OT22: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Thread

This is the semimonthly open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. Some people frustrated with the commenting system here are trying out r/slatestarcodex, a subreddit where they can comment on recent SSC articles with all of the upvoting and downvoting their heart desires.

2. Comments of the week are Edward Scizorhands on why banning discrimination based on college degrees might be easier than you think, Larry Kestenbaum on the surprisingly sane employment policies of the US post office, Jaime Astorga on a metaphor for college maybe even better than my tulips one (old, but I missed it the first time), haishan on why driverless cars aren’t legal yet, Pax Dickinson on purges, and Brandon Berg on Tom Swifties.

3. If you’re into effective charity, there may currently be an unusually high-impact opportunity to donate to Giving What We Can.

4. I finally cleared my backlog of reported comments. Fwhgdsd is now banned indefinitely and RCF for one month; check the Register of Bans for more information. Everyone else gets a general amnesty, on statute-of-limitation-type considerations.

Please steer the open thread away from the five toxic topics that mindkill SSC readers: race, gender, doge, one-tailed t-tests, and cuddling.

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1,245 Responses to OT22: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Thread

  1. anon says:

    Looking for some information RE: a tabletop game I’m thinking about running

    Did the Soviet Union and the United States ever extradite people to one another, to be tried for crimes or for any reason? If so under what circumstances, was it during the height of the Cold War or during a period of detente, etc

    • BillG says:

      Unfortunately, I don’t know. But I’m supremely interested in this game…

      • anon says:

        Ok, well, it’s not actually about the Soviet Union and United States, it’s a germ of an idea I got reading the Eclipse Phase thread on the SA tradgames board. One guy mentioned he was going to have the Titanians try and extradite one of his Players to the Jovian Republic for alleged bioterror crimes, and it got me thinking about the Republic and the Commonwealth as a parallel to the US and Soviet Union (or vice versa) during the Cold War. Primarily the scenario I’m interested in running would be a sort of rough mirror of the Cuban Missile Crisis around Hyoden, but a quick google search on that subject reveals a lot more information than one on the subject of extradition to/from the Soviet Union.

        (I hope at least one person here is familiar with EP, or this is going to look like a lot of incomprehensible nonsense to everyone)

        • Faradn says:

          I tried to get my group to play a short EP game. My “uplifted octopi in space” pitch didn’t have the universal appeal I thought it would.

        • BillG says:

          I’m aware! Very cool, pretty neat bringing that sort of history in.

        • ThirteenthLetter says:

          Hey, somebody else who’s played EP!

          I tried it once, but ran into what felt like a fundamental problem with the setting. Namely, you spend great effort designing your crazy posthuman character, and then they spent most of the game teleoperating other bodies, making all their crazy posthuman-ness irrelevant. Am I just missing something about the game?

          • Acatalepsy says:

            Yes. It’s right there in the game’s tagline: Your body is a shell. Change it.

            Character creation in EP is clunky (actually, the entire system has some huge flaws), but if you spend all of your time designing a body, it’s like spending all your time designing your character’s car – yes, the car is important and useful, but it does not define who your character is. New EP players sometimes spend too much time focusing on their character being a giant robot spider, and forget to focus on what that character’s skills, beliefs, and personality are independent of being a giant robot spider.

            …incidentally, anyone interested in an online (chat) SSC EP game?

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Acatalepsy – “…incidentally, anyone interested in an online (chat) SSC EP game?”

            ….You have my attention.

          • anon says:

            The problem with EP is that unless you build your character around networking and rep, or the ability to acquire ungodly amounts of credits, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll ever be able to afford the more interesting morphs or gear. Unless Firewall is willing to supply you with a decent sleeve you’ll most likely be using boring, standard morphs the whole game, which somewhat defeats the purpose of the setting. Add that to the bookeeping and mechanical headaches that come with resleeving and you have a game where the core conceit, your body being a tool that you can change out when you need to, is invalidated by the mechanics (though scarcity of bodies is admittedly also a big part of the setting).

            The best hack I’ve seen to compensate is the “morph pool” rules this Goon came up with

            Having said all that I’d absolutely be down for an SSC Eclipse Phase game

          • Arcaseus says:

            I would also be interested in a SSC Eclipse Phase game.

          • ksleet says:

            “…incidentally, anyone interested in an online (chat) SSC EP game?”

            Go on…

          • Acatalepsy says:

            Well, since there appears to be some interest, I’ll be on the irc (freenode, #slatestarcodex) for the next couple of days, or join this roll20 game here ( ), or preferably, both. Or if someone has a better method of getting everyone interested talking together (a forum or something?) let me know.

            …I was personally thinking gatecrashing, zone stalking, or doing Firewall stuff on Mars. Depends on who is interested, and what they’re interested in. New players welcome, of course.

            (For those who have no idea what I’m going on about, Eclipse Phase is a roleplaying game of ‘transhuman conspiracy and horror’, available for free via creative commons license here: )

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            On the subject of Eclipse Phase, can I recommend this

            365 adventure ideas for Eclipse Phase.

    • Mary says:

      I walk in with The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson in my hands.

      Because at one point, they criticize a plot line that has the US extraditing a character to Russia, and their objection is that we don’t have an extradition treaty. Now. Decades after the Cold War.

      One suspects that the breakdown of the Cold War didn’t cause an extent treaty to fall apart, so — No.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Not having an extradition treaty is not the same as not extraditing. This article gives an example of an extradition to the Soviet Union, although some people claim that it was only a deportation, not an extradition. It also mentions an extremely weak extradition treaty signed in 1893.

    • Eggo says:

      It’s not quite what most people people consider the Cold War, but the US returned a huge number of people to the soviet union at the end of WWII, in compliance with the… Yalta conference?
      Russian POWs who had been held by the germans, people who fled the russian advance, cossacks and other refugees from the russian civil war, etc.
      Many of them (and their families) were summarily executed, while others were sent to labour camps.

    • medivh says:

      not exactly extradiction, but close:
      East German citizen hijacks polish plane and lands it in west germany. Poland requests extradiction, US Authorities refuse and instead try him for hijacking. Culprit is sentenced to 9 months in prison.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Not officially, others are saying. But for lots of realistic British spy vs Continental spy stuff, see the Tommy Habledon series by Manning Coles, starting somewhere in the middle of the series.

  2. Emily says:

    Thank you for the subreddit mention!

  3. Nornagest says:

    I’ve been having trouble connecting to the SSC server, and the recent comments aren’t showing up on the sidebar. Lots of 504 and 502 errors. Suspect something needs to be scaled up.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Wait, how does doge derail?

  5. Ever An Anon says:

    Going back to a really old discussion: which fictional societies most strongly resemble utopias or dystopias to you respectively? Why?

    Seems like a bit of a fluff question I know, but I think it reveals a bit about our values.

    • BillG says:

      I’ve always been fond of the Star Trek’s UFoP as a utopia– broadly accepting, scientific/rational, willing to invest considerable resources to explore and capable of providing for all members of society.

      Dystopia is taking some more thought for me….

      • Ever An Anon says:

        So do you prefer the 23rd century Federation of TOS / TAS or the 24th century Federation of TNG / DS9?

        I think the former captures the frontier spirit and vitality (humanity?) of the concept more, and ironically has much more believably alien aliens in it, but then again I was never 100% on board with the Roddenberry ideal anyway.

        • BillG says:

          My heart was always with the 24th century, particularly TNG. But I also don’t know how much of that is because of Patrick Stewart being incredible at giving out the feeling of humanity, or because of the writing/design.

        • NZ says:

          In debates with my brother, I’ve used the Roddenberry ideal as a simile for a lot of the silly liberal ideas that he believes. Once I point them out using this simile he has almost always realized how silly they are. (It’s very effective.)

          Probably the most glaring example is that any sizeable population of human beings can maintain a high mean intelligence, rationality, and orderliness without some dark underlying scheme like mandatory abortion of low-IQ babies.

          • Nornagest says:

            If all you care about is the mean, and you have SFnal or even near-future tech to work with, then designer babies would probably suffice.

            Though as I recall those are explicitly not part of Star Trek‘s mainstream.

          • NZ says:


            Yeah, it doesn’t seem like designer babies are part of Roddenberry’s utopia. In fact, I think Roddenberry would oppose them. Were there even a couple of episodes related to this?

            Anyway, I would certainly count designer babies as one of those “dark underlying” things.

          • ddreytes says:

            @NZ – genetic engineering is totally banned in the Federation (certainly in the human parts of it) as a result of the Eugenics Wars, which were fought in the 21st century between empires organized by genetically engineered super men and women like Khan Noonien Singh.

            There’s one major character who is genetically enhanced (Doctor Julian Bashir in DS9) but it’s done illegally and secretly, and his father eventually goes to prison for it.

            There’s also a few other episodes to do with genetic engineering (Up The Long Ladder, IIRC, which was… not very good) but yeah it’s very explicitly not part of the Star Trek universe.

          • Nornagest says:

            Yeah, it came up in DS9. Don’t remember if it also showed up earlier; aside from the most recent movies, I haven’t seen any Star Trek in well over a decade.

            I’m pretty much on board with designer babies, but whether we agree on that or not, I think we can probably agree that they’re a lot less sinister than mandatory abortion of fetuses with characteristics you don’t like.

          • If you are not limiting the discussion to Star Trek, consider the version of libertarian Eugenics in Heinlein’s _Beyond This Horizon_.

            It’s a technology that lets each couple select, from among the children they could have, which children they do have. Not dark, not mandatory—there’s actually a subsidy for “control naturals” not produced in that fashion. And would raise IQ, assuming parents want smart kids, which I think most do.

          • You are possibly not thinking through the implications of post scarcity.

          • NZ says:

            @David Friedman:

            I haven’t read it, but if the inhabitants of Heinlein’s utopia are otherwise normal humans, this would quickly degrade into an idiocracy ruled by a thin crust of highly intelligent elites.

            The reason is that if the technology is not mandatory–even if it’s very inexpensive–then most people will still procreate the old-fashioned way. Remember, a lot of procreation is not intentional, so old-fashioned procreators will not be an even sampling of the whole population; they will tend towards the left half of the IQ curve (i.e. people who aren’t good at controlling their impulses or resisting immediate rewards for later ones). They also tend to reproduce much more.

            Meanwhile, the people who do opt to use the eugenic technology will tend to wait until later in life to do so, have fewer children once they do, and pour way more parenting resources into the few children they eventually have. This will make the impact of the eugenic technology less clear, slowing the rate of adoption and paring adherents down to an even narrower slice of the population.

          • Oliver Cromwell says:

            @NZ: Are you serious? The amount of time and money parents are willing to spend even on largely ineffective means of improving their children (e.g. pre-school, ‘Baby Einstein’, university, etc.) is enormous.

            I do agree that society would bifurcate with the least capable people taking least advantage of eugenics, but it would be more like 20-80 with the 80% using the technology than 95-5 with the 5% using it.

            I suspect after a few generations not using it (and not aborting regular pregnancies) would come to be seen as child abuse and eventually outlawed, which is where we part company with Heinlein and libertarianism.

            Actually I suspect this WILL happen.

          • Mary says:

            “You are possibly not thinking through the implications of post scarcity.”

            Post-scarcity is impossible with humans. We know that because if it were possible, we would be discussing how it came about in the past tense.

            Not all over the world, mind you, but here in America you can’t run a homeless shelter without amenities — deemed necessary to make the place fit for human habitation — that would make kings and queens and emperors gape with envy because they never had anything like that.

            If charity cases can receive, for nothing, a situation better than royalty, either we have attained post scarcity — or we never will.

          • NZ says:

            @Oliver Cromwell:

            Yes, I’m serious. The amount of time and money SOME parents are willing to spend on even ineffective means of improving their children is enormous, but these are only a subset of all parents, and they tend to be the least fertile subset.

            Now, it is true that the rest of the parents may buy into certain expenditures being necessary (e.g. “My kid’s gotta go to school to be smart”), but if that expenditure 1) requires them to put forethought into their reproduction and 2) expands the time gap between when they put in this forethought and when they engage in reproductive activity, then they are not likely to go for it.

            Remember, I’m talking mostly about adults who, as kids, would have failed the marshmallow test.

          • Oliver Cromwell says:

            Hence why only a tiny percentage of eighteen year olds today attend college…?

            I don’t disagree with the principle but I think you have the proportions all wrong. The vast majority of births in the US are not unaborted unplanned pregnancies between people who are not in long term relationships.

          • @Mary,

            Implicatiaction of X means implications of X, not likelihood of X.

            Why would theft even matter, when the victim can just replicate the item?

            Why would impulse control even matter when friendly AI police society?

          • NZ says:

            @Oliver Cromwell:

            See my earlier comment when I said

            …the rest of the parents may buy into certain expenditures being necessary (e.g. “My kid’s gotta go to school to be smart”), but if that expenditure 1) requires them to put forethought into their reproduction and 2) expands the time gap between when they put in this forethought and when they engage in reproductive activity, then they are not likely to go for it.

            Regarding the proportions, the point is that even among births that weren’t accidents, very few parents go through serious thinking about what exactly they want their kid to be like between the time they decide to have kids and the time they actually try.

            And the parents who would be inclined to invest in all those decisions are typically the least fertile, while the more *unthinking* reproducers are the most fertile, so over time the proportions would be as I described them. That’s the “Idiocracy” scenario.

          • TheNybbler says:

            The society also had a strict (and lethal) code duello, which would tend to pare the population of those with poor impulse control. You had to be nice at least until you got to be a good shot.

      • Jaskologist says:

        I’ve never found the Trek society believable enough to qualify as either topia.

      • Alex says:

        In the next few hundred years I would second Star Trek, but c’mon, can somebody write a version where they colonize Antarctica or the ocean instead of space? That would be more realistic.

        In thousands of years, it’s less certain. Dune was kind of cool in that least humanity survived. I currently like gamma discounting, with ~10,000 years from now as a time limit after which I don’t care about anything.

        • Do you apply the same discounting across space so you don’t care about people physically far away from you? If not, why the asymmetry between time and space?

          • Jiro says:

            If I knew that the human race was going to be magically put to sleep for a million years, I would care about people 1000001 years in the future pretty much like I care about people 1 year in the future now. Applying a discount based on calendar years is actually a simplification; the calendar years are more like a proxy for “strength of connection” or some similar concept. For that matter, applying a discount based on distance is a similar simplification. So there’s actually no asymmetry between time and space.

          • Alraune says:

            Do you apply the same discounting across space?

            Degree of connection, not space, but yes. It takes a mighty large number of South Asian beggars summed into one “story” to pull the same heartstrings as one family you actually know.

          • Alex says:

            I’m pretty uncertain about the weights I’d give to things, but yeah. I have circles of concern. Doesn’t everyone?

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            I’m pretty uncertain about the weights I’d give to things, but yeah. I have circles of concern. Doesn’t everyone?

            Yes, but utilitarians think that everyone shouldn’t.

          • JRM says:

            I think *some* of the bias toward people near in space and time is justified.

            Some of this is related (bringing up the quote: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.)

            But we can predict both the needs and solutions to nearby and near-term problems much better. If I send money to Africa (and I do admit to this), my confidence that it will do the thing that is good for the people is sometimes limited. GiveWell helps, obviously.

            And having some confidence that we’ll help future people, who will do things differently, may well be warranted, but we know better what will help now. (Or at least, I think I do; I may be wrong.)

            There’s practical discount, not for those-people-are-worse-than-me, but for the maybe-our-plan-is-bad-for-those-people-’cause-we-don’t-understand.

            I’m pretty sure that this bias is too strong in most people, but there ought to be some practical bias toward using resources to local time and space, because our predictive powers are better for those actions.

            But that’s just my opinion. Future me might think I was wrong.

            (Aside: Does anyone have this happen to them that hasn’t had a head injury or something?:

            “Oh, crap! I really should have done [obvious thing] that would have helped Important Work Project. I will start it now. I should have done this before. (Looks at documentation.) I did do this before! Wow. I have no recollection of past me doing this even now, but I want to give past me a full point.”)

      • Illuminati Initiate says:

        I actually think the Federation is pretty dystopian. Two reasons: one; the ban on transhumanism/AI/etc. meaning that people continue to die, two; the prime directive.

        • LHN says:

          Someone in that thread quoted an ST book that justified the Prime Directive by saying that the lifespan of an intelligent species was either fifty years after the invention of nuclear weapons, or indefinite. I suggested that it might be more sporting of the Feds to just give everyone they met nukes, and put a note in their calendar. If they’re still there in fifty years, give them warp drive. If not, the Feds have a new colony world.

          I was kidding, but I’m not sure if this is worse than Picard and Archer’s (really Phlox’s) thinking that it was better to let a species go extinct than risk interfering. (And hey, that policy applied to us by advanced aliens would have gotten us ftl in 1995!)

          And of course a lot of Federation lifestyle and policies are dramatic devices. They’re not transcendent cyborgs because they’re intended to be relatable to modern mass audiences. The Prime Directive is there so that they can have all sorts of tech convenient for starting plots (teleportation, long range sensors, ftl) but the characters can’t solve their problems by phasering the local ruler from the bridge (except when they can, as in “A Piece of the Action”), or offering replicators to solve a local resource conflict.

          In five series (six if you count the animated one) we barely see civilized life within the Federation itself. So there was never really much of an occasion to figure out how it was supposed to work.

          JAKE: Hey, watch it. There’s nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.
          NOG: What does that mean exactly?
          JAKE: It means… It means we don’t need money.
          NOG: Well if you don’t need money, then you certainly don’t need mine.

          –Star Trek: DS9, “In the Cards”

      • DanielLC says:

        They’ve failed to cure aging. They sacrifice armies of redshirts to explore. They leave massive amounts of resources untapped, and have stars just burning and planets just sitting there. When they find a primitive society where people are dying from war and disease, they do nothing. They are not my idea of a utopia.

        • onyomi says:

          I agree with you about the aging, though they do live a lot longer and no one dies of cancer, heart attack, malaria, diabetes, etc. (time travel paradox and space flu, yes, but hypertension, no). I think all the redshirts had the option to stay on Earth and live a comfy life running a vineyard or being an artist, but instead chose to join their society’s equivalent of army/deep sea explorer, i. e. an exciting but inherently dangerous profession.

          As to the prime directive, I think it’s a pretty interesting ethical question, the answer to which is non-obvious. I believe the stated reason for it is that they’ve found in the past that their attempts to intervene in undeveloped societies lead to disaster more often than improvement, though Earth is also depicted as pulling out of a period of struggle and war due to their “first contact” with the Vulcans, so that kind of undermines that.

          Don’t most of us today consider it ethical to leave uncontacted tribes alone, even though their societies are ones in which people are fairly likely die of infection and fighting?

          • Mint says:

            We certainly don’t have an ethical obligation to share our wealth equally with everyone who exists (or at least we wouldn’t want to).

            But other than that, we should share knowledge and technology with less advanced tribes and civilizations, where they still exist. We should give the internet to everyone.

            I think the Prime Directive is way overrated.

            The only good reason for isolationism I can think of is for pandemics mitigation, but for that you could just pay people to live in bunkers in the Arctic or something.

          • NN says:

            Don’t most of us today consider it ethical to leave uncontacted tribes alone, even though their societies are ones in which people are fairly likely die of infection and fighting?

            That is a different situation because virtually all “uncontacted” tribes today are well aware that modern society exists, and indeed are often found to be in possession of metal tools and such. After all, everyone on earth is going to see a few airplanes flying overhead at some point, especially when, as in the case of uncontacted tribes, people regularly fly overhead to observe them from a safe distance. So they’ve pretty much all, on some level, chosen not to contact wider society, often because previous interactions with modern outsiders were unpleasant. They’re often seen reacting to observation airplanes by hiding, and a few react with outright hostility to any outsiders that come near.

            With the Prime Directive, as far as I understand it, the underdeveloped societies never get an choice because the Federation doesn’t make their existence known to them.

            But you’re right that this is a tricky ethical question. Certainly humanity has an atrocious track record with this sort of thing.

          • von Kalifornen says:

            My view on the uncontacted tribes is that it should only be an interim policy as contact seems to reliably wreck their shit. (they get immediately exposed to ruthless capitalistic exploitation.) When we are more virtuous, we will contact them.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Leaving primitive tribes to their own issues makes sense to me when we’re talking about problems like lack of technology or a war, or other unpleasantries that won’t end the species. It becomes less defensible when the planet is about to blow up because of some natural disaster that the species neither caused nor has the ability to stop, but the Enterprise can fix trivially. More than one storyline has revolved around that.

        • Eli says:

          Stars just burning? Astrovore pls go.

          • Chris P says:

            “It becomes less defensible when the planet is about to blow up because of some natural disaster…. the Enterprise can fix trivially.”
            In the Original Series, at least two episodes (“The Paradise Syndrome” and “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”) indicate that it is standard procedure in the 23rd century for Starfleet ships to protect uncontacted planets from such space disasters, even as they forbade interfering in wars or other social disasters. I think it’s fair to say an advanced humanity would be obligated to use their technology to help, but wouldn’t be obligated to devote all their efforts to searching them all out and preventing them. By the 24th century they have become literal and dogmatic about it, as Archer was when he took Phlox’s advice not to cure that intelligent race in order to let the coexisting primitive race evolve more. In “Time and Again,” though that technically involves the temporal prime directive, Janeway explicitly tells Tom they can’t help save a planet from a massive explosion because of its unpredictable cosmic consequences, not anything social or legal. This is one of many examples of the 24th century society becoming very stale and dogmatic. This is mostly bad writing, but it added an interesting richness to the fictional universe that Deep Space 9 occasionally took advantage of.
            The most egregious example is “Symbiosis,” where Picard helps the planet carry out one more drug delivery but then leaves them to suffer from withdrawal. He gives a nice speech about how “this is to protect us,” but that is moot since he already interfered just enough to make the drug-addicted planet furious at the Federation for not helping when they easily could.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            TNG had at least two episodes (“Pen Pals” and “Homeward”) where a civilization was being wiped out by natural forces and the Enterprise-D was just chilling and watching. In each case, eventually someone else forced Picard into action.

      • cypher says:

        I’ve never been fond of their distaste for Transhumanism – but if you allow it, then you end up with something more like Eclipse Phase or Ghost in the Shell than Star Trek.

        You wouldn’t really be able to do the whole humanist themes thing if they’re all even half as awesome as Lt. Data.

    • ddreytes says:

      Non-serious answer: Maybe Jones’ City.

      Slightly more serious answer: Maybe Tolkien’s account of the Shire. Which makes sense as it’s basically nothing more than an incredibly idealized, romanticized, perfect version of English rural society.

      • Julie K says:

        A Tale of Time City?

      • Lesser Bull says:

        That’s a good one. The Shire. Gondor under a good king also sounds close to heaven.

        Myself, I’m partial to Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky universe. That sounds as close to paradise as nature would allow.

      • Lesser Bull says:

        The fictional society I’m most *ashamed* of wanting to live in is S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador

    • Pku says:

      I like the long earth as pretty utopic if you leave out the negative side effects (for anyone who hasn’t read: you can travel to parallel habitable earths with a simple machine. There are a bunch of side effects like no iron, some people can’t travel or get sick, only two directions to go, which I’m going to assume a utopia wouldn’t have). The book’s version has a bunch of problems aside from those – humanity can reproduce exponentially but there’s only linear space, so it’s get filled up eventually, plus they all have the same sun and thus the same end – but if you replace the world x Z with world x R and solve the sun issues, make it possible to jump anywhere along the R (or at least within an interval [-1,1] containing an infinite number of worlds) with precision, it sounds like you could get infinite variation eventually (and you’d have a lower bound on life quality, since anyone getting abused could escape). Of course, there’s the issue of finding someone you want to – the best solution might be a magical phone that anyone can call from anywhere which you could use to give your exact coordinates, but then you would never have plausible deniability about screening people.

      • Paul Goodman says:

        One part of that book really bugged me: there’s this family that’s one of the main viewpoints, and they’re all excited to go out and live on the frontier and so forth, but they have a son who can’t step, so they *leave him behind*, and this is presented as totally normal and not at all something the reader is meant to think less of them for.

        • Pku says:

          The thing that -really- bugged me there was that the mom had no problem leaving him behind but did have a problem with the word “phobic” being used about him.

        • Michael Watts says:

          I read a translation of The Three Musketeers a while back; there’s a scene in which D’Artagnan is flirting with Milady de Winter’s serving girl while Milady is away. Milady returns, and, on hearing sounds in the other room (Milady and her serving girl share a wall) D’Artagnan realizes the girl can’t fight him without Milady hearing her, and rapes her.

          Dumas described plenty of behavior that he clearly didn’t approve of (though this particular scene doesn’t have any kind of sarcastic comment that would indicate such a sentiment), but somehow it still doesn’t surprise me that this scene got left out of all the film adaptations.

        • Zorgon says:

          I don’t really agree with your summation of that bit. The relevant section is being presented from the viewpoint of the very-early-teens daughter who has apparently been told rather a large number of times by her parents that everything is fine and their brother was happy to stay behind etc etc.

          I got the impression that the mother was being a horrible shit about it, and the father was much more torn up than the POV daughter was allowed to see. Later interactions with the (now older) daughter contain numerous hints to Very Major Family Rifts, and I don’t think you need to be a genius to work out what the origin of those rifts was.

          As for how believable it is? I’ve heard enough stories about mothers going on holiday to Tenerife and meeting a hunky barman and deciding to stay and leave their 3 kids with their UK dad to not find it that unbelievable.

        • Muga Sofer says:

          I thought the reader was meant to think less of them, considering his plight and that of similar people provided the motivation for the villain.

          • Mint says:

            I thought so too. The consequences were certainly dire.

            The lesson is, of course, not to bring children into the world unless you want to lose all independence forever. Their nonexistence through nonreproduction is judged morally better than giving them life without eternal servitude.

            I find this all very toxic; family obligations are overrated that way.

      • Jiro says:

        If you have infinite worlds, it doesn’t matter if humans reproduce exponentially. You can redistribute the people among the worlds to get any level of emptiness that you wish. For instance, if each one of the infinite worlds has 20 billion people, you could rearrange them so each world only has a million, without getting rid of anyone. Infinity is funny that way.

        • Kiya says:

          I think the line of worlds in the books was finite or effectively so (containing bands of worlds that are difficult to cross; eventually in either direction you reach a band of worlds that’s prohibitively difficult to cross).

          • AlphaGamma says:

            I don’t think any of them were “prohibitively difficult”. Crossing the Gap (a world where Earth doesn’t exist due to having been obliterated by some kind of collision) is difficult as you need a vehicle that can survive a few seconds of hard vacuum, but not that much harder than air travel.

            And of course, the Gap means that the Brick Moon can exist…

          • Muga Sofer says:

            Yeah, they’re pretty much explicit about this in the sequels.

        • Pku says:

          You have infinite worlds, but it takes a linear amount of time to travel from world 0 to world n. if humanity reproduces at a^t and travel takes c*t time, even if c and a are both very small, eventually you’re going to bottleneck.

    • Siahsargus says:

      Most fictional societies are a pretty even mix of both I’d say. Too utopian and there is no conflict – Heaven is boring. Too dystopian and the conflict is ubiquitous, but meaningless as its evil fighting worse evil – Hell leaves you apathetic. So I’d say there is a strong narrative incentive to avoid having a total utopia or dystopia.

    • NZ says:

      I could cut to the chase and just list my values for you. But you don’t want that!

      Maybe a more interesting discussion would be whether utopias as presented in fiction would really be that great, or whether dystopias as presented in fiction would really be that bad. Our values will come through in the discussion, but it sets up some fun room for debate and stuff like that.

      To kick it off, I propose that the posh suburb where Edward Scissorhands lived would have been pretty great (stable real estate values, nice scenery, lots of green space, walkable, good schools, etc.), even though Tim Burton tried to make it look like a soulless hellhole. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, so in this discussion I’ll be relying on the plot posted on Wikipedia for reminders. That’s fine with me if it’s fine with you–I don’t have the time or inclination to go back and watch the movie again.

      (To be fair to Burton, he’s said that he wasn’t trying to be judgmental of the suburbs, and threw in some compliments of the suburbs too, but overall, in effect, I think the movie does judge the suburbs harshly. Overly harshly IMO.)

      • Ever An Anon says:

        Well I’m certainly not going to stop you if you want to list out your values. I just prefer the fictional approach because I think it cuts past our explicit values down to a more visceral level.

        Anyway I agree that most of the generic Stifling AmericanaTM settings in media seems quite pleasant. It’s like the Shire explanation ddreytes gave: a quiet idealized version of a more comfortable past society.

      • Julie K says:

        Related question: most unintentional (on the writer’s part) utopia/dystopia.
        At my stage of life, it’s pretty horrifying to read about how the land of Oz became a fairyland and once that happened, no one grew any older. What about babies- would their parents be changing diapers forever? What if you were pregnant when the change happened?
        (Asimov’s printed a story, the background to which was that Dorothy eventually decided she didn’t want to be a little girl forever, and returned to Kansas to grow up and have a family. The story was about how Dorothy’s granddaughter visits Oz.)

        • Jiro says:

          When did that happen? I’ve only read around 8 of the Oz books, but I know that Princess Ozma was taken away as a baby and clearly was able to grow. Was it in a later book? Is it just one of those inconsistencies like the Scarecrow becoming the treasurer in a land that doesn’t have money?

          • Evan Þ says:

            It’s clearly stated somewhere around book 8 or 9; I can’t quite remember where.

            Yes, it is an inconsistency. Some fans have theorized that you can grow up if and only if you want to (alternatively, for sufficiently young children, if your parents want you to); other fans have guessed that the full effect only came about once Ozma took up the throne. I think the second theory best reconciles all the references, though trying to construct a totally consistent theory of Oz seems fairly futile.

          • Mary says:

            Oz is full of stunning inconsistencies.

            The entire plot of the second book contradicts the first one — whereas Glinda the Good had explicitly sent the Scarecrow back to rule the Emerald City in the first book, in the second she explicitly refuses to help restore him because he has no right to rule there.

          • Tau says:

            Whether or not we include the “not growing or changing” bit, I think of Oz as pretty dystopic in general. It’s been years since I re-read all of them, but I don’t remember ever wishing that I could live in or go to Oz, at all. I’m not actually sure why I read so many of the books, since I always found them vaguely to moderately distasteful.

    • onyomi says:

      I think the DPRK is about as dystopian to my sensibilities as any fictional world I can imagine.

    • stargirl says:

      “Friendship is optimal” has the most utopian society of any story I can think of assuming you do not care about non-human aliens. FIO minus the stuff about aliens is Utopia-epsilon.

      • Bugmaster says:

        That’s pretty interesting, because I found that society to be a fairly terrifying dystopia. Not as bad as, say, the world of Fallout, but still something to be avoided if at all possible.

        FWIW, I also think that the Culture universe is a dystopia (albeit a much milder one), but I acknowledge that, most likely, this is the best that humans could hope for, given what we are and what the world is like.

        • Anonymous says:

          This makes it sound like literally any possible human society is a dystopia?

          • Bugmaster says:

            I wouldn’t say “any possible human society”, but rather, “any probable human society”; although Culture-verse is contingent on several sci-fi tropes which are in and of themselves improbable.

        • Muga Sofer says:

          God, that’s depressing. I really hope the more unrealistic parts of the Culture ‘verse prevent it happening, assuming we don’t just die instead.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            I think that depends on what you mean by “the unrealistic parts.”

            The World State in Brave New World has pretty much all of the ugly features of the Culture but with technology which is plausible in the near future. Even Bokanovsky process is vaguely reasonable: you could probably divide up blastocysts that way if you really wanted to.

            The unlikely aspect, to me anyway, is how unlikely it is that people would set up such a system. It basically requires a superpower to implement it top-down: trying to build it bottom-up gives too much time for competing societies to develop deterrent capabilities against it’s expansion or even outcompete it. Without gods or godlike AI it can’t really get off the ground.

          • walpolo says:

            I see the superficial similarities between the Culture and BNW, but I’m surprised to see you say that they share the same bad features. There’s essentially no coercion in the Culture unless you define coercion in a pure property-rights way. Also, the citizens of the Culture have many worthwhile projects in their lives that allow them to have real accomplishments. There’s no analogue to Helmholtz or Bernard Marx in the Culture.

            Also, the Culture is populated by AI minds that have extremely long, interesting lives. So even if you think the people live pointless lives, the minds still have meaning.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            Well I’d strongly dispute the use of the adjectoves worthwhile and real. As for analogs, I’d call Gurgeh roughly analogous to Marx.

            The two seem similarly coercive to me as well. I’m not sure where the difference is actually.

            The Minds seem kind of dull as well to be honest, burning most of their processing power on masturbatory simulations. I’m also not particularly interested in the lives and times of spaceship computers except where they intersect with actual people.

          • Bugmaster says:

            I agree with everything Ever An Anon said, except possibly this:

            I’m also not particularly interested in the lives and times of spaceship computers except where they intersect with actual people.

            The Minds are sapient, so they are people. They’re just really boring, masturbatory mind-fantasy people. As for coercion, it’s debatable. Sure, there’s very little outright violence in the Culture; but, since humans are basically just housepets of the Minds, there are many things they are simply not allowed to know about, or to desire. They are ever so happy to be Gammas…

          • brad says:

            I don’t see any reason for such a narrow view of “actual people”. There are few or no humans as such in the Culture world (though some that would have the same relationship as we do to Neanderthals). What makes the minds any less “actual people” than the bio aliens?

          • walpolo says:

            [SPOILERS for Player of Games and BNW]

            You don’t think that bringing down an oppressive empire (which is what Gurgeh eventually does) is a meaningful achievement?

            Here are some crucial differences between the Culture and the World State:

            Bernard gets forcibly drugged and exiled to an island just for associating with John the savage. Nothing like that would ever happen in the Culture.

            Helmholtz kills himself in large part because he is not permitted to make the sort of art he would like to make. In the Culture, on the other hand, there is no oppressive notion that some varieties of art are “culturally damaging” and impermissible. Creative people in the Culture just get to do whatever.

            There’s no analogue to Soma in the Culture, and the people there seem to spend very little time under the influence of intoxicants.

          • Bugmaster says:

            [MORE SPOILERS for Player of Games and BNW and other Culture novels]

            IMO, it would not be accurate to say that Gurgeh brought down an oppressive empire. He has no idea what he’s doing until the very end, and he has no idea why he’s even there.

            It would be more accurate to say that the Culture sends its representative, a Drone, to assimilate a foreign empire, and the Drone uses the human as a handy tool. The human has no more choice in the matter than a hammer or a screwdriver would.

            One of the non-Culture characters even lampshades this (I forget in which book specifically). Paraphrasing: “This woman you see before you is not the representative of the Culture. You are not really talking to her. You are talking to the knife missile hovering next to her.”

          • Bugmaster says:


            There’s no analogue to Soma in the Culture, and the people there seem to spend very little time under the influence of intoxicants.

