THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Open Thread 90.5

This is the twice-weekly hidden open thread. As the off-weekend thread, this is culture-war-free, so please try try to avoid overly controversial topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server.

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569 Responses to Open Thread 90.5

  1. TheWackademic says:

    The Boston Globe contacted 600 landlords who advertised rental housing on Craigslist.

    Test your intuition: what percent of email inquiries from individuals with white-sounding names (Brendan Weber or Meredith McCarthy) received responses?

    What percent of email inquiries from individuals with black-sounding names (Darnell Washington or Keisha Jackson) received responses?

    Answer here: http://apps.bostonglobe.com/spotlight/boston-racism-image-reality/series/image/?s_campaign=breakingnews:newsletter (search for “600 Craigslist ads” to find it.

    • rlms says:

      “As the off-weekend thread, this is culture-war-free, so please try try to avoid overly controversial topics.”

      • TheWackademic says:

        I didn’t intend this to be a culture war post… I thought it was a good opportunity for people to test their intuitions about the state of the world.

        Also, I interpret “culture war” as comprising abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, religion, the achievement gap, etc. I wouldn’t consider an empirical test of housing discrimination to fall under that umbrella, but of course this post can be deleted if I’m wrong here.

        • Matthew S. says:

          The ability to empirically test things is not what determines whether something is part of the culture war. All of the things you listed, as well as others like gun control and immigration, have aspects that are amenable to empirical investigation. Culture war means anything over which there is (sociopolitical) “tribal warfare”, empirical or not.

          • Houshalter says:

            What’s the point of using the phrase “culture war” then? Just say “no politics”.

          • Aapje says:

            Not all politics is culture war and not all culture war is politics.

          • gbdub says:

            I think we’ve perhaps overextended the definition of “culture war” into “no politics”, and wouldn’t mind a “word of god” reset from Scott.

            But it used to be “no race or gender in the open thread”, so I think this falls pretty squarely in the central definition of culture war.

        • The Nybbler says:

          This is definitely culture war, I am an experienced culture warrior and can tell by the pixels.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          Racial housing discrimination is most definitely a culture war topic.

    • albatross11 says:

      The linked article was quite good.

      I overestimated the difference in response rate for black and white names (I guessed 75% for whites and 50% for blacks, the correct values were about 64% for whites and 55% for blacks).

      • Anatoly says:

        Ditto, even more so; I guessed 85% for whites and 35% for blacks.

      • quanta413 says:

        Same. I was waaaay off. I thought blacks would receive way less responses than whites. I’m too embarrassed to say exactly the factor I had in my mind because of how far off I was.

        • JulieK says:

          It would be interesting to look for a correlation between people’s guesses and their political beliefs.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          I totally thought there would be a much bigger difference, too.

          On reflection, landlords already know their neighborhoods. You can’t just decide to rent to only white people in a mixed-race town. I wonder what the difference would be in Andover.

    • Deiseach says:

      Oh look at you with your fancy “I emailed a landlord and they replied to me and it wasn’t a scam!”, Mr La-de-Dah!

    • WashedOut says:

      For this to be at all interesting i’d like to see it presented alongside the statistics for volume/nature of complaints against black vs. white tenants, since the issue seems to be the lack of willingness to lease one’s property based on ethinic group. If one particular subgroup of the population has a disproportionately bad reputation evidenced by a track record of mistreatment of property, then so what if the Graigslist ads reflect this? If no such evidence exists, then BREAKING NEWS some people have preferences that can be considered discriminatory.

      • JulieK says:

        “Might it be okay to discriminate based on race?” is exactly what is meant by “culture war.”

        • quanta413 says:

          The top post is already obvious culture war stuff. I don’t see a reason why responses should confine themselves as long as they follow the standards of decorum around here (or let’s say a little better than regular decorum here because improvement is good).

          …Probably the top level post should just be axed though along with all responses if the culture war free rule is going to last.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I think there are two problems with culture war material– one is that people have a hard time maintaining decorum, and the other is that people are very apt to say things they’re already said.

            I’m happy with the alternating weeks system.

      • albatross11 says:

        It’s worth separating the questions:

        a. Are landlords in Boston discriminating against blacks?

        b. Why?

        c. Does the law need to be involved somehow?

        All three are important questions, but we can think a lot more clearly about them when we treat them one at a time.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Is Graigslist a snarky name for Craigslist, or just a typo? If the former, can you explain? If the latter, do you happen to type dvorak?

    • J Smith says:

      A 10%ish discrepancy…doesn’t actually strike me as that egregious. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but–especially in light of the article’s other stats–it was, like, not that. The other examples in the article were way more compelling; I live in a lily-white enclave, too, and I’m pretty sure I’d be saddened and troubled by a statistical reckoning of local, all-around How We Treat Black People-ness. But yeah: the figures on Alison vs. Tikesha weren’t nearly as appalling as I’d expected.

    • Aapje says:

      For the famous resume study using a similar methodology, it turned out that the black names were far more likely to be perceived as lower class. A different study using different names didn’t replicate the earlier study.

      So I am wary of concluding that this is discrimination by race, rather than being partially or fully explained by class discrimination.

      • Yosarian2 says:

        If people assume that “black sounding names” are lower class, isn’t that already a form of stereotyping and racial discrimination?

        • AlphaGamma says:

          I’ve seen the claim that many stereotypical “black sounding names” are actually lower-class black names. You don’t expect a black doctor, for example, to have a name like that, even if they do have a name you can predict their race from.

          So in Aapje’s link, the effect seen with names such as Rasheed, Leroy and Jamal (low-SES black names) was not seen with names like Andre, Darius and Malik (high-SES black names).

          • Matt M says:

            There’s also the fact that upper class blacks are often indistinguishable from upper class whites, as far as naming goes. I’ve known a black “John Adams”

        • Quiet Lurker says:

          I don’t think that’s anyone’s position. Rather, some typical black names are lower class and some are upper class (Trevon vs Andre). Just as there are lower and upper class white names (Cletus vs Geoffrey).

          The argument is that studies typically use upper class white names vs lower class black names.

          Edit: What AlphaGamma said.

        • Aapje says:

          @Yosarian2

          If you look at my link, they found that one study used black sounding names that were judged to indicate lower socioeconomic status than the black sounding names of the other study. The study with the higher socioeconomic status black sounding names didn’t show evidence for discrimination. So it seems that people strongly discriminate by perceived socioeconomic status.

          Of course, that doesn’t mean that racial discrimination is necessarily insignificant, but rather that studies with this kind of setup shouldn’t be used to claim that purely racial discrimination is significant for hiring.

          Now, it may be true that people are more eager to judge a black sounding name as reflecting a low socioeconomic status than a white sounding name (relative to the actual percentage of low socioeconomic status black and white people). I would consider that racial, rather than socioeconomic discrimination.

          I’m not sure how you can study that effectively, though.

          [EDIT] Ninja’d twice, ouch.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            Now, it may be true that people are more eager to judge a black sounding name as reflecting a low socioeconomic status than a white sounding name (relative to the actual percentage of low socioeconomic status black and white people). I would consider that racial, rather than socioeconomic discrimination.

            I’m not sure how you can study that effectively, though.

            Could you use a similar MTurk method to the study you link? Ask “Which name would be perceived by others as having higher SES, Andre or Cletus?”

            I would hypothesise that high-SES white names would be perceived as higher status than high-SES black names (reflecting reality to some extent), and that high-SES black names would be perceived as higher status than low-SES white names.

            Not sure about low-SES black vs. white.

            EDIT: And they already thought of that. From one of their footnotes:

            It would be most useful to compare SES between White and Black names, but I did not include White names in this study worried respondents would think “I am not going to tell you that I think White names are higher SES than Black names.” Possibly my favorite Mike Norton study (.pdf) documents people are OK making judgments between two White or two Black faces, but reluctant between a White and a Black one

          • Aapje says:

            @AlphaGamma

            I erased a paragraph from my comment after trying to write something about it, because I saw too many issues. The reluctance by survey respondents is just one issue. It’s just really hard to come up with a way to figure out what a reasonable SES guess is for a certain name and to then see if people diverge more from this ‘correct’ SES value for black sounding names than for white sounding names.

            You could determine the average income for ‘Malik’ and then let people guess the expected income for ‘Malik,’ but income is not the same as SES. For example, some groups have high income, but mediocre SES, like professional American footballers or oil rig workers.

          • The Nybbler says:

            To confuse things, many of the high-status names are more shared between races than the low status ones. I’d be surprised to find a black Cletus or white Tyrone, but not a white André (probably French) or black Geoffrey (probably English). (One exception: the name “Leroy” is shared and low status, though typically pronounced differently between whites and blacks)

          • Deiseach says:

            I’d be surprised to find a black Cletus or white Tyrone

            There’s a selection of Irish/Anglo-Irish/my forefathers came from the Ould Sod actors would disagree with you 🙂 (But yes, it’s an old-fashioned and uncommon name, and is most familiar as the name of the county).

            Tyrone Guthrie
            Tyrone Power (more than one, a mini-acting dynasty)
            Tyrone Of/Among the Bushes

          • Matt M says:

            To confuse things, many of the high-status names are more shared between races than the low status ones.

            I think we all have an instinct to assume that someone’s name does not really tell us much about the person themselves (nominative determinism aside)… and in most cases that’s probably true.

            But in some cases it definitely isn’t true. At the very least, it tells you something about someone’s family background and something about their parents, which probably correlates to some degree (although far from 100%) with certain features about the person themselves.

            A black couple naming their child “John” is a move towards allowing the child to easily integrate – and suggests the child may have been raised with integration in mind. Whereas, a couple who names their child “Shaneequah” is clearly doing the opposite – they are drawing attention to race and to difference.

          • Aapje says:

            Names also change in popularity, so they sometimes can be used to guess the age of a person. For example, a ‘Jaden’ variant of that name is extremely likely to be born in or after 1994 and quite likely in or after 1998.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I’m clearly not especially sensitive to the connotations of names.

            Any thoughts about Daryl and its various spellings?

            Also, what would you guess about someone named Talitha?

          • Aapje says:

            There should be an ‘or’ between ‘Jaden’ and ‘variant’ in my last comment.

    • Deiseach says:

      Aapje said this before me, but I’m going to agree: this may be partially racial bias, but there’s certainly a very strong element of class discrimination and perceived economic status going on here (now that certainly may be tied in much more strongly with the race element, but it’s not race alone).

      First that article tells us that black people in Boston have a net worth of $8. Not $800 or $8,000 but $8:

      African-Americans in Greater Boston have a median net worth of just $8. That means they owe almost as much as the combined value of what they own, be it a car, or house, or savings.

      Next it uses as its example of horrible racial discrimination an ad for a condo in the Back Bay, where the white-sounding name got a reply and the black-sounding name did not.

      I looked up the Back Bay and, quote, “Today, along with neighboring Beacon Hill, it is one of Boston’s two most expensive residential neighborhoods”. Could maybe perchance perhaps just wildly guessing here, the reason “Allison” got a reply and “Tamika” didn’t be that the landlady thought “Allison” had the big bucks to pay the kind of rent charged in the Back Bay? How much of a response would someone named “Mick Murphy” get in that case also (granted, Boston is very Irish so Mick might get the reply email, but I’m sure there are names associated with ‘lower earning Irish’ there that Bostonians would recognise and say “g’way you chancer!”)

      The article seems to be claiming that it’s down to racism alone, but it also depicts the black population of Boston as small (7%), laments the lack of a black middle-class, and seems to contrast high-rent areas with lack of response to emails from “lower class” sounding names as based purely on presumed race and not presumed economic status.

      How many of those landlords were black or non-white (probably very few, but maybe some)? How many of the ads were for low and medium as well as high rental areas? How many of the ‘white’ names were the equivalent of “Paul from Togher” or “Dan Paddy Andy, keep going beyond Dunmanway until it’s too late” as opposed to “Fiona from Bishopstown”?

    • Houshalter says:

      Interesting study I guess. The fact that there is a major newspaper report on it kind of reveals the answer though (“can anyone say ‘publication bias’?”) And the effect is smaller than I predicted.

      Anyone interested might also be interested in this: https://randomcriticalanalysis.wordpress.com/2015/11/22/on-the-relationship-between-negative-home-owner-equity-and-racial-demographics/

      • Matt M says:

        The fact that there is a major newspaper report on it kind of reveals the answer though (“can anyone say ‘publication bias’?”)

        Disagree. Like others, I would have suspected the answer would have been closer to like 80% and 25%. Not because I think everyone is racist, but because I figured the newspapers wouldn’t report the findings unless they supported the claim that everyone is racist.

        Given how close it actually was, I’m surprised they bothered to publish at all, as the main reaction here seems to be, “Oh, there’s less racism than I thought!” which is not at all the reaction the Boston Globe is hoping for…

        • albatross11 says:

          In order to get to that, you needed to decide your estimated numbers before you read the article. Few people bother. The original post by TheWackademic suggested doing so, which was a nice touch!

  2. bean says:

    Naval Gazing: The Death of Repulse and Prince of Wales
    Also, reminder. I post at 7 AM central on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. No need to wait for Scott to put up the OT.

  3. Matthew S. says:

    Ahead of holiday gatherings, an update to my board game overviews on some party/social deduction games that, unlike Mafia/Werewolf, don’t suck:

    https://invertedporcupine.tumblr.com/post/168375685202/special-partysocial-deduction-games-overview-for

    • On-A-Reveillark says:

      Would you count Hanabi among party/social deduction games? It seems a little different from most because there’s no adversarial component, but effectively figuring out why people have given you the clues that they have, and figuring out who has figured out what (since you’re not allowed to say any of that explicitly) definitely involves some social inference. And the game is great.

      • Matthew S. says:

        De gustibus status: I do not like cooperative games, with the exception of mystery/puzzle/escape room games.

        Hanabi could be a party game, and it is a logical deduction game (of sorts), but not a social deduction game, because you are trying to deduce facts about the game state, not about the other player’s goals and identities.

        I have a fairly low opinion of the replayability of Hanabi. I think the meat of the game is people gradually developing their own unspoken conventions. Once you’ve played with the same people repeatedly and the conventions have become fixed, the game largely plays itself. Like with Puerto Rico, I feel that if experienced players can criticize a newbie for not “following the script”, that is a major strike against a game.

        • quaelegit says:

          I’ve never played Hanabi more than three times with the same group of people, but it seemed fine at that level of repetition. One thing though is my group always ends up cheating a lot — we’ll collaborate on clues and discuss strategy so the clue-receiver usually ends up getting a lot more information than “this card is green”. Personally I find it more fun this way.

        • On-A-Reveillark says:

          That makes sense to me, on Hanabi. I enjoyed playing it when I did, but have only played it a handful of times and could definitely see how it gets worse once your group develops their local metagame well enough to make it unchallenging.

          Is there a way in which Puerto Rico has that problem beyond the potential for kingmaking? Because that’s all I see, and think that would mean that criticism can be levied against virtually any game with 3+ competing entities (i.e. players, teams).

          • Matthew S. says:

            Puerto Rico rotates the 1st player, but turn order is fixed clockwise. This means that sitting to the left of the newbie can be extremely beneficial if they don’t understand what they might accidentally setting a player up for. I think this contributes a lot to the grumbling.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Wonder if it’d break things to reshuffle (or, for simplicity, reverse) turn order after the governorship has made a full circuit…

    • Winter Shaker says:

      Mafia/Werewolf … suck[s]

      Well I’m glad it’s not just me. As far as I can see, that game’s got no content, no way to win except by randomness or the degree to which someone accused of lycanthropy is able to resist blushing or other tells, and I’d far rather spend the time chatting with people about whatever, than in an environment of artificially generated paranoia.

      • pontifex says:

        Werewolf doesn’t suck. It is not as good as poker, though.

      • Anatoly says:

        FWIW I prefer the Resistance:Avalon variant, because there nobody leaves the game early. It also provides objective clues (a public voting record) that sometimes help deduce logically who the bad guys are, so not just randomness or tells (though there’s inevitably that too).

      • beleester says:

        It’s not totally random – the Seer provides a slow trickle of guaranteed true information, although it’s obviously still got some randomness. You can also watch peoples’ voting records – wolves will often play passively and then join with the majority to avoid suspicion. Also, you can gather information by claiming a role – everyone knows their own role and there are only one of most roles, so if you say “I’m the Seer” and another person says “No, I’m the Seer,” at least one of you is a liar. And the next lynch will empirically prove who is right, one way or another.

        Werewolf definitely needs more “stuff” to be a really good game, though. Having a lot of minor roles like the Hunter or the Lovers means that there’s more opportunities for claiming and counter-claiming, and more opportunities for confusion as people can’t keep their stories straight. And it gives people something to do besides sit there and wait to be lynched or eaten.

        Also, it shouldn’t have the Doctor role, because then they can end up keeping the Seer alive for the entire game and it basically breaks the game.

    • rlms says:

      I played a reductio ad absurdum of Mafia a few months ago. Roles (just mafia and innocent) were allocated as normal and mafia identify each other as normal. But after that there was no night phase, just repeated voting (with reveals of lynched people’s roles) until the mafia either became a majority or all died. Personally, I don’t really like normal Mafia/Werewolf but I do enjoy ONUW. I also like 2 player Coup as a replacement for heads up poker.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        The player elimination is what really kills Mafia/Werewolf. One Night is massive improvement, bringing it from unplayable hell to actually fun. I still dislike social deduction, but one One Night makes it legitimately enjoyable for a few rounds.

    • Anatoly says:

      I had great fun lately with Person Do Thing, where you need to describe a relatively complex word using only words from a fixed set of 36 basic ones. The smartphone app is very convenient for this. Disclaimer: a friend invented it.

    • DrBeat says:

      Is “party/social deduction” its own category, or two categories separated by a slash? Does Battlestar Galactica (which I fuckin’ love forever) count? How about Escape From The Aliens In Outer Space?

      • Matthew S. says:

        Two categories separated.

        BSG is a social deduction game, but definitely not a party game.

        • Gobbobobble says:

          Well, technically, BSG has social deduction as one of its mechanics. It’s not a “strong personalities and shouting” pure social deduction game like, say, Resistance. Traitor mechanics like in BSG/Shadows Over Camelot or secret objectives like in Dead of Winter add a social deduction element to a game with more concrete components, so the deduction is not so strongly reliant on poker-esque signals.

    • quaelegit says:

      The most successful party game among my family (and family friends) is Codenames. What’s particularly nice for that one is its flexibility — each team can have 2~5 players guessing (5 is a bit crowded but works) and players can leave and come back. It is much harder to be the spymasters though.

      We’ve also had success with Dixit but I’ve only played it once myself and I don’t remember the details.

      For Christmas specifically, we have a tradition of buying a large (1~2k piece) jigsaw puzzle and working on it Dec. 25th-27th (but that isn’t really social).

      • Nick says:

        I like Dixit, but we’ve definitely had some trouble coming up with clues that are both fair and actually tricky. It’s too tempting to use an inside joke or reference that you’re sure only one other person at the table will get, and as far as I can tell there’s no mechanic to stop a strategy like that (except the person deliberately guessing wrong to punish you for that, I guess? That would fail if someone else guesses it by sheer luck, though).

        My favorite strategy is references to folklore, myths, and children’s stories.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        Codenames is probably my favorite of the social genre. Dixit irritates me. Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity annoy me even more. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one.

        A Fake Artist Goes to New York strikes me as extremely fun, though. I may have to get that one.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Ctrl+f “secret hitler”

      Did not see a response.

      Secret Hitler is a fantastic game for 6-10 people. We play it for probably 4-5 hours straight every time I meet up with my in-laws.

      https://www.amazon.com/Secret-Hitler/dp/B01JKD4HYC

      • quaelegit says:

        Oh yeah! I meant to mention this one. We love it too!

      • cassander says:

        I’ve played it, but I don’t think it’s any better than straight mafia

        • quaelegit says:

          My experience playing the two has been very different. SH is more structured and seems to play out the same way with different groups of people, whereas mafia can be all over the place. I’ve really enjoyed playing both, but SH has been more consistently fun.

          Plus as somewhat of a history buff I enjoy the window dressings 😛

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Every time I’ve played Mafia, I get the impression that there is no way to run any sort of strategy as a townsperson. I don’t think the same applies the Liberals in Secret Hitler.

          This is especially the case when playing against especially stupid or non-social Fascists.

          • cassander says:

            the point of mafia isn’t to win, it’s to see what you can get away with.

          • Yosarian2 says:

            Oh, there’s a huge amount of strategy you need to run as a townsperson. A lot of it comes down to finding ways of getting reactions from people and putting pressure on potential scum without pissing off people so much you get lynched.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            the point of mafia isn’t to win, it’s to see what you can get away with

            This explains my problems with mafia then!

      • Matthew S. says:

        I would try a Print-and-Play skin, such as Secret Sith or Secret Voldemort, though I still wouldn’t expect to like the game. I won’t be trying the published version.

  4. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    So there was a story in the news* recently that raised an interesting question in my mind:

    Is it feasible in the US for a billionaire or small group of billionaires to make a private intelligence agency? By that I mean a full-fledged spy program that reports to a private individual instead of the federal government. If so, what would this agency look like in order to avoid being immediately shut down by the feds?

    I know essentially nothing about intelligence work so please explain it to me like I’m an idiot.

    *I’m not going to link it because I’d rather keep the discussion technical and not go off on political tangents. This is just something I had never considered before rather than me trying to score some kind of political point.

    • johan_larson says:

      Well, just to kick things off, there is nothing whatsoever to prevent a private individual from running an open-sources intelligence agency, consisting of analysts who follow the public media (newspapers, TV, radio, internet) of foreign nations in order to understand what’s going on in them. And that’s part of the work of actual intelligence agencies. If you got good enough at it, the government might come to you looking for tips, particularly about nations its budget has trouble covering.

      A step beyond that would be sending journalists abroad to actually visit foreign countries. Set up International Business News, a legit newspaper which has a fat budget for foreign correspondents all over the world. That would probably fly, even if the journalists do some reporting that never makes it into the newspaper.

      The next step would be recruiting foreigners to supply information. This is the point at which things would get troubled. US intel services would be worried that your recruiters would be mistaken for their own operatives, and foreign intel services probably would think they are all CIA. What your recruiters would be doing probably wouldn’t violate US law, but foreign governments would probably find a reason to deport or jail them. and the US government, knowing what they were up to, wouldn’t be helpful.

    • bean says:

      What exactly do you mean by “intelligence agency”? There are lots of organizations that are dedicated to going and getting information to sell to other people. We call them consultants, think tanks, market analysts, journalists, and so on.

      The important thing is to know what sort of information you’re after. I can’t think of anything that a typical billionaire would be interested in that he couldn’t do legally and using pieces you could mostly get off the shelf. If you want to get information that isn’t publicly available, then maybe you employ a few people to go and get it. Private detectives or their equivalent. How far across the legal lines you go is up to you.

      To be honest, though, I’d probably focus more on the analytical backend. These days, actually gathering the information is rarely the problem, but sorting out what it means can be difficult.

      If what you’re trying to do is human intelligence, it depends heavily on what you’re trying to get into, and how effectively the country you’re working in can retaliate. The US isn’t going to extradite anyone to Iran on espionage charges, but we might send you to one of our allies if you get caught. I don’t think it’s directly against US law, although they could probably nail you under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or the Economic Espionage Act or something of that nature if they wanted to.

      If you’re looking at some of the more esoteric corners of the intelligence world, SIGINT/ELINT and the like, you’ll probably run into some obstacles. All the hardware and specialized techniques are classified, and trying to recreate them in the US is likely to get you in trouble. And you have to deal with official indifference/disapproval. You’re going to have a lot more trouble getting permission to fly your sensor-laden jet along the Iranian border than the USAF does. As for tapping comms, can’t say for certain on the legalities, definitely going to have more practical trouble.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        Sorry for the late reply. Just found out yesterday that I’m about to get scooped on a big paper so I’m going to be working pretty much non-stop through new years. Way less time for shitposting unfortunately.

        The important thing is to know what sort of information you’re after. I can’t think of anything that a typical billionaire would be interested in that he couldn’t do legally and using pieces you could mostly get off the shelf.

        Thanks for making this point, since it seems like the biggest weakness in my hypothetical.

        Let’s say that this guy’s an American fan of the Gupta family who wants to get into the state capture business for himself. The country he’s looking at (New Zealand? Norway?) has a stronger and more independent civil service than South Africa which functions as a state within a state. He wants to keep an eye on them to make sure that the elected officials in his pocket have more-or-less free reign.

        • bean says:

          To a first approximation, you’re hiring PIs in the target country. You’ll suborn civil servants (or their secretaries), hack their email, and do your best to make sure that nobody takes too much notice of you. If the US gets wind of this and wants to shut you down, they’ll find a law. FCPA is a likely candidate. You may or may not get in direct trouble in the target country, depending on how much pull the non-suborned parts have with the US.

    • pontifex says:

      Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, etc. are private, and they collect information on millions of people. That information is usually supplied voluntarily, but not always. For example, Facebook creates “shadow profiles” on people who haven’t signed up, based on references that other people make. Arguably most people don’t know how much information Google collects about their browsing through the use of cookies, tracking images, etc. etc.

      • pansnarrans says:

        For example, Facebook creates “shadow profiles” on people who haven’t signed up, based on references that other people make.

        You are shitting me. How is this not a big deal with the public?

        • toastengineer says:

          It was… for like ten minutes, then everyone went back to what they were doing.

        • Garrett says:

          Who’s going to care?

          Facebook cares about their shareholders, customers, suppliers, users, and regulators. Users are the largest group, and shadow profiles represent people who aren’t on that list.

          The only real vector is via the regulators (eg. changing the law). But that’s a hard sell because most people use Facebook and thus don’t think of it as evil. And its hard to get excited about “they create a shadow profile” with something that most people don’t think is evil.

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah, I’m struggling to see anything illegal (or even immoral) about this.

            If two friends are talking to me about a third person I haven’t met, I will probably start to form a mental model of that person in my head as far as what they are like, etc.

            This is basically the same thing as that, just with data.

          • Aapje says:

            There is a lawsuit in Illinois about this.

            I don’t understand why the EU isn’t going after this, because it pretty clearly is against EU law.

          • Viliam says:

            Yeah, I’m struggling to see anything illegal (or even immoral) about this.

            The problem with our intuitions about similar situations is that they evolved under some assumptions, such as that it is not possible for one person to listen to literally billions of conversations (including almost all your friends, relatives, and colleagues), cross-reference everything, remember all of that perfectly forever, and be able to quote you reliably ten years later.

            Things that are moral and legal at certain scale can still change into something quite different after we add several orders of magnitude. Just like there is nothing illegal about throwing a grain of sand in your general direction, but it would be illegal to bury you under a mountain of sand.

          • Matt M says:

            Help me out here.

            Exactly what harm does it do to me if Facebook uses its data hunting capabilities to construct a shadow profile of me?

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            Exactly what harm does it do to me if Facebook uses its data hunting capabilities to construct a shadow profile of me?

            If the shadow profile is incorrect in some way, and then other agents start making decisions on how to interact with real-you and with your online avatars based on that incorrectness.

            If the shadow profile (or even the real profile) works out some fact about you that you would rather not be known, and then shares that fact with other people or agents.

            A shadow profile will still have PII about you, mostly gleaned from your friends’ address books.

            Facebook has to disgorge the information in a shadow profile to people, cops, and spooks with a court order. From which courts from which jurisdictions is still… interesting. So if you are an activist / journalist / gay man / etc in the wrong sort of country, even if you carefully do not have a facebook profile, or if you have one but put no “interesting” information in it, you can still be screwed.

            That’s just the first few that come to mind.

          • Matt M says:

            Okay, but that requires a separate, yet to be discussed step of “Facebook then sells/shares this data with external parties.”

            And it seems to me like the violation here is not “Facebook created a shadow profile” but rather “Facebook made factually incorrect claims about me” or “Facebook sold my data to a third party when I, as a non-Facebook user, never consented for them to do that,” or something like that.

            Of course, spreading false information and sharing someone’s data without consent are already illegal, and would be equally illegal if Facebook did those things to actual users as well.

          • gbdub says:

            Well Facebook definitely does sell the information (users are not the customer, they are the product). And you “consent” to it through a huge impenetrable end user agreement that changes frequently, and most of it you can’t opt out of without opting out of FB entirely. So it would be nice if there were more protections regarding what can go in a EULA.

            Basically, Facebook is sorta-kinda doing what the credit bureaus do: assembling a profile of you from legally obtained information, and using it (or selling it to those who might use it) to determine how/if to do business with you. Difference is the credit bureaus are legally required to give you access to the information in your profile, and dispute any inaccurate records.

          • skef says:

            Of course, spreading false information and sharing someone’s data without consent are already illegal, and would be equally illegal if Facebook did those things to actual users as well.

            I’m not sure why, under U.S. law, Facebook would have any significant obligations to a non-user. Why wouldn’t what ever data they are able to gather be treated more like credit reporting, or whatever? [Edit: paragraph-scooped by gbdub]

            So if, for example, they were able to glean (through comments about you, their cookie tracking system, and so forth) both a) your real identity and b) your attitudes about relationships, and offer to sell those to prospective employers on request, what law would be broken?

