OT40: Martin Luthread King

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

1. Comments of the week are some rocket scientists discussing the significance of the latest SpaceX advances, Eric Raymond discussing the history of duelling (and continued on his own blog), and Richard on the reasons the soda tax failed in Berkeley but succeeded in Mexico.

2. This has a deadline of February 1, so I’m putting it here instead of waiting for the next links thread: Professor Stephen Hsu, who writes the blog Information Processing, is running for Harvard’s Board of Overseers as part of a wider “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign. Their platform is to use the college endowment to help subsidize tuition (with “free tuition” as a long-term goal), plus more transparent admissions process with special consideration to stopping discrimination against Asians. I’ve linked Steve a lot, and I know he agrees with this blog’s opinions about credentialism; he’s also one of the top scientists investigating human intelligence enhancement. Having a person like that helping lead Harvard would be…interesting. Right now it looks like he needs Harvard alumni to sign a petition to get him on the ballot; if you are an interested alumnus, contact ron@freeharvard.org

3. Some people on the subreddit are planning a London Rationalist Diaspora Meetup for LW, SSC, and/or EA participants. As per the usual rules everyone who reads this is invited, and you shouldn’t worry that you shouldn’t come because you “don’t feel interesting enough” or “feel like you wouldn’t fit in” or whatever. Meetup is at 2 PM 1/24/16 at the Shakespeare’s Head (which is exactly the sort of thing I imagine buildings in Britain being called) 64-68 Kingsway, WC2B 6BG London, United Kingdom. You can RSVP on Facebook if you want. I will not be able to make it but I send my good wishes.

4. Unsong update: chapters 2 and 3 are now up. And even if you don’t like fiction, you might be interested in Interlude ב, which I wrote sort of as a companion piece for SSC post Mysticism And Pattern-Matching.

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1,307 Responses to OT40: Martin Luthread King

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love you

  2. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    SSC SF Story of the Week #6
    This week we are discussing “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov.
    Next week we will discuss “Non-Player Character” by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Don’t have much to say about the science in this one, but I have to say that I love the characters. The professional Theremon, determined to cover the story to the end; the no-nonsense, short-tempered Aton, stalwartly leading his men in collecting the data that may let the world break the cycle of destruction; the jolly and self-deprecating Sheerin, come to lighten up the observatory in its darkest hour… they really carry the piece. Some people complain that Asimov writes flat, boring characters, but this story is a wonderful counterexample.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      Obviously leans more heavily on the fiction than on the science, but I’ve always enjoyed this one.

      For one, I really enjoy examining how a particular system’s dynamics affect the development of societies within that star system. The other great example I can think of is Krikket, from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’d really enjoy reading other stories like this, if people are familiar with them.

      For another, I also enjoy cyclical histories and ancient cataclysms. The idea of slowly approaching, inevitable doom I really enjoy savoring, and the fact that in this case it always happens just as the society is on the cusp of overcoming it makes it even more delicious. Reminds me of a more naturalistic Reaper cycle (from Mass Effect) or the Blight (from A Fire Upon the Deep).

      • tgb says:

        Yes, finding a 2000 year periodic orbit in a system that complicated would be… unlikely. But other than that, there’s not much “science” to get wrong in this (it’s been some time since I’ve read it, though). Though you could argue that it gets wrong human nature and the fact that science developments appear to get repeated at an amazingly similar rate each time, but those strike me as fair game for an author to play with as needed.

        The reveal at the end, though, I think somewhat justified the implausibility of the star system and did a good job of making the reader go “hmm maybe I *would* get wowed by that, even though I’ve been scoffing this whole time at how there’s no way nightfall could cause society to collapse.” Discussion of developmental order of scientific results was excellent.

        Asimov’s “The Dead Past” is another one that would be a *great* discussion piece, in my opinion. For being 60 years old, it seems to be even more relevant today than when it was released. So that’s a nomination for future weeks.

        And I’ve got A Fire Upon the Deep on my shelf for my next read. Maybe I’ll start it tonight!

        • Jiro says:

          “The Dead Past” had one really major premise which seems hopelessly naive today:

          Gur tbireazrag xrcg gur grpuavdhr frperg gb cebgrpg rirelbar, orpnhfr yrggvat rirelbar ryfr unir fheirvyynapr jbhyq qrfgebl crbcyr’f cevinpl.

          Gur vqrn gung gur tbireazrag vgfrys vf gur cnegl gung fubhyq or gur yrnfg gehfgrq jvgu havirefny fheirvyynapr, gung vg jbhyq or qbvat gur zbfg cevinpl ivbyngvat, naq gung nalguvat vg fnlf nobhg cebgrpgvat bguref vf cebonoyl n frys-freivat yvr qvqa’g rira bpphe gb Nfvzbi. Vg’f n fgbel gung jbhyq unir orra cerfpvrag, vs Nfvzbi jnfa’g ba gur fvqr bs ovt tbireazrag.

      • You might like the Crucible of Time by John Brunner.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          This is exactly what I was hoping for with my comment – book recommendations!

          Thank you, I shall add it to the list.

      • Loquat says:

        You might enjoy Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, depending on how much stretching your suspension of disbelief can take – the central premise there is that intelligent life managed to evolve on a planet with an extremely unstable, and more importantly unpredictable, orbit around a 3-star system.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Three Body Problem

          Meh. The cultural/historical context was interesting, but he committed a cardinal sin for science fiction: introduced an intriguing, baffling, seemingly-impossible situation, teased us about it for the rest of the book, and then resolved it with an idiotic bit of pseudo-scientific bafflegab barely above the level of “reverse the polarity of the plasma coils”.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Bah. That book introduces some interesting ideas at the beginning, and then disintegrates into a pool of random technobabble, cliched conspiracies, and the kind of incredibly bad writing one usually associates with adolescent fanfiction. After reading it, I’ve resolved to make a special effort of avoiding any works by Cixin Liu from now on.

          • Loquat says:

            I chose to blame the quality of the writing on the translator, a guy whose actual philosophy of translation is that the work should never ever let you forget that you’re reading a translation.

            There’s apparently a movie in the works scheduled to come out later this year, which I hope will leave out some of the more egregious scientific sins.

          • Mary says:

            I stopped reading after we had a solemn discussion about scientists committing suicide because they found the laws of nature were not invariant.

            Good heavens, by the standards they were using, we discovered that the first time someone learned that you have to boil an egg longer on the mountain.

          • Held in Escrow says:

            I’m only a quarter of the way in but I figured the hallucinations had something to do with the suicides rather than just the whole “science no worky!”

          • Mary says:

            Those came later — after I had already given up.

            Fixing a problem doesn’t work if you’ve already driven me off.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          This is the first time I’ve heard it mentioned outside the Puppies fight that occasionally crops up in the comments here. That discussion had sort of piqued my interest, so I’ll probably have to slot this onto the list, too.

          I’ve been slowly coming to grips with becoming at least literate in Chinese, so I may try and tackle this work in the original once I feel up to it. Best way to learn a language.

      • Moebius Street says:

        Since you mentioned the Blight, I was surprised you didn’t mention A Deepness in the Sky, another novel in the same universe for which this cycle, and the society evolving within it, is the heart of the story.

        Also along the same lines is The Mote in God’s Eye, by Niven & Pournelle.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          I haven’t made to A Deepness in the Sky yet – It’s definitely on my list, hell, it’s even on my shelf, but I haven’t yet read it. I feel uncomfortable discussing books I haven’t yet read.

          • I like Vinge, but some of his later books had parts that got too dark for my (admittedly very wimpy) tastes, so I haven’t finished them.

            He says he can write darker than he can read.

        • Murphy says:

          Throw in The Wheel of Time and The Stormlight Archive with it’s Desolations.

          For a quick bit of fun, try SCP-2000


          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            Wanting to know more about the Desolations is my primary motivation for thirsting after new Stormlight books. Thankfully Sanderson is like the anti-Martin when it comes to writing speed, so I never need to wait long.

            As for the Wheel of Time, it was tough to get through, as I kind of loathe Jordan’s style, but the bits where we learned more about the War of Power and the history of the various peoples scattered around the world were by far my favorite.

    • Deiseach says:

      “Nightfall” is good because we get a sense of the characters, even if they’re very much based on stereotypes of the time. They feel like persons in the story, not simply “And this is the scientist and this is the journalist and we’re only going through the motions until THE ENDING”.

      Asimov tries very hard but doesn’t quite, I think, achieve the sense of grandeur of the blazing skies (he’s rather too feet-on-the-ground as a writer and thinker to successfully achieve poetry) but he does manage to communicate something of the “imagine we’d never seen the stars and then one night – how would we react?”

      And he makes sense of the reactions of his people (which, in contradiction of the quote that inspired the story, are fear and panic not awe and wonder) by the set-up of the world under constant sunslight and never truly dark – until one night, it is.

      I also like the mild scoffing at religious myths by the science types in the story (and how that mild scoffing gets turned back on them) because honestly, world-destroying cataclysms? What else would you expect from Bronze Age superstition? (When it turns out that actually, yes, world-destroying cataclysms). And the idea that, well, given that civilisation collapses so badly that the only way to carry forward knowledge is in the kind of fossilised, stylised oral transmission that religions can create and keep, once eventually written down, even if badly garbled, because the underlying structure of a church or sect or hierarchy is stable enough to survive through the years.

      The Yudkowsky story is terrible. I won’t discuss it any more because I don’t think I can do so charitably (for a start, I’d be doing the kind of line-by-line concrit of the writing style that I was accustomed to back in the days of shared group critiques online, and that’s shooting fish in a barrel with this prose style).

      • Mary says:

        “Nightfall” is a very atypical story for him, on the theme of the hubris of man’s over-reaching intelligence. All the smart guys, ever so sure they know what they are facing. . . .

    • switchnode says:

      I’ll be the odd man out and say that, despite imprinting on Asimov at an early age and still counting him as one of my favorites, if people didn’t make such a fuss over “Nightfall” I’d probably have forgotten it. The idea’s a winner, as usual, but the execution is painfully on-the-nose. Asimov’s characters themselves are all right, but I guess even as a kid I was skeptical of their turn-key psychology.

      (“Breeds There a Man…?”—now that one gave me the shiveries!)

    • Echo says:

      How did people like the expanded novella vs the short story version?

      • William C. says:

        Of Nightfall? I thought the short story worked a whole lot better. The characters were well-pictured, and the problem was vivid enough to stick in my imagination for years. The longer book just tacks on a post-apocalyptic story which doesn’t add anything to the central message of the story, and a final twist that even subtracts from the message.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          That is my complaint about a lot of mid-Century SF longer-than-the-original versions! Nightfall; Fahrenheit 451; that one that ended “I’m tired of being poor!” … others I seem to be mercifully blanking on. A good short gimmicky short short, with something long and dull tacked on.

        • “Blood Music” was a solid short horror story. Blood Music was a much weaker novel with some hand-waving to allow the human race to survive, in a manner of speaking.

          “Flowers for Algernon” was much better than Charlie.

          Actually, the interesting question might be whether there were any expanded versions which were at least as good as the original.

          • Jiro says:

            I think 2001 (the book) was at least as good as The Sentinel.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            “Flowers for Algernon” was much better than Charlie..

            FfA belonged in my list, but at least Charlie wasn’t a long dull chunk tacked on before or after, it was expanded by details added within each stage of the original with very relevant human interest.

    • J says:

      Story request: The Road Not Taken, by Harry Turtledove. Opening line:

      “Captain Togram was using the chamberpot when the Indomitable broke out of hyperdrive.”

      • Marc Whipple says:

        While that is a marvelous story, the site you are linking to appears to contain a large repository of pirated works. Out of respect for the authors and their rights I would politely ask you to reconsider linking to it.

      • Bugmaster says:

        WARNING: Spoilers ! Read at your own risk !


        I dislike that story, because I can’t quite suspend enough disbelief to really get into it. My problem is not with FTL or space raccoons (I love both), but with the author’s depiction of science. In the real world, science is not just a random agglomeration of facts; instead, it is a belief network that ties together all of our models of reality. This means that, unfortunately, the more we learn about nature, the less likely it is that we missed some simple shortcut to the stars… And, at present, we actually know quite a lot, so the idea looks preposterous.

        Imagine reading a fantasy story about humans who have magical powers, complex feudal societies, wizards and swordfighters, rousing adventures, etc… And yet, these people have never invented chairs (not even magi-chairs), so they’re just standing around all the time. It’s like that.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Likewise spoiler warnings.

          With all due respect…

          … that is the whole POINT OF THE STORY.

          One of the characters even points it out: her literal words are, “It’s humiliating.” Whatever The Secret is, it’s just totally orthogonal to everything we know about the Laws of Physics, and it only does one thing. (He even specifically mentions that it’s not useful for anything else.)

          How many centuries did we have reasonably well-organized scientific inquiry before some smartass said, “You know, you don’t just feel lighter when the elevator goes down, you actually are lighter, and HOLY SHIT GRAVITY AND ACCELERATION ARE THE SAME THING?” Why are you so sure that there aren’t a few more moments like that waiting somewhen?

          If it makes you feel better, set the story around the time Einstein was describing Relativity or a decade or two after while everybody was still all “THE UNIVERSE IS A WHIRLING PIT OF MADNESS.” We’d still have kicked the space raccoons’ adorable fuzzy behinds from Hell to breakfast, it just would have taken a little longer.

          Now, if you’re wondering why the space raccoons and their other allies haven’t developed further than they have (I myself wonder how they make really good airtight space vessels that can withstand the vacuum and/or radiation) that’s a better argument, but he addresses it. It’s not a great explanation, but it’s there.

          To be fair, the weakest point of the whole story to me is the assertion that almost every yellow sun has at least one planet with an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere and a Goldilocks ecosystem. If I was gonna facepalm and drop, it would have been there.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Whatever The Secret is, it’s just totally orthogonal to everything we know about the Laws of Physics…

            That’s my entire point, though. The more we learn of physics, the less likely it is that “orthogonal to the laws of physics” is a phrase that makes any sense. In this way, contragravity is similar to something like spirits.

            Is it totally impossible that a whole world of spiritual existence exists in parallel to our own ? Well, no, it’s not impossible. However, every discovery we’ve made since mastering fire has made the existence of this world progressively less likely.

            This is the dark side of science, when you think about it. We know so much — what powers stars, what causes disease, how old the Universe is — and we can apply this knowledge to create amazing technologies. But the same exact knowledge tells us that we are probably never going to invent contragravity or FTL. It’s not an analogy or a metaphor, and there are no workaround. The same laws are in play here. The more certain you are that F=GMm/r^2 or that E=mc^2, the more certain you must be that FTL can’t exist. It’s the same law.

    • DavidS says:

      Possibly I read this at a particularly impressionable age, but this has always stood out as a SF short story for me. I think it’s because it’s got a fablic quality to it – you can retell the bones of the story to yourself or others – combined with the simple but effective example of how weak some of our assumptions are when we work by a single analogy to ourselves (I LOVE the ‘obviously life could only exist on a binary star system’)

  3. xtmar says:

    First question, for the stats people:

    What do you call a trend which has one direction of correlation within a population, and the opposite direction of correlation between populations, and how serious of a problem is this in statistical analysis?

    For instance, if you look at the trend between countries, obesity is positively correlated with wealth and GDP per capita. On the other hand, if you look within the country, or at least within the US, it is inversely correlated with GDP per capita.

    Similarly, if you look at guns and crime, you see positive correlations between gun deaths and guns between countries, but you see the reverse between states.

    Obviously, in both cases there are lots of confounding factors that could be controlled for, but in either case I think it’s still strange that you see one direction of correlation when you look at one set of populations, and the reverse correlation when you look at a given subset.

    So, how often do we see this in other areas, and what does it usually mean?

    • Zakharov says:

      Simpson’s Paradox?

      • Rainmount says:

        Nope. Simpson’s paradox would be if the US had a lower obesity rate than Italy but the northern US had a higher rate than north Italy and the southern US had a higher rate than south Italy.

        • Blake Riley says:

          I think Simpson’s Paradox is broad enough to cover any reversal after conditioning on groups. The figure at the top of the wikipedia page is a spot-on depiction of what xtmar described.

        • Alraune says:

          Simpson’s Paradox is definitely at play in the US gun stats case.

    • Ilya Shpitser says:

      It’s Simpson’s paradox. Taken literally it’s not a paradox, it’s just a property that tables of numbers can have. The reason people often find it confusing is they don’t have in mind Y changing after conditioning on an event X, they are thinking of a causal relationship. But conditioning isn’t causal necessarily.

      There is a paper that dissolves this issue, by Judea Pearl: http://ftp.cs.ucla.edu/pub/stat_ser/r414.pdf

      • Jack V says:

        I think a paradox is something that APPEARS contradictory, doesn’t Simpson’s paradox fit that?

        • Philosophers often classify paradoxes into veridical, falsidical, and antinomy. Simpson’s Paradox would be a veridical paradox, since it is apparently absurd, but is found to be true on further analysis.

          • fubarobfusco says:

            To expand:

            A veridical paradox is a screwy result that turns out to just be a non-obvious truth. (Example: The Monty Hall paradox. It’s contrary to naïve common sense, but when you work out the possible cases it’s just ordinary true.)

            A falsidical paradox is a screwy result that rests on a fallacy leading to a false conclusion. (Example: The various 1=2 proofs. They look like mathematical proofs but contain invalid steps such as dividing by zero; the result 1=2 is just ordinary false.)

            An antinomy is a screwy result stemming from inconsistent premises. (Example: The barber who shaves every man who doesn’t shave himself. The premise sounds like it makes sense, but it actually contains a contradiction.)

    • Robert says:

      The situation you describe is exactly the Simpson’s paradox. Wikipedia has some examples:


    • The Do-Operator says:

      I don’t think this is Simpson’s Paradox. He is not talking about changing the sign of the effect by conditioning on a covariate, he is talking about changing the sign of the effect by analyzing the data at a different level of aggregation, ie where each row in the dataset is a summary measure of the lower level of analysis. The most relevant fallacy is the “ecologic fallacy”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecological_fallacy , i.e. making inferences at a different level of aggregation from that which the data was analyzed at.

      • Ilya Shpitser says:

        I don’t understand your comment. One way in which one aggregates data is by marginalizing…

        Your link claims Simpson’s paradox is a special case, actually.

        • The Do-Operator says:

          Imagine a situation where every gun murder would have been conducted with a knife if the murderer did not have a gun. In all states, gun ownership is assigned randomly. In all states except State S, the probability of owning a gun in p. However, in state p, some additional fraction of the non-murdering people decide to get guns to protect themselves. These additional people are non-violent and do not commit murder.

          In this world, there is a marginal negative correlation between gun ownership and being a murderer.

          If we condition on state, there is still a negative correlation between gun ownership and being a murderer (in state S, other states have no correlation).

          However, if we create a dataset with one row per state, where each state has a variable for “percentage gun ownership” and a variable for “number of murders” we will see a positive correlation between these two variables.

          This suggests to me that the ecologic fallacy is not the same thing as Simpson’s paradox.

        • The Do-Operator says:

          Another way to think about what I’m saying:

          Suppose we have two ways to set up the data set: Either one row per person (with variables representing personal attributes) or one row per state (with variables representing the average of personal attributes in that state). The states may have different size.

          Suppose you know the directed acyclic graph at the individual level. My intuition is that it will not be trivial to deduce the DAG at the state level. Also, my intuition is that d-separation on the individual level is not the right starting point for reasoning about how the graph on the state level looks. Therefore this is not the same problem as Simpson’s paradox. However, I will yield to your expertise on this if you disagree

          Next suppose you know the graph at the state level and are trying to deduce the graph at the individual level. I am almost certain that this will not be possible? Person-to-person interference will be one of the problems..

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            Ok, suppose we have one personal attribute X with two values, and a state variable Y with two values, (TX and CA), and a probability of owning a gun given X,Y: p(G | X,Y).

            So we have a table with 8 entries that gives us P(G, X, Y). If we compare p(G) vs p(G | X) vs p(G | X,Y) we get Simpson’s paradox. Are you saying we are really looking at p(G | X) vs p(G | Y)? Doesn’t this have p(G | X) = P(G) (G independent of X) as a special case, in which case we are comparing p(G) vs p(G | Y)?

            Or did you mean something else?

            I agree with your comments about graphs and interference. DAGs aren’t closed under marginalization, which is why people use latent projection mixed graphs instead.

          • The Do-Operator says:

            I don’t think that is what I’m saying

            Suppose you have individual level data on the correlation between individual gun ownership G, individual attribute X and state Y.

            Now suppose you take the expected value of these variables in each state. In other words, define H= E(G|Y) such that H for California is the probability of owning a gun in that state. Similarly define for each state I=E(X|Y) such that I for California is the probability of having personal attribute X.

            Suppose next you use the dataset where states are the fundamental unit of analysis, and calculate the correlation between H and I. This may be different from the correlation between X and Y. In fact they may have opposite signs. However, I don’t think this is Simpson’s paradox

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            Did you mean: “This may be different from the correlation between X and _G_”? Otherwise you are changing what pair of variables you are talking about after conditioning on Y.

            If so, I am not sure how that’s not the same thing. You are comparing dependence of X and G, which is about p(X | G), and dependence of X and G within strata of Y, which is a function of p(X | G, Y). Conditioning on Y can induce big changes in this dependence, which is what Simpson’s paradox is about.


    • roystgnr says:

      Are you sure about the gun correlation between countries? Everything I’ve seen with a positive correlation uses “selected countries” (because if we used all the data it would be bad because hey-look-over-there!) or “peer countries” (because the USA is basically Europe with more guns and no other significant differences, right?).

      Plots of every country in the world end up looking more like:


      which still has a negative (and still almost insignificant) correlation:


    • The Ecological Fallacy is the superset of Simpson’s Paradox (I think).

  4. Chevalier Mal Fet says:

    Aw, figures. I finally stumble into an open thread early and I have nothing to say.

    I don’t suppose anyone else here follows the NFL with much interest? No? Aw, well, it was a long shot. I’ll just stick to the book discussions.

    • bluto says:

      I enjoy some football. Haven’t watched as many games this year as last year (was involved in a local drama production in the middle of the season) but caught the last few weeks of the season and have been enjoying the playoffs.

      It’s fun to see Carolina’s sucess this year even if they’re not my team.

      • hlynkacg says:

        I live in San Diego so all the news is “of the field” this year. I kind of stopped paying attention around week 12.

        I’ll watch the Patriots v. Broncos game out of nostalgia but it just hasn’t been the same since they started winning on a regular basis. There is now a whole generation of New England fans out there who don’t know what it’s like to be the underdog.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          I’m a Kansas City native, living in St. Louis, so the NFL has been dominating media in both my homes these past few weeks.

          In KC, it was all positive, as the Chiefs managed to not lose a game between the middle of October and the middle of January. They went from 1-5 to 11-5 and broke their 22-year playoff win drought! Overall it was very exciting.

          Meanwhile, here in StL stuff has fallen to pieces over the Rams. Reactions range from shrugs to outright devastation.

          I’ve grown to quite like professional sports in the last few years, I must say – at least in the US they’re for the most part harmless expressions of tribalism, and infinitely preferable to the growing political schisms in the nation.

          I also enjoy that they serve as essentially artificial story creators. You lay down the rules, wind up the teams, and then watch them go, you’ll be able to get all sorts of dramatic, touching, comedic, exciting, or tragic narratives out of any season in any major sport.

    • Rock Lobster says:

      Where do you think RG3 is gonna go?

      • bluto says:

        I had been thinking thinking Texas or Dallas throughout the season, but with Kelly getting signed in San Fran, could see him going there. Where do you think?

    • blacktrance says:

      Even more of a long shot, but does anyone here follow e-sports? Specifically, DotA?

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        No, Alliance is not going to win the Major nor TI, no matter how many times in a row Icefrog buffs their playstyle.

        • blacktrance says:

          I’m just happy to see them winning again. Alliance is back! Memes aside, there will be at least one patch between now and TI, so there’s room for things to change. Alliance didn’t do much of their classic ratting at Starladder, they mainly benefited from the buff to playmaking mids (Puck and Batrider). If they (and the ever-important Furion and Lone Druid) don’t get nerfed, then Alliance has a good chance of doing well. But they’re being picked up often enough by other teams that at least the latter two are likely to be hit next patch.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            >they mainly benefited from the buff to playmaking mids

            And Chen. And a bugged KotL (but that was only at WCA).

            And I dunno, it’s always good to see your team win, no matter what. It just seems like Alliance always gets this surge right before big events, and we all start saying “Alliance is Back!” and then they massively disappoint (TI4, TI5 qualys, Frankfurt Major).

            But I’m an Empire fan, so I know suffering all too well.

          • blacktrance says:

            It just seems like Alliance always gets this surge right before big events, and we all start saying “Alliance is Back!” and then they massively disappoint (TI4, TI5 qualys, Frankfurt Major).

            Maybe we’ll see that again, but they’re doing better than at any of those times. They got first place in two high-caliber tournaments in a row, when the last time they finished first before that was before TI4.

            By the way, what do you think about having ~half of NaVi on your team?

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            I think Funn1k sucks and xboct is worse than Silent, but there weren’t a lot of options to choose from. My hope is that they get yoky back, now that he finally decided to go back to the offlane, and get ubah but as a carry (although xboct isn’t that bad).

            If Resolut1on is really going to NA (And I hope not, because I don’t want to root for DC), get General for mid again.

          • blacktrance says:

            My hope is that Navi gets yoky, now that they’ve kicked Ax.Mo (and rightly so, he was the weakest member of their team in addition to the unprofessionalism). I’m really a Navi fan when it comes down to it, but they get eliminated too early I support Alliance.

      • MF says:

        I think there was some drama at one point over whether or not Alliance deserved the invite to the next Major over Liquid. I watched their series against each other during Starladder, and let me suggest an alternative: neither deserved the invite. That was some genuinely awful Dota. Of course, you can’t extrapolate too much from one BO3, but ugh.

        With Secret playing as awful as they have been lately, I think I’d prefer if there were fewer invites to the Majors and instead more qualifier slots.

        • blacktrance says:

          Is there any doubt that if there had been four EU qualifier spots, Secret, Alliance, and Liquid all would’ve made it through? Also, I think it makes sense to invite better-established teams instead of sending them through the qualifiers – they could have a few off days and not make it through, but if they were invited, they could revert back to their mean, while qualified teams that play unusually well could revert back to tier 3 play.

          • MF says:

            With respect to Secret, I don’t think they would have made it through the qualifiers right now. Given their utterly horrendous performance since the last Major (this isn’t just a few bad days), I think it’s unfair to the qualifier teams that Secret got a direct invite. Alliance might have made it through, though I question that too…

            I totally get your point that the risk of a proven team failing to make it through qualifiers due to having a bad day is undesirable, but I’m really not sure Secret is going to stage a comeback and revert to their mean.

            Maybe Secret will show up to the Major and prove me wrong, but I’m certainly not going to bet on it.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            Secret was second place in the last major, easy route to the finals or not (and for the record, yes, their route was easier). You can’t just not invite the runner up of the last major event (that wasn’t even so long ago) because of bad perfomances in a qualifier and two tournaments (one of which was after the invites).

            I do think Secret probably wouldn’t have gone through the qualifiers, but I still have more faith in them doing OK in Shangai than Alliance.

      • Another commenter123 says:

        It is fun to watch the western – US and European teams be dominant. I wonder how much longer it will last. There is a lot of money in the sport now, and just being invited to TI can provide an above average salary in some countries.

        I think you will have to play hours every day to be competitive in the near future. And I don’t think playing pubs will cut it. There are a lot of things you do in those to win that are counter-productive in a tournament game. I think playing pubs, particularly solo-queuing, may just create bad habits.

        We are now seeing Eastern teams create “youth” teams which I think will give them a good team to scrimage against and really accelerate their tournament play.

        A lot of the fun of the sport is watching people who you get to know through their streaming of pub games, play in tournaments. As the scene further professionalizes I think that will be lost as it isn’t in anyone’s self interest, but it will probably be to the detriment of the game as a whole.

        • blacktrance says:

          I think you will have to play hours every day to be competitive in the near future. And I don’t think playing pubs will cut it. There are a lot of things you do in those to win that are counter-productive in a tournament game. I think playing pubs, particularly solo-queuing, may just create bad habits.

          Then why are teams picking up and succeeding with pubstars like Sumail/Miracle/w33? Of course, having Eight Thousand Matchmaking Points is a different skill from being good in a pro team, and you have to practice with the team and play scrims, but that’s been the case since at least TI4. (IIRC, wasn’t it around then that NaVi didn’t feel like practicing and started their decline?) And we’ve seen Miracle change his playstile as he’s played more professionally, going from clever AM blinks to something more conventional, but there was a reason he was picked up in the first place. For all that DotA is a team game, individual skill is still important – for instance, Artstyle seems to be a decent captain but a mediocre player, which really undermined NaVi at TI5. Maybe he should play pubs more.

          As for streaming, unless we start seeing more focused professionals regularly beating streamers, I don’t think it’ll change. And with how the most popular streamers are also on the most successful teams, I don’t think that’ll happen anytime soon.

        • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

          >I wonder how much longer it will last.

          If trends are to be believed, intermitently right up to TI, then not at TI.

      • Brad (the other one) says:

        Even even more of a long shot, but does anyone here follow Fighting Games / Street Fighter? (Or Starcraft, since I play that far more than Street Fighter.)

        • Held in Escrow says:

          I’m a big FGC head but this type of blog seems like it’s probably going to be the exact opposite of the type of community that would have lots of fighting game fans

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            I loved the series on Playing to Win, it made me /almost/ interested in fighting games.

            As for Starcraft I will occasionally watch a well-commentated match, but I never touch it myself. RTSes aren’t my style.

          • Held in Escrow says:

            If you’re interested in getting into fighters, with Guilty Gear Xrd out on Steam and Street Fighter V dropping in a month there hasn’t been a better time to start than now. Especially if you don’t have a local scene as they both have focused on making a strong online gaming experience.

        • Montfort says:

          I like fighting games enough to watch major tournaments after the fact for Street Fighter and Guilty Gear (even Killer Instinct, when it shows up), but I don’t know if that counts as following for your purposes.

          I thought it might be a fun hobby to pick up, but I think I have a serious technical skill deficit – I can’t even hit the combos in the skullgirls tutorial.

        • house says:

          I follow and play super smash bros melee. The most recent tournament, Genesis 3, was amazing.

    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      I know it’s not fixed, but the playoff’s bracket looks super stacked in the Patriot’s favour.

    • Protagoras says:

      I feel guilty about still being a fan, what with the concussion/CTE issues, but I do indeed still follow the NFL. I root for the Vikings (my original home team), and the Patriots (the local team where I live now), so I’m even still interested in the current playoffs. The Vikings’ exit was heartbreaking, but heartbreaking playoff losses are kind of a Vikings thing; I certainly prefer them to the years when they just don’t make it to the playoffs. And I hugely enjoyed watching the victory over the Packers that got them the divisional championship at the end of the season.

    • eccdogg says:

      I follow college more closely, but still catch about one NFL game a weekend. I am a bandwagon Panthers fan so this year has been pretty fun.

      Its been very intersting this year to watch how the Panthers have developed their offense to Cam Newton. When they drafted him I was skeptical of how good he would be, not because I doubted his talent but I doubted that an NFL team would ever allow him to use his ability as a runner fully. Carolina proved me wrong. About half the time they are running an offense that would look very normal on Saturdays (College) but is quite unique for Sundays (Pro). Its not just Carolina either Kansas City, Seattle, Philly all have adopted college tactics (spread offense, running QB, read plays, WR screens) to a certain extent and IMO are ahead of the curve because college tactics have been ahead pro tactics for quite a few years.

      If it is Carolina vs NE in the superbowl it will be the first matchup of a classic “Pro Style” QB vs a “College Style” QB (maybe you could say we had that last year as well with Wilson/Brady, but I think Seattle does not incorporated Wilson running nearly as much as Carolina).

  5. sweeneyrod says:

    Any thoughts on this poem?

    oft plopped the unimaginable spoon
    the foolishness is like the artful tide
    the dulcet violet is like the moon
    the innocents inherited upside
    they shelled the unimaginable fin
    the ax is like the perishable rum
    the soft lucidity is like the grin
    they snowed the unintelligible hum
    the two humiliations sneaked anew
    they smashed the unintelligible beam
    the immutable paints dislodged askew
    he shed the unimaginable scream
    they ragged the inviolable flares
    the intimates are like the millionaires

    • Agronomous says:

      It sounds like it was written by a computer. Or Gertrude Stein. I like it.

    • pngwn says:

      Looks like a random word generator set up with basic grammar rules.

      Except for forms of “to be,” all the verbs are past tense.
      Adverbs are placed immediately after the verb they modify.
      Adjectives are placed immediately before the noun they modify.
      “the” is placed before nouns and adjectives noun pairs seemingly indiscriminately. “the foolishness / the soft lucidity”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Kind of reminds me of @clashofclangs

    • Tracy W says:

      The last line seems rather anti-climatic after all that build up.

  6. Linch says:

    I mentioned this in an earlier thread, but now that it’s reposted to HuffPo, figured that I’ll mention it again (hope it’s not too annoying!!):

    I wrote a personal essay about my experiences with the bystander effect, historical analogues, and how it relates to the actions that some members of this community have chosen:


    Comments and suggestions for improvement will be very much appreciated.

    In addition, I have the following two questions:

    1) How do I write accessible articles for a broad audience, ideally while still being interesting to my peer group and without losing intellectual rigor? Now that I’m an official HuffPo contributor (with my salary of $0.00!), I want to write more and do more idea-spreading.

    The current article only has 70 likes, 12 shares, and no comments, which seems ridiculously low for a post that appeared on the front page (admittedly I don’t know what the appropriate reference class is).

    2) How do I write genuinely interesting articles *quickly*? Ideas for the Bystander essay have been simmering in my mind for like five years, the writing itself took something like 3 days, and the crowdsourced proofreading took like a week.

    • Anonymous says:

      This reads like a high-school senior trying to turn out a college application. Write less like that.

      The opening anecdote is a patchwork of cliché. The physical unfairness. The comparison of different units of time. The surrender. The blood. The devastating final blow. The crunching sound. The only thing that’s stopping me from asking “did this really happen?” is the mention of thirty or forty kids—now that’s remarkable! How did it happen, did you know them all, were you anticipating the fight? If so, why; if not, how did it play in to your understanding of the bystander effect? A good anecdote requires specificity. (Here is one from a member of the diaspora, who is a writer and knows how it’s done.) Granted, any details increasing the length of the article will probably depress your shares, but—broad success on social media; intellectual rigor appealing to your peer group; make your decisions.

      The martial arts paragraph is bad. “some semblance”, “discovered various ways”—ooh, those hurt me. Did you ‘discover’ a ‘semblance’ of techniques by mimicking YouTube videos, or did you legitimately dedicate time to learning a system of self-defense, as I assume you’re trying to say? The “semblance” is both needlessly self-deprecating and a touch pretentious (there’s that college-application whiff again); the “discovery” is both a touch pretentious (someone taught you, didn’t they?) and needlessly self-deprecating (“various ways” makes them sound like a collection of curios). —But none of this matters, because you never bring it up again. You say you still don’t know if you’d step in, so I assume you haven’t actually used any of your experience. Was it worth the time? Why is this paragraph even here? Tie it in or cut it.

      The next seven sentences in a row start: “I increased my knowledge”. “I learned”. “I read”. “I learned”. “I also learned”. “I read about”. “I studied”. “I pored over text”. Why? This is not an application, and you are not selling yourself! You’re selling—at least, I assume you want to be selling—EA. Either the specific story of how you encountered and learned to understand these things is worth going into detail on, or you can stand back and let the facts speak for themselves, just as they spoke to you. —At any rate, it doesn’t matter again, because while the ‘other bystanders in history’ paragraph is OK as a lead-up to Rabe, the paragraph of impersonal statistics that you’ve slapped “I” on should be cut from this section and go afterwards, in the GiveWell discussion.

      The Rabe paragraphs are good; he’s a novel and interesting hero. The fantasy of hoarding courage, and the statement that it is a practice, not a stockpile, are good remarks. (But cut “in” from before “that way”; it’s spoiling your prosody.)

      After that is where I started skimming. I’m familiar with the statistics, and you were getting very dramatic. I realize I’m fighting the message as well as the medium here—500 deaths a day should be dramatic! But they aren’t, not halfway around the world. You’re working yourself into high dudgeon for an emotional reality you admit has never really sunk in, even for you. (One last whiff!) Why are you fighting it? Because it’s what charitable campaigns are supposed to look like? Writing can’t substitute important for interesting. What proportion of heartstring-tuggers are aimed at captive audiences?

      Relax, and just make the point that your last paragraphs actually support. “The final decision was easy”. It’s easier to ignore two hundred thousand deaths in Nigeria than an assault in front of your nose, but it’s also easier to intervene. No matter how flawed, everyone can do something; one of the best things about EA is that it requires no courage at all.

      (P.S. Try asking someone specific to proof your essays rather than crowdsourcing it. “The larger kid pummeled the smaller kid for what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds, he fell” is not a grammatical sentence, and the next one starts “[he] fell” again. Comma after “back of my mind”. “That if I never spent any of it…” starts in subjunctive and slips into declarative. “on”, not “in”, the back of a van. Could use some tightening all round.)

      • Linch says:

        Thanks! I REALLY appreciate the constructive criticism. It’s hard to tell if praise is honest or people are just being supportive, but criticism is much more likely to be genuine.

        With regard to the personal parts, there was broad consensus that people like personal details about donors and it increases the chances that they will do the same.

        The first paragraph was really emotionally difficult for me to write so I had to distance myself from it. I still cringe upon rereading that paragraph even though it used to be a lot longer. That probably weakened some of its effect. I need to think about your points about the martial arts paragraph. My instructor is pretty private and may not appreciate it if some of the abstraction is taken away.

        Definitely agree with your point about the “I” statements. Like, I’m totally making so many right now! Being less egotistical is definitely something I still need to work a lot on! I respectively disagree with your case against the pathos argument. Empirically it seems to be effective.

