Links for July

Photos of Children Around The World With Their Most Prized Possessions. Don’t you dare call it “super-cute” or else Pavel will hunt you down and kill you when he grows up.

A highlight of the recently-overthrown Egyptian government was the time someone interrupted a top secret cabinet meeting halfway through to point out that it was, in fact, being broadcast on live TV. What surprising insights into Egyptian leaders’ darkest and most private thoughts did we glean? Well, apparently they kind don’t like Israel so much.

Asking which countries are “happiest” is risky business, but Gallup tried asking a few sets of questions they thought screened for “positive emotions”. The most positive countries worldwide? Panama, Paraguay, and El Salvador. The least positive? Iraq, Armenia, and, in last place, Singapore. Which is not to say Singapore is a uniquely horrible place – it’s also close to the bottom of negative emotions worldwide. Apparently Singaporeans are just all emotionally dead.

“There were many chieftains in many lands who greatly disliked King Falfadinn, but did not like Jabbi, King of the Danes, either. Many went to new lands, to the Faroes or to Iceland or to the Hebrides or to the Orkneys or to the Shetlands. But the army of Falfadinn was great, and he had many large warships, and he raided the lands of those who would not acknowledge his absolute authority. He had many good men killed, and others he enslaved. He was a very unpopular king. And because King Falfadinn wanted to intimidate all who stood against him, he ordered to be built the greatest ship which men had ever seen upon the seas, and that ship held such a store of men and weapons that they could pillage an entire large city. And a name was given to that ship, and it was called Daudastjarna, or Death-Star.” – Star Wars as an Icelandic Saga. Scroll down to get past the prequels, but not so far you get to the version in Old Norse.

A group from Johns Hopkins are threatening to just find all the negative drug trials lurking in the file drawer and publish them themselves, which is apparently totally legal.

The Blaze: “The new ‘Jihawg’ ammunition claims to offer gun owners a ‘peaceful and natural deterrent’ to the growing threat of radical Islam, [by including] pork in the ammo to make it ‘unclean’ for radical Islamists.” Apparently killing pigs, liquifying their body, adding it to paint, coating bullets in the paint, and shooting them at Muslims now qualifies as “peaceful and natural”.

Screwtape Embraces the Internet: “My dear Wormwood…Your suggestion that I ‘sign up’ for something called ‘Twitter’ is noted…”

Well, someone’s finally done it. They’ve finally convinced me building new nuclear power plants is in fact a bad idea. But the article is called “The real reason to fight nuclear power has nothing to do with health risks”. It credibly makes the argument that renewable energy has reached the point where it is almost as cheap as nuclear and is quickly getting cheaper, and new nuclear plants take years to decades to build and will already be obsolete by the time they’re finished.

Did Thomas Aquinas really say that rape was less of a sin than masturbation? His text itself seems pretty darned clear and unambiguous, but commentators’ views range from “he didn’t really mean that”, to “well, it kind of is”. A parable on the danger of multi-step chains of abstract reasoning, and on how easy it is to reinterpret old texts after modernity has produced the right answer. Edit: See objection here, my response here.

“Thousands of Chinese students riot ont he streets of Zhongxiang, changing ‘We want fairness! There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat!’. The scary part is that under the circumstances the pro-cheating rioters were completely justified. See also the Reddit comment thread for interesting commentary.

The Church of England is trying to create a pagan branch in order to recruit New Age youth, with one reverend describing it as “a pagan church where Christianity was very much in the center”. It’s a good idea, but the pagan demographic is pretty small. If they really want to expand their target population, they should create a Muslim church. Edit: Mostly false, see here

Discussion on Eliezer’s Facebook page was leaning towards this being a deliberate spoof or concept art thing, but it sure doesn’t seem like anyone told the writer of this article: Introducing the NSA-Proof Font.

This post called Do You Think Like A Westerner Or An Easterner should probably be called “Do You Think Like A Relatively Primitive Machine Learning Algorithm Or A Human Being? Either way, it probably says something fundamental about you and it’s an interesting puzzle. I’m in the Easterner group (as, apparently, are most Westerners).

