style protection agencies that bundle security and arbitration services, or vertically integrated microstates that bundle property and security, etc. There are also “new” options available that are dependent on the unique features of the Pax. For example, “defense” organizations might collect charitable donations (for providing the public good of defense) and also sell private insurance for disaster rescue (since there’s lots of overlap between disaster aid and military logistics).

    With no legislature or executive, such political conflict as this society has is likely to focus on the arbitration market. This is a separate issue from individual defections. People favoring very different interpretations of the law will be able to find arbitrators willing to enforce their preferred version among themselves. They however have very strong incentives (including those reflected in insurance premiums!) to choose arbitrators that are able to successfully compromise in cases involving people from “other” legal systems, and even stronger incentives to not be widely seen as defecting from the Pax itself. But this seems like a particularly good area to try to explore in some kind of simulation, to see if anyone can manage to destabilize it.

    I think a well functioning modern society along these lines would be very peaceful – insurance companies and arbitrators have every reason to hate wars – but I would hesitate, as a state, to pick a fight with it. Unlike other anarchies, these people can coordinate pretty well to fight a defensive war (via all that mandatory charity). Unlike states, they can’t coordinate well to surrender, and they’re more creative. You can “win” the war, blow up their defense industry, and have tanks sitting in their city squares, and while you’re trying to set up an occupation government in a place where no one dares take a government job, a respectable fraction of their GDP is still going into dark web cryptocurrency assassination contracts on your leaders, and the density of anti-aircraft fire is higher than at the beginning of the war, and there is a kickstarter for some kind of individually targeted biological weapons, with some big names attached, that has raised $500 million. Best to just leave them alone in the first place.

    Obviously these ideas are very new, and I’m sure I haven’t explained them fully in this already excessively long comment. In particular I haven’t tried to wrestle with the morality of all this. Feedback, improvements, and proposed attacks welcome!

    • SamChevre says:

      A really good historical example of an OPT (new language to me, but helpful) is the original Geneva Conventions.

      Follow this set of rules, and everyone who follows this set of rules will treat you better than they will treat anyone who doesn’t.

      If you:
      1)Fight in uniform
      2) With a command structure

      Then you:
      1) Cannot be questioned
      2) Cannot be punished for participating in the war
      3) Must be kept in reasonable conditions during the war and released afterward

      The addition of non-state actors under Article 3 really confused the structure, as it was no longer a quid pro quo like the original structure.

    • Wrong Species says:

      This whole thing seems to be built on the assumption that once inside the agreement, no one would ever have an incentive to defect. But history is a crash course lesson in people defecting because it’s in their own interest so I really don’t see how that assumption is justified.

      • actinide meta says:

        I’m not claiming that the stabilizing effects of the agreement are infinitely strong! But I think that in combination with other mechanisms they can be very strong. There are really big advantages to not being widely seen as “outlaw”. Only a very powerful organization can possibly find that to their advantage, and a system can and should be designed to prevent any organization from becoming that powerful to begin with.

        Tell me, why do you think states are sometimes stable? There is no actual Leviathan, no single actor that can overpower everyone else. Governments have to be made up of individual people who are capable of defection. Yet kings are often obeyed, and democracies often transfer power peacefully. Why?

        • Wrong Species says:

          Governments are powerful because in the way they are set up, defecting is incredibly costly. If I as an individual oppose the state, the imbalance between us guarantees my loss. That’s why states work. In Hobbesian anarchy, we might each have weapons that are incredibly powerful. By giving it to one organization, we’re signaling to the others that we can’t do as much to hurt them so we can back down(of course, one individual like a King could oppress us but checks and balances should mitigate that to some extent). We give up some freedom for security.

          In your scenario, you aren’t taking away anyone’s weapons, you’re just making an agreement not to hurt anyone part of the agreement. That sounds great but defection is trivially easy and I can attack when it’s advantageous. Since you know that, the agreement is basically useless. You assume that one person breaking the agreement means everyone else would jump at the chance to take their weapons. But they could just as easily be scared of losing their own.

          Think back to history. Japan was not “lawfully” allowed to invade China. But did anyone stop them? No, because a war with Japan means you have to give up your men and resources to fight them and China isn’t really worth it. The US only went to war once it was declared on them.

          • actinide meta says:

            The state is not literally an individual. The weapons are still there, in the hands of (many) individual people with divergent desires. Yet these armed individuals also can’t defect easily. They restrain each other. There is a Schelling point, where everyone mostly obeys the king or the constitution or whatever, and as long as that coordination equilibrium holds defection from it will be punished, and so the equilibrium does hold. It helps if people think the equilibrium is just, and are more satisfied with it than the uncertainty that would follow a big change.

            There’s no reason why every self-stabilizing equilibrium has to satisfy the definition of a state. I’m trying to explore other parts of the space, using some of the same underlying tools that make states work to make anarchies work better.

            Your question about who will pay the costs of punishing defectors is addressed by various mechanisms under the Pax. For example:
            * Private security services (“anarchist police”) can be paid via subscriptions, premiums, or a la carte, to protect individuals and property.
            * Public defense or security organizations (“anarchist militaries”) can be funded by charitable donations, which there are guaranteed to be a fair amount of
            * Since everyone has to have unlimited liability insurance, it is almost always possible to recover damages from a criminal. There will be no shortage of people and organizations eager to get a piece of this pie
            * If the crimes you’ve committed are such that no one is willing to insure you as a free agent at a price you can pay, then you will have to sacrifice some freedom to be more easily monitored by a specialist insurer (“anarchist jail”)

            There’s lots of room for ingenuity in improving on these ideas, and I think it’s a very good thing that they are subject to peaceful competition. But I really don’t think it would be difficult to improve on the present world, where apparently no one can be bothered to test a rape kit, and courts have consistently ruled that the police have no duty to protect citizens.

            (Maybe I confused you with my “just so story”; in that context I didn’t try to get into this question at all. I just assumed that, for whatever reason, there are ample reasons to attack anyone in that world.)

          • Wrong Species says:

            The difference is that in a state, you need a lot of coordination to overthrow it. Think about nuclear weapons. Yes, we can create these treaties to try and limit nuclear proliferation and use our economic power to enforce it. But let’s say that the only thing we cared about was reducing the possibility of nuclear war. Then our best method would simply be to empower the United Nations to the point that they are the only ones in charge of nukes and they have the authority to keep anyone else from trying to develop them. In your scenario, it takes a hell of a lot of coordination to sustain an equilibrium. Under a state, it takes a hell of a lot of coordination to change the equilibrium. Which do you you think is more stable?

            As far as who will pay, these all just seem like libertarian thought experiments. Whenever states break down in real life, you don’t get anarcho-capitalism, you get warlords. Why should I, as a skeptic, believe that “Dispute Resolution Organizations” would naturally function without turning in to a state?

          • actinide meta says:

            I still feel like you haven’t fully processed the argument that I’m trying to make. A state is just a collection of individuals, and coordination mechanisms that punish defectors. A very simple model is that most individuals won’t defect from a social equilibrium where

            a) they are likely to suffer severe consequences for defection, provided that the equilibrium doesn’t permanently collapse,


            b) they don’t believe the equilibrium is extremely likely to permanently collapse

            And under normal circumstances, if people believe (a) is common knowledge, they are willing to believe (b) by induction.

            To have (a), among other things it has to be pretty easy to tell whether someone is defecting. The simplest and easiest way to tell if an individual is defecting from your coordination equilibrium is to make it hierarchical (are you doing what the person above you says to do? no? then you’re defecting), and that’s why most primitive coordination technologies are very hierarchical. And people deployed more or less exactly the argument you are making to explain why democracy could never work. But in fact, with clever mechanisms, it’s possible to build a government where the leader has to step down when he loses an election, because everyone knows that he has to, and he can’t count on the people with guns following him if he doesn’t. And now we have lots of experience proving that can work. (Obviously we are at a much earlier stage with these new ideas!)

            The Pax society is also a coercive coordination equilibrium of this exact form. People who defect get arrested, tried, and fined or thrown in jail. The organizations that do this just aren’t geographical monopolies, and they get paid for in a slightly different way than you are used to.

            Overthrowing the Pax should require a similar level of coordination as overthrowing a state. More, even, because it will be harder to take over its coordination mechanisms for your own use. There is no military monopoly that can easily organize a coup. You will have to organize a coalition from scratch (or at least from a bunch of competitive defense organizations) that can overcome all the defense organizations, plus whatever new efforts will be organized to resist you, out of people sufficiently certain that they can defeat their entire society that whatever reward you are promising them outweighs the risks of the fight plus the punishments they will face if they lose. And you will have to get all these people to conspire without anyone letting the cat out of the bag, which is impossible. In short, you will probably wind up in anarcho-jail.

            If you have a specific attack in mind – a way of subverting these institutions or building a coercive state “atop” them – I am very interested to hear it and see if I know how they could respond. It’s very possible that there are important attacks I’ve overlooked! But I need more to go on.