        I don’t really know how I could sound less likely a high schooler, other than more practice. Part of the issue is that I wrote a lot more “serious stuff” in high school than afterwards, and quality control was a lot less necessary then.

        “one of the best things about EA is that it requires no courage at all.” Yes, I think that’s a really important point.

        Really appreciate the typographical help. Implementing it right now! 🙂

        Thanks again!

        PS “Try asking someone specific to proof your essays rather than crowdsourcing it.” Would you be willing to help with proofing an article or two next time? That way future essays can be a little more persuasive and I’ll embarrass myself less next time.

  7. Agronomous says:

    The March for Life in Washington, DC is this Friday, January 22, 2016—the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision.

    If you’re pro-life, I invite you to attend to lend your support. The rally is from Noon until 1:00 on the Ellipse (South of the White House).

    If you’re not pro-life (or if you’re at all interested in media bias), I invite you to observe the rally, estimate how many people you see, and compare it to the media coverage the next day. (Hint: you may have to check the back of the B section.) For bonus points, head over to the Supreme Court and count the counter-protesters; then you can calculate how over-represented they are in the next day’s paper.

    • Anon says:

      Are Marches for Life particularly newsworthy? I’d forgotten when the anniversary was, but I knew there would be one this year, just as there was one last year.

      • Agronomous says:

        The March for Life falls into this uncanny news valley where it’s newsworthy enough to cover, but not enough to cover accurately or fairly. A couple years ago, one local TV station’s web site carried only pictures of counter-protesters (and if you looked at the pictures you could see there were only ten of them, represented over and over), with literally none of the tens of thousands of marchers.

        Speaking of which, our crowd of tens of thousands invariably gets reported as “thousands”, if not “hundreds”. If you can’t tell the difference between thousands and tens of thousands of people, maybe journalism isn’t for you.

        It’s a running joke that we get wall-to-wall coverage on NPR—in the local traffic reports.

        We might get a bunch of coverage this year, though, since lots of people can’t make it due to the snow emergency: the entire New York contingent will be staying home, and Students for Life even had to cancel their conference (just the East Coast one). If we only get 20,000, I wonder if we’ll be “dozens”….

    • Zoned says:

      I’m a little bit interested in how many pro-lifers at the march are Trump supporters. Maybe you could keep track of pro-Trump insignias while you’re there?

      I was vaguely supportive of Trump until I realized he’s pro-choice, but to my dismay I don’t think most pro-life Trump supporters have noticed.

      • Nathan says:

        Trump, if you believe him, claims to be pro-life now. His rationale is that someone he knew was going to have an abortion, didn’t, and the the kid is a really cool person now.

        Regardless of whether you agree with him on an object level or not, I’d regard that as fairly good evidence (if needed) that he arrives at conclusions for pretty bad reasons.

        • suntzuanime says:

          You can say that all the people who support gay rights because they like their gay friends are arriving at conclusions for bad reasons, but it’s pretty hard to stand up and say “well, this person I care about should be dead”.

          • Dirdle says:

            That only follows if you’re already (quite strongly) pro-life. There’s a difference between saying “this person should never have been born” and “this existing person should die.” Even if we concede they’re both wrong things to want, they’re still different. I think you have to go right the way through to immortal-soul-added-at-conception before you get an equivalency between the two.

            To put it another way, I think you’ve misidentified the bad argument. The problem isn’t being rooted in an emotional response to the suggestion that a friend should be dead; that part is fine. The problem is saying that since the unborn might become good people, we have a duty to cause them to come into existence. From a pro-life perspective, they already have come into existence, but from a pro-choice perspective, they haven’t. So if Trump was and is being honest (doubtful), he was persuaded by an argument that should have only worked if he were already persuaded!

            Which looks remarkably like preaching to the choir, oddly enough. Can’t imagine why.

          • suntzuanime says:

            I think you may overestimate how nice a thing it is to say of someone that they should never have been born.

          • Dirdle says:

            Apologies, I’m not quite sure what gave you that impression?

            Your case seems to be something like “Trump could have not said that the non-aborted kid is a good person, which is equivalent to Trump saying the kid should have been aborted, which would be a bad thing to say. This is like how not saying you like your gay friends is equivalent to saying you think they should be killed. Even if Trump’s reasoning is bad, at least he’s not an inhuman monster who goes around telling people they shouldn’t exist.”

            I am saying that the position as I understand it is just, well, not particularly solid. Not-saying X is not the same as saying not-X; saying someone shouldn’t have ever existed, while bad, isn’t as bad as saying someone should die; and finally I’ll add that this is irrelevant to the original point, which was that Trump’s reasoning behind his change of heart isn’t very good. Even if you could establish that he absolutely had to say that in order to not be a complete monster, it wouldn’t make it a valid argument for the pro-life position.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            saying someone shouldn’t have ever existed, while bad, isn’t as bad as saying someone should die;

            Really? I’d be much more offended if somebody told me I should never have been born than if they told me I should die.

            Your case seems to be something like “Trump could have not said that the non-aborted kid is a good person, which is equivalent to Trump saying the kid should have been aborted, which would be a bad thing to say. This is like how not saying you like your gay friends is equivalent to saying you think they should be killed. Even if Trump’s reasoning is bad, at least he’s not an inhuman monster who goes around telling people they shouldn’t exist.”

            I thought the point was more along the lines that people arrive at conclusions for bad reasons all across the political spectrum, and that it’s bad rational form to only hold this against people who arrive at conclusions you don’t like.

          • Dirdle says:

            That makes a lot more sense. My apologies, I did not correctly infer that we were comparing Trump to the alternatives.

          • Nathan says:

            My assumption in what I stated was that given the sheer number of abortions, it’s obvious that some of the aborted children would have otherwise grown up to be cool people (some would have been real jerks too). Trump’s story involves him changing his mind on the basis of what really should not be considered new information. If he hadn’t already taken the fact that this could easily happen into account, he really lacks imagination.

            More to the point, it’s not in any way relevant to the question of whether abortion is a moral act.

            If this is his reason for being pro life, it’s a bad reason. If he was willing to abandon his pro choice views for such a bad reason, he must not have had a good reason for those either. Right or wrong, I would like someone who makes life and death decisions with a bit more careful consideration.

            (For reference, I am strongly anti abortion)

          • suntzuanime says:

            Right or wrong, I would like someone who makes life and death decisions with a bit more careful consideration.

            Right or wrong I’d like a million bucks, but I think we’re stuck with politicians.

          • Anonymous says:

            I think you may overestimate how nice a thing it is to say of someone that they should never have been born.

            People say this all the time. Usually, it takes the form of “their mother should have kept her legs closed.”

        • Furslid says:

          Yeah, and evidence that he really evades the question. The pro-life/pro-choice question isn’t “Is abortion a good idea?” The question is “should we use the law to punish people for getting an abortion?”

          • Zoned says:

            Ehh….sort of. That’s a technically accurate way to describe the issue, but it doesn’t capture the reasons people have for lining up on one side or the other.

            Pro-life people believe either that human life begins at conception and thus abortion is murder, or that absent certain knowledge of when human life begins we should err on the side of caution.

            You are correct to point out that the issue is NOT about “Are there people who it’s better to kill before they’re born?”

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Human life does begin at conception because sperm and eggs only have one set of chromosomes. That isn’t the issue- the issue is ‘when do you get the legal rights of personhood’?

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Samuel Skinner:

            There’s definitely something alive at conception, but is it human? Sperm and eggs are alive, too, and in a certain sense they are human.

            There are certain things blastocysts have in common with newborn babies. There are also many things (more things) they do not have in common. Arguing about whether they are “really human” seems to me fruitless.

            Most obviously, this is because one of the key factors in determining whether are not we should classify them as human is going to be whether we think blastocysts have rights. If blastocysts have rights, that’s a powerful reason for grouping them under the category “human”. If they don’t, that’s a powerful reason for maintaining them in a separate category, such as “pre-human”.

            Alternatively, we could say that they are a type of human which doesn’t have rights, or a type of thing which has rights that is nonetheless not human. The tight connection between “being human” and “having rights” argues against this because such a division would make things needlessly confusing.

            The most important thing is: any way we do it, there is simply no way to manipulate definitions in order to avoid giving a substantive answer to the relevant questions. Which are: what is the basis of rights (if any), and do the reasons for according rights—or at least pragmatic state protection against killing—to adult humans or newborn babies also apply to blastocysts?

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Human just means genetics. A corpse is a nonliving human after all. I was pointing out that using human as a category doesn’t work for moral relevance.

          • Nathan says:

            Yep, a (human) blastocyst is clearly human, but that distinction alone doesn’t necessarily mean anything from a moral standpoint.

            On the other hand it is also living, growing, and a distinct organism with its own genetic code. So that creates a distinction between it and a dead human, or a human toenail.

          • xq says:

            The idea of considering the haploid and diploid life stages of an organism as distinct species is, as far as I can tell, unique to the abortion discussion.

          • Nornagest says:

            Species, like class, order, genus, etc., is just a way of divvying up the taxonomic space. It does not carry any ethical significance beyond what you give it.

          • xq says:

            Sure. It is nevertheless good to have a useful and sensible division of taxonomic space. Human life does not begin at conception. I don’t claim that this has any relevance to the ethics of abortion. I do claim people should stop saying it, because it’s wrong.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “Yep, a (human) blastocyst is clearly human, but that distinction alone doesn’t necessarily mean anything from a moral standpoint. ”

            I agree. That is why I point that out whenever people say ‘human life’.

            “On the other hand it is also living, growing, and a distinct organism with its own genetic code. So that creates a distinction between it and a dead human, or a human toenail.”

            You might want to use a definition that doesn’t rule out conjoined twins.

            “Human life does not begin at conception.”

            Where do you list human life as beginning?

          • xq says:

            “Where do you list human life as beginning?”

            Divergence from Chimpanzee.

        • Zoned says:

          Sounds like a revelation of convenience to me.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I was going to ask if there was any other kind, then I read an article today about a guy who had a revenge porn site and took it down when somebody pointed out to him with great sincerity and clarity that that was a major dick move.

            Apparently, he wasn’t the most introspective person, and nobody had ever really explained to him that what he was doing was hurting actual people. Once he was clear on that, he shut down the site and deleted the entire archive.

          • Zoned says:

            OK, more specifically, a revelation of political convenience:

            Trump suddenly realizes he’s got an issue where he’s totally at odds with his base of support, and puts the “My views have recently changed because [silly reason that doesn’t illustrate understanding of his supporters’ views]” band-aid on it.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Oh, no, no, I was agreeing with you. I was just surprised to see that article and a case of a genuine revelation of non-convenience. Shutting down the site cost the guy quite a bit of money, which he didn’t have a lot of, relatively speaking. But he did it anyway. People will occasionally surprise you.

          • Zoned says:

            Oh. I guess I don’t agree that genuine revelations are as rare as you suggest. Now that I think about it, that’s part what makes Trump’s claim so outrageous: in a world where many people have genuine transformations in their views, it’s even easier to spot the people who are pretending to have had their views transformed.

      • Agronomous says:

        Anybody who hauls themselves to DC on an overnight bus to walk a couple miles in uncertain weather is probably paying enough attention to the issue to see through Trump. For every Trump supporter at the March, I can probably find you a Libertarian for Life and two Feminists for Life. The Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians is pretty well-represented, as well.

        On the opposite side, the Catholic Church is very pro-illegal-immigration, so a number of speakers and a good chunk of marchers would give Trump a thumbs-down just for that. And proceed to vote for Democrats in November (*sigh*).

    • Pku says:

      Could we do something like averaging out the Fox new and MSNBC coverage numbers to get something roughly accurate?

      Speaking of issues that are ridiculously overrepresented in the media, the democratic candidates named “equal pay for women” among their three top issues in their debate. Only one poll on this list* even had “women’s issues” (the closest match to that) on the list of issues that concern voters, at 2%. (quoted from 538, which is strange, since they’re usually pretty biased on SJW issues).

      *http://www.pollingreport.com/prioriti.htm (someday I’ll learn how to embed links).

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        >(someday I’ll learn how to embed links).

        It still won’t be worth the effort.

        But then again, I don’t even bother to properly use quotes either, so I might just be particularly lazy.

      • Links are embedded as follows.
        [a href = “http://your.url.here” ]Descriptive text for URL.[/a]

        With brackets replaced by angle-brackets ().

        And, for Whatever Happened to Anonymous, there’s a [blockquote] tag, that can be used similarly to the [a] tag above; just start the quote with [blockquote] and end it with [/blockquote], again with brackets replaced by angle-brackets.

        And the bolding for the name was done with [b], similarly.

        HTML is fun!

  8. xtmar says:

    Second question, for general discussion:

    How likely is a given country to be in a state of civil war or disorderly change of government in a year? This came up in the gun control thread in the context of how possibly successful or not civilians with rifles could be in overthrowing the government, but I would like to look at it in a broader context, including outside influences, as well as general chaos.

    At the simplest, most naive, level, the United States had five years of civil war in 240 years of history as an independent nation, which would suggest a value of around 2%, possibly more if you count the Utah War, the wars against the Indians to close the frontier, and so on.

    If you look a little more broadly, even within the OECD, most of Europe had a change in government in the 1939-1946 time period, with some of them more recent than that, like the end of the Iberian dictatorships, and the transition from Communism to Democracy, which would again suggest something in the 1-2% range, perhaps higher if you look at the post-WWI instability in Europe. If you move to the poorer countries, especially outside of Europe, the average term of government is probably on the order of twenty years.

    I would guess that how you answer this is quite dependent on your definitions, as to what constitutes rebellion, civil war, or change of government. For instance, England has had undivided government for at least a century, but even they lost Ireland to a violent uprising in the 1920s, and faced varying degrees of armed resistance in Northern Ireland until quite recently.

    In order to look at it in a more advanced way, I would think you’d need to try to control for wealth, perhaps wealth distribution, geographic isolation, cultural homogeneity, and perhaps former colonial ruler, as the (white) British colonies seem to have been unusually peaceful, though I would suggest that’s correlated with their geographic isolation and a combination of natural resources and not having to integrate large numbers of the indigenous people.

    So, I would ask:
    1. Does this seem like a decent way to approach it?
    2. Does anyone know where you could find a decent database that you could use for this sort of thing?
    3. How would you define these terms broadly enough to include conflicts short of total civil war, but also narrowly enough that not every little riot and protest counts as armed rebellion?
    4. Perhaps most inflammatory, what’s your guess on involuntary change of government or civil war in the US or the core of Europe in the next decade?

    • John Schilling says:

      1. Yes, though it’s going to run foul of “Things are different now because we almost all have Democracy, the One True Form Of Perfect Government”. Which may be true, or it may only seem true.

      2. Can’t help you there. A related approach would be to look at the mean or median age of currently-exisiting governments and assume this is roughly half of the mean or median interval between successful revolutions, civil wars, and conquests. For that, Wikipedia may be able to help. Advantage, it helps sort out the “maybe modern democracies are more stable than old monarchies” effect; disadvantage, it doesn’t count unsuccessful revolutions, civl wars, etc.

      3. I don’t know that there is a generally agreed standard here. I generally use 10,000 deaths as the threshold for a “real war”, civil or otherwise, but that may not be adequate for revolutions in smaller states.

      4. Ten years is almost, but not quite, too short a timeframe for a wholly new trend to rise to the level of triggering a civil war, so the numbers are going to be dominated by things that are visibly happening now if you care to look. In the United States, the kerfluffle in Oregon is not one of those things; those of us paying attention have been seeing that sort of thing consistently fail to result in civil war for at least thirty years. The election of President Donald Trump might do it, but that’s a very long shot. There are a few other long-shot possibilities and maybe time for a dark-horse casus belli, so call it 5% over 10 years?

      Europe, there’s a pretty good chance that the EU will fragment for all of the reasons you’ve been hearing about, I’m going to guesstimate that at 20% over 10 years. The core governments of the EU I don’t see as being seriously threatened, but if your threshold for “civil war” is set low enough, conflicts between muslim immigrants and right-wing nationalists might possibly qualify.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I’m honestly trying to understand how Trump could make a civil war more likely as compared to Obama.

        • John Schilling says:

          Obama is a skilled politician with a pragmatic understanding of what can actually be accomplished with the power of the Presidency, and of how many people he can afford to piss off. Trump isn’t.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Fascinating. I disagree with you regarding every single assertion you made. That doesn’t happen very often.

            In any event, I see your point, but I took the prior poster’s assertion a little differently. It’s not how many people either of them does/will piss off, or how much they have/will piss them off, it’s which people. The kind of people Obama pisses off are much more likely, IMO and as I took it in the context of the prior poster’s assertion, to start a civil war than the kind of people who Trump pisses off. I thought it was a reasonable point, viewed in that regard. 🙂

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @John Schilling/@Marc Whipple:
            Yes, Marc has the essence of my thought process correct.

            Perhaps I am wrong, but I view the people who are backing Trump (of the major candidates) to be the most overlapped with those who are claiming to be considering armed insurrection as a means of changing the government.

            This could be incorrect, but certainly the people who currently match this description are far, far more likely to vote Republican than Democrat. It’s not the the possibility is zero, just that it seems much less likely.

            You do make a valid point that Trump has no seeming sense of finesse.

            But I would guess that Bernie Sanders is the candidate whose election is most likely (on a relative scale) to result in something like civil war. (Although the Murrah Federal Building bombing was during the last Clinton presidency, so maybe that is wrong.)

          • Marc Whipple says:


            I am gratified. 🙂

            However, while again I take your point, I have to differ. I see Hillary Clinton as the candidate who is more likely to do this. I don’t see any of them as all that likely to do so, but if I had to pick one, it’d be her. Wouldn’t even have to think about it. (Which means I’m probably wrong. 🙂 )

          • John Schilling says:

            Trump seems to have no respect or even understanding of the legal and constitutional limits to executive authority, and if you fear that some of his followers combine that a willingness to engage in extralegal political violence, I share your concern. Trump also incites in his opponents the feeling that he is so far beyond the pale that anything, even violence, would be justified to stop him from exercising the power of the POTUS.

            If he is elected, I would expect things to get dicey whenever he is (inevitably, repeatedly) blocked from legally implementing one of his policies/demands and won’t take “No” for an answer. I don’t know that this would certainly lead to civil war, but it plausibly might. I don’t much care which side fires the first shot.

          • NN says:

            But I would guess that Bernie Sanders is the candidate whose election is most likely (on a relative scale) to result in something like civil war. (Although the Murrah Federal Building bombing was during the last Clinton presidency, so maybe that is wrong.)

            The OKC bombing was largely a reaction to Waco and Ruby Ridge. I’ve heard that part of the reason that law enforcement has yet to take direct action against the Oregon militia takeover is because ever since OKC the federal government has followed an unofficial policy to treat this sort of thing with kid gloves (those policies aren’t shared by local police, as demonstrated by Ferguson, etc.).

            So if you want to determine which candidate would be most likely to provoke a violent reaction from people like Timothy McVeigh, the question to ask is which candidate would be most likely to respond with excessive force when faced with a confrontation by the more unhinged members of the Red Tribe. My answer to that would have to be Trump, considering his comments about targeting terrorist’s families, among other things. Sanders may be more likely to provoke those sorts of confrontations in the first place, but I don’t think he would be likely to respond to them with excessive force, considering his comments on things like Ferguson (calling the Ferguson PD an “occupying army”).

            With Trump, there is also the disturbing amount of times that his supporters have gotten violent at his rallies. Yes, emotions tend to get heated at this sort of thing, but there are only so many times you can hear about a protester getting beaten up or threatened with being set on fire before you start worrying.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Sanders may be more likely to provoke those sorts of confrontations in the first place, but I don’t think he would be likely to respond to them with excessive force, considering his comments on things like Ferguson (calling the Ferguson PD an “occupying army”).

            OTOH, urban blacks are generally considered to be members of, or at least affiliated with, the blue tribe. Sanders might not have been so understanding if it had been members of his outgroup smashing things up.

          • TheNybbler says:

            Poor urban blacks are definitely not part of the blue tribe (nor red, obviously). The Blue Tribe as Scott declared it is a decidedly middle-to-upper-middle class phenomenon, with some inclusion of poor-but-educated. The Blue Tribe is one of the Democratic party’s core constitutencies; poor urban minorities are a separate one.

            Wealthy urban blacks are, I imagine, rather thin on the ground in Ferguson.

          • brad says:

            The OKC bombing was bad, and I could see things that bad or maybe even one order of magnitude worse from the “militia right” under a Clinton or Sanders. But even several major domestic terrorist attacks aren’t a civil war. I suppose the reaction to those attacks could lead to a cycle of escalation, but I just don’t see it as anything but a tiny possibility.

            I share John Schillings concern that Trump could do something totally boneheaded like order the military to shutdown Congress or the Supreme Court. Maybe the military ignores him, he’s impeached, and everything works out just fine, but that is the sort of scenario that can get very far out of hand.

            That tail risk is the reason that, even though I want the Democratic nominee to win, and even though I think Trump as an opponent maximizes the chances of that, I still hope like hell he doesn’t win the Republican nomination.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Cumulative effects. Obama alienates half the country and then Trump alienates the other half.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            There is that that, but I have even less hope for Hillary, I means are we seriously considering an admitted oathbreaker and felon for highest office?

          • Pku says:

            But Obama alienated half the country in the same way that Bush alienated the other half, by advocating for policies they didn’t like, sometimes in ways they perceived as underhanded. Trump OTOH seems to base his entire persona on antagonism. (For comparison, I’d find the idea of an armed uprising against Bush abhorrent even if he had total control of congress, but I find the idea of rebelling against Trump in the same circumstances rather appealing).

      • NN says:

        3. I don’t know that there is a generally agreed standard here. I generally use 10,000 deaths as the threshold for a “real war”, civil or otherwise, but that may not be adequate for revolutions in smaller states.

        A threshold of 10,000 deaths would exclude the Northern Irish Troubles (3,530 deaths) and the Second Intifada (~6,000 deaths). Perhaps a better threshold would be 10,000 (or whatever number) casualties, including injuries? That would definitely include the Troubles, which caused more than 50,000 total casualties when injuries are included in the count, and would absolutely include the Second Intifada no matter what injury count estimates you use. I can see a number of problems with counting only deaths, especially when taking into account things like body armor and modern medicine. It seems absurd to me to say that the 1996 Manchester bombing, for example, wasn’t an act of war, even though it didn’t kill anyone.

        Incidentally, setting a threshold of 10,000 casualties would mean that Al Qaeda’s campaign against the US would qualify as a “real war,” mostly because of 9/11 and the 1998 embassy bombings. But that still wouldn’t count as a civil war, because virtually all of the American casualties were inflicted by foreign nationals.

        • Pku says:

          I don’t know if the second intifada should count as a real war, considering you could live in the war zone and be about as worried about dying due to it as you were of dying by car accident.

        • John Schilling says:

          Part of the reason for the 10,000 death limit is to deliberately exclude things like The Troubles, or terrorist campaigns in general. Not every violent conspiracy by people with political motives is deserving of the label, “War”. There is a qualitative difference between what happens when armies (even irregular ones) contest the control of territory, and what happens when political criminals go about murdering people in the shadows. And, as I alluded to in another post, nobody who has set foot in Aleppo lately has any business saying that Belfast was ever a “war zone”.

          Wars are deadlier by far than terrorist campaigns, and more intensely focused in time and space, but also more predictable and more likely to actually resolve a conflict. Which is why we have two different words for the two different things, and it’s a distinction I would like to preserve even if it does sometimes come with a fuzzy boundary.

          • NN says:

            I see your point, but there is a level of conflict between civil unrest and full-scale war that may not be as bad as the latter, but is still definitely something to worry about. I understand why 1970s Belfast doesn’t fit your definition of a “war zone,” but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to live there, had I been alive back then.

            Also, your 10,000 death threshold may not always capture the distinction that you want to make. The Mexican Drug War has killed more than 100,000 people by some estimates, but the drug cartels have never, as far as I know, attempted to contest the Mexican government’s control of territory. Meanwhile, the IRA actually did contest control of large parts of Derry for several months in 1971-72.

    • Alraune says:

      Categorization here is very hard. God’s-eye-view, however, is that dynasties most commonly fail at the founder’s grandson, and this periodicity has held for America so far as well. So I’d estimate we expect a large-scale, usually violent reorganization every 75 years. If it takes 5 years to restore order, which is optimistic, we can conclude that a nation where Civil War = False 95% of the time is uncommonly stable.

      • jack says:

        I don’t know a lot of history. could you point me to a source (with examples) for the idea that dynasties/political-orders fail at the founder’s grandson’s generation ?

        • roystgnr says:


          These aren’t evidence it’s a *true* aphorism, though, just that it’s a well-spread meme. It’s cropped up in other cultures, too, if “Fu bu guo san dai” is an authentic Chinese proverb.

          Apparently there’s some evidence that rapid decay of family wealth is common:

          “A US study by Merrill Lynch’s private banking arm this year found that, in two out of three cases, family wealth did not outlive the generation following the one that created it. In 90 per cent of cases, it was exhausted by the end of the third generation – illustrating the “clogs to clogs” adage.”


          But that sounds like standard exponential decay, not a particular failing of the grandkids.

        • Deiseach says:

          Irish proverb: “From a king to a cobbler, three generations”.

          Possibly affected by our history, though, where chieftains who allied with the losing side against the English incoming government(s) ended up stripped of lands and titles which were awarded to the victors (as with the Cromwellian land grants, where speculators and soldiers were awarded for money now grants of land to be confiscated later from the Irish rebels):

          The Long Parliament had been committed to mass confiscation of land in Ireland since 1642, when it passed the Adventurers Act, which raised loans secured on the Irish rebels’ lands that were to be confiscated. The Act of Settlement 1652 stated that anyone who had held arms against the Parliament would forfeit their lands and that even those who had not would lose three-quarters of their lands – being compensated with some other lands in Connacht*.

          …Over 12,000 veterans of the New Model Army were given land in Ireland in place of their wages, which the Commonwealth was unable to pay.

          *Origin of the saying, allegedly in reply to the dispossessed about what would they do, “[You can go either] To Hell or to Connaught”.

        • Zykrom says:

          I’ve most often heard this said about the Mongols and other nomadic empires. They work especially well since the whole empire would fall apart as soon as it was led by a weak leader.

          • Stefan Drinic says:

            If by weak leader you mean any leader, I might just have agreed. It’s like saying that Charlemagne’s frankish empire collapsed because his own sons were weak, when wonky succession customs explain either circumstance very well.

    • Steven says:

      “Does anyone know where you could find a decent database that you could use for this sort of thing”

      Check out the correlates of war project.
      Among other things, it has data on civil wars and revolutions.

      • US says:

        Yep, the COW is a major resource in this area worth knowing about. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) is another important resource.

        Be aware that it can matter a great deal which database you use, because differences in the instruments can have large effects – for example, “differences between two of the main quantitative conflict datasets – the UCDP and the COW [Correlates Of War] – in terms of the measurement of armed conflict result in significant differences in interpreting patterns of conflict. This has led to conflicting findings not only about absolute numbers of civil wars, but also regarding trends in the numbers of such conflicts.” (quote from The Routhledge Handbook of Civil Wars).

    • Jaskologist says:

      I don’t know the right way to do it, but averaging out a back swan event uniformly seems incorrect. One civil war of 4 years is not the same as two civil wars of 2 years. The fact that most American generations have not seen a civil war is significant (to say nothing of the fact that by far most of the historical population has lived in internal peace-time).

      Moreover, I don’t think that it’s very significant whether the one Civil War lasted 4 year (as it did), or a hypothetical 6 years, but if I run the numbers as a probability calculation, it’s extremely important.

      4 year civil war over 240 years = 1.6667% chance of war in a given year
      1 – ( ( 1 – (4/240) ) ^ 50) = 56.8% chance of civil war in the next 50 years.

      6 year civil war over 240 years = 2.5% chance of war in a given year
      1 – ( ( 1 – (6/240) ) ^ 50) = 71.8% chance of civil war in the next 50 years.

      That’s a big gap, and not one I think can be justified.

      • Steven says:

        To correct for this, start with the number of years that started without being in a civil war, and count the share of those in which a civil war started.
        We’re estimating the probability of a civil war, conditional on not already being in one.

        So 240-3 = 237 for the denominator.
        1 for the numerator.
        => 1/237 = 0.4%.
        Sounds about right to me, or at least more plausible than 1-2%.

        Can tweak by chosing different start/end dates.

        • Jaskologist says:

          19.1% chance of revolution in the next 50 years. This is still at “start stockpiling” levels.

          • John Schilling says:

            What do you propose to stockpile, and what is the anticipated benefit of this stockpile for a civil war that is expected ~25 years in the future?

          • DavidS says:

            Other MAJOR question is the likelihood of another revolution happening sufficiently quickly and without clear antecedents that you can’t stockpile then. Seems to me that there are better reasons for ‘prepping’ than this, as you’d presumably see a revolution coming whereas you might have less warning of other things (pandemic? some sort of small asteroid hit? Terrorists with nuclear weapons somehow?) Not sure what but pretty sure that revolution would have some lead-in. My limited knowledge of the English and American Civil Wars would tend to agree, especially for the latter. French revolution probably also. Problem is disentangling hindsight.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Food, guns, and ammo, I assume? I haven’t really looked into it, partly because I don’t even know what a modern American Civil War would look like, but mostly because I don’t actually believe that I am likely to see one in my lifetime.

            I’m running the 50 year projections as a gut-check, and the check fails on “more likely than not to see a revolution.” But I don’t actually know. The fact that so many here implicitly think otherwise could push me in the other direction.

          • Sfoil says:

            @John Schilling

            Start out by imagining you can’t get any power from the grid or go shopping for two weeks and try to figure out what you would need. Non-perishable food, a way to purify water, etc.

            You should own an autoloading rifle, although lots of people overestimate the usefulness of having tons of guns (or they just need an excuse to pursue their hobby). The pro is that guns and ammo last basically forever. My great-grandfather’s revolver is perfectly serviceable and not even particularly out of date (my great-great-grandfather’s revolver also still works, although it’s decisively obsolete technology).

          • Nonnamous says:

            If I believed in a revolution (or war) coming in the next 50 years, which I don’t, I guess I’d be stockpiling gold coins? And by stockpiling, I mean, buy maybe one a year. That way, when I have to run away from the Nazis I’ll have something to buy my way out, maybe.

          • John Schilling says:

            @Sfoil: I am not unfamiliar with the basics of survivalism, or “prepping” as I believe the kids are calling it these days. And I consider myself reasonably well prepared.

            But war, civil or otherwise, is different. It is not the absence of civilization, but the presence of inimical civilization. Two contending hostile forces, of which the smallest tactical formation of either will overpower any resistance you can hope to offer, each of which will play the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” card against anyone who attracts their attention. Meaning, anyone with a gun who isn’t wearing their uniform. Meaning, anyone well-fed when their neighbors are starving. Meaning, anyone with a light on after the power is cut.

            Prepping, in the conventional sense, is probably worse than useless when it comes to avoiding the consequences of a civil war. If you plan to embrace the war, by signing on for one side or the other (or starting your own), there may be a modest benefit in initial status if you e.g. show up with your own rifle, but really any side worth joining, any side with a chance to win, will have a rifle for you if you are otherwise useful to them.

            Unconventional sorts of prepping might be appropriate and worth exploring, and that’s what I was asking about. I’d recommend a Swiss passport and bank account, a few thousand dollars and Euros each of ready cash, and the mental fortitude to leave the country and never come back at least a year before the shooting starts.

          • Sfoil says:

            Even in the case of a complete collapse, the frenetic opportunistic looting burns out pretty quick, and then you’ve got to start living again, preferably with friends.

            Having seen civil war/anarchy up close, I wouldn’t downplay having a rifle. While it’s true that one rifleman isn’t going to drive off a hostile squad, you and the neighbors on each side of you can probably manage it. You WILL have to form/join a neighborhood militia, too, if you plan to/must stick around. If you instead find yourself subject to a paranoid government threatened by distant insurrection, surrendering your weapon is a decent sign of good faith if nothing else.

          • I’ve wondereid about survivalism which is based on the ability to relocate and do well rather than the more usual survivalism which based on going to ground.

            I’ve never seen discussion of relocation survivalism, though needing to run seems more likely than civilization falling apart, and the relocation style seems more consistent with having a good life in the present.

          • brad says:

            I’d think the best thing you could do to prepare for relocation is get a second passport. A fair number of Americans qualify for one by decent but never bother to do the paperwork.

            Those of German decent (including Austria) and African-Americans are out of luck, as are DAR types, but if you have any grandparents born aboard there’s a decent chance and some countries will extend it for even longer than that.

          • The extreme version (my thinking is influenced by the Holocaust, though the same applies to some Nazi scientists) is to work on becoming the sort of person who would be would be welcome in a number of countries. Easier said than done, of course.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Now I’m interested in seeing how people game this out. How should one prepare for an American civil war? Do we have any guesses as to what that would look like for the common man?

            My only point of reference is Hurricane Sandy, where I know a lot of people whose utilities were out for 2 weeks. It’s not a great comparison, but it’s something. Cell phones were mostly useless, but so were land-lines; communication will be severely crippled.

            I’d want to have at least one month worth of food stockpiled, since supply chains are going to be all screwy (post-Sandy, supermarkets had armed guards guarding bags of ice). I’d want to have guns and ammo (no idea how much) to make sure nobody else takes my stockpiled food.

            I think a good action plan would be to go to the nearby Amish and offer protection. Those guys will be doing just fine. It might help if I got to know a few Amish before societal collapse.

            Fireplace good. Oil heat better. Natural gas or electric heat bad.

            Beyond that, I don’t know. Having a good chunk of cash will be important for when the credit card systems are down, and gold is good for if things really fall apart and nobody wants American dollars. At which point, maybe feeling to Asia is the smart move, but if America collapses the rest of the world is going to be in pain, too.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            If you are near the areas of concentrated fighting, bugging out is the only sensible option. Modern armed conflict would destroy any reasonable individual or small-group preparation and barely notice it was there.

            If not, consider a scenario like that of “Fear the Walking Dead.” Weeks to months at a stretch of martial law, intermittent services, etc. What would you like to have to make your life more secure and comfortable which would not draw excess attention from the local armed force and/or your neighbors?

            Probably the best and most important preparation would be moving somewhere away from concentrated populations, resources, or terrain of strategic importance. This is the approach taken by the protagonists of the notorious survivalist novel Patriots: Surviving the Coming Collapse. (Note that Google confuses this book with one called Patriots by David Drake. The one I mean was written by James Wesley, Rawles.) While that book can be highly off-putting in its promotion of Christian Identity politics, it’s not a bad description of the way intelligent people might try to do what we’re talking about. (Including the major shortcoming of setting up a survival outpost in the boonies while one or more of your group continues to live in cities a long way from it.)

            ETA: John Schilling has the right of it: by the time things break down enough for that, the situation is going to be quite desperate indeed. (Early modern survivalist Kurt Saxon referred to this as the “Killer Caravan” stage. While he thought taking one on would be great fun, for most people avoiding it would be the prudent course.) Much better to have plausible deniability for as long as you can manage it.

            Compare and contrast the novels The Shattered City and The Rift. The first is about a localized earthquake in Seattle which produces several days of utter chaos, although outlawry is minimal. The second is about a major earthquake on the New Madrid fault zone which devastates most of the central United States. The chaos is so overwhelming that there are several areas which essentially go all Road Warrior for quite some time, including places where fringe movements seize local control and an overwhelmed Federal government literally can’t do anything about it. (Not least because due to the utter disruption of communications they sometimes don’t even know about it.) The latter is probably approaching what it would be like in a serious civil conflict situation in the US.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’d want to have guns and ammo (no idea how much) to make sure nobody else takes my stockpiled food.

            The problem here is that in the civil war scenario, the people who are trying to take your food come in platoons. And in the unlikely event that you are capable of fighting off a platoon, they are probably going to put you in the category of “threats we can’t afford to leave in our rear” and come back with a regiment, even if the quantity of food would not justify such a force.

            This is fundamentally different from the natural-disaster scenario you are using as a model. Natural disasters, and even some sorts of human disasters like opportunistic rioting, the forces of law and order break down and it takes time for the forces of chaos (or of the new order) to get organized. That leaves a period where you face disorganized threats, where one rifle might make a difference. Though being one step ahead of everyone else in organizing a neighborhood watch would make a bigger difference.

            Civil war, law and order doesn’t break down until the opposition is well enough organized to take on the Army, or at least a SWAT team. The bit where you with your trusty rifle hold off the hungry rebels who just took on a SWAT team and are still standing, isn’t going to end well for you.

            Now, figuring out how to hide your food well enough that you’ll still have it even when you’ve prudently opened your doors and said “Yes, Sir!” to both Army and Rebel foraging parties, that might be useful. Also figuring out how to make it less than obvious that you have a stash of hidden food when your neighbors are all halfway to starvation.

          • Anonymous says:

            The Balkan conflicts are probably a good source of information on what works and what doesn’t. Anyone know of any good publications describing civilians surviving through the conflict(s)?

          • John Schilling says:

            While it’s true that one rifleman isn’t going to drive off a hostile squad, you and the neighbors on each side of you can probably manage it. You WILL have to form/join a neighborhood militia, too, if you plan to/must stick around.

            A: One more rifle, more or less, won’t make or break a militia. Either the neighbors on either side of you can drive off a hostile squad without your help, or you need to bug out.

            B: Militias don’t just defend their own gun-toting members.

            C: Having a rifle, even the ultimate tacticool rifle, doesn’t necessarily get you membership in a militia. Often, Tremors notwithstanding, it gets you to the top of the list of people the Militia feels it has to run out of the neighborhood to make things safer.

            When nerds and geeks with internet-mediated social lives (raises hand) say things like “Shit is getting real – you need to get yourself a good semiautomatic rifle”, and not “Shit is getting real – you need to start attending the local church, and go to your neighbor’s Superbowl party even though you hate sportsball”, I’m guessing those aren’t the nerds and geeks who are going to survive the first month of a civil war (or whatever).

            TL,DR: Stockpile friends. Or die alone and silent.

    • How you define “the core of Europe”?

