Open Thread 107.5

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

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302 Responses to Open Thread 107.5

  1. johan_larson says:

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to drop a Grand Slam 10,000 kg bomb on whatever you want. What are we wrecking today?

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Nowhere in this thread, because that would be an act of war and every place has a culture.

      • johan_larson says:

        I’m a bit fuzzy on how this works as a matter of international law, but I believe only states can commit acts of war. So since I am neither a state unto myself nor an authorized agent of a state, I cannot commit an act of war.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Sweet. Carry on, then.

        • TDB says:

          In that case, they will classify you as a terrorist. Does this imply that the difference between states and terrorists is control of territory?

          Has Scott made a pun from territory and terrorist yet?

          • johan_larson says:

            There is no generally agreed-upon definition of terrorism, but typically actions need some sort of political goal to be terrorism as opposed to mere crimes. If you’re raising hell to change government policy, that’s terrorism; if you’re doing it just to make money or for the lulz, that’s not terrorism.

            So, if I’m trying to make an actual difference by dropping a Grand Slam on something, I’m a terrorist. If I’m just doing it to impress y’all, I am a mere criminal.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Times Square. Center it on the Army Recruiting building at 43rd and 7th to make it a military target. Because that place is hell on earth and a bomb could only improve it.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Hey look, its the culture war free thread …

        • EchoChaos says:

          But not war free, clearly.

        • Aapje says:


          What is culture war about his comment?

          • broblawsky says:

            Times Square is actually just horrible, conservatives and liberals agree.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Well, what would make Times Square so horrible as to be considered “Hell on Earth”?

          • The Nybbler says:

            The people, the huge TV screens, the noise, the Hard Rock Cafe, the vendors of tacky objects, the hawkers for plays and tours, and did I mention the people and the huge TV screens? Also if you’re of a certain bent (which I’m not) the Nasdaq is right there next to Ground Zero.

            (Not, however, the New York Times itself, which WOULD be culture war… they’re at 41st and 8th nowadays)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            So … there are a bunch of people there, that you don’t like, because they don’t seem to be doing things you think are valuable, and you would like that space and all in it to be destroyed….

            and who are those people? and why are they there? and what is NYC in general symbolic of, and Times Square in particular?

            It is the perhaps ultimate symbol of urbanity, and an international, cosmopolitan one at that.

          • BBA says:

            No, HBC, I’m a New Yorker, a fan of urbanism and urbanity, and probably to your left… and I hate Times Square and wish it could be uprooted and plopped in the middle of the Hudson where nobody has to go to change trains or buy theater tickets.

            Nothing wrong with having a tourist haven – but does it have to be so big and so loud and so in the way of “real world” New York?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            It seems pretty tacky to try to tease the CW implications out of commenters rather than just saying “hey, be careful what you blow up in this thread” and dropping it.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            Yeah, not buying it. I mean, I buy that as a New Yorker you “hate” Times Square. But you hated the Twin Towers too.

          • BBA says:

            I liked the Twin Towers, but I’m one of the weirdos who appreciates modernist architecture for what it is.

            New Yorkers also claim to “miss” the old Times Square, with the muggings and the prostitution and the porn. I’m sure when the Port Authority Bus Terminal is put out of its misery there will be people mourning its demise too. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

            But getting back to the main point, Times Square doesn’t feel “cosmopolitan” to me. Queens is cosmopolitan. Times Square is tourists from the rest of America paying twice as much to shop at the same chain stores and eat at the same chain restaurants they have back home.

          • Matt M says:

            I put the blame here on johan.

            “If you have to blow up a location, what would it be?” seems to me a question that almost guarantees at the very least a political, if not a CW, debate…

          • johan_larson says:

            We should be fine. Just don’t try to blow up Patriarchy Point or mine Feminism Bay.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            But I can drop the Grand Slam bomb on Michael Bay?
            Ehhh, seems like overkill when even a 500-pounder would kill him, so never mind.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Times Square is tourists from the rest of America the world


            I mean, I don’t get the draw, but it’s a major tourist destination. It’s iconic. It’s on the short list of distinct places people can almost assuredly name in NYC.

            More importantly, unless you are a New Yorker, what do you have to hate about Times Square that requires it be blown up? I doubt The Nybbler has suddenly taken up the communist mantle and wants to protest the rampant abuses of the “America’s Capitalist Oligopoly”; however, Time’s Square was chosen for symbolic reasons (as is generally true of imagined terrorist attacks).

          • The Nybbler says:

            I work in the neighborhood.

            (And the Port Authority Bus Terminal would indeed be a perfectly good second choice.)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Objection withdrawn then.

            Only we can do that to our pledges

          • Chalid says:

            I really enjoy Times Square, in small doses. Occasionally I’ll add a couple blocks to my walk home and detour through there in the evening. I have fond memories of being a young tourist there, and of seeing musicals.

            But I imagine I’d hate the place if I had to deal with it every day like Nybbler does.

          • Wrong Species says:

            The Twin Towers were garbage and an affront to architects, the people of New York City and aesthetics in general. The Chrysler building managed to be both modern and look good while being built 40 years earlier.

          • Aapje says:

            Ultra-touristy places tend to be rather unpleasant to non-tourists. For example, natives seem to mostly have abandoned Venice.

            Tourists regularly seem unable to distinguish the things that are intended for them vs the things that belong to the natives. For example, in a quaint town in The Netherlands, some tourists have walked into the houses of the natives, treating their homes as attractions.

            Tourists also regularly like to push their boundaries, but those boundaries exist for a reason. So then the natives have to deal with drunk & drugged people who misbehave. In Amsterdam, they put up signs with the pictures of locals and the text ‘We live here.’

            Heavy & brief tourism tends to result in a mono-culture, where the same few tourist traps are ubiquitous and where faux-authenticity tends to push out actual authenticity (which is usually less accessible).


            I don’t see how disliking these things aligns with the culture war nor do I believe that liking globalism/foreigners means that one has to like certain behavior by some tourists. The people who are now complaining about the situation in the red light district in Amsterdam are mostly blue tribe globalists, or they wouldn’t be living in/near the center of Amsterdam.

            HeelBearCub, I’ve already noticed in the recent past that your sensitivity to the culture war is very high and IMO, you frequently read statements in a way that I consider very debatable. I would suggest fewer accusatory statements and asking questions instead, to figure out what was meant, rather than jumping to conclusions so much.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            If I had made the two word suggestion of “Stone Mountain“, do you think people would have been giving me the benefit of the doubt?

            Remember, Ted Cruz thought “New York City values” were antithetical to conservative, red tribe ones. Using NYC as conservative boogie man is standard fare.

            My statements were relatively anodyne, I merely noted that I thought it was culture war, an objection that was made about the topic in general before I did it. When you asked why, I elucidated that I thought it was important why the site was chosen.

            If we were on a blog where much of the discussion centered around the animosity between the French and the English, and an Englishman suggested that the Eiffel Tower should be blown up, you’d tend to think of that as culture war.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            @Wrong Species:

            I always thought the Twin Towers looked awe-inspiring and beautiful. That they managed to be majestic when viewed from ground level standing next to them, and when looking south from Midtown, and when driving westbound on the Belt—as the view of the Manhattan skyline opened up before you—made them all the more impressive.

            (n.b. I have lived in New York City for over 25 years.)

          • Aapje says:


            You dislike laser shows???

            Seriously though, I think that the NY equivalent of Stone Mountain is Stonewall Inn or something like that, not Times Square.

            I have trouble coming up with a group that would see Times Square as ‘their place,’ aside from Americans in general in a weakly nationalist way (that is fairly bipartisan) or New Yorkers in general, also in a weak way.

            Similarly, the only group that I can see attacking it are anti-Americans.

            Given that Nybbler isn’t anti-American, I assumed he disliked it not for symbolic reasons, but for being an unpleasant environment.

          • Wrong Species says:

            The one thing about the twin towers is that they were big, and the new world trade center has that. I just can’t fathom why anyone would think they were good architecture.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            So, in other words, until you found out that I had local reason (by, say, being a direct neighbor of the park and hating the traffic, noise of the fireworks, the brightness of the laser show) you wouldn’t have thought “well, clearly he hates tourists” was the explanation.

            As to Nybbler being “anti-American” … is sitting U.S. Senator Ted Cruz “anti-American”?

          • Nornagest says:

            Guys, you’re waging the culture war by arguing about whether you’re waging culture war.

          • Aapje says:


            Disliking how (some) tourists tend to behave is not really CW and I would rank that as disliking an unpleasant environment. It’s not like the culture war is over whether or not to let in tourists. Pretty much everyone likes their money and dislike for more extreme touristy behavior seems only a little more common and/or consist of stricter boundaries among conservatives.

            I don’t think that it is necessary to live close to an environment to dislike it. A non-smoker who feels really strongly about that can also greatly dislike a smoking bar and prefer it gone, even without going there or having to go there.

            By anti-American attacks, I am talking about the serious kind on symbols of the US as a whole, which is more something I associate with Osama/ISIS/etc than with Ted Cruz. Whatever you may think about the latter, he’ll presumably get angry if someone sets off a bomb on Time Square (unless he hates tourists real bad), just like conservatives got angry over the twin towers attacks.

            PS. Note that I also wasn’t taking the answers very seriously, assuming that most wouldn’t actually drop the bomb if they actually could.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Nornagest: It’s meta-culture war. There’s nowhere to go from here but a meta-culture meta-war.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I agree that “hating tourists” isn’t culture war. My point was that me theoretically wanting to blow up Stone Mountain wouldn’t code as “hating tourists” (hence your likening it to Stonewall). If someone in who spends all their time in Illinois says they want to blow up Stone Mountain or Times Square, you don’t go to “hating tourists” as the likely explanation. Because those tacky tourists with their tacky habits aren’t in their space.

            I agree that Ted Cruz is not anti-American. And yet he identifies “New York values” as anti-thetical to his tribe. So saying that because Nybbler isn’t anti-American means he can’t hate New York for cultural reasons makes no sense.

            I think you may not understand the iconic place New York City occupies in the American cultural landscape. It practically IS blue-tribe personified. It has gays and musicals and gay musicals and night clubs and “weird” food and mass transit and museums and lots and lots of foreigners and America citizens who don’t speak English and on and on. Of course, the actual New York City is far more interesting and complex than the icon, but that never stops anyone.

          • quanta413 says:


            It would be appreciated if you scaled back the policing not all the way but a little.

            It was a positive to whack Conrad when he forgot it was a culture-war free thread it and made an obnoxious comment about the licensing of LotR (I probably would have thought it positive in a culture-war thread too but I’m not 100% sure). Even Conrad accepted it. Note to Conrad: not trying to pick on you in particular, but I’m erring on the side of trying to give HeelBearCub specific feedback.

            But this case seems like negative value to me. Although I guess it’s interesting how many of you bond over hating Times Square despite partisan differences.

            I’ll scoot now unless you ask for a response from me to try to avoid blowing this up too much (more).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            At this point I’m not policing. At all. I long ago said I withdrew my objection when Nybbler explained that he was objecting as a New Yorker, which I understood. I think the only contention is Aapje seeming to think my original, relatively anodyne observation was somehow over the top. I’m trying to make him either understand, or perhaps acknowledge, my actual argument.

            Why do you think this is policing?

          • Matt M says:


            If New Yorkers themselves hate Times Square (as many have alleged), then Times Square would not be a relevant example of “New York Values”, yes?

            If “actual New Yorkers” consider it an inconvenient tourist trap, Cruz would be doing them a favor by blowing it up. Which would certainly be the last thing he wants!

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I just wanted to agree that New York City is more complex and interesting than an eidolon of Blue Tribeness. Shame how that’s an experience limited to the very wealthy.

          • quanta413 says:


            Why do you think this is policing?

            I consider the original post minor unnecessary policing. But the 4 posts before Nybbler responded and you withdrew are a sort of negative spiral.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:
            That mistakes actual New York for iconographic New York. Iconographic New York loves Times Square.

            I’ll simply say I disagree and leave it at that.

          • Aapje says:


            Let me quote part of a Quora answer:

            I agree with Terry Agoris here that Times Square is not a good representation of NYC, but not every spot can be. The problem is that non-New-Yorkers believe it is.

            Ironically, Times Square takes what you can find in a lot of the rest of the country and just increases the scale: chain restaurants and advertisements. To me, New York is all about unique creativity, and thus Times Square is surprisingly one of the least New-York spots that exists. In a lot of ways, Times Square is the antithesis of New York.

            I believe Times Square acts as a safe alternative way for tourists to dip their toes into New York without experiencing any of the real passion of the city.

            and this one:

            The over-priced element is also a factor. Because of the massive tourism element, many of the bars, restaurants, and shops in the immediate vicinity hike up their prices both because their rent is expensive (because it’s Times-friggin’-square!) and because they can, as their target demo (the tourist) either doesn’t care or doesn’t know any better. Local NY’ers usually know of places where they can get whatever they’re looking for (drinks/food/shopping) at a more reasonable price.

            One last reason: Even in light of the other two negatives (crowds, price), native NYC’ers wouldn’t hate on Tsq so much if there was something positive there to outweigh them. But there isn’t; Times Square has nothing really to offer the local.


            Times Square is ersatz New York


            The short answer to the above question basically is, tourists. Plus the fact that as bad as Times Square once was, what is there now is so much worse that many of us older New Yorkers long for crime and sex and drug trade over what we have to deal with now.


            Simply put, it’s an artificially generated portion of a city that neither reflects nor represents the city as a whole. It’s a slap in the face for NYC and New Yorkers because it’s homogenous and the antithesis of everything that’s represents a northeastern state.

            In your last reply to me, you shifted the goal posts by not defending Times Square as a blue tribe icon, but New York as a whole. However, you can see in the various comments that I quoted that many believe that Times Square is not representative of NY or even that they see it as the antithesis of NY.

            Times Square seems more like the lowest common denominator of the US distilled into a Disneyfied experience.

            If a Dutch person would tell me that they love America and would/could (only) name Disney World as something they loved about it or if an American tourist would tell me they loved The Netherlands because of the Nutella shops*; I would conclude that they fell in love with a super-stimulus that can be very enjoyable for a brief period, but that is not representative of the real thing, nor that the super-stimulus could sustain long term love.

