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The Proverbial Murder Mystery

I.

Chefs. Hundreds of them. Tall chefs, short chefs, black chefs, white chefs. I pushed forward through them, like an explorer hacking away at undergrowth. They muttered curses at me, but I was stronger than they were. I came to a door. I opened it. Sweet empty space. I shut the door behind me, sat down in the chair.

“Hello,” I said. “Detective Paul Eastman, pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Doctor Zachary LaShay,” said the man behind the desk. His little remaining hair was greying; his eyes showed hints of the intellect that had been buried beneath the dullness of an administrative career. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble getting here. Did my secretary warn you about the chefs?”

“She did not,” I said.

“Well, forewarned is forearmed,” he answered, inanely and incongruously. “But I trust you got my message about the federal investigators?”

“Once a federal investigation has started, we’ll retreat and let them take over. But two women died here. We can’t just not investigate because you tell us you’re trying to get the Feds involved.”

“Yes, ah, of course. It’s just that we’re a sort of, ah, defense contractor. None of our projects are officially classified, yet, but we were hoping to get someone with a security clearance, in case this touched on sensitive areas.”

“I won’t pry further than I have to, but until someone from the government says something official, this is a matter for city police. Maybe you could start by telling me more about exactly what you do here.”

“We’re the United States’ only proverb laboratory. Our mission is to stress-test the nation’s proverbs. To provide rigorous backing for the good ones, and weed out the bad ones.”

“I’d never even heard of your organization before today, I have to admit. And now that I’m here…it’s huge! Who pays for all of this?”

“Everybody who uses proverbs,” said the Doctor, “which is to say, everybody. Consider: he who hesitates is lost. But also: look before you leap. Suppose you’re a business executive who spots a time-limited opportunity. What do you do? Hesitate? Or leap without looking? Eggheads devise all sorts of fancy rules about timing the market and relying on studies, but when push comes to shove most people are going to rely on the simple sayings they learned as a child. If you can keep your stock of proverbs more up-to-date than your competitor’s, that gives you a big business advantage.”

A smartly-dressed woman came in, handed Dr. LaShay a cup of boiling liquid. He put it to his lips, then spat. “This is terrible!” he said. “Try it!”

I had been expecting it to be tea, but it wasn’t. I didn’t know what it was. But it was terrible. Somehow too plain, too salty, and too bitter all at once. I gagged.

“That settles it!” said the Doctor. “Too many cooks really do spoil the broth. Tricia, tell the chefs they can all go home now.”

“So that’s what you were doing!” I said.

“Yes. Until now, too many cooks spoiling the broth had been at best an anecdote! A folk hypothesis! This month we’ve been working on broth with varying numbers of cooks. One, two, five, ten, a hundred. We’ve got a team of blinded taste testers in the basement who’ve been rating the results, and I personally check each sample to make sure I agree. This morning we hired every cook in the city – that’s over five hundred cooks – to come here and make broth for us, just to make sure there isn’t some kind of island of stability where broth starts getting better again once the number of cooks is high enough. Later this week we’ll give the data over to our analysts, who’ll develop a model that can use cook number to predict broth quality over a wide range of possible situations.”

“And the military wants this sort of thing?”

“The military loves it! The average grunt is a high-school educated young man in his late teens or early twenties. You’re not going to be teaching these people Clausewitz and von Moltke; it would be casting pearls before swine. When he’s under fire and has to make a split-second decision, he’s going to rely on the heuristics he learned on his grandmother’s knee. On proverbs. America’s proverbs are a vital strategic asset, and the Pentagon appreciates that.”

“I get how too many cooks spoil the broth might apply to something like an officer trying to figure out how many people to consult about a new strategy. But surely you can’t test that heuristic just by experimenting with literal cooks making literal broth!”

“Mmmmmmm. Yes, you’re referring to what we call Pragmatics. We certainly have a pragmatics team here, and they do good work. But the thing is, Officer, we’re essentially a consulting firm. Consulting firms are there to give people justification for the things they want to do anyway. When some general is testifying before Congress, and he says he didn’t consult someone-or-other because too many cooks spoil the broth, then Congress is going to want evidence that relying on sayings like this is best practice. If he just says “That’s our heuristic, and we know it works”, he’ll look like a loose cannon. But if he can hold up a glossy five hundred page report we gave him, proving that broth really does get spoiled by too many cooks, he’ll look like a responsible technocrat who did his due diligence. And yes, part of that report is a long philosophical discussion on pragmatics. But part of it is proving, once and for all, that too many cooks really do spoil the broth.”

“I see,” I said. “The two dead women. Were they involved in the broth project?”

“No. The first victim, Lisa Bird, she was our sysadmin. The second victim, Catherine Lee, took care of the animals.”

“Animals?”

“We have several projects that require animals. You can obviously lead a horse to water, but can you make him drink? At first we would rent out horses from equestrian organizations for this kind of thing. But then the next month we would need another horse to see if you should shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. Then we’d need two more horses to see if you should change horses midstream. Finally the costs started adding up and we just got a couple of horses that we keep here at the Institute. They were actually a gift from a sister of one of our employees who used to have a farm. One of them we looked in the mouth; the other we didn’t. We’re still trying to figure out which way worked better.”

“I see. The report I got said that the motive was romantic jealousy.”

“Yes. Ms. Lee believed Ms. Bird was having an affair with her husband. Ms. Bird was known to come to work early on Fridays to do some extra work and prepare for the weekend off. Ms. Lee entered the office where Ms. Bird was working alone, murdered her, then committed suicide. I’m getting this from the emergency team that was here before you.”

“All right. I’ll need to see the crime scene.”

“Certainly.”

LaShay led me out of his office to an elevator, then hit the button for the tenth floor. We walked out into a clinically-clean hallway. I heard a commotion. “FUCK YOU!” someone was shouting. “DAMN YOU TO HELL, YOU INKY TENEBROUS MOTHERFUCKER!” I stepped forward to open the door and investigate, but the Doctor held me back.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “That’s Room 27A. We’re testing whether it’s better to light a candle or curse the darkness. The candle is in Room 27B.”

“You must have a lot of projects going on here.”

“Oh yes. Over there is our insect unit. Can you catch more flies with honey or vinegar, can ants really move plants, that kind of thing. Our kitchen is to the right – the chefs were using it today, but it comes in handy all the time. Just don’t go in there if you can’t stand the heat. And down that corridor are our weather unit, our fire unit, and our water unit. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – ” He pointed to a large room with a spike of ice poking through the floor. We continued on. “And over there is our forge. There are so many proverbs about metal that we hired our own team of blacksmiths. It was going great until they unionized, but now they always strike when the iron is hot.”

The corridor opened into a vast auditorium. All around me, I saw knee-high marble buildings, gleaming palaces, and – was that the Colosseum? A man dressed in a gladiator costume was sitting behind a desk doubling as a terraced hill, frowning at a computer and occasionally typing something. “Our 1:100 scale model of Rome,” said LaShay. “We figured if we couldn’t build it in 0.24 hours or less, then Rome couldn’t be built in a day. For some reason I always get lost and end up here. It’s quite annoying.”

We passed out of Rome into another corridor, where we finally came to a door marked “Information Technology”.

“Ms. Bird’s office,” said LaShay, and I walked in.

I’m a homicide detective; I’m used to grisly murder scenes. This one still made me gasp. One victim – Ms. Bird, I supposed – was lying on the ground by the desk. It looked like her head had been bashed in by a blunt object. But there was more. Her mouth area was covered with blood, and I soon found her tongue had been cut out. And there was another bloody hole in her chest. The stomach and heart had been cut out too.

A few feet away, a second body dangled from a noose that had been tied to one of the rafters. Ms. Lee, I supposed. No mutilation on this one. Just a clean suicide, or at least that was what somebody had gone through a lot of trouble to make it look like.

Lying on the ground approximately between the two of them was a bloody knife. I knew from the previous report that the blood was Ms. Bird’s, and the fingerprints on the handle were Ms. Lee’s.

This did not seem like a Sherlock Holmes level mystery. Except: where were Bird’s heart and tongue?

“I’m not sure,” said LaShay, when I went outside and asked him the question. “I…haven’t been in there since in happened. Not sure I could deal with the blood. One of Ms. Bird’s coworkers had a question about the network, so she went in and saw…what you just saw. We called 911 in case either of them was still alive. The paramedics called the police who did a preliminary investigation of the scene. And then you showed up.”

“I’ll need to search the premises,” I said. “What time did Bird come to work?”

“I understand she usually arrives around seven.”

“And when does the office open?”

“Nine.”

“So potentially Lee could have had two hours to hide the heart and tongue somewhere in this building before going back and hanging herself.”

“Why would she have done that?”

“I don’t know. Do you have a better idea for what happened to them?”

He shook his head.

“Good. Then I’ll need to search the whole building. Is there anywhere I’ll need any special keys or codes to enter?”

He gave me a golden key. “This opens any door,” he said. “But don’t go in the Red Zone. That’s off-limits to everybody.”

I shrugged. “Then it’s exactly the sort of place somebody would hide something, isn’t it? Why isn’t anyone allowed in the Red Zone?”

“Radioactivity,” he answered immediately. “We have a giant machine for testing all machine-related proverbs. It’s…very impressive. Powers the whole building, runs the water and gas systems, even gives us satellite internet. We wanted it to be just a generic Machine, capital m, so it does a little of everything. But it’s radioactive…not traditionally, the way you can detect with a Geiger counter. I don’t understand the physics. But people tend to get very sick if they get too close to it.”

Part of LaShay’s description had stuck with me. “It provides the building with Internet? Lisa’s a sysadmin. Did she ever have to work with the Machine?”

“No, that was all connected when the Machine was installed. She interfaces with it remotely, through her computer.”

“And Catherine? Did her work with the animals ever bring her near the Machine?”

“Her office was very close to the Red Zone. Closer than any other office in the building, actually. But she never had any reason to enter the danger area.”

“I’m going to need to see the Machine. Is there any way I can do so safely?”

“We have an observation deck. It’s just above the Machine, on this floor. You can stare down at the Machine from the top.”

“I’ll need to go there.” It was just a hunch, but I wasn’t liking the sound of this Machine. And if you were going to hide body parts for some reason, why not hide them in a restricted area where nobody ever went?”

LaShay took me down a series of turns and hallways. After a minute or two of walking…we were in the scale model of Rome again.

“Dammit!” said LaShay. “Every time!”

Another few turns and hallways, and we finally came to a steel-reinforced door. “DANGER” it said. “OBSERVATION AREA. CHILDREN AND PREGNANT WOMEN NOT ALLOWED. PLEASE DO NOT SPEND MORE THAN FIVE MINUTES IN THE OBSERVATION AREA OVER A ONE WEEK PERIOD.”

I used my golden key to unlock the door. We went in.

We were on iron scaffolding. Below us whirred something amazing. It was like every children’s-book description of a machine put together and brought to life, a huge assembly of gears and pistons and bubbling glowing bright-colored chemicals coursing through glass pipes. Beside me was a control panel, currently set at “NORMAL”. The other options ranged from “OFF” to “MAXIMUM” to “ULTRAMAXIMUM” to “SUPRAULTRAMAXIMUM”.

“It’s beautiful,” I told the Doctor.

“Don’t touch that,” he told me, glancing nervously at the control panel.

The machine was nine stories high, filling the entire center of the laboratory. In the center, an enormous agglomeration of steampunk-looking gadgetry formed a hollow cylinder, spinning faster than I could follow. I leaned out over the edge of the scaffold, over the pit formed by the cylinder’s center.

“You really don’t want to do that,” LaShay told me. I could see what he meant. It was easy to imagine falling right through the hole in the spinning cylinder, down to the ground ten stories below. I had a strange feeling that gravity would be the least of my problems if that happened, that anything that went through that spinning apparatus would have a very bad time long before it hit the ground. And…

“What’s that?” I asked.

