Open Thread 59.5

This is the twice-weekly hidden open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever.

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614 Responses to Open Thread 59.5

  1. keranih says:

    For various reasons that don’t bear going into at the moment, I’m re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, and am thinking of the Library in the Dreaming, and wondering what sort of books should be there.

    (For those who have not yet read Sandman, the Library of the Dreaming contains a great number of books which have been dreamt, but not actually composed; or if physically composed, lost. The only place these volumes exist is in the Dreaming.)

    In a way, this is an echo of the earlier question, about famous people we would speak to, had we the chance.

    I myself would like to have Euclid comment on biological systems, now that we have some concepts to work from. And I would like to have had the notes Judas Iscariot made, concerning the accounts of the common purse of a certain band of followers of an itinerant preacher in Galilee.

    • anon says:

      Some of my favorite examples from here:

      * Anglo-American Cyclopedia (1917 edition)
      * History of the Land Called Uqbar by Silas Haslam
      * Through Flatland to Thoughtland by Prof. A. Square
      * The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
      * The Author’s memoir (framing device) from The Grand Budapest Hotel
      * The Encyclopaedia Galactica
      * Necronomicon by Abdul al-Hazred
      * The History and Practice of English Magic by J. Strange
      * Chaldean Roots in the Ancient Cornish Language by S. Holmes
      * On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess by Milo Temesvar
      * The Nice And Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
      * Under the Hood by Hollis Mason
      * ..And my Love, She Gave me Light by Richard Madoc
      * Private Reflections on Muad’ Dib by Princess Irulan
      * The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein
      * Second New Revised Book of Discipline

      • keranih says:

        …half of those are completely cheating. The rest of them probably are, but I don’t recognize them.

        Having said that – English Magic reminds me that I hope Doctor Strange is at least half as good as I hope Wonder Woman will be. *Damn* but that looks good.

        I dunno what I did to deserve to alive when Hollywood decided to make rilly rilly good comic book hero stories, but oh mi gosh it must have been something else.


        Searching the link you gave (thank you!) did not give me the ‘magic phrases fortune’ book that was consulted multiple times in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House In the Big Woods, and which I always wondered if was a real thing.

    • Skeltering Lead says:

      The rest of Kubla Khan!

    • Anonymous says:

      Is this a question about books which ought by reason to be there, or about books from there which we would like to have a real copy of?

      If it’s the former I’m sure other anon’s link answered it fully; if the latter, my answer is the complete Satyricon. I wouldn’t pooh-pooh the lost books of Aristotle, either.

  2. Patrick Merchant says:

    I was recently watching Plinkett’s review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” At one point, Plinkett made an interesting argument. He stated that, while there was nothing wrong with the racial diversity of the cast, he is of the opinion that kids don’t really care very much about this sort of thing, and don’t seem to make distinctions between films where they are represented vs. films where they aren’t.

    What do you guys think? I always implicitly assumed that the opposite was true, and kids were unhappy when they weren’t represented in the media they watched, but now I’m less sure. This seems like one of those nebulous social psychology topics, like “do violent video games increase violence?” or “do heavily sexualized portrayals of women harm female self-esteem?”

    To separate the question into two related-but-different lines of inquiry:

    1. Do kids actively want to be racially represented in movies/shows/etc?

    2. Does increased representation actually have a measurably positive impact on these kids (in the form of increased self-esteem, increased acceptance by their peers, etc)?

    (I suppose that it’s theoretically possible that increased representation might also have some really counter-intuitive negative effects, as per Scott’s delightful Social Psychology Is A Flamethrower essay, but I can’t for the life of me imagine what these effects might be.)

    • Lumifer says:

      People generally want to identify with heroes in a story. Whether they find it easy to do so is a function of many variables, including but not limited to things like race and sex.

      As a counterexample consider the people reading, say, Tolkien and identifying with elves (and other people identifying with dwarves).

      Now, any study claiming some “measurably positive impact” I would be very sceptical of.

    • JayT says:

      I don’t know about race as I’m white so I was always represented. Lando was my favorite Star Wars character though, so I’d guess race meant little to me. I was always upset that there were no black female characters in G.I. Joe, because then my black G.I. Joes didn’t have girlfriends.

      Sex on the other hand, was always important to me as a child. I had no real interest in female characters, other than as reasons for the guys to go fight the bad guys.

      • FacelessCraven says:

        @JayT – “Sex on the other hand, was always important to me as a child. I had no real interest in female characters, other than as reasons for the guys to go fight the bad guys.”

        Huh. Can’t think of a time I’ve ever particularly cared one way or the other. I like female characters a lot, and most of the characters I come up with myself these days are female.

        • I’ve written two novels. I think a majority, although not a large majority, of the leading characters are female.