            If someone would suggest bombing the Nutella shops in Amsterdam, I wouldn’t conclude that they hate progressive, arrogant self-confident, multi-cultural Amsterdam, but rather that they dislike tourist ‘gentrification’ where long-term residents get pushed out in favor of hotels, airbnb, tourist traps, etc. There is a big difference between a place where you have residents from different backgrounds and a place where tourism has become so dominant that it has become unlivable for permanent residents. A LOT of blue tribers hate the latter, because they tend to want a livable environment, like everyone else and because they tend to be the ones who live in or want to live in the cities where lots of tourists come.

            * The waffles and crepes with Nutella that they sell are not in any way authentic, BTW. The waffles are Belgian-style. Dutch people rarely if ever put Nutella on their waffles and crepes.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Note the first quote you posted contains the following:

            The problem is that non-New-Yorkers believe it is.

            There is a broad conception of Times Square as representative of NYC. I know this to be fact (even though I know NYC is far more complex and mostly different.) Hence, my initial reaction was to Times Square as a target representative of NYC.

            Again, on a blog full of English and French, what if an Englishman says they want to bomb the Eiffel Tower?

          • bean says:

            Nybbler should have been a bit more explicit that he was objecting as a New Yorker. HBC should have been a bit more charitable. Everyone should have let this die down. Can we please stop fighting about the culture war policing policy now?

          • Nornagest says:

            What’s the difference between Dutch and Belgian-style waffles?

            …uh, unless that’s a culture war thing over there.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I think the problem with Times Square is that it doesn’t even work as a super stimuli area. My single visit left me feeling both underwhelmed and stimuli-assaulted. Underwhelmed because there is nothing really…awesome about it. Stimuli-assaulted because there is so much crap EVERYWHERE, like a mini-Vegas.

            I haven’t spent much time in NYC, but Times Square was my 2nd least favorite part (the least favorite being La Guardia, which I can only assume is a layer of hell that somehow crossed the material plane).

            I actually like Disneyfied areas, but I’m the male equivelant of basic bitch and enjoy the suburbs (which are obviously the best places to live). I’d also add that you’d probably get sick of nature hikes if you did that every day, too…actually, the last time I went to a park, I got sick after 3 or 4 days. Wooo, here’s another hike up yet another mountain…

          • Le Maistre Chat says:


          • AG says:

            Agree with A Definite Beta Guy, and the common trend I’ve found for feeling that way about tourist traps is that such places are usually glorified shopping centers. That is, the main attraction is solely shopping. At best, Times Square has slightly more interesting ads on those screens?

            Other tourist trap places (like the aforementioned Stone Mountain) that I prefer have things to do that are not shopping. So Times Square is better when there’s a specific event happening that is not shopping, like a concert or parade or NYE.

          • Aapje says:


            Belgian waffles (actually, that particular variant is from Brussels)

            Dutch waffles

            Both are tasty, but they are very different. The Belgian ones are naturally blander, so they are often combined with toppings, like (powdered) sugar, whipped cream, fruit, chocolate or in Amsterdam, Nutella. The Dutch ones already have syrup in them and are often warmed up to soften them up, because they are more compact than the Belgian ones.

            It’s not culture war or anything, I’m just pointing out that Belgian waffles + Nutella are specifically sold to tourists and are not Dutch food. Perhaps it’s me, but when I travel, I like to eat proper local foods.

            @A Definite Beta Guy

            I think that a lot more people would enjoy living in a park permanently, than living in Disney World or on Times Square. When living in the park, you are not obligated to hike every day.


            It was quite sad when I was in Egypt and we went to a tourist trap that was essentially a bunch of American shops. Oh look, an authentic Egyptian Star Bucks.


            I don’t see this as fighting, but enjoy this. Then again, I am strange (or charm, I forgot).

    • Hey says:

      If there was a place in a warzone where bombing was clearly a good idea, the US government would probably already be doing it (but maybe one more bomb on ISIS controlled territory couldn’t hurt). Another seemingly good option is to bomb the “reeducation” camps that China is building in Xinjiang, but there may be unintended consequences. Also, that bomb doesn’t seem powerful enough to obliterate a large area, so it would be more realistic to destroy a small target.

      The remaining options are destroying a building you don’t like and dropping the bomb in the middle of a desert to make nice pieces of glass.

      • johan_larson says:

        Yeah, I’m not really sure how to make the world a better place through chemistry, myself. Most problems are just too diffuse to solve by dropping one bomb, even a very large one.

    • bean says:

      How about the Pentagon? I’m fairly certain that this would dramatically increase efficiency in the US military. I’m debating if we need to wait for Mattis to be out, or if he’d be totally fine even after that.
      (The above is at least 50% joke.)

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Nutrition facts: contains at least 50% joke. WARNING: processed in a gallery used for peanuts.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        The question isn’t whether Mattis would be fine. It’s whether we would.


        • bean says:

          Why would he be radioactive? Grand Slam was a conventional bomb, designed to destroy deeply buried structures, and things like U-boat pens made of reinforced concrete by the earthquakes they caused. Barnes Wallace thought that direct hits on reinforced concrete would be ineffective, but that they could be undermined, and combat experience showed him to be pretty much correct. (I have a book on British aerial bombs.) Tallboys (the 12,000 lb version of the 22,000 lb Grand Slam) were also used to sink Tirpitz.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      Whatever I want? Suit up boys, we’re catching a ride to Alpha Centauri on Johan’s bomber.

    • S_J says:

      Would it be possible to use the bomb to dislodge some rock from the peak of Mt. Everest?

      Just enough to make K2 the tallest mountain in the world.

    • Nornagest says:

      It would be a shame to waste a Grand Slam on anything that doesn’t need some serious penetration. So, what do I want dead that’s already made from a shitload of concrete and/or buried under several meters of dirt?

      All I can think of is public transit systems (in hopes that they’d be replaced by one that doesn’t suck), and you’d really need more than one bomb for that. Maybe some really bad monumental sculpture.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        Would the San Jose Quetzalcoatl qualify?

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Really? That looks like it’s in the top 20% of sculptures I would expect to see in a US city. At least it’s interesting and depicts something.

          • Aapje says:

            In Rotterdam, local culture is to give nicknames to remarkable structures*. I suspect that they would give the Quetzalcoatl the nickname ‘turd.’ Some googling shows that I’m not the only one with this association. I don’t understand why they gave it this color.

            *This is ‘the pencil.’ This is the ‘scrap heap.’ This is the ‘railway accident.’ This is ‘buttplug gnome.’

          • dodrian says:

            I don’t know if it was the priming before clicking on the link, but I genuinely can’t imagine what ‘buttplug gnome’ is supposed to be.

            On the other hand, it is in The Netherlands…

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Do a search on that sculpture in news articles. Aapje nailed it; it’s even referred to as “park god spelled backwards”.

          • AG says:

            Come now, the railway accident is clearly yonic. “Vag of steel”

            My guess is that the buttplug is supposed to be a fantasy mushroom of sorts.

          • Aapje says:


            The statue is by a Los Angeles artist, who some call a ‘critical analyst of the mass media and consumer-driven American society and its hypocrisy, double standards and repression.’

            The gnome clearly is Santa Claus, but I suspect that the artist trolled Rotterdam by claiming that the buttplug is a Christmas tree.

            On an earlier occasion, the artist engaged in performance art, where he “threw himself around a ketchup-spattered classroom at the University of California until dazed and self-injured. He then vomited several times and inserted a Barbie doll into his rectum.”

            There is actually a ‘scientific’ paper that features the statue called Engaging geographies of public art: indwellers, the ‘Butt Plug Gnome’ and their locale

      • johan_larson says:

        I wonder what a 10 ton explosion would be worth, commercially. It would be a heck of a contribution to an excavation or demolition project. Of course, it would take quite the act of salesmanship to persuade anyone that you can conjure a WWII bomb ex nihilo.

        • CatCube says:

          I wonder what a 10 ton explosion would be worth, commercially. It would be a heck of a contribution to an excavation or demolition project.

          Probably not a whole heck of a lot, actually. Most demolitions and excavations don’t want their explosive in one big lump. I can easily imagine that there are mining blasts in the 10 ton range (or near enough), but they want to fracture the rock along well-defined boundaries, so they use explosive parceled out among relatively small-diameter holes. One huge explosion will probably be very ineffective at staying to a well-defined boundary, and you’re going to have a problem with fly rock as well.

          Explosive demolition is right out. They’re not blowing up a building; they’re using explosive to cut selected structural members so gravity will pull the building down. One huge explosion is worse then useless for them, and will cause extreme damage to surrounding structures.

          There might be some use in research explosions, but that’s all I can think of.

          • Austin says:

            Seconded on the ~9100kg of high explosive in one spot not being worth much commercially. I’m an engineer at a large open pit mine. We use a lot of explosives, on the order of 100,000++kg/day.

            For surface mining operations, it is less about finesse and more about breaking as much rock as possible as safely and cheaply as possible.

            A big surface mine uses drills that do 10-15″ diameter boreholes, with between 800-1000 kg of ANFO based explosives per hole plus a kilogram* of PETN to set off the ANFO. Then you set them off 300-400 holes at a time.

    • xXxanonxXx says:

      I’ve always been particularly offended by the Verizon building in Manhattan, an eyesore described as “most disturbing” and setting a “tone of utter banality”. The 2016 window installation helped, but not enough.

      • Said Achmiz says:

        I appreciated the Verizon building. The renovation ruined it, and turned it into something banal and generic. Very unfortunate. Might as well knock it down, at this point.

        • xXxanonxXx says:

          I agree we might as well knock it down and the sooner the better, but you really liked it before? I’ve never met a single person who had a positive thing to say about it.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            I really liked it before.

            I would not have liked an entire Manhattan skyline full of buildings like it. But, I also really liked the Twin Towers, and would not have liked an entire skyline full of them; and I love the Empire State Building, but would not… etc.

            So, yes, I thought the Verizon building was cool. I was sad to see its unique character and singular aesthetic appeal destroyed by the window installation.

    • marshwiggle says:

      I’m surprised no-one has tried to use this for science. Surely there are comets, moons, asteroids or the like that we’d like to see what gets kicked up or how it reacts to a nice bomb. I’m not actually an astronomer or planetary scientist though, so I’m not sure what the top priority would be.

      • Nornagest says:

        “Let me say it clearly: the United States can, must, and will nuke the moon.”

      • Lambert says:

        Well the Hayabusa 2 probe is about to shoot an asteroid with what amounts to an anti-tank round.
        Maybe co-ordinate with the Japanese space agency to kick up a few more lumps of primordial rock for them.

      • Amos says:

        I second nuked the moon or an asteroid. NASA wanted send a nuke the moon as a scientific experiment before deciding on Neil Armstrong instead. We could presumably still learn quite a bit by nuking the moon and analyzing the dust cloud.

        Nuking an asteroid would be good practice for if we ever have to deflect one. We can see exactly who the nuke effects it, moves its orbit, etc.

  2. Hey says:

    I posted the following message on the last open thread, but got no answers, which is ironic given that it was about the lack of interest in a news story. I’m reposting it here in the hope of getting more people to read and reply (to Scott : if you’re not OK with this, please delete this message).

    Here is my original post :

    A few years ago, this guy claimed to have injected himself with some bacteria in order to live longer. When injected to mice and fruit flies, that bacteria supposedly increases their lifespans. Then, for some reason, nobody ever talked about it again, with the exception of some conspiracy theorists who believe that governments are hiding the secret of eternal youth and a few articles about this woman, who also injected herself with the bacteria. Even transhumanists don’t seem interested by that story. The scientist in question wrote quite a lot of papers, in English, Russian and Japanese. This paper merely says that understanding how these bacteria manage to survive for so long could be useful for gerontology research, but those three papers claim that injections of the bacteria has various effects on animals. The last paper contains a few (not very convincing) graphs showing how the bacteria affects the lifespans of flies and mice.

    Why hasn’t more research (or more speculation) been done about this bacteria ? Does that scientist sound too much like a crackpot to be taken seriously ? (it’s true that trying to use very old microorganisms to live longer sounds a lot like homeopathy)

    • pontifex says:

      The way the news story frames it makes it sound like magical thinking. “I want to live to become old, X is old, therefore I will inject myself with X.” Maybe there is more here, but the articles certainly don’t point to it. In any case, most of the challenges humans face when getting older like heart disease and cancer don’t apply to viruses. Keeping the DNA itself around for more than 150 years isn’t that difficult (giant turtles and old trees seem to manage fine).

    • j1000000 says:

      Aside from the fact that he does sound a bit crackpotty to me (a non-scientist), some Google+ post I found from Vinny Pinto (whose bio is “mystic, spiritual teacher/guide/healer, consulting scientist/engineer”) says this about the situation:

      By the way, I have noticed that a number of people from across the world — the vast majority of whom were not scientific researchers — have attempted to contact Dr. Brouchkov since mid-2015 via various social media channels, and have asked him either for samples of the microbe, or have asked to be injected with the microbe, as part of their personal quest for longevity and/or immortality. I have noticed that Dr. Brouchkov has ignored over 99 percent of these requests, and one reason — aside from the obvious frivolity and lack of sincerity inherent in many of the requests, and aside from the obvious fact that most of the requesters were not scientific researchers — is likely the fact the microbial culture is simply, for [biosafety] reasons mentioned above, not yet available for dissemination in the world.

  3. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Which SF author handles scale the most thoughtfully? The absolute opposite of “millions of years from now, posthuman uploads all share the author’s culture” or “in a galactic empire where most stars have inhabited planets, the most important rebels turn out to be have the second-in-command as their biological father”?

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      Not sure how to parse that last part.

      I thought J. Michael Straczynski did a decent job with a B5 episode set in the far future (I forget the name of it).

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        Not sure how to parse that last part.

        Darth Vader, second-in-command to the Galactic Empire, is the true father of rebels Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        I was trying to convey that if your setting has ~100 billion inhabited star systems, “Emperor defeated by right-hand man’s children given up for adoption”, while being as narratively compelling as ever, is trillions of times less likely than if you were using a polity like the Akkadian Empire.

        • Matt M says:

          Isn’t that the whole point of THE FORCE though? That Luke and Leia being powerful and important isn’t just a ridiculously huge one-in-a-trillion coincidence. They became the most prominent rebels because they were descended from the second-in-command of the Empire/

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Would you count World War Z (the book, not the movie) as SF? Because, if so, it’s a really good example. I mean, the action is limited to modern-day Earth, but most speculative fiction writers who handle that setting never go beyond “five-man team beating up another five-man team (and maybe a few dozen mooks) decides the fate of the world”. World War Z is almost unique in combining global scale with a sense of perspective. Too bad that same awareness doesn’t extend to military logistics, though; the Battle of Yonkers was groanworthy.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hyperion Cantos
      Had a pretty diverse world.