      • John Schilling says:

        In this context, the nations which formed the proto-EU more than half a century ago and have been the driving force of pan-European “nationalism” ever since. Their governments are stable, or in Italy’s case the instability has a reliably peaceful outlet, and I expect them to remain tightly allied even if the EU as such breaks apart.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      You asked two different questions.

      what’s your guess on involuntary change of government or civil war in the US

      That seems to me like a sensible thing to want to know about. But at the beginning you asked:

      How likely is a given country to be in a state of civil war or disorderly change of government in a year?…the United States had five years of civil war in 240 years of history as an independent nation, which would suggest a value of around 2%

      which seems to me like a silly calculation answering a silly question. It was just one war. If I want to prepare for the future, I want to know the probability of civil war in the next 10 years. I don’t want to know the expected proportion of those years are spent in war. Maybe I want to know the distribution of lengths of wars to help plan a stockpile, but I find it hard to imagine a use for that summary statistic.


      Also, not including the initial revolution is an error. It systematically biases down your results. You might want to assign that to the old regime rather than the new regime, but by sampling from regimes that still exist, it is impossible to observe their ends. If you are sampling conditional on regimes existing today, the best solution is to assign the initial transition to the new regime. If you mix past and current regimes, it is important not to double count-transitions, so only assign them to the new regime. That works if the regimes are homogeneous, but if you want to measure the effect of democracy, it is nonsense.

  9. Rock Lobster says:

    Hello, mostly lurker here.

    TL;DR Despite my best efforts and a romantic fixation with the idea of it, I really have trouble actually enjoying “serious” or “great” literature, past and present. Please validate me, explain what I’m doing wrong, or direct me to more elevated discussion on the matter. In a nutshell, I don’t understand how Harold Bloom exists.

    You ever watch a mediocre sketch comedy show? Think MadTV or the lesser SNL sketches. The #1 problem that they have is that you, the viewer, get the joke within the first couple minutes, and even if it’s a funny joke and made you chuckle, that’s it. They’re just dragging the one joke out over 12 or so minutes, and you get bored. That’s kind of how I feel reading great literature, whether it’s classic or contemporary. Even if the point is novel or interesting, the moments of interest are punctuated within hundreds of pages of boring, tedious writing. I just finished Don Quixote and this is pretty much how I felt. I enjoyed the central premise and how meta it was and so on, but boy getting through 1000 pages of it was not the most fun thing if I’m being honest with myself. I’m also a slow reader (I read a page in about a minute and a half) so a 1000 page book is basically 24 hours’ time.

    I like to think I’m a smart guy, but when I was in school I was that guy in your English class who didn’t care about the book. “Who cares if the forest is a symbol of man’s inevitable mortality? I already know I’m gonna die and didn’t need this book to tell me that.” “I already know slavery is bad without reading this boring book.” Etc.

    But when people say that reading Cervantes was one of the singular pleasures of their life, I’m just dumbfounded. They’re using language that I would use to describe seeing The Allman Bros at the Beacon, or maybe reading a truly fascinating history book.

    So…what am I doing wrong? Am I just so removed from from time, place, outlook on life, baseline level of sensory excitement, and attention span (thanks internet) that I won’t appreciate the work?

    I would add to this, I’m usually just not impressed with the…quality of elevated thinking in “serious” books. To be honest I usually find that they’re full of simplistic philosophizing, amateurish and naive political and social commentary, and obvious observations on the human condition. Baaarrf. Write an essay. I’m a grown-ass man and don’t need new ideas to be mixed in with my fictional apple sauce to make it more palatable.

    P.S. What brought this on is that I’ve been reading 50 pages a day of vegetables as a New Year’s resolution. I’m done with Don Quixote and am now about 100 pages into War and Peace.

    • bluto says:

      I really enjpyed Anna Karenina, the Scarlett Pumpernel (the title sounded boring but it’s basically Batman in the french revolution), and Count of Monte Cristo which all had pretty gripping plots relative to many serious books.

      My enjoyment increased the more classical lit (including the Bible) I read because the lit is filled with references to them.

      • xtmar says:

        All of the Dumas I’ve read is quite good. Father Goriot is also pretty good, though a bit harder to get into.

        • bluto says:

          Thanks, that sounds like a good one for the list, do you recommend a translation?

          • xtmar says:

            Not in particular. I just read the translations off of Project Gutenberg on my kindle, which also have a great price.

          • bluto says:

            Great that’s my favorite source. Some of them are pretty archaic.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            Anthony Burges (of Clockwork Orange fame) did a lot of French to English translations that are really good, put his focus was more on plays and short-stories than full novels.

      • Deiseach says:

        Minor correction: that would be the Scarlet Pimpernel. Written by Baroness Orczy and precisely the type of blood and thunder historical romance with little to no pretensions to historical accuracy beyond ‘the French Revolutionaries are the bad guys’ and great fun.

        Sir Percy Blakeney is a proto-Batman, down to the civilian identity as rich, useless playboy and secret identity as The Scarlet Pimpernel.

    • Anon says:

      The simplest explanation I have for you is that “great literature” is almost as diverse a category as “literature”, and most books will not be interesting to a given person. That something is a classic work does serve as a good recommendation, but no more than, say, your brother giving it to you for Christmas.

      You may wish to consider looking a little harder for books you will actually enjoy.

    • anon says:

      What books do you like?

      • I’m fond of _Kim_ by Kipling, his one really good novel.

        _The Lord of the Rings_ is another favorite.

        Casanova’s _Memoires_, which is in some sense the original of the Count of Monte Cristo—autobiography not fiction.

        Egilsaga is my favorite of the Icelandic sagas.

        For modern, I like Cherryh’s _Paladin_. Bujold’s _The Curse of Chalion_ and much of her other writing. Heinlein _Double Star_, _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_, and much else. Poul Anderson _Three Hearts and Three Lions_.

        • keranih says:

          Have you read CJC’s nighthorse series? Loved that. (I love most of her non-Cyteen work – she tells such great adventure stories, but let her get too far into the psychology and she gets too dense for me to enjoy.)

          • Which are the nighthorse books? I like the Chanur series. The Morgiane series, which are early, exhibit what I think is a flaw in her writing. She is good at doing people under pressure, in a terrible hurry, and overuses it.

          • keranih says:

            Rider at the Gate and a direct sequel, Cloud’s Rider. They are kinda the antithesis of Misty Lackey (and every one else’s) magic white horse books.

            I loved the Morgaine books, but they are early, as you say. Chanur was also good, but the long passages in the middle books which were just Py thinking shared a lot of the weaknesses (imo) with Cyteen.

            IMO, Downbelow Station and the ridership (Heavy Time, Hellburner) books were the best blend of action and introspection – I would put Paladin on the action side of the ledger.

            Mileage, of course, may vary.

    • voidfraction says:

      Check out Borges’ short stories. They’re mostly very short, conceptually dense, and absolutely fascinating. He wrote about dreams, labyrinths, mirrors, tigers, knife-fights and the folly of emperors trying to build maps representing territories in perfect detail. See if you can find a copy of http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Fictions-Jorge-Luis-Borges/dp/0140286802. (It’s a translation, albeit an excellent one, he only wrote in Spanish)

    • Joe says:

      I feel basically the same. I rarely read fiction but every now and then I feel guilty about it and pick up a classic. I read “Pride and Prejudice” a year ago and found myself wondering what the fuss was about. I mean it was wholesome and had some good ideas but ultimately it just seemed like a 19th century teenie-bopper romance.

      • xtmar says:

        ultimately it just seemed like a 19th century teenie-bopper romance.

        For better or worse, most of the classic “great literature” works of fiction were written to be popular rather than written to be great works of art. While some works are written with particular pretension as the great American novel or whatever, most of them are written to sell, writing not being a particularly lucrative profession.

      • smocc says:

        Did you read the first sentence?

        Pride and Prejudice currently has an unfortunate contemporary reputation as being one of the great romances of English literature. This is perpetuated in part by film and TV adaptations starring Colin Firth and other hunky men playing Mr. Darcy.

        This is wrong. It is actually a hilariously sarcastic social satire, with a pleasant little romance story along for the ride.

        • Mary says:

          Read an Indian reader’s review of the book, and he was hooked from the opening — how he felt for Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy — and recounted the story of his being at a wedding and being introduced to a woman of middle years who immediately began talking of his being old enough to settle down.

      • Deiseach says:

        xtmar has a good point in that a lot of what are now “classic works” were popular culture hits back in their day. Austen is a case in point: the novel had rather degenerated, by her time, into highly coloured and stylised melodrama, and it was not thought of as a genre for serious work. Think of Gothic fiction as the kind of thing. Indeed, her “Northanger Abbey” is a deliberate parody of the kind of novel-reading of the day.

        Her reputation (and it really only became widely established in the 20th century) was based on writing realistic work: ordinary situations, ordinary people (yes, middle-class and upper-class people, but in the everyday world). Instead of the heroine being menaced by moustache twirling villains in a haunted castle, you have young women needing to make financially prudent marriages, and the tensions (as in “Persuasion”) between family wanting – even for the best reasons – a suitable marriage, and the woman herself wanting to marry for love but allowing herself to be persuaded out of it.

        Austen had a clear, low-key, natural style which was quietly funny in its way. Sir Walter Scott did a good review of her early works:

        Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!

        The point about the teeny-bopper romance is part of why they are so popular as costume drama adaptations in television and film; you have a love story which you can play dress-up with while missing all the subtle social commentary.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ Deiseach
          “you have a love story which you can play dress-up with while missing all the subtle social commentary.”

          Serious question revealing ignorance: what level of social commentary do you mean? For a Young Person of Today, “Hey, there was a time when the only ‘career path’ for an intelligent woman above certain class, was marriage” may be a revelation. But I doubt Austen was giving it out as news; hadn’t it been background to plots for decades if not centuries?

          • Jon H says:

            I suspect it’s more class-based? Or commentary on other measures of social standing that were relevant?

          • Tracy W says:

            Okay, take Sense & Sensibility: Marianne Dashwood is the romantic ideal, and learns that there is value in self-control and the social rituals of politeness.

            There’s also a lot of harshness on men who marry pretty young fools (eg Mr Bennet), or who wreck their lives and their loved ones by being careless with money.

            And then there’s some scenes like the appallingly terrible dinner in Sense & Sensibility where the only thing the women find to talk about while the men are having their port is the height of two of their children, or other scenes of intellectual idleness.

            But this is just a sample of the range of matters she comments on.

            One side of Austen’s social commentary does make me smile. She’s very big on social equality between the highest in society down to, say, spinster daughters of poor clergymen, but that servants or shopkeepers may think similarly to her never appears to occur to Austen at all.

          • Deiseach says:

            The social commentary is in things like “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, which is the very first sentence of the book.

            Writing a realistic novel, which is not overtly declaring a didactic purpose in a THIS BOOK IS REVEALING THE CORRUPTION OF MODERN SOCIETY fashion like Hogarth’s engravings of Marriage a la Mode, can be taken on the surface as a novel of close observation of a limited sphere (the same criticism made about women poets in the early 20th century that they were too occupied with the domestic and the personal, unlike male poets who could write on The Grand Themes), but underneath there is the satire, and acknowledgement of the reality, of things like the marriage market.

            Bingley is seen as a catch and his worth is calculated solely on his monetary value, not on his personal character. Mrs Bennett is considered a figure of fun, but when you look a little closer into the novel, Mr Bennett is not really The Cool Dad, he’s a neglectful parent. He’s making little or no provision for his daughters, even though they will be homeless and lacking an income on his death. Mrs Bennett, with her foolishness and lack of education and her touting her daughters in the marriage market is actually doing her practical best to make sure that her daughters at least have a roof over their heads and a bed to sleep in once they’re married.

            Kitty, too, who makes a dreadful (according to the conventional morality of the day) hash of her life does not get the treatment she should do in a properly didactic work; she does not return home repentant, Sadder But Wiser. There is every indication she and Wickham will continue to live a mayfly life, sponging off their families for money, and with no sign of learning any lessons about responsibility and duty – and no sign Austen felt they needed to learn such lessons, or that there were no such people in real life.

            The reason it feels over-familiar as a plot is probably because so many works since then have taken the structure of the Elizabeth-Darcy romance; every romance novel and rom-com movie has the spunky heroine and brooding hero who start out mutually disliking one another and end up with wedding bells.

            But there’s more to it than a simple “gowns and ballrooms romance” plot, and because it doesn’t hit us over the head with the sledgehammer message of THIS IS ABOUT THE MORAL OF THE STORY, it’s easy to miss.

            Elizabeth and Darcy both suffer from pride, and both must learn to look outside their settled views about “I know all about that kind of person”. Marrying for money is not the purpose of marriage, but marrying for love is also problematic (Kitty and Wickham, Mr and Mrs Bennett) if you are only going on emotional impulse and don’t think about can you make a life with this person.

            You can get a happy ending, but you have to work for it.

            You can start questioning “Well, why don’t Elizabeth and her sisters have options other than making an advantageous marriage? Why do we pretend it’s not about cold hard cash? Character or money and rank – which is more important, and why?”, but only if you want to.

            It’s possible to enjoy the novel as a novel, without needing to mine it for “What is the author’s message here?”

          • John Schilling says:

            Kitty, too, who makes a dreadful (according to the conventional morality of the day) hash of her life

            I think you mean Lydia here; memory and Wikipedia have her marrying Wickham while Kitty serves only to pointlessly increase the Bennett sister count to five. And, conventional morality aside, her choices are dreadful for the very practical reason that, barring Darcy Es Machina, they basically doom her to dying in a gutter by the age of thirty.

            And that’s basically the point of the work. This isn’t “teenybopper romance”, and not just because almost all of the principals are twenty-something. This is the game of romance played for Game of Throne stakes; you win or you die, because Austen sets up the story ruling out the few other options that would have been plausibly accessible to the Bennetts. That leads to three very different readings:

            1. Romantic drama, in which we remember that this is Regency England and so understand how exceedingly foolish Lydia and Mr. Bennett are being, and the desperation of Jane and Mrs. Bennet, the actual villainy of Wickham and the dangerous boldness of heroine Elizabeth, and are nonetheless rewarded with a happy ending for all.

            2. Social satire, in which Austen (who was fortunately able to opt out of the game herself) lets the reader know exactly what she thinks and what they should think of the society that set up this absurd game with its ridiculous rules, by way of not-entirely-kind mockery. And if we’re not actually residents of Regency England, we get to learn about a fascinating alien culture from the inside.

            and now 3. Light romantic comedy, in which we forget all of that because this is the 21st century and nobody takes romance seriously any more but it’s still fun to fantasize about marrying a handsome rich guy or witty beautiful girl who adores us.

            That Hollywood always goes for option 3, is I think a disservice to Austen.

          • Joe says:

            I think I did pickup on some of the social commentary. I couldn’t help but notice how lazy the men are in the book. I think she discribes one character as always falling asleep playing cards in the parlor. Downton Abbey kind of confined this about Regency England. All they seemed to do all day was change clothes for meals. I can’t imagine how worthless and ashamed I would feel as a man in that class and time period.

          • John Schilling says:

            I can’t imagine how worthless and ashamed I would feel as a man in that class and time period.

            Well, Austen isn’t exactly playing fair here. A gentleman was expected to administer an estate that was the livelihood for maybe a hundred families, and provided food for more still. Doing that well should be a source of pride even if one never personally hoes a row. And as England was then(*) at war with Yet Another Continental Tyrant Trying To Take Over The World, the second sons who went off to military service had opportunity to do something honorable and useful (even if not all of them actually did).

            But from Austen’s female POV, gentlemen were simply vested with small fortunes by some arbitrary process, which they could invest or squander however they pleased with little social or even economic consequence. Maybe they would use some of that wealth to keep some gentleman’s daughter from dying in the gutter, or maybe not.

            So, yeah, no mercy from Austen. The best of the lot is Darcey, and the best that can be said of him is that his house and garden are well-kept and the staff speaks highly of him. If there had been anyone with the notion that gentlemen as a class were intrinsically deserving of respect, Austen was going to put several nice, sharp skewers through that one.

            (*) Both of your examples sort of fit here, but you do understand that Downton Abbey is set almost exactly a century after Pride and Prejudice, I hope. And one or two class levels higher.

          • Tracy W says:

            It’s made clear in the novel that if it were not for Mr Bennet, Mrs Bennet would have run the family into debt long before the events of the novel.

            Mrs Bennet likes visiting and balls so she does that for her daughters. But she’s not some self-sacrificing figure for her kids, she doesn’t like saving, or forcing her daughters to become accomplished, so she doesn’t.

            More generaly, I think Jane Austen mostly accepted her society’s tenets. Take Emma, who is independently rich, intelligent and clearly going nuts with boredom. All Austen offers her at the end is a marriage. None of her heroines even try taking up writing. They marry and presumably have children and maybe continue to play the piano and read, being heroines.

            Austen’s books are very detailed about what it takes to live in society, and the impact of selfish or neglectful attitudes on everyone else, but she’s no social revolutionary.

          • Tracy W says:

            @John: Austen’s better than that. It’s made clear in _Emma_ that Knightley, the hero, is very involved in running his farm and helping his tenants, and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, when he looks like he might almost redeem himself, starts caring about his tenants. While Lady Catherine is involved to the point of overcaring.

            We see Darcy mostly away from Pemberley, so we don’t see the involved manager.

          • John Schilling says:

            Austen’s better than that. It’s made clear in _Emma_ that Knightley, the hero, is very involved in running his farm and helping his tenants,

            Yes, I should have made it clear I was talking specifically P&P there. _Emma_ has a slightly different perspective, in that the titular protagonist is independently wealthy and can play the socioeconomic role traditionally reserved to gentlemen. That story gives her Mr. Knightley as a confidante and an example of how to do the job well. I haven’t read _Mansfield Park_, and I agree that any sensible person would want Lady Catherine DeBourgh managing their affairs as little and from as great a distance as possible.

          • Mary says:

            “A gentleman was expected to administer an estate that was the livelihood for maybe a hundred families, and provided food for more still. Doing that well should be a source of pride even if one never personally hoes a row.”

            A lady was expected to keep her eye out for the tenants who needed a bit of additional help. The fun thing is that you can see hints of the ladies at work at this in the novels. Emma’s comments about how she might hope to be useful to anyone below the social rank of farmer, or Anne’s sad reflection that the poor were probably better off with the home rented out than they had been with her family.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Deiseach
            The social commentary is in things like “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, which is the very first sentence of the book.

            I hope to get back later, but … but … dare I hope that Austen really did invent that line, rather than picking up a shallow buzz-phrase (and using it doubtlessly ironically) as I have seen suggested?

      • Tracy W says:

        Jane Austen isn’t about the plots, but about what she does with them.
        Eg she’s a funny writer. But each of her characters are distinct. Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins are both fools, but they’re foolish in very different ways. There’s no way a speech from one of them to be given to another.
        If you read more of her books, Edward Ferrars, Henry Tilney and Mr Elton are all clergymen in their twenties who get married in the course of the books, and all their characters are distinct.

        And on a micro-level, her writing is superb (if it appeals to your sense of humour).

      • Anthony says:

        When in high school, a friend of mine did a “compare and contrast” essay comparing “Wuthering Heights” and typical Harlequin Romances, where he found that really, they’re very much the same.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          I believe there’s a theory that this is the whole point of the novel, with Heathcliff being a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the brooding romantic anti-hero.

    • keranih says:

      1) There is no accounting for taste. You are not required to like anything that someone else likes.

      2) Given (1) there are books which were noteworthy in their time as having impressed/been enjoyed by many people of the era, and so had an impact on what other people thought about the subject at hand (or: had an impact on the Overton window of discussion/depiction.)

      3) Books that had an impact on how people thought about or expressed their opinions about (note: not the same thing!) Important Topics are Useful To Read because they help writers and thinkers share the same language. Think of these as annoying grammar lessons. You can muddle through without them, but your ability to express yourself well – and to understand other people – will be highly improved by them. This is Kipling. You don’t have to like it, but you do need to know who Tommy was and wtf the Gods of The Copybook Headings were all about.

      4) Books that have had an impact on the Overton window of discussion/depiction are less useful now because they are not a common touchstone (overcome by events on the ground) but are historical examples of how things change from Then to Now. IMO you can ignore these. This is e.e. cummings. All you need to know from cummings is that some people expressed their ‘edge’ in no caps and free verse.

      As others have said, what sort of books do you like? I suffered through Daisy Miller, loved The Heart of Darkness and The Sea Wolf.

      • xtmar says:

        Re 3, this is why it’s worth reading the King James Bible and Shakespeare. Even if you don’t enjoy them, they’re probably the two sets of works with the greatest influence on written English.

        • nope says:

          I’m not nearly so convinced of the value of *reading* Shakespeare as I am of watching a good rendition. A good cast can bring out Shakespeare’s brilliant characterization and wordplay, but unless you’re intimately familiar with the language of the era or don’t mind slogging through the “no fear” versions, reading Shakespeare straight will take most of the joy out of it. And no one should read Shakespeare and not enjoy it.

          • Virbie says:

            > but unless you’re intimately familiar with the language of the era or don’t mind slogging through the “no fear” versions, reading Shakespeare straight will take most of the joy out of it.

            I’ve found that a good middle ground were the editions we used throughout middle and high school, which had definitions of idioms and terms used on the opposite page instead of just a modern translation. I’ve only glanced at a No Fear Shakespeare once or twice but I’ve found the translated text to be rather dull and flat. With definitions (and background) of select text, you can read as much as you’d like in the raw and the facing page serves as a convenient reference for anachronistic words, as well as a way to catch subtext or puns you may have missed.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            I agree that Shakespeare really ought to be seen/heard to get the full effect but second Virbie’s recommendation of “annotated editions” as an acceptable substitute.

          • Moebius Street says:

            I find Shakespeare awfully tiresome. Even watching what the critics say is a great performance, or watching a director whose other work I adore (Joss Whedon), I just can’t get through it.

            I’ve heard it said that people reading Shakespeare in translations are luckier than those of us reading in English. They get to read something in a modern, easily understood dialect. But we have to try to get some understanding from something that’s rather archaic. While that’s *possible*, it certainly interrupts any “flow” while reading, and prevents my enjoyment.

            I love reading, and I’ve realized that I’ll only be able to read a finite number of books in my life. So there’s no sense on wasting that time on ones I don’t enjoy, especially when it even takes me far longer to get through those. I no longer feel any obligation to read what other people view as great works, and I don’t feel guilty if, after enough pages that I think I can reasonably make a conclusion, I decide to set aside a book without finishing it.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            I’ve never seen a stage production of Shakespeare, but I have seen films of his plays which kept the original dialog (such as the 1968 Romeo and Juliet movie and the 1996 Hamlet movie) and I found them almost incomprehensible compared to reading the annotated plays. Then again, I often find movies and songs difficult to understand without captions and lyrics, respectively, so it might just be me.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Call me boorish, but I’ve never liked Shakespeare. I do enjoy reading the annotated versions, but not because of the actual content; rather, I enjoy the detailed explanations of all the historical circumstances, political commentary, and, of course, crude sex puns. However, the plays themselves are usually about 30% content / 70% filler. I understand some of the reasons for all that filler, but it’s still pretty boring 🙁

      • adequ8 says:

        wrt cummings, if thats all you got out of him, i’d suggest you try again.

        alternatively, gr8 b8 m8

        • keranih says:

          I am confident that my previous exploration of e.e. cummings was sufficient – but I am not certain. What do you see there that you think I’m missing?

          • adequ8 says:

            gracious, wasnt expecting a reasonable reply! but then this is ssc, i keep forgetting.

            ok, how about the poem l(a to me it is just so delicately beautiful, he manages to create both a picture with the arrangement of the letters and a haiku like expression of stillness whilst describing motion. i know of nothing else like it. i just dont see how that is in anyway an expression of ” ‘edge’ in no caps and free verse.”

          • I like some of Cummings’ poems, but I would like to argue that Kipling is more of a modern poet than most who are so described, because he uses features of the modern world as poetic material.

            My favorite example is “Hymn to Breaking Strain,” in which the underlying metaphor is the table of breaking strains at the back of an engineering handbook. But consider McAndrew’s hymn, where it is steam engines. Or

            I SENT a message to my dear—
            A thousand leagues and more to Her—
            The dumb sea-levels thrilled to hear,
            And Lost Atlantis bore to Her!

            Behind my message hard I came,
            And nigh had found a grave for me;
            But that I launched of steel and flame
            Did war against the wave for me.

            Uprose the deep, in gale on gale,
            To bid me change my mind again—
            He broke his teeth along my rail,
            And, roaring, swung behind again.

            I stayed the sun at noon to tell
            My way across the waste of it;
            I read the storm before it fell
            And made the better haste of it.

            Afar, I hailed the land at night—
            The towers I built had heard of me—
            And, ere my rocket reached its height,
            Had flashed my Love the word of me.

            Earth sold her chosen men of strength
            (They lived and strove and died for me)
            To drive my road a nation’s length,
            And toss the miles aside for me.

            I snatched their toil to serve my needs—
            Too slow their fleetest flew for me.
            I tired twenty smoking steeds,
            And bade them bait a new for me.

            I sent the Lightnings forth to see
            Where hour by hour She waited me.
            Among ten million one was She,
            And surely all men hated me!

            Dawn ran to meet me at my goal—
            Ah, day no tongue shall tell again!
            And little folk of little soul
            Rose up to buy and sell again!

          • Bugmaster says:

            I understand the intent behind the e.e.cummings poem, but it does nothing for me. The only emotion I experience upon reading it is, “I see what you did there”. His poems basically read like crossword puzzles to me; I spend so much effort on decyphering them that I have no CPU cycles to spare on emotional engagement.

            I think this is why I (like David Friedman) find Kipling much more moving. The rhyme and rhythm of his poems form a sort of powerful wave, that carries you where he wanted you to go. Kipling doesn’t throw his skills in your face, he just uses them so gracefully that you don’t even realize he’s doing it.

          • keranih says:

            @adequ8 –

            My apologies, I thought I had already answered this but apparently not.

            (SSC has a high level of civility, which I do not reach as often as I would like. Thank you for the encouragement to continue to strive to do better.)

            That poem does very little for me – in terms of emotional impact, it conveys nothing to me that I have not gotten already from Frost, Archibald MacLeish, and translations of original Japanese verse. As a form of expressing that impact, I find it inferior due to the possibility of confusion in the reader.

            I also don’t think it’s typical of most of ee cumming’s work – it’s more evocative/nature-centric and with far less social commentary than other works I’ve been exposed to.

          • For several different Cummings poems that I enjoyed:

            “She Being Brand New” (Erotic poetry based on an analogy to driving a new car)

            “Pity this Busy Monster Manunkind”

            “It may not always be so, and if …”
            (First line–I don’t remember the title)
            Love poetry on the subject of his love leaving him for another.

    • Anon. says:

      This may sound counter-intuitive, but try reading more slowly. Way more slowly. 40 pages/hour is a good pace for pop science. When it comes to literary fiction I feel that you’re missing a big part of what makes it worthwhile by sprinting through it. Try doing a bit of close reading, especially of the most important passages.

      Also, try going for something a bit more recent. The Quixote was written 400 years ago, people wrote in a very different style back then. How about some DeLillo?

      • onyomi says:

        I would second the recommendation to read slowly. Giant novels are not always the best place to start for this. Shakespeare might be better both because the poetry of it is much more densely packed, and because the plays are much shorter than War and Peace.

        I would say that in terms of “getting it,” it may be good, while you’re reading slowly, to focus more on the form of what’s being said, rather than the content.

        To paraphrase Deiseach’s comment of a month ago:


        “Not poppy nor mandragora
        Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
        Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
        Which thou owedst yesterday”

        is not the same as

        “No drugs or sleeping pills will ever give you the restful sleep that you had last night.”

        They technically mean the same thing, but the latter loses all the musicality, resonance, etc.

        To put it another way, what is the point of painting, now that we’ve got photography?

        • Thecommexokid says:

          I agree, those are not the same. For instance, I understood what the hell the second sentence was trying to say.

          • Deiseach says:

            Try reading the original aloud. Pay attention to the assonance and the sibilants: the ‘hissing’ effect they evoke, which should make you think of a snake, which should colour your perception of the speaker (Iago) and his good intentions and reliability.

            Shakespeare was meant to be performed (that’s not to say you can’t get the enjoyment as well as from reading). Language is very important, both spoken as well as written, here.

            I’m prejudiced here: back when I was fifteen and got my hands on a modern English version of “Hamlet” (one of the school texts where all the old spelling is tidied up and you get neat footnotes explaining references) and decided I should give this Shakespeare bloke a try, even if it was Poetry and everyone knows Poetry is Difficult, Dull and Obscure.

            I had bells ringing in my head because the words were all gently striking off one another and chiming together. The music of the language has never quite faded for me 🙂

          • Virbie says:

            I think that’s the point of the suggestion to read slowly. I’ve read enough Shakespeare in my life [1] that I can flow through that pretty quickly and get all the meaning, but if you can’t, that’s precisely what going over it more slowly is intended to help with. There’s nothing in the quote (beyond perhaps mandragora, depending on one’s familiarity with botany) that is difficult to understand: it’s mainly a consequence of the less-than-straightforward sentence structure.

            [1] Boy, I’m expressing precisely what I mean to but that sentence sounds snotty as hell. For the record, I mean this purely in terms of cached familiarity with different patterns of sentence grammatical structure. I should also note that a small majority of the Shakespeare I read was in high school.

        • Nornagest says:

          Even beyond reading slowly, I’d suggest reading Shakespeare as poetry, not for the plot. There’s plenty of plot to be read (and an astonishing number of dick jokes), but it’s pretty dense if you haven’t pickled yourself in Elizabethan English for a few years. But the sound of it still rings as clear as it did on the day it was written, and most of the wordplay’s easy enough to understand if you have an annotated edition or have a browser window open.

          • The Anonymouse says:

            I suspect that, if I were ever placed in the hell that is being a high-school English teacher, I would teach Shakespeare by rewarding the students who could spot and explain the greatest number of dick jokes.

          • BillG says:

            @Anyonymouse. I’m currently helping a book club of friends through Ulysses by, in part, identifying at least one or two dirty jokes per episode. Makes it far more fun.

    • PSJ says:

      I don’t know if I can help with the majority of your problem, but I definitely think it would help not to be reading the “serious” books that are the longest or generally considered to be most boring. Maybe start with the great books of the 20th century: Lolita, 1984, Great Gatsby, Catch-22, Native Son, Gravity’s Rainbow (obviously barely the beginning of a full list, but most of these are fairly accessible and are varied enough to choose for your own personal taste)

      Edit: http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/slide/all/ This is a good list to start with as well!

    • Zippy says:

      I know what you’re saying; often I find the summary of a “great novel” to be more impactful than the actual book itself. The books themselves are… OK.

      I find there are some books that avoid this problem:

      1) Books with good bread and butter: Mainly funny (and especially intelligent) books, like Catch-22 and HPMOR, but I also found it a pleasure to read about southern kids doing whatever in To Kill A Mockingbird.

      2) Very short books: Albert Camus respects your time; he himself had many beautiful women he had to make love to, and he assumes you do too. That’s why you can read The Stranger in two-and-a-half hours, apparently.

      3) Books where not being able to tolerate reading the book is like the point of the book or something: People claim Heart of Darkness is like this, but I’m guessing obnoxiously huge paragraphs were just fashionable back then.

      Presumably you’re just smarter than the great authors of the past due to the Flynn effect.

      Eventually I learned to deal with the drudgery of great literature by finding Christ symbolism everywhere.

      I agree with your remark about apple sauce.

      Just stop reading things you don’t want to read, man! SparkNote it or something!

      • Anon. says:

        I think we can give Conrad a bit more respect than just handwaving the paragraph lengths as some stylistic fad of the times. He forms and deploys his paragraphs very deliberately. Take a look at this chart of paragraph lengths in HoD: https://farm7.static.flickr.com/6023/5950016208_d7c75bf848.jpg

        The central, longest paragraph is of course also the most important one content-wise.

      • onyomi says:

        “Presumably you’re just smarter than the great authors of the past due to the Flynn effect.”

        Not to in any way impugn OP’s intelligence, but probably not.

        Far more likely, especially when dealing with works of significant age, is that one is not really the audience: people used to be a lot more bored, for one thing, and thought little of spending a whole day at a theater in many premodern cultures, for example.

        Also, as I said above, in many cases the “point” of the book is not really the “point.” The manner of expressing it is. James Fenimore Cooper was rightly criticized even by his contemporaries (Mark Twain) for having a long-winded, meandering style, and I think Twain has a point. At the same time, Cooper’s books aspire to a kind of loving, detailed evocation of certain times and places such that “getting to the point” is not really the point.

        The fact that the times and places he describes may now have less resonance for us and we less patience for sitting down and reading them does not make us smarter.

      • The Anonymouse says:

        Just stop reading things you don’t want to read, man!

        I second this. I used to be a lit major–until I realized that my life was better without any pretension to postmodernism–but really, my life changed when someone told me, basically, “Hey, there are so many great writers in the world that the world is gaining worthwhile books faster than any person can read them. So, if you don’t like it, put that shit down and read something else!”

        Before that, I felt compelled to finish reading everything I started.

        Classics–the “canon”–are not interchangeable. Every classic is such because some group of influential people said it is . . . but those aren’t always the same people! You can love Crime and Punishment and hate Dickens; hate Shakespeare and love the Bible (KJV, please!); hate Joyce and love Dickinson; or hate Hemingway and love Achebe.

        Almost everyone has had the feeling of picking up a “classic” and thinking “ugh, what the shit is this about?” But so many of the classics are classics for pretty good reasons.

    • BillG says:

      I think the best advice I can give is to avoid reading as a quest for meaning, at least in the typical sense. Most modern criticism is, frankly, more fun specifically because it often portrays literature as something that is resistant to a direct meaning.

      In other words: if you’re reading to learn a lesson, pick up some essays/non-fiction. If you want to enjoy literature, do so to experience something.

      This also probably changes what you want to read. Read things that give a depth of experience you want to have. That may mean something modern, something romantic, whatever. There will be some “good literature” that touches on those things. At least, that’s where I’d start.

    • Mary says:

      You have succeeded in maintaining your natural interests in stories. an excellent achievement.

    • Deiseach says:

      You may not be doing anything wrong, “serious” literature may simply not be for you. There’s an argument to be made about making an effort to appreciate any artform, to educate yourself and try to expose yourself to various elements within it.

      But that doesn’t mean you will get anything out of it in the end, even if you make the good faith effort. A personal example here is Sir Harrison Birtwistle; I tried listening to a broadcast version of his opera “Gawain” back in the 90s in the cause of “I should really acquaint myself with one of the Big Names of modern classical music” and it made me sea-sick listening to it, so I had to give up about twenty minutes in.

      A lot of classic works are not originally in English, so the quality of the translation is very important. And a lot of the older translations are stodgy or leaden or do some editing according to the translator’s personal biases. As well, language has changed. Not having the patience to read through three hundred pages of 19th century English is not a failing. It’s hard to accustom your ear to speech that is meaningless as far as you’re concerned.

      I’m lucky in that (a) my paternal family are freaks when it comes to being able to read early and fluently and (b) I read a lot of stuff before I ever encountered it in school, which meant I became accustomed to orotund phraseology long before I was exposed to modern, ‘relevant for the kidz’ literature.

      It genuinely may not be for you, as The Allman Brothers at the Beacon is not for me. My advice would be (a) try and find good, up-to-date translations (b) if you really can’t stick a long, long book nobody says you have to (c) if you can find a “serious fiction” author you like, that’s always a help (d) there is nothing at all wrong with preferring genre fiction or non-fiction.

      A lot of it is pleasure in language, and that’s like pleasure in music, or visual arts: everyone’s taste is slightly different. Words on a page may not translate into sound/musicality of spoken word/rhythm/links, connotations, references and allusions they conjure up for you.

      A certain amount of vegetables is good for you but don’t force yourself to consume twenty pounds of cauliflower. There are many classical works of literature I’ve never read, and I’ve decided I’m not going to at this stage, and I don’t care.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      @ Rock Lobster

      Lazily cutting through a lot of good explanations downstream, I (far-left voter myself) would put up _Atlas Shrugged_, per John C. Wright’s modified praise of it, as a Great Novel. It fits the specs at all levels: a big important new message, events illustrating it, memorable colorful characters, readable plot … all the way down to quotable playful phrases on a Henry James level (tho I don’t see them quoted much). The plot and character level stuff is long and heavy enough that you get caught in it for its own sake.

      Meta-wise, to learn to appreciate a form or genre little practiced now, I think a good way is to start with something now-popular that you already enjoy that uses a lot of the old elements, and work backwards from it a decade or so at a time. Eg “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for working toward earlier pulp adventures.

    • Sastan says:

      I’m partially with you mate. I’ve always loved to read, but I’d say 95% of “serious” literature is pretentious horseshit. And completely misunderstood and over-analysed by simpletons who want to think they “got” it. Much like films with no plot everyone thinks are “Deep” because they didn’t understand a bit of it, and don’t want to look like they don’t understand a bit of it. I have a special hatred for “Catcher in the Rye”.

      That said, I think you have to read a lot of stuff to find the things you like. And it’s probably different for each person. For instance, I can’t stand Hemingway’s novels, but a couple of his short stories are just shy of perfect (The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber springs to mind). I’ve found some brilliant stuff in the classics (Epictetus, for one). Shakespeare is a cliche for a reason, the man wrote some incredible stuff, but you do have to basically learn to read a new language.

      Often, I find that, like bands, a writer’s most popular work isn’t their best. Everyone reads Camus’ “The Stranger”, but I hated it. “The Fall”, “The Plague” and “The Myth of Sisyphus” are all great, though.

      However, I will say that so much “regular” fiction is just as good or better than so much “serious” fiction. I’ll put CS Freidman’s fantasy and sci-fi up against anything produced in the last century. Some of the best thought experiments, examinations of human motivation and morality, and most enjoyable reads will never be considered “serious”, because academics have redefined “serious” literature to mean boring, pretentious shite. Here’s a hint: Mark Twain wasn’t writing for the Harvard Chair of Theoretical Literature. He was writing to sell books. The cartelization of “literature” into an academic discipline has destroyed serious modern writing. But have hope! There’s still tons of good shit out there, and all you have to do is read to find it!