At the bottom of the spinning cylinder, incongruously, was a building I could only describe as a small shrine. It had a little golden dome on the top, and…actually, it was exactly a shrine. There was a Star of David atop the dome.

“That,” said LaShay. His voice changed, became heavier. “I started this laboratory with my colleague, Dr. Rissum. He…he committed suicide nine years ago by jumping into the Machine from this very spot. That’s his memorial.”

“My God! You’re telling me there was another suicide in this lab?”

“Nine years ago. The police investigated. There was nothing suspicious. His wife had just left him and taken the children. It was very tragic, but no foul play was suspected.”

“Still. Another suicide.”

“We need to get out of here,” said LaShay. “Being this close to the Machine really isn’t good for you.”

I looked around the observation deck and at the floor ten stories below. There were no signs of blood, a tongue, or a heart. “All right,” I said, because the Machine was starting make me nervous too.

I spent the rest of the morning searching the rest of the laboratory, free of LaShay’s discomfiting presence. It was an exhausting task, not least because I always ended up in the Rome model even when I thought I was in a totally different part of the building. But eventually I found two things that caught my interest.

First, Lisa Bird’s chair. I had gone back into the room with the bodies to look for other clues. The desk was normal enough. The computer was a normal Apple MacBook. But I noticed Lisa’s chair was made out of human hands. This was confusing enough that I called the Doctor back, who of course had an explanation.

“They’re not real hands,” he said. “Most of the staff have chairs like that. We were testing whether many hands make light work, so we had everyone working for the lab sit on those.”

“It’s pretty gruesome,” I said.

“We originally tried putting those statues of the Buddhist god with the thousands of hands all around the office,” LaShay admitted. “But people complained that the hands were whispering demonic messages to them. Finally someone in the Religion Department reminded me that idol hands are the Devil’s plaything.”

“Okay,” I said, and dismissed LaShay again, with some relief. He told me he would be working over the weekend, and said I could call him if anything came up. I hoped I wouldn’t have to. Something was weird about that guy, no doubt.

The second thing I found was Lisa Bird’s tongue and stomach. It was in the third drawer of Catherine Lee’s desk. The woman had murdered her coworker, cut out her tongue and stomach, put it in the third drawer of her desk, gone back up to the murder scene, and committed suicide.

Or, more accurately, this was a subset of what she had done, because I still couldn’t find Lisa’s heart. I searched Catherine’s desk inside and out. All I could find were a couple of paperweights made of various gemstones. I noticed they were about the right size and shape to have made the dent in Lisa Bird’s head, but none of them had any bloodstains on them or anything else suspicious. There were no severed organs.

I was missing something. But what?

II.

“You’re the detective on the Bird case?”

“Mmmrrrgyeah,” I answered groggily.

“Come to the station,” said Officer Karp. “The murderer’s body is missing.”

It was 8 AM on Saturday. I had visited the Proverb Laboratory Friday, told the station that the scene had been fully examined and they could take the bodies away, then gone home and slept. The station had sent a team to recover the bodies and bring them to the morgue. The next morning, one of the morgue staff had noticed that although Lisa Bird was still there, Lee’s body was missing.

Still only half-awake, I went to the morgue and examined the scene. The body bag was still in place. It had been expertly opened up and the body had been removed. There were no fingerprints. Karp was seething that a theft had been committed in the police station itself. He demanded we do something. I suggested we go to Catherine Lee’s house, interview her husband, see what he could tell us. That was how I ended up spending my Saturday morning at the weirdest house I had ever seen.

It was some kind of modernist experimental dwelling or something. The whole place was made out of windows. Not one-way windows either. You could see everything that happened in it. Not (I thought to myself) the sort of place a criminal would find very convenient.

“It was Cat’s idea,” her husband told us, when we knocked on the door and introduced ourselves. “She was always so paranoid that I was having an affair. Well, some weird architect made this house and then put it on the market – obviously nobody wanted it, so the price was right. Cat thought it was perfect. I couldn’t hide anything here. You’ve got to believe me, officers. I never had an affair with anybody. She was paranoid. But not violent. I know they say she killed that woman. But she would never do something like that. She was framed. I’m sure of it.”

“Who would do such a thing?”

“She talked about office politics all the time. I know things I’m not supposed to know. The Proverb Laboratory, they talk about selling their work to corporations, but the US military is the big sponsor. A lot of their best work is hush-hush.”

“I’m aware,” I said.

“Well, she would tell me all these rumors. Apparently the British hate the Proverb Laboratory. Before LaShay and Rissum started it ten years ago, the British had a monopoly on English-language proverbs. You’d have all these proverbs about kings and queens and tea and castles. It was a way for them to maintain their cultural hegemony over us. That’s what Cat would say.”

“Was Catherine by any chance paranoid and delusional about British people?”

“She was paranoid and delusional about a lot of things, but I tell you, she wasn’t a killer.”

“Were there any specific British people? Or anyone else who didn’t like what the Proverb Laboratory was doing?”

“There was the English Defense League. Have you ever heard of them?”

“They’re some kind of white supremacist group, right?”

“You must be thinking of the White Defense League. The English Defense League are an English supremacist group. As in, the English language. They believe English is superior to all other languages. They want to stop foreign language education in school, kick foreign speakers out of the country, make English the official national language, that kind of thing.”

“And they’re against the Proverb Laboratory?”

Mr. Lee laughed. “Or else they are the Proverb Laboratory. You know LaShay used to be one of them? No, from the look on your face you didn’t. He was part of their cult for a while, then deconverted and went mainstream, spoke out against them for the press. But some people say that’s all a ruse, and he’s continuing their work. They always thought that with enough study, they could use create some kind of super-proverb that would encapsulate all wisdom and make them unstoppable, something like that. LaShay says he’s beyond all that, but who knows? And if he is, well, maybe the cult that he left isn’t so happy to have the US military meddling in their pet project?”

“That’s so weird. I never heard about them before.”

“Well, Cat heard a lot of things, working at the Proverb Lab for five years.”

“Did she like it there?”

“Oh no. She hated it. She loves animals, you know. But the Proverb people thought they were just means to an end. She was in a big fight with LaShay just before she died. He wanted to test the proverb ‘Every dog has its day’. He was going to lock up forty, fifty dogs in a dark room, to simulate night, and just leave them there. Wanted to “falsify the hypothesis”. Cat said absolutely not, that was animal cruelty. So he did it anyway without telling her. She was enraged.”

“Did she ever make any threats? Say she was going to blow the whistle on the lab or anything?”

“No, nothing like that. She said she was going to let sleeping dogs lie. Sorry. I don’t think she had any enemies. She could be paranoid, she could be strange, but she was a good person, deep down. She wouldn’t have done this.”

“What’s that?” Officer Karp interrupted.

He was pointing to a corner of the kitchen. At first I didn’t see it. Then I did. There was a little drop of blood on the floor.

“Mr. Lee, do we have your full permission to search this house?” I asked. Officer Karp was already calling the station, letting them know they were going to need to send out an evidence collection team.

“Of course,” said Mr. Lee. “I have nothing to hide.”

Officer Karp went to the cabinet just next to the bloodstain, reached in, and pulled out a human heart.

“I…I swear I have no idea how that got there,” said Mr. Lee.

“How late did you sleep yesterday morning, when the murder happened?” I asked.

“I…it was my day off. I slept until ten.”

“And your house is about a fifteen minute drive from the lab. So in theory, your wife could have killed Ms. Bird, left the Proverb Laboratory, come back home, hid the heart in your cupboard, then gone back to the Proverb Laboratory and hung herself, all before anyone else showed up for work at nine.”

“Why…why would Cat have done that?” pled Mr. Lee.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Did she have any motive for disliking Ms. Bird other than the affair issue? Anything at all?”

“Nothing,” said her husband. “She spoke very highly of Ms. Lee. Apparently her computer had a virus once, and Ms. Bird solved it. She’d gotten a degree in cybersecurity from MIT before ending up in this job, and she was always working hard to keep the servers safe.”

“One more question. Do you know who stole your wife’s body from the morgue?”

“What?” asked Mr. Lee. “Someone stole…”

“This guy’s as surprised as we are,” said Officer Karp. “I say he’s not a suspect.”

We drove back to the station in silence. Either Catherine Lee had murdered her coworker, driven home to hide her heart in a cabinet, and then gone back to work before killing herself – or somebody had put a lot of work into making it look that way. And somebody had stolen her body from the morgue. And there was some sort of web of international intrigue surrounding Doctor LaShay.

I decided I was going to go home, catch up on my sleep, and then think this over really hard.

III.

Sunday morning I walked back into the Proverb Laboratory. I was trying to get to Dr. LaShay’s office, but I had ended up in the scale model of Rome again. I hadn’t even taken an elevator, and it was on the tenth floor. That no longer confused me. I had finally figured out what I should have realized days earlier.

“Dammit!” said LaShay, almost bumping into me. “Rome again!”

“Doctor Zachary LaShay,” I said, “You are under arrest, for the murders of Ms. Lisa Bird and Catherine Lee. You have…”

“You can’t arrest me!” he said.

“…the right to remain silent,” I continued. “Anything you say can and…”

Two men in black uniforms and sunglasses stumbled into the Rome set just behind him.

“No,” said LaShay. “I mean you can’t arrest me. The federal government has taken over the investigation, as of today. The entire affair has been classified as top secret. You’re not even allowed to be here anymore.”

I sighed. “Then I’ll just take a moment to talk with one of these agents…”

The agents didn’t move.

“You have one minute to get off this property,” said Dr. LaShay, “or you will be in violation of federal law.”

“All right,” I told the agents. “Listen up.” Then I explained everything.

The Proverb Laboratory didn’t exist to test proverbs at all. Or they did, but not in the way they claimed. The Proverb Laboratory existed to test the Machine. A device that makes proverbs real. The Machine exerted some kind of invisible force. The closer you got, the more the English language warped reality in order to make proverbs come true.

Why had Lisa Bird’s tongue and heart been missing? Because the proverb goes “Cat got your tongue”. The Machine’s power had forced Cat to take Lisa’s tongue and bring it somewhere that would qualify as her “having” it. And the same force had made her bring the heart home, because “Home is where the heart is”. She hadn’t meant to take the stomach too, but had removed it for better access, since “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”. Then her corpse, which had spent years absorbing the Machine’s malevolent radiation, had vanished from the body bag where it was kept – “Cat’s out of the bag”.

What had Catherine used to bash Lisa’s head in? The obvious candidate was one of the gemstone paperweights hidden in her desk, which she had brought back at the same time as she brought the tongue. I hadn’t been able to find bloodstains on any of the paperweights, but that was unsurprising; “You can’t get blood from a stone”. She lived in a glass house, and had broken the rule about throwing stones, and so ended up dead and a murderer. The saying goes: “Kill two birds with one stone”. Catherine had killed Lisa Bird; where was the other? Simple. Lisa sat on a chair made of hands, and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. She was worth two birds all on her own.

But it was too perfect. How had it all come together? A paranoid lady who thought everyone was having an affair with her husband. Who lived in a glass house and owned gemstone paperweights. Sharing a building with a woman named Bird. Who was sitting on a chair made of hands. In the closest office to the machine that made proverbs true. This wasn’t a coincidence. This was planned. Someone must have arranged for a paranoid woman who lived in a glass house to be on the spot, given her the stone paperweights as presents, placed Bird on the hand-chair, then relied on the Machine to twist reality into committing the crime for him. They must have guessed that after it was all over, Lee would recover her senses, feel terrible guilt, and kill herself. Who could have done that? LaShay was the only person powerful enough to make it all happen.

