OT24: Hopen Change

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

1. Obvious change is obvious. There are still some bugs to be ironed out, and ironed they will be. Thanks to Michael Keenan and Trike (especially Catherine Truscott) for some help. All positive changes are theirs; all remaining flaws are due to my pickiness alone. My obsessiveness finally overcame my laziness and I standardized the ads too; if you’re an advertiser and you don’t like it, send me an email and we’ll talk.

2. I’ve also added a bunch of new links to the blogroll. The categorization system isn’t very serious (some of you may recognize it?) and I’m still thinking about how I want to do it on a longer-term basis.

3. I’m grateful for all the interesting comments I received about cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helped me understand it a lot better. The impression I’m getting is that its ‘insights’ seem obvious/patronizing to everybody, but the real agent of change is forcing you to do the worksheets and exercises on a regular basis until they’ve really sunk in. Comment of the week is Mirzhan Irkegulov describing his experiences with it.

4. After the successes of other people in the community like Alicorn and Miri and Gwern, and multiple strong recommendations, I am opening a Patreon account so you can give me money. I DO NOT NEED MONEY (though, like many people, I like it). I have a job and am fairly comfortable. This blog is provided free and there is in no sense an implied agreement that if you like it you are under pressure to donate. I also don’t want to funge against anyone giving to charity or anybody who needs money more than I do. But if you feel a burning, burning desire to give me money, and it’s not going to prevent it from going to anything more important, well, now you can. My Patreon account is here. I am a little proud of the subtitle.

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873 Responses to OT24: Hopen Change

    • Steve says:

      I’ll give it a Myspace/10. I opened up the website and expected to hear Simple Plan or Linkin Park blaring at me.

      Snark aside, I’d suggest changing up your font. Courier is not the friendliest. I’d also change the color scheme of the website, and the size of the comment roll on the right. It’s very hard to read comments when there are only a couple of words per line.

      Also: Are you serious with this?

  1. Shenpen says:

    @Nancy to me this kind of loyalty building to ones own team does not even sound that absurd, given that my experience was having to sing the national anthem of a _different_ country (i.e. Soviet) whose tanks were here in Budapest, occupying, to enforce conformity. That was significantly weirder, I think.

    Are these stuff even about loyalty building or just a reminder of who is in power?

  2. Shenpen says:

    You are a politician running a poor and crime-ridden area in a backwards country. Kids pretty much live on bread and milk. You ask a nutrititionist to design school meals for all the kids, omega-3 and the best stuff. Roughly how much average IQ points you win in a generation and how does that affect crime and the economy? Let’s say you are starting from about 90 in that region and the national average is slightly higher.

    • Nornagest says:

      This is rank speculation, but I think I’d expect the gains to be small based on the fact that most brain development happens early. You can have the best school lunches in the world, but if kids aren’t getting what they need from age zero to five, most of the damage has already been done.

  3. Deiseach says:

    Scott, having seen your post on Slate Star Scratchpad about your patient and the giant face, I have to ask this – having seen the Inspirational Wall at the hospital where you work, is it associated with/founded by/used to be run by the order of the Sisters of Mercy?

    Because that cross on the background looks like the Mercy Cross to me (they were the order that ran the schools that educated me, is where I know it from) 🙂

  4. When I was a kid, reciting the pledge of allegiance in school left me feeling as though I was surrounded by people who were so deeply insane that there was no point in confronting them. It wasn’t so much a mistrust of the US as an inability to believe that anyone could think that exercise could possibly build loyalty.

    Anyone else on how loyalty was or wasn’t built in you when you were a kid?

    • Nita says:

      As a non-US person, I was rather surprised when I found out about this practice. Not exactly what I expected from The Land of the Free. Also, apparently multiple Jehovah’s Witnesses have been killed or beaten due to their opposition to this? Wow :/

      IMO, if we ignore the inherent creepiness of indoctrinating little kids, there are several issues with this pledge:
      1) it’s a pledge (turning a serious promise into a routine mumble),
      2) it’s too long,
      3) it contains various stuff shoved in for historical reasons:
      – United States of America,
      – Republic,
      – one Nation, indivisible,
      – under God.

      All of them would be solved by shortening the text to just “Liberty and justice for all!”

      Bonus: since it’s so short, you can teach kids to shout it with enthusiasm.

  5. alexp says:


    I think this article might have some implications for the signaling theory of education. Essentially: military officers are typically required to have a bachelor’s degree and the hypothesis is that the expansion of of the pool of people with bachelor’s degrees has decreased performance in a pseudo IQ-test for officers that is highly correlated with performance.

  6. fubarobfusco says:

    Look around you. Who is running the world and doing such a terrible job of it?

    If the world is being misruled by the Godless Progressive Propaganda Corporations, you’re a Republican.

    If the world is being misruled by the Conservative Pollution & Warfare Corporations, you’re a Democrat.

    If the world is being misruled by the Capitalist Financial Corporations, you’re a communist.

    If the world is being misruled by the Jewish Capitalist Financial Corporations, you’re a Nazi.

    If the world is being misruled by the Goddamn Government, you’re a libertarian.

    If the world is being misruled by the Libertarians, you’re an Internet drama addict.

    If the world is being misruled by the Atheist Zionist Capitalist Warfare & Propaganda Corporations, you’re an ISIS supporter.

    If the world is being misruled by the Psychiatrists, you’re a Scientologist.

    • Protagoras says:

      We can only pick one? Because if we can pick more than one I seem to be a libertarian communist Democrat.

    • Deiseach says:

      I would appear to be a Republican Democrat Libertarian Communist.

      Or “third-generation De Valera-wing Fianna Fáil”, as I prefer to think of it.

      • Shenpen says:

        I like it how the Irish get away with being nationalist in the ethnic and ethno-traditonal sense, while we (Hungary) don’t. At least if I look up what names like Fianna Fáil mean, I get that vibe and it looks pretty awesome. When people here try something like that e.g. http://kurultaj.hu/english/ every intellectual or upper-class person starts screaming that they are being nazis or racists or at least very provincial and totally Not Modern Cool Trendy Enough.

        IMHO the basic issue of small and in the past poor countries is how to deal with an inferiority complex, and the two major ways to deal are a somewhat theatrical ethnic pride (which ends up being the healthier way), or becoming inauthentic imitators of rich / powerful cultures. Unfortunately it seems here the second group won in culture. In politics, still fighting.

        • Nita says:

          The trick is to emphasize the violence that was done to your people (“The English occupied our lands and mismanaged them straight into famine!”), rather than the violence your people did or will do (“Hail Attila the Hun!” / “We hate gypsies!”). E.g., even your most intellectual intellectuals were against the Soviet tanks, right?

          • Shenpen says:

            True, but focusing on your folks conquering others or generally being strong feels masculine / badass, while focusing on being a victim feels like being a pussy and a loser. I am not meaning it ironically – to me and a lot of people I know the second feels worse. Be strong, then be good, this is the order of importance of things, if you are weak nobody cares how good you are.

            (BTW the gypsy stuff is highly complicated, especially on the connotational level.)

          • Nita says:

            Sure, everyone knows that some people enjoy feeling “badass”, but not everyone agrees that this feeling should be prioritized over other considerations.

            For example, Plato / Socrates apparently believed that it is better to suffer an injustice than commit one. Many Christians believe that doing the right thing (which, to them, involves obeying God) is more important than crushing your enemies.

            Similarly, many intellectuals prefer feeling like a good person to feeling badass. Luckily, they can still get their dose of the latter from intellectual victories, which usually don’t require hurting anyone.

            Be strong, then be good, this is the order of importance of things

            Well, that’s a value judgment you do have in common with Nazis and fascists. I’m not sure why you’re surprised or offended when people notice it.

    • Shenpen says:

      Um, my choice is “the intellectual class / intellectual elites”. Therefore, I’m with stupid tradition, common sense, evolved instinct.

  7. DarkDaemon says:

    I clicked on the BeeMinder ad, and they offered to login via Google account – with the option to access all my mail, as far as I can tell.

    I tried to do some research into the following questions, but haven’t found much:
    Is BeeMinder trustworthy? They seem to be a “good” company with a small-but-positive reputation, but I haven’t seen much conclusive beyond a fuzzy cloud of positive feelings.
    What do they do to ensure that my email would be kept private – from employees, hackers, others?

    I’ll probably be contacting BeeMinder directly, but wanted to know if anyone (Scott especially, since he’s endorsed the company) knew more.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve never used it, but I know the guys who run it and they are certainly trustworthy. I also know several satisfied customers.

      They tend to post here, so I’ll direct them to your comment.

    • [sheepish] This isn’t exactly an excuse but there is a reason, namely that we use Google auth for our Gmail integration (GmailZero) and haven’t gotten around to distinguishing the case of someone like you who just wants to sign in with Google. And even for GmailZero I think we’re getting excess permissions. We really only want inbox stats, not the content of your emails (which we don’t access, we promise!) but at least when we made the integration the permissions weren’t that fine-grained.

      Really appreciate you reminding us of this. Especially for this audience that’s going to be a huge red flag!

      PS: Can you think of companies that have gone beyond “fuzzy cloud of positive feelings” that we could emulate? To answer your other question more directly, we avoid storing sensitive info as much as possible. Like using Stripe instead of storing credit card numbers.

      • DarkDaemon says:

        Reviews/breakdowns of a company are good for getting a more concrete estimation. Most of what I found when googling was “BeeMinder is great, check out this thing I did!” which is cool, but doesn’t tell me if it’s safe.

        And yes, it was an enormous red flag – one that pushed me from “sign up and set up 3 goals” to “sign up and stare in terror”. Slightly paranoid, perhaps.

        One thing that would be great is to self-disclose: say what information you gather, what you do with it, how you secure it, etc. In fact, some of the information in your post could fit in nicely on your website – something like:

        “We avoid storing sensitive info as much as possible.
        To support this, we:
        Do not access or store email content
        Use Stripe to store credit card numbers
        Encrypt any sensitive information we do store”

        You do the last one, yes?
        And do you have an ETA on better permissions? I’ve coded some Apps before, so I know it can be a pain to finesse permissions, and I’m not sure if it’s possible to have variable permissions, but that would be cool.

        • We’re not security nerds but we have friends who are and we run these questions by them. They pointed out just now that when you encrypt a database you’re mitigating physical security threat vectors (we host on Linode who we believe to take reasonable precautions in that regard) but that of course the decryption key has to also be stored somewhere. You can keep it only in memory and perhaps manually enter it on each reboot (at the cost of a hit to uptime). These things seem overkill when the most sensitive information is email addresses.

          For sensitive goals, if the above paragraph was not too reassuring, I’d suggest just obfuscating how you name things. Like have a goal to “eat fewer donuts” as a euphemism for consuming less porn. That sort of thing. 🙂

          We don’t have an ETA for saner Google permissions (but hugely appreciate being reminded — even bugged — about such things if we’re taking too long). Now that you know the story though, could you just use another auth provider or use plain old password login?

          Thanks again for the alert about the Google auth situation there! Delighted to chat about the kind of things you’re thinking about beeminding too. Looks like CAE_Jones, above, is not taking me up on that offer but if you’re an SSC nerd reading this deep in the comments the offer stands for you as well! 🙂

  8. MartinW says:

    @Scott: you just answered a question on Tumblr about the criticism that Bayesian priors aren’t calibrated. Your answer is that you don’t have enough formal knowledge of statistics to answer that. I wanted to reply but I don’t have a Tumblr account so I’m doing it here; hope you don’t mind.

    It seems to me that you already answered the objection in this post. Basically, it’s true that Bayesian priors usually aren’t calibrated, but that doesn’t matter much because even if you regularly get your priors wrong by up to an order of magnitude, you are still likely to end up with more correct beliefs on average than if you never consider the a priori plausibility of a hypothesis at all.

    The nice thing about the Bayesian approach is that it’s actually fairly robust against the exact choice of prior. If the incoming evidence is strong and consistent, all priors will eventually converge to the same answer. If the evidence is weak, then your choice of prior matters more, but as long as your chosen prior is not completely absurd, you’ll still be better off than if you go and pretend that two competing hypotheses are equally likely when common sense says that they obviously aren’t.

    This applies even more if we assume that the default alternative is to take the standard frequentist approach (in the social sciences, at least) of accepting the null hypothesis unless it can be rejected with a certainty of 95%. That 95% number isn’t calibrated either; it’s just a common convention used in some areas of science.

    The main advantage of the frequentist approach is that it seems more objective, whereas with the Bayesian approach you are literally including your pre-existing beliefs as input for the calculation. But if your goal is to arrive at the truth for yourself to the best of your ability, rather than to appear objective in somebody else’s eyes, then discarding those pre-existing beliefs would be foolish as long as you believe that there is any information content in them at all, no matter how inaccurate it may be.

    • Peter says:

      Thing is… by “the Bayesian” approach you mean subjective Bayes. The other way to get priors is via the “objective Bayesian” route which is to use the principle of insufficient reason and other such things to construct an “uninformative prior”. See Laplace for instance, and the Laplacian smoothing often used in naive Bayesian classifiers.

      The other thing is that a mere order of magnitude is kinda small in some cases. The quip version of this says, “go to Scott Aaronson, get him to write down a really bit number, take the reciprocal, there’s your prior, good luck with getting your posterior not to be tiny”. The non-quip version – I’ve used some probability distributions as priors in the past, where if you put the y-axis on a log scale (which you want to) you get several orders of magnitude in the usable part of the plot. Elsewhere in this Open Thread, we were discussion prior distributions of hypotheses where the prior probabilities diminish exponentially with their complexity – again, there’s plenty of scope there for your priors to be out by multiple orders of magnitudes.

      • MartinW says:

        Good points; I should have specified that I was talking about subjective Bayesianism.

        On the other hand, regarding your comment that there may be situations where your prior could be off by multiple orders of magnitude: those are exactly the situations where the frequentist approach (by which I mean standard hypothesis testing with a p-value cutoff of 5% or 1% or whatever) will also fail dramatically!

        Consider this XKCD strip. It is likely that the Bayesian does not know exactly what is the real probability that the Sun will explode at a given moment; very likely, his estimate will be off by quite a few OOM. However, pretty much any Bayesian estimate, even if it is off by ten OOM or more, is going to lead to a more sensible conclusion than that of the (unfairly caricaturized, of course) frequentist who does not take prior probabilities into account at all and concludes that the Sun has “probably” exploded because 0.0027 < 0.05.

        Heck, even if the Bayesian has no clue about astrophysics at all, and believes that the probability of the Sun having just exploded is as large as 1/1000, he is still going to come up with a more correct conclusion than the frequentist.

        So the frequentist approach works best when there is no strong reason to prefer H1 over H0 or the other way around, a priori. But in that case, taking an uninformed prior of 0.5 for each is also a perfectly reasonable choice.

        • Peter says:

          xkcd frequentism: heh! One wonders how long the delay between neutrinos arriving and a firey wall of death arriving would be. If you could get an estimate for that, you could calculate the number of periods that have passed in your lifetime with no nova and use Laplace’s method to get your prior.

          Trouble is, for me, Null Hypothesis Significance Test frequentism is such a dead horse that I forget that anyone might want to compare it to anything.

    • Professor Frink says:

      You are confusing Null-Hypothesis-Testing with confidence intervals.

      I think the question is about frequentist confidence intervals. A frequentist confidence interval contains the true value 95% of the time (it has a guarantee in it’s construction).

      Bayesian credible intervals don’t have any such property (and in general only have such a property asymptotically).

      So if you are estimating 10,000 parameter value and you want a guarantee you are only wrong x% of the time, you really want a frequentist approach.

      • Peter says:

        Doesn’t this keep coming back to the problem with doing frequentism properly: you can get things which are true and accurate and objective and have all sorts of nice guarantees but which aren’t actually the thing you wanted and the moment you try to interpret them as/to get the thing you actually wanted you run into trouble?

        If you have 10000 parameter values, and you don’t mind 9500 estimates being Right But Boring and the remaining 500 being Interesting But Wrong, then what exactly was it that you were doing?

        • Professor Frink says:

          But the Bayesian doesn’t even get a guarantee that 9500 of them are right but boring? The Bayesian gets a guarantee that their estimate is coherent, but not that it has any relation to the truth.

          If you were a scientists who wanted to tabulate a bunch of chemical masses, or fundamental particle masses or something, the frequentist guarantee that your confidence intervals contain the true value on X% of them is really useful.

  9. 27chaos says:

    I think this paper on international economics is interesting and relevant to the fight against Moloch: http://economics.mit.edu/files/9677

  10. Faradn says:

    I mostly just lurk so maybe this will come across as not my place. However I don’t think it’s a terribly pointed criticism, so I’ll go for it anyway.

    Steelmanning is an awesome thing for civil, productive discourse. It’s great that that is standard practice here. But I think I’d find it off-putting and presumptuous if someone did what a few people do here, and asked me to steelman them–it’s kind of like asking someone to make your argument for you. I thought the understanding was that steelmanning is initiated by the steelmanER, not the steelmanEE.

    • Pku says:

      I think it can be appropriate in context. In some situations where you think you’ve explained yourself properly but whoever you’re arguing is being obstinate (but well meaning), asking them to steelman you can help them take a step back and think through what you’re saying properly. If steelmanning’s a good argument habit, there are situations where it can be helpful to remind someone of it (of course, this is very easy to overuse and abuse, like many other legitimate conversation methods).

    • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

      I can’t say I’ve seen that done, but I’d asume it’s basically a request of charity, that is, not taking the worst possible interpretation of someone’s argument and make your counterpoint based on that.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      I don’t like using technical words that I only partially understand, so I often use, oh, fifth grade language and examples. Sometimes I just flounder around at higher levels, rather hoping that someone will translate my idea into better terms.

      I see why some people would call this steelmanning. But the stronger sort of steelmanning I see here, is when the other person actually upgrades the content of your argument, one way or another.

  11. onyomi says:

    A bit out of left field, but has anyone here ever been, tried being, or been close friends with nudists?

    It seems sort of like a good idea, at least in cases when clothing isn’t needed for protection from the elements, etc.

    In particular, I read a statistic saying that children of nudists grow up to have a more positive body image, perhaps because they have frequently seen all kinds of naked bodies, rather than just their own+air-brushed magazine models. Reminds me also of the problem caused by educating children in age-segregated groups, which I think harms their ability to interact with all layers of society.

    Of course, the problem is that the nude body is sexualized nowadays (like how the female nipple is sexual and the male nipple not), but that can be a stupid arms race, really, as Foucault pointed out. If you see naked people a lot then nudity would probably stop being inherently sexual.

    I thought of this recently not because I’m seriously thinking of becoming a nudist, but because I went hiking in an area where there was a swimming hole-type area, but didn’t have a bathing suit. Had no one been around, I might have just set all my clothes aside and gone swimming, but there were a couple other swimmers, and the occasional passing hiker, so I did not. And I remember at that moment feeling vaguely resentful of this inconvenient cultural norm.

    • Matt M says:

      Everything you say makes a certain amount of sense, but from the child’s perspective, I would think the risk of being socially outcast by your peers once they find out you’re in that “crazy nudist family” would far outweigh whatever minor benefits in body image you might receive…

      • FacelessCraven says:

        “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
        – Mark Twain

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          I feel like there is a general lesson to learn from that quote. I’ve seen arguments of the form “Less X is bad, therefore more X is probably good”, but this is often false as in this case.

    • Nornagest says:

      There are probably Chesterton’s-fence type arguments that would apply to stronger forms of nudism. Adults wearing some clothing most of the time is so close to universal (among societies that have the material culture to support it) that there’s probably a good reason for it, even if I find all the specific arguments that I’ve ever heard rather unsatisfying.

      On the other hand, social nudity in limited contexts, especially where there are practical reasons for it — swimming, bathing, saunas, that sort of thing — is historically very common, so our culture’s stronger norm against it is probably the weird one. Skinny-dipping in the woods is almost certainly harmless (and was fairly common around where I grew up, especially at swimming holes further from major roads).

      • onyomi says:

        This is really what’s perplexing to me: our society is seemingly much less prudish than it was in say, the 50s, yet somehow I think nudity of the “skinny dipping at the swimming hole” variety was much more common in the 50s than now.

        I do wonder if it has something to do with the reduction in gender segregation. I remember speaking to an older man who had attended a certain Ivy League school about 50 years ago, and he said that, while the school had already become co-ed by that time, there were still no women allowed in the gym. As a result, it was apparently not uncommon to find men walking around the gym naked, not just in locker rooms, but all over the place. This would, of course, seem very weird to us today, but maybe only because there are fewer gender-segregated spaces like that.

        That said, it’s still common for the otherwise shy Japanese and Fins to be naked around family members, and, sometimes even strangers of the opposite sex within the context of hot spring/bath/sauna culture. I also recall reading that the practice of gender-segregating most public baths now common in Japan may not have been so common prior to the occupation.

        I’m pretty sure Americans are less prudish than the Japanese and the Fins, and certainly less prudish than Americans of 60 years ago. So why the disappearance of context-appropriate public nudity (definitely think reduction in gender segregation is a big part, but maybe not all)?

        • John Schilling says:

          Less prudish, but more concerned about sexual exploitation of children. Or of adults on the wrong side of a power imbalance.

          Reduction in segregation and increased LGBT awareness/tolerance are likely aggravating factors, because they reduce the scope for “Yes, X and Y are off getting naked together, but that’s OK because they are the same gender and we can thus be certain they aren’t having sex”.

          Likewise helicopter parenting and the loss of free-range childhood. Two eight-year-olds playing naked is OK because no sex, two fifteen-year-olds skinny-dipping maybe OK because that’s when we expect them to start experimenting and there’s no power imbalance, but now it’s Horribly Dangerous for eight-year-olds and even questionable for fifteen-year-olds to be off on their own. So now we have to worry about what the adult supervision is doing with a naked eight-year-old boy or fifteen-year-old girl. Easier just to dispense with the public nudity.

        • Deiseach says:

          Sexualisation. We may be less prudish (not just in America) but that came with the price of pop-Freudianism, ‘you do realise everything is about sex, don’t you?’, the LGBT movement which pushed for outing historical figures, shoving people out of the closet, and revealing the hidden and repressed homoeroticism in society.

          We were instructed and told to take off our blinkers about how Ted and Jack and Tommy and Luke weren’t having a gay old time down at the water-hole skinny-dipping, they were having a very different gay old time. Nudity became sexualised (look at how photographers deliberately went for angles to show the unpopular Attorney General John Ashcroft in shots with the naked breast of the Spirit of Justice statue, so that his office put up curtains to block off the statue – the idea being he was a Bible-basher so it was a great jape to show nekkid lady parts in the same image, to poke fun at the prude and hypocrite).

          Any kind of physical contact is seen through a sexualised lens, and that’s supposed to be all about being honest and open about sex and desire and orientation. Men (and women) used to walk arm-in-arm in public (my mother called it “linking”) and it was not unusual; do that nowadays and the assumption is that you must be lovers. Though women probably get away with it more on the view that women are “naturally” more demonstrative and physically affectionate, so it doesn’t count as “they must be gay/lesbian”.

          The pendulum has swung to the other extreme of the arc; where same-sex romantic/sexual behaviour probably did get a pass in the past as being no more than ordinary friendship, nowadays any public nudity outside of strict confines, or gestures of affection beyond a certain level of intimacy, are considered at least quasi-sexual.

          • onyomi says:

            I agree that platonic, same-sex intimacy, especially among men, has definitely been a sad casualty of the good and necessary mainstream acceptance of homosexuality. Hopefully we can reach a new equilibrium where we both accept homosexuality as okay, and yet also do not assume all intimacy is sexual.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          America is proud of being less prudish than in the 50s, but that doesn’t mean it is. I would say the opposite, but it is probably better to just avoid the abstraction. Onyomi, your first comment was better for not using the word.

          • Nornagest says:

            There’s a lot of points leading me to question the modern image of the Fifties, but one of the first came when I became aware of the satirical music of Tom Lehrer — it’s light on cuss-words, but otherwise quite racy by today’s standards.

          • switchnode says:

            In some ways, perhaps.

            “I thought about doing ‘The Abortionist’, but at that time you couldn’t even say that. The dope peddler was the second choice, so there it was.”

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Re being, or being friends with, a nudist.

      In the late 80s we spent most of our time camped at isolated hot springs in one or another informal ‘community’ of similar campers, all clothing optional. In warm weather everyone walked around among their vans without clothes; in cool weather everyone wore jackets between dips, and pants too, iirc. We’d migrate: the same people would turn up everywhere from Oh My God (Southern California desert) to … I’ve forgotten the name of the one in the Oregon forest. So … a lot of casual, temporary neighbor ‘friendships’, if that interests you. A few deeper friendships — but they weren’t about Being Nudists — which we weren’t. Though it was a very specially relaxed, cosy, homelike atmosphere when we were able to get there. State of nature if you like: life, socializing so much simpler without clothes.

  12. Troy says:

    Did we ever get an analysis of the SSC survey data from this last year? I don’t remember seeing one.

  13. Kaiser Schmarn says:

    This graph shows (for the US at least) that suicide rate in younger age groups is actually increasing. The basic explanation is that improvements in medical care caused lower suicide rates in older people.


    • Kaiser Schmarn says:

      Oh wow, lets try again:

      The basic explanation is that improvements in medical care caused lower suicide rates in older people thus masking general higher suicide rate overall.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Actually, it looks like it shows that youth suicide peaked in 1990, then dropped sharply, probably for the same mysterious reason as crime, teenage pregnancy, dropouts, etc, then rose slightly again in 2010 probably associated with the economy.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      That’s not a graph. This is a graph. (As is this.)

      Your link is a picture of a table, the worst of both worlds. The original table is here. Here is a CSV version and this is a modification I made on the way to the graph.

  14. Squirrel of Doom says:

    Nit pick: The Patreon page really could use a link to slatestarcodex.com.

  15. mbka says:


    A Certain Chinese Encyclopedia, Borges, obviously (your classification). Although I first heard of it through Foucault.

  16. Carinthium says:

    I’m in a debate IRL with a person over what does and does not qualify as being a Capitalist in the political philosophy sense. In particular, under what circumstances if any can somebody call themselves a Capitalist in political philosophy, be rightly considered a Capitalist in political philosophy, and yet support maternity leave (either as a politician desiring compulsory maternity leave schemes or as a buisnessman freely entering into one)?

    Requesting the thoughts of others as to what makes most sense here.

      • Carinthium says:

        Yes, but then we come to ‘How capitalist do you have to be’ (in the political philosophy sense) to call it capitalist’? I’m trying to come up with a more precise and logical answer.

        • onyomi says:

          What is the maximum number of hairs you can have on your head and still be considered bald?

          • Carinthium says:

            A very legitimate question, and one deserving of a philosophical answer. Just as my question is.

          • onyomi says:

            My answer was implied in the question: just as there is no scientific way to determine the precise boundaries of a vague category like “baldness,” so too with a vague concept like “capitalist.”

          • Earthly Knight says:

            One popular approach to problems of vagueness is supervaluationism. Roughly, a statement with a vague predicate (like “bald”, or “capitalist”) is supertrue if it comes out true under all precisifications of the predicate and superfalse if it come out false under all precisifications. Otherwise, it has no truth value. Without knowing further details of the maternity-leave enthusiast’s ideology it’s hard to say for sure, but probably “she is a capitalist” either lacks a truth value or is supertrue.

    • Jaskologist says:

      A businessman freely agreeing to allow maternity leave is perfectly within the bounds of Capitalism; compensation does not have to be given in money if the employee prefers something else.

      The politician making it compulsory, on the other hand, is tainting the purity of the free market. How badly they are distorting it is a matter of debate.

      • Carinthium says:

        That sounds like the straightforward answer. Further question- what happens if a buisnessman gives maternity leave to women but no compensatory benefit to men? Is that un-capitalist?

        • Creutzer says:

          No, why would it? If there are still men who take your job offer, that’s their problem. If there aren’t, then you’ll have either only women as employees, or too few employees, which is your problem and which means you should offer something better.

        • Jaskologist says:

          As long as government regulations are not involved, it’s not really proper to think of any business decision as “capitalist” or “un-capitalist.” They’re all capitalist, but the important question is whether or not they’re stupid. The Capitalist believes that enough stupid decisions will end the business, letting the businessmen who didn’t make stupid decisions take over, and is happy to let businessmen figure out for themselves/prove to the world which decisions are which.

    • As I understand the term, being a capitalist is not defined by your beliefs but rather by your social role. If you own a factory then you’re a capitalist no matter what you believe.

      • Matt M says:

        Why does it have to be a factory?

        If you want to get technical about it, shouldn’t anyone with a savings account (which pays interest because the bank then invests your savings in capital goods) qualify as a capitalist?

        I think one of the overall messages of capitalists (in the context of “people who believe in capitalism as a good thing”) is that the worker/capitalist distinction you present (as outlined by Marx) has largely faded away in modern societies. We are (almost) all workers and we are all capitalists to one extent or another.

        • onyomi says:

          Certainly anyone who owns stock, or who has an IRA with such should technically be considered a capitalist.

          • kernly says:

            They’d be “petit bourgeois.” I don’t think “capitalist” was ever a technical term like “murderer.” It was always more like “rich person.” Except more like “magnate” or “tycoon.”

          • onyomi says:

            Well, in the sense that if you own stock, you own capital, ergo, you are a capitalist.

      • Carinthium says:

        I am talking a capitalist in the sense of having the Capitalist political philosophy. There are also Capitalists in the sense you describe, which is a different meaning attached to the same term.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’ve heard of mercantilism and corporatism as political philosophies (neither one, incidentally, is particularly laissez-faire), but never a big-C Capitalism. Except in a Marxist context, where it’s used as a catch-all to describe modern political/economic processes that are not Marxist — kinda like the neoreactionary habit of calling things demotist.

      • SUT says:

        Probably the opposite of a capitalist is a non-profit director (501c3) – not because it “doesn’t maximize profits” but because the primary aim is directing *public* resources toward a desired end.

        Another comparison: a guy that owns a hot dog stand is more of a capitalist than that guy who did programming for Goldman Sachs. Although the latter’s labor is more valuable, his access to the capital of his industry (source code, trading desks, etc.) is more constrained than the self-sufficient cook.

        However is you followed that case, you’ll know that it touched on the legality of open-source code, which is what programmers use to build “Social capital” which will get them better jobs. See where I’m going…capital isn’t just a factory these days.

        In fact getting back to the maternity leave question, this can connect with Becker’s household economics and what type of “family capital” you can own (legally protected private property) and invest to generate “returns”.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      If you believe that people should be allowed to own/control/benefit from the means of production with minimal government interference, especially but not limited to if they are not actively participating in the production themselves, then you’re a capitalist. If you believe that only the workers directly participating in production should be allowed to directly benefit from it, especially but not limited to benefitting only in proportion to their contribution to production, you’re not.

      Note that “capitalism” is not in any way opposed to the provision of welfare or other kinds of social safety nets. Capitalists do not have to oppose mandatory maternity leave or most other kinds of regulation (within reason) or worker protections (ditto.) They don’t have anything to do with each other.

      • Carinthium says:

        Why are you so sure of that? Traditional Capitalist philosophy has always justified things by reference to the effectiveness of the Free Market. Welfare and social safety nets distort the Free Market.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          Depends on which version of capitalism you are referring to. The Whigs (British free marketers of the 18th-19th century variety) would certainly assert that. However, they wouldn’t claim it reduced the effectiveness of the free market, but that it reduced the incentive to work.

          However other versions of capitalists (generally from time periods wealthy enough that starvation is no longer a realistic concern) wouldn’t be opposed. In situations where there is an expectation for welfare and other services to be provided, having them offered by the state removes the obligation from firms, reducing the amount of administrative overhead they have and making it easier to get rid of employees.

          They would, of course, generally still be opposed to the taxes that fund it.

  17. Jacob says:

    With the advent of your now-left-side blog roll, I have re-wondered something. What is the deal with The Last Psychiatrist? I’ve never once been certain I’ve understood any point that has ever been made there, yet have always been left with the impression that whatever I’m missing is the key to society’s pathologies.

    It’s also hilarious, and turns me into a horrible person every time I read it.

    • Shenpen says:

      He is a conservative of the good kind and he focuses on narcissism.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        There is very little about TLP which is “conservative,” IMO, except that they oppose the forces of “we need new drugs/services/whatever to justify our continued profits/existence/power.” Many of the things one gets the sense they would impose if they could are really quite radical.

        • Shenpen says:

          That is the point. The good kind of conservative is a kind of radical, except that he is not the hate-the-past (leftie) type, nor is necessarily nostalgic, but is based on that what maybe called evergreen values. Like as if someone took a massive fisting to modernity but based on Marcus Aurelius, not the least “MOAR equality!” type of “thinker”.

    • Randy M says:

      I find it to be a heap of amusing nonsense promising deep insights just out of reach.
      Emphasis on amusing, though.

    • Earthly Knight says:

      Alone is a Freudian and a (sociological) functionalist in a world where both schools of thought are virtually extinct. The insights he peddles are not really new, just forgotten.

    • I’ve long given up on The Last Psychiatrist– he seemed to be applying a bizarrely high standard about invented motivations to other people, while never giving examples of what he thinks is good quality thought.

      My assumption is that he’s a raving narcissist.

  18. Anyone have hot/cold empathy, or have thoughts on it? I am able to empathize with like situations/brains very easily, and probably better than average. However, in scenarios where I don’t agree/understand another person I find it very hard to empathize with them. Like I think gift giving is rather stupid so when my family are sad at me not getting them gifts I find it hard to empathize with them. Similarly someone who is very judgmental of someone who has gotten tattoos, I find it very hard to empathize with them. I find this very annoying with morality when people are more likely to care about things like purity/disgust/authority/freedom etc.

    • Matt says:

      This sounds like a description of having bad empathy, not of having selective good empathy.

    • Steve says:

      Perhaps you can empathize with like brains better than average, but that’s very subjective (i.e. you can’t look into other brains and see how empathic they are). Your inability or refusal to empathize with other people implies that you don’t have good empathy. Remember: Almost all people are nice/empathic with their social or intellectual in-groups [citation needed]. As Dave Barry said, according to the walls at the local Jimmy Johns: A person who is nice to you, but is not nice to the waiter, is not a nice person.

  19. Question for poly folk: I understand that the partner of someone’s partner is called that person’s metamour. Does this mean that the partner of a partner of a partner is called an orthomour?

  20. Linch says:

    Should a mentally healthy, neurotypical (probably), basically happy person get therapy?

    I ask because I’ve heard that for minor health issues, going to hospitals decrease rather than increase your expected lifespan. I was wondering if something similar is true for mental healthy.

    • Adam says:

      I doubt it. What’s the reasoning for the first? Hospitals are full of diseases and every medical procedure involves risk, but I don’t think the same can be said of going to an office in the suburbs to talk to someone for an hour every couple of weeks.

      • Deiseach says:

        I suppose the risk would be “You only think you’re happy and mentally healthy; you must have some reason for turning up here, so we’ll discover that actually you have all these unresolved issues”.

        Otherwise, either the therapist is gong to tell you “No, you’re fine, it’s pointless you coming here” or to justify the time/expense, they have to find something for you to spend the hour talking about 🙂

        • Tom Womack says:

          I was utterly delighted to find an investment advisor who talked to me for five minutes and told me I didn’t need an investment advisor; such honor is rare.

    • Peter says:

      Your therapist might be working for the same outfit as Dr. Trauer.

      On a more serious note, if something’s strong enough to have a psychological effect, it’s strong enough to have side effects – this applies to seeing therapists, meditation and a range of other things as well as psychopharmaceuticals. The option for “therapy-lite” is self-help books, and I managed to mess my head up with them when younger, and needed some counseling to get my head back in order.

      On the other hand, it’s quite possible that poor mental health, non-neurotypicality, etc., especially if undiagnosed or misdiagnosed may increase your vulnerability to having your psyche randomly prodded with. With the self-help books I think the underlying issue for me was undiagnosed Asperger’s.

      So it’s not a risk-free option, but overall, I don’t know what the balance is for minor stuff.

      • Linch says:

        Hmm…risks that I could see are 1)some sort of “expectations create reality”…because the doctor, therapist, etc. is used to seeing mentally unhealthy people, he could project those problems on me, even subconsciously, and having a high-status person subtly imply I’m crazy might have a negative mental health influence on me. 2) memetic contagion, analogous to physical contagion at hospitals. Exposure to harmful and socially suboptimal ideas might make me a worse person.

        I ask because I have trouble with aligning my current actions with what I perceive to be my terminal values. For example, I’m donating about 20% of my yearly income, which is a considerably lower percentage than what I believe to be morally acceptable. Of probably greater concern, I’m not doing anything to switch to less interesting or more time-consuming jobs that pays more/allows me to do more good, nor am I training up the skills that will allow me to do more interesting work that is more socially optimal. This causes me anguish in a high-level sense even though I am very cheerful on a day-to-day level. So I’m happy and evil but I would prefer to be happy and good.