    • Rock Lobster says:

      Thanks for all the thoughtful replies. To respond to a few questions:

      -I have read the Bible. I read the KJV a few years back, and then some months later read it again, using Robert Alter’s translation for the Five Books of Moses and then kind of switching between the KJV and NLT translations for the rest. I actually liked the Bible a lot. Or rather I should say, it was undoubtedly repetitive and tedious and a slog to get through, but it also had very beautiful and deep prose, especially in the Old Testament. The way the Bible (and ancient writers more generally) grapple with the inevitability of suffering and death really sticks with me.

      -I like history, especially European and ancient Mediterranean history, most of all. I’m also down for science, finance/economics, and other popular non-fiction, but I find a lot of those books are of the type where, I haven’t read it but I’m 99% sure I know EXACTLY how it goes.
      -Within the realm of “great” literature, I like a good amount of the ancient stuff: Homer (the Odyssey, not as much the Iliad), Sophocles (not so much Aeschylus and really not Euripides), the Bible, the first half of the Aeneid, Plato I like aesthetically even though he was wrong about everything go figure; I like what Shakespeare I’ve read so far (I plan to read more but I recall enjoying Julius Caesar most of all back in high school); I love the writing style of the late 1700s, so anything the Founding Fathers wrote, or Adam Smith, and the like, though that isn’t really literature for our purposes here; I love Orwell, both his fiction and his essays (Wells, Hitler, and the World State is my favorite, but that’s an essay). There are others but those come to mind most readily.
      -I especially did NOT like The Great Gatsby, Dickens, Hemingway, most of Steinbeck. Anybody where I suspect they got famous by pushing the buttons of gullible liberals annoys me; ugh I had to read Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup once and that was the worst case of that I’ve ever seen. I am a moderate liberal myself but I can’t deny that when it comes to artsy stuff they’re such suckers. I didn’t care for Dante, but I think that had more to do with constantly having to look up all the inside jokes about 13th century popes in the back of the book.

      • nope says:

        If you’re a bit sensitive to pretension, there are a ton of Russian writers that would probably be right up your alley, especially romantic period Russians, whose whole ethos was a rejection of Western, particularly French, sophistication and pseudo-intellectualism. I personally am very fond of Lermontov.

      • Deiseach says:

        I didn’t care for Dante


        *clutches pearls*

        *reels back in horror and collapses on chaise longue in a fit of the vapours*


      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        I dunno, if you like history and like late 18th century writing styles, A Tale of Two Cities sounds like it’d be right up your alley. Dickens, more than anyone else, brought home the reality of Revolutionary France to me. Allow me to pull a Deiseach and quote at length…

        “But, though the Doctor tried hard, and never ceased trying, to get Charles Darnay set at liberty, or at least to get him brought to trial, the public current of the time set too strong and fast for him. The new era began; the king was tried, doomed, and beheaded; the Republic of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death, declared for victory or death against the world in arms; the black flag waved night and day from the great towers of Notre Dame; three hundred thousand men, summoned to rise against the tyrants of the earth, rose from all the varying soils of France, as if the dragon’s teeth had been sown broadcast, and had yielded fruit equally on hill and plain, on rock, in gravel, and alluvial mud, under the bright sky of the South and under the clouds of the North, in fell and forest, in the vineyards and the olive-grounds and among the cropped grass and the stubble of the corn, along the fruitful banks of the broad rivers, and in the sand of the sea-shore. What private solicitude could rear itself against the deluge of the Year One of Liberty- the deluge rising from below, not falling from above, and with the windows of Heaven shut, not opened!

        There was no pause, no pity, no peace, no interval of relenting rest, no measurement of time. Though days and nights circled as regularly as when time was young, and the evening and morning were the first day, other count of time there was none. Hold of it was lost in the raging fever of a nation, as it is in the fever of one patient. Now, breaking the unnatural silence of a whole city, the executioner showed the people the head of the king- and now, it seemed almost in the same breath, the bead of his fair wife which had had eight weary months of imprisoned widowhood and misery, to turn it grey.

        And yet, observing the strange law of contradiction which obtains in all such cases, the time was long, while it flamed by so fast. A revolutionary tribunal in the capital, and forty or fifty thousand revolutionary committees all over the land; a law of the Suspected, which struck away all security for liberty or life, and delivered over any good and innocent person to any bad and guilty one; prisons gorged with people who had committed no offence, and could obtain no bearing; these things became the established order and nature of appointed things, and seemed to be ancient usage before they were many weeks old. Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world- the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine.

        It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it ifallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.

        It sheared off heads so many, that it, and the ground it most polluted, were a rotten red. It was taken to pieces, like a toy-puzzle for a young Devil, and was put together again when the occasion wanted it. It hushed the eloquent, struck down the powerful, abolished the beautiful and good. Twenty-two friends of high public mark, twenty-one living and one dead, it had lopped the heads off, in one morning, in as many minutes. The name of the strong man of Old Scripture had descended to the chief functionary who worked it; but, so armed, he was stronger than his namesake, and blinder, and tore away the gates of God’s own Temple every day…”

        That passage, and others describing the decadence of the old ruling class, stick with me to this day.

        But you said you specifically did NOT like Dickens. :/ Which book of his did you try? Might I change your mind?

        (Full disclosure: I am an English teacher).

        • Rock Lobster says:

          Thanks for your reply.

          I guess all I can really say is that certain things cause a profound sense of beauty to sweep over me. It’s almost like little tingles down my spine. I think I’m unusual in that non-fiction reading is what most gives me this feeling rather than fiction.

          Your passage makes me think that perhaps I’m just doomed to see things differently. I read it and it just came across to me as a long-winded way of saying that a bunch of people got their heads chopped off with the guillotine.

          I think I just have a chronic case of get-to-the-point-itis (it’s a real disease, okay?!) and am 99% sure I would get more pleasure out of reading Andrew Roberts’s biography of Napoleon than reading ATOTC. And it’s a shame because there are people who get tremendous pleasure out of reading books like that, but it passes through me like a darn neutrino! Russian writer Mikhail Prishvin wrote that after reading War and Peace for the twelfth time, he finally understood his life. Twelve times! Can you imagine that? I’m ~200 pages in and ready to throw it out the window (just kidding, I live in NY and someone would probably get hurt if I did that).

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Rock Lobster
            [The TOTC] passage just came across to me as a long-winded way of saying that a bunch of people got their heads chopped off with the guillotine.

            I think I just have a chronic case of get-to-the-point-itis

            Me too. Dickens and others, I can see the point coming from almost the first sentence and no other point was added to justify the extra length (as well as the rest of the passage being so over the top that it blew Dickens’s credibility).

    • Saal says:

      I have little to add to your meta-level question beyond saying that I feel similarly: I tend to stay on the fringes of the ‘classics’ rather than diving into the heart of the literary canon.

      May I make one suggestion, however: dump the Tolstoy and pick up some Dostoyevsky.

    • I find it hilarious that the classics are supposed to be of universal human concern, and that’s why people get coerced into reading them in school. This is no doubt some meaning of universal which I don’t understand.

      This being said, I agree both with the people who say you don’t have to read anything you don’t like, and that poking around might turn up some classics that you do like.

      Back in the ancient days of rec.arts.sf.written, there was some consensus that Moby Dick was the classic that sf fans were most likely to like– probably for the geekish infodumps.

      • Saal says:

        White Jacket>Moby Dick

        But maybe it’s just me.

        • hlynkacg says:

          I recently re-read Moby Dick for the “first” time. I remember hating it in high-school and all I can say now is that I was young and stupid back then. Now I love it, and totally get why it’s held in such esteem.

          That said, I feel like you need to have “loved and lost”, had a few close friends die, or had a brush with death yourself before you can really appreciate what Melville was doing there. It really is a book that’s wasted on the young.

          • I’m inclined to think that a lot of required reading is simply fiction which is aimed at an older audience– and I have a dark suspicion that the reason it’s done that way is because all too many adults love the idea of forcing children to do things the children don’t want to do.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            I think you may be on to something there 😉

      • Nornagest says:

        Moby-Dick reads like a Neal Stephenson novel written by a Neal Stephenson who was obsessed with whaling rather then economics (and who was somewhat better at endings). Sure enough, it’s one of my favorites.

        This may partly be because I was never forced to read it in school, so I read it on my own time, at my own pace, and without ever having to fabricate symbolism as fodder for five-paragraph essays.

    • Urstoff says:

      I’ve started enjoying literary fiction (including the classics) far more since I’ve gotten a bit older, gotten married, had a child, etc. I think simply experiencing more of the vagaries of life have allowed me to empathize and take something from the vagaries that fictional characters are put through in literary fiction. I still read sci-fi, but right now I’d take a short story or novel that perfectly crystallizes a situation in life that evokes a very particular but still universal emotion or feeling of humanity over a bucket full of sci-fi novels, no matter how cool the spaceships. That all sounds very squishy, I realize, but it probably can’t be helped when talking about what people get out of literary fiction.

      George Saunders has a good take: https://vimeo.com/143732791

      In addition, reading literary fiction that has more cultural distance to it than something more recent is not going to help you much. Try a 20th century classic or just pick up a recent literary novel that you recognize or sounds interesting to you.

    • Wavey Davey says:

      I would say you are doing far too much of your “vegetables” – I’ve heard literature majors often find Don Quixote unreadable. Echoing some comments above, my recommendations are:
      a) Pick shorter works – plays and poetry can work well for this. It can be really rewarding to get under the skin of a short poem, reading it out loud, analyzing the sounds and the words and the imagery in a way you could never do with a novel.
      b) Go for twentieth century, as the cultural and stylistic differences just get harder to deal with when reading older works. The 1920’s to say 1960’s seem to have been a golden age for literature in English for various reasons. And most pre-20th C literature is frankly really long-winded …
      c) Take a class. In A-level English Lit (maybe equivalent to a U.S. A.P. class) I got really engrossed in works like “Hamlet”, “The Waste Land”, “Waiting for Godot”, and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, and having a teacher to help guide us through the themes, language and context of each was really helpful. This was pre-Internet, so maybe now you can get all the background you need online, but I think something like The Waste Land would be really hard to grok without a teacher …

      • Tracy W says:

        It’s interesting how people differ. I love many 19th century authors (eg Austen, Henry James, Dvotyesky, J. K. Jerome, Edith Wharton, Alcoutt) but the only 1920s – 1960s authors I like are mystery writers and Wodehouse.

        • Wavey Davey says:

          I think for me, the time period I mention involves literature grappling with the deep, epic topics of the modern world in a way that works prior to that didn’t:
          – the horrors of total warfare (WWI poets like Owen and Sassoon, Slaughterhouse 5)
          – the madness of modern bureaucratic, consumerist societies (Catch-22, Death of a Salesman)
          – the purpose of life given our apparent individual insignificance (Waiting for Godot, The Stranger)
          – how we respond to totalitarian societies (1984, The Crucible, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest)

          It’s been a long while since I’ve read these but they were the kinds of works that stoked my mental and emotional juices as a teen and twenty-something. Whereas the Jane Austin and Charles Dickens I’ve read were interesting, but never really rocked my world-view (I’ve never read Henry James, Edith Wharton or Dostoyevsky so I could be missing out for sure).

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            Dostoevsky is a much more philosophical author.

            As is Victor Hugo, but in a less profound way.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Davey: hmm, those themes you discuss more strike me as those of my parents and teachers lifetimes than mine. My grandparents were the ones who went through WWII. Communism had collapsed before I hit high school.

            And the consumerist/anomist line just never really resonated for me. Perhaps not helped by reading one of those style of books for high school, but by a NZ author, and my mother looked over my shoulder, recognised the author, said “Oh, one of my friends used to date him when we were at uni. He was very odd.” From then on, whenever the teacher would be going on about what this book revealed about the dark underseams of NZ society I’d think of mum’s dismissive attitude and struggle to take it seriously.

            Although now I come to remember it, I did read a lot of mind blowing SF from that time period.

            With Jane Austen, the mind blowing thing she does is in how well she writes and delineates character, it’s in the details and it takes a while to appreciate just how good she is, and how well she does at being so readable.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          I’m with you. I love the 18th and 19th century elaborate styles, but the 20th century stuff just doesn’t resonate with me that well. Orwell and Fitzgerald I like, but that’s about it.

          I learned Spanish by reading Don Quixote, so it has a special place in my heart.

          • Anthony says:

            Mark Atwood – there’s more dialect variation within Spain than in the Americas. Once you get past the funny way Argentines talk, that Mexicans call ‘y’ by the wrong name, and that people on the caribbean coast have made ‘s’ silent, there’s not a lot of variation, especially in written Spanish.

            On the other hand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyGFz-zIjHE

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            The Quixote is written in in “old Spanish”, wich is kind of like spanish except for some funny words and using f instead of h.

            >Once you get past the funny way Argentines talk

            Hey! if you’re going to talk shit about some LA country’s spanish, at least pick the default target: Chileans.

      • Emile says:

        I guess I’m an outlier then – I *liked* Don Quixote, and am not remotely a lit major.

        I wonder if it may have something to do with me having read it in French, which is closer to Spanish; some quality may have been lost in English.

    • Dirdle says:

      Hum, interesting. Don Quixote was on my list of “well, if I have to do it to understand the derivative works I’ve already liked…” (along with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Earthbound, and various others that I forget). But I do start to wonder if having such a list is even a good idea. It seems like you want to want to read great classics and appreciate their sublime inner beauty, but my experience agrees that doing so isn’t actually fun. And if the aim is to have a good time, how much value can Knowing the Canon ultimately have? It can make discussion easier or more productive, but I think you could spend forever trying to ‘ground’ your appreciation of literature only to find that, like mathematics, you must accept certain axioms and do the best you can without ever knowing that you will remain consistent or achieve completeness. So why not just build a castle in the air, and when people ask where the foundations are, bite your thumb and ask what you’d need them for? It’s not like the castle is falling anywhere in a hurry.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        @ Dirdle

        The way it worked for me was, I read stuff I liked, followed it back generation by generation to some of the canon. After which re-reading the stuff I already liked was better, and I found related new stuff likable also.

        But just jumping cold into old stuff can be a bad idea. Unless it’s instantly likable in itself, and even then reading it with a view to Interpretation Questions can spoil it.

    • SUT says:

      The kid in highschool who didn’t like the books, actually really liked Walden. I was that kid. The intro and conclusion are grand transcendental sermons but the the middle bulk is deliberately pedestrian recordings of a year without plot, only seasons. The opportunity is there for the reader to take them on with patience – and like HDT – maybe come out changed (if not entertained).

    • Douglas Knight says:

      You sound like you have two complaints, about great literature in general and also about long books. So why did you combine them? If you’re going to force yourself to read great literature, why not start with shorter works?

      This isn’t a suggestion. This is a question. What are you thinking? How did you choose this program? Is it intentional or did you just take a list of great novels and the top two happened to be very long?

      • Rock Lobster says:

        Well, a few years back I decided that I hadn’t read enough “classic” literature (not completely defined) and decided to put together a big list of everything I “should” read. I used Harold Bloom’s canonical list (even though he has since disowned it) as well as a list of everything published by Penguin Classics as my universe from which to choose. I get analysis paralysis about this sort of thing so LET’S JUST SAY SPREADSHEETS WERE INVOLVED 😐 I work in finance so that’s not as nuts as it sounds.

        I’ve done a decent job chipping away at it, but my resolution this year was to go after it more aggressively. There are some things (like Shakespeare) where I’m gonna push through it no matter what, and for the rest I’ll be sticking to a rule of, if I don’t like it within 50-100 pages, toss that sht!

    • brad says:

      >> They’re using language that I would use to describe seeing The Allman Bros at the Beacon

      It’s funny how very different people can be. I have never quite understood why people go completely gaga over bands. I can enjoy a catchy tune or admire the virtuosity of a great violinist or guitar player, but the idea that going to a concert would be one of the top experiences of a lifetime is just completely alien to me. Even taking into account that it’s partly about the camaraderie of the crowd as opposed to the music per se, I still just can’t quite get it.

      • Rock Lobster says:

        I don’t ordinarily go nuts over concerts, but the Allman Bros’ live shows are pretty much my favorite music of all time. I’m also not a purist for the Duane Allman and Dickey Betts era. I think Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, and Oteil Burbridge all did a great job and breathed new life into the band.

        They used to play a bunch of shows every March at The Beacon in NYC, but stopped after 2014 because everybody wanted to pursue their side projects. There’s been an Allman Bros-shaped hole in my heart ever since.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          @Rock Lobster:
          Are you familiar with the Drive By Truckers? If not start with “Southern Rock Opera” and then sample some of their other stuff.

          Also, if you get a chance to see them live, do it.

          • Rock Lobster says:

            I gave them a listen a while back and didn’t get hooked, but I’ll take this as a reason to try them again. I’ll check out that album too. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • arbitrary_greay says:

      Spoil yourself.

      This is an approach that applies to most media. Truly great stories aren’t going to be impacted by something as trivial as knowing what’s going to happen. The devil is always in the details, the true measure in the execution, not the premise.

      Read the plot summaries. Read analyses by people who love the work. Consume media adaptations, and read analyses of the adaptations, whether they liked/disliked the source material/the adaptation itself. Consume spin-offs, unofficial sequels, and parodies, look at the memes a story has generated. Find the humorous gif-filled recaps, even by people who hate the work, even read the close-read deconstructions. Read about the authors’ lives, as they’re often more interesting than their produced works anyways. Do all of this before you read the book itself.

      Thoroughly spoil yourself on what to look for when reading the text.

      I’ve found that most of the time, my appreciation for a story increases the more I know about it going in. Mostly because otherwise, I’ll default to my own priorities, (character and structure) with any intents of the author’s blowing over my head. I really love rewatching TV or Movies with commentary. A good commentary not only enhances what parts of the story the creators enjoy themselves, they’ll also tend to point out bits of their storytelling ethos, and thus might change how I digest the same technique going forward.
      Same goes for literature. Even for literature where the text has taken on new contexts and meanings away from the author’s intentions, there is pleasure in exploring the contrast between the intent and results in the text. In that way, I can find things to enjoy in stories and media that are very much Not My Thing, or are even bad. (Like appreciating the production craft even if the writing’s shit) But I have to know what to look for in the first place.

    • Rock Lobster says:

      Thanks again for everybody’s replies. I responded to a few posts but didn’t want to pollute all these sub-threads by responding to every little thing. However, I’ve read everything and would continue to welcome any other comments.

  10. steve hsu says:


    Thanks for your endorsement! Just to clarify, our goals are
    1. More transparency in Harvard admissions
    2. Increased use of endowment income to make Harvard more accessible

    “Free” is an aspirational goal. For me personally, #1 is the higher priority.

    The Times article tries to portray us as evil conservatives (but see http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2016/01/that-vast-right-wing-conspiracy.html ) and crypto anti-affirmative action campaigners. However, members of the ticket have varying opinions on affirmative action.

    All the best,

    • Anon says:

      The article as it currently stands actually seems pretty sympathetic to me: if nothing else, simply by having the title refer to “Free Harvard Degrees” instead of “questioning affirmative action” or something they’ve cast this in a vastly better than they might have.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Okay, fixed, see if current description is acceptable to you.

      • steve hsu says:

        Thanks for the edit! (Minor typo: I think the word “he” is missing before “agrees”.)

        For those willing to sign the petition: our deadline is Feb 1, so let Ron know ASAP.

    • Troy says:

      Following the links, I see that Ron Unz and Ralph Nader are two of the other members of the campaign. Looks to me like an interesting group — best of luck to you!

  11. Edward Lemur says:

    What if coordination problems are a blessing in disguise?
    When one solves a problem numerically, one takes small steps, and even make the steps smaller as time passes, so as to not overshoot. Coordination problems might provide some sort of regularization so that we’re not too efficient and move in the optimal direction too fast.
    It might be a far fetched analogy, but I find it very interesting.

    • LeegleechN says:

      I think a better statement of your analogy is that coordination problems are an example of being stuck in a local minimum during optimization, when there is a better global minimum that could be reached if you changed a large number of variables (i.e. people’s decisions whether to cooperate) at the same time. The problem in both cases is that if you make the locally optimal decision, you miss out on the best outcome.

  12. Jiro says:

    Scott, what gives with the titles of the links on the left side? You have such things as “Embalmed Ones” and “Those Drawn With A Very Fine Camel Hair Brush”. These titles literally give me zero information. You could just as well have one section titled “Links”; the only way I can figure out what those titles mean is to click on most of the links, read them, and try to play a game of “what do these things have in common”. They may be understandable for people familiar with all the in-jokes, but terrible for everyone else.

    • MF says:

      Even if you know the joke they don’t get more meaningful.


      • Timothy says:

        I can find some meanings:

        Embalmed Ones – dead/undead blogs
        Innumerable Ones – mathy
        Mermaids – mir or mer in the name
        Those Drawn With A Very Fine Camel Hair Brush – comics
        Those That Are Included In This Classification – SSC related
        Those That Belong To The Emperor – a political cluster
        Those That Tremble As Though They Are Mad – psychology

        • Earthly Knight says:

          “Those that belong to the emperor” are specifically neo-reactionary blogs, which, studies indicate, makes the category 78% funnier. “Those that have just broken the flower vase” are, I think, the libertarian blogs.

    • Visitant says:

      Some things make sense, e.g., “Innumerable ones” are math/number related, “Mermaids” ones are just puns, “Suckling pigs” are food related (and deBoer -> boar), “…Very Fine Camel Hair Brush” are comics (comics -> drawings -> brush), “Those that are included…” is referring to links that are part of the the wider SSC, “Those that are trained” are sites of hardcore (“trained”) rationalists, “…Resemble Flies” -> “Bee”, “Wasps”, “Soares” (as in a soaring bird, which flies), and ducks also fly, “…Broken the Flower Vase” has one with “Vase” in the name, the rest I take it have fairly unconventional views (?). Not too sure about the rest.

    • Earthly Knight says:


      Embalmed Ones– Defunct blogs
      Fabulous Ones– Scott’s and Alicorn’s fictions (“fabulous” in the sense of “pertaining to fables”)
      Innumerable Ones– Math blogs
      Mermaids– Blogs with “mer” or a homophone in the title
      Stray Dogs– Economics blogs, not sure why
      Suckling Pigs– Food blogs, Frederick deBoer (ha, ha)
      Those Draw With A Very Fine Camel Hair Brush– Cartoons
      Those That Are Included In This Classification– Other slatestar outlets
      Those That Are Trained– Rationalist diaspora blogs
      Those That At A Distance Resemble Flies– Blogs with flying animals or flying puns in the title
      Those That Belong To The Emperor– Neo-reactionary blogs
      Those That Have Just Broken The Flower Vase– Libertarian blogs, not sure why
      Those That Tremble As Though They Are Mad– Psych blogs
      Various Others– All others

      I’m actually pretty fond of this categorization, because of the source, because it fits with Scott’s nominalism about kinds, and because it’s surprising how well it carves up the blogs Scott wanted in his roll.

      • Jiro says:

        You’re missing the point. I don’t want to know what the links mean; I was stating that it’s a poor idea to use links whose meanings are 1) not obvious and 2) based around categories that most people would have no reason to use anyway. It’s a user-hostile user interface.

        • Dan Peverley says:

          I think it’s clever and I like it, and I don’t care if it confuses new people. In-jokes and opacity have a value of their own for an online community.

        • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

          Well, they used to be uncategorized, right? So at worst they’re nonsense and therefore irrelevant, so not a meaningful change.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      If he did have just one section titled “links”, it wouldn’t give any more informational value, but would be less interesting/amusing.

      I liked the categorization even before knowing what it referred to, or what the in-jokes were. Because figuring it out was fun, and the titles were amusing.

  13. hlynkacg says:

    There’s an idea that I’ve been trying to nail down over the last couple days that I want to get the community’s thoughts on.

    Now I may be committing a typical mind fallacy here but it seems to me that most people form arguments based on what they find convincing or otherwise expect thier audience to find convincing. People who make logical arguments expect their audience to be at least somewhat logical. If someone uses appeals to emotion, they probably think that the audience can be swayed by emotion. To that end you can kind of get a sense of what someone thinks their audience is going to think, from the arguments they make.

    With me so far?

    There have been a couple of times recently where my initial response to an argument wasn’t so much “I find your arguments unconvincing” as it was “I have no idea why you expected that argument to be convincing in the first place” and end up at a complete loss as to how to reply.

    It feels like there ought to be a name for this, but I haven’t been able to find anything. I haven’t even been able to find someone who describes a similar sensation.

    As such I have to ask, is this just me? Or is it possible to fail an “ideological turing test” so hard that your answers are not even wrong? .

    I read some of the comment chains in recent threads and I notice that I am confused.

    • blacktrance says:

      It could be related to what Arnold Kling talks about here. Suppose I assume that we’re members of the same ingroup, and I make an argument that aims to close your mind. If I’m mistaken and you’re not on the same side as me, then it’s going to sound significantly off to you. For example (and this is somewhat of a strawman), consider an /r/atheism poster saying something like, “Fundies say to believe everything in the Bible, but they don’t believe that bats are birds, isn’t that really hypocritical of them?” – someone who’s not already convinced of the /r/atheism consensus is likely to find it off-putting.

    • Glen Raphael says:

      Does this differ from expecting short inferential distances? When someone’s rhetoric that seems convincing to them doesn’t work for you, often it’s because they have hidden premises and background knowledge that you don’t have. Maybe they read Paul Krugman or listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Rachel Maddow and you don’t, so what seems irrelevant or silly to you serves the role of conjuring up a bingo-square argument that seems obvious to them.

      • hlynkacg says:

        I think it’s potentially related, or perhaps this in conjunction with some other behavior. I feels like a bit more than “miss a step, or two” and more like a complete map-territory mismatch. In theory step 2 and step 22 of “how to build X” would both be recognizable as steps in building X even if you missed the steps in between.

      • onyomi says:

        I find calibrating inferential distance to be one of the biggest challenges of academic writing.

        For example, I have written articles and a book which analyze premodern musical dramas in terms of what the musical information tells us about the literary intent.

        Literature scholars who read it tend to find it too technical, whereas musicologists who read it tend to find it not technical enough. Pleasing one group often means displeasing the other because literature scholars, apparently, cannot be counted on to know what “do, re, and mi” mean, and musicologists can’t be counted on to even care about literature, or to accept any over-simplifications in the service of speaking to non-musicologists. In some sense, writing the work involves attempting to create an as-yet non-existent audience of literature scholars who care about music and/or musicologists who care about literature.

        Related is that advertisements for jobs, grant money, etc. often claim to like “interdisciplinary” work, but I find it is rarely actually rewarded.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        Yes, it’s a special case of inferential distance – I’ve called it inferential silence before:

        “Every now and then, I write [a] comment on some topic and feel that the contents of my comment pretty much settles the issue decisively. Instead, the comment seems to get ignored entirely – it either gets very few votes or none, nobody responds to it, and the discussion generally continues as if it had never been posted.

        “Similarly, every now and then I see somebody else make a post or comment that they clearly feel is decisive, but which doesn’t seem very interesting to me. Either it seems to be saying something obvious, or I don’t get its connection to the topic at hand in the first place.

        “This seems like it would be about inferential distance: either the writer doesn’t know the things that make the reader experience the comment as uninteresting, or the reader doesn’t know the things that make the writer experience the comment as interesting. So there’s inferential silence – a sufficiently long inferential distance that a claim doesn’t provoke even objections, just uncomprehending or indifferent silence.”

        In real life, I’ve sometimes observed this manifesting as a person saying something, and their interlocutor blinking, staring for a brief moment, and continuing the discussion as if the first person had never said anything. “I have no idea of what they just meant or how it’s relevant, so I’ll just ignore it.”

        • HlynkaCG says:

          Ok, I think that’s pretty close. I think the sensation I’m describing is essentially this occurring in parallel with the circular logic fallacy that rubberduck describes below.

          I suspect that one is “covering the holes” in the other preventing either error from being properly recognized and thus triggering the whole “waitaminute did a human actually write that” response in my brain.

      • Anonymous says:

        often it’s because they have hidden premises and background knowledge that you don’t have.

        And vice-versa?

    • rubberduck says:

      I think what you’re getting at is a big hurdle to getting people to adapt more rational or scientific thinking in general.

      I feel like there’s a fallacy if we try to pin down exactly why rationalism is a good mode of thinking. Ultimately, it seems to me that one has to rationally decide that rational thought is for the best (if that makes sense?). We can point to the mosquito nets donated or the results (in science, etc.) to persuade others to come around to our way of thinking, but once again we are using logic and empiricism to convince people. It seems circular.

      The converse is equally true with regards to intuitive or emotional thinking. You might decide to act based on your emotions not because that’s the most utilitarian choice, but because those same emotions have convinced you that listening to them will make you feel better.

      I haven’t figured out a way to bridge this issue.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        If you want to try to make someone adapt more rational or scientific thinking, I think you need to give them habits of thought that are reasonable given their existing mindset and which they adopt because they can see that they work, but which also nudge them towards more scientific thinking.

        I originally got this idea from Venkatesh Rao, who wrote that:

        I have never met anybody who has changed their reasoning first and their habits second. You change your habits first. This is a behavioral conditioning problem largely unrelated to the logical structure and content of the behavior. Once you’ve done that, you learn the new conscious analysis and synthesis patterns.

        This is why I would never attempt to debate a literal creationist. If forced to attempt to convert one, I’d try to get them to learn innocuous habits whose effectiveness depends on evolutionary principles (the simplest thing I can think of is A/B testing; once you learn that they work, and then understand how and why they work, you’re on a slippery slope towards understanding things like genetic algorithms, and from there to an appreciation of the power of evolutionary processes).

        There are some simple but deep notions like “figure out and test your underlying assumptions” that you may get people to adopt by finding contexts in which they see that they’re useful. E.g. something like Murphyjitsu may appeal to them if they realize that their plans keep blowing up. Or the whole lean startup philosophy if they’re into business.

        Basically, sell them on the usefulness of applying the scientific method in their daily lives, without calling it that.

      • “I think what you’re getting at is a big hurdle to getting people to adapt more rational or scientific thinking in general.”

        And if they did, would it lead to inferential gaps vanishing? Epistemic rationalism may allow you to identify and articulate your deepest values and axioms, but…

        “. It seems circular.”

        ..rationalists don’t have to share axioms. The problem of finding non-circular justifications for underlying principles means they may have to agree to differ.

    • dust bunny says:

      Sounds at least a lot like something I fret about almost daily. In my mind I’ve labeled it with “discourse across different paradigms is impossible”.

  14. Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

    So… UK savvy folks, is this really a contraversy?. I mean, it’s like the Independent has no idea how a charity luncheon actually works. The whole point is to resell the tickets for thousands or millions of pounds. Seriously. People will apparently pay $2.2 million to have lunch with Warren Buffett, of all people, so I am pretty sure lunch with the freaking queen is an insanely lucrative fundraising opportunity.

    And besides, what kind of asshole goes to a party without at least bringing a nice bottle of wine, or a dish to pass? Every party I have ever been to has had some expectation that guests would contribute; either through gifts for the hosts, gifts/food/drinks to share, or cash. The analogy is a total fail, even at face value.

    But I don’t know, they’re weird over there sometimes. (Also, I realize it is a tabloid, but I don’t have a good sense of were they fall on the making-crazy-shit-up spectrum.)

    • sweeneyrod says:

      No, this isn’t a controversy (I’d not heard of it before reading that article). I agree that the article is very stupid. The Independent is a bit odd – the paper version (or at least i) is a good broadsheet, but the website is much more tabloidy.

    • Mister Eff says:

      First, the Independent is (or was?) a broadsheet, and (at least used to be) considered respectable. It has been increasingly clickbaity for several years now, so it’s anyone’s guess how long it will be more respected than the Daily Mail. For now it is, though.

      Second, at least in my circles, it’s not a controversy so much as a point of division between republicans and everyone else. (I’d say there are 3 camps: republicans, monarchists, and apathetic-but-resistant-to-change – the latter being the comfortable majority.)

      • g says:

        For what it’s worth, I’m a (not particularly firebreathing) republican but am entirely unbothered by this “controversy”.

    • Ano says:

      It actually sounds like a pretty smart scheme. Sell tickets to a bunch of respectable charities at below market rates. Those charities then sell on a portion of the tickets to rich fellows who want to go to a big fancy party and bask in the Queen’s radiance and make money. The Queen gets to have a big fancy birthday party, the charities make some money and get invitations to the aforementioned party, and some rich idiots finance the whole affair.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        Dave Barry alleges that the reason rich people have charity functions is so that the headlines will read “CHARITY BALL RAISES MILLIONS” and not just “RICH PEOPLE AMUSE THEMSELVES.”

        • Ano says:

          Well, I suppose the question is what expensive charity fundraisers are funging against. Somehow, I suspect that if we forbade rich people from holding elaborate fundraisers (which is in any case impossible), they wouldn’t simply give all that money instead to charity. I get that it’s ridiculous that we need to play these games where we bribe rich people with invitations to birthday parties in order to get them to give money to charities, but if it works, it works.

          (Plus, I think if rich people wanted to have a party for no reason, they could keep it out of the press. I find it hard to believe that the reason we don’t hear stories of debauchery and excess among the elite is because they do it all at charity fundraisers.)

    • Phisheep says:

      It’s one of those things that would be whipped up by the press whichever way it went. If there’s a charge it is dirty money-grubbing. If there isn’t a charge the whole thing is of course a waste of taxpayers money.

      I don’t think anyone than journalists cares either way.

      Kind of strange subject to make my maiden comment on too.

    • JBeshir says:

      I hadn’t heard of it before now.

      Seeing it now makes me just think of the whole Keeping The Content Machine Whirring thing where you deliberately pick a topic and then write a passionate essay on it to rile people up and get clicks from people wanting to see what the fuss is without necessarily having any really strong feelings on it yourself. Or for that matter, anyone else necessarily having them before you started a Dispute and made people pick sides.

      It’s that kind of pointless article about nothing.

  15. CatCube says:

    Linked for no other reason than I think it deserves more than 49,000 views:


    • Sastan says:

      I think my favorite was on Top Gear, when they asked for anyone from Scotland, and had the guy say “Burglar Alarm”

      • Mister Eff says:

        Ah, being told asked to say things by non-Scots. “Burglar alarm”, “baby”, “Auchterarder”, the list goes on… There’s nothing I find more tediously predictable, but I suppose I should be glad I have a party trick.

        • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjO1BXzZLpE

          Let’s just say that auto-complete knows this one– it showed up before I’d gotten very far into “scots elevator”.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            The use of the name “Cholmondley” reminded me of the hilarious Cholmondley-Warner skits parodying interwar newsreels. Mr. Cholmondley-Warner is a character who stands in for the stuffy and elitist aristocrat.

            This one on the working class in England is the best.

            Grayson: Good night, Mr. Cholmondley-Warner. Or should I say, “Ta-rah, guvnah”?

            Cholmondley-Warner: No.

            Or actually, this is the funniest line:

            Narrator: Slum housing is the order of the day in the East End, and the people like it that way! Of course, you and I might think they’d be happier in nice houses, like us. But top scientists have proved that if you give a working man a nice house, he’ll quickly let it fall into a state of filth and depravity.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          As a southern-raised american in canada, the locals derived great amusement from having me say “vehicle”. If you run into any southern Yanks, you should try the same.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            I assume you mean saying “VEE-HICK-el” instead of “VEE-ic-el”.

            I’m from Alabama, but I say “vehicle” the regular way. However, I was quite surprised the first time I referred to one of the things you push around the grocery store to transport your purchases as a “buggy”, to someone from elsewhere. They didn’t know what I was talking about and found it very funny. And I can see how someone would find it funny, but that’s what my mother always called it.

            I like this dialect quiz from the New York Times. It didn’t work perfectly on me. It said I was either from Tennessee or North Carolina, but I’m actually from Alabama. However, most of that was due to a few words that I rarely use or would call by both names (like “yard sale” vs. “garage sale”: I don’t really have a preference between them.) And there are other words which are common locally but have largely been supplanted due to mass media influence, like “lightning bug” vs. “firefly”: the older generation would definitely say the former, but I would say the latter.

          • brad says:

            Drawer and draw sound the same when I say them, and I got teased about it quite a bit at my college in the south.

  16. gbear605 says:

    Does anyone have any thoughts on Tulpas? According to http://tulpa.info, “A tulpa is an entity created in the mind, acting independently of, and parallel to your own consciousness. They are able to think, and have their own free will, emotions, and memories. In short, a tulpa is like a sentient person living in your head, separate from you.”

    There’s also a subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/tulpas

    It’s extremely interesting to me, since this community’s been around for 3+ years and is still fairly active, so it’s probably not some sort of prolonged prank.

    • FacelessCraven says:

      To the extent that such a thing is knowable, I’m pretty sure my ex-wife had several. Their interactions left me with some unbelievably strange experiences, most of them reasonably positive. Her mental health on the whole was not good, but I have no idea whether the induced personalities were helping with that or making it worse.

      • onyomi says:

        Is this any different from “multiple personalities”?

        • Marc Whipple says:

          No, but then “multiple personalities” is a pretty broad term.

          It’s not incompatible with Disassociative Identity Disorder, which is the official mental health term du jour for the psychological phenomenon most people think of as “multiple personalities,” but it’s not a one to one map, either. For instance, a writer arguing with one of their fictional characters in their heads (or even out loud) is unlikely to have DID, but arguably they at least temporarily have “multiple personalities.” The example FC gives is a lot closer, at least from the brief description, to the DID end of the spectrum, but not necessarily there yet.*

          *Standard disclaimer: I am not a doctor of any kind, let alone a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. I’ve just read a lot and I happen to have a single fairly involved clinical interaction with a person diagnosed with DID.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          @Onyomi – “Is this any different from “multiple personalities”?”

          …I have no idea? I was given to understand that “multiple personality disorder” was currently regarded with a great deal of skepticism by the scientific community. She claimed to have induced them deliberately, rather than them manifesting at random, and seemed to have a fair amount of control over which was in charge, and could switch them around more or less at will. It seemed much more organized and orderly than most descriptions I’ve heard of MPD, to the point that there didn’t seem to be any “disorder” associated with them, beyond one of them being a bit of a jerk.