        • Kind of Anonymous says:

          Extrapolating irresponsibly from personal experience, I’d say kids care a lot more about gender representation than race, or at least they did in the 90s-2000s. I never cared, probably because I was the target demographic, but I’ve found that of the few women I know who play fighting games, most were introduced to the genre by the large female cast of Dead or Alive. My sister even asked for Xtreme Beach Volleyball for Christmas and played the shit out of it. This contrasts with the media/SJ portrayal of these games as puerile teenage-male sexual pandering – that might have been part of the design, but it turns out girls like to identify with beautiful women who are highly competent in their field (of punching people very hard). Go figure.

          Compared to race identification, where in my experience black people love Dragonball Z and like to cosplay as Goku, whereas few black anime fans I’ve met have even seen shows like Black Lagoon that feature black (African-American, even!) protagonists.

          Of course, my social group is probably just small and weird.

      • Publius Varinius says:

        I was always upset that there were no black female characters in G.I. Joe, because then my black G.I. Joes didn’t have girlfriends.

        This suggests race did mean something significant to you, if only on an aesthetic level.

      • Gazeboist says:

        I find I don’t care about race or sex so much as MYTRIBE. Old movies don’t tend to have a lot of MYTRIBE, but it’s getting more popular now, I think. Marvel movies tend to make a half-assed attempt at MYTRIBE-related inclusion (“That man is playing Galaga” – identifying not quite with either character but with the sort of culture where Stark’s comment is a genuinely acknowledged good thing and yet “that man” is winked at); Steven Universe and the like go whole hog. More web-oriented content that I watch seems to be almost exclusively MYTRIBE, more so the more obscure it gets.

        If someone’s identity was tied up in race or sex rather than a different sort of division in society (or they had been told that it was) I could easily see it being very important to them. But I generally think that race and sex are a bit big to cover the way societies split up, so I don’t think inclusion on those grounds will necessarily get the same sort of reaction that you’d get from actually hitting someone’s MYTRIBE button. But you might make it more likely, especially if your characters are otherwise drawn from a relatively small group of personalities (Lando is kind of an average of Han and Leia in personality, and he’s clearly part of “their set”, for example, so you’ll get a bunch of people who would have identified with either but for race, even if you don’t expand to people who would truly constitute a new personality type among your fans).

        • Loyle says:

          Interestingly enough, on the topic of developing video game characters, there is a lot of pushback against social justicy ideals of inclusion. So people say they are tired of “every” videogame protagonist being a straight white male and you get people coming out of the woodworks saying that the industry markets to the majority because that’s where most of their money is coming from and that it’s wrong to “pander” to the minority.

          Which, if you take it at face value (I choose not to), suggests that race and sex are very important to identify with a character. I simply choose to think that most of the people making those sorts of arguments don’t realize they’re suggesting that they’re unable to identify with a person of color or a woman. Or they’re doing that thing where they associate a word that has negative connotations with an action and don’t realize it doesn’t necessarily apply to the subject being discussed.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I find myself wondering – did Mass Effect get this kind of pushback? After all, one can be a woman who embarks on a relationship with a tentatively-female alien. I don’t remember anybody complaining about this, except for right-wing commentators who believed it was some sort of orgy game.

            Did the ME games come out before video games became a front in the Culture Wars?

            Maybe the reason there was no pushback is that it’s a choice what character you play, it’s a choice what romance option you pursue*, etc.

            *Although it occurs to me that, as romance options in games generally give some sort of functional advantage (it did in ME right? I haven’t played any of those games in years) this puts people who want their character to not be interested in sex and/or romance at a disadvantage, mechanically.

            EDIT: I do recall some people complaining about GTA: San Andreas having a black main character, on the basis that they wouldn’t be able to identify with the character, and GTA: SA came out 3 years before ME did. I thought it was a particularly bogus complaint, because the protagonist in GTA: SA was the most sympathetic in the series, at least at that point. But “I remember a few people on the internet bitching” is a low standard of evidence.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            From my experience, the pushback is highly dependant on the attitude of the developers/publishers, the bigger deal they make about the race/gender/orientation of their character, the bigger the pushback.

          • dndnrsn says:

            GTA: SA didn’t have that. Again, though, “some kids bitching on GameFAQs” isn’t the same territory as “spat over video games makes it into mainstream publications”.

          • Dr Dealgood says:


            I don’t have any hard data, and the typical mind effect might be in play, but I don’t think Mass Effect got serious pushback on the diversity front until ME3. And even then it’s not about options but rather the lack of options.

            Edited: Rot13’d potential flame-bait.

            V qba’g guvax nalbar jub znggref pnerf vs fbzrbar ryfr pubbfrf gb cynl srzfurc be unir n tnl / vagre-fcrpvrf eryngvbafuvc. Gur cbvag ng juvpu crbcyr fgnegrq pbzcynvavat vf jura ZR3 chfurq vg va rirelbar’f snprf.