            (This is not to say that the law wouldn’t change on the public becoming aware of such systems. But the common attitude of “the law must already account for this” seems unwarranted.)

          • skef says:

            To add: Go look at the cookies “set by” this page on slatestarcodex.com . They include the usual facebook.com selection. Gleaning individual contributions would take some extra oomph, but not an unthinkable amount of it.

          • Matt M says:

            I feel like you guys just made contradictory statements though.

            On the one hand, gdub claim users consent to data sharing via the EULA. Then skef claims they have no obligation to obtain consent for this type of thing.

            But if they didn’t need consent, why would they ask for it?

            In any case, my previous point still stands. The issue is not that they “create shadow profiles.” That is harmless in and of itself. The issue is that they may use those shadow profiles for various destructive ends. But in that case, let’s be clear and target the ends, rather than the relatively harmless means.

          • skef says:

            On the one hand, gdub claim users consent to data sharing via the EULA. Then skef claims they have no obligation to obtain consent for this type of thing.

            But if they didn’t need consent, why would they ask for it?

            I think I’m claiming that U.S. law is likely to treat data gathered in virtue of a relationship with more scrutiny than data gathered outside of one. Maybe doing so ultimately doesn’t make sense, but doesn’t necessarily make the claim inaccurate.

          • If the shadow profile is incorrect in some way, and then other agents start making decisions on how to interact with real-you and with your online avatars based on that incorrectness.

            People are always making decisions about how to interact with others based on incomplete information. If FB has more information about you than the individuals you interact with, doesn’t that reduce the problem rather than increasing it?

          • pontifex says:

            Apparently it’s a bad idea to not have a Facebook profile. The reason is because if you don’t, someone can create a Facebook profile for you. And then, of course, they can post whatever they want under your name. 🙂

            FB does have some kind of process for flagging fake accounts, but I think it mostly depends on existing FB users flagging them. I guess if you don’t have many friends, or they don’t notice that your account has been taken over by evil trolls, you’re S.O.L. I personally never go on FB, so hopefully nobody is relying on me to report fake stuff there.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            In a personal interaction, you can better correct a person and control the information they see. There is a reason why most people don’t take kindly to our guests looking in our closets, bedroom storage space, etc.

            It can be quite horrible if organizations/governments start spying on you in extreme ways and decide things for you, despite you disagreeing with their assessment or despite you not wanting to be treated as a stereotype. Even if they are right, it can be quite bad. A BDSM aficionado may not want her computer to show her ads for BDSM gear, while she is at work.

            If they are wrong and don’t want to be corrected, it can be horrible, similar to being falsely accused and then convicted.

            Isn’t this the classic bureaucracy horror story? :

            Bureaucrat: Computer says you are an alien from Mars.
            Human: But I’m human.
            Bureaucrat: Computer says you are an alien from Mars.
            Person: But I’m standing right here, just look at me. Do I look alien to you?
            Bureaucrat: I’m not trained to assess that. We have a computer system to make those decisions. Computer says you are an alien from Mars.
            Person: Please just fix the information.
            Bureaucrat: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. [calls Alien elimination squad from Area 51]

            It gets even worse if there are those around that seek to do harm to certain people. Wouldn’t it have been better if (oldskool) Nazis had no/worse information about who were Jewish and who wasn’t?

          • @Aapje:

            I have an old piece that discusses some of the issues you raise.

    • pontifex says:

      Also in this vein, Matt Levine talked about an interesting issue that came up recently about “private intelligence.”

      A CEO of a public company talked to a journalist. Then later, the journalist published information about the conversation. Subscribers to the journalist’s newspaper then used the information to successfully make money on the company’s stock.

      Sounds legit, right? The only catch is that the “journalist” works for a very, very small outfit that charges extremely high subscription prices for a very small and exclusive clientele. So it “feels” extremely similar to insider trading, except that someone was (metaphorically) wearing a name tag that said “journalist.”

      Later the SEC got involved and things got messy. I’m not sure how the case was ultimately resolved…

    • Deiseach says:

      Doesn’t industrial espionage already exist? So I suppose you could have your shadowy cabal and/or supervillain ramp that up to be espionage espionage, but how well it would work I have no idea. If you’re going to be running around with your own spies, surely at some time they will bump into government spies, who will want to know who the heck these guys are?

      Hmmm – so what about contractors like Blackwater (or whatever it’s calling itself nowadays)? Aren’t they in that murky area of “private security and intelligence contracting” already?

      • bean says:

        Hmmm – so what about contractors like Blackwater (or whatever it’s calling itself nowadays)? Aren’t they in that murky area of “private security and intelligence contracting” already?

        Not exactly. A lot of the backend of the US intelligence program is handled by contractors, but I wouldn’t call them “private” in the way the OP is talking about. They work solely for the US government (or people the US government smiles upon), which is very different from working for anyone who has the money to pay them. Boeing is also a private company, but they’re not going to sell military hardware to anyone who the US government doesn’t approve of. (Well, mostly.)

      • Lillian says:

        Not only does industrial espionage exist, i once saw a poster on the bulletin board of a office building detailing how to conduct ethical industrial espionage. It first exhorted the reader to not break the law such as by trespassing, and then helpfully suggested legal ways to spy on an industrial facility, like observing traffic and counting trucks. Even as a child it seemed to me that ethical espionage was pretty ineffective. Also that the bored children of employees misusing the copy machines and availing themselves of office supplies was a more pressing concern.

        • Standing in the Shadows says:

          The most straightforward way to do ethical “industrial espionage” is to directly ask your target for the intel you are looking for.

          It’s amazing what you can learn by picking up a copy of the current catalog of a target, the catalogs of their competition and peers, subscribing to their trade magazine, going to their trade show, watching all the talks at the tradeshow, going to every booth at the tradeshow, picking up a copy of every pamphlet, reading every press release, reading every magazine article or book written by or about their employees, reading their investor disclosures, reading their website, taking their salesmen out for dinner and beer….

          • Lillian says:

            Sure, but that’s not what the poster was advocating. Honestly i’m not sure what the purpose of the poster even was, since it’s not like office drones have a habit of spending their free time breaking and entering into the other company’s facilities. A reminder to please not break the law spying on the competition seems really out of place in an office building.

          • Aapje says:

            Well, one way by which unscrupulous people in power can get things done, is ‘encourage’ zealous subordinates to do things, without actually ordering them, preserving plausible deniability. For example, by ordering or asking subordinates to do things that can’t be done by legal means very well (or at all), depending on the subordinate to break the law to make the superior happy.

            This mechanism works.

            So when superiors want to ask something where illegal means work better than legal means, but they still want their subordinates to stick to the law, they are wise to say that explicitly.

            PS. Because breaking the rules is so common, one form of strike is work-to-rule, where workers actually stick to the rules.

    • Kevin C. says:

      I noticed that nobody here in the replies have yet mentioned that private investigators are a thing as well; I’m sure there’s at least some overlap between what they do and “intelligence gathering.”

    • anonymousskimmer says:

      I believe this billionaire owned company is called Palantir, and according to wikipedia:

      Palantir Gotham (formerly known as Palantir Government) integrates structured and unstructured data, provides search and discovery capabilities, knowledge management, and secure collaboration. The Palantir platform includes the privacy and civil liberties protections mandated by legal requirements such as those in the 9/11 Commission Implementation Act of 2004. Palantir’s privacy controls purportedly keep investigations focused, as opposed to the expansive data mining techniques that have drawn criticism from privacy advocates concerned about civil liberties protection.

    • skef says:

      By that I mean a full-fledged spy program that reports to a private individual instead of the federal government.

      People have been asking how to distinguish such a system from think-tanks, journalism, and the like. My suggestion: cultivation of sources by means that would be illegal in the U.S.

      • albatross11 says:

        Private investigators pretty routinely cultivate sources by means that are illegal (impersonating your wife to your doctor to get your medical records, say). And private companies at varying positions on the white/gray/black market will definitely sell you malware to use to compromise your targets’ computers or their phone.

    • John Schilling says:

      As others have pointed out, most of what actual intelligence agencies do is monitor public-domain intelligence sources and do lots of analysis, and this is essentially the same thing that newspapers do. Hiring people to go around asking questions and taking photos, almost always without outright breaking and entering, ditto. Having agents impersonate the sort of person who can ask questions and walk around taking pictures in places where someone openly identifying as a journalist would be turned away, ditto within limits. Maintaining a list of contacts in government and key industrial positions who will talk to you about things that their bosses might prefer they didn’t, ditto. And at this point, there are fleets of spy satellites available for hire as well.

      It isn’t just newspapers that do this, either. NGOs like the non-proliferation monitoring organizations I have worked with on North Korean matters do all of the above. And there are purely mercenary organizations like Black Cube, Stratfor and Palantir providing at least some of these services. The Opposition Research teams of major political parties. Wikileaks fits in here, as do good old-fashioned private investigators and folks like Christopher Steele. So, yeah, a billionaire could put together most of what national intelligence services have, and billionaires have done so for less nefarious purposes than I suspect you are imagining.

      Perhaps the relevant question is: what do national intelligence services do that’s not currently on the commercial market?

      Technical intelligence other than satellite imagery is for the most part not widely available, but mostly because there isn’t enough market for it. You’d run up against legal barriers if you wanted to actually eavesdrop on private communications of the sorts currently protected by privacy laws, e.g. phone calls. But there’s no law against setting up a network of ELINT satellites or ground stations to monitor e.g. telemetry from foreign missile tests, which I and my non-proliferation colleagues would find quite useful. Or geolocating military radar stations and doing signal traffic analysis on their military comm nets, if you want to keep track of who’s invading Crimea this week. It’s just that nobody has been able to make a profit on this yet, and as far as we know there aren’t any billionaires doing it in private.

      National intelligence services establish and maintain their List of People Who Talk To Us Even Though They’re Not Supposed to by way of MICE: Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego. Ideology and Ego are just as available to the private sector, and journalists in particular are good at playing on both. Money is expensive and it may constitute bribery, also journalistic ethics mostly prohibit it, but if you’re willing to pay and particularly if you’re willing to pay through cutouts it’s probably on the table. Compromise is almost certainly going to constitute blackmail, so no. That still leaves you with better than 50% coverage.

      The James Bond / Mission Impossible stuff where you literally break into the enemy’s secret bases, and particularly the version where you have Q section build you secret weapons to then blow up those secret bases, that’s going to be illegal. But it’s also a very small part of what national intelligence services do. Likewise kidnapping and torturing people.

      And much of the stuff that’s only borderline illegal can probably be managed by working through third parties in favorable jurisdictions.

      So, I think the final answer is pretty much “Yes, and have you noticed how many people are already doing this?”

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        Thanks for the detailed response!

        So just to clarify that I’m understanding this correctly:

        Most of what intelligence agencies actually do is analyze open source intelligence. Most of the rest of the information they get is obtained in the same way that, say, a sleazy journalist or a private detective would research someone. As long as you aren’t poisoning people with polonium or running black site prisons, the vast majority of intelligence work could be done more-or-less above board.

        That’s surprising but probably shouldn’t be. I know even less about this stuff than I thought.

        • John Schilling says:

          That’s about the size of it. Governments are such large consumers of intelligence that they benefit from economies of scale and dedicated organization, but most of their sources and methods are available to the private sector.

      • phil says:

        If he’s thinking about the news stories I imagine he’s thinking about.

        A reasonably credible threat of “you’ll never work in this town again” seems to go a long way in making blackmail work

        —————-
        —————-

        This whole topic makes for an interesting exercise in understanding real world power projection

        What is it that we imagine that state sponsored intelligence agencies do? And what do we imagine the privately sponsored intelligence agencies would do?

        On the small potatoes level, if you’re interested in finding out what your wife does while you’re at work, you can flip open the yellow pages, there will be a private investigator section, and you can hire someone to follow your wife around and snap photos of whatever she’s is doing all day.

        Is this legal? Does the state care? For the most part, so long as the PI doesn’t trespass, yeah it is, has a PI ever gotten overzealous and gone to far to get the information they’re looking for, I’m sure they have.

        Its worth keeping in mind that the state is not omniscient, and while its resources are vast, they aren’t infinite.

        What keeps the CIA from being immediately shut down in any country it operates in outside the US? or any other state intelligence agency from being shut down?

        Mainly they put a lot of effort into staying away from the machinery of the state.

        Compared to the risks of state level espionage, private level espionage is probably cake work.

        Part of why law firms are able to charge what they can charge, is that you can bring certain interesting problems to them, and instead of creating co-conspirators, whatever conversation you have is protected by certain legal privileges.

        At that level, even for billionaires, the bill is going to start getting pricey quickly

        ————–

        “If so, what would this agency look like in order to avoid being immediately shut down by the feds?”

        In the late 1930s, Strauss called for the first time for a reconsideration of the “distinction between exoteric (or public) and esoteric (or secret) teaching”.[24] In 1952 he published Persecution and the Art of Writing, arguing that serious writers write esoterically, that is, with multiple or layered meanings, often disguised within irony or paradox, obscure references, even deliberate self-contradiction. Esoteric writing serves several purposes: protecting the philosopher from the retribution of the regime, and protecting the regime from the corrosion of philosophy; it attracts the right kind of reader and repels the wrong kind; and ferreting out the interior message is in itself an exercise of philosophic reasoning.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Strauss#On_reading

        The marketplace for these services are probably advertised in a fairly Staussian manner, where if you’re not in the market for it, it seems uninteresting and boring, and if you are in the market for it, you can recognize it for what it is

        ————–

        as mentioned above, there are oceans of open source information available, what worth thinking about, is what closed source information usefully moves the needle in light of the open sources information available

  5. Atlas says:

    Has anyone else read anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar’s recent book the Human Predicament? If so, or for that matter even if not, any thoughts? (If this topic turns out to be interest to enough people, I might write a longer review in a couple weeks when I have some more time.)

    • rahien.din says:

      I would be interested in your review.

      I listened to part of his discussion with Sam Harris and came away perplexedly curious and curiously perplexed.

    • Svw5oe says:

      I haven’t finished it yet (I am very bad at reading books).

      For context, I agree with the general idea of the asymmetry, even if I would formulate it slightly differently (it is not good for a person to be born and experience good things since those things would not have been missed if they had not been born, but it is bad for a person to be born and experience bad things. Therefore it is always better to not be born).

      I really liked the distinctions he made at the beginning between different kinds of meanings. It is a simple idea, but as often I think it is good to have it exposed clearly.

      His refutation of the Epicurean argument against the badness of death seems much stranger. he perfectly understands the force of the argument but his answer looks very weak to me. He takes adultery as an act that can be bad even when it has no consequence on anyone’s well-being and uses that to refute hedonism. But isn’t it an argument against consequentialism more than against hedonism? I would say that adultery is bad because it breaks trust. If everyone started to cheat on each other it would decrease the value of trust and that would have huge consequences on people’s well-being. The following argument for the badness of death looks to me like inconsistent word gymnastics, but I could have misunderstood it. He seems to say that having a past preference not fulfilled in the future is bad, even if there is no time at which it is bad for anyone.

      I need to read the rest of it.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        (it is not good for a person to be born and experience good things since those things would not have been missed if they had not been born, but it is bad for a person to be born and experience bad things. Therefore it is always better to not be born)

        How do philosophers not treat this sort of thing as the same sort of situation as working through the stereotypical “A train leaves Pittsburgh…” problems and arriving at answers like “the trains will meet in -20 minutes” or “the Union Pacific line is traveling at 2*c”? Has contemporary philosophy disappeared so far up its own ass there’s no sanity checking before publishing anymore?

        • Svw5oe says:

          Just to clarify, this was my own formulation, not something peer-review. Also, the asymmetry argument was presented in a previous book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

          But what is wrong with thinking that, for example here, creating unfulfilled preferences is bad but creating new fulfilled preferences is not good? Should we refuse all arguments that lead to counter intuitive results if they argue their case well?

          Your examples are cases of mathematically or physically impossible conclusions that prove there is a mistake either in the reasoning or in the hypotheses. But a conclusion being unacceptable by most people does not prove it is impossible.

          • baconbacon says:

            Because ‘bad’ and good’ are mostly judgements. Outside of a few experiences you could take most things not just one way or another, but both ways over time. My girlfriend crushes me and I spend weeks or months feeling terrible = obviously bad, right? Unless my capability to grow and have healthy relationships is somewhat dependent on having some rough ones, in which case that breakup could be a piece of my maturity that allows me to make a 50 year, largely overall positive experience, marriage work. Even some of the worst experiences can be reframed
            into positive, productive ones.

          • Svw5oe says:

            Sure, we agree on this. Sometimes something bad prevents something even worse.
            But the whole argument is that if you were not born, you would not have needed to have healthy relationships, you would not have missed them at all. You would have avoided feeling terrible for months without any drawbacks.
            The idea that you sometimes need to suffer to be happy can be seen as a good argument for the badness of life: it means suffering is inevitable.

            It seems that everything relies on axiomatic beliefs. It looks like that most people accept that creating a happy person is a net positive, even though there would have been nobody missing that happiness before they existed. In particular it is the case in a classical utilitarian framework.

          • Matt M says:

            Revealed preferences would suggest that this is a load of bunk. The vast majority of people, even ones who face the prospect of large amounts of pain and suffering in their near future, prefer to be alive than to be dead. This suggests that on the net of things, the joys and positives of life outweigh the pain and suffering.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            It looks like that most people accept that creating a happy person is a net positive, even though there would have been nobody missing that happiness before they existed.

            Sure there are. The OP is about anti-natalism. Infertility is distressing precisely because (some) potential parents are missing the happiness of children who cannot exist.

          • Svw5oe says:

            I know people who have tried to kill themselves and were not happy to wake up. Going against survival instinct and guilt inflicted by society is not easy. We have evolved, genetically and culturally, to reproduce well, not to find the truth about the meaning of life.
            Also, killing yourself harms other people in a way that not being born doesn’t.

            Edit:

            Sure there are. The OP is about anti-natalism. Infertility is distressing precisely because (some) potential parents are missing the happiness of children who cannot exist.

            Oh yes, absolutely. Not having children can be bad for the parents. The claim is that it is not bad for the children.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Therefore it is always better to not be born

            The vast majority of people, even ones who face the prospect of large amounts of pain and suffering in their near future, prefer to be alive than to be dead.

            I know people who have tried to kill themselves and were not happy to wake up

            Hey, where’d that goalpost go?

          • Svw5oe says:

            Hey, where’d that goalpost go?

            I’m sorry, I feel stupid but I don’t understand what that means. Anyway my original goal was not to argue for anti-natalism, I was just replying about the book, so I will stop here.

          • gbdub says:

            This argument seems to be functionally equivalent to the assumption that “bad experiences” have effectively infinite negative utility.

            Basically, you could live a life of infinite happiness, except for one fractional moment of suffering.

            In your formulation, you are still better off never having been born, because in that case you avoid the suffering, and you’ll never miss the (infinite!) good bits.

            No offense, but that seems bonkers.

            To me the “logical” assessment would be something like:
            1) Nonexistence: 0
            2) Good stuff: +1
            3) Bad stuff: -1

            Or even, if you want to be a pessimist:
            1) Nonexistence: 0
            2) Good stuff: +1
            3) Bad stuff: -10

            You seem to be saying:
            1) Nonexistence: 0
            2) Good stuff: 0
            3) Bad stuff: -1

            If human experiences have any value at all, then both “happiness” and “suffering” ought to have weight. Otherwise you’re just begging the question by declaring beforehand that happiness has no utility. What’s the reasoning behind that?

            EDIT: Ninja’d by your “I’ll stop here” post, but I’m curious if the book has an answer for this seeming issue.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            @Svw5oe
            Apologies for the SSC in-speak. Moving the Goalposts is essentially changing the objectives mid-contest.

            Your original post stated:

            I agree with the general idea of the asymmetry, even if I would formulate it slightly differently ([…] Therefore it is always better to not be born.) [emphasis added]

            Which I took issue with. When presented with the argument that quite a lot of people would rather have been born than not, you downshifted to evidence for “it is sometimes better to not be born”. Which is a much less objectionable argument, in no small part due to not having the flaw that gbdub points out.

          • Svw5oe says:

            Oh I’m sorry, I have been reading SSC for a year but there are still basics I need to read at some point.

            When presented with the argument that quite a lot of people would rather have been born than not, you downshifted to evidence for “it is sometimes better to not be born”.

            Bad communication on my part. I was not trying to argue for “it is sometimes better to not be born”, but for “revealed preferences should not be trusted” by pointing out that even those who clearly want to die and live a miserable life often stay alive for much longer than they want. Only as a counter-example.

            I do think that is would have been better for everyone not to be born, even though most people want to live and are glad to be born, and there is no contradiction here. My claim implies that preferences to stay alive are either mistaken or based on others’ well-being (“I would rather not exist, but now that I exist it would be terrible for my family and friends if I killed myself” or “I think being born is bad for me, but I make other people’s lives better with effective altruism and dying would have a negative consequence overall”).

            If human experiences have any value at all, then both “happiness” and “suffering” ought to have weight.

            I am not saying that happiness has no value. I am saying that happiness only has value if it is missed by someone. It is the old difference between making people happy and making happy people. This article by the Foundational Research Institute argues for a view in which happiness has only instrumental value. I personally think that such views make a lot more sense than maximizing happiness for its own sake, but I think it comes down to widely diverging intuitions and axioms.

          • gbdub says:

            I am not saying that happiness has no value. I am saying that happiness only has value if it is missed by someone.

            This implies that happiness actually has negative value– its only function is to amplify suffering by its absence. So it’s worse than I thought!

            (NOTE: I am treating “happiness” as “anti-suffering” and “anti-suffering” as “happiness”. Or “happiness” as “utility/fulfilled preference” and suffering as “disutility/unfulfilled preference”. I think you are on board with this, but wanted to be clear)

            Let me try a different tack: why does suffering have (negative) value? What’s wrong with believing that it is good to create new fulfilled preferences, but not bad to create new unfulfilled ones?

            Certainly some people will claim they prefer not to suffer. But often their preferences are mistaken (sure you had a bad day at work, but you’ve still got a nice house and happy family, so you aren’t actually suffering). Or their desire to avoid suffering is only because they think their suffering makes the people around them miserable.

            I am not saying suffering has no value, I am saying it only has value if it is missed by someone – that is, it only matters because we derive additional happiness from the absence of suffering.

            Obviously all I’ve done here is taken your argument and inverted suffering and happiness. But why shouldn’t I?

            What makes fulfilled and unfulfilled preferences fundamentally different such that either must be weighed infinitely more heavily?

            Again, you’ve created an argument that makes you correct by rigging the definition to make it impossible to achieve net positive utility. But you’ve not convincingly argued why the definitions ought to be rigged in that way (as opposed to some other way that would guarantee the opposite result).

          • “Better not to be born. But who can be so lucky? Not one in a thousand.”

            From The Joys of Yiddish, from memory so probably not verbatim.

          • Skivverus says:

            Is this moral imperative humans-only, or does it extend to other sentient beings?

          • Svw5oe says:

            What makes fulfilled and unfulfilled preferences fundamentally different such that either must be weighed infinitely more heavily?

            Because suffering can be seen as a feeling that the current state needs to change. It is a problem. It feels that way. Happiness is more like an optimal state. A state that does not need to change. Those things are not symmetrical. I can’t think of a way to turn them around.

            Again, this article explains the reasoning for such an asymmetry much better than I can.

            Is this moral imperative humans-only, or does it extend to other sentient beings?

            I don’t see why is so special about humans that it should only apply to them. Everything that suffers could be treated that way, whether it is a human, a bird or an artificial intelligence.

          • baconbacon says:

            Because suffering can be seen as a feeling that the current state needs to change. It is a problem. It feels that way. Happiness is more like an optimal state. A state that does not need to change. Those things are not symmetrical. I can’t think of a way to turn them around.

            You have assumed that they are independent states. Happiness, for a lot of people, is achieved through struggle. That is working through something difficult is what gives their life meaning, not just “being happy”, or else they would just save a bunch of money and then do heroin until it killed them.

          • gbdub says:

            Again, this article explains the reasoning for such an asymmetry much better than I can.

            I guess I interpreted that article differently, though to be fair I skimmed it (prior to my last post, FWIW). Basically it is arguing that contentment/tranquility, that is, lack of desire, is a state with positive utility. And that “pleasure” is not necessarily the same thing. And that eliminating suffering (to produce more contentment) is a higher priority than adding pleasure.

            But it did not say “pleasure does not have positive utility”. Just that “contentment”, even if fairly pleasure free, is itself of positive utility.

            Also, I would define “contentment/tranquility” as “the state of existing without desire”. Nonexistence is not “contentment”, it’s just a null state. You can’t satisfy desires that don’t exist (consider my flip: suffering only matters when it is “missed”). Thus, nonexistence is eliminating potential positive utility by reducing possible contentment.

            Which was really my whole issue: you are treating “contentment” as, effectively zero utility (relative to nonexistence). So if I create a “preference” (a person with desires), you would say, “either that preference gets satisfied (contentment: value 0) or it does not (suffering, value -1)”. So of course in that case nonexistence is preferred, since it has an expected value of 0 instead of negative something.

            But again, that only works if contentment is zero value. That’s the part I’m not getting a satisfying explanation for: why “existing in a state of preference satisfaction / contentment / tranquility / happiness / whatever” is no more valuable than nonexistence.

        • skef says:

          Standards of philosophy publishing are much more focused on arguments than conclusions. Generally speaking, an argument with a conclusion that almost everyone would disagree with will be considered of potential value if it is likely to prompt the development of better counter-arguments. The evaluative question would be “is it already trivial to dismiss this argument in a way almost everyone would accept, beyond just the modus tollens approach?”

  6. Winter Shaker says:

    A few threads ago there was a ‘what beard do you do’ thread, so I hope someone might be able to answer the following: minoxidil for increased beardiness: worth the bother? There’s a lot of stuff out there on the net (both products and advice) that may be scammy, maybe not, but the consensus seems to be that you need to commit to at least 6 months’ use, which I’d be willing to do if it works. Anyone had any experience?

  7. Atlas says:

    There seem to be a few books coming out in the next few months that at least I’ve been really anticipating and might be good discussion fodder:

    The Case Against Education, by Bryan Caplan (releasing 1/16/18)

    Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker (releasing 2/27/18)

    Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (releasing 2/27/18)

    Would there be any preliminary interest in a sort of OT book club for one or more of these? (And feel free to suggest other interesting sounding upcoming books as well.)

    • johan_larson says:

      I’d be interested in discussing the Caplan and Taleb books. The Pinker seems a bit conventional.

    • Charles F says:

      I’d also be interested in the Caplan and Taleb books.

      Elephant in the Brain seems like an obvious other suggestion. That’s supposed to be coming out January something, I believe. And Jordan Peterson (who seems to come up fairly frequently around SSC) has a book coming out in February, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos, which seems like it could be interesting.

    • Deiseach says:

      You couldn’t make me read those books (unless it was Clockwork Orange style forcing my eyes open) but I’d be interested in the discussion amongst the people who read them, since I think you guys would cover all the interesting bits and raise the interesting questions 🙂

    • Jeremiah says:

      I’d be interested in all three.

    • WashedOut says:

      Taleb’s books just go from strength to strength. Antifragile was brilliant, so I too am looking forward to his next offering.

    • Anon. says:

      Add Hanson’s new book to the list.

      I’d be up for the Caplan at least.

    • Urstoff says:

      I gave up on NNT after The Black Swan was just a recapitulation of Fooled by Randomness, both of which were basically the same chapter repeated over and over again. I am looking forward to the other books, though, as well as the upcoming Hanson/Simler book (will be nice to contrast it with Kahneman and Gigerenzer) and Charles Mann’s upcoming book on Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. Also, the forthcoming Jonathan Haidt / Greg Lukianoff book might be interesting (or depressing).

      • rahien.din says:

        I’ve only read his Bed of Procrustes, which I think was very good and achieved its purpose.

        But it did make me wonder why, if a necessary characteristic of wisdom is “best expressed via aphorism,” Taleb bothers writing actual books.

    • MereComments says:

      I’d be in for Skin in the Game, depending on the structure of the book club.

      Might be interested in Hanson’s new book, but two months later I’m still trying to power through Age of Em. Man, is it dry.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I’m interested in The Case Against Education.

      I don’t think education is necessarily bad, but it doesn’t pay off nearly as well as people mostly seem to think it does.

      I’m tired of Taleb’s boasting, but I’d be interested in whatever new ideas he has in the book.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      +1 Case Against Eduction

    • baconbacon says:

      I’d be most interested in the Taleb book, and also Jordan Peterson’s soon to be released book.

  8. rlms says:

    Christmas is approaching, which raises a question for the 37% (according to the 2017 SSC survey) of us who have a job involving computers. What is the best way to explain Bitcoin to non-technical relatives who ask you about it? Followup: what about Ethereum?

    • AnonYEmous says:

      just call it “internet money” or something

      i’m pretty sure that’s what it is, right?

      Realistically, you mine for bitcoins and in the act you mint them; in the olden days you mined for gold and minted regular coins. It’s not really that different (mostly, the slaves doing the work are computer programs instead of people).

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Pets.com meets Proverbs 26:11.

    • BBA says:

      A massive waste of electricity.