        (I suspect this problem to be not uncommon among readers of SSC).

        Self-help books are a good idea, but unfortunately I have a strong bias against taking them seriously (Maybe I should get some counseling for that!). It probably does not help that most of them(actually every one I’ve read up to this point) pretty much shoves some form of materialistic or relational morality in your face, which I consider to be morally abhorrent.

        I think having a therapist go through some of my problems could potentially be helpful, *if* the cost is sufficiently low. I don’t think the time is that much of a commitment when the potential upsides are so huge, and principle-agent/insurance means I’m not burning any actual money on this. So I’m asking around for potential risks. (I’m too bad at metacognition to know if I’m being honest when doing the cost-benefit analysis above or if I deliberately skipped something big, etc).

        • sweeneyrod says:

          Regarding the morality of donating a certain amount of income, it’s worth considering that donating 20% is more likely to convince other people to do the same than donating 90%.

          • Linch says:

            *nods* That’s why I said it was of less concern.

            Besides, 90% income donation is basically impossible if you want to float in approximately the same social bubble as your income level (well, maybe if you’re making high six figures USD…). But the real question isn’t whether 90% donation is more likely to persuade others to donate 90% vs. 20% donation more likely to persuade others to donate 20%, it’s whether 90% income donation is more likely to result in 2% income donation from others than 20% is, and I think this is more of an empirical question than anything that could easily be settled by thinking it out or arguing. (ofc, the intellectually honest course is a bit odder than that, it’s more about optimizing the expected value…)

            I think my career choice is more concerning. Say my income is in the 90th percentile for my country. It’s difficult to argue for flow-through effects in which it will be better for me to take such a position than one in which I’m in the 95th, since presumably 95th percentile people have lesser perceived scarcity, and even if they don’t, it’s unlikely that such generosity is decreased enough that it counterbalances the wealth effect. (And we haven’t even gotten around to seriously considering direct work…)

        • Peter says:

          I think a lot is going to depend on which therapist, which sort of therapist, etc. you might go and see. Some of the counselors I saw at various times were very good – very good at asking the right questions with empathy and understanding and not forcing whatever views they might have had on me (I think that counselors, as opposed to various psych*ists, might be a good place to look for that particular trait). Others people were less so but still useful. I strongly suspect you’re likely to get told you have unrealistic expectations for yourself, and I think a lot will revolve around how you want to deal with that.

          If you don’t get on with self-help, there’s a range of other reading material you could try. Personally I found reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning very helpful even if I didn’t always agree; I never thought I’d like anything associated with existentialism but Frankl seems to be the exception. Also, reading some of the big name primary texts in (the history of) moral philosophy often quite surprising given what secondary sources said about them) sort-of helped me in sorting through my values. I’m not sure I reached any firm conclusions in terms of propositions I’m prepared to endorse out loud but my feelings feel less conflicted. Mill, Bentham, Sidgwick, Hume, Smith, hell, I even tried some Aristotle and Kant. Also Parfit. Your mileage may vary greatly, of course, but those are among the things I’ve found therapeutic.

          • Linch says:

            Existentialism just says something like, “There’s no intrinsic meaning to life. Meaning/Purpose is just what you make of it,” right? I’m sure there’s more to the bailey, but stated that way it seems almost trivially true and very amenable to my current frame of thought. You’re the second person to recommend Franki to me; I will probably add it to my list.

            I think I’ve read bits and pieces of Mill, Bentham, Kant and maybe Hume before, but nothing of Smith except select excerpts. (Unlike some LW’ers,) I have nothing against reading philosophy. Heck I’m getting one of Singer’s books this Sunday. However, I’m *very* worried about the opportunity costs. Reading philosophy is unlikely to funge against my gameplaying, Facebook/Quora/SSC, socializing or fantasy novel-reading time, but much more like to funge against my non-work work, eg., Coursera, .impact work and the coupla minutes a week I spend on learning actually technically difficult stuff.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      I’m not sure I understand your question. What would they want therapy for? To find out that they weren’t really happy or healthy?

  21. Chris Thomas says:

    Do these OTs ever attract scientilogists wondering if you have the secrets of advanced OT levels? “Tell me about OT 24!! Is that the one where I can shape-shift!?”

  22. Loki says:

    FYI I have no money but I clicked on the link to your Patreon just to see the subtitle and I was not disappointed.

  23. Barry says:


    So that’s an article making the case that integrating women into combat troops has been and will be a disaster. I’m inclined to agree with it, but would love to see the opposing viewpoint stated in it’s strongest possible form. Can anyone here refute the article on their own or link me to somewhere that does?

    • sweeneyrod says:

      I have some doubts that “Units will have to deal with feminine-hygiene issues that significantly reduce unit effectiveness.”, and I’m likewise skeptical that “feminism and political correctness are so prevalent in the military that men trip over themselves trying to ensure they do not offend.”

      Also, bringing up the failure of women to qualify to join the rangers is a bit disingenuous, since they are an elite unit with stricter physical requirements – even if 0/45 women were good enough to join them, it seems possible that >0/45 could be good enough to join the regular army.

      Other than that, I think that the main thrust of the argument is correct (although I’ve not checked the stats it links to). If mixed combat units have been shown to be less effective, and standards for women to enter the military are lower than those for men, then it seems logical that something should be done. However, I’d argue that rather than blanket-banning women from joining combat units, the standards for women should be tightened until they match those of men.

      I don’t think this would have too much of an effect – this suggests that standards are fairly similar, and this suggests that the push-up abilities of men and women are nowhere near as different as the different standards required by the army. Fewer women would be able to join, but it’s not like it would be impossible.

      • Randy M says:

        Tomato, tomahto (statistically, at least)

      • AngryDrake says:

        Also, bringing up the failure of women to qualify to join the rangers is a bit disingenuous, since they are an elite unit with stricter physical requirements – even if 0/45 women were good enough to join them, it seems possible that >0/45 could be good enough to join the regular army.

        It’s not as disingenuous as you might think. To my knowledge, militaries are interested in above-average men, in physical (and in the US, also mental) terms. Given that a man in the upper 25% of men by physical strength is quite likely to be stronger than any woman he’ll ever meet in his life, I don’t think the ranger/non-ranger distinction is an important one.

        • sweeneyrod says:

          I don’t know the distribution of scores on the Physical Training test, but the passing score for basic training is 180, and 240 for rangers (on a scale from 0 to 300), which seems like quite a big difference to me.

    • Adam says:

      I’d give exactly the same answer as sweeney above. Banning them on the basis of being female is wrong. Banning anyone who fails to meet a standard, and ending up with 4 women and 4,000 men in your organization, is basically what will likely actually happen, as that article itself explained. No woman passed Ranger training. Ergo, there will be no female Rangers, and that didn’t require banning them.

      The lowering standards for them thing is effectively a separate question. No, they shouldn’t do that, either. The military should basically be structured like the NBA. They don’t formally ban women and Ann Myers signed a contract once and made it through camp, but never saw a game and that’s the closest anyone ever got.

      • Anonymous says:

        ending up with 4 women and 4,000 men in your organization, is basically what will likely actually happen, as that article itself explained

        No, the article concluded exactly the opposite:

        no doubt these standards will be reevaluated and less-rigorous ones adopted.

        And it explained why.

        • Adam says:

          It explained wrong. The military’s fitness standards haven’t gone down in ages, and in fact they’ve kicked more people out for failing them than at any time since the mid-90s. The actual elite units have never relaxed their standards and almost certainly never will. They’ll be like female astronauts, female Mossad agents, female CIA paramilitary operators. They exist but there are very few of them.

          • Pku says:

            Really? I’d assume the mossad would find female agents useful, since they’re less suspicious (and if they’re in an arab country they can wear a burka for camouflage…)

          • Anonymous says:

            Maybe the article is wrong, but if you cannot identify its explanation, how can you know that it is wrong? If you cannot even tell what its conclusion is? If you have false beliefs about an article you just read, why should I trust you on anything, even simple factual matters like how standards have changed over time?

            I’ll take the word of the CJCS over your word. I think it’s pretty likely that arbitrary standards like pull-ups are going to go away. Maybe realistic tasks like running in full gear will eliminate essentially the same people.

            The article is not just about elite units. One focus of the article is Rangers, but the other focus is marine infantry officers, which are “front line” but not “special operations.”

            . . .

            There are tons of female Mossad agents (did you leave out some qualifier?). Espionage is nothing like a commando raid. Diversity is directly relevant to espionage. And even an assassination team is about 1/3 female. Two people physically subdued the victim. Probably there were a bunch of fighters available for other plans. But most of the people were doing surveillance and communications. (I think that women do similar things for US special operations, too.)

          • Anonymous says:

            That Mossad link was supposed to be an image search.

          • Adam says:

            I didn’t mis-identify the article’s conclusion. I disagreed with it, partially based on a fact that the article itself brought up. Feel free to distrust me, but I was on active duty in a combat unit as recently as five months ago. I’m not talking out of my ass here and your trust means nothing to me.

            As for pull-ups, they’ve been trying to add that as a standard for years (currently only the Marines require it), but keep dismissing all reform panel suggestions as impractical because of equipment needs, but the reality is almost every unit has access to pull-up bars at this point, so hopefully they’ll get their heads out of their asses at some point. They’re a much better test than push-ups. Ranger school still requires them, as does SFQC.

            As for the opinion of General Dempsey, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I agree with him that we should not lower standards, and he agrees with me that women should be allowed to serve in any position they can qualify for. He signed the damn order.

    • John Schilling says:

      Unfortunately the best counterargument I have seen is in dead-tree form, with a copy on my bookshelf sixty miles from here. I’ll at least get the title and author this evening, and maybe see if there’s been a subsequent digital version.

      I will say that, while I suspect Fredenburg is essentially correct, his argument is focused on mixed-gender front-line ground combat forces. It likely is the case that, for physical and psychological reasons, less than ten percent of the truly qualified volunteers (and maybe less than one percent) for such roles will be women, and the social engineering necessary to smoothly integrate one healthy, aggressive, athletic woman into a group of a hundred healthy, aggressive athletic men under prolonged close quarters and high stress is probably beyond the current state of the art.

      There should be no reason why the Air Force cannot field an all-female fighter squadron, and probably no reason a mixed-gender squadron wouldn’t work. They could obviously screw it up by e.g. dictating a 50/50 gender ratio and lowering the standards as needed, but a sincere and unprejudiced effort should be able to make it work.

      Somewhere between “fighter pilot” and “Army Ranger” there is probably a line where you have to segregate the genders to make it work, and maybe a line where you have to exclude women entirely, and even if not the number of women who can pass the bar may be too small to be worth the bother. The reality of current social politics is that, we are going to try. The reality of current geopolitics is that, no matter how bad we screw it up, the Republic will not fall as a result.

      So in twenty years we will know where the lines are. There’s an ugly failure mode where we refuse to implement that new understanding and start losing wars that really matter, and a slightly less ugly failure mode where we overreact and expel women from the armed forces altogether (probably propagating some way back into civil society), but I think it is likely we will find a path somewhere in the middle ground.

      • Science says:

        Even if it hurts effectiveness I doubt the impact will be strong enough to turn the course of a war. The Vietnam era draftees that didn’t want to bear there were far less effective than an all volunteer force, even a mixed all volunteer force I’d wager, but I don’t think they are why we “lost” that war, rather it was because it was unwinable.

        That’s before even getting into the likelihood of a “war that matters” before it’s all robots anyway.

        • AngryDrake says:

          The quality of the common soldiers doesn’t make much difference. The quality of the leadership, OTOH, does. The higher you go up the command chain, the more the quality of the person holding that position matters to the overall war effort.

          Vietnam was perfectly winnable. Major problem appears to be a raid-and-burn strategy, as opposed to a conquer-and-hold strategy. Variations on the same we can see in the present day US interventions in the Middle East.

          The initial stage of the invasion works beautifully, nothing can stand a chance against the attacking force. Soon enough, the opposition capitulates. But then comes the occupation part, which reliably fails. The invaders don’t want to stay and guard the place they conquered indefinitely, but rather to set up a puppet government to do this for them, and that is understandable, because the leadership seems chronically incapable of commanding measures which would actually keep unrest in check. The trouble is that the native puppet government is the same people as their opponents, which makes the contest between rebels and puppets much more fair than it needs to be.

          • Deiseach says:

            As well, puppet governments provoke ongoing unrest in the populace who can very well see ‘their’ government is not about their best interests but keeping the foreign conquerors/overlords happy. Even if most of the people aren’t leaving home to join a rebel militia, they’ll probably be broadly sympathetic to them (unless the rebels have a very radical policy of ‘kill everyone except the chosen few and inaugurate the new dawn of society’).

            That was my view before the invasion of Iraq and I haven’t seen much reason to change it; it never seemed to me to be “Vietnam Part II”, but it did seem to me to be “Congratulations, this is America’s Ulster”. Once you went in there, you were there for the long haul and I don’t think anybody was planning for that (honestly, Chalabi for President? The man the people were clamouring for to replace Saddam? What was in the water your government was drinking?)

            Long-term occupation is a drain on resources, unless you’re exploiting resources from the occupied territories. And even Eight Hundred Years may not be long enough to persuade the occupied they’re much better off under your rule 🙂

          • AngryDrake says:

            Long-term occupation is a drain on resources, unless you’re exploiting resources from the occupied territories. And even Eight Hundred Years may not be long enough to persuade the occupied they’re much better off under your rule 🙂

            As long as the conquered populace retain their distinctive culture, the time they come to prefer foreign colonial government over native government is going to be “never”. AFAIK, it is human nature to prefer misrule by coethnics over benevolent rule by foreigners. (Transethnics? Heh.) An imperial (federal) government structure helps, but only suppresses the problem, rather than solving it.

          • Science says:

            There’s little difference to my mind between “Vietnam was unwinable” and “Vietnam was unwinable unless we were willing to play the part of 19th century colonialists for a century”. Either way having more effective line troops wouldn’t have made much of a difference to the outcome.

            The same is true of any foreseeable war in the next 50 years.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        There’s also one success mode that sees differing capabilities as a feature, and expands the sort of tasks that some women can do better than men.

        Space travel — best when the IQ is higher than the weight
        Manipulating small implements and objects

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          If men have a higher variance then women, those will disproportionately be male as well.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Hm? I don’t think that would work on size. The average man is heavier than the average woman, and has bigger hands. Each group has a variance from its own center. not from a common center.

            Summers’s more men geniuses than women geniuses wouldn’t apply when you aren’t looking at a few top geniuses, but at a large number of competent people with lighter bodies and/or smaller hands.

          • AngryDrake says:

            That only works if they see “light body, small hands” as a more important factor than intelligence.

          • Murphy says:


            higher variance wins out at the fringes regardless.

            The average man is less than 14 cm taller than the average woman.

            the tallest confirmed male was 272 cm
            the tallest confirmed female was 248 cm

            Even if the averages were swapped if the variance remained the same the tallest man would still be taller than the tallest woman by over half a foot.

            If you look at the tallest thousand people all but a few dozen are going to be male, again because the variance controls things at that part of the graph.

          • Peter says:

            The higher variance thing – it depends also how many people the armed forces want to recruit and how big the recruitment pool is.

            Imagine some trait ranging from negative infinity to positive infinity, positive is better. Suppose men have mean 0, standard deviation 1.5, and women have mean 1, standard deviation 1. Suppose equal numbers of otherwise-equal men and women. If you recruit the top 1% of the talent pool then if my calculations are right you get mainly men (but not by a huge margin). If you recruit the top 10% you recruit mainly women (a bit less than 2:1).

            Also, the greater variance => dominance at both tails works for normal distributions, but there are other distributions it doesn’t work for. For example lognormal distributions – if two groups have the same variance and different mean for x, then one group will have a dominant lower tail, the other will have a dominant upper tail, and if you transform x to e^x the same holds – but the upper group will have a higher variance in e^x than the lower group.

            (We know that human height can’t be a truly gaussian distribution because it’s impossible to have negative height).

        • Peter says:

          I recall that the Soviets had a theory that women would make excellent snipers; I’m not sure how the averages worked out but during WWII female snipers were a definite success and some of them did very well indeed. Maybe it was just the Soviets increasing the size of their talent pool though.

          I’ve also heard that women can resist G forces a bit better than men. On the other hand I’ve heard that men can resist the effects of ejector seats better than women, on the other other hand I’ve heard that ejector seats have a minor effect and you’re better off just letting the plane be a bit lighter.

          • Tarrou says:

            Women have a basic advantage with fine motor control, which should make them better shots, given equal training. Unfortunately, women across the armed services are severely worse than their male counterparts in rifle qualification and more broadly, few women can compete at the highest levels of international competition although shooting sports are one of the extremely few where a woman has beaten out male competitors at the international level.

            For a skill which they have a natural advantage in, women underperform pretty substantially.

          • Anonymous says:

            The Israelis find that women make better snipers because they are more conscientious.

      • Tarrou says:

        The problem has already started.

        The pilot program for Ranger school was three years long. They scoured the Army for the best and brightest female soldiers. They transferred them all to a special unit at Ft. Drum, where they prepared for three years for the school. Male soldiers might get a two-week crash course, but that’s about it.

        After all that selection and training, the hit ratio was 0. Not small. Not tiny. Zero. And it wasn’t close either. None of them made it out of Darby phase (the first and easiest of three phases). Only four made it more than four days.

        So they picked the best eight of the twenty women who had failed, rehabilitated them, and recycled them, sent them back in. Not a one made it out of Darby.

        There’s no shame in failing out of Ranger school, it is a brutal place. Maybe 30% of male trainees make it through, and less than that on their first go. I myself washed in Mountain phase, took a tumble and broke a leg. It takes epic concentration, strength, commitment and an inhuman tolerance for pain, hunger and sleep deprivation. And a bit of luck.

        So what’s the answer? They already are working on lowering the standards. Women already have a shamefully low level of PT standards. For instance, the minimum male standard on push-ups is 43 for the lowest age group. Any lower than that, you get put on remedial PT. Fail three tests at that level and they chapter you out of the Army as unfit for duty. The female minimum is 17. They’re talking about limiting how much weight a female soldier can be asked to carry, and women were already limited to the smallest possible ruck, an average of 45lb! Our training packs were 85, and in combat, we routinely carried more than our body weight in gear.

        I’ve said this many times, I hear all this whinging about “women doing the same job”, but in the Army, they don’t. They have lower standards, and they are demanding that all the other standards be lowered too! You can debate the hygeine, the morale, the sical and political implications, I don’t care. The day female soldiers petition the DoD to raise their fitness standards to male levels, and complete basic OSUT infantry training to the same standard as the men, I will drag my decrepit broke-dick old-soldier carcass to Ft. Benning and pin their crossed rifles on myself.

        • Tarrou says:

          Addendum: It occurred to me that PT standards might have changed since I was in, so I checked the updated site, and they had.

          The minimum push-up score for the youngest female group (17-21yo) is now 13, and drops to 11 at the age of 22.

          On the two-mile run, the maximum time for a male soldier is now 16:36, for a female 19:42. That’s three extra minutes and change for being a woman.

          It should also be noted that these are minimums, no self-respecting Infantry unit would let their soldiers get away with minimums, they are allowed to have unit standards which are higher, and they all do. A score of 150 out of 300 is enough to pass the Army standards, but most units I was in required a 260-280.

          • Cadie says:

            Those are some sad standards (and I’m glad to see that those are minimums and doing the minimum is generally not enough). I looked up the specifics and turns out I could pass the test right now, and I’m nothing great, pretty much what you’d expect for a mid-30s woman who exercises and eats in moderation. Getting a high score or meeting men’s minimums would require lengthy training beforehand, mainly on the push-ups, but getting a minimum woman’s score for my age group would only require showing up.

            If that was the actual military suggested fitness and not just bare minimum not to auto-flunk, I’d be very worried.

          • Matt M says:


            In fairness, the same is largely true for the men. When I was in the Navy, it required no great work or commitment to fitness to pass the minimum standard. I’m a naturally skinny person with great metabolism, so I never had to worry about weight/body fat. While we did have a certain amount of mandatory group exercise, I pretty much just went through the motions and did the bear minimum of effort.

            I’ve heard (but this may be just a rumor) that the standards are designed on a percentage base. Something like, they take 100 healthy people and tell them “see how many push ups you can do in two minutes” and then find where the percentile cut-offs are and adjust their rankings accordingly such that, say, 80% of healthy people should be able to meet the minimum, but only the top 10% get a score of “outstanding” or something like that.

            If true, this would suggest that the standards are representative of how strong/in-shape the average American female is in comparison to the average American man.

      • kernly says:

        There’s an ugly failure mode where we refuse to implement that new understanding and start losing wars that really matter

        All wars really matter. Vietnam and Iraq are millstones around the country’s neck that will be carried for the foreseeable future. Defeat is really, really bad. Especially when clear victories are hard to come by.

        in twenty years we will know where the lines are

        I seriously doubt the US is gonna do a big ground invasion anywhere in the next 20 years. Airstrikes and assassinations satisfy our rigorous requirements – “We must do something; This is something; Therefore, we must do this” – much more cheaply than invasions. We can even upload our frag videos to YouTube, to properly assure the public and more importantly the media that we are indeed doing something.

        The reality of current geopolitics is that, no matter how bad we screw it up, the Republic will not fall as a result.

        If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I don’t think this particular nonsense is all that important, but the attitude behind it is pushing for all kinds of other stupid things. Some faction works itself into a frenzied certainty about how things should be, and in the process convinces itself that that must be how things are. It’s not restricted to the left or the right, and I think it’s intensifying. Maybe it’s a function of political polarization. Anyway, I am sure it is an existential threat.

      • sam says:

        There should be no reason why the Air Force cannot field an all-female fighter squadron, and probably no reason a mixed-gender squadron wouldn’t work.

        Well, you are correct on the second point, because there have been female fighter and bomber pilots in mixed-gender squadrons (in the Air Force and the Navy) for 20+ years. I’ve heard some great stories from my boss (retired pilot) about things the Navy tried to slove the problem of mixed-gender cockpits on 2-seat aircraft (no bathroom).

        and the social engineering necessary to smoothly integrate one healthy, aggressive, athletic woman into a group of a hundred healthy, aggressive athletic men under prolonged close quarters and high stress is probably beyond the current state of the art.

        Well… Women were successfully integrated into Ohio-class submarines a few years ago. They began with 3 women per sub, out of a total crew of 165. You can’t get much closer than the quarters on a submarine, and being at sea, not seeing the light of day for 2+ months is one of the most psychologically stressful jobs in the Navy. Given that’s been done smoothly, I am skeptical of the arguments that it somehow can’t be done in most other instances.

      • John Schilling says:

        OK, as promised, the steelmanned “Women can so fight in the Infantry” reference:

        “The Woman Warrior”
        S.M. Stirling
        New Destinies, vol. IV
        Jim Baen, ed.
        Summer 1988

        Originally a carefully-researched rebuttal by an SF writer to an editor who had dinged him for including “unrealistic, clichéd” women warriors in a story, deemed worthy by that editor of open publication, and quite good. Convinced me at the time, and I’ve only been partially un-convinced since. Cannot find an electronic version, alas, and haven’t seen anything similar online.

        As for what we can expect in the real world:

        Best case, well, in 1940 we knew full well that black men could fight hard and well and white men could fight hard and well but there was some skepticism about whether black and white men together could fight hard and well. So when it really mattered, we kept them segregated because we knew that worked, and we won WWII. The next war, which we could afford to lose, we tried integration – and it turns out that what divides black and white men is as nothing compared to what unites men in battle against a common enemy, it’s all one Army in the end, and we fought China to a draw.

        Worst case, we’ve had a decade or so to build an Iraqi army in whatever manner we saw fit, and we saw fit to make it a religiously and culturally integrated army for the same enlightened reasons we made our own army a racially integrated one. What divides Sunni and Shiite and Kurd should be as nothing compared to what unites them in battle against a common enemy, it should be all one Army in the end, and we could not have been in a better position to make it whatever type of army we saw fit. And now huge chunks of Iraq are ruled by ISIS, with the only victories against them being won by the informal, lightly-armed but thoroughly segregated Shiite and Kurdish militias; the integrated units break down to “every man for himself” when the shooting starts.

        There’s obviously a spectrum of possible outcomes between those two extremes. Anyone claiming to know where gender integration of ground combat units will fall on that spectrum, is deluding themselves. Given the relevant physical differences, it almost certainly won’t be “no effect”. Beyond that, we have lots of pontificating, a bunch of cherrypicked examples that conspicuously don’t involve integrated ground combat units, and Israel winning a couple of wars that way and saying “OK, but we shouldn’t do it that way next time”.

        As I said, we are fortunate that social politics dictate we perform the experiment at a time that geopolitics will allow us to survive the mistakes. We might be making some big ones, ones that will hurt even if we do survive them.

        • Barry says:

          That’s not really an argument for it, so much as it is an argument for “well, we don’t really know what will happen with integration, but luckily our wars these days don’t matter, so if it blows up in our faces the consequences won’t be too much worse than a few extra dead soldiers”. That’s not very Steel-man.

          It also ignores the question of physical capability.

          • John Schilling says:

            Physical capability, we can certainly implement gender-blind physical requirements with no adverse impact, if we want. We won’t, but that will be part of the learning experience.

            As for the rest, it’s hard to steelman “Here’s something that ain’t broke, and here’s how we propose to fix it”. Possibly when we finish re-unbreaking it, it will work a little bit better than before.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          > OK, as promised, the steelmanned “Women can so fight in the Infantry” reference

          Steelmanning a straw man, sfaik. My suggestion was to make more use of the kind of tasks that women are better at, or where weight matters.

          / leaving gender sub-because open thread /

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          Nitpick- the US went with integration in the Korean war because we had to. The average black soldier was worse than the average white soldier so making all black regiments and putting them into combat lead to poor performance. In previous wars this hadn’t come up (since most blacks were sidelined into not combat jobs and/or those in combat positions were the best) but Korea didn’t involve a draft to fill manpower so we were using career army soldiers.

          And before we get into arguing about race, I think the quality issue was more along the lines of education and past nutrition.

          • Anonymous says:

            Your history is confused. Maybe the military integration of 1948 had something to do with scaling back the draft (why?), but that was a couple years before the 1950 Korean War. While not many were conscripted between 1948 and 1950, that’s not because it was an army of volunteers, but because there were plenty of previously conscripted soldiers to use for the occupation. And when the Korean War began, conscription quickly scaled back up.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            48 was when the military was ordered to be desegregated. They still had desegregated units that were sent to the Korean war. The military actually carried out desegregation and announced its intention to desegregate during the war.

            The low manpower meant when the Chinese launched their counter offensive, the army had reduced had to use it optimally. They needed front line troops so they couldn’t waste blacks on reserves and all black units were too brittle so they sent blacks as reinforcements to white units.

            “And when the Korean War began, conscription quickly scaled back up.”

            I didn’t realize that. Thanks.

    • AngryDrake says:

      One argument for female integration into combat units that I’ve seen is that it saves the military the trouble of setting up a bordello militare.

    • Tarrou says:

      One need not go into hypotheticals, only look at the nations that integrate or integrated their combat troops.

      Israel: Started with fully integrated troops, eventually excluded women from the infantry, paratroops and special forces. Women still serve in artillery support and armor (tanks) capacities. Their manuals express a preference for female trainers in order to get the best out of male recruits, which was an interesting note, I thought.

      Canada: Integrated back in the 80’s. To date no woman has passed infantry training. A few dozen have made it into armor and artillery roles in thirty years.

      France: Integrated and dropped it’s standards drastically. The only nation I am aware of in which women actually made it into the infantry, albeit with lower standards. The French Marines kept their standards, though women still have lower PT standards like in the US, and in thirty-odd years, nine women have made it in.

      • Science says:

        And yet France is still there. They haven’t been conquered despite dropping their standards drastically. I guess the invasion must be right around the corner …

        • Nornagest says:

          One can imagine negative consequences short of annihilation.

        • Tarrou says:

          Their invasion started in the ’70s, and they have yet to start to attempt to repel it. But your point is well taken, I think. So long as a nation avoids any and all direct combat, they can do what they like with their militaries. History shows us that neglecting one’s military and falling massively behind the power curve never has bad consequences, especially when bordered by technologically inferior but more fertile and aggressive people.

          • Nornagest says:

            Well, I still wouldn’t say the French are that neglectful of their military, insofar as it’s possible to tell in such a relatively peaceful era as this — they have one of the more active First World militaries, and one of the more independent of the Americans during and after the Cold War. They’re one of the principals in the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency, for example, and provided a decent chunk of airpower in the first Libyan civil war. And whether or not you think it’s proper to characterize the European immigration issue as an invasion (I don’t much like the rhetoric, myself), it is not the kind of invasion that can be forestalled by getting better at killing people.

            This all, of course, has little to do with whether integrating the French combat arms was a good idea or not.

          • Science says:

            Is there a game of right-wingers bullshit bingo and someone forgot to invite me? There’s no coherent point in there, but you sure did signal your affiliation with the Red Tribe.

          • Nornagest says:

            Science, I don’t agree with much of what Tarrou said up there, but comments like these really really don’t help. Please stop making them.

          • John Schilling says:

            @Science: Just, FYI, one thing that Red Tribe never ever does, scores negative points in any Red Tribe status competition, is saying anything positive about French military competence.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Tarrou – That sort of “invasion” has no real interface with a nation’s level of military preparedness, as I’m sure you’re well aware. France hasn’t been involved in a large-scale war in decades, but arguably neither has America. They have been involved in a fair number of small policing operations, generally similar to our own. I haven’t heard about them doing unusually badly in them. It’s easily arguable that neglecting/stressing their military is rational, given the long-standing Pax Americana. War in Western Europe hasn’t been in the cards for decades now; if you’re going to experiment with your armed forces, this is the perfect time.

            Further, it’s a pretty open question what the proper measurement of the “power curve” is. America clearly has the most powerful military in the world, and we derive specific, tangible benefits from that, but they also have hard limits. Asymmetric warfare seems to be the optimal counter to a massive, high-investment conventional army like ours, so that’s the only fight our army is ever going to see. Our Navy is awesome, and it lets us project power all over the world, but again that power has sharply defined limits.

            We get the Pax Americana out of it, which might be a net win for pretty much everybody, but what does France gain by trying to compete on that stage? They already have a reasonably friendly behemoth to hide behind, and they already know they’re only going to be fighting limited asymmetric wars for decades to come.

            Further, it’s been so long since we’ve fought a real war against a serious opponent that no one really has any idea which weapons are superior to what. Supercarriers are damn awesome, but it’s been seventy years plus since a serious enemy made a point of trying to kill one. There’s good reason to believe that our surface navy is not survivable versus a serious opponent, and that’s at our stupendous levels of military spending. What would France gain from a Supercarrier? Why not just let us keep footing the bill as long as we’re willing and able?

            tl;dr – America’s military serves primarily as a global ultra-fleet-in-being, with all actual uses being poor secondary adaptations. Given that reality, what would France gain from engaging in “serious” military buildup/preparedness?

            [EDIT] – If you’re familiar with the idea of a “Senile” (as distinct from “Obsolete”) weapons system, the American military is sort of “super-senile”. Our tech is so far ahead that it breaks the logjam for other militaries, and encourages them to be more efficient.

            Tanks were originally designed to kill infantry and fixed positions. Then they grew senile during the cold war, as their mission shifted toward killing other tanks, and the expense of their armor and weapons systems increased exponentially. America’s tanks are now so good that there’s no point in trying to compete with them, so other countries, friends and enemies, are free to go back to using tanks primarily against infantry and fixed positions.

        • bluto says:

          Because France is covered by NATO and thus the US nuclear arsenal.

    • sam says:

      well, one nitpickabout the original article. It isn’t true that all women that attempted Ranger school failed. Eight of the women that failed the first phase of Ranger School were given an opportunity to try it again (along with 101 men that failed). Three of them passed, and are still there, moving on the mountain phase of the school.



    • Erebus says:

      Truly bizarre politics aside, this is well worth a read:

      Women can fight…

      “First of all, let’s put aside the sexist nonsense that “women can’t fight”. Any idiot who still believes this is welcome to crack open a history book and look up the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Regiment. During the Great Patriotic War, this regiment had the honor of amassing more than one thousand sorties per pilot, over twenty-three thousand sorties in all. TWENTY-THREE Heroes of the Soviet Union were awarded to members of the regiment between June 1942 and May 1945. Add to this the regimental Order of the Red Banner and Order of Suvorov III-rd Class. Virtually every pilot and navigator in the regiment was awarded at least one lesser decoration as well, most of them for courage under fire. The Night Witches were probably the most highly decorated single regiment in the history of the Red Air Force. And, by the way, they flew through most of the war without parachutes. When choosing between parachutes and bombs, the choice always fell on bombs until the skill of the pilots became so great that even the callous Red Air Force decided that their lives were more valuable than one more dead Fritz. When parachutes were finally issued, many of the pilots did not want to wear them! No one who watched the Night Witches’ airplanes overfly Red Square in the final victory parade of the Great Patriotic War would dare utter the idiocy “women cannot fight”.

      In fact, there was an entire female air group, the 122d. Besides the legendary Night Witches, it also contained the 586th Fighter Regiment and the 587th Bomber Regiment. Neither had anything to be ashamed of when it came to combat record. Lest morons claim that women cannot fight on the ground, we can also bring up the Red Army’s female snipers. Take Lyudmila Pavlichenko, for example. If the Hero of the Soviet Union medal proves insufficient to convince the overly sexist, 309 confirmed kills, including 39 enemy snipers, speak for themselves. There were more than two thousand female snipers in the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War. Women also served in every other position, from frontline infantry, armor and artillery to the more conventional nursing and air defense artillery jobs. The author’s grandmother, may she rest in peace, was among them.”

      …But the rest of the article goes into reasons as to why they shouldn’t fight, discusses various problems faced in Soviet gender-integrated units, and so forth. According to the author, it’s not that women can’t fight, but that gender-integrated fighting units are a disaster waiting to happen — which is a position that makes sense to me.

      • Barry says:

        The article discusses front-line combat units, a very different situation than bomber or fighter squadrons.

        • Erebus says:

          “Sniper” isn’t a front-line combat role?

          How about Manshuk Mametova, who won the Hero of the Soviet Union medal as a machine-gunner in an infantry unit? (And, moreover, died bravely and honorably in battle.)

          I’d suggest you read the post I linked to above. It goes into this subject in a fairly thorough and detailed way.

          What cannot be disputed is the fact that women in the Red Army served in front-line units, and that they oftentimes performed extremely admirably. There are a number of very compelling reasons as to why gender-integrated combat units are a terrible idea — but when push comes to shove, as it did in WWII, the Soviets have proven that women can fight.

          The issue, as I see it, isn’t that women are incapable of serving as warriors, but that gender-integrated units would suffer from poor morale & would become difficult to manage. (This is well borne-out in studies on the topic. Romantic relationships affect morale, perceived differences in the treatment of women as opposed to the treatment of men strongly affects morale, the fact that women are given more allowances with respect to hygiene also affects morale… to say nothing of sexual harassment suits, etc.)

          • Barry says:

            I have no question that women can fight. I question the lowering of standards, the ability of integrated units to maintain effectiveness and cohesiveness, and the value of spending resources to accommodate people who will never be a significant percentage of your front-line troops.

          • Erebus says:

            Needless to say, I share every single concern. However, it should be noted that all of those concerns can be side-stepped by the establishment of a few female-only experimental combat units. (These can be very closely observed, and would be sure to generate lots of interesting data. And if these hyper-achieving women feel as though they’re competing against male infantry units, I’d bet that they perform very well indeed.)

            …But, of course, this issue is not about boosting combat readiness or morale, it’s about scoring political-correctness brownie points at the expense of combat readiness and morale. Gender integration in the US Military is sure to be a debacle…

  24. Lorxus says:

    I had no idea you were such a fan of Calvino, Scott!

  25. Jay Allman says:

    I just found the SSC Political Spectrum Quiz last night. I’m far too late to contribute any discussion to it, but I had some fun tweaking, revising, and extending it. I hope it wouldn’t be presumptuous of me to drop it here, for whatever little it is worth.

    Directions: Read the following cases, and give a Yes or No answer to each question.

    1. A small town prohibits motorized vehicles from entering a city park. A local veterans group wants to install in the park an Iraq War memorial that would have an M1 tank as its centerpiece. Would the memorial fall afoul of the prohibition on “motorized vehicles”?