          • Wrong Species says:

            There’s a three step process here:

            1. Set up agreement
            2. ???
            3. Stable equilibrium

            What is step 2? I don’t understand why the first defection wouldn’t break the whole system. Yes, democracies are different from monarchies but they are still states. Leviathon doesn’t require much of you besides following the law and paying taxes. But your system works on everyone deciding that they are going to attack the guy who defects. But while people may want someone to attack that guy, they have a lot to lose from doing it themselves. If they can’t get enough coordination from others, than they risk losing everything. Again, this is what you see throughout history. If you were right, then everyone should have decided to declare war on Japan after they invaded China. But they didn’t. Why do you think that is? Your whole idea should work with currently existing states in general. After all, we’re living under international anarchy. So why can’t we have world peace tomorrow? Why doesn’t the real world seem to be following your societal model?

          • actinide meta says:

            You are saying that punishing defectors is a public goods problem.

            There are at least two ways to solve this problem:

            1. Make it a private good for someone: the victims of your defection, the insurance company that is on the hook for damages, or professional litigators who can get paid out of your and your insurance company’s pockets for prosecuting you. The Pax makes all of these the case. You can get rich fighting crime.

            2. Coordinate to pay for public goods. The Pax does this through its mandatory charitable giving (“anarcho-taxes”). People are going to have to pay ~11% of their income to some charity, and if private mechanisms aren’t doing an adequate job of limiting defections, people are going to be eager to contribute to charities that are doing a good job at that. Charitable organizations can do everything from pay for prosecutions to operate police or military forces that go looking for offenders and deal with them. But these organizations are subject to the Pax and have to buy insurance like everyone else; they don’t have sovereign immunity like a state and will get in big trouble if they start breaking the rules themselves. I think the charitable mechanism will be unnecessary for the vast majority of individual defections (“crime”) but much more important for discouraging large scale attempts at conquest or invasion.

          • actinide meta says:

            I’ll add that there are lots of ways in which the anarchy between states isn’t a promising one in which to build something like the Pax. One is that it’s not clear that states generally want to eliminate war; wars are often profitable to a society’s leaders with the costs borne by others. Another is that the society is tiny and extremely unequal; it’s very challenging to have an “anarchy” when one “person” is as strong as all the others together. And despite all that, nations have in fact entered into multilateral agreements, like as someone brought up above the Geneva conventions, intended to reduce or limit conflict.

            You seem to think that I think that an OPT will literally function by itself. In actuality, as I said, the institutions surrounding it are at least as important. Your step 2 is “found a bunch of insurance companies, security companies, arbitration associations, a huge body of case law, defense charities, military contractors, etc.”

            Have you looked at my response to Futhington below?

        • Futhington says:

          I can think of at least one organisation that could become powerful enough by entirely non-objectionable means: a family.

          Consider: I, my three brothers and each of our four wives in our early twenties settle down and found a community where we agree to follow the Pax. We have two children with each of the wives (hardly an onerous burden) while doing something to support ourselves, say we farm.

          Once those kids are old enough, and there’s forty of us now, we start inviting in wives/husbands for them all. Even if we just pair them off if they have 2-3 kids each in their early twenties we’re looking at over 150 people.

          From there we put a lot of effort in: we discourage association outside the community (let’s call it what it’s becoming: the tribe), educate within the community, isolate ourselves where possible except for our annual spouse-seeking pilgrimages and encourage loyalty to our paterfamilias and to relatives in general. We start breaking the Pax between ourselves and we’re outright hostile to anyone from outside who tries to convince us to follow it.

          How many people want to swing from a tree just to make a big tribe respect the Pax for its own members? Defection from any agreement to stop us is easy and encouraged to keep your skin, for members of the tribe it means losing their support structure and emotional bonds. Then when he feels the time is right our paterfamilias can call on the loyal ties of family to give him a small army that he can use to not just defend himself but also to attack others.

          There are basically three ways to stop him right now: Have some organisation coordinate everyone to defend everyone else, either by providing incentives in the form of pay/property or by coercing them; have everybody act in a 100% rational and self-sacrificing manner to coordinate against the onsalught of the tribe and hope they can win; form your own tribe, ensuring the loyalty of your community members through blood/marriage ties to ensure your tribe can beat ours. In one of these outcomes you can successfully preserve the anarchy with no guarantee you can do it again, in one you’ve just sent us back to the days before non-tribal states were formed, in the other you’ve reinvented the state. Pick your poison.

          • actinide meta says:


            RANDALL: Hello?
            JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Jefferson representing RealSure Insurance Exchange. Are you Randall Paterfamilias?
            RANDALL: Yeah, so?
            JEFF: According to our records, you are delinquent in insurance premiums for your group excess liability policy. We’d like to get that cleared up.
            RANDALL: We don’t want your insurance.
            JEFF: Can you confirm that you have obtained Pax compliant excess liability insurance from another insurer?
            RANDALL: It’s none of your business.
            JEFF: As I’m sure you’re aware from reading your policy, if you go uninsured, we are fully responsible for your excess liabilities for twelve months after the date that we attest publicly that you are no longer in compliance with the Pax. That makes it very much our business to make sure that you remain compliant. Accordingly, if we can’t get such assurance from you, we will have to resort to arbitration.
            RANDALL: You and your arbitration and your Pax can go straight to hell, and if any of you show your face around here I’ll fill it full of lead.


            JOHN: Hello?
            JEFF: Hi, John, this is Jeff. We have an urgent problem. We have a group excess policy here, a hundred and fifty people and three hundred guns. It went delinquent and got flagged for me because of the size. The client just told me to go to hell.
            JOHN: Well, it sounds like we need to litigate it then.
            JEFF: Yes, I want to treat it as an emergency. I have a bad feeling about this one, and if god forbid those people went on some kind of rampage, we could be on the hook for billions. But it might not be cheap to solve.
            JOHN: Billions? Well, a hundred and fifty armed people… I guess I see your point. Run with it, I trust your judgement. But keep me updated.
            JEFF: Of course.
            JOHN: Good luck.


            CINDY: Hello?
            JEFF: Your honor, this is Jeff Jefferson representing RealSure Insurance Exchange. We have a dispute that requires emergency arbitration.
            CINDY: OK, give me a moment… I’m recording this. State your complaint.
            JEFF: The defendant, Randall Paterfamilias, is willfully delinquent in his excess liability policy, which covers a large group, and stands in open defiance of the Pax. He threatened us on the phone, though frankly we’d drop that if we can get a peaceful resolution here. Pax five, eight, and one. I’m sending you a transcript and the policy documents.
            CINDY: All right… Why is this an emergency? It doesn’t sound like you are in danger personally, and this delinquency sounds like a basically commercial dispute. And since you’re the defendant’s insurer of record, if there are large damages you’ll be paying them to yourself! Why can’t you file this in writing?
            JEFF: We’re liable for the defendant’s actions, and he has a large and well armed group. We’re concerned about his intent and want to minimize our damages. That’s why the emergency filing. Nothing would make us happier than to be reassured that this is just a billing dispute and we can all sleep soundly this weekend. To your second point, though it’s true that we’re sort of on both sides of the dispute economically, that just increases our incentive to see it settled quickly and cheaply. What we’ve found in these Pax five cases is that if we don’t file, a professional litigator will file basically the same case, with us standing behind the defendant, and that’s multiparty litigation which is more expensive. This approach is quicker, cheaper, and less adversarial.
            CINDY: “Quicker, cheaper, and less adversarial.” Your honeyed words suggest to me that you have been around the litigation block before. All right, I’ll allow the emergency proceeding provisionally. I’m contacting the defendant’s arbitrator of record.


            DONALD: Hello?
            CINDY: Donald, this is Cindy Blaine with Just Arbitration. I have an emergency dispute filed against your client Randall Paterfamilias.
            DONALD: OK, I see your e-mail too. Let me call him, please hold.

            DONALD: I spoke to my client. Former client. What he said to me isn’t printable, but it’s clear that he is refusing arbitration. Under the circumstances, Cindy, I think this case is in your court. As it were.
            CINDY: Thanks, Donald. Send your bill to me, I’ll see that it’s paid by whoever winds up responsible for costs.
            DONALD: Thanks, Cindy.

            CINDY: Jeff?
            JEFF: We’re adding Pax four to our complaint, of course. And we move to proceed in absentia.
            CINDY: I’m thinking… I’m concerned about this being a totally one sided proceeding. The defendant has made it clear that he won’t arbitrate, but this policy covers a hundred and fifty people. Have all of them rejected the Pax? Shouldn’t they have representation? I’m going to recommend counsel for them, unless you’re going to object to the cost.
            JEFF: No objection.
            CINDY: I’m sending an e-mail.
            JEFF: If you don’t mind, your honor, in the interests of speed I will make some other calls while we wait and try to put a solution together.
            CINDY: Absolutely.