            Bar bs gur guvatf V ybirq nobhg gur svefg gjb Znff Rssrpg tnzrf jnf trggvat gb xabj gur punenpgref. Yrneavat gurve onpxtebhaq, qbvat gurve zvffvbaf, svaqvat rnfgre rtt vqyr navzngvbaf. Gur tnzr vf ohvyg nebhaq na rafrzoyr pnfg naq gung’f bar bs vgf ovt fgeratguf.

            Ohg vg tbg ernyyl qvfpbapregvat naq hapbzsbegnoyr jura V gevrq gb cynl gur guveq tnzr gung jnl, orpnhfr nyy bs n fhqqra zl punenpgre’f bapr yblny fhobeqvangrf ernpgrq gb sevraqyl pbairefngvba yvxr gur Abeznaql jnf n LZPN ybpxre ebbz. Rfcrpvnyyl gung jrveq znevar thl, V whfg yrsg uvz nybar va gur pnetb onl nsgre gur svefg gra zvahgrf bs gnyxvat gb uvz.

            Vs crbcyr jnag n tnl bcgvba, bx svar jungrire. Ohg chg n gbttyr bcgvba va gur zrah be fbzrguvat. V qba’g cynl ivqrb tnzrf gb trg perrcvyl uvg ba ol tnl thlf, uryy V tbg rabhtu bs gung VEY. Whfg orpnhfr gur qrif jnag gb wrex gurzfryirf bss nobhg ubj gbyrenag gurl ner qbrfa’g zrna gur cynlref fubhyq unir gb jngpu.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I never really played ME3, so I wouldn’t know. Only played the first 2. Didn’t get a chance to play the third for time reasons and figured it wasn’t worth it anyway since everyone was grousing about the end.

    • keranih says:

      [placeholder to address in next open thread]

      Paper of relevance: The Effect of Instructor Race and Gender on Student Persistence in STEM Fields

      (Other people might be able to talk this without jumping straight to politics and I wish them joy with it. I’m waiting for the next thread.)

    • DrBeat says:

      I couldn’t get more than five minutes into that video, as it was just “Plinkett” vomiting his contempt into my ears and I’m growing less and less able to tolerate that shit.

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t care about being represented in a story now, and I didn’t as a kid, either. I have to this day never managed to figure out why anyone would take that type of complaint seriously, with one notable exception where I know there’s hard data on it mattering, but that leads to a conclusion that’s entirely contradictory to the actual aims of people who talk about representation, so they’d never endorse it.

      (That one exception is that little boys care a great deal about there being important boys in the story, because otherwise it’s a girl thing and they don’t want it. There’s good evidence that while boys find it hard to identify with girl characters, girls don’t find it hard to identify with boy characters, so this would lead to the conclusion that most protagonists in things for children should be boys, in order to be maximally inclusive.)

      • Iain says:

        Do girls identify more with boy characters because of biological differences, or just because they have more practice at it? There’s a chicken-and-egg problem here: if the protagonists in children’s entertainment are disproportionately boys, then girls are naturally going to be exposed to more opposite-gender protagonists than boys will.

        Anecdotally, I definitely saw a number of responses from women after the new Star Wars movie along the lines of “wow, I didn’t know what I was missing until Rey pulled out the lightsaber”. I see no reason to believe they were lying. I think it’s reasonable to say that there are people for whom it matters, and people for whom it doesn’t – and, furthermore, that the preponderance of male protagonists makes it likely that some men who don’t think representation matters for them would miss it if all film protagonists were suddenly women.

  3. Tekhno says:

    This might be unique to my mental illness but I’m beginning to get depressed by really weird abstract thoughts.

    I wish that the world was more crazy and variant like some sort of storybook. I wish that there were 10km high skyscrapers everywhere. I wish that railway tracks were wider and everywhere and whole town like structures would constantly move along them. I wish there were these big automatic processes going on and stuff constantly flying about in the sky. I wish the world was less mundane and more like a cross between a cyberpunk dystopia and a high fantasy universe. I wish we reached some certain level of economic efficiency that allowed us to give up a certain level of efficiency so that we could go totally crazy with weird shit. I wish all the houses in my town didn’t look the same. The world feels so small and ugly.

    • Incurian says:


    • Tekhno says:

      Travel? Maybe. If I had the money. Everything is better with money. (Not to get political, but there should be a new economic system based around giving me all the money.)

      The other problem is that there are very few civilized places in the world that aren’t Western (and all the places that are Western are just exactly the same stuff with a different language), apart from places like Japan, Korea, and Singapore. Everywhere else is horrible.

    • In Shanghai, the skyscrapers are all designed by lunatics. You would like it.

    • Aegeus says:

      Seconding travel. You don’t even have to go overseas – the House on the Rock, in Wisconsin, is one of the most insane works of architecture on the planet.