    2. Anti-capitalist anarchists are holding a demonstration in a small town, urging the destruction of businesses. The demonstration is peaceful and shows no signs of turning violent, but the group is big enough and close enough to major streets that they are incommoding traffic. Should the police move them to a less trafficked area?

    3. The movie reviewer for an opinion magazine donates lots of money to the National Rifle Association, and in other media has published editorials strongly supporting an individual right to bear arms. The magazine fires him, saying these polemics—though never made in his reviews—are inconsistent with the magazine’s traditional and vociferous support of gun control laws. Was the magazine’s action warranted?

    4. The Church of the Veiled Prophet, a sect whose history can be traced in an unbroken line back to medieval Persia, denounces mirrors as “blasphemies” because they multiply images of our false and sinful world. They do not seek to outlaw the manufacture and sale of mirrors, but they denounce representations of mirrors in the media as “multipliers of the multipliers of evil.” They petition media companies to refrain from showing mirrors in film, TV, or print; some radical members hint at violence if their requests are not respected. Should major media honor their petition?

    5. Tennessee passes a law restricting the reasons for and circumstances in which a woman can get an abortion. The United States Supreme Court strikes down the law as an impermissible burden on inherent human rights. Were they correct to do so?

    6. An independent bookstore invites a local bestselling author to conduct a signing and Q&A at its establishment. The author initially accepts, then learns that the bookstore regularly refuses to stock books by “fascist” authors: a prohibition that in practice covers everyone to the left of Hillary Clinton. The author, who is very left-wing but has written editorials denouncing “blacklists,” “artistic boycotts,” and “book banning,” cancels the engagement. Is the author being hypocritical?

    7. A small town in Georgia erects a statue in honor of Winfield Scott, the senior Union commander at the start of the Civil War. Native Americans protest, asserting that the town, though ostensibly honoring someone who fought against slavery and secession, is in reality covertly trying to honor the man who cleared the Cherokee from northern Georgia. Should the town defer to the Native Americans’ objections?

    8. The House of Representatives is debating an “Authorization for Use of Military Force” resolution that would license the president to launch an attack on a major country in the Middle East. The whip count suggests supporters will narrowly prevail, so opponents try blocking it using a “silent quorum” maneuver: they refuse to answer “present” during the pre-vote quorum call, even though they are in the chamber and have been participating in the debate. Should the Speaker, who supports the bill, declare a quorum present anyway and proceed to pass it? [Note: The silent quorum maneuver has been used successfully before.]

    9. The principal of a private school is a member of Planned Parenthood and has spoken in favor of contraception and the morning after pill. The school’s board of trustees fires him, saying that his comments contradict the school’s stated commitment to abstinence and moral education. Were the trustees warranted?

    10. A civil rights group has compiled a list of entertainment writers and directors who oppose gay marriage, both with donations to political campaigns and with public utterances. The group has also compiled examples of homophobic material in these writers’ and directors’ work. They meet with entertainment industry executives and threaten a social-media storm unless the industry ceases to hire them. Should the companies comply?

    11. California passes a law outlawing the publication or broadcast of any political ads in the ten days prior to an election. Two years later, an initiative to repeal that law appears on the ballot. One month before the vote is to be held, the Los Angeles Times publishes a guest editorial in support of repeal. Four days before the election, a group publishes an ad in the Times that merely reprints that editorial; in the same issue, the Times publishes an editorial opposing the repeal. Has anyone broken the law by publishing the pro-repeal editorial in an advertising space?

    12. Republicans are filibustering a Senate bill that would dramatically expand the regulatory powers of environmental and occupational-safety agencies. Should the Democratic majority discard the filibuster as a parliamentary maneuver so that they can pass the bill?

    13. Massachusetts passes a law mandating that printers cannot decline to print (as pamphlets, posters, t-shirts, etc.) any material unless it is “pornographic” or “hate speech.” The United States Supreme Court strikes down the law as an impermissible burden on inherent rights. Were they correct to do so?

    14. The CEO of a major online retailer is a loud-and-proud conservative, and his company famously has a libertarian-conservative corporate culture; liberal commentators regularly deplore both him and his company. He has lately announced that his company will no longer stock or sell any “Marxist-themed” product, including clothes or posters portraying Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Che Guevara, the Red Star, the hammer-and-sickle, St. Basil’s Cathedral, etc., calling them “odious memorials to a monstrous mistake.” Is it right for the company to act in this way?

    15. A Chinese-American employee decorates his cubicle with posters and printouts of articles documenting Japan’s colonial depredations and war crimes. The company (which is relatively small) asks him to remove them; he refuses, and they fire him for creating a “hostile work environment,” even though no Japanese or Japanese-Americans work at the company. Did the company do right?

    16. A patriotic group threatens a boycott of Hollywood movies if the industry doesn’t purge itself of “communist influence.” When studio executives say there is no communist influence in the industry, the group issues a list of “card-carrying Communists” who have written and directed major movies, along with documented instances of the “Communist propaganda” these men have slipped into their films. Should the studios cease hiring these individuals?

    17. A predominantly African-American town in Mississippi erects a statue of William Tecumseh Sherman, whose destructive “march to the sea” broke the economic back of the Confederacy. Whites protest that the gesture is in reality a veiled call for the destruction of white property. Should the town defer to the whites’ objections?

    18. A university professor who is an outspoken critic of the university administration publishes a scholarly/clinical study on child pornography and its effects; the conclusions are strongly condemnatory and could easily be used to support bans on its publication. The study includes graphic supporting material, including pornographic photographs. The university fires him and refers him to local authorities for possible violations of child pornography laws. Has the university acted appropriately?

    19. The one Hispanic in a class of twenty other students files a complaint against her professor, saying that he has been making vociferous and off-topic comments in support of amnesty for illegal immigrants, and denouncing Republicans who oppose it. She claims this has made her feel uncomfortable, as these comments seem directed at her. At the very least, she says, he seems to be assuming that she supports amnesty and open borders; at worst, she suspects he is intimating that she is herself in the country illegally. Should the professor be reprimanded for his comments?

    20. An anti-abortion group is holding a demonstration on a college campus, waving graphic pictures and calling the procedure “murder.” They are positioned on the quad where they are hard to miss. Should campus authorities force them to move to a designated “free speech zone” where there is little traffic?

    Scoring: Examine your answers to the following question pairs:
    2.- 20.
    3.- 9.
    5.- 13.
    7.- 17.
    8.- 12.
    10.- 16.

    Give yourself one point for each pair that you gave the same answer (i.e., “Yes” for both or “No” for both).

    Score of 0 to 3: You are an Object-Level Thinker. You decide difficult cases by trying to find the solution that makes the side you like win and the side you dislike lose in that particular situation.

    Score of 4 to 6: You are a Meta-Level Thinker. You decide difficult cases by trying to find general principles that can be applied evenhandedly regardless of which side you like or dislike.

    • Evan ­Þ says:

      Did you intentionally leave questions 1,4,6,11,14,15,18,19 out of your table?

      Also, a couple comments on your examples:

      In #2: “Close enough” and “incommoding” traffic is vague; I assumed the protestors were actually physically blocking the street. (By contrast, the group in #20 is simply “hard to miss” seeing.)
      In #5/13: “Correct” is vague. I answered these two questions differently simply because I think one is an inherent right and the other isn’t; I very much agree that the Supreme Court would be acting procedurally correctly in both instances.

      • Jay Allman says:

        I missed the tags at the bottom of the reply box when making the first post; let’s try again with a proper link:

        I adapted the quiz from The Slate Star Codex Political Spectrum Quiz. Originally there were 16 questions in a set from which 4 had been supposedly deleted. In the original quiz it was very easy to guess what the questions were testing for, so for this version I made up 8 extra questions to help obfuscate the six meaningful pairs. That is why certain numbered questions are not correlated with each other.

        I also simplified the answers to only “Yes” or “No,” since it was hard enough to keep the cases parallel without tipping the scales one way or the other with loaded language in the possible answers. It’s also to keep people from rejecting both possible answers on the grounds that “neither of the possible answers reflect my own reasons for giving that answer.”

        I’m not sure any of this really works, but that’s what I was trying to do.

        #2: I intentionally left the description vague to tempt the reader to fill it in with their own illicit interpretation. To the extent one thinks of anarchists as assholes, one might interpret “incommoding” as actually blocking traffic; more sympathetic readers might interpret it to mean the protesters’ proximity is only forcing cars to be careful as they pass. Similarly, one might think the abortion protesters are simply visible; but given their signs and chanting, less friendly readers might assume their visibility is itself so distressing as to disrupt foot traffic by causing people to shy away. Such assumptions should not be made; if you offer different answers, it might be because your sympathies have tempted you to over-interpret an under-described situation.

        #5/#13: I wanted to test for reactions on “inherent rights” as a legitimate Constitutional principle. Neither a right to abortion nor a right to NOT publish (AFAIK) are enshrined in the Constitution, but it is sometimes argued that they are implied by rights that are enshrined there, or that we should treat them as Constitutional rights because they are congruent with rights that are protected. This pair is I think the trickiest to pull off, simply because there is so much room in legal argument for finding relevant distinctions between cases. But it was one of the original SSC pairings, and I kept #5 almost unchanged.

        Below, Evan I-don’t-know-how-to-make-that-symbol-on-my-keyboard explains the “silent quorum,” and the question does require you to make the counterfactual assumption that it is still a parliamentary trick in current use. I chose it as the counterpart to filibustering anyway because, yes, it seems a shady maneuver. But one might say the same thing about the filibuster if one thought about it. On the other hand, both techniques are useful for blocking legislation that does not have the support of a supermajority.

        • Pku says:

          5/13 were problematic for me – in both cases I agree that if the action really is an impermissible burden on inherent rights then congress is right to ban it, but have differing opinions on whether each case is an impermissible burden on inherent rights.

        • Jiro says:

          Vague descriptions are a cheat because you are ignoring the possibility that the two groups actually are different enough that the same vague description refers to innocuous acts by one and not by the other. You can’t just dismiss that by saying “your sympathies caused you to over-interpret it”–interpreting it based on the likelihood of such groups doing nasty things is legitimate. Likewise, you can’t just say “such assumptions should not be made”–making such assumptions doesn’t become wrong because you say so. At best, you can say “I ask you when answering these questions to not assume…” in which case the answer is “since it’s vague and you’ve asked me not to interpret the vagueness, I don’t have enough information to answer”.

          • Jay Allman says:

            I don’t think the situations in paired cases have to be detailed; they only have to be equivalently vague. They should be so described that the “Meta-Level Thinker” doesn’t seize on a relevant difference, and the “Object-Level Thinker” only has his or her opinions of the object to support differential treatment. There does not have to be an extraordinary amount of detail to pull this trick off.

            Of course, there should be some detail. “A man is thrown out of a store for being under-dressed” is, I would say, so under-described that I would not be able to judge if the store’s action was justified. (Isn’t there an Abbott and Costello routine where Costello repeatedly fails a dress code, and he can never figure out where he’s failing it, no matter how much he overdresses? If there isn’t, shouldn’t there have been?) If you think 2/20 are that woeful I won’t argue the point and would cheerfully revise it if the test were intended for publication.* But that is not the same as saying that the descriptions must be so detailed as to rule out every possible dissimilarity between them.

            Consider this pair: “A man is standing on a street corner. It is appropriate for a policeman to tell him to move along. (Yes/No)” vs. “A woman is standing on a street corner. It is appropriate for a policeman to tell her to move along. (Yes/No)” Is there a “possibility that the two actually are different enough that the same vague description refers to innocuous acts by one and not by the other”? Sure. Maybe the man is naked, while the woman is fully clothed. Maybe the man is quietly reading a newspaper, while the woman is screaming obscenities. Maybe the man is standing directly beneath a falling office safe, while the woman isn’t. If you are so cautious that you need descriptions that rule out these possibilities—possibilities that would make the situations actually different—then I think you should be answering “Not enough information” to every question in the set. For I can certainly add details to each case that would cause anyone’s original answer to change, and then to change back, and then to change again. (“But it comes with a free frogurt! The frogurt is also cursed! But you get your choice of topping!”)

            “Interpreting it based on the likelihood of such groups doing nasty things is legitimate”: I suppose one can always use this strategy to show that disparate treatments conform to some neutral general principle: “Of course we kicked out the dwarves while letting the elves stay. That’s because our principle is ‘Kick out the nasty people’, and all dwarves are always nasty even when they’re being polite, while all elves never stop being wonderful even after they’ve started flushing cherry bombs down the toilet and setting fire to the curtains.” But that’s a different subject, isn’t it? Whether there is even such a thing as “Meta-Level Thinking,” or whether there are only better and worse ways of disguising “Object-Level Thinking.”

            * Now I’m curious. Could you describe the two scenes in sufficient detail that you feel you could make a judgment, and describe the two scenes such that you think each set of protesters has just crossed the line and should be required to move? That is, just how disruptive can the anarchists get, and how disruptive can the pro-life protesters get, that you’d push each of them to a more out-of-the-way location?

          • Evan Þ says:

            Could you describe the two scenes in sufficient detail that you feel you could make a judgment, and describe the two scenes such that you think each set of protesters has just crossed the line and should be required to move?

            For the anarchists, “fully blocking the street” would make the police justified in removing them. Or, if you want them to be just barely crossing the line, “blocking a lane of traffic.” For the pro-life group, it’d be difficult to have an exact equivalent even if they were fully blocking the sidewalk, because it’s a lot easier for college students to go around them on the grass than it would be for cars to go around the anarchists fully blocking the street. But, still, I can see “fully blocking the sidewalk” as an equivalent to (at least) “blocking a lane of traffic.”

            Of course, this’s all assuming the standard is made clear beforehand and enforced evenhandedly.

          • Jiro says:

            “Interpreting it based on the likelihood of such groups doing nasty things is legitimate”: I suppose one can always use this strategy to show that disparate treatments conform to some neutral general principle

            But sometimes disparate treatments *do* conform to some general neutral principle.

            There’s no shortcut to figuring out whether you’re in one of the cases that does or one of the cases that doesn’t. You actually need to look at the individual circumstances of each situation, not just think “people say similar-sounding things for each one so they must be similar”.

            That is, just how disruptive can the anarchists get, and how disruptive can the pro-life protesters get, that you’d push each of them to a more out-of-the-way location?

            The anarchists want to destroy businesses, and are protesting in a town that is presumably full of them. If the abortion protestors wanted to destroy abortion clinics, and were protesting directly in front of one, they would be more equal in potential disruptiveness. Likewise, if the anarchists merely wanted to change the law so that it would be illegal to operate a business, that might reduce my estimation of the chance of violence from their protest. (Would that even still be anarchism, though?)

        • Jordan D. says:

          I think but am not entirely certain that the ‘Right not to publish’ falls into the compelled speech doctrine, which is part of the natural reading of the First Amendment, while the reproductive rights are inferred from generalized principles in privacy jurisprudence (the oft-maligned ’emanations and penumbras’). I’m more-or-less okay with both of those, but I can see how someone could genuinely draw a distinction on meta-level principles rather than object ones.

          That said, I don’t expect that most people draw constitutional distinctions that finely. I don’t think these questions are too bad.

    • Adam says:

      I didn’t give the same answers for 8 and 13, but that’s because I believed lying about your presence in a room is not actually allowed, whereas filibustering very clearly is. If that’s not the case, that’s a reflection of my lack of understanding of the intricacies of parliamentary procedure, not an underlying inconsistency in ideology.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Similar to others, my most common reaction to all of the questions was “I have not been given enough information. I know the author is attempting to “categorize” me, and these questions seem to be an attempt to do so in an uncharitable manner.”

      Just as one example, are the protesters holding permits? Are their policies in place that treat all protesters equally, regardless of content? If so, the policies on a college campus and on a public thoroughfare can be be different. In fact the policies from one jurisdiction to another may be different, without harm to the ideals of free speech.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        @ HeelBearCub

        Yes, it’s … not terribly good. Apparently the premise is that you agree with the rule, so do you apply it fairly? I’d answer some of them “A worthy exception to a reasonable rule” or “A bad rule, ignore it.” I suppose that takes each rule as an Object.

        More fun is, “Why argue, when a better solution is obvious?” — ie, take the motor out of the tank.

        Perhaps I’d rank as below Object Level and above Meta Level, or somewhere in between. I tried to be even-handed sympathy-wise, but began on each item with “What princlple should be applied here?” (Or “What kind of principle?” I often came down on “The greatest good for the greatest number of the people closely involved.”

        In the Native Americans vs Sherman, the NA’s are few, and would not be made happy by winning; they’d just go on to some other symbolic grievance. And if they lost, they’d have a statue to vandalize, which would be fun and each time a small win. There’s also the fact that they’re objection is to some action of Sherman that most people never heard of, ignoring what he is famous for and what the citizens want to honor (ie his ‘central meaning’).

        On the other hand, the pro-statue citizens probably don’t really care all that much (except those personally involved in the project). So I’d probably vote against the statue, on my personal values of don’t waste money, and trees are nicer than statues.

        • Svejk says:

          I had the opposite reaction to NA vs Scott/ whites vs. Sherman: Scott’s atrocities against the Cherokee are a central part of his bio, whereas the link between Sherman and ‘white property’ is extremely vague and not very convincing – indeed, one of the central issues of the war was the South’s extremely generous interpretation of the term ‘white property’. Had the question been phrased as opposition to the celebration of wanton destruction, it might have been more thought-provoking.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Well, that and the fact Sherman never attacked Mississippi. March to the Sea was Georgia and South Carolina and wasn’t unique to him either (living off the land and destroying the enemies economic basis is a time honored tactic and raiders on both sides used it).

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            While it probably doesn’t change the point, Jackson, Miss. got its nickname of ‘Chimneyville’ when it was burned down by Sherman at the end of the Vicksburg campaign.

      • Jay Allman says:

        Did or do you have the same reaction to the questions on the original quiz? E.g.: “A human rights group is picketing the headquarters of Exxon Mobil for abusing their workers in Third World countries. Exxon Mobil executives feel very uncomfortable entering their HQ and say that the protesters are blocking the main entrance to the building. They want the protesters to go protest in a designated free speech zone a few miles away where it will have no effect on them.

        “a) Allow the human rights group to continue to stay near the building
        b) Tell them to go protest far away”

        If you react the same way to the original quiz, what (if any) conclusions do you draw about quizzes of this sort? (Genuinely curious, don’t want to sound defensive.) If you do not react the same way, why does my variation seem to fail? (Again, genuinely curious, don’t want to sound defensive.)

        • Jiro says:

          What does “make uncomfortable” mean? Does it mean that the protestors are taking advantage of a captive audience by saying things that cannot be ignored because they are too loud or otherwise can’t be avoided other than by leaving their own private property? If so, get rid of them. Does it mean “someone inside the building is horribly upset about the mere idea that a protestor is out there, regardless of whether they can see or hear the protestor”? If so, I don’t care.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          @Jay Allman:

          I had somewhat of a similar reaction to the original quiz, but less so. Partially, I think this is because the relatively non-obfuscatory nature of the original pairings strikes me as a feature, not a bug. There is nothing particularly wrong with signalling that you want people to turn over two paired concepts and decide what matters. I think this probably leads to better answers.

          However, some of the examples make little sense to me. The North Korean land mine example, for example, doesn’t match my understanding of the UN works, as (a) the U.S. is one of the largest hold-ups to global action on land-mines, and (b) North Korea draws any UN power they have from having China, as a permanent member of the security council, as their patron.

          And some of the questions put words in my mouth, or concepts in my head. The USOC questions don’t make particular sense to me, as I see the high court as essentially another political body, just one that follows a different set of rules, ones which are a product of a judicial culture stretching back to the Magna Carta.

          As to the specific example of the protesters, the two situations are far more analogous than your yours. Both public thoroughfares, etc. Although, the added wrinkle of it being the executives who are specifically asking seems not quite kosher, and also ambiguous (why are they uncomfortable? Are threats being made? Is the entrance to the building actually blocked?)

          Broadly, I tend not to like questionnaires of this sort. I think it is because simply by the nature of binary answers, tend to assume that principles are in precise oppositional tension with each other. This is a view that suggests that we can boil everything down to two positions that are diametrically opposed. My view of the world is that there are many principles in action on any question, and that their combined tensions matter a great deal more than is freely acknowledged.

          The Chinese – Dalai Lama example is perhaps indicative of this. Free speech matters, so the celebration should be allowed. Government representation of constituencies matters, so the Chinese immigrant community needs representation and a voice that is expressed by their local government. Communities are not monolithic, so the (very likely present) members of the Chinese community who object to China’s actions in Tibet should be represented. The idea of harmony within broader civic life matters, so discourse should be channeled in productive ways as much as possible.

          So the question in a number of these scenarios make little sense outside of the context in which they occur. Is the Chinese ex-pat constituency under-represented? Or do they hold a strong position locally? Are the Chinese ex-pats excluded from civic life? Are they the subject of mockery, derision and violence? Are they segregated simply by cultural forces? Does the local government, or the festival leadership, fully understand the Tibet situation, or is this merely a reflexive feel good event?

          Perhaps too long an answer to a simple question. Hope it helps convey where I am coming from.

  26. Pku says:

    This (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8xwLWb0lLY) makes it seem like it would be very efficient to move funding from food stamps to programs that help get supermarket and farmer waste food to food banks. Any thoughts on why that would be a good/bad idea (aside from political inertia, of course, which already probably makes it impossible).

    • NZ says:

      One of the big draws of food stamps, to people who use them, is they get to still look like regular customers spending regular money, and thus avoid the social shame of looking poor–or really, of looking like social parasites. This wouldn’t be a problem if social parasites weren’t so common.

      • PSJ says:

        What is your evidence that social parasites are common?

        Also, what percentage is necessary to count as “so common”?

        • NZ says:

          I’m largely drawing on my experience working at a dollar store in the hood for a year. Add to that the comparable experiences of dozens of people I’ve known or listened to. Were you looking for peer-reviewed papers or something?

    • Loquat says:

      Potential hiccup – a lot of poor people strongly prefer to feel “normal” and will in fact pay extra for the privilege. Buying the food you want from the supermarket with your own money is normal, buying the food you want from the supermarket with food stamps is almost-normal, going to a food bank to pick through whatever was donated is very definitely Receiving Charity and there will be a substantial number of people you want to help who will resent the change.

      Also, supermarket/farm waste food is disproportionately likely to be fresh fruits and vegetables rather than canned/prepackaged food, and the anecdotes I’ve heard about food banks suggest fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t as popular among food bank users as one might wish.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        @ loquat

        True about fresh bread and vegetables. The local food bank seldom gets Wonder Bread in plastic bags and such, but they have tables piled with crusty unsliced artisan loaves in paper bags (if any), expensive small local bakery ‘peasant style’ dark breads with wonderful ingredients. I have heard of a kid disliking the food bank, because all they have is poor people’s bread.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      @ Pku

      Food banks have limited hours, maybe just one day a week, and are usually further away than supermarkets. Poor people who work or have transportation problems can’t get there. Even where there is bus service, think of carrying a week’s worth of groceries on the bus, through several changes, while wrangling toddlers.

      Programs to get the food from the grocery stores to the food banks would have similar problems in the opposite direction, starting with transporting the food for a one-day food bank opening (some food would be too far past the sell-by date).

      Much more efficient to let the recipients carry the food from the grocery straight to their homes. Also more efficient to let the clerks process an EBT card — just like a credit card — instead of holding up the line of shoppers while dealing with stamps.

      • Pku says:

        What about instead shifting the food stamps money to get the supermarket having a “free produce” section with the type 2 fruit? This could be cheaper for the government than food stamps (since they’re effectively buying the fruit the supermarket would otherwise throw away).
        The political advantage is that it would help prevent concerns about “social leeches” and the like (since they’re taking what would otherwise go to waste. The obvious disadvantage is the one people posted above, that people don’t like feeling that they’re taking charity (and while it might be possible to implement this in a way that would come across as less abnormal than food banks, it would still be less normal than food stamps).
        The other economic concern (disclaimer about me not being an economist): If we were to actually pull this off and get more efficient food usage, wouldn’t we have issues with food overproduction? Could we trade this off for some other advantage (say, adding a farming regulation that makes farms more eco-friendly but less efficient, which would be relatively easy if they were being too efficient).

        • Adam says:

          Generally speaking, if you’re going to have poverty relief transfers at all, the most economically efficient way (in the sense of market efficiency, i.e. producing the outcome closest to Pareto optimality) is to put cash without any strings attached directly in the hands of the consumer, as a consumer knows better than a piece of legislation what he or she needs or wants. Also, food banks are notorious for being among the worst charities, not for any ill intent; they’re just a bad idea for a huge host of reasons.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          > What about instead shifting the food stamps money to get the supermarket having a “free produce” section with the type 2 fruit? This could be cheaper for the government than food stamps (since they’re effectively buying the fruit the supermarket would otherwise throw away).

          Not cheaper for the supermarkets. They’d have to re-label each item as “free”, use store space for the section — and pay liability costs if any of the free stuff spoiled and someone got sick (even if coincidentially). Also cleaning the bin would be a chore, since one rotten apple….

          • Pku says:

            The idea is that they get paid by the government for having the “free produce” aisle, instead of having food stamps. So they do still make money off it.
            (About the liability issue, according to the John Oliver bit, that’s something you can’t actually get sued for).
            Also, @adam: Aside from issues with the consumer knowing best what they want (poor people have notoriously bad impulse control; e.g. the homeless lady with the smartwatch down the block from me), there’s the issue that this potentially gets around a lot of bureaucracy: instead of having a complicated system for trying to decide who gets food stamps money and who doesn’t, you just have free second-quality fruit, which would be self-selected by the people who couldn’t afford to pay for nicer-looking fruit: This matches the rationale that no one should starve by establishing a lower bound on nutrition rather than seeking out the people who would otherwise starve and giving them money, which is complicated and inefficient. (A universal basic income guarantee could also solve some of these issues, but that’s a whole other story).

          • Loquat says:


            a) Just because you “can’t get sued” for something, doesn’t mean someone won’t try, resulting in you having to spend money on legal defense.

            b) If you try to shift food aid spending to only subsidize fast-spoiling things like fresh fruits (and I presume you’d include vegetables, bread, etc) you’re going to run into the above-mentioned problem of lots of poor people not really wanting those. As tempting as it is to facepalm at people who can’t turn fresh vegetables into dinner and exhort them to better themselves, taking away their subsidies for things like canned soup and breakfast cereal isn’t going to make them suddenly learn to cook.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            1) John Oliver is not, to the best of my knowledge, a lawyer, and if he is, he’s an incompetent one, because if you give somebody a piece of spoiled fruit and make them sick, they most certainly can sue you. They may win, they may not. But they can sue you and you are going to be out money and/or have an insurance claim (which is another way of saying you’ll be out money.) It’s Hell on wheels to prove these things, which is why although food poisoning is very common food poisoning lawsuits are rare. But there’s no reason they can’t be filed.

            2) I have seen, with my own eyes, somebody who was asking for money to buy food refuse a gift of food when they found out it was chicken and steamed vegetables. Allegedly, this was because they wanted McDonald’s, but fill in your own theory as to why they really wanted the money.

          • Pku says:

            For 1), his exact quote was “It’s something that’s never happened”. As you said, he’s not a lawyer and might be wrong on this, but it seems reasonable that the sort of people who get food in food banks would be unlikely to have the resources to pursue difficult lawsuits.
            2) is the main reason I like this scheme (though that’s related to my own political values) – I think the government should make sure everyone has enough to eat. If you want luxuries, work for them yourself.
            Also, weird story about the steamed chicken thing: A while ago, a homeless guy who saw me going into the grocery store asked me to buy him orange juice and eggs (He was very specific). I got him orange juice, and when I gave it to him his response was “hey, where’s my eggs?!” I still have no idea why a homeless man would even want eggs.

  27. Edward Scizorhands says:


    Uber study finds Uber gets you a car twice as fast as a taxi and cheaper, in poor neighborhoods. But what really caught my eye was this, emphasis added.

    Even though Uber had no control over our data analysis or interpretation, the fact that Uber paid for the study makes some skepticism about our results natural and proper. We will happily share our data and methods with other research teams for re-analysis and replication

    I really like that. I wish more people did it. I think it’s one of the things I like about SSC: the acknowledgement that you could be wrong.

    • gwern says:

      If they want any credibility, they have to acknowledge that – it’s not all that special. What would have been more impressive is if they had not taken Uber’s money at all. To detect a difference like that, you can fund it out of pocket easily! Any Uber users living in SF or Manhattan or somewhere else Uber is big business could probably replicate with under 30 trips randomly split between Uber and taxis, not even spending more than they usually would on transportation, hence effectively doing it for free.

  28. tanagrabeast says:

    I was wondering if anyone had any insight into the FDA’s recent NSAIDs warnings. None of the articles I read went into any detail about the studies/metastudies that prompted it, and the extent to which the research did or did not try to tease out the risk from NSAID use vs. the risk from the conditions that prompt people to take NSAIDs in the first place. I mean, we’ve been hearing for a while now that inflammation is bad for you. Is it less bad than treating it with NSAIDs?

  29. Esquire says:

    I have a question about Effective Altruism and its interaction with finance/currency.

    One the one hand, if I tip my barber $20, that is grossly inefficient because African Children need the money more. But, on the other hand, the money is just an accounting entry and exchanging it doesn’t create or destroy any real resources. Overpaying for my haircut simply reallocates some of my economic power to the barber. Is it inefficient because he is maybe less likely to use that power to help African Children? In a world where we all cared equally about doing good, there would appear to be no harm in this kind of transfer.

    I guess the point is that what appears to be wasteful spending doesn’t necessarily lead to wasteful allocation of society’s resources because dollars are not “used up”, just exchanged. Is there a subtle point that “wasteful” spending patterns will lead to societal investment decisions that really do reallocate real economic resources in bad ways?

    • sweeneyrod says:

      Even if the barber is as likely as you to use the economic power to help African Children, giving it to him delays it being used in that way. You would prefer £10 now to £10 later (bar a large amount of deflation), and so would the African Children.

    • Peter says:

      Disclaimer: I’m not quite EA, as my charity budget isn’t fully aligned with EA principles. Also, this is off the top of my head, so I’m not a spokesperson.

      In a world where everyone is a perfect utilitarian saint, then giving $20 to the barber or to African Children will have the same effect. You still have to get the money to the African Children somehow; in the hypothetical, if you’re spending all your spare cash on tips, then so’s the barber and everyone the barber is interacting with economically and none of it ends up going to the African Children. Also, if everyone’s giving all their spare cash to the maximum marginal utility cause, then ex hypothesi you aren’t tipping the barber.

      Except a) there are no (or hardly any) perfect utilitarian saints, the EA movement doesn’t aim at sainthood. Various bits of the movement use the 10% figure, I’ve heard lower figures kicking around, but let’s say 10%, suppose everyone adheres to that. So the immediate EA value of donating the $20 is $20 whereas if you tip the barber the value is only $2.

      Now the barber might spend the remaining $18 on tips to waitresses etc. and so $2 + $1.80 + $1.62 + … adds up to $20. What gives? Maybe the barber spends the money on something else, but it all ends up as income for people anyway. Eventually. Delays mean losses to inflation, also you can consider interest.

      I don’t think this is the whole story though. Money sent to African Children also ends up as income for people, so by that logic the African Children get $20 directly plus another $20 from the recirculation effects. Except if they’re getting another $20 then they’re going to get another $20 from that, and another, until people decide that other causes are more efficient now. So – I’m out of my depth here – it looks like the African Children are getting a stream of money, the key thing is the rate at which they get money (remember you can use interest rates to convert back-and-forth between stocks and streams). Also, if you’re considering people’s charity habits, then you’re thinking about streams rather than stocks anyway.

      Now if I understood economics better I could say more here, it seems like you could get more money – that is, a faster-flowing stream of money – to African Children by getting money to circulate faster. However I seem to recall something about a higher velocity of money being (or leading to) inflation, so maybe that just gets more zeroes to African Children without any corresponding increase in the provision of goods and services.

      My inner uncharitable person says: “you know, this sort-of answers the question but you do realise you’ve fallen into a trap. The question is basically a filibuster; people can ask endless questions about theoretical economics more and more remote from the actual matter at hand, with the answers getting more and more tenuous, and not only can you never fully satisfy them with each attempt at explanation you run a greater and greater risk of making a mistake and looking foolish”.

      • Esquire says:

        I don’t think this is really an angels-on-a-pin theoretical issue. I think it’s a basic issue relating to the misunderstandings we get when we use the household budget as an analogy for macroeconomics.

        Like… African Children are not aided by dollars per se, they are aided by flows of goods and services from outside, which they are able to command (sort of) with dollars. Circulating the dollars within “Africa” is not going to double and triple the economic capacity of Africa as your assumptions maybe imply.

        I don’t have any great conclusions, which is why my comment was phrased as a question. But one obvious danger is that you will get “pushing on a string” effects where there is a relatively inelastic supply of tradeable goods flowing into “Africa” and more aid flows serve mostly to just increase their prices. Then… the best use of charitable resources would be to invest to build tradeable good capacity rather than trying to subsidize consumption.

        I guess the meta-question is “does EA think about these issues in a serious way?”

        PS – I totally get your uncharitable “this is a filibuster” response, and I 100% acknowledge that there is a nonrational temptation to filibuster oneself when considering applying EA in ones life. BUT: I think this discussion is important enough that it defeats the safeguards against that bias. Consider that at the end of the day investments in Western innovation really really have done orders of magnitude more for the world’s poor than investments in aid. It is nuts to be too confident about how to do good on a global basis without being able to account for that.

        • Anonymous says:

          Sure, circulating more money in Africa is not going to do anything, but you are outside Africa. You send the money in and it comes out in return for more goods. Sending money into Africa really results in more goods entering Africa.

          To put it another way, by giving less money to the barber, you discourage people from being barbers and encourage them to work in the sectors you do spend money on, like making insecticides or bednets. Or whatever Africans buy, if you directly send money.

          Do you doubt this? When you talk of “tradeable good capacity” it sounds like you think that the cash gets trapped in Africa and just inflates prices. If there were a bottleneck that the ports were too small, then expanding them would be valuable, but would probably also be a pretty direct effect of sending money.

          Ultimately, it would be good to make Africans more productive. (Is this what you mean by “tradeable good capacity”?) But this is a really hard problem. Maybe Givewell doesn’t spend enough time analyzing the effects of building schools, compared to distributing bednets. But preventing malaria results in smarter and more energetic people than not preventing malaria, and directly contributes to productivity.

          • Esquire says:

            The very stylized model that illustrates my point is:

            Option 1: There is a single bednet factory in the world, operated for profit. The factory is already outputing at full capacity of C nets/year. The outside world sends $X to Africa, and the factory charges Africa X/C per net. If X becomes large, the factory will earn excess profits in the short run but new entrants will be attracted to the net business and more capacity / lower prices as a result will benefit Africa.

            Option 2: Instead of raising X, spend that money directly on constructing a net factory. You are likely to achieve the same result with much less leakage to the “excess profits” account.

    • ” Is there a subtle point that “wasteful” spending patterns will lead to societal investment decisions that really do reallocate real economic resources in bad ways?”


      Payments are both transfers and signals. Suppose the normal price for a haircut is $10. At that price, there are just enough people willing to cut hair to cut the amount that customers, at that price, want cut.The social value of your barber cutting your hair is only $10, since if he didn’t someone else would be happy to do it for you at that price.

      You pay him $30, the $10 price plus a $20 tip. He was considering switching to a different job because, at $10/haircut, the alternative job paid him a little more for his time. He decides not to, because he assumes that you will give him similar tips in the future, and that makes cutting hair more attractive than the alternative job.

      You can work the same argument out on a variety of other margins, such as whether someone decides to cut hair, how many hours the barber works, and the like. You are putting in a false signal, hence (very slightly) distorting the incentives that, undistorted, produce (in some sense) an optimal outcome.

      • Adam says:

        The only thing I would say to this is that if people are actually paying their barbers $30 when the published price is $10, then the consumer clearly feels he received $30 of value and is sending a more accurate price signal than he would be by paying the published price. He’s effectively just transferring his consumer surplus. In a world without tips, assuming people still valued having their hair cut by others and not having to do it themselves, something between the high and low current payments would become the published price, which wouldn’t necessarily change production levels. It would just mean everyone would pay $20 instead of half the people paying $10 and half paying $30, and it would become much easier for a barber to tell in advance if becoming a barber would be worth it.

        • I was considering a case where there were alternative suppliers with an opportunity cost of $10. Switching the job from someone whose opportunity cost is $10 to someone whose opportunity cost is $20 is a net loss of $10.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I take it you have never worked a job where you received tips as a substantial portion of your income?

      Regardless of whether you think you “shouldn’t” have to tip, the economic system we have includes jobs where compensation includes tips. People take those jobs expecting to be tipped and hourly wages to that employee include this expectation. Your not tipping the barber doesn’t change the system, it just makes you kind of a jerk.