    • Calico says:

      The only recommendation about tulpas is to find *some* positive social group before reverting to that for interaction. It can be online or offline.

      Prolonged pranks can go on for thousands of years with the participants half-believing in it.

    • Deiseach says:

      The only thing I know about tulpas was in connection with Tibetan Buddhism, and the vague idea I took away that you really should be careful not to create one.

      I have no idea about trying to create secondary personalities in your mind.

    • roystgnr says:

      I know that, like many people, my conscious mind is capable of having an uninterrupted train of thought or conversation at the same time as my subconscious mind is doing things up to and including correctly navigating and safely driving a car “on autopilot”. If that’s not a separate ability to “think” it’s at least in the vicinity. I’ve also noticed several examples in the past where I made life decisions “on autopilot” that turned out to be Machiavellianly clever, but that may have been coincidental rather than free will. I’ve had no evidence of subconsciously independent emotions or memories, but they’re an obvious extrapolation from the above, plausible enough that I wrote it up as a psychological horror story long before I’d ever heard of “tulpas”.

      Since then I’ve seen more circumstantial evidence for separate personalities, such as the split corpus callosium experiments:

      “Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs. In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”” – Michael Gazzaniga, “The Ethical Brain”

      Even if behavior like that *usually* requires brain surgery, the fact that it’s so straightforward suggests the possibility of less artificial exceptions.

    • Anatoly says:

      Tulpas creators don’t seem very different from otherkin and from headmates:

      – loneliness, desire for social interaction/validation
      – vague feelings/intrusive thoughts reinforced and channeled into a specific form by
      the existing community
      – the community encourages therapeutic sharing and strongly discourages criticism of experience
      – often you see “I felt exactly like this before finding the online community”, but it’s likely to be a retrofitted self-deception. They’d felt something, later convinced themselves they’d felt exactly that.
      – probably a social phenomenon to a much larger degree than it is a psychological one.

    • Muga Sofer says:

      Everyone who talks about them seems vaguely worried that they might grow too strong and attempt to escape.
      The ones who think they’re magic, the ones who think they’re religion, the ones who think they’re science, the ones who think they’re imaginary, the ones who think they’re Just An Interesting Psychological Phenomenon …

      … so they’re probably fine.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Without reading the website (which I will in a bit) I’m at a loss to see how this summary is any different from the description of the alters of a person with Disassociative Identity Disorder. (Which is hella rare, but not so rare as some people think, IME.) Is it perhaps that tulpas never fight for control of the physical body? Again IME, not all DID alters do that either.

      I have done hypnotherapy with a person with diagnosed DID, under the supervision of a psychiatrist. It was fascinating, although I feel bad saying that as the person had some very serious mental health issues. I like to think that I helped them, though not long after I started working with them their life circumstances improved quite a bit which may have been more impactful than anything the psychiatrist or I did.

      ETA: Ah, I see. “Created” here is used in the willful and deliberate sense. Interesting. I need to learn this trick of making amalgam clients, because the client I worked with would make an interesting contrast/discussion element.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Our Gracious Host answers a question on tulpas:

      Q: Do you think it is safe to create a tulpa? It sounds really interesting, but i am Afraid of becoming psychotic

      A: I really can’t say this and have no evidence either way. My impression is that it’s pretty hard to make yourself psychotic unless you have a family history or other predisposition or you’re using drugs or something.

      I can’t argue – and it would be pretty arrogant of me to try – but I will say that “predisposition” is a very big word. And pretty much everybody has a family history if you look hard enough. 🙂

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Lots of fiction authors (including some non-professional hobbyists I know) seem to have a spontaneous version of these in their heads: see Taylor et al. 2003.

      The illusion of independent agency (IIA) occurs when a fictional character is experienced by the person who created it as having independent thoughts, words, and/or actions. Children often report this sort of independence in their descriptions of imaginary companions. This study investigated the extent that adult writers experience IIA with the characters they create for their works of fiction. Fifty fiction writers were interviewed about the development of their characters and their memories for childhood imaginary companions. Ninety-two percent of the writers reported at least some experience of IIA. The writers who had published their work had more frequent and detailed reports of IIA, suggesting that the illusion could be related to expertise. As a group, the writers scored higher than population norms in empathy, dissociation, and memories for childhood imaginary companions.

      Among other things, the interviewed writers report that they’ve had to argue with their characters and make deals with them in order to get them to go along with the story (“I promise you’ll get a happy ending if you agree to undergo this unfair imprisonment earlier on”). Other fun examples from that study:

      * “I live with all of them every day. Dealing with different events during the day, different ones kind of speak. They say, “Hmm, this is my opinion. Are you going to listen to me?””
      * “I was out for a walk and on my way to the grocery store. I wasn’t really thinking all that deliberately about the novel, but suddenly, I felt the presence of two of the novel’s more unusual characters behind me. I had the sense that if I turned around they would actually be there on the sidewalk behind me.”
      * “I see my characters like actors in a movie. I just write down what they say.”

      I’ve also experienced something similar spontaneously happening in extended role-playing campaigns: play a character for long enough, and they start to develop their own personality, whose wishes do not always align with those of its player.

      My personal hypothesis (slides) is that

      I hypothesize that tulpas may arise from the combination of three factors. First, conscious thought acts as a “reality simulator”, and imagining something is essentially the same process as perceiving it, with the sense data being generated from an internal model rather than from external input (Hesslow 2002, Metzinger 2004). Second, our brains have evolved to be capable of modeling other people and predicting their behavior, so as to facilitate social interaction. Third, according to the predictive coding model of the brain (Clark 2013), action and perception/prediction are closely linked: doing something involves us predicting that we will do it, after which the brain carries out backwards inference to find the actions that are needed to fulfill the prediction.

      This allows for a tulpa-creation process in which the practitioner starts with imagining the kind of person they wish to create, and how that person would behave in different situations. The mental images produced by this process are picked up by the people-modeling modules of the brain, which might not be able to distinguish between imagined and perceived sense data, and they begin creating a model of the tulpa that is being imagined. Practitioners report their tulpas sometimes doing new and surprising things, which could be explained by the brain doing backwards inference to find possible “deep causes” of the tulpa’s imagined behavior, whose other consequences are then simulated, causing the tulpa to act in ways unanticipated by the practitioner. Eventually, once the model and the practitioner’s ability to imagine the tulpa become strong enough, there will be a selfsustaining feedback loop: the model of the tulpa creates new predictions of its behavior, which are experienced as happening, and these experiences are fed back into the model, giving rise to new predictions and behavior. By this point, the tulpa will be experienced as acting independently and separately from the “main” personality.

      (This was considered plausible enough that I was allowed to give a talk on the topic on a scientific conference on consciousness, but the quality of peer review in that conference was *totally* random, so this isn’t saying much.)

      • Marc Whipple says:

        Okay now you are totally creeping me out because I have had characters refuse to follow the plot and I thought it was just my subconscious telling me a better version of the story but maybe they were tulpas and they’re in my brain right now and…

        *deep breath*

        I mean, that’s a very interesting way to put it. I usually have a pretty good idea of where a story is going to end up, but occasionally while I’m typing (I am a gardener/pantser type of author) I find the character’s dialogue and actions start to go in a different direction. Interestingly, it’s almost always a pretty big jump from being unethical and uncaring to being ethical and finding redemption for a past mistake, or vice versa. The two things happen at about the same frequency. I thought that fellow was bad: turns out he’s not. I thought that lady was nice: turns out she’s a ruthless killer.

        But I’m pretty sure it’s just my subconscious telling me which would be a better story. While of course no one is ever told what would have happened, in every story this has happened to I was pleased with the outcome and afterwards couldn’t imagine it happening any other way.

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          > Okay now you are totally creeping me out because I have had characters refuse to follow the plot and I thought it was just my subconscious telling me a better version of the story but maybe they were tulpas and they’re in my brain right now and…

          I actually kinda intended to have the opposite effect. “Tulpas aren’t such a big deal, lots and lots of fiction writers have some spontaneous form of them, while remaining just as sane and functional as anyone else. Just our normal other-person-modeling circuitry being a little more active than usual, nothing to worry about.”

      • It’s a less extreme version of your point, but one of my conclusions from writing my first novel was that no plot survives contact with the characters. To make the story work, your characters have to do what those people would do, which is not necessarily what you planned for them to do.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          And for you I bet this is also a problem:

          How To Write About Characters Who Are Dumber Than You

          • A complaint some people make about my fiction, and something others like about it, is that the characters are too reasonable. It’s not something I plan to change.

            And, like the author of the bit you linked to, I am irritated by fictional characters doing stupid things.

          • Tibor says:

            I am usually irritated by characters who are supposed to know better and who still do the stupid thing. I am fine with characters who are not supposed to know better. Usually what they do causes problems and those then can lead to a more interesting plot. So I guess I just like the characters to stay believable.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Tibor
            “I am usually irritated by characters who are supposed to know better and who still do the stupid thing.”

            If a smart, rational character is about to do the right thing according to his knowledge at the time, but the audience knows something he doesn’t … well, it’s all in Aristotle (and Hitchcock).

          • I don’t think I’m bothered by someone doing the wrong thing for what is, in his context, a good reason. In each of my two novels, one of the central characters is initially doing the wrong thing. In each he eventually realizes it is is the wrong thing and changes his behavior accordingly.

            (James in _Harald_, Coelus in _Salamander_, for anyone who has read either.)

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I will not only make that exception, I will grant a waiver for any smart character who does a stupid thing if you give me a good reason for the discontinuity. For instance, the main character of one of my novels does something incredibly stupid despite being extremely intelligent. This is because he is also incredibly curious and it is made clear, if I do say so, that a) the only way for him to find out something he really wants to know is to do something incredibly stupid and b) he is the sort who had rather do something he knows is incredibly stupid than not find out.

            For another example, consider the inscription on the bell in the Great Hall of Charn:

            The choice is yours, adventurous stranger;
            Strike the bell and bide the danger…
            Or wonder, ’til it drives you mad
            What would have followed if you had.

            (Punctuation mine, I didn’t bother to go look up the precise layout.)

            It comes right out and says what any halfway intelligent person would have already gathered: ringing the bell is not a risk-free proposition. Nevertheless, there are a great many people (your humble author amongst their number) who despite being very intelligent and entirely aware of the danger, would probably not be able to resist ringing the bell.

        • Tibor says:

          @Marc: I’d ring the bell but also I’d try prepare myself for the danger first 🙂

          @houseboatonstyx If the character does something that is reasonable based on his own knowledge, then I cannot know that he ought to know better.

          One particular thing which I find irritating is the main character (or one of the two main characters I guess) in No country for old men. Now, he is not exactly a genius but he is not stupid and he a hunter, so he should know that the guy with several gunshot wounds who begged him for water in the hot Texan (Or New Mexican? Something like that) steppe sometime in the early afternoon won’t be alive at night any more. He even realizes that it is a stupid thing to come back to the site but he still does it even though he knows he endangeres himself and possibly his wife that way…all that to give water to a dead man who belongs to a cartel anyway and who he doesn’t even know. Without that incident, the plot would not have to be changed much either. Sure, the psychopatic villian would not be able to to track him down that easily but he would still be able to do so because of the tracking device in the money bag (sorry to all who have not seen the film…but the plot is not the main thing that makes the film so good anyway).

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I cut films a lot of slack, because whatever missing motivation etc may be lying somewhere on a cutting room floor.

      • Leif K-Brooks says:

        Third, according to the predictive coding model of the brain (Clark 2013), action and perception/prediction are closely linked: doing something involves us predicting that we will do it, after which the brain carries out backwards inference to find the actions that are needed to fulfill the prediction.

        Is this a plausible mechanism of action for “The Secret” (the Oprah thing)?

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          This? I hadn’t heard of it before, but skimming the Wikipedia article, I guess that you’re referring to the claims about visualizing your desires making them more likely to come true.

          Psychological research says that goal visualization is often helpful, but there’s an important caveat. If you only visualize your goal, this is likely to actually reduce your chances of success. A part of your motivation system experiences a vividly visualized outcome as already being true, so becomes less likely to pursue it. In order to make it work, you need to first visualize a goal, and then visualize the biggest obstacle that currently stands between you and the goal, contrasting the two. That will focus your attention on the obstacle, and on what you need to do in order to overcome the obstacle.

          http://www.woopmylife.org/ is slightly cringe-inducing in its very pop-sci branding, but it explains this “mental contrasting” technique and contains references to the research papers. Also a popular book that explains the research, including going into detail about how pure goal visualization (which The Secret apparently sells) is likely to be more harmful that useful.

          As for whether the predictive coding model could explain why mental contrasting works – it sounds plausible enough. Something like “seeing the desirable state and the obstacle that’s in the way kicks a planning mechanism into action and motivates you to follow that plan” seems to be what happens with mental contrasting, though I don’t know of research linking it with predictive coding in particular. (Then again, I don’t claim to be an expert.)

          • Marc Whipple says:

            My daughter enjoys bowling, so we take her bowling from time to time. I am not very good at bowling: I tend to both overpower and to get the bowling equivalent of the yips.

            I have found that visualizing the ball following the path I want it to take while taking a few deep breaths right before I throw it is very helpful. Visualizing all the pins falling down is not. (The deep breaths help by themselves, but there was a further improvement when I started imagining the ball going the way I wanted it to go.)

  17. Stefan Drinic says:

    My own country runs what Americans, well-meaning or not, might call a socialised education system. Private elementary and high schools do not exist: there are religious schools and special-purpose ones, but refusing people because their parents couldn’t hypothetically pay tuition doesn’t happen. Students do some tests at the end of primary education, and based on that they are sent to a high school of a certain ‘tier’, after which they may or may not pursue higher education. The low ‘tier’ schools may end up in you going to a trade school of sorts, the higher ones let kids go on to study medicine or whatever. College fees are the same across the board for every tier: tuition for medicine in city A is exactly as expensive as tuition for astrophysics in city B.

    The reason I mention this is because every time I see a bunch of people from the US go on about their education system, I think of how many such problems our system simply lacks. We don’t have places where firemen and entry level salespeople are expected to have a degree in anything because every idiot with a paycheck doesn’t get let into university. We don’t have a sort of 90/10 divide with a few elite universities and further education for the grans mass of people who feel they ought to study something because people who shouldn’t even try to study chemistry or physics, can’t. We don’t have stupid high levels of college debt because having things inbetween highest-tiered education and none at all means people who aren’t mathematicians and doctors aren’t unemployable because they must be very stupid or somesuch.

    Our system has flaws, and half-assing another place’s take on anything at all generally does more harm than good as per the uncanny valley effect, but if/when I see people lamenting how things work out for their own nations or when I see people on this blog argue for complete privatisation of everything, I kind of wonder what I’m missing that makes us awful, the US different enough that something similar wouldn’t work, and privatised education better.

    Note: in case anyone was wondering, I’m Dutch.

    • Anon. says:

      How many of the top 1% Dutch students go to study in the US/UK? How many of the top 1% US/UK students go to study in the Netherlands?

      • Stefan Drinic says:

        Yes, the quality of edication at Harvard of Oxford is going to be higher than it is in Eindhoven or Leiden. It’s worth the balancing out on the other end.

        • Anon. says:

          >It’s worth the balancing out on the other end.

          Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but let’s not decide without a rigorous cost/benefit analysis.

          Also, I think a significant factor that makes it “worth it” for the Netherlands is that you can freeride on the research coming out of America. They don’t have the same luxury.

          • Stefan Drinic says:

            Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but I can accuse you of all the research that may or may not happen just as much. You could tell me the Netherlands might be much less wealthy without PC’s, and then I could cheerfully go on to claim that Bill Gates needed no Harvard to succeed, either. I’m not convinced.

          • Virbie says:


            To me that response looks like Anon mentioned research coming out of universities, and you stood up a strawman of something that _didn’t_ come out of university research and then predictably knocked it down by saying…that it didn’t come out of university research.

            Since one of my favorite parts of the SSC comments section is that there’s seems to be a lot more charitable interpreting going on here than anywhere else, I have to ask: did I misunderstand your comment or do you actually have no rebuttal to the university-research-free-riding claim other than an extremely transparent strawman?

          • Stefan Drinic says:

            It was an example of an American product being very useful to the Dutch economy without said product actually having been the product of someone who’d actually finished or worked for a university very long. It’s not a strawman, it’s a way of showing that not everything America produces is due to it having a small amount of top-tier universities and a ton of crappy ones. If you want to tell me that the US produces research of quality disproportionate to what you’d expect when also held up against the Netherlands/Sweden/whatever, and also argue that this makes these countries money in some way, prove that before you tell me I’m being uncharitable and strawmanning people.

          • onyomi says:

            I don’t think I accept the premise that the US has a small number of top universities and a ton of crappy ones.

            What primarily distinguishes the top research universities from other universities and colleges is the amount of research being done there by professors, not the quality of the education offered to undergrads. If you sat in on an undergrad class at Harvard and an undergrad class at a mid-tier university you’d probably be hard-pressed to guess which was the Harvard class (in fact, you might very well find that the actual teaching at the mid-tier university was better, since the Harvard class is more likely to be taught by a top researcher who doesn’t much care about teaching). To the extent you guessed right it would probably be because of the students themselves who, at Harvard, will probably dress better, seem more on the ball, ask more insightful questions, etc.

            Most US states have at least one good state university which is basically free for state residents who can pass a very low testing/gpa bar. The education you can receive as an undergrad at most institutions is not very different from the education you can receive at Yale or Harvard.

            Where Yale and Harvard distinguish themselves is in the number of PhDs they produce and in giving top researchers the money and time to do research. But at that level the PhD fellowships and professorships are fully funded, so ability to pay is not an issue.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Also, I think a significant factor that makes it “worth it” for the Netherlands is that you can freeride on the research coming out of America.

            Is this true? In terms of scientific papers per capita and Nobel laureates per capita, the Netherlands is above the US.

            If the Netherlands “free rides” on the research coming out of US is just because the US has a larger population, not because the US academia is better.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            As far as nobel laureates go, I think where they were born is less important than where did they do their most important research.

          • @vV_Vv

            Yeah, I’ve seen versions of the free-riding claim before, and the figures din’t bear it out at all.

            ” In terms of scientific papers per capita and Nobel laureates per capita, the Netherlands is above the US.”

            I can name Gerard t’Hooft. which is more than can be said for Jim Parsons.

        • Calico says:

          Its best to quantify the quality of the education.

          Its a mild annoyance of mine. The quality of the education is mostly a result of the typical competence of the student in the class(done reasonably quickly with those two day hour end-of-education tests), along with just spending a bit of time finding relevant material.

          For some reason the quality of a nations highest-tier uni’s seems closely correlated with the national wealth,population size, and global power of the university. Once china becomes richer and more powerful than America suddenly the highest quality uni will no longer be HYPS but…TPZ….with perhaps no real change in the educational system!

          I’m not saying that the national wealth does not matter for research uni’s (it clearly obviously does) Its just really not a function of the educational system being somewhat streamlined and socialized. That top Russian universities and research was so great was also simply a consequence of national size, power, and a large population with a good median I.Q., to take full advantage of the bell curve and associative mating.

        • Jon H says:

          They may not go to the US or UK, if they go at all, until after they get their PhD.

          At least, I know one Dutch guy who did undergrad through PhD in the Netherlands (Molecular Bio) , then did postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Is it?

          It’s the tiny, tiny fraction of hypercapable people who move civilization forward. Your system seems less likely to actualize them than ours.

          • Winfried says:

            If only opportunity cost was directly visible and labeled that way in life.

            It’s easy to make a tradeoff between concrete options but discussing requiring suffering (or at least deprivation) by real people now and possible benefits for everyone later is hard.

            I mean, if we could have a gods eye view of everything and see that allowing vast differences between high and low would lead those at the peak to advance enough to save us all, it would be a much easier trade to make.

        • phisheep says:

          I’m not so sure about that. I’m in the perhaps unusual position of having graduated from three different universities – one top-five-world-class, one almost-exactly-middle-tier, and one scarcely-recognised-by-any-employer.

          So far as I could tell the quality and type of tuition, *and* the quality of the students was pretty well indistinguishable between the top one and the bottom one – except the top one had a much bigger library and much older buildings. The student quality thing came as a surprise, but I think it is because there was an unusually high number of rich freeloaders at the well-known one.

          What I found dreadfully disappointing was the middle tier. The tuition was regimented, the students lethargic, the scope for exploration limited. Box-ticking was rife.

          I’m not quite sure what to put it down to, other than that both on the top tier and on the bottom rung the students and lecturers seemed to be trying hard to make the best of what they had, while in the middle all, or at least most, were merely going through the motions.

      • Tatu Ahponen says:

        US and UK have, in their pop culture dominancy, one of the mightiest advertising mechanisms in the world for advertising the superiority of their top universities, among other things. After all, everyone in the world who has watched their share of American and British TV also knows, from several references, what Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge are and what their status is. And considering what powerful motivators status and networking are for top universities, it creates a self-feeding cycle.

    • xtmar says:

      The advantage of the American system is that it gives everyone a shot at the top, which is true not only in education, but in other areas as well. In the US, it’s viewed as improper to suggest that people should be held down by the system, which means that almost everything in education is geared towards college prep. Part of this is because of a past history of discrimination, but I think it’s also a deeper fundamental value of the American populace. This means that pretty much everyone theoretically has a shot at Harvard or whatever, but it also means that the people who don’t reach that level end up worse than if we decided in eighth grade that they would never rise above pipefitter.* In many ways this is mirrored in the broader economic outcomes. If I recall correctly, the US has more churn in its political and economic elite than Europe,** but less churn among the average people. What I take this to mean is that the US system is more focused on getting the best out of its top performers, and is willing to sacrifice a lot in order to do so, whereas Europe has decided to focus more on the average outcome, even if it means less success for the top.

      While there are certainly merits to each approach, I think the US approach results in more material wealth, as witnessed by our higher per capita GDP, larger house sizes and cars, etc, while the European approach has somewhat better outcomes in terms of intangibles.

      *Ignoring the fact that a pipefitter will probably outearn many college grads.

      **Realizing of course that Europe is a rather vague construct with a lot of internal variation, but used in this case to mean the northern European social democracies of Germany, Benelux, the UK, France, and the Nordics.

      • Stefan Drinic says:

        Our system does in fact allow for ‘advancement’ between tiers, though. A kid in the middle tier with his high school diploma can attend the final two years of that of a higher one, for example. I’ll agree that this leaves out the people who think it’s unfair to not just let anyone who can afford it attend, but the reverse argument that applies to our system is that some rich kid shouldn’t be allowed to take the spot in studying medicine from someone who actually knows what a neuron is.

        I’m not sure if the endgame of GDP per capita and such is something you can attribute to education, but whatever the cause might be, you seem to describe effect fairly well.

      • vV_Vv says:

        So how does the Netherlands manage to produce more scientific papers per capita and Nobel laureates per capita than the US?

      • DavidS says:

        This is interesting! Some bits I don’t fully get, e.g.

        “In the US, it’s viewed as improper to suggest that people should be held down by the system, which means that almost everything in education is geared towards college prep.”

        Surely in Europe it’s also improper to suggest people should be held down by the system too? And I’m not sure I see the link between ‘not held down’ and college prep. Here in the UK, the philosophy of ‘not holding people down’ seems to be responsible both for rising levels of higher education AND for drives to give greater funding/status/respect to less academic things like apprenticeships

        I think the US approach results in more material wealth, as witnessed by our higher per capita GDP, larger house sizes and cars, etc,

        Interesting again! I always took larger houses compared to the UK to just relate to more space rather than anything else. Would definitely be interesting to see if ‘big cars’ correlates across nations with wealth in general. I think of them as an almost uniquely American thing, but that’s probably not fair.

        • xtmar says:

          And I’m not sure I see the link between ‘not held down’ and college prep.

          I think a large part of this is the US’s history of racial discrimination, because the people who ended up as janitors were almost inevitably minorities, which has left a deep legacy of distrust. However, I think it also has to do with wider American values. Basically, by putting someone off the college prep track, they’ve forfeited their chance to be part of the elite, be it running Goldman Sachs, running for federal office, or doing groundbreaking research. There are certainly a lot of other rewarding career paths out their, and I think tracking actually has a lot to recommend it, but to deny that being placed on the non-college prep track forfeits a chance to excel is to cling to the most remote of possibilities.

          While I’ve only spent a little time in Europe, my impression is that the reason for why this isn’t seen as quite as divisive is that a) the society is somewhat more focused on end results rather then possibilities b) it’s actually more divisive than people make it out to be on the internet and c) as a legacy of their feudal past. Though c) is obviously somewhat trite, I think people dismiss the historical influences on culture too easily, as they often show up in very weird places, even when the nominal manifestations of these historic practices have disappeared.

          I always took larger houses compared to the UK to just relate to more space rather than anything else.

          That’s certainly a large part of it, because space is comparatively cheap in the US relative to Europe. However, if you look at other areas that aren’t as space dependent, the US still has a somewhat higher standards of living, and certainly a higher per capita GDP over most of the income distribution.

          The other thing is that there is a lot of selection bias in people’s visions of each country that aren’t born out in the numbers. For instance, most American’s have a view of the UK that is basically London and its environs. While this is certainly the most economically and culturally important part of the UK, it’s also by far the highest earning (and most expensive!) part of the Kingdom, and isn’t representative of the UK as a whole. Neither is a Welsh coal town, but the truth is certainly less glamorous than what most American think.

          ETA: Re the cars, depending on the size, American cars are most popular in Canada (obviously), the Americas, and Australia, plus a few places in the Mid-East. However, much like other industries, the auto market is increasingly global for a lot of sub-maximum size models.

      • “The advantage of the American system is that it gives everyone a shot at the top”

        As opposed to what?

        “his means that pretty much everyone theoretically has a shot at Harvard or whatever, ”

        What, theoretically, is keeping people out of Oxford? at one time there was a requirement to know Latin, which wasn’t taught in non-Elite schools. but that finished ages ago.

        • xtmar says:

          As opposed to what?

          As opposed to tracking people into the trades and away from a college prep high school curriculum. Even if they’re theoretically able to apply to Oxford, not having the requisite prior coursework is a practical bar that a tracked system places in the way of their advancement.

          • JBeshir says:

            This isn’t actually routinely done in the UK- there’s calls to provide more ‘vocational’ options at the 16+ level within high schools, and you *can* leave entirely and go to a college 16-18, do a two year vocational thing, and then go on to a moderately prestigious university from that as an alternative path which won’t meet Oxford’s requirements, but it’s unusual and not the default recommendation for anyone.

            You always have the option at 16+ of taking the lots and lots of academic-focused A-levels and learning the interviewing skills that you need to get into Oxford, which will then take the same government-provided automatic student loan for tuition, and get you the same government-provided loan for living off, as any other university. You might be advised against it, if they think you’ll fail due to taking on too much workload, but that doesn’t seem unreasonable.

            Elsewhere in Europe might be different- the UK is a little weird by comparison in a bunch of respects, e.g. it has an unusually short normal undergraduate university degree of only three years, with no ‘liberal arts’ requirements, and an unusually early average graduation age for graduates in the population, whereas at least Scandinavia goes the other way, I think.

          • “As opposed to tracking people into the trades and away from a college prep high school curriculum. ”

            Every system I have heard of that worked that way allowed transfers.

          • sweeneyrod says:

            There are very few people who are practically unable to get into Oxbridge for reasons other than lack of intelligence or conscientiousness. Apart from a few people who live in areas where all the schools are really bad, pretty much anyone can decide they want to go to Oxbridge at the age of 16, and go to a school or college that allows that. Of course, some schools (Eton) send 30% of their students to Oxbridge, whereas others might send 0.3%, but this is a quantitative, not qualitative difference.

      • sabril says:

        I wonder how much American wealth is a result of network effects. If there are a lot of important industries where economics dictate there will be only one or two leading companies or one or two hubs, then a country like the United States may end up having a big advantage in attracting these kinds of hubs and monopolies. Or rather a small advantage which has a tendency to snowball.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I just want to make a meta point that this is a really great example of being charitable to people you disagree with. If everyone was this nice, debates would be so much more productive.

  18. onyomi says:

    Though a matter of consternation for some, I think there are enough libertarians and people interested in libertarianism here to ask a meta-question about libertarian strategy, building upon a comment in the last thread:

    1. What explains the failure of Rand Paul to deliver on the promise of being a more broadly acceptable libertarian candidate?

    2. What is the best political strategy for libertarians, given the current situation (that is, to the extent working within the current system helps, how should we do it)? Can there be any useful coalition with the left and/or blue tribe?

    My tentative answers to 1 are:

    An unusually strong Republican field (whatever else one can say about them, the GOP doesn’t lack for interesting primary candidates this go round), including wild card, Donald Trump, who took away a lot of the red fringe who had been Ron Paul’s allies by default.

    The rest of the field stealing libertarian ideas (think Ted Cruz talking about the gold standard)–a good thing, since, as David Friedman has written, the point of libertarian politics may not be to get actual libertarian party politicians elected, but to steal enough of the vote to force mainstream politicians to start stealing their ideas.

    Rand Paul’s own lack of charisma.

    Lastly, libertarianism has the advantage of (imo) being right, but the disadvantage of not tapping into many visceral political impulses (other than, maybe, that of the impulse to be left alone and not coerced). It’s somewhat inherently anti-tribalistic and has neither the superficial appeal of socialism nor nationalism.

    My tentative answer to number 2 is:

    Keep trying to inject libertarian ideas into mainstream discourse so that more and more politicians are incentivized to steal them. It would be nice if we could get an actual libertarian president at some point, though that seems a lot less likely now than it did a year ago.

    Re. coalitions, I am still deeply skeptical of the efficacy of trying to turn yellow dog Democrats into libertarian voters. Even if we can make a good intellectual argument for why we are not, from their perspective we are just really crazy Republicans. That said, there may be certain issues, like drug legalization and anti-war where there is a better fit for us on the left.

    The strategy of selling different pieces of a libertarian platform to those audiences most willing to listen to them seems, on the surface to be a viable option, though one wonders how much can be achieved if all the blue voters you hope to convince by talking about drugs realize you secretly also want to shrink the government, and all the red voters you convince by talking about shrinking the government realize you mean the military too. The red tribe and the Republicans seem to have thus far been a better fit because, for all their jingoism, they have a more fundamental skepticism of government which is a prerequisite for accepting most aspects of libertarianism, but not sure if it always has to be that way. Silicon Valley and the “grey tribe” seem like a kind of “third way,” but not yet sure how that will work out.

    But I am also interested in others’ answers to 1 and 2, as I’m not entirely satisfied with my own as yet.

    • blacktrance says:

      1. What explains the failure of Rand Paul to deliver on the promise of being a more broadly acceptable libertarian candidate?

      His father is the obvious point of comparison. What was different? The assumption was that Rand could maintain his father’s base while expanding beyond it to more conventional Republicans, but that didn’t work. It seems to me that he lost the libertarian base for two reasons: first, he was seen as excessively compromising with the mainstream of the party, and second, the base itself had become more disillusioned with politics in general (so I don’t think even Ron Paul could’ve gotten his previous level of support if he ran again). He didn’t successfully portray himself as sufficiently anti-establishment to appeal to the generically anti-establishment voters, which would’ve been difficult anyway considering Trump’s successes. And mainstream Republicans already had a lot of candidates to choose from and saw nothing particularly appealing about Rand. The lack of charisma also doesn’t help – Ron Paul could at least tap into “crotchety old man”, which appeals to some (see Bernie Sanders).

      2. What is the best political strategy for libertarians, given the current situation (that is, to the extent working within the current system helps, how should we do it)? Can there be any useful coalition with the left and/or blue tribe?

      We should take every opportunity to advance libertarian causes when they come up, but I don’t think there’s much return to engaging directly in the electoral process, whether by running Libertarians or by supporting libertarian-leaning members of other parties. Broader cultural advocacy seems more promising, maybe by persuading Grey Tribe-adjacent people (e.g. the children of Red Tribers who have already rejected Red Tribe but aren’t Blue) to adopt more libertarian-leaning positions. In some cases, previously taboo behavior could be portrayed as something normal that doesn’t conflict with a middle-class lifestyle (this was done for homosexuality and could be done for marijuana legalization). But I think the biggest benefits may come from outside politics, from indirectly undermining government by building agoric institutions that by design are difficult to control or stamp out.

      • onyomi says:

        “building agoric institutions that by design are difficult to control or stamp out.”

        I used to be somewhat skeptical of this approach, thinking of it as an idealistic shying away from the harsh realities of realpolitik, but am increasingly seeing it as, perhaps, the most effective: Uber and Bitcoin rather than trying to get a better transportation commissioner or Fed Chairman.

        As libertarians, we want to assure the public that better, private institutions will arise if we shrink the government, but maybe the best way to do that is to just set about building the private alternatives now, difficult as governments sometimes make that.

        • An important general point is that the answer will be different for different libertarians—there isn’t one right strategy. If you are good at helping with political campaigns and enjoy doing it, then getting involved in politics, either to use libertarian campaigns to spread ideas or to insert libertarian ideas into the culture of people who do politics, might be the best way you can spread libertarianism.

          If you are good at academic stuff, then working in some relevant field with a libertarian point of view affecting what research you do might be the best way.

          If you are a good novelist …. . Ayn Rand affected a lot of people.

          If you like teaching and are good at it, teaching with ideas informed by your libertarianism might be the best approach.

          If you are an entrepreneur, starting institutions that provide acompetitor for government institutions—UPS, for instance.

          I think one of the reasons people in political movements spend so much time fighting those close to them is the illusion that the movement has a pool of resources and if people are persuaded to follow the wrong strategy, they are wasting “our” resources. But the main resource is volunteer labor. If you persuade someone who hates political activity that that’s the only way to go, the result is not that his time is spent on Rand Paul’s campaign but that he spends his time playing WoW instead. The resources belong to individuals and will be used to spread libertarian ideas only if there is some way that individual can and wants to do it.

        • Seth says:

          Regarding Bitcoin, have you seen the recent post

          “The resolution of the Bitcoin experiment”

          “Why has Bitcoin failed? It has failed because the community has failed. What was meant to be a new, decentralised form of money that lacked “systemically important institutions” and “too big to fail” has become something even worse: a system completely controlled by just a handful of people.”

          That’s not at all assuring.

          I think Bitcoin is a really good case study on mind-fallacy. There’s so much history about currency and its failure-modes. But the evangelists don’t want to hear it, and some (not all, not every one, but some) of them launch into ranting attacks on critics with the full fury of a True Believer. It’s one of the things I believe would drive away almost anyone in the general public. It’s like Gold Buggery for geeks, but with added technological determinism (i.e. the Gold Bugs say “Gold is the only real currency”, but the Bitcoin believers say “Bitcoin *will be* the only real currency”).

          • Raph L says:

            Bitcoin is turning into quite a soap opera. The best thing I’ve read so far in response to Mike Hearn’s rant is this Reddit thread. I think there will be a lot to learn about human nature, economics, and crypto protocols, from the way this all plays out.

    • bluto says:

      Endorsing Mitch McConnell without explanation seems like another factor in 1. His father cultivated an outsider status of doing what he believed was right rather than expedient, and that sort of move seems like the exact opposite.

    • Alraune says:

      I think the dominant factor is simply #DoSomething. A decent chunk of people will find libertarian arguments convincing in a vacuum, but vanishingly few find them motivating, particularly when in a crisis mode. And crisis modes are the only way anything gets done in democracy, and we’re currently in one perpetually.

      Strategy-wise, this suggests a sort of libertarianism-by-omission: the ratchet only goes one direction, but the scope of human affairs is constantly increasing as well, and if we can slow the ratchet to beneath that rate freedom will increase on net. How that’s best done appears to be the source of the post-libertarian split into the “solve the underlying crisis” and “eliminate democracy” camps.

      Edit: Oh yeah, there’s also the cypherpunk camp that thinks the most efficient method is to push the decentralized portions of society to grow even faster.

    • Chalid says:

      1) There’s nothing to explain. Libertarian candidates never get much support. Probably this is because libertarianism isn’t very popular. I doubt this has anything to do with the tactics of Rand Paul’s candidacy.

    • Sastan says:

      I am fairly libertarian, but deeply ambivalent about any impact we can have directly on the political process.

      To 1: I would say all your answers are good, and there’s only one to add: everyone’s a little libertarian, but very few are systematically libertarian. It’s a great set of politics to win arguments with, and a terrible one to govern with. I’ve come to believe that some aspects of libertarian canon are there because they are logical, but violate all known laws of psychology. Haidt’s research backs this up. Libertarians are never going to be a strong political force, because the psychological oddities required will never be widespread. Also, because hyper-dogmatic logical systemizers will always splinter rather than compromise.

      To 2: Throw libertarian ideas at the wall and see what sticks. We’re finally making progress on the War on Drugs. Accept that change will always happen slower than we’d like. Accept that other people have different priorities than we do.

      • onyomi says:

        “Libertarians are never going to be a strong political force, because the psychological oddities required will never be widespread.”

        On the one hand, I’ll agree one probably has to have a certain set of psychological traits in order to be strongly predisposed to libertarianism. On the other, I think history shows that almost any crazy ideology can become a dominant ruling ideology if only it can attain the level of status quo. This is because most people, regardless of their “native” psychological inclinations, largely accept whatever the dominant ideology of their culture happens to be.

        If this were not the case then we’d have to say that the genetic makeup of Texans and Californians was radically different, or that the native psychology of the Germans and Japanese had undergone a seismic shift since the 1940s.

        Maybe the traits which make one inclined towards libertarians are rare enough that not even a critical mass of thought leaders will ever have them or be convinced by the arguments of those who have them, but that is a much more tenuous claim, I think.

        • Sastan says:

          If you want to affect the status quo, you should probably start in the colleges. Whoever indoctrinates the imbecile freshmen controls the social narrative for the next forty years.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I think the real answer is mu: you’re trying to draw a conclusion from far too few data points. The ways of the primary are subtle and mysterious, and it’s rarely clear why a particular candidate failed to catch on. This year in particular had a lot of good candidates, plus the wild card, and all but one of them are fated to lose.

      Basically, if you can’t apply the answer you gave for Rand to Jindal and Walker, it’s probably not valid.