      A few years ago during the first Bitcoin bubble, Conan O’Brien had a sketch about a “Bitcoin expert” whose explanations were impossibly convoluted and full of incomprehensible jargon, before he finally settled on “Bitcoin is a flat circle and everything we have done, we will do over and over again.”

    • stephenmalina says:

      Jokes about Bitcoin being a bubble aside, I usually try and first make the person I’m talking to think about how normal fiat money works, then explain how Bitcoin differs: transaction verification comes from consensus rather than a central source, and then give some intuition about how the decentralization happens through agreement about a ledger. From there, I start flailing as I fail to give a layman’s explanation of how mining actually creates new coins.

      That said, it depends a lot on the audience. If I’m talking to someone who cares why Bitcoin or Ethereum matters, I’ll focus more on potential future applications of either than the concepts that underlie them.

      • Standing in the Shadows says:

        how mining actually creates new coins

        Sometimes I ha-ha-only-serious wonder if Bitcoin is really a brilliant attack on some classified weakness in the SHA-256 algorithm, given that it’s proof of work is doing exhaustive search to discover the inputs that generate specific classes of unlikely SHA-256 values.

    • skef says:

      The earliest coins were standardized amounts of (at least somewhat) rare metals seen as valuable for independent reasons. A standardized bit of value is useful in the exchange of things with value.

      It eventually made more sense to keep the valuable stuff in one place and make tokens that represented the valuable stuff (as in “the gold standard”). The important qualities of the tokens were: (1) it was hard enough for random people (rather than the government) to make convincing fakes, (2) the government agreed to exchange the tokens for the valuable stuff.

      It eventually became possible to stop “backing” the tokens with a particular amount of valuable metal and have the system continue working as it had before, because of the common understanding that the tokens were valuable. This is somewhat strange, and that description glosses over some complicated details, but all that happened long before the invention of bitcoins.

      The bitcoin system is made up of a large network of computers running a complicated algorithm that produces sequences of bits (ones and zeros) that some of the qualities of these earlier systems. First, they cannot be “counterfitted”, or at least no one knows how to do so. Second, as with valuable metals, it is “expensive” (in terms of computational resources) to make more of them, but not so expensive that doing so isn’t worth it as long as they are seen as valuable.

      The result something like a government coin, in that it has no value other than the potential for exchanging it, and something like a precious metal coin, in that the supply is not determined by a government’s decisions, but by the scarcity imposed by the algorithm and by how many people are trying to make more of them.

      The system was created by people who recognized the possibility of creating something like a government coin but that was not controlled by a government. The hope is that if enough people view it as a currency it will be one, because the government-supplied currencies are that way too.

      The controversy over bitcoin is about what you would expect: Some people think that most people will decide that bitcoins have no value in a way they don’t decide that about government-backed money. Some people think both systems have the same problem and therefore government-backed currencies are doomed. And some people think the two are similar enough that bitcoin is a viable longer-term currency.

      • skef says:

        Ethereum: “Let’s wait another few Christmases to see if it’s caught on more before getting into all that.”

        • beleester says:

          This is probably the best answer, but if you have a particularly geeky relative, the answer is “It’s like Bitcoin, except you can write computer programs that move coins around.”

          You can use these programs to write “smart contracts” – a contract which is automatically enforced by a computer program in response to some outside trigger. For example, you could do an automated Kickstarter campaign where the program checks if you hit your funding goal, and if so, it releases the money.

          So on the one hand, you have a contract that cannot be broken. This is kinda handy if you don’t trust the person you’re making a contract with.

          But on the other hand, you have a contract that’s a computer program. And computer programs have bugs. And if your unbreakable contract has a bug in it which lets a hacker steal all your money, you’re screwed.

          So take all the worries and promises about Bitcoin and multiply them about five.

      • Brad says:

        The bitcoin justification has moved on from currency to store of value since the transaction costs are now prohibitive. Either that or tell us the lightening network is just around the corner and will amazing.

        • skef says:

          It’s always a bit of both with every such system.

        • onyomi says:

          What I don’t understand about the Core argument: they keep saying “store of value first, medium of exchange second,” on the theory that a lot more people need to get into Bitcoin as a store of value before the price will be stable enough to feel comfortable spending it. Problem is, Bitcoin right now is not a store of value. It’s a speculative investment.

          Right now I can use 20 oz. of gold to buy a car. I’m quite confident that if I bury 20 oz. of gold in the ground for 10 years and dig it up I can still use it to buy a car in 10 years. Probably a nicer car than now. Not a house. Just a car. And it will still be useful to somebody who wants to make jewelry or electronics. Because of wildly different potential demands, BTC in 10 years could be worth 100 cars or it could be worth 0 cars. That’s not a store of value, that’s a speculative investment.

          Something can only be a “store of value” if there exists demand for it for reasons other than “store of value.” Otherwise, it’s circular, like “buy a house: who cares if you can live in it or rent it; you can always sell it for more to someone else in the future.” “Buy bitcoins: who cares if you can use them to facilitate any trades or contracts; someone else will buy them for more in the future.” That’s not a store of value; it’s a bubble.

          For houses to be a “store of value” requires demand for houses to live in. For Bitcoin to be a store of value requires demand to use Bitcoin for other things, like buying and selling online. Bitcoin as a speculative investment is based on the prediction that, in the future, more and more people will want them as a medium of exchange, not on the idea more and more people will want them as a “store of value.” They can only be a store of value to the extent people also want them for some other reason.

          I don’t understand the technical aspects very deeply, but economically speaking, if BTC isn’t useful as a medium of exchange, it won’t be a good long-run store of value.

          So I changed some of my BTC to BCH. From a consumer point of view, at least, the choice right now is obvious: the former charges high fees and is relatively slow, the latter charges negligible fees and is fast. I don’t yet use cryptocurrency to buy a cup of coffee or even a streaming video on Amazon. If we’re ever going to get to that point, we’ll need one with the latter characteristics. And if we don’t get to that point, then the sky-high valuations will prove a fantasy.

          • IrishDude says:

            What I don’t understand about the Core argument: they keep saying “store of value first, medium of exchange second,” on the theory that a lot more people need to get into Bitcoin as a store of value before the price will be stable enough to feel comfortable spending it.

            Core’s main argument to me seems to be that the primary focus of bitcoin should be censorship resistance and decentralization, as that’s what makes it a unique alternative to the current monetary system. You can already do cheap, quick transactions with Visa, but at the cost of going through trusted third parties. For bitcoin to scale on chain to compete with Visa level transactions, it would require very large blocks that would threaten decentralization, creating fewer players that can more easily be censored.

            I highly recommend this talk by Andreas Antonopolous on the scaling debate. He talks about the trade-offs with larger blocks, and why a better approach is using multiple layers. Let layer 1 do its job really well (decentralization and censorship resistance), then add other layers that can do a different job really well (e.g., quick, cheap transactions). This is the way the Internet works, with multiple layers, each layer performing a different specialized function.

            BCH has cheaper transactions now, but so does almost every other altcoin and so did BTC before it gained widespread adoption. How will these cryptos perform at scale?

            I’m betting the other way (and betting for the longer term), having changed most of my BCH to BTC (though keeping a little BCH to hedge against the fact I could be wrong).

          • Matt M says:

            I am generally pro-Bitcoin, but I agree with all of this. The absolute last thing it is, right now, is a “store of value”, even if I personally happen to be up 10000% on my (very small) investment in it.

          • Brad says:

            The returns to ASICs and the extreme energy requirements have hurt censorship resistance.

            The government of the PRC could fairly easily take control of the major miners there, which are probably enough to subvert the blockchain.

          • IrishDude says:

            @Brad
            Miners are one part of the bitcoin ecosystem, but so are nodes. Nodes help ensure that miners are following the rules, and nodes are much more decentralized around the world. The negative effect of increased blocksize on nodes seems to be one of the primary concerns of Core.

            Also, increased competition to the Chinese miners, through newly developed semiconductor chips, is on the horizon.

          • Brad says:

            My understanding is that there is a hard and fast vulnerability at 50 + epsilon percent of mining power. There are game theory arguments against the value of subverting in this way, but they don’t apply to PRC.

            As for new hardware that’s only one part of the equation. Because the dominant input in dollar terms is electricity there’s concentration in places where either electricity is cheap or where government corruption allows for massive quantities of subsidized electricity to be diverted. In the former case they compete with Alcoa but not in the latter (bc of FCPA).

          • onyomi says:

            To my mind the biggest danger to Bitcoin is not that control falls into the hands of a mining cartel, but that it fails to achieve widespread adoption for everyday transactions and governments regulate it out of existence, arguing it’s only used for sketchy purposes, like drugs, money laundering, tax evasion, etc.

            Right now, government can’t regulate Visa out of existence on the theory that Visa is only used for sketchy purposes (I mean, they might regulate it out of existence, but an excuse like that would lack even superficial plausibility for the general public). When Bitcoin becomes as big, or bigger than Visa, that’s when it’s safe. At the same time, the absolute number of full nodes will probably be larger, even if the number of users with full nodes drops from say, 1% to .1% of the total.

            I don’t object to second-layer solutions on principle. The problem I see is that the Core devs seem to have their priorities wrong: right now Bitcoin is bearing a deep opportunity cost because of an artificial cap on its growth.

            Right now Bitcoin is slowing down in the race to achieve widespread use before governments really understand and try to regulate it. If Core has solutions to that problem that may work next year then fine: just raise the cap to 2 mbs for now and maybe lightning network makes further increase unnecessary. But don’t tell those actually attempting to use Bitcoin for commerce right now to basically suck it up and wait while they make it usable again. Those users will drop Bitcoin or switch to an altcoin. Meanwhile crypto is losing precious time.

          • Iain says:

            To my mind the biggest danger to Bitcoin is not that control falls into the hands of a mining cartel, but that it fails to achieve widespread adoption for everyday transactions and governments regulate it out of existence, arguing it’s only used for sketchy purposes, like drugs, money laundering, tax evasion, etc.

            The problem is that “sketchy purposes” make up most of Bitcoin’s practical value. As IrishDude says above, the differences between Bitcoin and existing solutions are decentralization and censorship resistance. For everyday transactions, neither of those are really valuable to most people — certainly not so valuable that they justify jumping through Bitcoin’s hoops instead of just using a credit card, or PayPal, or whatever. Joe Q. Random doesn’t care whether his transaction goes through a trusted third party when he pays for groceries.

            I find it hard to believe that Bitcoin’s current valuation can be justified by its underlying utility. People are taking out mortgages to buy bitcoin. I’m not so foolish to think I can predict when the bubble will pop — the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent, and all that — but I would be very surprised if it doesn’t pop eventually.

            I am slightly less pessimistic about Ethereum. The “smart contracts” aspect gives it value beyond being an inconvenient currency replacement, and the proof-of-stake work is technically interesting, although still unproven in practice.

          • baconbacon says:

            To my mind the biggest danger to Bitcoin is not that control falls into the hands of a mining cartel, but that it fails to achieve widespread adoption for everyday transactions and governments regulate it out of existence, arguing it’s only used for sketchy purposes, like drugs, money laundering, tax evasion, etc.

            These types of statements have been used to argue against Bitcoin for a decade now. I think some of the current price craziness is due to the fact that it has hit multiple snags (silk road, attempts to stifle in China etc) and has bounced back from them.

            One thing to note is that the US government is not good at ‘regulating things out of existence’. They are good at driving an individual company out of business, or putting an individual person in jail, but they aren’t good at stopping the good behind it. You can shut down Napster but can you stop file sharing? The question becomes is Bitcoin Napster or file sharing? (None of this addresses the actual price, only the idea that it might be regulated out of existence).

          • Brad says:

            @onyomi

            To my mind the biggest danger to Bitcoin is not that control falls into the hands of a mining cartel, but that it fails to achieve widespread adoption for everyday transactions and governments regulate it out of existence, arguing it’s only used for sketchy purposes, like drugs, money laundering, tax evasion, etc.

            I think your libertarianism is blinding you to the hetrogenity that exists in the group “governments”.

            China is one such government and if they wanted to destroy bitcoin the miner cartel route would be easier and more effective than any regulations. I don’t think there are any effective internal legal rules that would prevent them from doing so (unlike the US).

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah, I used to be pretty concerned that a government crackdown would drive the value of my bitcoins to zero. Then a friend pointed out that when the Chinese government tried that, the value went up. And traditionally, the government banning things certainly does not serve to make those things cheaper.

            So the risk from the government is less “this will cause the value to go down” but more “it will become increasingly difficult for you to cash out without becoming a wanted criminal.” The value of a pound of cocaine is reasonably high, but that doesn’t mean it’s an asset that most people would like to hold, even if you could promise them it would increase in value at a higher rate than the S&P…

          • Rick Hull says:

            @onyomi

            Something can only be a “store of value” if there exists demand for it for reasons other than “store of value.” Otherwise, it’s circular, like “buy a house: who cares if you can live in it or rent it; you can always sell it for more to someone else in the future.” “Buy bitcoins: who cares if you can use them to facilitate any trades or contracts; someone else will buy them for more in the future.” That’s not a store of value; it’s a bubble.

            If gold’s underlying value is in jewelry and some industrial electronics applications — neither of which explain its unit price — then BTC’s underlying value is in the payment network. They both have a bedrock to work from. You can’t easily transfer a unit of gold to a recipient in Zimbabwe like you can with BTC.

            Upon the bedrock is built the network of users — this is like a building being an improvement on raw land. Without a network of users — people interested in using the item as money — then the value collapses to the bedrock. With a network effect of users, the demand goes way up and likewise the price in terms of other things.

          • onyomi says:

            @Rick Hull

            Without a network of users — people interested in using the item as money — then the value collapses to the bedrock. With a network effect of users, the demand goes way up and likewise the price in terms of other things.

            Precisely my point: if we have a growing network of users who demand Bitcoin as a medium of exchange because it’s useful as a medium of exchange then Bitcoin can also act as a store of value, like gold. But if nobody is using it as a payment network then neither will it be a good store of value despite the limited supply, because the demand for it will be too low.

          • Nornagest says:

            I basically agree with the idea that Bitcoin’s chances are a lot better if it works as a medium of exchange as well as a store of value, but just to play devil’s advocate, when’s the last time you walked into a dealership and bought a car with a pound of Krugerrands?

          • onyomi says:

            @Iain

            For everyday transactions, neither of those are really valuable to most people — certainly not so valuable that they justify jumping through Bitcoin’s hoops instead of just using a credit card, or PayPal, or whatever. Joe Q. Random doesn’t care whether his transaction goes through a trusted third party when he pays for groceries.

            What about all the people in the world without access to trusted third parties for transactions? Without access to non-inflationary currency? Without a means to save they can be confident won’t be expropriated or “revalued“?

          • skef says:

            What about all the people in the world without access to trusted third parties for transactions? Without access to non-inflationary currency? Without a means to save they can be confident won’t be expropriated or “revalued“?

            Those people need something more specific than a store of value that can also be used as a medium of exchange. They need a medium of exchange that is mostly stable over time. A massively deflationary currency benefits those who get in earlier, but the distorts prices and is inherently unstable.

            Specifically because the supply of bitcoins is not controlled by some entity, it’s not clear that the units can have a stable value. Stability over a period of time will make it more attractive as a currency, leading to wider use leading in turn to instability.

            It would be an interesting exercise to try to design a blockchain currency with a degree of reactive supply management. At first glance such a system seems untenable, given that if people knew what the management parameters were they could be taken advantage of. But maybe enough information could be available only to the management system itself, and opaque to “outsiders”.

          • It would be an interesting exercise to try to design a blockchain currency with a degree of reactive supply management.

            What you need is a money where the cost of creating a new coin is reasonably constant. Bitcoin could do it aside from two things:

            1. It’s designed to make the cost increase as coins are mined
            2. Computing is getting cheaper

            These push in opposite directions. But if you had a mining system where a new coin always took the same amount of electric power you would have one in which the price of electricity never fell below the corresponding value. So it would be stable relative to the cost of electric power, providing nothing happened that dropped demand for the coin and so dropped its value below the bound.

          • skef says:

            What you need is a money where the cost of creating a new coin is reasonably constant.

            [Genuinely and straightforwardly asking]: Is that enough? It’s not clear to me why the cost of mining another ounce of gold would change all that much, but the value of gold varies quite a bit, seemingly due to other factors. One important one being the number of people who think it will once again back major currencies.

            Added later: It seems like “constant cost to produce” would likely lead to a stable value for something that is consumed. For something that sticks around, if the cost of “production” is constant and (therefore?) the theoretical supply is unlimited, you could still see what amounts to boom/bust cycles.

          • IrishDude says:

            @Onyomi

            Right now Bitcoin is slowing down in the race to achieve widespread use before governments really understand and try to regulate it. If Core has solutions to that problem that may work next year then fine: just raise the cap to 2 mbs for now and maybe lightning network makes further increase unnecessary.

            Here’s Core’s roadmap for scaling. They aren’t opposed to a 2mb blocksize, they want to build features X, Y, Z first, and then increase blocksize if necessary, as they think features X, Y, and Z will make blocksize increases safer:
            “Finally–at some point the capacity increases from the above may not be enough. Delivery on relay improvements, segwit fraud proofs, dynamic block size controls, and other advances in technology will reduce the risk and therefore controversy around moderate block size increase proposals (such as 2/4/8 rescaled to respect segwit’s increase). Bitcoin will be able to move forward with these increases when improvements and understanding render their risks widely acceptable relative to the risks of not deploying them. In Bitcoin Core we should keep patches ready to implement them as the need and the will arises, to keep the basic software engineering from being the limiting factor. ”

            Note that the blocksize was increased with the introduction of segwit, lowering transaction fees by ~25%. It still has low adoption, but when big exchanges like Coinbase integrate segwit it will result in lower fees across the board.

            Even with no further blocksize increases, 100 million dollars can be transferred right now anywhere around the world, censorship resistant and cleared in 10 minutes, for 10 bucks. I’ve made a few ~100 dollar purchases with my bitcoin with fees around a dollar, because I’m fine waiting several hours or more than a day for the purchase to confirm. So it still can be used as payment network, but right now it’s just for higher value and/or low time preference uses. Bitcoin won’t work well right now to purchase a coffee, sure, but there’s still many other use cases that work to provide lots of value to a wide variety of users. And there’s many improvements to the protocol and layers on top of the protocol coming down the road to increase functionality and usability.

            I see your point about there being a potential ‘race’ element to gaining widespread adoption to make regulation against cryptos more politically unpalatable, and you might be right, but I see this as more of a long haul phenomenon where it’s important to get security right at the start. Bitcoin and other cryptos are still early and have a lot of growing to do.

    • John Schilling says:

      Level I – Economics (simplified): Bitcoin is monetized coolness. Anything that is rare and that some people want badly for some reason, can be turned into money. Dollar bills, gold coins, cigarettes in prisons. Even prisoners who don’t smoke, will take cigarettes in trade because they know they’ll be able to trade them to someone else – and the person they trade with doesn’t have to be a smoker either. There just have to be enough smokers around. And the reason some people want a thing badly doesn’t have to be any more than “it’s really cool”; gold that isn’t money is just bling, but some people have really wanted bling since ~3000 BC if not before.

      Just as there are a lot of smokers in prisons, there are a lot of nerds and geeks on the internet who think clever math is really cool, and some of them are libertarians, anarchists, and quasi-criminals who think being able to do black- or grey-market transactions without The Man being able to track them (and without having to meet dangerous strangers in shady meatspace streetcorners) are also cool. So when someone came up with some really clever math that made a type of numerical token rare and hard to duplicate and advertised it as “the cool way to do transactions without having to go through The Man’s banks”, bam, lots of people wanted them because they were cool. And that meant lots more people wanted them for the same reason non-smokers want cigarettes in prison – they are a really valuable way to do black- or grey-market transactions, at least until the coolness wears off and probably for a while even after that.

      Level II – Technology(simplified): The obvious problem with using numerical tokens as money is that, duh, anyone with a computer can just make infinite copies, like putting dollar bills on a perfect photocopier. The bit of really clever math that makes bitcoin both cool and useful is that each bitcoin encodes within itself a securely encrypted record of every transaction that’s ever been done with that bitcoin, updated each time it changes hands, and set up so that it’s possible to ping the internet and ask, “without revealing who and where and why, does anybody else think they got this exact bitcoin in trade from someone?” If the answer is yes, you’re dealing with a fraud and the transaction will be automatically rejected. This takes a lot of complicated math coordinated across the internet but, here’s the clever bit, doing the hard parts of this math for everyone else intrinsically rewards people by occasionally spitting out a new and universally-accepted legitimate bitcoin for them. Cool, eh?

      Level III: What about Ethereum? There are prison inmates who really want cigarettes, and also prison inmates who really want porn and ones who really want SIM cards for their illicit cellphones. All of these are rare and valuable, but only one of them is accepted as “money”. The porn and SIM cards, you’ll only be able to trade to people who specifically want them, and so you probably shouldn’t accept them yourself except at a discount. There’s no rhyme or reason to this other than that it’s convenient for everybody to agree on one thing to use as money, and that happens to be cigarettes. And bitcoin. Anything else, like Ethereum, is going to be harder to trade for the stuff you want, because most other people don’t want it.

      Level IV: So I Should Buy Really Cool Valuable Bitcoins, Right?: Maybe, maybe not. The cool math underlying bitcoins isn’t set up to support really high levels of transactions, like replacing dollars across the economy like some of its enthusiasts want. Also, the transactions aren’t really impossible to track if the government gets serious about it. So at some point bitcoins are going to stop living up to everyone’s expectations. This could make them unvalued and Uncool, in which case the floor drops out. If that happens tomorrow, you lose everything. If it happens next year, the bitcoins you buy tomorrow and sell in six months could make you rich. Do you feel lucky? Also, if bitcoins become uncool and useless, people are going to look for something else to use in their place. That might be Ethereum, which you can buy pretty cheap right now. Or it might be improved bitcoins, or it might be something completely different. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just take a spin on a roulette wheel?

      This could stand some editing, particularly for length, but it will have to do for now.

      • Atlas says:

        Level IV: So I Should Buy Really Cool Valuable Bitcoins, Right?

        Is there a mechanism for shorting bitcoins? Like, some people seem to be really confident that the price of bitcoins will keep increasing, so they purchase them. Some other people seem to be really confident that the price of bitcoins will fall precipitously soon, so they don’t purchase them.

        Why not go further than that if you’re a confident bitcoin pessimist, though? Given the above, I would have imagined that there’d be some sort of contract where someone who is bearish on bitcoin can agree to buy X bitcoins for someone who is bullish in the future, in exchange for the bull giving them the money it would cost to buy x bitcoins right now. (Or even for less than it would cost now but more than the bear thinks its price would fall to, at that.)

        The bear thinks he’s ripping off the dumb bull who will be in tears when he gets back pennies on the dollar after the bubble pops, the bull thinks he’s getting a great deal by getting future bitcoins at a price equal to or lower than their price today.

        This is all a way of saying—if people can profit off correctly predicting that bitcoin’s price will rise, wouldn’t it make sense for there to be some financial instrument that would allow people to profit off correctly predicting that its price will fall?

        So, does this already exist? Is there some legal issue with contract enforcement preventing it from being viable? Did I just spot a $20 bill on the Times Square sidewalk?

        (I was considering the possibility that bulls would just be indifferent to signing a short vs. just buying bitcoins, but it seems like that could be easily rectified by bears accepting even a relatively small cut on the initial price, since they think they’ll be making much more money when the price falls anyway.)

        This all seems relevant to me because I’ve become a big fan of “skin in the game.” When people make confident statements about what will happen to the price of bitcoin, I’d like to see whether they’ve capitalized on their alleged knowledge by standing to profit off of it being true. (Not that I think the comment I’m responding to is guilty of this, to be clear.)

        • Standing in the Shadows says:

          The CBOE just opened a futures market for bitcoins

          https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/dec/11/bitcoin-makes-debut-futures-market-cboe-chicago-board-options-exchange

          That will let you short them. As always, do not bet money you can’t lose, and remember that the downside risk of a short is not “losing your investment”, it is “you now owe many times as much money as you invested”.

          • Atlas says:

            Thanks, that’s exactly what I was wondering about.

          • John Schilling says:

            As the shadowman points out, there’s an asymmetry in that going short, to a first approximation, involves infinite potential risk for finite gain. Moderately sophisticated markets deal with this by automatically selling your stake for you as soon as it looks like you couldn’t cover a loss, which is usually about the worst time for you to sell. And as Keynes noted, “the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent”.

            There are ways around this in more sophisticated markets, sort of, but Bitcoin has barely reached the point of having a futures market at all. And even in sophisticated markets, the asymmetry favors bubbles by making it relatively more dangerous to try and fail to deflate one, than to ride one out.

          • Atlas says:

            There are ways around this in more sophisticated markets, sort of, but Bitcoin has barely reached the point of having a futures market at all.

            Interesting, but I’d have thought that the infinite downside risk wouldn’t be too hard to deal with: what if the bear offers to either buy X units or pay a fixed amount of the price of X units, depending on which one is cheaper? (E.g. instead of having unlimited liability for 100 units of commodity C that now costs $20 per unit, you are liable for either up to $6000 or for 100 units of C, whichever one is cheaper.)

            It seems like this could still be a very good deal from the bull’s perspective, while preventing the (possibly prohibitive) chance of infinite downside for the bear. If nothing else, since bulls want bears to agree to some sort of short, it seems like they’d be willing to give up the chance of infinite gain to get the chance of large gain, since the difference between uncapped gain and large gain seems intuitively smaller than the difference between uncapped loss and large loss. (Though perhaps this is crossing the line from finance to literal betting on knowledge—which I still think is a good thing that we should have more of.)

          • mobile says:

            And by “just opened”, Standing in the Shadows means “at 5pm yesterday afternoon”.

    • Rob K says:

      My pat joke about bitcoin is that Modern Monetary Theory economists argue that fiat currencies have value because they can always be used to discharge tax obligations to the government backing them, giving them a basis in a stable needed use. Analogously, then, bitcoin has value because you can use it to anonymously purchase LSD on the internet.

      (The challenge of using this joke is making sure that your conversation partner arrives at the punchline in a state of at least basic comprehension.)

    • meh says:

      There are a lot of technical relatives that also don’t understand it. I think the best way to explain it is to do it without saying “mine” or “block-chain” or any other jargon that you may have an intuitive understanding of, but mean nothing to them.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      This literally came up in conversation yesterday.

      The best analogy I was able to come up with is that it is a giant spreadsheet shared by everyone who has a Bitcoin. Every time someone wants to trade a bitcoin, it’s referenced against this existing spreadsheet that’s shared by everyone, to ensure that there is no fraud. If there is no fraud, the transaction processed, and a new spreadsheet is created with the new detail. The computers that processed the transactions get new bitcoins as a reward.

      It’s useful in the digital world because it prevents fraud. A lot of people also like to use it because its more difficult to trace than common currency, which makes it the choice currency of all those hackers who want to sell your Equifax information.

      I do not work with computers, though, I work with spreadsheets. I might be totally off in my description, because blockchain is really weird to me.

      • David Speyer says:

        Okay, dumb question. Why is this good for illicit transactions? It seems to me that a giant spreadsheet listing every transaction would be a goldmine for prosecutors. Wouldn’t it be better to have some sort of dark pool entity which logged everyone’s total balance without keeping track of which plus matched which minus?

        • Nornagest says:

          In theory, the Bitcoin ledger is fully transparent. In practice, it’s only good as evidence if you can conclusively tie a certain wallet to a certain physical person, and while the major exchanges require fairly solid proof of identity, there’s nothing in the protocol saying that you have to keep your coins on a major exchange. Still, it’s not great if that’s what you’re going for, and it’s probably mostly only popular in that role because the FBI doesn’t really know what it’s doing.

          There are altcoins that are a lot less traceable, too.

          • beleester says:

            Also, there are “Bitcoin tumbler” services which take in coins, shuffle them between a few wallets, and send them on to another destination. Which makes it much harder to find out who paid them and what for. You know they’re up to something shady, but there’s no longer an obvious smoking gun of “Bought $100 worth of drugs, transferred $100 worth of Bitcoin to this person’s wallet.”

          • Aapje says:

            The Dutch government considers using a tumbler/mixer to be money laundering, though.

            If the US starts doing the same, you will just be convicted for money laundering, rather than drugs buying.

          • Brad says:

            IIRC the United States indicted and sought extradition against one of the larger bitcoin tumbler operators in the last year for just that.

          • beleester says:

            TIL. That makes sense.

        • rlms says:

          You’re right, it’s not. A key part of the design of Bitcoin is the fact that transactions are really easy to trace in terms of seeing which account has sent what to whom. People who use it for shady stuff would really prefer to use Paypal or something. The problem is, that’s not possible; Paypal get in trouble with the government if they facilitate illegal transactions. Bitcoin isn’t used because it’s good for shady stuff, it’s used because sending envelopes of cash is worse.

          There are some cryptocurrencies that try to be less traceable. Monero is the big one I think, I don’t know how popular it is.

    • meh says:

      Many replies are explaining why Bitcoin can have value, comparing to fiat currencies. This always seems to derail any explanation of how they actually work. I think we can all accept that something can be an arbitrary money supply, but that doesn’t explain how it works.