LaShay was lying about the memorial to Rissum. They hadn’t built a temple on the spot where Rissum died. That temple was Rissum himself. He had fallen into the very center of the Machine, where the reality-bending force approached infinity and proverbs would come true no matter how unlikely. “My body is a temple”. Rissum’s body was transformed into a temple in mid-air, then fell onto the ground below. Why would LaShay hide this? Could it be because he had pushed Rissum into the machine himself to seize complete control over the operation?

But why? The rumor Mr. Lee had told me tied everything together. Dr. LaShay was still with the English Defense League. They had designed the Machine. He had pretended to go mainstream, pretended to partner with Dr. Rissum, in order to get enough money and status to build their invention. Now he was slowly testing its capacities, secretly funneling the results to his secretive language-cult. Rissum had been a convenient co-founder, but had to go in order to give LaShay full control. He had pushed him into the Machine, disguised it as a suicide, and was funneling the information – how?

Through a worm in the computer system. After all, the workers here all had Apple computers, and every apple has its worm. But LaShay hadn’t realized that along with her sysadmin work, Lisa was an expert in cybersecurity, nor that she would come in two hours early every Friday. “The early Bird catches the worm.” Lisa had found the infection and destroyed it. She hadn’t realized it was important, but LaShay realized he couldn’t reinfect the system without her finding it again and getting suspicious, and he couldn’t fire her without raising eyebrows. So instead, he had arranged matters perfectly to guarantee she would get killed.

“Wow,” said Dr. LaShay after a second. “You’re actually right about everything. Except for one thing. The most important thing.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Not real federal agents,” he said, gesturing at the men in black. “They’re with me.” He turned to them. “Throw him in the Machine.”

I reached for my gun, but the agents were faster than I was, wrestled it away from me. Then one of them held each of my arms and started dragging me to the observation deck. A slight delay as we ended up back in Rome. Then we were there, and I was standing over the great rotating cylinder, staring at the shrine of Dr. Rissum below.

“Please don’t let me die,” I said. “I’m begging you. Please spare my life.”

“You really think we care about that?” asked the first agent.

They pushed me to the edge of the scaffold.

“You really think I was begging because I thought you’d listen?” I said, but before I finished he had thrown me over. There was a gust of wind and a feeling of terrible wrongness.

When I had fallen five stories, into the very center of the Machine, I wished.

A flying horse was somewhat outside the scope of the relevant proverb, but there was no other way I was going to “ride” while in midair, so I got one. It made landfall right on the observation scaffold, then rushed for the door. The two agents rushed after it. Somewhere in the corridor, the horse dissolved, its Machine-powered existence apparently expending itself this far from the source.

I ran frantically through the corridor. “After him, you fools!” I heard LaShay shout. I reached the point where I thought the elevator should be, but of course I was in fricking Rome again.

One of the agents ran in, reached for his gun.

I ducked behind the terraced hill. There beside the desk was the gladiator costume, complete with weapons. I picked up a trident. “Ave Imperator!” I said. “Morituri te salutant!” Like a miracle, it worked. The agent aimed at me and pulled the trigger, but the gun blew up in his face. This close to the Machine, he should have known: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

The agent was still on his feet. I had made the mistake of getting far enough from the hill-desk that the agent could pick up the abandoned sword. He rushed at me. I didn’t know how to swordfight, so after a second of thought I took a pen out of my pocket, parried with it. The sword shattered, and ink squirted out into the agent’s face.

While he was trying to wipe off the ink and get his vision back, I ran out of Rome into one of the nearby corridors, then ducked into a randomly chosen door. Everything was pitch black.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” the agent shouted. “You can run, but you can’t hide!” Frick. I had forgotten that. In this place, the saying itself probably made that literally true. I heard the two agents opening and closing all the other doors in the corridor, getting inevitably closer to me.

Then I felt something cold and wet press against my hand. I almost screamed, giving away my location, but after a second it…licked me. I remembered what Mr. Lee had told me. Dr. LaShay had stuck fifty dogs in a completely dark room to test a proverb. I felt around. More and more dogs started to trot up to me, mouths panting, tails wagging. I had one chance.

I flung the door open as hard as I could “Run away, doggos!” I shouted. “Run like the wind! This is it! THIS IS YOUR DAY!”

The dogs didn’t need to be told twice. They rushed out of the room, a yapping growling barking mass of teeth and fur. Big dogs, little dogs, old dogs, young dogs, the whole mass of dogs ran right into the agents, knocked them over.

“Call off your dogs!” one of the agents shouted, but I didn’t. Instead, I cried “Havoc!”, and let loose the dogs of war. I figured their bark would be worse than their bite; on the other hand, once bitten, twice shy. It probably balanced out. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to worry about the agents for a few minutes.

I ran to where I thought the elevator would be, and of fricking course landed in Rome again. And worse, there was the Doctor, who was holding the trident I had abandoned. The sword was nowhere to be seen. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fool him. He had probably forgotten more proverbs than I had ever learned.

Ave Imperator!,” said Dr. LaShay, approaching unarmed-me with his trident. “Morituri te salutant.” Even his Latin was better than mine. I wished I was first in a village. But hope beyond hope, I realized that the computer at the terraced-hill desk was an Apple. I grabbed it, pulled out the plug, brandished it before me. The Doctor staggered back, as if kept away by an invisible wall.

But it didn’t hold him for long. He stretched out his arm as far as it could go, lunged at the computer with the deadly trident. The screen shattered and went black, its power lost.

I ran through the maze of corridors, and LaShay followed, trident in hand. After several turns, I reached where I thought the elevator would be, but Rome was everywhere at once, and I had lost my bearings. I ended up in the Observation Room, standing on the iron scaffold above the machine, as LaShay and his trident came towards me.

“So,” he said, “you figured out a way around being thrown into the Machine. ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’ Clever. You could have been a great proverb researcher. But instead you had to meddle where you didn’t belong.”

“If you throw me into the pit, I’ll just get another flying horse,” I told him.

“Of course you will. So I’ll have to kill you with the trident.” I was backed up against the wall of the observation chamber. LaShay approached me confidently, knowing I was cornered.

“You really think you’re going to win this?” I asked. It wasn’t just to buy time. I really did have a plan, crazy as it was, but the more I could get him gloating, the better it would work.

“Of course,” said LaShay. “I killed Bird and Lee, and now I’m going to kill you. Your death here will actually be quite convenient. I’ll announce that the Machine is too dangerous and needs to be taken apart. Then the version the English Defense League is building in secret will be the only one in the world. With the data we’ve gathered here, they’ll be able to direct its power anywhere on the planet. Imagine what we’ll be able to do. Enlist old soldiers who are impossible to kill. Build fortresses on demand by turning arbitrary Englishmen’s homes into castles. Control the seas using loose lips. Soon English-speakers will rule the world. And nothing – absolutely nothing – can stop us!”

Perfect.

“You’ve forgotten three things,” I said. “First, that the lever is right here.”

I grabbed the lever on the control panel and jerked it to SUPRAULTRAMAXIMUM. The air started to shimmer, and the walls started to shake.

“Second, that pride cometh before a fall.”

The iron scaffolding started to tilt. LaShay stumbled, dropped his trident, almost tumbled over the edge, hung on just by the tips of his fingers.

“And third, that crime doesn’t pay!

I grabbed the pointy end of the trident, and smashed it into LaShay’s fingers. With a scream, he fell into the belly of the Machine.

“Ibegyounottodothis,” he said, and just like that he was on a winged horse. It flew up, towards the door and freedom.

I looked it in the mouth. I stared it straight in the mouth, looked as hard as I could, like my eyes were drilling into it. It started flickering, flying more slowly and hesitantly. “I beg, I beg, I beg,” said LaShay. We stood there like that for a few seconds, him trying to wish harder, me trying to look the gift horse in the mouth harder, until finally the horse vanished, and LaShay fell back into the machine.

“I beg, I beg, I beg!” he said again, there appeared another horse, a horse of a different color. I looked it in the mouth again. It rose more slowly and hesitantly. But LaShay leaned forward, finally covered its mouth with his hand so I couldn’t see it. “Your looking has no power anymore!” LaShay said triumphantly, and I believed him, since it came straight from the horse’s mouth. The impediment removed, the horse shot upwards, right up to the ceiling of the chamber.

“Get off your high horse,” I said, and the horse vanished a second time. A third time LaShay fell into the Machine, a third time he begged, and a third time a horse appeared beneath him. Again I started looking it in the mouth. Again he covered it with his hand, this time guiding the horse more slowly, trying not to let it overshoot and become higher than I was.

With a whinny of victory, the horse’s hoof landed on solid scaffold. And that was when I struck the hoof with my trident.

For the want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost. For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For the want of a horse, LaShay lost his footing and tumbled back into the pit. He tried begging again, but it didn’t work; that wasn’t the proverb. For want of the horse, the rider had to be lost, for want of the rider, the battle, and finally the war and kingdom with it. He fell through the Machine, all the way down. By the time he hit the ground, he had turned into another temple, standing silently beside the temple of his co-founder.

I moved the lever to OFF. Then, avoiding the sound of barking and screaming – and only getting stuck in Rome twice – I finally made it back to the elevator and left the building.

IV.

My department was able to make contact with the real military. They completed their investigation, and chose to shut down the Proverb Laboratory and destroy the Machine.

The two agents were found to be cultists with the English Defense League. On questioning, they led the government to their headquarters. The second Machine, the one that threatened to take over the world, was also found and destroyed.

I asked the prosecutor’s office to submit a statement officially declaring that Catherine Lee was not responsible for Lisa Bird’s murder, based on a sort of complicated insanity defense where she had been compelled to act by the Machine’s influence. I don’t think the prosecutor really bought it, but I think he figured she was dead anyway, so what was the harm?

Catherine’s body was never found, which didn’t surprise me. She really had absorbed a lot of radiation, working for the Laboratory for five years, and “the cat is out of the bag”, while true, didn’t suffice to explain how she had disappeared or where she was. I only figured it out later, after the whole battle with LaShay.

This life hadn’t treated Cat too kindly. I hope things go better during her next eight.

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OT121: Openumbra Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Thanks to everyone who attended the Irvine meetup last weekend. If you’re interested in a more regular meetup group there, please email rayhsu16[at]gmail[dot]com to get your name added to the mailing list.

2. And thanks to everyone who sent me names to put on the Psychiat-List. Just a reminder that I’m still looking for your recommendations for psychiatrists and therapists anywhere that SSC readers might live.

3. On the preferred comment order poll, people were about evenly split between newest-first vs. oldest-first, but there was a clearer preference for “oldest-first on content posts, newest-first on open threads” if we can manage it. Niohiki posted some code that should be able to do this, but I haven’t been able to get it to work; niohiki, if you’re reading this send me an email at scott[at]slatestarcodex[dot]com and we’ll talk it over. In the meantime, eigenmoon has posted a user-side solution.

4. The infamous “Culture War Thread” and other discussions of hot-button controversial potentially-triggering issues have been banned from the SSC subreddit. Some of the culture war thread moderators have created a new unofficial subreddit for those kinds of discussions, r/TheMotte. If you’re interested in talking about those kinds of issues beyond the level that happens here, please check it out. I see the top thread there already has 500 comments, making me less concerned that it’s going to die off immediately. I know people have a lot of questions about this and I’ll probably talk about it in more depth later.

5. Comment of the week: Random Critical Analysis has defended their theory of US health care costs against a criticism I made in my last Links post.

6. This is my first Valentine’s Day after breaking up with my primary partner and I’m feeling kind of down. If anyone knows someone you think would be a good match for me, feel free to try to set me up. I’m kind of poly, kind of asexual, want children, and live in the East Bay. My email is scott[at]slatestarcodex[dot]com.