    • John Schilling says:

      I think the elephant in the room here, or elephantine ego at least, is Donald Trump.

      I do not believe that any new political party or movement can achieve success by the efforts of its committed ideologues alone. Much of the necessary support has to come from ambivalent believers, who will support the cause if and only if there isn’t something more important going on, and the generically dissatisfied who will back the most popular protest candidate or third party that isn’t actually opposed to their interests.

      This election cycle, the relevant protest votes are going to Trump (with a side order of Carson and Sanders). And for marginal libertarians who haven’t gone over to the Trump side, stopping Trump is a more important and more plausibly achievable goal than pushing Rand Paul into a third-place finish in the Republican primaries.

      • onyomi says:

        I think this is very true, which is also why I can’t entirely agree with the fatalistic viewpoint which says “only 5% of the population thinks like libertarians, so libertarians will never get more than 5% of the vote.”

        In politics especially, individual personalities (unfortunately) matter a lot. If Rand Paul had had the same positions but been a more charismatic person he might have had a real chance at winning. And historical contingency matters a lot too. If the more charismatic and historically unusual Donald Trump had not happened to run at the same time as Rand, I think he might have had a much better shot at it too.

        I think Chris Christie has suffered this fate as well, actually. In 2012, people were literally begging him to run for the nomination, but he refused, presumably because he didn’t want to run against incumbent Obama. This seemed pretty shrewd at the time. In hindsight I think it doesn’t, as Rand’s decision to compromise his libertarianism in hopes of attracting a wider audience also does not seem shrewd, even though many people, myself included, felt in 2012 that his father might have had a better shot at the nomination if only he’d compromise more (maybe not true even then, but it kind of seemed that way).

    • alexp says:

      I think that a lot of Ron Paul’s supporters weren’t principled supporters of the tenets of libertarianism, but rather people who, for whatever reason, support ‘outsiderness’ or candidates they see as outside the political mainstream. This election cycle, a lot of them are supporting the Anthropomorphic Personification of Crony Capitalism, or even a self-labeled Socialist, instead.

      Though Rand Paul’s campaign was going off the rails even before that.

      • Nathan says:

        FWIW I supported Paul Sr in 2012, despite being very non-libertarian. This year Rand is maybe my 7th pick of the Republicans.

        Part of the reason is I have better options this time (Santorum was a joke, Gingrich was a egotistical scoundrel, and Romney was probably my least favourite politician who wasn’t an actual evil dictator). Part of the reason is that I felt like I knew what I would get with Ron, even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Rand feels more likely to make compromises and I’m not sure what kind of compromises they would be.

  19. Zoned says:

    Can anyone think of a product (preferably a software-type product, though it can be anything) whose features might be different had the designers put special attention into ethical considerations? (E.g., how the product might negatively impact people’s relationships; how the product might help erode important social values; how the product cause users to be less conscientious once they go off and use other products; etc.)

    What is the product, and what features would be different? What ethical considerations are involved?

    (I’m interested in more neutral/sophisticated examples than just “unethical product minus unethical feature” BTW.)

    I’ve been trying to come up with as many examples as I can but for some reason I keep drawing a blank.

    • God Damn John Jay says:

      I got the feeling one of the major goals of Facebook was to allow men to ogle women’s pictures and that the security holes they constantly add (graph search) are in a large part intentional. Not 100% unethical, but a little shady.

    • Jon H says:

      AirBnB seems like one.

      People violating their leases to rent out rooms. People violating the terms of their insurance to rent out rooms. People renting out places on AirBnB that aren’t safe (no smoke alarms, etc). People buying apartments to rent out via AirBnB, to the extent that people who need a place to actually live have a hard time finding a place, and perhaps rents are driven up, harming people who already have apartments. People being evicted by landlords who want to rent the space out via AirBnB. AirBnB renters abusing the properties they stay at, throwing parties, shooting porn flicks, etc.

      How you would control this in the software, or enforce ethics, is beyond me.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        Does it count as a responsive answer to the question if you point out things which would never have existed at all if ethics had been a strong consideration at the time of their creation? AirBnB is a good one. The “Stolen” app for Twitter which just died a well-deserved and ignominious death is another.

      • DavidS says:

        I’m really interested in this (and the response to it) which seem to see AirBnB as a clear ‘bad thing’.

        AirBnB seems to me to be a classic case of a disruptive industry in a market that’s usually quite slow-moving, analagous to Uber. And so there are some issues, but also a lot of resistance by people with vested interests. But I’m happy to be convinced otherwise.

        Specifically, on your issues
        1) People breaking landlord/insurance terms. This is obviously breaking law/contract, but not convinced it’s an ethical issue beyond that. I’m always dubious of e.g. rules against sub-letting which have no link to end results (wear and tear etc.) Ban on resale is always a bit of an odd beast in capitalist systems
        2) Safety is obviously an issue, though there’s a quesiton about transparency/choice. And no worse than it being used for other purposes, obviously
        3) I’m inclined to think housing needs more regulation than other areas as its stock is more inherently limited. But it seems to me that Air B’n’B should be a much more efficient way of meeting demand for short-term stays than alternatives. The real issue is surely things like people keeping holiday homes that they just leave except for a month a year etc.
        4) Feels like a matter for contract between person renting out their place and other party. Not sure what Air B’n’B could or should do about it.

        • brad says:

          There’s a lot that could be said and I think I could defend the law part at least to a certain extent, but just to concentrate on the ethics of breaking a contract point:

          I don’t take the position that it is everywhere and always an ethical obligation to perform contracts, but there’s a big difference between efficient breach due to changed circumstances, particularly if you quickly pay your expectancy damages, and entering into a contract in bad faith from the start–perhaps with a fake name or straw third party–and then take advantage of every tenant protection mechanism in the book to avoid getting evicted, much less paying damages. The shady guy that rents out a dozen apartments to list them on AirBnB isn’t some brilliant entrepreneur making an honest buck, he’s an unethical scumbag burning social trust to make unearned dollar. To the extant that AirBnB makes a huge portion of their revenue from these guys, and know or should know that they are, they are unethical as well.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Yeah, the de facto hotels that have sprung up in NYC is the example that was brought immediately to mind when reading the post by DavidS.

          • DavidS says:

            Oh sure: but I wasn’t aware this was a big part of what Air B’n’B was. I know people who live in apartments but rent them out sometimes. Some of these people own, sometimes fully, sometimes in leasehold. Others rent. I don’t know what the T+Cs are with landlords. But then, all the people I know who live with a bunch of housemates seem to be in contracts that mean that if one person leaves the rest have to share his part of the rent and the landlord can drag out the process of vetting a replacement indefinitely. In practice, they tend to just find replacements and not tell the landlord.

            Not aware of these ‘de facto hotels’. Not sure if that’s an issue where I am (London). Also, as with Uber, you do wonder if this is terrible abuse or just a symptom of regulation being a bit outdated.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            Here is an article that looks at it from the other side. Landlords are breaking leases to convert their buildings into AirBnB hotels.

            I have to think this is going both ways, although, the power available to a landlord seems likely to mean it goes more this way than tenants abusing landlords and other tenants.

    • I get the impression from what I read about Tinder that its main function is setting up casual sex. If its creators believed that lots of casual sex was on the whole a bad thing—a defensible position, whether or not a correct one—they might have designed it in ways more likely to promote longer term relationships. How I have no idea.

      Of course, it might also have then been a lot less successful.

      • Joeleee says:

        This is a bit OT from the original post, but I don’t think Tinder is about casual sex, even though there’s a lot of it. I see it as a substitute for traditional avenues of meeting partners. Yes, there may be more casual sex through Tinder than there used to be in these traditional avenues, but there’s also more casual sex now in these traditional avenues.

        For me Tinder is very similar to many other ways of meeting people for romantic purposes. You make a decision on whether to engage with someone based on how they look, attempt to strike up a conversation and use this imperfect information to decide whether it’s a relationship you would like to pursue. For some this pursuit means only sex, for some it means sex possibly leading to something, and for others it means the desire for a deeper connection.

        In short, I don’t think Tinder creates a great deal more demand or supply for casual sex, but provides a better market for all romantic relationships, an increasingly larger number of which are simply casual sex.

      • Tibor says:

        I tried installing Tinder on my phone after a friend told me about it. One thing I really did not like about it was the necessity to log in through a facebook account…which I have but I keep it empty (I use it as a notice board for events around me and I use the chat function with some people) and I would at least have to have photos there if I were using Tinder.

        Other than that, I mostly decided it was not very helpful based on two things. A) There were very few female users in my age group and area (which surprised me as I live in a student town) B) I talked about Tinder with a friend who tried it. She said that she was on two dates with guys she saw on Tinder but that she found out she could not judge whether she would find someone attractive in person from photos only. I pointed out that when you meet someone in a bar or more or less everywhere, you first decide whether you are going to go talk to him/her based on the looks as well. But she said that there is a lot that a photo cannot capture and that a look at someone in person can – such as the way he behaves and moves and so on. I guess there is something to that.

        However, I also don’t think that Tinder is necessarily a one night stand app. I find the various dating sites with loads of detailed information rather tedious. I suppose that a list of favourite books or films can tell me something about the other person but not something I would not notice after a short conversation (in person). Tinder seems to be above all an app designed to make people meet a lot of other people in person. I guess that this is less practical if you are extremely busy and don’t have, say, an hour or two a week to meet someone.

        It is true though that Tinder does have a reputation of being a sex app. In fact, I noticed that some users explicitly mention “no one night stands” or something similar in the short description one can optionally provide there with their photos.

        Anyway, I came to a conclusion that since I like dancing (salsa) and a lot of men don’t (while probably most women do), the best way for me to meet women is to go to salsa evenings and dance. It is also more fun than to go through profiles online. Inviting someone to a dance also provides a more natural way to start a conversation than just trying to talk to strangers in a bar or even some place where people do not expect you to meet new people. One just has to learn dancing a bit, but I would go to the dancing course one way or another.

        • Chalid says:

          This probably varies by location, demographic, who you swipe on and what signals your own photo sends, etc.

          There are definitely people who use it as a casual sex app.

      • bartlebyshop says:

        Everyone I know using Tinder (physics grad students) is using it try to find relationships. Some, like my gay friend, because they don’t want to do “the Grindr thing” and haven’t had success on OKC. Others (the straight guys) would probably have casual sex if they could find partners regularly enough but from what I hear they have “settled” for looking for girlfriends. A few women I know who used it used it to find relationships (I don’t know a lot of women interested in men who are also into hook ups).

        I think there are two pretty disconnected subclusters on the service: people who hate OKC but want a mono/low-commitment relationship, and the people hooking up on it.

    • Jiro says:

      Ashley Madison.

      (Unless you’re a utilitarian who wants to maximize happiness and deduces that as long as an affair is kept hidden from the person who would be upset by it, it doesn’t reduce happiness.)

    • Jaskologist says:

      Free-to-play games with purchasable add-ons, which are often designed to snare certain segments into addictively spending way, way more than they should on the game.

      Change: max out in-game purchases at $1,000.

      • Heh. My 5yo son accidentally spent $400 on such a game. The game itself is perfectly inoffensive, but the bonus packages are ridiculously overpriced. I’m still disputing it with my credit card company.

      • Loquat says:

        I’ll add to that games with pay-to-open “lockboxes” that generally yield random loot with a miniscule chance of getting something really good but rarely publish the odds of actually getting the good stuff. They’re a staple of the free-to-play MMORPG genre precisely because some people, particularly those prone to having a gambling problem, wind up spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on them.

        Minor Change: actually publish the odds
        Serious Change: get rid of lockboxes in MMOS entirely – if you want to make money off online gambling just have an online casino

        • Marc Whipple says:

          As many of the people here doubtless know this (random positive reinforcement) is the most effective way to get somebody to keep gambling. (Although determining the actual appropriate volatility level is a deep, dark art and highly context-dependent.) And if you salt the paytable during the user’s initial habit formation, you can get quite a lot of people seriously hooked.

          In actual regulated gaming, this is why there are anti-lure regulations as well as strict requirements to make the paytable known to the player. Not sure how much it actually helps, but I think it’s a pretty ethically valuable thing to do.

          • suntzuanime says:

            This idea of salting the paytable during habit formation reminds me of the most recent Magic: the Gathering set, which has randomly distributed ultra-rare ultra-valuable “expedition cards” that you can open in your booster packs. I opened two of them during the prerelease, and haven’t opened any since. Now, this could just be small numbers talking, because they are rare and I haven’t opened that many packs, but I have to wonder if maybe Wizards of the Coast is trying to scam its players by upping the number of expeditions in the prerelease packs.

          • Marc Whipple says:


            It’s not uncommon for large releases of such things to just be messed up due to poor planning or quality control, so if I were you unless I’m hearing that from a lot of other people I’d write it off as either a) chance or b) bad shuffling.

          • I’ve long thought that WoW would be more fun if, in contexts where the loot you expect to get is below the level of what you are already wearing, there was some small probability of getting something really good.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            @David Friedman:

            This is in fact the case. There are several ways that killing a mob far below your level might give you something you needed/wanted. There are World Drops, there are plot-related rare items, and now with Transmogrification you might go a-hunting for something that just looks really cool and then have the ability to power it up for current use. 🙂

            But as far as “Level 22 mob drops Level 100 thing one in a thousand times,” no, that doesn’t happen. Is that the sort of thing you meant?

          • Yes.

            I agree that transmogrification meets my requirement for people who care a lot about the appearance of their gear.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Okay. You’re right, a little more of that would probably make WoW more “fun” if by fun you mean “engaging at various levels,” or “addictive.” It would sure make multi-charactering a lot more enjoyable, since after the first couple leveling is more or less a complete and utter grind for most people.

            Note that Transmogrification and World Drops also provide things which are highly salable for grinders (or just the lucky,) even if they don’t want the things themselves. Money is a pretty universal incentive. 🙂

          • Sivaas says:

            Hooray, something I actually feel qualified to comment on!

            Blizzard has actually taken this a step further: there are “warforged” drops that are slightly-better versions of raiding gear, but much rarer (as well as a few other ways items can be randomly-better-than-stock). This helps break up the monotony of clearing a raid you already have most of the gear from, because that small increase in power often pushes an item you wouldn’t normally consider up into the realm of possibility (and since there are three separate things that can boost power and an item can have all three at the same time, there’s always that tiny hope of the perfect item).

            The world drops Marc mentions are also pretty relevant, because they often represent a significant boost earlier in the expansion, and they can drop from just questing in the world, which is a pretty big difficulty step down from raiding.

            Typically the stuff that can drop at real low levels is “neat-to-have” stuff like pets and transmog rather than actually important gear, because it’s rather unpleasant to be forced into mass-farming low-level content as an endgame player, and that’s certainly what people will do if there are relevant drops there (and they’ll do it much more efficiently than someone playing through at the appropriate level).

            I think one of the things Blizzard has done pretty cleverly that I don’t see in other games is revisiting content: they’ve added rare nice-to-have drops to old raids, they’ve added the transmog system to incentivize going back and getting outdated gear, and now they have a system where they scale you down to the level of old dungeons to revisit them. It’s a rather effective way of stretching out the amount of player time spent per each development hour.

          • Marc Whipple says:


            Yep. I forgot about Warforged stuff (I haven’t been playing much lately.)

            For fun, here are my mains:



            (I also have a Level 100 Hunter.)

            Note that each only has one piece of Warforged gear at the moment, which were World Drops in Bonus Objective zones. That does provide a little incentive to grind them. As does the upgrade scheme, although frankly I think the upgrade path is WAY TOO TEDIOUS. I understand why, but Blizzard seems to have no setting between “If you want BiS you need to play six hours a day, every day, for two months to get the wootzits to finish the upgrade” and “okay, now that all the grinders have it here’s a barrel of wootzits, you’ll be done by tomorrow. We’ll throw in a free cup of Grinder Tears of Outrage.”

            Once I get into an Open Loop on a piece of gear or a mount or something, I can be pretty bloody-minded about it. (You will note that I have the achievements “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been,” “On Wings of Nether,” and “For the Alliance!” among other insanity) But for whatever reason that hasn’t happened for a while. I didn’t play for several months after maxing out in WoD. Then my wife, who collects pets, wanted flying in Draenor, so I helped her grind it out (and got it for myself.) Then I stopped again. I probably won’t play much until Legion comes out.

          • Sivaas says:


            I’ll forgo a link for fear of the spam filter, but my main is Sivaas@Thrall. I play the game pretty seriously.

            I actually disagree with you on the catch-up mechanics: I think it’s really important to allow people to have shortcuts to current content to avoid coming back to the game and immediately being turned off by being six months behind everyone else. Starting raid gear in the expansion was 655, and a current moderate-level raider would be in about 715 gear. Getting from 655 to 715 now would be a monumental task, especially because many of the intermediate steps (previous tier raids) are rarely if ever run. So Blizzard makes it easy to get 695 gear, which is good but still quite a bit below 715. That helps current raiders (because we always need new recruits, and we still have a big edge over people who haven’t been playing) as well as returning players (because their grind back to current-level raiding is manageable).

            And typically the rare “nice-to-have” things like Ashes of A’lar remain exceedingly rare, forcing people to invest luck or time. The only system I can think of that sorta matches your pattern is Apexis Crystals, but those weren’t a realistic path to good upgrades at launch, it was more a broken, uninteresting system that Blizzard fixed into something interesting (and even as a grinder, I really appreciate fast wootzits on my other characters).

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        Here’s a fun essay that chronicles some of the “dirty tricks” that F2P games use to get people to pay.


        Premium Currencies. Have people buy things using an in-game currency, rather than real money directly, so that it doesn’t feel like using actual cash. As a bonus, you can offer a bulk discount on the purchase of the premium currency, so that the player feels that they’re saving money by buying a lot of it at once.

        Disguise a money game as a skill game. E.g. have easy starting levels that are straightforward to beat, gradually increasing the difficulty, until at later levels you need to buy powerups in order to have a reasonable chance of beating them:

        If the shift from skill game to money game is done in a subtle enough manner, the brain of the consumer has a hard time realizing that the rules of the game have changed. If done artfully, the consumer will increasingly spend under the assumption that they are still playing a skill game and “just need a bit of help”. This ends up also being a form of discriminatory pricing as the costs just keep going up until the consumer realizes they are playing a money game.

        Reward Removal. Give the player a reward, and then threaten to take it away unless they pay money, exploiting loss aversion. E.g. let them play for an hour or more, accumulating rewards throughout the levels, and then have them face a boss battle where they’re very likely to lose… and have all their hard work and rewards from the last hour wasted, unless they pay a small amount of money to keep it.

        Progress gates. Require the player to spend money in order to proceed in the game. This doesn’t necessarily involve any trickery… but it’s possible that it does, e.g. if the extra content unlocked behind the progress gate is mostly one of a money game where it was a skill game before, with there being a calculation that sunk costs are going to push people into buying more boosts once they’ve already paid to enter the money game area once.

        Non-transparent boosts. Allow in-game purchases (“boosts”) to be “merged” to obtain more powerful boosts, but make it hard to figure out exactly how rare/expensive some of the boosts needed for the combos are. As a result, a player may end up investing hundreds of dollars before realizing that in order to get the high-level boost they were going for, they may need to spend thousands of dollars.

        Ante games. Allow players to spend money to boost how well they do; then have the players compete against each other while keeping this option enabled, so anyone can spend more money to boost their position relative to the others. This is kinda like turning dollar auctions into a game mechanic.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          That second one is why I stopped playing Clash of Clans. Once you get to a certain level you will be raided and lose resources faster than you can accumulate them and further progress becomes almost impossible unless you buy additional resources.

          Right now my game-on-the-train is Dungeon Boss, which does not appear to have this problem. Once you reach max level, it becomes difficult to get significant quantities of the in-game currency* that you use for powerups, but you can still progress and more importantly you do not feel like you are constantly losing ground.

          *The two main ways you get it are either to buy it with real money, or as a reward for completing levels. Once you’ve completed all the levels it becomes much harder to get. There are other ways to get it so it still trickles in, just slowly.

        • JBeshir says:

          Some more general tricks, including outside the monetisation itself, to keep people hooked and not walking away in another article from the same site here.

          A particularly interesting addition to the above list, for me, was:

          The open loop. Tadhg Kelly, a brilliant social game consultant, explains that many social games are built around our innate desire to complete tasks, to close loops. Those games are offering the player to complete lots of small tasks: to plant carrots and harvest them, to complete a construction, to gather enough resources to finish off an upgrade, to “hire” enough friends to staff a building, etc.

          The player never has enough resources — energy points, gold, lumber, oil, etc. — to complete them. Those are free to acquire, but they need time to build up, so the player, when she logs off her game, knows that she leaves behind uncompleted tasks, open loops.

          Her dearest desire becomes to return to the game to close the open loops. And, of course, as soon as a loop is closed, another one is created. It is a never-ending story. Well-designed F2Ps generate endless number of tasks. The result is that the player logs in the game very often, but only plays a few minutes at a time.”

          It’s very much targeted, not as an expose, but as advice to people making things. I was looking for advice on designing a thing at the time I came across all this stuff. I don’t think I found anything I felt was both applicable and, well, moral, at the time, though.

          • Kaj Sotala says:

            You can also see open loops behind the addictiveness of some games sold under a more traditional business model, e.g. the classic “one more turn” phenomenon of the Civilization series. I’ve gotten sufficiently allergic to the pattern that any major amount of them (a small number is fine) will easily turn me off a game these days.

            Which is part of the reason why 4X games have stopped being one of my favorite genres. I liked to play them for the sense of wonder and scale and the feeling of building an empire, but I e.g. gave Civilization V a few tries and my experience was mostly “EXPLICIT OPEN LOOPS EVERYWHERE” and it made it *way* too obvious that the game was ultimately just about maximizing arbitrary numbers. It stopped being fun and started being stressful.

            Not sure whether the older iterations actually had *fewer* open loops, but at least they were less obvious. Civ II didn’t constantly show you the number of turns before a city would reach the next size, for example – you had to go to the city screen and calculate it yourself if you wanted to know. These days a lot of 4X games in general seem like they’re basically just exercises in building as many open loops as possible, and making sure that the player is aware of them so that they’ll stay hooked.

          • Leit says:

            Fallout 4’s Minutemen faction are made of this. “A settlement needs your help. Let me mark it on your Pip-Boy” has become the most recognisable meme generated by the game so far, and it’s turned Preston Garvey into one of the most ridiculed NPCs in recent memory.

            Settlement building is another issue. “Remember that spot where you planted a recruitment beacon 2 weeks back? Yeah, they need like 12 beds, a water purifier, a bunch of turrets and some crops now”. And Odin help you if you don’t respond to one of the easy-to-miss settlement attack popups, because then everything is screwed and you get to do it all over again.

            Oh, and most of the stuff you need to set up decent settlements comes from junk that you collect from the repopulating dungeons. Seriously, if you don’t ignore Concord entirely, 4 feels like an offline MMO.

            Beth plz. Gief Obsidian.

          • dndnrsn says:


            I’m not even sure how addictive these things are. I think the ultimate example of “this is tedious and basically mandatory and I have no idea how anybody thought this would be fun” is planet mining in Mass Effect 2. You have to do it for the points you get, and it sucks.

            The settlement system in Fallout 4 is garbage in its design (they couldn’t just give an isometric view, and make it easier to assign people and view all assigned settlers?), the opposite of fun, and I’m not even sure what it does for the player. I’ve been doing it anyway, because the game clearly wants me to, but I’ve kind of gotten bored of Fallout 4. The main story is the opposite of compelling, and while they’ve done a great job of building a 3D, convincing ruined city, everything else is just kind of sterile.

            Beyond the Skinner Box type addictive stuff, I think it’s a huge problem that “you will spend upwards of 60-90 hours playing this game!” has become a selling point.

          • Leit says:


            How fun was farming for firemarks in WoW’s Cata expansion? Or the endless rep grind that basically *was* the MoP launch? But people did it anyway. Okay, WoW’s got the social element and a lot of inertia behind it, so there’s that.

            ME2’s planet mining was really, really shallow, but at least it was quick. You could core out a world in less time than drinking a glass of water.

            4’s settlements, on the other hand, are a slog. Part of that is, as you point out, the terrible interface. More of it is the obtuse requirements and constant, ongoing upkeep requirements. As you say, the disease of needing to be able to put “x hour experience!!1one!” on the back of the box.

            There are people who enjoy it, though! There are folks who manage amazing things with the scraps they’ve been offered, and who spend hours crafting the glittering spires of tomorrow out of driftwood and prefab shacks. Thing is, those guys are usually using mods to remove the time-sucking make-work aspect and/or the game’s own restrictions in order to just play in more or less sandbox mode.

            The game wants you to engage in shack-building and pushes it at every opportunity because there’s not a whole lot of game there, honestly speaking. There’s virtually no replay value due to the way perks, path choice and conversation were implemented, so all the game has is amazing exploration* and the Skinner box. They dived head-first into this cycle of settlement support, either because of or in order to mitigate the design choices they made.

            * And I mean that. Beth does their best storytelling in the little vignettes you find lying about the wasteland. Also ruined Boston looks incredible from the op of a crumbling tower.

          • dndnrsn says:


            I never played WoW, so I wouldn’t know about that.

            I’m not sure if RPGs have more grind than they used to. I know that when I went back and played Fallout 1 and 2 (which I had loved in my teens) I thought “gee, there’s a lot of combat”. They’re still great games, but you spend a lot of time in turn-based combat. I’d love to play Planescape: Torment again for the story, but same issue. Real-time combat like Mass Effect and the current generation of Fallout at least makes the combat feel like less of a slog. So I might be falling victim to nostalgia when I complain about grind and busywork in games.

            Still, it feels like “hundreds of hours of gameplay!” is a newish selling point, and stuff like mining/resource collection/crafting seems like a new thing (is it an MMO-influenced element?)

            And it’s hardly solely an RPG thing either – think of GTA and all the roaming around finding secret packages, all the odd jobs you can do, all the side missions, etc.

          • Leit says:

            Hmm… “x hours gameplay” isn’t really new. I remember it as a reaction to the rash of games a decade or more ago that were basically very pretty tech demos with nice setpiece trailers.

            Torment is on my favourites list too. Thing is, though, it plays more like an interactive novel than a turn-based RPG, and the real-time with pause combat style is definitely faster than waiting for 68 thugs to run their 6 steps forward in New Reno. More to the point, building a combat munchkin in PS:T is probably the least effective way to play, and the old isometric Fallout games particularly were friendly to the idea of a pacifist run – you could finish the entire game without firing a single shot if you so desired.

            That depth has been lost completely in 4. It’s all about crawling dungeons to kill raiders and gather materials. That’s why I call it MMO-inspired… the principle where there’s all this content available, but your choices in approaching it amount to Go Kill All These Mobs Now or Do That Later. Or preferably, from the designer’s point of view, both.

            As an aside, have you been keeping up with the news on Torment:Numenera? Looks like it’ll have combat purely as flashpoint setpieces.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Leit:

            As an aside, have you been keeping up with the news on Torment:Numenera? Looks like it’ll have combat purely as flashpoint setpieces.

            I am, but on the other hand I bought the combo pack with Wasteland 2, and I only played about an hour of that one. I just couldn’t get into it. I’ll check out the Director’s Cut at some point.

            I really do want to finish Planescape: Torment at some point, but the interface is pretty frustrating. And the morality system is not very clear in regard to things like lying making you chaotic.

            I’m interested in Numenera’s “tides” system. It’s definitely original. But I’m also skeptical of whether it will really work. Will the moral choices really be interesting with such a weird system? I don’t find any of the tides especially compelling.

            In contrast, there was a discussion just recently here of the Magic: The Gathering ethical/magical system. And that’s still a pretty unique take, but the different “colors” are more compelling in themselves.

        • switchnode says:

          Ooh! Are we sharing long articles about Skinner-box freemium?

          The System
          who killed videogames? (a ghost story)

          Tapped In (also contains discussion of actual casino gambling)

          (I’m not as vehement about the phenomenon as having multiple favorite posts on the subject suggests, but they make for awfully interesting reading.)

    • arbitrary_greay says:

      Most examples I’m thinking of were created into order to bypass ethical considerations of a previous industry. Like the taxi industry now trying to impose their regulations upon ridesharing companies.

      Every time Tumblr puts out a change to their interface, there’s a huge bemoaning over how this changes the Tumblr experience from how people had optimized before, and how this contrasts with other previous fandom-popularized social media platforms, like Livejournal.

      For that matter, Dreamwidth was created to address the ethical concerns fandoms had with Livejournal. Similarly, you can compare and contrast the various fanfiction repositories, and how each pick a different issue to address, and how that changes the audience they eventually accrue. fanfiction.net banned script fics, real-person fics, and certain levels of explicitly-depicted sex. AO3 was initially invite only, and so is concentrated around fandoms that the creators belonged to, as well as having a certain minimum level of writing quality. Wattpad has commenting at any point of the text, so reactions are more “real-time” than review-based, which would also incentivize more moments-based writing. Mediaminer requires a birthday check to ensure 18+ age readers.
      You can look at the different features for each notable fan-site for a single fandom. Comment/moderation policies and convention harassment policies.

      Away from fandom dynamics, aren’t we seeing an example of this evolve over time right now with the discussion of self-driving car ethics?

      And finally, example email, and some of the things trying to replace it.

      • Zoned says:

        Aside from the “will your driverless car save your life or those of the busfull of schoolkids” scenarios, what other ethical discussion is there WRT driverless cars?

        I’ve proposed several other ethical considerations there but I haven’t really seen any addressed widely besides the one I noted above.

        • arbitrary_greay says:

          Perhaps not a traditional ethics problem, but self-driving cars are too law-abiding, which is enabling accidents.

          And then on the “legal practicalities” side, who gets sued? Can people be criminalized for their cars?

          • Loquat says:

            When I was first learning to drive, my mother used to remind me that the speed limit was a LIMIT, not a FLOOR.

            I guess that google car that got pulled over for doing 24 mph in a 35 zone and backing up traffic was following the same philosophy.

        • Anonymous says:

          I must admit I’m baffled when people talk about self-driving cars as though the ethical/legal questions they bring up are totally novel. I would have thought that the question of who is legally responsible when a machine goes wrong has been asked and answered and written into the laws many, many times in the past – no?

          • Marc Whipple says:

            From a legal point of view, the way we (lawyers/the legal system) determine whether something is negligence or gross negligence or willful act is sort of weird and complicated and often heavily fact-dependent. By and large, we do have a pretty good system. But since there aren’t a lot of precedential fact patterns and/or laws for self-driving cars, yes, we’re going to have to have a lot of legal arguments before we know what the rules are. We’ll analogize to semi-autonomous factory robots and remote-controlled whatchamacallits… and then the courts will tell us whether they like our analogies or not.

            Ethically, it’s not anything all that super novel, no, but since new technology rarely has such a wide-ranging, immediate and profound ethical association as self-driving cars promise to have, it will likely produce a lot of similar “this time it’s different” and “no it isn’t” arguments.

            In my opinion.

          • Zoned says:

            I don’t think the ethical problems caused by driverless cars are novel. But the fact that the problems were raised in another context, and the fact that people get all excited and hyped up about new technologies like driverless cars, means that when they don’t get raised about driverless cars people forget about them and it’s as if the problems were never discussed.

    • grort says:

      Wall Street comes immediately to mind. If the designers (of the trading software, or of the relevant laws) had been more interested in ethics, they would have found a way to prevent high-frequency trading. Also “leverage”.

      News, as a field. Most news programs operate by finding the most outrageous or terrifying anecdotes and telling us about those. I want a news show that works on the level of trends and statistics, and trying to understand why they happen.

      Politics. Why don’t we have a solution for gerrymandering? Why don’t we have campaign finance reform?

      Advertising. Good advertising would say: “Here’s a product you didn’t know anything about previously. Here’s how it works. Maybe you should try it!” Most in-practice advertising consists of brand names attached to warm-and-fuzzy-feeling-invoking scenes.

      I’m worried that none of these things quite answer your question, because you’re looking for things where the designers were careless about ethics, and I’m describing things where the designers deliberately did questionable things in order to get more money. This is what I’ve got, though.

  20. BillG says:

    Question for the Christian 12%:

    Assume I have an above layman’s understanding of the bible, was raised in a mainstream protestant church and left the church relatively young. My understanding of the major debates between denominations is lacking and, though I have broad philosophical leanings, I also have not formed a nuanced enough viewpoint on scripture, tradition and etc to really have an opinion. But, I’m the type that will ultimately have such an opinion.

    Now, I’m considering rejoining a church. How would you approach learning about these? Would you join a church first? Study until you had a stronger understanding first? If so, what would you review?

    Obviously don’t want sniping between denominations, but looking for starting points.

    • Zoned says:

      Disclaimer: I’m Jewish. But, I attended church 1+ times/week for several months about a year ago, knowing very little about the differences in denominations. The church I attended was Baptist–but not Southern Baptist–and it felt very self-helpy. “Jesus will give you strength to help you through the terrible problems you’re having” etc. As I understand it, most other denominations are not like that.

      Later a friend explained that the differences between several types of Protestantism (I forget which ones exactly but they included Calvinism and Lutheranism) involved disagreements over freewill and therefore over the nature of sin and redemption. I don’t remember which sects had which views.

      Sorry, that’s probably not as helpful an answer as you were looking for, but hopefully it’s enough to narrow your search a bit?

      • Jiro says:

        I suspect that disagreements over the nature of sin and redemption will make absolutely no difference for the majority of people attending a church. People don’t go to church as an intellectual exercise and don’t follow the logical consequences of the church’s teachings in such detail.

        • Jaskologist says:

          This is correct. The most noticeable differences by far will be stylistic. A liturgical service in the Catholic or Lutheran style will be very different from a church with a rock band up front, which is different still from a black Pentecostal church. Most people don’t know the theological details.

          • Bill G says:

            But most are also not the type to read SSC and ask about them 😉

          • Zoned says:

            Good point. The decision is really about the kind of experience you want.

            As Hank Hill said of mixing rock bands with Jesus, “Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity any better, you’re only making rock-n-roll worse?”

    • The Anonymouse says:

      I’ve always figured that at a first blush, a good idea is to look at a church’s flock. Do they seem happy? Do they form strong, stable families? Do they make strong communities? Do they act like they believe in their church, or do they show up for easy-listening guitar concerts?

      “Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit,” and all that. If a church bears good fruit in terms of its attendees, it’s worth a longer look.

      • Wrong Species says:

        If that is your criteria then Mormons should seem to win easily. The problem is that you are also probably going to be more isolated from non-Mormons. That could be a positive or a negatives depending on how you look at it.

        • tinduck says:

          There is also the risk of being more isolated from non-Mormons, and while having a greater risk of being kicked out of the church compared to other denominations. Mormons run a tight ship from my anecdotal understanding.

          I don’t think I would risk my social structure in such a way.

    • hlynkacg says:

      I guess my first suggestion would be to consider who you know. Are there friends or co-workers you can talk to?

      In my case I was fortunate in that I had a lot of opportunities through my old job and local veterans’ organizations to meet volunteers from the various congregations around town.

      If you have the time go looking for volunteer gigs, or see if any of them host a Wednesday night softball game or some such. Those are usually a good way to get a feel for the sort of people you’re dealing with while keeping your options open. Generally speaking noone’s going to turn away fresh coffee and a helping hand, and if they do, they aren’t people you want to be hanging out with anyway.

    • Calico says:

      That you read this blog, means Unitarian Universalism is probably for you.

      • Bill G says:

        I’m curious why you say that. I grew up around some Unitarian Universalists and my, admittedly unstudied, viewpoint on them tended to be that they had great features in terms of acceptance and willingness to discuss new approaches, but ultimately lacked much of a “firm” viewpoint.

        • Winfried says:

          That’s exactly why I left the churches I grew up in.

          Too much wishy washy feel good messages with only exhortations to tithe more faithfully to season the meal.

          If I’m going to be part of a church, I want it to be a real church with substance and not just a social meeting place.

    • JPA says:

      Church denomination geek here. My first practical recommendation would be to sit in on a church for a while. Talking in person is a good way to see what people actually pay attention to, and it’ll help you figure out what you like and don’t like about the service types and cultures. After that, many churches have discussion groups to talk with other people and develop theological view in the presence of some sanity checking. I would hold off on joining a small group until you have some level of confidence that you like the church.

      If you don’t have a summary of the culture and theology of denominations, a summary might be helpful. I’ll try to summarize everything, because I’m crazy. We’ll start with the mainline Protestantism we both probably know most about and work out.

      Most mainline protestant churches have fairly overlapping views on a lot of the things that to me seem the most important (eg: liberal interpretations of scripture) but the traditional disagreements still exist.

      Methodism: (Mine) Widest variance of the mainline denominations, usually very reflective of the surrounding population. Theologically focused on grace.

      Episcopalianism: Very high-church with the most traditional worship. Of mainline protestants, they’re the closest to the catholic church in doctrine, but much more liberal.

      Presbyterians: Split into PCUSA (liberal) and PCA (evangelical). The most theologically distinct, they hold with the interesting, but usually discomforting doctrine of predestination.

      Lutheranism: (Least knowledge personally) I’m under the impression that the theology is more focused on sin and salvation through grace than the other mainline denominations. Can’t speak much the the culture.

      These liberal denominations usually ordain women and welcome lgbt people. Next is the evangelical cluster, which tend to not do those things. Either despite or because of this, they are growing rather than shrinking. To this group belong most of the mega-churches and it’s where you’ll find bands with drums and guitars replace choirs and hymnals (on average). Sola scriptura defines the theology.

      Baptists are traditionally separated by adult baptism, but biblical inerrancy has become the more serious division.

      Non-denominational churches belong in this category. They are usually very close to baptists.

      Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are a separate cluster not defined by theology and are, … probably not for someone with a philosophical bent.

      Catholicism: Salvation through faith and works and the lack of sola scriptura differentiate Catholic theology. Liberation theology was born here, but was stamped out in favor of an orthodoxy that nevertheless would surprise someone familiar with Protestant Evangelical theology with it’s nuance and non-literal interpretations. Mass is an acquired taste coming from Protestantism.