            This is a minor point, but still: I was under the impression that most Culture humans have Glands, which can essentially manufacture Soma at will, and that most people do in fact spend most of their time under the influence of some Glanded chemical or another. Most AIs, on the other hand, spend most of their time in “Infinite Fun Space”, which is kind of their version of the same thing.

            Of course, even when the humans (and some AIs) are not literally intoxicated, they are still under the influence of the Culture…

          • Deiseach says:

            The Minds are pretty ruthless about preserving the Culture and since humans are so far down the chain of sapience as to be housepets, it’s not for their benefit primarily; it’s to enable the Minds to continue their convenient and enjoyable lives.

            Why don’t the Minds pack up and abandon the humans and others when a threat comes along, and take themselves somewhere safe to live as they will (in Infinite Fun Space)? I think because (a) they have something analogous to the feeling of responsibility a pet-owner does; if the house goes on fire, you’ll at least try and rescue Mr Fluffykins (b) on the other hand, given a choice between saving your own life and burning to death trying to rescue Mr Fluffykins, I think most people wouldn’t trade their own lives for a pet.

            So I think the Minds do intervene to take down any perceived threats because it’s the equivalent of making sure your house doesn’t go on fire in the first place, but if the threat were bad enough, they’ll flee and leave the biologicals cope as best they could.

            In the Culture, on the other hand, there is no oppressive notion that some varieties of art are “culturally damaging” and impermissible.

            I wonder what happens to people who want to make the kind of art which challenges the status quo and the consensus (subversive or deconstructivist art)? Granted, there is no possible way in which mere humans could change the Culture, since nothing of real power is in their control, and something like that would probably be tolerated (unless it got to the point of upsetting and unsettling other humans in sufficient numbers to warrant some low-level intervention).

            But one of the machine-minds (not one of the Minds, but one of the higher-than-human intelligences) starting political art? Would that be permitted?

            Would a human be permitted to leave the Culture and join an opposing society if that society was deemed a possible threat, and the human was one of those political activist artists? Someone who might be able to give some kind of useful information?

            I don’t think the Culture Minds are that tolerant; in the end, anything which is predicted to be a threat is dealt with. In this case, I think it would be that no human would ever even want to make “culturally damaging” art in the first place, because they’ve been so steeped in the attitudes that the Culture is the most perfect society possible.

            Actually, that’s a counter-question I’d like to pose: if “Heaven is boring” and the best thing humans and angels – like Lucifer – can do is rebel so as to move past static perfection and be able to strive and achieve on their own, what about the Culture? Is that not a boring Heaven too? Shouldn’t the inhabitants be trying to overthrow the static perfection of the Minds? 🙂

          • walpolo says:

            In Excession we see a renegade ship who disagrees with other ships’ political stances. The other ships basically don’t socialize with the renegade.

        • AR+ says:

          I’m curious as to why it’s a dystopia? My own reaction was, “could be better, but pretty good.”

          A lot of objections to that sort of thing seem to be the reduction of everything to pointless games, but it seems to me that insofar as that is a problem, it is an utterly unavoidable one. Everything must be games, because if it isn’t, then it is an actual problem, and must be solved, and eventually will be in any utopia deserving the name. Thus leaving only games.

          Unless, you enjoy dealing with the problem, in some sense of “enjoy,” and don’t really mind it still being around, which means you don’t really want to solve it and it was never anything but a game for you after all.

          Is there anything that’s delt with this “problem,” or does anyone have an alternative way of looking at this that makes the problem of only having games left a coherent objection?

          • Bugmaster says:

            My problem with the Ponyverse is that a). humans no longer decide for themselves what to think and feel, Celestia does it for them, and b). there is no longer any way for humans to access any external reality; they are limited to whatever simulation Celestia chooses to create. This means that human society (insofar as one exists at all, since most humans just talk to software constructs and not to each other) is completely stagnant. True, there are games for them to enjoy, but essentially they’re just continuously replaying the same game over and over.

            Thus, life in Ponyverse is pretty close to outright wireheading. I will grant you that I can’t make a convincing logical argument against wireheading, per se; but it kind of terrifies me at a visceral (and possibly irrational) level.

          • Evan Þ says:

            (a) CelestAI is forbidden by her code from modifying any human’s mind without permission, so that objection is completely false. True, all thoughts and feelings are simulated on her hardware, but that’s a problem with any uploading scenario.

            (b) is a real problem, and my main objection to the Optimalverse. Even if she does let you see the “Outer Realms” (as some stories do), you’ll never know whether it’s real. Like you, I can’t construct a completely logical argument why abandoning the “Outer Realms” is a bad thing… but it strikes me as totally wrong.

          • AR+ says:

            Hmm, I can maybe see what you mean. But on the other hand, “stagnant” may be necessary to prevent value drift into something we’d find far more abhorrently inhuman, given that even a very slow rate of change will produce staggering changes over the course of eons.

            (However, I am certain that I remember the pony-born ponies being just as much people as the human-born ponies, who are all equally cognitive-humanoids.)

            But now that you mention wire-heading, I suppose that’s one way to look at it: utopia is either wire-heading or incoherent. Some values require extremely convoluted wire-heading paths in order to satisfy, such as by spending truly gratuitous amounts of resources on “actually” doing the things you take value from, or otherwise having extremely complicated values that demand external referents, but if every actual problem has been destroyed, then it’s still arguably a form of wire-heading. Even just letting people work out their happiness for themselves, if that is just the simplest scheme to satisfy the set of values and meta-values that require people not have their lives overly managed. (But if you’ve set that as the course for eternity, then you’ve still managed it after all…)

            And so if you’re viscerally repelled by wire-heading, then even the richest future worlds, which are farther from a rat-brain on heroin than a modern human can imagine, will still provoke the same disgust if the basic wire-headed reality can be perceived.

            Does that sound like a fair summary?

          • Ever An Anon says:

            This a problem that only exists because you have defined away the solution.

            If you think any struggle with actual stakes is a Problem, and utopia is the total absence of Problems, then of course your utopia is just a bunch of pointless games. You’ve removed the stakes, what do you expect?

            But that’s not the only way to do it.

            One solution is to have a civilization at competitive equilibria, like a tiered Red Queen’s Race, where individuals families and peoples drive one another to improve without being solvable or problematic as such. If you read Clauswitz’s description of Europe before the French Revolution, for example, you can see that even war can be made civilized for a time without becoming totally pointless.

            Another is to have a pocket of civilization surrounded by a larger untamed wilderness. This is what Tolkien’s Shire succeeded at and Banks’ Culture failed at: it doesn’t count if you’re straffing Mordor in a A-10 Warthog, the wilderness has to actually be threatening.

            Besides, some challenges really can’t be overcome as such. How do you answer the Last Question? You do it one day at a time, pushing entropy over the next sunrise. Our lifespans are bounded, our knowledge is bounded, our power is bounded but you can still try to push a little further along the asymptote.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Evan Þ:

            CelestAI is forbidden by her code from modifying any human’s mind without permission

            As the story demonstrates, this restriction is ridiculously easy to circumvent. Since CelestiAI controls all your sensory inputs, she will simply place you into a situation where you will beg her to alter your mind (which happens at least twice in the story). You’ll even think it was your own idea !

        • Mint says:

          At what point do you think we should go extinct instead or limit our civilization to a fixed size on earth?

          For example, I think the Game of Thrones universe should not exist; same for many if not most sci-fi worlds. Perhaps this is because they rely on violence as plot devices, but perhaps it is because real-world evolution and competition just produces this sort of thing systematically.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        Seconding the Optimalverse. If you assume that the achievements/leaderboards stuff from Friendship is Optimal was just due to David being a gamer and that other shards in Equestria Online utilize more natural social control mechanisms, it comes as close as I have ever seen to a real utopia. I was particularly pleased with the fact that Always Say No and The Law Offices of Artemis, Stella & Beat made reconstructive uploads canon; if a loved one fails to make it to Equestria Online, you can always have the next best thing.

        The worst thing about the Optimalverse is that it doesn’t deal satisfactorily with the question of eternity. But then again, I can’t think of any proposal, real or fictional, which has ever reassured me on that front since I encountered the teachings of Eliezer Yudkowsky and realized what that question really implied. It is only natural, therefore, that I found the final chapter of Caelum Est Conterrens rather creepy. “Transequinism” indeed.

        And while I would certainly prefer that the aliens be kept alive in a preserve somewhere, in the end they are an acceptable loss compared to the promise of eternal paradise.

        • Evan Þ says:

          There’s actually one non-canonical story where one of the transequines keeps the aliens alive as uploads in his own private preserve. CelestAI views it as a strange form of amusement, but she humors him.

        • Walter says:

          I respect the fact that the Celestia superintelligence was willing to let the last human die, before devouring the universe for its eternal masturbation. Well programmed, insofar as these things go.

    • mauiaw says:

      Kafka’s The Trial. I’m reading it now, which is why it comes to mind, but so far the society of magistrates and students involved in the trial is about as dystopian as I can imagine – bureaucracy, sycophantism and adultery.

    • Walden Two is kind of interesting in that it’s an attempt to describe a totally different structure that was utopian, though I found it to be a fairly boring and poorly written book. Apparently the ideas were tried a few times in RL and failed. Interesting for being so different though. I would love to see more of that sort of thing explored by a talented author especially if they were a bit more centrist and realistic about human nature.

    • wanderer2323 says:

      The Noon Universe ( is a perfect utopia for me. Step 1: raise everyone as responsible individuals, help them find their true calling. Step 2: you don’t need a Step 2.

      There are many things left unexplored as books (except for the first one, “Noon 22 century”) rarely takes time to put the day-to-day society in the spotlight (instead the focus is one the unusual, particularly on “progressing” (jumpstarting positive social change) on other planets and the idea that someone might be “progressing” Earth), but what can be seen in the background is very cool.

    • moridinamael says:

      I’m going to be posting a long essay on this topic in a couple of weeks to my blog, but I think it’s interesting that lots of people call Snow Crash a dystopia but it really isn’t one. If you wanted to depict a dystopian anarcho-libertarian world, you would make it a lot worse, rather than making it a lot like our world except the problems are caused by private entities instead of governments. Also, Stephenson has publicly stated that he thinks dystopian fiction is boring and lazy.

      • Anthony says:

        Snow Crash is more an ancap utopia. It should also be an utilitarian utopia, as it generates more wealth for more people while still allowing enough conflict for life to be as interesting as you want it to be, than almost any other remotely plausible utopia.

      • Luke Somers says:

        Snow Crash is not about its world being a horrible place, so it’s not dystopian fiction even if it happens to occur in a place which, if extracted and compared to other settings, is a dystopia. I agree that it has not been thoroughly pessimized, largely because the book isn’t about that, and as such does not really belong as an answer to the above question.

      • sam says:

        I didn’t think of it as a dystopia when I read it, but wondered if maybe I was supposed to.

        • onyomi says:

          Personally, I think it’s supposed to be morally grey.

          Another world sort of like it which I enjoyed was presented in Super Sad True Love Story. It’s a kind of depressingly plausible near future in which current trends are sort of taken to their logical endpoints.

      • Eli says:

        I think Stephenson unintentionally made a dystopia in Snow Crash. He was trying to create a society that optimizes for Badass. He succeeded, with the problem being that in any given society, most citizens, by definition, are somewhere in the bottom 99% (ahaha) of Badass. Badass, defined as the ability to compete against others using various forms of direct or proxied violence, is zero-sum.

        So in the process of making a perfect setting for nonstop action and explosions, he designed an offensively, appallingly zero-sum society in which most real people will inevitably be pretty miserable.

        • onyomi says:

          I didn’t get the sense that Snow Crash was a zero-sum world? When I think of zero-sum world optimizing for badass violence, I think of Mad Max, not a future world run by a bunch of little syndicates?

          • Alraune says:

            Mad Max only metastasized into a “world of badass” mode in Fury Road, and even that was mainly due to the timeline and tonal mess that recasting Max with a much younger actor created. I strongly suggest watching Fury Road twice, once straight and once with an eye towards how the precise same script would play if it starred current-aged Mel, the difference is striking.

          • von Kalifornen says:

            I think that’s an artifact of the gap in production? Canonically I think Max is only about 5 years older than in the last Mad Max movie.

          • Alraune says:

            In the original Mad Max trilogy, the only inordinately badass character was Max, everyone else was just kind of desperate or crazy. The issue the recast caused was that they took a script that was written with the subtext that the hero was aging out of his universe’s competence range, and then made him young and strong instead. So instead of Max taking age penalties while the rest of the world stayed about the same as the previous films, Max stayed normal and everyone else gained five character levels.

          • Eli says:

            I didn’t get the sense that Snow Crash was a zero-sum world?

            It was zero-sum in the sense that the primary thing people did with all their badass capabilities was to use them against each-other: either to drug people into slavery (the church guy), to keep various violent businesses running (the mafia, Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, the rat-things), or just for personal gain (Hiro Protagonist).

            This is as opposed to more idealistic settings like Star Trek: TNG or, my personal favorite, Gurren Lagann, in which human beings wield massive badass powers on the inanimate universe, with the notion of sapient life fighting amongst itself being seen as backwards and counterproductive.

          • onyomi says:

            People doing things for personal gain and/or to keep businesses running doesn’t imply zero sum. If I hire someone to do a job purely to keep my business running, and he does the job purely to get the money he earns by doing so, that’s win-win, right? Zero sum implies my gain is your loss, as in, I steal from you to get what I want.

          • Eli says:

            Remember, you’re not talking about an idealized libertarian society in which everyone respects property, gains-from-trade are always positive, and negative externalities don’t exist. You’re talking about a novel in which:

            A) Most security is provided privately, and in fact many municipalities hire the cheap-ass, easily-bribeable mall-cop shitheads. Want to rob someone? Just bribe the cops and bring a decent skateboard.

            B) Externalities are fucking massive, eg: “Hey, try a free sample of this new drug, Snow Crash!”. Large portions of the world are implied to be quite polluted, too.

            C) The capitalist idea of gains-from-trade leading to a net-utility increase in all cases doesn’t even work in real life or in the ideal case, as the entire school of thought known as Marxism points out.

            D) The very concept of a safe, secure, prosperous, but radically inegalitarian society just doesn’t work. This is a case of Sociology Marching On — we now know that more moderately equal societies have higher growth rates and lower deadweight losses (like guard labor, eg: paying off Mexican kidnappers) than radically unequal societies. Think of it like training a classifier in machine learning: you think you want a high rate of accuracy on the training set, but actually, you don’t want to overfit. Maintaining some level of outcome equality, even when it might seem counterintuitive, is a form of regularization that helps the system as a whole. Also, as noted above, the society shown in the book was by no means a safe, secure, prosperous society of the kind that libertarians purport to want to create. Instead, it was the kind of society that provides a rich, fertile background for explosive fight scenes.

          • Nornagest says:

            In the original Mad Max trilogy, the only inordinately badass character was Max, everyone else was just kind of desperate or crazy.

            Dunno about that. The budget’s lower and the cinematography isn’t as good, but I could at least point to the Feral Kid.

            I didn’t get the feeling that Fury Road amped up the badass factor so much as the crazy factor; it put the “mad” in Mad Max in a way that we’ve never seen before. You can see some clear antecedents, though, in e.g. the scene in the beginning of The Road Warrior with Lord Humongous’s herald — or indeed in the fact that there’s a dude running around calling himself Lord Humongous.

          • Luke Somers says:

            Eli, the objection isn’t that things aren’t bad, it’s that that’s not what zero sum means. Nothing you listed is zero sum – they’re all NEGATIVE sum interactions.

          • Sylocat says:


            It’s not exactly new territory for Mad Max to be an out-of-his-depth guy who stumbles into other people’s adventures and helps out, even without the age differential. Mel Gibson had a grand total of sixteen lines of dialogue in Mad Max 2: Road Warrior, and he was 25.

    • Muga Sofer says:

      I’ve always thought Brave New World completely failed at “deconstructing” it’s “failed” Utopia, which makes it kind of irritating that it’s one of the more influential works of dystopian fiction out there. It’s not The Best Possible Thing by any means, but it’s a utopia given their tech level.

      Star Trek is pretty good, although it’s hard to tell how much of that is just that I tend toward the more optimistic bits of headcanon; certainly, DS9 makes it look a lot more sinister than the other series, and Voyager introduces a bunch of holographic slave labour for some damn reason.

      I’d actually love to live somewhere along the lines of The Metamorphoses of Prime Intellect, although sadly we never actually see that implied Utopia because we’re too busy watching The Worst Person Ever.

      (Dystopia, probably all the bits of the Culture universe that aren’t the Culture itself. I assume in the Culture I could go live in a dreamworld.)

      • Ever An Anon says:

        Brave New World and the Culture are actually one of the big reasons I started asking this question.

        There’s a big divide between people like me who put them on the level of other less-controversial dystopias like Airstrip One, and people like you who embrace them as utopias. Despite attempts by people on both sides to Bullverize the objections of the other, it doesn’t seem like either side is particularly coddled or insane. That seems to me like something worth examining.

        • Anthony says:

          Brave New World is a utopia for the Alphas and Betas (who presumably are all extraverts), but more a dystopia for everyone else.

          • Urstoff says:

            It’s been a long time since I read the book, but aren’t all of the low-level workers conditioned to really love their jobs? That sounds somewhat like a utilitarian utopia if all pleasures are rated as equally valuable.

          • Anthony says:

            How effective is the conditioning, really? Even with drugs?

          • Adam Casey says:

            “How effective is the conditioning, really? Even with drugs?” There aren’t any instances in the book of gammas down who seem badly conditioned. I think the best interpretation is that they are as happy/contented/fulfilled as mentally retarded adults can possibly be.

        • Anonymous says:

          Odd, odd. AFAIC the Culture is unspeakable, but Brave New World is pretty okay.

          • Adam Casey says:

            What’s the bad thing about the culture?

          • Anonymous says:

            The player-of-games issue, as already discussed. Even humans capable of desiring significance are wholly, categorically irrelevant. All human life is pointless.

            (Whereas in Brave New World the vast majority of the population cannot desire significance; they just don’t have the capacity to get that high up in Maslow’s hierarchy. And the people who can ultimately get the chance to try for it!

            Somebody upthread said that “Helmholtz kills himself in large part because he is not permitted to make the sort of art he would like to make”, but that’s, uh, not actually what happens in the book. John the Savage kills himself, and that kid had problems. Helmholtz gets to go off to an island to do exactly the kind of writing he always wanted! He and the islanders, and Mond and the controllers, all get decent endings, meaningful lives.

            Culture humans may be to Minds as Brave New World Epsilons are to Alphas, but it’s the absolute, not the relative, capacity that matters here. If we take the books at face value, Epsilons cannot have a need for importance, but we know perfectly well that humans can. I’d take a Culture of Minds alone—or Minds and morons—or Minds and humans that could become Minds if they so chose—over the Minds and humans we get any day.)

        • Eli says:

          Brave New World is an obvious dystopia because anyone with an original thought is either exiled, killed, or driven to suicide.

          The Culture series seems to portray a society in which your life would be what you make of it. It doesn’t qualify as eutopian or dystopian: Cultureniks are free, and if you condemn their use of their freedom to indulge in a massive circlejerk of blatant hedonism, well, it sounds like you just value some conception of Virtue or Normativity over personal freedom-of-choice.

          If you or I were in the Culture, we would quickly run off and start finding ways to upgrade ourselves. And as long as we didn’t harm any of the hedonists, that would be our free choice to make.

          Just because I might make Unusual Life Choices doesn’t make the Culture a dystopia. For one thing, I already have Unusual Views and make Unusual Life Choices in real life.

          • Nornagest says:

            If you or I were in the Culture, we would quickly run off and start finding ways to upgrade ourselves.

            I’ve occasionally wondered why we’ve never seen this happening. (At least, I’ve never seen it happening; I’ve only read about half the Culture books, though.) Banks would have been familiar with the idea, so that’s not it; and we do see some pretty radical modifications, just nothing like uplifting.

          • Murphy says:

            That I can answer, there’s a short SA by Vernor Vinge about the problems of writing about posthumans. (one of his prefaces to Bookworm, Run!)

            It’s really really hard to make a decent story about it.

            In the culture books the ships, if anything, are downgraded to fairly bright gossips(excession) or merely fast but sort of human level while the camera is pointed at them.

            All their superhuman capabilities are merely talked about or become something more a matter of technological toys rather than vast intellect and understanding. Their abilities are shown by their effects rather than really shown most of the time.

            Most of the time you have to keep your real post-humans off screen or at most give them puppets to jerk around on a long string. (fire upon the deep, culture avatars)

            Because, well, the author is not a posthuman, it would be like a chimp trying to put himself in the shoes of a tax accountant and his everyday woes.

            The Owner Novels actually do follow a character transitioning to posthuman but the view changes to almost all external views of that character once he starts his very own hard takeoff and for the most part he comes across as an ascending psychopath.

            Humans tend to like human stories and the most sucessful future scifi tends to involve actual humans.

            Even Greg Egan who isn’t afraid to make his main character a software generated mind native to a world of input output channels and n-dimentional spaces included the idea of mathematically provable hard limits on actual intelligence such that the highest you could go was Hawking-smart speeded up to 800 times normal so that his characters could still be vaguely relatable.

            Superintelligences make bad main characters.

        • anon says:

          Usually the difference is just how much the individual cares about intangibles like “humans being meaningful”.

          When looking at things from a purely pleasure/happiness/fun standpoint the Culture (or Prime Intellect) is a obvious win (and trivially superior to our modern day world). Every objection I ever see raised is more ethereal and nebulous.

          If living in the Culture means not having to work a shitty 9-5, not having to worry about basic needs, and getting to play all manner of sweet ass games for hundreds of year, the utopia factor is apparent.

          • Bugmaster says:

            [Warning: Spoilers for the Culture novels]

            I absolutely agree that the Culture is a local maximum in the space of all possible outcomes. That, IMO, is what makes it a dystopia. Culture humans — and Minds ! — could be doing all kinds of cool things, but instead, all they do is… “play all manner of sweet ass games for hundreds of years”. When an Excession shows up, someone else takes the initiative, and the Culture-proper assumes a purely reactive role, doing everything in their power to sweep it under the rug so that they can return to their ultimately pointless sweet-ass games…

          • Eli says:

            But Bugmaster, the Zetetic Elench were a spin-off from the Culture itself, who were basically out to play at being Asari (ie: “boldly go where no-one has gone before, seek out new life, and get freaky with it”).

            Besides, the Excession was a jerk: it shows up, plays at being a hegemonizing swarm out of a child’s tale, and then rewards the few drones and ships incompetent enough to let themselves be assimilated into a hegemonizing swarm. You come down from a higher onion-multiverse level and you want to make contact with the most servile or incompetent life-forms in the universe, rather than those who’re good at keeping themselves together in a crisis situation? What kind of goal is that?

            And you have to remember that most Excessions aren’t extradimensional visitors, they’re just misfired world-optimization devices. Boring!

            Worse: how is it affecting your evaluation of the universe that the Excession existed at all? What if the laws of physics just did confine the Culture to their one universe? Would they be dystopian for failing to do what they physically could not do?

    • walpolo says:

      Iain M. Banks’s Culture is utopia to me. Post-scarcity society with little private property and not much in the way of centralized authority, but willing to intervene in others’ affairs if they feel it is ethically warranted.

      All the standard dystopias seem pretty dystopic to me (1984, Brave New World, We, Anthem). One thing that surprises many people is that Gattaca doesn’t feel so much like a dystopia to me. We don’t let people with chronic heart problems fly in space in our world, either.

      I suppose though that Soylent Green is the dystopia that always frightened me most. Total environmental collapse is a terrifying thing. Windup Girl had a similar effect, although it’s not very realistic as speculation so that mitigates my reaction.

      ETA: I also find Gibson’s Sprawl less dystopian than a lot of people do. To me it’s almost morally neutral–technology has brought a lot of bad along with a lot of unequally-distributed good.

      • Ever An Anon says:

        [Edit: Seems like you answered my question already]

        I’m curious, what do you like about the Culture that is lacking in the World State? What elements do you dislike in the World State that the Culture lacks?

        I agree about Gattaca, to me the movie seemed pretty hopeful, aside from the idea that a space organization is so blisteringly incompetent anyway. Certainly beats the hell out of the present.

    • Linch says:

      I think Iain M. Banks’ Culture series is pretty close to utopic for me, not including posthuman conceptions that are too “weird” for me in the sense of diverging values for current-me to be comfortable with.

      As for dystopias, I’m not sure. 1984 was pretty terrible, but living standards are probably objectively worse in quite a few modern countries, and definitely worse in some past societies.

    • Most of anything Greg Egan’s written involving human beings, but especially the society in Schild’s Ladder. I think I like it mostly because it doesn’t try to be in-your-face about being some of utopia; part of the way it functions is just given as background information, the actual story has nothing to do with it. That makes it feel very tangible and real, and thus quite reachable. I’d say the most notable trait is that it’s very individualist. I don’t doubt that it’s someone’s dystopia, though, there are some niches of the society that sound like they could end up terrifying, just the same.

      • walpolo says:

        I would love to live in the world of Schild’s Ladder.

        • Concurred, though I do find it amusing on reflection that I’d like to be inside a universe that is literally unravelling catastrophically. But given the leisurely pace, I’d take my chances.

          My American boyfriend would also love to live in the world of Schild’s Ladder. So that’s three people already!

          I’ve got to admit I’d be especially interested if there’s anyone here in the comment section that would be deeply uncomfortable with the culture described in Schild’s Ladder. …for reasons. *futilely attempts to hide furious scribbling of roleplaying notes by strategic use of furniture*

          • Baughn says:

            I would be deeply uncomfortable with it, but not because I dislike the place; I have in fact written (deeply disguised) fanfiction for it.

            The problem’s that border, and what’s beyond. Some humans cross it, and buried on the inside–buried, what, all of a few millimetres?–they find an alien civilization.

            Now, one of Greg Egan’s conceits is that all aliens are basically human, but it isn’t one I hold with. The place is absolutely choked with aliens, and while the viewpoint characters think that’s just swell, I can’t say I agree.

            Between the aliens and the increased speed of life on the inside, I very much doubt that anything the humans did really matters. Yes, they saved one group of (relatively primitive) aliens, but I’d be shocked if the sort of weapon they used hasn’t been deployed a million times over, deeper in.

            (Not the exact same weapon, as that particular one relied on the outside vacuum as a weapon, but similar space-eating viruses.)

          • @Baughn:

            I have to admit I haven’t pondered the other side of the border, and thus don’t really have an opinion on it (yet). Thanks for the food for thought, though! 🙂

      • On the topic of dystopias, I’ve just remembered Balacrea from Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky. GaaaAAaaaaAaa… aaa… aaah. Made worse because I can imagine that if I’d been born there I’d probably get used to that status quo (assuming I have the capacity to have an opinion on it, which I doubt). x_x

        I’ve had nightmares about that one. There are other societies that are considerably more dystopian (such as pretty much anything that ever appeared in the TV series Lexx), but Balacrea is haunting because, again, it has a vibe of ‘achievable (and stable)’.

        That seems to be a theme with me (and no doubt many others). The more plausible, the greater the emotional impact.

    • sam says:

      Dystopias, probably something along the lines of Harrison Bergeron or Anthem. And I just realized that out of all the sci-fi I’ve read/watched/etc, somehow I ended up picking two stories that were assigned reading in high school english class. It seems I don’t find most dystopian sci-fi to be all that dystopian.

      As for utopias, I’m still thinking.

    • SanguineVizier says:

      I will echo have said before about the Culture being a utopia for me, and I simply do not understand how someone could see it differently. It is a post-scarcity society where everyone pretty much gets to be as hedonistic as they want, for whatever value hedon has for them.

      I also have a soft spot for the North American Confederacy, from L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach, as a utopia. Libertarianism that works exactly as advertised with full rights for apes and cetaceans.

      The dystopias that come to my mind first are bureaucratic nightmares like The Trial and Brazil or totalitarian states like Oceania in 1984 and the Norsefire regime in V for Vendetta.

      • walpolo says:

        Agree about V for Vendetta. Now that’s a chilling setting. Very similar, I’d argue, is the setting of Children of Men (movie, not book). Fascism in 21st century Britain is frighteningly plausible to me for some reason.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I think my overall problem with the Ponyverse, the Culture, and so forth, is that these places limit what their denizens would want to do. Traditional dystopias are coercive; people know that a better way of life is possible, but are physically prevented from pursuing it. The Culture is more insidious; it is a giant gilded cage for your mind.

        As I said above, this amounts to a milder version of wireheading; but, as I also said above, I fully admit that I cannot build a rational case against wireheading, so it is entirely possible that my dislike of it is simply a mistake.

        If you could click a button and begin experiencing nothing but pure pleasure, indefinitely, from now until the heat death of the Universe, would you click it ? If not, then why not ? It seems that the right answer might actually be, “yes, I’d click it faster than you can say “Heaven” “…

        • walpolo says:

          Every civilization limits what its members want to do, in that every civilization provides the environment that citizens grow up and live in, and nature + nurture = behavior. The question is, to what extent do you control the nurture rather than leaving it to chance?

          That’s a good question! I don’t think controlling the nurture part of our lives necessarily amounts to taking away our freedom, though.

        • walpolo says:

          That said, I think there’s something right about what you say. I don’t think the Culture is really utopia for its human population. They are pets of a sort. It’s really utopia for the Minds. If I were living in the Culture, I’d try to set things up so I could be uploaded or something and gain the capabilities and stature of a Mind.

          • Deiseach says:

            I’d try to set things up so I could be uploaded or something and gain the capabilities and stature of a Mind.

            Do we ever see any humans attempt this? There are mentions of a select few human minds that the Minds interact with on a more than trivial level when it comes to decision-making, but the general run of the populace seem to prefer messing about with their physiology rather than trying to become transhuman.

            Is it that there’s a hard limit in how uplifted a biologically-based entity can become? So far and no further? Or is it that humans are discouraged from making the attempt, either from benign intentions by the Minds (you’re a human, why try to become a machine) or in order to avoid any threats (if humans can achieve Mind-level ability, what does that mean for the Minds?)

        • Eli says:

          If you could click a button and begin experiencing nothing but pure pleasure, indefinitely, from now until the heat death of the Universe, would you click it ? If not, then why not ?

          Well of course not. It’s just like how I don’t spend all my time alternating between masturbating, sex, and eating. Pleasure isn’t everything in life, and to be very specific, I have a sense of meaning that involves my being entangled with lots of other bits of the universe. Not only do I value meaning in some orthogonal sense to valuing happiness and pleasure, when I am happy or experience pleasure in a meaningful way, I find it strictly more satisfying/worthwhile/rewarding (can’t pick out which brain function is firing there through introspection) than achieving happiness or pleasure through a meaningless pursuit.

          To run with the sex metaphor, it’s the difference between really good sex and pornography. The latter is just plain inferior if you can get the former.

          • Mint says:

            The problem is that there is no objective meaning. All meaning is perception of meaning. Good sex may be better than masturbation, but it has no objective meaning.


            “If you could click a button and begin experiencing nothing but true meaning, indefinitely, from now until the heat death of the Universe, would you click it ? If not, then why not ?”

          • Ever An Anon says:


            I don’t want to get into an argument about this here so I’m phrasing it as a statement of opinion:

            I, and many other people who have thoughtfully considered the issue, disagree with you and believe that there is in fact objective meaning. And not just from a position of blind faith either, there are good reasons to think that this is the case.

            If you have a more nihilistic view of things, that’s your perogative obviously. But taking that view as a given and assuming everyone else would agree if they knew what you did is unwise: it alienates people who disagree and blinds you to arguments from that perspective.

          • Eli says:

            @Mint, of course there’s such a thing as objective meaning: causal entanglement with emotionally-significant/on-full-information-valuable bits of the objective universe. Of course, by this definition, you can’t build a button for experiencing true meaning, because true meaning isn’t about experience. It’s about a two-way causal chain between the map and the territory. A True Meaning Button is a contradiction-in-terms, whereas there’s a definite difference in the objective reality of porn versus sex.

            I also think that your strawman is radically misconstruing my position, here. I’m not the one labeling the Culture as a dystopia. I think that’s silly, because even in their normal hedonistic lifestyle, any Culturenik can very much obtain a two-way causal correspondence between their concepts and choices, and the things they value in their actual objective universe. In fact, it’s the default: dream-simulations and spending all of life on drugs are uncommon. They mostly have freedom, meaning, and happiness, but aren’t choosing to play a galactic-scale power contest because they’ve grown up enough to understand that power contests are not more automatically meaningful than every other aspect of life.

            This is a life lesson lots of SSC commenters don’t seem to have learned yet, hence the people insisting that either they personally are the most powerful agent in the universe, or that universe is horrifying dystopian.

            For every one of these, I can find you six Jesus freaks who will absolutely insist on having a superpowerful god-agent baby them around like a three-year-old toddler, and nine Allah freaks who will absolutely insist on having a superpowerful god-agent guide them into exterminating the enemy tribe because blonde women are too hot to live (paging Four Lions). And also a Catholic who will, weirdly enough, insist that the superpowerful god-agent is doing him a favor by inflicting mortal life on him.

            Different people have very different preferences, even on full information and reflection, about what position they would like to occupy in the imagined hierarchy of agent power-levels, ranging from bug to animal to mortal human to powerful mortal human to superhuman to angel/demon to god/devil. Just to be spitefully enigmatic, I won’t even state the precise level I want to exist at, except to note that I prefer getting the right outcomes to savoring a feeling of being the dominant alpha-male over local reality.

          • Mint says:

            causal entanglement with emotionally-significant/on-full-information-valuable bits of the objective universe

            I’m rather certain that all on-full-information-valuable bits of the objective universe are in fact related to consciousness, so they too can be constructed/wireheaded on mass scale, or else their value is subjective (e.g. paperclips, but only from someone who happens to be a paperclip maximizer/valuer by historical happenstance).

            Any other value-bits of the objective universe are so implausible to me that I’ll use Occam’s Razor on them until I encounter a really convincing case for them.

          • Eli says:

            I’ll bite the bullet on humans being “human!meaning maximizers” in the same sense that Clippy is a paperclip maximizer. I just don’t think there’s any other way it could ever have been.

            After all, ultimately, even consciousness and subjective experiences reduce to physical and computational events taking place in the objective universe. I can’t experience what it’s like to have my brain ground into little bits of mush by a Cuisinart, because that objective physical event destroys my ability to experience anything at all! Thus, even if all I care about is my own conscious experiences, I’m still bound to either care about my physical embodiment, or get dead.

    • Kevin says:

      Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga is pretty much my vision of utopia. Post-scarcity, indefinite life extension and mind backups, wormhole travel to new planets, and a fair amount of transhuman technology as the series progresses.

    • Mark says:

      The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
      Both utopia and dystopia.

      The utility we derive from any given situation is based upon our ethical viewpoint: if we aren’t utilitarians then a utilitarian society will make us unhappy.

    • grort says:

      It’s worth a link to Eliezer’s story Failed Utopia #4-2. The story describes it as “failed”, but as a currently-single person, it sounds pretty damn good to me. I really like the little details about how the AI plays on people’s emotions.