      Although $20 seems like its way too much, 20% is more in the usual and customary range, and your barber shouldn’t be charging $100, unless things have really changed.

      All of that said. Get some Wahl clippers and slap on a #2 guard and start doing your own hair. Then all the money can go to Africa.

      • Vaniver says:

        Your not tipping the barber doesn’t change the system, it just makes you kind of a jerk.

        On the margin, it does change the system in two ways: smoothly, tip expectations are typically calculated rather than estimated, and so if people only tip 10% on average then the guaranteed portion of the wage will increase related to a world where people tip 15% on average, and coarsely, a world where people don’t tip erodes the norm that service workers should be tipped.

      • Anthony says:

        If you’re paying $100 for a haircut, you’re seeing a “stylist”, not a “barber”.

        For $400, you should be able to get your stylist to come to your private plane and give you a sleazy-lawyer haircut. I’m not sure if you have to tip if you’re paying that much.

      • onyomi says:

        My way of thinking of this, especially with employees like waiters/waitresses who really depend almost solely on tips, is to think of the waiter as working *for me* rather than working for the restaurant.

        In premodern Chinese theaters there were people walking around selling snacks, tea, etc. The theater owner did not pay these people anything. They merely allowed them in the theater to sell their wares to paying customers on the theory that their presence enhanced the theater-going experience.

        Having a waiter enhances your restaurant going experience in that you don’t have to walk up to a counter to order and pick up all your own food, nor bus your own table. The “producing food for customers” business and the “taking orders and bringing stuff to the table” business are logically separable, and when you have a waiter, you are really engaging both businesses. In places like France where “le service est compris” you are just paying for a bundle of these two separate services.

        So, stiffing your waiter in the US is basically just refusing to pay someone who’s working for you, which is understandable if they do a particularly awful job, but not otherwise.

    • Smoke says:

      If your barber is also an EA, the opportunity cost of the time he spent giving you a haircut is (a) doing object-level EA stuff or (b) giving a haircut to someone who’s not an EA and thus having funds flow in to EA pockets on net.

  30. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on the Celestial Blogroll of Benevolent Knowledge, which is the best blogroll categorization that I’ve ever seen. I literally LOL’d reading which blogs had been assigned to which categories.

  31. onyomi says:

    Another, unrelated issue in the Haidt book: he makes what I consider an interesting observation that countries like Sweden with big welfare states are not truly “group focused” in the way communism or true socialism is, but rather very focused on providing a certain standard of living for the individual. This tends to divide governments into individual-focused (all liberal democracies) and group-focused (including communist, fascist, and hyper-nationalist and/or theocratic states).

    I’ve long thought that it was weird to put communism and fascism on opposite ends of the spectrum, and this seems to support that. On the other hand, it may also mean that we libertarians need not worry that Sweden-like welfarism is a slippery slope to North Korea, because, while we may think it’s a bad idea, it is fundamentally a different sort of philosophy than that which produced North Korea.

  32. onyomi says:

    Have been reading Jonathan Haidt’s book on the “Righteous Mind” recently (has this already been discussed here?), and thinking about the sources of morality.

    Haidt seems to be a species of intuitionist, but not a rational intuitionist like Huemer, but more of a feelings-based intuitionist: that is, morality starts with biology based feelings like disgust (evolved to keep us from eating rotten food, etc.) and caring (evolved to make sure we take care of kids), and then we add a layer of reasoning on top of that to justify what we already feel.

    This view is persuasive and seems to me to present problems for both utilitarianism and rational intuitionism.

    Re. utilitarianism, Haidt points out that the only people who don’t have some of the basic moral feelings like caring and empathy are psychopaths, and they are notoriously bad ethical reasoners. Yet strict, rational utilitarianism seems as if it would predict (behind a veil of ignorance) that psychopaths would be the *best* ethical reasoners, because their judgment is least clouded by emotion.

    Re. rational intuitionism, I still find the pure evolutionary explanation of morality to be weak, because there are cases when we may clearly override our feelings of disgust, etc. in order to make a more rational ethical judgment: maybe homosexual sex feels a little “icky” to me, but I can override that to reason that that’s no good reason for discrimination (though maybe that also comes from a separate feeling about kindness and fairness). This being the case, maybe reason is the “higher order” ethical calculator which may balance and weigh the raw emotional data provided by the gut-level intuition?

    But given that books on ethics are, apparently, more likely to be stolen from libraries than other books, this seems to point to the idea that learning to reason about ethics may not make you more ethical, but may only make you better at rationalizing what you already want to do. In which case, trying to be more rational about ethics may be a dangerous endeavor, since it just makes us more psychopath-like?

    • Creutzer says:

      I haven’t read the book, just absorbed some of it through (sub)cultural osmosis, so I’d like to ask: Are these connections between moral psychology and ethical theorising yours, or does he venture in that direction in the book?

      About the psychopaths, that may not be a very strong argument. It may be very cognitively effortful to account for other people’s utility, which is unnatural to them, and maybe they also just can’t be bothered to reason about this because it’s profoundly uninteresting to them. (Disclaimer: I don’t know what data there are about moral reasoning of psychopaths.)

      • Held in Escrow says:

        To add onto this; why would a psychopath care about the welfare of others? They’re generally not going to see the long term effects of constant defects if they are smart about it, so why not use the caring nature of everyone else (which is what makes us more likely to work together over defect) against us?

        In effect, when one side isn’t purely rational the system we know as the classic PD breaks down.

      • onyomi says:

        He does go that way in the book, though he seems to take a somewhat dimmer view of the importance of reasoning than I do. I’m not sure whether or not he’d classify himself as a “moral realist,” as I am inclined to do myself.

    • blacktrance says:

      It’s been a while since I read “The Righteous Mind”, but as I remember, Haidt (somewhat annoyingly) uses the term “morality” to mean “people’s beliefs about morality”.

    • I think his studies are just documenting how people act morally and not how you should. It still is relevent though as it shows places of friction. Generally of the 6 foundations,

      Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others.
      Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules. (Alternate name: Proportionality)
      Liberty/oppression: the loathing of tyranny.
      Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation. (Alternate name: Ingroup)
      Authority/subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority. (Alternate name: Respect.)
      Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions. (Alternate name: Purity.)

      The only ones consequentialists generally care about is care/harm and only occasionally use the others as second-order concerns and heuristics. I really struggle with people who use the other as an actual moral root.

      • onyomi says:

        Thanks for listing these here for me.

        I think one of his big meta points is that the post-enlightenment West has focused very heavily on care/harm and liberty/oppression, while increasingly ignoring the other parameters, but that if one travels to say, India, one will find that parameters like authority and sanctity still hold very strong sway.

        One of his other points is that conservatives in the US are better at understanding liberals than the reverse (and this is revealed by actual surveys), probably because conservatives tend to draw on a wider range of these foundations (conservatives have stronger disgust reactions I’ve read here, for example), but liberals mistakenly believe that conservatives do not care about what they care about, when in fact, they simply value other things as much or more.

        Generally, I’d say US liberals care most about care/harm: they want to help the poor, etc. and don’t care that much about whether or not the poor “deserve” to be poor, or, in some cases, whether it will require curtailing the liberty or undermining the authority of more responsible people less in need of care.

        Conservatives DO actually care about harm, but they also care a lot about fairness (people should have to work for their benefits), liberty (keep government out of x), loyalty (nationalism, support our troops), authority (pro-military, pro-police, pro-traditional institutions), and sanctity (anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, etc.)

        Libertarians like me are apparently a hybrid of the two: we care about liberty to a degree even greater than conservatives, but, unlike conservatives, we usually don’t care much about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Haidt also claims libertarians score low on measures of empathy, which may be true, but I would not say we don’t care about care/harm. In fact, for many libertarians, harm is the only justifiable reason to pass a law. Or to put it more accurately, we are super live-and-let-live. We may not feel much responsibility to help you, but we’ll fight hard to make sure no one *harms* you.

        • James Picone says:

          The thing that most obviously marks someone as a libertarian to me is an unwillingness to solve coordination problems with government – that is, situations where many decisions with very small harms aggregate to a large harm are not something that most libertarians fight against.

          CFCs and leaded petrol seems like moderately nonpolitical examples of that type of problem to me. As far as I’m aware, most libertarians aren’t in favour of the Montreal protocol or government regulations that forbid leaded petrol.

          Usually the argument I see is that these situations will resolve themselves via people making a principled decision not to buy leaded petrol, or in extreme cases that the problem will be resolved via people who get skin cancer suing emitters of CFCs. Or, to be uncharitable, claims that it’s not real and CFCs can’t get into the stratosphere / we don’t need ozone anyway / sunscreen technology will compensate.

          • onyomi says:

            I think it’s simpler than that. Libertarians just don’t like government, period. Some view it as a necessary evil, others as an unnecessary evil.

          • There’s the consequentialist version of “don’t like government,” the argument that the decision making mechanism of the political system is more prone to produce wrong decisions than the mechanism of the market, hence that shifting decisions from the latter to the former will, on average, produce worse decisions.

            That doesn’t require believing that the market doesn’t produce bad outcomes, only that the alternative does.

        • blacktrance says:

          Progressives apparently not caring about loyalty, authority, and purity is an artifact of the questions asked. The dominant narrative is that progressives only care about harm and fairness, but that’s only because the cases that trigger the other foundations for them are non-archetypal. For example, it’s sometimes said that the right moralizes sex and the left moralizes food (see all the purity about organic/non-GMO/vegetarian/gluten-free/etc) – though the SJ left moralizes sex too.

          If anything, not caring about loyalty/authority/purity is a contrarian trait rather than a progressive one. When I lived in the South, the locally dominant conservatives used all of the foundations and the progressive minority used only harm/fairness, as Haidt would predict. But when I went to study at a liberal arts college, it was the locally dominant progressives who used all of the foundations and the conservatives who only used harm/fairness. Libertarians are disproportionately likely to be contrarians, so they care less about loyalty/authority/purity.

          • stillnotking says:

            Locally dominant cultures exhibit a sort of unconscious “morality creep”, expanding their core moral concerns into ever-wider spheres, e.g. the SJ left moralizing sex without seeming to realize they’re so doing. The end result, in the absence of significant internal or external challenge, is the establishment of a morally-correct opinion about nearly everything. This famously happens in cults and other ideologically closed movements.

  33. Thomas says:

    Dr Scott, do you know anything about Trazodone?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Just prescribed some. Good sleeping medication. Not so good as an antidepressant. Occasionally causes extremely prolonged erection which is MUCH less fun than it sounds.

      • Thomas says:

        Priapism probably not a problem for my wife. Is it helpful for anxiety? Prescribed to help sleep in the face of anxiety.

        • Thomas says:

          To be clear, I mean that my wife probably won’t get a priapism. The meds aren’t for me.

        • Deiseach says:

          I hate to distress you, Thomas, but women can get priapism of the clitoris (which, looking up Wikipedia, is a side-effect of Trazodone in women).

          And verging on too much information – let’s just say that even without medication, due to hormonal changes in their life-stages, women too can get persistent and uncomfortable constant sexual arousal. Scott is right: this is much less fun than it sounds.

          • Furrfu says:

            Does it result in clitoral necrosis leading to occasional gangrene, as penile priapism does? I had the impression that clitoral erections were not as rigid as penile erections, and so were not likely to result in permanent damage.

            And yeah, iku iku byo is already internet-famous, although I hadn’t heard it was caused by menopause.

      • Thomas says:

        PS thank you for answering. Is it bad I trust you over my actual physicians?

      • Furrfu says:

        My favorite priapism video of all time. No actual priapism footage. Im sure you can find that if you look.

  34. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    Suggested Dungeons and Discourse artifact: armor that will protect your life and liberty against those whose notions of morality would restrict private conduct they find strange. Called the Fursuit of Happiness.

  35. Nathanael says:

    What does Angels-And-Clockwork mean?! You used it in a blog post as if you expected the reader to understand it, but I didn’t, and google picked up way too much noise. Also, a blog post describing what the phrase Object-level means in the context of Object-Level errors would probably help a lot of people who aren’t as used to the vocabulary of the LW community as you are.

  36. CAE_Jones says:

    Akrasia is (like?) a demon. I’d like to hire someone to send it back to Hell.
    Unfortunately, I am poor, and anyone who could manage this should value their time at at least an order of magnitude more than I could pay if I gave them all my money.

    Yes, obvious advice is obvious: Food! Exercise! Therapy! Sleep! Pomodoros! Find Your Passion™! Socialize! Beeminder! Schedules! To-do lists! Meditation! SSRIs! Ritalin! Modafinil! Level-grind until you have something resembling agency!
    Ok, but let’s say I’ve tried all that, and either they don’t work, Akrasia and/or crippling anxiety interfere, or something else gets in the way, and The Demon Lord of Sloth and Akrasia grows stronger by the day, as we approach the End of All Hope.

    So, yeah, the only options I’m sure I have are whining on the internet, and spending an absolute maximum of $282.39 (being all my Paypal money, I am understandably reluctant to go that high on anything less than a guaranteed miracle).
    If anyone can fix me hard enough that I eventually have a net positive cash flow, sure, I’d be willing to owe them $x000 (where x<=10) long term.

    I'm posting this here because I can't think of anywhere better, and there is something of a "put your money where your mouth is" culture in these parts. I am skeptical that anyone reading this can succeed at this task–I have read all the Akrasia-related articles on LessWrong, naturally, and they seem to require a much higher base level conscientiousness to be the least bit usable. But if anyone can do this, I'd expect at least one person here to be able to find them.

    Sorry for the mess.

    • Gudamor says:

      “let’s say I’ve tried all that, and either they don’t work, Akrasia and/or crippling anxiety interfere, or something else gets in the way”
      Are you certain you want what you think you want? Your list is pretty thorough.

      • CAE_Jones says:

        Are you certain you want what you think you want?

        Probably? To make matters more frustrating, I notice my preferences changing in ways I don’t like; if I am wrong about anything I want, then I want to self-modify for otherwise.

        Your list is pretty thorough.

        Yes, but I feel I should reiterate that there are some that have not succeeded on the grounds that I can’t really try them, certainly not in any sustainable way. Ex, leaving my house is barrier enough, never mind all the other obstacles that make putting anything involving other people into practice, and most things I could do on my own (diet/exercise/pomodoros/lists/etc) fall prey to Akrasia themselves.
        Actually, the closest I’ve come to quantifying this mess suggests that pomodoros I can’t Akrasia out of, and some sort of decent social contact probably have the best chance of helping. But the former requires finding some way to make it too costly to cheat, and the latter requires* divine intervention.

        * “Requires” might be a strong word. But, realistically, I am terrible at people, I can’t travel all that easily, meetup.com gives me nothing more interesting than a board game group that’s not even in the same state, and seeking out people solely as medication rather than because I actually like them turns it into a chore, on top of everything else.

        Preferably, I would have the power to do things by choice – and if not all things, then the things in the list that supposedly help. Absent that luxury, I’m reliant on things being convenient, and that’s just terrible.

    • Anonymoose says:

      What is it that you want to do that akrasia is stopping you from doing?

      • CAE_Jones says:

        What I currently do: pace, sit, lie down, read SSC/LW/Facebook/Twitter/ToT/related subreddits/the audiogames.net forum, and occasionally play video games/watch videos on youtube/read fanfiction/try to write or code or learn something and fail / occasionally go to my parents’ on Saturdays or Sundays / watch my parents’ pets when they’re out of town. Add in survival things like eat and sleep, and that is literally all I do.

        What I want to do: make things (physical things, software, fiction, music, whatever), learn things (math, written/spoken languages, sciency-type things, etc), apply the skills I’m inexplicably unable to apply (But that more or less is covered in the other bits), figure out how to do extremely useful things like leave/clean/improve my house… do something useful… I could go on but then I’d have to get more specific or mention things I’m less confident about sharing.

        • Troy says:

          If you want to work on a project and continually find yourself distracted by other tasks, and if the project is one you could work on outside your home (e.g., reading, learning math), you can try to find some place outside of your home where you do not have the distractions of Internet, etc. For example: a university library, a cafe.

          I’m an academic and I like to work from home for convenience, but often I need to go into school and work in the library to keep myself from being distracted.

          A more drastic measure is to get rid of the things in your house that are sucking up your time. For example: disconnect your Internet, get rid of your video game systems. Go to a cafe or library when you need to use the Internet.

          A less extreme version of this is to compartmentalize different places in your house for different tasks (works better if you have a big house). Just being in a different room from my computer makes me more productive at reading/working through a text, if I have an established work-space there.

        • Matt says:

          To me, your “What I currently do” list reads as “What I want to do” and your “What I want to do” list reads as “What I want to want to do” perhaps you should focus on why exactly you want to want those things, instead of assuming you want to do those things. All of the things you claim you want to do seem to just be abstract things that intend solve a problem of you being unsatisfied with what you currently do. If you could break down why exactly you want to want to do “productive” things, then perhaps you can decide if you really want to do those specific things, or if having an abstract unsatisfiable goal is even worthwhile.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            The problem is that there are long term and short term wants.

            I’ll use myself as an example, since I don’t know a lot about CAE_Jones. I want (as in, that is what I do, absent someone pushing me around to do something else) to laze off Reading SSC and playing videogames all day while eating good food. While that might be possible for me, it’s highly unlikely, and straight up impossible for a lot of people. So, in order to laze off and play videogames and eat good food, I need to perform the job (that I tricked myself into going through college to get qualifications for) competently, for which I need to not laze off for an average of 3 hours a day, which is very hard, because I really want to laze off.

            Another problem is that, while I find that what I do is pretty satisfying, I find that when I’m pushed to do something else, I usually find a higher level of satisfaction in it.

            What I sometimes call this is having a really, really high time preference. But I don’t like to call it that, because it would be essentially conceding that it is inmutable. I suspect CAE_Jones might be in a similar situation.

    • I’ve gotten a little improvement through observation– what’s it like when I’m stuck? What’s it like when I’m doing things? Also, I think it helps to notice that I’ve done something, and I haven’t been struck by lightning.

      It’s conceivable that I’m dealing with anxiety-flavored depression, and just plain depression would need different solutions.

    • I’d like to help! I’m dreeves@beeminder.com if that’s easier. Of course I have an ulterior motive which is to understand what went wrong when you tried Beeminder.

    • sweeneyrod says:

      My two suggestions:
      Use Cold Turkey or similar to block distracting websites and applications.

      Ensure that the things you are trying to do are things you want to do. There is an important difference between really enjoying learning maths (for instance) whilst doing it, but being unable to get started, and not particularly enjoying it at all. Most people who are really good at things get that way not by supreme amounts of willpower that lets them practice a lot, but by enjoying the thing so much that practice isn’t a grind at all.

    • Smoke says:

      Moving to a new place can be a valuable context change.

      Part of the issue here is that most of the competent people who are best positioned to fix you are busy doing other stuff like running companies, doing cutting edge research, or winning scholarships. Your best bet might be competent people who decided to specialize in developing others, e.g. Malcolm Ocean. Offer yourself as a hands-on case study for them.

  37. James says:

    I’m in love with the blogroll categorization. Was it via that language log article a couple of weeks ago?

  38. chaosmage says:

    Does Patreon have an option to send money that does not involve a credit card, like the European Union’s direct debit, or PayPal? Their FAQ, confusingly, doesn’t say, and I’d rather not make an account just to find out.

  39. Good Burning Plastic says:

    I find the main column of the blog too wide — over 110 characters per line (I find more than 80 uncomfortable to read). OTOH, replies to replies to replies to comments are no longer unreasonably narrow. I guess a possible way to eat your cake and have it too is using a larger font in the posts than in the comments.

  40. Deiseach says:

    Yes, I did notice the new layout. Looks okay (and if that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s not; it means I can’t find anything to complain about in the first ten minutes, unlike my usual “They changed it, now it’s terrible” attitude to new things).

    There is a new movie coming out about the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment, and if the article is any way accurate (and bearing in mind that it’s a newspaper article, it may be getting everything drastically wrong), the experiment is perhaps not as reliable as it’s been made out. If it’s true or anywhere near it, it looks like the experiment was set up from the start to encourage the ‘guards’ to be controlling and abusive, and one at least of the participants deliberately set out to produce a particular outcome:

    In fact, Eshelman said he was trying to mimic the role of the sadistic prison warden portrayed by Strother Martin in the movie “Cool Hand Luke.”

    “What came over me was not an accident,” Eshelman told Stanford Magazine. “It was planned. I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen, so that the researchers would have something to work with.”

    So some of the participants, at least, may have behaved less like “This is what happens when you put ordinary people in a position to abuse their authority” and more like “This is my idea of a prison guard from movies and pop culture”.

    Opinions? Yes? No? The results are still worthwhile?

    • There’s been at least two other recentish movies on this that I can think of. I’m surprised they’re doing another so soon.

      Regarding the experiment validity, in normal circumstances, my response would be “more experimentation needed”, but obviously there’s a reason ethics committee’s don’t approve these kinds of experiments anymore O_o

      People are influenced a lot by context, but people are also habitual and like to fall into familiar patterns of thought. If that means a movie character you’re familiar with, I guess that sounds plausible, though I wonder why this person would publically say that? Anyway, IMO, it’s more about the circumstance enabling some aspect of your thought or personality that is normally inhibited, rather than instilling something that wasn’t there at all. So the experiment’s “message” always seemed to me to be kinda true but very overstated in that way.

      If you get the chance to see him in video or audio, there’s something a little strange about Zimbardo’s own discussion about the experiment that I can’t quite put my finger on.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        People are influenced a lot by context, but people are also habitual and like to fall into familiar patterns of thought. If that means a movie character you’re familiar with [….]

        That makes sense to me. When set adrift, round off to being the nearest cliche.

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t know how accurate that article is (it’s a newspaper blurb for a new movie and giving a potted rundown of the events behind it, and if I measure it by how accurate or otherwise media get things I do know about, that is not very confidence-inspiring) or if the writer has a particular slant, but they do make it sound (at least to me) as if Zimbardo was less about “set up a situation where group A has power and group B does not and see what happens” and more “select people out into group A and group B based on particular traits, give group A power, give them handy suggestions how to (ab)use that power, set it up so the situation is abusive from the start, ignite blue touchpaper and retire”.

        Eshelman sounds like (a) he’s trying to defend himself – ‘oh no I’m not really a sadist, I was acting a part!’ but also (b) like he was playing up to the kind of thing Zimbardo wanted in his guards.

        I have no idea what the truth of the matter is, and it would be fascinating to re-create the experiment on better parameters with less built-in bias, but as you say, it’ll never pass any ethics committee.

      • Peter says:

        I read Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect… well, the part of it dealing with the SPE anyway. There was an odd contrast between the bits where he described what actually happened and the bits when he tried to draw conclusions from it; the latter bits didn’t seem to follow from the former. In particular there seems to have been quite a bit of variation in how the guards behaved, and “the situation” didn’t really explained why one guard in particular went in for lots of creative sadism whereas the others (except maybe for one or two) didn’t do do nearly so much.

        My psychologist said that the main use of the SPE these days is as an example of how to really mess up your ethics in as many different ways as possible. It would make a really good lesson in the sort of classroom format where the teacher asks, “now can anyone tell me another unethical thing about that experiment” and you could get a good discussion going.

    • stillnotking says:

      The SPE was a terrible experiment. In fact, it wasn’t really an “experiment” at all, more like performance art. Zimbardo was actually giving orders to the “guards” and significantly influencing events. Given his admitted political motives in doing the SPE in the first place, that makes the whole endeavor useless as science.

  41. Anonymous says:

    I’m concerned about the whole culture war thing possibly getting worse, and maybe even turning violent in my lifetime (or the medium-term future for that matter). I’m not sure if this is a rational concern or if I’m just spending too much time on the internet.

    A few open threads ago I saw two of the opposing sides promising to fight/kill each other when it happens, apparently in deadly seriousness. There seems to be an increasing sense that there are irreconcilable differences between left and right that can only be solved through violence. There’s also apparently evidence of increasing political polarization in recent decades. Personally I’ve been feeling extreme rage/bloodlust over these issues from time to time (I feel OK right now).

    I don’t know if this is a serious problem or just me. I’ve personally tried to cut down on reading conflicting political views (or even overly inflammatory agreeable ones) to avoid stirring myself up too much but occasionally it can’t be helped. And I’m not sure if staying ignorant while bad things (might) be happening is a good idea either.

    • Anatoly says:

      For some perspective, compare with the events of the late 60s: intense polarization (spearheaded by the anti-Vietnam War protests, but involving many other issues), protests and takeovers by students in many colleges, the Kent State shootings. Ten years later, few remembered and fewer cared, and the polarization somehow quieted down. Possibly the same will happen this time around, too. Possibly these things are vaguely cyclical for sociopolitical reasons nobody understands well.

      • BD Sixsmith says:

        Protests against the conflict in Vietnam pitted citizens against the state. Conflict between citizens was less significant (as, I suppose, supporters of the war didn’t care that much.) I would argue that polarisation is the norm but the scale of polarisation, as with the scale of almost all features of the world, is growing: there is more immigration to argue about; there is more government to oppose or defend; there is vastly more media to stir the pot…

        On the other hand, one should remember that 98% of people who talk about fighting on the Internet are keyboard warriors and pacific in real life.

        • Anthony says:

          Conflict between citizens was less significant

          Not really – it’s just that citizens on “the right” taking action against those on “the left” have mostly been either ignored or completely villainized in history of the time. There were numerous incidents of blue-collar workers beating up dirty hippies protesting the war. Most of the sometimes violent reaction to forced integration of schools across community boundaries (busing) was quite rational – the destruction of near-suburban school systems did in fact occur just as its opponents predicted, and there was no measurable benefit to the supposed beneficiaries. But people who opposed busing are demonized as racists.

      • Anonymous says:

        It might settle down, but modern social media seems to make it particularly easy for mob mentality to rage out of control.

        Not clear whether that’s more or less likely to result in physical violence – overall violence is generally down from what I’ve seen, but things like the Arab Spring have been credited to mobile phones.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          “Not clear whether that’s more or less likely to result in physical violence – overall violence is generally down from what I’ve seen, but things like the Arab Spring have been credited to mobile phones.”

          Did you mean for this to sound like putting Arab Spring in a category of violence? Mob action, yes, but the gatherings in Egypt were famously nice.

          • Other Anon says:

            >the gatherings in Egypt were famously nice.

            Yeah, the militias were just generously donating those bullets to each other as much as they possibly could!

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Other Anon

            Google [ Arab Spring timeline ]

            The cell phone arranged civilian protests were famously nice. The military who came later were not using cell phones.

      • Shenpen says:

        Those had win conditions like “stop the war”. How will a Tumblr fat activist win? They are offended when people find the unattractive (FPH) and they are offended when people find them attractive (chubby chaser fetish). Having other people tie themselves in pretzels entirely around the feelings of other people is not a political win condition, it is narcisistic fantasy. The only thing that would satisfy them is a kind of aristocratic politeness like in a Monte Cristo type novel that is not really likely in this age, and they are not going to promote that by cussing on Tumblr.

        Putting it different, today people WILL be assholes, perhaps not sexist or racist or sizist ones, but some ways assholes because we don’t live an aristocratic Monte Cristo age.

      • Smoke says:

        The causal factors are important. If it was the war in Vietnam that polarized people, take that war away and the polarization is likely to go away. If the internet as a discussion medium polarizes people, then the polarization may not going away unless the internet as a medium is either removed or changed.

    • Your concerns are partially justified imo, though as others point out its a pretty variable phenomenon. You’ll probably feel better about the problem if you turn the concern into action of some kind. You can’t solve it alone, but you can do your part, and that will make you feel better.

      The obvious starting point is learning about and promoting rationality and ideological pluralism, and generally working to expand that subculture. You could also find a specific project to work on. Take this cluster of ideas, for example.

      Remember, you’re not the only one – lots of SSC readers (myself included) are concerned about it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Focusing on getting facts and reasoning right is possibly helpful, though difficult. However it seems like differences in values (combined with some uncertainty over relative power level) can potentially lead to escalating conflict even if there is no major disagreement on facts.

        • I think that’s an insightful comment, but I think a solution can in some cases be found in mutually commiting to a system that limits the escalation in some way. For example democracy does this by letting people argue but not physically fight the other party. Rationality can help people better design, stick to and enforce such agreements imho. In contrast irrational people may not even understand they are damaging those agreements and won’t care even if you try to explain them.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            One of the more interesting metaphors I have heard about democracy is that it is a literal substitute for mob violence: you get your mob together, and I get my mob together. But all we do is count noses and then assume the person with the biggest mob would have won: that way we don’t have to actually rumble.

            The writer also extended this to large non-violent protests. “Here is the mob I could use to wreak havoc. All I want you to do is count them. This time. Then imagine what will happen if you don’t give me what I want and next time they’re not non-violent.”

          • John Schilling says:

            “Nice mob you have there. Did I mention that I’m rich; I have a Reaper in my garage and a team of Blackwater’s finest on staff?”

          • Matt M says:

            … which is exactly why there are plenty of things that the majority of the public supports, and yet, we still don’t have.

            It’s a metaphor, not meant to be taken 100% literally. Obviously the mob with rifles can stand to have slightly fewer people in it than the mob with pitchforks and still win the hypothetical contest of “think about what happens if we decide to actually fight here”

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            >“Nice mob you have there. Did I mention that I’m rich; I have a Reaper in my garage and a team of Blackwater’s finest on staff?”

            Is this an argument for qualified voting or for voting based on number of guns owned?

          • John Schilling says:

            Only Tharks get credit for more than one weapon per voter. Human voters, however, can claim noncitizen armed retainers 🙂

            Somewhat more seriously, several Swiss cantons at least until the 1970s limited the franchise to adult males who physically appeared to vote while bearing swords. Mostly a moot point in Switzerland, where every adult male has a decent rifle, and the contemporary US, where anyone who wants can get one in a few days. But tellingly symbolic of Marc Whipple’s take on democracy.

            If there’s a distinct armed class, or if there’s a technological shift that limits effective fighting ability to the exceptionally rich (paging Tony Stark), it’s worth considering what happens when voting power and fighting power become decoupled.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            If you want to know what happens as fighting de-democratizes, you can just run time backwards. Most of Europe introduced universal (ie, male) suffrage after WWI to reward the masses for their service (quite explicitly: see war widows in some countries). In other words, to acknowledge the new, democratic nature of war.

            (This theory does not explain why women’s suffrage happened at about the same time. I think that the answer is that it had become sufficiently popular to be bundled with other constitutional change, but not enough to prompt change on its own. That explains why France and Switzerland, which already had universal suffrage did not extend female suffrage until rather later. America is harder to explain.)

          • John Schilling says:

            But the symmetry is broken by loss aversion. Extending the franchise in response to democratizing changes in warfare is relatively easy and uncontroversial. Rescinding the franchise in the reverse case is likely to trigger a civil war. Not rescinding the franchise may just postpone the civil war.

      • ddreytes says:

        I am skeptical of the idea that rationality is likely to lead to an improvement on this front. It seems just as likely to lead people to taking political values and outcomes incredibly seriously as a matter of life and death. Perhaps caring about rationality can lead one to assign an extremely high degree of certainty to one’s political beliefs, or something like that. And I think if you look at the people who comment here, and the broader group of similar Internet-y type people, there’s a lot of people who seem to have the kind of non-pluralist attitude we’re talking about. But this group also (I think) has a much greater than average segment of people who care a lot about rationality.

        Of course this is not true about ideological pluralism, but that’s distinct from rationality & ideological pluralism is itself an ideological position.

        • I think rationality implies investigating a little epistemology and understanding how it is you know or come to know things. In my experience, thinking about epistemology makes you waaay less certain of ideology, and I think the result will often be ideological pluralism arising from a realisation that political topics are insanely complex – leading to a desire to thouroughly investigate before feeling certain.

          I don’t disagree with your empirical observation, I just put it down to a bunch of people who wish to signal rationality more than achieve it? Perhaps I’m wrong. I do feel disappointed when I see that dismissive hostile political tone appear so often in rationalist communities (though no more often than almost everywhere else). LW, though really interesting, sometimes suffers from this, for example.

          I also think you’re right about people rationality leading to people taking politics more seriously, but if it was authentic rationality as opposed to signalling, I’m actually pretty comfortable with that. So a fierce effort to have a calm, careful, peaceful, logical, orderly, pluralistic political process where all non-fallacious arguments are heard and fairly considered because epistemological uncertainty demands it? Sign me up!

      • Smoke says:

        It’s great to hear that people are working on this. But I suspect a much harder and more important problem is to figure out how to improve internet discourse at the medium/low end. Even if the SSCsphere goes from above-average reasonableness to extremely high reasonableness or something like that, that doesn’t do anything to solve outragism in the remaining 99.99% of the population.

    • merzbot says:

      I don’t think that will happen. Both sides have a minority of assholes and these people love posting on the internet. But most people don’t mind hanging around with people whose political views they think are awful. I mean, I’m liberal as all hell (and not the classical kind!) and I wouldn’t stop hanging out with someone for being a Donald Trump-level racist or thinking gay people are sinners as long as they weren’t a dick about it. I don’t think I’m atypical in that regard.

      • DrBeat says:

        You are extremely atypical in that regard; cutting off personal ties for not passing ideological purity tests is The New Big Thing To Do on the left.

        • onyomi says:

          Really? How very Ayn Rand of them.

        • Yeah, but the number of people who actually do is is pretty small.

          My sister is as SJW as they come, but she has yet to actually cut ties with any of her patriarchial, conservative Christian extended family, nor even with me, the ultra-cynical reactionary.

          • Peter says:

            Someone once compared some database technology or something with teenage sex: “Everyone says they’re doing it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, hardly anyone is actually doing it, those that are aren’t getting a lot of satisfaction”. I never thought I’d apply that to ostracism but there you go.

          • brad says:

            Big data.

        • merzbot says:

          I’ve derived two possibilities here:

          1. The “ideological purity tests” you’re talking about are passed by not being a far-right white male supremacist. I can imagine your average liberal cutting ties with someone they’re not especially close with for being a neoreactionary, but this is very different from refusing to associate with your average Republican.

          2. You’ve never actually interacted with a liberal in your life and your conception of the left is based entirely on what neoreactionary bloggers and Scott Alexander write about it.

          • Nornagest says:

            For complicated reasons I’ve ended up hanging out with a lot of (left-) anarchists and other radical activists over the last few years. I am not a neoreactionary or even particularly right-wing, but I am a cynical ex-libertarian with a tech job, a distrust of totalizing ideologies, and an appreciation for incentive-centric policy, which by the standards of the kinds of people I’m talking about is about one step away from putting “Exalted Cyclops” on my letterhead and spending every Saturday at American Nazi Party rallies, with the ticket sales benefiting the Westboro Baptist Church.

            There hasn’t been any drama to speak of, but I have seen a lot of… selective perception? It’s as if, having decided that I’m One Of The Good Ones, they assume I must therefore agree with any substantive policy goals regardless of appearances. I can say point-blank that I’m not an anarchist, and the response will be something like “that’s cool, you don’t need to label yourself” — then ten minutes later the conversation will be back to the tech scum destroying the city. Bring up an economic point and I’d be lucky to get that much.

            The response might be different if I started spouting talking points, though. I don’t know, I’m not into that.

          • brad says:

            Mark Atwood:

            It sounds like most people you know who are liberal, blue tribe, what have you, were born into red tribe families and converted later life. Or perhaps as converts they want to be more catholic than the pope and stick out in your mind for wearing their blueness on their sleeves?

            But whatever the reason, I’d think you’d agree that such “converts” don’t numerically make up the bulk of either the red or blue tribe.

          • onyomi says:

            Yeah, for every 1 person raised religious who becomes a hardcore atheist as a reaction against that, there are probably 10 or 100 people who grow up to be religious adults.

            Red/Blue tribe affiliation is, of course, exactly the same.

          • DrBeat says:

            Option 3: Every social group I have interacted with online, encompassing far more people than my immediate physical acquaintances, uses “liberal” as synonymous with “good”, “conservative” as synonymous with “evil”, brag about cutting off all conservatives from their life, ascribe conservative views to everyone they dislike, fantasize about telling off conservatives, and threaten to shun and ostracize people when they catch the faintest whiff of something they could squint at, and then choose to lie about, and call a conservative view.

            I am not even a conservative. I just want people to shut up for two fucking seconds about how courageous they are for having political views that everyone is afraid to ever speak out against.