      Also, here’s a suggestion from a friend: “Be a tourist in your hometown.” Go on Meetup, search your town’s local calendar of events, and just find out what’s going on around you. Maybe there’s a group of VR enthusiasts, or a makerspace downtown. Maybe there’s a tour of famous haunted buildings. Maybe there’s a group that does Shakespeare in the park. Even if there aren’t any 10km skyscrapers, in any decently-sized city, someone is doing something cool.

  4. Zombielicious says:

    So, I haven’t thought about this much yet, but suppose Elon Musk does manage to colonize Mars more-or-less according to his plan and more-or-less in the next few decades. Pretend you know that will happen for certain – it’s a prerequisite to this question. That should give people interested in going anywhere from ~5 years to a couple of decades to prepare. You don’t want to show up and be just another grunt hauling Mars rocks; you want to get in early and own half the planet before the gold rush starts. You’re going to be the Don Corleone of Mars when everyone else is still fresh of the spaceship. But not too early – you don’t want to be in the Mars Roanoke group either. What’s the best strategy for an early adopter to capitalize on the burgeoning new Mars colony?

    • Dr Dealgood says:

      Well one of the first questions is what Martians are actually supposed to do for a living.

      Putting a man on Mars, just to say we’ve done it, is one thing. But to put down a colony implies there’s some actual reason that people are living there instead of on Earth. Something that a Mars colony can do which couldn’t be done just as easily on by humans on Earth or by disposable Martian robots.

      Once you’ve figured out what that reason is then you should have a rough sense of what sort of skills would be in high demand there.

      • JayT says:

        Why did people first start moving to the Americas? At that time there really wasn’t anything there that they couldn’t get in Europe. I think a good number of people would go just because it was, something to do, for lack of a better term.

        • Dr Dealgood says:

          Well I was under the impression a lot of them were looking for trade routes, and failing that for the sort of goods one takes long sea voyages looking for. Gold, spices, furs, slaves. Two out of four isn’t bad all things considered.

          But that’s not really on the table with Mars. There’s no object I’m aware of which is worth enough to cover shipping it back from Mars, and if you want to send back scientific data probes are much cheaper. The people sending them expensive replacement parts are going to want to know why they don’t save on rocket fuel and just put them on display in the Elon Musk Museum instead.

          I don’t doubt some men (notice I didn’t say “people”) would go. But if you want to get in on the ground floor there needs to actually be a foundation for that floor to rest on. And I literally cannot imagine one.

          • I don’t know whether you could build an economy on this, but “thing made on Mars” is the one thing you can’t get from Earth. I’m imagining some kind of surveiliance and marking so that you can be sure some of the more expensive items are actually made on Mars.

      • anon says:

        After we conquer death using ASI-developed medical breakthroughs, two things will happen: there will be a foreseeable long-term demand for land and investment horizons with lengthen considerably. Rapid terraforming will begin shortly, and the major Martian industries will involve supporting the requisite infrastructure. (Drilling boreholes, mining for raw materials, building and maintaining and launching solar mirrors for melting the poles, maybe more speculative techniques like seeding lichen colonies and distributing self-replicating wind-powered radiators.)

        • Dr Dealgood says:

          Edit: Yup, I’m awful at sarcasm. I freely admit that.

          I think that when your economic development plan starts with “after we conquer death,” that should be a sign that it has a slight realism problem.

          I’ve dipped my toe in longevity research at one of the top institutions in the country, and I can absolutely assure you that by the time both of us are in our advanced age we will have yeast strains with a replicative lifespan of as many as 100 generations*. Possibly more!

          Seriously though, going to Mars isn’t easy but solving death is an entirely different level of not easy.

          *That’s hyperbole btw. I can’t actually promise that much of an increase.

          • anon says:

            I’m sorry my sarcasm was insufficiently clear. 🙂

            That said, I’m pretty skeptical about realistic economic motivations for investment in *large-scale* colonization.

            This leaves socio-political motivations, which shouldn’t be discounted given the increasing number of wealthy people sympathetic to seasteading-type ideas.

      • Obviously the purpose of the colony is archaeology, to dig up the secrets of the lost civilizations of Mars.

      • John Schilling says:

        Well one of the first questions is what Martians are actually supposed to do for a living.

        Growing potatoes, like any proper Martian.

        Seriously, a big part of Musk’s target market is people for whom living on Mars (or just on not-Earth) is a terminal value, one for which they will sacrifice their terrestrial fortunes. Those people will presumably be working to provide the necessities of life on Mars to their fellow Martians in a generally internal economy. If they are at all smart about it, they will have kept some share of their terrestrial fortunes in trust on Terra to pay for shipments of stuff they forgot and/or underestimated their need for.

        If you want to get rich on that trade while living on Mars, be the one who thought to bring the (production machinery for) stuff that everyone else forgot but can’t live without.