Before the Civil Rights movement, states blocked black people from voting with plausible deniability by making them take “literacy tests” first. Which doesn’t sound so bad if you’re a literate black person, until you see the tests that they used. Note the “take in ten minutes and get 100%” requirement. I am both disgusted at the racism of our ancestors, and sort of eager to see this test given to everyone on a race-neutral basis and see what happens when our country is run by extremely precise and quick-thinking word puzzle buffs. Edit: Possibly false or exaggerated

Why Are We Working So Hard?, the Guardian asks, just as I finish a month of 70 – 110 hour work weeks (I’ve been promised 50ish hour weeks in August). In the past, we were promised mechanization leading to higher productivity leading to shorter work weeks. We got the mechanization, we got the higher productivity, and the shorter work weeks just sort of fell by the wayside. Good companion reading to Eliezer’s Robots and Unemployment FAQ and gwern’s commentary.

Surgery Center of Oklahoma posts prices for its surgeries online, finds both that it’s charging a sixth of what anyone else charges and that no one at any point in health care transactions has any idea what any of them cost. This article is a bit unfair in that the reason hospitals charge lots of money for surgery isn’t because they expect anyone to pay that money, but because they’re playing some weird game with insurance companies where insurance companies will only pay 10% of the sticker price so they multiply the cost times ten, and then everyone’s happy except people with no insurance who have to pay ten times the real cost. But that’s another article.

A new interpretation of the marshmallow test suggests that it’s not about kids who can resist eating one marshmallow now for the promise of two later having higher willpower and therefore doing better in life. It’s probably about kids who can resist eating one marshmallow now for the promise of two later being more trusting – perhaps because they come from nicer families and nicer areas – and doing better in life because of those advantages.

Rejection Letters of the Philosophers.

52 thoughts on “Links for July

  1. gwern

    > “Thousands of Chinese students riot ont he streets of Zhongxiang, changing ‘We want fairness! There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat!’. The scary part is that under the circumstances the pro-cheating rioters were completely justified. See also the Reddit comment thread for interesting commentary.

    No, they weren’t justified. The very first paragraph:

    > The relatively small city of Zhongxiang in Hubei province has always performed suspiciously well in China’s notoriously tough “gaokao” exams, each year winning a disproportionate number of places at the country’s elite universities.

    They are not ‘compensating for discrimination’ to reach an average score – they are doing better than they should using cheating, and so the cheating is prima facie not simple compensation. If we had the university performances of the students from these schools, we would doubtless find that they underperformed compared to other schools with comparable scores – indicating cheating above and beyond the ‘fair’ baseline.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      My understanding from the article is that everyone cheats at a certain baseline, the Zhongxiang students were exceeding this baseline, and the law stepped in to use especially strict measures that put them below this baseline.

      1. gwern

        Until decreased validity has been shown, we still don’t know that the increased measures have managed to hammer those students down to below baseline.

  2. Watercressed

    Perhaps the reason nuclear plants aren’t cheaper is because public opinion about health risks drove engineering muscle to other fields.

    1. Douglas Knight

      That’s basically true, but your phrasing makes it sound so vague. After Three Mile Island, the US canceled all its plans. After Chernobyl, France stopped building. It’s reasonable to blame these centralized decisions on public perception of risk, but the effect on engineers was pretty direct, not through ugly looks.

      But everyone continued making nuclear subs, so the engineers didn’t go away entirely.

  3. Douglas Knight

    Here is a different reason why hospitals might like fake prices: someone who is unable to pay can be declared charity at the list price value.

  4. Randy M

    I think you are being a tad obtuse on the Jihawg thing. As an analogy “Those proponents of mutual assured destruction claim that they want a peaceful solution to the cold war by building more atomic weapons. Right–bathing the northern hemisphere in atomic fire is real peaceful alright.” That is, the point is the deterrance.

    The silly thinking is in assuming that Muslim fanatics will accept your interpretation of their doctrine of halal/haram, and that any particular one would have any reason to assume the people he faced will be armed with this.

    Sounds like a good example for Beyesian reasoning: p(pigs blood actually leading to damnation) x p(will face armed resistance) x p(resistance will be armed with this ammo) x p(will accomplish bombing or other goal) x happiness Allah gains from said goal…

  5. Nisan

    Both commentaries on Aquinas that you link to seem to agree that Aquinas is merely saying which sins are worse than others along a single dimension, and that this particular article of the Summa Theologica does not comment on which sin scores highest on “overall sinfulness”. (If only linear algebra had been around back then!)