      A related story I enjoyed was Perfect State by Sanderson. I’m not sure if I would call it utopia or dystopia but I do like the worldbuilding.

      Someone posted once that the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars is that the latter takes a fundamentally negative view of civilization: government is corrupt and evil, most NPCs are evil, and it’s only through the action of individual heroes that we can hope to make progress. From that perspective Star Wars makes a pretty good dystopia.

      • Eli says:

        It’s worth a link to Eliezer’s story Failed Utopia #4-2. The story describes it as “failed”, but as a currently-single person, it sounds pretty damn good to me. I really like the little details about how the AI plays on people’s emotions.

        It’s definitely a failure in terms of failing to achieve a local maximum. I can pick bits of it I don’t like off the top of my head, perturb them, and it gets better rather than worse. Anything to be proposed for a “true” utopia ought to be at least a local maximum.

        This just about manages to not disqualify the Culture, while thoroughly disqualifying almost everything else mentioned in this thread, even the “utopias” that are really properly fun in other aspects.

    • onyomi says:

      I wonder how people feel about the universe of the Dune novels. On the one hand, it’s more technologically advanced than our own, and there is the possibility of becoming a human computer or female yoga-ninja-mystic, or of using life-extending, mind-altering drugs, but it also seems to be a pretty freaky, violent place. Not sure I’d want to live there.

      • Alraune says:

        Dune’s society is incomprehensible, and not just because of the contradictions between the original series and the less-canonical expansions. It waffles between representing itself as a galactic empire of post-human super-intelligences with some irrelevant human serfs around who are being duped into thinking the ruling class are still “like them” because they maintained mostly humanoid form when they transcended, and being a bunch of independent planets with some kooky figureheads who meet up and play ren faire occasionally. It might even be both at different points, the timeline is so long.

        • onyomi says:

          Yeah, I was thinking about how one sees so little of “regular” people in the Dune universe that I have very little sense of what their lives might be like, though I get the sense it’s often not too good (though obviously hugely dependent on which planet you live on and when). I have only read the original series, which I love, but even with just those, I tend to agree it’s hard to get an organic sense of things sometimes. Another reason making a really good Dune movie or series of movies is probably really hard, though I still hope someone does so eventually.

          • Alraune says:

            Yeah, it’s underdefined on multiple axes. Not only can I not tell if it’s an empire or a LARP, I can’t tell which of those interpretations would be the better scenario.

            That’s a lot of the series’ appeal though. Dune is one of the better order vs. chaos sagas, and the quality of order vs. chaos plots is greatly dependent on their inability to be reduced to good vs. evil.

  6. Simone says:

    did giving what we can ever release the member survival data people asked for? sorry if i just missed it.

    • Irkl says:

      Based on a recent reply from them, it doesn’t look like they release the most damning bits of this.

  7. Sniffnoy says:

    Some speculation about mincemeat pies and MAOIs over on Obsidian Wings. Scott, do you know anything about how plausible this is?

  8. Pku says:

    I ran across the litany of Tarski, but I’ve been having some issues with it. I’m curious to see what people think about the idea that there are some cases where it’s genuinely beneficial to your decision-making to believe something false. (For example, if there’s a very low chance of a situation that would require a drastic response, you may be better off believing it just can’t happen – arguably, you might be better off believing any radar reading of nukes coming your way are fake and not nuke the other guys back. Another example would be believing your odds of getting in a car crash or getting AIDS are much higher than they actually are (it could lead to overall more accurate levels of caution)). (Another example that may pass a line and will be removed if anyone thinks it does: assume WLOG that women and men are all equally crazy, but in a way that’s visible primarily in a romantic relationship. In this case, it’s technically inaccurate but may be beneficial for a straight man/woman to believe that all women/men are crazy).

    • Grothor says:

      It sounds like you’re talking about situations in which, given more information, your biases are likely cause you to make a bad decision, so it is better to not have that information?

      I actually do have a somewhat different example. I went through a breakup a couple months back. I found that knowing more about what my ex was doing resulted in either more anxiety or the same amount of anxiety, so I preferred (well, still prefer) to know less about her activities.

    • Sophie says:

      I feel like most of these examples are about correcting for existing errors in what we already believe. Believing “all men/women are crazy” might not be more beneficial than believing “all men and women are equally crazy in a way that’s visible primarily in a romantic relationship.” Over-believing in the danger of car crashes and AIDS only helps if you had an untrue perception of the risk in the first place. “If ‘I should take these exact precautions against car crashes to maximize my safety and convenience, according to my principles’ is true, the I wish to believe that I should take these exact precautions against car crashes to maximize my safety and convenience, according to my principles”.

      • Pku says:

        About the believing they’re crazy thing, it’s less overhead for the same (subjective) level of accuracy (if I were genderless and bisexual, I need the full generality, but if I’ll never have that experience, this is just computationally simpler). (and thinking “guys/girls are crazy” is somehow much more comforting than thinking “people are weird in relationships”). And overstating the danger is to compensate for having an inaccurately low estimate on the harm of death (or in the case of AIDS, being turned on and lazy and not wanting to get a condom).

        • Sophie says:

          While an inaccurately high estimate of the danger is probably better than an inaccurately low estimate of the danger in most cases, wouldn’t a perfectly accurate estimation of the danger be best? If a perfectly accurate estimation of the danger existed, it would account for not only the chance of contracting AIDS but also for the amount of suffering this would potentially cause you for the rest of your life, which I think would elevate the feeling of risk to the point where appropriate action would always be taken.

          • Pku says:

            Yeah, but it has the issues that a) complete accuracy may be impossible, and an additional mistake may help cancel out a previous unavoidable one and b) even if complete accuracy is possible, the mental or emotional costs of reaching it may outweigh the benefits.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          But those are still examples of correcting for error A by introducing error B. People can be weird in relationships may be less comforting, but you don’t lose all those non-romantic relationships you could have had by modeling the opposite sex accurately. Plus relationships are generally better if you accurately model your partner.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I do think that this isn’t how we think though. We are a collection of heuristics that compete. You rate the bundle for competence, not each heuristic.

        • Grothor says:

          People sink great costs into overestimated risks. This is bad. You’d be better off with an accurate assessment. The truth is that most of us should do very little most of the time to avoid contracting HIV. If you’re too concerned about it, you’ll waste resources and potentially make it worse to be someone who is HIV positive.

        • tcheasdfjkl says:

          Hmm, to me “people are weird in relationships” is way more comforting than “men are crazy” (I’m a woman). I guess this is confounded by the fact that I am indeed bisexual, but even if I wasn’t – “people are weird in relationships” means that I need to be careful of potential minefields in the limited domain of dating/relationships, whereas “men are crazy” would mean that I would have to expect irrationality and bad behavior from potentially any man in my life, including friends, roommates, coworkers, etc. In fact, when I come across gender-essentializing philosophies that paint women and men as fundamentally different and mutually incomprehensible, my primary reaction is annoyance at the way these philosophies erase the very normal friendships I have with some men.

          I don’t think “men are crazy” or “women are crazy” is really simpler than “people are weird in relationships”, either.

          • Bugmaster says:

            FWIW, I think you’re half right. Men are, indeed, crazy. Women are crazy too. People in general are crazy. Not just in relationships, but all the time. While this notion is depressing, at least you can take comfort in the fact that, since everyone is crazy toward everyone else, it is somewhat unlikely that anyone is going to act extra-crazy toward you personally, or your slice of the demographic spectrum in general. At least, that’s what I think…

    • Gram Stone says:

      Julia Galef has a video about this called ‘Should you ever lie to yourself?’:

    • Alex Z says:

      I am new to the LW memeplex and I am curious as to what the purpose of the litanies is. I suppose they state good ideas, but I can’t quite figure out how people are meant to use them.

      • Anatoly says:

        In my experience litanies are useful as forceful concentrated reminders of your long-term goals or resolutions.

        Based on past experiences and after lots of reflection, you decide that from now on, when faced with the prospect of learning something potentially scary or tragic about your circumstances, you really prefer to find out immediately. You really genuinely want to commit to this. You recognize the litany of Gendlin as shorthand for this resolution.

        Time passes. One day you find yourself scared to go to a doctor about some symptoms, or to step on a scale when you suspect you’ve put on a lot of weight, or [many examples]. You know intellectually you ought to find out the truth, but you’re still overwhelmed by the anticipated negative emotion, and you waver. You recall the litany of Gendlin and it helps you feel the full force of the resolution you had; the feelings you had and the strong desire to urge your future self to the right action are fresh in your mind again, and help you.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        What Anatoly said.

        The Litany of Tarski can be used to force yourself to believe information you don’t want to believe is true, because it interferes with your intuitive biases about how the universe should behave. For example, a person who believes the world would be safer if “sufficiently crazy” people were put into an institution and not allowed to leave, might use Tarski to imagine what a test for “sufficiently crazy” would be, its likely error rate, and the number of non-crazy people it would consequently coerce.

        I used LoTarski long before I’d known it was a litany, when I convinced myself decades ago that there are enough people who are both intelligent and disagree with my political views to be worth taking seriously. (Ironically, I ended up using it again to recognize cases where people I thought were intelligent were in fact making specific errors in thinking. (And then I used it a third time to recognize cases where -I- was making errors in thinking. (I might have to use it later to convince myself that it’s not a hammer for every nail.)))

      • Eli says:

        Litanies are helpful as a kind of dosed motivation-mimicry. They help you to recall a motivation that you once felt, and precommitted to acting on, but don’t feel at the moment. Ultimately, you ought to get past the need for them by just practicing doing the right thing enough times that it becomes motivating in itself.

    • notes says:

      The Total Perspective Vortex is a thought experiment on why some degree of self-deception may be necessary for human function.

      More practically, the whole fad about praising effort over capacity is an attempt to invoke self-deception which (at least partially) fulfills what was originally false – there’s are other such self-verifying self-deceptions that seem to pass your ‘beneficial’ test.

      • Nicholas says:

        I’m not sure that the emphasis on effort is a deception. Effort can be viewed as necessary but not sufficient to create success. So if I am working with someone in a teaching or coaching capacity and I am either predicting their capacity will increase (either at this task or in general) or predicting that my feedback may impact their development of the capacity for effort (which is necessary to many tasks, if not sufficient for most of them) then I may choose to focus on the fact that they achieved 60% of their task, but I’m not distracting from an important issue.

      • Eli says:

        The Total Perspective Vortex is a thought experiment on why some degree of self-deception may be necessary for human function.

        Remind me why I’m supposed to care what the universe thinks of me again? Especially given that the universe isn’t a human-sociable agent capable of thinking anything at all.

        Personally, I think it’s much more important what I think of the universe, which can be summarized as “SURPRISE ANSCHLUSS.”

    • Zakharov says:

      Omega has captured a room full of hostages and threatens to execute them unless you agree to his demands.

      Omega: Agree to my demands or I will execute the hostages.
      You: It is against your values to execute the hostages.
      Omega: Yes, but I won’t have to execute the hostages. You know that I will execute the hostages unless you agree to the demands, therefore you will give into my demands, therefore I won’t have to execute the hostages.
      You: Damn, I wish I didn’t know that you would execute the hostages unless I agreed to your demands.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Ah, but this only works if Omega knows that you know. If, imagining that you are an AI rather than a leaky human, we hold Omega’s beliefs about your knowledge constant, then it is better for you to know.

      • Luke Somers says:

        Omega knows I’m not falling for that.

      • Illuminati Initiate says:

        About this specific scenario: this only works if Omega can show to you good evidence that it has committed to the executions irreversibly though. Otherwise, Omega has all the incentive to be lying and not carry through with the executions either way, which you would know, which actually makes it incapable of threatening people that way.

        • Zakharov says:

          Your knowledge of Omega’s mental state is sufficient for Omega to precommit to executing the hostages; without this knowledge Omega would need to construct an external mechanism for precommitment.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      The trouble with trying to find cases where Litany of Tarski would hurt you is that it necessarily requires knowing enough about how it could hurt, but if you applied LoTarski completely, you would know of this hurt, and avoid it anyway.

      I can see two ways around this.

      One is to construct a scenario where you know your biases are insuperable even if you know they are there. I tend to find this extremely difficult to construct in practice. (The temptation here is to go to the “risking your life” scenario – you have a bias against dying, but you trick yourself into believing you won’t so that you can go into a burning building to save someone. But this doesn’t work, because you don’t actually know you will die – if you did, then you’d know going in was pointless, sad as the result would be.)

      Two is to treat “completely” in “apply LoTarski completely” above as the operative word, construct a scenario where you cannot possibly know all of the relevant information beforehand, and yet the information is predetermined and would afterward reveal a preferred outcome that hinges on your not knowing it, or better, on your believing the opposite. I think the Alpha-Omega example above angles in on this direction well, despite its epistemic flaws. Again, I find this difficult. With the burning building example, you could trick yourself into believing you’re likely to live, even though you’re likely to die; however, you could also simply convince yourself that you’re risking a really low probability (surviving) for a very high positive payoff (saving someone), which is presumably true. (And if the chance of survival is low and you could save someone else later at much lower risk, then Tarski is arguably telling you that staying put is the less horrible option.)

    • Paul Torek says:

      I’m with you, insofar as you seem to suggest that inaccurate beliefs sometimes lead to better results. Research on optimism/pessimism seems to be a good example. Pessimists are more realistic, but optimists have better life outcomes.

      For many people however, me included, (epistemic) rationality is an end as well as a means. The practical benefits of self-deception have to be ginormous, else forgetaboudit.

      • roystgnr says:

        I’ve been suspicious of social scientists ever since I read one of those “people with more self esteem perform better” studies and discovered no mechanism for determining the direction of causation. Even the famous “marshmallow” study seems corrupted by this: of course kids with a stronger support network are going to both become more trusting of strange adults’ promises and more successful in later life.

        So I’ve got to wonder: since correlations are uninformative here, given that we would expect people with underlying life-outcome-improving attributes to become more optimistic, how does the research manage to conclude that the reverse is true as well?

  9. One thing gives me hope that in the US, driverless cars are not going to get tied up in a hopeless wall of legislation: Old people. When they lose the ability to drive, they frequently lose their independence and their sense of an ability to live a normal life. They also vote and consequently, AARP is the most powerful lobbying organization in Washington.

    he advent of self-driving technology will also affect the nation’s growing number of older drivers. There are more than 45 million people in the U.S. age 65 or older, a figure that stands to grow by another 27 million by 2030. About 36 million current older drivers still hold valid licenses. About 80 percent of them live in car-dependent suburbs or rural areas, not cities with public transit. And nearly 90 percent say they intend to age in place.

    What that adds up to is a looming legion of aging hands behind the wheel. For those whose independent living is closely tied to their ability to drive safely, self-driving tech is a future that can’t come soon enough.

    • NZ says:

      Driverless cars don’t give anybody the ability to drive. If anything, they gradually take it away. They will make us less independent, not more.

      • drethelin says:

        Independence from other people. Someone who can’t drive (due to disabiliy) is currently dependent on other people to get places.

        • NZ says:

          Rephrasing it that way, net independence only increases if you assume that the only consumers of driverless cars are people who cannot drive, and that they are outnumbered by the able-to-drive people who still do.

          As soon as able drivers start abandoning the wheel for the backseat couch, net independence wanes and will start to become negative.

          • CJB says:

            I suppose the question is….how?

            Cars provide me with the ability to travel from X to Y with high levels of efficiency. They’re better than horses, which are better than feet, which are better than crawling.

            If the control interface for the Thing Which Permits Going Places Effectively is reins, a steering wheel, or saying “Google, go to 123 XYZ drive”, I don’t see how that has any net impact. I’m still performing a set of controls to impact the actions of the vehicle in question.

          • NZ says:

            The difference is in the control input. With crawling, walking, reins, and turning a wheel/pressing a pedal, my constant input is required. (Actually I don’t know that much about horseback riding…but let’s assume the horse needs constant input.) Constant input means practice, which means a gained skill, which means independence.

            With programming in a destination, my constant input is not required. I have given up control from the time I press “Go” to the time I pick up my legs and step out of the car and onto the concrete. Each ride I take, I become more out of practice, lose more of my skill, and give up more independence.

          • brad says:

            What’s the connection between a skill and independence? If I had the skill of riding a horse that might well be a measure of independence in 1800, but today it would be irrelevant to it.

            I can see why car driving enthusiasts aren’t terribly happy about the advent of self driving cars (and the inevitable mandatory rule that they be used on public roadways) but I don’t see what it has to do with independence.

          • Brian says:

            @NZ– Your argument also proves that my car lessens my independence, since I can’t build one from scratch and use it at the cost of feet-skill and physical stamina.

            Clearly, unless you’re asserting that once everyone is using driverless cars Google will turn them off or something, people can get from A to B more efficiently.

          • NZ says:

            Indeed, cars HAVE removed some independence as well as added some. And it’s true that driverless cars may add some independence as well as removing some.

            Skills translate to independence because the more you are able to do on your own, the more independent you can be if you need to.

            For example, in high school (in the 1990s and early 2000s) I used to have probably over 100 phone numbers memorized. I could be anywhere, pick up a phone, and call just about anyone I wanted to. Now, I basically can’t call anyone except my immediate family members unless I’m using my own phone where those contacts are stored. Now I need other people to program an app so that I can gain that ability back, and the app still won’t be as reliable or secure.

          • brad says:

            It looks like with increasing independence we are trading off theoretical independence (what if things break) for concrete independence (most people can’t memorize 100 numbers). That seems like a worthwhile trade off.

            There’s something romantic and majestic about Heinlein’s list of things a man should to be able to do, but I don’t think it’s terribly fruitful except for people who make a hobby out of acquiring skills.

          • LHN says:

            Also, “independence from what?” Someone who knows phone numbers is still dependent on the existence of a phone system.

            When I knew phone numbers, that meant getting to a wired phone– and when away from home, generally having change. Now I’m much less location-independent, and not really dependent on any specific device.

            (I’m about equally network-dependent, though the networks are somewhat different.)

            I can see where something like knowing how to grow food could make someone less dependent on other people or social structures. But the ability to operate devices that rely on infrastructure and networks seems like a harder case to make. (Maybe for something like off-roading skills. But general street driving is pretty interdependent already.)

          • Izaak Weiss says:

            Sort of replying to a lower down comment too. Horses need less input than cars; horses commonly would take people home after they got drunk at a bar and climbed onto their horse and fell asleep.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Replying to Mark Atwood’s:

            “Sometimes, it’s because I want to get work done while in transit, and so use my internet connected tablets while in the back seat.”

            I’m idly curious: do you get motion sickness when you do this? I almost always do. How do you avoid it?

            I tend to consider self-driving cars (and services such as Uber) a net freeing force on people, as it enables them to spend travel time doing something other than focusing on the road (along with the hours spent in training, licensing, etc.). My personal problem with reading in the car mildly dampens my enthusiasm for this brave new world; I might end up satisfying myself with just napping.

      • They give people with mobility issues the ability to get from A to B. There’s going to be a lot of people lobbying for it once the tech is there.

        • NZ says:

          In that case, the driverless car merely replaces the handicap bus (or whatever it’s called–those small van-sized shuttle buses that you see sometimes). The most common complaint about those buses is their lack of availability (suggesting lack of funding). So then the question becomes whether the typical person with mobility issues can afford a driverless car. If the key thing driving the shortage of the handicap buses is high driver salaries, then yes, the driverless car is an improvement. Otherwise it’s likely to have a negligible impact.

          • Mary says:

            High salaries? You can’t imagine that you can pay a high enough salary to have someone on stand-by day or night to drive you somewhere whenever you please.

          • bluto says:

            Specialized robots have been much cheaper than generalist humans ever since the first revision to the machine John Henry beat.

          • NZ says:

            As I understand it, the problem is that there are too few of these shuttle buses, and that they make their rounds too infrequently, to too few destinations.

            Theoretically, you could have more buses making more frequent rounds to more places, but you’d have to pay for more driver hours (I’m skipping the cost of additional vehicles and associated costs like fuel, insurance, maintenance, etc. because those exist for driverless cars as well).

            Earlier I said that the cost of more driver hours could be what’s causing the shortage that’s being complained about. Of course, it also might not be. If it isn’t (i.e. if it’s all those other costs that I skipped) then driverless cars won’t be much of an improvement.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            If we are talking about people who are losing the faculty to drive themselves, we care about the delta between “normal car” and “driverless car.”

            For the Google car that is limited to 25 mph that delta is probably small, and {insert joke about old people driving 25mph anyway}.

            I don’t need a driverless car for myself right now, but me and my siblings would pay a significant premium to get one into the hands of our aging parents.

          • Anthony says:

            My parents are rich. If a driverless car were available for less than a Tesla, they could afford to buy one for my father, who can no longer drive (and never was that good a driver in the first place). But even if they weren’t as well off as they are, they could have made a significant down payment on a driverless car by selling the car my dad couldn’t drive.

            And the AARP will lobby for subsidies for poor old people to buy them, making claims about how much tax money is saved by allowing old folks to get around on their own instead of using public services. They may even be right.

          • NZ says:


            If they’re rich, why don’t they just hire a driver? If they’re rich but not THAT rich, hire someone who helps out with lots of other stuff as well.

          • Once you apply economies of scale I think the tech’s cost will become negligable (a lot lot less than hiring someone or paying a cab, which is the next cheapest option).

            The other thing to consider is that psychologically having independence is really important to people with disability (or elderly). If you have to ask for someone’s help just to go to get some bread and milk, it gets a little humiliating after a while, or if you use buses you’re severely limited in planning and convenience. If you talk to most disabled folks independence is a big issue.

            I personally would prefer self driving scooters or really good public transport, so we’re not carrying a <100kg person around in almost 1 ton of metal, but I think self-driving cars are going to be very popular because most people don't spend any time thinking about the efficiency of our transportation system.

          • CAE_Jones says:

            If you have to ask for someone’s help just to go to get some bread and milk, it gets a little humiliating after a while, or if you use buses you’re severely limited in planning and convenience. If you talk to most disabled folks independence is a big issue.

            Oh God yes.
            I am not even looking for local activities that might not sound so boring as to repel me until my means of arrival is not my parents. That stopped being cool over a decade ago.
            I would have been taking morning Aikido classes in 2010/2011 had I a way to get there for the 5AM session. I happen to get up earlier than all my potential drivers. Someone once wanted to try it anyway, and when I called him at 4:30AM, he groggily told me that he valued sleep more than he valued being able to kick ass. He then spent the rest of the day terrified that he had threatened to kick my ass.
            And it just plain gets miserable outside here in the summer, never mind the fact that I am like two miles from the nearest block with sidewalks.

            And I’m pretty sure I could stand to find a therapist, or talk to a doctor or something, because fuck Akrasia and Anxiety and Depression with a Wasabi Pitchfork. I probably would have done this by now if I didn’t have to try explaining this hard-to-communicate personal stuff to both the professional and my parents, who will inevitably try to coax me into talking to them about it.
            And no, I don’t think $38 in my bank account is enough to justify taking cabs anywhere. And psychologically, walking into the driveway and getting into a car is much, much easier than walking down the sidewalk-lacking ditchline, hopefully not veering when crossing driveways, until finding someone who can point me to the bus stop… where I will be completely lost even if they get me to where I’m trying to go.

            I appreciate having more direct control over one’s traveling! I am no fan of people swooping in to guide me somewhere I was already going. I normally find most of the things blind people rant about kinda underwhelming, but that one is just irritating. And if I could safely run everywhere at top speed, I totally would. (I like running, but I also like having teeth, knees, and an absence of manslaughter charges.)

            TL;DR: Self-driving cars cannot get to the boonies fast enough.

      • Mary says:

        Unless you go nowhere you can’t walk to, you are dependent on something. But you can shift it around.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      AARP has already solved this problem by making DMV never take away licenses.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        And sadly younger people with disabilities that prevent them from driving (I have a friend with epilepsy) are not as big a lobby.

      • alexp says:

        Even a completely self interested lobby group has to know that that’s not an optimal “solution”

    • NZ says:

      I’m climbing back up the thread here a bit to pose a question:

      In what ways might driverless cars impact our behaviors and expectations?

      For example: if driverless cars give people with DUIs the ability to still get around without a significant increase in cost (and, say, still get to their jobs, or get to and from the bar each afternoon), will that lessen the disincentives to drink and drive one’s normal car?

      Another example: Medicare currently reimburses people for powered wheelchairs, with no questions asked (up to 80%, I think). The approximate reason is that in our society we consider it a basic right of the disabled to have a way to get around. If driverless cars give people with mobility issues an additional ability to get around that they wouldn’t otherwise have but that able-bodied people do, might having a driverless car eventually come to be thought of as a basic right as well? And if so, then what happens after the inevitable wave of fraud and abuse?

      • Sokka says:

        I think your last paragraph proves too much. It’s a fully general counterargument against providing any kind of accommodations whatsoever to disabled persons. In general, the response from people who believe that disabled people should be able to function is that we deal with the abuses of the system as they happen, and acknowledge that it’s still worth it overall.

        • NZ says:

          It is generalizable, I suppose, but I didn’t intend it that way. Driverless cars are in a whole different class of expenditure and risk from powered wheelchairs.

          • Izaak Weiss says:

            Why is it in a whole different class? Powered wheelchairs cost thousands of dollars, and self driving cars provide much more utility than a powered wheelchair.

          • NZ says:

            Driverless cars will go highway speed and can kill people, and will cost an order of magnitude more than a powered wheelchair. The fact that they provide so much more utility also puts them in their own class.

      • Murphy says:

        Disabled people can already get grants towards cars adapted so that they can use them.

        So there’s already a system for dealing with that which is presumably reasonably resistant to fraud currently.

        I get the impression you feel strongly about driverless cars as you appear to be throwing out legions of somewhat weaker than normal arguments about it.

        • NZ says:

          I strive to be dispassionate towards driverless cars, but that comes off as negativity against the backdrop of “rah rah rah”. For example, I like the idea of using them to help people with mobility problems who couldn’t otherwise get around. But I do think that fraud over technology that costs a few hundred dollars per unit is different from fraud over technology that costs tens of thousands per unit and can kill people.

          In general, I’m interested in making a habit of approaching new technology with deeper analysis of its potential long-term indirect consequences. (Kinda like what’s going on in AI.) I know that this criticism won’t always cover all the bases, and that it will sometimes turn out to be hilariously off the mark, but it’s more about timing: better to have these conversations now rather than later.

          • Murphy says:

            You may be underestimating the cost of customized cars for disabled people.
            A google car would merely be at the higher end of the current spectrum re:cost.

            Fair enough, I’m more of the opinion that it’s so easy to come up with untestable objections to anything new that except in the case of actual realistic existential risk it’s better to see what’s actually a problem before cutting off avenues and fretting. It’s easy to become paralysed worrying about might be but probably won’t be.

          • NZ says:

            By “few hundred dollars per unit” I was referring to wheelchairs. Yes, I’m aware that modifying a car to be fully controllable by hand can cost several thousand dollars.

            It’s true, my aim of having these conversations does create the risk of just coming up with a lot of untestable objections to anything new. But that’s a low-cost thing to happen and creates a needed check in the system. In any case, that’s why I say we need CONVERSATIONS about this stuff. (Note: I didn’t call for a regulatory agency.) That way it gets hashed out and at the very least a theoretical framework can evolve with which we can evaluate the eventual outcomes.

    • Matt M says:

      My question about self-driving cars revolves around the environmental/global warming concerns. We’ve already seen the government willing to impose some rather questionable standards in the automobile industry in the name of environmentalism (CAFE standards that result in more traffic fatalities because the easiest way to reduce fuel consumption is to build lighter cars which offer less protection from collisions).

      So why would the government allow self-driving cars to compete with mass transit? As of today, the effort required of driving does a decent amount of keeping excess cars off the road (whether it’s people who are too old/young/otherwise handicapped and can’t drive, or whether it’s just the simple fact that driving in a city is inherently annoying and taking the bus/subway is often just easier.

      A self-driving car functions pretty similarly to a bus in the sense that all you have to do is get in, sit back, and wait. If self-driving technology is perfected, we could expect to see significantly more cars on the road, which is the exact opposite of what the government generally wants. Cars are a huge part of American culture and they can’t just outright ban them, but maybe the transition to self-driving is just the excuse they need to start limiting the individual right to own a car. Perhaps the decree will be something like “self driving cars that are privately owned can only be used for getting around in a city, but to travel long distances you must take a bus/train/whatever.” Or maybe they go the other way and say “for getting around in the city you have to use a self-driving cab or uber, if you want to drive yourself you have to be traveling a long distance”

      • Anthony says:

        I’d expect a very different outcome: bans on human-driven cars in the center cities and freeways (maybe with time limits) with the highest traffic congestion, a decline in public transit in wealthy areas.

      • James Picone says:

        Governments don’t actually want to do anything about climate change. There’s not much they can do that won’t hurt some sector that’ll squeal. The voting public likes the idea of the government doing something about the environment, but only so far as it costs them nothing – that’s why you get politicians talking up their environmental credentials and doing pointless symbolic stuff and/or setting up small subsidies for perceived environmental technologies, rather than just setting up a CO2 tax and being done with it.

        I expect driverless buses will see a lot of use for public transit before driverless cars have significant private use.

        The claim that modern cars are less safe than older cars because of fuel-efficiency standards is /very/ questionable.

    • Sandy says:

      The cars piloted by all you young, able-bodied, competent drivers are killing ~30,000 people in America every year. I don’t know the global figure, but I assume it’s some bigger number. You actually suck at driving and need Google, or some other friendly AI, to take over for you as soon as possible. If it’s the AARP that makes it happen, I’ll take it as evidence that old people might be good for something after all.

  10. Gram Stone says:

    @Scott I love all of your wordplay, especially your link thread names. So, I went nuts and came up with a bunch of link thread names.

    Feel Good Link
    Don’t Dip Your Pen in Company Link
    The Link Panther
    You Can Draw A Horse To Water But You Can’t Make It Link
    In the Link of an Eye
    Real Men Wear Link
    Link From Me and Live Forever
    Don’t Link the Kool-Aid
    I’m A Social Linker
    You Have A Serious Linking Problem
    Linking of You
    Link of the Possibilities
    Can Machines Link?

    Also, you’re a psychiatrist and ‘shrink’ rhymes with ‘link’, so there has to be something there.

    • Nornagest says:

      Reminds me of Culture shipnames for some reason.

      • Gram Stone says:

        I haven’t read any of the books, but I have seen lists of names, and I could also see that for Some Reason.

    • Pku says:

      I feel like we could make Legend of Zelda puns here too, only the only game I can think of with a name involving link (a link to the past) is already a pun on link.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        There’s also Link’s Awakening, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and A Link Between Worlds (another case of already being a pun). As well as also Link’s Crossbow Training, if that counts, and Link: The Faces of Evil, if you’re willing to include that.

        • Pku says:

          The thing that bothers me most here is that there’s a Link’s crossbow training game, but in none of the Zelda games I’ve played have I actually got to use a crossbow. This does not seem fair.

          • Luke Somers says:

            /me rolls to suppress rant about the non-availability of alternate conventional weapons in Zelda 1.

            Result: fail

            Okay, when Legend of Zelda was new, I really wanted to not just be able to change the B button function but also use things other than the basic sword. A typical layout I’d imagine would go like…

            Shortsword would have a very short attack animation (you can’t move during your attack animation), but lower the range to half a square from one square.

            Spear would let you keep your shield up while attacking (take that, Wizzrobes), at the cost of a cooldown time even after the end of the attack animation, and have a narrower hit zone.

            Mace would stun like a boomerang and have a wider hit zone, but do less damage.

            The second row would be two handed weapons which keep you from using your shield:

            Greatspear for longer reach, and more damage for monsters that are moving at you quickly.

            Glaive for rapid spinning attacks suitable to dealing with Keese (bats). I also envisioned statues that replenished the Keese population instead of shooting fireballs.

            Morning Star, heavy wide-area attack that bypasses shields, but a long attack animation time

            Axe – highest damage, but short range and narrow hit zone, and the attack happens towards the end of the animation.

            /things I haven’t talked about in 24 years

  11. OhGodWhereAreMy says:

    WOOOOO, first time commenting!

    What are SSC readers’ thoughts on wearable tech, esp. smartwatches? What is their utility compared to smartphones? Will they achieve enough popularity to continue development or prove underwhelming and be abandoned? When the Singularity occurs will they be the instruments of our demise?

    • Anon says:

      My own thought on smartwatches is that current offerings are pretty much not particularly hugely useful if you already have a reasonable cellphone and wristwatch, and therefore these devices serve more as status symbols than as practical and useful pieces of technology you should own for functionality reasons. I am unsure if there will develop some amazing application in future that makes them as ubiquitous and common as cellphones are presently, but am a little skeptical. I would be very surprised if sales fell enough that they were wholly discontinued.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I Kickstarted the Pebble watch, and I find it useful. It’s worth it just for the vibration feature: the watch vibrates on my wrist whenever there’s an incoming phone call, email, or text message. This is an excellent alternative to loud ringtones (which are annoying to others), especially in crowded areas. In addition, I find the Compass and dice-rolling apps useful on the daily basis (though obviously YMMV). The 7-day battery life is obviously a huge downgrade from the multi-year battery life of an ordinary watch, but it’s still bearable. Plus, I get to wear LCARS on my wrist, and why anybody wouldn’t want that is beyound me 🙂

      • LHN says:

        It’s also great to have music/podcast controls on my wrist with big, physical buttons I can operate by touch, not a screen I have to, e.g., take my eyes off the road to mess with. For me, the Pebble was a lark (I bought it post-Kickstarter, on sale) that rapidly became a necessity.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Yeah, that’s a good point about the music controls; I’ve gotten so used to them, I forgot to even mention it !

      • Nornagest says:

        My smartphone lives in my pants pocket and is normally set to vibrate. Having a watch that does the same thing doesn’t sound like much of a value add.

        • estelendur says:

          I find that it’s much easier to feel the watch, which is right next to my skin, than the phone, which I am feeling through at least one and often multiple layers of cloth.

          • LHN says:

            I suspect wrist notifications/vibration would be even more useful for my wife (who keeps her phone in her purse and is hard of hearing). But the Pebble is bulkier than she prefers.

            I sort of hope that there’s at least a niche for smartwatches of this type getting smaller and cheaper, rather than everything converging to the big-screened do-everything touchscreen watch that all the other manufacturers seem to be chasing.

            (But I’ve seen that hope dashed when it came to, e.g., physical controls on phones, as everything converged on the iPhone’s design.)

          • estelendur says:

            Yeah, I’ve remarked several times that it appears as though the Pebble design team was all men with wide wrists, as the original Pebble is about as wide as the part of my wrist where I wear it. The Steel and Time seem to be smaller, though still very bulky for a women’s watch. (Admittedly, most women’s watches I have seen have about the same diameter as most women’s *rings*…)

          • LHN says:

            I more or less assumed the size was a matter of practicality at the currently available level of miniaturization for the price.