        There will probably also be Martians working for various export markets, but even if a settlement is strictly mercenary in its outlook I expect a majority of the local labor force will be meeting the local needs of the minority that produces goods and services for export. Much of the exports will be intangible, e.g. scientific data and entertainment. Or physical goods whose value is largely intangible, e.g. scientific samples and locally-produced artworks. However, Musk’s stated cost structure and reusable architecture implies that the shipping costs from the Martian Surface to Earth should be no more than $50/lb and probably quite a bit less. That opens it up to the high end of the bulk-material-good spectrum. Note that Mars had active geology and hydrology once upon a time and has not had clever sentients spending the last ten thousand years scooping up all the readily accessible concentrations of Valuable Stuff – a literal Gold Rush is not out of the question, among many other possibilities.

        Finally, don’t forget Phobos and Deimos. Those don’t have as diverse and interesting a geology as Mars, but they are probably good for volatiles and basic structural metals. And, energetically speaking, they are closer to Low Earth orbit than is the surface of the Earth.

        Since there is definitely enormous economic value to be extracted from Earth orbit right now, the existence of a developed Muskian transport architecture suggests that the bulk material component of the (presumably vastly expanded) LEO and GEO economies may come predominantly from Martian space. Particularly consumables like rocket fuel and astronaut chow, that doesn’t require high-tech industry to manufacture and that you really don’t want to pay to have hauled all the way up Earth’s gravity well.

        If that turns out to be the case, the surface-dwelling Martians use their relatively benign environment and diverse resources to provide a base of support for an export economy that is concentrated on the moonlets and supporting a customer base in Earth orbit.

        In which case, the properly mercenary Martian would want to stay in orbit until they’ve made their fortune in trade, then retire in luxury to the surface of one planet or the other before the radiation and microgravity ruins their health.

    • onyomi says:

      If you’re alive now you probably don’t have the opportunity to be anything other than the Mars Roanoke Colony, assuming we don’t radically improve longevity and/or space travel in the next several decades.

      • Zombielicious says:

        Boo. Feasibility of Musk’s plan was an assumption of the problem. I don’t really have a strong opinion on that, nor am I gung-ho about going if it does work. It just seemed like an interesting concept that I hadn’t seen discussed much anywhere else. Especially for a forum heavy on science fiction fans, and with at least a few people who seemed to be involved in (or knowledgeable of) aerospace and/or the space program in some way (John Schilling and bean, among possible others).

        Plus, I’m not sure what everyone else’s age is here, but my current life expectancy is many decades. Assuming there aren’t strict age requirements, it’s not totally unbelievable that people living today could make the trip (again though, all assuming a Musk-style plan does work out somehow).

    • gbdub says:

      Best way to capitalize would be to sell Mars survival books, kits, and classes, at an exorbitant cost, to the SpaceX fanboys.

      (But seriously – look at the gold rushes etc. The best way to reliably make good money wasn’t to be a prospector, which was boom-or-bust-but-mostly-bust (I guess Mars would be more like boom-or-BOOOOOM). No, the folks who got sustainably rich were the people selling stuff to prospectors)

      • Lumifer says:

        Yep. You want to be selling oxygen and rocket fuel X -)

        • keranih says:

          Emmm. The traditional trade goods making it rich on the gold fields are biscuits and fresh eggs.

          • BBA says:

            And blue jeans – the longest-lasting company to come out of the California gold rush[citation needed] was Levi Strauss & Co.

          • Lumifer says:

            That’s ’cause oxygen is free on Earth and biscuits and eggs are just another form of fuel.

      • Zombielicious says:

        Yeah, I was partially thinking of the gold rush quote (sell pickaxes) when I asked the question. In general that seems one of the two major ways to “capitalize” on it. Either invest in something that profits from the program, or else develop a skillset that will be used on Mars. The second probably requires you to be one of the colonists, the first doesn’t necessarily.

        Two other things about it: (1) Enforcing Earth laws and property rights on Mars could be pretty hard, so I wouldn’t count on just planning on investment in Martian real estate or equipment. You might need to actually be there to defend what you own, or else it becomes kind of meaningless when people decide your an entire planet away and can’t enforce any ownership rights on your investments.

        (2) By the time any of this got going, automation will probably be a lot further along, but shipping equipment too and from Mars (plus repairing it while there) might not have come as far. So there may be some need for more basic skillsets (e.g. electricians, horticulturalists, plumbers, etc) even if they’ve been largely replaced on Earth by that time. It seems like any strategy would have to account for the tech-level on Mars, which could vary quite a bit from Earth’s in the beginning.

        The Don Corleone part was mostly a joke, but given the similarities between an early Martian colony and a prison (closed environment, difficulty bringing in outside goods), just having the resources to funnel in rare, high-demand items or contraband might be one of the best bets.

  5. JayT says:

    How certain are we that smoking causes lung cancer? I came across this chart that says cases of and deaths from lung cancer are basically the same today that they were in 1975. There was an uptick in both in the early ’90s. However, in that time, smoking rates have been falling dramatically. The early ’90s uptick happened right after the largest drop in smokers.