      Eastern Orthodoxy: Split from Catholicism over the issue of the Pope. They emphasize early Church teachings. In the US, most churches reflect the cultures and languages their immigrant populations. Even the heavily Americanized church I visited was so traditional as to be unrecognizable.

      How’d I do? I’d be happy to talk more.

      • How’d I do? I’d be happy to talk more.

        I’m a Jew who has been fascinated for years with the denominational variation in American Christianity, and I think your summary is very good.

        Lutherans (a particular interest of mine) used to be divided up by ethnicity and geography; changes in recent years have changed that to divisions based on political/cultural ideology.

        As of a generation-plus ago, the ALC was mostly Scandinavian and Minnesota-focused, and the LCA was more German and Pennsylvania-focused. The small Wisconsin synod (WELS), which still exists, was and is very German and extremely traditional. The Missouri synod (LCMS), mostly German, was the largest, and used to be considered middle-of-the-road.

        (Though many people associate Lutheranism with the Scandinavian countries, where it has been the official state religion, most American Lutherans are of German ancestry.)

        Starting in the 1970s, the Missouri synod took a hard turn toward the right, while the LCA (traditionally moderate) became more liberal. A liberal minority of the Missouri synod split off into its own group. In 1988, the Missouri defectors, the ALC, and the LCA, all merged into a new mostly liberal Lutheran denomination called the ELCA.

        The three remaining groups, then, are the ELCA (left, and now the largest), the Missouri synod (right), and the Wisconsin synod (traditionalist, and smallest).

        I haven’t looked at the numbers in years, but working with county-level data in the 1980s, I noticed a fairly strong negative correlation between percent Lutheran population and homicide death rate. At that time, North Dakota, which is by far the most Lutheran state in the USA, had consistently the lowest homicide rate year after year.

        • alexp says:

          I remember a quote to the effect that Protestant Churches will Schism at the drop of a hat, and then schism again decades later over how the hat was dropped.

      • Bill G says:

        JPA and Laura, these are great! Thank you.

        My hunch was toward sitting in on different services. My concern was that doing so would make it more challenging to be intellectually honest about my conclusions. That is, the one with the friendly Priest and the great men’s group would all of a sudden start sounding correct about all of their theology.

        Starting from at least this background is a great guide, thank you!

        • JPA says:

          There are sometimes inter/non-denominational bible studies. I think the concern about intellectual honesty is a good one. Keep in mind that every denomination has good priests and good groups somewhere.

      • keranih says:

        Catholicism: Salvation through faith and works and the lack of sola scriptura differentiate Catholic theology.

        A quibble/word in your ear, regarding the Catholic pov – Salvation comes from God, full stop. A human is incapable of generating sufficient worth to be worthy of salvation on their own, no matter what they did or how hard they tried. Having said that – a person who says ‘I will follow god and do right’ will, if they actually mean it demonstrate that “doing right” through their actions, not just their words or thoughts. And the actions of doing the right thing are useful to humans to put down the muscle memory of not being a nasty little shit, and instead being someone who helps people, is kind, etc.

        From the inside, it’s very difficult to see how one could think that Catholics hold salvation comes from works, but it’s evidently not as clear from the outside, because people keep saying it. It’s still a bit of a sore point, the implication that a person could earn their way into heaven.

        The other thing that is different about Catholic mass celebrations is that a *lot* of the bible is read during the service, different bits each week. This can be unexpected for people who expected just a couple of verses, the way it is done in many (low church) Protestant services.

        (I hope this is explaining helpful, and not inter-denomination snipping. )

        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          A quibble/word in your ear, regarding the Catholic pov – Salvation comes from God, full stop. A human is incapable of generating sufficient worth to be worthy of salvation on their own, no matter what they did or how hard they tried. Having said that – a person who says ‘I will follow god and do right’ will, if they actually mean it demonstrate that “doing right” through their actions, not just their words or thoughts. And the actions of doing the right thing are useful to humans to put down the muscle memory of not being a nasty little shit, and instead being someone who helps people, is kind, etc.

          There are actually multiple Catholic positions on salvation and grace. (At least four: Thomism, Molinism, Augustinianism, and Syncretism.)

          They all reject Pelagianism, which is the view that original sin is only a tendency to sin, and that given free will one can theoretically refrain from sin and merit heaven—but in practice everyone messes up and does need God’s unearned forgiveness. Some modern Protestant denominations de facto accept a variant of Pelagianism by emphasizing free will to a very high degree.

          And on the other hand, Catholics reject Calvinism/Jansenism, which says that human freedom plays no role in salvation; that God simply arbitrarily picks out whom to save and whom to damn.

          What unites them is a sort of moderate position where they say that, on his own, man is completely unable to merit entry into heaven—but God grants “sufficient” grace to everyone, but in order for it to become “efficacious”, one must “freely” choose to cooperate and accept God’s grace. And both rejecting belief in God (“faith”) and failing to avoid sin (“good works”) are forms of rejecting God’s grace, by which they don’t per se merit hell (since everyone merits hell), but they give up the grace by which they could be saved from hell.

          (The difference between the groups is basically in how this free choice happens. They don’t want to say that God isn’t the cause of your choosing good, but they also don’t want to say that he is the cause of your choosing evil. And they also don’t want to say that God can’t know whether you will freely choose good or evil ahead of time. But if he does know, they don’t want to make it sound like he set you up to fail by putting you in a situation where he knew you’d sin. So they have these really complicated theories to obfuscate resolve the issue.)

          On the other hand, all the traditional Protestant denominations reject the concept of free will. As Martin Luther said, free will after the Fall is “only a word”. In most versions, only Adam had free will, but after his sin, free will was lost and humanity was rendered solely dependent on God.

          Of course, they got this not only from the Bible but also from reading Augustine who, along with almost all major early/middle Catholic theologians, was a compatibilist. Augustine (as well as Aquinas) believed that man has “will”, but in such a sense as is compatible with utter determinism. Man acts “voluntarily”, but God “turns” his will so that he wills whatever God wants him to will.

          Augustine in “defense” of the principle that we act by will, not by necessity:

          [T]he only thing that is within our power is that which we do when we will it. . . . So we can rightly say, ‘We grow old by necessity, not by will’; or . . . ‘We die by necessity, not by will,’ and other such things. But who would be crazy enough to say ‘We do not will by the will’? Therefore, although God foreknows what we are going to will in the future, it does not follow that we do not will by the will.

          And on its compatibility with determinism and predestination:

          [N]ot only men’s good wills, which God Himself converts from bad ones, and, when converted by Him, directs to good action and to eternal life, but also those which follow the world are so entirely at the disposal of God, that He turns them wherever He wills, and whenever He wills,–to bestow kindness on some, and to heap punishment on others. . . . God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills wherever He wills, whether to good deeds according to His mercy, or to evil after their own deserts. . . .

          In any case, the Catholic Church to this day tends to be compatibilist, i.e. believes in one-hundred percent determinism and redefines “free will” not to conflict with this. As opposed to metaphysical “libertarianism”, which holds that people genuinely can choose differently from how they actually do end up choosing. There are exceptions, such as the medieval Catholic theologian Peter John Olivi—who is one of the better presenters of libertarian free will—but they face the insoluble problem of how God knows what people are going to do before they do it. Some of them went as far as to say that God doesn’t really know, but just has a good idea based off one’s past character, but that’s a fairly heretical position.

          (The Augustinian position, popularized by C.S. Lewis, that God knows the future because he exists outside of time, does not solve this. Rather, it is a compatibilist solution: God’s existing outside of time implies eternalism, which implies determinism.)

          • Troy says:

            On the other hand, all the traditional Protestant denominations reject the concept of free will. As Martin Luther said, free will after the Fall is “only a word”. In most versions, only Adam had free will, but after his sin, free will was lost and humanity was rendered solely dependent on God.

            Of course, they got this not only from the Bible but also from reading Augustine who, along with almost all major early/middle Catholic theologians, was a compatibilist.

            Although there’s some truth to this, I think this is a bit too simplistic. With respect to Protestant churches, libertarian free will is typically taken to be a central tenet of Arminianism (which is held to by, e.g., the Methodists).

            As for Augustine, Christian libertarians and compatibilists both claim Augustine for their side. It’s not clear which, if either, is right: Augustine never formulated the issue in exactly the terms we do today. He says some compatibilist-friendly things, but also some libertarian-friendly things: e.g., the central burden of On Free Choice of the Will is to argue that the will, and not God, is the cause of sin.

            Although one might question how in line they are with tradition, I’m fairly confident that most Christian philosophers today are libertarians. According to the PhilPapers survey, 49.2% of philosophers of religion accept libertarianism, and 31.1% accept free will. 68.4% of philosophers of religion are theists, and the large majority of those are Christians. (Source: http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=All+respondents&areas0=22&areas_max=1&grain=coarse) There’s also a correlation of 0.385 between theism and belief in libertarian free will. (Source: http://philpapers.org/surveys/linear_most.pl)

            There are exceptions, such as the medieval Catholic theologian Peter John Olivi—who is one of the better presenters of libertarian free will—but they face the insoluble problem of how God knows what people are going to do before they do it.

            The popular line among Christian philosophers today is the “Molinist” position (named after Luis de Molina) that God has “middle knowledge” of “counterfactuals of freedom”: that is, he knows, prior to creation, what free creatures would do if he were to create them in certain circumstances. This allows him to exercise providential control over the future without actually choosing people’s actions for them.

            I don’t accept this solution, but from what I can tell it’s the most popular position today about the relation between God’s foreknowledge and human freedom, at least among philosophers.

      • Troy says:

        JPA’s summary is good, and I would also echo xtmar’s comment below that in most denominations nowadays you can find fairly conservative and fairly liberal churches, which will tend to be quite different.

        Note also that denominations (and individual churches) will differ not only in their theology but also in the degree to which they emphasize theology and the degree to which you will be expected to or feel pressure to adopt a particular theological viewpoint. If you have a philosophical bent (and are the kind of person who reads SSC), and you think through the various issues different churches have debated, it’s unlikely you’ll find a denomination that endorses all and only the theological positions you do — and it’s not clear that that’s what you should want out of a church anyway.

        In general, mainline and liberal churches will tend to be less dogmatic about theology, although they will, obviously, lean towards more liberal understandings of Scripture, God, tradition, etc.

        The Catholic Church has more official dogma than most other churches, and so officially extends its theological authority more widely. In practice, though, many Catholics do not endorse Church teaching on a variety of issues, and in my experience Catholics tend to emphasize correct belief less than evangelicals.

        Some evangelical churches will be insistent that you toe the theological line on issues like the inerrancy of Scripture, creationism, a penal substitution model of the atonement, etc. However, there are many evangelical churches that either do not endorse these views or are open to a variety of opinions on them.

        Personally I think most churches either err on the side of being too dogmatic about theological matters which are non-essential (which, in my view, includes most stuff not in the Apostle’s Creed) or on the side of simply giving up orthodox Christianity altogether. One exception, not mentioned above, is the Mennonite Church, which came out of the so-called “radical reformation” in Europe. It was originally distinguished from other churches by adult baptism, political non-participation, and pacifism. Today (with adult baptism more common) pacifism is the most distinctive feature of the Church; the Church tends to be more politically involved than in the past, and is active in social projects like those of Mennonite Central Committee. But its emphasis has always been on right Christian practice; issues like predestination, the nature of the Trinity, etc. have never been issues the Church has pronounced dogmatically on, and Mennonites will hold a variety of views on these matters.

        Note also that although they’re less likely to be codified into church dogma, different churches also have different political views and different degrees of openness towards political views. Mainline and liberal churches tend to be allied with progressive politics and evangelical churches with conservative politics, although there are many exceptions. In my opinion, the Catholic Church tends to offer refreshingly non-partisan perspectives on social and political issues, even when I don’t agree with them.

      • tinduck says:

        Episcopalianism can be broken down to TEC(liberal) and the ACNA(conservative).

        TEC can be conservative in certain parts of the South, however most of the conservative churches in the TEC will not leave do to the threat of litigation.

        Of course, the Diocese of South Carolina was the typical exception.

    • xtmar says:

      At least for most of the mainstream Protestant denominations, I think the theological differences between denominations are smaller than the intra-denominational differences, at least as it’s normally preached and practiced. That is to say, the Lutheran and Methodist churches in Boston are probably closer than the Methodist churches in Boston and Fargo. Even Catholic churches have a fair amount of variability in how the church’s teachings are approached. (i.e. fire and brimstone vs redeeming love)

      If I were picking a church, I would echo those below and say that your best bet is to go out and sit in on church services for a week or two in a few of the likely candidate churches.

      • Jaskologist says:

        The main division in Christianity now runs through denominations, not between them, and it is basically the good old conservative/liberal split. All the actual conflict is along that axis, and a Conservative Baptist will feel more in common with a Conservative Catholic than a Liberal Baptist, which would not have been the case 60 years ago.

        • Zykrom says:

          What happened to change that, in your opinion?

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Can’t speak for them, but IME it’s that almost nobody actually takes theology seriously anymore, even “devout” Christians of whatever stripe, but they are still spoiling for a fight, so they transferred their diligence to social problems from dogmatic disputes.

          • John Schilling says:

            My guess would be that it became socially acceptable to not go to church every Sunday. If you’re a regular churchgoing Presbyterian, suddenly going to the Lutheran church across town every week would be a pretty big deal, and the Presbyterians would have to do something pretty offensive to push you into that. The congregation is a captive audience, and the minister is going to preach the way he’s been taught to preach.

            But if going to the Presbyterian church every week can slide into going to the Presbyterian church once or twice a month and from there to Easter-and-Christmas, now the only Presbyterian churches that can survive are the ones that are particularly attuned to what their local congregation wants and are willing to quietly set aside any theological doctrine or high-level dictates to the contrary.

    • bean says:

      Find a systematic theology book. The one I have is Ryrie’s Basic Theology. It was a very interesting read.
      While you’re going through that, look for churches. Most have some theological document posted on their website. Check for obvious heresies, then visit for a week or two. See if their teaching in church lines up with their documents. If you’re interested, try to find some sort of small group. Good churches will have lots, including at least one or two that look interesting. If the small group works, you’re pretty much golden. If it doesn’t, then maybe try another one. Or just look somewhere else.
      I’ve followed this procedure more than once (well, the looking part, the theology book came from the church) and it works pretty well. I don’t know how big the community you live in is (that will determine your search space), but I’ve looked for 6 months during one change, and then gotten a good one on the first try during another.
      Also, pray for wisdom and guidance. This is probably the most important part.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      Choosing your religion? Sounds like you need a convenient heuristic 🙂

      Also, not that I can speak from personal experience, but given that you are on a very nerdy blog, it’s probably worth checking out a few (convert-accepting) variants of Judaism in the course of your search. From what I gather , it seems to have a lot of appeal to a systematising mindset.

    • smocc says:

      As bean already said, if you are looking for the right place for you in God’s eyes then don’t forget prayer. “Ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be open unto you.” I hope you are granted whatever good thing it is you’re looking for.

      Also, a personal plug for not forgetting to check out the Mormons. We have a kind of orthogonal answer to the whole denomination question, which I think is very compelling. The services might feel a little weird compared to other denominations you may have grown up with, but we try to be very welcoming. Also, depending on where you live I might be able to hit you up with some personal connections.

    • phisheep says:

      Not a believer any more, but my starting point always was to go to the church nearest to home.

      Churchgoing is at least as much about community as it is about anything else, and once you start to pick and choose you are already doing something wrong.

      (I used the same heuristic for which pub to frequent.)

    • Irenist says:


      You “left the church relatively young,” and are now “considering rejoining a church.” That seems like the key starting point here. Two questions for you:

      Why did you leave?

      Why do you feel drawn back now?

      I think the specifics of your individual answers to those questions would shed a lot of light on what the best way for you to feel your way back into Christianity might be. Because I think the personal variance on what’s going to be helpful is very high in this area.

      • BillG says:

        These are fair questions, although a bit more personal than I initially intended the conversation to go. That said, this community has always been good to me so why not?

        I left because I was a young man prone to ask a lot of questions and be quite skeptical. This is really wholly unchanged.

        I feel drawn back now by two things: 1) a growing belief in the value of the type of community that churches tend to be better than most other institutions at creating and nurturing and 2) a philosophical search for something that Eliot called the still point, the one objective thing from which truth can be derived.

        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          2) a philosophical search for something that Eliot called the still point, the one objective thing from which truth can be derived.

          I certainly sympathize with this, and I think it’s a real shame that the scientific, the rational, and the secular has been associated with a kind of “value-free” nihilism where nothing has any objective meaning or value.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Because objective meaning isn’t possible?

            1.(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts:

            2. the end, purpose, or significance of something:

            I don’t see how you could have the latter without influence by personal opinions or feelings.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Samuel Skinner:

            That would be true if this weren’t a blatant example of equivocation…

            First of all, that’s not the only meaning of “objective”. Second, “influenced by” is incredibly vague. If you love physics, does that mean that none of your conclusions in physics can be “objective”, since the process of your choosing to investigate them was “influenced by personal feelings”?

            “Objective” in this context means something more like “in accordance with and caused by the facts”, as opposed to being an invention of the mind that doesn’t correspond to anything external. In the sense that “non-objective art” doesn’t represent anything. Some kind of splatter painting can’t be said to falsely represent reality; it doesn’t attempt to represent reality at all. On the other hand, that which claims to be objective claims to conform to facts and can be criticized for failing to do so.

            “Objective meaning” may be controversial to some, but all that is meant is that “end, purpose, or significance” that is in some way determined by the facts about the kind of thing it is and not just entirely made up according to the whim of the perceiver.

            In the sense I use it, it also is not the same as “intrinsic meaning” which could allegedly exist all by itself apart from any perceiver. The theory of gravity couldn’t exist all by itself apart from anybody around to theorize it; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t objectively correspond to facts.

          • Bill G says:

            This is something I’ve been fighting with for a while, but to give some context to the argument below I’ll include what pushed me toward a re-exploration of these ideas. A few months ago I saw a video of a brutal beheading by Islamic radicals. When I saw the video, I recoiled with a sense that what had happened was “wrong”. But then I realized that for those doing the beheading, this was the pinnacle of “right”.

            And without some objective morality, the only justification I had for my feeling that they were wrong is….consensus? Support of societal might?

            So my feeling was that there was more than that, there must be some underlying objective moral through. And my support for this has been that in other areas there appears to be evidence of objective truth– things appear to follow certain laws, for example.

            It’s not a perfect philosophical formulation, and there are absolute leaps to get to Christianity, but it’s a path I’m on.

          • Urstoff says:

            Why would your feeling count as evidence for moral realism? If you a committed moral intuitionist, that would make sense, but I’m guessing you’re agnostic on that (in the sense that you have neither arguments for or against moral intuitionism at the moment) just based on what you said about your personal history. Thus, your (completely understandable) horrified and morally indignant reaction to such a video can’t alone act as evidence for moral realism. It must be supplemented by some sort of argument.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “If you love physics, does that mean that none of your conclusions in physics can be “objective”, since the process of your choosing to investigate them was “influenced by personal feelings”?”

            There are two ways to interpret that sentence. One is “I love physics so I will go into physics” and the other is “I love physics so I will explain things using physics”. The latter certainly can be non-objective (particularly if you try to reduce everything to physics and ignore the other sciences), but the former doesn’t tell us anything about your methodology.

            ““Objective” in this context means something more like “in accordance with and caused by the facts”, as opposed to being an invention of the mind that doesn’t correspond to anything external.”

            That just means you are excluding hallucinations and modern art. That isn’t very helpful.

            “On the other hand, that which claims to be objective claims to conform to facts and can be criticized for failing to do so.”

            And the facts for meaning are what exactly? Since if you boil it down to ‘what gives you meaning feeling’, we end up with objective meaning being solved with medication.

            Bill G
            “And without some objective morality, the only justification I had for my feeling that they were wrong is….consensus? Support of societal might?”

            There are two paths to go down for this. One is to point out certain types of morality simply work better for achieving human goals and we know this because people given the choice follow these moral systems.

            The other is to realize this only holds true if goals are shared. Unfortunately the same holds true for moral intuition (not convincing to people who don’t share it).

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Samuel Skinner:

            And the facts for meaning are what exactly? Since if you boil it down to ‘what gives you meaning feeling’, we end up with objective meaning being solved with medication.

            Well, “purpose” or “meaning” are attributes of conscious beings or things consciously designed.

            If you point to a rock and ask me what it means, I’ll tell you it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a rock; what do you want it to mean?

            As for the “meaning of life”, that term is used in two senses. Albert Einstein: what is the meaning of him? Well, if by that you want to ask “What did his designer have in mind in making each little feature of him? Why did he choose to give him ears this shape and a nose that shape?” then I would say he didn’t have a designer, and there wasn’t any meaning.

            But if you want to ask “What ends, what purposes did Einstein pursue, and what significance did his actions have to himself and to others?” then there is plenty to say. Einstein pursued reason, logic, observation, and furthered the desire by mankind to master the natural world by means of knowing it. And this was in accordance with the needs and wants of human beings who wish to live and flourish in this world by the means available to them.

            On the other hand, one can talk about the value or meaning of some guy who joins ISIS. He represents blind faith, violence, dogmatism, intolerance, and that which is destructive to humanity. At the same time, you can say for many of them that they also represent the tragic ability of demagogues to lead potentially good people astray with promises of the supernatural, etc.

            If you were to reverse that, if you were to say that Einstein’s meaning is misery and death, while ISIS’s meaning is happiness and life, you would be wrong. Your opinion doesn’t make it so. That’s what it means to say it is objective.

        • Irenist says:

          Perfect answer. Thanks! I think that’s enough to try to offer advice that’s targeted enough to at least approach being useful.

          I left because I was a young man prone to ask a lot of questions and be quite skeptical. This is really wholly unchanged.

          Good! If we assume that the Christian God exists, then you’re seeking after a God who created nature to be extraordinarily complicated in a way amenable to scientific investigation, and inspired the Bible as THE masterpiece of what I described here as pedagogical esotericism:
          So a God who creates like that and “writes” like that presumably welcomes your questions—how else are you going to unlock the scientific and theological “Easter” eggs He’s hidden in this video game we call life? So find a Christian community that welcomes questions like that, instead of getting offended by them.

          But if you do find someone getting offended, it’s possible that they’re modeling you as (1) “sneering prideful cynic” rather than (2) “humble, sincere seeker after truth.” So if anyone bridles at your skepticism, try taking a deep breath and seeing if you can say something that will budge their mental model from (1) to (2).

          To contextualize what I’m talking about, those of us who hang around SSC tend to be of the “communication as information-seeking” type described in the second part of this post:
          For people wired/socialized to view communication as the up-building of harmonious community—a personality type you will find in churches just as throughout the wider society—sincere, humble truth-seeking can come off as some attempt to be a know-it-all. But a lot of times those people still have wisdom to share. So it’s worth making the effort to accommodate their communicative needs, should you encounter a Christian of that stamp.

          Another thing to keep in mind is that certain aspects of Christianity are (rightly) described by adherents as being a “mystery.” The implication is that there are certain aspects of God’s nature or His work in the world that are as beyond our ken as science or literature is beyond an ant’s. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions about mysteries. But they are most usefully phrased as “assuming arguendo this admittedly incomprehensible, koan-like doctrine is true, what CAN we say about it?” When Aquinas called theology “faith seeking understanding,” this is part of what he was getting at: if you trust first (even if only for argument’s sake), and then seek the implications, you can still do a lot of questioning.

          That’s not to say that everything in Christianity is or ought to be a “mystery.” But some of the key doctrines (the Trinity, God’s goodness in a world with evil in it) are ultimately mysteries in this technical sense, and that’s something to bear in mind. You can asymptotically approach a complete grasp of them as you unlock deeper and deeper aspects—a finite creature could spend infinite time doing this and never run out of depths to plumb–but don’t go into Christianity expecting to completely grok such things this side of the resurrection and the beatific vision: it takes such a miraculous “seeing God face to face” to finally miraculously reach the bottom of the infinite depths.

          This shouldn’t be too surprising. Not only is God said to be infinitely good, wise, powerful, etc.—and so far more beyond us than our finite differences from another finite being like an ant—but it’s also the case even in our finite world that knowledge-by-acquaintance (connaissance) differs from abstract knowledge (savoir). For instance, in the famous thought experiment of “Mary in the black and white room,” a woman is raised to know all the physics and aesthetic theory there is about color, but in a room with no red in it. Supporters of qualia argue that despite her abstract knowledge of chromatic theory, when Mary is finally allowed out of the room and sees red for the first time, she still learns something—what it is LIKE to see red.

          To draw a very broad analogy, seeing God face to face “reveals” (as in “the Bible is a revelation”) what the mysterious aspects of Christianity are all about, just as finally seeing red reveals at last “what it is like” to see red. The theologian is like Mary in the black and white room. What she has to say is important, just as physics and aesthetics have a lot to teach us. But for an understanding of redness, they are always woefully incomplete unless we’ve SEEN red. Just so, Aquinas, after a lifetime as arguably the greatest theologian the West has ever produced, had a mystical vision of God shortly before he died. Aquinas remarked that compared to that direct encounter with God, everything he’d written seemed to him now mere “straw.”

          So keep asking questions. But remember, too, that theory can take you only so far. The point is to meet God, not to know facts about Him.

          Mystics of every tradition—Christian, Sufi, Zen, whatever—struggle to communicate the experience of God (or whatever they call the Ultimate) in perspicuous words. Christians believe that the Bible was largely written by members of a community (Israel, the early Church) that had met God, in one fashion or another. Sometimes the only way a Zen monk who achieves satori can communicate it is to write a haiku about cherry blossoms or something. Just so, the Hebrew prophet or psalmist, the evangelist or St. Paul, is unavoidably going to speak in allusive rather than discursive language in attempting to limn the outlines of the Mystery they’ve met. The Bible is full of doctrines you can tease out, but it’s also full of poetry—the psalms, Isaiah, the thornier passages in Paul, the parables of Christ Himself. Whatever you do, don’t just go to the Bible seeking doctrines—go to it to let it poetically evoke God for you. Like falling in love, meeting God can be described by the scientist (such and such parts of the meditator’s or lover’s brain are active in MRI, etc.), but you’ll get a better idea of what it’s LIKE if you let the poet be a poet.

          E.A. Abbott’s classic, whimsical little book “Flatland” describes the mystic’s communicative problem well: the narrator, a sentient square, lives in a two-dimensional universe where greater number of sides is a sign of higher social station (so triangles defer to squares to hexagons, etc.). God incarnates in this universe as a perfect, infinite-sided Circle. But, as God reveals to the poor prophetic square, He is actually (in Abbot’s conceit here) a Sphere—God moves His Spherical Self in and out of the Plane where the narrator lives, the circumference of His Incarnate Circle expanding and contracting (to a point, and then to nothing) as He does so, in much the same way that the Resurrected Christ just casually ambled through the walls of the locked Upper Room in Jerusalem.

          The prophet square attempts to communicate this Revelation of God’s three-dimensional nature to his countrymen, but they think him mad, and do the poor prophet no honor. If Christianity is true, than the Trinity and the Incarnation are just precisely that sort of Truth, and the Bible and all the rest of Christian art and literature are various poor prophets’ struggle to communicate that Revelation in a way that the rest of us can grok. Here’s Flatland:

          Of course, having just discussed the evocative, allusive quality of mystical Revelation, my old D&D player’s mind jumps from evocation to invocation. And this is to be found in the Bible as well. The psalms, in particular, are a “school of prayer.” If you want to meet God in reading instead of just reading about Him, you might try reading Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers) from the ancient monastic practice of the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office) every day for a while, and let the psalms soak into your bones. (There are other Hours, too, but starting with just those two is nicely manageable.) The Bible was not written just to be read, but to be prayed. The Office lets you experience that aspect. Here’s a superb website for it (and I can personally highly recommend their smartphone app, which is a lot easier to carry around than a breviary):
          You don’t have to be Catholic to pray the Hours, by the way. The popularity of the practice as a rediscovered tradition of contemplative reading has been rising among Protestants in recent years.

          I feel drawn back now by two things: 1) a growing belief in the value of the type of community that churches tend to be better than most other institutions at creating and nurturing

          Indeed. The best way to find THIS aspect is, as others here have said, just to visit local churches. Find the community that feels like home. Buddhists speak of the three treasures—Buddha, Dharma (way, path, law), and Sangha (community, esp. monastic). Just so, the Christian might be said to look to Christ, Bible, and Church. The community aspect is indispensable: we find Christ in others.

          and 2) a philosophical search for something that Eliot called the still point, the one objective thing from which truth can be derived.

          There’s much to be said here, of course.

          First, as you likely know, rationalist Leah Libresco went through a similar journey:

          Second, there’s a great deal written on metaethics. I have my own views, but I won’t try to lead you to them. Instead, I think that a sense of the general Christian take on this sort of thing can be gotten by reading Lewis’ Mere Christianity alongside his Abolition of Man and perhaps also his Great Divorce. (All of these can be found online, IIRC, with some googling.) None of these books present a developed philosophical argument (although reddit’s rationalist book club really impressed me with their honorable attempts to find one in AoM the other day!), but all do a fine job of presenting what it feels like from the inside to actually believe, as Leah Libresco puts it, that “Morality is a Person Who Loves me.”

          The third thing I want to do is challenge you just a bit on the formulation of “the still point” as something (or Someone) to be found through “philosophical search.” After all, one doesn’t meet one’s spouse through reading books about reproductive physiology, but through dating. If Morality is a Person Who Loves you, then you won’t meet Him just by reading about Him. You must not merely think, but do.

          The mathematician and Catholic aphorist Pascal wrote about “training the machine” of the body. He was advocating a kind of “fake it til you make it” approach, as they say in 12 Step groups. The idea is that you do not encounter the “still, small Voice” Elijah finally hears in the silence in 1 Kings 19 through theory, but through practice.

          So, yes, do keep reading. But practice! Find that church that offers a warm, welcoming community. And make sure it’s a community that serves the homeless and the sick, the elderly and the imprisoned, the lonely and hopeless–because radical practice of recklessly loving such as these is an indispensable way to meet Jesus Christ face to face. You’ll struggle to find Him without it.

          And find a practice of worship that brings you to that Stillness. For you, that may be the ecstatic prayer of a Pentecostal congregation. Or the Eucharist-centered Liturgy of a Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican parish. Or the silent waiting upon the Spirit of a Quaker meetinghouse. But find a practice of worship, and stick with it. After a few years (the courtship can’t be rushed), you’ll meet God in the silence there. Not in a book. Not even—or not just—in The Book.

          I hope that’s helpful. I can be reached at irenist DOT marginalia AT gmail, if you’d like to PM me. Ask me anything at all—even something scathingly skeptical. You won’t offend (my natural communication style is of the SSC sort!), and I won’t try to sell you my own denomination, I promise. (I can’t promise I’ll respond rapidly—work is always busy, and I’ve got a newborn at home, and a frenetic toddler I have to chase around to keep her from accidentally killing him. But I WILL make time to respond.)

          May God bless you on your Way!

          • BillG says:

            Hey, this was awesome– thank you for the thought and effort that went into it. I’m going to do some reading and exploring around, but may take you up on the offer to email along the way. Appreciate it.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            I’m not trying to start a fight, but I’ve got a few honest questions and objections to this.

            Mystics of every tradition—Christian, Sufi, Zen, whatever—struggle to communicate the experience of God (or whatever they call the Ultimate) in perspicuous words.

            I don’t see how a Christian can use evidence from Sufism or Zen Buddhism, or whatever other brand of mysticism, as evidence for the effectiveness of Christian mysticism.

            The point seems to show exactly the opposite: that this “method” will get you to “see the ultimate truth” in any arbitrary belief system. Don’t you think that there are important differences between Christianity and Zen Buddhism? And if a loving God wanted everyone to know him and follow him, how could he allow Buddhists to be so horribly deluded even when they try so hard to search for the truth about him?

            For that matter, if everyone else can be so wrong about their religions, what makes you so sure Christians are right?

            Another thing to keep in mind is that certain aspects of Christianity are (rightly) described by adherents as being a “mystery.” The implication is that there are certain aspects of God’s nature or His work in the world that are as beyond our ken as science or literature is beyond an ant’s. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions about mysteries. But they are most usefully phrased as “assuming arguendo this admittedly incomprehensible, koan-like doctrine is true, what CAN we say about it?” When Aquinas called theology “faith seeking understanding,” this is part of what he was getting at: if you trust first (even if only for argument’s sake), and then seek the implications, you can still do a lot of questioning.

            Once you allow “mysteries” of any sort, how can you claim to still be following reason?

            Reason is just a window dressing at this point. “First believe and then explain” is the very essence of rationalization.

            The “Flatland” metaphor is not at all apt because there is no reason why a two-dimensional being can’t rationally understand a three-dimensional being. Maybe he doesn’t have the “qualia” of what it is like to see in three dimensions, but that is not necessary for understanding. Human beings, for instance, are quite capable of conceptualizing about four or more dimensions.

            The mathematician and Catholic aphorist Pascal wrote about “training the machine” of the body. He was advocating a kind of “fake it til you make it” approach, as they say in 12 Step groups. The idea is that you do not encounter the “still, small Voice” Elijah finally hears in the silence in 1 Kings 19 through theory, but through practice.

            So, yes, do keep reading. But practice! Find that church that offers a warm, welcoming community. And make sure it’s a community that serves the homeless and the sick, the elderly and the imprisoned, the lonely and hopeless–because radical practice of recklessly loving such as these is an indispensable way to meet Jesus Christ face to face. You’ll struggle to find Him without it.

            But you can indoctrinate yourself into anything!

            If you join ISIS and tell yourself that you are doing the will of Allah, “recklessly” being willing to martyr yourself in the service of jihad; if you constantly deny any voices of doubt as proof that you don’t have enough faith or love or truth in Allah; if you “fake it ’til you make it”; then eventually you will make it. You will be absolutely, intransigently faithful and confident that what they want is right and pure.

            Or perhaps, one might say, you won’t, but then one can point to those who fail to indoctrinate themselves into Christianity, as hard as they try.

            Every believer in a true religion has to recognize and explain the existence of false religion. You have to explain how it is that people can subvert their rational faculty to such an extent as to believe in something like the cause of ISIS. And I say that the explanations seem to implicate mysticism of every kind.

            Again, I’m not trying to ask these things in the spirit of a “sneering cynic”. I am genuinely curious as to how you can justify your beliefs. (Though I won’t deny being “proud”—as I think any human being who has and makes use of a rational faculty is entitled to be.)

          • Troy says:

            But you can indoctrinate yourself into anything!

            If I am reading Irenist correctly, his advice concerned experience and understanding, not belief. That is, if you want to understand Christianity or experience God, you need to take part in Christian practice.

            Your argument seems to target an inference from an experience as of God or a deeper understanding of the Christian life to a belief that Christian doctrines are true or that the Christian God exists. But one might have independent reason to believe those things and still want to experience God. Indeed, if the Christian God exists one should want to experience him, worship him, and live one’s life following him. Christianity is not only, or even primarily, about belief.

  21. synthetica2 says:

    How do I motivate myself to exercise? I know I should do it Because It’s Healthy and Because It Will Make Me Look Better but I’m relatively healthy and I find exercise (be it cardio or lifting) to be a terrible combination of unpleasant and boring. Combine that with how long-term the payoff is (since I’m not going to do anything really hardcore) and it almost seems utility-maximizing not to exercise.

    • onyomi says:

      Audio books help me. To deal with the boredom, at least.

      I also try to avoid waiting until I feel ready to have a really good workout to go. I think it is more effective to have a lot of very regular, half-hearted workouts than to wait until you are really in the mood.

    • BillG says:

      I tend to ascribe to a fatalistic philosophy on the willpower toward exercise– if you aren’t enjoying it, I doubt you’ll ever have a consistent enough drive to continue doing it regularly.

      So my best advice would be to find something physically active that you enjoy doing with others (not that, well, unless vigorously enough I suppose…), try to set up a regular opportunity to do that activity and then forget whether the approach is optimal or not.

      The focus on gains, improved appearance and etc is harmful in so much as it’s the only motivation often provided.

      • Irenist says:

        I can’t help noting here that your wisdom about how to stick with exercise is very similar to what I’m trying to communicate about how to find the right denomination that leads you to an experience of God. You’re already quite far along the Way, I suspect, farther than you think: the focus on advancement in abstract ethical or philosophical understanding will be harmful. Focus instead on finding rewarding *experiences* of meditative contemplation, prayerful worship, and face-to-face service of the needy (i.e., not as abstact QALYs to be saved through EA–not that there’s not a place for that in our secular lives–but as fellow persons with whom to enter into loving relationship), and the Wisdom you seek will find you Himself.

    • xtmar says:

      Play sports, even at the IM level, or find some other way to make it a game. Going to the gym and sitting on a treadmill for an hour because that’s what you should do is, as you say, boring. If you’re exercise has a larger and more immediately tangible purpose, like winning a soccer game, it’s much more entertaining. Even if you have no hand eye coordination, there are sports you can do, like triathlon or rowing, though triathlon is probably not the best example, as it’s mostly treadmill time. Even psuedo-sports like CrossFit have competitive elements that make it more than just working out because you should.

    • Zoned says:

      Really the obstacle is just the first several days. After a week or two the boredom/unpleasantness goes away (focusing on form while you exercise is actually pretty intense and interesting), and it feels wrong NOT to go work out. That’s my experience anyway.

      BTW, the outcome isn’t as long-term as you imagine. You will start to notice results within a month if you are consistent. They might be things only you and your close friends/coworkers notice, but they’ll feel like big motivators to keep going.

    • Calico says:

      BillG speaks the truth.
      Long-term diets are impossible unless you find a way to make lower calorie foods decently filling and tasty. It can be done.
      Exercise programs tend to stop quickly unless a way is found to enjoy the program. The payoffs for a hard lifting program only *really* start being seen in 6 months in general.
      More people then not,finding solo lifting unfulfilling, end up finding something like a biking club, flag football club, etc.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      I’m with the consensus: you need to find something you enjoy. I, for some reason probably arising from having been an infantryman, always felt like I “should” be out running. I had let people convince me that if I just. stuck. with. it. long enough I’d get that runner’s high I was told about.