            ALICE: Your Honor. I received your e-mail. I made an attempt to contact my prospective clients, and was rebuffed by an extremely rude man who I assume is Defendant. I’m prepared to take the case as a Williams trustee.
            CINDY: You are so appointed.
            ALICE: Then I’m eager to hear plaintiff’s proposed resolution of the case.
            CINDY: Jeff?
            JEFF: We’ve been in contact with an expert hostage negotiator, d.b.a. Don’t Shoot. On his recommendation, we’ve also negotiated with a military contractor, Chao’s Armor. They can have, I’m not a military man, but a bunch of tanks and infantry in armored cars, on site in four hours. There’s also another contractor that supplies a chemical weapon that they describe as “nonlethal,” and the negotiator describes as “usually less lethal than one fifty five explosive.” They won’t be on site, but Chao’s will have that equipment in case things really go badly. The military guys will surround the compound and then the negotiator will try to get them to accept arbitration.
            ALICE: What are the economics of these arrangements?
            JEFF: That’s a private matter, not a subject of this dispute.
            ALICE: On the contrary, you’re describing a situation where a lot of very dangerous equipment is pointed at my clients, and which is likely to move way too fast for even emergency litigation. It’s going to be out of your hands, and my hands, and the court’s hands. I think the details of the incentives of the people who will be holding the guns are very relevant.
            CINDY: I agree. Jeff?
            JEFF: All right. We’re paying Don’t Shoot a flat fee, and they have liability only in case of their negligence. They say that their clients are experts in risk pricing, and that the detailed outcome record that they supply is both proof that they do a good job and ample incentive for them to keep it that way. And they’re right, we had an underwriter look at their record and it’s very impressive. I can forward that report to you if you want. Chao’s, we wanted them to take on liability for the outcome but they won’t do it. They’re also only liable in case of negligence. The contract with the weapons supplier, well, we might have to file another lawsuit after this is over. But their people won’t be on site so it’s not relevant to Alice’s objection.
            ALICE: You say Chao’s wouldn’t take on more liability. At any price?
            JEFF: They wanted $24 million to take on strict liability, on top of the operational cost, and that’s – our own risk assessment, is that that’s way overpriced.
            ALICE: The defendant should pay for this to be done in a way that minimizes the risk to my innocent clients, including children. If you can’t find a contractor that will take the job for less, maybe it’s your own risk modeling that’s in error.
            JEFF: Chao’s is an expert in military operations, not in risk pricing.
            ALICE: Nevertheless, having them have no incentive not to kill my clients endangers them. And you will be liable if they get hurt!
            JEFF: Yes, so we already internalize the risks to your clients.
            CINDY: I’m finding Alice more convincing here.
            JEFF: All right, we’ll pay to transfer liability to Chao’s. At least that caps our losses.
            ALICE: I also think we should hear from a second expert besides this one negotiator. Are tanks really called for here?
            CINDY: I’ll give you two hours if you want to bring in your own expert.
            ALICE: Honestly, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that we don’t know what’s happening in there. My clients could be in danger from the defendant, too. If RealSure will agree to pay for a consultation with a second expert, I’ll do it in parallel while the contractor is getting into position. If they have a sharply different opinion, we can discuss that.
            CINDY: Jeff?
            JEFF: We’ll pay reasonable costs for a consultation only.
            CINDY: All right. I’m going to write up an opinion and an order regarding the use of force. In the meantime, you’re authorized to get those tanks moving toward the site, but no more.
            JEFF: Can I bring Chao’s counsel onto the call? They will obviously care about the details of that order, and have agreed in the interest of time to accept you as an arbitrator.
            CINDY: Of course.

            Your move.

    • syrrim says:

      I’ve been thinking of late of the concept of topography of a society. That is, society can be thought of as a graph, where each individual is a node, and authority of one individual over another is represented by a directed edge, with a certain strength. If I am able to get you to do something I want, this represents authority. In this graph, we will find, the authority flowing into a node, and the authority flowing out, generally sum to the same value. This may not seem obvious, but when we consider rational individuals, we find that this is often the case. Let’s say someone directs you to perform some undesirable action. You do not wish to, and so you do not comply. This individual must now do something to force you to comply. He might:

      – Offer you money, or some other resource. If he can use this resource for barter, then so can you.

      – Threaten you with physical violence. In order to have a viable threat, he must have a weapon, of sorts, which out-mans yours. This superior weapon may come from greater wit, but it more likely comes from greater money, which he must have gotten from somewhere. If you are barred from purchasing a similar weapon, then whoever has so barred you is who he derives authority from.

      There are certain cases where we cannot make this assumption, such as natural power imbalances (someone who is naturally smarter, perhaps). However these are few enough, and hopefully irrelevant at a societal scale.

      Let us use this tool to analyze classical societies. The democracy in which we live may be analyzed quite readily as such: we have a system of police officers, who derive their authority from legislature, who derive their authority from us.

      What of the autocracy, which seems at first to consist of one person at the top, who bows before no one, and rules entire nations? Surely, even a marginally more intelligent person cannot create all that authority from thin air! Of course, they cannot. The majority of their power is in fact given to them by individuals. Their military obeys them because the military is paid well. Their money is primarily derived from taxes on the people. The people are kept in line by the military. The military recognizes that they are the source of profit, and so won’t obey the dictator unless he pays them well. The dictator doesn’t want the people to rebel, and so avoids taxing them overly heavily. They are also responsible for making sure that peace is kept in the society, lest unrest develops. They manages, perhaps, to set aside a healthy profit, perhaps due to their own ingenuity, but most of their money is spent on the various facets of “real politik”.

      Now let us turn our eyes to your proposed society. At first glance, this society involves all persons keeping an eye on all other persons. If even one steps out of line, then all shall descend on them. However, on closer examination, we find that this is not the case. My chosen arbiter has special power over me, being able to protect me from those who would wrong me, or leave me to the wolves. Where does this power come from? From me, of course, this is our assumption. The question is, what path does it take? In this case it seems to take the shortest path: I pay by arbiter well, and so I am arbitrated against. If I did not like my arbiters judgements (read: they are not in my favor), I would look elsewhere. This erodes from the impartiality of the arbiter.

      A similar thing happens in the US: individuals are allowed to vote on their judges. How then does this not lead to the same effect? Well, there may be hundreds of thousands engaged in one vote, and only a select few individuals have had a given judge rule against them unfavorably. While these few might vote against the judges who have wronged them, the rest have no such bias, and so will vote based on the merit of the judge. Since there are so many voters, the latter will vastly outweigh the former.

      The concept this leads to is that the topography of a society should involves rings which at once pass through as many individuals as possible, then as few individuals as possible.

      This is discussed in federalist paper #10, which can be read here: http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa10.htm

      It should be clear that while I speak of individual authority, the authority of a faction is just as important to consider. Whereas an individual may not be able to stop an arbiter from making rent, a faction may be able to.

      This problem seems to be incompatible with anarchy, as the anarchist is interested in giving no one great authority, and yet the resolution to this problem is to concentrate power in as few individuals as possible. Perhaps you have an alternative resolution.

      • actinide meta says:

        Your concern cashes out, I think, as a concern that in equilibrium arbitrators will not really be neutral, but highly biased toward their own “clients.”

        My guess as to the way that disputes are normally arbitrated (when neither party is flatly refusing to cooperate with the forms of arbitration) is that the two parties’ arbitrators agree on a third arbitrator who has no relationship with the parties, and either this third arbitrator hears the case or the panel of all three arbitrators does. Your arbitrator is not supposed to be your partisan, but even if they are, their ability to determine the outcome of your cases is limited.

        Does this just push back your concern to one that arbitrators will market their willingness to insist on extremely biased “third” arbitrators? I think not, for several reasons:

        * It’s not actually in one’s interest to have an arbitrator that can’t successfully resolve disputes with other people. Conflict is really expensive, and even if you don’t care your insurance company does. If you want to use an uncooperative, untrustworthy arbitrator, no one wants to insure you. So arbitrators have to pass a market test of being able to work together at reasonable cost.
        * The Pax calls for arbitrators to be “neutral” (i.e. economically disinterested). So an arbitrator that directly or indirectly “pays” a third party arbitrator to favor their clients is outright defecting and can expect to be sued for that
        * Any way that an arbitrator can effectively market their bias to their customers also effectively puts other people on notice that they are not trustworthy, and trustworthiness is their stock in trade.

        But I tend to agree, actually, that if there’s a way that the game theory of the Pax fails to work, it probably centers on arbitration. I’ll argue that at least this is a relatively good place to have a relative weakness: compared to other coercive institutions, it’s hard for courts to really oppress people, because they don’t get out much.

        Edit: I’m not sure I understand your “topological” model well enough to apply it. But I think you are oversimplifying the situation when you say that the arbitrator’s authority comes directly from their client. Their authority comes principally from the web of trust between them and other arbitrators, and from the willingness of the insurance market as a whole to insure their clients, and finally from their clients. That gives them a more robust incentive structure than I think you are assuming, though not necessarily a perfect one.

    • Skivverus says:

      OPTs sound similar to religions – and, arguably, religions tend to end up as a subset of OPTs, modulo waffling on premise (a), and which definition of “equality” it uses.

  21. mscantrell says:

    Relationships for INTJs.

    I had an epiphany this past year when I read a book about validating your partner’s feelings. I had heard that phrase, read descriptions, and never grasped it. Then I found the right book and the concept clicked for me. Using that understanding, I’ve made an ENORMOUS improvement in my marriage.

    I’m struggling now with the principles of you can’t control your partner and your happiness shouldn’t depend on your partner or your partner’s happiness. It feels the same as the other- I’ve heard it a thousand times, read about it, and fundamentally don’t get it. Can anyone recommend a book or article that might help this click for me?

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Can you describe what was different about the explanation that convinced you about validating your partner’s feelings?

      • Incurian says:

        As an INTJ, I’d guess it was something like, “If you say these words she’ll be less mad at you all the time. It’s stupid but it works.”