      • Brad says:

        At the cost of considerable social capital spent in pushing people harder than they’d like, I’ve come to believe that fewer than one in a thousand understand how bitcoin works in a concrete way. That lack of knowledge includes most programmers and most bitcoin enthusiasts.

        I include myself among those that don’t. I probably could, I have the background, but frankly I don’t want to put in the effort.

        • meh says:

          Feel the same way. Anytime I make an effort, it turns out the person I’m talking to is not one of those one in a thousand.

        • baconbacon says:

          What % of people actually understands how the circuitry in your cell phone works?

          • Gobbobobble says:

            What % of people have gold fever to invest in Qualcomm et al?

          • baconbacon says:

            What % of people invest in a new technology company without understanding how the whole thing works? Most of the people invested in Tesla I would bet.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’d actually argue that a Tesla’s easier to understand than an internal combustion engine — all there is to the drivetrain is a fuck-off huge array of lithium-ion cells identical to what’s inside your average AA battery, driving a large electric motor hooked up to the rear axle. There’s a rear differential but no gearbox. Anyone who took a physics series in college understands the basic concepts in detail.

          • Brad says:

            I’m talking about at the block diagram level.

            I mean I get the basic idea of a distributed ledger, I understand the Sybil problem, I know what a cryptographic hash function is, as well as public/private key signing and encryption. I’ve even understand the basics of elliptic curve cryptography.

            But in terms of actual nuts and bolts of how the bitcoin network operates, I have to hand waive about proof of work and a distributed trust system just like most everyone else.

            In contrast I may not be able to go into infinite depth in each chip in a cell phone, but I could explain the basic idea of every significant step of the way from microphone/ADC to the radio.

            So bitcoin is complicated, so what? At the end of the day nothing, some things are just inherently complicated. But it does have an awfully high ratio of people that profess or at least imply that they understand it, to the number that do. Your random techie going home for Christmas doesn’t go around giving handwavy explanations of quantum computers. Everyone is happy to admit that they don’t understand that.

          • meh says:

            It is easier for someone to verify that a cell phone or a car are working as claimed. But that’s really a tangent. We all agree 1 in a 1000 people claiming to understand bitcoin actually does.

          • baconbacon says:

            I’d actually argue that a Tesla’s easier to understand than an internal combustion engine — all there is to the drivetrain is a fuck-off huge array of lithium-ion cells identical to what’s inside your average AA battery, driving a large electric motor hooked up to the rear axle. There’s a rear differential but no gearbox. Anyone who took a physics series in college understands the basic concepts in detail.

            This isn’t basic knowledge beyond the “bitcoin has a block chain” level. If this is the level a person is on they have no reason to prefer Tesla to Nissan or Chevy (or EV company X) stock.

            But it does have an awfully high ratio of people that profess or at least imply that they understand it, to the number that do. Your random techie going home for Christmas doesn’t go around giving handwavy explanations of quantum computers. Everyone is happy to admit that they don’t understand that.

            Can’t speak on the ratio, but there are a lot of people who went home for Christmas talking about how Tesla is going to change to world, with limited understanding of how that would actually happen. (my earlier analogy with micro chips is a bad example).

          • Brad says:

            @rlms
            No, but seeing how short it is maybe I will have by this time tomorrow.

          • albatross11 says:

            To be fair, I think very few investors understand all that much of how things they invest in work. Most Boeing investors don’t know much about jet engines, most Microsoft investors can’t read code, etc.

            It’s 100% obvious that the ICOs out there are bubblicious, but that insight is independent of understanding blockchains or Bitcoin or proof-of-work vs proof-of-stake or whatever else.

          • Brad says:

            Okay, now I have. I think I get the idea, but I’d have to play around with some code and set up a toy network to be sure it all clicks.

            I take it the capacity problem is that demand for transactions have outpaced the ability to find the special hash values. And that there is some kind of auction method that fleshes out section 6 in the paper to determine what transactions make into new blocks. Hence high transaction costs. The proof-of-work difficulty targeting an average number of blocks per hour didn’t take into the possibility of wild success.

          • Iain says:

            @Brad:

            Not quite.

            The difficulty of hashing a block is controlled via a feedback mechanism to happen roughly once every ten minutes. The problem is that each block is limited in size to 1MB. This puts a cap on how many transactions can go through every ten minutes. Bitcoin is still pushing out a new block on schedule; that block just doesn’t contain all the transactions that people want to include.

            To encourage miners to include your particular transaction in a block, you can include a transaction fee, which is essentially a tip that you pay to the miner. Miners select the transactions with the highest transaction fees, and then whoever succeeds in mining the block gets to claim the transaction fees in addition to the mining reward. Right now, transaction fees are somewhere around $15.

            There are a variety of proposals for increasing the transaction limit, of which the Lightning Network is the most ambitious.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            $15? That’s nuts. I get better rates with Western Union.

          • Iain says:

            Even worse: as the reward for mining bitcoins decreases (halving every four years), the transaction fees to the miners will have to pay for the entire mining infrastructure. The current block reward is 12.5 BTC, which is more than $200K at current prices. Quick math: there are about 400K transactions/day, which is ~3000 transactions/block, which means $45K in transaction fees per block. So transaction fees, though high, are still paying for less than 20% of the costs of keeping Bitcoin running.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            So how are people using Bitcoin to pay for things these days with transaction costs that high?

            My assumed answers:

            1. They aren’t.

            2. It’s all happening on exchanges, which do private transactions on their own books for free.

            3. They are only doing it for very large purchases.

          • Iain says:

            I think it’s mostly a combination of 1 and 3. In practice, I suspect it is mostly 1.

        • Gobbobobble says:

          Ditto. My intuition is that the amount of data in a proper blockchain just seems Too Big To Not Fail and it hasn’t yet been worth putting in the effort to update.

          Get seriously tempted when the bubble gets big, but the massive feeding frenzy sends mixed signals on its long-term viability. Like, there’s probably some sort of there there at its core, but the bubble reeks of Greater Fool Theory. Especially with alt-coins; the whole “ICO” thing just screams “barely disguised scam”. Whatever useful technical concepts are in there have a lot of distillation and refinement to go before they’re professionally relevant, so can’t be bothered.

          Plus, I can’t get over the hurdle of “this is supposed to be a medium of exchange, not an asset, and speculating in currencies is for assholes“.

          • Nornagest says:

            Even if you think Bitcoin is legit, which I do modulo some concerns about scalability, you should not be investing in ICOs unless they have a coherent value proposition that an existing cryptocurrency can’t deliver on. Otherwise, no matter how good the founders’ intentions, first-mover advantage is going to eat you alive. And their intentions are frequently not good.

            And even if everything else is above board, I’d think twice before throwing more than a couple hundred bucks at one. And be careful where you’re storing them — I’d have thirty thousand dollars worth of DASH right now if Cryptsy hadn’t been a scam. (I bought very early, though, so my fiat losses were fortunately low.)

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            I have no real opinion on non-ICO cryptocurrencies, but ICOs are so enthusiastically scams that they broadly speaking don’t even try to hide the fact that they’re scams.

          • baconbacon says:

            Plus, I can’t get over the hurdle of “this is supposed to be a medium of exchange, not an asset, and speculating in currencies is for assholes“.

            How could a medium of exchange not be an asset? It has to be. And it wasn’t Soros’ fault that the BoE had a ridiculous position that would eventually have blow up anyway, decent case to be made that by hastening it he made the final blow smaller.

          • onyomi says:

            @Baconbacon,

            A medium of exchange can always be an asset; weirdly, some involved with Bitcoin right now seem to think Bitcoin can be an asset without being a very useful medium of exchange. I don’t think it can, because it doesn’t have any of the non-exchange uses of something like gold (and I don’t think the Satoshi quote implies what the Tweeter thinks it does). Collectible? Maybe. Store of value? Not more reliable than an old Chewbacca figurine in its original packaging.

      • skef says:

        I purposely tailored my answer to avoid that issue because almost anyone who has just heard of bitcoin out in the world and asks about it wants to know what it is, not how it works. If someone asks what a car is I’m going hold off for several further questions before getting into internal combustion engines and transmissions.

        Even better example: someone asks you what public key encryption is. You might talk about one-way functions in that conversation, but there really isn’t a need to get into factoring primes and all that.

        If someone asks you how blockchains work, then you talk about blockchains.

        • meh says:

          I don’t understand the difficulty in explaining it then.

          • skef says:

            The difficulty is in explaining the technical aspects in a way that keeps the person interested. I don’t think it’s impossible to get a basic understand across to a non-technical person. But it takes more than a couple paragraphs with some analogies.

          • meh says:

            Why do you need to explain technical aspects if you are only explaining what it is, and not how it works?

          • skef says:

            meh: Maybe I’ve lost the thread here. I don’t think it’s that hard to explain otherwise. My attempt to do so is up-thread.

          • meh says:

            skef:
            I had said

            Many replies are explaining why Bitcoin can have value, comparing to fiat currencies. This always seems to derail any explanation of how they actually work. I think we can all accept that something can be an arbitrary money supply, but that doesn’t explain how it works.

            I.e. when asked to explain bitcoin they explain what money is. But money is, if not a simple, a familiar concept.

            You replied

            I purposely tailored my answer to avoid that issue because almost anyone who has just heard of bitcoin out in the world and asks about it wants to know what it is, not how it works.

            Which I disagreed with because in my opinion ‘what it is’ is an easier question than how it works. So I stated:

            I don’t understand the difficulty in explaining it then.

            but then you replied

            The difficulty is in explaining the technical aspects

            Which I thought was a contradiction of earlier statements, since I was equating ‘technical aspects’ with ‘how it works’. Which is why I said:

            Why do you need to explain technical aspects if you are only explaining what it is, and not how it works?

            To which the reply was

            I don’t think it’s that hard to explain otherwise.

            Which seemed to be exactly what my earlier comment was saying.

          • skef says:

            I think the part of this I didn’t get about what you were saying was:

            Which I disagreed with because in my opinion ‘what it is’ is an easier question than how it works.

            I’m not working from the assumption that people are asking about bitcoin because they understand the straightforward part and are confused about the difficult technical aspects. For the most part I think people have heard it’s a “digital currency” but don’t know what that means or how information could be a medium of exchange.

            And I think part of the reason for that lack of understanding is evident in the discussion here: since may people think you do need to explain the technical aspects of bitcoin in order to talk about it, they either don’t bother, or try to and confuse the person asking.

          • meh says:

            When you begin
            “The earliest coins were standardized amounts of rare metals.”
            That is describing money, nothing technical about bitcoin. I’m not sure I have a consistent idea of what you are saying.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          How do you talk about public key encryption without talking about one-way functions and prime factorization? I don’t think those are even particularly complicated ideas, so I’d be okay explaining that at the dinner table.

          • skef says:

            Well, prime factorization is just the basis of the most popular and well-understood public key encryption system, so there’s no necessary tie between the two ideas.

            The way you talk about it without those is that you start by talking about encryption generally, and then add in the idea of a public key, and of “signing” by encrypting (something that will be understood as a message) with the private key. If the person asks how that is possible, you describe how one-way functions (as a class) are sufficient, and if they ask about that then prime factorization would be a good and pertinent example.

          • albatross11 says:

            People have been working on schemes not related to integer factorization or discrete log, since those are both efficiently solveable with a quantum computer. (It’s not absolutely clear that we will ever have practical quantum computers that will be able to solve those problems, but it would really, really suck to have all our public key crypto collapse at once as soon as someone solves the many engineering problems and builds one.)

          • My standard explanation is to imagine a world where math is so primitive that people can multiply but can’t divide. The two keys are inverses of each other.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            imagine a world where math is so primitive that people can multiply but can’t divide

            We *are* in that world. The computational complexity of integer division is significantly greater than that of integer multiplication. You just don’t notice down where the width of the numbers is small, so the exponential terms of the integer division algorithm are not significant.

            Go up to where the numbers are bignums, a few hundred to a few thousand digits wide, and you will notice that multiplication is still fast, but a single division is not so much.

            As the terms get bigger and bigger, the two operations get more and more different in time and space needed.

          • rlms says:

            Today’s unsolved problem in computer science that really doesn’t seem that hard: what is the fastest algorithm for multiplying two n-digit numbers?

          • The Nybbler says:

            The complexity of division is actually the root of some quite annoying performance issues in C++. The usual open source C++ libraries use an unordered_map (hash map) implementation with a prime-sized hash table. Which means they have to do division. Division on modern processors is MUCH slower than multiplication or most other operations. And it turns out to be ridiculously hard to fix this in a binary-compatible way. Either a power-of-2 sized hash table (might not be flexible enough) or some pre-computation of inverses mod 2^64 (makes it two multiplies and a subtract) would make it much faster, but would break existing binaries.

        • Nornagest says:

          Man, I have trouble explaining what SSL is to certain parts of my family. I’m really not looking forward to the blockchain conversation.

  9. Kevin C. says:

    Last time, I asked SSC about favorite Harlan Ellison stories. Well, how about Frank Herbert? I, of course, loved Dune, enjoyed the first two sequels, thought God Emperor of Dune was okay, but gave up partway through Heretics of Dune. But my favorite Herbert book, by far, remains Hellstrom’s Hive.

    • johan_larson says:

      IMHO, nothing by Herbert comes close to “Dune”, so you have already read the very best of his work. But since you have a taste for his stuff, have a look at “The Dragon in the Sea”:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dragon_in_the_Sea

    • Deiseach says:

      I like the Bureau of Sabotage stories, though they do tend to lean very heavily on the “and our agent pulls off another triumph in the Gowachin courts!” to save the day. Whipping Star, the novel set in that same universe was interesting but kind of upended everything we thought we knew about BuSab and the Gowachin on its head, then left it there without much of a resolution.

      Dune – the first couple of novels were dense and meaty but in the end evoked “meh” from me, and the sequels to the sequels to the sequels have no appeal for me whatsoever. The Bene Gesserit struck me as too much like a man’s idea of what a matriarchal power-hungry cult would be like (I don’t find any of them, even Jessica Atreides, completely convincing).

      I definitely like Duncan Idaho the best out of all the characters, though 🙂

      • Nornagest says:

        I liked Whipping Star, but I felt like The Dosadi Experiment spent too much of its time doing a rehash of Dune with no filter and no brakes. Haven’t read the preceding short stories.

  10. Egregious Philbin says:

    What tricks do you use to get into certain psychological states? Especially for socializing.

    My list:

    -modeling cultural prototypes – mimicking TV show characters’ behavior
    -thinking it’s the interlocutor’s last moments before their death later
    -thinking their mother just died
    -attuning attention to the sensations / materials on your body, or under the soles of your feet
    -if nervous when crossing someone on sidewalk, solipsistically pretending you are walking a wasteland, just you
    -thinking “how would [your role model] act in this situation”?

    • Well... says:

      That last one is the only one of those I’ve ever done, but I do it a lot and it’s pretty effective.

    • johan_larson says:

      Ask yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish here?” And for socializing, the answer is typically something like, “Convince these people I am a well-behaved, sensible, interesting person.”

    • Dry Raven says:

      If you’re decently socialized, the best answer is probably to pay serious attention to the other person, instead of paying attention to yourself (being self-conscious). If you’re being self-conscious and thinking about what you should say next instead of what the other person is saying, the other person will pick up that you aren’t fully participating in the conversation with them. If your brain is really immersed in paying attention to the other person, your natural and mostly implicit socializing mechanisms will kick in, and you’ll get in the mode faster. Practice being genuine and think about everything people say to you as a code, underneath of which has some pearl which if unpacked, gives you access to the wisdom they hold in their perspective.

      It’s also useful in non-social contexts. If you’re trying to get your mind off of something, it’s generally useful to place it on something different, ideally that’s even more compelling. Or if you’re trying to get into the mode to do something you’re fearful of (procrastination, etc), it’s useful to just spend all of your energy paying attention to it- just look at it. Think about it, without pressuring yourself to solve the problem. When your mind is immersed in something through attention, it’ll start naturally generating solutions (or behavior, in the case of social interactions) all on its own when it’s ready. All you have to do is point it in the right direction.

    • rahien.din says:

      A. Decide that you are acting, as though in a play, or, pretend you are a disembodied and detached observer of your own life’s narrative.

      B. Thinking, “Which of my role models would handle this situation the best?” and trying to do that via A. Relatedly, “Which of the people I know would handle this situation the worst?” and deciding to do something other than that.

      C. Remind yourself there is a difference between “acting with/on/via emotion,” and “acting with emotional content.”

      D. Imagine that you had died unexpectedly, but had been miraculously brought back to your prior state of health with absolutely no ill effects. Or, imagine that you had been separated from those you love, and have only just been reunited with them. This is much, much better than the adage “What would you do if today was the last day of your life?”

    • SUT says:

      Personally I find tricks like the one you mentioned to work only at “forced” events like a distant relative’s bbq or a corporate networking event.

      To be naturally charismatic (like say at a singles bar) I’ve found two warm-ups before you engage:
      – Just focus on breathing and stilling your head on the way over to the event.
      – Do manual labor and chores around the house in a first-day-as-the-manager type of way. Similar to a bar tender on a semi-busy night, do stuff, have stuff in your hands, don’t really worry about what’s most important. Don’t be manic and don’t be lackadaisical. I think this gets rid of a lot of nervous energy, and when you arrive to sit in a seat and drink a cocktail, you’ll project an air of satisfaction of getting to relax and having accomplished things.

  11. Longtimelurker says:

    Does anyone here play the Dominions Series? If so, I wonder if we could get a game up (either Dominions 4 or Dominions 5).

  12. onyomi says:

    Economics question inspired by recent Bitcoin-related controversy but not limited to it:

    Other than insuring against political manipulations and collapses, is there a good reason, from a consumer’s perspective, for more than one currency to exist?

    Like a language, a currency is more valuable the more people are using it. Unlike a language, there isn’t a special kind of poetry you can write with dollars you can’t write with Euros. Right now, currencies are different for mostly political and, some would say, macroeconomic reasons: because currencies are issued by governments you want to be using a currency issued by a rich, stable government, not a weak, unstable one; though if your government is profligate it pays to be in a currency union with a thriftier government, etc. etc.

    But let’s imagine privately-issued and/or decentralized currencies consumers can chose purely on the basis of the one they find most useful.

    One issue that arises seems to be: people would like to get paid and be owed money in deflationary units, but to pay and to owe money in inflationary units. So let’s say you have two competing currencies, one deflationary, we’ll call BTC, and one inflationary, we’ll call DOGE. Assuming the currencies are otherwise similar in terms of security, ease of use, etc. is there any reason for both of them to exist?

    For example, as a creditor, you’d prefer to have people owe you BTC rather than DOGE, but as a debtor, you’d rather owe DOGE than BTC. But if the rate of inflation and deflation for BTC and DOGE is predictable, can’t one simply take this fact into account when writing up any given contract such that having the choice between the two is irrelevant? Or would there be a demand for both of them to exist so that e.g. those with high time preference will prefer a larger sum or DOGE to a lower sum of BTC, while those with a lower time preference will accept a lower sum of BTC promised to them rather than a higher value of DOGE? Or will the exchange rates always take these temporal changes into account, especially if predictable, and especially if it’s quick and easy to exchange BTC and DOGE?

    In a future of different currencies competing for consumer adoption, is there reason to expect people will use different currencies for different purposes (like Facebook and Twitter?) or it will end up being more convenient to just use one, with relevant adjustments for e.g. inflation or deflation?

    • Steven J says:

      “Other than insuring against political manipulations and collapses, is there a good reason, from a consumer’s perspective, for more than one currency to exist?”

      There’s a big literature on this.
      Google “optimal currency area” for papers.

      Short version: In a world with perfectly flexible prices, one currency is optimal (aside from the insurance reasons you mention). In a world with sticky prices but flexible exchange rates, there’s an advantage to having different currencies for different countries (or more generally, different currencies for different sectors or other subsets of the global economy that have many more transactions within-group than across group). If countries are hit with different economic shocks, then relative prices between them need to adjust. If prices aren’t flexible and the countries share a currency, then this could lead to unemployment/recession/depression/etc. in the country whose prices need to decline relative to the other countries. If the country has its own currency, a currency devaluation can act as a substitute for flexible
      prices. This monetary benefit trades off against all of the transaction efficiencies you mention. So an optimal currency area is one where the benefit from monetary independence is low, i.e., an area where the economic shocks are shared.

      • pontifex says:

        Yes, when you have a lot of different currencies, politicians can inflate and devalue their way out of debts. But cutting back on spending in nominal terms, or raising taxes, may be hard or impossible politically.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        tl;dr the purpose of different currencies is to obfuscate price changes so people don’t freak out.

    • James Miller says:

      There could be tradeoffs concerning privacy, security, transaction speed, transaction cost, price stability, and ease of record keeping among currencies so you want to use different ones for different purposes.

      • onyomi says:

        Are there any such tradeoffs that are inherent/inevitable rather than simply incidental/probable?

        For example, if there is one currency that is both fast and secure, there isn’t then a demand for one currency you use when you care about speed and one currency you use when you care about security.

    • Other than insuring against political manipulations and collapses, is there a good reason, from a consumer’s perspective, for more than one currency to exist?

      There are at least two reasons.

      1. Competition. A private monopoly currency maximizes the revenue from money creation, which probably involves a positive inflation rate. On a competitive market for currency, as on other competitive markets, profit is competed down to zero. In the simple case where maintaining a currency is costless that means that prices fall at the real interest rate, so the cost to the individual of holding currency is zero, which is also the social cost (see my father’s old article on the optimal quantity of money). More realistically prices fall at a rate that gives a nominal interest rate that just compensates the money issuers for the cost of keeping their currency in circulation.

      2. The ideal money might be different for different purposes. An inflation rate of zero simplifies a lot of calculations and transactions, and the relevant inflation rate is different for different people according to what they consume, what they produce, where they are, … . With multiple currencies I can be doing business in the currency ideal for me, you in the currency ideal for you.

    • Matt M says:

      Other than insuring against political manipulations and collapses

      Other than keeping out rapists, thieves, and murderers, is there a good reason to lock your doors?

      I mean, maybe, I’m not sure. But why would you need any other reason?

    • meh says:

      people would like to get paid and be owed money in deflationary units

      But they also like to get raises and see their salary increase (even if the purchasing power remains constant). There is psychological power to seeing that number go up.

  13. johan_larson says:

    This is a thread for odd geographic facts.

    Rockall is a prominent but very isolated tiny island in the North Atlantic, 430 km north-west of Ireland.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockall

    • pontifex says:

      The US has an exclave in Canada at Point Roberts.

    • Standing in the Shadows says:

      The borders of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah were originally designated by legislation describing exact lines of meridian and parallel. They were then surveyed after the US Civil War with the best tools and skills of late 19th century. Being not as accurate as modern survey, several errors occurred and accumulated. But to avoid trouble and conflict, and because of the principle that once the parties of two sides of a survey line had agreed to it, it was binding, it was decided that the state borders are defined by the original survey markers, and not by the original legislation. So the lines now actually zig and zag a bit, sometimes by over a mile. The Four Corners monument and survey marker is 1,807 feet east of where a modern more perfect survey would put it.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Corners_Monument

    • johan_larson says:

      The Canadian province of Ontario reaches surprisingly far south. The tip of Point Pelee is south of the California-Oregon border. A couple of Canadian islands in Lake Erie are even further south.

    • S_J says:

      A further odd geographic fact:
      There is a well-known American city that is adjacent to a Canadian city.

      The American city in question is north of the Canadian city in question.

      Can anyone name that pair of cities?

      (In Rot-13: Gur Pvgl bs Qrgebvg vf abegu bs Jvaqfbe, Bagnevb.)

      • Iain says:

        My favourite hint: the answer has interesting implications for the lyrics of a famous Journey song.

        • The Nybbler says:

          My favourite hint: the answer has interesting implications for the lyrics of a famous Journey song.

          I would think the more interesting implications result from there being no midnight train to anywhere from the northern location, and there hasn’t been for a long time.

    • bean says:

      Triple Divide Peak is the hydrographic roof of North America.

      • quaelegit says:

        Woah that’s really neat! I’m a bit confused why Wiki says it’s the only ocean triple divide point, because it looks like there are a few others based on the map here (in Minnesota and Colombia at least… maybe there’s a small endoheric basin in Colombia?)

        The continental divide map is also a cool way of looking highlighting the importance/differentness of features like basin-and-range in Nevada etc. and the African Rift Valley.

        • Protagoras says:

          The map you link to only has a triple divide point in Minnesota because it separates the Caribbean from the Atlantic; insofar as the Caribbean is not an ocean, that does not make for an ocean triple divide point.

        • Nornagest says:

          The ones in Minnesota and Colombia divide two, not three, oceans, unless you count the Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean Sea area as an ocean. I don’t see any others on the map, at least as long as we take 60 degrees south to mark the boundary of the Southern Ocean.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      The Netherlands and Belgium recently agreed to exchange a small area (35 acres each) of uninhabited land to give the Netherlands the end of a peninsula in the River Meuse/Maas that was previously Belgian, but accessible by land only from the Netherlands.

      This area had been used for illegal raves (the Dutch police couldn’t break them up as it was outside their jurisdiction, and it took too long for Belgian police to get there by boat), but the issue was forced when a headless body was found there.

      However, the complicated enclave/exclave system in Baarle still exists…

      • johan_larson says:

        If you want pure crazy, check out the system of enclaves and counter-enclaves (and one counter-counter-enclave!) that used to exist on the India-Bangladesh border.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India%E2%80%93Bangladesh_enclaves

      • gbdub says:

        I recently read the (interesting, but necessarily a bit repetive) book “How the States Got Their Shapes”. It was surprising how many states were defined by similar issues – little bits and pieces that were given away by one state because they were only accessible by a bordering state, and therefore lawless.

        Though there are now a few enclaves caused by situations where the course of a river has changed since “the center of the so and so river” or whatever was set as the border, but the border hasn’t moved.

        • SamChevre says:

          My wife used to teach in Colonial Beach, VA. Along that section of the VA/Maryland border, the Virginia border is on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Since slot machines were legal in Maryland, people built piers out into the river with casinos at the end. See this article for more.

          • rahien.din says:

            Similarly, there used to be a bar on the end of a pier in Lake Gaston. It extended from a dry county into a (quite literally) wet one.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            I don’t know whether anything interesting has been done similarly with the Vermont/New Hampshire line (low water on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River).

    • quaelegit says:

      I love odd geographic facts! (And didn’t know about Rockall, thanks!)

      Uzbekistan and Liechtenstein are the world’s only doubly landlocked countries (all their neighbors are also landlocked — I guess the Caspian doesn’t count as sea?)

      San Diego’s latitude is geometrically interesting but I forget why. I discovered this while procrastinating on spherical coordinates homework in Calc2 or 3, so it probably has something to do with that…

      Oh, and I guess this is geology, but my sister claims that New Guinea is made up of the remains of four different tectonic plates. I don’t know enough about plate tectonics to verify the claim but a bit of googling shows that something weird is happening there plate-wise.

      (…maybe I should try again when I remember some actual facts…)

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Of New York City’s many bridges, the one farthest from City Hall is Outerbridge Crossing, connecting Staten Island with New Jersey. So it was only logical that they name it… after former city official Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge.

      • The Nybbler says:

        That naming is one of my favorites, but Outerbridge wasn’t a city official; he was the first head of the Port of New York Authority, now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

    • achenx says:

      Not sure if this is really geographical or just naming trivia, but the official long name of Uruguay in English is “Oriental Republic of Uruguay”. This is sort of a weird translation, and the original intent was something like “Republic [Located] East of the Uruguay [River]”, as the Uruguay River makes up the country’s western border.

      My petition to eliminate the “using ‘America’ to refer to the USA” controversy by renaming the country “United States South of Lake-of-the-Woods” has not gone anywhere yet, possibly due to opposition from Alaskans.

      • Protagoras says:

        Cursed Alaskans! I say just give them all back to Russia.

        • Gobbobobble says:

          Or trade it to Canada for some of their clay southeast of the St Lawrence. The Quebec/Maine border makes no earthly sense.

          Or make it a package deal and give them Alaska & Northern Maine for the strip connecting Buffalo to Detroit

      • littskad says:

        Typical USA arrogance! The states in the Estados Unidos Mexicanos are also south of the Lake of the Woods!

        • gbdub says:

          The “don’t call it America, call it the United States” crowd does realize that the part of ‘America’ just south of the USA is also the “United States”, right?

          • Anonymous says:

            There even used to be more United States south of Mexico, too!

          • The Nybbler says:

            No, they generally don’t. (Also the accepted English full name is “United Mexican States”, probably chosen to avoid the ambiguity) Apparently there was an attempt to drop the E.E.U.U in 2012, but it must have failed.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      There’s an error in the border between North and South Carolina that went undetected for over 250 years. It made news a few years ago, partly because of confusion over whether the South of the Border roadside attraction was, in fact, still south of the border anymore.

      (It has somewhat more serious implications for certain businesses that sell alcohol close to that border.)

      • quaelegit says:

        I’m not sure why this jogged my memory and the earlier borders discussion didn’t, but:

        Bir Tawil — an area between Egypt and Sudan claimed by neither. Since it is apparently just remote, uninhabited desert, it doesn’t matter too much.