7. Commenter ‘a reader’ has helped run the Open Threads here and keep them on time (today’s thread being late was entirely my fault, not theirs). In exchange, I’ve added an ad for their Retro Vintage Store on Zazzle; please check it out.

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Irvine Meetup This Saturday

Where: Underneath this mysterious hexagonal sigil at the University Center food court in Irvine, California. People from LA, San Diego, etc welcome!

When: 8:30 PM on Saturday, February 9th. Sorry for the late hour, my schedule is complicated and this was the only way to make it work.

Who: Anyone who wants. Please feel free to come even if you feel awkward about it, even if you’re not “the typical SSC reader”, even if you’re worried people won’t like you, etc. People who fit those descriptions who decided to come to previous meetups have mostly enjoyed them.

You won’t regret it Only 11.9% of you will regret it, with another 27.7% having no strong opinion either way!

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Survey Results On SSRIs

SSRIs are the most widely used class of psychiatric medications, helpful for depression, anxiety, OCD, panic, PTSD, anger, and certain personality disorders (Why should the same drug treat all these things? Great question!) They’ve been pretty thoroughly studied, but there’s still a lot we don’t understand about them.

The SSC Survey is less rigorous than most existing studies, but its many questions and very high sample size provide a different tool to investigate some of these issues. I asked fifteen questions about SSRIs on the most recent survey and received answers from 2,090 people who had been on SSRIs. The sample included people on all six major SSRIs, but there were too few people on fluvoxamine (15) to have reliable results, so it was not included in most comparisons. Here’s what we found:

1. Do SSRIs work?

People seem to think so:

Made me feel much worse: 6%
Made me feel slightly worse: 7.4%
No net change in how I felt: 23.7%
Made me feel slightly better: 41.4%
Made me feel much better: 21.4%

Of course, these statistics include the placebo effect and so cannot be taken entirely at face value.

2. Do some SSRIs work better than others?

I asked people to rate their experience with the medication, on a scale from 1 to 10. Here were the results:

Lexapro (356): 5.7
Zoloft (470): 5.6
Prozac (339): 5.5
Celexa (233): 5.4
Paxil (126): 4.6

Paxil differed significantly from the others; the others did not differ significantly among themselves. In a second question where participants were just asked to rate their SSRIs from -2 (“made me feel much worse”) to +2 (“made me feel much better”), the ranking was preserved, and Lexapro also separated from Celexa.

This ranking correlates at r = 0.98 (!?!) with my previous study of this taken from drugs.com ratings.

I don’t generally hear that Paxil is less effective than other SSRIs, but I have heard that it causes worse side effects. The survey question (probably wrongly) encouraged people to rate side effects as “negative efficacy”. My guess is that the difference here is mostly driven by side effects.

3. Do SSRIs work better for anxiety than for depression?

I’ve heard a few people mention this, and it makes sense as one reason why they remain so popular among patients and doctors while rarely producing large effects on specialized depression tests.

On the same scale as above:

Anxiety (391): 5.9
OCD (24): 5.8
Depression (1203): 5.3
Panic (26): 5.5
Anger (26): 5.2

There is a pretty strong effect in favor of anxiety over depression. There were not enough OCD, panic, or anger patients to get a clear picture of where those fell in relation to the other two. As far as I know this is the first study to back this claim up. But since I didn’t directly ask about dose, we can’t rule out that doctors give higher doses for anxiety and higher doses work better.

4. How many people experience side effects on SSRIs?

70% of people taking the drugs had at least one of the side effects on the list below:

(on this list, mild is exclusive of severe. So for example if 10% of people had mild side effects and 5% of people had severe side effects, a total of 15% of people had at least mild side effects)

SEXUAL DIFFICULTIES:
Severe: 11%
Mild: 41%
None: 48%

EMOTIONAL BLUNTING:
Severe: 8%
Mild: 31%
None: 61%

FATIGUE:
Severe: 6%
Mild: 18%
None: 76%

COGNITIVE DIFFICULTIES:
Severe: 3%
Mild: 16%
None: 81%

MADE DEPRESSION WORSE:
Severe: 2%
Mild: 5%
None: 93%

The more recently someone took the SSRI, the more side effects they were likely to have. While I can imagine innocent explanations for this, the most likely is recall bias: after a while, people forgot about some side effects. The real numbers are probably a little higher than this.

Most people’s side effects went away quickly after stopping the SSRI, but 15% of people who stopped the medication more than five years ago said their side effects never went away. Although post-SSRI-sexual-dysfunction is sort of known to the psychiatric consensus, this is a shockingly high number, which doesn’t seem consistent to me with how little you hear about this; I’m not sure what to think. The survey wasn’t really designed to ask which side effects these were, but just eyeballing the individual entries it looks like mostly sexual, with a small amount of emotional thrown in. But these are just the two most common side effects, so it doesn’t necessarily mean these two are more persistent than others.

5. Do some SSRIs produce worse side effects than others?

I think the psychiatric consensus on this question is that Paxil has worse side effects than the others, which are all equal.

This survey failed to directly replicate that. Four of the five side effects elicited (sexual difficulties, fatigue, emotional blunting, cognitive problems) were the same across all drugs. The only one that differed was worsened depression, which was slightly less common on Zoloft. This was technically significant but given the number of tests I would not put too much stock in this.

I forgot to ask about a few important side effects, including weight gain. I suspect that Paxil scored worst on the “overall” category because it produced worse side effects in the categories I forgot to ask about, or because people remembered it had side effects but couldn’t remember exactly what they were. Overall this survey doesn’t really make me doubt the consensus that it is probably worst.

6. How many people have trouble discontinuing SSRIs?

Good question! This has been a topic of interminable debate in the medical community, with some saying these problems are very common and others saying they are very rare. This survey found:

59% don’t remember having any issues at all
22% remember having a few minimal issues but not really thinking about them
14% remember having moderate issues that caused significant distress but were not disabling
5% remember having severe issues that seriously impacted quality of life

6. What factors made SSRI discontinuation easier or harder?

Hard to tell.

Everyone believes that a more gradual taper makes things easier, but the survey quite clearly found that people who reported longer tapers had worse problems. I’m pretty sure this is because if their doctor expected them to have problems (or they started it and did have problems) they put them on a longer taper. But this kind of thing makes it hard to make any real recommendations. However, people who came off their medication accidentally because they ran out did have by far the worst time, suggesting that cold turkey discontinuation really isn’t the way to go.

The longer a person had been on SSRIs, the harder their taper was likely to be. However, I’ve heard some people give overly dire warnings like “If you’re on these drugs for more than five years, don’t try coming off”. These were not justified. Even among people who were on the medication over five years, 49% tapered with “no issues”, and only 15% reported severe issues.

People with anxiety and OCD reported more difficult discontinuation than people with depression. This could be either because these conditions require higher doses, or because people with anxiety and OCD are more likely to notice and worry about minor symptoms.

Psychiatric consensus says that Paxil is the hardest SSRI to get off, and Prozac is the easiest. This survey confirmed that result. On a scale from 0 – 10, where 0 is the easiest discontinuation and 10 is the most difficult:

Paxil: 2.8
Lexapro: 2.7
Zoloft: 2.2
Celexa: 2.1
Prozac: 1.5

Prozac separated from Zoloft, Lexapro, and Paxil, but not from Celexa. The average person had only a 59% chance of having no discontinuation symptoms; the average person on Prozac had a 71% chance.

In any case, almost everybody’s taper was successful eventually. Only 0.5% of people said they gave up and stayed on the SSRI because they found discontinuation too difficult.

Summary

This survey had few surprises.

Already when giving someone an SSRI, I debate between Lexapro and Prozac. Lexapro is usually the most effective (by a tiny hair), but Prozac is the least likely to cause discontinuation syndrome. Although a natural strategy might be to taper Lexapro (or something else) very slowly in order to match Prozac’s slow half-life, studies show this doesn’t work (why not?), and this survey confirms it. There is no obvious right answer between these two as first-choice SSRI. This study does confirm my prejudice that giving Paxil is an obvious wrong answer and you should never do it outside specific rare circumstances.

The main surprise was the high number of people who claim their SSRI side effects never went away. Although this is a known very rare possibility, the survey suggested it was much less rare. One can imagine innocent ways this could happen: for example, someone goes on SSRIs for ten years, comes off, and is surprised to find their sex drive is lower than it was when they were a teenager ten years ago. This probably requires more careful and rigorous study than can be done in a silly online survey – and so will probably never happen.

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Respectability Cascades

I.

I don’t know much about gay history, but the heavily mythicized version of it I heard goes like this:

At first open homosexuality was totally taboo. A few groups of respectable people with hilariously upper-class names like The Mattachine Society and The Daughters Of Bilitis quietly tried to influence elites in favor of more tolerance, using whatever backchannels elites use to influence one another. They had limited success, but they comforted themselves that at least they were presenting a likeable and respectable face for homosexuality that was improving the lifestyle’s public reputation.

Then a few totally-non-respectable outsiders with nothing to lose – addicts, drag queens, men with lots of chest hair who dressed in leather and called themselves “bears” – publicly came out as gay, held pride parades, shouted things about “WE’RE HERE, WE’RE QUEER”, et cetera. They were very easy to dislike and most people easily disliked them. But once they did this enough, people who were maybe 10% of the way to being respectable – people not addicted to quite so many drugs, men without quite so much chest hair – felt comfortable joining in. Once enough of them were out, people who were 20% of the way to being respectable felt comfortable coming out, and so on. Then 30% respectable people, then 40% respectable people, all the way up to the present day where there are a bunch of openly gay members of Congress.

I know there are lots of debates over whether this kind of “respectability cascade” is the way it really happened, but it’s a neat model of a way that these things can happen.

II.

And it’s especially interesting because it’s the opposite of the way I usually think about these things.

When I did pre-med in college, I learned physiology from a distinguished professor whose focus was herpetology – the study of reptiles and amphibians. His pet issue was endocrine disruption – hormone-like pollutants that were changing the sexual maturation of frogs and other animals, and which were suspected to have deleterious effects on humans. He made us read a bunch of papers on this, all of which demonstrated a clear scientific consensus that this was a well-known environmental problem and all the respectable environmentalists and herpetologists were concerned about it.

After college I went about a decade without thinking about it. Then people started making fun of Alex Jones’ CHEMICALZ R TURNING TEH FROGZ GAY!!! shtick. I innocently said that this was definitely happening and definitely deserved our concern, and discovered that this was no longer an acceptable thing to talk about in the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand And Whatever. Okay. Lesson learned.

We can imagine a world where endocrine disruptors proceeded the same way gay rights did. A few distinguished scientists sounded the warning in acceptable elite language to other elites, but they were a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Then 0% respectable conspiracy theorists took to Twitter to make all-caps posts about TURNING TEH FROGZ GAY!!! At first they were roundly despised, but a few 10%-respectable people saw the taboo was broken and joined in, and then 20% respectable people saw the taboo had weakened even further, and so on. Finally, the cascade catches up to members of Congress, who ban the polluting chemicals. The distinguished scientists thank God for sending Alex Jones to accomplish what they could not.

But in this world, my impression is that the scientists were making slow-but-non-zero progress, doing really good work, and then Jones’s adoption of the cause destroyed it. Now it’s much harder for the scientists to convince anyone to care, because caring has become a signal that you’re a conspiracy theorist or otherwise a disrespectable person. Jones hasn’t just failed to contribute to the fight against endocrine disruptors, he’s shot it in the foot. My professor should send him a private email asking him to shut up for the good of the cause, and to leave the issue to people who can wage it non-counterproductively, ie 100% respectable elite scientists.

This is the worldview I was trying to get across in Trump: A Setback For Trumpism. Polls show that ever since Trump entered the national stage, support for tariffs and border control have fallen. Probably this is for the same reason that concern about frog hormones would have fallen if anyone did a poll on it – the issue became associated with disreputable people, so the respectable people fled from it lest they be contaminated with low status.