      • mscantrell says:

        The book was The High Conflict Couple.

        The book describes the emotional steps involved in communicating and being understood. Specifically, the author says if you accurately describe what you’re feeling, and your partner convincingly expresses that they understand your message, you will tend to become calmer. If they express that they reject, disapprove of, or don’t care about your message, you will tend to become more agitated. (Agitation leads to inaccurate communication like name-calling, and unhelpful decisions like throwing things.)

        Prior to reading it, I had assumed that saying “here’s why you’re wrong” absolutely implied “I understood what you just said”.
        I didn’t get the part about the emotional impact of thoroughly expressing that you understood the message, or that that can easily be separate from agreeing with the message. I also paid very little attention to my own emotions versus her actions. Making statements about her actions prompted disagreement; she didn’t experience her actions the same way I did. Making statements about my own experiences/emotions allowed and encouraged her to express that she understood it. And a the risk of sounding like a jerk here, more than once I did say, “No, you don’t get to tell me what I’m feeling here. I know, and I’m telling you.”

        I also had backed myself into a little corner where I never expressed what I wanted until I was so desperate that I was actually demanding it. So she never heard anything from me except infrequent desperate demands. When she couldn’t/wouldn’t fulfill them all, it was really crushing to me. It was not at ALL intuitive to me that the solution was to express many, many more of my wants! But that was the solution. It meant she could understand and acknowledge at least most of them, and she could have a spectrum, a larger sample size, to see how important each was relative to each other.

        So. Now I’m hoping there’s a similar book for this business of “Your happiness shouldn’t depend on your partner’s happiness.” That currently baffles me. If I love her, am I not supposed to care about her happiness? If I’m not pathologically calloused, am I not supposed to be stung when she accuses me of something, or glares at me, or gripes about me to someone?
        And how about “You can’t control your partner”? Should I not try to do the things that will cause her to not divorce me? Things that will make her happy? Things that will make her want to have sex with me? Is there a difference between “control your partner” and “choose actions based on the super-predictable responses the actions will elicit from her”? Those look the same to me!

        • maia says:

          “You can’t control your partner” and “your happiness shouldn’t depend on your partner’s happiness” are kinda-exaggerated versions of advice for people in particular situations. So they may not apply to you.

          “You can’t control your partner” basically means “Your control over what another person does is limited” and also “Don’t try to control parts of your partner’s life that are not your business.” People will write into advice columns asking questions like “How do I make my partner do X?” and the response is usually either of the form (if they haven’t asked their partner) “Ask your partner if they will do X for you” or (if they have already asked and the partner obviously doesn’t want to) “You can’t make your partner do X.” You can explain to your partner that something is important to you and that you want it, but ultimately they are independent agents and choosing whether to fulfill your wants/needs. You can choose your response to that, but trying to “force” them into doing what you want after they have expressed that they don’t want to will generally have bad results.

          There are also things like “I want my partner to stop wearing such unfashionable clothing,” where trying to control your partner’s behavior on an ongoing basis will be bad for both of you. You because it’s really exhausting to be constantly nagging someone else, and your partner because it’s horrible to be constantly nagged. It’s just not your job to handle personal things like that for them (note: exceptions may apply, depending on the structure of your relationship! But for most people it makes sense to have some things that are “your own job” and “your partner’s job” to manage).

          “Your happiness shouldn’t depend on your partner’s happiness” essentially means “you should live your own life.” You should do things that make you happy independent of your partner, and have a support system outside your partner, and try to be stable even when your partner is having emotional problems. This way both of you are more resilient. For example, I am a person who gets depressed sometimes. My fiance used to always get really upset and freaked out when this happened, and this made me feel even worse because I felt pressured to change my emotions to make him feel better, and I couldn’t. These days he will still respond to it, and be unhappy about it, but he does his best not to get too freaked out and I do my best to insulate him from the worst parts of it. Another way to phrase this might be “You should try to be happy even when your partner is sad.” If your emotions are totally dependent on your partner’s, it is overwhelming for you, because you can’t control those as well, and overwhelming for them, because it’s stressful to have to think about how every little decision will affect their partner as well as themselves (“should I eat a mango today? He might be upset if I don’t eat my favorite food, even though I’m sort of sick of them…”). Plus, it’s just easier to handle a crisis when at least one person is still emotionally okay.

        • Another Throw says:

          “Your happiness shouldn’t depend on your partner’s happiness.” That currently baffles me…. And how about “You can’t control your partner”?

          The two are frequently related. For the purposes of illustration, take the first proposition to the extreme: Your happiness is completely depend on your partner’s happiness.

          Most people have a strong drive to control how they feel–to ensure they feel happiness instead of pain. In the absolute dependency case, all of those efforts become redirected at controlling how your partner feels. Your begin to substitute your control of your partner’s feelings for their own. Since an enormous part of happiness is having control, they will naturally feel bad because of it. This becomes a self reinforcing cycle.

          If on the other hand, your partner’s happiness is just one of a cornucopia of happiness that you experience–everything from job performance to the weather has its part to play–you need not exert control over your partners feelings any more than you do the weather. I mean, sure, everyone would like to move somewhere with better weather, but…

          There is range of how dependent your happiness may be on your partner’s. If it is far enough down the scale that you feel a need to control your partner’s feelings then you need to diversify your happiness portfolio instead. So, do you do the things that make your partner happy because you want to or you need to?

          Edited to add: I haven’t thought about it rigorously, but I suspect all attempts to control one’s partner are rooted in attempting to control how that partner makes you feel through various vectors. “You’re going to wear that??” included. Some level of control is necessary and proper. Finding the right balance between how their actions impact your feelings, and allowing them enough of control to not negatively impact them is the crux of the matter.

          • Doesntliketocomment says:

            I was going to chime in with something similar from the inverse perspective: Imagine your partner’s happiness was completely dependent on your own. If your objective was maximizing their happiness, you would be forced to present a happy front at all times, regardless of your actual mood, and the necessity of keeping up the charade would become a source of stress. Your partner would never be able to respond to your emotional needs or stress, because you would be actively hiding those from them, and likely you would grow to resent your partner’s lack of compassion even as you prevented them from exercising it. Eventually they would seem something like a parasite.

            I think the optimal state is one where you and your partner have two reservoirs of happiness to draw from. If you are unhappy, for whatever reason, they might be happy and that could be a reassurance to you, and vice versa. In this case, seeing to your partner’s happiness is a goal, one that enhances, but is not a firm prerequisite, for your own happiness.

            Unfortunately, I’ve been the parasite, and it (in part) destroyed a relationship. In the end, knowing she the sole source of my happiness was an emotional drain on her, and left her in a constant state of guilt. So let me be a cautionary tale.

        • wobbler says:

          I am super interested in this myself; If I’m INTP or INTJ varies depending on the test I take and the mood I am if I take it, but the INT-ness is very very solid)

          I haven’t (knowingly) had the former problem much (although backing myself into a corner by not expressing what I want often enough, and then framing them as demands, feels plausible)

          The latter problem of “Your happiness shouldn’t depend on your partner’s happiness” is something I am struggling with a lot too, for exactly the same reasons you point out.

          EDIT: What do I do if I have a hobby that makes me happy independently (say to a level of 10 hedons), and a partner who makes me even happier (say 15 hedons-worth), but then that partner hates me doing that hobby? Utilitarianism suggests that I should drop the hobby, rather than the partner, but then I become fully dependent on my partner for my happiness?

          • Aapje says:


            It depends on various variables. Does your partner have a valid reason to be unhappy or is it evidence for a abusive/overly controlling personality? Can you make the partner accept the hobby by making a sacrifice of a few hedons? Is there an acceptable other hobby that gives, let’s say, 7 hedons? Can you easily pick up the hobby again if the relationship fails or is it very hard to get back into it? How likely do you think it is that the relationship will last? How do you expect the happiness due to your partner to change in the future? What do you think the consequences are of losing those 15 hedons vs sticking with a more stable 10 hedons? It matters if it is temporary deeper depression that you can deal with or suicide. Etc.

          • wobbler says:


            I’m not sure of all those details yet. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable: Essentially it boils down to scheduling conflicts — I like going to international events that she isn’t interested in, which she’s OK with *unless* it conflicts with a date that’s important to her. Which they always seem to be. So I either don’t go and fall out of touch with some of my international friends (some of these events are only annual, so it’s the only chance I get to meet them face-to-face) and keep my partner happy, or go to them and upset her. I’m even trying to offer alternate dates where we can do stuff before or afterward, but that’s accepted only begrudgingly or with an air of martyrdom.

            Previously, I would have automatically given up the thing which interests me, and thus ended up fully reliant on her for my happiness. But that doesn’t work out great in the long run, IME. But this way doesn’t seem great _either_.

          • Aapje says:


            That hobby doesn’t seem like an all or nothing proposition. There should be room for compromise there. I would rate/rank the events by importance to you and then ask your partner to rate/rank the dates by importance to her. Then you can try to make a deal where you give up some events and she gives up some dates. Try to reason what is fair beforehand and then fight fairly hard for that deal. You can throw in some compensation like you already did to sweeten the deal and/or get more events to go to.