      It never happened. What finally worked for me was lifting: I like it, I can do it myself and in my own home, and the numbers don’t lie. If everything else is equal, and I can lift more lbs. than last month, I have to be getting stronger. It’s quantifiable.

      If you don’t like something, you’ll never stick with it long enough to get the results to motivate you.

      • Sastan says:

        Fuck yes, 11-B!

        And he’s right. Don’t fit a workout regimen into your free time, find an active hobby. I hate running, but like basketball, which involves a lot of running. Problem solved.

        • The Anonymouse says:

          If you wanna be infantry, you gotta be thin. 🙂

          There remains a special hateplace in my heart for my first team leader, who would be waiting at the finish line of the two mile run (portion of the PT test) smoking a Camel, having just smoked us on his way to the extended scale. Fucker.

          Anyway, find an active hobby and you’ll never have to “exercise” again.

      • CatCube says:

        My favorite commentary about the “runner’s high” is from Dennis Miller: “I must have gotten a hold of some bad shit, because all I did was puke and pass out.”

    • Dahlen says:

      How are your energy levels, more generally? Are you sluggish by nature? How do you react to any sort of energy expenditure — is there any physical activity that gets you feeling pumped-up? Dancing, sports, hiking… anything?

      Getting your exercise through an activity that is intrinsically fun might help — so would noticing results (getting stronger and leaner).

      I don’t have any problem motivating myself to exercise (I sometimes slack off, but I still enjoy working out when I engage in it), however, I have had the exact same problem with self-directed studying. (Sorry to hijack.) I can’t slog through an entire textbook for the life of me. That doesn’t keep me from aiming to do it, or from feeling like I’m failing at my main goal in life. Ability is not a problem; while in school, I tend to get high grades despite myself, but the second there’s no external constraint acting upon me… I’ve thought about the topic for so long that I almost seem to have gotten everything figured out about studying, except for the tiny part about not getting bored out of my mind by reading half a page out of a math textbook. Dunno. Reminds me of Scott’s post on the “lottery of fascinations” — maybe I was just born a jock.

    • The best solution is to find something you enjoy. Mine used to be SCA sword and shield fighting, but I’ve gotten too old for that. Currently (but not at the moment because I’m recovering from surgery) it’s half an hour of yard work three times a week, which is mildly pleasant and improves the yard. Any active sport you enjoy should work.

    • Leit says:

      If you’re bored, try something you can’t just muscle-memory your way through. For instance: find a bouldering gym that changes their set problems regularly. You might get frustrated by being unable to perform some techniques, but it’ll be worth it for the rush when you nail it.

      Note: I suggest bouldering on the assumption that you don’t exercise with a partner, and thus wouldn’t have a belayer for straight sport climbing. Having a buddy to train with changes everything, and would likely transform even your regular boring exercise.

      Climbers in my area tend to be friendly and… evangelistic might be a good descriptor. As such, it’s not hard to go from “hey, can anyone show me how to make this traverse” to having a regular belay to “we’re going out to the slab on the weekend, wanna come?”, if you’re interested in social gains.

      • Bill G says:

        +1 on bouldering. I spent a year doing so regularly and found it to be a great workout that motivated me to get into better shape otherwise (a few pounds really matter when they’re being supported by your finger tips!). It was also one of the easiest activities to make friends that I ever took part in– it’s fine to show up and do it by yourself, but there’s plenty of downtime between attempts that lends itself to talking and strategizing with other climbers.

      • James Picone says:

        Another +1 to bouldering and/or rock climbing here. Climbers are really friendly, it’s good exercise, it requires thought and planning, and if you’re the kind of person who climbed trees as a kid it’s really fun.

    • Anonymous says:

      Start using a bicycle as your primary mode of transport. That way you combine what you must/need to do (getting to work, etc) with what you should do (exercise).

      • Linch says:

        I use a bike for everything. Can recommend (although it’s awfully uncomfortable in the winter if you don’t live close to work).

        I’m not sure biking is *sufficient* exercise though, especially if you’re male and want to build upper-body strength.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      I kind of managed to solve this problem on my own behalf.

      I’d long been trying to get myself to exercise more. Every now and then I managed to create a morning routine of going out on a run, but this habit would always fall apart whenever I’d get sick or otherwise be prevented from engaging in it for a while. The problem was that, while I could get the habit going by pushing myself, getting the habit started always required some active pushing. What I needed was something that would naturally pull me instead, causing me to get outside without requiring active willpower expenditure.

      When I asked myself how I could achieve that, the answer was pretty obvious: I knew a bunch of people who were getting exercise by playing location-based games. And I knew that I had a tendency to get addicted to games very easily, so this seemed just like the thing that would work for me. For various reasons (most importantly wanting to limit my Internet use), I had long resisted acquiring a smartphone, but I felt that actually getting some exercise was important enough to give in. So I bought one and installed two games I’d heard about, Ingress and Zombies, Run!.

      Zombies, Run! I only tried once and then never replayed it, but Ingress became a lasting habit for a while. After having played it for 54 days, I’d walked/jogged/ran a total distance of 162 kilometers (101 miles) while playing. The habit persisted throughout the kinds of events that used to break my previous exercise habits, including one occasion of getting sick for a few days, and a period where I was so focused on finishing my studies that I only had minimal time for exercise for a couple of weeks.

      …that said, I’m now at 101 days and the habit has been kinda broken for a month, partially because the region around me got so familiar that it got a little boring to play in. I figured out a fix for that – I can still take public transport and get to somewhere less familiar relatively quickly – but now there’s a second problem, namely that it’s too frickin’ cold to be outside. I’m expecting to resume the habit once it gets a bit warmer, though.

    • alexp says:

      Find a sport to play semi-competitively. Not only will you get excercise from the sport itself, which should be more fun to do than just running or lifting weights, but you also can exercise with the goal of making yourself better at said sport, which is much more short term payoff than health or good looks.

      I do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu because there are lot of people who get into it as adults. I couldn’t just go play soccer or basketball at the local YMCA because those games are full of people who played in high school or even college and I would be destroyed. With BJJ, there are a lot of people who are beginners.

      • Your story on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu parallels mine on SCA combat (medieval combat on foot done as a sport).

        Growing up, I thought of myself as bad at sports. At some point it occurred to me that part of the reason was that the other kids were playing baseball etc. for fun, I was only doing it in gym class when I had to.

        SCA combat was a new sport, we were all adult beginners, and I discovered that I was not, after all, bad at sports.

      • dndnrsn says:

        I second the comment on BJJ, or another martial art with a lot of adult beginners.

        A full-contact grappling art like BJJ or judo (you might have a harder time finding a judo class with a lot of adult beginners outside of a school setting; still easier than finding wrestling outside of varsity athletics) is especially good because you can spar harder and more frequently than something where you’re getting punched in the head. And hard sparring is probably the most intense exercise you’re going to get doing a martial art.

        Plus, once you get into it, you might find other exercise more appealing, as it will feed into your fitness and thus help your BJJ or whatever.

    • Anonymous says:

      I find vigorous exercise unpleasant and boring. I have tried many different kinds of vigorous exercise and have not found any exceptions to this rule. I honestly cannot imagine enjoying any kind of vigorous exercise.

      I run 3 times a week, and have for the past 6 months very regularly. I hate it, but I do it. A few strategies I’ve found helpful:

      1. Run in the morning. Afternoons and evenings are unpredictable, so I don’t schedule my runs for afternoons or evenings.
      2. Run on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. Always the same days every week. Don’t agree to go out or do anything that’ll keep you up late on a Sunday, Tuesday, or Thursday night.
      3. Wake up at the same time every day, whether it’s a running day or not. If you sleep in on non-running days, it’s harder to wake up on running days.
      4. I started with a Couch To 5k app. The app tells you when to run and when to walk. It is easier to follow orders than to decide for yourself how much to run.

      Also, the Couch to 5k app starts with a 5 minute warm-up walk. This bit is critical. It’s easier to decide to run if you can make the decision to run without actually having to run right away. You just get on the shoes and get out the door and walk. 5 minutes later, you’re 5 minutes away from your house, wearing running shoes, and the app says, “Run.”

      At this point you’re already committed, and it feels much more natural to obey the app and run rather than just give up, turn around, and walk home.

      This set of strategies has been quite successful for me so far. I’m trying to figure out something similar that will work for resistance training as well.

    • Anonymous says:

      Play a sport – they’re effectively purpose built to solve this problem. You win in competitive sports (usually; probably doesn’t apply to every sport) by making your opponent run around a lot – putting the ball where they will have to chase it or similar. In effect, you are each other’s exercise coach, and you win by being a better exercise coach than your opponent.

    • Cadie says:

      Adding in my vote for finding something you like that’s physically active, even if it isn’t a classic jogging or gym-style exercise. Depending on your current level of fitness, something like gardening or brisk walking could be enough to start. If those aren’t enough, then try something more intensive: maybe rock climbing, hiking on moderate-difficulty trails, swimming, whatever you find interesting and fun enough to do.

      I tried getting into jogging on and off for years. Couldn’t do it, hated it too much. Dancing works much better for me; it’s something I can do several days a week and not dread it. I’m focused on the motions and the beat of the music and not paying as much attention to the fact that my heart and breath rates are up. With running, that was pretty much all that was on my mind.

    • Anthony says:

      Dance. Find something that’s vigorous and isn’t very free-form (at least for beginners). Find something where most of the people aren’t that old.

      Swing dance is pretty good, though West Coast can be less active than East Coast or Lindy Hop.
      Various sorts of folk dancing, if you can find a group with some people under 60. (Though some of those old folks are *really* active.)
      Contra dance (basically a form of folk dancing, though doesn’t always overlap).
      Belly dance seems to often be fairly vigorous, but I haven’t done it myself.

      If you do Latin dance (salsa, cha-cha, rumba, merengue, etc.) well, it’s a lot of work, but if you’re lazy about it, you won’t get much exercise from it. And people won’t be as interested in dancing with you.
      Argentine Tango (and American/International Ballroom Tango) can be pretty good in terms of learning muscle control, etc., but they’re not that terribly vigorous, except maybe at the show level.

      I found it easier to start with partnered/social dance forms before getting into solo/show type dancing, ymmv.

    • Tibor says:

      What worked for me after a long time when I had always worked out for a month or so then gave up, then started again only to give up in a few weeks was YAGOG, that is “You are your own gym”. It is a book and a mobile phone app (just google it), the app costs $3 or something. It is a workout program where, as the name suggests, you do the exercises with your body only without any gym equipment (you occasionally use a door, a table, a pillow or a towel…stuff you have at home). I find it much more satisfying and fun than lifting weights at the gym. It feels more natural (and actually is) and you also learn to control your body better. When you do weightlifting in a gym, the machine mostly fixes you in a position and you only work out that one part of your body. With self-weight exercises, you do the fixing yourself, so you get a better balance (balance is actually a lot about muscles). It can vary from person to person but for me this is much more satisfying. Also, you don’t go from lifting X kg to X+Y kg, you go from doing push-ups to push-ups with a single arm (for instance). That is way more satisfying since what you do feels qualitatively different.

      Also, you don’t pay any gym fee, you don’t have to leave your house or even make any clothes dirty if you don’t mind working out naked (which I do sometimes). These are all ways of reducing the cost of working out.

      The thing that helps me keep doing it, apart from not having excuses like “it is too late/cold to go to the gym now”, is the app and the way you have 10 weeks pre-made programmes (different difficulty levels) and not every week is the same in the workouts you do and the way you do them (sometimes it is intervals, sometimes superseries, sometimes tabatas) and you can easily track where you are in the 10 week programme and also look at the history of how you’re improving.

      I find cardio (other than dancing and hiking) really boring, so I don’t know much about that.

  22. Faradn says:

    I hope that one day when you visit SLC you’ll have a meetup here.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I was in SLC for a meetup about three years ago. There is a wonderful SLC rationalist community (although I think some of them have since moved to the Bay) and you should try to get in contact with them.

  23. entobat says:

    Scott (or anyone else),

    Can anyone help me out finding a study I think was cited here? I think the study was looking into police racism, and had the clever idea of looking at if pullover rates by race changed at night (with the idea that police can’t see race of drivers at night, and so would have more trouble being overtly racist). Unfortunately I can’t find the link – I expected it to be in the “Race and Justice: More than you wanted to know” post but unless I missed it it isn’t there.

    Am I correctly remembering an actual study, or was this just something someone suggested would be a good idea? I really thought it was the former.


  24. I’m reading The Brain’s Way of Healing, and there’s some very enthusiastic descriptions of healing from low-intensity lasers– of really intractable skin problem (including failure to heal otherwise), for example. Laser healing is (mostly?) Russian, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of communication from Russia to the US. (I believe that last because it seems that Russians/the USSR knew quite a lot about exercise physiology– they didn’t just use drugs.)

    Anyway, does anyone here know whether there’s much to medical uses of low-intensity lasers?


    I’d have sworn I started a discussion here about anti-white bias in SJW, but I haven’t been able to find it. If I didn’t hallucinate it, would someone post a link? Also, is there any efficient way to search ssc comments?

    • adequ8 says:

      >Also, is there any efficient way to search ssc comments?

      best thing i have found is to google….

      site:https://slatestarcodex.com/ Nancy Lebovitz anti-white bias in SJW

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Re: Lasers.


      Summary: Some of the devices, when used as/in conjunction with heating elements, are as effective at relieving discomfort as any other sort of topical heat therapy. Other than that, the FDA says there’s no evidence and claims otherwise are not allowed.

      I am not a doctor, but I actually know a bit about lasers and how they work. My immediate reaction:

      1) Theoretically possible but in practice extremely unlikely. For just one reason, the whole point of lasers is to produce highly monochromatic light – which means that unless there’s some Magic Color that affects a whole class of pathologies/injuries, the results will be so variable that it might be statistically indistinguishable from placebo/chance.

      2) Really, really, really sounds like woo. Orac, for instance, has a few posts on laser woo. None of it seems to really map to what you’re asking about, though.

  25. Wrong Species says:

    This week we are talking about The Secrets of our Success by Joseph Henrich.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Next open thread we will be discussing The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
      by Matt Ridley.

    • Wrong Species says:

      In the nature/nurture book, the nurture side has been doing pretty terribly the last few decades. They seem to care more about politics than finding out the truth. So in this case, it was nice reading a comprehensive well thought out argument in favor of the environment over our genes. Of course, Henrich doesn’t neglect the genetic side, as he discusses how culture is actually changing our genes, but he does lay out a case for cultural influence that I find “genetic determinists”(for lack of a better word) don’t seem to account for. One notable example was the influence of the Scots-Irish in explaining the higher levels of violence in the US. Some say it’s because of the genes but he points out that that they aren’t as violent in their home countries.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        One notable example was the influence of the Scots-Irish in explaining the higher levels of violence in the US. Some say it’s because of the genes but he points out that that they aren’t as violent in their home countries.

        A few threads ago, Scott pointed out that the ‘Scots-Irish’ of the USA are actually descendents of the Border Reavers, a culturally distinct group from the ‘mainstream’ Scots and Irish. I’m not sure how genetically distinct they are, so not sure where that moves the nature/nurture question…

        • John Schilling says:

          “We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country on Earth!”
          Bill Murray, “Stripes”, 1981

          Kicked out of every decent country, and Scotland and Ireland. For being too violent for the Scots and Irish to put up with. So, yeah, what’s left in Scotland and Ireland is less violent than what got transplanted into Appalachia. OTOH, hybrid vigor is a cultural thing as well as genetic, so this is probably a good thing.

    • Wrong Species says:

      In chapter 3, he discusses how lost European discovers would pretty much always die in hostile terrain without assistance from the natives, who of course managed to thrive in the environment. I have raised concerns about what would happen if civilization collapsed but now I’m even more worried. If something happens to break our civilization, and no one is around to remember it, it’s very possible that we could lose everything and die before even getting to point where we could possibly rebuild. We really should be looking at some kind of “back up copy” of civilization to make sure that the most important things are not lost if something like that happened.

      • Deiseach says:

        lost European discovers would pretty much always die in hostile terrain without assistance from the natives, who of course managed to thrive in the environment

        But a lot of that “thriving in the environment” comes from “Yeah, it took three generations of people turning blue and dropping dead before we realised it was a bad idea to eat the plump, juicy, red berries on that bush, but the plump, juicy, red berries on that other bush are fine”.

        Dump anybody in a completely unfamiliar environment and it’s going to be tough. As for backing up civilisation, that’s a different matter: that’s more a question of “keeping good records of scientific knowledge and technological achievement in a stable, non-corrupted state so that once we’ve all finished dying of plague and the population builds up again, we can re-discover plastics”.

    • Wrong Species says:

      He mentions some experiments that show that Chimpanzees are actually in many cases equal to humans in individual learning(I am skeptical on that though). Where we shine is when it comes to social learning. In fact, he hypothesizes that it was our collective rather than individual intelligence that lead to our domination of the Neanderthals. Now IQ scores are supposed to measure our individual intelligence. I wonder how a “social learning quotient” could be measured or what it would look like. By social learning quotient, I don’t mean a test that would measure how much concrete information people have memorized but how quickly and proficiently a person can copy someone else. It would probably correlate with IQ pretty well but I don’t think it would be perfect match and could possibly be useful.

  26. Dan Peverley says:

    I’ve spent a long time being a game-master for tabletop role playing. My favorite systems are GURPS and Ars Magica. Are there a lot of people into this sort of thing on SSC? I’m asking purely to see what other people play/run, and what they get out of the hobby.

    For me, it’s one of my only social outlets. Since I got out of a relationship, the majority of my recreational interaction with other people is in the form of pretending to be wizards. I enjoy telling stories and constructing flexible puzzles. So far, there aren’t really video games that allow such a high fidelity amount of agency, due to the constraints of computers. Players can come up with a wide range of solutions to any of the problems thrown at them, even ones I hadn’t thought of (my favorite outcome). How do other GM’s promote player agency, or generally zap people out of the video game mentality? I’m having some success, but far too often my players are in auto-pilot mode.

    • Jon H says:

      I’d like to find someone to be GM for the Laundry Files RPG, based on the Laundry Files novels by Charlie Stross. It’d have to be via some online video conference tool, though.

      I haven’t GMd anything myself in about 30 years, so my skills are those of a 13 year old, and rusty.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      I’ve played and (more often) run D&D (various variations on 3rd edition) for about 15 years. (I’ve got had experiences with assorted other games and systems, but always come back to those. I’m in the process of designing my own custom system, which will also be basically a d20/3e variant.)

      It is indeed an excellent and enjoyable social activity (which has helped me stay closely in touch with old friends for long years of geographic separation — we play online), and a creative outlet of great depth as well.

      As far as promoting player agency… there is a substantial literature on dealing with this issue, in books, fan publications, personal blogs, gaming forums, etc. It is indeed a Non-Trivial Problem. I’d say it’s too big a problem to discuss in a blog comment, but here are some quick thoughts…

      1. System matters. Some systems are better at promoting agency than others. (In my experience, “rules heavy” and “crunch” is better for agency than “rules light”. This sounds paradoxical but makes perfect sense once you consider why different kinds of systems are designed the way they are, and for what purpose, but this is too big a topic for now.)

      2. Setting matters. PC agency is more incentivized in some settings than others.

      3. People matter. Different players want different things out of an RPG; different people have personalities that are more or less conducive to PC agency (and to satisfying play in general).

      4. Logistics and environment matter. Are you playing in person or online? At someone’s home or in a store? Twice a week or once every some-but-not-all-months? These things affect engagement and agency.

      There is a lot more to be said, and the fact is that there’s no one answer. I’ll close with a link (just one, though I could post a dozen easily) to site of one tabletop gaming blogger who has a lot of very useful things to say about this sort of thing: The Alexandrian. His posts Node-Based Scenario Design and Don’t Prep Plots are particularly relevant, though you should definitely browse around his site for a lot of insight- and advice-packed posts.

    • hellahexi says:

      For me the primary advantage of tabletop gaming is the social aspect. Video games continue to get better and better; there’s a lot of money being spent in figuring out the psychological aspects of getting gamers to keep playing a certain title. The one thing a video game can’t really replicate–regardless of budget–is the physical/social aspect of sitting around a table with real-life friends.

      We’re in an era of electronic entertainment. People don’t sit around in parlors entertaining each other with stories any more (and if they did, it would be a much more natural jump to cooperative storytelling, ie, RPGs). People sit around consuming professional storytellers’ stories, as mediated through production budgets and screens. When I was younger, the jump was to take tabletop players and convince them to play electronic games; now it’s reversed, and the (much tougher) challenge is to take video gamers and convince them to play an RPG.

      After the social aspect, I’m with you that the secondary appeal of RPGs is the (promise of, squandered if they don’t use it) agency of the players. I can’t portray a scene as visually detailed and beautiful as Peter Jackson can with his camera and CGI budget. The only thing I can do–that filmmakers and AAA game designers cannot–is react flexibly to anything the players wish to try. Players decry railroads, but they often railroad themselves by taking the most obvious, uncreative option presented.

      As for combat–a huge part of most RPGs–I think recent editions of D&D/PF did us a huge disservice in training GMs to tailor every “enemy” encounter to a power level commensurate to some fraction of the party’s “resources.” Players instantly caught on, and have been trained to metagame in the most simplistic way possible: if every encounter is designed to be both combat-winnable and a sufficient challenge that the PCs should be rewarded for winning, players predictably attack everything in sight. That’s video-game design, and video-game thinking.

      The solution I like best is random tables. Set the environment and let the players react. As a GM, my interaction with random tables is to police them only for thematics–no marsh-dwelling troglodytes in the high desert–but not for power level. Parlay, intimidate, fight, flee. Or come up with something totally different! Players quickly learn not everything is to be attacked on sight.

      The other part of player agency I try to nurture is a realistic approach to the environment. That is, naturalistic interactions with it rather than the crutch of die rolls. I’d much rather hear a player say, “Huh, that’s odd, I’m going to pour out my water-gourd on the floor, and see if it drains down through the cracks or if it pools,” rather than, “Hey, hella, what do I have to roll to detect a pit trap?”

      Sometimes you do have to nurture this, though. In the previous example, if I had new players, even if there wasn’t going to be a pit trap there, now I’ll put one in–because I want to encourage the player to keep trying things like that, and success is encouraging.

      Finally, something that has worked for me in spurring players to think in a more complex way is, oddly, to increase the complexity of the antagonists. Play them as smart as the canon says they are supposed to be. If all your hobgoblins just scream and attack, is it any surprise that, when your PCs see a monster, they just scream and attack? If your monsters scheme, lay traps and ambushes, feign retreats, encircle, and use terrain advantageously, pretty soon your players are going to be doing same.

    • Bill G says:

      This can be really tough! A few thoughts, but first my background.

      I’ve played most of the major systems over a ~18 year RPing career now. I started, like most, with D&D and my real love is Call of Cthulhlu. I’ve also played Aberrant, Pathfinder, Numenera, Rifts, Mage, etc. If I have my way at Gencon each yeah I’ll have the opportunity to try some random indie systems. Most of the time I’ve played these I’ve done so as a GM, since my friends tend to use their intelligence to avoid most forms of work and commitment.

      The two things I’ve found that help toward this sort of player agency are to 1) give it time and 2) chat with the players separate from the game about motivations. I think most games start with players having uncertain motives, or at least stretching their legs until they really get into them. Give them a few adventures that display potential paths and then wait for them to start to push things in a direction. When they do, don’t stand in the way of it. You can motivate these by talking to the players out of game, too. One of the most fun games I ever played involved two of the players deciding they wanted to retire as “gentlemen”, so they started calculating how much gold they would need to do so and running between areas looking for the best place to retire.

    • James Picone says:

      I’ve played and run D&D 3.5 (basic high-fantasy setting), and I’m currently running a Fate game (setting is Worm – gritty superheroes), and I’m intending to participate in a different Fate game a friend is running (Fate/Stay Night setting, we’ve been calling it ‘Fate/Fate’).

      D&D was a fun exercise in optimisation, puzzle solving, and puzzle building. It was certainly a social thing, but most of the fun came in planning out some interesting dungeon/area and then seeing what the players do with it. Not very serious.

      The Fate game is very recent, and has been interesting in a world-building sense – I can use some canon characters, but there wasn’t a lot of detail in the city I’ve set it in in-world. So I’ve had to try to make characters with interesting powers and interesting organisations they might be part of. Planning is also rather tricky in a world where PCs don’t have very strict limits on what they can do. It’s been a fun thinking-on-my-feet exercise as well. Harder from a GMing perspective; one of the players has been extremely passive, a problem that didn’t really occur in the D&D game and that I haven’t been able to resolve.

      Maintaining player agency in the games I’ve run has mostly been about trying to have characters and groups with motives, setting up some problem, and then letting the players loose and trying to improvise responses.

    • Re: agency, I’ve found that you want a mostly-open world with a few big, signposted no-right-answer decision points, and extra effort made to talk about the fallout from the decision points.

      As players get used to them, you signpost them less, so that changes made in the heat of the moment can have more of a visible impact.

      Again, it needs to be clear that there is not necessarily a right answer, and also that the answers are not necessarily equal. For the case of a corrupt noble who’s suborned local law enforcement and can’t be meaningfully arrested, the players can have him at their mercy and have the choice framed as killing him or letting him go, with the expectation that both would draw down different kinds of wrath from different parties, but also would get some players asking “What if we just drag him to another city and try him there?” and others “What if we dress up as that other noble we don’t like and frame him for the murder?”

      You need to be good to do this, however. You need to be able to generate NPCs on the fly, have much of the rule system memorized so you can estimate the feasibility of plans and plots quickly, and you need to be confident that you can adapt to random twists and turns and have your narrative survive the person you were building up as the long-term villain be quietly shanked in his sleep in the middle of Act II.

    • dndnrsn says:

      @Dan Peverley:

      I almost exclusively run games these days. Call of Cthulhu is probably my favourite game. It has aged really well, and its best published adventures and campaigns are splendid. Wild Talents is in second place for its rules system. I ran the former with the latter’s rules, and with some fiddling it ran pretty well – I ran a couple of the big published campaigns, and it turned out well. High-powered for Cthulhu, but the globetrotting-adventure campaigns work well with higher powered PCs.

      I like pen and paper RPGs because it’s a fun, social way to do things you can’t in computer games. Right now, computer games do some things really well, and others profoundly poorly. I also don’t have to confront Skinner Box type crap that gets put in because it’s addictive: I have limited time to game these days, and an hour or two of prep plus a couple of hours for play time a week, during which I get to hang out with friends, without any planet mining or hunting for potion ingredients or grinding monsters for XP and loot is a pretty good deal.

      Most of the players I have had recently were/are limited in experience, or first-time gamers, so running Cthulhu has them in a mindset where, if anything, they have too much agency – I’m OK at improvisation, but not great.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      I’ve both played and ran a bunch, though haven’t done much of it recently.

      Most recently I’ve been enjoying Apocalypse World and its offshoots, that forces a very different play-style from more traditional systems. Core mechanic has the players rolling 2d6 and adding a stat that ranges between -3 and +3; the fun thing is that if the outcome is 6 or less, the attempt not only fails, but the GM is also *required* to throw something Bad at the character who attempted the roll. 7-9, the task succeeds but possibly with a complication or a tough choice, and 10+ it goes off perfectly.

      This means that gameplay remains… interesting. No more of that “make your roll, you failed, well you can try again I guess”. Rather it’s difficulties and twists galore! Forces the GM to think at their feet, too.

      For example, I was once running a Shadowrun game using the AW system. Player characters are in a hotel, being escorted by security to meet with their Mr. Johnson. One of the players declares his character tries to read a sitch, meaning that if he succeeds, he gets to ask me a question about the situation. He fails.

      I blink and think. They’re in a hotel, surrounded by security guards. A player just failed his roll big-time, so the rules say I have to come up with something Bad. But what Bad is going to happen in such a safe situation?

      I look at my list of NPCs and story seeds I co-created with the players before the game. Then I know! The character who failed his roll, his backstory says that he stole something from a megacorporation and the corp wants it back. One of the security guards has been bribed by another group of shadowrunners, who have been tasked with getting that stolen thing. So suddenly one of the guards tells the character to follow him, because the guard wants to talk with the character privately. To threaten him: the character spills the guts about the stolen artifact, or the guard is going to ruin their upcoming mission by letting the target of their raid know about it in advance.

      Things just got a lot more interesting.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        Also, I’m going to use this opportunity to plug my friend’s game Here Be Dragons, in which the players play physically unbeatable dragons that wake up after a long slumber to realize that while they slept, weird puny young races like “humans” and “elves” have popped up to make a mess of things. But it doesn’t really matter, because they’re no match for dragons.

        If you want to encourage player agency, a game in which the main rule is that “everything should aim for playing cool dragons and finding out what will be the dragon’s effect on the world” should help them get in the right mindset. It’s basically a game of “you’re a demigod, what do you want to do?”.

        Also really fun.

    • anon says:

      I’ve been running an Eclipse Phase game once a week on Roll20 for maybe half a year now. What finally motivated the players to stop taking orders from the conspiracy and set out on their own was repeated exposure to disagreeable circumstances as a result of blindly following orders. It eventually grew so obvious that they were being manipulated that they got sick of being hatchet men for a terrorist group and decided to go off the reservation. This is sort of what I was after, since the campaign was primarily inspired by the Firewall sourcebook, which repeatedly makes the point that the eponymous secret conspiracy the PCs are supposed to be working for are definitely not The Good Guys (OZMA did nothing wrong).

      I’ve also been running a face to face LotFP game, although we meet so irregularly now I’m a little worried the group might fall apart. After the players finished the introductory adventure I gave them a map of the world with a few “rumors” about hidden treasure scattered across it, corresponding to different OSR modules I felt like running. So far they’ve done a great job of being their own bosses, although they’ve got a problem where they generally believe anything NPCs tell them (with the exception of one of the Magic Users, who got into a protracted argument with a monk about the coming of the New Sun and had to be dragged out of the church by the Fighter).

    • Jordan D. says:

      I’ve been playing and GM’ing for a number of years now. Done quite a few systems- Pathfinder, 3.5, AD&D, Exalted 1 & 2e, Mutants and Masterminds (I think 3rd? I’m not sure), Nobilis 3e, 13th Age, FATE, Dark Heresy, Edge of the Empire, etc. I’m a big fan of the rules-light and narrative-heavy systems like Nobilis or 13th Age, but my friends are all deep mechanics wonks who love sinking hours into coming up with ridiculous characters. So naturally we tend to end up playing Pathfinder even though everyone agrees that some other system would be better.

      The social aspect everyone mentions is certainly a large part, but it’s the unrivalled freedom to adapt the world which I see as the biggest draw. I’m a big fan of pulling a lot of pre-made maps and dungeons into a setting, then letting the world develop around what the players are doing.

    • stillnotking says:

      The only way to drag a tabletop RPG group out of the rut of “tell us the next quest step, Mr. NPC mouthpiece” is to not give the players NPC mouthpieces. Or make them unreliable, make their motives suspect, etc. It’s very easy for both players and GMs to fall into the standard-RPG-formula trap, and it will kill a campaign stone dead.

      GMing in a way that’s actually fun is hard. It’s not dissimilar from being a good writer, only in real time, with no edits, at improvisational speed. Of the dozen or so GMs I’ve gamed with over the years, only two of them were any good at it. The others were going through the motions, doing static, pre-planned scenarios with signposts at every fork in the road. (The worst one actually had timetables detailing how far the players were supposed to get during each session.) The most such a campaign can hope for is to create some incidental entertainment, if it has a few funny or colorful players. I quit playing RPGs for several years when the only good GM I knew quit, came back recently when another good one showed up, only to inadvertently alienate him with an offhand comment — good GMs, like most artists, tend to be sensitive as hell.

      Anyway, I don’t think it’s a skill that can be taught. It can be honed with practice, but it is fundamentally a creative endeavor — harder than most — and the talent is something you either have or you don’t.

  27. Chalid says:

    Lead is really unhealthy, and it took us as a society a really long time to notice. Ditto tobacco and asbestos. A more recent but smaller example would be trans fats.

    How should I think about the odds that there is something comparably severely bad that we are doing right now that we don’t know about? Does that risk justify being paranoid about chemical exposures generally – e.g. preferring organic foods and products, running air purifiers in the house and/or living in more rural areas, etc.

    • Sastan says:

      The way I think about it is that I’d rather die of something I ate than something that ran over me. At least I get to enjoy it once!

      Drink more, worry less.

    • There’s probably something dangerous which isn’t currently noticed, but there’s no strong reason to think current worries will do a good job of pointing you at it.

      One thing to keep an eye on is sunlight deficiency– I find it plausible that worries about skin cancer didn’t take all-cause mortality and morbidity into account. This isn’t just about vitamin D, though that’s important– people have precursors for nitric acid in their skin which is activated by sunlight, and just to make it more fun, mouse studies didn’t turn this up because mice don’t have the precursors.

    • TheNybbler says:

      Unknown risks can’t really justify much. You could run an air purifier and find that the real problem is a byproduct of your air purifier, for instance. Or that something your air purifier removed had a protective effect against something it didn’t. Same idea for organic food (cyanide is organic, after all) or rural living.

      • Chalid says:

        Well, it’s far more likely that an exposure to a random chemical (that we didn’t evolve with) will have a bad effect than a good effect, right? (Of course, for any particular chemical, the effect is likely zero.) So reducing exposures to all novel chemicals is likely to have either zero or positive effect on health.

        I don’t think a quality HEPA/activated carbon air purifier has any byproducts, though I welcome corrections on this.

        • Glen Raphael says:

          “The dose makes the poison.” Consider the possibility of hormesis: lots and lots of stuff that can hurt or kill you in sufficiently large doses is net beneficial in smaller doses. Like exercise. Or water. Or bacteria exposure.

          An air purifier seems like an excellent example of the problem – if your air is really really clean, you might be more prone to develop asthma. Your immune system was designed to work in a dusty germ-filled environment where it regularly had to react to threats; we’ve removed all the threats so your system can become hypervigilant and overreact to small threats or non-threats.

        • James Picone says:

          UV light existed in the ancestral environment (and so did sunburn), and we didn’t really know it caused skin cancer for quite a while. Just because something is ye olde doesn’t necessarily mean we know how bad it is.

          • Cadie says:

            And different populations react differently. A person with very pale skin can handle less sun than someone with brown skin before they burn and raise their risk of skin cancer; the brown-skinned person needs more sun to make enough vitamin D and get the other beneficial effects.

            Since everyone’s risks and needs are wildly different it’s even tougher to figure out the optimal amount.

      • ” You could run an air purifier and find that the real problem is a byproduct of your air purifier, for instance.”

        For a large real world example, consider the big push to avoid saturated fats, which included getting people to switch from butter to margarine. The margarine in question was hydrogenated vegetable oil, i.e. transfats. It appears to be the case that saturated fats are not very dangerous but transfats are. I haven’t seen any calculations, but I expect that excess mortality due to that mistake was at least in the hundreds of thousands.

        • Not all margarines contain (much) trans fat.

          • Now they don’t. My impression is that the introduction of margarine with little or no transfat in it was a later development, a result of people discovering that transfat was bad for you.

          • Cadie says:

            And all the margarines are gross (IMO).

            I’ve been mostly using the same extra fats for years – olive oil and butter. Better flavor than most highly processed fats, and part of our cuisine since Before Common Era. I figure since we don’t really know what’s optimal and Nutrition Experts keep changing their minds, I might as well stick with the time-tested natural stuff that tastes good. Natural isn’t always better, but when in doubt, it seems like the safer bet.

    • Jon H says:

      It took a few years to figure out that plastic microbeads are bad.

    • nydwracu says:

      Seems likely to me.

      Darcey has a heuristic of not eating anything that wasn’t around a hundred years ago. The only reason I haven’t adopted that yet is that I live in the sort of middle of nowhere where the grocery store is ages away and they don’t carry organic food or anything like that. (A government-certified food desert, even, but that strikes me as an overstatement.)

      If you believe the paleo people, wheat is bad.

      • Jiro says:

        “Anything that wasn’t around a hundred years ago” is ill-defined because there is a range of differences all the way from slight differences to big differences. And there’s no principled way to tell between them except in a results-oriented way (I don’t like packaging, so even though potato chips existed a hundred years ago, packaged potato chips didn’t.)

        • Chalid says:

          Well, there are certainly ambiguous items, but that doesn’t make the rule useless. Certainly there are a great many things for which there’s no ambiguity.

          I suspect “avoid eating things that haven’t been around for a long time” would have been a good rule at almost any point up to now, so it probably continues to be so.

        • dndnrsn says:

          A more effective way to measure could be “anything you could make yourself”. To take potato chips as an example, you could slice up some potatoes and deep-fry them. However, the sort of stuff that goes on with packaged, longer-shelf-life chips would be less feasible for a home cook. The problem there becomes that there’s still “stuff nobody’s great-grandma would recognize” available to the home chef – you can buy MSG in shakers, for instance.

          Most of these rules – no wheat, no chemical you can’t pronounce, nothing unavailable a hundred years ago, etc – essentially serve to keep people from eating junk food, from overeating stuff that in and of itself is wholesome (eg, grains are probably not the devil, but they’re really easy to overeat), or from eating stuff that’s less wholesome than it appears (eg, most mass-produced bread has added sugars, which is probably more of a problem than the unpronounceable stuff).

          • Creutzer says:

            What’s supposed to be the unpronounceable stuff, anyway? That’s likely to be foreign and, depending on how much the culture of origin has innovated food-wise, may well have been around for a very long time. Or is the idea behind it that different populations are likely to be adapted to sufficiently different diets so that, for example, Westerners shouldn’t eat Indian food?

          • brad says:

            The usually mean a preservative or something like that. Think sodium propionate. “Chemicals”.

          • dndnrsn says:

            When food/diet writers talk about “unpronounceable stuff” they generally mean chemicals with long names. Edited to clarify.

          • Agronomous says:

            Mrs. Agronomous, reading the ingredients list of some packaged food or other: “HYDROCHLORIC ACID?!?!?”

            Me: Woah! Wouldn’t want to get any of that in your stomach!

        • Jaskologist says:

          Thing that wasn’t available 100 years ago: fresh produce during the winter. So no eating your veggies unless you got them out of a can!