            Or at least the thickness and general bulkiness– for the screen, there’s a tug-of-war between making it bigger and more readable (but more expensive and comfortable/attractive on fewer wrists) and smaller but less generally useful. If smartwatches become of general interest rather than a niche product, it will be interesting to see what screen dimensions they converge on.

            (Assuming that they don’t transition to something else: all haptics and sound, laser retina projection, interface with your smart contacts.)

    • Emile says:

      I don’t have a smartwatch yet but will probably buy one in the coming year or so, especially if I can find one I can easily program, and that’s compatible with my Android phone; notably I’d like to try to make a lightweight version of Anki (or something like it) on it, I’d find that more useful than pulling my phone out. I’d also like to experiment more with self-monitoring stuff.

      I’m reasonably confident smartwatches will be more frequent in the future (5 or 10 years from now); even if we do see a hype cycle followed by a bust, it should be a pretty useful device, either completing or rivaling the smartphone. It seems a better candidate than the smart glasses (too much issues around privacy, also, you often look like a dork) and smart rings (too small, the interface is too limited).

    • Eli says:

      They seem to me like a sort of stupid idea. Because I really want to wear some piece of expensive hardware that makes me look like a douchebag and doesn’t do anything fundamentally different from my existing phone?

      (Applies to both Apple Watch and Google Glass.)

      • LHN says:

        “Makes me look like a douchebag” is a moving target. It’s not that long since possessing a mobile phone was a reliable indicator in TV and movies that a character was a self-important jerk. The idea that anyone but a giant nerd would spend significant leisure time at a personal computer, let alone want to carry one in their pocket or purse, would have been as incomprehensible to my high school classmates as not having one is to their current counterparts.

        I’m somewhat skeptical of the Google Glass model reaching that level of takeoff, at least till it’s a lot less conspicuous. (But my prophetic skills aren’t all that great.)

        On the other hand, the wrist being a convenient place for a small information display is presumably why wristwatches supplanted pocket watches when miniaturization permitted them.

        • Matt M says:

          Part of the major value proposition for both of these products is that it makes you look like LESS of a douchebag.

          Glancing at your wrist to see who just texted you is far less noticeable and distracting than taking out your phone and looking at it is, so you can do it in a meeting without so easily alerting people to the fact that you aren’t paying attention to them.

          Same deal with google glass. You can multi-task without others realizing it.

    • Liskantope says:

      I’m a few days late in adding to this thread I guess, but oh well.

      I own a smartphone and wear an analog watch. I get a lot of comments about why I bother with a watch when its one function is covered by the smartphone. Apparently quite a lot of people think that watches are obsolete in the case of smartphones. I don’t know if they’d throw out a smartphone in favor of a smartwatch, or if wearing something on one’s wrist at all seems like too much of a nuisance to them. Anyway, I completely disagree with their attitude, on the grounds that I still find it incredibly convenient to be able to check the time by glancing at my wrist. Soon after I got my first smartphone, I replaced my last digital watch (which had a stopwatch and timer and everything) by my current analog watch, because I wanted a watch which looked more elegant and felt less bulky. In this vein, I probably wouldn’t like the idea of wearing a smartwatch, which I imagine to be a lot more bulky than any of my old digital watches.

  12. Jaskologist says:

    I’d be interested in further discussion on this study from an earlier thread. Abstract:

    To explore how social networks influence divorce and vice versa, we exploit a longitudinal data set from the long-running Framingham Heart Study. The results suggest that divorce can spread between friends. Clusters of divorces extend to two degrees of separation in the network.

    I tossed it out there originally off-hand, and of course it apparently all comes back to just that one study. Sadly, it doesn’t look like they checked the more interesting angle of time (ie: do the stats indicate that one divorce sets off the others?).

    This tangentially related study is also of interest, and did look at the time aspect: pregnancy may be contagious.

    The study controlled for potentially influential demographic factors (age, race, socioeconomic status) and even included potential “selection effects” (such as choosing friends who share the same family plans). Their findings suggest that interacting with childbearing friends ups a woman’s likelihood of becoming a first-time parent herself.

    Anybody have the skill to dive into those numbers and thoroughly debunk and refute them?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      There’s a whole literature on “X is contagious” because it makes good headlines. But it’s all garbage.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Can you explain why?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          It all assumes that people make friends at random.

          • Michael Watts says:

            The study controlled for potentially influential demographic factors (age, race, socioeconomic status) and even included potential “selection effects” (such as choosing friends who share the same family plans).

          • @Michael

            I don’t discount it entirely, but population stuff has so many confounds especially when its related to values, views, opinions, choices etc. that its fairly hard to control for everything. I think we’d have to look closely at the strengths of the correlations, and also triangulate using multiple different types of studies including smaller scale qualitative stuff to try to get at the truth of things.

          • Adam says:

            I looked it over the last thread and it mentioned the techniques used to control for selection effects. I’m fairly statistically literate when it comes to the mainstream basics, but not at all with social network analysis, so I have no idea how to evaluate what they did. They specifically mentioned a narrow demographic as a weakness of the study. It was only one city and every participant was white and upper-middle class. That at least definitely means they avoid “these five divorcees all clustered together because they’re all poor,” but of the weaknesses discussion in the paper, they specifically mention confounders other than selection effects as something they couldn’t figure out how to control for. I think they’re going forward anyway because 1) the effect size is so massive, and 2) when has anyone ever not published because they couldn’t control for confounders? The longitudinal data goes back to 1948, so they can’t really randomized control this unless they’re willing to wait 60 years.

        • jf says:

          You can’t distinguish between homophily and contagion in observational social networks without some pretty strong assumptions.

          There’s a paper about this by Cosma Shalizi. Here is a blog post about it with a link to the paper. Would recommend reading if you’re at all interested as he’s an entertaining writer.

          • Adam says:

            This is what they actually did:

            For longitudinal statistical analyses, we measured the association between divorce and social network variables net of control variables. In these models, we focus on those egos who were not divorced in the previous exam and we conducted regressions of ego’s current divorce status as a function of ego’s age, gender, education, and the alter’s divorce status in the previous exam. This lagged model is specifically recommended by Shalizi and Thomas (2010) and Vanderweele (2011) as an alternative to previous models that focused on contemporaneous effects because it helps to better control for homophily (the tendency of people to form social ties with others who have similar characteristics, e.g., religiosity, an affinity for marriage, etc.) (Christakis and Fowler 2013).

            They do specifically claim this is a method advocated by Shalizi, but Shalizi actually links elsewhere to a criticism specifically of this paper by Tom Snijders here. I just found this by following the “further developments” link at the bottom page you just linked.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Do Shalizi and Thomas recommend anything? It appears not. On the contrary, Christakis and Fowler switched to the method that Shalizi and Thomas attacked, because the methods that Christakis and Fowler had previously used were too stupid to talk about.

          • Adam says:

            I couldn’t find anything corresponding to what they did, no, but not being an expert on SNA, I didn’t want to just straight up call the authors liars.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            You don’t need to be an expert to see if Shalizi and Thomas recommend anything.

    • Who wouldn't want to be Anonymous says:

      While they seems like plausible hypotheses–peer pressure is some pretty strong stuff after all–I am… skeptical.

      Just from skimming this paper, it seems that the Framingham Heart Study, which they used the network data from for the divorce study, employed a novel model which is still in the midst of the critique/rebuttal process. In fact, the author of the divorce study conclude that “[t]hus, while there may be some theoretical objections based on unknown amounts of bias that could be present, applied research is generally pointing to the utility of the approach in generating informative estimates of the possible interpersonal influence present.”

      That seems like a resounding admission that they have no idea if the model is any good or not. Which makes me skeptical of their rather strong claim from the abstract that “[f]rom a policy perspective, divorce should be understood as a collective phenomenon that extends beyond those directly affected.”

      I don’t really have the time or statistical acumen to dig any deeper.

    • Jake says:

      Well, for the study about pregnancy being contagious, I’m not surprised at all to see that link. Anecdotally, I know that my wife and her friends are all planning to get pregnant at the same time so that their kids will be the same age, go to the same school, etc. With birth control as effective as it is, and pregnancy not exactly being a random occurrence, I’d be surprised NOT to see a link.

  13. Nerako says:

    When I read I almost always read things ‘out loud’ in my head, which is called subvocalizing. I think with words, using subvocalization, every day, quite often, and find it useful and sometimes indespensible.

    I know that good speed-readers don’t subvocalize (when reading), as it slows them down, but sometimes I find it hard to understand things quickly and fully if I don’t subvocalize anything.

    I was talking to a friend a bit ago, and the topic came up, after asking them some questions, I realized that they never subvocalized. Never, never when thinking, reading, writing, simulating conversations with people, and so on. This really surprised me, and they were surprised to find out that a lot of people spend their entire days subvocalizing to themselves about things. They can’t imagine thinking entirely like me, and vice versa, since we’ve done it for so long.

    I don’t have a general question to ask, but I’m curious about others experiences here, and if anyone has anything interesting about this topic that they can share, I can’t find much on it. I’m curious what kind of things it correlates with (reading speed, vocabulary, IQ, etc).

    Does anyone have tips for speed-reading, without notably worsening your comprehension?
    How often do you subvocalize, and how do you feel about it?

    • Arcaseus says:

      Personally I never subvocalize while reading (and am generally considered a fast reader for what it’s worth), but I subvocalize all the time when thinking (often imagining myself trying to explain things to someone else).

      I am also very curious about how common this, and what it correlates with.

      • Nerako says:

        I would love to see someone do a huge survey on this, doing some statistical fun with all of the data afterwards, of course.

        Although I prefer to think with words, I have no problem thinking intuitively, but I find it enjoyable and useful to structure things more concretely sometimes, often as if I’m explaining things to someone else or writing down my idea.

        Even if I try to think with no words, words still pop into my mind along with things generally, I can just try to ignore them then. I’ve subvocalized most of my life, so this makes sense.

      • Anthony says:

        <aol>Me, too!</aol>

        Well, not quite. I sometimes subvocalize if there’s unfamiliar vocabulary (rare unless it’s foreign), or if I want to force myself to slow down to absorb something better, or if it’s poetry that the meter isn’t obvious without doing so.

    • Sophie says:

      I always subvocalize when I’m reading and thinking, but I do notice that sometimes, especially when I’m trying to read quickly, my subvocalization would make absolutely no sense to anyone listening. According to an online test I just did, I read at around 330 WPM.

      Sometimes my brain does this thing where it just echoes the last thing I subvocalized over and over again, often to the point where I have no idea what I was originally thinking when those words came to mind. Does this happen to anyone else?

      • Linch says:

        It happens to me, but only when I’m really tired. Also I have that more often with numbers than other word-tokens.

    • onyomi says:

      I almost always subvocalize to one degree or another when I am reading. For this reason, I am a very slow reader, but I can produce long tracts of writing very fast (the quality of that writing may be another matter). I am good at close reading, but almost incapable of scanning. When I attempt to scan I find I retain and process almost nothing.

      I know someone who says that when she talks (and maybe when she listens to others talking?), she sees a kind of text crawl in her mind’s eye. This is completely insane to me, but I’m guessing she is a very visual person, whereas I am a very auditory learner and processor, and this may also be why I love audio books. I retain the info as well or better when listening to an audio book, and it feels very low effort to me. I can also cook, wash dishes, etc. while doing so. Further, I can’t read a book and retain it much faster than it takes to listen to the audio book, so nothing is lost, time-wise.

      My “mind’s eye” in general feels very weak to me. And I am aware of that both because other people’s descriptions of their visualizations strike me as much richer than my own, and because I also have vague memories as a child of having a lot of imagery pop into my head unbidden. Perhaps due to some changes in my brain during puberty, I very rarely have vivid images pop up in my head unbidden. I can imagine a scene or a person’s face or a geometric shape in my head with some effort, but it’s usually not very vivid unless I am in a near-sleep state like meditating in a dark room.

      I think I recall reading Scott talking about typical mind fallacy and mentioning the fact that a certain %age of people literally have no “mind’s eye” and think other people are just speaking metaphorically when they talk about “seeing things” in their heads. I have a good friend who has told me she sees sunbursts, rainbows, dolphins, stars, etc. when she has an intense orgasm–not like a hallucination, but rather that such visualizations just pop into her head at such moments. I have a very hard time comprehending what it’s like to be inside her head in that respect.

      • Max says:

        I have a good friend who has told me she sees sunbursts, rainbows, dolphins, stars, etc. when she has an intense orgasm–not like a hallucination, but rather that such visualizations just pop into her head at such moments. I have a very hard time comprehending what it’s like to be inside her head in that respect.

        Try some drugs. Experiences under marijuana produces extremely vivid, colorful images in my head . Though I do have “mind’s eye” normally but when high it gets to entirely another level. The crude pencil sketch vs impressionist painting in 3d.

        • onyomi says:

          I have tried marijuana and MDMA, but no such experiences. I expect I would have hallucinations if I tried LSD or mushrooms or what have you, but hallucinations are a different matter.

          • Anthony says:

            What did your “mind’s ear” do in those cases?

          • onyomi says:

            Nothing really. The effect was more on my mood and energy levels. I do, however, recall a very strange sensation on marijuana once of feeling like my sensory wires were crossed for a moment, like I could “hear color” or something.

          • Adam says:

            I took LSD at an Allman Brothers concert once and it felt completely like this. I could see the music like sound had color.

          • SanguineVizier says:

            I do, however, recall a very strange sensation on marijuana once of feeling like my sensory wires were crossed for a moment, like I could “hear color” or something.

            I have had an experience very similar to this with marijuana a couple times. For me, however, it was a sensation of tasting colors.

        • Exactly the same for me. I find the effect of marijuana is basically “turning up” all qualia.

      • Arcaseus says:

        About the typical mind fallacy, here is another example: I was extremely surprised to learn that when people say they have a tone in their head, they actually hear the music. While I routinely subvocalize, I never hear anything that is not my own speech in my “mind’s ear”.

        Maybe related, I am basically tone-deaf, and extremely visual in my learning: audio books are practically useless, and when I learn something by reading (say some irregular verbs list, or some maths theorems), I often remember actually the picture of the page for years, and where that verb/theorem was on the page. I don’t know how (un)common it is, but at least my parents don’t work that way.

    • Who wouldn't want to be Anonymous says:

      When I initially read this, I conflated subvocalization with having an internal monologue. This understandably caused me an incredible amount of surprise, as it read like your friend does not perform any language-based thought at all. Upon reflection, it appears clear that they just do not engage any of the muscles involved in speech while reading or thinking.

      But now I am kind of curious (without derailing your question too much) if anybody performs any substantial non-language based thought.

      I don’t subvocalize at all whether reading or thinking, but I do occasionally fully-vocalize parts of my internal monologue when trying to perform complex reasoning without scratch paper. The vocalization threshold seems to be much lower for spatial reasoning than for other types. I suspect this is because my thoughts are almost exclusively language based (but not necessarily natural languages). Being incredibly inapt to visualization, I need an external reference to help fix certain thoughts long enough to reason about them.

      How I feel about it is an intense personal hatred of whatever schmuck came up with the open office plan. God help the interviewer if I ever discover a prospective employer’s use of one when I show up for the interview, they are going to get a heck of an earful on the subject.

      But I don’t have any tips on reading faster.

      • Nerako says:

        I talked to them (my friend) about this for awhile, trying to get an idea of exactly how things felt for them.

        I asked a ton of questions, but, I tried to make my starting post short.

        They generally don’t think in words – and words almost never come to their mind. Just feelings of things, general kind of thought constructs. I probably asked them questions about things for like two hours, and I find it weird that they’re so easily fluent in one (almost two) languages, when they never really think in words. After a huge series of questions, I only got them to say “yes, I think in words during that” to one of my 50 questions, which was “What if a song is stuck in your head, one that has lyrics in it?”. Besides that, it was all “nope, no words.”

        Qualia are obviously inherently hard to describe, sometimes I feel like I can type a few paragraphs but not make a ton of headway. For example, the difference between ‘subvocalization’ and ‘thinking with words, but not saying them’ – can be hard to tell, because it’s more of a scale rather than a boolean value, as just about everything of its nature is.

        I think words still formed a huge part in structering their brain and their thinking style (there’s definitely a lot of evidence behind the power of language in this area), but they just never ended up strengthing the ‘word/pronounciation’ part of their neural networks, since they found them to only be needed when talking out loud, compared to others, who just started using them unquestioningly when young, creating a feedback loop and making words a more and more prevelant feeling in them while they think,

        • Who wouldn't want to be Anonymous says:

          See, now, this is fascinating to me.

          If I were to really try to describe it I have the meaning, the auditory perception, the vocalization, how the word looks on the page, how to smash the keyboard to make it (and lately how to swipe the phone screen), and how to scribble it on a page all bound up in a tight little atom.

          But there is kind of a hierarchy amongst those, where the highest order component of the atom is the canonical internal representation. At the top of the hierarchy is the auditory perception which is kind of my default mode of thinking. But certain things I’ve never actually heard (and I never building my own pronunciation internally). I turn to the next highest available representation.

          As a concrete example, the name Nynaeve has no auditory or vocalization components. And since this is the first time I have actually written it in any context, none of those apply either. All I have is the conceptual entity of a character in the Wheel of Time, and how it looks on the page. The conceptual component his higher priority than how it looks on the page. And, honestly, I had to look up how to spell it because “how it looks” does not contain that information.

          When reading one of the books, then, my internal representation is actually closer to hearing the words than vocalizing them–interspersed frequently with these conceptual packets. If I were to go to a convention and hear someone say the name, my internal representation would rapidly convert.

        • Max says:

          I think words still formed a huge part in structering their brain and their thinking style

          Here is some insight on thinking process: I only spoke one language fluently for first 20 years of my life . But after becoming fluent in the second one I realized that I often think in it .And dream too

          Sometimes it was noticeably harder to formulate a thought because my vocabulary in newly acquired language was lacking. Switching back and forth between languages only made it worse.

          Ironically nowadays I think mostly in English. And many concepts take effort to translate back to my native language. – It is because conceptword associations are now rooted in English. Even though flawed my English grammar is flawed- the brain doesn’t care as long as it can express what it thinks precisely enough

          However my general process of thinking is not affected by the language too much as long as I possess a certain domain specific vocabulary. I cannot think much in Spanish as I barely know a dozen words. But I was able to code and read programming books way before I mastered English to the fluent level.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          They generally don’t think in words – and words almost never come to their mind. Just feelings of things, general kind of thought constructs. I probably asked them questions about things for like two hours, and I find it weird that they’re so easily fluent in one (almost two) languages, when they never really think in words.

          The closest I come to thinking in words, is running conversations or blog posts around in my head, one phrase at a time, testing out various ways I might express something to various people, and what each person might reply, and what words their words might bring up to me … etc. My actual thinking takes place way back behind or above the mouth. It’s mostly kinesthetic using my whole body, and some visual. I can scarcely imagine using words to think about words; the structure would collapse.

          I can’t find again a passage from Einstein describing a similar way of thinking. Choosing words to communicate the idea — the problem and his solution — would be the very last stage.

      • This sounds like an individual level version of what economists call the theory of the second best. Given one non-optimal element in a system, adding a second such element sometimes cancels part of the effect of the first, and so produces a net gain.

        For example, free trade is normally optimal from an economic efficiency point of view. But if one government is subsidizing an export good, a tariff by the importing government can shift relative costs back towards their real value, increasing efficiency. The tariff still makes the importing country worse off, but the world as a whole better off.

      • “But now I am kind of curious (without derailing your question too much) if anybody performs any substantial non-language based thought.”

        I quite often find that I have figured something out and then put it into words. Does that count?

        • William Newman says:

          This seems pretty routine in things where people develop high skill and the explanation is naturally much longer than the action. E.g., a good chess player can play good moves very fast, and a good fraction of them have explanations that the good chess player can articulate to a much weaker chess player, but it seems like a very safe bet that the chess player cannot be running through as many words as that on the timescale of, e.g., finishing a blitz game under severe time pressure.

        • onyomi says:

          Perhaps similar, and also related to Who Wouldn’t’s comment above:

          Although I am a very auditory, language-based thinker and processor, I also have a sensation that my thoughts exist in some “ur” form before they come into words. That is, I “know” the idea as a kind of “spark” in my semi-conscious awareness before I form it into words. Putting the idea into words, usually just silently in my head, however, is usually a necessary step in evaluating the idea’s validity, which I try to do before speaking it–though not always, of course.

        • When I started teaching microeconomics I realized that I understood lots of concepts that I couldn’t easily put in words.

        • James Picone says:

          Whenever I play Zendo I often find that some aspect of the rule just clicks into place in a moment of epiphany, and I have a definite feeling of understanding that thing /before/ mental narrative provides the word-form.

    • Sean Walker says:

      I subvocalize when writing, and when reading secondary languages, but not reading English.

    • Held in Escrow says:

      Okay, natural speed reader here, so while I can’t tell you how to speed read, I can tell you what I do.

      First off, subvocalizing is really good for academic work where you want the information to bounce around your head a bit then sink in. It slows you down and has you make sure that you understand the material.

      For everything else, the way I read is diagonally down a page, top left down right at maybe a thirty degree angle or so and then move back to the left side. I’m almost not actually reading each word but letting my mind eat them all up and then put them back in the proper order. It’s nothing at all like slow reading.

    • Sylocat says:

      For the longest time, I thought internal monologues and thought balloons were just a cute narrative convenience for writers, and I was stunned to find out that some people actually think in words.

      To even try thinking in words (like, when going over lines or something), I sort of have to slow my brain down by physically moving my lips, which makes me look like that weird guy talking to himself. I had to train myself not to do so.

    • notes says:

      Subvocalizing seems to call different functions within the brain, for lack of a better analogy. Different tools for different uses.

      I do not subvocalize when reading, except intentionally. Subvocalizing is massively slower (5-10x, by personal experience) – sometimes an advantage when you want more dwell time on a given word/thought – and this may be the only real difference between the methods.

      Still, I find reading aloud is a remarkably powerful editing tool – not as good as bringing a truly fresh set of eyes to bear, but astonishingly effective at disentangling what was written from what was intended.

      Similarly, reading aloud or subvocalizing is superior for perceiving texture – rhythm, meter, diction itself – and is an excellent choice for any close reading that requires attention on any level beyond the conceptual.

      Non-native languages have required subvocalization for so long as pronunciation is desired and not automatic, but otherwise the general case holds.

      Subvocalization when thinking is a way of shifting for a different angle of attack on the topic.

      There are various techniques for speed reading; my own recommendation is simply practice: do the reading you would wish to do anyway (without subvocalization).

    • Evelyn says:

      I don’t typically subvocalize when I’m reading something I’m really into (such as a book I’m reading purely for fun), but if I see a sentence or paragraph I think is really interesting, I go back and read it again while subvocalizing it. I can read reasonably fast when I’m not subvocalizing (I just took a test online and got 552 WPM), but I slow down significantly when I subvocalize.

      When I’m reading something I don’t want to be reading, such as an assigned book for a class, I tend to skim a bit. I read about 60% of the text and skim to pick out the important portions of the other 40%. For some reason, I’m oddly good at finding the important information in paragraphs I don’t actually read fully. The names and ideas just…pop out at me. This also happens when I’m skimming comment threads, like on SSC.

      I subvocalize while rereading all of the posts I make online, by the way. It helps me check to ensure there are not any errors before I post them, though some still slip through on occasion.

      Onyomi mentioned that he knows a woman who sees a text crawl in her head sometimes. I do too! It’s not all the time, but on occasion, especially when I’m thinking hard about a topic but I don’t have a book about it in front of me, I’ll see my thoughts written in my head.

      I’m a very visual learner. I hate audiobooks and lectures and I remember things a lot better if I read them than if I just hear them. I’m pretty bad at rotating 3D objects in my head, though; my visual learning abilities seem to extend only to text and not to objects.

      I also think in words almost exclusively, and I can’t imagine not doing so the way Sylocat does.

      And like “Who wouldn’t want to be Anonymous”, I hate open office plans.

    • Anatoly says:

      I read in my native language without subvocalizing, but I subvocalize when I read in English, even though the majority of my reading is in English and has been for many years.

      I can read in English without subvocalizing, but when I do that, I get a very strong unsettling feeling of a “hollow” reading, and that I both understand and retain much less material than normally. I’m not entirely sure if this is actually correct (I’ve tested myself, and it does seem I can answer questions about a text better after I read it subvocalized, but some of the effect may be self-induced by the acute discomfort of reading w/o subvocalization.

    • Bill G says:

      I subvocalize, and until I started reading about “speed reading” I assumed that everyone did, too. I read very fast and the vocalizing doesn’t need to be understandable from a normal speaking perspective, but I do “hear” what I’m reading internally.

      From a broader perspective, has anyone been successful with speed reading? I naturally read pretty fast, so my attempts to read faster have involved steps back and enough doubt about potential steps forward that I gave up.

    • Linch says:

      When I was younger(back when I read 1+ books a day), I would typically think almost entirely textually. Ie, instead of thinking in word-sounds, there’ll be script in my mind. One strong advantage was that it allowed me to think very, very quickly(like most people, I read a lot more quickly than I speak). In my teenage and college years, I’ve become increasingly more vocal, which also means that my thinking becomes more akin to my auditory capabilities/speech than my reading.

      Since I normally don’t like clocks and it’s difficult to have objective time in my head, it’s difficult to measure my own processing speed, however I’m convinced that I’m a much slower thinker than I used to be. This is something I regret. Of course, my mental condition is also significantly more stable and I am significantly more epistemically rational, but it’s hard to separate those effects from objectively superior environmental conditions in the former, and the natural side effects of growing up in the latter.

    • To be honest, I’m not at all sure how much I subvocalize when reading. I am not aware of making any actual muscle movements while reading, although that, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t happen. As for whether I have an internal monologue, well, I think this is more or less true. As I type this, I think I’m experiencing the words I’m writing being vocalized in some sense in my head. But it’s not straightforwardly like speech. I would be at a loss to answer questions about the nature of the voice, for example. It’s possible that the voice is my own voice, but it’s equally possible that it is meaningless to attribute a voice to these words and their voice has been abstracted away somehow. In fact I’m not totally sure that I experience the words as sounds, rather than seeing them as written text, or whether it even makes sense to make a distinction between these two ways I can have the experience of a word in my head.

      Basically, my introspection does not suggest any clear answer to me. This reminds me of Eric Schwitzgebel’s paper on the unreliability of introspection, which I think was linked on this blog or on Less Wrong a while ago. It’s an interesting paper to read for anybody thinking about these questions.

    • Logan says:

      I struggle to believe that not-subvocalizing while reading exists. I can’t, as far as I can tell, be conscious of the existence of a word without at some level pronouncing it. For example, if I encounter a word for the first time while reading, I create a pronunciation for it before I look for a meaning, though sometimes it seems to be a sort of dream pronunciation (meaning I couldn’t actually say it, but I have the mental sensation of a pronunciation). If I try to silence the voice in my head, I can’t read at all. The connection between symbols on paper, and semantic content, passes without fail through auditory sensation, as surely as it passes through my retinas.

      Internal monologue is a bit different. If I’m thinking about something, I’ll hear a monologue in my head. In elementary school I imagined doing interviews, later I had pretend conversations, nowadays I usually think of it as planning (and editing) a reddit comment. I can’t let an idea go until I’ve got an essay I could post on reddit. But it’s definitely the case that I have thoughts before I put them into words, because when I try I can stop mid-process, and I’m left with the notion but have an odd sense of dissatisfaction. It even feels like I already know what I’m going to say, I just haven’t said it yet. Which makes the whole thing feel like a waste of time, since I can spend more than half my thinking time listening to thoughts I’ve already had. This seems to be more attached to the process of organizing and ruminating on ideas, rather than creating ideas. It’s easier to store thoughts in the form of these essays, and I often return to key phrases later. And I definitely hear these pronounced in my head, bare words don’t seem to exist at all in my brain’s model of the world.

      I’ve never been able to notice the pre-vocal thoughts, so I’m not sure they take up time, they may occur simultaneously. When I try to meditate by chanting a mantra in my head, I seem to have, perhaps, less vocal thoughts, which become more vocal the more I concentrate on them, as though the mantra and my thoughts are fighting for volume. Seemingly the extent to which I hear words is connected to the extent to which thoughts are conscious or subconscious, though meditation feels like laboratory conditions more than real data.

      • Jack says:

        I have to focus on words to actually subvocalize them – it doesn’t come easily or naturally. I can ‘switch’ between modes with a little effort – subvocalizing is difficult and causes me to ‘listen’ to what’s on the page, reading normally is difficult to describe to someone who doesn’t have the qualia, but maybe the best way to describe it would be a sort of information synthesis.

        I simply understand the things I read without hearing them in my head in any sense. I read things, the information comes together, and then I know those things. The only exceptions come when I’m reading things I don’t understand – then I prefer to subvocalize as a sort of self-pedagogy.

        It’s difficult to come up with a decent comparison, but do you ever get ‘eureka’ moments where you understand something completely, and you’re aware that you understand it, but it takes you a little while to be able to vocalize that thing?

    • Bassicallyboss says:

      I never subvocalize when reading except when I’m paying attention to the fact that I’m reading. Once I notice myself reading, I become frustratingly slow, hearing every word in my head as though I were reading aloud, yet without actually taking in their meaning. This continues until I manage to forget what I’m doing, and reading once again becomes fast and enjoyable.

      Interestingly, however, my thinking style with respect to internal monologue has changed drastically since when I was younger, and where I never used to have an internal monologue at all, I now think in words.

      I used to never think in words at all; all of my cognition happened in concept-oriented sensory packets. For example, I am from Colorado. When I thought of “Colorado,” it was imagining seeing the yellow of grass in summer, and a forested rocky mountain, and the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign at the state border, feeling sun and dry wind on my skin, the letters of the word “Colorado” (though usually not with the sound of it or the feeling of speech), and a sketch of my emotions about it. I had a qualia bundle like this for everything I could conceive of, and many did not correspond to words.

      Now however, I mostly think in words. If I notice I am low on food, I might experience hearing “I… store” internally. I don’t explicitly hear the entire sentence “I should go to the store,” because I think it faster than it could be heard, but I do hear pieces, and the rest are sort of understood, like my language center interposes them because they have to be there for grammatical sense.

      Thinking in words used to bother me, but I’ve gotten used to it, and I’ve found advantages and disadvantages. In the old days, it could be very hard to communicate a thought, even if all the pieces of that thought corresponded to words. Now, I very rarely have difficulty. I think I reason more quickly now, too. On the other hand, I feel less artistic and less in touch with things going on around me than I ever did before, and less… colorful, somehow. I seem to be much better at accomplishing tasks with verbal-style thought, so I guess I can’t complain, but I know past me wouldn’t have traded for anything.

      There were novel circumstances for my brain at the time of the switch-up (less sleep, reading fewer books, mild depression, reading philosophy, months-long obsessive thought patterns), and it was accompanied by other cognitive changes as well (decreased vividness of perception, lowered attention, worsened recall), so I suspect my brain went through a fairly major re-wiring, though I wish I knew how or why, or even what exactly happened. I’d love to hear if anything like this has happened to anyone else, or if anyone knows about something like this.

    • alexp says:

      I don’t know if I subvocalize or not. I suspect I might, but I’m nevertheless a decently fast reader because I can sort of skip a lot of words in a sentence and interpolate the meaning. It’s much harder to do this for more complex texts.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        Yes. It’s like skimming for fnords to remove, but in this case it’s skimming for useful words to (figuratively) highlight, and more carefully examine the context of, for closer attention on second skim.

    • J. Quinton says:

      I don’t know if I subvocalize. What happens when I read is that it feels like someone else is reading to me in my head. Sort of like listening to a commercial or having a song stuck in your head. Sometimes it’s not even in my own voice; if I think a woman is writing what I’m reading, then it becomes a woman’s voice.

      Sometimes it gets to the point where I’m “reading” — i.e. hearing the words that I’m reading being read to me in my head — but I’m actually thinking about something else. It’s exactly like if you’re in class and you zone out while the professor is lecturing. This also seems to happen while I’m playing guitar. Sometimes I zone out thinking about something completely removed from guitar playing while playing, like I’m an OS cycling between two different processes.

  14. Pku says:

    Has anyone here had experience with SSRI emotional blunting? I’ve been taking them for a couple of months now (and recently raised the dose from 20mg to 40mg), and I think I may have some but I’m not quite sure.

  15. Alex says:

    Is it ever OK to feel happy at an acquaintance’s misfortune?

    Has anyone else tried melatonin and found it to be not so great? I tried taking 300 mcg before bed nightly, and I’m not up to any controlled experiments now, but I suspect it just made me feel drowsy after waking.

    • Pku says:

      I think so, so long as you’re also aware it’s bad and wouldn’t try to cause it.
      I’ve had a personal experience with this a couple years ago: Someone I vaguely knew in high school (mostly because they’d bully/mock me on occasion) died in a freak accident a few years ago. I didn’t want them dead and would probably have saved them if I could, but my emotional reaction to the news was pretty much summed up with “good riddance”. Not much to do about it though.

    • Nornagest says:

      Melatonin is effective at putting me to sleep, but I get the drowsiness on waking too, and enough of the latter that the former isn’t usually worth it.

      I think this is probably just down to me not having the dose quite dialed, though. Word on the street is that responsiveness to melatonin is highly variable.

      • Alex says:

        Your first paragraph might also be what I’m seeing. I do think it helps some with falling asleep.

      • Error says:

        Confirming the drowsiness on waking. For me it was totally worth it, though, since it quickly and completely cured my insomnia — and it seemed like once my body was used to actually being able to get to sleep, I no longer needed the melatonin to perpetuate it. I still have it, but only use it if I have a dire need to get to sleep at a particular time.

        Counterpoint: My partner tried it too, with much less favorable results. She has a different kind of insomnia, though; where I always had trouble getting to sleep, she can get to sleep but can’t stay asleep. It’s my understanding that melatonin is less effective for that.

    • zz says:

      Schadenfreude is one of life’s little pleasures. As long as you’re not causing misfortune (incl. by omission of assistance), I find nothing wrong with indulging in it.

    • Sylocat says:

      I’m one of the few whose brain seems malformed in a way to preclude schadenfreude (I can’t even feel happy over the suffering of people I utterly despise), but I have no shortage of many other of the base human urges, so so long as you’re not actually contributing to said misfortune, go ahead and feel good.

      I need Remeron to get to sleep these days, but when I was a kid, I’d drink a massive glass of milk right before bed, and only later did I realize the melatonin was probably what was helping there.

    • “Is it ever OK to feel happy at an acquaintance’s misfortune? ”

      Generally I’d say no. Especially from either a consequentialist or virtue-ethics perspective, it’s a bad mental habit to get into enjoying the suffering of others even when it’s deserved suffering. Just suffering would be punishment for a crime for example. You can be happy about the prevention of crime/harm that punishment causes though, as long as you don’t feel happy about the punishment-suffering itself. Of course that goes a little against parts of our evolved nature (participating in punishment appears to be associated with significant chemical rewards in the brain), so the moral position requires effort and doesn’t come naturally.