            Such a negotiation makes it explicit that you are both giving something up, so it ought not feel to her that she is merely giving up stuff for you, but also that you give stuff up for her. I think that such mutual willingness is necessary for a healthy relationship and that if she is unwilling to do so, it is likely that your needs will be ignored in many other ways in the future and I would suggest preferring being single over getting pushed around.

            Don’t be afraid to stop the negotiation and start sulking if you feel that the deal she wants is unfair, to force your partner to reevaluate the relationship. Even if you later end up taking the deal, it establishes that you have boundaries and she pushed up to them.

            You seem to have a strong tendency to be a pushover, which I would advise trying to remedy. That behavior can often repel women because they reasonably tend to want a person who stands up for them (which she can’t reasonable expect if you don’t stand up to her either) and/or cause crises when you have been ignoring your needs too much. It’s better to make it clear to the other person where your limits are and stick to them, than to make your partner get used to getting her way and later trying to reign this in again, because you can’t stay healthy that way.

            Your behavior may result from being desperate for a partner, but I think that being a pushover generally makes it more likely to be in bad relationships that don’t last and less likely to get into good relationships that endure; even if it emotionally may not feel like this is the case.

            PS. An common issue seems to be that long term relationships often results in a division of labor where the man focuses (primarily) on maintaining the income and the woman maintains the social contacts. Then a split results in the woman losing much income (although the state often intervenes here, reducing the extent of this issue) and the man losing most or all of his social contacts (which is not remedied in any way by the state). I would personally suggest recognizing this pattern and not letting it happen too much to you, given the instability of modern relationships.

    • Garrett says:

      How’d you even manage to get to the point of being married? I consider it a rare event if I can make it to the 3rd date.

  22. smocc says:

    Star Wars as Medieval Irish epic, and also as an Icelandic saga

    “What was the reason for the Tragic Death of Cenn Obi and the Destruction of Da Thféider’s Hostel? Not difficult that.”

  23. meh says:

    I’ve read Scott’s meditation post recently and have become interested. My main concern is that I for some reason have a personality type that meditation doesn’t work on, and it will be wasted time. Have any readers had experience seriously practicing mediation (something like an hour a day for 6 months), and having little to no results from doing so? Does this happen? If so, why do you think it didn’t work for you?

    • cuke says:

      Can you say more about what you mean by having a personality type that meditation doesn’t work on?

      I teach meditation and many folks when they come to me say things like “I’m a terrible meditator” or “I just can’t do it” and when they tell me more, it turns out they were trying to do something like “empty their mind” or “stop having thoughts” or “focus on the breath all the time” or they’d received inadequate instruction and had gotten stuck in their practice. Or they had other kinds of problems that needed to be addressed first (ie, certain kinds of mental health problems that can make meditation difficult).

      There are also a variety of different meditation practices and people generally find they take to some forms better than others.

      • meh says:

        In the sense that some things just don’t work for some people; maybe being too left brained would be a barrier?

        I have a background in abstract math, so I immensely enjoy closing my eyes and thinking. I find it very difficult to not think about things the handful of times I have attempted. The guided program I listened to did say it is ok to have thoughts, but to notice them, and then return to focusing on breath. Is this not correct?

        In your teaching experience, are there examples of students giving serious effort to meditating, but not getting the full benefits from it?

        • ilikekittycat says:

          The point isn’t to not think about things, which is obviously impossible; it’s to have the serenity to not have your jimmies rustled when thoughts come up and not get lost in obsessing about them. The reed bending in the hurricane, and not the tree that gets felled trying to resist it.

          • meh says:

            so forgetting about what makes it hard for me in particular, are there some brains that just can not meditate properly? So far no responses from failed meditators, so possibly it does not happen.

        • cuke says:

          The kinds of conversations I have with students who raise the kinds of concerns you do is to ask more about what they mean by “getting the full benefits from it” to understand what the expectations are better and to inquire more about what the moment-to-moment experience is in your mind when you meditate.

          The only folks so far that I’ve met who say “this doesn’t work for me” are people who are beginners and have incorrect assumptions about meditation, have received poor instruction, or have mental health problems that make meditation very difficult for them. Just on that last one, people with OCD and/or strong perfectionist tendencies can get very caught in eddies without knowing it if they don’t have individual instruction and may fail to get benefit from meditation because it’s just another arena of OCD practice for them. People with lots of anxiety and/or trauma have more trouble emotionally tolerating the experience of sitting still with their minds.

          I’ve not met someone who got personal instruction in meditation, stuck with it for six months, and said “this doesn’t work for me.” I meet tons of people who gave it a cursory try with no individual instruction and gave up because it was uncomfortable, hard, or inconvenient. After all, it is uncomfortable, hard and inconvenient for most of us. There’s a small minority of people who seem to find it easy and experience no resistance about keeping it up. And I just want to reiterate that meditation doesn’t refer to one thing but a multitude of different practices, some of which have very different aims.

          There are meditation teachers who have worked with way more people than I have and would have many more data points, so please don’t take my response here as definitive. I don’t see on the face of it why someone who works in an abstract math field and considers themselves to be very left brained couldn’t meditate.

          If you’ve only attempted to meditate a handful of times (I can’t tell if that’s what you’re saying above) and you’ve received no individual instruction/feedback, then I would say that your response that “this doesn’t work for me” is by far the most common response for all beginners, who then give up if they don’t have better instruction to address their specific internal experience.

      • Creutzer says:

        it turns out they were trying to do something like “empty their mind” or “stop having thoughts” or “focus on the breath all the time”

        What’s wrong with the last one? Isn’t that supposedly how you reach the samatha jhanas?

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          The problem is with “all the time”. A beginner can’t do that, and if they aren’t told really firmly that it’s a goal rather than a prerequisite, they’re likely to give up.

          • cuke says:

            Yes, that’s what I meant, thanks. Also, many forms of meditation give instructions like “30% of your attention on the breath, the other 70% on passing thoughts and sensations” and/or to play around with those percentages. So that the goal isn’t ever to focus 100% of your attention on the breath as a way to “shut out” thoughts.

    • cuke says:

      It occurs to me to add that people meditate to achieve different goals. Some of the ones that get talked about are:

      * to reduce stress or pain in the moment, including to produce other physiological effects like lowering blood pressure or specific muscle tension;
      * to improve concentration, either in the moment or later;
      * to achieve rare ecstatic states;
      * to produce various kinds of insight;
      * to relate to thoughts and emotions with greater equanimity;
      * to increase capacity for compassion for self and others;
      * to disrupt one’s “default mode”;
      * to experience “no-self” and the insights associated with that;
      * to “clear” one’s mind to be able to do subsequent tasks with greater focus or creativity;
      * to improve cognitive/intellectual performance in some way;
      * to improve mood, either in the moment or in an ongoing way;
      * to experience being “in the moment” more.

      In Buddhist psychology, meditation is one practice of many aimed at cultivating awareness of the Four Noble Truths, which are the center of all (I think?) Buddhist traditions: the fact of suffering, the cause of suffering, the possibility of ending suffering, and the path out of suffering (the Eight-Fold Path… those Buddhists love their lists).

      Depending on which Buddhists you talk to, some would say that the “point” of meditation is to practice awareness of the cause of suffering (attachment, aversion, delusion), and to practice the path out of suffering (the experience of no-self). Others would determinedly say that you’re missing the point as soon as you start talking about a “point” to meditation.

      In order for meditation to address suffering in the Buddhist sense, one needs to develop some basic tools, including a capacity for steady concentration/mindfulness in meditation and a capacity for compassion. Other aspects of the Eight-fold path that are seen as inseparable from and essential to progressing in the meditation practice are about ethical living. Meditation is kind of broken when viewed as a thing in itself. Much of the fad of “mindfulness” fails to acknowledge this… though to a certain extent, just having some mindfulness tools on board can be helpful in a limited sort of way.

      From my own perspective, meditation is part of a larger set of practices that are aimed at relating to one’s lived experience differently, a way of changing one’s relationship to one’s thoughts, feelings, experiences so as to reduce suffering. Just doing meditation for concentration or relaxation or even insight isn’t going to get you there.

      So that’s why I asked about what you meant by it not “working for you.” What is the work that you’re hoping it will do? Some practices will better meet some goals than others, but also, all these practices grow out of an integrated tradition/psychology/philosophy and it helps to understand the larger context that “meditation” sits in, unless you are doing it for some very narrow and specific kind of benefit, like how yoga can help with flexibility.

      • meh says:

        thank you for the thoughtful response, i find it useful.

        let me first clarify that I am not claiming meditation definitely doesn’t work for me (I am aware I have not practiced long enough to come to a conclusion), I am just wondering if it is possible for it ‘not to work’, so I can avoid wasted effort.

        So, what do I mean by “not working for me”… well, you have a bullet list of different goals. are any of those impossibly elusive for certain people?

        Finally, quotes like this always confuse me:

        Others would determinedly say that you’re missing the point as soon as you start talking about a “point” to meditation.

        certainly you are not saying there is no ‘point’ to meditation? Only that it should not be talked about?

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        One more purpose: To explore the nature of consciousness.

  24. rahien.din says:


    I didn’t get to reply before the previous thread was succeeded. I found your piece very interesting, and it led me to David Friedman’s discussion of Coase’s theorem, which was also fascinating. You asked why your system might not work. Here are my initial, partially-informed thoughts.