It’s also related to the point I make about Voat here. Reddit makes some unpopular moderation policies. It has all sorts of users, from 0% respectable racist trolls to 100% respectable academics in AskHistorians who will answer your oddly specific questions on medieval Swiss dentistry. Maybe all of them have some concerns about the new moderation, but the 0% respectable trolls have the most concern and are vocal in the fight against it. This leads to opposing the moderation policies getting coded as “racist troll”, and means the other discussion sites that spring up as possible alternatives are so disreputable that nobody with any kind of a reputation dares to go there. Again, the 0% respectable people taking up a theme discourage anybody else from following, lest they be associated with toxic people.

III.

So we have two opposite lessons.

In the first, 0%-respectable-people taking up a cause is a good and necessary first step, and means that soon 10% and 20% respectable people will take it up. It is the beginning of a respectability cascade that will redeem the cause from the pit of taboo-ness permanently.

In the second, 0%-respectable-people taking up a cause dooms it forever. It is the beginning of a disrespectability cascade that will make the cause too toxic for anyone above that respectability level to ever dare associate with.

So what does one do?

I’m particularly thinking here of one of my own hobbyhorses, the fight to protect scientific integrity from regressive leftism. My strategy so far has been to let Stephen Pinker and Jonathan Haidt do all the talking, and only talk myself if I feel like I can speak with the same level of dignity, respectability, and scientific backing they do. As for random people on Twitter who are likely to speak in ALL CAPS, on the rare occasions when they seek my opinion, I give them the advice of the great poet John Milton, who wrote “They also serve who only stand and wait and keep their idiot mouths shut”.

Yet I can’t help but notice that this is pursuing the same kind of strategy as the Mattachine Society and all of those other elite groups who never made more than the tiniest contribution to gay rights. “Get your most respectable members to serve as public spokespeople, and keep your least respectable members quiet so they don’t ruin your image” sounds like a good strategy. But it’s the opposite of the respectability cascade theory, and that theory is convincing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since that New York Times article on the “Intellectual Dark Web”, because those people seem like the second level of the respectability cascade. None of them are Congressmen yet, but all of them are a step beyond Milo Yiannopoulos. This has made me wonder if maybe there’s something to this after all?

Even beyond the strategic perspective, it’s just sort of embarrassing to have two good theories of how society and politics work that make opposite predictions from each other. What are some heuristics for when one would work rather than another?

Homosexuality started out as already maximally taboo; endocrine disruptors and immigration started out as merely under-discussed. Maybe disrespectable people can’t hurt an already-maximally-taboo cause, but can harm an under-discussed one?

Gay people – even 0%-respectable drug-addicted gay people – seem more sympathetic and likeable than Alex Jones or his fans, so maybe their visibility was more of a positive. But is this just me projecting my 2010s post-gay-victory values back on the past?

People leaving Reddit went to a specific alternative community – Voat – whereas people coming out as gay kept some of their existing relationships intact. Maybe socializing in a specific community made up of disrespectable people is a hard sell, but admitting to a lifestyle practiced by disrespectable people is easier?

Gay people had no choice but to be gay, whereas environmentalists (and conservatives) could pivot from caring about endocrine disruptors and immigration to some other environmental or conservative cause that might have mattered just as much to them. Maybe respectable people with lots of equally good alternatives are more likely to be repulsed by disrespectable people rather than throw their lot in with them?

But keeping all that in mind, what advice would you give Jonathan Haidt? Should he tell random disrespectable anti-SJW Twitter trolls to shut up? Or should he tell them to shout even louder? It still seems like a hard question.

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Book Review: Zero To One

I.

Zero To One might be the first best-selling business book based on a Tumblr. Stanford student Blake Masters took Peter Thiel’s class on startups. He posted his notes on Tumblr after each lecture. They became a minor sensation. Thiel asked if he wanted to make them into a book together. He did.

The title comes from Thiel’s metaphor that ordinary businessmen like restaurant owners take a product “from 1 to n” (shouldn’t this be from n to n+1?) – they build more of something that already exists. But the greatest entrepreneurs bring something “from 0 to 1” – they invent something that has never been seen before.

The book has various pieces of advice for such entrepreneurs. Three sections especially struck me: on monopolies, on secrets, and on indefinite optimism.

II.

A short review can’t fully do justice to the book’s treatment of monopolies. Gwern’s look at commoditizing your complement almost does (as do some tweets). But the basic economic argument goes like this: In a normal industry (eg restaurant ownership) competition should drive profit margins close to zero. Want to open an Indian restaurant in Mountain View? There will be another on the same street, and two more just down the way. If you automate every process that can be automated, mercilessly pursue efficiency, and work yourself and your employees to the bone – then you can just barely compete on price. You can earn enough money to live, and to not immediately give up in disgust and go into another line of business (after all, if you didn’t earn that much, your competitors would already have given up in disgust and gone into another line of business, and your task would be easier). But the average Indian restaurant is in an economic state of nature, and its life will be nasty, brutish, and short.

This was the promise of the classical economists: capitalism will optimize for consumer convenience, while keeping businesses themselves lean and hungry. And it was Marx’s warning: businesses will compete so viciously that nobody will get any money, and eventually even the capitalists themselves will long for something better. Neither the promise nor the warning has been borne out: business owners are often comfortable and sometimes rich. Why? Because they’ve escaped competition and become at least a little monopoly-like. Thiel says this is what entrepreneurs should be aiming for.

He hates having to describe how businesses succeed, because he thinks it’s too anti-inductive to reduce to a formula:

Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.

But he grudgingly describes four ways that a company can successfully reach monopolyhood:

1. Proprietary technology. This one is straightforward. If you invent the best technology, and then you patent it, nobody else can compete with you. Thiel provocatively says that your technology must be 10x better than anyone else’s to have a chance of working. If you’re only twice as good, you’re still competing. You may have a slight competitive advantage, but you’re still competing and your life will be nasty and brutish and so on just like every other company’s. Nobody has any memory of whether Lycos’ search engine was a little better than AltaVista’s or vice versa; everybody remembers that Google’s search engine was orders of magnitude above either. Lycos and AltaVista competed; Google took over the space and became a monopoly.

2. Network effects. Immortalized by Facebook. It doesn’t matter if someone invents a social network with more features than Facebook. Facebook will be better than their just by having all your friends on it. Network effects are hard because no business will have them when it first starts. Thiel answers that businesses should aim to be monopolies from the very beginning – they should start by monopolizing a tiny market, then moving up. Facebook started by monopolizing the pool of Harvard students. Then it scaled up to the pool of all college students. Now it’s scaled up to the whole world, and everyone suspects Zuckerberg has somebody working on ansible technology so he can monopolize the Virgo Supercluster. Similarly, Amazon started out as a bookstore, gained a near-monopoly on books, and used all of the money and infrastructure and distribution it won from that effort to feed its effort to monopolize everything else. Thiel describes how his own company PayPal identified eBay power sellers as its first market, became indispensible in that tiny pool, and spread from there.

3. Economies of scale. Also pretty straightforward, and especially obvious for software companies. Since the marginal cost of a unit of software is near-zero, your cost per unit is the cost of building the software divided by the number of customers. If you have twice as many customers as your nearest competitor, you can charge half as much money (or make twice as much profit), and so keep gathering more customers in a virtuous cycle.

4. Branding Apple is famous enough that it can charge more for its phones than Amalgamated Cell Phones Inc, even for comparable products. Partly this is because non-experts don’t know how to compare cell phones, and might not trust Consumer Reports style evaluations; Apple’s reputation is an unfakeable sign that their products are pretty good. And partly it’s just people paying extra for the right to say “I have an iPhone, so I’m cooler than you”. Another company that wants Apple’s reputation would need years of successful advertising and immense good luck, so Apple’s brand separates it from the competition and from the economic state of nature.

Thiel continues with various counterintuitive pieces of wisdom. Don’t try to “disrupt” your field – if you’re “disrupting” someone, it means you’re competing with them, and making enemies who will try to hold you back. Don’t try to be the “first mover” (Yahoo was the first-mover in the search engine space), instead try to be the “last mover” whom nobody is able to supplant. Etc, etc. Just try to get a monopoly or something like it.

Is all of this a plot against the public? Monopolies are usually viewed as cheating the system and preventing progress; is Thiel promoting that behavior to the detriment of society? Well, obviously he says he isn’t:

The problem with a competitive business goes beyond lack of profits. Imagine you’re running one of those restaurants in Mountain View. You’re not that different from dozens of your competitors, so you’ve got to fight hard to survive. If you offer affordable food with low margins, you can probably pay employees only minimum wage. And you’ll need to squeeze out every efficiency: that’s why small restaurants put Grandma to work at the register and make the kids wash dishes in the back. Restaurants aren’t much better even at the very highest rungs, where reviews and ratings like Michelin’s star system enforce a culture of intense competition that can drive chefs crazy. (French chef and winner of three Michelin stars Bernard Loiseau was quoted as saying, “If I lose a star, I will commit suicide.” Michelin maintained his rating, but Loiseau killed himself anyway in 2003 when a competing French dining guide downgraded his restaurant.) The competitive ecosystem pushes people toward ruthlessness or death.

A monopoly like Google is different. Since it doesn’t have to worry about competing with anyone, it has wider latitude to care about its workers, its products, and its impact on the wider world. Google’s motto — “Don’t be evil” — is in part a branding ploy, but it’s also characteristic of a kind of business that’s successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

So monopolies’ advantages include being better for employees, more socially responsible, and able to engage in long-term thinking. The classic examples of this (which I don’t think Thiel brought up) are Bell Labs and Xerox PARC. Two monopolistic companies with more money than they knew what to do with started super-basic-blue-sky research centers that ended up creating many of the technologies that shaped the modern world (Bell Labs, started by AT&T, helped invent the transistor, the laser, information theory, UNIX, C, C++, radio astronomy, etc; PARC, started by Xerox, helped invent Ethernet, laser printing, the personal computer, graphical user interfaces, object-oriented programming, bitmaps, and the LCD.) Google X wants to be the modern version of this kind of thing, though I don’t know how much success they’ve had so far.

On the other hand, all of the classical disadvantages of monopolies are still there. Monopolies remove the pressure to do a good job – whether that’s in keeping prices low, keeping working conditions tolerable, or in keeping products and service high-quality. They lower the diversity of an industry, making it more likely to get stuck in an evolutionary blind alley it can’t get out of; they increase the risk of merging with government into a crony capitalism. A wolf sheltered from survival-of-the-fittest for too long becomes a Chihuahua; Amazon sheltered from survival-of-the-fittest for too long becomes the DMV.

(also, isn’t Thiel the guy who wanted floating independent seasteads because competitive governance would break the monopoly of existing nation-states and lead to a revolutionary improvement in institutional capacity? Doesn’t that suggest even he acknowledges monopolies are often bad?)

I don’t think this is one of those issues that’s going to get decisively solved in a few paragraphs. Moloch and Slack are the new yin and yang, the new chaos and order; their interplay creates the Ten Thousand Things. Err too far towards competition and everyone works themselves to death in garment sweatshops; err too far towards monopoly and everyone sits at a desk filling out forms and backstabbing each other until the lights slowly go out. It’s only in the collision zone between the two that anything interesting ever happens.

One could rescue Thiel’s position by assuming that competition will always be with us. Google’s pretty monopoly-like, but even they can’t rest on their laurels too long. It’s not just that Bing might take over, but that advertisers might get better non-search-engine ways to place ads, Facebook might come up with better ways to target ads, some alternate platform like cell phones or VR might take over from classic Internet searches, or something else. Whatever their concern, real-life Google sure does seem to put a lot of effort into being competitive. So sure, maybe one has to find the sweet spot between perfect competition and perfect monopoly, but one could argue that right now only the most monopolistic companies are near that sweet spot.