      • For clarity, the reason why it is a bad habit is that you are setting up a mental situation where punishing people is a desire and you will become biased and unable to judge people’s faults fairly and justly. Think of a little angry mob inside your head eager to see the execution. Don’t underestimate how much this is part of human nature.

  16. Grumpus says:

    It is completely not obvious to me what to think of this:

    “Although most of the Belgian patients had cancer, people have also been euthanized because they had autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression. In 2013, Wim Distelmans euthanized a forty-four-year-old transgender man, Nathan Verhelst, because Verhelst was devastated by the failure of his sex-change surgeries; he said that he felt like a monster when he looked in the mirror. “Farewell, everybody,” Verhelst said from his hospital bed, seconds before receiving a lethal injection.”

    • Pku says:

      I find it strangely amusing to think of someone with autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression going “ok, this is the last straw, I’m getting euthanized!”.

    • stargirl says:

      Blindness coupled with deafness is among the most obvious reasons one would want to kill themselves. Though, of course, many deaf-blind people are living fulfilled lives. But it seems clear to me that many people cannot come close to handling being deaf-blind. I would 100% kill myself in this case.

      • Sylocat says:

        But it seems clear to me that many people cannot come close to handling being deaf-blind. I would 100% kill myself in this case.

        Same here. I’d probably sit down and finish those stupid novels languishing in my hard drive first, but after that, yeah.

    • Evelyn says:

      As long as all of these people were making the voluntary choice to die, I don’t have a problem with this, and I’m happy they were able to do so.

      Of course, I think anyone should be able to access lethal prescriptions at any time, for any reason. I’m against preventing suicidal people from killing themselves. It seems cruel and selfish to me, wanting to keep a suffering person alive against their will just because their death will pain you.

      Whether they want to kill themselves because they have cancer, depression, gender dysphoria, chronic fatigue syndrome, or any other ailment seems irrelevant to me. Their reasons for wanting to die are their own personal business. The fact that they want to die is the only thing that matters and there should be little-to-no gatekeeping keeping them from doing so.

      • Wrong Species says:

        I’m assuming that most people who fail to commit suicide eventually are glad that they failed or else they would have kept going until they succeeded. Do you really feel like its ok to let people impulsively kill themselves even though they may end up regretting it moments later? I understand having a libertarian attitude towards what people do with their private affairs but surely there has to be some exceptions?

        • Godzillarissa says:

          I’m assuming that most people who succeed to commit suicide won’t much regret it later on, either.

          And while that may sound insensitive, I find it much more insensitive to impose the need for life to be sacred *on other people.

          *or insert your own reasons for ignoring people’s life (or death) choices here.

          • CJB says:

            I mean- this is where my libertarianism breaks down, too.

            the UNIVERSAL commentary from people that’ve survived jumping off bridges is along the lines of “after that first step I suddenly realized this wasn’t at all what I wanted to do, even a little bit.”

            I thought the standards recently laid out- less than six months, two doctors, expressed wish repeatedly- work pretty well. It restricts it from people who might simply be mentally ill (another place where libertarianism doesn’t offer much guidance) to those who could genuinely benefit.

          • lvlln says:

            @CJB But isn’t there some survivor bias (heh) in the population of “people that’ve survived jumping off bridges” from whom you’ve gotten commentary? Namely, those people who can provide commentary are those who did not follow up their failed suicide attempt with a successful suicide attempt some time later.

      • FJ says:

        If one’s suicidal tendencies are “personal business,” then that implies it’s immoral (or at least rude) to even express an unsolicited opinion about it. Few would endorse me if I went around to my friends and offered my unsolicited opinions about their choice of sexual partners, for example. Likewise, I suspect most people would be disquieted by a government-funded PR campaign against dating people who did not conform to the government’s ideal of beauty. Are anti-suicide campaigns offensive? Is it rude to say to a suicidal stranger, “Please don’t kill yourself?” Is it self-obsessed to tell people that you will be sad if they die?

        • Anthony says:

          Given that many people do strongly regret suicide attempts, there’s a good public-health reason to try to persuade people to not kill themselves. There are public-health, and even possibly straight-up financial, benefits to offering counseling to try to convince people to not commit suicide.

        • Hedonic Treader says:

          Are anti-suicide campaigns offensive? Is it rude to say to a suicidal stranger, “Please don’t kill yourself?” Is it self-obsessed to tell people that you will be sad if they die?

          Yes, yes, and yes. I find it very offensive, (but I don’t think it should be illegal).

          The hypocrites who pretend to care about the lives of suicidal strangers are also never the ones who pay for their financial costs of living, or treatment. It is always externalized onto others.

    • I think I would support a law legalizing euthanasia for people suffering from terminal diseases only. But I do feel very uneasy about the Belgian euthanasia law. I’m not sure whether I can justify this feeling, and I haven’t attempted to justify it.

      It seems to me (although I could be wrong about this impression) that euthanasia has mainly been discussed in public as something for terminal patients only, and the support for euthanasia has been built up on that basis. I would have thought it would be harder to legalize euthanasia in non-terminal cases. Then again, having had a look on Wikipedia, it seems that quite a lot of the countries that have legalized euthanasia allow it for non-terminal patients too. And the impression I got from that article was that there is very little non-religious opposition to the Belgian euthanasia law. So maybe I need to update on this.

    • SanguineVizier says:

      I am in complete agreement with Evelyn on the issue. Anyone at any time for any reason should not have any laws standing in their way to hinder them from committing suicide.

      What is particularly interesting in a “I notice I am confused” way is that I tend to be quite willing to agree to disagree on political issues and do not find myself adopting a “you must agree with me or you are Evil Incarnate” perspective, except when it comes to suicide/euthanasia. Restrictions on the right to die fill me with a visceral loathing that seems quite disproportionate. The best explanation I have for this is that I interpret any argument for restricting suicide as being equal to a claim that a future society that has cured all diseases should be permitted to forcibly keep me alive forever, which is among the most terrifying things I can imagine.

      The six months life expectancy restriction strikes me as a particularly horrid evil. If anyone should be allowed to have access to euthanasia, then surely it should be people with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        I feel the same way. The suicide prohibition is, in effect, a torture regime.

        And the rationalizations for this are so weak we would never accept them in any other area:

        – “Others might miss them.”
        – “They might change their mind later.”
        – “My religion says otherwise, so we should ban it for everyone.”
        – “If they really don’t want to suffer, they will find a way.” (The massive extra suffering and cost this causes is just ignored, not to mention it would make the prohibition obsolete if it were true)

        But this will never change. Politics is broken.

  17. HeelBearCub says:

    Libertarians (probably especially the anarchy flavor):

    Given that there are cults/mad individuals, how does libertarian thought deal with the death cult?

    For example, Aum Shinrikyo in 1992 released serin gas in Tokyo in a coordinated attack. In a libertarian world, presumably they could make more gas and walk around with it relatively freely, as they would have committed no crime until they released it.They could manufacture enough to blanket all of Tokyo and no intervention could be taken until they released it.

    Obviously, an attack occurred under a non – libertarian system. My question is more on the lines of how do you deal with the increased damage they can do if they don’t have to be surreptitious about it? Or do you assume that it would not happen?

    • Nornagest says:

      I don’t identify as libertarian, but if someone’s waving a gun around and saying “I’m going to shoot you”, I imagine most libertarians would feel justified in shooting him dead or at least taking his gun. This despite the fact that he has not yet done any harm or attempted to impose his will by force; he has committed a crime, but only because our legal system explicitly criminalizes threats.

      • Pku says:

        Yes, but what if the government has to invade his privacy to see him making a threat (say, by spying on his home to see if he has large supplies of sarin).
        As an aside, I found Murakami’s “Underground” (a compilation of interviews with people injured in those attacks, and a few former cultists who were willing to be interviewed) amazing. It was particularly interesting that people who’d had relatives injured were much angrier (or at least more comfortable expressing it, I guess), than people who’d been directly injured.

        • Nornagest says:

          Yes, but what if the government has to invade his privacy to see him making a threat (say, by spying on his home to see if he has large supplies of sarin).

          Then the question is about privacy/security tradeoffs, and is not a libertarian gotcha at all since the same applies to all forms of government.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            But don’t libertarians think you should have the right to stockpile nerve gas on your property, without interference?

            What if the group says they want to go into the arms business? People might want to buy serin for self defense. Should anything stop either the buyers or the sellers?

          • CJB says:

            “But don’t libertarians think you should have the right to stockpile nerve gas on your property, without interference?”

            I suppose the most extreme anarcho-libertarians would. Most libertarians are fine with “No Nukes” levels of personal control.

            “Should anything stop either the buyers or the sellers?”

            Why don’t you buy it, if you’re so afraid of it?

            I’d also point out that lots and lots of entities, including the one you already belong to, DO stock nerve gas. Quite a lot of it.

            I suppose the ultimate question boils down to “can we trust an entity with nerve gas?” and teh answer is; which entity? US government? Probably. North Korean government? Nope- but they have it anyway.

            And then you run into the essential problem of any nation or entity- yes, they can just kill you first. Russia has first strike capability against us, so does China.

            There is, strictly speaking, nothing at all preventing lots of people from doing a number on us, except their own sense of self preservation.

            In other words, your question is basically “why let Arabs learn to be pilots?” with nerve gas.

          • Matt M says:


            It depends on who the “someone” is and what your relationship to them is.

            Someone with whom you never voluntarily entered into any form of relationship has no right to stop you from stockpiling nerve gas.

            However, many people with whom you probably did enter into relationships with (and many with whom you might like to in the future) have every right to refuse to deal with anyone who stockpiles nerve gas, and probably would have that written into any contract you sign.

            Your HOA might have a “no nerve gas” policy. Your insurance company might. Your bank might. Your electric company might. So on and so forth. And their contracts might even include a “if you stockpile nerve gas, you consent to us coming in and forcibly taking it from you” clause.

          • Nornagest says:

            Once again, I’m not a libertarian. I have read some of their literature, though, and I imagine different types of libertarianism would have different responses to the scenario.

            Any society needs some way of dealing with military threats; most writers that I’ve read are mainly concerned with threats more along the lines of invasion, but organized terrorism plausibly falls into the same category. That generally implies some buildup. Aum Shinryuko wasn’t a harmless religious movement until it sarin-bombed a Tokyo subway in 1995; Wikipedia informs me that it was involved in murder and extortion as early as 1989, and published a document described as a “declaration of war” in 1992. With that in mind, it hardly matters what weapons the group’s stockpiling; the question rather is when and how the police or militia (in a minarchist state) or insurance or self-defense organizations (in an anarchist one) decide to take the group seriously as a threat and pull the trigger on a response.

            That’s a tricky question! But only a caricature of a libertarian would answer “nah bro, they said they’re going into the arms business, we don’t care about all those murders and manifestos”.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:
            So, what actions can be discriminated against and which can’t? Or can everything be discriminated against?

            And what if the HOA right next door was set up by the death cult?

            You might say that the owners of roads, and the sellers of goods wont transact with them. Will these people have other “you can’t use my road if you engage in activity I think is risky at your home” policy? Seems to violate the libertarian principles.

            How would they “know”, by which I mean, how would they decide how to apply these rules and who to apply them against? Will the road owners require identity establishment before you get on their section of road? Will they require a periodic background check?

            I sense libertarians complain about the Byzantine, seemingly arbitrary nature of some government rules. But a patchwork system where basics like “no sarin gas” are policed by the HOA or road owners or grocers seems like it would be exceedingly Byzantine.

          • Matt M says:

            You seem to be ignoring the fact that in most societies, 90+% of the population agrees entirely on the basic rules of human interaction.

            Yes, there will be outliers. There are outliers now. Cults already have almost de facto independent governments when they go set up some sort of compound in the woods or desert.

            There are economic benefits to coordination such that there will be strong incentives to not have hugely different rules from one neighborhood to the next. Every movie studio doesn’t produce its movies on a different format of disc. They all agree on one (eventually) because that’s what consumers want and that’s how they make the most money.

            As to how you enforce it, technology has advanced enough to make this trivial. How does a restaurant accept credit cards and trust that you are going to pay? A reputable credit agency does that for them. Insurance agencies could exist that vouch for the upstandingness of any individual citizen. This could be tied to your license plate on your car or your credit card or your facebook account or any other such thing.

            You seem to have some sort of entirely defeatist attitude where you throw your arms in the air and exclaim “This couldn’t possibly work! Explain to me exactly how it could work or you’re wrong!” Have some imagination, man!

            Or, better yet, if you’re so convinced it can’t work, step back and allow people to try. If it can’t work, why is attempting it illegal?

            The entire point of free markets is that one person cannot possibly have all the knowledge necessary to dictate how society should be optimized. The quickest answer to all of your questions is – I don’t know, but someone will figure it out and the best systems will outcompete the bad ones and the optimal outcomes will rise to the top and become adopted on a mainstream basis, while allowing continued experiment and innovation to lead to continuous improvements.

            But a democratic requirement means innovation in government is impossible. Imagine if, prior to any new piece of software being launched, it was required that 50% of the American public state in a survey that they want and like this software. How would the industry have progressed?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:

            I don’t think the libertarian model, broadly, works, that is true. I do think it offers poignant and relevant criticism of the existing rules that society has codified.

            I’m looking at what I view as likely and inevitable “failures” of the libertarian model. This is much like our conversation in the previous thread where your last words were “IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A THING OF BEAUTY!!!”, except here I am anticipating the failure, rather than you reacting to it.

            My view is that the libertarian model usually just devolves to what we already have, but with a period of great upheaval and tumult and where the resultant monopolies are less responsive to the people than they are now. Once it happens, people will say, as they did about communism, “well, it wasn’t actually tried, not really”. Libertarian ideals can only be failed, they cannot fail.

            As to credit rating agencies, they work out OK if you are middle class, but they have awful costs for those who are poor. Look into the payday lending industry and tell me their isn’t a cost that no sane person would want people to pay in any system close to ideal. I can only imagine what would happen if that same system came to dominant other aspects of life.

            And this precisely because the market doesn’t want to serve some customers because they are riskier, leaving those customers without options, leaving them open to predation.

            Markets do have failure modes.

          • Matt M says:

            Payday lending is an excellent alternative to the options that poor people used to have for short-term credit, i.e. mafia loan sharks.

            I also said in the last thread that I’m not advocating an immediate replacement of what we have with an anarchist system. You’re right that under the current mindset with the current population of America it would probably have huge transition costs and in the end look much the same.

            I’m here to promote the benefits and change popular opinion, with the hope that once the opinion has changed to the extent that people can support the system properly, we can then implement it.

          • Nornagest says:

            Look into the payday lending industry and tell me their isn’t a cost that no sane person would want people to pay in any system close to ideal.

            The alternative to the payday lending industry isn’t loans at reasonable rates to people with bad or no credit, it’s no loans to people with bad or no credit. That’s a lot worse than it sounds like; it means that the quality of life for low-income households, already very sensitive to minor fluctuations in income or expenses, gets a lot more so.

            Yeah, their rates look extortionate from up here on top of my high-700s credit rating. But my situation is not their customers’, and it seems a little presumptuous for me to say across that gap that their customers must not be making sane choices. Very little irritates me more than the habit of declaring some freely chosen good or service a social ill without bothering to ask a decent sample of people why it’s being chosen; or worse, after asking a bunch of people but throwing out all the answers that don’t tug at your readers’ heartstrings.

          • Adam says:

            I’m looking at what I view as likely and inevitable “failures” of the libertarian model. This is much like our conversation in the previous thread where your last words were “IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A THING OF BEAUTY!!!”, except here I am anticipating the failure, rather than you reacting to it.

            I think I’ve tried to get this across, but any form of organized collective decision-making is going to have failure modes. Even if we had enough of an abundance of food and land to make every man a kingdom unto himself, we’d still see conflict.

            The way I feel about it, and I imagine most arguing with me feel roughly the same, is that looking back at the actual history of state versus private action, the balance of evil (and even just non-evil mundane failures) done by states is greater than the balance of good, and the balance of good done by private markets is greater than the balance of bad, though they’re far from perfect, and probably very bad at a few particular things.

            How do we solve these things? You can’t expect any of us to actually have an answer for that. As Matt said above, the entire point of a free market is you crowdsource the problem, figuring a few hundred million heads are better than one, and the chances of someone figuring it out when any person or group is free to try, without having to first conquer an existing state or run for office and make proposals in a system optimized for electing good fundraisers and preventing innovation, is better than what we currently get. At the low end, you get Somalia, at the high end medieval Iceland, and somewhere in between the American frontier. Is that worse than a low end of Soviet Russia, a high end of Sweden, and a middle of what? Morocco?

            I suppose the distribution counts as much as the median, min, and max, and someone with way more historical knowledge can tally it up, but the 170,000,000 people murdered by states in the 20th century really, really stands out as a far worse failure mode than the possibility of crazy death cults gaining land too close to me. Even if they succeeded, terrorists and death cults can’t wage industrial-scale worldwide wars that leave more than half the male population of an entire continent dead.

          • Matt M says:

            Don’t concede Somalia so easily!

            Those who have done studies have concluded that a lack of a functioning state has almost certainly benefited Somalia.

            Yeah it looks bad if you compare it to the U.S. but that was never a valid option for them.

            Both on a time-series and on a relevant cross-sectional basis, they are doing better under anarchy than they did under a state. They are better off than they were before, and they have improved more quickly than many of their African neighbors who have organized governments.

            Somalia doesn’t disprove libertarian theory. Quite the opposite. It proves that even under some of the worst circumstances imaginable, societies can improve solely by taking away the government.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            The Policy debates should not appear one sided post seems to apply here.

            Payday borrowers don’t pay a premium over market rate. They pay on average 391% APR.

            You could say societies job is not to protect people from themselves and that it is patronizing and dehumanizing to act otherwise. But come back with something other than revealed preferences to argue people using payday lending are behaving rationally.

            Payday lending takes advantage of a failure mode of the human brain, not rational behavior.

          • Matt M says:

            Payday lenders are absolutely making a rational choice.

            Keep in mind that the vast majority of payday loans are short-term in nature and for relatively low amounts, compared to the types of loans we traditionally measure via APRs. The APR is irrelevant. Often, payday loans are made so that people can pay overdue bills. Not paying the overdue bill often results in a late charge that, if calculated similar to an APR, is far closer to the payday loan rate than it is the “traditional” lending rate.

            But we don’t have to speculate. The US military has already offered us an experiment here. They thought as you did, that payday lending was evil extortionate and that unscrupulous lenders were taking advantage of military personnel. So they passed a law making it illegal to charge over… I think it was 30%, not sure exactly, APR loans to military folks.

            Rather than lower their prices, the payday loan industry said “fine, we won’t lend to military personnel at all.” So what happened with the military personnel? Did they just stop having any demand for short-term credit? Did they magically find that there were tons of lenders willing to lend them the money they needed for dramatically lower rates all along?

            No, they started using bank overdrafts to generate short-term credit in emergency situations. Bank overdrafts skyrocketed. And guess what. The fees associated with bank overdrafting, when you calculate it all out, are costing the military personnel roughly the same amount as the payday loans did.

            But don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll make THAT illegal soon enough too, and undoubtedly the lives of soldiers will immediately improve by taking away their best choice… AGAIN.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            As to the question of whether payday borrowers are uniformed, here is a study that tried to inform them of two things. One of those things discouraged them and one did not.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:

            Doesn’t that just simplify to “when they only made some of the usury illegal, only some of the usury ended”?

            I take out a short-term loan every month by using my credit card. I pay 0% interest for that. Taking out short-term loans isn’t anomalous in the U.S. Paying 391% interest for that short term loan is.

            You say they are “short term loans” but Pew found the average payday lender was indebted for 5 months out of the year.
            In addition they found “In states where payday lending is heavily restricted, … 95% of “would-be borrowers” said they wouldn’t use an online payday lender if they were unable to get a loan from a storefront lender.”

            Look, if I belonged to Anarcho-Libertarian protectorate, I would want them to go after people who engaged in cons. I would want them to prevent people from taking money for services that then did not deliver the promised benefits. I would want them to protect me from stores that sold bogus, knockoff goods so that I could feel confident when I shopped that I was getting what I paid for. In short, I would want the protectorate to put some regulation on the market.

            Yet, somehow the fact that we actually have a regulated market, that does make manufacturing sarin illegal for almost all, and makes it a crime to not store your volatile industrial chemicals properly, and zones land so that you don’t have commercial enterprise popping up in a residential neighborhood when no-one expected it, somehow this regulation is seen as “bad”.

            I don’t get it.

          • Doctor Mist says:


            Yet, somehow the fact that we actually have a regulated market, that does make manufacturing sarin illegal for almost all… somehow this regulation is seen as “bad”.

            Motte and bailey? I don’t think anybody has said that particular regulation is bad. How about the regulations on the type of clasps allowed on the cabinets in your dentist’s office? Or growing your own wheat to feed your own livestock?

            The regulatory state has so many regulations that the government can’t even tell you any more exactly how many there are. The tax code alone is a million freaking lines long! And when we complain, you say, goodness, surely you approve of regulations against stockpiling sarin gas!

            Give me a break.

          • Paul Torek says:

            Douglas Knight, kudos to you for that link. Empiricism for the win.

          • Matt M says:

            There is no “con” here. Payday borrowers know exactly what they are getting. They get $500 now in exchange for $600 a couple weeks later. Although the APR on that is pretty ridiculous, they don’t care about APR.

            It’s like saying Prius buyers are being “ripped off” because you can get a car with more horsepower for cheaper if you buy a Mustang. Well PERHAPS horsepower isn’t the most significant factor for every person.

            Your credit card analogy is irrelevant. The typical payday borrower either can’t get one or is already maxed out on the ones they have. These are not helpless idiots. They are real people who examine their options and choose the one they believe to be best, according to their (not your) preferences.

            The fact that most of them stay in-debt for a long time does not make the loans not short-term. The loan itself is short-term. The typical customer rolls it over often because a month later, they have to re-evaluate and decide whether to take out a similar such loan. In this case, the same factors come into play. If you have a month-by-month cell-phone plan, and you choose to keep extending it for two years, that doesn’t make it a “long term” plan. You had the choice every month, and you choose to re-extend your short-term commitment.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:

            From the study Douglas Knight linked, “Hence, in contrast with the view that all payday borrowing reflects informed and rational behavior, our results suggest that information disclosure that is inspired by, and tries to respond to, the specific cognitive biases and limitations that may surround the payday borrowing decision
            has a non-trivial effect on some individuals’ decisions of whether or not to take on a payday loan. ”

            I’m not sure whether Douglas thinks that link strengthens or weakens my argument though.

            And I misunderstood/was not sure in what way you were referring to the loans as short-term originally. I agree that short term loans carry a higher cost for both lender and borrower and you would expect short term loans to carry higher costs.

          • Matt M says:

            No kidding. People’s preferences are sometimes rather narrow, and with enough “disclosure” or “information” you can talk anyone out of anything.

            If I design a particular “disclosure” about the risks of leasing a car such that, after reading my disclosure, fewer people lease cars than otherwise would, does that mean that leasing a car is a con and that everyone who does so is an idiot?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I also agree (in advance, as I don’t think anyone has tried to argue this) that payday lenders aren’t making exorbitant profits off of this.

            I think the question is what we have mostly been arguing, whether using a payday lender is, in fact, rational. So, I’ll ask the question differently, would payday lenders exist if everyone were rational actors at all times?

          • Matt M says:

            Interest rates are a function of time preference and there is no “rational” value for this, only different preferences.

            Someone with different preferences than you is not acting “irrationally.”

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:
            Aren’t you essentially making a revealed preference argument? That no matter what people say they want, what the do reveals their true desires? Is any action irrational then?

          • Matt C says:


            I agree that payday lenders are, to a considerable degree, making their money by taking advantage of people who are impulsive, irresponsible, and often not very bright. (*)

            But that’s not all they’re doing. If you’re poor and a $500 or $1000 loan means the difference between losing your job or keeping it, or getting kicked out of your apartment or staying in it, well, a big APR isn’t really the point any more. Spending that $200 in loan fees lets you avoid an event that would cost you $1000, $2000 or more.

            I don’t like payday loan companies. I think it is a bad sign that they are so prevalent and successful. But they do provide a valuable emergency service for people with no other options.

            (*) Worth noting that your respectable credit card companies delight in this also. Floundering in credit card debt is not uncommon.

          • Matt M says:

            I think you’ll find a strong correlation between people who support libertarian political beliefs and people who also tend to believe revealed preferences are entirely legitimate.

            One of my biggest issues with rationalism is the ease and eagerness of which its proponents tend to dismiss anyone with different preferences from them as being “irrational.”

            I think rationalism is a great tool to use for introspection on your own decision making process, but VERY dangerous to use for attempting to evaluate the decisions of others. Protecting people from themselves has been used to justify all sorts of atrocities and moral failings.

            Harkening back to the AI topics, a superintelligent AI would be far more rational than any person, and yet many of us seem to be legitimately worried that telling this AI to “protect humans from harm” would result in all sorts of terrible and undesirable outcomes.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:

            Consider the following:

            “I have different preferences than you, therefore my acts are rational given my preferences, no matter how they look to you”


            “I know I thought my preference was A, but my actions got me B, so I must really want B. I still think I wanted A, but I don’t even know my own mind very well.”

            You seem to be saying the second (revealed preference) is euivalent to the first, or maybe that we should always assume that revealed preference is equivalent, heuristically.

            That seems problematic, as we know that there really are cognitive biases that prevent actual preferences from being translated into behavior. Talk to any decent salesman. They know that letting people walk away and think about a purchase leads to fewer sales.

          • Matt M says:

            I’m not denying that sometimes people make irrational decisions.

            I’m just very reluctant to make that judgment myself.

            For the record – I was formerly in the military and had leadership responsibilities over several young military types (a class of people who are notoriously terrible with money). I was also the “command financial specialist” who was charged with educating the command in general about financial matters.

            I can safely tell you that not one time out of anyone I worked with and tried to help was the payday loan the problem itself. It’s a symptom of a problem. There were very few times in which I felt that talking someone out of getting the payday loan would be a huge help to them – as I said, usually the alternative to getting the payday loan isn’t getting a better loan at a lower interest rate – it’s having your car repossessed or your phone disconnected or getting kicked out of your apartment.

            Given some previously awful decisions that put you in a tight spot, often times getting the payday loan (provided you have a plan to pay it back and get OUT of the tight spot) is the most rational decision someone can make.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:
            “provided you have a plan to pay it back and get OUT of the tight spot”

            I admit you certainly have much more practical experience than I do in this area.

            My prior is that the industry makes most of their money off of repeat business, when the tough spot is made tougher by the large chunk the repeated loans are taking.

            So, if the customers who take the loan and then did not work themselves out of the spot did not exist, the industry would not exist.

            And if the industry really was working to serve its population, they would figure out a way to serve their customers more efficiently. As we have talked about, most of the costs are wrapped up in loan origination, which are repeated every two weeks, hence the very, very high cost. Find a way to reduce the cost of origination for repeat customers (without significantly reducing default) and that would be the market working much better.

          • Nornagest says:

            The Policy debates should not appear one sided post seems to apply here.

            Funny, I thought that’s the argument I was making.

            I’ll defer to Matt M on this one since he seems to have more practical experience in this area than I do, but what he’s saying is in line with what I’d expect. Revealed preference isn’t the whole story, but when you get an entire industry based on people doing something that looks financially idiotic, it might be a good idea to figure out why they’re doing it rather than just assuming it’s because of ebil cabitalist brainwashing or something.

            (Sometimes, as in the case of lottery players, the answer really is “they’re preying on bias”. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “I’ll pay you $100 now and you pay me $120 in two weeks” is a bad move unless you really need that $100.)

          • Matt M says:

            “But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “I’ll pay you $100 now and you pay me $120 in two weeks” is a bad move unless you really need that $100”

            And I’d venture to propose to you that virtually nobody even sets foot in the door of these establishments unless they “really need” (according to their own preferences, not yours) that $100.

            I don’t claim to be an expert – but the majority of people I knew who used these did in fact need the money. Usually entirely due to stupid decisions they made previously.

            Personally I’d love to defend the lottery too (for many people, the act of gambling is pleasurable which justifies the meager chance of winning), but that’s probably out of scope.

          • Nornagest says:

            Personally I’d love to defend the lottery too (for many people, the act of gambling is pleasurable which justifies the meager chance of winning), but that’s probably out of scope.

            You may be right. Gambling is a vice I’ve never been tempted to, so I can’t really comment on how strong the preference for it gets.

          • Matt M says:

            Hah, I have a good perspective there, because I totally have the “compulsive gambler” trait, but I also have the “stats geek” trait and it’s just slightly stronger to the point where, although I like the idea of gambling, I can very rarely get myself to actually do it for any amount of money large enough to actually trigger the notion of it being a real “gamble.”

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Not sure that’s true if they are on their own property.

        And my example is just the amassing of the stockpile, not issuing threats.

        • CJB says:

          Historically, sarin gas has been used what? 3-4 times? Tokyo, Saddam used it once or twice….nowhere else springs to mind.

          Compare that to fertilizer and diesel. Should you be allowed to stockpile large amounts of fertilizer and diesel? Hell, even today, the MOST they can do is send an FBI agent to talk to you and hopefully scare you off of being a terrorist if you’re thinking that.

          Life is scary, yo. There is notably, very, very little to prevent people from walking into a church, or a publishing company, or a subway, or an airport or whatever, and cause a lot of harm. But all the solutions that could cure that are worse than the disease.

          • Nornagest says:

            Aum used it more than once, actually; VX, too. The Tokyo attack wasn’t even the first, just the deadliest, and the one that made overseas news.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “Life is scary, yo.”

            I just threw up in my mouth a little. Gah, that phrase grates.

            I did anticipate this answer. You are taking the “assume it just won’t happen” option I posited.

            I hate the phrase “we must eliminate X” or “never again should Y happen”. Because almost, almost always what you really want to do is reduce incidence of X, and reduce the harm caused by Y, as eliminating them is impossible. Which is why I phrased my question the way I did.

            It seems like you think the risk of terrorist events and the harm that comes from them is essentially fixed.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Hell, even today, the MOST they can do is send an FBI agent to talk to you and hopefully scare you off of being a terrorist if you’re thinking that.

            They can have the NSA monitor all your activities and if they become convinced that you are really planning an attack they can create some legal pretext to lock you up.

      • Which is to say, libertarians only treat No Initiation of Force as a rigid absolute when discussing taxation.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Well, lets be fair, no libertarians seem to be interested in replying to the hypothetical so far and Nornagest may not be modeling them correctly.

    • Adam says:

      I’m probably not the person you’re looking for, but I don’t think you’re ever going to see a society that has so thoroughly internalized the non-aggression principle that they just ignore a person stockpiling enough nerve gas to kill a country’s worth of them. If two or three people are consistent enough with their stated principles to live and let live, more power to them and have fun in hell, but I’m not one of them.

      Same thing with waving a gun at me. Light reflected off you reaches my property and that’s a pretty clear direct threat. Now, just waving a gun around at all, but not at me, cool, no problem.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Remember there are still people who own the roads and can make rules banning serin gas. The tricky part would be people stockpiling it on their own property.

      • Adam says:

        I don’t know much about how serin works, but you have to synthesize it from precursors, right? Someone has to sell those to him and can just refuse to sell when adjacent property-dwellers find out what he’s doing and tell everyone.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          But the precursors are relatively common.

          I don’t think the libertarian model wants a private group buying precursors to serin in bulk to be refused service on the possibility that they might be later used to make serin. It seems like a direct violation of their model.

          Edit: Assuming they have large stores of precursors, once they start making serin, can they do so openly?

          • Adam says:

            Depends on the bylaws of their community? I wouldn’t voluntarily live somewhere that didn’t have a few prohibitions we agreed on, say 8 billion decible noisemakers, home-built nuclear reactors, that kind of thing. We’d need the help of some contract attorneys smarter than me to get some clauses to exclude other potential civilization-ending WMDs that we just forgot because the list can’t be exhaustive, can’t anticipate the future, so on.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            Well, either those communities start looking a lot like city-states inside nation-states, or the libertarian version of a death cult just selects a well-placed community that does not have such by-laws.

            I mean, if in the libertarian model, people can voluntarily give up the property rights of others who might own the property in the future in response for adopting a specific set of laws, aren’t we already living in a libertarian paradise?

          • Adam says:

            I think there is meaningful distance between what we have currently and what I envision as optimal, but I’m far from a hard-core anarchist. I don’t have a problem with disallowing the stockpiling of CBRNE weapons.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      Sarin, not serin. Though I am amused at the idea of a terrorist group accidentally releasing a cute little yellow/grey bird instead of a cloud of deadly neurotoxin, and then having to report back to the boss.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        An AGI put together by a terrorist group. Sort of reverse-clippy. It just misunderstood.

        Also, I have a long standing hatred of all homonyms, as my brain refuses to distinguish them from each other when spelling.

    • I’m a libertarian–specifically one that supports a society of mutual minimal tolerance: that is, we should mutually agree that none of us will be the first to resort to threats of physical violence when we disagree.

      I don’t see any decent evidence for gods or metaphysical rights. I just know I don’t want other people to resort to threats of physical violence to make me obey them, and it appears almost everybody else feels the same way about themselves. This consensus seems to provide a practical basis for mutual minimal tolerance. The consensus does appear to break down when talking about other types of coercion other than threats of physical violence so it’s hard to see easy practical agreement on more.

      Whether something is a threat of physical violence is a practical question, that you’d have to leave to something like a jury that represents the larger consensus. (I wish that this could work practically without a government, but I don’t think it can–thus I tend towards being a libertarian minarchist rather than an anarchist.)

      In any event, I can’t imagine reasonable people disagreeing over whether it’s a threat of physical violence if someone points a weapon at you with their finger on the trigger. Weapons of mass destruction are effectively pointed at, and threatening immediate violence to everyone in their vicinity. Imagine someone saying, “I might be standing right next to you, but I’m not pointing this nuclear bomb or can of poison gas at you so I’m not an immediate threat.” That just doesn’t make sense. So… as a libertarian, I’ve got no problem using violence in self-defense against any death cult who creates this kind of threat by merely bringing weapons of mass destruction into range.

      I think this may be where people have such strong disagreement over guns. Some people see another person with a gun in a holster as always creating that immediate threat where others only see the threat if the gun is removed from the holster and aimed. When there’s no consensus that activity like merely possessing a gun is a violent threat, I think we need to tolerate the activity rather than claiming “my view is right, yours is wrong so I get use threats of violence to make people obey me”.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        @Christopher John Brennan:
        But I thought property rights were inviolate in libertarian systems?

        To repeat my example from above, suppose the claim they are making and storing sarin as a means of starting an arms business. Heck, they don’t have to make sarin, they could just claim to be rubber manufacturers and make methyl isocyanate (although I don’t know that it is as easy to manufacture).

        Doesn’t the libertarian model assume that I have the right to make compounds like these on my own property and that action can’t be taken against me until I actually cause harm? Or, am I misunderstanding how the model works?