    Coase’s theorem

    If transaction costs are zero then any initial definition of property rights leads to an efficient outcome

    If any definition of rights leads to the efficiency maximum, then the management of externalities is simply a type of revenue-sharing between agents. Each agent maximizes their revenue share by minimizing their loss (the downwind resort minimizes the amount of pollution-mediated losses it takes, and the steel mill reduces the amount of pollution control expenditures, overall achieving some efficiency maximum). Moreover, total revenue is maximized.

    IE, this creates a system in which revenue distribution is efficient, and the system is Pareto-optimized.

    Holmström’s theorem

    No incentive system for a team of agents can make all of the following true :
    1. Revenue is efficiently distrubuted
    2. The system is stable (Nash equilibrium)
    3. The system maximizes total profit for all agents (Pareto-optimized)

    Coase’s theorem states that efficient revenue-sharing and Pareto-optimization are the natural consequence of reduced transaction costs. (In this sense, Coase is the special case of Holmström in which transaction costs are the cause of Pareto inefficiency.) Therefore, Coasian solutions never achieve Nash equilibrium. Under such instability, each agent will have moves to increase their own gains at the other agent’s expense. IE, within any Coasian solution, each agent has moves that will yield a more favorable revenue distribution.

    Certainly, by Coase, the first phase of the game is positive-sum. But the endgame is still zero-sum. Therein lies Moloch, who is not fooled.

    Importantly, Coasian solutions under incomplete information have decreased overall efficiency. (In an important sense, Coase’s theorem acts a bit like Aumann’s agreement theorem re-domained into economics.) This means that each Coasian solution is only applicable to the information environment in which it was reached, and by changing the information environment you change the Coasian solution. This provides a lever : creating a more favorable information asymmetry will create a more favorable revenue distribution.

    One solution : we voluntarily cede some Pareto efficiency in order to maintain a state of complete information, in which the Coasian solution will distribute revenue efficiently and stably. IE, oversight.

    • ec429 says:

      Sorry for the slowness of reply, I had to find time to read Holmström’s paper as I’ve not come across his Theorem before.

      If any definition of rights leads to the efficiency maximum, then the management of externalities is simply a type of revenue-sharing between agents.

      I’m not quite sure I follow you here. The initial-definition-of-rights is the cause which determines the payments included in the contract that moves from this ‘endowed’ state to the ‘efficient’ state by reallocating rights. So the two phases of the game are (1) agree on the contracts, which may lead to some bargaining as there are multiple choices of Pareto-satisfying payment vectors; and (2) act in the newly optimal manner under the contracts (which, by assumption, is efficient).

      If I’m understanding Holmström correctly, his conditions include a ‘budget-balancing’ which, he claims, cannot be broken without a separate principal because ex post the agents will not agree to waste some of the product. (Hence his insistence on Nash equilibria.) But this is simply a precommitment problem, and the ‘separate principal’ rôle can, I think, be filled by a shared expectation that contracts will be enforced — it is in the agents’ individual interest ex post to enforce the contract among themselves because of the future value of that shared expectation being maintained (for, in future contracting, it is in my interest to be able to credibly precommit to penalising myself for certain actions). IOW, defecting against the rule of law has a big enough long-term cost to the individual to dominate ex post regret and thus maintain the commitment.

      • rahien.din says:

        No worries!

        If any definition of rights leads to the efficiency maximum, then the management of externalities is simply a type of revenue-sharing between agents

        I’m not quite sure I follow you here.

        I can try to explain better (or at least it will become clear where I’m off-base – anyone CMIIW).

        Regarding Coase, the very brilliance of his idea is that it turns externalities into revenue sharing. The revenue to be shared is either some positive benefit (such as the revenue from ripe pears), or the avoidance of a cost (either runoff damage, the cost of a wall, or fees, depending on the problem’s definition). If the definition of rights does not matter, then no one has any clear right to that revenue pool, neither the creator of a positive revenue pool (as with the pears) nor the perpetrator of a negative revenue pool (as with runoff damage). The interaction, then, is defined by the incentives. The Joneses have an incentive to recoup the revenue from their lost pears, so to buy another tree, and the Smiths have an incentive to help pay for the lost pears because a fourth tree means 33% more free pears landing on their property.

        Therefore, by Coase, externalities are simply interactions between agents, who divide revenue according to incentives.

        This is exactly the type of situation that is subject to Holmström’s theorem, which states that no incentive-based system of revenue sharing for a team of agents can make all three of the following true :
        1. the budget is balanced – all revenue is distributed, and the system does not distribute more than it takes in
        2. the system is Pareto-optimal – it is the best possible solution for all agents, and there is no way to help one agent without harming another
        3. the system achieves Nash equilibrium – no agent can better their position by changing their strategy

        Crucially, Coase’s theorem describes how situations will naturally Pareto-optimize themselves in the absence of transaction costs. Moreover, the budget in such solutions is inherently balanced. These are two of Holmström’s conditions. Therefore, it is impossible that Coasian solutions achieve the third – Nash equilibrium. Each agent will always be able to alter their strategy and thereby increase their revenue share – that’s Moloch’s turf.

        this is simply a precommitment problem

        If you are precommitting to anything, you must be precommitting to one of Holmström’s three conditions, and thus you must be renouncing one of the others.

        The cost of [stability + Pareto optimization] is [waste] … this could describe bureaucracy

        The cost of [efficiency + Pareto optimization] is [instability] … this could describe your Coasian AnCap

        The cost of [efficiency + stability] is [freeloaders and/or martyrs] … maybe this describes monarchy/oligarchy/etc.?

        One alternative conjecture : Coase+Holmström suggests that transaction costs actually play a beneficial role! They stabilize a revenue-sharing system by 1. bleeding off revenue that would otherwise be interminably fought over (sort of, playing the anti-sharer role?), and/or, 2. making it harder for people to go after freeloaders.

        • ec429 says:

          Your ideas are intriguing and I think within Holmström’s framework they’re valid conclusions. However, I think that framework isn’t applicable:

          Therefore, it is impossible that Coasian solutions achieve the third – Nash equilibrium. Each agent will always be able to alter their strategy and thereby increase their revenue share

          But agent A understands the logic of the game and knows that if he alters his strategy, he will thereby alter the pay-off matrices of other agents and B will (either acausally or through iteration of the game) alter his strategy, ultimately worsening B’s outcome.

          Nash equilibrium is only the proper criterion when the game is played by naïve causal decision theorists, which people aren’t. I think in my article I should have put more stress on the “sane enough to co-operate on the Prisoner’s Dilemma” bit, because I think that’s the key element that makes it all work.

          If you are precommitting to anything, you must be precommitting to one of Holmström’s three conditions

          No, precommitting to ignore one of his three conditions; specifically, the Nash equilibrium one. Precommitting to observe contracts and uphold the rule of law even when it doesn’t serve one’s immediate interests, because one understands that the ability to credibly promise to ignore a Nash disequilibrium is more valuable than the gain from hitting Defect once.

          The cost of [efficiency + stability] is [freeloaders and/or martyrs] … maybe this describes monarchy/oligarchy/etc.?

          I just nearly committed the fallacy of generalising from fictional evidence; I was going to talk about “scratchers” in And Then There Were None.
          Anyway, I can believe that free-riders are ‘survivable’ (i.e. they don’t bring the system crashing down). But the idea that they could be necessary is deeply weird (not that that necessarily makes it wrong, of course).

          • rahien.din says:

            I am precommitting to ignore one of his three conditions; specifically, the Nash equilibrium one.

            [IE] precommitting to observe contracts and uphold the rule of law even when it doesn’t serve one’s immediate interests

            Well there we have it! That’s Holmström’s theorem put into practice!

            You claim to be ignoring the equilibrium condition, but you’re not. In fact you’re insisting on it – saying “I will ignore Nash disequilibrium” is to deem the current set of strategies stable, and it is to impose equilibrium. Your imposition of equilibrium is incentive-mediated, via “we predict that everything will blow apart into Hobbesian hell if we don’t precommit to keeping our strategies stable.” So you’re still within Holmström’s jurisdiction.

            Holmström’s theorem tells us what costs we may accept in order to impose equilibrium : if you want to achieve a stable set of strategies, you have to tune your strategies so that they leave money on the table. You can leave some money on the table by letting the budget go out of balance, or, by permitting some inefficiency in how the revenue gets divided.

            For instance :

            I can believe that free-riders are ‘survivable’. But the idea that they could be necessary is deeply weird.

            Instead of necessary, I would say beneficial.

            If, as it seems, you want your budget to balance and your system to be strategically-stable, you could precommit to someone will get more revenue share than their efforts would indicate / will be a free-rider. But you could just as easily commit to someone will be rewarded insufficiently for their efforts / will be exploited. Either of those precommitments could keep the system off the Pareto frontier, permitting the combination of strategic stability and a balanced budget.

            Holmström’s theorem just tells us that any such system of incentives will have slack, and we can pick where the slack is. IE, when you say “even when it doesn’t serve one’s immediate interests,” Holmström defines that clause more precisely, as “even if the system is wasteful and/or unfair.”

            This all demonstrates that your precommitment is anti-Coasian.