    Am I wrong to think that the cancer rates should drop with the number of smokers? Is it just that more people that have cancer are diagnosed nowadays vs back in the ’70s?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This graph uses only slightly different data but makes the trend a lot clearer.

      I think what’s going on here is that the average age at diagnosis of lung cancer is about 70. So in 1975, the people getting lung cancer were born in 1905 and started smoking in 1925 or so. Today, the people getting lung cancer were born in 1946 and started smoking in 1966 or so. Smoking rates didn’t really start to fall until the 1970s / 1980s.

      So what we’re seeing now is a downturn from some of the people who started smoking in the ’60s eventually quitting (though with some damage already done). The effect from people our age not smoking because we were educated early about the dangers probably isn’t visible yet.

      • JayT says:

        Thanks for that graph.

        What then would be the reason for the large increase in the ’70s and ’80s for lung cancer? Was there a large increase in smokers at the start of the 20th century?

        My first thought would be that as life expectancy increased that lung cancer would increase since, like you say, it tend to show up around age 70, but the portion of 65+ people in 1970 was 9.8% and in 1990 was 12.5%. A significant increase, but i wouldn’t think it was enough to account for a change in new cancer cases from 52/100K all the way up to 69/100K. Especially since a big part of the aging population was that there were just fewer babies being born at that time.

        • keranih says:

          What then would be the reason for the large increase in the ’70s and ’80s for lung cancer? Was there a large increase in smokers at the start of the 20th century?

          Yes, a huge increase. See here – the cigarette-rolling machine was not invented until 1880, and even after, many men still moderated their tobacco consumption by rolling their own smokes, which were still cheaper then. In the 19th century and forward to the early 20th, chewing tobacco was still very common.

          The rise of tobacco consumption in the 1920’s was related to increasing economy of producing machine rolled cigarettes, increasing social pressure against tobacco chewing (and spitting) and decreased pressure against women smoking. The rise of assembly line labor was at least a part contributor – it was far faster to pull a single cig from a pack, light it, and go back to work than to break for long enough to hand roll a cigarette that was more fragile.

          Also remember that lung cancer only kills you if other things don’t. Auto/industrial accidents and pneumonia were once more significant killers of middle aged men.

          • Deiseach says:

            And they started marketing cigarettes to women to increase the market share; see Dorothy Sayers’ 1933 detective novel set in an advertising agency, based on her own experiences working in advertising from 1922-31:

            “In any case, we’ve got to do something.” Mr. Armstrong emerged from the argument with a slightly flushed face. “It’s no use telling people that the cost of the advertising has to come out of the quality of the goods. They don’t care. All they want is something for nothing. Pay? Yes, of course they pay in the end, but somebody’s got to pay. You can’t fight free gifts with solemn assertions about Value. Besides, if Whifflets lose their market they’ll soon lose their quality too — or what are we here for?”

            “You needn’t tell me that, Armstrong,” said Mr. Pym. “Whether people like it or not, the fact remains that unless you continually increase sales you must either lose money or cut down quality. I hope we’ve learnt that by this time.”

            “What happens,” asked Mr. Bredon, “when you’ve increased sales to saturation point?”

            “You mustn’t ask those questions, Bredon,” said Mr. Armstrong, amused.

            “No, but really. Suppose you push up the smoking of every man and woman in the Empire till they must either stop or die of nicotine poisoning?”

            “We’re a long way off that,” replied Mr. Pym, seriously. “And that reminds me. This scheme should carry a strong appeal to women. ‘Give your children that seaside holiday by smoking Whifflets.’ That sort of thing. We want to get women down to serious smoking. Too many of them play about with it. Take them off scented stuff and put them on to the straightforward Virginia cigarette —”

            “The gasper, in fact.”

            “Whifflets,” said Mr. Pym. “You can smoke a lot more of them in the day without killing yourself. And they’re cheaper. If we increase women’s smokes by 500 per cent — there’s plenty of room for it —”

  6. Lumifer says:

    Is anyone watching Hurricane Matthew? It might end the US hurricane drought…

    • The Nybbler says:

      Yep, it could be the first major hurricane to strike the US mainland since Wilma in 2005. In that year, we were told that the 2005 hurricane season was the “new normal” due to global warming, and we could expect more and stronger hurricanes in the future. The following hurricane drought was the most ironic bit of climate news until that research ship looking into disappearing sea ice got stuck in the ice.

      Or it could weaken to a Cat 2 before landfall or just spin off to the east.

      • ThirteenthLetter says:

        Don’t forget the more recent pivot to “the hurricane drought is due to global warming.” Good times.

        • Deiseach says:

          Ah yes, over here the “wetter summer/colder winter/milder winter/dry summer” is down to global warming, as well 🙂

  7. t says:

    Unfortunate test post.

    Many apologies.