      • S_J says:

        In the category of border disputes between States of the United States…

        There was a cartographic and surveying dispute between the State of Ohio and the Michigan Territory in the 1820s and 1830s.

        That dispute was mostly over whether Ohio or Michigan had control of the Toledo strip, a narrow section of land that included a valuable port. (Geographically, this port was where the Maumee River emptied into Lake Erie. This port is still a busy port that handles lots of grain shipments.)

        The State of Ohio had Representatives and Senators in Congress; Michigan Territory did not. Ohio’s delegation in Congress used its power to delay Michigan Territory’s path to full State-hood, until Michigan admitted that the Toledo Strip belonged to Ohio.

        During this time there were even shots fired between the Ohio Militia and the Michigan Militia, part of The Toledo War. Thankfully, no lives were lost during the Toledo War.

        Michigan Territory was offered a huge tract of land from the Wisconsin Territory as a compensation for the Toledo Strip. Thus, the new State of Michigan was now two near-equal-sized regions, the Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula.

        Though the political dispute was settled, the actual placement of the border line was not settled until 1915.

        There were stories of one or two houses which straddle the updated boundary line, but I cannot find them now…

        • gbdub says:

          It was less a “surveying” dispute, as, at the time, it hadn’t yet been well surveyed. Basically, the NW Ordinance said that the border should be a line due east from the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan to wherever that line would meet up with Lake Erie. Looking at a map, this pretty clearly cuts off Toledo (and Ohio’s best Western port on Lake Erie).

          So Ohio (who became a state first) unilaterally snuck in a bit in their constitution that said the line would go on a diagonal from the southern end of Lake Michigan to a point at the northern cape of Maumee Bay, which would give them Toledo.

          So Ohio went and surveyed that line, Michigan surveyed the NW Ordinance line, and the area between the two became the disputed “Toledo Strip”.

          Kind of a mapping problem, since the “Mitchell Map” got the western shore of Lake Erie totally wrong.

          Interestingly Indiana had a similar problem, since the “southern tip of Lake Michigan” line would cut off most of Gary (which is on the southern shore), and give Indiana just a tiny corner of shoreline. That one got solved by moving the whole border north, and that’s why the northern borders of Indiana and Ohio don’t quite line up.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            While we’re on Indiana, it’s possible to follow the Illinois line on an aerial photo for some distance north of where it first hits the lake: there are a couple of large areas in south Chicago where they landfilled right up to the state line, leaving a ruler-straight north-south shoreline.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            Just reminded myself of another one: there’s a mall on the west bank of the Merrimack River in Nashua, NH, where one corner of the Penney’s store is beveled off in an unusual way. If they had left it square, the corner would have been in Massachusetts and the store would have to charge sales tax.

        • bean says:

          There was a dispute between New Hampshire and Maine over the workers at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, mostly because Maine charges income tax on the workers who live in New Hampshire. Which is why Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is now in Kittery, Maine, and not Portsmouth, NH.

    • Don P. says:

      Reno, NV is further west than Los Angeles.

      If you consider the city of Stamford, CT, and look in each of the four cardinal directions towards the nearest state border, each of those four borders is with New York.

    • fortaleza84 says:

      Not exactly a geographic oddity, but there is a US State with one town whose name derives from Chinese and another town whose name derives from Hebrew.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        This is true of 13 states even if you pick two specific Chinese- and Hebrew-derived names (Canton and Bethel).

        There are 26 states with at least one Canton, and 20 with at least one Bethel.

    • S_J says:

      Not-so-odd-geographic fact: the Great Lakes basin in North America has five very large lakes–almost inland, freshwater seas. Most students of North American geography learn about these five Lakes: Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario.

      Lake Superior is to the North, and it drains into Lake Huron. Lake Michigan is connected to Lake Huron at the tip of the “mitten” of lower Michigan. (Lake Michigan is to the West of the “mitten”, and Lake Huron is to the East.) Lake Huron empties into the Saint Clair river, along East edge of the “thumb” on the “mitten”.

      Odd geographic fact: the Saint Clair river empties into Lake Saint Clair, which is not typically named as one of the Great Lakes.

      Lake Saint Clair is small; its total surface area is less than 5% of the surface area of any of the Great Lakes. But it is wide enough that it appears to be an inland-sea: the opposite shore is usually over the horizon. This lake empties into the Detroit River, which empties into Lake Erie. Lake Erie empties over Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario.

  14. Anatoly says:

    We don’t know if physical space and time are infinitely divisible or discrete, but they might be discrete – it might be that something like the Planck distance is the smallest possible distance there is. Likewise, we don’t know if the Universe is infinite in extent but it might well not be. In the light of that, isn’t it weird that our physical theories all require infinitely divisible real numbers (to even formulate the notions of limits, derivatives, integrals etc.)? Why must the most convenient ways we know to model reality involve ideas that are so far out from experienced reality, and might well be incompatible with it? Shouldn’t we expect or look for ways to formulate physical theories that are discrete and finite?

    In computer science, we use graphs a lot to model all sorts of things and processes, but the graphs are typically finite and it’s easier for us that they’re finite – it’s easier to prove theorems about them and come up with algorithms. Sometimes it’s convenient to consider infinite graphs but it’s more of an exception than the rule. Why are things different with physical laws?

    Related: John Baez’s recent survey article Struggles with the Continuum (it doesn’t address the question I’m trying to ask, but is a very interesting overview of where physical theories have problems with singularities, forces at ever-smaller distances, interactions of fields with particles).

    • Tibor says:

      All models are wrong, some are useful. I think that pretty much encapsulates it. Often discrete and continuous versions of mathematical models behave almost identically, but the discrete ones are a lot more messy and difficult to work with (although sometimes they are more easy to picture). There is no such thing as a perfect ball in the physical world but it is still a good enough approximation even for relatively rough objects.

    • CatCube says:

      A lot of mathematical modeling in engineering these days uses the Finite Element Method, which does break up a model into discrete pieces. Continuum mechanics equations were always more tractable to people, though they quickly become unsolvable when you get beyond very simple structures. They also require symbolic manipulation. FEM, on the other hand, is just inverting and multiplying huge matrices, which is something that computers excel at. Now that we have computers on every desktop, it’s the go-to method.

      However, the stiffness terms for a particular element are still defined by a continuous equation, so it’s not quite what you’re asking.

    • beleester says:

      The fact that something is discrete doesn’t mean that everything derived from it will also be discrete.

      For instance, take a square 1 unit on each side. How long is its diagonal? sqrt(2), which is irrational and so has an infinite, non-repeating decimal. No numbering system can represent both the square’s sides and its diagonal with discrete numbers. We don’t have to go beyond pencil and paper before we discover that we need infinity to accurately model the world.

      So to me, it’s not surprising to that something finite can have a mathematical property that’s infinite. That sort of thing happens all the time.

  15. Tibor says:

    Does anyone have experience with index funds? I lucked out a little (although not that dramatically) with bitcoin but I don’t think I have the nerves for something this volatile and unpredictable (I have the same issue with gold). So I want to take the money I made of of it (about USD 23000 right now) and put it into something more conservative (I would add more money over time once I can save up some, but it seems to me that this sum is too large for me to just have lying on my account and slowly lose value over time due to inflation).

    From what I can tell (which isn’t much) the deal with the index funds is that they pretty much always tend to go up if you wait long enough. So as long as you don’t need access to that money in a particular year or even 5 years, you’re going to do quite well. It also does not seem to require much knowledge or maintenance, which seems like a nice feature. Is that fairly accurate? And what else should I know about index funds? Are there alternatives with similar properties?

    Thanks|

    • onyomi says:

      It’s funny to hear someone say “I don’t have the risk tolerance to invest in gold.” I can understand, but it’s still kind of ironic.

      • Tibor says:

        Sure, gold will not lose all of its value. I don’t believe bitcoin will either. But the point is that in both the price can easily go to something like 20 percent of its current value. Sure, gold is a lot more stable. But the difference between stocks and gold is that the stock price roughly corresponds to the performance of the company. The reasons behind the current gold or bitcoin prices are much harder to follow. That is what I don’t like about them.

    • IrishDude says:

      Almost all my investments are in index funds. You’re betting that the market will go up over time, rather than that a specific company will go up over time, spreading your eggs out into multiple baskets. Outside my employer 401k, all my investments are in Vanguard index funds. My Roth IRA is in a target date index fund that starts out 90% stocks and 10% bonds, and automatically gets more bond heavy over time to reduce volatility and become more conservative. I contribute X dollars a month to this fund but otherwise don’t have to do any manual re-balancing of funds, so there is no maintenance to do.

      Here’s a list of index funds where you can find one that meets your risk profile.

    • Anonymous says:

      Find a bank with an integrated fund trading app in their online service. Compare the track records of available funds. Pick the ones that consistently rise in the last few decades. Start dumping your savings in there when your salary comes in. Don’t cash them out if they lose some value.

    • Zeno of Citium says:

      Yes! An index fund is perfect for an investor that has money and patience but low risk tolerance. They’re also pretty much the best thing a normal person can invest in, since non-specialists pretty much can’t beat the market, and an index fund *is* the market. An index fund buys every stock in a given market (the S&P 500, or the whole US stock market, for example), weighted by something (market cap I think?). If the market goes up, the index goes up, and vice versa.

      Mr. Money Mustache has a good article on this for beginners: https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2011/05/18/how-to-make-money-in-the-stock-market/

      The best index fund manager is Vanguard (https://investor.vanguard.com/home). Since index funds are so simple, there’s nothing for managers of the fund to do other than administrative work and rebalancing the fund (which is also done by relatively simple math). This means that index funds are differentiated mostly by fees, which (since they barely need managers and thus have low costs) are very low compared to managed funds. Vanguard has the lowest fees (that I know of), therefore it’s the best.

      Also, congrats on Bitcoin. I lost my nerve right before the insane bubble we’re in started and only made a few thousand bucks. On plus side, a few thousand bucks is a few thousand bucks.

      • Tibor says:

        Thanks, this is very helpful.

        I also only made a few thousand bucks. I turned 6 thousand Euros to something like 20 thousand Euros, so only about 15 000 USD net gain. Then again, that is in two months. If I could that kind of money every two months by speculation, I’d do just that for a few more years and then retire 🙂 Also, I had more bitcoins (5 or so) a few years ago, made about 2 thousand Euros the first time the price hit 1000USD. Had I kept my bitcoins since then (or better yet sold them as i did and bought again 6 months later), it would have been a lot nicer 🙂 But I guess you could say about buying google stock in the 1990s or microsoft stock in the 1980s…or knowing the lottery numbers a day ahead (or buying 1000 or so BTC when I first learned about it on libertarian forums 🙂 ). Also, I only had an offline BTC wallet back then and someone stole my computer (either from a restaurant or I possibly stupidly left my backpack in the street when coming back from the restaurant) a few months after I sold them in late 2013. So it could have been a lot worse. Possibly, we will see something like the 1000 USD spike again followed by a much lower plateau but who knows. Bitcoin is in many ways like gambling and I don’t like having to worry about what the price is right now.

        I also panicked a bit a few days ago, sold bitcoins and bought them back the next day – including fees and the difference in price I lost about 3000 USD that way (compared to what I’d have now otherwise). I think I will wait a few more weeks now to make up for that difference, I expect it to still go up, at least in the short run, then I will use that money as an initial investment into an index fund and gradually add money every month from my wage. then if something high-risk catches my eye later, I might invest into that on the side as well, but now I actually hold more money in bitcoin than in anything else (unless I count my flat) and for that I definitely do not have the nerves.

        A friend of mine multiplied his initial bitcoin investment 20 times. Not bad at all, except that he only put in about 25 USD (that’s how much I owed him for paying something for me and I offered returning it in bitcoin back then 🙂 ).

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      You pretty much got it, index funds are great for long time scales. Make sure to get low expense ratios (< 0.10%, ideally). Vanguard is pretty much the gold standard; Fidelity largely equivalent products with a slicker interface paid for by attempts to upsell you to actively-managed swindles. Alternatively, Wealthfront will put all your money in good index funds with no input needed, for a small fee possibly offset by tax-loss harvesting.

      There’s pretty much nothing else as good as index funds for what you want. For lower short-term risk, you want bonds. AFAIK there is no way to get higher expected returns than index funds, although within the category of index funds, small-cap will maximize risk and reward.

      For a good simple guide, see PutANumOnIt. If you want to delve into minutiae, try bogleheads.org

    • psmith says:

      I’m in Vanguard index funds myself, but I could swear we’ve had some interesting contrarian takes on this in the SSC comments before. Maybe from one of the accounting types.

      • Brad says:

        When you get down to the single digit basis points that a lot of the domestic index funds have gotten down to on fees, it starts to become important to look at total tracking error instead. That measures the quality of trades as well as overhead cost. Unfortunately such metrics aren’t as easy to find. And if it is being held in a taxable account you’ll also want to compare tax efficiency.

      • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

        User in the subreddit against the folk wisdom of “Index Funds are better than Hedge Funds”:
        https://www.reddit.com/r/slatestarcodex/comments/78qk9v/hedge_fund_managers_with_psychopathic_tendencies/dox951n/?st=jb2pxrks&sh=164a50c9

        Commenter argues that there are better options than Vanguard for Index Funds and the sort: http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/10/08/ot86-utopen-thread/#comment-554803

      • Nornagest says:

        I’m also invested in Vanguard, but whenever I think about it in detail, Goodhart’s law starts bothering me. This strategy of dumping everything into passively managed index funds is relatively new, and now that it’s getting popular it’s starting to put a large premium on being represented in popular indices. Once the market adapts to that, indexed equities essentially become a separate asset class and we should not expect them to do a good job of tracking the broader market, which means that most of their attraction evaporates. The smaller the index, the bigger a deal this is and the faster it could diverge.

        I would like to be proven wrong.

        • mfm32 says:

          This is less of a concern than you’d think because of market-cap weighting. Under certain reasonable assumptions, the ideal portfolio mirrors the total investable universe.

          If you’re only looking at equities, any reasonable “total stock market” fund will reflect the entire investable universe of equities. The index Vanguard’s fund tracks covers ~100% of the universe by market cap. Anything that’s been left out is by definition too small to make a difference. Note that the S&P 500 only covers ~80% of the investable equity universe, so you probably don’t want an S&P 500 index fund.

          The bigger problem is that many asset classes are not as well indexed and so won’t be well represented. A portfolio that selected primarily to minimize management fees is going to fall victim to this problem particularly severely, because non-equity funds will have higher fees. That said, if you really want total market exposure, the modern ETF industry gives you most of the tools you need to do it. But then you have to deal with the fact that the expected returns of many other asset classes are lower than the expected equity return. Although you still get a diversification benefit, the lower level of return requires you to use leverage to get back to your preferred risk / return level. Quantitative asset managers will tell you this is no big deal and you should do it for the incremental return. I think they are operating at a level of scale and complexity where it makes sense to chase marginal improvements but which has little relevance for self-managed individual portfolios.

          TL;DR If you’re reading this, you’re probably saving enough that you can accept the risk of 100% equities. Buy the broadest U.S. and international Vanguard equity funds you can find (preferably ETFs). That’s probably a two-fund portfolio. If you’re doing something more complicated, you’re probably doing it mainly as a hobby.

          • Nornagest says:

            Thanks, that’s helpful.

            If these indices are weighted by market cap, then that implies that the underlying holdings in the corresponding fund are rebalanced periodically as their relative market cap changes. How is this done? And is it possible to squeeze out some arbitrage if a particular equity ends up being overvalued or undervalued but the index hasn’t been rebalanced yet?

            Also, there are lots of index funds out there; are they basing their representation on market cap excluding index fund holdings, or including? I assume the latter since the former would be hard to set up. But it seems like you’d get some double-counting effects that way.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          I’ve worried about that myself. I’ve been told that there are so many eyes on the market that it’s unlikely to get bad, but I don’t know how solid that is.

    • cassander says:

      Now is not exactly an ideal time to buy index funds, but I’d definitely rather be in index funds than bitcoin.

      I generally agree with Zeno of Citium, though, that if you want a relatively low risk idiot proof investment, it’s hard to go wrong with index funds. Vanguard is good, but the basic idea is to find something that tracks the S&P 500 with as low fees as possible and ADifferentAnonymous that fidelity has a pretty good interface.

    • j1000000 says:

      “From what I can tell the deal with the index funds is that they pretty much always tend to go up if you wait long enough.”

      No one seems to have responded to this, so I wanted to throw in my two cents… index funds are definitely as safe as you can get, but there is no law of physics guaranteeing a rise in markets. It’s true that, barring something very bad happening to the United States, markets will almost certainly go up over the next 50 years. But the market could always crash tomorrow and leave you trailing your original investment for the next decade. The Japanese stock market is still trying to catch up to the late 80s/early 90s

      • Tibor says:

        Which is why I said “if you wait long enough”. My time horizon on this is around 15 years, maybe 20. I am not aware of any example other than Japan where this would be too short. I think I am going to choose a US index, I somehow trust the US to be stable more than I trust Europe (the EU is not the most stable construct on its own plus we have Putin’s “barbarians at the doors” in the east), but I might do more research on that.

        Assuming that Russia is kept at bay and that the European cooperation continues in one form or another, buying properties in some EU countries also seems like a good idea. Estonia, Slovakia, Czech republic, maybe Romania (I was surprised about how much this former poorhouse of Europe has been improving) are likely to be comparable to Austria, Finland or Denmark in a few decades. But prices are still pretty low there, particularly in Romania or Estonia. I like Estonia in particular, somehow they give me an impression of a well-run and innovative country. Czech prices have been going up lately (I could probably sell my flat at 150% of the price I bought it 5 years ago) but the advantage would be being close to the property and knowing the legal system better than with Estonia. But 25000 USD would not be enough for me to buy any property here, I’d need at least 60k in Pilsen or 100k in Prague.

        Still, what do you think about the general idea? If I go by historical track record, the Baltic countries were doing quite well, and Czechoslovakia even more so before WW2. There’s still some post-communist baggage around which makes thing slower than they could be otherwise (and then there’s Russia trying to gain influence over their former “colonies”) but the general trend seems clear. In the last decade, the Czech republic, Slovenia and Slovakia left Greece and Portugal behind and I expect all of then to become richer than Spain in the next one. Estonia is not quite there yet (above Greece but not yet above Portugal) but they seem to be catching up quickly. I am less sure about Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary or Croatia and I would definitely not put any money in Bulgaria.

  16. CatCube says:

    I was making cookies this morning to bring to my work’s yearly “Pig-Out Week”, and ran into a frustration I usually have when making them: portioning out the cookie dough evenly. Does anybody have any methods or tips they use to keep the balls of dough about the same size? Measuring spoons are a little too small and measuring cups way too big. You’d think after all this time I could do it by eye, but I’m still not great at it.

    The recipe makes 4 dozen, so has to be baked in two batches. Due to this, I’d prefer a method that will work serially, that is, once I get the first 2 dozen on cookie sheets, I put them in the oven and then start portioning out the second 2 dozen. Aside from the time, I really don’t have the counter space to have all 4 dozen out at once (not without using the stovetop as a place to keep the cookie sheets, and it’s warmer than I’d like to leave the cookies on with the oven preheating)

      • rahien.din says:

        This. A baker without a scale is like a soldier without boots.

        • baconbacon says:

          Using a scale for cookies is ridiculous.

        • beleester says:

          I’m not a baker, but all the recipes in my cookbooks use volume measures, not mass. Not sure how a scale would help me.

          • dodrian says:

            Baking requires much more precision than savory cooking – exact flour/liquid/fat/leaven ratios are important for the chemical processes that happen during baking to occur most efficiently. Measuring an ingredient like flour or brown sugar by volume is very imprecise, because they can pack loosely or densely.

            Unfortunately most recipes in the US stick to the convention of volume measurements. It works well enough for cookies (unless you’re very particular about things like chewiness), but baking with a scale makes quite a difference to the consistency and quality of cakes and breads you can make. It’s almost essential for properly making more complicated pastries and the like.

            In this instance though, I believe Anonymous was suggesting using a scale to weigh cookie dough and ensuring even proportions.

          • gbdub says:

            Weigh your dough. Divide by servings to get your weight-per-serving. Portion accordingly.

            EDIT: to be clear, the OP was talking about portioning dough into similar sizes-per-cookie, so the scale would help.

          • Nornagest says:

            I believe Europeans use mass measurements for baking more than Americans do.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            This is a straight professional vs amateur distinction. Every professional bakes on weight, and every author whose cookbooks are worth the paper knows that’s the right way to do it. But the long standing convention is that the mass market don’t own kitchen scales (which is dumb, a great one costs like $20) and will totally reject recipes that use them.

            This is slowly starting to change. Favor baking from recipes that are written to weight, not volume.

          • baconbacon says:

            This is a straight professional vs amateur distinction. Every professional bakes on weight

            This is a decent rule of thumb, but it isn’t true. I was a professional baker and we used volume for lots of things. Bread dough (where I worked) always required getting it just right by eye, which meant starting wet and working up to the right consistency, not trying to hit it perfect and having to risk adding water (which is a pain on a machine and leads to overkneading), so no point to go with weighing when you are just getting close. Croissant dough (the next job) was a definite precision exercise.

          • On weight vs volume, I agree with the point that you don’t do bread dough by either but by feel.

            And while a scale that works fine for a range from ounces to pounds is inexpensive, you need another scale to handle the equivalent of teaspoons and quarter teaspoons. Ordinary salt is pretty uniform in density (except for kosher salt, where the two main brands are quite different), and spices are not uniform in how strong they are, so neither method is adequate and there is no advantage to weight.

            In practice I use both. Most early cookbook recipes don’t give quantities at all. My favorite medieval Middle-Eastern cookbook (10th century) quite often gives quantities, I think always by weight–but the translator didn’t bother to explain that there are twelve ounces to a pound, not sixteen.

    • baconbacon says:

      Depends on the consistency of the dough, but bakeries often use ice cream scoops (the ones with a slider that will push out the dough) to make it quick and easy to portion accurately. Another method is to roll the dough into a rope and then cut to length to get consistency.

      Aside from the time, I really don’t have the counter space to have all 4 dozen out at once (not without using the stovetop as a place to keep the cookie sheets, and it’s warmer than I’d like to leave the cookies on with the oven preheating)

      Rectangular cookie sheets are incredibly easy to stack, just rotate 90 degrees and you can get 6+ sheets in the footprint of 1.5 sheets. If your cookies are to high you can space with any number of things (wood mixing spoons) in your kitchen.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Roll it into a log and slice it? Or just get larger measuring spoons. 1 1/3 tbsp is available, as is 1 1/2 and 2 tbsp (1 oz), 2 oz, 3 oz.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I usually take a measuring spoon to get a heaping tablespoon, then place it in my palm. When you roll the ball of dough in your hand you can keep the size reasonably regular. You’ll feel when it’s too big or too small.

      Obviously you need to wash your hands very carefully beforehand. A normal oven isn’t hot enough to sterilize anything you bake in it: if it was, it would ruin your food.

      • quaelegit says:

        Wait really? What’s the difference between sterilizing cookie dough from germs* on your hands and sterilizing it from germs in eggs? (Or for that matter, sterilizing germs in chicken when you bake it?)

        *might be the wrong word — I don’t know much about biology.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          Actually I’m being dumb, ignore me.

          It looks like ordinary food pathogens won’t be able to survive oven temperatures. You should still wash your hands anyway but it should be safe.

          You wouldn’t want to take your cookies into a tissue culture room or an operating theater, they’re not actually sterile, but they’re perfectly safe for normal consumption. I’m just applying really inappropriate standards of cleanliness.

        • baconbacon says:

          No, not really.

        • dodrian says:

          Good food hygiene starts with clean surfaces, equipment, and clean hands.

          However, if the oven is hot enough to denature food proteins (like how the egg proteins bind together, 158F), it is hot enough to be killing any illness-causing bacteria you’re likely to have in the kitchen or ingredients. If the sugar is burning (browning, about 320F), it’s definitely hot enough to kill.

          Sterile may be the wrong word here, but the chances of enough food-borne pathogens surviving to infect you is next to nil. It’s worth noting though that toxins already created by bacteria aren’t always destroyed by heat (hence the importance of having clean equipment – not using something where bacteria may have already been growing and producing nasty things).

          The other issue may be if the center of what you’re cooking doesn’t get up to a high enough temperature – it might happen with a very large gooey cookie, or an underdone pie.

    • gbdub says:

      Like most kitchen tasks, there’s a specific gadget for that!

      Also keeps your fingers a lot cleaner.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        As a wise man once said, “the only unitasker that belongs in your kitchen is a fire extinguisher”

        • dodrian says:

          I now am compelled to think of a few other uses for a fire extinguisher in the kitchen…

          Maybe flash-freezing?

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          Even Alton has gotten a little less strict about this rule since Good Eats, and a scoop of this form isn’t a unitasker: it’s good for literally any task where you have to dispense quantities of something sticky. If you bake any reasonable amount, that’s “constantly”, and it happens in savory work too.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Fair enough. I’m no good at cookery (watched Good Eats for the Bill Nye aspects) so just checked the link to see if it billed itself as a monotasker, like gbdub’s wording implied.

        • gbdub says:

          My coffee machine is (functionally) a unitasker – should I get rid of it?

          I’m fine with unitaskers when:
          1) The unitask is something I’m going to do very frequently (if you bake a lot of cookies / muffins / cupcakes, one or a few cookie-scoops are a real quality of life improvement for the amount of space they take). Coffee maker fits here too. Or a rice cooker, if you eat rice with every meal (or you’re a Chinese restaurant).
          2) The unitasker is so much better than the alternatives that it’s worth the extra space, even if you don’t use it that often. A decent example might be my mom’s apple spiral slicer (one of those cranked ones). It’s not that good for anything but apples, but it reduces prep time for apple pie by probably 80% while improving the final product (the slices are all the same thickness, and thus bake evenly).

          The “no unitaskers” argument works a lot better for things like those ridiculous “shredding claws”, avocado slicer-scoopers, and that banana slicer thing with the great reviews on Amazon.

          • baconbacon says:

            A decent example might be my mom’s apple spiral slicer (one of those cranked ones). It’s not that good for anything but apples,

            Peeling potatoes (if the slicer can be easily removed)!

          • dodrian says:

            Based on what I’ve heard other chefs say, I’d guess (as I can’t watch this video) that he’s specifically railing against those things which basically act as a knife you can only use on one object (your apple peeler/slicer would probably fall into this category!). I suspect he wouldn’t object to your owning a particular shape of piping tip, even though that has exactly one use, and is probably rarely brought out.

            The unitasker I use most frequently is a garlic press, though I’ve also heard chefs speak out against those, also saying that a knife and the correct technique is faster.

            Of course most professional chefs also tend to forget that those of us cooking at home don’t usually have the benefit of culinary school, nor years of long shifts using a knife in a kitchen where gadget space is at a premium.

          • gbdub says:

            @baconbacon – in theory you can use it to peel potatoes with the coring / slicing bits rotated out of the way, in practice most potatoes are too lumpy for the device to work well. Leaves a lot of leftover peel to clean up.

            Yeah, the main problem seems to be an assumption of excellent knife skills. Once you’ve acquired them a lot of unitaskers are obsolete. Until you do, those gadgets might save you a lot of grief and maybe a digit or two.

            Cheap way to “great knife skills”: a mandoline slicer. Warning: loves to eat fingertips.

          • baconbacon says:

            @baconbacon – in theory you can use it to peel potatoes with the coring / slicing bits rotated out of the way, in practice most potatoes are too lumpy for the device to work well. Leaves a lot of leftover peel to clean up.

            I like using mine for potatoes, the extra clean up is still faster (and faster still because my kids can work it).

          • gbdub says:

            Fair enough. I’ve gotten good enough with a standard peeler that the time savings isn’t that great, and as you note kids can do much better with the specialty tool – maybe another application for unitaskers?

            Plus I don’t eat potatoes as much anymore, and when I do it’s usually in a preparation that leaves the skins.

          • pontifex says:

            Rice cookers are not quite unitaskers— they can also be used to cook oatmeal. Some of them can steam vegetables too, I think.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I’m loyal to my rice cooker– I use it something like once a week.

            The big gain is utter simplicity– dump in the rice and water, put on the cover, hit the switch.

            I could use the Instapot, but it’s just a little more trouble.

            A rice cooker can be used for other grains, like quinoa, and yes, you can steam vegetables in it, but you need a steamer.

            I consider that to be a classic steamer, but I haven’t explored alternatives.

            Also, I’ve cooked risotto in a steamer. The result was pretty nice. I’m not sure that default risotto (add liquid a quarter cup at a time as it cooks) is that much better.

          • Nick says:

            I see nothing wrong with unitaskers if they actually are being used a lot. I used to use the rice cooker at least once a week too. I wouldn’t really have been interested in cooking oatmeal or quinoa or something else in it (risotto might have been nice though).

          • baconbacon says:

            The big gain is utter simplicity– dump in the rice and water, put on the cover, hit the switch.

            I could use the Instapot, but it’s just a little more trouble.

            Wait, putting rice in the instapot for me is literally dump in the rice and liquid, put on the cover, hit a button.

          • albatross11 says:

            Isn’t the whole point of the instapot that it works as a rice cooker + pressure cooker + a bunch of other things at once?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            It’s true, but at the moment the rice cooker is on the counter, while the Instapot (rather larger) needs to be put somewhere and plugged in.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        I have one of those and it sucks.