      Perilous waif
      Also had a resonably diverse world, though i think it is less explored, and somewhat more focused on things that might be relevant for sex(in the future though, the first vook didnt actually get explicit).

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      I think that Stephen Baxter’s Vacuum Diagrams anthology, which is set in his larger universe, does a good job at examining the degree to which radically different beings can exist and still be recognizably human.

      • Jake says:

        It also has some interesting views on a war that literally spans the entire universe, in both space and time. This is one of my favorite books, just for the scale of things.

      • Machine Interface says:

        Oh yeah; “Blame!” and “Biomega” are good for any SF fan who’s ok with the comic format. I don’t know that it’s particularly hard SF – although the author has the excuse that his stories are far enough into the future that most of the bio-technology he proposes is at least somewhat plausible in essence (if not necessarily in the way it’s actually used in-universe).

        “Blame!” takes place inside a gigantic city which continues endlessly in all directions (including up or down) and is probably a Dyson sphere. At some point the protagonists are casually told by an elevator’s operator that it will take “at least 800 hours” to reach the floor they have chosen – at which point the protagonists, all being highly advanced cybernetic organisms, proceed to put themselves in standby mode for the duration of the travel.

        Oh also: these stories are generally super bleak and extremely violent. Even his most recent completed work, “Knights of Sidonia”, which has a significantly more comedic and light-hearted tone than his previous stories, still starts with the premise that the Earth has been destroyed by aliens (very un-human ones), and features plenty of death and body horror.

        • Nornagest says:

          Blame! has the issue that a lot of the most imaginative SF does: so much panel space gets spent on the setting and the aesthetics that it tends to crowd out everything else. The plot’s a pretty basic MacGuffin hunt, and the best-developed characters are the ones we only see for a chapter or two while they flesh out some local pathos. The leads barely talk.

          Knights of Sidonia has more of a plot, but I’m not sure it’s an improvement: especially later on, it starts borrowing heavily from the harem-comedy template, and it ends up clashing pretty badly with the bleak SF setting.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Knights of Sidonia has more of a plot, but I’m not sure it’s an improvement: especially later on, it starts borrowing heavily from the harem-comedy template, and it ends up clashing pretty badly with the bleak SF setting.

            Oh boy, thanks for the warning to avoid. Harem comedy is a cancer that metastasized into fetish porn involving increasingly underage girls.
            Time was it wasn’t so (Tenchi Muyo, etc), but… perhaps the same could be said of all cancers.
            breaks wine glass

          • Nornagest says:

            I don’t think it justifies avoiding it entirely, but you might want to stop after the first season or the equivalent in the manga. It’s pretty tame even after that (and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any, ah, prurient material based on it, which is something I can’t say for a lot of Japanese media), but up to that point the romantic comedy aspects stay in subtext.

          • AG says:

            Harem comedy is a cancer that metastasized into fetish porn involving increasingly underage girls.

            nice boat

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            There should be no Air on her G String unless she’s 18+. 🙁

        • JPNunez says:

          Knights of Sidonia is such a disappointment.

          By some point of the second season, you realize that the show slowly morphed into a harem comedy and uuurgh.

    • sfoil says:

      John C. Wright, especially the Count to a Trillion books. They have flaws, and he’s not afraid to be silly, but he does handle scale well. Really that series is about scale, and what it does and doesn’t change (at least in the author’s opinion). I liked it more than Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee books (another good choice, by the way), which took itself a little more seriously.

    • AG says:

      John Barnes’ Thousand Cultures series.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      So I have a reading list of:
      Hyperion Cantos
      Count to a Trillion series
      Xeelee stuff
      “Blame!” & “Biomega”
      Thousand Cultures series
      And World War Z

      Thanks, guys.

    • dndnrsn says:

      I recall Orson Scott Card’s 3 or however many books starting with Speaker for the Dead handle this pretty well.

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      I’ve been impressed with the Iain Banks Culture books on that scale-handling dimension (and fwiw I am a big fan despite very much not sharing the author’s politics).

    • Anatoly says:

      Gene Wolfe. Iain Banks, in the Culture series. Stanislaw Lem. Vernor Vinge, in “A Fire Upon The Deep”.

    • helloo says:

      The Last Question

  4. bean says:

    Naval Gazing returns to anti-submarine warfare with a look at the British Operational Intelligence Center, who tracked German U-boats and saved hundreds of ships.

    Also, I’ve formally announced a meetup at Iowa on September 8th. Hope to see some of you there.

  5. C_B says:

    (Repost, caught the very end of the previous open thread:)

    Twitch chat has joined the AI risk community: HUMANS OUTDATED

    OpenAI is playing a Dota 2 showmatch against decent humans here right now. Though the humans are looking pretty terrible, I have to say. I’m unclear on how much of that is because the bot is good and taking advantage of vulnerabilities that a human team wouldn’t, and how much is because the humans are legitimately playing badly (it’s a team of washed-up semi-retired semi-pros who don’t seem to have practiced very seriously). Some of both, I think. The bot is nonetheless quite impressive.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      A significant factor is that the match is taking place with enough gameplay restrictions (highly limited hero selection, significant item bans, free invulnerable couriers) that it’s a fundamentally different game, and the humans did all their practice on real Dota 2.

      The bot also has a bunch of advantages in information processing, but having gotten all my “AGI is not just around the corner” caveats out of the way, yeah, it’s pretty amazing. Sometimes the players will do creep pulls, body blocks, or invis and the AI will get embarrassingly confused, but that only serves to remind me of how impressive it is that all the other stuff they do well enough to win games, is entirely self-training.

      • C_B says:

        Yeah, I underestimated how big a deal the courier thing was going to be. The salve abuse by the bots was pretty intense.

      • ManyCookies says:

        I think “fundamentally different” is overstating the disparity here. Yes it abused the hell out of the differences from the main game, but they weren’t fundamental cheats like the laner bot’s insane reaction time, they weren’t relying on courier abuse when they completely dominated the macro and teamfight positioning game. Stuff like courier management isn’t some massive hurdle, the bots are clearly working well together and not greedily consuming resources (and actually had some very interesting and selfless farm priorities).

        Last year I compared the midlane SF bot to a bot that could hit perfect free throws and nothing else. This OpenAI iteration is like a team that’s learned how to play 3v3 inner-city pickup games really well; yes there’s significant differences from the NBA which the team fully exploits, and the team of G-leaguers that haven’t practiced inner-city rules aren’t the best humanity has to offer. But it shows that the bot team can pull off abstract concepts like teamwork, and that there’s no fundamental hurdle when increasing the player count or moving to a larger court.

        • marshwiggle says:

          It looked to me as if the differences were mostly ones that made things easier for the AI though. Perhaps that’s the way they needed to do it, but it looks like they are overselling what their AI can do.

    • beleester says:

      One surprising thing was how quick the AI was to predict a win or a loss. All three matches, it predicted a near certain win or loss simply from the draft order (the last match they let Twitch pick the AI’s characters, so it expected about a 3% chance of victory at the start). In situations where the human commentators were saying “It’s looking pretty even, could go either way” the AI was saying “95% win chance confirmed.”

      • C_B says:

        Those chances are derived from its experiences playing itself a huge number of times, so it makes sense to me that they’re highly determined by the draft. A big part of the uncertainty about who’s going to win human vs. human matches is uncertainty about how well they’re going to play today – even if one team clearly has a draft advantage at the beginning of the game, you still figure that there’s at least a ~30% chance that the team with the worse draft is going to have a good day and overcome their disadvantage.

        The bot doesn’t have to factor in that uncertainty – the bot is going to play however well the bot plays, it doesn’t have good and bad days, it doesn’t throw, it doesn’t have hot streaks, it doesn’t get tilted by all chat, etc. So I’m not surprised that almost all of the variance in the outcome of bot vs. bot matches is in the draft.

        That means that its estimates against human players are probably very overconfident (both overconfident that it’s going to win, and overconfident that it’s going to lose). It’s not accounting for the possibility that its opponent will play better or worse than usual, because that never happens in its training data.

    • marshwiggle says:

      Gameplay restrictions aside, the degree to which the bots were able to win fair fights was fairly impressive. However, the bots seemed really bad at arranging unfair fights. Perhaps the limited hero pool was responsible, as the heroes chosen weren’t exactly optimized for gank or splitpush. Still, slark was in there, and the commenters were saying that the AI never learned how to gank with slark. If you can’t gank with slark, the AI can’t gank. Caveat: I’m not exactly a dota expert.

      • C_B says:

        They were pretty good at setting up unfair fights via lane rotations in the early game, but yes I agree that once the lanes broke down and it was less clear where the human team was going to be, they didn’t seem to be very good at scouting them out and then ambushing them. Even something as simple as “see two heroes on the map, group up with three heroes, pop a smoke, go kill them” didn’t happen much.

  6. Odovacer says:

    When reading an article or book, do you read or verify the links and sources? Sometimes I feel like people could hide things or misrepresent others’ works. I would never know, because I rarely check the sources.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      It depends on how important it is to me to check whatever’s being claimed. If it’s about how Otto II probably felt about having to go to Italy every so often and deal with the Pope, I don’t care that much. If it’s about how the unemployment rate is measured in the US, I’ll care more.

      Another factor is the reputation of the source. If it’s Derek Lowe talking about pharma, I’ll probably believe it. If it’s some rando talking about software, though, I’ll probably double check it.

    • bean says:

      It depends heavily on how much I care about the answer and how much what I’m reading differs from my priors. (I’m aware that this is a semi-isolated demand for rigor, but I can only plead time and motivation as the reason behind it.) If it’s someone making new claims about a warship, particularly claims that are at odds with what I think happened, I’m pretty through, and have on one or two occasions bought books for this reason. If it’s something that’s from a credible source and doesn’t conflict with prior knowledge, I usually just accept it and move on.

    • qwints says:

      It’s a really bad habit, but I tend to check sources only when I have a low prior for a claim or (and this is the problem) where I do not like the conclusion the claim supports. I check links most of the time unless there are an unusually large number or the linked material is unusually lengthy.

      • marshwiggle says:

        I don’t always check sources, but I try to do it if the claim is going to shift my priors substantially in something that matters. Also, you have to not just check the source – sometimes you need to check the source of a source, following the chain back to where the claim originated. When I’ve done this, sometimes I’ve found a disturbing pattern. A lot of truly unjustified stuff has gotten passed down by people who wanted it to be true, liked it when they saw it, and saw a respectable source claiming it. It gets sanitized and amplified as it passes down the chain. That can turn a hypothesis with really shaky evidence into orthodoxy. All because people like what is being said. I don’t always do the claim checking I ought because doing it right takes a lot of work. But it’s really important that someone does it, and I’ve seen far too much evidence that too few people do it.

        • mtl1882 says:

          Yup, original sources are key. I admit I probably look harder when it’s something I want to disagree with, but I know how important it is. Distortion is so easy.

  7. Hoopyfreud says:

    Sam[]zdat continues his hot streak of posting with less than 4 weeks between last post and this one.

    This time on dragon ball z, paradigms. This seems like a *direct* (though not necessarily directed) refutation of Scott’s theory about crystallized values – the idea that things have fundamentally different meanings when humans deploy them. Lou touches back on Kuhn (again) and on the idea that material wealth increases under capitalism because capitalist models define material wealth such that capitalism increases it. After all, the existence of that definition (presumably) is what makes them like that system in the first place.

    So here’s a challenge to Scott – consider that when you talk about crystallized values, you’re not just talking about axioms and abstracted terminal values as the values that you *think* you comprehend from within your paradigm, but the vanishing points of someone else’s. Even the least-crystallized, most rational individuals you encounter are completely capable of talking right past you unless they’re trying not to. Then consider whether the fundamental value differences that exist between people are *really* minor, or if it’s actually the case that “violent rejection and sometimes physical violence” is not that different from “talking to someone,” in terms of ability to bridge that gap.

    To be clear, I’m not going full murderist – I’m saying that, given that we have the capacity to communicate with each other across major value differences, we should reconsider the belief (if we hold it) that there are particular values that are *so different* from all our other major value differences that *these* are the ones we can’t talk about.

  8. Shmooper says:

    What is, in your opinion, one of the most important ‘handy’ skills that you can pick up as a hobby which may even be useful in an emergency (not nessacarily doomsday)scenario. The motivation for asking this question is that 1) I’ve received realized how incredibly satisfying it is to work with your hands and 2) how really useless I would be in a survival scenario, with no real applicable skills. But primarily focus of reason no 1, things like electrical engineering, carpentry, etc which can be easily picked up as a hobby by a 9-5 office going programmer like myself.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Define emergency?

      Because, “survival scenario”sounds like something long term and not emergent, unless you are talking about “how do I help people survive in a flood/hurricane/etc. ?”; however carpentry and electrical work aren’t really going to help with that.

      • Shmooper says:

        A situation where the population has been cut off from outside contact due to a tornado, storm, tsunami, and there isn’t any violence or scrambling for survival, however some of the local population has to step in and take charge of infrastructure and supply and all

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Hmmm. I think the essence of what you are looking for is being “handy”.

          Part of the answer depends on what your local community looks like (and therefore what the threat is).

          But generally, a good understanding of rope, straps, knots, bars and other means of leverage.

          A familiarity with small engines and how to get them running and keep them running.

          The possession of and familiarity with a chainsaw, and how to use it safely.

          The possession, and knowledge of safe use, of a low draft boat like a john boat or a bass boat.

          The possession, and knowledge of safe use, of a high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle.

          So … take up hunting and fishing and join the local volunteer fire squad (where you will meet other hunters and fishers).

          Alternatively, taking up kayaking, canoeing, or hiking.

    • Aapje says:

      Lock picking.

      In an emergency, you can steal scavenge for supplies.

      • Matt says:

        In an emergency where you’re scavenging for supplies, that gets you into places that are locked but can’t be crowbarred/bashed open. So, windowless buildings with extremely strong doors?

        If you can crack open safes you can probably access a lot of firearms that will be out of reach of those who can’t, but I assume most of the ammunition will be outside the safes and you won’t have much use for guns without bullets.

      • Shmooper says:

        I was thinking in more of a sense where you aren’t nessacarily down to stealing but more like, services have been cut off,and it’s up to the local population to keep up infrastructure for a bit till government steps in.