            Coasian solutions drive toward a balanced budget and Pareto optimization – fair systems without waste, but with instability. Precommitment to renounce either the balanced-budget condition or the Pareto-optimal condition is precommitment to renounce the full Coasian solution in favor of stability.

            “Enforceable systemic precommitments that renounce Coasian solutions in favor of the default value of stability” might be another way to say “government.”

            the ability to credibly promise to ignore a Nash disequilibrium is more valuable than the gain from hitting Defect once.

            This is not necessarily true.

            Assuming a balanced budget, if we are at Nash disequilibrium but Pareto-optimal, then there is some move I could make that would increase my revenue share (at someone else’s expense). If I make that move, and the system is then stable and budget-balanced and my revenue share is maximized, then this is the best possible world as far as I am concerned – predictable, solvent, and personally-maximal (though not perfectly fair).

            That’s the exact definition of victory!

            You may claim that others will subsequently defect. If so, there are only two reasons why they would. They may be acting on incomplete information. Or, if the system is not at equilibrium and yet is off the Pareto frontier, the budget might not be balanced. Balancing the budget (IE, there is no opportunity for any agent to get any more revenue share without making the system insolvent) would permit equilibrium despite being Pareto-suboptimal.

          • ec429 says:


            So you’re still within Holmström’s jurisdiction.

            I notice that trying to think about this keeps confusing me, and therefore have lowered my confidence somewhat. That said:

            “Enforceable systemic precommitments that renounce Coasian solutions in favor of the default value of stability” might be another way to say “government.”

            Government is one way to precommit to maintain civil society. But it is not the only one; civil society does not require an institution with a monopoly on legitimised use of force. David Friedman’s treatise on legal systems (which OGH has recently reviewed, huzzah) should demonstrate the effectiveness of common-law-as-Schelling-point. And since contracts can change Schelling points or create new ones, Coase isn’t being ‘renounced’.

            if we are at Nash disequilibrium but Pareto-optimal, then there is some move I could make that would increase my revenue share (at someone else’s expense). If I make that move, and the system is then stable…

            Or, if the system is not at equilibrium and yet is off the Pareto frontier, the budget might not be balanced.

            It seems like you’re treating Holmström as ‘always two of three’ rather than ‘at most two of three’. If we are at Nash disequilibrium, and any move I can make will lead to a state that is also a Nash disequilibrium (in ways that are relevant to me, i.e. the move someone else is now incentivised to make will affect my pay-off), then my choice is not between ‘current state’ and ‘my move’, but between ‘current state’ and ‘whatever Nash equilibrium we might end up in’.
            So everyone agrees to respect the rule of law, and Marshall improvements happen by Coasian bargaining turning them into Pareto improvements, and we (almost) all ignore the fact that if we defected and started defaulting or reneging on our contracts, and no-one else did, we could make a killing.
            Remember, Nash equilibrium is defined by each player assuming that other players’ strategies will not change! Remember also that the Nash equilibrium in the Prisoner’s Dilemma is defect-defect.

            At the same time, we are not ‘enforcing stability’, because the current set of strategies can be changed if a Marshall improvement is available. It is the metastrategy (of honouring contracts, respecting property rights, defending Schelling points, etc.) that is being stabilised.

            So I am arguing that the outcome of the AnCap system will be one which is on (actually, just tending-towards) the Marshall frontier (a subset of the Pareto frontier), and which may balance the budget (it’s a closed system), but which is in Nash disequilibrium — yet is stable anyway because people don’t defect on the PD.

          • rahien.din says:


            You may be right! And I think we have exceeded my ability to make a stronger case. Probably have to leave it at that.

            This has been fascinating, you have given me a lot to think about, and I have learned some very cool things. Thanks for the excellent discussion.

          • ec429 says:


            you have given me a lot to think about, and I have learned some very cool things.

            Likewise, thank you. ☺

  25. Matt M says:

    Is anyone willing to steelman the objection to “It’s okay to be white” as racist hate speech?

    My take is that this was a fairly brilliant move by 4chan to expose/highlight that yes, a lot of SJW-leaning types really do hate white people, full stop. Not privilege. Not racism. Whiteness specifically is considered bad. This statement seems maximally designed to be as inoffensive as possible – it isn’t saying being white is exceptional, it isn’t saying being white is better than average, it isn’t promote white “pride”, it’s taking the weakest possible position of “it’s okay” – and yet, you still have mainstream media outlets definitively declaring these posters to be “racist.”

    At first I thought a lot of the objections had to be false flags or just poe’s law in action. But now I’m not so sure. A lot of people seem to really mean it. They really do not believe that it is okay to be white.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I would also like to hear this.

      The explanations I’ve heard from administrations are a bit perplexing. They say that know that it’s a 4chan raid. They say that know that the purpose is to forment conflict which will drive white people towards the Alt Right. But they don’t seem to get that it only works if they take down the pamphlets.

      If they had left them up without fanfare there wouldn’t be a story and the trolling attempt would quietly fail.

      It really does sound like they’re taking the official stance that it isn’t okay to be white. I already figured as much but it’s surreal to see that confirmed publicly.

      • albatross11 says:

        [Epistimic status: speculative as hell]

        I suspect the issue here is internal incentives. The college administrators know perfectly well that they’re being trolled, just like they know that when some jackass spray paints a swastika on a locker, or there’s a big panic about someone having left a Trump sticker somewhere on campus. But they have to be *seen* to respond, because they fear the response of the student and faculty activists if they aren’t seen to respond with enough vigor.

        The leaders among the activists similarly know they’re being trolled. But again, the path to greater influence within their environment is to lead big protests and shut down classes and visibly collect an occasional faculty or staff head. Dumb trollery provides just as useful an excuse for this as an actual threat. (And actual threats are thin on the ground on a very liberal campus–it’s not like Oberlin or Evergreen or Middlebury actually have any substantial number of white supremacists hanging around.)

        As political strategy, it’s nuts, because it trivializes the grievances of the activist faculty and students, makes them look like a bunch of idiots to the wider world. But within their environment, their incentives still incline them toward overreacting to the “it’s okay to be white” messages. The bigger the overreaction, the better, as far as they’re concerned.

    • Walter says:

      I don’t think what is going on here is genuine anti-white prejudice. Most of them are, after all, white. They don’t ‘hate’, they just enjoy being bullies.

      • Matt M says:

        They don’t enjoy being bullies to women, people of color, or homosexuals though.

        If you only enjoy bullying a very specific demographic subgroup, that looks like hate to me.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’m not sure this is about who they enjoy bullying the most, so much as about who’s the softest target. Twenty years ago, there would’ve been more stigma associated with, say, being gay, and less chance of a response from the people in charge, so bullying people for being gay would have been both easier and more effective. Straight cis white people now have that, uh, privilege, at least in Blue Tribe cultural spaces.

          The old saw about how bullies are all cowards isn’t really true, but you don’t need to be a coward to make life easy for yourself.

          • DrBeat says:

            They seek to punish anyone who is weak enough to not be able to make the punishment stop. They have no values other than the punishment of the weak for being weak.

            Human beings having values other than punishment of the weak for being weak is an unnaturally low-entropy state. It will go away. It will never ever return.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m not going to get in a nihilism fight in this thread.

          • Mark says:

            Human beings having values other than punishment of the weak for being weak is an unnaturally low-entropy state. It will go away. It will never ever return.

            I think that’s a bit silly.
            A group is always stronger than any individual, and in order for group cohesion to exist there has to be individual respect for the group. Nobody respects only strength – anyone that way inclined will be attempting to subvert the strength of others.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Seeing bullies get hurt satisfies moral intuitions (this is why Chesterton said children don’t need folktales censored for them). So on that level, it’s satisfying to see white Americans get away with cultural chauvinism. Lots and lots of us live in big cities and university towns where we’ve been designated targets for an attribute we were born with.

            On the other hand, I think having pale skin is a lousy, un-Christian thing to build identity on. I would rather anti-racism and this new Milo type racism just go away.

    • maldusiecle says:

      That Baked Alaska dude quoted in the article was part of the Charlottesville Nazi rally, which ended with a white supremacist murdering a protestor. He was literally marching around with people chanting antisemitic slogans and brandishing swastikas. I’m not surprised he’s a big fan of the “It’s okay to be white” message. What you find if you pay attention to what white supremacists are doing and saying is that they begin with “It’s okay to be white,” and then as soon as you assent, they pull out the swastikas. It’s a motte and bailey.

      A sticker saying “It’s okay to be white” in the context of Harvard (which, let’s remember, has a 70% white faculty) has an obvious message: that discussion of past racial injustice is illegitimate. “It’s okay to be white” means, “It’s NOT okay to ask people to think about white privilege, racial violence, etc.”

      • Simon Penner says:

        The last time I walked outside in my (predominantly not-white) neighbourhood, I saw no less than four signs publicly advocating violence against me. The worst read “1 million whites dead now!”

        I don’t give a shit who is what or where. This is happening in my life, every fucking day. I don’t believe people think it is ok to be white. The general reception of these signs by society confirms my suspicion

        • maldusiecle says:

          I’m pretty sure the 70% of Harvard’s faculty who are white are not literally advocating genocide against themselves. It would take much stronger evidence to convince me of that–certainly more than your anecdote, which frankly sounds completely made up.