III.

The rest of Zero To One becomes less directly about the startup world, and more about deep social trends that good startup founders will have to buck. One such trend – which Thiel approaches in a lot of different equivalent ways – is the loss of belief in secrets. People no longer believe that there are important things that they don’t know, but which they could discover if they tried a little harder.

Past scientific discoveries came from a belief in secrets. Isaac Newton wondered why apples fell, thought “Maybe if I work really hard on this problem, I can discover something nobody has ever learned before”, and then set out to do it. Modern people aren’t just less likely to think this way. They’re actively discouraged from it by a culture which mocks stories like Newton’s as “the myth of the lone genius”. Nowadays people get told that if they think they’ve figured out something about gravity, they’re probably a crackpot. Instead, they should wait for very large government-funded programs full of well-credentialled people to make incremental advances.

Good startups require a belief in secrets, where “secret” is equivalent to “violation of the efficient market hypothesis”. You believe you’ve discovered something that nobody else has: for example, that if you set up an online bookstore in such-and-such a way today, in thirty years you’ll be richer than God. This is an outrageously arrogant claim: that you have spotted a hundred-billion-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk that everyone else has missed. But only people who believe something like it can noncoincidentally found great companies. You must believe there are lucrative secrets hidden in plain sight.

Thiel relates this to the decline of cults (see these two essays fleshing out the phenomenon). Although cults may not be desirable, they are the failure mode of individuals and small groups trying to throw off conventional wisdom and discover profound new ways of looking at the world. Have we lost our cults because we no longer fail at this task, or because we no longer attempt it at all?

Belief in secrets is connected to belief in one’s own reasoning abilities. Modern conventional wisdom says armchair reasoning never works; any idea you prove true in your head is useless until it’s been exhaustively tested in real life, and you’re more likely to get some other (true) idea out of the exhaustive testing than to validate your armchair speculation. As a corollary, the more steps in your proof, the less likely it is, since each one exponentially increases the error rate of your final conclusion. Since your armchair reasoning is useless, you are unlikely to ever discover a secret (except perhaps by chance, if you randomly do experiments no one else has ever done). The only thing that might not be useless is large institutions working together to gradually advance knowledge with lots of testing, who effectively buy many lottery tickets hoping one will pay off.

The modern skepticism about secrets and reasoning implies a similar skepticism about planning. If the argument against multi-step reasoning is right, then a mildly Internet-famous scene from Harry Potter And The Methods Of Rationality is right too:

Father had told Draco about the Rule of Three, which was that any plot which required more than three different things to happen would never work in real life. Father had further explained that since only a fool would attempt a plot that was as complicated as possible, the real limit was two.

This disbelief in planning suggests, not a strategy, but a sort of meta-strategy. Do something vaguely in the space of what you want to do, don’t commit yourself to a specific plan, watch what happens, iterate, keep your options open at all time, and be prepared to pivot quickly once you know more.

But Thiel says the most successful visionaries of the past did the opposite of this. They knew what they wanted, planned a strategy, and achieved it. The Apollo Program wasn’t run by vague optimism and “keeping your options open”. It was run by some people who wanted to land on the moon, planned out how to make that happen, and followed the plan. Not slavishly, and certainly they were responsive to evidence that they should change tactics on specific points. But they had a firm vision of the goal in their minds, an approximate vision of what steps they would take to achieve it, and a belief that acheiving an ambitious long-term plan was the sort of thing that people could be expected to do. And great startups like SpaceX are much the same. Elon Musk started with a n-step plan to get to Mars, and he’s currently about halfway through.

He gives one particularly striking example of the past’s attitude to secrets and planning:

Bold plans were not reserved just for political leaders or government scientists. In the late 1940s, a Californian named John Reber set out to reinvent the physical geography of the whole San Francisco Bay Area. Reber was a schoolteacher, an amateur theater producer, and a self-taught engineer. Undaunted by his lack of credentials, he publicly proposed to build two huge dams in the Bay, construct massive freshwater lakes for drinking water and irrigation, and reclaim 20,000 acres of land for development. Even though he had no personal authority, people took the Reber Plan seriously. It was endorsed by newspaper editorial boards across California. The U.S. Congress held hearings on its feasibility. The Army Corps of Engineers even constructed a 1.5-acre scale model of the Bay in a cavernous Sausalito warehouse to simulate it. These tests revealed technical shortcomings, so the plan wasn’t executed.

But would anybody today take such a vision seriously in the first place? In the 1950s, people
welcomed big plans and asked whether they would work. Today a grand plan coming from a schoolteacher would be dismissed as crankery, and a long-range vision coming from anyone more powerful would be derided as hubris. You can still visit the Bay Model in that Sausalito warehouse, but today it’s just a tourist attraction: big plans for the future have become archaic curiosities.

This is a fascinating story (and remember that early San Francisco was settled by New England Puritans; there’s something super-Puritan about all this, right down to it being a schoolteacher) and does a great job of highlighting the contrast between past and present attitudes.

But how much of a flaw is it that the Reber Plan would in fact not have worked? Suppose a thousand enterpreneurs try to create exciting long-term plans for their businesses, each of which requires guessing ten binary variables in advance. And suppose the vague-ists are right, nobody can do armchair reasoning or long-term planning, and all of their guesses are random. By chance, one of the thousand entrepeneurs will get all ten variables right, his plan will go perfectly, and he’ll become a multi-billionaire and land a rocket on Mars. He will be the only person we ever hear about and the only person who ever becomes a stock example, and it will look like “Wow, multi-step reasoning and long-range planning can work well after all!”

This is the proper canned response that the conformist parts of my mind generated after three seconds. But is it true? Elon Musk has founded at least three super-successful companies that have executed decade-long plans; lightning shouldn’t strike the same place twice. Newton didn’t just discover gravity, he discovered optics, calculus, the laws of motion, and [insert ten page list of other things Newton discovered here].

And, uh, Thiel compares these sorts of long-term plans to “conspiracies”. And he himself is implicated in a conspiracy – his successful destruction of Gawker is now the subject of a book titled Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, And The Anatomy Of Intrigue. His Gawker accomplishment was exactly the kind of ambitious long-range multi-step plan he describes as possible in the book – and the book was written long before it bore fruit.

Some of the smartest people I know say that Thiel’s endorsement of Donald Trump was the same sort of complicated plot. Thiel endorsed Trump at a time when no other famous intellectual would touch him. Trump won and followed a spoils strategy of rewarding his early supporters (like how he made Jeff Sessions the Attorney General), and Thiel got 100x the influence he would have if he’d had to fight against every other important person for prestige in the Clinton administration. I am still trying to figure out what happened with this – my impression is that for about a month after Trump won, he was doing a lot of things that bore Thiel’s fingerprints, and after that he didn’t. Either there was some kind of early break between the two of them, or Thiel decided to operate very quietly – a few hints of leaked information suggest the latter. If he’s still involved, this is an even stronger example than Gawker.

I’m bringing these things up because once you write a book saying “Hey guys, conspiracies are totally doable and often successful”, and then a few years later you succeed at multiple ambitious conspiracies that destroy your enemies and give you vast national influence, I think you are allowed to say that this is possibly something other than coincidence and survivorship bias.

But then it equally becomes fair to say that Peter Thiel is a billionaire CEO Stanford professor chess master, and Elon Musk is, well, Elon Musk. Both may be better at planning than the average person. Suppose you have a ten-step plan. And suppose you’re good enough at planning that you have a 90% chance to carry out each step. That means a 35% chance of all ten steps going without a hitch; start three companies or Gawker-destruction plans, and one will succeed. Now suppose someone only a little worse at planning – 70% success rate per step – tries the same thing. Now their per-plan chance of destroying Gawker is less than 3%. In the real world, where there’s more variance between plan steps, I think this becomes even more pronounced.

On the other hand, each successful SpaceX or Gawker-elimination-plan brings huge benefits to the world. We are stuck in the awkward position where a heuristic of “Go ahead, think big” will be inappropriate for and predictably bankrupt the vast majority of people, but a heuristic of “Think small and don’t trust yourself” will create a world of sub-par rockets and tragically un-destroyed gossip rags. Which do we choose? This is probably the wrong question; nobody controls the heuristic supply, and the one that works for most people will catch on. Under this model, Thiel is doing the public service of saying “Hey, if you’re a smart person, then despite what everybody says this whole ‘make big plans’ thing might actually work for you.”

(good thing everybody has an accurate, undistorted estimate of whether they are a smart person or not!)

I really liked this part of the book. When every intelligent person you trust is pushing one heuristic, it can be really refreshing to hear someone else intelligent and successful say exactly the opposite. Not even prove the opposite – I don’t think Thiel makes all that strong a case in this book – just say “Hey, think about the fact that this piece of conventional wisdom might be totally wrong”. This is almost the first time I’ve heard this said about the “don’t make complex multi-step plans” piece of conventional wisdom, and it was fun to hear this new perspective that I’m going to have to wrestle with from now on.

IV.

Zero To One has one more section on secrets and planning, where it expands them society-wide into the ideas of definite optimism vs. indefinite optimism.

Definite optimism is Thiel’s take on the can-do philosophy of the 1950s. We can-do the Apollo Program, so let’s get to work. We can-do John Reber’s plan to dam the San Francisco Bay, so let’s start debating it. People believed anything was possible, so they made grand plans and carried them out. Progress would happen because people would have great ideas and force them into being.

The 2010s aren’t less optimistic, they’re just less definite. We still believe in the impersonal force of Progress, we just doubt any existing plan’s ability to serve as its avatar. Nobody will say “Let’s dam San Francisco Bay”, they’ll say “let’s promote innovation” or “let’s grow the economy”. It is assumed there are no secrets to discover or grand plans to implement, but everything will get better anyway based on- I don’t know, some sort of principle that it should, plus millions of small actors doing little things below the threshold of notability in the right direction.

Again the weird modern belief in “the myth of the lone genius” (not belief in the lone genius, belief in the mythicism of it) comes into play. We are perhaps glad that there is convenient online retail, but this does not translate into appreciation of Jeff Bezos. Online retail came into being because it’s a part of Progress; Jeff Bezos is just some annoying guy who claimed credit and captured the profits.

(the obvious counterargument here seems to be that if Jeff Bezos didn’t do the admittedly hard work of creating an online retail giant, somebody else would have, perhaps a little later and a little worse; hundred billion dollar bills don’t lie on the sidewalk literally forever. I’m not sure what Thiel thinks of this; at the very least he might say our society fails to appreciate that some specific person does have to do the work for the work to happen.)

The flagship industry of the definite optimism of the 1950s was engineering. The flagship industry of the indefinite optimism of the 2010s is finance. Finance is about “making money when you have no idea how to create wealth”. While the engineers plan out specific dams and rockets and so on, the more abstract levels of finance invest in “the market”, a vague aggregate of all economic activity which is expected to go up because Progress. And so:

Think about what happens when successful enterpreneurs sell their company. What do they do with the money? In a financialized world, it unfolds like this:

– The founders don’t know what to do with it, so they give it to a large bank.
– The bankers don’t know what to do with it, so they diversify by spreading it across a portfolio of investors.
– Institutional investors don’t know what to do with their managed capital, so they diversify by amassing a portfolio of stocks.
– Companies try to increas ehtie share price by generating free cash flows. If they do, they issue dividends or buy back shares and the cycle repeats.

At no point does anyone in the chain know what to do with money in the real economy. But in an indefinite world, people actually prefer indefinite optionality; money is more valuable than anything you could possibly do with it. Only in a definite future is money a means to an end, not the end itself.