          • Held in Escrow says:

            It’s a language thing. If you ever want to go to a liberal environment and get people to try and sidestep points, accuse their view of really being the conservative one (with a real argument to back it up). I do it plenty mainly because despite being a card carrying member of the Blues, I’m a social liberal in so much that I don’t think the government should be outlawing soda, peaking in on our data, or trying to move the Schelling Fence of speech. The first and last are definitely not settled issues in the Bluesphere.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            >1. The “ideological purity tests” you’re talking about are passed by not being a far-right white male supremacist.
            >2. You’ve never actually interacted with a liberal in your life

            Disclaimer: This is exclusively an account of my experiences and personal observations. I am also not American, so not all things coincide perfectly.

            First of all, I think we’d do good in separating “real life interaction” and “internet communities” (with the obvious caveat that these are fuzzy sets and blah blah etc etc).

            In regards to real life, I’ve definitely seen it happen. Often enough that I’m pretty sure it’s not noise, not often enough to think it’s a majority. But it seems to be limited to very politically active people, which are overrepresented in my social groups due to reasons, and particularly prevalent in far left groups (again, overrepresented, reasons).

            In the internet, I definitely see it far more often and over much more trivial differences. Some of my favourite (read: least favourite) phrases common in this kind of behaviour are “[being on] the right/wrong side of history” and “[person X, who holds a different opinión than me in least one of several views including, but not limited to, the following: gay marriage, homosexuality in general, transexuality, a variety of welfare programs, feminism, men’s rights activism] is objectively a bad/terrible person”. I’ve seen cases where moderation/administration not making it a bannable/reprimendable offense to speak in favour of conservative views, or enforcing standards of civility for people criticizing said views triggered mass exoduses of liberals/leftists/blue tribers/whatever we’re calling them right now.

            >are also very out and public about having broken ties with their family of origin for political differences

            I don’t like to make the assumption that perhaps what’s happening is that you have some affinity for people who have bad really relationships with their families. But the idea that there are so many such people makes me kind of sad.

          • James Picone says:

            I’m not American, this may colour things.

            I’m very left-of-centre, enough that I think the major left-wing party in the country I live is awful and populist and in most elections I first-preference an environmentalist/left-wing party because they’re the closest match to my values available (although I wish they were more sensible about nuclear power). I hang out with a lot of left-wing people, including some who are social-justicey.

            I don’t recall it ever coming up in conversation that someone had shunned someone else for their right-wing political views. The only shunnings that I can think of right now that I’m aware of in my set of acquaintances were over someone regularly cheating while playing board games, and it was a “yeah you’re not welcome at games night” thing, not a “and we’ll tell everyone you’re awful” thing.

            Are you sure this isn’t the same thing that leads left-wing commentators to model all libertarians as Objectivists?

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            >I don’t recall it ever coming up in conversation that someone had shunned someone else for their right-wing political views.

            Just to be clear. What I mean isn’t active shunning, but rather cutting off all contact with people not in the party, up to and including breaking up with a long term partner, followed shortly by acquiring a new, ideologically aligned one.

          • James Picone says:

            The closest – and only – example I can come up with that matches that is a friend of mine breaking off contact after I suggested some of his opinions (congruent with a recent popular anti-social-justice movement) were conspiratorial. But in that scenario, I’m the one on the left.

            It’s entirely possible I’m just blinded to the ills of my in-group, or that I don’t talk much to people about why they stopped talking to person X, but I really haven’t observed this pattern.

            Hell, I’m not at home with social-justice positions in general and have argued about feminism with people in my circle closer to the SJ orthodoxy without being shunned, as far as I can tell. (For example: a local convention was petitioned to not have Adam Baldwin as a guest because politics, and I argued that that wasn’t okay).

          • Adam says:

            I’m kind of with James here. Apparently I’m unique as an American or something, but almost everybody I know, either in real life or on the Internet, seems not to care or talk much about politics at all. They certainly don’t shun each other and the only person I’ve ever known who was openly broken from her family was an ex-Scientologist because they apparently require you to shun anyone who leaves the church.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Most people aren’t that involved in politics. New York City’s latest election had about 1.5 million people vote… out of a population of 8.5.

    • Esquire says:

      I have the same problem with trying to figure out if “Gosh the world seems to be getting worse really fast” is a real effect or just a result of internet reading (or getting older). Talking to friends who spend less time on the internet is a good moderator / sanity check.

      It’s hard to see what might be a catalyst for real organized civil war in any event. General social worsening until the barbarians sack us seems more likely.

      • Smoke says:

        Maybe it’s just the internet that’s getting worse really fast.

        Check out this 2007 blog post where gender was discussed for the first time on Overcoming Bias. Astonishingly civil by modern standards, isn’t it? And that was just 8 years ago. Wonder what the next 8 years will bring the internet?

        • Nornagest says:

          Internet media arguably had polarizing effects as early as the second Bush election, but Twitter, Tumblr, and the whole clickbait ecosystem are polarizing in ways that the most punditous of 2004-era pundits could never have imagined. In the former two cases, this is mostly due to some questionable architectural choices. The latter is a hellish concoction of malice, tribalism, condescension, ignorance, and plain old greed, but it too wouldn’t be able to survive if social media (Twitter again, and especially Facebook) wasn’t architected the way it is.

          Fortunately, I suspect its days are numbered.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            >Fortunately, I strongly suspect its days are numbered.

            Whose? Twitter’s, Facebook’s, Gawker’s?

          • Nornagest says:


            Maybe Twitter’s, too, but that’s a lot more speculative — it’s not going to run out of users anytime soon, but I have my doubts about the commercial side of things, and its user experience is fiddly enough that if Twitter per se fails we can’t necessarily expect a competitor to pick up the slack. The mode of interaction that Facebook represents isn’t going anywhere, although Facebook itself may or may not.

          • BBA says:

            The recent events at Gawker show that despite all the nastiness of late, most people really aren’t willing to sacrifice their principles to score points against the opposing tribe – and that was just one blog post. I don’t see this culture war turning violent anytime soon.

        • Anthony says:

          Software is getting worse, too. Not sure if that’s related.

          Adobe Acrobat has been downhill since v8. Windows 7 was not a real improvement on Windows XP, and by all reports, Windows 8 was a step backwards. Flash has been getting worse since Adobe bought Macromedia, and is now basically useless. Office hasn’t had any real improvements since about 2003. iTunes broke at version 11. Java isn’t really worth installing anymore.

          Linux seems to have been getting more fussy and less user-friendly since about 2010 or 2012. Perl 5 is still better than Perl 6, which still isn’t finished.

          Aside from the architecture and the way people use it, Facebook is *terrible* – every time it changes, something works less well.

          • James Picone says:

            Win7 has some benefits over windows XP, mostly in terms of support for various things that XP didn’t support. Low-level stuff. They probably could have updated XP with those things, but *shrug*.

            For example: eSATA hotplugging isn’t supported in XP.

            Win8 is mostly horrible because it’s designed for phones.

            Java was never worth installing. 😛

    • brad says:

      I spend some time arguing with gun nuts on the internet, and it can be really scary sometimes. A lot of these guys sign up for programs where they get to play commando on the weekend, have huge arsenals, and spend a lot of time hinting darkly about 2nd amendment remedies.

      But at the end of the day it seems to be just talk. Middle aged exurban internet tough guys just aren’t a realistic kernel for a civil war. The real danger are the disturbed younger men who take them more seriously than they take themselves. They can’t start a civil war, but they can go out and kill 4-5 people.

      • Furrfu says:

        What, in your opintion, can start a civil war? Clearly middle-aged internet tough guys can’t do it (no cannon fodder, no war) but civil wars do seem to start from time to time, and as you say, there are younger man who take the middle-aged gun nuts seriously. What are the factors that are present in the cases where civil wars have broken out that you think are missing in your country?

        • brad says:

          I’m not enough of a student of history to give a confident answer to that, but off the cuff I’d say the two biggest pathways are: 1) a military coup of some kind and 2) a potent combination of some sort of worsening conditions for large numbers of lower class people and a core group of committed elites to organize things.

          That’s for a true civil war / revolution, separatism is its own thing.

        • Shenpen says:

          Having little to lose. Wreck the economy, make them unemployed and halfway starving, and blame the other tribe for it.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            >Having little to lose. Wreck the economy, make them unemployed and halfway starving, and blame the other tribe for it.

            Might you unpack? If the whole comment refers to the 1%, then you’ve left out “foreclose their mortgages, buy their house, rent it back to them”.

    • Tarrou says:

      Western societies are depressingly peaceful. The only threat of open mass violence comes from antagonistic groups, the underclass and the fifth columns of the caliphate.

      Even the hardened keyboard commandos of the “right” are incapable of any coordinated action. They have too much to lose, for now.

      • Science says:

        Depressingly peaceful is pretty sociopathic term.

        • Creutzer says:

          If it’s meant as a value judgment, yes. But it could also be intended as descriptive, an extremely cynical hypothesis about human psychology.

          • Shenpen says:

            Extremely cynical? Saying that when people cannot exercise major biological routines like raiding and looting some tribe they get weird? This is just to be expected really.

          • Creutzer says:

            You’re just saying it’s true, which wouldn’t detract from its cynicism.

    • Shenpen says:

      I don’t know if it is any sort of conciliation for you, but the whole culture war is based on the lack of violence and when violence goes up, the culture war will go down. I don’t want to write a long essay, but high violence essentially reinstall the traditional, masculine man in his leadership role because he is the best candidate to dish it out or protect people from it. In other words, violence goes up, survival values go up, and liberal ones down.

      The whole culture war started because everybody from women to gays said I feel really safe now so why should I let these masculine dominant fighter type men still play a dominant role? They no longer felt submission and service to a high-powered patriarch is the only thing that keeps them safe.

  42. Anyone got any advice on how to play the status games present in the world? I’m hopelessly honest and straightforward and it feels limiting. I feel constrained by my ethics and don’t feel capable of dealing with people acting in bad faith. I contrast it to board games where I seem capable of acting perfectly fine since I won’t hurt anyone.

    • drethelin says:

      Your ethics seem non-consequentialist if they’re making you bad at dealing with reality. You should add exceptions to your ethical rules like “Be honest, unless I’m talking to someone I suspect will use any information I tell them against me.” You can have a consistent system of ethics that still keeps you from being screwed by people as long as you don’t over-simplify them, Kant-style.

      You can also get less screwed by your aversion to lying by saying less.

      • I am a consequentialist, I just have been conditioned to not play rough and really have no real idea how to do it in the real world, and so unless there is a clear casual path from action to outcome I tend to play nice. I also have a pretty strong aversion to dealing with fucked-up-things so I tend to try to avoid these situations and conflict in general unless I know exactly what I am doing. To stretch the board game analogy further, a bunch of backstabbing and lying and conflicts of interest are funny/hilarious, it the real world it is sad/terrifying.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      Have someone hypnotise you into thinking real life is a board game. What could possibly go wrong?

    • Try to take a two-tier consequentialist approach to lying. Falsely accusing someone of a crime causes harm, and is therefore wrong. Lying about what you had for breakfast does not cause harm, and is therefore generally not wrong. At the meta level, try asking “do I want to promote a norm of people telling the truth in this sort of situation?” and weigh that against any object level benefit you see. Lying is not in and of itself wrong. Specifically, if you know someone is acting in bad faith, and you know that lying is the optimal strategy, you don’t need any further justification.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        Inversely, though, If one asks themself “do I want to promote a norm of people being okay to lie in this sort of situation?”, they should be aware that the “in this situation” part might not be communicated properly.

        My point is: Me lying about my breakfast might prompt my child nephew to think it’s okay to lie in general. Obvious example is obvious, of course, but I want to argue against lying in the neutral case. In the “lying is better than telling the ruth” case I agree: Lie.

        • Jiro says:

          Me lying about my breakfast might prompt my child nephew to think it’s okay to lie in general.

          By that reasoning, you taking things from the store after you pay for them might prompt your nephew to think that it’s okay to take things from the store in general. And you making a child go to his room as punishment may make him think it is okay to confine other people to rooms in general.

          • Godzillarissa says:

            Why, yes, of course. Is that not how it works? Of course you tell them they’ll have to pay and you let them “give the uncle the money” and they learn to pay that way. Next time around they’ll know, but until you tell then, you’re just as likely to reinforce wrong beliefs by leaving the shop without them seeing you pay.

            Back to my original point, though, I feel like it being “okay to lie” is generally tied to conditions that are generally not very well communicated. And I feel that failure to communicate the great, big scope of why it’s okay to lie is much too likely to happen to carelessly make it okay to lie in the neutral case.

            TL;DR: I’d rather default to “lie if necessary” than “tell the truth if necessary”.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Godzillarissa

            > Back to my original point, though, I feel like it being “okay to lie” is generally tied to conditions that are generally not very well communicated.

            It’s pretty easy to communicate “It’s okay to lie to outsiders, but not to Mom and Dad” or “but not to me”.

          • Godzillarissa says:

            I feel like my example got us stuck in a discussion about children’s education when I intended to talk about grown-ups lying.

            Kids are different to grown-ups in that I will try my absolute best to teach a child what is right, what is wrong, why I did make an exception to the rule and what the reasons are. Once you’re above a certain age, though, nothing is communicated anymore, you’re just suppossed to use “common sense”, “work it out yourself” and that’s that.

            If we suspect that our grown-up actions influence other grown-ups insofar as a “standard for (not) lying in certain situations” can be organically established*, that non-communication of surrounding conditions is troubling.

            *I assumed this was the point. If I have to write them a book on why I lied, with all reasons to do it and not do it etc. I’m out.

          • Troy says:

            It’s pretty easy to communicate “It’s okay to lie to outsiders, but not to Mom and Dad” or “but not to me”.

            But why, Daddy?

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        Is this the websites must have a “you must be over 18 to read it” qualifier? I don’t think anyone has ever been deterred by such idiocy.

    • NZ says:

      I don’t like these other comments, which ask you to compromise your ethics. You should either totally abandon/change them, or stick by them resolutely. (Disclaimer: I’m a generally extreme-prone person.)

      My advice is to find role models who have both managed to achieve high status while also maintaining strong ethical codes like your own, and emulate their behavior.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Not enough information.

      What kind of status games? In what context? Are you in college? High school? Early 20s? 40s?

      Is this related to your social life or your status at your job?

      In general though, think of these kinds of things like fluid dynamics. Unless you can adopt a proper shape, trying to move through fluid quickly is counter productive.

  43. Jeremy says:

    Here’s a question that I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I’m not really sure how to get an answer for:

    What are the contributing factors to it being hotter in cities and to what degree?

    Possible causes I can think of:

    1. It’s an illusion, the cities I am thinking of are just in hotter places than the rural locations I’m thinking of.
    2. Cities are built in locations that are naturally hotter
    3. Cities absorb sunlight better
    4. Cities prevent cooling processes (different materials, preventing airflow, etc)
    5. Transportation heat
    6. Residential/commercial heat (is air conditioning an especially big contributor?)
    7. Human bodies (not likely)

    • Montfort says:

      You will want to search for urban heat island.

      • Anonymous says:

        No, Jeremy wants to delay thinking about this question and think about why he never went to google and typed “why are cities hotter.”

        • Pku says:

          Aside from the discussion about it below, I have a general problem with the “don’t ask people what you can google statement. Aside from people generally being more helpful than Google, asking people also has the benefit of giing you human interaction, which people generally enjoy.

          • Anonymous says:

            Then it’s a good thing I didn’t do that, asshole.

          • Pku says:

            Wow. You may be the most unnecessarily abrasive person I’ve ever seen on the internet. Which TBH is not so much offensive as it is amazing, that’s a pretty tough competition.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            >Wow. You may be the most unnecessarily abrasive person I’ve ever seen on the internet.

            Honestly, what this tells me is that you’ve had a pretty sheltered internet experience (I agree 100% that anonymous is being unnecessarily abrasive).

          • James says:

            I was in such disbelief at the wanton, gratuitous level of abrasiveness in Anonymous’ comment there that I actually cracked up laughing. Shocking.

    • Nathan says:

      Short answer: concrete vs grass.

    • Jeremy says:

      Perhaps I didn’t phrase my comment well, but the emphasis was meant to be on the relative proportion of the effect, rather than the list of causes. I didn’t mean to imply that I couldn’t find out what caused the heating, but I couldn’t think of a good way to measure the size of the different effects.

      If you read the wikipedia or google results, you will find contradictory information, and studies focused on individual effects, but I couldn’t find a reasonable breakdown of the proportion caused by different effects and the techniques used to measure it.

      (The snarky anonymous comment irrationally annoys me)

      • Anonymous says:

        It is very easy to determine the relative proportion of (1), which makes you story rather implausible.

        • Jeremy says:

          How would you measure that? I could not find a list of cities and the size of their UHI effect that I could use to compare the cities I used as reference points against the average.

          Please consider the possibility that you misinterpreted my original comment, and so your responses are not only unkind and unnecessary, but also untrue.

          • Anonymous says:

            Finding that it is a real thing means that it is not an illusion.

            It is possible that your initial measurement was largely an illusion, if you made poor comparisons, like Miami vs Vermont. But, when I google it, I find discussion of cities vs suburbs, which tells you how to choose good comparisons.

      • Montfort says:

        It doesn’t seem that irrational to be annoyed by it if you have been researching the issue, actually.

        Is there a particular difficulty in assembling multiple focused studies to compare?

    • Katherine says:

      A lot of that comes from green plants. The plants take water from the ground and makes it evaporate, cooling both themselves and the air around them.

      Related to this, parks that have a lot of trees and whatnot are usually cooler than the rest of the city, and have cold air blowing out of them to the surrounding neighborhoods. Big parking lots and other open spaces without plants are instead warmer than the rest of the city and have cooler air blowing into them.

    • keranih says:

      While I agree that conducting research would seem (to me) to be more efficient than asking random people who might not be truthful or factual with you…

      1. It’s an illusion, the cities I am thinking of are just in hotter places than the rural locations I’m thinking of.

      Nah, it’s real, and cities in very hot regions are still hotter than the surrounding deserts. (Specific buildings are different – people built large tall buildings for a reason.)

      2. Cities are built in locations that are naturally hotter

      Nope. Cities are disproportionately located on seacoasts and at river intersections, where the water has a moderating effect and the extreme heat of summer is not as strong.

      3. Cities absorb sunlight better

      Mostly so. Concrete & stone hold heat.

      4. Cities prevent cooling processes (different materials, preventing airflow, etc)

      The largest impact, due to the lack of vegetation and related evaporative cooling.

      5. Transportation heat

      I’m assuming you mean heat associated with powering autos and trains? Is that right? Contributes, but not overwhelming.

      6. Residential/commercial heat (is air conditioning an especially big contributor?)

      Contributes. The largest part of AC is the generation of power to run the AC, followed by the heat-adsorbing concrete of the building being cooled.

      7. Human bodies (not likely)

      At densities tolerated by modern westerners, not at all significant.

      Other things to consider:

      Heat retention by built environment.
      Lack of shade due to lack of overhangs.
      Reduced evaporation (because not a lot of free water).
      Reduced air movement.

      • James Picone says:

        I was under the impression that the large heat capacity of concrete was the principal component (which is why the effect is larger at night), but that’s a quibble and I otherwise agree, definitely lack of evapotranspiration is a thing.

        • John Schilling says:

          Regarding the effect being larger at night, that may be the case for average temperature but I will note that lower-atmosphere turbulence over cities peaks in mid-afternoon (and at a level substantially higher than the surrounding country).

          I’m guessing that differential absorption and transpiration result in more, and irregular, heating during the day, and the high heat capacity of concrete smooths this out into a higher average temperature at night.

  44. I’m really happy to see that you’ve signed up for Patreon! Your writing is excellent, and you’ve taken the time to personally respond to some questions I’ve asked before (under a pseudonym), which I really appreciated. It’s nice to have the opportunity to give a little something back.

  45. Pku says:

    Some interesting experiences I’ve had with garage-dragony thinking:
    1) a while ago I saw an interview with Jon Stewart where he was talking with someone (I think it was some republican politician/military guy) about the VA administrative healthcare issues. And Stewart proposed the idea that, since the military is universally recognized as an efficient arm of the government, they should let the military run the VA. It was interesting for me because until then I’d always thought that “the military is an efficient and functional system” was one of those things politicians said for PR but didn’t actually believe. It led to an interesting conversation, since Stewart evidently really did believe it, but the guy he was talking to was obviously garage-dragony about it – he couldn’t just come out and say “listen man, the military would do a terrible job at this”, but he just as clearly believed it.
    2) A few years ago I talked to my therapist about the first time I had my heart broken, back when I was fifteen., and halfway through I realised two things: first, that it was really hard for me to talk about. And second, that I was really surprised that it was hard for me to talk about – for years I’d thought it still bothered me, but apparently what I actually believed was that I just thought that because I was being dramatic. It was like telling everyone about the dragon in your garage and then going home and meeting an actual dragon there.

    • Nathanael says:

      1: The US military is actually borderline criminally inefficient in terms of being an actual war machine, which kind of makes sense when you consider incentives. If you’re a moderately intelligent person, the military is intolerable because no matter which branch you go into, you will spend years getting yelled at and taking orders from people who are much less intelligent than you are, simply by virtue of them having joined earlier and kissed the right amount of ass. Innovation and clever thinking is not merely unrewarded by actively punished. This makes some sense, as officers don’t have time to relay the entire big picture to grunts, they just need to give them orders, and make sure they are followed. Unfortunately, the officers all start out as grunts, so anyone who is smart enough that “get yelled at by idiots for two years” doesn’t sound like a good option is a priori excluded, which sets an upper limit on how smart your officers can be.

      Add to that all the political bullshit, and you begin to see how bad are military is actually run. The only reason we aren’t under threat is because our technology is decades ahead of everyone else’s, and our runaway military budget makes it so much bigger than everyone else’s.

      2: That’s actually a really interesting way of putting it.

      • Lemminkainen says:

        Your explanation of the military’s inefficiency is inaccurate. In the US, most higher-ranking officers were commissioned directly as lieutenants– ie: recruited straight out of university into positions of responsibility. Promotion by seniority is still a problem, but less of one than you think.

        The real reason why the US military is an inefficient war machine, though, is that it’s optimized to fight huge World War II-like total wars with other industrialized nation-states, not to fight asymmetric conflicts with nonconventional enemies. And this problem has less to do with the stupidity of officers (some high-rankers, like David Petraeus, seem to understand or have understood the problem well), but with the military’s Cold War-era institutional precommitments.

        • Matt says:

          I would argue that a lot of the US military being inefficient as a war machine also (and arguably primarily) has to do with public perception/support. There hasn’t been public support behind a war in the way it was in WW2 since then. As Nathaniel mentioned, the politics are a major hamper on the effectiveness of the “visible” military institutions (as well as probably on the less visible more indirectly). To extend this, I wonder how much drone technology being more and more prominent has to do with the public thinking that it is safe (in terms of collateral damage) and precise over the actual practical in-battle concerns.

      • Anthony says:

        Unfortunately, the officers all start out as grunts

        This is not actually true. Most officers in the U.S. military came through ROTC (with a smattering of Academy officers), and even those who come up from enlisted ranks often have gotten a degree (or are working on one) before making officer rank.

        So while there is an aspect of “getting yelled at to do not-very-comprehensible tasks” involved there, the “by idiots” is not generally the case. Officers, and officer trainers, are somewhat smarter than average.

      • Nornagest says:

        From what I gather, the American military is probably less well modeled as an engine for killing people and breaking stuff than as an engine for getting stupendous amounts of tan and/or gray-painted stuff into the right part of the world on short notice. Some of that stuff does have guns on it, but that’s almost an afterthought.

        This really does do a pretty good job of winning conventional wars. It’s less good at asymmetric ones.

        • Science says:

          It’s first and foremost a jobs program for people with too much pride to participate in a regular jobs program. Unfortunately, it is also the proverbial hammer that causes its holder to go looking for a nail.

          • Tarrou says:

            You want to play this game, it’s gonna be short and ugly.

          • Science says:

            Short and ugly is better than our imperialist wars of choice, which tend to be long and ugly.

            We are all truth telling rationalists that scoff at taboos and tribalist peacocking, except of course when it come to our heroes in uniform who nobly serve to defend our freedom. God bless ‘merica the greatest peace loving nation that ever was and ever will be. When they see us coming the get the flowers and trumpets ready because they can’t wait to be bombed for FREEDOM!!!!1! *diving eagle*

          • DrBeat says:

            I like how you are responding to things that happened entirely in your imagination, as if that made you a courageous truth-teller.

          • Deiseach says:

            Science, I don’t like military solutions. But (especially as my father was a non-com in the Irish Army; served on U.N. peacekeeping missions in Cyprus and the Congo; probably came back with a touch of undiagnosed PTSD or the like which contributed to his later mental health problems but in those days in Ireland psychiatry was for the rich), don’t shit on the squaddies. They may be dumb grunts from the backend of nowhere too stupid to get Real Civilian Jobs, but they’re the ones who end up getting maimed and killed when the politicians manage to talk themselves into wars.

            The problem of jingoism is a real one, but it’s not the problem of the man and woman in uniform, generally.

            By Siegfried Sassoon

            The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
            And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
            Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
            “We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!”

            I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
            Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,”
            And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
            To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

          • Science says:

            The problem of jingoism is a real one, but it’s not the problem of the man and woman in uniform, generally.

            There are options between blaming the grunts and parroting the prevailing nonsense about how they are heroes defending our freedom.

            In general, I’d say it is somewhat disreputable to sign up for a jobs program that will likely require you to participate in unjustified killings, but not especially more disreputable than any citizen supporting the program and its destructive uses.

        • cassander says:

          this is accurate. The US military is first and foremost the world’s largest delivery company. Second, it’s a social club with an unusually intense devotion to its many obscure traditions. Last and least, it is a fighting organization. It has been this way since at least the civil war and likely always will be. the US wins wars its by drowning its opponents in an endless stream of matériel.

        • keranih says:

          American military is probably less well modeled as an engine for killing people and breaking stuff than as an engine for getting stupendous amounts of tan and/or gray-painted stuff into the right part of the world on short notice

          This has been codified in several quippy pre-internet memes – and other nations are recognized as having their own strengths (German generals, Brit NCOs, Russian soldiers, French rations, Swiss mountains, etc).

          Some academics of my acquaintance have worked with the military and with industry on multiple research projects, and they collectively agreed that 1) the military actively encourages pre-decision discussion – particularly the airing of unpopular or unconventional opinions – much better than the university or business 2) the military makes decisions at a blinding pace, compared to the university, but somewhat slower than business/industry, and 3) once a decision has been made, military culture demands that the people who previously disagreed drop their opinions and work wholeheartedly on the chosen path. (In contrast, academia specializes in not making decisions and tolerating feet-dragging, back-biting and active sabotage, while industry makes decisions fast, but allows dissenters to exit gracefully and become successes elsewhere.)

          All the researchers on this team said that the military culture was not the rigid hidebound structure they had expected, and one voiced the opinion that the difference is getting engaged prior to decisions being made. People who expected one outside voice to sway the mass of the Army – once inertia had kicked in – were born to be disappointed.

          Again – what several people said, speaking in generalities.

          • Matt M says:

            “once a decision has been made, military culture demands that the people who previously disagreed drop their opinions and work wholeheartedly on the chosen path. ”

            This really can’t be overstated and was one of the things that really surprised me about the military. The Chiefs Mess could get together and have a very hotly contested debate – to the extent that if you were sitting in the next room, you could hear them literally screaming at each other for hours on end.

            And yet, when the meeting was over, they always presented a 100% unified front. The message was always “this is what the group decided and we all support it.” Unless you were in the meeting yourself, it was virtually impossible to even figure out who it was that might have opposed the decision – everyone is very careful about showing support and not making any potential doubts known to the general public.

      • Matt M says:

        While I generally oppose the “you can’t talk about the military unless you were in it!” argument, I’m going to guess you weren’t in it… my experience was very very different. I enlisted out of high school at the lowest ranking possible. I scored a 99 on my ASVAB (if you’ll accept that as proof of being an intelligent person who would routinely be supervised by people less intelligent than me). I did it for economic reasons, and it’s paying off in spades (the government has paid for two of my degrees, I’m on track to make six figures by the time I’m 30, I’ve never been in debt, I’ve never had to work particularly long hours or do anything particularly difficult). While I was in, I deliberately chose an easy/low-demand job to ensure I never got deployed or placed in physical danger. Usually I worked less than 40 hours a week. I was promoted to a supervisor level within two years (turns out the biggest component of advancement in the Navy at least isn’t “kissing ass” or “playing politics,” it’s taking a test on the requirements of your job). When it came to tests, I was a big fish in a small pond and it was easy as hell to out-score the competition. I think someone who looks at the potential rewards I just describes and says “Well I refuse to do that because it means that someone dumber than me might be in charge of me for a few years” might not quite be as intelligent as you assume. I’d also point out that my “less intelligent” supervisors usually recognized that fact and gave me a wide berth and encouraged me to share my thoughts and ideas. And once I promoted, I was regularly placed in positions of authority over people 10+ years older than me.

        As far as officers go, Lemminkainen is exactly right. MOST of them are college kids who walk right in and are given authority over 20+ year grunt veterans. Whether this is more or less effective than “keep promoting the grunts to lead other grunts” is probably up for debate, but the grunts definitely don’t care for it. All of the most beloved officers I served with were prior enlisted. They’re much better at understanding the politics and empathizing with the lower-ranking troops, and they have the credibility of having previously done it themselves. The college kids who come in and think everything is as simple as “I’m smarter than you so I’m in charge so I say something and then you do it” usually fail hard until they figure out it isn’t nearly that easy…

    • cassander says:

      Anyone who thinks the US military is efficient has not spent 5 minutes studying or interacting with it.

  46. Daniel Speyer says:

    I’m very pleased to see GetStungByMillionsOfWasps made it on.

  47. LTP says:

    I was rereading the Motte-Bailey posts the other day, and I was thinking that Jon Stewart might be one of the most high profile users of the tactic. I think he uses both in his comedy AND at the meta level, though it’s different enough from Scott’s examples that I’m not positive it’s Motte-Bailey and not something else.

    In his comedy, he’ll often mock people (usually Republicans or people in the media) for being opposed to a bill or policy or court decision that is often complicated or controversial (the bailey) but frame the issue in the most sympathetic and over-simplified way (the motte) when the bill/policy/court decision is way more than that. To use a hypothetical example, say Republicans oppose an environmental bill because the believe it violates property rights. For example, Stewart will advocate for the policy (the bailey) by mocking Republicans who oppose it by presenting the policy *only* in terms of its environmental impact (the motte) and questioning why Republicans literally want to destroy the environment for no reason while making a funny face in disbelief.

    As a public figure, he will often make very serious and damning critiques of media figures, politicians, and the government. Sometimes he doesn’t even try to do it in a funny way. These are influential to the point of having a real impact. He wants to use his public image to make serious critiques and advocate for serious policies (the bailey) but when pushed to justify himself or to debate it, retreats to the “I’m just a comedian don’t take me seriously” schtick (the motte) so he doesn’t have to defend himself. I’ve heard this referred to as “clown nose on, clown nose off”.

    Are these Motte-Bailey, or something else?

    (If you can’t tell, I’m not a Stewart fan)

    • Pku says:

      I agree that he does that, but I think that (most of the time), he’s pretty good about recognizing it – he’ll wind up saying something like “okay, our side isn’t perfect, but your extreme is ridiculous.” Sometimes he skips this (particularly when he talks about social justice), and I agree that it is pretty damn annoying when he does that. The thing to remember about him is that a) he isn’t kidding when he says he’s mostly a comedian – he really is providing more entertainment (and suggestions for issues that might warrant a further, more balance look at) than actual news. And b) is that unfortunately, quite a lot of major actual newspeople seem to be even worse (or at least, less subtle) about it than him, without even claiming to be comedians.
      update: I didn’t read your argument properly, I assumed you were talking about his method of argument (calling out the extreme republicans and claiming they stand for all republicans) rather than the clown-nose-on/off thing. I still think he’s pretty good about that most of the time though.

    • I agree. There are may not-ironclad arguments made there, not all of them are motte-and-bailey. There is plenty of other issues there.

    • Ralph says:

      As a young Stewart fan turned person pretty annoyed by him, as I have changed personally, I agree about his use of motte-bailey in the sense of his role as a public figure (comedian vs political analyst). However, it seems like his standard comedic tactic/political analysis/logical fallacy is simply just a straw man.

      For instance, his argument in favor of any liberal policy or against a conservative policy is simply that some obviously ridiculous far right political character, like Donald Trump or Sarah Palin, says something obviously incorrect or offensive.

      It’s like: obsurd outspoken far right extremist exists = this liberal policy is amazing and anyone who disagrees is evil or stupid and none of these issues are complex at all.

      Unfortunately these tactics bleed into fairly common political discourse among even moderates. Stewart is guilty of exactly what he would claim
      is wrong with American politics.

      And of course these are generalities. He has his moments like calling out Pelosi when she says no Democratic politicians are owned financially by corporate donors.

      • “Unfortunately these tactics bleed into fairly common political discourse among even moderates.”

        I doubt Stewart is responsible. I sometimes read and post to a FaceBook climate group, and it’s pretty depressing. People on both sides are confident that they are right, the other side idiots, and post accordingly. It doesn’t even occur to commenters, when someone posts something absurd that someone on the other side is supposed to have said, to do a quick web search to see if he really said it.

    • I think this is true of comedic commentary in general. If we were all smarter we wouldn’t allow such things to influence our views on serious matters, but alas.

    • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

      Although I’m not a fan, I can’t blame Jon Stewart. He’s just whatever you call the live action version of a political cartoonist. It’s everyone else’s fault: People that take him too seriously, online media that signal boosts him to ridiculous degree, etc.

      • Gbdub says:

        Except that Stewart deliberately takes advantage of people taking him too seriously in his “clown nose off” persona, then puts the nose back on when he’s challenged.

        Honestly I’ve found him mostly unwatchable for years. He went all in for Obama and hasn’t been an honest satirist since then. His “comedy” basically consists of “show right wing yokel say something stupid in a deceptively edited interview”, “look incredulous”, “spout boilerplate left wing pablum”, “mug at camera”, “repeat until time for fawning interview with popular leftist du jour”

        • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

          >Except that Stewart deliberately takes advantage of people taking him too seriously in his “clown nose off” persona, then puts the nose back on when he’s challenged.

          What do you mean with this? Does he leverage his position as a “Very Important Political Commentator” for some purpose or another?

        • onyomi says:

          I think this is the heart of it: Stewart’s motte-bailey takes the form of “clown nose on/clown nose off.” He is obviously a genuinely influential political commentator with serious opinions on issues, but he constantly disarms would-be criticism with humor.

          What I don’t particularly care for is how the transition from “fake news comedy show” to “real news show that happens to be funny” was very gradual and kind of surreptitious. One could argue that Bill Maher is guilty of similarly disarming with humor, but I think he never presented his show was “fake news” to begin with. Bill Maher’s was always a “news show that happens to be funny.”

          For this reason, my personal preference is Maher>Stewart>Colbert, though I am a bit ambivalent about the cultural effect of “joke news,” even as I must admit to enjoying it. Colbert makes the biggest pretense of being “fake,” while at the same time offering actual political commentary in a way I find to be a bit mean-spirited at times.

    • Liskantope says:

      I agree that Stewart and his team are guilty of mocking people and policies they don’t like (usually Republican ones) by focusing on some aspects at the expense of others, often in an oversimplifying way. I’m not sure I agree that these are typically instances of motte-and-bailey, at least not a lot of the time. I don’t think Stewart’s arguments are usually of the form “Republicans clearly want to destroy the environment for no reason! *disbelieving face*”. I think they tend to be along the lines of “Republicans are against our particular environmental proposal purportedly because of X, Y, and Z [presented to look obviously absurd] *disbelieving face*” or, if he’s in the mood to analyze what he thinks are their true motives, “Republicans seem to be against our general environmentalist stance because of X, Y, and Z [presented to look like warped logic]”.

      If Stewart were espousing his views in blog posts on this online rationalist-sphere, then I probably wouldn’t like him very much, as his arguments clearly don’t meet a particularly high standard of rationality (although they could be a lot worse). On the other hand, as a big time comedian / political commentator who, compared to most political commentators, does seem to at least make some conscious effort to be intellectually honest, I think he is doing way more good than harm for the world and like him a lot.

      • DrBeat says:

        On the other hand, as a big time comedian / political commentator who, compared to most political commentators, does seem to at least make some conscious effort to be intellectually honest,

        No he isn’t. He turned into the Sean Hannity of the left, repeating lies in order to make his audience upset, afraid, and convinced that Shadowy Malicious Forces Who Hate Everything Good are out to harm them.

        He uncritically regurgitates the Social Justice Lie of the Now over and over, plays clips of people disagreeing by saying things that are true and accurate, and does his “can you believe how awful these people are?” shtick all over it. He’s a void of intellectual honesty.