    1. von Kalifornen

      Also, I *think* that these people have a (somewhat more intuitive) conception of care/harm that is parallel to “sin”.

      Incidentally, I think that until fairly recently, rape was often seen in a rather different context generally.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      I agree that this is the easiest way to “rescue” that interpretation, but the text seems to very explicitly come out against it.

      In Objection 1, Aquinas says: “It would seem that the unnatural vice is not the greatest sin among the species of lust. For the more a sin is contrary to charity the graver it is. Now adultery, seduction and rape which are injurious to our neighbor are seemingly more contrary to the love of our neighbor, than unnatural sins, by which no other person is injured. Therefore the unnatural sin is not the greatest among the species of lust. ”

      So here he is basically lampshading exactly the utilitarian argument we are leveraging against him. If he were going to point out that he’s only talking about how lustful things are, this would be the place to do so. But when he replies to this objection, below, he doesn’t say that he is only talking about within lust – he replies with a very strong statement that in fact the sins against nature are worse than sins against people.

      If his argument is right, it doesn’t make sense to restrict it to the domain of lust. If sins against nature are worse than sins against people, then masturbation is generally worse than rape, and you’d need a completely different principle to explain why this isn’t so.

      And as Siris points out, later in the same passage Aquinas is perfectly happy to rank the sins of lust based on criteria that are not lustfulness itself – for example, he agrees that violence and injustice can make rape worse than fornication, but he doesn’t extend that to say that violence and injustice make rape worse than masturbation. So he’s not saying “If we remove other things like violence and injustice, which of these is worse just as lustfulness goes?” He’s saying “Explicitly including violence and injustice in the ethical calculus, which of these is worst?”, proclaiming it’s the unnatural vices, then specifically making the utilitarian argument against that point and refuting it.

      This is why I’m calling it “clear and unambiguous”.

      The fact that he says “among the species of lust” a lot seems to me to mean he’s only ranking the lust-related sins (eg murder is not going to be included in this ranking), not that he is only ranking sins on the dimension of lustfulness.

      1. Deiseach

        Yeah, I mean, the understanding nowadays (whether it’s completely true or not) is that “rape is about violence, it’s about power over the victim, it’s not about sex”.

        Whereas in previous times, “rape is about sex”. So classing rape as a sin of lust (not a sin of anger) means that you stack it up on the column of “worst to best” from ‘unnatural vice’ up to ‘fornication’.

        And we certainly have modern “sins against nature” that are considered worse than anything else – some people get very exercised about “Why don’t you recycle? Why do you insist on having children? Why do you eat fish – don’t you know angling is a cruel bloodsport that tortures the poor little sea-kitties? If you don’t eat local, you are responsible for the destruction of the rainforest!”

        Note – I’m not saying these are bad things (except for PETA’s “kittens of the sea” stunt which I refused to believe was anything other than a spoof until I saw the evidence of my own eyes that it was legit) but you can be cast into the outer darkness if you don’t hew to a particular orthodoxy for certain philosophies, not just Catholicism alone.

    1. Carinthium

      No, that is not a strike against objective ethics in any way. Just because two sides disagree on a fact does not mean there is no fact of the matter.

      Objective ethics is, however ridicolous anyway unless you more clearly define what you mean by something being good. If you mean “fits the will of God”, for example, you have an objective definition which can be used.

      In addition, as an argument against humans being able to GRASP objective ethics (which is a different thing), you have a point.

      1. Randall Randall

        “Just because two sides disagree on a fact does not mean there is no fact of the matter.”

        Well, if you’re not *sure* if there’s a fact of the matter, then disagreement on what that fact is seems like some evidence that there isn’t.

        1. Randy M

          Well, the population size of humans–often foolish or falacious–with the potential to disagree is huge, so it would be only very weak evidence.
          Gravity and the sun rising are about the only things you can find universal agreement on.