    • Matt says:

      I agree that it’s hard to decide what sorts of skills will be useful when we don’t know the actual scenario. Is electricity available? Are you scavenging for food, etc?

      You might learn some knot-tying and hauling. I’m pretty handy generally (with wood moreso than electronics moreso than engines) but you would be surprised how many problems can be solved (or solved easier) with a rope and a couple of good knots, or a rope, some pulleys, and a couple of good knots.

      • Shmooper says:

        Yes, I agree that it’s difficult to say anything without any concrete emergency. But let’s just say it’s that scene from World War Z in which the army starts picking up people with trade skills such as carpentry, mechanical engineering, and electrical and electronics engineering and dumps the marketing consultants, investment bankers, and social media influencers haha.(No offense to any of these professionals btw!)

      • Shmooper says:

        Any good resources on knots, pulleys etc?

        • Matt says:

          I am a member of a cave rescue group. The group teaches classes in tying anchors for rappelling/climbing on rope and also cave rescue as well as hauls and lowers in wilderness settings. For that, though we don’t require a text for our classes, the best book is ‘On Rope’ by Smith and Padgett. There are lots of good books on knots, though. Knowledge of marine knots would probably be helpful in some survival scenarios. There are small sections in “On Rope” for the kind of rope work done by arborists and circus/stage performers as well, but a better treatment for those is probably better found elsewhere and “On Rope” is probably not the best book for a generalist.

          Rope work is helpful in everyday life, I’ve found. Just knowing that the thing you’ve tied down in the back of a truck is secure is nice, but I’ve got a sort of half-complicated rope holding one of the gates to my backyard shut that’s easy to remove and replace while I wait until I have enough money to get someone more competent than me to actually FIX the gate. When I remodeled my house, I moved several of the old kitchen cabinets into the garage and wanted to mount them up against the ceiling. Two of the bigger ones (each was three connected cabinets – six doors total on each) I wanted to put in the corner above the water heater. It was pretty daunting, as they were heavy and the garage ceiling is pretty high and the water heater was kind of in the way. Instead of getting three more guys to help me lift and install them, I ended up drilling a small hole in the ceiling above the cabinet, through the top of the cabinet and out the door, securing it from the bottom, then having my 18yo stepson on a 4:1 haul system with a progress capture device in the attic. He hauled the cabinets up to the ceiling, I held them away from the water heater until they were well above it, he tied off the haul line, and I could take my time screwing the cabinets into the wall.

          For emergencies where society never recovers, I’ll plug masonry and woodworking skill generally and owning a copy of the book “Engineering in the Ancient World” which could help you get back to a Roman-era level of technology with windlasses, water pumps, water wheel-powered mills, etc.

          • FXBDM says:

            This is very interesting. What in your opinion would a “homeowners rope kit” include as far as actual rope, pulleys and other accessories?

          • Matt says:


            That’s a good question and not something I’ve really thought about. The gear I use I bought for caving and climbing so it tends to be over designed when I use it outside its purpose, and I tend to have more than I need for jobs around the house.

            For progress capture (as you haul a line, the progress capture will grab it and keep it from slipping back) you can get by with a prusik knot made out of $0.50 loop of paracord, but I have a couple of special pieces of gear which do the job easier but cost a lot more.

            Paracord is pretty cheap and you should get a couple of 100′ lengths of it. If you’re not planning to climb on your rope, you can get nylon rope at your local hardware store cheaper than climbing / rappelling rope. 20′ of tow rope, maybe, and 150′ of rope rated to hold 1000 lbs. That might be all the rope you need.

            I would get a couple of rope pads so you can tie to say, a tree as an anchor without damaging it. Then buy a bunch of carabiners (maybe a half-dozen?). Again, if you’re not going to use them for life safety, then there’s no reason to pay the premium for climbing/caving carabiners.

            For your pulley set I guess maybe just a block and tackle…

          • FXBDM says:


          • MoebiusStreet says:

            tying anchors for rappelling/climbing on rope and also cave rescue

            As a teenager in boy scouts we did a fair amount of spelunking. Before we were allowed to go into any interesting caves – the ones where you really have to crawl and scramble, at least, we had to learn a bunch of knots.

            I remember in particular that they had us all learn how to tie a bowline around our waste, with one hand, while blindfolded. I think that was supposed to simulate being rescued after a fall that broke one arm and destroyed the light sources.

          • FXBDM says:

            Just so happened that I was finishing a project where rope work helped tremendously. Thanks for the suggestion.

          • AG says:

            Did you have to be able to tie said knots blindfolded with the non-dominant hand, as well?

            This reminds me that it used to be a requirement at Georgia Tech to take a swimming course (“Drownproofing 101”) in which the first test was to survive in a pool with your hands and feet tied for over an hour.

            Kind of wish it was still required.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            It’s very unusual for the nondominant and blindfolded one to be tying the knots.

    • SamChevre says:

      I would say bike maintenance and simple repairs.

      A bike is good transportation in an emergency, and in many emergencies “get away” is the optimal response. And it’s useful in everyday life as well.

      • Shmooper says:

        Do you mean a bicycle or motorbike? Sorry where I live the words are used interchangeably.

        • disposablecat says:

          He probably meant bicycle, but I would say riding a motorbike is a potentially useful post apocalyptic survival skill – roads may be blocked or in undrivable conditions, and a motorbike has better range than a bicycle and wastes fewer valuable calories. I’d recommend learning offroad riding (dirt bike/MX) and learning it well, if you intend to apply it to that scenario.

          I also recommend learning to ride on the street unconditionally in our current society. It’s the single most anxiolytic/calming activity I’m aware of, maybe second only to flying (which I haven’t done). You’re much more aware of your surroundings on a bike; you notice the world in a way you don’t in a car. Driving is often a chore, even in a “fun” manual car; riding is always a pleasure.

          • Shmooper says:

            I agree, riding is a good way to take your mind off-road and if it’s an empty road, especially at night, it’s usually very calming.

        • SamChevre says:

          I mean a bicycle: I think a bicycle is a much more emergency-friendly vehicle–you can pick it up and carry it if you need to, it doesn’t depend on finding gasoline, etc.

          And agreed that riding on the street is a valuable skil, but I’m not sure I’d describe it as “calming”; “focusing”, yes.

          • Shmooper says:

            Do you have any good resources for bike repair and maintenance?

          • disposablecat says:

            I mean “calming” in the sense of “I can have the absolute worst day imaginable at work, but when I get on my bike to ride home it just doesn’t matter any more, and by the time I get there I’m usually a lot more chill than I was when I left”.

          • SamChevre says:

            DisposeableCat, I agree that bicycling is calming in that sense.

            Shmooper, I’d say get a decent used bike (figure on spending $200-$300 or so), go to Sheldon Brown’s site, and do your own maintenance.

    • AnarchyDice says:

      I enjoy doing my own canning, heirloom gardening, and liqueur making (trading/making booze has got to be worth a lot in most survival situations, right?).

      I quite enjoyed reading The Knowledge. It walks through the basic summary of tons of different processes from chemical and agricultural to industrial and more. I wouldn’t say I could perform the skills just from reading the book, but I would know where to start and what terms and items are important.

    • The Nybbler says:

      General carpentry; being able to build and repair structures. If we’re talking very short-term (so some diesel or gasoline is available), operating a Bobcat-type small excavator could be valuable for cleaning up the mess or re-opening roads and such (operating the big ones could be valuable too but not likely you’d pick it up as part of a hobby).

      Electrical is probably less useful; if the power’s still on it’s likely not much of an emergency. Same goes for plumbing; what’s still in the towers is going to be rationed and the local water company workers have the expertise needed.

    • massivefocusedinaction says:

      In the last several years of storms, knowledge of safely using a chainsaw to cut up downed trees has saved me a ton of money, and gotten me back into normal life much more rapidly than waiting to hire a professional.

    • Kelley Meck says:

      The first thing that came to mind for me was: First response training, especially basic first-aid and CPR. Nothing will make you feel more useless than someone with a shouldn’t-be-fatal bleeding gash who you have to hang around for a few hours until someone with training arrives. Mix it with leveling up in a sort of medical “be prepared”-type know-how (as in, have medkits with epipens and sunscreen and some rations/Clif bars and water stored in car trunk and home.)

      I’ll also second the people who say “chainsaw” and “lock-pick”–those are super handy skills that save you time and money and come with a terrific boost of the psychic hit for being “handy”–that sense of being useful to tribe, or talented, or whatever it is. Bonus for having the tools and keeping them in good working order somewhere you are likely to be able to get to them.

      Another idea–maybe not very good, IDK–is to know the words to some simple feel-good songs (e.g. “Lean on Me”) and be able to tune and play a guitar or ukulele or other pluck-able string instrument by ear. How much of a psychic boost that comes with whether you ever find yourself in the social situations where that would be super helpful.

  9. Scott Alexander says:

    I was planning a Berkeley SSC meetup for Saturday August 25, but it looks like Burning Man begins the next day.

    Are many people who would otherwise go to the meetup going to Burning Man? Do Burning Man attendees usually drive up the Saturday before, or does this still work?

  10. Scott Alexander says:

    How do you think SSC per-week or per-month hit count has changed over the past year? Consider both wider technological and political trends, plus things like whether my posts have gotten better or worse.

    I have the statistics, but I worry that if I told people the trend and asked them to explain them I’d get a lot of just-so stories. I’d rather see who can predict the statistics and then take their opinion more seriously.

    • johan_larson says:

      OK, I’ll take a guess.

      Your readership is up 15% from a year ago. I doubt it has anything to do with changes in your work or broader society, it’s more an accumulative effect; you keep doing what you do, more and more people hear about it, and some portion of them stick, becoming regular readers.

      • Jon S says:

        I’ll second this sentiment. No idea whether 15% is the right number, but small-to-moderate increase for johan’s reasons seems right.

        I suspect that your growth rate from 1 year ago to now is much smaller than your growth rate from 2 years ago to 1 year ago (if it grew 15% last year, maybe it grew 100% the year before?). I think you got a lot more exposure with posts like your crying wolf post around the 2016 election that spiked your readership. Maybe there was a small tapering for a few months after the election. But for the last year or more, I expect you to have resumed low, steady-state growth that johan described.

    • SuperSmartCortex says:

      Not much of a fan of statistics, but my guesses would be.

      1. Find some sort of scaffold. Let’s say, number of comments per blog post.
      2. Sort that into a comfortable data structure. $POSTDATE $COMMENTS etc.
      3. Look up if there’s some variable regarding the amount of comments to page views. Take that into account.
      4. Look outside of SSC. Alexa rank, for example. Facebook shares? Generally websites that are “big connectors” are worth a look.

      This is simply dry and simple, but I’m basing it on what can be observed most simply, which is why my methodology must suck.

    • SamChevre says:

      I’m guessing per-week hit count is up by about 50%, because the Open Threads seem to have more comments. However, I’d guess the unique readers is up only about 10%, with the benefits from “more people have heard about it” offset by “fewer new long-form posts.”

    • bean says:

      I’m guessing down a bit. The OTs are thriving, but the view to post ratio is probably pretty low for them. And the regret tag, well-known to be the best predictor of lots and lots of hits, has been almost absent this year. So I’m going to say that month-to-month is definitely down. Week-to-week is more variable, depending on when you published full posts and how the week’s OTs do. I haven’t noticed a huge change in OT strength over the past year.

    • The Nybbler says:

      You’ve been referred to by wider media on occasion, so I suspect it’s gone up by 2-10x, but very spiky.

    • secret_tunnel says:

      I’d guess your yearly rate is up by a lot due to your blog growing just because things have a tendency to grow, and you’ve written a bunch of controversial culture warish stuff in the past year. You haven’t been writing as much of that sort of thing within the past few months though, so I’d guess your current rate is lower than it was in early 2018.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      I’d guess roughly the same. Your posts are as good as they’ve ever been, but what pulls in hits isn’t just quality, but also sensationalism, and I don’t remember had any particularly entertaining hits lately, such as “And I Show You How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes”. (The closest might be the Piketty review.)

    • AnarchyDice says:

      I will make a contrarian guess: The fact that you bring it up means that it is surprising or notable, and one would expect the number of hits to grow over time, but perhaps you’ve seen a small drop off in total hits, maybe 10%. In the last year, you’ve done fewer toxoplasma adjacent posts and more think-pieces that would generally keep your view count up or even growing, but do not compare to the huge spikes of controversy you got on previous year’s posts.

    • tooths says:

      I’ve been a reader for about two months, just registered now hoping being logged in makes navigating the comments easier. I expect your hits have skyrocketed in the past year as traditional media organizations are increasingly flailing and failing to make sense of the world. See the hiring of Sarah Jeong for the latest letdown. There’s a great thirst for people committed to civil discussion, people who aren’t trying to smush political narratives into our neurons. Thanks for doing what you do. Those who comment here as well: thanks for making interesting reading. I hope I don’t represent some wave of new readers who will ultimately scatter the good magic.

    • MasteringTheClassics says:

      God help me, I’m going to say something negative about this place, and may karma spare me the entirely justified lighting strike.

      I’m guessing the weekly/monthly hit rate is down by a not insignificant amount; maybe 10-20%. Your daily is probably chugging along just fine, but the spine-tingling posts (Moloch, toxoplasma, tolerate-the-outgroup, crying-wolf, untitled, etc.) have dried up over the last few years (I actually forgot what it felt like to read those until I hit your third value differences post, which was amazing). I’d anticipate those being the ones that really drag in new readership, and in their absence I’m betting on a slow, steady decline in total readership, coupled with increased engagement by regulars.

      I’m also not clear on exactly when you got referenced in NR, but your hat-tip on Sam Harris’ podcast was between one and two years ago, as was Crying Wolf. I’d anticipate these driving traffic way up, with most of it falling off with time (i.e. this year).

      • Randy M says:

        I agree there’s fewer, let’s say signature posts than when the blog was young, but I don’t know if it’s changed too much over the past year.

    • baconbits9 says:

      If I had to guess I would say readership is down over the past 1-2 years. Late 2016 into 2017 was Trump heavy, and you were directly talking about broadly accessible current events at times whereas a lot of your other posts are more niche. You had a few posts that got traction (against murderism) and could have pushed clicks to a peak from which they subsequently fell. I would guess around 20% down over the past year, as a substantial, but not particularly noticeable within the commentariat, drop.