          [edited to remove a few typos]

          • quaelegit says:

            > Certainly more than your anecdote, which frankly sounds completely made up.

            I know some people have worried recently that SSCers are prizing charity too highly, but you clearly don’t have this issue. (To state more clearly: that was uncharitable.)

            The anecdote sounds quite plausible to me. In some places people post crazy flyers on lamposts and public places. (Berkeley, for example — not that I’ve seen any anti-white flyers there, but definitely some very crazy ones in other directions.)

            Note this is NOT evidence that anti-white beliefs are common — one person can post a LOT of flyers.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          If you don’t mind, where is your neighborhood?

      • Matt M says:

        A sticker saying “It’s okay to be white” in the context of Harvard (which, let’s remember, has a 70% white faculty) has an obvious message: that discussion of past racial injustice is illegitimate. “It’s okay to be white” means, “It’s NOT okay to ask people to think about white privilege, racial violence, etc.”

        Is there any possible context in which expressing a non-negative opinion on whiteness would be considered okay, or would not carry implications of promoting racial violence or whatever?

        How could they rephrase the statement so that it wouldn’t carry these implications? Where could they post these fliers that everyone would consider acceptable?

        • maldusiecle says:

          The issue isn’t the “non-negative opinion.” There are non-negative opinions of white people all over the place. There are white artists whose works are advertised, white faculty whose lectures are promoted, groups and classes dedicated to studying Greek or German or English culture. The statement “It’s okay to be white” is different from any of these, in the way that a “Black Power” gesture is different from praise of Duke Ellington’s music.

          Rephrasing the statement without those implications? I don’t think you could, because those implications are the point of it. You could say that one needn’t feel guilty for being white, but given that “white guilt” is cliché enough that even sitcoms poke fun at it, such a statement loses most of the original’s punch.

          You could say that a lot of anti-racist (“anti-racist” if you’d prefer scare quotes) rhetoric is excessive, destructive, unproductive. But these are things that people already say–there are constant arguments about language within left and liberal movements. And arguing against particular language is much weaker than the original statement. The original statement’s implication isn’t that this or that antiracist position is mistaken, it’s that antiracist movements as such are illegitimate. It suggests that all of these movements only exist to diminish “white people,” not to struggle against objectively-existing oppressions and injustices.

          I realize that pulling so much out of a seemingly anodyne phrase isn’t going to be popular on a blog where a recent post claimed that dogwhistle language doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Personally, I would have left the stickers be. But if you want to understand why the administration acted the way it did, you have to look at these implications as they did.

          This may be over-theorizing. Possibly Harvard only saw it as a provocation, and doesn’t like being provoked.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            How might “It’s ok to be white, it’s not ok to be Nazi” play?

          • outis says:

            The original statement’s implication isn’t that this or that antiracist position is mistaken, it’s that antiracist movements as such are illegitimate. It suggests that all of these movements only exist to diminish “white people,” not to struggle against objectively-existing oppressions and injustices.

            But don’t you see? The reason why you see that implication is that, to yourself, those antiracism movements do imply that it’s not okay to be white. Therefore, saying that it’s okay to be white implies opposition to those movements.

            It’s so perfect.

          • John Schilling says:

            How might “It’s ok to be white, it’s not ok to be Nazi” play?

            Roughly the same way as, “It’s ok to be a Jew, it’s not ok to be a shyster”. Lots of people will read that as an implication that the stereotype is true unless disavowed at every turn.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            The issue isn’t the “non-negative opinion.” There are non-negative opinions of white people all over the place.

            Matt M asked for a non-negative opinion on whiteness, not white people.

      • albatross11 says:

        That’s one way to interpret the message, but not an obvious one. I think if you showed that message to a majority of Americans or a majority of undergrads, you would get relatively few who interpreted it that way.

        I’d interpret it as “It’s okay to be white and NOT worry overmuch about white privilege, structural racism, etc. You aren’t any more responsible for curing those ills than anyone else, and you’re perfectly within your rights to focus your time and attention on other stuff.”

        I think that’s both a pretty widely acceptable message, and also one that is quite upsetting to many activists on racial issues. Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s being spread.

        The closest parallel I can think of is “All Lives Matter,” which similarly got all kinds of denunciations despite being a surface-level completely unobjectionable comment.

        • Matt M says:

          The closest parallel I can think of is “All Lives Matter,” which similarly got all kinds of denunciations despite being a surface-level completely unobjectionable comment.

          I don’t even like this comparison, because it’s clear that “all lives matter” is structured parallel to “black lives matter” and is clearly an objection/pushback against that statement.

          This is organic, and is phrased to be as neutral and non-specific as possible. Showing up at a BLM rally and shouting “ITS OKAY TO BE WHITE” is clearly confrontational and should be treated as such, but just placing these flyers randomly about town is a very different matter.

        • maldusiecle says:

          I think it was an obvious reading to the administrators, and a very non-obvious reading to many people who saw this article.

          I like that rephrasing–a flyer saying that wouldn’t have stirred up as much controversy, probably. The issue is the motte and bailey. When white supremacists want to seem harmless, they say, “It’s okay not to worry too much about white privilege.” Once they’re not in public, it’s back to planning how to eliminate this or that minority.

          Outside of context, this sounds paranoid, no? But if you look at the leaked Milo emails, for instance, or reports of people who have infiltrated these movements, it becomes clear that they are very consciously pursuing this strategy.

          • albatross11 says:

            I imagine the people posting these notes range from genuine white supremacists who wish they could emulate Cecil Rhodes, all the way down to white kids who want to stir up some shit on campus, and are maybe tired of being harangued about racial issues. But the slogan is going to resonate with a lot of ordinary white guys who are tired of the harangues. And suppressing it seems like it will also resonate with them, but in a really negative way.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            But they’re still whacking on the motte with swords and axes, though. Do that and you get boiling oil dumped on you, which is what’s happening here. When the villagers retreat to the motte, the attackers are supposed to clear out. At worst camp in the bailey.

        • jml says:

          The closest parallel I can think of is “All Lives Matter,” which similarly got all kinds of denunciations despite being a surface-level completely unobjectionable comment

          There’s actually a closer parallel just next door – the original “Black Lives Matter.” As you point out this is surface-level completely unobjectionable. The reason I think it’s a closer parallel is because both this and “It’s okay to be white” do the work of being Defense Of A Specific Race rather than defense of race as a whole.

          It’s also interesting in general as an example of a Flip-The-Narrative tactic. One of the steel-manned objections to “All Lives Matter” made by proponents of BLM was that although it’s true that all lives matter, responding to the assertion that black lives matter with that comment is more a method of derailment than something that actually addresses the issue.

          So suppose the response to seeing “It’s okay to be white” flyers had been to put up “It’s okay to be whatever race you are” flyers over them. How should you respond to that if you thought ALM was a productive response to BLM? Moreover, would changing the original flyer to something that wasn’t a Defense Of A Specific Race have accomplished the same goal that the real flyer did? (And to what extent is this reflected in the success of BLM as a movement, compared to the imaginary movement and controversy that never came from the hashtag #allsortsoflivesmatter.)

          My answer: being surface-level unobjectionable doesn’t mean you’re still not a Defense Of A Specific Race. In fact, the whole point of things like BLM and OK-Whiteness is that they are controversial but with a built-in motte and bailey. (Or have ew forgotten all the reactionary tweets to the effect of “the mere fact that black-lives-matter is controversial is proof of our society’s racism.)

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            So suppose the response to seeing “It’s okay to be white” flyers had been to put up “It’s okay to be whatever race you are” flyers over them.

            I think it would be an outstanding response.

          • Baeraad says:

            So suppose the response to seeing “It’s okay to be white” flyers had been to put up “It’s okay to be whatever race you are” flyers over them.

            I would have applauded that and felt a glimmer of hope for the world.

    • Randy M says:

      The weak steelman would be something like: The objections are from people who are aware that this is a campaign from 4chan/pol/whatever internet racists, and therefore assume that if an internet racist is going on about race, it’s probably safe to assume it is racist and oppose it. This is weak because reversed stupidity is not always correct, or however the saying goes around here, and because they may well be handing them a tactical victory.

      Stronger steelman of the objections: The message “It’s okay to be white” doesn’t specify an individual being white; it’s a broad statement that could, and given the source, likely does, apply to an organization, an industry, a family, or a nation. Of course white people can exist, but fighting for a group to be white means fighting for the right to exclude, and that is notokay.

      The problem with the stronger steel man is, well, two problems, first that it isn’t articulated–at least that I (and apparently the above posters) have seen. The statement is presumed prima facie to be unredeemable racism, and the above reasoning is not made explicit, making the antipathy towards it look very much like antipathy towards anyone who happens to be white and not explicitly repentant of that (which if I’m not steel-manning, I think it is in fact).

      Second objection to the steel man of the opposition to the statement (which probably means it is an insufficient steel-man, but not everything can be perfectly defended) is that it is nonsense; homogeneity is not proof of exclusion, and small scale voluntary segregation is not equivalent to material predation or even antipathy.

    • Wrong Species says:

      “It’s ok to be white” has subtext beyond the text. The kind of person who passes around these flyers is the kind of person who has stronger opinions about whiteness than it being acceptable.