    • Rebecca Friedman says:

      Teaspoons. Not the measuring spoon kind, the kind that’s part of your silverware. Or soup spoons if you want it bigger than that.

      The way I learned to make chocolate chip cookies – I’m guessing you’re describing drop cookies? – is take two spoons; one (bigger) scoops up some dough, the other portions it off onto the sheet. I can get it pretty even with that and a little per-sheet correcting by eye; the variance isn’t big enough for me to have much of a problem with across-sheet variation, just “I was running out of dough on the stable spoon for that one, guess I should add a bit” variation. That said I don’t think I’m trying to get it as exact as you are, just “I don’t want anyone to be jealous” exact for a few specific events. But in theory it seems as if you could.

      Good luck!

    • CatCube says:

      I want to thank everybody for their replies. Instead of responding to each comment individually, I’m going to roll them up, not least because I’ve got some general remarks.

      I quickly dashed off my comment before heading off to work, so I did leave out some information regarding my motivation.

      My go-to cookies for bringing to events are an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. The dough is pretty sticky due to the butter content, and I’ve generally just been spooning drops of it onto a cookie sheet. Using a tablespoon (the table utensil, not the measuring spoon) and just spooning is a little more difficult to keep things consistent, because the large oatmeal flakes seem to make the dough more clumpy. That is, dipping in a spoon will often have random amounts of “extra” that stick to the intended spoonful, meaning the raw drops tend to vary by about 50% in either direction. I don’t do much other cookie baking, so maybe it’s more a perception thing than reality. I’ll usually get a couple dozen on cookie sheets with a target size in mind, then do a final pass taking dough from one and moving it to the other. This is a little frustrating and takes some time.

      I try to keep the cookie size consistent, because it makes it easier to bake properly. The recipe takes only about 7 minutes to bake, and 30 seconds more or less makes a visible difference. Having them all the same size and shape means that they’ll all bake to a consistent level with less effort and watching from me. I had one where I think my blob of dough had a part of it that was thinner, because when it baked it had a thin part that was very crispy. There are good arguments on either side of the “crispy vs. chewy” cookie argument, but I think that both sides will agree that a cookie that is both crispy and chewy is an abomination. That one became one of my “taste test” cookies, but I’d prefer to minimize the number of bolos if I can.

      The other problem with my method is that I tend to get the first cookie so it “looks” about the right size and then match everything in the rest of the two dozen. Since I’m putting the second two dozen on the sheet while the first two dozen bake, there are often visible size differences between the two batches that I really only notice when I’m putting them on the cooling racks and I can compare them side-by-side. This also means that I have to watch both batches pretty closely since I can’t guarantee the same baking time will work for both.

      Another consideration is that I like them to be fresher, so instead of making them the night before when I’ve promised to bring something, I get up an hour earlier. This means that I’m a little frustrated by otherwise small irritations. I’m also looking for ways to make the process more efficient, so I’m not still screwing around with the second two dozen after the first are finished, not least because while I’m putting the dough on the pans, the only place to put the cookie sheets to cool before transferring them to the wire racks is on top of the oven, which is obviously a lot warmer than I’d like for cooling the pans. (Though I’ve learned to position them so neither cookie sheet is over the oven vent, which really created a problem!)

      The reason I asked is because I was wondering if there was “One Weird Trick” to make this easier that I wasn’t using. My mom made this recipe as bars rather than cookies, so I kind of learned the cookie dropping on my own, rather than having it taught.

      @Anonymous
      I can’t fault you for suggesting this, because I totally left out the whole “needs to be reasonably fast” requirement in my original post, but weighing out four dozen cookies individually is way more effort than I’m willing to put in for consistent cookie size.

      I probably should invest in a cooking scale, but haven’t made the plunge yet. I’ve got a problem where I get into doing stuff and then move on to something else. I did that with baking, and debated moving to a “weighing ingredients” but ended up moving on and not doing any baking for a couple years, except for this cookie recipe. Since I’ve more or less got this recipe dialed in by volume, I’ve not had any reason to convert it to weight measurements.

      I think the last thing I was trying to make as a new-to-me recipe was pie. I ended up getting really frustrated by not being able to get the crust to turn out. No matter how much flour I used I couldn’t get it rolled out without it sticking to the silicone mat. I meant to come back to it, but never did.

      @baconbacon, @The Nybbler,

      I like the log idea, and I might give it a try at some point, but I think the dough I use is so sticky that it might turn into a mess rather than rolling into a cylinder. Not having tried it, I might be pleasantly surprised. I am going to go with the “cookie scoop” suggestion, so this might be my go-to if Beta Guy’s warnings about it sucking are true.

      @gbdub

      Thanks! I guess I just never thought to Google for a specific cookie scooping implement, but that looks like exactly what I’m looking for. I put in an order. I do take under advisement @A Definite Beta Guy’s warning about it, but I’m going to give it a try.

      • baconbacon says:

        Another consideration is that I like them to be fresher, so instead of making them the night before when I’ve promised to bring something, I get up an hour earlier. This means that I’m a little frustrated by otherwise small irritations.

        Try making the dough the night before and refrigerating if you haven’t already.

        • CatCube says:

          @baconbacon

          The concern I have about that is that baking soda is a component. Doesn’t that react as soon as mixed to provide the leavening? Is there a concern with losing the carbon dioxide overnight and resulting in a flatter cookie?

          • baconbacon says:

            I briefly toyed with the idea of creating a different account to reply to this because, not being any good at chemistry, this could totally be wrong and I will look silly. So, with that pinch of salt here goes….

            No, not really. What you care about in baking is the ratio of CO2 produced to CO2 trapped. Bread requires kneading because you have to create the structures to hold in the amount of gas that it takes to lift the mass of dough up. Baking soda doesn’t actually produce that much gas, which is why you don’t get big pockets of air like you can with a loaf of bread, in a cookie. Also the reaction should be slower in colder temperatures (I think) so as long as you aren’t rolling out the dough or otherwise beating it up and releasing the gas it should give you most of the lift you are used to. Leaving it in the fridge or freezer for a week+ might well give you a flat cookie.

            Of course the only way to find out is to try it. If the cookies come out flat I will bear the burden of eating them for you 🙂

          • skef says:

            All the cookies in one of my favorite cookbooks have to be refrigerated before baking, and it says that anywhere from 1 to 24 hours is fine if they’re covered. I’ve used a number of different time-ranges and it doesn’t make any noticeable difference.

          • dodrian says:

            I usually refrigerate cookie dough before baking, in my experience cookies hold their shape better when you do this. As skef mentions, most good recipes will suggest refrigerating at least an hour.

            My speculation is that it firms up the butter in the dough, which I’m guessing (when creamed with sugar) is what is actually trapping the air as the cookies bake.

      • Skivverus says:

        That is, dipping in a spoon will often have random amounts of “extra” that stick to the intended spoonful

        Have you considered using two spoons? One to scrape off the other.
        (Strictly speaking, the second utensil doesn’t have to be a spoon, just flat enough so that it can also be scraped off in similar fashion)

  17. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    Opening a thread here to discuss the ‘red dollars‘ proposal and blue dollars reply from tumblr.

    I don’t have a rigorous argument, but my guess is that if the red/blue dollars aren’t just plain rejected, it would be because they’re getting routed to the people who would use them according to their terms anyway. Like the red bills all make their way to big banks that do a gazillion dollars of transactions a minute with other big banks. The blue dollars also mostly flow to people who already wanted to buy solar panels; if you issue more blue dollars than would naturally have been spent on solar panels, their value will diminish. They probably do work as a moderate subsidy and make some marginal folks buy panels, but you can’t get an order-of-magnitude increase that way.

    • The Nybbler says:

      There’s no reason a dollar, red or otherwise, has to ever be spent on a solar panel. It can circulate anywhere else until it’s eventually returned to the treasury. Which is what happens with both the red and blue dollars; they’re used to pay taxes. With blue, anyone who gets them preferentially uses them to pay their own taxes. What’s left over gets traded for a discount for greenbacks to other people with more taxes to pay. With red, probably there are entities which keep them alive by circulating them. They make a profit by buying them at a discount and selling them (to taxpayers) at a smaller discount.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        I read the blue dollar proposal as saying they weren’t valid for taxes until being ‘retired’ in the penultimate paragraph.

        • The Nybbler says:

          The proposal says “These blue dollars, or B$, work just like regular dollars but they expire after one year, after which they are no longer legal tender.”

          This is actually pretty bad; since regular dollars are “legal tender for all debts, public and private”, people can use them at par for ANY debt, not just taxes. Which not only means that debtholders are going to quickly end up stuck with all these expiring dollars, but that lending is suddenly going to get extremely risky.

          If the blue dollars aren’t legal tender to begin with and not usable for taxes at the start, they’re not backed by anything except the hope that they might become usable for taxes at some time in the future. I suspect the discount will be _quite_ substantial in that case.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            Oh wow, didn’t think the implications of “legal tender” through. I’m guessing the author didn’t either.

            Best patch I can come up with is “not valid for private debt; valid for taxes with value pro-rated by the remaining time (i.e. six months after buying a solar panel, it’s worth fifty cents on the dollar). Probably wouldn’t be a very effective subsidy, but it’d be great publicity for the solar panel companies’ April blowout sales.

    • sohois says:

      Putting aside the issues raised by the nybbler, the blue dollars idea runs into the problem of moving the dollars through the system more than once. Without even considering the issue of distribution chains, it will be extremely difficult for manufacturers to redistribute the blue dollars back to the larger public. They wouldn’t be able to use them as generic cash flow because they aren’t really fungible enough, so you would need the government to step in and act as a market maker for USD to B$ transfers. But as the original post notes, most solar panel buyers won’t pick up blue dollars unless the exchange rate is quite low, whilst manufacturer will sell to the bank when B$ are fresh and have a high exchange rate.

      In the example, B$ would sell to the public at 0.8, and buy back from manufacturers at 0.95, meaning everytime you want to refresh the B$ supply the government will be taking a loss, so it wouldn’t be a one off investment of a billion USD, it would be a constant subsidy.

  18. j1000000 says:

    Anyone know any place to use BTC to bet on elections? Roy Moore’s odds seem to be going down, but I suspect it’s wishful thinking.

    • mobile says:

      Googling “bitcoin betting markets” turns up a number of options.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        Please refrain from pithy “LMGTFY” posts. Bitcoin and betting markets are both topics here with some frequency. It’s not unreasonable to ask about to get some vetting or additional commentary.

    • j1000000 says:

      Thank you to everyone for not responding to this. Because I could not bet, I intend to pretend this event never happened and will not update my priors accordingly.

  19. Jiro says:

    I’ve been skeptical of the LW crowd talking about deathism, since it seems like a way to sell cryonics, which I don’t believe in. But there is something of a point in that TV shows and movies tend to use “you should accept death” in fantasy situations where unlike reality death is not inevitable and you really shouldn’t accept death.

    Legends of Tomorrow last week had one, where Stein is told that there are loopholes which let you change time, but destroyed the information that would let him change his own death, because he must have lived a full life. Yet he had died by being shot, not of a terminal illness or anything like that, and to take that at face value would mean that it doesn’t matter that someone is shot because he lived a fulfilling life. Is anyone else bothered by this?

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I think a lot of this is coming from the fact that writers who (like most of us) don’t actually have any particular insight into the human condition are expected to create art which informs our understanding of the human condition. Art which is also expected to have broad mass-market appeal. So morals end up a bit mangled.

      Stoic acceptance of the inevitability of death is a healthy mindset. Death is something that we can’t prevent, at least not for the foreseeable future, so time and money spent trying to cheat death instead of building your legacy are wasted. If the typical Alcor customer put that cryonics money into a fund for his children, he would be doing much more for his future.

      But if a tiger jumps out from behind a bush, that’s not the time to stoically accept the inevitability of your death! The fear you feel is extremely healthy, in fact it’s vital to keeping you alive. Trying as hard as possible to avoid immediate death is the best and only move.

      So this writer seems to have misapplied an otherwise good life lesson to an inapplicable circumstance. That’s exactly the sort of muddy thinking that people have from time to time and it’s only a problem to the extent that people mistake him for an authority on virtuous behavior.

      • James C says:

        Yeah, it definitely feels like a clash of philosophies between real world good life lessons and fantasy world good life lessons.

        I remember back with the Harry Potter books there’s at least three different ways of living forever. One is objectively evil in setting (drinking unicorn blood) and one is probably more trouble than its worth (horcruxes), but the Philosophers Stone was safe, moral and effective as far as I could tell. Of course, that was destroyed because it was too dangerous to fall into the wrong hands…

        Yeah, definitely a clash of philosophy there. Harry Potter is a fairly simple series at its heart, which requires the elder characters to be caring and wise, and also stoically shuffle off the mortal coil when the plot demands. The Harry Potter world where most of the wizards since the 13th century are still alive and kicking is probably more internally consistent but unlikely to be as good.

        • LewisT says:

          One is objectively evil in setting (drinking unicorn blood) and one is probably more trouble than its worth (horcruxes)….

          You know, I think most people would probably put murder in the “objectively evil” category, not the “more trouble than it’s worth” category. I always got the impression that the characters in the Harry Potter books also considered the creation of a Horcrux to be worse than the killing a unicorn and drinking of its blood.

          • James C says:

            I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much about the final books. Did horcruxes require murder or something like that? What little I can remember is that it seemed to have done more damage to Voldemort than anything else.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            @James C- Yes, creating a horcrux requires murder.

          • John Schilling says:

            What’s the ethical stance on using divination to locate roadkilled unicorns while they are still fresh?

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            The ethics are it’s okay, but only if you are Harry Potter and simultaneously cruciatus one of your school professors and erase the free will of a lesser species useful only for managing money.

          • baconbacon says:

            The ethics are it’s okay, but only if you are Harry Potter and simultaneously cruciatus one of your school professors and erase the free will of a lesser species useful only for managing money.

            The ethics are it doesn’t matter how brave, strong, smart, willful, evil, violent, immoral/moral you are, you cannot overcome the willingness to self sacrifice. The story starts, and almost ends, with self sacrifice breaking an indomitable foe with everything else being a set up for Harry to realize that no other trick would work to defeat him.

          • John Schilling says:

            Can I spike someone’s drink with a polyjuice potion to make them an exact duplicate of me, and then sacrifice them?

          • baconbacon says:

            Can I spike someone’s drink with a polyjuice potion to make them an exact duplicate of me, and then sacrifice them?

            If this worked you are probably better off confounding Voldemort into thinking he killed you.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I’m pretty sure if Voldy cruicatus’d Lily into dropping the baby instead of killing her, Harry would have no death protection, and would’ve been Abra Kadabra’d into the next life.

            Unless there is some other wizard physics that get put into play.

          • The Nybbler says:

            If you can confound Voldemort, you’re already more powerful than him. So I suggest just giving him the old Avada Kedavra and being done with it. Sure, it’s an unforgivable curse, but killing Voldemort requires no forgiveness anyway.

        • baconbacon says:

          but the Philosophers Stone was safe, moral and effective as far as I could tell.

          On the other hand we are never told how a Stone is made. The assumption that it is fine to use might imply that it was made with acceptable magic, but you could also assume that the work required to make one was horrific which would explain why only 1 was ever made, and they never shared the recipe.

          • James C says:

            True, if it was a Full Metal Alchemist style stone then things get a bit more muddied. Though I’m sure someone could argue even killing a hundred people to give one personal eternal life is a sum that works out in the long run.

            That raises a side question. How evil can the fantasy means of immortality be before a society would agree not to use it? I could totally imagine a world where unicorns are factory farmed to provide life extension drugs in a fantasy version of ‘Those That Walk Away From Omelas’.

        • Rob K says:

          In Harry Potter the afterlife is real, though mysterious. Huge implications regarding the meaning and correct approach to death.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Deathism shows up in Peter Beagle’s books– very much in A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn, and I think in some of his other work.

      There’s print sf about immortality being bad– you don’t want to be a soulless elf or a deteriorating struldbrug.

      I suspect sour grapes.

  20. Andrew Hunter says:

    Hey, remember when we were all talking about The Orville? The season just finished, anyone else keep watching? I’m definitely enjoying it. The good:

    – Beautiful. The production values are high, the cinematography seems good, every shot is damn pretty.

    – Has the Trek ethos. Unlike any Trek since the reboot, understands the moral center of the show, as I mentioned in previous comments here: these are fundamentally good people working together to do good things through the power of science, cooperation, society, niceness, and the occasional very silly fist fight. Trek is about who we can be.

    – The comedy basically works. It’s not a laugh out loud constantly show, but the jokes do amuse me and nicely lighten the mood throughout.

    – I enjoy seeing the real lives of these people–Trek always showed people’s pastimes on the holodeck or whatever, but even in DS9 you only sort of knew that these people had non-work identities.

    The bad:

    – I’ve complained about this before, but the writers seriously do not understand dereliction of duty. Pretty much every episode has someone doing something court-martial worthy w/r/t their professional obligations (like, you know, don’t run away from your post because you’re having a bad day, or don’t usurp the captain’s authority with obscure regulations for personal purposes, or…seriously guys.)

    – The science is not quite as good or internally consistent as TNG, which is a low bar compared to reality (though a high bar compared to television.)

    – While all of the characters are interesting and well played, they mostly don’t grab me as well as some of my favorite Trek people; there’s no one who I’m deeply excited to see an episode about.

    Overall, I’ve been enjoying it, though it’s not an all time great (yet.) It’s certainly the best sci fi show on network television since…oh god, what was the last good one?

    • Matt M says:

      How have the ratings been? What’s the outlook for it not getting cancelled?

      I generally refuse to invest any time in a TV series until it has gone through at least three seasons…

    • John Schilling says:

      Mostly agree, particularly on the part where they Just Plain Get It. But I do have two other negatives.

      – The dialogue ranges from mediocre to unwatchably bad. Mostly just mediocre, which would be OK if everything else were running fine but it often isn’t. And then there’s the unwatchably bad parts

      – The comedy sort of works in its own right, but it’s often a bad fit with the dramatic side of the story. In particular, it often shows us the characters as hopelessly inept at the same time as the story is trying to make us care about their efforts. This I think factors into some of the worst of the dialogue, and into your observation that the characters aren’t all that engrossing.

      Also, I want to never ever see the premise that people serving on a warship and/or exploratory vessel will of course have their children with them. At least we don’t have a Wesley Crusher, yet, but this is one thing I wish Roddenberry had never brought to Trek,

      • albatross11 says:

        At least, if people are taking their kids along on dangerous missions, I’d like to understand why their culture came to the idea that this is a reasonable thing to do. Like, if your exploration voyages are 50 years long and are mostly pretty safe with a very rare bit of isolated danger, or your ships are powerful enough that the kids stay behind where nobody can mess with them and your combat robots go wipe out anyone who needs killing, that might make sense. Or if you had a culture that assumed that even 4-year-old kids were reasonable additions to risky social enterprises, the way pioneers would take their wife and five kids off to live in a mud hut on their homestead, that could make sense. But you can’t have anything like a modern US 20th/21st century worldview and think this is okay….

        • Matt M says:

          mostly pretty safe with a very rare bit of isolated danger, or your ships are powerful enough that the kids stay behind where nobody can mess with them

          This was pretty much the justification for TNG, wasn’t it? And we’re led to believe that in most cases, it’s perfectly reasonable, it’s just that the Enterprise attracts like 1000x more danger than any other comparable Starfleet vessel.

          • achenx says:

            This was pretty much the justification for TNG, wasn’t it?

            Right. They had the whole saucer-separation thing if there was a serious danger to get the families out of the way. Mostly dropped after a couple first-season episodes because it slowed the pace down too much though.

            it’s just that the Enterprise attracts like 1000x more danger than any other comparable Starfleet vessel.

            Worf: We were like heroes out of a legend. There was nothing we couldn’t do.

            O’Brien: Except keep the holodeck working.

          • albatross11 says:

            To be fair, having kids on the Enterprise is actually much less crazy than routinely sending the whole command crew down to explore the surface of some hostile planet.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        The mere existence of children does not bother me quite as much as it does you, though I agree it’s weird, and at a minimum needs an explanation for why people do such things.

        The particular children we’ve seen drive me nuts. I really wanted the doctor’s kids to die in that episode.

        Can you point out what dialogue particularly offended you? I mean, it’s not the West Wing, sure, but it’s never much bothered me. The dialogue also plays into one of the strengths I gave: they seem to mostly talk like humans. (Weirdly casual humans from a particular TwenCen demographic, but still.) So many shows, especially dramas, have a particular formalized/unnatural cadence and flow to their dialogue, which is great for what it’s meant to do (efficiently convey story and be interesting qua dialogue.) But it makes the characters seem less like normal people, you know?

        THe mix between comedy and drama I would just categorize as…weird. It’s not perfect, but I don’t know precisely what I want it to be.

        • John Schilling says:

          Can you point out what dialogue particularly offended you?

          Off the top of my head, the flirtation between Seth McFarlane and Charlize Theron was just painful to watch. And watching Charlize Theron isn’t supposed to be painful.

          The Captain and Idiot Helmsman Guy infiltrating the not-Klingon ship, where every line might as well have been “Hi! I’m not even going to try to disguise how obvious it is that I don’t belong here!”, that’s the one I literally couldn’t watch and tuned out for the middle of the episode.

          Also pretty much any time the Captain and XO let their relationship into their professional persona, or more generally the far, far too numerous occasions when nobody on the ship seems to realize that there is such a thing as a professional style of communication.

          And the fact that I’m not even remembering these peoples’ names, though that goes into your boring-character complaint.

    • johan_larson says:

      It’s certainly the best sci fi show on network television since…oh god, what was the last good one?

      The BSG reboot? 2004-2009

      Anything more recent?

      • j1000000 says:

        @johan_larson The BSG reboot was not on network TV. Was totally awesome though.

        Though in this age of prestige TV and gritty reboots, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has already aged poorly.

        • johan_larson says:

          If The Sci-Fi Channel doesn’t count as “network TV”, I guess that pushes things back to “The X-Files”, which was on Fox.

          • John Schilling says:

            “Firefly” was broadcast on Fox in 2002; I’d also nominate “Dollhouse” from 2009-2010. UPN had “Enterprise” from 2001-2005; like “Orville” they got the concept and were shaky on the execution.

          • hyperboloid says:

            According to Wikipedia Deep Space Nine went off the air on June 2 1999. How many good episodes of the X-Files were there after that?

            Because that show really turned to crap not long after they made the movie.

          • gbdub says:

            Lost ended in 2010.

            These aren’t good shows really, but if we’re just saying “better than The Orville“, I’d count the currently running Marvel shows Agents of SHIELD and The Gifted. Or Gotham. Or Lucifer.

            On basic cable in the “fun, light sci-fi/horror” genre, I’ve been enjoying iZombie

          • John Schilling says:

            Lost was neither good nor science fiction.

            And I’m about ready to write off anything derived from the inherent silliness that is comic-book superhero fantasy; writers seem to have run out of ways (or just stopped trying) to rescue that subgenre from its faults and instead allow them to drag down otherwise-good stories and characters. Admittedly Lucifer is several steps removed from its comic-book origins, but not I think much improved.

          • gbdub says:

            Not everyone is quite so particular as you about the boundaries of the genre 😛

            Anyway, like I said, I was going for “better than The Orville“, not necessarily “good”.

            And frankly Dollhouse wasn’t all that “good” either. Good premise, and it got pretty interesting when it went serial, but the episodic structure of the first several episodes was a weak point. I suspect I’d remember it less fondly if it hadn’t gotten canceled because I’m not sure it had all that many places to go.

          • John Schilling says:

            Dollhouse had about two seasons of story and AFIK didn’t try to stick around for more than that. The first few episodes, yes, you do have to take it on faith that they are setting up a real story. Joss Whedon had mostly earned that level of faith from me.

            For that matter, he’s one of the few writer/producers who I trust to rescue comic-book superheroes from mediocrity.

          • gbdub says:

            My impression from the rumblings at the time was that Dollhouse barely got a second season, and FOX mostly didn’t cancel it because they didn’t want a second rabid fanbase from a prematurely canceled Joss Whedon sci-fi show giving them a black eye. That is, the writing would have been on the wall pretty early that season 2 was going to be it – but I never got the impression that Whedon intended it to be a two season show.

            Thoughts on The Sarah Connor Chronicles? Another big sci-fi franchise in that time frame that didn’t last very long. Never got around to watching it, wondering if it is worth the effort?

          • Nornagest says:

            The Sarah Connor Chronicles was better than any of the Terminator movies past 2, but they didn’t set a high bar. Good cast aside from the John Connor character; Summer Glau is as fun to watch as always; writing’s basically competent, but the conceptual work it did to build on the existing franchise ended up being kinda stupid. Though, again, compare to offensively stupid in the recent movies.

            I’d say it’s worth checking out if you’re a Terminator or a Glau fan. Otherwise you can probably find better bang for your SF buck.

          • bean says:

            Dollhouse had about two seasons of story and AFIK didn’t try to stick around for more than that.

            You must have watched a very different season 2 than I did. There was 2-3 seasons worth of story crammed into it. (IIRC, Whedon said he had a 5-season outline, and compressed it when Fox gave him the second season, which everyone knew would be the last.) I’ll agree that the first few episodes were a bit weak on their own, but also that Whedon has more than enough credit with me to get past that.

        • Wrong Species says:

          I recently started watching BSG for the first time. I’m really impressed with their ability to have the characters make tough decisions without making them necessarily bad decisions. The Americans is also fantastic at doing this.

          Some shows do villain protagonists that start good but end up bad(Breaking Bad), some have a basically good character who likes to drink a lot(Tyrion in Game of Thrones), but I like how Captain Adama is this genuinely good guy in truly desperate circumstances.

          • gbdub says:

            Bill Adama is one of the truly great characters in sci fi, and in particular the way his relationship with Roslin grows and changes over time is handled very well. He’s, as you note, definitely a good guy, but he has flaws and blind spots that are handled well too, and it’s interesting how seemingly more flawed characters (Tigh and Apollo in particular) often point out when Adama is blowing it and save him from himself.

            Although there’s a particularly beautiful moment early in S3 where Apollo convinces Bill he’s making a potentially disastrous decision he can’t afford to make, but Bill explains that he has to make it anyway because he couldn’t live with himself otherwise.

          • John Schilling says:

            I recently started watching BSG for the first time. I’m really impressed with their ability to have the characters make tough decisions without making them necessarily bad decisions.

            I envy you the fresh experience, and the early seasons are really quite good. But, A: it does go downhill starting in S3, and B: the Cylons very definitely Do Not Have A Plan. That was basically Moore et al doing the Chris Carter thing of seeing how cool it would be if there were a plan and imagining they could make it up as they went along.

            When the time comes that you don’t feel like watching the next episode, walk away and take what you’ve got.

          • cassander says:

            @john

            I don’t think it even actually gets bad, so much as there’s a continual accumulation of “stuff that clearly feels like it should be going somewhere” without ever actually paying off in a satisfying way because none of it was actually planned ahead, and that it eventually starts to grate. I think if you take each episode in isolation, BSG is one of the best shows ever made and I think it’s fascinating how when you look back on the whole thing it adds up to so much less than the sum of its parts.

      • John Schilling says:

        I’d put The Expanse in the same league as BSG, and well ahead of The Orville. In both cases assuming basic-cable SyFy counts as “network”, otherwise the pickings are slim indeed.

        • albatross11 says:

          I’ll second the recommendation for The Expanse, which so far I’m liking quite a bit.

        • gbdub says:

          How well does The Expanse work if you haven’t read the books? I enjoyed it, but I’d read them. My girlfriend liked it too, but it’s pretty dense and I think some stuff went over her head that the books laid out better.

          • cassander says:

            I read the expanse books and thought they were….fine. Not amazing, not terrible, just pretty good. I feel that the show, for the most part, is better TV than the books were books. I think they’ve done a good job of compressing things.

          • John Schilling says:

            I second cassander on this, and I deliberately didn’t reread the books before going into the TV series because I wanted to see it fresh. Would like more opinions from people with no knowledge of the books at all, but as TV adaptions go I’d call this one first-rate.

          • Nornagest says:

            I haven’t read the books, but I followed the first few episodes pretty well. It didn’t really grab me, though; I don’t really have any objections to it, I just sort of lost interest after a while. The characters are probably the weakest link; you really need strong ones if you’re going to be jumping between threads as much as The Expanse does, and it doesn’t quite deliver. This is fine in literary SF, but not for a TV show.

          • albatross11 says:

            I have never read the books, but have enjoyed the two seasons so far quite a bit.

          • Seppo says:

            I love love love the show and have yet to read the books. At least one family member also likes the show and hasn’t read the books.

            It has the quality Wrong Species mentioned upthread, that much of the drama is about genuinely good people trying to do the right thing in a complicated, difficult situation and ending up at odds with each other. Part of what grabbed me initially was seeing this done even on the level of whole societies, with Belt/Mars/Earth politics.

          • Aapje says:

            I watched the first two seasons, which I thought were OK, but not great. I am now listening to the ebooks for the expanse. I agree with Nornagest that the characters for the TV show are rather bland. Lots of stuff is way more interesting in the book (like the relationship between Naomi and Holden, the backstory of Amos, just about everything about Bobbie, etc).