  8. Sniffnoy says:

    In news of bizarre ideas: Apparently in flat-earth world, there’s a new theory that there are no real trees left on the earth, and that what we now call “trees” are nothing in comparison to the real trees, hundreds of miles high, that once existed. (H/T Sarah Perry.)

    (Honestly I wasn’t aware there were large places full of sincere flat-earthers on the Internet, I was under the impression it was pretty much all trolls…)

  9. anon says:

    Andrew Bacevich raises a question he wished Lester Holt had asked regarding nuclear policy:

    How do advances in non-nuclear weaponry — for example, in the realm of cyberwarfare — affect theories of nuclear deterrence devised by the likes of Kahn and Wohlstetter during the 1950s and 1960s? Does the logic of those theories still pertain?

    Do any of our military-minded denizens care to enlighten the rest of us?

    The reason I think this is interesting is that large-scale, carefully targeted cyber attacks could potentially be as devastating as a nuclear strike (albeit probably in a less-localized manner). Although to be honest it’s hard to say, because — even though the issue of computer network vulnerabilities has been worried about for decades in military circles thanks to Matthew Broderick — the national security state has not been particularly forthcoming with transparent assessments of their military significance.

    Obviously a pressing question is how vulnerable our command and control systems are to network intrusion, particular nuclear command and control. I’d *guess* that at *least* the nuclear stuff is well-protected. I also suspect that on a tactical level the military has a sophisticated understanding in this area, since I assume that making sure the missiles go where we point them regardless of viruses etc is what they mean when they talk about “electronic warfare and countermeasures” embedded in weapons systems. But there’s a big strategic space in between maintaining tactical control over one’s conventional weapons and ensuring one can reliably launch nuclear weapons. So my question is: does anyone have reasonable insight into whether changes in the “cyber security landscape” — broadly construed — over the past 20 years, have materially altered the strategic calculus of nuclear war?

    • hlynkacg says:

      I can say with authority that the whole “remotely launching a missile” or disabling a critical installation via laptop plots you see in action movies is patently bullshit. On the military side at least anything important is going to be air-gapped, and air-gap violations are treated as serious business on most installations.

      Now whether a hacker could intercept or disrupt the general communications net is a bit more complicated question, that I don’t feel qualified to argue. If NMCI is any indication there is a sizeable chunk of the network that is effectively held together with duct-tape and 10 year old routers.

      • brad says:

        I was alarmed when I took part in a technical discussion wherein I discovered that at least in some sectors of the tech world (maybe .mil contractors, not sure) air gap no longer means air gap.

        In particular there are companies selling products they are misleading calling data diodes that are being used as a to bridge supposedly air gapped networks. I say misleading because at least some of these devices do have a physical return path at least for acks.

        If for products that are only physically one way that’s still giving up half the benefit of an air gap.

      • Lumifer says:

        An air gap is jumpable. See Stuxnet or a variety of interesting ways to move information across the gap.

        • bean says:

          But those are about taking data out of the system, and a cyberattack is about putting data into the system.

          • brad says:

            Stuxnet moved the other direction (via sneakernet).

          • bean says:

            I’m aware of Stuxnet. I was pointing out that his other links were to methods which went the wrong way.

          • Lumifer says:

            These are about transferring information across the air gap and the information can go both ways. In particular, if you have code running on an air-gapped system (e.g. via an infected USB drive), you can send it commands.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Not so much an answer as another question – is extreme obsolescence a defence against cyber attacks? Let’s say there’s some military installation still running on 5.25″ floppies, 1980s era equipment. Would this make it more or less vulnerable?

      Mild obsolescence seems like it would be a bigger problem – I’d probably be more worried if I was running Windows XP than 3.11.

      • Gazeboist says:

        A basic prerequisite to attacking a system in a fully automated manner (as with a computer virus) is that you know the workings of the system. Security through obscurity is thus plausible in theory; the problem is that you don’t know how obscure your system really is, or what “obscure enough” looks like, until and unless your security fails. And your security is likely to fail against a determined adversary if you are relying purely on obscurity, as would be the case with an installation sticking with 1980s equipment with no improvements.

      • gbdub says:

        The bigger problem is simply not being able to fix your stuff if it breaks. There is a real problem with many systems being so old that replacement components (e.g. ICs) are no longer made.

      • brad says:

        If you can’t connect to a network that’s a de facto air gap and is a big security benefit. If you can connect to a network then you are looking a security through obscurity. That helps defend against broad undirected attacks against any vulnerable computer but is not particularly helpful against deliberate targeted attacks (think phishing vs spear phishing).

      • Lumifer says:

        is extreme obsolescence a defence against cyber attacks

        Against general “let’s find something I recognize as vulnerable”, yes. Against a targeted attack, no.