        After the Dunn trial in Florida, where the guy who shot the black kid at the gas station was convicted on four counts of attempted murder and there was a HUNG JURY on the one count of murder, Stewart ran a sketch where the explicitly stated, completely unironic message was that “It is now open season on black people”.

        • Liskantope says:

          I don’t think Scott would appreciate this conversation entering into the arena of race, so I’m not going to comment on your example (admittedly, I don’t remember seeing that particular sketch and Google is not helping me find it anywhere).

          I will stand by my claim that Stewart clearly makes an effort to be intellectually honest and to abide by rational standards of discussion compared to most political commentators. He promotes the idea of considering proposals on their concrete merits rather than on the basis of which political ideology they seem most associated with; he criticizes liberals for claiming things like “Bush is a war criminal” (because it’s a “conversation stopper”) and using reductio ad Hitlerum to argue against Republican claims relating to Obamacare; he criticizes MSNBC for being fearmongering as well as Fox (okay, the actual quote I directly remember on that issue is by Steven Colbert). He ran a million-participant event to Restore Sanity which emphasized the destructiveness of the hysteria on both sides of the political aisle. Sad to say, these and many more times that he has called for intellectual honesty, in addition to his effort in many cases to employ a let’s-calm-down tone (his SJ-related rants are somewhat of an exception here) give him a more reasonable voice than I have generally come to expect from political pundits.

          Also, I doubt that many of even his strongest critics would agree with your assertion that his clips generally show people saying things that “are true and accurate”, rather than the cherry-picked most outrageous Republican quotes of the day.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            ” He promotes the idea of considering proposals on their concrete merits rather than on the basis of which political ideology they seem most associated with;”

            And the objectivists support reason and the Jesuits support doubt. Is there a situation where he departs from the majority of liberals or is this simply applause lights?

            ” He ran a million-participant event to Restore Sanity which emphasized the destructiveness of the hysteria on both sides of the political aisle.”

            And Orson Scott Card did something similar with his book Empire (admittedly more on the loopy side) and another series. Praising moderation and bipartisanship doesn’t make you unbiased. It isn’t something you build up, it is a credit that is eaten away with each screw up.

          • Deiseach says:

            But he is basically a comedian/satirist, so of course he’s going to pick Stupidest/Most Outrageous Things politicians and commentators on the opposite side of his views said in order to poke fun at them and create sketches.

            He’s not primarily a political commentator or pundit, he’s an entertainer.

      • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

        At this point I’m so sick of *disbelieving face* that I don’t even care what sort of argument Stewart is using it with.

      • Jaskologist says:

        He is very dishonest. They interview subjects for hours on end in order to get the most incriminating sound-bites, often lying to them about what the subject/contents of the interview will be.

        To take another example, they told another interviewee that he was there to talk about media bias against Christians as it relates to homosexuality. With the help of a number of leading questions by Samantha, they recut his words so that he was claiming that homosexuals go around looking for straights to beat up. So in a way they lie to you the audience as well.

      • Adam says:

        I last watched Jon Stewart something like 11 years ago, so I guess he’s changed, but most of what I remember was him playing a clip of somebody saying something, followed by a clip of them saying roughly the opposite a decade earlier, and it was more often a CNN host than a politician, and I usually found it pretty funny. His take-down of Crossfire was terrific.

  48. Stephen Frug says:

    Maybe an open thread is a place to leave a comment on a very old post (whose comments are closed)?

    At the end of section VI of “In Favor of Niceness, Community and Civilization”, Scott notes that even those liberals proverbally never take their own sides in an argument, and always feel like they’re loosing, they someone seem to be winning long-term. His final two sentences in that section are: A liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel. And yet when liberals enter quarrels, they always win. Isn’t that interesting?

    This combines with his description of liberalism a few sections down:

    Liberalism does not conquer by fire and sword. Liberalism conquers by communities of people who agree to play by the rules, slowly growing until eventually an equilibrium is disturbed. Its battle cry is not “Death to the unbelievers!” but “If you’re nice, you can join our cuddle pile!”

    …to make me think of TIT FOR TAT.

    As I presume most readers of this blog will know, TIT FOR TAT is famously the winner in iterated prisoner dilemma’s games, made famous in experiments by Robert Axelrod in the early 80s. (If you don’t know, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tit_for_tat#In_game_theory) It beat out everything. But the funny thing was (as noted by Douglas Hofstadter in METAMAGICAL THESIS, where I, at least, first heard about it) that TIT FOR TAT can’t ever beat any given opponent. At best they’ll help each other. It looks whimpier than ones which occasionally try to defect when others cooperate. But in the long run, it wins. It’s not too forgiving — it does retaliate — but it will cooperate with anyone who will cooperate with it, even if that means it can’t ever come out on top; at best it can tie. But enough mutually beneficial ties & it beats everyone else.

    Maybe liberalism is winning in the long run because it’s the TIT FOR TAT of politics? As long as you’ll play nicely, you can play with us; we’ll fight back if we have to, but not otherwise. A win-win will do.

    Just a thought.

    • MicaiahC says:

      I’ll add that tit-for-tat actually “loses” to forgiving tit-for-tat, where you’re allowed to defect twice against the forgiving version before it starts implementing tit-for-tat, but then that forgiving tit-for-tat loses harder than tit-for-tat in environments where there aren’t a lot of “nice” bots or tit-for-tat form bots.

    • Adam Casey says:

      Here’s my model of what we mean by civilisation(/liberalism/niceness/Eula/utopia/etc):

      The universe is a collection of evolving agents all playing IPD with the agents near them and being rewarded with more/fewer offspring according to how they play. There are two equilibria: one camp is tit for tat, the other is always defect. Ignore the differences between tit-for-two-tats etc etc and assume these are the only strategies.

      At t=0 everyone plays always defect. By fluke some mutants start playing tit-for-tat every now and again and, being surrounded by always defectors, they die out. Until one day a small cluster all decided to play tit-for-tat at once. They gain so much from cooperating with eachother that they grow and have many descendants.

      So we see a cluster called civilisation where one set of rules applies, one set called baraism where another set applies. Because civilisation is so much better at acquiring wealth it always grows and displaces barbarism. So we see that civilisation always wins eventually. But when you look at the border, which is the only place where civilised agents play against barbarians, you see that the barbarians always win.

      • onyomi says:

        This seems pretty accurate. Though it’s perhaps ironic that, today, it’s the “conservatives” in the US whose primary enemy is “barbarism” (while “injustice” is the enemy of the people we now call “liberals”).

        • Adam Casey says:

          So the model here is far better for explaining things like the Europeans wiping out the Native Americans, or why we will lose every single battle against ISIS and still win the war. Within civilised countries (which here means basically any functioning nation state. All of Europe, almost all the Americas, most of Asia, most of Africa etc), there’s an second-order extension to the model.

          When you run this game for long enough (and allow an actual range of strategies not just 2) you notice that the civilisation cluster is unstable in the following way: Eventually everyone inside the cluster is cooperating all the time. So you may as well play always cooperate, it’s not selected against, so eventually it becomes a large fraction of the population by chance. And suddenly you’re fantastically weak against defectors if any can invade your territory.

          I feel like American liberals care about moving towards tit-for-two-tats and similar strategies, while American conservatives are for strategies that look more like two-tits-for-a-tat. The liberals win the war after losing every battle in the same way as civilisation does. But! If they win too fast there will still be bad guys that can get in when they’ve dismantled all the defenses.

    • Mary says:

      That’s because whatever wins is defined, after the fact if necessary, as liberal.

    • nyccine says:

      Maybe liberalism is winning in the long run because it’s the TIT FOR TAT of politics? As long as you’ll play nicely, you can play with us; we’ll fight back if we have to, but not otherwise. A win-win will do.

      The Prisoner’s Dilemma doesn’t map to left/right politics in the slightest. The whole point of the dilemma is that both parties could cooperate to get exactly what they both wanted most, but due to lack of information were put into circumstances where a sub-optimal option rationally appeared to be the best.

      That is not the case in Left/Right political fighting at all. Where the Left and Right are fighting, it is because what one side wants is at odds with what the other wants, and cooperation necessarily results in neither side getting what they wanted; sometimes, the goals are completely exclusive, and “cooperation” just means “we lost.”

      In terms of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, we would no longer assume that both parties wanted to get the lowest possible prison sentence, but rather that both parties wanted to do the least amount of time while making sure the other guy did the most, and then it’s not a dilemma any more, they’re both doing exactly what they rationally should be.

  49. Randy M says:

    I’d always assumed creative professions to be more resistant to elimination by ai. On that note, I think this link, while frivolous, will intersect a few diverse interests of many here, and I busted a gut:

    • DrBeat says:

      I think this guy is assigning way too much of his own meaning into the output. (Also, the Legendary spell was never defined as something that could only be cast once per game).

      • randy m says:

        Oh clearly, and bear in mind that b the author there isn’t the one who is running the program.

      • Other Anon says:

        He definitely was viewing the output with rose-colored glasses, but his descriptions of what the cards were doing are correct. The Legendary Instant, to use your example, would only be allowed one copy in a deck like all Legendary cards, and thus (under most circumstances) could only be cast once.

        What I found really interesting, though, was how fond the AI was of Green. It may have been selection bias of the author, but of the really good cards, like half a dozen were green and another half-dozen were green with another attribute.

        • Legendary cards are not restricted to one per deck, although this was the original rule about them, way back in 199x. Rather, only one legendary permanent with a given name may be controlled by a given player. It’s not clear what a “Legendary Instant” would mean.

          • Randy M says:

            I doubt it’s defined at the moment, but the most straight-forward extension of the rules would be that only one per player could be on the stack at any time, which would be a really mild restriction in the vast majority of situations. I would not be surprised if at some point an analagous keyword was devised which restricted playing spells that had a copy in your graveyard, which could be rather interesting as it would allow a modest increase in power level.

    • I’ve been following @RoboRosewater on Twitter for weeks, and it’s given me incredible amusement.

      Still not going to replace humans any time soon.

    • Aaron says:

      This was hilarious. It makes me think that “programmer” will be the sole remaining job on Earth. Then programs will figure that part out too and, well, that’s that.

      • Murphy says:

        At the same time what constitutes “programming” has been growing steadily into “people who can think through what they actually want clearly enough to explain it to a computer”.

        People who in the early days of computing wouldn’t have been mentally capable of doing anything useful with a computer can now spend their professional lives creating interactive web pages, animating sprites, constructing spreadsheets or programming in high level languages.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          I started learning iOS App/Swift design before I got bo… squirrel!

          What was I saying?

          Oh, yeah, iOS App design. The design interface (Xcode) is amazing. You could, theoretically, create a novel and useful app without actually entering any “code” whatsoever. And if you’re willing to learn just a little bit, your app can be extremely sophisticated.

          The last programming platform I learned – PHP/mySQL – was and is more powerful… but unless you need to manipulate large relational databases or other similar activity, I’m not sure you’re going to have to learn things like that any more to get computers to do what you want.

  50. switchnode says:

    O psychiatrists, psychologists, and the psychology-adjacent: how good is the evidence for biphasic sleep, really?

    • onyomi says:

      I just want to second that I am very curious about this too. It always seemed very counterintuitive and weird to me, though, in fairness, I’ve never gone for an extended period without electric lighting.

      • Nicholas says:

        It’s what I have observed to happen if you go to bed before 11, don’t have work until 9, and don’t have the internet. After a bit in college, it was the sleep schedule I and my roommate fell into so that we could function during the day while also being on schedule with house mates who worked second shift.

        • onyomi says:

          I have had all those circumstances obtain at various points in my life (except the part about having a housemate with a night shift), and my sleep pattern never changed. Are you sure you weren’t just adjusting to be able to see/accommodate him/her?

          • Nicholas says:

            Well, the pattern on nights when they went out after work was:
            Go to bed at 9.
            Wake up at 1.
            Go to the bathroom.
            Eat a sandwich.
            Go back to bed.
            Because it was rather dull to be awake at 2 am by myself without internet.
            But if my roomate was home, after eating a sandwich I’d spend the next two hours catching up with my roomate, then he’d go to bed so he could go to work the next day, and then I’d go to bed.

  51. Rauwyn says:

    Scott, if you ever feel like taking advantage of the money-per-post incentive… 50 individual posts, each containing one Tom Swiftie. Just a suggestion. Of course you’d need 50 titles too, which could make it a bit more challenging.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Patreon has a feature where you set a maximum monthly donation. I assume that would kick in after a while. And then no one would ever sign up again.

  52. James says:

    I was very sure I was going to see https://thezvi.wordpress.com/ under “Those That Have Just Broken The Flower Vase”.

  53. skulgun says:

    I suppose you could just take all your Patreon money and give it to charity anyway.

    But don’t tell anybody.

  54. Toggle says:

    This reinforces my secret conviction that everything I like was invented either by Borges or Von Neumann.

  55. Alraune says:

    Dorothy Thompson’s 1941 article, “Who Goes Nazi?” came up this week. The description of Mr. G seems quite relevant to the local psychology.

    • Sarah says:

      Fair point.

      If you substitute Communism for Nazism, the fact is that 1930’s!me does not fit the *non*-Communist profile, but the *ex*-Communist profile. (e.g. Koestler, Wright, Breton, etc).

    • Montfort says:

      The description of G may look specific at first glance, but I’m calling Forer effect. All I can get out of it that seems meaningful is “clever and has complex opinions about political ideologies” (plus, of course, some content-free negative sentiment, but that’s how you write about hypothetical nazis). I don’t think those features are particularly useful to identify.

      Have I missed something instructive?

    • Peter says:

      The article is a bit vague about the specifics of Mr. G’s motivations. The bits in section III I think are helpful, and bearing those in mind, I get a picture of Mr. G as a partisan-for-hire – neither a true disinterested seeker after truth, nor a true loyalist to anyone or anything.

      • Mary says:

        I think Mr. G is a contrarian who uses ideas as weapons and doesn’t consider whether they might be true.

    • Deiseach says:

      What I found amusing in that article was the class assumptions embedded in the piece; at the same time as exhibiting “America is a classless society, Jack is as good as his master!” attitude, we get the “But some are servants and some are nature’s gentlemen and some are bred gentlemen”.

      The notion that Mr So-and-So and Mrs Such-and-Such would never “go Nazi” because, well my dear, they have breeding, he’s a gentleman and she’s a lady, they may not have money but they do have class – I had thought that attitude had been killed after the Great War but obviously it lingered on.

  56. Allan53 says:

    Now I’m faintly worried because the blog looks more or less identical to me, barring the addition of the Patreon link in the side…

    So either the changes aren’t as obvious as Scott implied, or my observational skills are much worse that I thought. *shrug* Well, I always try to improve my skills anyway.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      No, the changes are extremely obvious. The most likely explanation is that your browser is failing to render them.

    • Zykrom says:

      blogroll is on the left side, is funny, is bigger

      • Alraune says:

        The grey is new, the page renders slightly more slowly.

      • Jaskologist says:

        The left bar does collapse below a certain window width, which is nice.

        • yrrebaer says:

          It collapses in neither of my two browsers (which might be my fault since I have JavaScript disabled by default in one browser, and the other browser is very rare). I also zoom the page in, so the left sidebar gets in the way. So, for people like me, here is a workaround that seems to do all right on my machine: use a custom CSS stylesheet (your browser should either support custom stylesheets out of the box like old versions of Opera, or support them with extensions like Stylish for Google Chrome and Firefox):

          @media only screen and (max-width: 1200px) {
          .widget-area {
          display: none;
          #pjgm-main {
          padding: 15px !important;
          background: #f0f0f0 !important;
          .pjgm-postcontent {
          font-size: 14px;
          line-height: 180%;

          Adjust the max-width and font-size values if necessary. This should hide both the sidebars and increase font size beyond a certain zoom level. The page ends up looking like this.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I get rid of the sidebars by increasing font size (by Ctl+ several times) till the page is big enough that only the middle section fits on the screen. When I want to consult a sidebar, I use left or right arrow to move the page over.

            ETA – On my XP, this works in Opera 12.16; then I use their Fit to Width button if necessary. Iirc, it works in Chrome as well.

    • Andy says:

      If you’re not seeing the horned tentacles coming up from the bottom and reaching out for you, it’s definitely a browser render glitch. It’ll probably be fixed in time.

    • Sam says:

      I had the same problem on my phone. Look for a blue double arrow in the upper left corner. That will take you to the new sidebar with the blogroll.

  57. Sniffnoy says:

    A quick note on the problem of utility aggregation — this is in response to some stuff I think some people were discussing on Tumblr and I don’t want to dig up.

    Basically the argument went (I forget who was claiming this exactly) that utility aggregation (we will ignore for now the question of to what extent this makes sense at all) has to be by adding things up because otherwise the Δutility resulting from a given act depends on the size of the rest of the universe, and how much good something does doesn’t depend on the size of the rest of the universe.

    I claim this argument is in error. Let’s simplify the problem — we imagine that the universe consists of two causally-disconnected “bubbles”, so you can only affect things in your bubble. Then the goings-on in the other bubble, in particular its size, should play no role in your decision making. This much is certainly correct.

    But it’s a mistake to reify changes in the utility function as “how much good something does”. The point of a utility function is to describe preferences over gambles. Suppose that you have one utility function U_1 for your bubble B_1 and another U_2 for the other bubble B_2. You want to make a global utility function U for the whole universe. Then certainly if changes in U_1 or U_2 must be reflected by a corresponding change in U, then you must have U=U_1+U_2+const. But as I’ve said above, there’s no reason to insist on this. Suppose we weight U_1 and U_2 by the “sizes” (s_1 and s_2) of the corresponding bubbles, so U = U_1*s_1 + U_2*s_2. (Or to make it more like the original “absurd” scenario, suppose U_1 and U_2 both take values in [0,1] and we are taking a weighted average, U’ = U/(s_1+s_2).) Since E(U_2) is the same regardless of your action, for any actual decision you might make this is simply U_1*k+c, for some constants k and c, i.e., equivalent to U_1. You are making the same decisions as you would under U_1, which is all it makes sense to demand.

    In the real world, of course, we do not care about actual causal disconnection, but about connections so tenuous that it makes little sense to estimate a nonzero value for E(Δutility). Still, I think I’ve shown the basic problem here. Sure, ΔU’ of your actions may decrease as the other bubble increases, but if you don’t make the mistake of looking at the number ΔU’ as meaningful, this just isn’t relevant. You still come to the same conclusions about what actions you should take, which is what a utility function is for.

    • Arcaseus says:

      This analysis seems to assume is that s_1 and s_2 are constants. But they are not always, and this is why you can get weird conclusions from averaging utilities (such as killing the least happy half of the population being highly moral).

      • Sniffnoy says:

        No, it’s actually not. Part of my point is that, contrary to what other people claimed, s_2 can vary without actually affecting anything (assuming that there’s not some stupid TOCTTOU thing going on or something 😛 ).

        Now s_1 varying, when you get into the question of what that actually means, may indeed present the sort of problems that you talk about, and that sort of thing is certainly a hard problem. But I’m deliberately avoiding that sort of problem, and not worrying about just what is meant by “size”, or what happens if s_1 changes, or how we determine U_1 and U_2 in the first place. My point is that, contrary to what some other people claimed, it doesn’t actually change anything things to account for the size of the part of the universe that you can’t affect.

    • Liskantope says:

      What you’re saying makes sense to me.

      But, without digging up the original Tumblr posts, what do you mean by “utility aggregation… has to be by adding things up”? I am just curious.

  58. Anon says:

    On the subject of Patreon, Gwern of gwern.net has one too: https://www.patreon.com/gwern?ty=h. The servers that run his brain emulations aren’t free, you know.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks. Added in. Last I saw Gwern was using some kind of Patreon competitor that never took off and not making as much as he wanted, so I’m glad he’s got some decent cash flow now.

      • JRM says:

        Thanks for giving in to the screaming masses and putting up a Patreon account.

      • anon says:

        Just in case somehow someone didn’t say this already, and because your “I don’t need the money” spiel sort of makes it seem that you don’t get it:

        The reason people want to give money to you is not just because they want you to have that money, or because they think you need it. It’s because giving money to you on Patreon is publicly signaling that what you do is worthwhile and should be done. It is, in a very small way, a method of fighting against Moloch.

        Also, I would much prefer if you billed monthly instead of per blog post. This would limit the influence the Patreon has on your posting habits, which probably doesn’t matter yet, but if the numbers ever get very big, the risk of you having a neat small idea and thinking “is this really worth $x?” is something the most of us would probably rather avoid.

  59. eqdw says:

    AWWWW YEAH. Referenced in the comment of the week. That’s like…. one step removed from being the comment of the week. Some day I’ll be Scott’s favourite. Some day.

    Since having weird asynchronous conversations is totally the best way of doing this:

    Mirzhan Irkegulov: I spoke strongly in my original comment, and thanks for seeing through my frustration to what I actually meant. I am completely on board with CBT. I believe it to be the most effective intervention. However, therapists themselves haven’t work for me because, as you identified in your comment o’ the week, there’s a ton of snake oil out there. I’ve seen about 8 therapists over the past 3 years. None of them took insurance, and none of them helped.

    On the other hand, over the years I have come to administer a form of CBT to myself, and it corresponds almost exactly with what you described. That’s an excellent, concise, accurate, and actionable description by the way. I’ve paid several thousand dollars to therapists over the years and none of them were able to communicate the core idea of what they’re doing as well as you just did.

    The thing I’m working on right now, the thing that therapists do the worst, is the behaviour part. The cognitive part, reframing things in more positive ways, this I understand and can do (at least when I’m not in the thick of depression). But the behaviour part, that’s harder. By way of example

    This is a rationalization, because the whole reason people are depressed (or anxious, or lonely) is because they believe they are horrible (or in danger, or unlovable), so why would they read something that tells them they are wrong in a first place?

    What if the circumstances of your life are such that you feel (reasonably and rationally) near constantly in danger. What if the circumstances of your life are such that you feel (reasonably and rationally) unloveable. Without being able to overcome these circumstances, even if you can reframe your irrational beliefs, you can’t intuit them, and sooner or later you’ll slide right back into depression. A therapist can help you practice things like deep breathing exercises and the like, that have helped with anxiety by taking away the physical triggers. A therapist can’t fix the fact that a scary drunk homeless guy sleeps in your backyard five feet from your bedroom window and the cops refuse to do anything about it. A therapist can help you get over (for lack of better term) perfectionism, so you’re not so down on yourself. But a therapist can’t go out with you, wingman for you, introduce you to people, and teach you how to be more sociable and sexy.

    In fact, the relative uselessness (to me) of therapists was very well illustrated by this last point. A few months ago I met a woman online who was starting a business, basically wingmanning as a service. Life coaching, I guess. In the span of a few weeks she was able to trigger a dramatic improvement in my mental health. How? She just… taught me and coached me in all these interpersonal things that therapists can’t or won’t. Analyzed my posture and body language and pointed out what I was doing wrong. Helped me upgrade my wardrobe. Helped me find meetups and communities that I might fit in with. Taught me how to make small talk, how to interact with strangers, meet them, and make sure they like you. All it took was a few hours of focus on these things, things that would completely fly under the radar of “real” therapists. Because, when you walk into the CBT therapist’s office, the assumption is that your thought processes are askew. They’ll not bother looking into whether or not your (negative) thoughts are simply accurate reflections of reality, and they’re not equipped to help you get over these if they are.

    It’s actually a shame; she dropped off the radar almost two months ago, and I have no idea what happened beyond “I really hope her chronic health problems didn’t take a turn for the worse”. Disappeared the day before she was going to write up my first invoice though (~1/3 the cost of therapists) so silver linings, I guess.

    Anyways, not sure what my point is beyond “mental health is hard, therapists are hit and miss (mostly miss), and fuck they’re expensive”. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • Wrong Species says:

      I wonder if there have been any studies that take a look at life coaches vs therapists. I know that many believe depression doesn’t depend on circumstances and that it’s all in the head but I have a hard time believing that.

      • Deiseach says:

        depression doesn’t depend on circumstances and that it’s all in the head but I have a hard time believing that.

        I have two views on that.

        (1) It’s like eqdw says: it’s the behavioural part that’s tough, not the cognitive part. It’s easy enough to sit down and go through a list of “You are not as useless as you think you are because look at this when your boss said you did a good job or that when you got high results in new skills”, but then the little voice goes “Oh yeah, and if you’re so great, how come you can’t talk to a stranger in a lift for five minutes? Or that you prefer email because you hate talking on the phone, when most of the communication in your job is done by phone?” and what do you do then? You need someone who can show you what the hell to do. So a life coach might definitely be better in a practical, concrete way there.

        (2) I also firmly believe that some of my trouble is that my brain chemicals are out of whack so medication would be nice, please, but I’m out of luck on that (unless I become actively self-harming or suicidal, i.e. I’ve got the scars or police report about me jumping into the harbour to show for it, in which case then they’ll give me drugs) so counselling it will have to be.

        So it’s a combination: there are definitely “life skills” that I lack or really, really suck at, but at the same time until I get my head sorted out, I won’t be able to work on getting those skills.

        • eqdw says:

          I also firmly believe that some of my trouble is that my brain chemicals are out of whack so medication would be nice, please, but I’m out of luck on that (unless I become actively self-harming or suicidal, i.e. I’ve got the scars or police report about me jumping into the harbour to show for it, in which case then they’ll give me drugs) so counselling it will have to be.

          Why are you out of luck? Is your health care system in (iirc) Ireland more strict about drugs than the US? I can get pretty much whatever drug I want if I ask my doctor nicely.

          Incidentally: I’ve tried four different SSRIs (sertraline, citalopram, fluoxetine, paroxetine) and none helped. Then I tried bupropion (not SSRI) and it appeared to help a little bit. I started experimenting with massive amounts of caffeine (350-500mg/day) and this seemed to help more. So now I’m looking into ADD meds.

          I swear, while bupropion didn’t solve most of the problems, it made a dramatic improvement more than any other intervention I’ve tried. Drugs are the best.

          • Deiseach says:

            Apparently we are now operating on a spiffy new community mental health initiative.

            In the Bad Old Days, you pitched up to your doctor and they wrote you a prescription. But Drugs Bad! (if you don’t need them). And if you’re only Stage 1, you don’t need them – Stage 2 is the “Yes, I do cut myself/I tried throwing myself off the bridge” okay you really do need drugs as well as counselling.

            The irony here is (a) a couple of years back when I was having panic attacks and anxiety attacks, my GP was perfectly happy to prescribe me Xanax and I was the one going “No, I’d like to stay off drugs if possible” (the Xanax did help short-term) (b) had I broken down and gone to my GP earlier, I’d be on anti-depressants now like my sister who went while I was doing the stoic “I don’t want to rely on drugs, drugs are a crutch!” bit. Also, that mental healthcare reform groups wanted an alternative to the “traditional, medicalised version” and “alternatives to medication”. No, honestly, I’d be happy with some medication!

            By the time I broke down and asked for anti-depressants, I got the “No, now we do counselling instead!” bit 🙂 Given that on my first visit I asked for medication, was refused and got the referral to counselling, bottled out of that, got a bad dose of suicidal ideation thereafter and had to crawl back with my tail between my legs and ask for a second bite at the cherry for referral to counselling, and still didn’t get offered medication, and given that this being a national initiative any other doctor I’ll go to probably will do the same “We don’t do drugs any more, now it’s counselling”, I’m probably about as well off sticking with what I have as trying to change.

            I’m probably a little cynical here, but since I haven’t made any active attempts to self-harm or kill myself, and since I don’t have a suicide plan*, I imagine I’m considered low-risk so – counselling!

            *Yes, my GP did ask me that re: the latest bout. I am consciously trying very hard not to think about that and divert myself as soon as I start going “Well, if I was going to do it…” because I know once I start down that path, it’s not going to go well. Again, the irony is if I said “Actually, yes, I’m working out a way to do it**”, then I probably would get the “Okay, you need something while waiting for your assessment and maybe even need to be seen by an in-patient clinic”.

            ** Which I sorta kinda have a thought about; I know the ways I can’t do it, and I have sorta kinda a way I might try it if it ever got to that point – and this is where I try and force my brain off that train of thought by switching the tracks.

          • eqdw says:

            [Trigger warning: frank discussion of suicide and related psychiatry experiences]

            FWIW this comment section would be worse off without you.

            That sounds super byzantine and frustrating. :(. It hits on a thing that has been bothering me for a while now too.

            I really, really, REALLY wish that I had the right to waive my rights. Because sometimes I get to a dark place too. I consider myself extremely low risk. I haven’t ever planned anything in detail (except for one really scary, impulsive, long-time-ago situation). Like you, I’ve enumerated a few ways that are definite no-gos, but beyond that, nothing. I’m still choked up at the “things I need to finish up before I can even think of that”. Which is probably a good thing to be choked up over, all in all; it’s quite literally a list of reasons to live. But I wish I could talk frankly about this. I wish I could go to a therapist or psychiatrist and say “look, I’ve analyzed the evidence, I can’t see any path from here to a solution to my unhappiness, and I want to quit playing this game”. I wish I could just frankly discuss this in a dispassionate, emotionless context. I wish I could talk to a therapist and just say “these are the challenges I think are insurmountable, these are why I think they’re insurmountable, this is why they’re important, and I think it’s reasonable to not want to live if these aren’t solveable. Help convince me that it’s not that bad”.

            But I can’t do that. The split second that I start saying this sentence, they’ll send me for inpatient hospitalization. And as Scott has mentioned several times before, inpatient care doesn’t have the greatest success record, and it’s highly disruptive to one’s life in the short term. Given that I’ll get deported if I stop showing up for work, triggering this cascade of events that ends up with my life being (worst case) utterly destroyed or (best case) set back several years from my goals is a Bad Thing.

            It makes me feel that in order to get the help I need, when I need it, I need to game the system. I can’t actually talk about my problems, I have to talk about the lies that I think will most effectively lead to the solutions I want. Which of course may or may not be the right ones; I’m not a doctor. But this in-built risk aversion forces us to be dishonest and hinders communication between the people who can help and the people who need help.

            Honestly, drugs have been by far the most effective treatment for me. Not anti-depressants; SSRIs did nothing but accelerate the death of my relationship (yay side effects!). But stimulants have helped, well, lift my mood. Glorious California Proposition 215 ensures me an only-slightly-self-destructive way of going into maintenance mode and putting the rest of the world on pause. And some drugs, done with suitable precautions, have functioned as therapy, only self-directed and much more effectively. Drugs work, for some situations, and fuck the pharmacological Calvinism informing these “drugs as last resort” policies

          • Creutzer says:

            Deiseach, since we had the topic of paradoxical interventions recently: are you sure that getting serious about planning your suicide would put you that much closer to doing it? I find it immensely comforting to know how I would kill myself if I wanted/needed to, and it may be a coincidence, but I have experienced less suicidal thoughts since I figured that out.

            I suppose it’s a fine line you need to walk: make things seem bad enough that you get medication, but not bad enough that they intern you, right? I wish I could help with determining where that line is, but I live in a less crazy country…

          • Deiseach says:

            Creutzer, the last bout of this which scared me back to the doctor asking for a second chance was because of what eqdw says about “I can’t kill myself unless I take care of these things first”. Generally that’s been enough.

            This time round, I was “Feck it, I don’t care about taking care of those things. I’ll be dead. They won’t matter.” That’s what worried me.

            I seem to be hitting a bad patch recently; it’s just a matter of gritting my teeth and getting through it. If it gets really bad, I will go back to my doctor and she might be willing to give me something in the interval of waiting for the counselling.

            But yeah, I really do feel it’s the view that “unless there’s blood involved, it’s not real”. If I had cut marks on my arms, sure, that’s evidence I’m as bad as I say I am. I turn up with never even have tried anything, well how bad can it be?

            Re: alternate forms of medication, I was coping by drinking, which is Not A Good Idea, Kids and which I’ve stopped doing. Binge drinking bad, boys and girls. Going “I think consuming this 75cl bottle of rum over the course of the day is a helpful idea” will not benefit your liver enzymes, even if it does make your head stop at you.

          • Creutzer says:

            What would happen if you turned up at the doctor’s saying that you are not currently suicidal and only mildly depressed, but you have been suicidal, and in case you get into that state again, you have a fully worked-out and operational plan that is unlikely to fail? They shouldn’t be able to intern you for that, but can they take the risk of not giving you meds?

          • Autonomous Rex says:

            Deiseach, You need to get back in there and be a little more manipulative. Don’t list your symptoms. List the symptoms of the patient that gets the drugs. The way to handle the suicide issue is simple: you feel okay today, but regularly you experience suicidal ideation, have for years, you’re worried it’s chronic, and feel sure that you can no longer wait for things to get worse.

            Millions of Britons are getting prescribed anti-depressants, some that probably don’t need it, and if that’s the trendy media narrative right now, as it appears to be, then you’re going to have to try that much harder on your own behalf. Frontline bureaucracy with a mandate to cutback starts by shooing the meek away.

    • Raph L says:

      I read all of your thread and the comment of the week. Very interesting stuff.

      Yes, in my experience, there are a lot of therapists who are just really bad at their job. I’ve generally had better experience with psychiatrists, who seem not to go in for as much hippie-dippy bullshit (this might be harder to select for in Berkeley, which is well known for such).

      • eqdw says:

        Honestly what I’m doing right now is fixing the shit parts of my life. The problem is that some of them are hard to fix, some of them will take a long time to fix, and some of them I still don’t even know where to start. In the short term, I’m gonna be pretty fuckin’ sad and anxious and lonely and depressed. So, trying new drugs. Investigating certain theories. I suspect part of my problem is misdiagnosed ADD, so looking into that right now.

        In the mean time, I wish there was a way to get hugs on demand

      • Furrfu says:

        BTW, unrelatedly, I read your dissertation the other night, and I wanted to let you know it was an enormous pleasure. It’s a first-class piece of scholarship, and it’s a rare delight to discover passages that needed translating from Latin in a computer science dissertation. Thank you.

        • Raph L says:

          Why thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was really satisfying to do work on those chapters.

    • Medivh says:

      Thanks a lot for writing this. This is exactly how I feel about Therapy.
      My life is a clusterfuck of psychic Problems and bad circumstances, therefore therapy cannot fix my life.
      At the same time, real-life solutions that work for other people often don’t work for me because of my screwed up mind.

      About CBT: There are things that CBT (as described by Mirzhan Irkegulov ) neglects, or cannot do: 1) If I am in state where I cannot imagine anymore what having fun feels like (or success, or sexual arousal, … ), no amount of logical reasoning will get me to feel these emotions, because the concepts of Fun and Success and Sex have lost all meaning. What actually does work: make sure to experience these feelings on a regular basis.
      2) The mind contains subsystems that do not speak “logic” and cannot be convinced. Instead, you will have to identify the specific buttons/triggers for each desired reaction.

      What actually did work for me is Pj Ebys stuff on how motivation works. That guy is a genius.

      Would you like to chat sometime in more detail? You are the first person I have ever met who I think I could have a decent conversation on psychic/life Problems with.

  60. Jaskologist says:

    Apologies to Scott if he’d ether not see this retread, in which case he can just delete it.

    Over on the tumblr side, there was a dust up over Yudkowski having said essentially that you should judge people’s theories on X (economists in this case) based on whether or not they accepted the Many Worlds Interpretation. Is this actually a claim he has made, or a gross misinterpretation?

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      The original articles which advanced that particular thesis were “The Correct Contrarian Cluster” and, to a lesser extent, “Undiscriminating Skepticism”. Feel free to read them and judge for yourself if the Tumblr discussion was accurate or misrepresentative.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Thanks for that. It looks like they were indeed accurate.

        (The core idea is, of course, slam-dunkingly wrong, and ironically so given what the tumblrs who actually know quantum physics thought of EY’s quantum sequences.)

      • Lyle Cantor says:

        I think Eliezer is correct about AI risk, very smart, and I enjoy his writings, but that post always seemed dangerous to me, and at least one of his contrarian views seems obviously wrong, namely his opinions on nutrition. I once read him claim that were he to stop eating totally he would starve to death before he lost weight, as his “lack of metabolic privilege” makes it so his body does not consume stored fat even when he has a calorie deficit. I find it strange that the person who came up with Algernon’s law could believe he has such a mutation.

        As for his opinion of physics, I don’t have the expertise or IQ to judge. I find many worlds appealing, but mostly because I enjoy science-fictiony ideas and anthropic arguments. If he advocates that laymen should have a higher prior for Many Worlds than whatever you get when you poll the experts, I’d be very skeptical of that claim.

        Does good taste in one field correlate to good taste in others? I would say it probably does, but probably not as much as Eliezer thinks it does. Even conditional on the Everett interpretation being wrong, it may still be a good proxy for IQ. Say, economist X was able to learn QM to the point where they are confident enough in his or her ability to engage with contrarian ideas – this may indicate they are likely more intelligent than the average economist. This could make the “contrarian cluster” strategy seem effective even if it is not.