  6. Alyssa Vance

    Re: nuclear power costs, assume until proven otherwise that any numbers like this are made up. Eg. of the first two Google hits for “cost of nuclear power”, one is a nuclear industry lobby site and the other is an environmentalist lobby site. It is extremely easy for both to “prove” whatever they want, by cherry-picking assumptions, pointing out only projects that went well/badly, assuming the government is subsidizing or taxing various externalities, etc. (Note that, eg., the article you linked “proved” its set of estimates by comparing them to the guesses of biased people about single specific projects.)

    The main problems with a solar or wind based system are:

    – Since power generation varies wildly and unpredictably throughout the day, you need some form of storage mechanism to hold and release energy. Our main mechanisms for doing this are fossil-fuel based (gas peaker plants, etc.), since fossil fuel burning can be “turned” up and down. Building non-fossil storage on this scale with current technology would be extremely expensive.

    – The cost of solar power has dropped substantially, but since the main use for coal and natural gas is electricity generation, a drop in electricity prices will simply cause the cost of fuel to decrease. Fossil fuels are infamously inelastic – a large change in price causes only a small change in supply/demand – so you must make competitors extremely cheap in order to supplant coal.

  7. Jim

    Most current (or near-term planned) nuclear reactor plants are old Generation II designs like light water reactors. Those designs certainly do have poor economics — less than 1% of the fuel is consumed before the rest is simply discarded as waste, which is expensive, dangerous and wasteful. Breeder reactor designs would use up far more of the initial fuel while producing less waste, which improves the overall cost situation considerably.

    Personally I’m a big fan of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor design, because it offers many advantages over current designs: lower plant capital costs, lower fuel costs, less waste, better operational safety, more proliferation resistance, and far better fuel efficiency. But even if someone isn’t convinced about thorium vs. uranium as the fuel, it’s hard to deny that current designs are nowhere near the limits of what the physics allows. The bad economics of modern nuclear is an engineering problem (and a political problem), not a problem with basic idea of nuclear energy itself.

  8. Douglas Knight

    Shorter Nelderini: “After 25 years of unfairly squashing nuclear plants, I’ve destroyed the institutional knowledge of how to build and run them, thus made them expensive, so I can magnanimously admit my mistake without changing my bottom line.”

    But it’s possible that the ability of humans to run large projects has degraded for reasons not specific to nuclear.

  9. Julia

    Re: costs of medical procedures. I know a guy who says he got hit by a car and tried not to have an ambulance called, but the people who hit him insisted on calling an ambulance. On the way to the hospital the paramedic told him, “I can give you some ice, but if you don’t have insurance they’re going to bill you $50 for it.” Which was actually helpful, because he in fact did not have insurance and did not want to pay $50 for ice.

    Then when he got to

  10. Sniffnoy

    Broken links: Reddit thread on Chinese protests; do you think like a westerner or an easterner.

  11. BenSix

    Why Are We Working So Hard?, the Guardian asks, just as I finish a month of 70 – 110 hour work weeks…

    Perhaps you cope with fatigue like General Custer but wouldn’t such intimidating hours cause some peoples’ performance to be impaired? I would be a little nervous to be treated if I knew that the poor doctor had slaving over medicines for fifteen hours. Indeed – I’d be tempted to offer him/her my bed.

    Photos of Children Around The World With Their Most Prized Possessions. Don’t you dare call it “super-cute” or else Pavel will hunt you down and kill you when he grows up.

    That was enormously affecting. Including Private Pavel.

    1. David Gerard


      Reading closely, it appears to be the FBI entrapping a crazy person into doing something they could rack up an arrest for.

  12. St. Rev

    I looked into Slate’s Louisiana Voter Literacy test a month or two back, and I strongly suspect it’s a fake, or more accurately the kind of joke that circulated around workplaces pre-Internet, getting photocopied and retyped over and over. Compare it to another literacy test on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans site:

    That latter test (actually a compilation of different tests, forms and instructions) looks like the kind of form one would see in a government office in 1963. And it’s pretty bad!

    …but it’s also not formatted in vanilla Microsoft Word, and Slate’s test is. Slate’s test also has ancient joke questions like ‘Paris in the the spring’, while the other test mostly asks about government, law and American history.