      • AnonYEmous says:

        honestly I think my dude here nailed it, with the caveat that I have no idea what the actual percent is but 20% sounds reasonable

        i mean my dude got linked by ann coulter, that won’t happen again any time soon

    • yodelyak says:

      Politics is the mindkiller. This blog’s readership (distinct from its comments) leans a bit left, and tends to be mindful/thoughtful/curious. Jane’s law says that kind of person should be a bit more rare these days, so that suggests “down”. Plus the major draws (roughly lines up with posts marked “stuff I will regret writing”, or where Scott’s “good for the good god” voice comes through (e.g. meditations on Moloch)) have been less common.

      Other sites that seem to parallel this one have been hit worse by the trend toward tweeting or many-small-post micro-posting or podcasting instead of long-form blogging… e.g. Popehat seems defunct except as a place where new podcast releases are announced. My Facebook feed has been getting stupider for several years now, although that may relate more to changes in my social circles.

      My guess is unique visitors and repeat visitors are both down. If I’m wrong, I’d next ask how long the average visitor stays, and guess that the median is down by a lot, even if the mean is even or up, because a small set of regular commenters may be enjoying this place as a haven at the same time that fewer people are putting sustained attention into exploring new sites online.

      It all feels like a wild guess, and I’d love to be wrong.

      • albatross11 says:

        I think everyone’s Facebook feed has gotten worse over the years.

        • Matt M says:

          Mine is now about 95% libertarian political memes.

          Which is like 100x better than what it used to be (friends and family posting pictures of their babies or whatever)

        • yodelyak says:

          Yeah, actually the comments I wish I’d written are the ones that did a thoughtful job of looking at the differences between this blog’s content (more overall ’cause blogs are cumulative, but maybe slightly less punchy lately) and reasoned forward from that. I actually am dubious about whether the larger country’s trends will play forward into this blog–if people overall are getting more political, or less, will SSC drift with the current, or benefit from a boost in popularity as people need a refuge? I lean toward the former, but I think it’s probably a weak enough signal that I’d have done better to make a prediction I’d be happy with if I’d left national politics out of it.

          Not that I think I’m wrong that the internet is getting (overall) dumber… I tend to think the high-water mark for Wikipedia being smart was around 2006 or 2009, and that Google Search peaked around the same time (since which time the content-farmers / search-engine-optimizers have steadily outpaced search, such that if you’re just asking Google, you’ve mostly gotten stupider since 2010 or so). I would *love* to see somebody with the tools to analyze these kinds of questions take a run at it.

          When I worked at bi-weekly college newspaper, >4/5 of our unique page visits came from a single article in our sex column–we semi-jokingly asked a sex/gender studies person to write a thoughtful fun piece on safe asphyxiation sex… and at the time, “safe asphyxiation sex” was a hugely untapped market. It got better when we started using an email newsletter to blast to our regular readers when we had new content… but as far as I know, it never got *much* better. So my guess is SSC’s best content–the stuff with thousands of shares–is where new readers come from, and without them the readership slowly dwindles as life happens to regular readers.

          • Matt M says:

            It’s weird how such a huge component of virality is basically finding a phrase that a lot of people are searching for and that specific content related to it is lacking.

            In my random blog I wrote for a couple years that never got big at all, my post popular post of all time was called “The Smallpox Blankets Myth.” Apparently a decent amount of people actually search for “smallpox blankets myth” but there were remarkably few webpages that had those specific words, together, in a title.

    • Cheese says:

      Not going to speculate on the change because I have no idea, but I notice that a couple of your posts which have obviously been posted on the subreddit have ended up being either /r/bestof’d or cross-posted to subs with readership in the ~10k+. So I imagine there’s going to be a few spikes from those.

    • mustacheion says:

      I will guess per-month hit count has gradually dropped 30-50% over the past year.

      I will guess that there were 1-3 spikes in weekly hit count timed around specific blog posts, or mentions of this space in other media. These spikes lasted less than 2 weeks, and did not result in a noticeable amount of new viewers (less than 5% change in baseline).

      I will guess one such spike occurred in early July around the melatonin post. Another was in the middle of April due to the posts on sexual harassment and the DC school system. And another occurred late March due to the Jordan Peterson book review.

      Independently of whether I correctly predicted the direction of the behavior in March/April, I will guess that that period had unusually high variance in per-week hits. This period of interesting behavior might extend as early as the beginning of March due to the Current Affairs post.

      I will also predict a small but noticeable (~5% drop) at the end of January from your Conflict vs Mistake post. Your behavior around that topic and the comments when you asked for feedback on that post leads me to think that you have received uncharacteristically negative feedback on that one – possibly enough to permanently drive away some readers. It certainly seemed like one of your most misunderstood posts. I think that there is a really good idea at the core of that post, though your January post didn’t do a great job of communicating what you meant, and very many people misunderstood what you were trying to say. I hope you do not give up on that idea.

      I have two main reasons for why I think you are seeing a decline in readers.

      The first is simply that this like this have a lifespan. I… tried to write an explanation for why I think this happens in the general case, but it started to get so long and meandering, so I decided spare you all. So I will be specific and relate my own SSC experience: I started reading this blog about three or four years ago, and it seemed really amazing because the ideas were so new and interesting. But in that time, having read all of your content, I have started to think like you a lot more, and so your new posts don’t often seem as novel or interesting. So you could look at this as that you have done such a good job that I don’t really need you any more. Now, I do absolutely still enjoy this blog and look forward to continuing to read your work, but I would imagine to many of your long-time readers, things just don’t feel as exciting any more, and so they are less likely to do things like recommend your work to others.

      The second I think is political. I think over time your content has become more unfriendly toward the extreme, authoritarian left and this is slowly pushing away some of your left-affiliated leaders. I don’t think this move is at its core a political move on your part. Your project is rationality; making fewer mistakes. You are much more personally affiliated with the left due to where you live, your friends, etc. and so it is much easier for you to see and criticize the mistakes the left is making. And this subtly annoys the larger portion of your readership, which I believe leans left. I can tell you from my own experience: I was a pretty hardcore authoritarian leftist when I started reading your work and, largely from reading this blog and others in this sphere, I have gradually shifted toward the position that the left is only slightly less bad than the right and I really want another option altogether.

    • ThinkingWithWords says:

      I will say down, based purely on my own behaviour. 🙂

      I’ve noticed I have an increasing number of unread tabs open to SSC, which is a bad sign as it means it’s not drawing me in to compulsively read it the minute it becomes available, in the way it once did.

      As others have noted, lately there have been less of the compellingly high-value posts that there were in the past.

      Until this thread arose, I’d just assumed that Scott’s interests and mine are diverging a little, or that SSC was a victim of the inevitable not-enough-hours-in-the-day-to-read-the-whole-internet, but my behaviour may be one tiny component of a larger trend.

  11. Shmooper says:

    To what extent do you think that the course of history is shaped by individual, brilliant, people? For example do you believe that by discovering the laws of gravity at the exact moment he did, Newton forever changed the course of human history. Or do you believe that even if Newton hadn’t, a different scientist would be equally influential? The first view is more commonly espoused, for example we read things like ‘Where would we be without xyz scientist/author/philosopher’. In the second point of view, which I favor a bit more, is that the time and environment of people shape their great works more often than not. Meaning for example, the fundamentals that allowed Einstein to work out the theory of Relativity were already around, and it was only a matter of time that someone would figure it out, if it wasn’t Einstein, someone else eventually would.

    • sty_silver says:

      My own purely speculative guess is that, if Newton hadn’t existed, someone else would have done what he had done, but potentially much later. Same for Einstein and pretty much anyone else. In some cases, discovering something significantly later or earlier can make a massive difference, though.

      • Joseph Greenwood says:

        I feel like Einstein and Newton were only barely ahead of their times.

        On the other hand, math without Ramanujan would look radically different.

        • David Speyer says:

          Special relativity I’ll agree; Lorentz was close, as were Poincare and Minkowski. But who else was near general relativity?

          • Nell says:

            David Hilbert essentially had Einstein’s field equations written down at approximately the same time as Einstein, iirc

          • David Speyer says:

            Wikipedia agrees with you. I did not know that!

            I will say that one of the things Einstein did was to not only discover his theories but write them clearly with lots of outsider friendly metaphors (the trains, the elevator…). Without him, we might have gone through a generation of physicists who thought relativity was just bewildering equations before someone realized how to explain it.

          • Lambert says:

            >just bewildering equations before someone realized how to explain it.

            See: Quantum Mechanics (especially in matrix form)

    • Machine Interface says:

      A good data point in favor of the second view is how domestication, agriculture, pottery, weaving, metal-working and writing developped seemingly simultaneously in various points of the globe with no apparent communication between the different originators. The key here is that “simultaneously” means “within a few hundred to a few thousand years”.

      In the modern era, there is enough communication that if someone has a breakthrough, everyone has heard of it and copied it within a few years to a few dozen years – there just is no time anymore for independent rediscovery (most of the time at least – see Newton and Leibniz’ independent invention of calculus within 8 years of each other).

      A lot, if not most discoveries rely on previous discoveries, often more so than the mainstream narrative presents – there’s a historical thesis that a lot of the discoveries of “original” mathematical thinkers from the Renaissance and Early Modern Era in fact drew heavily on the work of medieval mathematicians that they simply did not credit.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      This would be excellent question to ask David Burke, if he were reading this blog.

      It’s well known that Leibniz was developing calculus at the same time as Newton, fast enough to start a fight over who should have gotten credit. Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a race to figure out how to reach absolute zero in a lab. Today, physicists race to discover new elements, enough that there are rules in place for what is accepted as “discover”, and I’m sure simultaneous discoveries are enough of a thing that it drives some patent law. Also, most scientists, researchers, and inventors work in teams now, meaning any given hot spot in science / tech will have a handful of people right next to it. So for any given breakthrough, it seems attractive to think that if one person doesn’t think of it, someone else will.

      On the other hand, some breakthroughs are really hard. I’ve seen some puzzles in cryptography, for example, where the spoils are likely going to go to whomever can manage to wrap their minds around elliptic curves in a parallel computing setting, and some cosmology likewise looks accessible only to people who can manage to explore four and five dimensional structures the way we explore three. Not everyone can do that, let alone teach that skill to others.

      And that’s just science / tech. Global politics reminds me of how it’s also not just being brilliant; it’s being well-connected. You might have the best solution to some class of global conflicts, but if you can’t get in office…

      Summary: brilliance is probably necessary, and not sufficient.

    • AG says:

      Recently finished the great show “Halt and Catch Fire,” which details a group of people in the 80s/90s chasing the next frontier in computing, and then online tech developments. These people are characterized as brilliant and mostly ahead of their peers in not being complacent.
      They are also fictional people, and so not allowed to make too much history. As such, the show kind of has the trend of “HCF-ing” them, in which they discover that despite all of their hard work, someone has juuuust beat them to the punch. It’s not always about being the first, either, sometimes they were a little too ahead of the time and so could not make it work financially. Timing is everything, but equally relevant was that, in tech, there were always multiple parties chasing the same innovation in parallel, and it was luck as to which one caught on with the public.

      See the HD-DVD vs. Bluray, or VHS vs. Betamax before that.

    • DeWitt says:

      The grand course of history seems to be written in stone, for the most part, but I do think some choice people had an influence here and there that lead to some things in history going differently.

      From the top of my head:

      The city of Athens very famously built a navy when it discovered a vein of silver instead of distributing the wealth across the citizenry, as was tradition. Themistokles is generally credited with swaying opinion the way of this decision, and while I don’t know how much we should give him sole credit, it was a decision with some very real consequences for the century to come.

      There’s some discussion about whether or not he could’ve done so, but George Washington making an attempt of establishing a kingdom instead of a republic may very well have changed modern history a lot.

      The fourth crusade ended up with the never-once conquered city of Constantinople falling to the crusaders, who didn’t even intend to sail there as their first target. One person responsible was the then-Doge of Venice, who had been blinded and his people killed by the Romans a long time before. Again, unclear how much you can blame this one man, but certainly a factor. Other candidate goes to the reigning emperor’s brother, who promised the pope a number of things he shouldn’t have.

      Would you count Stanislav Petrov? Unsure if nobody else would’ve raised the same objections that he did, if there wouldn’t be anyone else, at all, preventing nuclear war from breaking out, but otherwise still a major contender for someone who managed to keep the world more peaceful than it could’ve been.

      Can’t really think of other cases, but I don’t think technology is influenced by individuals too much, either. Someone before me mentions Newton and Leibniz independently figuring out calculus; I think that in a similar vein to that, many other technologies or ideas would’ve spread all by themselves.

      • disposablecat says:

        In the vein of Petrov, Vasili Arkhipov also counts, I think.

        I like to include Sergei Preminin in these remembrances as well – he may not have averted nuclear war, exactly, but his heroism did prevent an outright reactor meltdown not too far from Bermuda, which would certainly have severely escalated the K-219 incident and had potentially serious geopolitical ramifications.

      • SteveReilly says:

        Funny, I just read Unmaking the West, and Victor Davis Hanson has an article arguing that without Themistocles, the Greeks would have been defeated at Salamis, become a Persian satrapy, and there wouldn’t be a west as we know it. Barry Strauss argued that Greece was resilient enough that Themistocles wasn’t so pivotal.

        Overall I suspect that lots of historical figures like Themistocles are necessary for history to turn out the way it did, but that in science and technology there are enough people to fill in the gaps left if Newton or Einstein isn’t born.

        • DeWitt says:

          Hanson’s claims seem a bit spurious – Ionian Greece did stay a Persian Satrapy for the longest part, but it remained Greek just fine. It’s hardly an outlier in this, as a certain other place called Israel seems to have done just fine under Persian rule just fine.

          Even so, a loss at Salamis would at the very least have made classical history turn out differently enough that I think Themistokles’ name is warranted here.

      • Tarpitz says:

        Churchill is often supposed to have been instrumental in keeping Britain in World War 2 in 1940. How true it is that almost any other PM would have resulted in a negotiated peace I don’t feel equipped to judge, but if true then it certainly seems pretty significant.

        • Protagoras says:

          I’m sure there are some British politicians of the era who would have pursued a negotiated peace, but I believe there were a number of others besides Churchill who would have not have gone that route, especially as the fall of France produced a rapid escalation in U.S. support for Britain.

        • bean says:

          Halifax and Butler actually reached out to Germany via the Swedish ambassador. If the Germans hadn’t ignored that telegram, world history might have been very different.

      • Lillian says:

        Would you count Stanislav Petrov? Unsure if nobody else would’ve raised the same objections that he did, if there wouldn’t be anyone else, at all, preventing nuclear war from breaking out, but otherwise still a major contender for someone who managed to keep the world more peaceful than it could’ve been.