            So reading the books and then watching the TV show seems like the better order to me (but in general, that is the order I prefer).

        • johnjohn says:

          The acting and dialogue in The Expanse is hilariously bad

          I still ended up watching the entire first season though. It’s very rare that I watch tv, and it kept me interested, so I guess I can’t criticize it too much

    • The Nybbler says:

      I think it’s a great show, with more kinship to ST:TOS than TNG or DS9. I find the personal drama between the Captain and his First Officer to be a bit tiring and predictable, though, and the thing between the yellow gelatinous cube and the police captain doctor is overdone as well.

      I think you’re missing the joke with dereliction of duty. It’s a comedy, this is a ship of misfits, and them doing outrageously wrong things is part of the joke. Lieutenant Kitan — who is a literal affirmative action placement, and as we find out later, considered by her parents to be mentally retarded — running away when she finds herself in WAY over her head is the last thing you’d expect from a Star Trek Starfleet officer, and that’s the joke.

      Agreed on the characters. There’s no one as interesting as Spock or Data. Bortus is OK but hard to take in large doses.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        It’s not just Kitan, though. Everyone does firing-offense things constantly, and not in the ship of misfits way; it’s really not clear to me the *writers* realize how unacceptable what they’re doing is. Seriously: do you think the writers realize what the penalty would be on a Navy ship if a junior officer was given the watch and immediately ran off the bridge to talk to a friend about it? I honestly don’t.

        I also find Bortus hilarious in small doses. The gag with the party game in the last episode I thought was really hilarious (like: even though it was obvious vaguely what was going to happen, it was played very well.)

        • RDNinja says:

          To be fair, the captain cites Kermit the Frog as “a leader I admire,” so it makes sense his crew is about as professional and disciplined as the Muppets.

        • gbdub says:

          Agreed on the party game gag. Not sure what the official name of the game is, but I hope it translates to “Idiot Ball” (then again, apparently the captain “won”).

        • cassander says:

          It would not be surprised if the most exposure any of the show’s writers had to anything like a military chain of command is watching episodes of star trek.

        • Dissonant Cognizance says:

          I took the crew’s cavalier attitude towards watchstanding as a natural conclusion of the setting. I mean, in TNG, they’ve evolved beyond currency and have a fully post-scarcity space communist utopia, so why would anyone bother with military discipline? The only answer is self-actualization. The Enterprise can probably run itself under normal conditions, and the crew are just there for the experience of being glorious heroic explorers, while also dealing with the occasional diplomatic incident/deep space anomaly/sentient holodeck simulation. Even then, Starfleet has to sweeten the deal with the holodeck, food replicators, and onboard family accomodations.

          If TNG shows us the best of humanity post-scarcity, The Orville shows the other end, or at least the average. Every human on the ship is somewhat infantilized from having their needs met effortlessly their entire lives, presumably by advanced automation. They act like they don’t need the job, because ultimately, they don’t. The ship’s organization reflects this, too. Characters refer to their duties like it’s a 9-to-5 job, and they all get off work at the same time to go hang out in the bar. I don’t think we ever see the night shift on the bridge, and it may well just be on autopilot at the end of the day.

    • Protagoras says:

      In addition to John Schilling’s point that the comedy and drama fit together badly, I have found myself completely unable to care about the relationship between the captain and the XO, and profoundly irritated at how much screen time keeps getting wasted on it.

      • CatCube says:

        I’m profoundly irritated that this could even be an issue to write about–any even-slightly professional force will not put ex-spouses in the same command chain this way.

      • cassander says:

        rot13, I agree that it’s boring as paint and V’z ubcvat gung tvira jung unccraf va gur svanyr, jr’er onfvpnyyl qbar jvgu gung nep.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I’ve complained about this before, but the writers seriously do not understand dereliction of duty.

      Or how about the time that they were on an alien planet and the one guy decided that he was going to grind on a statue in a prominent public place. What goes on in a guys head that makes him do something like that?

      • John Schilling says:

        That’s one of my go-to examples for the comedy and drama not mixing. The drama side of the episode hinged on our seeing the planet’s justice system as capital-W Wrong for wanting to lobotomize that guy, and the comedy side had me really wanting to see him lobotomized. Wesley Crusher could get on everyone’s nerves, but I never actually wanted him to be executed for walking on the grass.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        What goes on in a guys head that makes him do something like that?

        Being written by Seth MacFarlane?

      • CatCube says:

        Also, what is going on in his superiors’ heads that would make them send somebody who would do that on a covert mission? I wasn’t the greatest company commander, but I feel like I at least knew who I could trust to not put aluminum foil in the microwave when I left them unsupervised.

        I actually really liked the fact that the Admiralty told Captain Mercer that what the Lt did was really stupid, and that he’s going to have to take his chances with the planet’s justice system.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          The ship is run like a nearly-family-friendly Seth McFarlane show, while the admiralty is there to deconstruct them and hang a lantern on how insane it all is.

          That brings up the one real complaint I have about the show: I’d love to watch it with my elementary school kid but he’s too autistic and would be shouting “glory hole, glory hole” at school the next day.

          And that’s a pretty good complaint to have a show.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            Like all good SF tv, the show is not about the future, it’s about the present.

            The show is about an team that is all diversity hires and cant-fires and nepotism-and-connections cases, any they all know that about themselves and about each other, and while they all want to believe they are still actually all qualified for their jobs, it gnaws at them.

            Like Star Trek of old, the Orville says things about the present that can’t be said. And it’s better at that then Star Trek classic ever was.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Orville is hardly the first comedy about bumblers.

            What do you make of the Keystone Cops? The Three Stooges? Admittedly, Gilligan’s Island had one competent person, but what about the rest?

          • skef says:

            Admittedly, Gilligan’s Island had one competent person, but what about the rest?

            I would have thought the professor was the most competent, and Mary Ann would rank reasonably highly, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at here*.

            [* Yes: This joke in reference to the early version of the Gilligan’s Island theme song accomplishes nothing more than calling my editorial judgment into question.]

          • Randy M says:

            Man, what was with that theme song? You single out 5 members of a 7 person ensemble, then include the remaining two together with “the rest?” Did those actors piss off the theme song writer, or did the producers not expect the audience to be able to hold 7 different character hooks in their head at once?

          • publiusvarinius says:

            > Man, what was with that theme song? You single out 5 members of a 7 person ensemble, then include the remaining two together with “the rest?” Did those actors piss off the theme song writer, or did the producers not expect the audience to be able to hold 7 different character hooks in their head at once?

            The actors playing “the rest” signed on after the intro sequence was made.

    • gbdub says:

      It got better in the later episodes (the finale was pretty good, despite being a rehash of some of MacFarlane’s more annoying pop-atheist views (rescued somewhat at the end – maybe he’s growing a bit)).

      My overall impression is still mostly what it was at the beginning though:
      1) It’s not funny enough to be a true parody, and it (not surprisingly) suffers sometimes from what South Park called out in about Family Guy– jokes that aren’t really intrinsic to the plot or setting, just sort of tacked on. They also waste some of their more absurd setups by playing them straight for drama
      2) It’s too goofy to be a true drama. Heavy or tense moments get inappropriate jokes shoehorned in. Basically, the show seeks a happy “dramedy” medium and weakens both sides of that.
      3) Seth is not believable as a commander – which would be fine if he were portrayed as something of a bumbling, Peter-principled officer, or a goofy martinet, or some other parody. Captain Michael Scott would be great. But instead he’s pretty serious. Seth MacFarlane should not be a “straight man”.
      4) The dialogue is meh, and the actors aren’t good enough to rescue it.

      I was hoping for a series length Galaxy Quest, or maybe something like Arrested Development / The Office – IN SPAAAAAAACE. Instead I got TNG with the serial numbers filed off and a few PG-13 jokes awkwardly tacked in.

      • Lillian says:

        The tacked on jokes in Family Guy are a feature not a bug. The entire point of absurdist humour is that it doesn’t make sense. Family Guy flashback cutaways are funny because they don’t have anything to do with the plot. The consistent format builds anticipation, but the lack of relevance makes it impossible to predict what the actual joke will be, which keeps it entertaining.

        That said, absurdist humour does not mix well with drama. It can be done, FLCL pulled it off, but you really need the drama to lean on the comedy and embrace the absurdity. It sounds like The Orville is doing it the other way around, with the comedy intended to liven up the drama, in which case absurdism in general, and non-sequiturs in particular, are going to work very poorly.

  21. Wrong Species says:

    An alternative to the insanity that is children on board in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

    Half of the episodes end up with everyone in the ship being in danger, so bringing the kids along is a bad idea. But the parents also don’t want to spend so little time with their families. So what if there was another ship, heavily armed with a competent crew that trailed behind them at a far enough distance so if there was any trouble they could easily avoid it but close enough that they can see them every once in a while?

    • Deiseach says:

      I think that was the idea behind having the saucer section able to detach; all the civilians would get into the safe, armoured part of the ship while the crew zipped around in the saucer section fighting off the bad guys.

      I think a combination of it being a very expensive/time-consuming effect to set up and not really that interesting once it was done plus not being able to think of good reasons to use it and (to be blunt) forgetting about the “oh yeah we have families aboard” apart from specific episodes once in a blue moon meant that the whole idea just quietly died. I mean, apart from that one episode where Picard was stuck with a bunch of the Enterprise kids, can anyone remember any of the children (apart from Wesley) that were seen semi-regularly as established characters, in “Lt Jones going to their quarters and being met by their kid” type way?

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        Alexander, Worf’s son. Several more on DS9.

        • Nornagest says:

          It makes a lot more sense on DS9. I don’t remember if the show ever established exactly what role the station was supposed to serve, but judging from the plots I remember it was something like a cross between a frontier trading post and a Federation embassy, with a civilian presence from several species. They weren’t exactly going out and getting sucked into space anomalies or picking fights with Klingons on a regular basis.

          • albatross11 says:

            Right. DS9 was actually supposed to be a fairly safe base, with a friendly planet right next door, so doesn’t seem unreasonable to have Jake growing up there.

        • Deiseach says:

          DS9 doesn’t count when talking about TNG 🙂

          Alexander, yeah okay, but he was developed into a character and even got to become an adult. Most of the other kids? There for one episode and then no further mention (I think there was one girl who starred in a whole two!)

          Mostly the kids were used to impart Moral Lessons or put the tykes into danger so the adults could have that extra heaping of drama. Wesley Crusher was the exception and he became one of the most loathed characters in the entire Trek universe, not even one show (I admit, even though the Justice planet people were all nutcases, I wanted Wesley dead and not just because I wanted to see an episode where Trek stood by a principle like the Prime Directive to the bitter end and didn’t weasel out of it with some clever trickery or technobabble ex machina. But they weaseled out of it and Wesley survived).

      • Matt M says:

        It seems reasonable to suspect that even in an environment where having children allowed is acceptable (and reasonably safe), many parents would opt NOT to pursue a career or assignment that involves them putting their children in harm’s way like that.

        • Gobbobobble says:

          Luckily, Starfleet doesn’t need to draw more than a dedicated minority of the populace. Long-ranging missions like Boldly Going can be even more selective.

        • Deiseach says:

          many parents would opt NOT to pursue a career or assignment that involves them putting their children in harm’s way like that

          Humans do stupid stuff all the time, though. From living on top of earthquake faults to living under active volcanoes, and having kids while doing so.

          Or living in Australia, a land seemingly determined to murder you in every single conceivable and some that are inconceivable manner. British kids’ TV show: Spiders are harmless! Australian broadcasters: Oh no they’re bloody well not! We must never show this episode because otherwise it will cause our children to be killed by lethal spiders!

      • Nornagest says:

        I think we saw O’Brien’s kid fairly often.

      • Wrong Species says:

        The problem with the saucer is that many times the problem came unexpectedly. Having a detachable part of the ship doesn’t help when three Klingon Birds of Prey suddenly appear.

        The advantage of the separate ship trailing at a far distance is that if something does happen unexpectedly, the Enterprise can send a message to stay away before they catch up to them.

        • Matt M says:

          The saucer served its purpose in the narrative sense at least, as the “oh shit – things are about to get serious” signal. In the instances where they could see the threat coming, when Picard orders the saucer to be detached ,that’s when you know it’s about to go down!

          • Wrong Species says:

            Like Nabil said, it only happens a couple times on TNG. If you had skipped the first season, you might not even realize that it was there.

          • Nornagest says:

            …or half the movies, or The Best of Both Worlds. But yeah, it was underutilized relative to the number of fights the ship got into.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      That was supposed to be the point of the battle bridge and detachable saucer section in TNG. During emergencies the top half of the ship full of children and ambassadors would fly away to a safe distance and the bottom half would stick around to deal with the problem.

      The problem is that it just looked way too silly to take seriously. I don’t think they ever detached more than once or twice over the course of the show.

    • Well... says:

      I think that’s a great point. The Enterprise wasn’t a generation ship — they kept coming back to Earth or to Federation posts throughout the show.

  22. Andrew Hunter says:

    This, but unironically.
    Discuss.

    (Also, Star Wars is stupid and people need to stop caring about it.)

    • Matt M says:

      Star Wars is stupid and people need to stop caring about it.

      dude, non-CW 🙂

    • bean says:

      If you can prove all of that, what was Alderaan doing unblockaded and not cut off from the galactic economy? You can go after a government for supporting terrorism without blowing up its planet.
      (I’m seeing rather striking parallels to Iraq 1991-2003. And we didn’t nuke them.)
      Also, they passed up a really good opportunity to give arms to the Rebels. Another Chance didn’t get handed over until after Alderaan was destroyed.
      (I refuse to accept Disney’s desecration of the canon. Rogue One is a partial exception, because it was good and that story was so badly handled earlier.)

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        (I’m seeing rather striking parallels to Iraq 1991-2003. And we didn’t nuke them.)

        You must admit for all its faults, nuking them would have been much cheaper while sending a stronger message.

        (I think we had a discussion of the cost benefit of us just nuking Afghanistan after 9/11 many threads back, and John was naturally in the “against” camp, though I don’t remember the details–anyone have a link?)

        • baconbacon says:

          Sure, as long as you are just comparing all the known costs that came out of our actions vs the hypothetical that we can just nuke a country and walk away and that is the cost.

          • albatross11 says:

            “Hey, world, the most powerful and prestigious nation on Earth would like to formally announce that we’re now okay with first use of nuclear weapons for domestic political reasons.”

          • baconbacon says:

            “Hey, world, the most powerful and prestigious nation on Earth would like to formally announce that we’re now okay with first use of nuclear weapons for domestic political consumption.”

            President Bush (either one) leans forward and presses a large, red button. The room is silent for a few moments.

            Bush: Ok, next business.

            Advisor: Well we still have to negotiate the final details with Russia about how they are going to dismantle their remaining nukes. Oh, and you just nuked the Arabic world, I would guess you want to set up a contingency plan for dealing with that fallout (pun intended, am I right guys????) for the next, oh, 600 years. Then golf.

          • cassander says:

            “Hey, world, the most powerful and prestigious nation on Earth would like to formally announce that we’re now okay with first use of nuclear weapons for domestic political reasons.”

            First use has been US policy since we got nuclear weapons.

          • albatross11 says:

            Neither we nor anyone else has used nukes in anger since the end of WW2. That has established the idea pretty strongly that using nukes is a huge escalation, a huge step beyond what anyone else has done. Many countries, including the US, have been in positions where we might have gotten a pretty significant benefit from using them. (Macarthur famously wanted to use them in Korea.)

            There’s a kind of red line there, now. We have established the norm that says we don’t toss around nukes for anything but the most dire situations. I think (also, from what I can tell, Thomas Schelling[1] thought) establishing this norm is likely one of the reasons there’s still any Western civilization around to debate the matter today, because it’s easy for enemies to coordinate on something simple like “nobody uses gas” or “nobody uses nukes,” but *immensely* harder to coordinate on “proportional use of nukes” or “reasonable use of nukes.”

            We benefit enormously from keeping this norm in place. We benefit from the leadership of North Korea believing that nuking some relatively insignificant holding of ours or South Korea’s might just be the trigger for their sky to fill with incoming nukes. We benefit from countries like India and Pakistan seeing the use of nukes as a huge boundary they don’t want to cross, even if they’re in a shooting war and it’s going badly for them. This is a big of Chesterton’s (or Schelling’s) fence I really, really think we ought to leave un-chopped-down, even if there seems to be some momentary advantage in building a superhighway through it. A world where nobody’s used a nuke in anger since 1945 is a much better one than a world where people periodically toss around the odd nuke, even if two great powers have never had a big enough exchange to screw up the climate or cause millions of deaths.

            [1] A whole lot of game theory came out of really smart guys sitting around working out the logic for how we and the USSR should/shouldn’t nuke each other into oblivion. Sometimes I think it’s a f–king miracle we survived.

          • The Nybbler says:

            We have established the norm that says we don’t toss around nukes for anything but the most dire situations. I think (also, from what I can tell, Thomas Schelling[1] thought) establishing this norm is likely one of the reasons there’s still any Western civilization around to debate the matter today[…]

            I think it’s also important to recognize that both sides of the equation are necessary, and that “most dire situations” includes things other than tossing nukes (or other WMD) around. A full-scale conventional invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union was deterred by the threat of nukes; a conventional invasion of the US (by Russia or China, however unlikely that might be right now) could be expected to garner a nuclear response.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            I recall a thesis that once a nation has nukes, while it can still “lose” various international conflicts, it can no longer be “defeated”, but the Faustian bargain in that calculus is that if elects to push an issue to the point where pre-nukes it would be defeated instead now on the table is being “destroyed”.

            Which means that as soon as a nation joins the nuke club, it suddenly starts acting much more carefully.

            I don’t want to bet the world on that always being true, but… there is no other game in the house, so I will just have to.

          • bean says:

            @Standing
            You’re thinking of Stuart Slade’s Nuclear Game essays.

          • cassander says:

            @albatross11

            Neither we nor anyone else has used nukes in anger since the end of WW2.

            Since the last time we got really angry…..

            That has established the idea pretty strongly that using nukes is a huge escalation, a huge step beyond what anyone else has done. Many countries, including the US, have been in positions where we might have gotten a pretty significant benefit from using them. (Macarthur famously wanted to use them in Korea.)

            I don’t dispute any of that. But the 9/11 attacks were unambiguous, direct assaults on US territory. That’s definitely a nukable offense in most people’s books. I grant you that the fact that it was an attack launched by a terrorist group living in caves complicates matters, but we did invoke NATO article 5.

            We benefit enormously from keeping this norm in place. We benefit from the leadership of North Korea believing that nuking some relatively insignificant holding of ours or South Korea’s might just be the trigger for their sky to fill with incoming nukes.

            I agree, nuking afghanistan doesn’t undermine that, if anything, it does the opposite. There’s no better way to drive home that message that we’ll nuke you if you go too far than by by nuking someone who went too far.

            We benefit from countries like India and Pakistan seeing the use of nukes as a huge boundary they don’t want to cross, even if they’re in a shooting war and it’s going badly for them.

            I don’t think they need our example to see that logic.

            This is a big of Chesterton’s (or Schelling’s) fence I really, really think we ought to leave un-chopped-down, even if there seems to be some momentary advantage in building a superhighway through it.

            I agree, I just wanted to point out that US policy has always been explicit statements that we will bulldoze that fence whenever we feel like. And not just that, that has to be policy, because if you make that fence too strong, nukes start to lose the deterrent effect.

          • baconbacon says:

            I agree, nuking afghanistan doesn’t undermine that, if anything, it does the opposite. There’s no better way to drive home that message that we’ll nuke you if you go too far than by by nuking someone who went too far.

            Man you can come to some ridiculous conclusions when you stop identifying people and groups properly. The people that planned and perpetrated 9/11 didn’t hold Afghanistan as some sacred cow that they would be loath to sacrifice in the name of war. All nuking them does is demonstrate how to harm two of your enemies to anyone who hates the (insert Western country here).

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        A more on topic response:

        If you can prove all of that, what was Alderaan doing unblockaded and not cut off from the galactic economy? You can go after a government for supporting terrorism without blowing up its planet.

        I can’t prove that, but it’s the logical inference. If the empire is not pure mustache twirling villains–I’ll accept that they’re an evil empire, but can we not assume at least principled and well-administered evil?–surely Alderaan is actively hindering or causing problems for the Palpatine administration in some substantial way. Tarkin is presumably not doing this just to be mean to Leia. (There are more fun and direct ways to do that, for god’s sake.)

        So what’s the reasonable guess for how and why? Alderaan is a rich planet (see visits from e.g. the young Han Solo, EU canon is real canon) and politically active with strong opinions. While you’re correct that Another Chance didn’t get handed over until just before Derra IV, as I recall the political leadership seemed to have no pre-ANH concerns with doing so in terms of taking sides, just pacificist principles.

        Note also that Tycho Celchu was the son of a powerful Alderaanian media mogul (a prominent Alderaanian family at that!) who explicitly bucked his father’s wishes to join the imperial navy. (He also rejected Imperial propaganda blaming the rebels for Alderaan’s destruction as out of character given the Alderaanian support for the rebellion.)

        While none of this is certain, it seems that the max-entropy model here is pretty clear. We know the empire had strong reason to punish and harm Alderaan. We know that Alderaan is rich, influential, and, err, liberal? We know that Alderaanians thought that imperial service was well out of character for their native sons. The easiest path from here to there lies in Alderaan providing a media blitz against the empire and formenting strife across the galaxy, and it’s by no means inconsistent with this that they have been providing state support to terrorism ever since Palpatine’s reformation.

        (Oh god, it hurts typing that.)

        • Trofim_Lysenko says:

          What you’re looking for is the Tarkin Doctrine:

          Rule through the fear of force rather than through force itself. If we use our strength wisely, we shall cow thousands of worlds with the example of a select few. These examples would need to be highly visible worlds, whose punishment would be further revealed through our control of information via the hyper media.

          Your Majesty, it has long been my contention that your New Order needs one undeniable and overwhelming symbol to impress and, yes, frighten the masses. The average citizen has no grasp of numbers nor a head for calculation. I maintain that the effectiveness of the Star Destroyer stems from not only its massive firepower, but from its size. When citizens look at a Star Destroyer and then compare it to the craft which might be mustered to attack it, they have a tendency to dismiss such a notion as suicidal rather than approach the problem tactically.

          This natural state can be exploited to a far greater degree, as the average citizen deals in symbols, not rational analysis. If we present the galaxy with a weapon so powerful, so immense as to defy all conceivable opposition against it, a weapon invulnerable and invincible in battle, then that weapon shall become the symbol of the Empire. We need only a handful, perhaps as few as one, of these weapons to subjugate a thousand thousand worlds. It must have force enough to dispatch an entire system, power enough to shatter planets. The fear such a weapon will inspire will be great enough for you to rule the galaxy unchallenged. What do you need with the Senate when you can give direct control of territories to your hand-picked regional governors? Sweep away the last remnants of the Old Republic and let fear keep the local systems in line—fear of our ultimate weapon.

          And a better analogy would be if in response to 9/11, the United States glassed Saudi Arabia. While the Alderaanian government did not officially advocate military resistance, and in fact Alderaan had a famously pacifistic culture, it also vocally opposed the more repressive measures of the New Order and was a constant critic in the senate. Alderaan was also a symbol of the previous order as one of the oldest and most refined and well-regarded worlds of the Old Republic. That combination meant that despite the government not openly advocating violent resistance, a disproportionate number of the Rebel Alliance’s early leaders and most prominent names were Alderaanian.

          For someone who thinks in Symbols, Grand Gestures, and Sweeping Away Of The Old Order, Alderaan is an entirely logical target. All the moreso when you’re pretty sure that even if the government isn’t actively funding the Rebel Alliance they’re supplying a large chunk of the leadership out of their young, wealthy upper class families who are also lending their personal fortunes to the cause.

          All that said, I’m pretty sure it would not have gone over well in the court of world opinion if our response to 9/11 had been for GWB to go on TV and announce:

          “15 of the 19 terrorists who just attacked this country were Saudi. Osama Bin Laden is a Saudi. Saudi Arabia produces a steady stream of terrorists, and Saudi Oil Money supplies them with the weapons they use to attack the free world. This cannot continue, and this will not continue. I have just finished speaking with the leaders of Russia and China, informing them that the United States will be -ending- the threat of Islamic Terrorism in one stroke. By the time I have finished this speech, there will be nothing between Jordan and Yemen, between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, but a wasteland of molten glass and radiation. That sea of glass is our message to the enemies of Freedom around the world. Let us hope for their own sakes that they are listening. God Bless You, and God Bless The United States Of America.”

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            Please, you think I don’t know the Tarkin Doctrine? Of course they’re trying to cow the other potential supporters of the Rebellion, but as the man himself pointed out they had to pick the targets carefully. Dantooine wasn’t skipped because it was too remote, it was skipped because it wouldn’t send the right message. You can have Martin Sheen recite the Tarkin Doctrine at about 1:50 in that video–but note that he proposes demonstration strikes not on some random unimportant locale, but on the biggest, most identifiable strong point of anti-Americanism.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            It’s surprising given your stated views of the setting, since AFAIK it appeared mostly in EU works starting with the tabletop RPG sourcebooks. Either way I figure it’s a useful reference point for those that mostly just know the movies.

            My point is that while I think you’re onto something as far as “Alderaan was targeted for more reasons than just being mean to Leia”, trying to frame it in terms of Alderaan being a clear and present danger to Imperial Security and a planetary sponsor of terrorism is unsupportable. I think that about the strongest version of the claim you can make, even with the outside view and privileged knowledge of an audience member (as opposed to what Imperial Intelligence knew in 0 BBY) is that Alderaan produced a disproportionate number of future rebels and that its culture and liberal political stances provided a breeding ground for future rebels.

            In fact, with that privileged knowledge we actually know for a fact that Alderaan did not provide direct financial or materiel support to the Rebel Alliance, precisely because while there were senior figures of the Alderaanian government with strong Alliance ties (most notably the Organas, Leia’s adopted parents), they wanted to both respect general Alderaanian sentiment regarding pacifism and protect their people from possible Imperial reprisal, for all the good it did them.

            And that even in this, the most charitable framing of the Empire’s actions I think we have evidence for, their actions are no more justifiable than the carpet-nuking of Saudi Arabia would’ve been for Bush on Sept. 12th. Mind you, I knew some guys in the Army at the time who talked like that, but I don’t think they even took themselves seriously, and I think it would be hard to find many people willing to defend such an action in a real-world context.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            If my followup comments weren’t clear on this, I read a *lot* of the EU as a kid. (I stopped well before the NJO stuff so I know fuck-all about the Yuzhan Vong and all those plot points, though.) I just think that real star wars is infinitely less interesting and of lower quality than EU star wars, which is in turn less interesting and of lower quality than many other things.

            There is a real dearth of EU content in the late BBY epoch, and what you can find is mostly character prequels (the two Han solo trilogies, for instance) which doesn’t cover galactic level politics well if at all, so I think your claims that we know what Alderaan did not do in terms of active sponsorship of terror is a little overstated (I suspect you’re implicitly quoting, possibly through hearsay, some senior Alderaanian well *after* Yavin, and that strikes me as not an objective source.) My claim is that putting together the historical record that we have from EU novels, debiasing Republic propaganda, and assuming if not charitable than at least basically technocratic motives from some parts of the empire, it strikes me as less surprising (in the precise Bayesian sense) that Alderaan tacitly and possibly directly supported terrorism (in the form of Rebel strikes on the Empire) to push their political agenda, than that they were merely thought leaders. And even if they were, there are a lot of real-world thought leaders, even ones who explicitly come down against war, who are getting pretty punch-a-Nazi these days; without going full CW in this thread, can you see why at least actual factual white supremacists might treat that as the opposing side of a war?

            Now, I am not a full on Empire apologist, and I don’t think I’ve ever stated seriously in this thread that the death star was a justified response. It clearly isn’t; mass murder of civilians and all that. But the point is that I think it makes a lot more sense to see it as a wildly over the top military action against a hostile state than a random bully punching an innocent for fun.

    • baconbacon says:

      Are you trying to imply that in a war both sides could be at fault? Stop victim blaming, CW free thread and all.

    • gbdub says:

      Plus, the Rebellion / New Republic are just horrible at governing. Truth in fiction, maybe, but they were so squabbly / derelict that they managed to miss a massive Imperial remnant reforming and building a planet sized death cannon (something the tiny rebellion managed to totally discover, infiltrate, and destroy in much less favorable circumstances 30 years earlier).

      They are so bad that Han Solo would rather be a hardscrabble smuggler than a Senator, and Leia quits in frustration and starts up an unsanctioned paramilitary to fight said death cannon.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        That’s because the Disney canon is the The Man In The High Castle version of Star Wars: sure, it feels real, but the fabric of the universe knows it is fundamentally incorrect. Solo was smuggling copies of The Padawan Lies Heavy because he knew it was more important than participating in the falsehoods imposed by the post-RotJ reality.

      • albatross11 says:

        To be fair, most of the old Republic + most of the empire looks really badly run. Pretty much everywhere there are hungry kids trying to pick through ruins for enough to eat, gangsters run all kinds of planets, a large chunk of the sentient population is enslaved and treated badly (all droids plus a fair number of biological organisims), and the mythical good guys of the story are a secret order of sword-wielding assassins who use magic and mind control to defeat the enemies of the Republic.