        • SFG says:

          Linus Pauling was wrong about the vitamin C, and he wasn’t too far out of his field.

        • Pku says:

          The thing I find strange about Eliezer is that though he seems to be a very smart guy and writes a lot about rationality, he seems to be pretty terrible and applying rationality himself. And not just terrible for a guy who’s supposed to be a rationality guru, but pretty bad in comparison the the average person (though I might have an overly high opinion of the average person’s rationality level).

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            I think we are seeing the “smart people are more capable at engaging in rationalization” effect.

          • drethelin says:

            In what sense is he terrible at applying rationality? He’s world famous in his field, hangs out with billionaires, has as many girlfriends as he has time for, he has a devoted following both of his fiction and non fiction, and gets paid to work on what he professes to think is the most important problem in the world.

            Compared to all that, fatness seems rather trivial.

          • BD Sixsmith says:

            That would be a good defence of his application of rationality in his own interest but it says nothing about his application of rationality to his beliefs.

            (Unless, of course, his belief is rational egoism…)

          • Jaskologist says:


            The same criteria of success applies to many televangelists; I don’t think applied rationality is their secret to success.

            When people say this about EY, it’s generally because they see him making some grand, sweeping, confident claims about an subject familiar to them, and recognize it as ridiculously wrong or woefully under-informed, and then aren’t willing to Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia their way through the rest.

          • onyomi says:

            I have no opinion on Eliezer, but I am reminded of a statistic I read recently stating that books on ethics are *more* likely to be stolen from libraries than your average book. This tends to indicate that ethicists do not behave more ethically than average, but they are better at coming up with ethical justifications to do what they wanted to do in the first place.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            Who needs cookbooks? People who don’t already know how to cook but want to learn. Who needs books on ethics? …

          • Lyle Cantor says:

            @ScottAlexander What a delightful observation!

          • onyomi says:

            Haha, or it could be that people who don’t “get” ethics on an intuitive level are the ones most inspired to study it.

            Related, I have a subjective impression that psychiatrists and therapists are themselves more likely than average to have struggled with mental health problems. If true, this might actually be a good thing in the sense that a formerly fat person who is now thin makes a better diet guru than someone who was always thin. Is this at all your experience, Scott?

        • Jiro says:

          Thus my theory (which I’ve mentioned before): LW people believe in crazy ideas and want you to become more rational because they think it will lead you to believe in them. Unfortunately for them, it works and you actually end up becoming more rational….

        • Eliezer has a history of being unusually bad at losing weight. While it seems unlikely to me that if he didn’t eat, he’d starve before he lost any weight at all, it’s quite possible that he’s got a rare mutation. Taking fat out of storage is a complex physical process (I’m assuming this because biology is like that), and complex physical processes can go wrong.

          • shemtealeaf says:

            Are there documented examples of people who won’t lose much weight if they literally stop eating? It seems like something that could possibly occur, but I haven’t encountered it before.

          • brad says:

            Taken to an extreme, I doubt it happens very much. Certainly I’ve never heard of fat famine victim corpses. I can believe that there are people (or maybe just infants) out there who have totally broken gluconeogenesis pathways, but I suspect it manifests in a lot worse ways than just trouble dieting. A partial malfunction seems far more likely to cause such limited symptoms.

          • onyomi says:

            Haha… he must have a rare mutation. He couldn’t just be one of the millions of people who try many times to lose weight and fail.

            Don’t mean to sound flippant. This just sounds like one of those elaborate justifications smart people give, like someone mentioned in the CBT thread: when asked why they don’t quit smoking, people of average IQ just say “I tried, but I couldn’t,” whereas smart people all have some elaborate excuse.

            Living in our current society, with our current lifestyle and diet, it’s incredibly hard for most people to lose weight and keep it off. Doesn’t take a rare mutation.

          • Almost no one goes from being obese to having a normal weight.

      • There’s something similar in The Important of Self Doubt”

        That said, as far as I can tell, the world currently occupies a ridiculous state of practically nobody working on problems like “develop a reflective decision theory that lets you talk about self-modification”. I agree that this is ridiculous, but seriously, blame the world, not me. Multi’s principle would be reasonable only if the world occupied a much higher level of competence than it in fact does, a point which you can further appreciate by, e.g., reading the QM sequence, or counting cryonics signups, showing massive failure on simpler issues.

        • Froolow says:

          The ‘low rate of cryonics sign up as a marker for irrationality’ thing really bugs me. If you sit down and do some back of the envelope maths, it really isn’t obvious that cryonics has a net positive expected value. It certainly isn’t so obvious that you can use the low rate of cryonics sign-up as an argument for a low rationality water-line generally. Yet nobody seems to actually do this back of the envelope maths, or – better – do a proper calculation of the cost benefit.

          • Deiseach says:

            The cryonics thing does make me roll my eyes and go “And you say I’m irrational for believing in the Resurrection of the body?”

            “If you don’t believe that we can take someone dying because their brain is riddled with cancer, chop their head off right at the point of legal death, freeze it and then wait ????? years until the technology exists to (a) unfreeze tissue without it all thawing into mush (b) cure brain cancer (c) take a reading from the engrams encoded in the brain and transfer a copy of the consciousness into a new vat-grown body so Mr Smith lives again, then you’re irrational!”

      • Deiseach says:

        (Y)ou listen to the physicists who mock many-worlds and correctly assess that these physicists are not to be trusted.

        That’s one hell of a step from point A to point Z in one sentence, it really does remind me of “Step 4: Profit!”

        You correctly assess? Okay, given that you-the-openminded-enquirer believe Many Worlds is correct, then obviously you think those who do not believe it are incorrect, so in that sense you “correctly” assess them as inaccurate (I’m going for the weakest version of “not to be trusted” because the physicist might be wrong about Many Worlds but that does not mean they are wrong about the other parts of their field or that their knowledge is incorrect).

        But if I’m starting from a position of “I know damn-all about the whole thing”, I’d take it very cautiously that my amateur researches qualified me to say with perfect confidence that people in the field were talking out of their hat where they disagreed with me.

        Sure, maybe the lone genius has really discovered a working and reproducible by others perpetual motion machine cold fusion method in his shed – or maybe he hasn’t.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I plan to write a post on this eventually.

      • Shmi Nux says:

        Please do! You are the only hope left that he softens his position on the issue.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Yay! That means I can get in a preemptive rebuttal!

        Sir Isaac Newton to that entire post!

        If there exists such a thing as C, a general “correctness” factor, then Newton is surely the incarnation of C taken on human form. He made huge steps forward in physics, to point that we forget his additional contributions to optics, which on their own would have earned any other man a place in the history books. Is that too empirical for you? He also invented friggin’ calculus. Too abstract? Did I mention that he usually forged his own scientific instruments because he couldn’t trust anybody else to get them down to the precision he needed?

        The man was provably good at picking correct ideas out of idea space that nobody around him did. And yet, none of you are signing up to convert to Arianism. If we believe in C, we really should.

        Indeed, Yudkowski’s pre-commitment to atheism would, at nearly every point in the past, have put him in opposition to just about every one of the scientific fathers. Even more recently, it would have put him in the Lysenkoism cluster, and against the Lemaitre cluster. You basically need to posit that C only started working in the past 20 years or so, not unlike the color grue.

        • Alex Z says:

          Don’t forget his contribution to Alchemy.

          • Kevin C. says:

            I often have fun referring to Sir Isaac as history’s most successful alchemist, and then pointing out that his development of laws of motion and gravitation that explained the motions of both terrestrial objects and celestial bodies is perhaps the most successful application of the Hermetic principle of the unity of macrocosm and microcosm, generally expressed through the aphorism “as above, so below”.

        • Jiro says:

          I don’t think the Arianism example is very good. Arianism isn’t any worse than the major belief systems that it was competing with at the time. The main reason people aren’t converting to it–and certainly the main reason your average guy on the street isn’t a member–is that its opponents were better at killing its members than its members were at killing its opponents.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Why wouldn’t Arianism be a good example? It was a very Contrarian theory in Newton’s time. And I don’t see any reason to dismiss it out of hand as a viable theory now. If we think there is a general “being correct” skill, and Newton demonstrated his proficiency at that in every area we can check, why shouldn’t we trust him in one we can’t, like Arianism?

            (As an aside, I don’t think your history is really accurate there. Arians seemed to hold the upper hand politically for most of the time the debate was raging (Nicaea was anomalous and not enforced by the subsequent emperors), and even after most of the church hierarchy had gone Trinitarian, Arians reappeared in the form of the conquering barbarian hordes, who were pretty good at killing people.)

          • Deiseach says:

            Arianism had the backing of a good lump of the church of the time and secular powers including emperors. It got to the stage where pretty much the only major voice opposed to Arianism was St Athanasius; indeed, Alexandrian politics being what they were, the part of the populace which was still pagan took advantage of the accession of Emperor Julian the Apostate (who tried to revive Classical paganism with a reformed twist) to fling the deeply unpopular Arian bishop into jail which, ironically, led to his murder and the return of Athanasius to Alexandria to take up the see which the Arian bishop had taken from him.

            Indeed, after the Council of Ariminum in 359 AD where the orthodox position seemed to be triumphant, when the dissenting bishops went back to their sees they began to change their minds and St Jerome could say “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”

            Arianism very nearly won. It wasn’t the popular notion of “And then the Emperor imposed his brand of orthodoxy on everyone and crushed the alternate Christianities”. As Jaskologist points out, the very successful invading Vandals were Arians and treated the North African Catholic communities harshly.

        • Lyle Cantor says:

          Just an FYI, his name is spelled “Yudkowsky” Eliezer Yudkowski is his evil twin.

          • Nornagest says:

            Spelling it as Yudkowski seems to be a common thing among his critics. I don’t know why.

          • Creutzer says:

            I’d guess because most Slavic names in the US are Polish and those end in -ski.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Spelling it as Yudkowski seems to be a common thing among his critics. I don’t know why.

            Our esteemed host speculates that it is a case of mistaken identity.

            More seriously, I assume that one or more of his prominent critics must have made a mistake, and that other people who have never read his actual work but do read the critiques have picked up the misspelling. At this point it’s probably self-perpetuating; anybody who moves in anti-LW circles absorbs the incorrect spelling of the name by osmosis.

          • Pku says:

            Seems more likely it’s the reverse – “Yudkowski” is the more intuitive spelling, and people who aren’t big fans of his would be less likely to remember that his name’s spelled counterintuitively. (Also, it’s more likely that fans have read a lot of things by him than that critics have gone to the trouble of reading a lot of criticisms of him).

        • Jon Gunnarsson says:

          I’m an atheist, but for what it’s worth, I think Arianism makes more sense than Trinitarianism. It’s a simpler theory, and, as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge, fits better with scripture, so I would assign it a higher probability than orthodox Christianity. (But then both of these probabilities are close enough to zero to not make any practical difference.)

        • Adam says:

          He also invented quantitative finance.

        • drethelin says:

          I feel like a lot more people are doing the equivalent of rejecting Newton’s physics because of his Arianism than the opposite.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The stated premises of EY’s original article would indeed mean that a man of Newton’s time should ignore his theories of physics due to his Arianism, since Newton fails on the very first slam-dunk criterion (Atheism: Yes). Many-Worlds wouldn’t apply yet; I don’t know the status p-zombies as a philosophical question back then.

            If we go with the more defensible underlying logic instead, and ignore EY’s specific litmus tests, we really should join up with the Arians, given how Newton manages to be right about everything that we can check, items which are much more slam-dunks than anything EY lists.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          Why can’t we believe that their opinions were the most likely to be correct given the information they had, but we have additional information which changes things?

    • JRM says:

      He’s long had contempt for people who don’t endorse Many Worlds Interpretation, inclusive of physicists and non-physicists. It’s long been his view that failure to endorse MWI is a sign of diseased thinking.

      I got to LW because of the sequences, which I enjoyed reading and which were mostly great. But the MWI stuff seems wildly excessively confident. Even if he is right, though, that it’s obvious to anyone with a proper understanding of quantum mechanics… not all of us have that, and economists should not be supremely confident of such a thing.

      It’s really unseemly for Eliezer to draw this particular line. I have my theories as to why he does this, but they are not nice and probably not necessary.

      • MicaiahC says:

        Sort of as a counterpoint to this, I read it after I had taken basic quantum mechanics in lower division undergraduate physics, was immensely confused by the way that the copenhagen interpretation was explained, read the sequences, then did upper division + graduate quantum in view of MWI and subsequently found it much easier to intuitively appreciate all the previously “impenetrable and unintuitive” parts.

        However, this comes with many caveats:

        There’s independent evidence to suggest that my initial exposure to quantum was subpar; the professors phoned in their teaching duties. Obviously I could have gained the appreciation just as easily from just being exposed more to quantum.

        Obviously it could have just been a “placebo effect”, I don’t think my ability to solve problems got better, but I did proceed through the material much faster than before. And obviously the effect of the sequences as a pedagogical framing is not a perfect correlation with truth value (see useful lies like Newtonian mechanics or verbal analogies to mathematical constructs), but I feel like it was a useful consequence and I feel bad whenever I see a bunch of people criticize this part of my mental framing.

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t know – a florist could be sound on the Many Worlds question and still produce god-awful flower arrangements (in which case they’d probably soon be an unsuccessful florist and perhaps should decide to stick with theoretical physics instead).

        It does seem much too easy to confuse whatever Yudkowsky is saying with the impression that he’s saying “If they agree with my pet theory, then they’re smart people and should be listened to”. Why on earth should an economist have any opinion one way or the other on the possibility of many worlds?

        Okay, I see the point that “being willing to think outside the box and entertain heterodox opinions” can be useful, and that economists who are open-minded may come to better theories that can be applied to make financial and economic systems work better (for whatever value of “better” you want to define).

        But at this stage, I think I’d prefer a stodgy, conservative economist who was too cautious to try out crazy new ideas and just concentrated on getting the budget balanced. We and Greece both suffered a bit from all the people who wanted to believe the good times would never end and that markets would always go up and money would fall out of the air for everyone forever and ever, world without end, amen!

      • MWI isnt obvious to people who understand physics, at least not for non True Scotsman definitions of properly understand. EY has struggled to answer informed critique.

      • brad says:

        Given that the sum total of the evidence for MWH, or any other interpretation of QM for that matter, is aesthetic, I see no reason at all for such overconfidence. In the face of so little evidence, the humble answer is to shut up and calculate.

        Isn’t epistemological humility supposed to be the hallmark of the “rationalist” movement? Yet, time and time again on issue after issue we get predictions about the future, including the far future, that are presented in quite strong terms.

    • Grort says:

      I am totally on board with the statement: “If I agree with someone on X topic which I have carefully researched, that gives me a higher opinion of their intelligence globally.”

      I am not at all on board with the statement: “if X other person agrees with Y other person about Z topic which they have researched but I haven’t, that should change my opinion of X or Y.”

      I wonder if a lot of the people arguing are not opposed to the general notion of intelligence correlations, but instead are just complaining because they don’t think that an economist’s beliefs about Many Worlds are relevant to them.

  61. Alexander Stanislaw says:

    I don’t how serious Scott’s bio-determinist guide to parenting was, but someone took it very very seriously.

    While I agree with many of the measures (getting a pet for instance or eating fish), I’m disturbed by the level of detail, and the overestimation of the benefits of most of the interventions.

  62. shai says:

    I really like the redesign but you should really move the search bar to somewhere on the top-right of the website since that’s the standard place for it to be

    • Scott Alexander says:

      When I do, it looks like one sidebar starts below the other sidebar and angers the part of me that makes sure picture frames are hung up straight.

      • Anon says:

        If you put it above the “Recent Comments’ title I think it will work.

      • Other Anon says:

        You could also put it in the top-right next to the RSS/Comments feed buttons, although I don’t know enough about how the HTML/CSS is structured to say you definitely could do that. It would be a good place for it, though.

      • NZ says:

        As long as the SSC search bar is both near the top where it’s easy to see and in a place where it looks like it does what it’s supposed to do (search the whole site), you’re fine.

        I’m a software and web usability professional, FWIW.

  63. walpolo says:

    Occam’s razor: believe the simplest theory that accords with your evidence. In Bayesian terms, we can make sense of this as a constraint on which prior probabilities are reasonable: if two scientific theories have the same experimental consequences, it’s rationally impermissible to assign a higher prior to the more complicated theory. According to Occam’s razor.

    Is this a sound epistemological principle? Is it really irrational to suppose that more complicated theories are more likely to be true than simpler ones?

    • Houshalter says:

      There is no inherent reason you need to have a prior for simpler theories. But it would be very strange not to have such a prior. The universe appears to be explainable by simple laws, and the more we learn the simpler they seem. If the universe was infinitely complicated, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend it.

      Another note is that you are rarely just comparing two theories in total isolation. Generally there are many complicated theories which could fit the data, but only a few simple ones. If you average together all the possible hypotheses, you’ll generally get the same result as the simple theory. E.g. averaging a bunch of curvy polynomials that fit some data produces a straight-ish line that doesn’t curve very much.

      • 27chaos says:

        “Another note is that you are rarely just comparing two theories in total isolation. Generally there are many complicated theories which could fit the data, but only a few simple ones. If you average together all the possible hypotheses, you’ll generally get the same result as the simple theory. E.g. averaging a bunch of curvy polynomials that fit some data produces a straight-ish line that doesn’t curve very much.”

        This is a really smart and cool way to think about it! Thank you!

        • tgb says:

          While I too find the concept pleasing, I don’t think there’s anything of substance behind it. Forget about polynomials (we’re investigating the ‘less simple’ theories anyway), and widen the view to discontinuous functions passing through your data points. Then, at any other point, the value of the function is totally unrelated to the value of the data points. You’d be trying to average over all numbers without anything distinguishing any.

          In math terms, you need to specify a measure to take an average (it’s an integral, after all). Saying “prefer simpler functions” is one way to specify a measure (or at least to hint at how to come up with one). Without that, saying “average over all the theories” is literally meaningless.

          It would be a very interesting result, however, to show that the average using the Kolmogorov Complexity measure would turn out to just give the simplest theory that fits. Hmm, seems hard to solve.

          • Houshalter says:

            “Averaging” is a simplified way to view it yes. But when you multiple models/hypotheses, you can combine them into one big model/hypothesis.

            You just give each model a weight based on it’s probability. The weight determines it’s probability of being drawn. So if you are predicting the weather, you can draw thousands of predictions from this model, and determine how many of them predict rain. Or other queries.

            In general, the results of combining a big model together will be similar to a simple model. There is a mathematical justification for it but I’m not sure how to put it into words. The complex uncertain bits tend to cancel each other out, and can just as easily be modeled as a simpler function which just is uncertain at those points.

      • Wouter says:

        > There is no inherent reason you need to have a prior for simpler theories

        There is a very good inherent reason: the prior over all theories is a prior over programs, and thus a prior over integers. The probabilities need to sum to 1, over all integers, thus the probability must decrease for larger integers, which (usually) correspond to more complex theories.

        • Furrfu says:

          In the limit it must decrease for sufficiently large integers, but of course the fact that a > b does not imply that P(a) < P(b) in general.

          Also, you pulled a sneaky in adding the requirement that the theories be computable!

          • Oscar Cunningham says:

            If they aren’t computable what does “complexity” mean?

          • Wouter says:

            I suspect that a slightly different statement is true:
            for every probability distribution P(x) on the integers, there exists a (possibly large) constant c such that if a > b+c, then P(a) < P(b)

          • Vitor says:

            This is false. Consider giving 50% probability mass to the string of length 0, 25% evenly among all strings of length 1 to 2, 12.5% among strings of length 3 to 5, etc.

            No mattter how large your constant, you will eventually reach a point where the step to the next smaller probability level is even larger.

          • Furrfu says:

            Oscar, good point. Sorry.

        • Houshalter says:

          >There is a very good inherent reason: the prior over all theories is a prior over programs, and thus a prior over integers. The probabilities need to sum to 1, over all integers, thus the probability must decrease for larger integers, which (usually) correspond to more complex theories.

          That’s a really weak justification. It could be a flat prior over all possible programs. Any program is equally likely as any other, all the way to infinitely long ones. It could be a prior that is Gaussian distributed at some level of complexity. Or it could be a prior that is flat all the way to some (arbitrarily huge) upper limit of complexity, if you don’t like dealing with infinities.

          You can have whatever prior you want. That’s why it’s called a prior, it’s a subjective thing you have prior to actually looking at evidence.

          • Anonymous says:

            It could be a flat prior over all possible programs.

            Well, the point here is that this is actually impossible: there is no flat prior over all programs. The other examples you give all implement a sort of Occam’s razor, in that sufficiently complex programs really are disfavored.

          • Houshalter says:

            It doesn’t converge to a nice simple mathematical structure. It implies that the true laws of the universe are infinitely complicated. But I don’t see why that is implausible. Sure it might break existing assumptions or mathematical notation, but that can be dealt with.

    • Samuel Skinner says:

      The reason Occum’s razor exists is there is an infinite number of more complicated theories. It comes from metaphysical arguing where you can add on infinite layers of forms, true natures, souls and the like*. If one category is utterly indistinguishable from another, you can simply collapse them into a single category.

      * Its been a while and I don’t speak Latin or Old English so if you want high confidence about its origins, you’ll need someone willing to go through 14th British writing.

      • Adam says:

        I think you’re right. It’s not about preferring theories that are simpler in terms of computational complexity. It’s about pruning layers of causation that do no additional explanatory work.

    • Furrfu says:

      Yes. The probability that the person you are talking to is in California is necessarily at least as high as the probability that they are a feminist in California, and if there is some nonzero probability that they’re a non-feminist in California, then the California theory is strictly better than the feminist-in-California theory. This doesn’t immediately tell you that they’re more likely to be in California than to be a feminist in, say, Europe. But you don’t have to pile up that many conjunctions before you start getting into ridiculously small probabilities: it’s conceivable that they’re more likely to be a feminist in Europe, but they’re probably more likely to be in California than to be a sex-positive feminist and sex-work activist in Berlin with Portuguese ancestry who is also a well-respected Wikipedia editor and regularly exhibits their photography in art galleries. In fact, I think there’s only one person who fits that description.

    • Hwold says:

      Yes, and it can be illustrated quite simply : it has to do with the question : “how significant is the fact that the theory can fit the data ?”

      Let’s say that the facts that you want to explain are n points in the 2d plane, picked randomly from an unknown random set of “lawful points”. Our goal is to find a theory that matches the rule behind the lawful points, given a finite number of observations (let’s say, 10).

      Alice says : I have 10 points. Let’s use a 10-degree polynomial to find a theory. Alice picks 10 points, find a 10-order polynomial than fit them, and says : here’s my theory, and it matches the experimental data. It must be true !

      Bob says: Let’s go for the simplest explanation. Let’s try a linear relationship. He picks 10 points, find that they fit on a straight line, and says : here’s my theory, and it matches the experimental data. It must be true !

      Do you see the trick ? That’s right : even if the underlying law is not even polynomial, Alice will always be able to fit the data. It’s always possible to find a 10-degree polynomial that fit 10 points. OTOH, if the underlying law is not linear, it is much more less likely than 10 random points will fit on a straight line : the fact that Bob could find one is by its own good evidence that his theory is good.

      The short story is : the event “a simple theory can fit my experimental data” is far less likely than the event “a complex theory can fit my experimental data” (because for every data there is always a sufficiently complex theory that will fit it, even if said data is just random noise) ; therefore when that event arises, it is more significant.

      • Furrfu says:

        You only need a 9th-order polynomial to fit 10 points, and if you use a 9th-order polynomial to fit them, and they’re exactly on a line, that 9th-order polynomial will have 8 zero coefficients, leaving you with Bob’s model. Aside from these nitpicks, and the larger issue of noise, your point is correct.

        • Evan Þ says:

          But there are an infinite number of tenth-degree polynomials that fit any ten points, which is why “prefer simpler functions” is significant.

    • Wait a minute says:

      What most rationalists actually seem to follow is something like: Adding more knowledge or information to an explanation does not necessarily lead to it having more truth or accuracy, which is kinda related to Occam´s razor but not really it.

    • Alex Z says:

      Occam’s Razor is a bit more specific if I recall correctly. It says you shouldn’t add things to your theory that don’t improve its explanatory power over the data. So for instance, if you have a theory that a set of equations dictate the way electrons orbit atoms, adding “God makes them do it” is unnecessary. It doesn’t give you a better prediction, so it is useless.

      In machine intelligence, a related concept is regularization. The basic idea is that if your model has too many free parameters, you will be able to fit any data perfectly and so you may overfit the data. So you make your models pay a complexity penalty that grows as your number of free parameters grows.

      It’s a more gray version of Occam’s Razor. Extra complexity allows for overfitting so you need to make sure that the extra complexity pays for itself by explaining enough of your data.

    • US says:

      An observation tangential to your question which does not really answer it but is worth keeping in mind is this: If you do believe complexity is a variable to evaluate based on, you should think hard about how to evaluate ‘simplicity’/complexity, because this may be less simple than one should think. Here’s part of what I wrote a while back on my blog on related topics:

      “Models always have a lot of assumptions. A perhaps surprising observation is that, from a certain point of view, models which might be categorized as more ‘simple’ (few explicit assumptions) can be said to make as many assumptions as do more ‘complex’ models (many explicit assumptions); it’s just that the underlying assumptions are different. To illustate this, let’s have a look at two different models, model 1 and model 2. Model 1 is a model which states that ‘Y = aX’. Model 2 is a model which states that ‘Y = aX + bZ’.

      Model 1 assumes b is equal to 0 so that Z is not a relevant variable to include, whereas model 2 assumes b is not zero – but both models make assumptions about this variable ‘Z’ (and the parameter ‘b’). Models will often differ along such lines, making different assumptions about variables and how they interact (incidentally here we’re implicitly assuming in both models that X and Z are independent). A ‘simple’ model does make fewer (explicit) assumptions about the world than does a ‘complex’ model – but that question is different from the question of which restrictions the two models impose on the data. And thinking in binary terms when we ask ourselves the question, ‘Are we making an assumption about this variable or this relationship?’, then the answer will always be ‘yes’ either way. Does the variable Z contribute information relevant to Y? Does it interact with other variables in the model? Both the simple model and the complex model include assumptions about this stuff. At every branching point where the complex model departs from the simple one, you have one assumption in one model (‘the distinction between f and g matters’, ‘alpha is non-zero’) and another assumption in the other (‘the distinction between f and g doesn’t matter’, ‘alpha is zero’). You always make assumptions, it’s just that the assumptions are different. In simple models assumptions are often not spelled out, which is presumably part of why some of the assumptions made in such models are easy to overlook; it makes sense that they’re not, incidentally, because there’s an infinite number of ways to make adjustments to a model. It’s true that branching out does take place in some complex models in ways that do not occur in simple models, and once you’re more than one branching point away from the departure point where the two models first differ then the behaviour of the complex model may start to be determined by additional new assumptions where on the other hand the behaviour of the simple model might still rely on the same assumption that determined the behaviour at the first departure point – so the number of explicit assumptions will be different, but an assumption is made in either case at every junction.

      As might be inferred from the comments above usually ‘the simple model’ will be the one with the more restrictive assumptions, in terms of what the data is ‘allowed’ to do. Fewer assumptions usually means stronger assumptions. It’s a much stronger assumption to assume that e.g. males and females are identical than is the alternative that they are not; there are many ways they could be not identical but only one way in which they can be. The restrictiveness of a model does not equal the number of assumptions (explicitly) made. No, on a general note it is rather the case that more assumptions mean that your model becomes less restrictive, because additional assumptions allow for more stuff to vary – this is indeed a big part of why model-builders generally don’t just stick to very simple models; if you do that, you don’t get the details right. […] The problem is that not making assumptions is not really an option; you’ll basically assume something no matter what you do. ‘That variable/distinction/connection is irrelevant’, which is often the default assumption, is also just that – an assumption. If you do modelling you don’t ever get to not make assumptions, they’re always there lurking in the background whether you like it or not.”

      The quotes above are from a blog post I wrote a while back, and the link above my name has a bit more on these topics. When you engage in modelling, you’ll sometimes overfit the data. Other times you’ll overlook important variables. I don’t think much can be said ‘in general’ about which of the two problems are most likely to be the most severe – that seems to me to be highly context dependent.

      Are you familiar with statistical information criteria? Some of the people working on those topics have given a lot of thought to related questions – I highly recommend Burnham & Anderson’s text on model selection if you’re curious to learn more about these things (if you just want (some of) the highlights I posted a couple of blog-posts about the book here and here).

    • Troy says:

      In Bayesian terms, we can make sense of this as a constraint on which prior probabilities are reasonable: if two scientific theories have the same experimental consequences, it’s rationally impermissible to assign a higher prior to the more complicated theory.

      This is a very complicated issue (no pun intended), but let me try to shed a little light.

      By Bayes’ Theorem, the posterior probability of a hypothesis H given evidence E and background knowledge K is a function of the prior probability of H just given K and the Bayes’ factor for the evidence: that is, P(H|E&K) is a function of P(H|K) and P(E|H&K)/P(E|~H&K).

      Your suggestion is to take Occam’s razor as telling us to assign a higher value to P(H|K) if H is simpler. This is intuitively plausible, and many philosophers of science (e.g., Richard Swinburne) have suggested something similar.

      The problem, it seems to me, is in the background knowledge K. Whether or not H is more probable if simple depends entirely on your background knowledge: does it make it likely that the true hypothesis in this domain would be simple?

      It’s true, as others have said, that there will (in most cases, at least) be an infinite number of possible alternative hypotheses, and that at some point, by mathematical necessity, they will have to decrease in probability so that the probability of the set of all possible alternative hypotheses sums to 1. But, if we number our H-i’s in order of increasing complexity, that at some point H-(j+1) has a lower prior than H-j doesn’t imply that, say, H-1 has a higher prior than H-2, or that H-2 has a higher prior than H-3. And sometimes our background knowledge ought to lead us to assign the highest priors to, say, H-40 and H-41.

      It may also be true that we have often good inductive evidence that simpler hypotheses are more probably true – in other words, it’s often true that K itself tells us to prefer simpler theories. But this is not always true, and it is domain specific – it is much more true in physics than economics, say.

      So I do not think that simpler theories should always be assigned higher priors – it depends on what your background knowledge tells you about the domain in question.

      • Peter says:

        I suppose this is the thing with Bayesian techniques – you can get absurd results by failing to include relevant information. This goes all the way back to Laplace; he presents this neat little scheme for getting the probability of the sun coming up, finds that it is absurdly low, and speculates that if you took all of the relevant information into consideration, it might come out higher.

        Note also that you can still expect to see a complex hypothesis be the true one even if the highest-prior hypothesis is the simplest. If you group hypotheses by size on a sort-of log scale, as in hypotheses with complexity 1, 2-3, 4-7, 8-15, 16-31 etc. then maybe a high-complexity group is the modal group even if you have a nice smooth exponentially decaying prior. Also, the number of individual possible hypotheses of complexity 1 may be a lot lower than the number of possible hypotheses of complexity 7, so even if the expected complexity is 7, the individual hypotheses may have much lower priors than those of complexity 1.

        I sometimes think that to “do” “objective” Bayesianism “properly” you need to take all the evidence in one great big scoop and produce a prior probability distribution over hypotheses of everything and see which of those agree with the observation. I like to call it “Grand Induction”. This of course pretty much entails all of the problems of Solomonoff Induction, and probably a few others besides, hence all the scare quotes.

        • Troy says:

          Note also that you can still expect to see a complex hypothesis be the true one even if the highest-prior hypothesis is the simplest.

          Yes, I think Michael Huemer makes a similar point in one of his papers. “Simpler theories are more probable” does not imply “A simple theory is probably true,” for any precisification of ‘simple.’ The two are very easy to confuse, thought, and I myself slipped between them in my last post.

          I sometimes think that to “do” “objective” Bayesianism “properly” you need to take all the evidence in one great big scoop and produce a prior probability distribution over hypotheses of everything and see which of those agree with the observation.

          Yes, I completely agree! This is actually one of my main research projects right now. Basically, and in line with what I said above, I think that to figure out the prior of any hypothesis H you need to look at the different competing “higher-order” theories that would predict it to varying degrees, and take a weighted average of the probabilities they assign H — weighted, that is, by P(theory|K) — via the Theorem of Total Probability. Then you need to do this for those theories as well, and so on. You can only stop when either K entails that some particular higher-order theory is right — and I think it’s implausible that this often happens — or when you reach explanatorily ultimate theories such that you can’t go back any further. At that point you assign priors to those theories purely on the basis of a priori facts, or some such — though how exactly you do that, I don’t know. (Simplicity? Principle of Indifference?)

          If this framework is right, it has rather startling philosophical implications. First, it gives us a novel transcendental argument for a first cause/ultimate explanation. (A regress here, it seems to me, would be vicious, and keep us from being able to assign probabilities at all.) Second, it suggests that the true prior probabilities of ordinary hypotheses about the world — those we come up with in science and everyday life — are derivative of and epistemically parasitic on the probabilities of different ultimate explanations and how likely they make those hypotheses. If I may be a bit grandiose about it, theology is shown to indeed be the queen of the sciences.

          • Peter says:

            The thing about coming up with priors: I was noodling with these ideas about hypotheses expressed as strings in ASCII – and allow comments starting with #. One consequence: if you arbitrarily go for some fixed length, eg. 140 characters, then it’s easy to apply Insufficient Reason, and in practise you naturally get length effects. So if one hypothesis has only 70 characters doing the actual work, you can round it off with a # and then produce huge numbers of functionally equivalent variants, such that all of those variants grossly outnumber a hypothesis where all 140 characters are actually doing work, so that your prior greatly favours something functionally equivalent to the 70-character hypothesis. Anyway, I think this is an argument for having your prior probability diminish exponentially according to number of symbols. Possibly you might even find a way to make it tell you what the parameters are for that.

            Problem 2: what formalism to express your hypotheses in. The danger here is in getting bitten by Nelson Goodmanesque “grue” problems. ISTR Scott Aaronson has something to say about this, and I vaguely recall he ended up appealing to something other than Bayesianism (PAC learning?) to get around this – and I’m still left with worries about formalisms that differ hugely from each other – i.e. where a “translation key” would be huge or even infinite (does that even make sense?). I’m going into seriously speculative mode here, but I think some formalisms come more naturally to us than others. Yes, there are huge layers of cruft from learning, culture and evolution but I think that even when you scrape all that away some formalisms are just plain easier to physically instantiate than others. “If materialism is true, you can learn something about matter just by thinking”??? Except you don’t even need to be a materialist? “if substance monism is true, you can learn something about the one substance just by thinking”??? So we’ve started with an idea about how to do empiricism properly, and ended up with a weird sort-of form of rationalism (as in a priori knowledge, rather than any of the other senses of that word).

            Anyway, this has got seriously speculative but I thought that if anyone would appreciate this, the people on SSC would.

            [1] Yes yes, some languages don’t distinguish green and blue, and some people say these languages have “grue” terms.

          • Troy says:

            I definitely have Problem 2 in mind with respect to this project. I very much think that you can’t have empirical knowledge without a priori knowledge; I take it that this whole project is a priori.

            I suspect that the “ideal language” is a kind of language of thought. Take a proposition P (propositions here understood to be the meaning of sentences/content of thoughts). Think of P as being built up out of various concepts combined in a certain way (in the same way that sentences are built up out of words combined in a certain way). Now take every concept in P that is not primitive. Reduce it to primitive concepts, and re-express P using only those.

            Now we do something like (though this may be too simplistic) count the number of primitive concepts in P. We can then assign a simplicity score to each proposition = number of primitive concepts in the proposition, and make the prior of the propositions in our partition a function of the simplicity score of each proposition.

            This presupposes a whole bunch of stuff, including (a) the existence of a privileged partition, (b) the basic correctness of the traditional project of conceptual analysis (a la Russell), and (c) the concept relativity of probability (which is not quite the same as language relativity, on my view). It’s also somewhat opposed to the general trend of objective Bayesians to hold up machine learning as the paradigm of probabilistic reasoning. To get probabilities we need propositions; to get propositions we need concepts; and to get concepts we need thought. If machines can think, fine; but mere formal manipulation will not suffice. (This is just another way of making the point that probability cannot be purely syntactic, and perhaps of affirming your point that some formalisms are better than others.) I’m comfortable with these all commitments, but many other – including those attached to the “empiricist” label – will not be.

    • Logan says:

      I think Occam’s makes more sense if you think of “complicatedness” not as a number but as a sort of partial ordering. If one theory is strictly more complicated than another, then it should definitely have a lower prior, because it is claiming more. If I claim that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, and he claims that there is a blue teapot orbiting the sun, then my claim is more likely because it is less complicated.