        Soviet doctrine was to rely on multiple confirmations of nuclear attack, potentially up to and including waiting for actual nuclear initiations on Soviet soil. Starting in the 1960s they went out of their way to create various dead hand systems that would allow their leaders to take such a wait-and-see approach without necessarily compromising their ability to retaliate. This is also why they invested so heavily on railroad and road-mobile ICBMs, since there were very hard to target and so more likely to survive a first strike. All in the service of trying to avoid starting Armageddon on a false alarm.

        Given a launch warning of only five missiles, which had not been confirmed by radar, the odds are very good that the Soviet commanders would have activated their dead hand systems and then just waited to see how the situation developed. So we don’t know whether Petrov really saved the world. That said, he does deserve a lot of credit for turning a small chance of nuclear war into a zero chance of nuclear war by declaring it a false alarm and not passing it up the chain.

    • SamChevre says:

      To the extent history is shaped by individual people, I would expect them to be charismatic, rather than brilliant. Brilliant tends to be more replicable; if Newton hadn’t invented calculus Leibnitz would have, but if John Brown had not attacked Harper’s Ferry I’m not sure anyone else would have.

      I’d put the individually important in two main groups–bridges and salesmen. Bridges are for some reason able to talk to and convince two otherwise non-allied groups: think Benjamin Franklin convincing the French to get involved in the War for Independence. Salesmen are able to get a group of people to act together, as a group.

      Those two kinds of people depend on both personality and relationships in a way that makes what they do much harder to replicate.

      • Joseph Greenwood says:

        I tend to think powerful charismatic people are important not because of the groups they mobilize, but the directions they mobilize them. My prior is that charisma is only effective when you’re tapping into an existing but unfocused sentiment.

        • mtl1882 says:

          Yep, I agree. The rage directed at “agitators” is always hard for me to take seriously because they are almost always the result of a chronically ignored issue. Whether I agree with them or not, they are inevitable. At some point that sentiment needs to be channeled somewhere; if you don’t provide an outlet, someone else will.

      • mtl1882 says:

        Great comment – I agree. You need a charismatic, often eccentric and bold person to light the spark. They can’t do it alone – the problems have to already exist in the underlying society, but they can decide how long it takes for the tension to crest and the problem to be addressed in some fashion, and they can also set a bold example that guides people towards a settlement. Geniuses play a big role, but someone else can always figure out a problem eventually. It’s the social actors that create huge shifts. Civil War is a great example. John Brown had a huge impact on countless things, along with some other people. And I have no idea what would have happened had Lincoln not been president – he was not someone who could have been interchangeable with another leader. You also need to be bold enough to not let something drop – many people could figure out how sterilize things, but few could convince people to employ the technique.

      • Matt M says:

        think Benjamin Franklin convincing the French to get involved in the War for Independence

        Was this really a hard sell?

        I always thought it was a pretty simple “enemy of my enemy” calculus that was ridiculously common at the time.

        • DeWitt says:

          Was this really a hard sell?

          No. US history is full enough of examples where people do just that.

        • John Schilling says:

          I’d argue that it was as much Ben Arnold as Ben Franklin, but it’s not slam-dunk obvious that France will support the USA because France automatically supports anyone who fights against England. France often fails to support people fighting against England. To secure French support, the US needed to prove that it could defeat English armies in the field (else the whole thing is just the France-vs-England war that France conspicuously didn’t chose to fight in 1771, 1772, 1773…), and it needed to prove that it could manage competent diplomacy with a great power (else France gets a new headache if not a new enemy out of the deal).

          Arnold was an above-average general, and Franklin an above-average diplomat; it isn’t clear that history stays on track if we leave their jobs to e.g. Gates and Lee.

    • Well... says:

      If by “history” you mean the generic category “events that occurred in the past” then who knows. But since we filter “history” through a human lens that makes sense of things in terms of narratives and human narratives especially, this probably has an amplifying effect on the role of individual people.

      That said, I think the role of individual anything in shaping history is probably significant. That’s why you can take any story from history — the discovery of Ôtzi the Iceman, or the life of Teddy Roosevelt, just to pick a couple topics that are covered nicely in the History on Fire podcast — and find all kinds of incredible coincidences that had to happen just so in order for the events to go as they did. And it is incredible to think about them. (It makes me wonder whether international “Brain Drains” aren’t even more damaging to the “supply” countries than we might realize.)

      Again, because we’re filtering on human narratives, among these coincidences we will usually find actions performed by remarkable people. But we could just as easily look at history through the lens of technology, business, culture, or any number of other modes that are less personal. As I understand it, that’s kinda Historiography 101.

    • Alexander Turok says:

      Political leaders certainly shape history. For instance, even if you assume the NSDAP’s rise to power in Germany was inevitable, World War II would have not occurred, or would have been radically different, if it was led by someone who listened to the generals.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        Feel like elaborating on how WWII would have developed in that case? I’m sure this is somewhat old hat to WWII buffs, but I’m kinda light on that period, and some alternate history could be fun.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Hitler was a real gambler, both in regard to doing stuff that could have led to war (in 1938 for example), in actually going to war, and in what he did when at war. The generals didn’t want war with France and Britain – neither did the German public (German public opinion was far more enthusiastic in 1914 than 1939).

          You don’t even need a Hitler who listens to his generals; you just need a couple sex scandals (one real, one bogus) to not have happened.

          War might still have happened – depending on how you interpret the German economy and fascist politics, Hitler’s political survival might have depended on starting a war – but it would have been prosecuted differently. Beyond the aforementioned tendency to gamble, Hitler believed that force of will was a primary driver in history and thus in battle (I think that after the winter ’41-’42 crisis, he ascribed his policy of not allowing withdrawals to preventing a collapse; I’m pretty sure most historians would say that withdrawals would have meant fewer casualties without loss of important territory).

          • Wrong Species says:

            If you’re Germany don’t you have to gamble? Granted, Hitler could have avoided WW2 but once it started you’re either winning or you’re slowly suffocating under British blockades.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Yeah, the only way Germany is winning a war with those enemies is some kind of quick knockout blow or combination of knockout blows. I doubt that at any point in either war did Germany have a better-than-coinflip chance.

            With those odds it’s better not to gamble! Germany would have been smarter to go with what some (mostly centre-left, as I understand it) politicians wanted to do, and with what West Germany/unified Germany has gone with – finance and trade and all that jazz. Germany has done better out of that than it has out of world wars.

          • Aapje says:


            I think that a major reason for the war was that many people at the time believed that one could only compete with the major powers by having and exploiting colonies.

            What they didn’t know was that the era of colonization was coming to an end and that the era of free trade was beginning. So in 20/20 hindsight you are correct, but it’s not surprising that many at the time didn’t predict the future correctly.

            Note that Germany was not the only one coming to this conclusion, Japan believed the same. Britain also still believed in the empire back then. The Netherlands tried to regain control over Indonesia after the war.

            World war II also was a catalyst for decolonization, with the weakened grip by the major powers enabling independence movements to gain power. Furthermore, the very narrative used to justify and celebrate the war made colonization look very hypocritical, so independence movements gained legitimacy.

          • dndnrsn says:


            Sure, hindsight is 20/20 – but there were major parties (the social democrats, at least) who wanted to focus on trade and give up on colonies, Greater Germany, etc. I think it’s also a bit deterministic to say that colonialism was coming to an end – the war itself played a big role in that.

          • Aapje says:

            “celebrate the war” should have been “celebrate the victory,” otherwise it is a bit weird 🙂

        • Protagoras says:

          The boring version would have been a Germany that backed down over the Sudetenland (as many of the generals thought he was taking too big of a risk provoking France and Britain with that one), and there’s no WWII. But if we have the war actually happen, the biggest consequence of replacing Hitler with someone who listens to his generals is that the German invasion of France fails. Which is for the reason dndnrsn mentions; Hitler took big gambles, and in the battle for France won big. The generals didn’t want to gamble, but a conservative strategy was doomed to failure with the relative strengths of the German vs. British and French forces in the field.

          Hitler’s gamble in invading Russia didn’t work out so well, but it’s not absolutely clear that there were better alternative plans; while contrary to some theories Stalin doesn’t seem to have been plotting to backstab Hitler, the Germans did depend heavily on resources they got from the Soviets under the pact. Stalin was beginning to try to squeeze them to get more out of the deal, which the Germans really couldn’t afford. In the long run that probably would have made it impossible for the Germans to keep up with the ever more extensively American-supplied British efforts.

          So, for the most part, Hitler is unfairly maligned as a strategist. He made a number of mistakes, to be sure, but that’s true of almost any military leader one could name. While the generals could (especially with hindsight) point out some errors they wouldn’t have made, and of course the imaginary leader who never makes mistakes would have been more successful than Hitler, I don’t know that it’s clear that anyone the Germans actually had would have consistently outperformed Hitler as a strategist, rather than merely making different mistakes.

          • dndnrsn says:

            By some interpretations (I’m going with Wages of Destruction by Tooze and The Anatomy of Fascism by Paxton) the Nazis locked themselves into war by trying to do guns and butter by throwing money at economic problems while also rebuilding the miliitary, and pay for both through plunder. The German civilian population was much better taken care of in WWII than WWI – food supplies deteriorated less and later – and this was done on the back of theft of agricultural products from conquered territories, slave labour from same, etc. German industry wasn’t up with providing enough of anything – so they had to take over production facilities in conquered places. The Nazi plan was to have a war in the mid-40s, but it’s doubtful they could have kept the ball rolling without plunder etc to that point.

            Beyond material factors, fascism in general had to be doing aggressive things fairly regularly to keep popular enthusiasm going. Hitler came to power promising pan-German nationalism – to bring Austria into the fold, to claim ethnic German territory in other countries for Germany – and so he can’t just say “sorry guys, don’t want a war!”

            So, “what would be different” doesn’t start in 1939 or 1938, but rather in 1933. Had, say, a typical authoritarian-right dictatorship taken over, they would likely have been a lot more conservative in international relations – going by Paxton, at least.

  12. SuperSmartCortex says:

    I registered just for this. Fair warning that PUA is mentioned; I don’t like it, I just like angle taken here — which focuses about what kind of person it appeals to, rather than assuming it’s all good/bad. (Splitting?) Since Scott is a psychiatrist, I’m curious what his take would be. The comments are also surprisingly worth a read. (Links to, but that’s down. There’s a PDF available but the archived site is much nicer.)

    I’ll be starting my own therapy soon. Wish you all the best.

  13. GlenWill says:

    I’m wondering if anyone here is familiar with a procedure called Photobiomodulation. My wife’s father has dementia, and she is searching desperately for some solution, and she found a doctor that is conducting a trial:

    My alternative medicine and scam radar is screaming off the charts, but I don’t know enough about which sources of information are trustworthy for medical research. I found some studies on that seem promising:

    The trial also requires the patient to put out $15K to pay for the equipment. I would think a legit study would cover the costs of participating.

    Anyone hear ever heard of it and know good or bad information on it?

    • Well... says:

      Yes, a legit study would almost certainly cover the costs of participating. This is likely not a legit study.

    • Cheese says:

      Near infrared is a genuine thing in neuroscience research. I’ve been involved in some animal studies looking at effects in neurological injury and frankly i’m not super impressed with the results. It may have some utility in certain situations but I don’t think anyone’s really nailed down much about the what and when so everything is a bit scatter-gun ‘oh see if it does anything in this model’ at the moment. The mechanism proposed is pretty plausible, and I know there have been a few papers looking at the issue of penetrance that seem to suggest it might work ok in humans.

      There have been a few disparate studies in humans that i’m not overly familiar with but i’m not super impressed with their reliability, ditto with the animal studies which I have a touch more familiarity with. It is very early stages and may very well be a fad that fades into obscurity once conflicting or null results come to light. Everyone froths on it because the safety profile and ease of use are theoretically so great. I don’t know of it’s use in any major or reputable clinical trials.

      Second the comment that a more legitimate trial with better foundations (i.e. a large company thought there was a chance of it working) would provide equipment. 1080nm also seems a bit long to me. Most of the studies I know of seem to be looking in the 630-850 range. I think it’s probably false hope at this stage.

      • GlenWill says:

        Thanks to both of you for your replies. I met with the doctor myself, and got a really bad vibe. My wife and I did some digging on the doctor behind this study, and found a sketchy past, including misconduct with a patient, losing his license, repeatedly practicing without a license. We have definitely stopped pursuing this with him.

  14. Cosmic Tortoise says:

    Hey all. I just interviewed Robin Hanson on hidden motives; signaling; what is compelling about art; Twitter mobs; assassination markets; modularity of mind; 3D printed guns and a bunch of other fun stuff.

    Those that are interested can find it here


  15. Ketil says:

    Vandana Shiva was recently mentioned by a friend, in the most favorable terms. I’m skeptical to her views, which sound too much like conspiracy theoretic and ideologically based activism. But whatever.

    She is often presented as a physicist, allegedly also as one of India’s leading physicists. Looking into this, she has, in fact, a Ph.D. in physics with the title “Hidden variables and locality in quantum theory”. I couldn’t find the text itself, but the subject is at least difficult for me to judge. With nothing in Google Scholar except activism books, she is clearly not a “leading physicist”, but is the Ph.D. actually a bona fide contribution to QT (as opposed to, say, some faux-physics postmodernist confused philosophy), and is her epithet as a physicist thus warranted?

    • J Mann says:

      We might want to bump a detailed discussion of Shiva’s scientific merits to the next open thread, since the .5 threads are specified as “culture war free.” As some factual background for that, my understanding is that Shiva’s Ph.D. was in the philosophy of science, not physics per se, although I don’t know how much practical difference that makes.

      I haven’t found her dissertation, but you can read the abstract here. (WorldCat only has listings for two copies of the dissertation anywhere, both on microfiche.)

      You can find some articles arguing that her thesis was ultimately mistaken, in that it apparently criticized Bell’s Theorem and that Bell’s Theorem is now widely accepted, but I can’t tell if those writers read the actual dissertation or just the abstract.

    • Protagoras says:

      Philosophy of physics is usually pretty hardcore within the already relatively hardcore subdiscipline of philosophy of science, and the topic of her dissertation sounds perfectly sensible. So while being an expert on philosophy of physics, or physics itself, does not remotely prevent one from being a crackpot when one ventures into the other subjects she has apparently mostly dedicated her efforts to, I don’t see any reason to be suspicious of her formal credentials. Though those credentials do not seem to merit her being described as “one of India’s leading physicists.”