The flagship government of indefinite optimism is liberalism, here including both the standard Clinton-issue variety and libertarianism. Liberalism doesn’t take any specific position about what the good life is, or how to promote it – it is a neutral arbiter that enforces content-independent laws. It can ban or promote the construction of monuments, but it cannot and will not say “Ten Commandments monument good, Satanist monument bad” – it either accepts or rejects both. The culmination of this style of indefinite liberalism is Rawls’ veil of ignorance, where government only works insofar as it approximates what people would create if they knew nothing about their own opinions.

The flagship level of indefinite optimism is the meta-level. Come up with some principles that should work, like “capitalism” or “evolution”, then let them figure everything out.

Like the section on secrets and planning, this succeeds in being an interesting critique of something I had previously thought so obviously good that I had never bothered thinking of criticisms of it before. But its specifics are a bit weird – the Burkean/Chestertonian argument for conservativism goes that our current traditions are the outcome of exactly the same sort of incremental experimentation that indefinite optimists love, and that our own multi-step reasoning and planning telling us that X new law will improve things is too fallible to trust. So if our philosophy of government isn’t liberal, libertarian, or conservative, what is it? Thiel mentions two “definite optimistic” philosophers – Marx and Hegel – and neither is the sort to inspire too much confidence. Maybe we should be imagining Eisenhower-era America – liberal-ish, but still with grand visions? I don’t know enough about that era to know whether that era really had a unified version of the good life, or what shifting more in that direction would entail.

Also, different philosophies work for different situations. The virtues of feudalism are more relevant to a sprawling medieval empire than to modern Denmark. Indefinite liberalism seems suited to a country where in fact nobody agrees on anything; one with deep religious and racial divisions, caught in the grip of a smoldering culture war. If nobody can agree on what the good is, then refereeing everybody as they pursue their own private versions of the good might be the best you can maange.

V.

There’s a lot more to this book, but it all seems to be pointing at the same central, hard-to-describe idea. Something like “All progress comes from violations of the efficient market hypothesis, so you had better believe these are possible, and you had better get good at finding them.”

The book begins and ends with a celebration of contrarianism. Contrarians are the only people who will ever be able to violate the EMH. Not every weird thing nobody else is doing will earn you a billion dollars, but every billion-dollar plan has to involve a weird thing nobody else is doing.

Unfortunately, “attempt to find violations of the EMH” is not a weird thing nobody else is doing. Half of Silicon Valley has read Zero To One by now. Weirdness is anti-inductive. If everyone else knows weirdness wins, good luck being weirder than everyone else.

Thiel describes how his venture capital firm would auto-reject anyone who came in wearing a suit. He explains this was a cultural indicator: MBAs wear suits, techies dress casually, and the best tech companies are built by techies coming out of tech culture. This all seems reasonable enough.

But I have heard other people take this strategy too far. They say suit-wearers are boring conformist people who think they have to look good; T-shirt-wearers are bold contrarians who expect to be judged by their ideas alone. Obviously this doesn’t work. Obviously as soon as this gets out – and it must have gotten out, I’ve never been within a mile of the tech industry and even I know it – every conformist putting image over substance starts wearing a t-shirt and jeans.

When everybody is already trying to be weird, who wins?

Part of the answer is must be that being weird is a skill like any other skill. Or rather, it’s very easy to go to an interview with Peter Thiel wearing a clown suit, and it will certainly make you stand out. But will it be “contrarian”? Or will it just be random? Anyone can conceive of the idea of wearing a clown suit; it doesn’t demonstrate anything out of the ordinary except perhaps unusual courage. The real difficulty is to be interestingly contrarian and, if possible, correct.

(I wrote that paragraph, and then I remembered that I know one person high up in Peter Thiel’s organization, and he dresses like a pirate during random non-pirate-related social situations. I always assumed he didn’t do this in front of Peter Thiel, but I just realized I have no evidence for that. If this advice lands you a job at Thiel Capital, please remember me after you’ve made your first million.)

Another part of the answer must be that when everyone is competing on weirdness, the winners will be the people who are actually weird. The people who unavoidably do weird things because they are constitutionally weird people. There is a certain degree to which an ordinary person can relax constraints on their behavior and act and think in a weirder way than they ordinarily would. After that, you actually have to just be a strange kind of guy.

Of the six people who started PayPal, four had built bombs in high school. Five were just 23 years old—or younger. Four of us had been born outside the United States. Three had escaped here from communist countries: Yu Pan from China, Luke Nosek from Poland, and Max Levchin from Soviet Ukraine. Building bombs was not what kids normally did in those countries at that time.

The six of us could have been seen as eccentric. My first-ever conversation with Luke was about how he’d just signed up for cryonics, to be frozen upon death in hope of medical resurrection. Max claimed to be without a country and proud of it: his family was put into diplomatic limbo when the USSR collapsed while they were escaping to the U.S. Russ Simmons had escaped from a trailer park to the top math and science magnet school in Illinois. Only Ken Howery fit the stereotype of a privileged American childhood: he was PayPal’s sole Eagle Scout. But Kenny’s peers thought he was crazy to join the rest of us and make just one-third of the salary he had been offered by a big bank. So even he wasn’t entirely normal…

The lesson for business is that we need founders. If anything, we should be more tolerant of founders who seem strange or extreme; we need unusual individuals to lead companies beyond mere incrementalism.

Signing up for cryonics doesn’t give you a business advantage. But it indicates that you are probably good at thinking outside the box. People who learn that thinking outside the box is a useful skill and decide to try it with zero experience are always going to lose to people who have been doing since they could speak at all.

Or as a wise man once said, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”.

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Links 1/19: Linkguistics

If ant trails accidentally form a circle, ants can get stuck in an ant vortex forever, spinning themselves to death.

Maybe you’ve heard of Buran, the Soviet space shuttle. But maybe you didn’t know the story behind why it was built. NASA screwed up the space shuttle design process so completely that it was a bad match for pretty much all of its stated goals. The Soviets figured the Americans couldn’t really be that stupid, and so the shuttle project must just be a cover story for some amazing secret military capability America expected from having a space plane. They decided to build an exact replica so that after the amazing secret military capability was revealed, they could do whatever it was too.

New California law tries to fight “puppy mills” by declaring that pet shops can only sell rescued animals. In favor of this until someone convinces me it will have horrifying unexpected consequences.

Neo-Andean architecture in Bolivia.

Razib Khan discusses intelligence and reproductive fitness. Obviously great, but the real highlight, as with so many things, is the Von Neumann biographical tidbits. I often hear him brought up as proof that geniuses aren’t all socially inept, but apparently ‘When he proposed to [his wife], he was incapable of expressing anything beyond ‘You and I might be able to have some fun together, seeing as how we both like to drink.'”

Scientists claim to have engineered an improvement in photosynthesis that could boost yields of some crops by 40%. Really curious what priors we should have here over whether four billion years of plant evolution just missed a great idea for no reason.

RIP Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption and other works on child-rearing and psychology that inspired me and many of the other people here.

This week’s PayPal crackdown is on *spins Wheel O’ Mildly Unpopular Groups*Satanists?

From the subreddit: What are some well-functioning, useful systems? It’s amazing how well basic infrastructure just works, despite everything.

Related: when a vital Bay Area highway collapsed and everyone freaked out about not being able to get to San Francisco, the local government hired “a contractor with a proven track record of rebuilding damaged freeways well ahead of schedule” and offered to pay them $200,000 extra for every day before the target date they finished. The highway was completely repaired in less than a month, in only half the government’s projected time estimate. This makes me confused about every government project that fails, goes late, or goes over budget – is it just that the officials involved weren’t as desperate? If there are known “hire these people when you really need it done right” companies, why don’t we just hire them for everything?

I can’t believe I’m turning into one of those people who relates to the news primarily through what the celebrities involved are wearing, but the highlight of the Ukranian Church getting autocephaly was definitely Metropolitan Epiphanius’ outfit. Also, the tomos of autocephaly as physical object. How come the Eastern Orthodox are the only people with good aesthetics? Related: pics of the new Coptic cathedral.

It’s Still The Prices, Stupid: Why The US Spends So Much On Healthcare. Team of economists argues that the specific way that US healthcare costs more than other developed countries’ is not because of higher consumption but because the same things cost more. Seems like a direct challenge to RCA’s actual individual consumption theory of health costs, interested to hear his response.

Related: Kevin Simler has a really interesting graph for why AIC is a better indicator for development than GDP

Washington Post is skeptical of the claim that Jeanne Calment faked her age; they make some good points about the evidence in her favor, but did they have to call the skepticism around her record “a Russian conspiracy theory”? And some provocative context for the debate: Errors As A Primary Cause Of Late-Life Mortality Deceleration And Plateaus (h/t ANDKAT on Discord)

Elon Musk reveals final design of Starship test rocket; 1950s cartoonists discovered to be 100% right about everything.

Impossible Foods unveils Impossible Burger 2.0, which critics say tastes even more like real meat; will reach restaurants in mid-March.

Team of psychologists including people named “Ditto” and “Zinger” find liberals and conservatives have the same amount of political bias. Glad we’ve settled that; let us never speak about this issue again.

For the past few years leading pseudoarchaeologists have been claiming that a pyramid in Indonesia is 30,000 years old, which would make it 20,000 years older than any other known building, and limit potential builders to pretty much Atlantis and Lemuria. As usual nobody paid attention to them. But now a team of scientists has investigated and found parts are at least 9,000 and “could even” be 28,000 years old, according to an an article in Scientific American which seems less surprised than I would expect. Has Scientific American gone the way of the History Channel, or is this important?

Traffic robots in Kinshasa.

Why were the early American treasure hunting superstitions exemplified by Mormon founder Joseph Smith so similar to the Tibetan terton treasure-hunting tradition?

An embroidered computer sounds like some kind of hokey ploy to get more Women In Tech, but is actually pretty neat.

How have results on implicit association tests changed since 2007? I am usually kind of skeptical of this sort of thing, but this mostly fits what I would have guessed.

Several people pointed out my post on conspiracies accidentally recapitulated ESR’s idea of the “prospiracy”, so here is a link as atonement for the unintentional plagiarism.

New York Times points out that the number of monarch butterflies in California has declined 97% since the 1980s. This really hits home; I lived in California in the 1980s, I remember seeing monarch butterflies everywhere, and I never thought about where they all went until now. Scientists blame loss of habitat for milkweed, the plant the butterflies subsist on.

Related: more evidence that insect populations around the world have declined by 75%+. This is really scary and may literally represent the death of more than half the animals on earth (by individuals). Nobody knows exactly why it is happening, though one promising candidate is global warming since it’s hard to imagine what else affects everywhere in the world (including perfectly pristine wildernesses) at the same time. Some evidence that temperature variation has gotten outside the limits that insects’ physiology can tolerate. I would have hoped that each insect species would just move a few miles more polar and be fine, but apparently climactic adaptation is much more complicated than that and this doesn’t work. Again, it is kind of surprising that we are still alive after an eco-disaster of this magnitude.

Related? Bird and fish species all over the world are dying off due to thiamine deficiency. No one is entirely sure why so many animals all over the world are thiamine-deficient all at once, but it is being blamed for declines of up to 70% in various seabird species. Is this connected to the insect decline? Does anyone know how to check how much thiamine insects have?

www.decriminalization.org is the new hub site for a campaign to push towards decriminalizing drugs throughout the US.

Houthi rebels strapped a bomb to a drone and killed six Yemeni soldiers in what I think might be the first fatal drone attack by a non-state actor.