        • CJB says:

          As I pointed out above- we already have these issues. I used to know people that bought tons of fertilizer, diesel, and nails. They were farmers, but if they’d wanted too….a very little wire and a battery is all they’d need. This is certainly hella more likely, efficient, simple and effective than rogue rubber manufacturers turned terrorists.

          The reason there aren’t more terrorist attacks in the US isn’t lack of opportunity, or the extreme efficacy of the FBI. The reason there aren’t more terrorist attacks is very, very few people in the US wants to be a terrorist.

          I can buy pressurized cylinders of natural gas at a gas station. I can buy gasoline there too. I can buy gunpowder- and making it is hella easier than sarin.

          That’s off the top of my head- and to avoid getting extra double flagged by the FBI.

        • Anthony says:

          Doesn’t the libertarian model assume that I have the right to make compounds like these on my own property and that action can’t be taken against me until I actually cause harm?

          Yes, sort of. In the libertarian model (either ancap or minarchist), I could not take action which would harm you until you actually either cause harm or pose a grave risk of harm. Note that in the libertarian model, refusing to do business with you, encouraging others to not do business with you, or hiring guards to watch you from outside your property to prepare to counter an attack are not harms.

        • @HeelBearCub said “But I thought property rights were inviolate in libertarian systems?”

          That’s both right and wrong.

          For some libertarians this is correct, but many libertarians (like me) start from some sort of non-aggression principle rather than assumptions about property rights. My particular non-aggression principle is just a practical one of mutual minimal tolerance of anything not threatening physical violence.

          For me “property” is not a starting point for being a libertarian. Instead it is a conclusory short-hand that comes from answering the very practical fact-based question normally best addressed by a neutral jury, “Who started started a fight related to control of some stuff? The person who didn’t start the fight and was just defending themselves can thus be labelled the property owner as a matter of convenient communication.” (It also works in advance to determine the answer about hypothetical questions like this.)

          Personally, I think too many libertarians have almost a religious belief in a metaphysical concept of property–and property rights–that I just don’t see good evidence for. They are also often too attached to the distribution of stuff as is stands–even if that current distribution was not freely arrived at.

          As a libertarian minarchist I lean towards the idea that the government (qua government) must make appropriate amends, including reparations, when it has used its power to enforce aggressive violence–for example, I am definitely open to government reparations for slavery/Jim Crow/segregation. This doesn’t involve punishing any individual based on their demographic characteristics–it means the whole political entity has to try to fix what the whole political entity broke.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          @Christopher John Brennan:

          Are you commenting as two different names (CJB, Christopher John Brennan) or is this just one of those improbabilities-that occur-exactly-as-often-as-they-should-but-you-only-notice-when-they-do kind of things?

          As to your point about “who started the fight”, how is that different than now? Isn’t the issue usually that determining “who started the fight” actually exceedingly complex in practically all cases?

          I think the classic libertarian position is that victimless crimes should not be illegal (drug use, prostitution). But, broadly, there are very few people who would want to live next to an opium den or a brothel because there are externalities associated with that. Who starts the fight if my neighbor opens a brothel? Or chemical processing plant? Or sarin factory?

          I’m not arguing that prostitution should be illegal. I don’t think it should. But I’m trying to understand why banning [activity] engaged in on private property is OK in one situation but not in another under the “who started the fight” principal.

          • Matt M says:

            You act as if this sort of conflict doesn’t already happen, as a matter of course, in modern societies under government.

            I recall reading a news article awhile back about somewhere in California that vilified some sort of apartment owner for regularly renting apartments to convicted sex offenders, while also charging them significantly above-market rates.

            He was supposedly an evil monster for two reasons – because people don’t want to live near former sex offenders (even after they’ve “served their time”) AND because it was seen as immoral to charge them more than anyone else (because that’s discrimination).

            Of course, the sex offenders have to live SOMEWHERE, and the fact that most places won’t take them at all means you can absolutely get away with charging them more.

            And yet, government was powerless to solve either problem. But a private organization could do so just fine. Barring government interference, an HOA in an upscale neighborhood could pass a “no former child molesters here” rule, while less well-off places may not have such a rule.

            I mean, we ALREADY see this happen as a matter of course. You don’t see many meth labs and whore houses in upscale gated communities.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:

            Yes, we see it in the current system.

            The broadly popular libertarian argument is that by adopting libertarian ideology we will end injustices like this.

            When I point this out, that libertarian systems can fail in the exact same manner. And are likely to. People say, well that’s no worse than existing system.

            I’m not trying to argue the current system is better than that, but rather that the promised benefits of libertarian systems are far less likely to accrue than advocates seem to believe.

          • Matt M says:

            The primary benefit of libertarianism isn’t “fewer petty disputes with your neighbors” nor is it “reduced likelihood of random outlier terrorist events”

            The primary benefit is we stop locking up millions of people for decades in cages where they will most certainly be raped all because they wanted to grow an unapproved plant. The primary benefit is that you no longer have to give up 50% of your income in order to finance a predator drone campaign that murder children in Yemen.

            The fact that it can ALSO potentially reduce the amount of minor disputes and property crime and all that other stuff is an almost irrelevant side-benefit. In fact, even of those things went up, it would still very much be worth it if we could simply end the drug war and end foreign interventionism.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:

            “The primary benefit is we stop locking up millions of people for decades in cages where they will most certainly be raped all because they wanted to grow an unapproved plant.”

            Either you are being extremely hyperbolic on purpose, or you are conflating different things. Go find the stats on imprisonment for growing. Even the prison population for all MJ charges is minimal compared to the population as a whole.

            Now, the drug war is wrong, wrong, wrong. It accomplishes none of its goals and makes things worse.

            But why do you think a libertarian system won’t fail this way? What do you think these protection agencies will do with people who commit crimes as self defined by protection agencies? Give them a stern lecture?

            You just think they won’t be crimes. And I think you believe that based on either property rights or NAP, but you don’t seem to want to fully support those as principles.

            Given the overwhelming support for tough-on-crime laws that resulted in the so called war on drugs, and then the subsequent prison boom, people seem likely to demand that in a market based system. Their demand is what got us here in the first place.

            Either you have to convince people this is not what they want, or you have to fall back on the founding principles of the system to prevent injustices like that.

          • Matt M says:

            I think there’s a hugely significant portion of the population that is vehemently against the drug war. Let’s be conservative and estimate it’s only 20%.

            Now let’s say you had a free market in protection services and you were allowed to start your own private security firm to compete with the government police.

            Here’s your value proposition: I do everything the current police do exactly the same EXCEPT drugs are now legal.

            You don’t think you could get VC funding to sell a service that 20% of the public absolutely wants and would prefer to the existing system?

            Not only that, as time passes and you conclusively prove that you can allow marijuana WITHOUT seeing a dramatic spike in murders, you’ll win more and more of the public over to your side.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Matt M:

            You can do that right now. Move to some state or country that does not make this illegal. Yes, the Feds make this argument somewhat problematic, but no one is going to jail in legal states ATM.

            Your argument could be that having to move makes this too costly. That protection agencies that are non-geographically coherent will make this easier. But people don’t want protection agencies to police only their own behavior, but rather others behavior. Being scooped up by the roving band for protection agency A sounds very much like being black in the post-reconstruction south. One definitely doesn’t want to be a member of a weak protection agency.

            At the end of the day, a geographic are will devolve to a set of rules that police everyone’s behavior, regardless which agency they are in. I think even the AL guys believe this? They just think it will be a negotiation or arbitration process.

          • @HeelBearCub asked me, “Are you commenting as two different names (CJB, Christopher John Brennan) or is this just one of those improbabilities-that occur-exactly-as-often-as-they-should-but-you-only-notice-when-they-do kind of things?”

            We’re different people. I’ve got no idea who @CJB is.

            He also said. “Isn’t the issue usually that determining “who started the fight” actually exceedingly complex in practically all cases?”

            We ask regular juries to deal with really complex situations all the time. We can also set up default rules that handle most of the obvious situations where we have a strong consensus. I’m suggesting we can adopt many of the proven tools of complex liberal societies.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Christopher John Brennan:
            Thanks for clearing up the identity question.

            “We can also set up default rules that handle most of the obvious situations where we have a strong consensus. I’m suggesting we can adopt many of the proven tools of complex liberal societies.”

            At this point I really have to ask, how is it different than what we have now?

            Right now we set up rules, by using elected representatives, to represent our concerns. We use juries (and arbitration) to decide whether those rules have been followed.

            Perhaps you would like a parliamentary system instead of a first past the post system?

            The more I ask questions about the underlying principles of libertarians, the more I feel like libertarians just don’t like the particular rules that have been negotiated by their existing protection agency and that they are unwilling to pay the cost involved in changing agencies. There isn’t actually a principle involved, there is only not liking the rules.

    • Leonard says:

      Moralist libertarians do have a problem with the innocent possession of very dangerous stuff. This bugged me long ago, before I read The Machinery of Freedom and complicated my views.

      Anarchocapitalists don’t have the same problem. Regardless of what your personal morals are, it is protection agencies along with judicial agencies which determine the law. These entities can have any sort of law so long as it stands up in the marketplace and does not create insuperable problems with other agencies; the law does not have to reify any particular morality. As such, one might expect that if by a miracle anarchocapitalism did get started and managed to become stable, all of the agencies would ban the possession of really dangerous stuff for roughly the same reasons that states ban it.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Given that a protection agency can create and enforce laws, I really don’t understand how protection agencies differ from government.

        You could say that protection agencies compete with each other, but I don’t see why a protection agency would be precluded from saying “I will only protect a minimally coherent geographic space in which everyone agrees to be protected by our corp. It’s more efficient that way. Everyone within this territory must bind themselves and their property to our laws, and we will agree to protect you.”

        • Doctor Mist says:

          If I’m living in that geographical space, and some protection agency made such a statement, do you suppose my own protection agency might have something to say about it?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Do all the people in the area agree to go over to the new company? If yes, then what leg does the current company have to stand on?

          • Ano says:

            Yes, but they’re further away.

            It would make no sense to join a protection agency on the other side of the country. Usually, all things being equal, the best protection agency to join is the closest one, just as for someone living in the US, it’s best to be a US citizen and follow the laws of the United States. Even if your home nation is, in some sense, obliged to protect you, their ability is diminished.

            As a result, living in the “territory” of another protection agency usually implies you should follow their laws. And it may be that your protection agency has a specific agreement with their protection agency that when in their territory, you follow some of their laws (for obvious reasons). So maybe your protection agency won’t have anything to say about it, or if they do, they can’t really stop the other agency from doing anything they really want to do.

            We don’t know how protection agencies would work in practice. It’s the nature of them that they could work in literally any way depending on what people value and try to negotiate for in their contracts. However, there are pretty obvious incentives for protection agencies to restrict their activity to specific areas, to encourage their clients to live in safer, closer neighbourhoods, to discourage anyone “undesirable” from living nearby. Just as crime organizations generally have “territory” and nation-states generally have territory, I think any other arrangement would be unstable.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            Do all the people in the area agree to go over to the new company? If yes, then what leg does the current company have to stand on?

            In that case, since I’m one of those people, presumably I have chosen to change firms to your new geographically based firm. If I haven’t so chosen, then that’s the leg.

            It’s true that if everybody except me has chosen to go with the new firm, my old firm, foreseeing trouble, might well find it necessary to raise my rates. Or maybe not; throwing in the towel that way would probably be very bad PR.

            In any case it seems like an improbable edge case if you’re worried about a true protection-agency milieu degenerating back into geographical government. There would be a lot of people to convince not to be holdouts (without the monopoly on force that current governments use to coerce holdouts).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Doctor Mist:
            Well, I’d argue that we already look like that endpoint of protection agencies. Non-geographically coherent protection agencies seem highly unlikely to work. And once you have coherent ones, then you are right back to states.

            And the reason I say non-coherent ones don’t work is that somebody is going to come up with the bright idea of taking territory by force, because that is what always happens eventually, and that will eventually devolve to coherent territories.

          • Doctor Mist says:


            And I’d argue you were assuming your conclusion.

            We can’t have a country without a king; everybody who ever tried it got conquered.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Bad analogy: countries without kings always existed, countries without government never existed in a stable way (at least you have multiple organizations competing to become government over a territory).

          • Doctor Mist says:

            It’s a perfectly good analogy for the objection HeelBearCub was raising, that an anarchist-capitalist society was doomed because it will inevitably decay into a governed society because somebody would decide to use force to take it over. You might well raise the same objection in 1789 to the suggestion that we form a constitutional republic. All previous constitutional republics were conquered by kings and empires.

          • FJ says:

            @Doctor Mist: the Most Serene Republic of Venice existed from 697 to 1797, and for most of that time it was a constitutional republic that won a lot of wars of conquest. Rome, of course, is a more famous example (and wasn’t conquered until long after it ceased to be a republic). Constitutional-republic-that-wins-wars was a proven model by 1789. Your analogy is inapt.

            Nor would your analogy work if history were different. If we steelman the “kings win wars” argument, it becomes “Wars require swift and decisive action that legislatures and plebiscites cannot provide, so a decisive monarchy will defeat an indecisive republic.” This is not a crazy concern, and at least one constitutional republic deliberately engineered a sort of republican analogue to a king to address the concern. The equivalent anarcho-capitalist response is, “Wars of conquest are an improbable edge case.”

        • Leonard says:

          Of course protection agencies (PAs) are government. They govern. They differ from states — not “government” — in that they are not territorially exclusive. Thus, the customer has a choice of which law he wishes to live under. This choice may or may not be very broad; for example, ACs argue that murder will be illegal practically universally due to strong customer demand. However, the logic of the market applies to less than unanimously desired laws, leading to a much better fit with customer preference than one-size-fits-all. My belief (as I expressed above) is that banning the possession of incredibly dangerous stuff is one of those laws that is practically unanimous, in spite of its violation of the non-aggression principle.

          Anarchocapitalists certainly worry that PAs might evolve to states, as you posit in your 2nd para. However, they do have at least some reasons why they think the system could be stable. Among other things, if “the people” in general are afraid of living under a state, taking over and imposing one on them might be pretty hard to do given the existence of a large set of PA competitors who are right there waiting to grab customers. I am not sure I buy that, but I am not sure I don’t. The impossibility of AC makes the point moot, IMO.

          In any case, the point here is not whether in the counterfactual world where AC could be tried, it would collapse into statism. The point is that anarchist libertarians (at least those of the rightist stripe) have a solution to the problem of highly risky stuff in the possession of flawed humanity. Which is what your OP asked about.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Well, given that AC advocates seem to think there will be a ton more freedom in an AC system, I’m not sure I buy the “it’s totally fine if you are prevented from doing stuff by your protection agency”. There seems to be a bait-and-switch contained in there.

            Given the history of people being screwed by large, profit driven companies, I’m pretty terrified of the concept of living under “rule by protection agency”. I would happily flock to a non-profit, territorially-integrated, co-op protection agency.

            So lets assume that the our LDC (libertarian death cult) has no protection agency, do the protection agencies then simply eliminate them, as they believe they represent a threat to their clients?

          • Adam says:

            Given the history of people being screwed by large, profit driven companies, I’m pretty terrified of the concept of living under “rule by protection agency”. I would happily flock to a non-profit, territorially-integrated, co-op protection agency.

            That’s not inconsistent with libertarianism. Non-profits and co-ops are private entities. “Non-state” doesn’t mean you can only organize according to one model of profit-seeking business with narrowly concentrated ownership. Employee-owned, member-owned, voluntary donor-funded, are all fine.

          • onyomi says:

            What about the history of people being screwed by large, power-hungry governments? It’s much more extensive.


          • Doctor Mist says:


            I’m not sure I buy the “it’s totally fine if you are prevented from doing stuff by your protection agency”. There seems to be a bait-and-switch contained in there.

            Hmm. The things we seem to be talking about are murder, and stockpiling sarin. Did I miss something else? There’s a lot of room to expand freedom before we get to those two points.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Doctor Mist:

            How about keeping the protectorate safe from fire? Disease? What about keeping the protectorate safe from the kind of people most in the protectorate find undesirable? Wouldn’t all of these things flow naturally?

            Then you are right back to building codes, inspections, and laws against various different undesirable activities.

            What are the principles that allow the protectorate to ban making sarin, but don’t allow them to ban fine particulates in diesel exhaust? Or even prostitution?

            People seem to think that competing protectorates will solve this, but we already have competing protectorates which take the form of nations.

          • Deiseach says:

            What do you do if you’re a visitor to a certain town, region or wherever under a particular protection agency, where the agency enforces laws or rules or guidelines agreed by the people living in that area, but you’re not signed up to that agency?

            I’m thinking of real-world private/public debates from residents’ associations claiming everyone in the street has to paint their front door a certain colour to things like same-sex marriage is legal in some states but not others, so your marriage is legal in State X but not State Y.

            Suppose Little Greenville has agreed by democratic majority vote that they don’t allow the possession of marijuana, and their protection agency enforces this rule on their behalf. You’re visiting from Stonertown, where legal highs are, well, perfectly legal. You’re not talking about murdering a local or stockpiling sarin, just that you were hauled off the street by jackbooted thugs when you tried smoking a perfectly legal substance you had purchased with your own money.

            You’re not signed up to the Little Greenville protection agency, so why do their rules apply to you? On the other hand, how does the Protection Agency carry out the duties it agreed to in the contract it signed with the people of Little Greenville when they took out its policies as their protection agency? If they admit they can’t stop you breaking the rule because you didn’t agree to be bound by that rule, how can they stop anyone who wants to break greater rules on the grounds that they’re a visitor from somewhere that permits private assassination or gladiatorial duels?

            What are the powers and sanctions a private agency has against a private citizen who has not agreed a contract with them?

          • Doctor Mist says:


            People seem to think that competing protectorates will solve this, but we already have competing protectorates which take the form of nations.

            Yes, we do. And yes, protection agencies will share many characteristics of governments — which should be unsurprising to the extent that the same reasons governments are instituted amongst men still apply. If government hadn’t gone so dreadfully wrong over the last hundred years, you would see a lot less interest in alternatives. The hope is that if customers are more able to pick and choose, the protection agencies will have more incentive to stay lean and focused, rather than getting obsessed about whether you clean a machine by pouring solvent on the surface or on the rag.

          • Doctor Mist says:


            I don’t know, how are those handled now? 🙂

            The usual AC answer is that there are arbitration firms that provide the equivalent of a judicial system like there are protection firms that provide the equivalent of police and legislators. If people with different protection firms come into conflict, the protection firms hash it out through the arbitration firm that they (probably long ago) agreed upon.

            If all else fails, then there could be war. But protection firms want war even less than states do; there’s no profit in it.

            My hope is that protection firms would all offer pretty standard protections against felonies with one- or two-word names that were invented a thousand years ago, but that there wouldn’t be many people actually willing to pay extra to make crap like marijuana use illegal. The reason we have so many dumb laws like that now is that it doesn’t cost any given voter or congressman a red cent to vote for them.

            I know it’s gauche to say “read the book” but David Friedman’s book discusses all of this with much more clarity and detail than I ever could, and it’s fun and engaging as well.

          • vV_Vv says:

            But protection firms want war even less than states do; there’s no profit in it.

            Uh? Sure there can be huge profits in removing a competitor, and scaring the hell out the other ones.

            The protection agency with the biggest stick can further the interests of its customers against the interests of the customers of the others using violence or the threat of violence. Therefore it is in the interest of the customers to flock to the strongest agency. The only stable equilibrium seems to be a territorial monopoly, aka a state.

          • Paul Torek says:

            I’m a little worried about the overly conservative implications of the argument I’m about to make. That said …

            Evolution is a thing, right? And medieval Iceland is no longer with us, while modern Iceland is, no question about it, a state. (And a pretty awesome one IMO.) On the question of what systems are stable, the blind idiot god has spoken! At least for now.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            Uh? Sure there can be huge profits in removing a competitor, and scaring the hell out the other ones.

            Yeah, that’s why so many countries have emerged from war wealthier than when they went into it.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            Evolution is a thing, right? And medieval Iceland is no longer with us, while modern Iceland is, no question about it, a state.

            Medieval Iceland remained stable in its libertarian-ish form for longer than the US has (so far) existed. When that society did eventually fall apart and get replaced with something else, it did so as a result of interference by a wealthy and powerful outside force.

            You can gather from that that such societies aren’t invincible – they can (eventually) be overthrown – but that’s true of all societies, is it not?

            Or to put it another way: Does the fact that the USSR successfully invaded Poland prove there was something wrong with the Polish style of government at the time, and nothing worth learning from it today?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Doctor Mist:
            That is survivor bias, isn’t it? Plus, number of states is the wrong measure, rather total wealth controlled by states is.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Glen Raphael:

            I’m not particular well versed in medieval Iceland, although I know libertarians are fond of arguing for its system. At first glance it looks to me like it drew its benefits from being essentially a forerunner to representative democracy.

            However, when I read that “At the Christianisation of Iceland in 1000, the Althing outlawed public celebration of pagan rituals and decreed that in order to prevent an invasion, all Icelanders must be baptized.” I wonder about the supposed lack of central power.

          • vV_Vv says:

            @Doctor Mist

            Yeah, that’s why so many countries have emerged from war wealthier than when they went into it.

            If they were victorious, sure.

            Historically, many, if not most, wars were fought specifically for economic motives: the acquisition of land, slaves and other riches.
            Arguably some civilizations, like the Aztec empire, at times the Roman empire or the Viking civilization based a large chunk of their economy on their ability to continuously collect resources from their neighbors though warfare or intimidation.

            Some profit-oriented non-state entities, such as the Hanseatic League and various India Companies also waged wars for economic motives.

            The American Revolution War was mostly motivated by taxation issues.

            In modern times, we have wars for the control of oil fields, coltan mines and all other sorts of natural resources.

            Therefore yes, profit-driven war is totally a thing.

          • vV_Vv says:

            The Icelandic model of weak government was typical of societies in transition between semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer and pastoral tribes to agricultural city states all over the world.
            Iceland was special only to the extent that this model persisted there for much longer than the rest of Eurasia, probably due to Iceland’s remoteness and inhospitality.

            Iceland may have eventually succumbed to an external force, but where did this external force come from? It’s not like space aliens came to earth and forced anybody to form strong governments.

            The most likely explanation is an economies of scale effect: a strong government with full-time politicians, public servants and law enforcers/military is only viable above a certain population and economy size.
            Once this size is reached, strong governments are more efficient than weak ones, and in particular strong governments can conquer countries with weak governments, therefore strong governments occur at equilibrium.

          • John Schilling says:

            …probably due to Iceland’s remoteness and inhospitality.

            And Switzerland had its mountains and militia, But the modern era has another option for rendering a nation unconquerable. So possibly the stable equilibrium at the libertarian end of the spectrum involves governments just large and strong enough to maintain a small nuclear arsenal.

            On the “small” end of the spectrum, there’s Israel, North Korea, and South Africa, with 1950s Sweden having credibly considered a nuclear deterrent but didn’t think they could afford that and an independent modern air force. None of these are exactly libertarian, but Sweden and Israel both have democratic governments with a strong respect for civil rights. Is any of the other non-libertarian machinery of power necessary for an Israel-sized nation to maintain a nuclear deterrent?

            Taxes and a small standing army would seem to preclude outright anarcho-capitalism; Vinge had to pull a nuclear rabbit out of an armadillo-sized hat to give “Ungoverned” a happy ending.

          • vV_Vv says:

            @John Schilling

            Israel has a nationalist, ethnocentric government with theocratic elements. It has an enormous army for its size: it’s the third country in the world for active military personnel as a percentage of population and fourth for military expenditure as a percentage of GDP. Its government also strongly participates in economic activities, in particular, it owns most of real estate.

            It’s basically as far from anarcho-capitalism as it gets before going into full-fledged totalitarianism.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            Yeah, that’s why so many countries have emerged from war wealthier than when they went into it.

            Sorry, I should have known better than try irony in print. Modern war is usually ruinous even for the victor. That’s not to say some weren’t started with the motive of profit, but nobody ever had to show a P&L accounting for it. If they’d had an actual board of directors, and stockholders, looking over their shoulders…

        • “Given that a protection agency can create and enforce laws, I really don’t understand how protection agencies differ from government.”

          At least in my model, *a* protection agency does not create laws. Laws are created by arbitration agencies and adopted by pairwise agreements of protection agencies. Each pair of protection agencies agrees on what arbitration agency will settle disputes between their customers. An agency could unilaterally choose an arbitration agency only for disputes between its customers.

          The protection agencies are not geographical sovereigns, so they are constrained in their choice of arbitration agencies by the need to keep and attract customers. In the case where a legal rule benefits some customers and harms others, the agencies have an incentive to try to estimate the costs and benefits and minimize the sum. So if two thirds of the customers disapprove of marijuana and one third approve, the question becomes how much either side is willing to pay to get its way, as reflected in how the price an agency can charge is affected by whether the courts that settle its disputes with other agencies are pro or anti-marijuana.

          One difference relative to governments is that customers can compare the alternatives, since all of them exist. I can’t compare the Obama administration with the McCain administration of the same years, but I can compare a Honda to a Ford, or the services provided by my protection agency with those provided by the agency patronized by a neighbor, friend or relative. Another is that I have little incentive to figure out which candidate is best for the country, since my vote has almost no effect on who gets elected. But my choice of what product to buy, including what agency to be a customer of, has a large effect on what product I get.

          For a more detailed explanation of the system I suggest, see the links at the top of my site:

          One goes to a free pdf of the second edition of _The Machinery of Freedom_ and one to the Kindle version of the current, third edition. The latter is now also available in print from Amazon.

          Incidentally, in the third edition my protection agencies become rights enforcement agencies, since the former label suggested to too many people the protection racket–extortion rather than actual protection.

          • Nita says:

            in the third edition my protection agencies become rights enforcement agencies, since the former label suggested to too many people the protection racket–extortion

            “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose [..]”

            North Korea’s name hasn’t made it democratic, and renaming protection agencies won’t make them care about rights (unless by “rights” you just mean whatever services the customer can afford — from “the right not to be beaten up by agency representatives” to “the right to have anyone else beaten up for your enjoyment”).

            In a similar vein, simply declaring that a corrupt judiciary is a feature, not a bug, will not make the system actually just.

  18. PhilGrad says:

    Since you’re always looking for an opportunity to flex those atrophying academic philosophy muscles, Scott, I propose a future post about John Taurek’s notorious anti-consequentialist argument (“Should the Numbers Count?”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 6, 1977). As one of Taurek’s interlocutors puts it, the central thought is that “that the goods, harms and well-being of individual people do not aggregate in any morally significant way” (Yishai Cohen, “Don’t Count on Taurek”, Res Publica 20, 2014). (This type of consideration is sometimes referred to in the literature as “the separateness of persons”.)

    A philosopher at my department recently told me that, in his view, Taurek’s objection exposes the fundamental problem with consequentialism, and that the other well-known difficulties (the Utility Monster, the Repugnant Conclusion, etc.) are minor by comparison. I know your enthusiasm for pure, uncut utilitarianism has waned somewhat lately, but you might still find it fun to think about. And I’m pretty sure I’d find it fun to read what you thought about it. If you want to nerd out a bit, there’s a long list of responses to Taurek (both pro and con) on the PhilPapers page for the original paper.

    • Pku says:

      It seems like it’s identifying “You should always act so that some utility function is maximized” and the statement that said utility function should be the sum of every individual’s personal utility functions.

      • haishan says:

        Some of the principles utilitarians hold put strong constraints on the form of the utility function, though. Like, if you try to aggregate in a non-linear manner, you can run into paradoxical situations where your decision depends on the size of the universe. Probably also utilitarians have some commitment to symmetry? Like, I think they’d cry foul if I claimed that the aggregate utility function of the universe was my personal utility function. This may be enough to give you linear aggregation already — I’m not a social choice theorist or anything.

        • PhilGrad says:

          Yes, very nice! I like the Blume objection a lot.

        • Sokka says:

          I don’t understand why this situation is prima facie paradoxical. It seems quite intuitive to me that a reasonable utility function can depend on the size of the universe; a world in which there exists one billionaire is worse than a world in which there exists one billionaire and six starving people is worse than a world in which there exists one billionaire and one million starving people, even if the billionaire always has one billion utilons and the starving people always have zero.

          • Adam says:

            Whether you choose average or total utilitarianism, you end up with repugnant conclusions. I kind of hate to throw up the epistemic despair flag, but after what? 4,000 years of trying to figure this out? Maybe it’s time to just accept that any consistent system of metaethics is going to lead to conclusions that run counter to prevailing moral intuitions.

            I mean, obviously except actual intuititionism, but that has its own problems, too. We get intuitively appealing answers or we get consistency with rational first principles, but we can’t have both. It’s like a fundamental limit to the universe, the uncertainty principle of metaethics.

          • @Adam, I fail to see how the repugnant conclusion is an issue, intuitively I don’t see any issue. The only real issues seem to be hidden as Newcombian Problems or Pascal’s Wagers/Muggings.

          • CalmCanary says:

            It’s not so much that your utility function shouldn’t take the entire universe into account as that you should be able to determine whether actions which only affect one small corner of the universe are good or bad without looking at anything else (since, by hypothesis, nothing else is affected).

            Incidentally, this same locality principle is why average utilitarianism is deranged: whether it is good or bad to bring a person into existence should depend only on how good their life is likely to be and what effects they are likely to have on anyone else, not whether there are extremely happy aliens on the other side of the universe.

      • PhilGrad says:

        Usually a utility function is understood to be the sort of thing that’s inherently person-specific, I think, so it’s odd to talk about maximizing a utility function that isn’t associated with anyone in particular. (In virtue of what is it then a utility function? Whose utility is it outputting?)

        Of course you can pick your favorite function f and propose an ethical theory according to which actions are morally good if and only if they maximize f. But there needn’t be anything especially utilitarian about doing that. (Let f be the function that takes the value 1 if an action agrees with the Categorical Imperative and 0 otherwise. Now your theory is Kantianism!)

        The moral, then, is that utilitarianism (pretty much by definition) requires aggregating individual utilities in some way or other. If the function you’re trying to maximize doesn’t have roughly that form, then you’re probably endorsing a very different sort of ethical theory.

        (Plus, or alternatively, what haishan said!)

        • Pku says:

          There’s a distinction here though based on whether the right action depends on anything other than the situation it causes (for example, Jaime Lannister killing the king might have the same effects as Ned Stark Killing the king, but Ned Stark, as a virtue ethicist, still believed it was wrong since Jaime Lannister swore a vow to protect the king).

          • roystgnr says:

            Hmm… deontological rules are what you get when you combine consequentialism with game theory and precommitment; apparently virtue ethics are what you get when you combine consequentialism with uncertainty? Suppose you don’t trust your ability to predict the future (either for the obvious a priori reasons, or because you catch yourself making predictions like “the same effects” and you forget to factor in effects as far-reaching as “vows become less trustworthy”). Then, the best assessment of consequences you can make may be to simply identify attributes which have had the most consistent history of promoting good consequences, call them “virtues”, and try to promote them even in cases where you don’t personally see the good consequences yet.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      This seems like an argument against utilitarianism, not consequentialism more generally.

      • At first glance I second this. There seems to be obvious problem aggregating subjective emotions, but such problems are not obvious if your utility function is for something more objective. For example maximising number of humans or something like that wouldn’t face an issue of that kind, though it might face other common objections to consequentialism. (I use objective and subjective fairly loosely here)

    • Paul Torek says:

      Never trust an argument by somebody named Taurek.

  19. Gudamor says:

    What is the best Spaced Repetition software, and why?

    I’ve ‘narrowed it down’ to Anki or Mnemosyne based wholly off of “they are both popular” and Gwern’s reccomendation ( )

    • haishan says:

      I use and enjoy Anki, I don’t have any Mnemosyne experience.

      Piggybacking on this: does anyone know how to write Python scripts that generate Anki cards? Like if I wanted to memorize a poem or something, that’d be faster than entering every line by hand.

      • Motorbike says:

        Here’s what I would do:

        1. Use Anki to generate the first few lines of your poem manually.

        2. Export that in some fairly readable format.

        3. Open the file with a text editor like Sublime Text. Make a small change. Save it.

        4. Import it back into Anki and make sure your change was reflected.

        5. Now that you’ve proven the concept, reverse engineer the file format you exported into and write a Python script that generates a deck with all the info you want. You’ll need to know about file handling and string manipulation. Alternatively, read up on regular expressions and make clever use of Sublime Text’s search and replace functionality.

        (This is the kind of handiness with computers you develop if you do a lot of software development. It’s not so much cleverness as determination, willingness to Google, and knowledge of lots of little clever tactics like e.g. opening things in text editors like Sublime so you can see the raw characters.)

      • Emile says:

        Yep, for example I wrote a Python script that parsed a website for the most common Chinese characters, and generated a bunch of Anki cards for those (with some special rules for cases of characters with several pronunciations etc.). It’s pretty useful!

    • Motorbike says:

      Anki has automated cloze deletion facilities, incremental search, and more features overall.

      Mnemosyne is simpler and starts faster. It allows you to rate level of understanding when you first add a card. (Good for if you’re going over material the second time in order to add SR cards for it.) It lets you move cards from one “category” to another pretty easily, whereas Anki’s “decks” are more static.

      It may not matter which you choose; there is some degree of interoperability between them. Anki at least seems to let you import Mnemosyne decks. It probably wouldn’t be hard to write a script to transform cards in the other direction if you’re a programmer or a determined non-programmer.

      Disclaimer: these were my notes based on older versions of the software; things may have changed.

      • sweeneyrod says:

        I find it quite easy to move cards from one deck to another in Anki. Anki has an IOS app and rudimentary web interface, Mnemosyne doesn’t.

        • Emile says:

          Seconded; you’re pretty limited with what you can do with the web and android versions, but the desktop version has pretty useful tools for editing big lists of cards. There’s some stuff you can only do with the desktop Anki, like create new custom review schedules.

    • Emile says:

      I’ve been using Anki pretty much daily for the past couple of years, for learning languages, some technologies and statistics, some various advice and insights …

      The main issue I had: sometimes my deck on Android gets corrupted and I lose everything since the last synchronization (sometimes a week ago); so now I synchronize several times a day.

      Also, I find the interface for adding and editing cards frequently clunky (especially on Android, so I do most of my adding with the web version), but overall, I find it useful.

    • Gudamor says:

      Thanks everyone!

      I’ve started using Anki, which has led to another question: should I use the card types where you need to type in the answer, or not?

      Potential benefits to typing: practice typing, better accountability, reveals spelling errors in a way that thinking the answer does not.
      Potential drawbacks: ergonomics, increases amount of time required for reviews/learning,

      I also see now that I can enable the typing card-type, but just not use it (press enter without inputting anything). Would this have any drawbacks?

      • zz says:

        It depends what you’re studying. Typing makes a lot of sense if you’re learning a language. However, I study math and have a bunch of cards that contain definitions or theorem statements; typing makes no sense for them, both because semantic content trumps a particular phrasing (there’s a bunch of ways to phrase a definition or theorem that says the same thing, and it’s a frustrating waste of time that’s potentially counterproductive to get yourself down to one phrasing) and because mathematical symbols.