  16. Well... says:

    Question for SamChevre, David Friedman, or anyone else who’s familiar enough with the Amish to answer:

    From my reading of Kraybill, I understand that Amish communities respond to a given technology in one of 5 ways: acceptance, rejection, acceptance-but-only-after-modification, acceptance-but-with-guidelines-around-ownership, and…I can’t remember the fifth one. This seems to imply an unpacking of each technology into its component subsystems, which are then vetted in turn.

    For instance, a tractor might be allowed but only after the tires are removed (to prevent ease of travel, which would make it easier to spread the community wider, undermining the close-knit-ness they want to maintain). In that case, the tires represent a technology subsystem that has been rejected while the tractor represents a technology system that has been accepted. Or you might say the tractor has been accepted but the tractor’s suspension system has been accepted-but-only-with-modificiations. Each of which is simply a more precise way to say the tractor has been accepted-but-only-with-modifications.

    It seems like the level of precision with which the guideline is written in the ordnung matters, for precedence reasons. But do the Amish actually think about that? If so, how do they? If not, what do they do instead?

    Now, I think I have a tendency to project more process-oriented thinking onto the Amish and their ordunungs than tends to really be there, but at the same time I find it hard to believe they’ve maintained so much control over their way of life for so long without an extremely rigorous process.

    • SamChevre says:

      I will try to answer at greater length later (and remind me if I don’t).

      I think the categories Kraybill lays out are real, but they aren’t the way the question is thought about. More usually, specific things are forbidden; generally, changing the standard, or the supplemental regulations, will happen after either people own the thing under consideration, or are strongly considering it. So there’s a built-in sense of what the key disruptive features are, and what the key reasons to partly accept are.

      • SamChevre says:

        It’s not so much a rigorous process, as a process that’s designed to break in fixable ways. You can always allow something forbidden, or restrict something that’s allowed but is being used in expanding ways: it is hard, but doable. And since communities vary, people who really care can move to somewhere that fits better, and people who are considering a change can look at how other communities handle the same issue.

        I’m not at all sure this answers the question, so feel free to clarify or ask again.

      • Well... says:


        Both your comments so far have been super enlightening. Thank you. I hope you won’t mind writing more later, especially since I have more questions!

        If I understood correctly so far, it sounds like individual members of Amish communities act sort of like canaries, adopting or considering adopting some technology that the community around them may decide is or is not acceptable.

        It also sounds like individuals usually already have a sense of where the existing unwritten boundaries are. And communities are able to respond, and enforce a response, when those lines are crossed, but not in such a way that nobody ever dares cross them.

        The thing I don’t yet understand, but would like to, is why this sense of “the technology’s key disruptive features vs. reasons to partly accept” is built-in. I don’t doubt the Sense is built in, I just don’t have a clue what mechanism is at work.

        (Isn’t the Sense based mostly on understanding the technology’s features in the first place? In which case, how do they learn about all the technology’s features?)

        (BTW, where in your opinion is the best balance point between a community’s ability to enforce boundaries around technology vs. people’s empowerment to cross those boundaries?)

        (P.S. Do the Amish treat language like another technology?)

        • mtl1882 says:

          I am not the person you asked, so I apologize if my opinion is is unwelcome, but since no one has answered, I’ll give it a go:

          I think your understanding is very accurate. There are not hard rules; there is flexibility, and room for experimentation. At the same time, everyone is pretty aware of what the community is likely to take issue with, and respects that. I think that seems more mysterious than it is. These groups have decided to prioritize their small community, which is sort of the default human situation. We evolved to be in small, related groups. What they oppose are things that are likely to disrupt this peace and cohesion, or be distracting from being present in the community. This is reasonably easily to assess – cars and television would disrupt the community in a meaningful way. So would allowing different types of outfits, alcohol, administrative careers, etc. Seeking medical care for someone severely ill or injured would not seriously disrupt the community, even if it is modern. Having flashlights in case of emergency doesn’t either. Having electricity, however, would transform their lives, including how late they stayed up, etc. So they use battery-powered flashlights.

          They aren’t dominated by the legalistic, technical, self-interested system that we have. They sort of assume good faith on behalf of the members, and they are small and homogenous enough to deal with each issue as it arises. No one can come at it from the point of view of individual rights – that’s not their main focus. “It’s my money, I can do what I want,” is not a self-evident conclusion to them. They know there are other values besides self-interest, and they choose to prioritize those. Of course, some people are not willing to accept this lifestyle, and they have the option to leave. But many are willing to give up modern conveniences for the security and stability of a community and norms. If people could not leave, or the communities became larger, they would not be able to pull this off – there would be too much friction and rebellion. That is why this approach doesn’t usually work for people. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate that lifestyle, and a certain style of community to provide attractive benefits that lure people away from escape to a modern life.

          They also, as others pointed out, put emphasis on silence and personal prayer. They encourage examination of complex issues in a personal way. People develop their own consciences and strength of convictions, and do not need to be forced into them. This is not as threatening to the community as it sounds. Education can be a problem in an oppressive society, but there is an exit, and the rules are fairly sensible – not immediately absurd to someone with an intellectual bent. It’s not an inherently disrespectful relationship. As a result, they can withstand outside information – they don’t insist on total isolation – they interact with others. That is how they know about outside technology – they aren’t deprived of outside contact. They are simply strong enough to deal with that information without being thrown for a loop. It is supposed to be an informed decision. I may be stereotyping, but I notice Mormons are frequently very informed about controversial issues and able to intelligently discuss them – they aren’t afraid of exposure to these ideas. I see this much less within the conservative Christian community, but I am generalizing and perhaps have not been exposed to the right people. But I think the mindset there is to dismiss more than tackle the issue. Part of it is that historically oppressed or separate groups don’t have the luxury of dismissing criticisms and are called upon to justify themselves.

          So the “built-in” aspect is the general understanding of what could jeopardize a community, the benefits of preserving that community, and the development of a sense of self that can assess the situation reasonably instead of requiring clear dictated rules and resorting to technical or specious arguments.

          Of course, some people can’t actually develop these things, but they probably leave or learn to become conformists. And people who are very atypical in some way are probably really in a tough situation in these communities – there are recognized limits to life, and some people don’t fall within them. To some people, it can probably be extremely confusing to be raised in that life, but as with anything, it is a tradeoff. People who are slightly atypical may have more luck in a community that is more familiar with them and that provides them with a structure to work with. I feel like a lot of modern life consists of desensitizing people’s “built in” systems for assessing things. Sometimes that is beneficial, but it is often not.

    • historiaekatharsium says:

      It is characteristic of all of the Peace Congregations (Amish, Mennonite, Quaker, Brethren, Anabaptist) that the tenets of the faith are learnt in silence and practiced in consensus.

      What is meant by “learnt in silence and practiced in consensus”? The most reliable path to understanding is to attend services: the Quakers in particular hold silent worship services in or near most metropolitan areas.

      An alternative, and more analytical, path is to read Chaim Potok’s novels, The Chosen (1967) and its sequel The Promise (1969), paying special attention to the multiple moral role(s) that Potok — himself a Rabbi — ascribes to “silence”.

      “You can listen to silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.

      Indeed, the role of silence in moral instruction is so crucially central to Potok’s novels, that his working title for The Chosen was “A Time For Silence”.

      In contrast, the logical practices that are generally associated to legalistic reasoning, as a logically well-posed path to moral judgment, are abhorrent to the Peace Congregations. SSC readers who regard this (post-logical) assessment as mistaken, are invited to reflect upon the crucial philosophical role(s) that Spinoza’s Ethics assigns to the (post-logical) scientia intuitiva, which parallels the crucial moral roles that the Peace Congregations ascribe to (post-logical) silence and the lucerna super candelabrum.

      • Nornagest says:

        Go away, John.

      • Well... says:

        If you’d just said “Amish understand where the unwritten boundaries are because they grow up in communities saturated with them” I’d have understood that better, but now I can’t tell if that’s a fair summary of what you said because what you said was too confusing for me. Could you dumb it down a bunch for this simpleton?

        • Nornagest says:

          He means that his pet congregation is too pure — pardon, “empathy-centric” — for benighted linear reasoners like us to comprehend, and therefore that they’re not running any kind of decision-making process that makes sense in those terms. And he wants you to read Spinoza, because John Sidles always wants people to read Spinoza.

          But it’s really better not to bother trying to extract meaning from a Sidles post.

          • Well... says:

            Clearly there’s some context I’m missing here. Feel free to fill me in.

            I just want to understand what he said, because right now it all went over my head.

          • Nornagest says:

            The guy you’re talking to has been banned something like a dozen times, essentially for being obnoxious. He changes handles every time, but he’s easy to recognize, partly because he’s always talking about the same few things. One happens to be the Amish and Mennonites.

            I promise you’ll be better off if you don’t engage. You’re not going to get a straight answer to your question from him.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Amish/Mennonites GOOD, Red tribe Boeotians! (“…” “That’s bad.”)

          • Well... says:

            I can’t fault anyone for just talking about the Amish and Mennonites all the time. I could probably get down with that. But, I take your point.

            Plus, talking about the Amish and Mennonites all the time does no good if nobody understands what you’re saying.

        • historiaekatharsium says:

          “What you said was too confusing.”

          Pretty commonly the acronym “SPICE” is invoked, to focus community discourse upon the traditional teachings of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. In recent years an “S” is sometimes appended, standing for Stewardship.

          Practices and technologies that impair SPICE are shunned … after discussion and by consensus. There is however no governing central authority … hence neither “Silence” nor “Subordination” are regarded as SPICE virtues.

          In literature, the Anabaptist Chaplain Captain Albert Taylor Tappman (of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22) embodies all of the SPICE virtues … in consequence, the Chaplain is the sole person whom Yossarian trusts.

          • The Nybbler says:

            But remember when you call the number, you should leave off the first ‘S’ for savings.

  17. Nornagest says:

    Has reply behavior been kinda wonky for anyone else in the last couple of days?

  18. Le Maistre Chat says:

    “These objects moved intelligently around the great rooms, getting books from the shelves and taking them to the great tables, or vice versa, and sometimes writing diligently with a penlike rod gripped in the greenish head-tentacles. The huge nippers were used in carrying books and in conversation—speech consisting of a kind of clicking and scraping. The objects had no clothing, but wore satchels or knapsacks suspended from the top of the conical trunk. …
    Afterward I saw them everywhere; swarming in all the great chambers and corridors, tending monstrous machines in vaulted crypts, and racing along the vast roads in gigantic boat-shaped cars.” — H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Out of Time IV, grafs 4-5

    This story could equally well be titled Cute Tentacle Monsters Loved Books and Fast Cars. Prove me wrong.

    • sfoil says:

      I doubt Lovecraft even meant for the Yith to be scary, just different. The narrator doesn’t seem to be all that terribly bothered after his initial shock, and his exchange partner didn’t mean or do him any harm either, if I recall. The horror in Shadow comes from the Yith’s fate and what it means for humanity, not their existence or appearance.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        The Yith freak out their exchange partners without consent, but it’s correct that they do no physical harm, plus as I said they’re cute. Their fate seems to be a more mature riff on the sort of fears that led Lovecraft to write atheistic Gothic horror like “The Call of Cthulhu”: these sea creature lookalikes (scary!) are erudite beings who are doomed in the face of whatever the Elder Things represent, and so they immigrate en masse to a time when doesn’t exist… right after our extinction.
        The Elder Things are even described as “half-polypous, utterly alien entities” just like Cthulhu (“polypous” being a broader ‘synonym’ for “octopus”…)

      • C_B says:

        Ruthanna Emrys has a pretty cool fridge horror take on the Yith that asserts that, in addition to body-stealing other races to move across time, they also perpetuate their personal immortality by body-stealing their own offspring. Don’t think this has much support in canon, though, I think it was invented for her series.

        Her Lovecraft fanfic series is really good, and starts with a free novella.

    • Nornagest says:

      There’ve got to be some fundamental truths of sentient existence that aren’t mind-destroyingly horrible. Maybe this is one. Who doesn’t love books and fast cars?

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        There’ve got to be some fundamental truths of sentient existence that aren’t mind-destroyingly horrible.

        Yeah, I think that’s the point. There’s some evidence that love of cars is a unisex part of sentient existence (though one non-rigorous replication attempt showed girl monkeys being more stereotypical), and carrying books around codes the Yith as “just like us, gentle reader.”
        Since Tentacle Monsters Loved Books and Fast Cars was Lovecraft’s penultimate work of fiction, I see it as the author saying “It’s not you, fundamental truths; it was me.” There’s a real shift in emphasis from “The Call of Cthulhu” period, even as he keeps “half-octopod” and “half-polypous” entities around to symbolize mind-destroyingly horrible facts.

        • sfoil says:

          I agree, you can easily also see this attitude with At The Mountains of Madness (the Elder Things) and The Shadow Over Innsmouth (which ends with the narrator deciding that becoming an immortal fish-man might not be so bad after all — Granny’s still down there!). Pickman’s Model too, especially when Pickman shows back up in a later story. But I think there’s a touch of this even in Herbert West, with the headless soldier.

          • Nornagest says:

            My favorite Lovecraft was always At the Mountains of Madness. It strikes a good balance between eldritch horror and mature proto-SF: on the squamous-and-rugose side of things we’ve still got the shoggoth (which gets one of the very few satisfying close-up descriptions of a monster in Lovecraft) and whatever Danforth saw beyond the mountains, but the heart of the story is the narrator realizing that the intelligent crinoids he’s been studying were scientists just like him, with basically comprehensible goals and outlook. Pretty open-minded of him, given that they’d vivisected a couple members of his party earlier.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            “Being open-minded about materialism being true, the Old Ones proceeded to vivisect Pabodie’s brain.”

  19. rahien.din says:

    Math question :

    If I assume my data are normally distributed, and I have two points (x1, y1), and (x2, y2), and I know there is an asymptote to the cumulative probability, is there a way to fit a cumulative distribution function to those data points?

    Is there a single cumulative distribution function that will match those, or, how many points would I need?

    ETA: forgot to specify something important

    • helloo says:

      Seems trivial – make the higher point the midpoint and then change the sd to match the other point.

      Not sure how many points are needed to fit all normal curves though.
      EDIT: Google says 3 due to their being 3 degrees of freedom in the function of the curve.