    As far as I’ve been able to figure out, Slate’s version is an attachment to a 2002 article in a magazine for radicalized school teachers called Rethinking Schools: The attachment used to be at but the link seems to be broken now.

    None of this proves it’s a fake, but does make it suspicious. I’ve seen another version that’s similar, and slightly more comprehensible, but similarly lacking any administrative instructions and done in a modern font.

      1. David Gerard

        That link does not constitute someone else thinking it “suspicious”:

        I contacted Jeff Schwartz, the former volunteer with the civil rights group Congress of Racial Equality, who had recommended that this word-processed version of the test be included on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, which is where I first came across it. Schwartz reported that he originally found this copy on what he remembers as “an educational website” and recognized it as “the same in all material respects” as the test he had seen while doing voter registration and support in Iberville and Tangipahoa Parishes in the summer of 1964.

        He is, rather, tracing where the text originated. He does not question that it was actually used as a literacy test, as you do.

        1. St. Rev

          See also, which cites a variety of opinions on the authenticity of the test, but mostly seems to bear out the telephone-game scenario:

          “I suspected that was a hoax,” Andrew Salinas, reference archivist for the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, said Wednesday.

          Hartford said Schwartz re-created the test from his memory after tutoring black residents in Louisiana on how to pass it and register to vote.

          Schwartz, who now lives in Hawaii, said he found a test online that looked similar to the one he remembered from the summer of 1964. He said he did not recreate it, but linked to it because he did not carry away a copy of it from his time in Louisiana.

          Nobody has an original; if it was used nobody knows where, by whom or for how long; Hartford says Schwartz recreated it from memory, Schwartz says he found it online…Telephone!

          Note that nobody’s contesting the 1963 test, which is already horrible, but not in a way that makes for juicy clickbait.

    1. Douglas Knight

      ancient joke questions

      Ancient? I was surprised by the claim that the “the the” effect is that old. The oldest example I found is from 1964. The typewritten version of the test has “Paris in / the / the springtime” which doesn’t sound very effective.

      1. St. Rev

        By ‘ancient’ I meant ‘going back to at least mid-20C’. I remember seeing it in some old book of brainteasers. Might have been Smullyan or Gamow, or it might have just been some cheap puzzle book from a long road trip.

      1. St. Rev

        Yes, that! The funny thing is, that version is lighter than the one on Slate, and the page margins are different, but they’re clearly from the same original: random black marks on the pages match. Different scans from the same pages, maybe.

  13. Kerry

    Hmm, I thought the problem with the ‘literacy tests’ wasn’t that they’re difficult word puzzles but that they’re intentionally ambiguous, and left up to the discretion of the marker – so even if someone did manage to get each one right, there was still wiggle room to deny the right to vote if desired. For example, “Print the word vote upside down, but in the correct order” could mean either (inverted) V O T E or (inverted) E T O V (ie, in the correct order when viewed from upside down). I think extremely precise word puzzle buffs would be more frustrated than anybody!

  14. St. Rev

    I looked at the flower test and thought ‘multiple weak criteria support A, single strong criterion supports B, question is ill-posed, no correct answer’. And I was right!

    1. Deiseach

      A very quick glance at the accompanying video makes me think that it should have been titled “Do you think like an American or not?” e.g. the statement that “In the West, we brag, we boast about our accomplishments and talents” – no, generally most of us are told “Don’t be conceited, don’t talk about yourself, don’t boast”.

      1. Charlie

        I dunno, I think you’d need to do something more drastic than replacing one generalization with another.

      1. David Gerard

        The particular worry was that my Christo-pagan loved one would get drafted for said cause. She’s already made the mistake of showing sanity and competence in public and the vicar’s been making noises about giving her more volunteer jobs … she was relieved when it turned out to be a press beat up.

      2. Deiseach

        Yeah, a good rule of thumb when reading average media reporting on any religion topic is “What line did they extract for an attention-grabbing headline?” and presuming that X did not really say what they are reported to have said.

        It’s very funny (in a pull-your-hair-out way) when you know something about the denomination involved, and so can tell when the reporter is making a dog’s dinner of the whole story, but it does make you wonder “If I know, purely because of circumstances, that these details are incorrect then what about all the news stories on things like economics that I know nothing about? How badly are they getting those wrong?”

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