        Also, somebody in that universe needs to found the Imperial Work Safety Administration. Every other scene has people walking around un-guard-railed catwalks over bottomless pits, walking over balconies suspended over lava flows. etc. The Empire and Rebellion must lose more people to industrial accidents than combat!

        • bean says:

          I suspect that’s because those are the places that are dramatically interesting. And then the EU has the worst case in the world of “we must repeat the moves”, which is why you have a huge number of things set on Hoth, and Denon has never appeared on screen at all.

          In seriousness, though, when you think about it, that’s mostly just Tatooine and a few other planets that are known as backwater/underworld places. Bespin looks pretty nice, as does Naboo. Every other planet we see is either a Tatooine, Coruscant (where we only see the underworld and the Senate), or uncivilized.
          (I’m ignoring Force Awakens as Not Real Star Wars. Rogue One pretty much follows this, although not precisely.)

          • Nornagest says:

            There is a tendency in fanwork to recycle key scenes and situations from its source material, partly because it’s easier to do, partly as fanservice, and partly because it allows you to get some cheap character development by contrasting your new characters against a known situation. If you’re writing fanfic in the Harry Potter universe with a new lead, for example, you’re likely to have scenes for your lead getting the Hogwarts letter, meeting the rest of the cast on the train, putting the Sorting Hat on, and maybe dealing with the troll. (TV Tropes calls this “stations of the canon”, by analogy with the Stations of the Cross.)

            Star Wars is unusual in that the canonical material has been treading that same path since Return of the Jedi. But then again, a lot of the newer material amounts to big-budget fanfiction anyway.

          • albatross11 says:

            I think I want to see a sequence in which the First Order/Empire/New Republic/etc. gets infiltrated by a bunch of sexually adventurous outsiders from some odd organization calling itself “Special Circumstances.”

    • quaelegit says:

      I don’t know enough about the Star Wars universe to evaluate his interpretation, but the fact that he thinks Christian terrorists destroyed the Library of Alexandria in the 4th century doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in his historical judgement 😛

      (Your disdain for people liking things has been noted.

      EDIT: also sharing fan theories seems like a bad way to encourage apathy about a story.)

        • baconbacon says:

          Is TWW supposed to be the better thing?

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            It is a better thing, but not necessarily the better thing one should replace Star Wars with.

          • bean says:

            It is a better thing, but not necessarily the better thing one should replace Star Wars with.

            In my case, that was realistic spaceflight, which in turn has been replaced by battleships. I thus declare that battleships are the objectively better thing we should replace Star Wars with.
            Particularly the Disney-spawned abomination!
            (I don’t like the Disney version, but I don’t actually want a war against them. Unless I could fire battleship guns at them. I’ll go to war with anyone if you let me do that. Well, almost anyone. Is Burbank in range of Turret III?)
            Edit: Curses! It is not.

          • Aapje says:

            Battleships can only maneuver in 2D, while spaceflight is 3D, which is objectively better, since 3 > 2. So the one cannot replace the other.

            QED

          • johan_larson says:

            @bean

            Particularly the Disney-spawned abomination!

            What abomination? We have two Star Wars films produced under Disney. The Force Awakens was pretty good (maybe too derivative) and Rogue One was actually good. And the early reports about The Last Jedi are really positive. Disney is doing a great job. Certainly far better than Lucas did in the prequels.

          • bean says:

            Battleships can only maneuver in 2D, while spaceflight is 3D, which is objectively better, since 3 > 2. So the one cannot replace the other.

            What if they’re going through the Panama Canal?

            What abomination? We have two Star Wars films produced under Disney. The Force Awakens was pretty good (maybe too derivative) and Rogue One was actually good. And the early reports about The Last Jedi are really positive. Disney is doing a great job. Certainly far better than Lucas did in the prequels.

            I was a huge EU nerd in middle and high school. I moved on, but I still have fond memories. And I can’t avoid the idea that the replacement was to give Disney new room to sell stuff. TFA felt like a disappointing movie version of a book I loved. Rogue One was good, but a lot of that was that the story of the Death Star Plans was never done well. It was in about four different video games, which makes the attempts to reconcile them rather amusing to read. Unless TLJ includes Mara Jade, I’m just not interested.

          • Aapje says:

            @bean

            It doesn’t count when the ship moves up or down a little bit, at the expense of no longer being able to move a significant distance forward or sideways. That just makes the battleship travel in 1 (different) dimension for a short period. So it’s 1D, rather than 3D.

            The real issue with space-based battleships is that they don’t exist, so if we disqualify them for that reason, water-based battleship do win.

          • baconbacon says:

            If it’s 3d vs 2d then don’t submarines win? I don’t think you can get bean on board with that.

          • Aapje says:

            I’m willing to compromise on that 🙂

          • albatross11 says:

            bean:

            So what you want is a good movie/TV rendering of the Honor Harrington stories?

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            What if they’re going through the Panama Canal?

            The Panama Canal is a 2-dimensional manifold embedded in R^3 (as is the entire ocean surface.) At any point there are only two independent directions to move.

          • johan_larson says:

            @bean

            I was a huge EU nerd in middle and high school. I moved on, but I still have fond memories. And I can’t avoid the idea that the replacement was to give Disney new room to sell stuff.

            I’m not sure it was about money. Disney could churn out virtually any SW merchandise and it would sell. I suspect decanonizing the EU was more about freedom of action. Because so much time passed between the original trilogy and the Disney deal, the EU had time to accumulate all sort of differing visions from the mundane to the esoteric, and from the good to the bad. Having to pick your way through it, respecting all or much of it as truth, would be a nightmare slog. By explicitly decanonizing all of it, Disney got freedom for their producers and writers to do whatever they wanted, without having to get into picky debates about explicit retcons. The issue is settled.

          • bean says:

            @Aapje

            The real issue with space-based battleships is that they don’t exist, so if we disqualify them for that reason, water-based battleship do win.

            My absolute dream job is pretty much designing space-based battleships. But that doesn’t look to be possible any time soon, so I found other things to do.

            @baconbacon

            If it’s 3d vs 2d then don’t submarines win? I don’t think you can get bean on board with that.

            No, you can’t.

            @albatross11

            So what you want is a good movie/TV rendering of the Honor Harrington stories?

            That would be nice. Yes, I really like the Harrington books. Or at least the ones before he started to make the universe too big.

            @johan_larson

            I’m not sure it was about money. Disney could churn out virtually any SW merchandise and it would sell. I suspect decanonizing the EU was more about freedom of action. Because so much time passed between the original trilogy and the Disney deal, the EU had time to accumulate all sort of differing visions from the mundane to the esoteric, and from the good to the bad. Having to pick your way through it, respecting all or much of it as truth, would be a nightmare slog. By explicitly decanonizing all of it, Disney got freedom for their producers and writers to do whatever they wanted, without having to get into picky debates about explicit retcons. The issue is settled.

            I do understand that, and I didn’t necessarily want them to fit the new movies into all of the existing EU. I think the ideal model would have been how they do comic book adaptations. There’s a definite kinship, even if you don’t see the exact same stories. Bringing Thrawn in was a good first step, but I’d rather they did a bit more. And I also don’t like the closing of the old EU canon to new material.
            (Yes, I’d then be the guy claiming they’d butchered the Thrawn Trilogy when they released the movie version. But it would have been better.)

          • albatross11 says:

            bean:

            Yeah, the last couple books have made the RMN too powerful, and made the problems they had to solve too easy. And Shadow of Freedom was almost unreadably bad, and looked to me like Weber took the parts of his previous couple novels in that series he’d (correctly) cut from the story, and glued them together to make a quick grab for my cash.

          • Lillian says:

            bean, since you seem to like space opera with huge fleet battles, might i recommend Legend of the Galactic Heroes? It’s an anime OVA from the late 80s to early 90s based on a series of novels written by a huge history nerd.

            It focuses primarily on two highly gifted admirals: Reinhard von Müsel of the Galactic Empire, and Yang Wen-li of the Free Planets Alliance, at the tail end of a 150+ year conflict between the two polities. Despite being on opposing sides, both are shown as inherently heroic if flawed characters, as is much of the utterly gigantic supporting cast. While there are clear bad guys throughout, it is often the case that you find yourself rooting for both sides of a battle. The space battles themselves are glorious spectacles set to bombastic classical music, featuring tens of thousands of ships trading beam volleys at distances as long as multiple light seconds and as short as a hundred metres. While it does tend to suffer from 2D space syndrome, the strategic, operational, tactical, and logistical aspects of the war are very well thought out. The political dimensions of the conflict and the personalities driving it are also examined and explored in depth. Overall it’s one of the best space operas ever made both in terms of grand character arcs, and in terms of serious development of military aspects of the story.

            If you’re interested, you can start with the 60 minute movie My Conquest is the Sea of Stars. If you don’t like it you probably won’t like the rest of the anime, but if you do, then you’ll next want to watch Overture to a New War, which expands upon the events of the first two episodes of the main series. Then you can go into the show itself starting from Episode 3. You’ll want the Central Anime fansubs, which you can find at Nyaa Pantsu Cat. While fansubs are the only way to obtain Conquest and Overture, a licensed version of the main series is available here ($3.99/month subscription). While i cannot vouch for the quality of the subtitling, i would assume it’s decent enough.

          • Nornagest says:

            Honor Harrington is good nerd candy, and I’ve read an embarrassing amount of it on those free Baen back catalog CDs, but I really wish Weber had made the historical parallels a little less on-the-nose; as it stands they’re not just a nice bonus for people with the background, but actually immersion-breaking. And cut anything involving the treecats; they’re more suitable for a Sailor Moon pastiche than milSF.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            Honor Harrington is a guilty pastime of mine; I have read every novel, most 3-4 times (I can burn through one in like an hour or two at this point, skipping over the truly awful chunks. If Cachat’s name is on the page, just find the plot points of who dies and who tells which agent what, and save yourself 50 pages of description of how badass he is.)

            They’re deeply flawed books in many ways (almost typoed that to Manty ways) about characters who do horrible things with authorial approval because they’re Good Guys; the science and technology is not nearly as internally consistent as the author believes them to be (also, no, you do not have a screen of destroyers covering the sphere of the solar system 10 AU out, because you do not live in a Kardashev II civilization); the author politiical inserts get tiresome quickly; and a lot of the tactics seem questionable. (I worked out the tactic used at Fvqrzber naq Fbyba in like book three and was wondering why the hell it wasn’t used constantly.)

            But that all said, god dammit, they are so much fun to read; I enjoy the modern-military tropes; and while the battle prose gets tiresomely purple, I always enjoy reading it and finding out what the next twist is. (My favorite battles in no particular order are probably Sidemore, Selker Rift, Fourth Yeltsin, Hancock, Nuncio, though there are many good candidates.)

          • Lillian says:

            On the note of the Honor Harrington series, i stopped reading after the fleet battle at the end of Flag in Exile completely shattered my suspension of disbelief.

            Up until that point i had been willing to buy Harrington’s improbable omnicompetence and physical prowess. Then we get to the end of the fifth book, where it’s been established that the injured Harrington has completely run out out her reserves of strength, stamina, willpower, and luck over the course of the story’s events. Yet she still decides to drag her ass out of bed in order to lead the fleet into the climatic final battle. It was that exact point, when Honor Harrington irresponsibly took command even though she was clearly and blatantly unfit for it, that my suspension of disbelief broke. Because not only does the story reward her for a decision that by all rights should have lead to disaster, but adding insult to injury the enemy commander explicitly sees through her clever stratagem and then chooses to retreat anyway because reasons.

            You do not get to milk a person’s utter mental and physical exhaustion for drama, to have them use their last reserve of energy and will to win a fight they should have by all rights handily lost, and then have it all magically go away after a short nap. The end of Flag in Exile demonstrated to me that Weber had no further interest in Honor Harrington suffering the consequences of previous events, which lead to my having no interest in reading any subsequent books. Also from a narrative standpoint the novel had already passed its climax, the final battle just felt tacked on to a story that was already over.

            That said, while there were rough spots here and there, up until that exact moment i did find the series very enjoyable, if somewhat silly.

            EDIT:

            My favorite battles in no particular order are probably Sidemore, Selker Rift, Fourth Yeltsin, Hancock, Nuncio, though there are many good candidates.

            You know i had the sneaking suspicion one of these was going to be the battle at the end of Flag in Exile, and what do you know, Fourth Yeltsin is in fact it. Just want to re-iterate: Fuck everything about that battle. Harrington should have lost due to being unfit for command, and then lost again because her stratagem failed to fool the enemy.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            Okay. So. (Spoilers for HH throughout.) On Fourth Yeltsin, in no particular order:

            – When I listed it as a favorite, it wasn’t because I thought it was a particular example of tactical brilliance on Honor’s part. (For one thing, she’s tactically brilliant, like, uh, thrice in the series? Maybe? Careful maneuvering against Thunder of God in HH2, some of the planning for Hancock Station, drawing the Peeps away from the convoy in Adler. Those are the only times I can think of where her tactical choices in the moment gave her substantial value over replacement level leadership for reason other than deus ex machina technical triumph.) It was because the telling of the battle was dramatically interesting, even if (multiple) people were making terrible decisions [1].

            – That said, two defenses of her leadership. First, it’s called out in the text that the moment to moment tactical duties were given to her flag captain Yu, specifically because she was too tired to do anything quickly.

            – Second, it’s well established in the setting that much of naval leadership happens before the battle: the good leaders, starting in the first chapter of the first book, drill the living hell out of their subordinates, plan like crazy, and inspire loyalty. Think how many battle Honor wins not because of a great choice of vector, but because every rating in the forward missile room knows their shit backward and forward; the ATO was mentored carefully by Honor’s hand picked XO (and Honor came down on the mustache twirling villain, etc…) and was given, on the previous page, a dozen sims to work through every detail of the engagement that ends up happening; the Bosun moves heaven and earth to avoid disappointing honor.

            I think this is a choice by Weber to reflect real military doctrine: we (classically, I don’t know so much about today) pick captains based on their perceived ability to shout brilliant orders through smoke filled haze, but the good ones are actually the ones that drilled their gun crews (in the age of sail) until they had reasonable accuracy and rate of fire; that, today, organize exercises for the fleet wing and don’t skimp on training to look good for the quartermasters’ fuel report; etc. (Bean may have opinions here.) Zvi has some things to say here in the context of football.

            Point is, in Fourth Yeltsin, yes, Honor should stay in her fucking cabin. I don’t disagree she’s making a terrible decision, and in a better book maybe she’d suffer for it. This is not that book. But honestly, I don’t think she gives up that much win probability in the battle by being half asleep in her command chair; she’s already done most of the job in drilling the squadron to her level, and one of the biggest things she has left to is motivate everyone else. You absolute cannot “ENGLAND EXPECTS” from your sea cabin.

            Re:

            adding insult to injury the enemy commander explicitly sees through her clever stratagem and then chooses to retreat anyway because reasons.

            This bothered me a lot less than it does you. Very explicitly her strategy was to play a game of fucking chicken. She knew she’d lose the oncoming engagement, but she’d also wreck quite a lot of Peeps. She also had an unimpeachable reputation as a suicidally brave commander [2]. She then gave the Peeps an easy out by showing them some fake reinforcements–even if they weren’t that likely, it was a good psychological ploy to give them a reason to justify retreat to their own consciences. And Theisman, the leader, made what seems to me a reasonable decision: yes, I could kill Honor and her personnel, but not I would not achieve any strategic success in our actual mission by doing so, and I’d murder tens of thousands of my personnel doing it. (Given his nations’ size, perhaps Soviet human wave tactics would be worthwhile by the pure numbers, but not exactly moral.) I think this is actually the least unrealistic thing he could do: trying to take out Honor here would basically be saying “She’s the protagonist so I have to kill her no matter the practical cost!”

            So in summary: Fourth Yeltsin was not a battle I’d teach in my tactics class at Saganami, but it was a fun battle to read about; I think Theisman’s retreat was the right choice; Honor should have recused herself, but I don’t think not doing so meaningfully cost her fleet.

            (I think this post may be great evidence for why I like these books: despite really hating the writing, characters, setting, etc, it’s sufficiently interesting to think about that I will write my own AARs for battles.)

            [1] Thurston’s main tactical decision may be the biggest idiot ball in the series. “Hey guys, I have overwhelming force and a chance to decisively defeat the enemy force in the *region*, which I’m going to attempt–but first let me detach a third of my force, so they are, like, an hour closer to hitting their destination which will be functionally unguarded now or then. Defeat in detail? What’s that?” No, seriously, there is no conceivable reason this was a good idea.

            [2] The negative aspects of which are really under-covered in the story. The only person to point out “You know, despite having joined the navy, your ratings really didn’t exactly agree to commit virtual suicide in a near-certain loss for the Honor Of The Flag” is a mustache-twirling villain. (Yes, they end up with prize money, but Honor gets a lot *more*, and all of the glory & credit.) This does not strike me as nearly as virtuous a trait as David Weber thinks it is.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            And the early reports about The Last Jedi are really positive.

            The initial reception of RotS was very positive as well, hype is a hell of a drug.

            Also, seconding any and all recommendations of Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

        • quaelegit says:

          I also like The West Wing more than Star Wars (I’m assuming from baconbacon’s comment that’s what you’re referencing), but why do we get to dictate our preferences to everybody else?

          • Well... says:

            Preferences get dictated to us all the time. Because a bunch of idiots and children are titillated by silly Disney concepts of space adventure, but get bored by more serious pondering on space travel and what it means as a human accomplishment, we get dictated more of Star Wars and less of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s nice to be able to go online and vent about what we’d like to dictate unto others for a change.

          • Orpheus says:

            why do we get to dictate our preferences to everybody else?

            We don’t, there is no way to enforce such a dictum. Saying “Star Wars is stupid and people need to stop caring about it” is shorthand for “in my subjective opinion Star Wars is stupid, and I would be happy if more people came to agree with said opinion” which I am sure you would agree is a more convenient way to express yourself.

            For the record, both Star Wars and TWW are awful, for different reasons.

  23. BBA says:

    A poem for Monday.

    I thought of it for reasons that would violate a couple of site rules to mention, but it stands on its own.

  24. postgenetic says:

    Passing Natural Selection Tests: link text (3 minute read)

    • baconbacon says:

      I’m having a hard time not reading this as doom and gloom when it opens like this

      Nuclear weapon proliferation; climate change; obesity, diabetes & opioid epidemics; exponential species extinction; cyber crime; mass shootings; massive deforestation; ocean acidification; etc., are part of the new environs generated by exponentially accelerating complexity.

      You can’t claim that complexity is accelerating unless you compare the number of new environs to the number of old ones and he completely skips which ones we are no longer subject to. Not to long ago every individual day was a different environ for people. Temperature fluctuations alone require changes (sometimes subtle, sometimes significant) in behavior, but now we have people who almost literally don’t go outside for days on end! The walk from the parking garage to their building at work is the only time they are ‘exposed’.

      Our ancestors were not idiots or simpletons who stumbled out of a hut each morning, tilled land for 12 straight hours and then stumbled back to bed. They had to contend with enormous amounts of complexity in their lives, and it was the simplifying nature of capitalism (the division of labor) operating over millennia that reduced it to the point where it was manageable and almost controllable.

  25. Jack Lecter says:

    I’ve just started the Shangri-La diet, after reading one of Yudkowsky’s posts about it and thinking “Really? That’s all? I could do that.”

    (Apparently it didn’t work for him, but it’s worked for some people? It’s so little effort that even a tiny chance seems worth gambling on.)

    Anyway, I noticed something that seemed worth mentioning. It seems kind of unlikely I’m the first person to think of this, but Yudkowsky didn’t say anything about it, and I’d kind of have expected him to. Also, we just had a whole book about being willing to press your comparative advantage, and speaking up if you might have good idea even if it seems immodest, and what have you, so:

    The article I read said to take two tablespoons of extra-light olive oil first thing in the morning, then wait at least an hour before eating, because you don’t want your body to associate the calories with the flavor. And it would make sense you wouldn’t want to drink anything, either- at least, other than water. (I need to skip my morning milk.)

    But what about toothpaste?

    Ten years ago when I was in highschool I remember learning about the dangers of using self-report for data (homeschooling rocks), and the first example that came up was toothpaste: if you asked people, they said they chose their toothpaste for health reasons, but the data suggested they really wanted something to wash the morning breath out of their mouths. So toothpaste is very definitely engineered to have flavor, and it’s the sort of thing I could imagine people overlooking, given that it’s kind of a fixed part of the morning routine.

    Just thought I’d share.

    • Rosemary7391 says:

      I’m… a bit confused. Why do you want to do this diet – to lose body fat? You don’t need to gamble to do that, as you can measure energy in and (approximate) energy out and adjust to achieve the desired result. It might be that this diet has worked for some people. I can think of a couple of reasons – they find fat filling, so they tend to eat less food overall by adding this extra fat, or they tend to graze a lot and having the enforced “can’t eat normal stuff in this time period” leads them to eat less. Either way, you’re just trying to trick yourself into eating less. Personally I like food too much to have ~1/5 to 1/7 of my daily calories come from olive oil on it’s own…

      • Nornagest says:

        Eliezer among others swear up and down that the conventional calories in/calories out approach doesn’t work for them. I don’t know if this means that their actual caloric output slows down (less fidgeting or something?) to compensate, or that they get unendurably cranky and miserable, or what. If you take this as given — and I am a little skeptical — then all that leaves, short of taking massive amounts of stimulants or something, is trying to find ways to trick yourself into automagically eating less. The Shangri-La Diet is typical of this genre, proposing a moderately clever mechanism that involves weakening the link between psychological reward and actual calorie intake.

        I’ll admit I’m leery of it, though mostly just because it pattern-matches to “One Weird Trick (Invented By A Mom)” — if I’d seen the same basic idea on PubMed in a thirty-page paper that had lots of tables and P-values and used the word “ghrelin” a lot, I’d probably have found it a lot more interesting. That may not be rational in some abstract sense, but there’s no field with more superstition and bullshit floating around in it than pop nutrition, so I think the heuristic’s justifiable. Even Eliezer’s account boils down to “lost twenty pounds without trying hard, then it stopped working for reasons”, which smells pretty strongly of confirmation bias — but I guess twenty pounds ain’t nothing.

        • Anonymous says:

          @Nornagest

          From what I recall, he said he gets miserable under caloric restriction. He had a bit of a meltdown on Facebook, threatening to ban people for suggesting it to him. It might well be true that he’s wired up that way. No way to tell from here, but I consider it more likely that it’s some combination of poor method (most likely failure to properly track discipline and results).

          • JayT says:

            For what it’s worth, when I use caloric restriction to try and lose some weight I’m pretty much miserable for the entire time I do it. I’m constantly hungry and I get headaches. That’s not even with doing anything too extreme either, just enough so that I would lose like a pound or two a week. Still close to 2000 calories per day.

            Contrast that with my skinny brother who often goes 12+ hours without eating because he doesn’t get hungry, and forgets to eat.

          • Nornagest says:

            Interesting. I get grim and irritable when I haven’t eaten for a while, and sometimes I get the headaches too, but I don’t associate it with food. Not intuitively. I have to actually think about it and make the connection that I haven’t eaten for eighteen hours and that’s probably the reason I feel like a Merovingian monk who’s just been diagnosed with Stage IV demonic possession.

          • JayT says:

            I actually don’t get irritable, just miserable. Like, I don’t take it out on others, I just hate life. I definitely associate it with food though. It tends to consume my thoughts when I’m counting calories.

          • Anonymous says:

            @JayT
            @Nornagest

            When I use caloric restriction (like last Lent, when I lost like 10 kg, eating five apples and five hard-boiled eggs most days, sometimes skipping meals all day, and eating normally on Sundays), I just feel hungry and it’s not something that I can’t distract myself from. No headaches.

          • Anon. says:

            If caloric restriction has effects on your mood, I’d suggest trying to change your macros a bit. Add some more protein for a start, then play around with carb/fat balance.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I’ve tried changing the macros in my diet, specifically to up protein/fiber. It helps, somewhat, but caloric deficits still make me feel like garbage.

            Small price to pay, I suppose. I’ve lost 40 pounds the last 5 or so years.

      • Jack Lecter says:

        I have the idea the studies failed to replicate, so I say this with the proper tone of bewilderment:

        It’s striking how well the willpower-as-limited-resource model works for me.

        And I don’t have much. Usually, I’m able to find some clever trick to reduce the amount required- and, probably, that’s what I’ll do here if this doesn’t pan out.

        On the other hand, arguably that’s exactly what this is- a clever trick, just not mine.

        Reducing body fat is a nice idea, but mostly I want to eat less junk food so I’ll feel better, without killing myself over it. (Go ahead and talk about signaling if you want- maybe you’re right- but at present I’m pretty much a hermit, and the days I don’t pick up junk food at the store, I notice that I’m a lot happier than the days when I do.

        And yes, I have considered reverse causality. That’s part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole thing.

  26. KG says:

    A long time ago, I read a science fiction book in which an alien claimed or somehow implied that it saw reality from a “trialistic” perspective, as opposed to a dualistic one (that is, a perspective divided into threes instead of twos). I don’t remember what the book was and I don’t really care either, but I’ve come back to thinking about trialism recently.
    In general, it seems to me that the universe is dualistic. Everything comes in binaries: true and false, yes and no, positive and negative, etc. And whenever you try to add the “third option”, it either isn’t a thing (not true and not false?) or is just an in-between that doesn’t satisfy the feeling of a concept that makes up a whole corner of a triangle (“maybe” is just yes or no, “zero” has only one value).
    So I’m just wondering if anyone else has given thought to this kind of thing and perhaps knows of something that actually isn’t dualistic, or maybe this is a silly train of thought and of course everything is binary. The only “trialistic” things I could think of were RGB, which I believe is just an artifact of the way we see light and isn’t fundamental or important, and the Hindu Trimurti (gods representing creation, preservation, and destruction), though I am not sure if preservation is really on the same level as creation and destruction.

    • baconbacon says:

      Lots of things are trialistic, positive, negative and neutral. True, false and unknown. Banana, orange and apple.

    • LewisT says:

      Well, there’s the Trinity. Though even there you have Christ’s hypostatic union, which is dualist in the loose sense I think you mean (using “dualism” in a Christian context usually implies something else entirely).

      EDIT: Past, present, and future, perhaps? Though I suppose you could object that “present” is similar to “zero” in having only one value.

    • Nick says:

      This discussion is incomplete without mention of logician CS Peirce. Peirce seems to find his “triads” as fundamental and inescapable as you do your binaries:

      He seemed to base his triadism on what he called “phaneroscopy,” by which word he meant the mere observation of phenomenal appearances. He regularly commented that the phenomena in the phaneron just do fall into three groups and that they just do display irreducibly triadic relations. He seemed to regard this matter as simply open for verification by direct inspection.

    • Everything comes in binaries: true and false, yes and no, positive and negative, etc.

      None of those are visible or concrete.

    • Tatterdemalion says:

      Completely off the top of my head, speculating for the fun of it:

      The number two is pretty special because of a rather obscure piece of maths: there is a non-trivial real square root of unity (-1 x -1 = 1), but for any other there are no real primitive roots of unity.

      I think that that fact is secretly the same fact as the fact that on a real line you can go in two directions: + and -.

      And real lines, and one-dimensionals axes, are the building blocks of everything else. “More” and “less” are fundamental concepts encoding “2” in a way that no fundamental concepts encode 3.

      • rlms says:

        “more”, “less” and “the same”?

        • Iain says:

          Yeah. This shows up a lot in programming languages: here’s Ordering in Rust, for example, and here’s the same thing in Haskell. In languages with less idiomatic support for variant types, the same idea is expressed using a negative/zero/positive return value for a comparison: for example, Java.

  27. johan_larson says:

    The first reviews for The Last Jedi are out now. They’re very positive. 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, 85 on Metacritic.

  28. AnonYEmous says:

    Quick question for the community at large:

    when talking about self-sorting, I like to use the word “sortition”. Is this an accurate usage of the term? And in fact, is “self-sorting” (I.E. that people self-select to do certain things, which potentially taints data sets) even the right term to use? Is self-selection better? Answers appreciated.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Why did you choose the word sortition? Are you trying to make up a portmanteau of sort and partition?
      When you make up a neologism, you should google it to see if it is already taken, particularly in case it turns out to mean the opposite of your intent.

      • AnonYEmous says:

        I didn’t think I made it up, and I did Google it; however, I wasn’t sure if there was a more obscure usage I had picked up or if I had just made it up.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      “Sortition” is a method of assigning political offices based on drawing lots, so I don’t think it would be the appropriate term for what you’re talking about.

    • Deiseach says:

      Others have got here before me, but yeah – when I read this, I went “but sortition is a type of divination” (had to look it up to remember it is done by drawing lots). It’s an already existing word, it doesn’t seem to fit what you are looking for (self-sorting) and there is too much chance of confusion between someone reading whatever you may be saying, going “but this word doesn’t mean what you say it means” and you constantly having to explain “no, I’m using it in an idiosyncratic manner”.

      Better to invent some other term altogether.