  20. A Definite Beta Guy says:

    Suggestions for running a 5E D&D one-shot for first time players? My Wife mentioned it to her siblings, who got kinda excited and wanted to play. We’d budget for somewhere between 3-6 players, with a playtime 3-4 hours. I plan to write up characters for them.

    The 6 players seems….large, but it’s a Catholic family, and I’d rather not exclude anyone who would want to play.

    Note: I have not DM’d before, but I’d be DM by default (no one else to do it)

    • Nornagest says:

      I’ve never played or run 5E, but in earlier versions six players was on the high side of manageable. D&D runs best with around four (fewer and it starts getting hard to manage the gaps in role coverage), but six isn’t unreasonable; the biggest group I’ve played with had eight. And 5E is reputed to run faster, which should help.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Outside of 3.Whatever and 4E, 6 players should be entirely manageable. Enough people did it in the B/X-AD&D days that CRPGs treated it as the max. This stands in contrast to vague oral tradition about Gygax sometimes DMing huge groups, which you can write off as OSR contrarianism.

        • dndnrsn says:

          No culture war!

          70s and early-to-mid-80s D&D assumed large parties:

          This module is designed for a party of 6-10 characters. Each character should be between the 3rd and 6th level of experience when the adventure begins. The party should have a total of 26-34 levels, 30 being best.

          (from X1: The Isle of Dread)

          However, it doesn’t say 6-10 players; I’ve read that multiple PCs per player used to be more common. If you assume 2 PCs per player, that 6-10 becomes 3-5 players, which is entirely manageable.

          • Nornagest says:

            Sounds plausible. Early versions of D&D had extensive rules for hirelings, followers, and the like, most of which I gather fell out of use sometime during the 2E timeframe (there were rules for all of the above in the sourcebooks as late as Revised 2E, but I’ve never seen them used); running multiple PCs wouldn’t be much different.

            Animal companions, familiars, and summons are still in the game, but I think summons are the only one that sees much actual play. Familiars saw use in the games I’ve played, but only as roleplaying props or for the mechanical benefits to their summoners — they’re too fragile, and losing them too punishing, to be let out of the portable hole in dangerous situations.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I’m running a retroclone right now and hirelings are huge. PCs aren’t durable enough to only have one or two frontline combatants, and the fast combat begs for big mobs of enemies. Being able to hire some guys to fill out the ranks is vital, and this is with a four-player party.

            This results in a very different play experience. When you’ve got 10 or 20 enemies up against four PCs plus several hirelings, it becomes practically a skirmish game.

            Probably what changed was that in the mid-80s, modules (eventually the name was abandoned for “adventure”) shifted from “here’s a bunch of stuff; let your players go at it” to more story-based (and often railroad-y) adventures. There was a decline in PC mortality (after all, you gotta shepherd them through so they can see the end of the story!) which meant that having mooks to soak up the casualties became less important.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I DMed 3-4 players from 1-21 in 3.5 who all had the Leadership feat (minimum level 6: you get a second PC 2 levels lower and an estate with NPC followers). I understand this was a relic of the henchmen rules and getting a castle/temple/wizard’s tower with the logical household at name level.
            I oft wished they’d been willing to play BECMI or ACKS instead.

          • dndnrsn says:

            8 characters in 3.5? Ouch.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            8 characters in 3.5? Ouch.

            I know, right? I basically refuse to run 4E because so much setting stuff is baked into the rules, especially once you reach Level 10, but in my experience 3.5 is the absolute worst edition to run. It treats the DM like a computer that’s only allowed to execute the rules as written, takes 3-4x as long to run combat rounds if players are optimizing, and can easily become unfun for some of your players because options are completely unbalanced and the books deceive noobs.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I’m really liking the generally simpler rules of retro clones because you can get big combats done quickly. Last session a fairly major combat (half a dozen on the PCs’ side with a couple more allies swooping in near the end and about three times that of monsters) took about half an hour to run. In 3rd or 4th I expect it would have taken at least an hour, and maybe two.

            On the other hand, part of the speed is just due to how OP sleep spells were back in the day. Makes it very easy to shut down large numbers of low HD enemies.

        • Protagoras says:

          At a convention around 1990, I played a D&D variant game with more than a dozen players that nonetheless managed to go pretty well. An extremely experienced DM, though.

      • J Mann says:

        5e spent a lot of time thinking about combat balance, and is generally optimized for 4-5 characters. Every character past 5 increases the party’s power a lot more than you would think. (The same is true for monsters that have ranged attackers – add a few archers to your band of skirmisher goblins and all of the sudden, your level 1 players have a life or death struggle on their hands).

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          AC stays so low in 5e, while + to-hit starts much higher, that goblin ranged attackers stay more of a live-and-death problem than in AD&D.
          The corporate buzzphrase for this is “bounded accuracy”. I don’t like it because it means you can never slay 1000 mooks like some mythic heroes.

    • Randy M says:

      I’d say especially with 6 players don’t be afraid to gently step in to keep things moving. In a scene, everyone might want to interject a way for their character to try to solve some problem–real or imagined–and you might want to just say “Alright, you continue questioning the beggar until you are satisfied that he is exactly what he seems. Unless you have other plans, you’ll make it out of town and to the edge of the swamp with nothing else major occurring.”

      Don’t make them search for leads or information. Reward inquiry with embellishment or some more straightforward leads, but make sure that a couple options for what to do next are blatantly obvious.

      Pregenerate about eight charactersYou already said you are doing this, nevermind.

      Plan for a 3-hour session (assuming you have 4 hours), and that way between the jokes and digressions and learning rules they’ll still see the ending. If you need to stretch it because they skip something, throw in some flavor encounters, like a traveling elvish merchant or something.

    • DeWitt says:

      The only time I’ve seen a oneshot actually get resolved in time was when I ran one, and it was one named Demon King. PDFs don’t seem very available anymore, but I’d be willing to share it if you can get me a way to contact you so this blog doesn’t get associated with the terribly illegal activity of sharing defunct game PDFs.

    • J Mann says:

      1) Start them at first level, or second at most. Otherwise, it takes way too long to bring everyone up to speed on all their various powers/spells/etc.

      2) You can print out spell cards from various free sources on the internet. That’s not a bad idea, as well as maybe photocopying or printing section on each class’s powers.

      3) I am lazy, so especially for one shots, I start with free materials. I had good luck with the prequel docs for Princes of the Apocalypse – get them into town, then give them hooks to explore Lance rock, which is a fine little mini-dungeon. (4 hours is about right to explain the rules, then maybe assault one mini-dungeon).

      4) Keep combat moving. Tell them who’s up and who’s on deck so the next person can be thinking about their moves.

      5) If you’re not opposed to a lot of color printing, I like using Rasterizer to print pages I can assemble into a color battle map, but then you have to keep a lot of stuff obscured. Otherwise a dry erase battle board works well. I also really like printable miniatures like the Giant’s Monster for Every Season, or I’m sure you could find some free stuff somewhere, like the Roll20 basic figures.

      6) I’m not sure how a Catholic family would roll with it, but Warlocks are perfect for someone who wants to do a lot of low-level spell blasting but doesn’t want to sweat the details. A level 1 warlock pretty much means saying “I cast eldritch blast” every round except the two times per short rest you get to cast actual spell.

      • helloo says:

        Shouldn’t it be better to just get some pre-fabbed chars and have them choose among them?
        Allow them some leeway to change the char to fit their portrayal of what they want to play and if they are interested in creating from scratch, let them (with possibly some balancing/suggestions to fit the others).

        Assuming they aren’t big into the character building step, seems to be best for new players to not have to worry about it and keep things mostly in scale and balanced.

        • J Mann says:

          Yes to this too! I’m a big fan of pre-gen materials, especially for new GMs and players. Creating your own adventures is like baking bread – it’s potentially fulfilling but it’s a lot of work and the best you can do is about equal to what you can buy

    • AnarchyDice says:

      Put some of your players in charge of various smaller tasks. This will help keep them focused on the game (people getting distracted by phones or other things quickly snowballs to dragging the game to a screeching halt) and take some load off of you.
      -[CHRONOLOGIST] Create a simple turn order tracker, folded-in-half index cards with names work well. I printed off images and glued them to the cards too for extra flavor. Have a couple you can stick in like “minion”, “scary thing”, “demon”, “shadow”, “???”, or the like for your monsters, NPC’s, and anything you want to put in the turn order like a repeating trap or fresh waves of baddies. One player should be in charge of arranging the order when combat starts and to move cards to the bottom as people take their turns.
      -[HOARDER] One player is in charge of the loot. They are responsible for writing down the items the party gets or for making sure someone else writes it on theirs. If they don’t write it down, it is lost forever. If something is a secret item, give it a descriptive name, a codeword, or have them write down exactly where they got it. This will save you having to stop play to figure out who wrote down the macguffin key to the important dudes lair or who has the super-death potion they got that two hours ago.
      -[PROPHET] One player should jot down NPC names, hints, and clues. It likely won’t help them solve stuff that much more easily but they’ll have a reference sheet when they want to ask “who was that dude saying creepy stuff at the tavern?” so you won’t have to try an parse out exactly which npc or cryptic clue they are referencing. You’ll save time tracking down your notes and can feel better that they won’t be completely out of luck if they forget an important clue you referenced three hours ago.
      -[CONQUISTADORS]If exploration is a goal, you can have one or multiple players drawing out the map using pencil and paper or a dry erase board.

      Other tips include:
      -Using a small hourglass for keeping quick turns going in tense battles. When the timer is up, there turn is done. Players will pre-plan their turns so they don’t lose any.

      -Having a few internet-stolen images for important NPC’s helps retention a lot and provides easy inspiration for your to improvise with.

      -Set up your rulings policy at the beginning. I’d suggest that you don’t defer to the books much, if at all, but whatever rulings you make apply equally to players and NPC’s. i.e. if chandelier swinging is an auto-crit, then monsters can do that too.

      -If your players get decision fatigue with too many open choices, start offering limited suggestions. “Do you open the door or spend time searching for traps?” They can always suggest a third option.

      -Always give hints or foreshadow. Traps feel less unfair when you mention gears and recent brickwork. Ambushes are their fault if villagers warn about livestock disappearances.

      -And I’d reiterate Randy M. I always give my players information or the opportunity for information when the ask. If they are specific and narrow in their questions, they get the answer or a clue to the right answer to reward player skill, if they are more general, I leave it up to character skill with a skill check.

      -There is a three clue minimum to mandatory puzzles. I am not kidding. And I mean clues that are independently useful to solving the problem, multi-step clues count for half. Your players will miss the first clue, misinterpret the second, and then make a leap of logic using the third to maybe get the right answer. My easy puzzles have something like six clues of various difficulties to find. The players may find alternative ways to get clues that you can improvise, but if you cannot find enough ways to build clues into a puzzle, it will be tedious and unfun for the players to figure out.

      -Don’t feel like you have to stat everything out. If you need a mook to fight, choose some approximate hit point level, attack bonus, and dice types to hit the challenge level you are aiming for. No need to figure out their strength, dexterity, skill proficiencies, etc that go into things when you just need the number they add to their rolls. If you do prepare monsters ahead of time, make sure you keep their most common rolls and abilities handy.

      -Have your yes-and’s and yes-but’s ready. They can definitely take the hinges off all the doors, but it will take time that might risk wandering monsters or it risks a skill check to avoid breaking your tools, etc. If it doesn’t have a meaningful cost you can think of, then let the players do it.

    • dndnrsn says:

      When playing with people who don’t know the rules, you need to know the rules as well as possible. They’re not going to know what they’re doing mechanically; they need to be able to describe what they’re doing and have you explain what is happening mechanically.

      For anything where they have to know how it works mechanically, have a cheat sheet.

      If roleplaying (I define this as making decisions based on the character’s nature, etc) is going to be important (5th gives you bonuses for this, right?), make sure that the pregen characters have roleplaying cues: “Joren will never back down from a fight”, “Neela is pathologically curious”, whatever.

  21. Well... says:

    Do people who grow up in turbulent (e.g. abusive, dysfunctional, etc.) households become better at making friends?

    On one hand, people from turbulent households have a strong incentive (not just in a rational sense but in a Maslow’s hierarchy sense) to substitute peer group for family, so they might learn to hone their skills at building a peer group, ingratiating themselves to adult non-relatives, etc.

    On the other hand, people from turbulent households don’t have a safe environment in which to be introduced to and practice the fundamentals of proper socialization, and are instead constantly exposed to bad examples.

    Maybe there’s a sweet spot, where just the right amount of family dysfunction — not too little or too much — makes a person growing up in that household really good at making friends?

    Anecdata: my childhood was somewhat turbulent (divorce, sibling rivalry and violence, mild-to-moderate dysfunction) and I seem to make lasting friendships everywhere I go, even if I’m only there for a short time. Whereas my wife, who is about equally as outgoing as I am, describes her childhood as being like growing up in the Cliff Huxtable household, yet she can count her friends on one hand with fingers to spare.

    • Randy M says:

      Seems like this is the kind of thing that would fall under the pretty slim effects of “shared environment” if so.
      Also, you left off the hand where people from turbulent households inherit turbulent genetics and thus have a more difficult time making friends. I’m not saying it’s strictly determined, but is certainly confounded.
      And, are you looking for longer held friendships, or more of them?

      • Well... says:

        Also, you left off the hand where people from turbulent households inherit turbulent genetics and thus have a more difficult time making friends.

        True. No doubt I left off a lot of confounds. I suppose we could improve a hypothetical study by looking only at twins separated at birth, one of whom went to a stable household and the other who went to an unstable one.

        And, are you looking for longer held friendships, or more of them?

        More friendships above a certain threshold of longevity, let’s say.

    • yodelyak says:

      Matches my experience. (Moved at 7, bad social experiences for a year before figuring out new community, Dad died when I was 11, multiple hyper competitive brothers, all of us close in age… and I have loads of friends.) I was honestly really surprised the first few times I heard my (literally hundreds) of friends tell me they had only a few, and shocked when one of them assumed I was a fake friend because I admitted I felt the way about them that I felt about dozens of other people.

      Another model for it is that you are best at making new tribe members in moments that resemble brainwashing… you feel vulnerable, you also feel surprised and grateful for good treatment and generosity and recognition. A little bit of life-long vulnerability can go a long way at making a person good at making friends. (That said, when I try to make friends with someone next to me on the plane, and it’s the rare day where it doesn’t work (it almost always works) that can leave a bad taste with me for months. As in: “Why don’t they like me back?”)

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