The big story in polling this month is the NPR poll showing Trump has a higher approval rating among Latinos than whites. Margin of error is enough to even these out but still not enough to rescue the standard racial narrative. This of course contradicts several previous polls (though all of those were pre-shutdown and the shutdown has changed a lot), as well as conflicting with the same poll’s observation that whites are still more likely to vote for Trump if they get a chance. Some good comments (scattered among many awful ones, as usual) from Marginal Revolution. [deleted a related link about racial bias in European countries based on comments providing evidence it was false]

New international study finds that doctors don’t tell people to lose weight enough, recommends educating doctors on the need to do this. I find this interesting because all the overweight people I know say they dread going to the doctor because their doctors never do anything else. “Help, I’ve been stabbed!” “Well, we’ll get to that, but first, have you considered that you’re overweight and need to diet?” There’s probably something really profound to be said here about different perspectives and sources of knowledge and whatever. See also the comments on Reddit, some of which are from primary care doctors.

Adam Fortunate Eagle is a Native American activist who, as a stunt, travelled to Italy, declared he had “discovered” it, and claimed it in the name of Native America. I feel like this is the obvious first thing to do if you are a Native American activist, and that all of the other Native American activists must have been kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.

WhatsApp limits ability to forward stories to a maximum of five people in order to prevent the spread of “fake news”. This kind of scares me because I heard of similar techniques being used in authoritarian countries like China to prevent protests from being organized and antigovernment ideas from spreading. I continue to be worried that worries about “fake news” risk being a perfect cover for increasing control over the media.

Hamilton fans and Hamilton detractors are locked in an eternal struggle to be more ridiculous and overdramatic than each other. Detractors have taken the lead recently as anti-Hamilton playwright Ishmael Reed raises funds to produce his new play The Haunting Of Lin-Manuel Miranda, about a bunch of Dickens-style ghosts explaining to Miranda why his play is bad and wrong. Bonus: Reed has never seen or listened to Hamilton.

The only useful commentary on Gillette’s controversial mid-January commercial is this Voxsplainer of the shaving industry from before the commercial even came out. It points out that Gillette has no idea how to compete with new low cost mail-order razors (even going so far as, in 1998, claiming it had a patent on the idea of “razor” and suing them in court) and has been flailing from harebrained idea to harebrained idea for years. It concludes that “The ludicrousness of today’s open [razor] market means, mostly, having the option to pay a lot of money for something or not a lot of money for something, without ever really approaching a concrete, evidence-backed reason for the decision.” See also this chart of Gillette profits. Alienating X% of your customer base, in exchange for inspiring Y% to keep buying your overpriced product forever in order to “own the cons”, makes sense under those circumstances.

This month in great names: leading Indian Air Force officer Aspy Engineer.

Another survey on expert predictions of AI timelines. I have only skimmed it, but right now I don’t find it very useful because of its decision to focus on in what year X percent of human tasks can be automated – for example, 90% will be automatable in 25 years and 99% in 50 years. I challenge the claim that any scientist has a principled idea of what “90% of human tasks” means, let alone an intuitive understanding of the difference between 90% and 99% of human tasks, and the survey didn’t ask about anything concrete.

Snopes introduces new “Factually Inaccurate But Morally Right” fact check result (THIS IS SATIRE). Also, I think Babylon Bee has successfully broken the “no conservative humor outlet is ever actually funny” curse.

Grant-writing is taking up an increasing amount of scientists’ time and energy, optimizing for grants is distorting research projects, and evidence shows that which grants get funded is basically random – there’s very low correlation in two raters’ assessments of grants, nor in raters’ assessment of grants vs. how useful that research ends up being. This has inspired a proposal: why not just assess grants as being above some basic standard of competence, and then use a lottery to determine which ones get funded? See paper, Voxsplainer, and MR post. Excited about someone trying to extend this to college admissions.

Related: this paper on competition (paper, LW post explaining paper) on some complicated ways of modeling a competitive process (like job interviews, college admissions, or grant funding) and how sometimes adding more competitors can make the average winner less skilled.

I don’t understand most of these cryptocurrency predictions for 2019, but anybody who does a bunch of gradeable probabilistic predictions for a field they’re an expert in gets a link here.

A really really pretty map of US wind patterns right now.

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OT120: Openury Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Thanks for putting up with the experiment on switched comment order. Please take this survey about which comment order you want to keep going forward.

2. Comments of the week: BBA on the history of the V-chip program to censor TV, Theodidacticus on why benign activity might look like a conspiracy from the outside, and Erusian on how victory in the fight against pork barrel spending drove political polarization.

3. Jeremiah, who runs the Slate Star Codex podcast, now has a Patreon up to support his work. If you appreciate the podcast and aren’t boycotting Patreon, please consider signing up.

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Predictions For 2019

At the beginning of every year, I make predictions. At the end of every year, I score them. So here are a hundred more for 2019.

Rules: all predictions about what will be true on January 1, 2020. Any that involve polling will be settled by the top poll or average of polls on Real Clear Politics on that day. Most predictions about my personal life, or that refer to the personal lives of other people, have been redacted to protect their privacy. I’m using the full 0 – 100 range in making predictions this year, but they’ll be flipped and judged as 50 – 100 in the rating stage, just like in previous years. I’ve tried to avoid doing specific research or looking at prediction markets when I made these, though some of them I already knew what the markets said.

Feel free to get in a big fight over whether 50% predictions are meaningful.

US
1. Donald Trump remains President: 90%
2. Donald Trump is impeached by the House: 40%
3. Kamala Harris leads the Democratic field: 20%
4. Bernie Sanders leads the Democratic field: 20%
5. Joe Biden leads the Democratic field: 20%
6. Beto O’Rourke leads the Democratic field: 20%
7. Trump is still leading in prediction markets to be Republican nominee: 70%
8. Polls show more people support the leading Democrat than the leading Republican: 80%
9. Trump’s approval rating below 50: 90%
10. Trump’s approval rating below 40: 50%
11. Current government shutdown ends before Feb 1: 40%
12. Current government shutdown ends before Mar 1: 80%
13. Current government shutdown ends before Apr 1: 95%
14. Trump gets at least half the wall funding he wants from current shutdown: 20%
15. Ginsberg still alive: 50%

ECON AND TECH
16. Bitcoin above 1000: 90%
17. Bitcoin above 3000: 50%
18. Bitcoin above 5000: 20%
19. Bitcoin above Ethereum: 95%
20. Dow above current value of 25000: 80%
21. SpaceX successfully launches and returns crewed spacecraft: 90%
22. SpaceX Starship reaches orbit: 10%
23. No city where a member of the general public can ride self-driving car without attendant: 90%
24. I can buy an Impossible Burger at a grocery store within a 30 minute walk from my house: 70%
25. Pregabalin successfully goes generic and costs less than $100/month on GoodRx.com: 50%
26. No further CRISPR-edited babies born: 80%

WORLD
27. Britain out of EU: 60%
28. Britain holds second Brexit referendum: 20%
29. No other EU country announces plan to leave: 80%
30. China does not manage to avert economic crisis (subjective): 50%
31. Xi still in power: 95%
32. MbS still in power: 95%
33. May still in power: 70%
34. Nothing more embarassing than Vigano memo happens to Pope Francis: 80%

SURVEY
35. …finds birth order effect is significantly affected by age gap: 40%
36. …finds fluoxetine has significantly less discontinuation issues than average: 60%
37. …finds STEM jobs do not have significantly more perceived gender bias than non-STEM: 60%
38. …finds gender-essentialism vs. food-essentialism correlation greater than 0.075: 30%

PERSONAL
39. SSC gets fewer hits than last year: 70%
40. I finish and post [redacted]: 90%
41. I finish and post [redacted 2]: 50%
42. I finish and post [redacted 3]: 50%
43. [redacted 1] post gets at least 40,000 hits: 40%
44. [redacted 2] post gets at least 40,000 hits: 20%
45. New co-blogger with more than 3 posts: 20%
46. Repeat adversarial collaboration contest with at least 5 entries: 60%
47. [redacted]: 90%
48. [redacted]: 70%
49. I start using Twitter again (5+ tweets in any month): 60%
50. I start using Facebook again (following at least 5 people): 30%
51. I get the blood tests I should be getting this year: 90%
52. I try one biohacking project per month x at least 10 months: 30%
53. I continue taking sceletium regularly: 70%
54. I switch from [redacted] for at least 3 months: 20%
55. I find at least one new supplement I take or expect to take regularly x 3 months: 20%
56. Minoxidil use produces obvious progress: 50%
57. I restart [redacted]: 20%
58. I spend one month at least substantially more vegetarian than my current compromise: 20%
59. I spend one month at least substantially less vegetarian than my current compromise: 30%
60. I weight more than 195 lbs at year end: 80%
61. I meditate at least 30 minutes/day more than half of days this year: 30%
62. I use marijuana at least once this year: 20%
63. I finish at least 10% more of [redacted]: 20%
64. I completely finish [redacted]: 10%
65. I finish and post [redacted]: 5%
66. I write at least ten pages of something I intend to turn into a full-length book this year: 20%
67. I practice calligraphy at least seven days in the last quarter of 2019: 40%
68. I finish at least one page of the [redacted] calligraphy project this year: 30%
69. I finish the entire [redacted] calligraphy project this year: 10%
70. I finish some other at-least-one-page calligraphy project this year: 80%
71. I attend the APA Meeting: 80%
72. [redacted]: 50%
73. [redacted]: 40%
74. I still work in SF with no plans to leave it: 60%
75. I still only do telepsychiatry one day with no plans to increase it: 60%
76. I still work the current number of hours per week: 60%
77. I have not started (= formally see first patient) my own practice: 80%
78. I lease another version of the same car I have now: 90%
79. I still live in my current house with no specific plans to leave: 80%
80. I set up a decent home library: 60%
81. We have obtained a second trash can: 90%
82. The gate is fixed with no problems at all: 50%
83. The ugly paint spot on my wall gets fixed: 30%
84. There is some kind of nice garden: 60%
85. …and I am at least half responsible: 20%
86. I get my own washing machine: 20%
87. [redacted]: 60%
88. [redacted]: 70%
89. [redacted]: 80%
90. [redacted]: 80%
91. [redacted] is widely considered a success: 70%
92. …with plans (vague okay) to create a second [redacted]: 20%
93. I find a primary partner: 30%
94. I go on at least one date with someone who doesn’t already have a primary partner: 90%
95. I remake an account on OKCupid: 80%
96. [redacted]: 10%
97. [redacted]: 20%
98. [redacted]: 20%
99. [redacted]: 20%
100. [redacted]: 20%
101. [redacted]: 30%
102. [redacted]: 10%
103. [redacted]: 30%
104. [redacted]: 50%
105. [redacted]: 10%
106. [redacted]: 50%
107. I am still playing D&D: 60%
108. I go on a trip to Guatemala: 90%
109. I go on at least one other international trip: 30%
110. I go to at least one Solstice outside the Bay: 40%
111. I go to at least one city just for an SSC meetup: 30%
112. [redacted]: 40%
113. [redacted]: 50%
114. [redacted]: 20%
115. [redacted]: 80%
116. [redacted]: 60%
117. [redacted]: 60%
118. [redacted]: 80%

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Psychiat-List Now Up

Lots of people have asked me to recommend them a psychiatrist or therapist. I’ve done a terrible job responding: it’s a conflict of interest to recommend my own group, and I don’t know many people outside of it.

So now I’ve put together a list (by which I mostly mean blatantly copied a similar list made by fellow community member Anisha M) of mental health professionals whom members of the rationalist community have had good experiences with. So far it’s short and mostly limited to the Bay Area. You can find it at the “Psychiat-List” button on the top of the blog, or at this link.

My hope is to crowd-source additional recommendations to expand the list to more providers and cities. Please let me know, either on this post or on the comments to the list itself, if you have any extra recommendations to add – especially if you’re in a city likely to have many other SSC readers. Please also let me know if you’ve had any positive or negative experiences with people already on the list, so I can change their status accordingly.

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