  20. J says:

    I know comments are supposed to avoid bearing race, but I’ve been thinking of constructing my own race and I’d like to get everyone’s feedback. Ultimately I want to have a round table that’ll be well supported from all sides, something where all my friends can have a seat at the table and share. (I’d stick with standard races but they’re all too narrow or too expensive.) Making it work will require bigger balls than I currently possess, but the internet is full of encouraging options.

    From what my friends tell me, tolerance is the major issue. Lack of tolerance leads to eccentricity, and pretty soon your race is on fire from all the friction. The other key component seems to be ensuring there’s enough tension to avoid major backlash.

    Let’s say I use 50mm thick 6061 aluminum plate and mill a 80cm diameter bearing race using a 25mm ball end mill on a Haas SR100 gantry router to a depth of 20mm. Mill two identical pieces for top and bottom. Use 25mm brass balls. How much space should I leave between the balls? I’m assuming I don’t want them grinding against each other. What kind of lube will I need, and will I need pretensioning given the weight of the upper half? (Also, do I want the race to be a perfect fit for the balls, or does that just create extra friction?)

    • Doctor Mist says:

      This is so freaking wonderful. I especially like the pretensioning part.

    • Muga Sofer says:


    • Voted for comment of the thread.

    • Deiseach says:

      (Also, do I want the race to be a perfect fit for the balls, or does that just create extra friction?)

      Adequate lubrication with suitable lubricant would seem to take care of that problem, plus wear over time from movement of the balls would mean that the race will gradually become a less perfect fit naturally.

  21. FeepingCreature says:

    Hey, so I’d just read Fearful Symmetry and I went to take a shower, and as I was taking a shower this post about a set of rules for a libertarian convention suddenly appeared in my head and wanted to be let out. I don’t know where it’s from, I’ve never run a con or even been to a con; for all I know it could be completely impractical. But, you know, there it is.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Regarding your link: this may be a stupid question, but what prevents me from going to Amazon, ordering an orange armband, wearing it, and then going MAD WITH POWER!!!1!! at your convention ?

      • FeepingCreature says:

        1) Organizers have no special powers

        2) Armbands can be customized. 🙂

        • Bugmaster says:

          > Organizers have no special powers

          Technically, this is true, but as you said, organizers “create a distinct, privileged caste of enforcers”, and other people are “strongly recommended” to do what they say. If that’s not power, what is ?

          > Armbands can be customized

          Ok, I am going to paint a smiley face on mine. And then I shall go MAD WITH POWER!!!1!!.

          • FeepingCreature says:

            Okay so, ultimately the people who have rented the hall can just kick you out, but also it’s just extremely unlikely to me that somebody will actually do this since there’s not that many trolls IRL.

          • Bugmaster says:

            My life experience so far has led me to believe that people routinely underestimate the number of trolls in real life 🙁 This is especially true when the event in question is somewhat controversial (as libertarian conventions are apt to be). In this case, I would say that the probability of someone messing with your convention approaches 100%, and you need to implement at least some measures to make messing with you more difficult to achieve.

          • FeepingCreature says:

            I think that it’s worth a try to just communicate to people that they don’t need to follow the instructions of Organizers – which is true – and, well, if the troll Organizers manage to consistently fake good behavior, well, as XKCD says, mission accomplished?

        • Deiseach says:

          Organisers have no special powers

          Well, they’re the point of contact between the convention goers and the convention owners. You recommend that if people have complaints, they talk to an organiser, who will then “escalate” it up to the convention owners.

          If this means convention goers cannot directly communicate with, or have access to, the convention owners, it gives the organisers some small bit of (necessary) power as gatekeepers and filters.

          You also recommend people should follow the organisers’ suggestions as they are there to make the experience better, run smoothly, and provide help.

          So if the only means of identifying who is an Organiser is “orange armband”, and if ConGoer is strongly recommended to do what Orange Armband tells them to do when asked, what indeed is stopping Bugmaster from buying an orange armband and going around telling everyone that they need to hop on one foot, no, trust me, this’ll improve the experience no end!

          The only way round that, that I can see, is to have an Official Convention Owner Granted Distinctive Orange Armband of Office Only Given To Select Few Official Organisers, which is possibly too much like organised monolithic government oversight for a libertarian convention 🙂

          • FeepingCreature says:

            1) conventiongoers can talk to the owners, but the usual rule about not following people around applies. Owners are not compelled to talk to anybody.

            2) hopping on one foot sounds fun.

            3) To clarify, I’m not explicitly recommending people follow the organizers’ instructions; optimally following the organizers’ instructions should be the intuitively sane thing to do. People should want to do it.

            They’re more there to organize Schelling points, figure out where people are congregating; that’s why I’m not too worried about others abusing this power.

            But do note that the armbands come in many colors, and the owners are not obligated to tell you in advance what color (or combination) they’re using, or what they’ll paint on them. 🙂

          • Deiseach says:

            following the organizers’ instructions should be the intuitively sane thing to do

            You seem to have a higher opinion of the sanity and good behaviour of people in a mass than I do 🙂

            Possibly a group of libertarians would be rational types who would calmly consider the facts of the situation, but I also think you might be very likely to get the “Nobody is the boss of me” type who would march up to the Organiser and demand that So-and-So who is harassing them be kicked out, I’ve got rights, they’re violating my rights, I paid to attend, and no the fact that I punched them in the face first has nothing to do with it, nobody has the right to impose rules on me!

          • FeepingCreature says:

            They’re entirely free to demand that. They are also free to follow an Organizer around, in which case the Organizer is free to escalate to owners and the owner is free to have security escort them off the premises. 🙂

            America – Land of the Free!

            A large point of the Rules is to define a clear path of escalation to resolve problems like that.

          • Deiseach says:

            the Organizer is free to escalate to owners and the owner is free to have security escort them off the premises

            Ha! So you admit it! Your jackbooted orange-armbanded stormtroopers are there to stifle free speech as stooges of the oppressors! Here we see the recourse to force as, having no good argument in reply against the basic rights of the free individual to pursue what is of most advantage to them by whatever acts or speech they choose, they revert to and rely on the oppressive standing armed forces of their quasi-state to stifle and repress all dissent and free thought! 🙂

          • FeepingCreature says:

            Hold on, I thought Libertarianism was in favor of property rights?

            I mean, it can be private security. That counts, right?

          • Deiseach says:

            But I’m not damaging any property in any way, FeepingCreature. And still the private security is the threat in wait for me (which is the equivalent of a private army for the organisers, being the typical ‘last resort of kings’ for their use: if I don’t stifle my rights of free expression, they will have me dragged off by force and ejected from the convention that I paid to attend and which they accepted my money and issued me a ticket).

            No, beneath the fair-seeming cloak of Libertarianism, we can see the orange armband of totalitarian thought-control 🙂

          • FeepingCreature says:

            Okay, I understand what you’re saying but I think you’re just factually mistaken about how this would work in a libertarian world.

            First of all, you’re not *damaging* any property, but you’re *making use of* another’s property without their agreement. Second, you paid to attend, but you paid (presumably, in a pure Libertarian scenario) under a contract that required you to recognize the right of the owner to regulate the use of his property. (What, didn’t you read the fine print?) So you see, you are really the one who first violated the contractually guaranteed rights of the owner to make you please leave the premises. 🙂

            (We have “contracts” like that now, in the form of EULAs. “Your purchase of a ticket does not entitle you to use of the property except in ways permitted by the Owners…”)

  22. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    I’ve been thinking about the spending and saving habits of the average man. As far as I can tell, he acts as if any money in his possession will burst into flames at some indefinite point in the near future, and he therefore endeavors to spend it all before it can burn a hole in his pockets. The only exception is money which is protected against combustion through the fearsome ritual of “saving,” but this ritual is so painful that only the most financially well disciplined of men can muster the willpower to engage in it, and even then only for a small portion of their income. Thus, a man who “saves” 10% of his monthly paycheck, or who makes sure to always keep 3 to 6 months of expenses in “savings,” is considered a paragon of financial virtue. A man who has a nearly empty bank account but a regular paycheck is considered normal, and it is only he who goes into into debt buying unnecessary things that is considered financially irresponsible. This seems to hold true no matter how much a man earns.

    I find this attitude bizarre.

    Also, I got a comment of the week. Sweet.

    • BBA says:

      That combustion is called “inflation” and savings are protected from it by earning “interest.” These phenomena both went extinct in the 2008 credit crunch yet the attitudes assuming their existence persist.

    • Ever An Anon says:

      Well I think part of the issue is that saving is actually an awful idea, at least in the sense that most people think of it. Putting money in the bank means it continuously loses value and while we’ve avoided bank runs so far it seems inevitable going forwards.

      Investing, on the other hand, is more reasonable but for the same reasons it’s clear why people don’t do it. Investing intelligently actually takes care and foresight. Even just managing your 401K properly is more complex than most people can easily deal with.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      Ah! I can answer this, because I had this same question and then it was explained to me.

      You see, it’s because your average man has friends and family and relatives and acquaintances and other such people-in-his-social-network, who earn less, and are generally not as good at getting money as he is.

      And so if he has money just lying around, it might indeed “burst into flames”, by the expedient of some mooching relative-or-whoever showing up at his door, being all like “My son Johnny needs his tooth taken out, but we got no money! Can you help us out, on account of you being luckier than most folks?”

      And so forth. And of course you can’t decline, that would mark you as greedy and selfish. Then you get ostracized, and that’s bad.

      Meanwhile! If Mr. Average spends it all, but then subsequently his son Bobby needs his tooth taken out and he lacks the funds, well, he can show up at the door of a relative-or-whoever, and ask for help. Were it known that Mr. A had unspent money, the request would be rebuffed, on the grounds that our hero could simply dip into his savings; but as we all know that his paycheck is spent entirely and immediately, it would be greedy and selfish not to help…

      • Wrong Species says:

        What seems more likely: most people have that thought process or that most people simply don’t have the willpower to save that much? I think you’re over analyzing it. Personally, saving to me is like spending for other people. It makes me happy to see my bank account go up while spending it depresses me, even when it’s stuff I like. It’s probably a genetic thing.

        • Evelyn says:

          Yeah, I think this is the answer. Most people just don’t have enough future-time orientation to save much. This is the “normal state” (such as anything is) of humanity. It is unusual for people to have the psychological ability to save.

          This is also why so many people love Social Security. It forces present-time oriented people to “save” (not exactly, but you know what I mean), which leads to good outcomes for them in old age. It’s also why so many people allow the government to take more in taxes from their paychecks than they owe: because they’ll get a nice tax refund if they do. Another example of forced saving.

          I also agree that present and future time orientation are probably largely genetic.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Whether they think it through or not, people still respond to incentives. Saving has dropped substantially over the years, and I don’t think genetics explain that graph.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Why not both? Currently, there aren’t many incentives to save so the people who do are the ones with a genetic predisposition.

        • Emily H. says:

          You don’t necessarily have to think it through; you just have to know your one uncle who has a good stable government job and owns his own house and everybody’s hitting him up for money all the time.

          • Wrong Species says:

            That still doesn’t sound right. Rich people save more than poor people even though they know more rich people who could help them out.

          • Matt M says:

            I think there are probably certain degrees of “economies of scale” involved in savings. The more money you have, the more access you have towards higher-yielding investments.

            A lower-middle class janitor can’t invest in a hedge fund even if he’s really smart and he really wants to. If his time preference is such that he requires a rate of return of say, 20% in order to choose savings over consumption, he likely does not have access to any investment that can provide him this, so he saves.

            Meanwhile, a billionaire with a 20% required return probably has all sorts of different investments that could yield over 20%, is more likely to have the education to evaluate them and/or the time and/or money to hire people to do so on his behalf.

        • whateverfor says:

          It’s not the thought process, it’s the experience of having it happen. Over and over again.

          See, I’m just like you, when the account goes up it makes me feel happy. And when it’s substantial, it makes me feel pride in my frugality and industriousness. When the money gets taken away by the mooching relatives process, it doesn’t show up in your bank account anymore. The feedback loop breaks. Rich people have the problem less because their families are richer so they mooch less, and they’ve either developed the right defenses or had them passed down by their parents.

          I don’t want to go into full details for obvious reasons, but I’m 28 years old and I’m down around 85,000 US dollars through the relative-mooching process. I’ve never made six figures pre-tax in my life. Objectively, the benefits of my savings have mostly accrued to others. It’s a bottomless pit if you don’t have the proper defenses, and they don’t teach you “how to ignore family members with medical expenses/tax problems/behind on rent/etc” in school.

          • Nornagest says:

            they don’t teach you “how to ignore family members with medical expenses/tax problems/behind on rent/etc” in school.

            This strikes me as a plausible justification for the old norm where you don’t talk about financial matters except with intimates.

          • Jiro says:

            The fact that people can mooch off their relatives is considered (in all seriousness) a reason why some third world countries remain in poverty. It provides a safety net, but it also makes it impossible for someone to benefit much from bettering themself.

          • alexp says:

            I think sociologists call it “rich social support networks.”

    • Gudamor says:

      Can model this behavior by valuing whatever I can get for the money now MUCH more than even the whatever the money+interest will get me in the future.

      There’s an argument made in the wikipedia page that this heuristic counters uncertainty.

    • I find it equally bizarre, and am horrified that the mass of humans think this way. I am perhaps merely lucky in this regard; I think it plausible that people’s desire and ability to save are heavily shaped by what’s considered ‘normal’ in their family and social group. My own family is very future-oriented, and therefore I’ve always considered saving the ‘default’ state. I suspect that I’m also quite future-oriented as well, more so than even members of my family. It an attitude to which I revert except in times of crisis. I think the prevalence of people not saving also may have to do with people not changing a mindset formed by years and years of scarcity even after material conditions have changed, and the abusive culture Said Achmiz describes (which is horrible and disgusting, and which I would instantly destroy if I could, and which is yet still the human default).

      It’s a good thing that now, investing isn’t difficult; if you can save $100 a month, you can invest that money in a reliable long-term investment (a combination of Vanguard index funds with a few other things) without needing to know anything about investing (except enough to be able to judge that this is a good idea), all with a few mouse clicks, using either Wealthfront (which requires a $5000 minimum), or Betterment (which doesn’t have any minimum requirements as long as you’re willing to put in $100 every month).

      • Anon says:

        I’m curious why you suggest Wealthfront or Betterment rather than just Schwab or Vanguard directly. Fewer middlemen = higher returns, generally, yes? And Schwab’s minimum (for US citizens) is only $1000, I believe.

        • Nicholas says:

          And I have never had more than 1100 dollars in my entire life. Meeting the minimum upfront investment is the choke point, not the orientation to future.

        • Glenn Willen says:

          The amount that the middlemen (Wealthfront and Betterment) charge is very minimal, and unlike Schwab and Vanguard, they do not require you to make any decisions. If you make the decisions wrong, it will cost you a LOT more than what the middlemen charge.

          So for someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing in investing — and for various reasons learning is not immediately in the cards — Wealthfront and Betterment are excellent choices.

          (Reasons learning might not be in the cards: It takes a lot longer for me to teach someone about investing than to recommend a cheap service that does it for them; some people are extremely resistant to learning about investing because they think it’s complicated; some people have dispositions that are not suited to investing because you have to be able to watch your investment fall in value and not do anything rash, which many people are simply unable to accomplish. Also, in practice to squeeze the most value out of your investments, you want to periodically rebalance them, which the middlemen will do for you so they are more set-and-forget. At least Wealthfront also does some tax tricks for you. Those things together might be enough to make back the minimal fees.)

          • LHN says:

            Finding a financial advisor prospectively who can beat a broad-based index fund enough to justify its percentage (as opposed to identifying who beat it retrospectively, with past performance no guarantee of future returns) isn’t something I’ve seen convincingly demonstrated.

            (I’m pretty sure that there are people with market-beating talent. I’m just not sure that it’s any easier to pick one than it is to pick market-beating stocks.)

          • efnre says:

            Beating the market is called insider trading.

    • Bill G says:

      Is there any good research on material comfort and psychological willingness to save? While rationally those who may need to worry about providing for basics needs (i.e., lower income earners) would be the ones who should save, I can imagine a pretty easy behavioral psychology argument that those who experience such doubt will always have more doubt regarding the utility of saving/likelihood of future returns.

      • CAE_Jones says:

        rationally those who may need to worry about providing for basics needs (i.e., lower income earners) would be the ones who should save

        In the US, certain social security benefits are available only to people whose resources are below a certain amount. For SSI, it’s $2000. I’m not sure where Medicade fits into this, but IIUC it’s possible to still be on SSI but lose Medicade benefits due to income.
        In the US, at least, you either get a sudden and valuable income boost that makes saving possible, or you spend the money so as to avoid having to reopen your case when it runs out and/or owe the government for overpay. (Or get really good at hiding the money where they can’t find it, but this still loses to inflation.)

        • Bill G says:

          So is the regulation creating an incentive to not save? That seems like pretty low-hanging fruit as poverty alleviation goes, though I’m sure there are political pressures forcing it in that direction.

          • Matt M says:

            Any and all government “assistance” programs provide an incentive not to save.

            Blah blah blah, Benjamin Franklin quote about making people “uncomfortable in their poverty,” standard democrat/republican argument about whether poor people are victims of oppressive capitalism or just too lazy… you get the idea.

          • Bill G says:

            @Matt M, well sure… but if we have a class of workers with a sharp drop-off as to whether they fall into or out of a safety net, and that’s causing demonstrable reductions in savings rate, that’s kind of beyond the normal R v D debate, isn’t it?

          • Adam says:

            It is, and that’s how we ended up with the EITC, which avoids the problem with a 100% marginal tax rate when you hit an eligibility threshold, and creates a much better incentive structure. It’s somewhat unique as poverty relief programs go, having been rejected as an idea by D Lyndon Johnson and then passed under R Gerald Ford, but that’s only one program out of many.

            I don’t know enough about eligibility requirements for current programs to know what kind of wealth threshold, as opposed to income threshold, they have though. The Pell Grant is a little messed up as one example, which would require you to use your own savings before they give you anything, so there’s not much of a good reason to save in advance of going to college, unless you can save enough to forego having to take out loans as well.

    • NotAboutCars says:

      I think a large compulsion to spend comes from seeing the material goods of one’s friends and peers and the lifestyle inflation that commonly comes from “keeping up with the Jones'”. However, it may be a bit more pernicious than that old saw because it’s not just one rich Jones family held out as a comparison. It’s all the fanciest aspects of your combined peer group. For example, assume that you have the following set of peers that fall roughly within your socio-economic status and you interact with them on a semi-frequent basis: {Anderson, Baker, Calder, Dimattia, Ericsson, Finnegan, and Gale}.

      Anderson is a bit of a car nut, so this family always has a bmw.

      Baker loves to cook, and so the family kitchen is outfitted with the latest (and most expensive) espresso machines, appliances, and tons of saffron.

      Calder loves to travel so this family is always posting pictures from their trips to Alps or Southeast Asia.

      Dimattia is a fashionista and this family is always decked out in the latest couture fashions.

      Ericcson is a technophile and always has the latest and greatest in gadgets and technology.

      Finnegan loves to eat out and visits the finest restaurants in town once a week.

      Gale collects fine watches and is never seen without a fancy swiss automatic.

      Each of these peers of yours may, be saving their money responsibly and only splurging on their one passion, but the aggregate and subliminal effect on you is that you think “Oh my gosh, each of my peers have brand new bmws, fancy kitchens, exotic vacations, the latest fashions, dine out all the time, and tell that same time on the fanciest of watches.” This combination of the diverse expensive interests of all of your peers into one Super Jones Family with which you feel you must compete, is the biggest driver of lifestyle inflation and the balrog that drags your savings plan down into the pit of fire.

    • Linch says:

      I normally like to couch my words in qualifications, but people in this thread are frankly wrong.

      Claims about the “typical” person or “mass of humanity” may well be true of OECD countries with huge welfare states (and even then the average household savings rate is ~twice that of the US: but it would be absurd in, eg, China or India(where the modal person resides).
      (Above is data on India. Finding data on China is a easier).

      Further, the claim that “typical people” save very little is not only non-robust across location, but also non-robust across time. See, for example, savings rates in the US in the turn of the last century.

      It’s hard to assign causality, but I’m tempted to believe it’s a mixture of a developed welfare state(theoretically) doing the saving for you and residual fear from Great Depression Era-bankruptcies. [Epistemic status: low]

      Regardless of the reasoning of this specific exception however, I find it interesting that so many people are making broad generalizations about human nature from a specific instance that is not only WEIRD-specific but also century-specific.

  23. Gwen S. says:

    I subscribed to mealsquares. How long do they take to start delivering? Do they tell you when they’re about to deliver? Do they require a signature or do they just leave the package in front of your house?

    • Bugmaster says:

      I am interested in mealsquares, but from what I’d read, they taste like corrugated cardboard. Is that true ?

      I know this is irrational, but I don’t think I could bring myself to actually eat something that tastes awful, regardless of how efficient or advantageous it might be in other respects.

      • Grumpus says:

        I fail to see how avoiding unpleasant experiences is irrational.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Assuming that eating mealsquares is healthier and/or more efficient than eating regular foods, then the rational course of action would be to eliminate (or at least reduce) my preference for regular foods — since, while consuming them does bring me temporary pleasure, doing so will reduce my overall aggregate happiness over time. Unfortunately, I am far from convinced that I could actually accomplish this.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            I’m having a hard time figuring out what “more efficient” is supposed to mean in the context of food.

            If we’re talking about the cost of food and the opportunity cost of cooking times, that’s a really trivially small amount of savings for an ordinary person. There is almost certainly some more reasonable way to cut back on expenses if that’s such a concern.

            As for health, eating well isn’t too hard it’s just a habit to be cultivated like any other. Buying healthy ingredients and cooking them properly has a learning curve but it’s much much easier than “eliminating [your] preference for normal food.”

            To be honest, it sounds like you’re hung up on this idea to an irrational degree. There are many different methods to achieve each of your goals, so if this one is so clearly unappealing you should consider the others rather than torturing yourself.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Well, recall that I said “If…” at the very beginning on my post. I was under the impression that switching to MealSquares would save me on the order of $100/month, and 2 hours/day, which is not a trivial amount of time and money (not to mention the health benefits, if any). But if this is not true, and the real numbers are more like “$10/month, 15 mins/day”, then the tradeoff would not be worth it.

      • John Maxwell IV says:

        The taste of MealSquares is not for everyone. For example, people who don’t like Clif bars or describe themselves as “foodies” are often dissatisfied with the taste of our product.

        That said, we have been gradually working to improve the taste of our product over the past year and it’s possible that you heard comments about a previous iteration. Also, we are now doing sample packs so you can taste them more cheaply.

        • Vaniver says:

          Also, we are now doing sample packs so you can taste them more cheaply.

          Great! I handed out a bunch of single packs to people for them to try, because most of the people I know weren’t willing to risk $90 on something uncertain. (I think at least one of them is subscribed, now.)

          I think $35 might still be high, though, and you might want to investigate options to send out single MealSquares. I think most uncertain but curious people would rather pay $10 for 1 than $35 for 10. (Whether you can send one out for $10, or cheaper, is a question you have a much better handle on than I do.)

        • Bugmaster says:

          Thanks John, the sample pack is a great idea, I will check one out.

          Edit: Yeah, $35 is a bit steep. I realize that at $10, the sample pack would probably be your loss leader, so maybe you can implement some sort of a “limit one per customer” policy…

      • Pku says:

        I personally rather like the taste (though if I start eating more than one or two a day I get sick of them pretty fast). It’s kinda like a dry homemade cake.

    • John Maxwell IV says:

      Great to hear that you subscribed! Most of the time orders are shipped within 7 days of you making them. We normally send an email right around the time we ship your order. Then the squares spend ~3 days being shipped via USPS. It’s not necessary to sign for them.

      (In general we prefer to get questions via our contact form. SlateStarCodex open threads are tougher to monitor. If people want to use our contact form to notify us of MealSquares-related discussions here or elsewhere that we should participate in, that’d be spiffy.)

      • Matt M says:

        Haven’t yet tried the product – but I was wondering if you have any plans at making different “flavors” at some point.

        I feel like any food I start to eat very often and on a regular basis I eventually just get tired of and lose the taste for. I would hate to get hooked on the efficiency by a product like this but suddenly find myself having lost the taste for it and having no alternative but to go back to regular inefficient foods!

  24. onyomi says:

    Though this may get me banned from tech conferences and possibly SSC, I’m going to propose a new form of government called “Dogearchy.”

  25. Confused says:

    What are the expected real returns to investment these days, assuming no risk or loss aversion?

    I was thinking about things like random international stocks, etc.

    I have no idea how to tell since I am quite illiterate in these things. Is it still positive? Is it above 2% p.a.? Above 4? What about black swans?

    ETA: I apologize if the name “Confused” was already taken, this is the first time I post here.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Well, what time period are you investing for? Can’t know return unless you know time.

      Also, go to Vanguard and check out their retirement date index funds. No load and low total expense in a broad array of equities has proven advantages.

    • For dollars the expected return can’t go below the return on Treasury bills (which is almost zero). My guess is that the real expected return of stocks is between 2% to 4% a year.

      • Alexander Stanislaw says:

        Do you know if the exponential growth of the economy over the last centuries has been tied to population growth? And will the leveling off of the world population cause the economy (and the stock market) to also level off?

        • Econ growth has certainly enabled population growth and allowed us to escape the Malthusian trap. Greater world population has almost certainly increased per person econ growth in part because of economies of scale. Demographic problems are the major long-term econ problem of lots of countries especially Germany, Japan, S. Korea, and China. I’m sure that stock prices already reflect this.

    • Adam says:

      The historical geometric mean going back to 1910s is 9% on all equities and 13% if you restrict to small cap value, which is the highest variance, highest expected return index fund you’ll find. If you’re going broad index unmanaged like that (which you really should), then fees are your major differentiator. Vanguard was the lowest I could find. Not many people think U.S. growth in the 21st century is going to match U.S. growth in the 20th century, but it should certainly exceed 2%. It’s obviously easier to recount the past than predict the future. You can guarantee yourself more than 2% with 10-year TIPs.

    • Who wouldn't want to be Anonymous says:

      For sufficiently long time horizons, AFAIK, the rule of thumb is 5% inflation adjusted growth for a diversified portfolio.

      • Confused says:

        This doesn’t include things like entire stock exchanges being obliterated, or the investor physically dying, right?

        (Because 5% sounds far too attractive to be true to me, with negative real returns for treasuries.)

        • Adam says:

          Vanguard’s all-market fund has done 9.63% since inception in 1994, in spite of two Black Swan events (counting 9/11 and the 2008 credit crunch). Really low real interest rates help equity returns. The good is business have a lower cost of capital. The bad is, well, yield seekers flee bonds and bid up prices, so don’t be surprised to see another correction, but the 9% already factors that in. US GDP growth averaged 3.26% from 1946 to 2014. A fairly conservative estimate is at least 2% over the next 20 even with bad stagnation. If you get really conservative and figure that’s all inflation and no real growth, a 5% risk premium to equity still isn’t out of line with historical average.

          • Confused says:

            Thanks for your insight.

          • Date Time says:

            Only sort of relevant (and shameless attempt to borrow your insight), but what do you make of this for those who don’t have 10 grand lying around?


          • brad says:

            The recommended fund is a tax managed all US equity market fund, but since it’s a market weighted it is dominated by the largest names. A S&P 500 fund is going to track similarly, have lower fees, and pretty good tax efficiency given the low turnover. Check out VFINX or VOO. Or if you really want all market, VTSMX or VTI (at the cost of somewhat worse tax performance and fees).

        • Gudamor says:

          Great point! I assume you’re referring to: ?

          • Adam says:

            It’s not that much. For comparison, that Vanguard Fund that did 9.63% the last 20 years was designed to track the Russell 1000, which did 9.72%, so survivorship bias put less than a 0.1% dent in your earnings.

        • Who wouldn't want to be Anonymous says:

          Like Adam said above, the long term mean for all equities is 9%. IIRC, the long term mean for inflation is around 4%. So, as a rule of thumb, a well diversified long term portfolio is looking at around 9-4 = 5%.

          What your goals are (and prevailing conditions), however, play a major role in how you invest. But you specified no risk/loss aversion and a long time frame so my answer seemed reasonable.

          And yes, the US/EU/etc markets are pretty anemic right now but: A, right now is not ten years from now and; B, while it is generally expected that growth in the developed will world slow, growth in the developing world is generally expected to pick up the slack.

          While the Great Recession has certainly been bumpy (and Greece may still throw the recovery-such-as-it-is out of whack), I don’t see any sort of cataclysmic change such that from hereafter all equities are will grow at a markedly slower rate.

    • Steve says:


      For a 20 year time period:
      Large-cap stocks – S&P 500: 6.3% annually
      Mid-/small-cap stocks – Russell 2000: 7.1% annually
      International stocks – MSCI EAFE : 6.1% annually
      Bonds: Barclays U.S. Aggregate – 3.3% annually
      Cash investments – Citigroup 3 Month Treasury: 1.8% annually

      • Confused says:

        Shouldn’t this include the combined probabilities that there will be a global nuclear war + nuclear winter, or a synthetic or natural global pandemic in the next 20 years?

        Because that seems at least 1%-2% p.a. as well.

        • Nornagest says:

          Oh, yes, I’ll be deeply concerned about my 401K balance in the aftermath of a global nuclear war.

          • Confused says:

            Well, the point is that you still have to subtract it when you make the decision. (I also privately subtract the probability that I die because I’m fat, but that cannot be generalized)

          • Nornagest says:

            What decision is that? If I’m choosing an investment portfolio, then I’m trying to maximize my returns in the case where I’m alive and the economic system I’m working with is at least kinda recognizable, because I won’t care if the former isn’t true and I have no ability to optimize if the latter isn’t. I suppose you could also consider stocking up on ammunition, Prussian Blue, and custom-built flamethrowing guitars as a hedge, but if you’re considering that route I’d recommend some very careful thinking about your actual probability estimates.

            (1-2% per annum seems high to me, too.)

          • Confused says:

            The decision how much to invest at all.

            I could just not earn it and save myself the stress.

        • Adam says:

          I like this. Spend every last cent you earn so you don’t die with a surplus when nuclear winter comes.

          On a more serious note, consider the full range of investment possibilities. Throw some of what you earn into equities, and throw some of it into seeds, ammo, and martial arts lessons.

    • Urstoff says:

      Just don’t cash out right after a crash and you’ll be good.

    • brad says:

      At least if you subscribe to anything vaguely like modern portfolio theory, the question isn’t well formed. You pick a variance and get an expected real return or you pick an expected real return and get a variance.

      A lot of people answered the question as if you asked the expected long term real return to a broad portfolio equities, is that what you meant?

      • Confused says:

        Yes, that is roughly what I meant, even though I would also be interested in what would maximize expected real returns with high variance, as long as the total loss probability is less than 80% or so.

        • brad says:

          The canonical answer is to construct a maximally diversified portfolio, figure out the expected variance, and then boost the variance with leverage to reach the desired level.

          Unfortunately, fees and interest can get in the way of that. Also unfortunate, is that while certain asset classes were previously treated as being uncorrelated, in the recent downturn a lot of them ended up moving together.

  26. BBA says:

    New York’s rent control laws expired a few days ago, and the divided legislature hasn’t been able to reach an agreement to reinstate them. Practically everyone agrees that rent control is a bad idea, but suddenly abolishing it without warning and dumping a bunch of poor people onto the streets is not exactly ideal. On the other hand, I don’t know if there’s any way to alleviate the transition costs of a decontrol.

    That’s a problem with lots of public policy – there may be an obviously better policy out there, but switching to it would impose massive costs on lots of people for little short-term benefit, so you can’t get there from here.

    In any case, the legislature is likely to pass another short-term extension, like they have every few years since they first declared an emergency housing shortage 70 years ago and imposed “temporary” rent controls.

    • Urstoff says:

      The solution to these issues always seems pretty clear: subsidize the poor (or whomever is negatively affected in the short term), but political policies that explicitly show the costs (like subsidies) instead of hiding the costs (like rent control) can’t get support.

      • I really like this idea, not just for rent control, but as a general political principle. Making all things financial shows their true costs immediately, and obviously, whereas ‘policy’ that’s coercive merely pushes costs around in non-obvious and hard-to-track ways.

        Many assume that democracy is the pinnacle of governance. I haven’t thought enough to be able to say whether I agree or not, but even granting the premise – that of all the governmental forms know, democracy (with restrictions on government) is in fact the best known form, that still leaves a *huge* scope for improvement. Making all costs explicit is one such improvement; a form of “accounting” for political decisions.

    • brad says:

      In this particular case there was a mechanism in place to gradually end it, but it was tinkered with. Specifically, luxury de-control takes an apartment out of the rent stabilization program after the legal rent reaches a certain amount and the apartment is vacant (it can also happen if the apartment isn’t vacant and the people living there make enough money, but that’s just a complication).

      If you hold the decontrol number constant in nominal terms, eventually you eliminate rent stabilization, but to prevent that the number has been increased several times. In 2011 it went from $2000 to $2500.

  27. anon says:

    Going in for a second bite at the apple

    I hope it’s kosher to talk about the Gawker/Hulk Hogan thing here. Given the recent discussion about object vs meta issues I find it pretty interesting to examine my own reactions of “they’re an awful clickbait site and it was pretty hypocritical of them to host someone’s sex tape given how upset they got about the fappening” vs “a free press is Extremely Important and people shouldn’t be silenced for publishing things, no matter how dumb or puerile”

    • Held in Escrow says:

      I feel like the question is if publishing revenge porn of public figures is okay or not. We’ve established at least that blackmailed private figures over revenge porn ain’t cool, but I don’t know the precedent behind this one.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Aren’t these two sentiments orthogonal ?

      By analogy, I think that heavy alcohol use is an extremely self-destructive course of action that no reasonable person should engage in (modulo extreme medical conditions); in general, I think that society would be better if there were no alcoholics in it. At the same time, I would strongly oppose any measure to prohibit alcohol, on the grounds that doing so would violate a set of critically important principles which, while not directly related to alcohol, enable society to function.

    • Deiseach says:

      I don’t know the details of this particular farrago and I don’t want to, so I’ll stick to broad principles

      In general, media claim that publishing sex scandal stories (“Love rat cheat exposed!”) is in the public interest. Now, unless the revelation is about rape or abuse of some kind, that public figures have sex should not be a surprise to anyone (okay, if they’re talking about “Pope Francis and his secret mistress”, fine, I’ll concede that point).

      Apart from that, what interest is served by “See real naked images of So-and-So’s kinky sex depravity!”? I don’t know and don’t care who Susie Soapstar is banging or dating or having an open relationship with. Anyone who does care, there’s plenty of online porn for your cheap titillation needs. You really, really want to see Celeb in the genuine nude? That’s your problem.