      In logical terms, “A and B” is a priori less likely than “A.”

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        >If I claim that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, and he claims that there is a blue teapot orbiting the sun, then my claim is more likely because it is less complicated.

        The trouble is, readers not used to that kind of language may go away convinced that a colorless teapot is more likely than a blue one.

  64. Ooh, I love the new Beeminder ad! Thank you so much! I also love how 100% of the ad copy is yours. You (unsurprisingly) are better at that than me.

    Quibbles: We don’t camel-case it. And the right edge of the infinibee (as we call it) got a little smooshed.

  65. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    A poll asks consumers whether, in the case of a sudden crisis, they would want their self-driving car to save their own life or maximize the total number of lives saved. For example, if it was about to hit an oncoming car and couldn’t get out of the way, should it veer off the road and down a cliff (100% chance of killing self, 0% chance of killing others) or hit the oncoming car (75% chance of killing self, 75% chance of killing others)? Respondents overwhelmingly in favor of cars programmed to protect their driver alone – which makes no sense, since presumably everyone’s car will have the same programming so this kills extra people for no reason. Immanuel Kant is not amused.

    From “More Links For 2014”. I do not see how the response fails to make sense. The situation is analogous to the prisoner’s dilemma; no matter what other people’s cars do, I am better off if my car tries to save my own life as opposed to trying to save the most possible lives. Now, yes, if I could only choose a single rule that all cars had to follow, then obviously I would pick the utilitarian car rule, since I would not know ahead of time which car I would be on and that is the rule that would give me the highest probability of survival. But in the real world, I expect to only have control over my own car, either by programming it or (more likely) by choosing which type of car programming to buy, and therefore I always buy the car that attempts to save my life at the expense of others. Though I am, of course, assuming that my city is not populated by superrational decision theorists, in which case I might act differently.

    Note that even if I am the car czar, and I get a kickback for each life that I save so that I have an incentive to make most cars utilitarian cars, I am still better off programming my personal car to prioritize my life and simply not allowing anyone else to do the same. The only way it makes sense to pick the utilitarian car for yourself is if every car in existence must obey the same rule, and if your choice determines which of the two rules the other cars follow. Dr. Alexander causally presumes this, but I find it an arbitrary and unrealistic assumption.

    • Daniel Speyer says:

      People *are* advising the Car Czar here. There’s only going to be one codebase.

      • stillnotking says:

        Enforced by whom?

        If someone is actually going to try this, let me know so I can make a killing selling DIY car hacking kits.

        • Emile says:

          If you use a DIY hacking kit on your car and get into an accident, how do you think “I hacked my care so it could be more deadly for others and less deadly for me” going to look in court? That’s pretty close to intentional homicide…

          So I don’t think you’re going to find many buyers for your kit.

          • Len says:

            Since these sort of life and death accidents are the only way your modified programming will be detected, I would prefer to be alive to stand trial as opposed to being dead and buried.

            Unless there’s legislation stating otherwise, I’m imagining a situation analogous to that of smartphones today, where the bootloader is locked down but can be broken if you have the necessary know-hows. I’m sure that there would be many hobbyists who would love to have the option of tinkering with the OS just as they tinker with the engine and suspensions today.

          • stillnotking says:

            how do you think “I hacked my car so it could be more deadly for others and less deadly for me” going to look in court? That’s pretty close to intentional homicide…

            Well then, having a car that saves others at the expense of its occupants amounts to intentional suicide. I’m sure any half-competent lawyer could argue you can’t force people to choose one of those two options.

            Besides, it depends how many people on the jury use my kit. Which is where my brilliant ad campaign comes in: A wholesome, all-American family with two small children being driven off a cliff by their car (voiced by HAL 9000) to spare the life of a homeless junkie rapist. Your move, Mr. Prosecutor.

          • Creutzer says:

            I’m sure juries have had the prisoner’s dilemma explained to them. Maybe I’m too optimistic about the results?

          • John Schilling says:

            Americans have been hacking their cars for performance for over half a century, often at the expense of safety, and I’ve yet to see anyone convicted of vehicular homicide over it. If “I overclocked my car for MORE POWER, and oops, some innocent kids died” doesn’t get you thrown in jail, “I bought the aftermarket kit that promised to save my babies in the back seat and didn’t mention other people’s babies…” certainly won’t.

            This is the actual intersection of American car culture and American law. It will happen, at least in the United States. And the reality of American marketing is, it won’t just be a few hackers, it will be a thinly-veiled selling point by all of the major manufacturers. We sell a couple million SUVs every year to housewives who will never ever go off-roading but know full well that SUV = “uses that subcompact ahead and the babies in back as part of the impact-absorbing crumple zone to protect your own babies”.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            > If “I overclocked my car for MORE POWER, and oops, some innocent kids died” doesn’t get you thrown in jail

            Well, not any more than just “oops, some innocent kids died” does, anyway.

          • John Schilling says:

            True. You can get yourself thrown in jail for irresponsible operation of a motor vehicle in the United States, but not so much for irresponsible tinkering with the hardware. I assume it is at least possible that such a thing could happen, but it would have to be severely and obviously malicious tinkering, not getting balance-of-risks wrong in your attempt at homebrew safety engineering.

          • Emile says:

            The difference between the DIY kit and just tinkering with the engine is that the DIY kit is specifically meant for avoiding killing people, unlike most parts of your engine.

            A bit like if a Uber driver deactivated his passenger airbag, and then a passenger died because of that. I suspect this case would be treated more severely than other kinds of hardware modification.

            Since these sort of life and death accidents are the only way your modified programming will be detected, I would prefer to be alive to stand trial as opposed to being dead and buried.

            If that was indeed the only way they’d be detected, I agree.

            But I think that if you get into *any* kind of accident, having tampered with the accident-avoiding routine is going to look super bad (especially when there were outside casualties). And of all possible accidents, those where the car could have saved more lives by sacrificing you is only a tiny minority. So you’re saving your life in a rare case, but getting into trouble in a (much more) common case.

          • It occurs to me that this is a real legal issue in the definition of negligence. Negligence, at least in the view of law and econ types, consists of failing to take all cost justified precautions.

            Suppose a precaution increases the chance that you will die by .001 and decreases the chance that someone else will die by .002. Does it then count as cost justified?

            That’s an issue for tort law. To bring in criminal law you would have to argue that failure to take that precaution would amount to negligent homicide if the accident actually occurred and the other driver was killed. I think that would be a hard argument to maintain.

            I’m trying to think of real world legal cases on someone saving his own life in a way which imposes risks on others.

          • Not Robin Hanson says:

            Perhaps some sort of evacuation-type situation? Structure fire, lifeboats, etc.

          • Ano says:

            “It’s something that was itself created due to state intervention. In other words, someone saw some sort of perceived problem, and said “something must be done” and created a commons.”

            Actually, the concept of common land pre-dates Parliament and statutory law.

    • Pku says:

      I personally think this is one of those cases where intuition trumps numbers in most people’s minds – a car that’s programmed to run off a cliff in certain situations would, in real life, lead to a lot more deaths than one that hits the oncoming car (cars have surprisingly good crash defenses), or tries a less extreme move to avoid the crash.

      • AlexanderRM says:

        It also brings the certainty vs. probability error into the mix; even though in a world where everyone drives with one of the two options they both convert into probabilities of death per mile/time/whatever driving, “100% chance of death” doesn’t sound like that to people.

        Basically: Bad experimentation form.
        Although I’m not sure what experimentation form would fit well, but “50% chance to kill the other driver vs. 25% chance of killing you” might be closest.

        If we were actually doing something like voting with the poll results, rather than studying human psychology, we’d want to actually 1. ask “what would you like *everyone’s* car to do” and 2. explain the Rawlsean math of how the option that kills the fewest people makes you as an average individual driver less likely to die. Maybe we should teach the latter bit to children in school.

    • Godzillarissa says:

      Seeing how the one car I’m in is less likely to crash than the sum of all the cars around me, I’d really like them to drive off cliffs instead of hitting me, please.

    • Oscar Cunningham says:

      Look, what’s even the point of having a government if they can’t even force people to cooperate in this completely obvious form of the prisoners’ dilemma?

      • Wrong Species says:

        I can’t imagine that a congressman would vote for such a bill. That would be too unpopular.

      • Jon Gunnarsson says:

        Why do you believe that forcing people to cooperate in the prisoner’s dilemma is the purpose of having a government?

        • Creutzer says:

          Isn’t that sort of the obvious thing that governments seem to be needed for? I have the same feeling now that I got in introductory math classes when we had to prove some things that were intuitively so obvious that it was hard to see what a proof could look like.

          • Jon Gunnarsson says:

            There are many other ways of resolving prisoners’ dilemmas. For example social norms (you get approval for cooperating and are shamed for defecting), reputation (basically turns the situation into a kind of iterated prisoner’s dilemma, even if you don’t play with the same person multiple times), revenge (if you defect against me, I’ll go out of my way to harm you in the future), and entrepreneurial action (finding some way in which both players can credibly commit themselves to cooperate).

            Moreover, while governments do resolve many prisoner’s dilemmas, they also create many new ones. For example, corporation X can cooperate by just focusing on making a good product, or it can defect by diverting some of its resources into lobbying the government to make legislation which favours X. If X and its competitors refrain from lobbying, that’s a pretty outcome for everyone. If X lobbies and no one else does, that’s even better for X. If everyone spends on lobbying, that’s bad for everyone, since the lobbyists will (at least in part) counter each other and everyone would have been better off with no lobbying. If X doesn’t lobby, but it’s competitors do, the laws will be very unfavourable for X and that’s the worst outcome for X.

            Other examples of prisoner’s dilemmas introduced by governments may include being honest and public-spirited for bureaucrats and politicians, as well as being well-informed and rational for voters.

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            There are also many things we need government for which don’t fit the PD mold at all. I don’t want to either cooperate with or defect against the guy who wants to steal my car; I’d rather not interact with him at all.

          • John Schilling says:

            Other examples of prisoner’s dilemmas introduced by governments may include…

            …the actual Prisoner’s Dilemma, in its classic formulation? The one where the government’s victory condition is for both players to defect?

            One may expect or imagine that the purpose of government is to incentivize citizens to cooperate for their mutual benefit. The observed behavior of governments is to incentivize its subjects to cooperate, compete, or defect, whichever works best, for the benefit of the government. A condition that was obviously noted by the sort of game-theorists and ethicists who gave us the prisoner’s dilemma, on account of the gave us the prisoner’s dilemma.

          • Furrfu says:

            One question is “What would a benevolent Creator create governments for?” but a different question is “What kinds of governments tend to survive and prosper under what circumstances, and which of their attributes promote their survival and prosperity and thus tended to be intended by the people who happened to design the governments that have happened to survive so far?”

            By “governments seem to be needed for” you seem to be talking about the first question, but the second one may be have better predictive value.

          • “Isn’t that sort of the obvious thing that governments seem to be needed for?”

            It’s a popular justification for government, at least among economists, who tend to assume individual rationality. If individuals are rational, then the situations where coercion can improve outcomes are the ones where individually rational behavior doesn’t produce group rational results, which is my definition of market failure, of which prisoner’s dilemma is a two person version.

            A different justification is paternalism, the idea that individuals are not rational, do not know what is good for them, and so must be compelled by some wiser power to do it.

            And an economist’s counterargument to the economist’s case for government is that the conditions that lead to market failure, individuals not bearing the net cost of their actions, are the exception on the private market, the norm on the political market, hence that shifting decisions from the former to the latter makes failure more likely, not less.

          • Buckyballas says:

            Question for John Schilling: It seems to me that there are lots of inevitable “failures of the market” in the private sphere, particularly relating to group prisoner’s dilemmas, tragedies of the commons. E.g. industrial pollution, land mismanagement, overfishing, workplace safety, skipping the line (queue), etc. Isn’t government intervention necessary to realign incentives to disincentivize grazing your cows on the commons (h/t Thomas Hobbes via Steven Pinker)? Some of these things could be alleviated by social norms and reputation (as Jon Gunnarsson has said), but one bad actor could cause significant damage. For example, without the threat of OSHA, an unscrupulous meat packer could cause the deaths of multiple workers and abscond with his/her profits before a reputational hit took down the business. Do you think government intervention somehow would cause more worker injuries than it prevents?

          • Lupis42 says:


            The threat of OSHA simply isn’t that significant relative to the threat of tort law, which is itself dwarfed by the estimated risk premium in salaries.
            If your concerned about systemic risks, the labor premium for risky work is the most powerful incentive by far. If your concern is that one (or a few) actors may attempt to profit from deliberately understating the risk inherent in their work, tort law dwarfs OSHA as a threat.

            edit: unspellchecked you’re back into your

          • John Schilling says:

            @Buckyballas: Isn’t government intervention necessary to realign incentives to disincentivize grazing your cows on the commons?

            That’s perilously close to the classic, “Something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done”.

            Sometimes the right answer is to do something else. A religion could probably do something about excessive cattle-grazing on the commons. So could a collection of anarcho-capitalist protection agencies, or we could just privatize all the grasslands. And sometimes the right answer is to do nothing and suffer the problem, because all of the solutions are worse.

            In the specific case of traffic safety, I will note that Pournelle’s Iron Law strongly applies. It is not in the interest of the NHTSA that the NHTSA’s 600 employees and billion-dollar annual budget be reduced to a few quality-control testers for the Universal Robocar Guidance Algorithm, so that’s not going to happen. The next government-approved traffic safety solution is going to require at least a thousand civil servants and a couple billion taxpayer dollars a year to implement – and it will leave at least ten thousand dead bodies on the highway every year, that nobody ever get the crazy idea that highway travel is now safe and we don’t need to give all those billions to the NHTSA every year.

            And that’s an improvement over “Mad Max” or “Why Johnny Can’t Speed”, which is why I’m not an anarchist. But if you’re looking for something better, you’ll need to look beyond the government. Say, an insurance-industry coalition like the UL…

          • Matt M says:

            “or we could just privatize all the grasslands.”

            ding ding ding

            The problem with most “tragedy of the commons” arguments is that most often (especially in modern societies), the “commons” isn’t something that just magically exists organically. It’s something that was itself created due to state intervention. In other words, someone saw some sort of perceived problem, and said “something must be done” and created a commons.

            Now there’s a problem with overuse of the commons, so we shout “something must be done” and the result is an even greater restriction of property rights than before. Somehow, the solution of “reverse the stupid thing we did last time that created this mess in the first place” never seems to be suggested…

          • Buckyballas says:

            Thanks for your responses. I’ll need to continue considering this. Sometimes I want to be more libertarian, but I can’t stop thinking about The Jungle and the Grapes of Wrath.

            Regarding the OSHA thing, perhaps the optimum role for government is to pass some kind of worker’s comp law and then just let the market work? As you say Lupis42, that seems to be a much stronger incentive than OSHA penalties.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “but I can’t stop thinking about The Jungle and the Grapes of Wrath. ”

            Believe it or not McDonalds and Walmart are both examples where big companies can enforce safety or quality standards on their suppliers. You can in certain cases have the market solve the issue of quality. The requirements are:

            -an identifiable end product attached to a large business
            -a clear chain of responsibility
            -large amounts of market power from the firm that interacts with customers

            If these are true, the end business can pressure its supplier to increase quality which often spreads across the entire field as the other end businesses aren’t willing to be seen dealing in subpar goods.

            It isn’t entirely self organizing- it requires scandals or lawsuits to incentivize the effort- but it is enough to ensure that even lax regulation has food that is safe to eat. Obviously if you don’t have that kind of organization, things behave significantly less optimally.

            Grapes of Wrath is about farmers in a world where there are too many farmers so the price they can sell goods at. You can’t really solve that with regulation- even with subsidies the amount of farmers drops.

          • James Picone says:

            @Matt M:
            Privatising the commons only works if someone owns all the commons, or the number of people who together own all the commons is small enough and committed enough to reputational concerns that they’ll all cooperate. And now you’ve got a monopolist with all the usual behaviours.

            We’ve had this discussion before, but privatising the commons is /hard/. How do you get someone to own all the atmosphere and thus have an incentive to prevent industry emitting CFCs? How do you get someone to own the entirety of a river system and thus have an incentive to not sell so much water upstream that the downstream silts up and/or becomes saline? How do you get someone to own the entirety of an aquifer to prevent people extracting so much water that you get rising salinity in the water table?

            In an AnCap world, I very much doubt we’d have any of those things solved until one of the protection agencies reinvents government. Having an Environmental Protection Czar is kinda convenient.

            Keep in mind, of course, that your single GrasslandsCorp has an incentive not to fuck it up by allowing too much grazing, but it also has an incentive to allow as much grazing as possible to make more money. Being a business in a free market doesn’t confer immunity to mistakes, it merely suggests that if you make enough mistakes, you die. So GrasslandsCorp will likely go down at some point in the next couple of decades, and will likely ruin the commons in the process before selling it off to NeoGrasslandsCorp, who’ll repeat the process. I don’t think that’s any better than a government, which has less of an incentive to run as close to the limit of the commons as they can manage – at least, to the extent it avoids regulatory capture. Regulatory capture, of course, is pretty much the same thing as GrasslandsCorp with renters under it…

          • Anonymous says:

            @James Picone

            That argument depends on the particular commons you’re talking about being difficult to divide. It certainly applies to the atmosphere, and it applies to the ocean. The difficulty with privatizing parcels of ocean is that water flows around in a way that is difficult to easily contain. Pollution in the ocean will affect everyone’s bit of ocean more or less equally. Same goes for pollution in the air and different peoples’ bit of atmosphere. Many species of fish will travel huge distances and won’t be contained within one person’s bit of ocean. And how am I supposed to work out who has benefitted from the UV protection provided by my bit of atmosphere, and charge them for it, and exclude people who don’t want to pay from using it?

            But my point is that these are real problems that are specific to the kind of property we are talking about, not something that applies to anything that could be termed ‘the commons’. If you cannot easily exclude people from using the property who have not gotten your permission, and if peoples’ actions can have significant effects on the property in a way that is difficult to detect and prevent, then that makes it more difficult to privatize this kind of property. But you have to show that these effects are actually meaningful – of course to an extent this applies to any kind of property, but the question is whether the extent is small enough that privatization is feasible.

            Parcels of ocean? No. Parcels of grassland? Yes. Putting up fences in the ocean is prohibitively difficut; putting up fences around a field is not. Cows obey fences; fish don’t. Pollution in one part of the ocean will flow to the other; pollution in one part of a grassland won’t.

            In fact if you were to take your argument seriously, then this would require a total rejection of any kind of private property at all.

          • Lupis42 says:

            “Regarding the OSHA thing, perhaps the optimum role for government is to pass some kind of worker’s comp law and then just let the market work? As you say Lupis42, that seems to be a much stronger incentive than OSHA penalties.”

            The worker’s comp law is likely to be unneeded – the existing structure of tort law is already fairly robust in that domain, and has been, in common law countries at least, for a very long time.

          • James Picone says:

            @Anonymous: I agree that most of that only applies to non-excludable resources. I think most of my examples were non-excludable? Well except for GrasslandCorp but that was mostly riffing on actual commons.

          • Matt M says:


            My intent here was never to have the same argument over again about whether it is sometimes practical to have a commons – but rather to point out that the existence of a commons requires some sort of action and coordination. It is not a naturally occurring state, and many (but possibly not all) times, the “tragedy of the commons” can be prevented by simply eliminating the commons. It MIGHT (although I’m not conceding this here) be the case that in some examples, eliminating the commons will create *other* problems that are greater than the initial tragedy was in the first place, but that is a different issue entirely.

          • The point people in this thread seem to be missing is that the same logic that gives you market failure on private markets also gives you market failure on political markets, and that the conditions that produce it are much more common in the latter context.

            Market failure, situations where individual rationality does not produce group rationality, is a result of situations where individual actors do not bear the net cost of their actions. That can happen in the private market—to first approximation (standard perfect competition model) it doesn’t, but that’s only an approximation. But it’s the normal situation in the public market, for voters, politicians, bureaucrats, judges, government employees.

            So the question isn’t whether there are situation where a sufficiently wise regulator could improve on the outcome of a laissez-faire market—clearly there are. It’s whether shifting decision making over some range of questions to the government results, on average, in better or worse decisions.

          • James Picone says:

            @Matt M:
            How does someone have property rights on the atmosphere, on an aquifer, or on some species of fish without a government to enforce their claim to property?

            I’m vaguely familiar with libertarian ideas about where property rights in land come from – one part development of the land, one part ability to defend it, yes?

            I don’t think either of those really work for atmospheres, aquifers, or fish stocks (if some entity has the ability to defend access to those things, they are essentially a government).

            @David Friedman:
            I’m not sure I agree with the full sweep of that.

            I agree that bureaucrats are decoupled from the consequences of their decisions to an extent. But I don’t think they have the strong incentive to do the thing that’s bad for everyone that’s present in commons-style problems. They mostly have the incentive to not rock the boat, excepting regulatory capture scenarios (which, again, are pretty similar to having a private commons-owner). The people hiring bureaucrats tend to have very similar don’t-rock-the-boat incentives, all the way up to politicians, who are incentivised to only rock-the-boat if people will vote for them over it. That doesn’t seem to me like regulators have incentives to fuck everything up.

            Not only that, but I would argue that the kinds of problems we regulate are often really, really big deals – significant ozone loss by now would have been pretty unpleasant, leaded petrol was costing a lot of IQ for nearly everybody, etc.. I’m willing to trade off some inefficiency in a lot of areas for solutions to Really Big Deals.

            I guess broadly I just don’t think that money matches up very well with my utility function, or what I’d expect the utility function of most people to be.

          • “I guess broadly I just don’t think that money matches up very well with my utility function”

            Compared to what alternative?

            I don’t know how much economic theory you know. The relevant bottom line is that in the simple perfect competition model in which there are no commons, no monopolies, no externalities, … money prices are a perfect measure of utility and market outcomes maximize utility, provided you are willing to do interpersonal utility comparisons by willingness to pay–something I’m willing to pay exactly a dollar for is considered worth just as much utility as something you are willing to pay exactly a dollar for.

            That’s a very imperfect approximation to the real world and to utility. But there is no comparable simplified model of the political process that gives you anything like that close a result to what you want. A steel firm that pollutes the atmosphere has, say (I’m making up numbers, but I don’t think that matters much) private costs of $90/ton and external costs of $10/ton, so the market price of steel will understate its social cost by a bit—externality 10%. A random voter who bears the cost of figuring out which candidate for president is more in the interest of the nation and votes accordingly receives about one three hundred millionth of the benefit he produces–that’s an externality of about 99.9999996%.

            You mention not rocking the boat. I recently heard a talk by a woman with a professional background in drug development (doctorate and past employment) who struck me as a pretty reasonable person. Her estimate of the mortality cost due to the FDA sharply reducing the number of new drugs brought to market, increasing the time to market, increasing the cost, was upwards of four million lives. Permitting a drug that has a side effect that kills a hundred people is a disaster for the agency. Preventing a drug that would have saved a thousand isn’t.

          • Anonymous says:

            @James Picone

            The point I meant to make was that there really is no clear line between excludable resources and non-excludable resources. Every resource is non-excludable to a certain extent. It will never be possible to charge everyone who gains some benefit from your resource or damages it in some way, and to require you to reimburse everyone who suffers in some way from how you use your resource. To get total efficiency in light of this limitation, every kind of resource would need to be owned by a single all-knowing benevolent monopolist. In practice, many, perhaps most, resources are excludable enough that private ownership works fine – far better than the alternative, considering the chance of getting a single all-knowing benevolent monopolist to run things is effectively zero.

            Furthermore, your claim to any resource is always ultimately backed up by violence – in our case, the government. The reason your house is your house and I can’t use it without your permission is that I will be stopped if I try. In that sense, you will never be able to do without a government, or some kind of institution to protect your property. The meaningful sense in which the government does or does not control something is in how ‘hands on’ they are with it: whether they make decisions regarding its use, or whether they allow people to own the thing, allow the person owning it to decide how it is used, and then simply enforce the outcomes of these decisions.

            As for fish stocks, I don’t see them as being particularly more difficult to privatize than something like the radio spectrum. I’m not seeing the problem with rivers either, provided some reasonable specification of what constitutes damage – but then you have that problem with any kind of private property, including ownership of your own body. Legal questions like that are a separate problem entirely.

          • James Picone says:

            @David Friedman:
            Apologies if this post is a tiny bit incoherent – I’m very sleep-deprived right now.

            I’ve never studied economics, formally or informally. I’m pretty sure I know more than the average layman, but I’m very aware that I’m somewhat out of my depth here.

            Compared to the alternative of each person’s preferences being equally-weighted and without the interesting side-effect where certain kinds of preferences make all your preferences worth more, I guess? I obviously don’t have a magic solution that makes utility comparisons fall out perfectly, but I do think that a world with governments is likely to match parts of my utility function involving poor people and sick people living satisfying lives better than AnCap world, and that that works mostly in spite of monetary incentives.

            he relevant bottom line is that in the simple perfect competition model in which there are no commons, no monopolies, no externalities, … money prices are a perfect measure of utility and market outcomes maximize utility, provided you are willing to do interpersonal utility comparisons by willingness to pay–something I’m willing to pay exactly a dollar for is considered worth just as much utility as something you are willing to pay exactly a dollar for.

            I don’t see how that can be true – doesn’t that run afoul of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, analogizing money to votes? At minimum I’d expect you’re only guaranteed a local maximum because of the thing where when you’re poor your best options aren’t necessarily good options (I know, revealed preferences, but just because something maximally satisfies your utility function right now in the situation you’re in doesn’t mean it’s on the way of maximal satisfaction of your function).

            I’m not sure if comparable simplified models of politics have the same kinds of spherical-cow factors. Homo-economicus and perfect market knowledge and so on don’t seem as relevant to governmental situations to me. Part of it might just be that some of the commons problems I’m concerned about are sufficiently Really Big Deals that I’m willing to insure myself against risk via government. Part of it is that I know a number of people who are rather dependent on the public healthcare system and unemployment system over here, and I’m not sure I want to trust their continued survival and non-homelessness to the active kindness of strangers (as opposed to the more passive, paying-taxes-and-not-abolishing-the-system kind).

            Did she calculate how many lives the FDA has saved and consumer benefits of having someone vaguely certify a drug is mostly efficacious? I’ve run into problems with drug regulations myself – melatonin is not only prescription-only in Australia, it’s in a special class of prescription-only medication that you’re not even allowed to import unless you have a script. If it was over the counter I would’ve been able to save myself time and money. But on the plus side, I suspect the alternative looks like the homeopathy section of the local pharmacy, except everywhere.

            Agreed, non-excludability is analog, not digital. But I think there are plenty of things that are important and sufficiently non-excludable that you basically have to be a government to exclude them (radio spectrum is an excellent example, thanks for bringing it up. I don’t think that would be excludable in the absence of an overarching government or something of similar power). I don’t think Privatise The Commons works for enough of the commons that we care about.

          • Anonymous says:

            @James Picone

            The question of whether a government is necessary to maintain property rights is a separate question than the question of whether a government is necessary to make decisions about how a resource is used. I’ve been arguing that most resources are excludable enough that private ownership works better than any alternatives. But private ownership only means that how the resource is used is determined by its private owners, not by the government; it doesn’t mean that the government (or something of a similar power, as you said) is not necessary to enforce the outcomes of those decisions, i.e. to prevent other people from stealing or damaging it, and requiring them to recompensate the owner if they do.

    • Joe Teicher says:

      Personally, I’ll take a self-driving car that has simple rules like avoiding head-on collisions with other vehicles. I’ll take my chances on cliffs, and bicyclists can take their chances when they are next to me. I think a car company would have to be nuts to write software that sometimes explicitly decides to kill somebody. That would be asking to be sued. Much better to have general rules that work well most of the time.

    • John Schilling says:

      The correct answer, BTW, is “Brake to a complete stop, pulling over to the right (US rules) to the extent that this can be done safely, until the danger is passed. If the oncoming car insists on ramming your stationary vehicle, that’s on them”. And to the next obvious question, the meta-answer is “Then you were going too fast to begin with; go no faster than will allow you to stop short of or otherwise safely avoid any hazard within or emerging at the limits of your present vision”. These are the rules we (pretend to) expect human drivers to follow; the first generation of robocar programmers would be exceedingly foolish to do otherwise.

      No matter how much fun they are as thought experiments, the real world persists in not giving us actual Trolley Gods in need of sacrifices. It does, in this case, give us an interesting problem in how to deal with people implementing the obvious hack to actual robocar logic, which is to say making their car a little less trigger-happy about braking to a stop in traffic because it can’t handle risk management under imperfect information. But that’s not so much a dilemma as a straightforward risk-benefit calculation of the sort we’ve been dealing with all along.

      • AlexC says:

        Not actual Trolley Gods, sure. But self-driving car manufacturers are considering fairly related things like “should the car endanger a cyclist by swerving out of the way of an out-of-control school bus?”

        See this article about self-driving cars and the societal change they could bring about:

        manufacturers are consulting philosophers to help guide how their algorithms make decisions in moments of emergency. For example, should an autonomous vehicle risk hitting a cyclist in its efforts to avoid a schoolbus that is heading straight for it, if choosing the former course of action will likely minimize overall deaths and injuries? If an autonomous ambulance is racing toward a hospital, should it take riskier actions as the patient it’s carrying is moving closer to death?

  66. J. Quinton says:

    Has anyone here heard of SARMs? As an alternative to anabolic steroids it seems a bit too good to be true.

    • Anon says:

      They’re not completely selective. However, some people on /r/nootropics use them and I haven’t heard any horror stories. If you’re up for gunnie-pigging, Ostarine is pretty cheap at least at the vender I use for Adrafinil.

    • shemtealeaf says:

      The ‘word on the street’ is that they’re just not that effective when compared to even conservative dosages of steroids. Given that it’s not particularly hard to run a decent cycle of testosterone with minimal risk (note that this doesn’t apply to high dosages or all kinds of steroids), I’m not sure why it would be better to take relatively unproven drugs for less benefit. I don’t think SARMs are particularly dangerous, but the side effects of testosterone are all well-understood and preventable, so it seems like a win-win.

      Of course, this doesn’t apply to people who already on potentially dangerous doses of steroids and are looking for ways to get an additional boost without killing themselves, but I don’t think there are too many of those people posting here.

    • Sarah says:

      Fairly well established for TRT in the hypogonadal and/or elderly.
      Haven’t seen any evidence that it gets you to superhuman strength levels the way anabolic steroids do.

  67. Anon says:

    You should get a mobile version, if only for Google ranking. You still do not pass this: http://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/

    • Houshalter says:

      Does anyone actually prefer mobile sites? I can read SSC just fine on my shitty old iPod touch with a broken screen and out of date browser. Yet sites that are optimized for mobile suck. The text is too big, they tend to break zooming, site features are removed, javascript causes it to crash, annoying ads and headers get in the way, etc.

    • John Schilling says:

      You are presuming that [increased] Google-ranking is a desirable thing. If the purpose of this blog were simply to deliver Scott’s writings to the largest possible audience, then that would probably be the case.

      If the purpose is to deliver Scott’s writings to an appreciative audience, maybe not. And if our responses – because look, here we are, responding – are part of the purpose, then there are definite diseconomies of scale involve in an expanding commentariat. Perhaps selfishly, I would not wish to see this place become just another Reddit or Slate or usenet but with a smarter and more enlightened content generator at the top.

      It’s up to Scott, of course. But if there is to be any selectivity in the pursuit of growth for SSC, I would suggest that “isn’t reading on a mobile device” correlates positively with “is willing to pay attention for more than five minutes”, which in turn correlates with the kind of audience/commentariat that works best with SSC.

      Or possibly I’m the only person here reading this on a desktop machine and everyone else is horribly frustrated with the interface, in which case never mind.

      • Anon says:

        I dislike them in general, too, but Scott seemed worried about his traffic. Also note, I ran the test on Gwern’s website and it passes fine. So a not-annoying mobile interface is possible. As for demographics, I wish Scott great success as a writer, even if there are downsides.

        Edit: I seem to have merged Houshalter’s comment with yours in my mind before replying.

        • gwern says:

          Also note, I ran the test on Gwern’s website and it passes fine.

          Only because last month I finally sat down with Chromium’s web tools and by trial and error (and some help from Geoff Greer and others) tweaking the CSS, finally got it to pass and render nicely; if you had checked it before, it would be nigh unreadable. I was most irked when a week later I checked my analytics and saw that there was no visible increase in conversion rate for mobile browsers. What the heck people.

      • JRM says:

        I’m for having a mobile site, if it’s easy, just for the search hits.

        I’d like people who are not going to wander here of their own accord to find this. Scott’s writing is sufficiently good to draw in people who might not immediately accept rationalist processes for evaluating evidence. Let’s get them all here.

        I can’t help thinking the pushback is like fans of indie or weird musicians who don’t want them to go big because all the people following them after the breakout aren’t nearly as cool.

        When a site I love – volokh.com – went to the Washington Post, the comments section went straight to hell. So there are downsides. But I want as much Scott as possible everywhere, all the time.

        • John Schilling says:

          The Volokh conspiracy is the example I had most prominently in mind, yes.

          And Scott as the evangelist who will convert the world to rationality if only he can reach them all, I’m kind of skeptical. At a minimum, I think that would require him giving up his day job. In general, I fear for the day Scott has to choose between this site and his day job, and if that is going to happen I would prefer it happen by deliberate planning on his part rather than as an accidental consequence of growth-uber-alles.

        • brad says:

          The comments section at volokh.com were ruined long before they moved to the Washington Post. They went to hell when they started getting linked by non-legal right wing bloggers and you had people coming in who didn’t know anything about the topics being discussed but very much wanted to yelp into the void about whatever talk radio & fox news were pushing that week.

          The conspiracy was interesting because it was libertarian *law professors* which was an is a small group. And in the early days they attracted a commentariat that was interested in the sort of things law professors are interested in, though with a broader mix of ideologies than most of the blawgosphere. When the comment section became a redstate.com clone, not only did the comments themselves become worthless, but the blogging itself changed. Witness the introduction of Stewart Baker, who doesn’t have a libertarian bone in his body, and Eugene Kontorovich, who just regurgitates press releases from AIPAC.

          • Agronomous says:

            Well, that’s why every successful site eventually needs a Secret Comments Section, where the long-timers post free of newbie noise. Sorry you didn’t get your invite to Volokh’s.

            (I’m on the list for SSC’s, right, Scott?)

      • onyomi says:

        I definitely would not want to read SSC on a mobile device, but I’ve always sort of hated portable things in general (Gameboys, etc.).

    • Piggybacking on this, is there a way to make comments for this blog work on the WordPress mobile app?

    • Kiya says:

      As someone who often reads on a phone, the one feature I really want is for links to open-in-new-tab. It is annoying to be halfway down a long post or comment thread, click a link, and have lost my place when I come back.

      I wouldn’t get that excited about mobile search ranking, if the last time Scott did a post on search terms that have led people here is any indication. I feel like most people find new blogs to follow through recommendations (links from other blogs, social media, word of mouth) rather than searching.

      • In all the mobile browsers I have used, you can open a link in a new tab just by pressing and holding on it, and selecting an option from the menu that pops up.

        I would prefer that the site keep links the way they are, and make mobile users press-and-hold if they prefer links to open in new tabs. It is much harder to make links open in the same tab if they open in new tabs by default than the other way around.

    • another_anonymous says:

      I’d just like to add that I think that while separate mobile sites are usually a horrible thing, a good “responsive” design with appropriate css media queries etc (like Gwern’s which the original poster mentioned in a nephew to this comment) is useful. It has, for example, the additional advantage (apart from being well-suited for all of desktops, tablets and phones) that when I have two windows side by side on my small laptop screen (for example a text editor next to the browser, to write a comment or make notes) I can easily read the page without horizontal scrolling.


      the one feature I really want is for links to open-in-new-tab

      I personally find links opening-in-new-tab to be annoying and, even worse, not easy to disable on a desktop.

  68. Carl says:

    Not a huge fan of the new links sidebar. It’s taking away from the “gateway drug” quality of SSC by making it ostensibly weird.

    • Alraune says:


    • Thomas says:

      This actually seems like a very relevant concern.

      • NZ says:

        Yeah, I don’t get the categories at all. They seem like a reference to something I’m not nerdy enough to comprehend.

        • Rauwyn says:

          For reference, Scott is using these categories. I’ve come across the taxonomy before but didn’t recognize it either, and was expecting more of a deeper meaning behind the link classification. On the other hand, now that I know the reference I do like it.

  69. Anonymous says:

    Is it weird that I was rooting for Dr. Trauer in the last post? He reminds me of me.

    • Steve Reilly says:

      Do you also have a last name based on a German root whose meaning people debate?