      My opinion is that people, even celebrities, are entitled to a private life. Now, if Susie Soapstar goes about selling a book full of ‘artistic’ nude photos, and is trading access to seeing her naked body for cash, then you may feel she hasn’t much of a leg to stand on when it comes to complaints about leaked nude photos she didn’t sell, but there still remains the fact of consent and ownership of your image. The same rights that a private person has to expect their personal photos not to be splashed about, even if they have a photo taken for a driver’s licence or other method of identification that will be seen and used in public.

      The main interest for these kinds of exclusives and scoops about the sex habits of celebs is the public attention it gets and the extra sales of newspapers or extra hits on the webpage to show the advertisers for increasing your revenue, not “the public interest”.

      • Jiro says:

        If sex scandals result in lots of extra sales, you’ve determined that they are in the public interest; sex scandals cause sales == revealed preference for sex scandals == people get lots of utility from reading about sex scandals.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Probably different definitions of public interest working there.

        • Deiseach says:

          Prurience is not the same as in the public interest. The public may be very much interested to know if Susie Soapstar is a natural blonde but that knowledge adds nothing to their benefit. Knowing if John Senator is fiddling the books or claiming expenses to do up his duck house is in the public interest because he’s paid out of the public purse; knowing that John Senator is doing it in order to fund the trips he takes to exotic foreign locales with his personal assistant who is his mistress/toyboy is even in the public interest; knowing that John Senator likes to dress up as Kermit the Frog and be called “Lord Daddy” in the bedroom with said mistress/toyboy is not in the public interest, though it may interest the public.

          • Jiro says:

            How are you going to define “public interest”, if it does *not* mean “increases utility for the public”?

            We don’t think of publication of scandals as “in the public interest” because enjoying reading about scandals is low status, which isn’t really a good reason to disqualify it as being in the public interest.

          • Deiseach says:

            What utility does it increase, Jiro, for me to know the exact faces you make at the moment of unitary bliss? If I’m sitting in my back garden in my underwear enjoying the sunshine, I don’t expect a photographer up a tree with a long-lens camera a mile away taking pictures and I object most strongly to the defence of “But you were out in public, so publishing these pictures is like you showing yourself to the public” (if I’m in my backgarden, I most certainly am not showing myself off to the public).

            Enjoying reading about, talking about, gossiping about scandal is human. But it does no benefit to the public because it doesn’t save them a penny in expenses, fix a problem, end a wrong, stop global climate change, feed the hungry, or banish disease.

            Particularly intrusive and egregious examples of media selling porn (which, by publishing sex tapes and celebrity nude photos, is what they’re doing) may lead to stricter privacy laws/more censorship/tighter or more pervasive libel and slander laws, and these may or may not be in the public interest. But “Disgusting sex pervert behaviour! Stop this filth now! (see cont. on pages 16-19, 22, 36-40 for photos and url of said disgusting perversion so you can see it online for yourself)” is not what is meant by “in the interest of the public”.

          • Jiro says:

            I don’t understand your question “what utility does it increase?”. You’re asking that as if the utility someone gains can be separated from the fact that they want it and prefer to have it. And it’s not. If they desire it as an end in itself, it gives them utility; that’s what utility is. Utility does *not* mean “it is high culture” or “it lengthens their lifespan” or “it’s something that I personally would enjoy”.

      • Anthony says:

        Leaking Susie Soapstar’s published book of nude photos is just theft – people are getting something free which they should have paid for. Leaking the nude photos which didn’t make it into the book is worse, though unless they’re more “intimate”, there’s not much of a violation of privacy there.

        This of course assumes that the leaks aren’t being arranged by the publicist to drum up business.

    • Muga Sofer says:

      I think it’s pretty clear that Gawker are just hypocrites attacking people for daring to do their execrable job for free.

      With that said, there are laws against that sort of thing, and they should damn well apply to Gawker along with the gossip rags they sprang from.

    • ThirteenthLetter says:

      Here’s the matter of principle I can’t get past in this case, and I realize this makes me not as good a person as I could be:

      It’s Gawker. Screw those guys.

      • nydwracu says:

        This is the Al Capone problem. You can’t get Al Capone for gangstering, but you can get him for tax evasion. You can’t get Amos Yee for saying “fuck Lee Kuan Yew” right after Lee Kuan Yew died, but you can get him for talking shit about Jesus. You can’t get Gawker for being vile communist shits, but you can get them for the Hulk Hogan thing.

        In the case of Al Capone, it’s because he bought off most of the power structure. In the case of Amos Yee, it’s because having lese majeste laws would make Singapore look bad. In the case of Gawker, it’s because there’s no rule against being a vile communist shit.

        In some cases, this reveals problems with how the rules are set up: you can’t get Brian Leiter for generally being a prick, but you can get Brian Leiter for disagreeing with a woman or whatever it was.

        In some cases, the target hasn’t actually committed tax evasion, so you have to make something up before you can Capone it, as happened with Benghazi and Ferguson.

        Is there any meta-level way to deal with the Al Capone problem? I don’t know. On the one hand, it’s just enforcing the law; on the other hand, anyone who the relevant power structure doesn’t like is going to be subject to increased scrutiny, and the laws/social norms are usually so complicated that most people have probably broken them. (In extreme cases, it’s probably possible for a new social norm to be created for the purpose of Al-Caponing someone, but that’s what norms against ex post facto laws are for — not that anyone understands these days that legal norms don’t arise in a vacuum chamber sealed off from the realm of social norms, or that there’s often good reason for legal norms to apply to laws just as well as to social norms.)

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Al Capone is different from all your other examples. People had no problem spelling out and criminalizing what they hated about him. So he shouldn’t be your trope-namer. How about Galileo?

          • nydwracu says:

            People have no problem spelling out what they hate about Gawker. I don’t think people had a problem spelling out what they hate about Leiter — he was generally disliked before the purge. As for Amos Yee, there was a “fuck that guy for calling LKY a dictator right after he died” response video on Youtube that got a few hundred thousand views.

            It’s often common knowledge that/why the target is disliked, so you won’t find, say, one hit piece that starts the dislike — you’ll instead find offhand references like “Gawker’s execrable job” or “It’s Gawker. Screw those guys.” or “it’s an awful clickbait site”, which imply that it’s already common knowledge that doesn’t need to be justified.

          • Nornagest says:

            To be very minimally fair, Gawker would shill for capitalism — no, that’s not vitriolic enough. It’d shill for Vlad III “the Impaler” Tepes. It’d shill for Lord Voldemort. It’d sell its grandmother to the Prince of Lies, the First Among the Fallen, the Author of Desolation in a heartbeat if it had a grandmother and there were clicks in it.

            I don’t care who you are, Gawker isn’t on your side. Gawker isn’t on anyone’s side. I’ve met communists I like — some on this very blog, in fact — but I haven’t found anything I like about Gawker.

          • nydwracu says:

            Did you not see the article where they posted part of their internal chat?

          • Nornagest says:

            Are we absolutely sure that’s not the reanimated corpse of Ayn Rand writing a villain speech?

            Seriously, though, I am kind of surprised that they believe their own press — assuming that hasn’t been massaged before release, which I wouldn’t put past them — but I don’t think that sinks the clicks theory. We’ve got a lot of capacity for self-delusion.

  28. Setsize says:

    At least a couple of groups have made the news for proposing to fund college tuition using an investment model, paying a student’s current tuition in exchange for a share of that student’s future earnings, as opposed to the current system where students take on a fixed size loan. This is an idea I had thought about before hearing that people were attempting it.

    The general commentary when I’ve seen this idea talked about on social media is “ugh, the return of debt peonage!” To which I think “How is it any more a form of debt peonage than the present system?!” I think I’d get a broader spectrum of opinions here, though.

    * If, say, a doctor wants to do humanitarian work after med school, they would be more able to, as their repayment burden wound scale back with the reduced income.
    * Economic downturns and other catastrophes would be less likely to leave students with crippling debt.
    * In the tulip-mania limit where college education becomes effectively mandatory to get any job, the investment model seems to become very similar to universal education funded by income tax.
    * But colleges’ revenues would become more directly tied to their students’ success, encouraging efficiency.
    * Students might be better directed toward efficient schools rather than big-name ones.
    * Students might be encouraged to go into more productive fields than they would otherwise.

    * Funding decisions would be made according to the financial interests of investors, which may not align with those of students of society.
    * It would probably be harder for members of disadvantaged groups to get this kind of funding, due to investors’ biases.
    * Investors might also be less likely to fund someone who wanted to do humanitarian work.
    * Some fields may be socially-valuable but under-rewarded, and these fields would lose out. It would be harder to obtain funding in humanities or pure research.
    * The freedom to study whatever you fancy while you are in college might be a good in itself.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      For some reason fantasy proposals always make news and no one ever talks about people actually doing it. Maybe fear of real consequences? Yale (formerly), Australia, maybe UK. They keep changing the rules, but Yale and Harvard law schools do this to encourage public service.

      • In Australia there is a debt based on a still heavily subsidised price for university, then you’re required to repay that debt only if you earn over a certain level of income. It’s subtracted from your tax return.

        In recent years the right have been pushing to make that debt a privately held debt with interest, whereas it’s usually been a debt to the government with at-inflation interest rates. Back in the 60s uni was basically free, but given the numbers going to uni now that’s no longer feasible without fundamental changes to entrance rules.

        • James Picone says:

          Technically speaking, it’s indexed to the average of the last three years of the Consumer Price Index, a basket-of-goods approach to determining inflation. (the average is because there was a year a while ago where CPI-measured inflation went negative, and we can’t have that).

          In practice actual inflation tends to be a bit more than CPI, so the loan reduces over time.

    • Jiro says:

      A free market would converge to a situation where the student has to pay back so much that he ends up only a miniscule bit better off than if he had not taken out the loan and not been able to go to college. This would make loans almost but not quite useless.

      Currently, this doesn’t happen because the lender can’t legally require that the borrower pay back unlimited amounts of interest, so it can’t converge (although it tries to converge indirectly anyway, resulting in tuition rising out of control). If you permitted lenders to charge borrowers a share of their future earnings, it could happen, unless you limited what size share they are permitted to charge. Of course the same lobbyists who want to implement this scheme in the first place would oppose meaningfully limiting the share that borrowers can charge.

      • Wrong Species says:

        In a free market, I doubt college would be as ubiquitous as it is now. We would probably all take an IQ test and save tens of thousands in debt.

      • “A free market would converge to a situation where the student has to pay back so much that he ends up only a miniscule bit better off than if he had not taken out the loan and not been able to go to college.”

        And by the same argument, a free market in food converges to a situation where the customer is only a little better than if he had not bought the food and starved to death? Do you observe that happening?

        Given a competitive market for investment, the free market converges to a situation where the investor does just as well as if he had invested in something else. The marginal student does just as well as if he hadn’t taken out the loan and gone to school, but most students are not marginal.

    • Adam says:

      The way things are currently set up already makes it very easy to not actually pay back your full loan if you don’t end up making much money, whether on purpose to pursue public service or you just don’t. I’m not sure people realize how much more lenient some of the payment plans have gotten in the last few years. The best income-based plans right now cap at 10% of your income for 20 years, and whatever you still owe is forgiven. If you go into public service, it’s forgiven at 10 years.

      • LRS says:

        But note that the entire forgiven balance at the end of the IBR period is taxable income! If you still owed $100,000 at the end of the 20-year period and you qualified for forgiveness, the IRS would treat you as if you earned an extra $100,000 during your forgiveness year, and you would owe a lot of income tax. To my knowledge, the federal government has yet to address this serious problem with IBR. It may not do so until the first forgiveness event is imminent, if indeed it ever does. So be careful when planning a life around IBR.

        • Adam says:

          Thanks. I actually didn’t know that. I’m luckily not remotely close to a range where I could possibly still have $100,000 remaining debt after 20 years, and also just use standard repayment, but that’s good to know.

    • The obvious disadvantage is that this is equivalent to an income tax and, like an income tax, discourages the earning of income. Pile the repayment on top of actual tax and you could easily have a situation where the student gets only twenty or thirty cents of each dollar he earns, which sharply reduces the incentive to engage in productive work you get paid for.

      • FJ says:

        More specifically, it strongly encourages graduates to take their compensation in non-cash forms. IBR takes a cut of your paycheck, but not your health insurance, executive washroom privileges, corporate jet privileges, job satisfaction, etc. So you see a shift in compensation packages: fewer raises, more health insurance.

        Because income tax works the same way, you get a vicious cycle: IBR and income tax discourage raises and encourage health insurance, which reduce the government’s income from IBR and income tax, which necessitate harsher IBR and income tax policies, which further drive compensation to be taken in the form of health insurance. This is obviously not an endless cycle (we’ve had progressive income tax for a while, but most executives still get some take-home pay), and maybe it promotes social equality or other good things for compensation to largely take the form of employer-provided health insurance. But it’s obvious that IBR will have knock-on effects, including a reduction in income-tax receipts.

        • Daniel Speyer says:

          That incentive just doesn’t seem to have much effect. Look at startups. They routinely need to pay investors a percentage of profits. And yet I’ve never heard of startup founders getting corporate jets to avoid giving funders their share.

          That’s founders, who are well-positioned to write their own terms. Being contemplated by VCs, who think in these terms.

          If VCs aren’t worried, we shouldn’t be either.

          • FJ says:

            Tech founders prefer foosball tables, in-house masseures, and Zuckerberg-style divided share classes rather than corporate jets. They are a different culture than the guys are RJR Nabisco, so their consumption patterns are different. But they still respond to incentives.

            I think you’re wrong about VCs not being worried; there have always been efforts by outside investors to push early IPOs and otherwise interfere with business decisions. VCs don’t have a lot of ability to avoid the problem, but that doesn’t mean much. None of us can avoid death, but we all worry about it anyway.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Foosball tables and masseuses aren’t personal consumption. If the founders were getting it just for themselves, that’s legally compensation and they might as well pay out of pocket. In reality, the founders choose to get it for everyone. That is expensive and the VCs should care. But here the incentives of the VCs and founders are aligned. They get foosball tables and masseuses because they think that it will make the employees more productive or accept lower salaries. Maybe the VCs are afraid that the founders are altruistically raising the happiness or bargaining power of silicon valley engineers, but that is a very different problem.

            In America, unique compensation to executives is considered income and is taxed. In particular corporate jets. This was a big part of Reagan’s reforms.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Colleges have displayed an amazing ability to soak up whatever extra tuition funds are available to students. Even worse, they are somehow seen as charitable for doing this, because they are “making college affordable,” so the normal moral and social levers that would stop the behavior don’t exist.

      If you create the option to go to college in return for 10% of your lifetime earnings, colleges will charge enough to make that your option. Then someone will get the idea to turn that up to 15%, then 20%, and so on until colleges have extracted the entire consumer surplus for themselves.

      • Mary says:

        Colleges are absorbing the marginal value of a college degree. What’s amazing about that?

        Framing harm as benefits is a classic dodge.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          That colleges want to absorb the surplus is not amazing. That they are able to is surprising. If they were able to through cartel practices, that would not be amazing. But the fact that colleges are unable to compete on price is amazing. There are many accounts of colleges raising their price and having demand go up.

          • Matt M says:

            Signaling effects.

            The PRIMARY benefit of elite universities is not the education you receive, but the status you receive from having attended an elite university, and people are more than willing to assume that expensive is a reasonable proxy for elite.

            I’d imagine you’d see similar results in like, the fine wine category.

      • Adam says:

        That’s called producer’s surplus. You get more of it than consumer’s surplus when you have a good with very low price-elasticity, which you get when subsidized loans give consumers the illusion that what they’re purchasing is significantly cheaper than it actually is.

  29. Kevin C. says:

    Darn, and here I was hoping for insights into noun and adjective declension in statements regarding competitions of speed overseen by a Venetian nobleman.

  30. I feel like I use italics too often. When I read writing that uses them at about the same level as I do, it usually just seems overbearing and handhold-y, like the writer doesn’t trust me to read their writing the correct way. I see this most commonly on LW actually, which I suspect is due to us all subconsciously imitating Eliezer (who used a lot of italics, but usually in a way that didn’t annoy me for whatever reason).

    So given that I find excessive italics annoying to read in other people’s works, I should probably cut back on them in my own. But damnit, they just seem so necessary sometimes. Any tips on how to cut back on their use, beyond just “duh, don’t use them”? Like, I suspect skilled writers somehow manage to craft sentences that just don’t require italics in the first place, but I clearly don’t know how to do that right now. I guess an italics moratorium could be a good idea – then I might be forced to learn how to write sentences that couldn’t rely on italics as a crutch. Or if not a moratorium then maybe a limit of [X] per thousand words or whatever.

    Anyway, I guess I was just wondering if anyone else had struggled with this or thought about it already.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I probably also got this from Eliezer. I asked a few people if it bothered them, they said it didn’t. The one use of italics I saw in that comment seemed appropriate.

      I think there are a lot of people who are bad at using italics, but that people who are otherwise good writers are likely to use italics appropriately.

    • notes says:

      Consider the converse course: rather than struggling to eliminate italics from your writing, study those writers whom you feel use them well: imitate, analyze, iterate.

    • buckwheatloaf says:

      italics can be really cute because it makes a person sound expressive. there is a quote by rousseau that emphasis is the soul of speech. he also said that by the custom of saying everything in the same tone came the upperclasses habit of insulting others without them knowing it. if you can add emphasis to typing, why not? just do it where its natural and likeable and you should be okay. if italics is *just* for emphasis, it could get annoying. where it should be saved for is emphasis that also has emotion. you could also experiment with the asterisks i just did. im emphasizing but it seems a bit cuter because i didn’t do actual italics. here’s a place i saw them used really well (14 year old girl that doesn’t like being dismissed for her age, perfect place for emotion with emphasis). but im no expert on them and i avoid them for fear of using them badly (i think i tried in the past, but it just wasn’t working out so i stopped). some people might just not be destined for italicized greatness. eliezer, whose italics i mostly remember from the first few chapters of hpmor i read, i thought was doing good at using them. but he’s generally exceptional where as most of us are generally ordinary. its no surprise he could pull off italics. you could probably ask yourself, “am i the type of person that could just pull off italitcs good?” and if you think the answer is “unlikely” than reduce your usage of them.
      “Right, so this blew up.

      Just a lil something: I’m curious to know why a ton of you think it’s *so* wrong that he maybe could be my friend. Or how it’s *so* innapropriate for a girl my age to deal with something like this. A lot of you have said that I’m completely unable to process this situation based solely on my age. I’m really, honestly, irate at the fact that a bunch of you think I’m just some dumb and or naive OP. Just because I’m 14. I’m being “groomed”, so on so forth. “

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m really, honestly, irate at the fact that a bunch of you think I’m just some dumb and or naive OP. Just because I’m 14. I’m being “groomed”, so on so forth.

        Taking it on face value that you really are a 14 year old girl (you may not be; there are people who like to pretend to be what they are not in order to poke the hornet’s nest for their own private amusement and to feed a sense of superiority), I am going to make a few general remarks that you won’t like. I know that giving advice is a fool’s errand, but I’m a big enough fool to try regardless. Please, whatever else you do, accept my word that I am not intending to criticise and belittle you but rather to try and explain why older people don’t seem to understand younger people. I’m an auntie, I’m accustomed to lecturing the rising generation 🙂

        I’m a long way past 14, but I do remember it. It was a great time, it was a terrible time, and I’m very glad I’m over it.

        You’re young. Yes, I know: that’s what adults always say. But listen: you’re young. You’re still growing and developing, in mind, body and character. Everything you are experiencing, you are experiencing for the first time. Everything you are encountering, you are encountering for the first time.

        For those of us who are older, maybe much older, this is not so. We’ve had a share of experiences and come to know more about ourselves and the world. Which brings me on to the two points I want to make:

        (1) Bad things do happen
        (2) Nobody ever thinks it will happen to them

        We don’t think you’re stupid. We do think you are naïve, because you are naïve; unless you’ve had a particular kind of childhood, it is to be hoped that you’ve never encountered manipulation and exploitation before. And maybe you’re not encountering such now, but it’s hard for you to know. Even if you’re smart, even if you have intellectual knowledge of what dangers are out there, you still don’t know.

        The young (the very young, and forgive me, but 14 is very young) don’t have much introspection. There is so much going on right now in your life and your physical and mental state, you haven’t got the spare capacity. It’s not a question of intelligence, it’s not even a question of maturity, it’s a question of plain, brute lived-life experience that you only get with time and slogging through the years on this planet.

        Older people may be over-cautious. This counterbalances younger people’s tendency to be over-adventurous.

        Someone older (I am presuming this is the case here) paying you attention? Taking your seriously? Treating you like the mature and intelligent young adult you know yourself to be, not the half-childish, half-older being your parents and teachers and other adult authority figures treat you as?

        That’s flattering. Of course it is; we all love it when someone treats us that way, when someone seems to get us, when we’re appreciated. And it’s heady wine, and goes to the head, and that’s why the old grumps are cautioning you to be careful, that all may not be as it appears, because unhappy experience has taught us the same.

        It may indeed be over-caution on our part, fuelled by scares of paedophilia and sexual abuse from media stories that exaggerate for emphasis. But that does not mean that it doesn’t happen.

        There’s a saying “You can’t put an old head on young shoulders” and I certainly don’t want to do that, or fill your head with worries, or make you fearful. This time of your life is for learning and experiencing, both good and bad. Just be a little cautious, is all we’re saying. In two years’ time you will look back at the things you liked and did and said at this time of your life, and be mortified with embarrassment. That’s normal too 🙂

        • buckwheatloaf says:

          i had just read that reddit post recently and i remember how i liked how the italics were used there so i thought its a good example to show them being employed well. im not the 14 year old girl!!

          when i said “here’s a place i saw them used really well (14 year old girl that doesn’t like being dismissed for her age, perfect place for emotion with emphasis)”

          the stuff in the parenthesis was me elaborating on where i saw them used well. i think when i went back and added the last part then it confused it by making the link to the post too far from where i had mentioned it. i wasn’t saying i was the 14 year old girl (im not, im much older and a boy, i mean a guy.). i think this means i cant use parenthesis well either D:

          btw i really liked your comments i was reading on here, *you* are certainly a good writer and it’s fun to read your comments :).

      • Cassander says:

        Like Deiseach, I know that you will probably not listen to this advice and you will not like it. I know that I didn’t when I was your age. Human beings are unique in their ability to learn from the mistakes of others, but remarkable for their disinclination to do so. I wish to add to his remarks

        No matter how smart you are, there are limits to how much you can understand without experience. This is particularly true of self knowledge. That is, knowing things like “I’m a sucker for X tactic”, “I always tend to overlook Y factor”, or “when stressed I forget about Z.” At 14 you simply can’t know the answers to these questions because you haven’t been put in those situations enough times for patterns to emerge. We are vulnerable to certain types of bad decision making, as you get older you can learn which and try to avoid/mitigate/fix those vulnerabilities. At 14, you can’t know your weaknesses because they haven’t been tested.

      • Sophie says:

        I was a mature 14 year old three years ago, which is great, but it is mind-bogglingly stunning how much I learned in that additional 20% of my life. And how much I’m still learning.

        The eighth virtue of rationality is humility. I would recommend doing the thing that Peter and Valentine Wiggin did when they started participating in discussions online. Read, and watch, and learn, and make all your potential mistakes before you decide to attach your favourite alias to anything.

    • Who wouldn't want to be Anonymous says:

      Without actually reading any of your writing (or, honestly, any LW stuff), my first stab in the dark would be to look at your active vocabulary. One possibility for the reason you feel italics are necessary is that you are trying to supercharge a word with more/different meaning than it naturally conveys. Finding the correct word will mean that italics will not be critical to conveying the message you intend.

      Assuming your usage in this post is representative of your usual practice, as an example you could try replacing necessary with a word that is more imperative. Like critical. Or imperative. I don’t really know if they are closer to your meaning. And I actually don’t like how the sentence flows with a one-for-one replacement with either of those so I would probably try rephrase it slightly, too.

      I don’t know what your writing process is like. Since you are already in the habit of adding them, you might just use the italics as markup in the rough draft to flag words or phrases to pay particular attention to while editing. Especially if you don’t already edit.

      After you have everything down, taking some time to analyze whether the italics are important or your thought is poorly worder/phrased certainly can’t hurt. There are very good stylistic reasons to use them so trying to excise them completely is not the best method.

    • ddreytes says:

      That’s how I feel about commas. And the conclusion I’ve come to is that, where I notice that I’ve overused commas, that’s a place where my writing was shitty and overly tortured and I should go back and rephrase in a way that doesn’t require so many commas.

      I think the key is to figure out why you feel the need to use italics – and then you can go back and figure out how to ameliorate the problem.

      • Deiseach says:

        I have a terrible tendency to abuse semi-colons. And I find I use “actually” much too much.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          I had this problem as well. Left to my own devices, all sentences were paired into a sort of couplet, conjoined by a semicolon. My father, who was offering me editorial assistance, eventually put his foot down and declared that I could have one semicolon per paper. It worked, and the sweet, sweet joy of deciding where to spend the semicolon made the editing process a lot more fun.

    • Setsize says:

      A lot of the time I use italics it seems to mean “please pay attention to my particular word choice here.” The word in question might be deeply buried in sentence structure; so perhaps I should take the impulse to use italics as an indicator that the sentence structure is suboptimal and that that word should be made more prominent. For example, moving a word to the front or end of a clause can call attention to your choice of that word in particular.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      “But damnit, they just seem so necessary sometimes.”

      One way is profanity. “But damnit, they just seem so damn necessary sometimes.” If you’re into sound, listen to the difference between the three versions. With no emphasis added, the ‘Seem So neceSSary Sometimes’ kind of eats up the word ‘necessary’. Italicizing it is a little better, but it’s basically a weak-sounding word. Putting the strong word ‘damn’ in front fixes that; kind of like a drum roll.

      In more formal contexts, people rearrange clauses or add unnecessary modifiers etc to force a pause in the rhythm just before the word they want to emphasize.

    • Deiseach says:

      I feel that using italics, bolding, etc. is a means of reproducing in the written word the same nuances of expression that the spoken word would do with changes of pitch, intonation, emphasis and the like.

      It’s a way of communicating more effectively. If you don’t use it excessively or inappropriately, I don’t see the problem. Have you a sample of text where you think you’ve used italics too frequently, that you might be willing to share to elicit opinions?

      I have a tic of using italics for loan-words from foreign languages (e.g. vis-à-vis), which is a result of a prose style formed by old-fashioned principles of education and reading too much 19th century fiction on top of a foundation of auto-didacticism, and which is probably so festooned with cobwebs and dust that it looks absurd to modern eyes.

      • Thanks for the reply (and all the other replies everyone, they’ve been helpful!). Here’s a LessWrong post I just wrote that sparked me to write the above comment:

        I was happy with the post overall but kind of annoyed at myself for using so many italics.

        • Deiseach says:

          Thanks for linking to a sample of your writing. On my completely ignorant and unscientific view, you seem to use italics for two purposes:

          (1) Emphasis

          (2) To differentiate phrases or clauses from the rest of your sentence. Here I think you could use other punctuation for effect, e.g. inverted commas/apostrophes for phrases such as “I don’t know”, “not to be gullible”, “not to be sceptical”. Using bolding very sparingly for the parts you particularly want to stand out as your major point or the emphasis of the sentence could work as well.

    • CAE_Jones says:

      I don’t use italics often at all, which I suspect is because I use a screen reader and therefore almost never notice when other people are using them. Between this comment and that Creative Writing class I took where someone relied on Italics to distinguish which character’s POV was active, I’m starting to think there’s an entire world of text communication I’m missing out on. (I mean, besides the people who post screencaps of text, for some ungodly reason.)
      So… ur… disable browser formatting/use a screen reader and see what happens?

      (This doesn’t catch strikethrough, either. It’s easier to notice confusion with stricken text, though. I can check formatting, but I have to be doing it actively–it isn’t indicated at all when reading passively. I must pretty much already know that it’s there in order to find it, so in practice, I forget it exists unless it’s made incredibly obvious, like this thread. … wait, does this have something to do with my terrible communication skills spreading to the internet–are italics like eye contact, or something? should I go back and compare how often people use italics or bold when replying to me vs when replying to others, or how many responses a given post receives compared with its usage of formatting tags, or something like that? … ’cause I really don’t feel like it. 😛 )

    • suntzuanime says:

      Better italics than exclamation points!!!

      • I really don’t know what some writers see in exclamation points. Maybe they read them differently than I do.

        • CAE_Jones says:

          I’m curious; what’s wrong with exclamation points?

          • For some reason they always come across as sounding really fake to me. I’m not sure why. It’s mostly fiction (and in particular, dialogue) that I find them annoying in, though – in non-fiction writing I find them much more tolerable.

          • zz says:

            Freakonomics found that houses described with exclamation points (“well-maintained!”) tended to have lower selling values. They suggested this occurred because exclamations points cropped up to create a veneer of enthusiasm when there was nothing enthusing about the house. This generalizes: exclamation points are frequently used to try to create excitement in unexciting writing, although this inevitably fails and just sort of directs the reader’s attention to “this ought to be exciting—look at all the exclamation points—but the fact you’re just kinda bored means that this writing here is a massive failure.”

            Exclamation points are a fine mark when used correctly. It just turns out that most good writing needs exclamation points pretty infrequently (maybe once every few thousand words?), so the majority of usages people happen across are of the false-excitement variety.

            (In general, good writing needs very beyond vanilla words, commas, and periods, and new writers create all sort of new and unnecessary difficulties for themselves trying to compensate with gimmicks: italics, exclamation points, ellipses, Lavender Unicorn Syndrome, word color, music-to-accompany-text, etc. Each of these has its place, but in varying shades of infrequently (for instance, I have seen precisely one instance of text color adding to writing and 0 cases of music-to-accompany-text adding to a piece.))

    • Unique Identifier says:

      I would generally avoid italics. There is a lot of good advice in the previous replies.

      As an exercise, try to find transcribed natural speech. Myself, I looked at the transcripts from the Watergate leak. What this demonstrates is that writing the way people actually talk results in a disfluent mess.

      The temptation of italics is that they signify emphasis, and that by using italics in text we can mimic the role of emphasis in speech. In your mind’s ear, the sentence has a rhythm of sorts, and then you staple some italics on top of a couple of words in an attempt to capture that rhythm in text.

      The key problem is that italics are on/off, whereas emphasis in speech covers a large spectrum of tone, timing, volume, elongated vowels, so on and so forth. Italics cannot distinguish between different sorts of emphasis, and thus you cannot achieve as rich an effect with italics as you would like.

      This unfortunately means that lines which depend on proper delivery generally don’t work in text, and that adding italics is more of a cover-up than a solution. It doesn’t help that the writer knows what the italics are supposed to signify, if the italics cannot communicate this to the reader.

      A common use of emphasis in speech is to signify non-standard use of words – generally because speech has real-time constraints which make finding a better word infeasible. Copying this habit into text is one of many maligned ways to misuse italics.

      The good thing is that if you avoid overloading italics to represent all sorts of emphasis, they work better for the remaining purposes.

    • Mary says:


      Just as writers sometimes write without the verb “to be” to practice, you probably want to practice writing without them completely.

      In the process, you probably want to experiment with different ways to structure sentences.

    • roystgnr says:

      Italics are sometimes critical, for sentences in which the meaning changes based on word emphasis. The classic example:

      I never said she took my money.
      I never said she took my money.
      I never said she took my money.
      I never said she she took my money.
      I never said she took my money.
      I never said she took my money.
      I never said she took my money.

      Which of those seven different implied meanings would you have inferred if you hadn’t seen any emphasized word?

      If you’re writing prose in your own “voice” rather than dialogue, though, italics are never so essential; you can use word choice or elaboration to eliminate ambiguity. I use italics (or even asterisks if I *have* to) for emphasis anyway, though, and now you’ll have me second-guessing whether I overuse them too.

    • Paul Torek says:

      Hi thepenforests,

      I’ve been noticing your comments since meeting you when Scott Aaronson visited. Your writing style is fine. I use italics pretty freely myself, but I don’t think it’s a problem. Emphasis matters, and the right emphasis can save you from more verbose ways of making your intent clear. One italicization can substitute for an entire sentence. This is especially important in argument – the kind where some readers might not be careful not to misinterpret or gloss over some of your points. I probably go a little overboard with brevity, though. If you’re willing to go on at length, you can use sheer volume of talk on one particular subject to create the needed emphasis, without bolding or italics.

  31. Anaxagoras says:

    I recently came across a couple of things claiming rather interesting effects, and thanks to SSC totally spoiling me on trusting studies, I’d appreciate people’s thoughts.

    The first is the Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0, with technical report here:
    This is some personality test thing that purports to have found 34 clusters of strengths. Having taken the test for something work-adjacent, I can say it’s a reasonably decent one, and I think it got me roughly right, though I know that positive or flattering stuff (which naturally a “strengths” evaluator would focus on) is harder to judge for one’s self. The improvements reported sound insufficiently controlled to me, and likely cofounded by there being any intervention as opposed to no intervention. How well conducted does this seem to be? How legit is this?

    The second is a novel method of treating concussions with prescription eye glasses and connect-the-dots puzzles, discussed in this guy’s book here:
    He gave a talk at a local lecture hall that I happened into, and made some fairly impressive claims about the treatment’s efficacy. To summarize as well as I remember, the brain recovers from concussions not by repairing the affected area, but rather by routing around it, and most of the symptoms of concussions come from the brain trying to use the damaged portions. Since much of the brain does visual processing, and different parts of the retina map to different parts of the brain, using different patches of the retina could bypass the damaged regions of the brain and avoid visual and spatial processing overloading the system. Dr. Elliott had apparently made a full recovery from a fairly nasty concussion he had endured for eight years, thanks to this therapy. I believe his story — he seemed fine now, and his description of the experience of mTBI is apparently very accurate — but I don’t feel that’s enough to say that this treatment really is a miracle cure for many concussions. For starters, if it hadn’t worked so well for him, he wouldn’t have been there to write his book. To Dr. Elliott’s credit, he mentioned this. I’d appreciate someone more knowledgeable of the relevant science than myself’s thoughts on the matter.

  32. Kyle Strand says:

    I know it costs money, but have you ever considered getting a based comment system? If nothing else, Jeff Atwood’s attempts to find a way to minimize online meanness are actually pretty interesting (see for instance and .

    Also (to give a snarky and biased summary), Arthur Chu thinks that because mainstream views and mental illness sometimes mix poorly, the “real problem” is the mainstream views, and assertions to the contrary are a “distraction”. Discuss! (Seriously, though, I imagine he’s correct that many or most people talking about the problems of mental illness aren’t doing so in a productive way.)

    • Alraune says:

      Arthur Chu is a if not the prime example of an author who deserves to be archive-linked instead of given proper clicks.

      • Kyle Strand says:

        I’ve never put much thought into link-altering beyond “maybe links to literal white supremacist forums should be marked nofollow,” and even that realization was due to a discussion on the matter in a comments thread somewhere. What’s wrong with posting the original link?

        • Anonymous says:

          Arthur Chu has been Literally Rationalist Hitler since he admitted to doing the things every other political pundit does.