    • gbdub says:

      Not at all an expert but a few things I suspect could be hacked in such a way as to cause a lot of damage:
      1) Power distribution systems
      2) Electronic benefits transfer / welfare distribution
      3) Electronic voting

      Military-wise cyber warfare is mostly trying to get information on our advanced systems, either to copy them or find vulnerabilities.

      As far as nuclear war, I think our conventional systems are more vulnerable, which could leave us with nothing but nukes to respond. We’re very dependent on satellite communications, GPS, etc. GPS is particularly critical for precision strike weapons – disable that and we may need to use a tactical nuke for a guaranteed kill on something we might otherwise confidently hit with a non-nuclear weapon. Or we lose our situational awareness, again increasing our likelihood to hit with nukes while the hitting is good. Superior communications, command & control, and data sharing are the biggest advantage US forces have over others, and critical for any chance against a numerically similar or superior foe (e.g. China).

      You’re not going to hack a satellite with a laptop, but those links seem vital and probably vulnerable.

      • hlynkacg says:

        Yes, if I was a head of state expecting to fight the US in anything resembling a conventional war I’d be investing heavily in ways to disable or disrupt satellite communications and GPS. As that does seem to be the weakest link in our current force structure.

        • bean says:

          Yes and no. Yes, in that attacking enemy C2 infrastructure is usually a good way to go about frustrating their purpose. No, in that that stuff is pretty robust. Most of the designs currently in use date back to the Cold War, so they’re very hardened and very jam-resistant. Things like the use of active receive antennas with steerable nulls to use for blanking jammers (which means you have to get the jammer within, IIRC, a few kilometers before it becomes effective). I’m sure there are lots of goodies that I don’t know about, too.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Why is it the weakest link? It seems like the kind of thing the US should be the best at: the US has most of the world’s top universities and research institutions, and certainly the largest military budget. Is it just bad decision-making?

          Because, to me, the things that have caused the US to lose wars/have wars go less well than they might have, seem to be the “soft” factors. If I was a foreign head of state expecting to get into any kind of war with the US, I’d be doing everything I could to influence US public opinion, influence business leaders, etc.

          • bean says:

            Good point. That’s definitely a better use of resources than attempting to face us man-to-man. And in a lot of ways, we’re not even the most vulnerable to having our C2 destroyed. By that, I mean that I expect that our forces would retain a larger proportion of their effectiveness than almost anyone else’s if their radios and GPS stop working. It would be seriously problematic if we didn’t have them and the other people did, but that’s not likely.
            As an example, look at Desert Storm. We destroyed the Iraqi C2 net, and they just sat there. I expect our troops would at least try to fight.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Some people have an impression that the top militaries are dependent on their technology, which is bizarre, given the degree to which they’ve gotten better at training troops.

            I agree that the most likely scenario is that if something has happened to take down one side’s electronic communications, or electronic communications past a certain level of technology, probably it would happen to the other side too.

          • Lumifer says:

            The only two countries which could fight a conventional war against the US are Russia and China. If the war goes low(er)-tech, e.g. all the GPS satellites get shot out of the sky, I’m not sure they would be at disadvantage.

            Generally speaking, tech offsets numbers. The lower in tech you go, the more numbers matter.

          • bean says:

            The only two countries which could fight a conventional war against the US are Russia and China. If the war goes low(er)-tech, e.g. all the GPS satellites get shot out of the sky, I’m not sure they would be at disadvantage.

            But that’s not the point. The point is that any disadvantage they can cause us is likely to be matched by a disadvantage we can cause them. And in the sort of battle you get when both sides have badly degraded C2 capabilities, forces which put emphasis on individual training and initiative are going to do well. Guess who that describes?

          • Lumifer says:

            @ bean

            forces which put emphasis on individual training and initiative are going to do well.

            Nope. Forces which have an overwhelming numerical advantage are going to do well. Guess who that describes?

          • bean says:


            Nope. Forces which have an overwhelming numerical advantage are going to do well. Guess who that describes?

            I’m not claiming that initiative and training will make up for any amount of numerical inferiority. That’s a strawman. I am claiming that the way the US military is structured means it will probably cope better with battered C2 infrastructure than the Chinese or the Russians. I think you’re coming at this from the wrong angle. We’ve gotten used to being able to play havoc with the other guy’s C2 without him being able to stop us, so it’s built into your baseline. From that perspective, someone able to do unto us does gain a massive relative advantage. However, that advantage is smaller than the advantage we gain when we take out their C2, if you take that advantage out of your baseline.

          • Lumifer says:

            @ bean

            I see no particular reason to believe that. It’s not like we have empirical data to support our hand-waving :-/

            On general principles I would expect that the attacking side, especially it it depends on being maneuverable and mobile, will suffer more from disruptions in C2 compared to the defending side, especially if it defends a set of fixed positions.

          • hlynkacg says:

            @ dndnrsn
            Yes, we are the best at it, but as a general rule US combat doctrine revolves around lighter more mobile units coordinating a great deal of firepower and then dispersing. This makes us far more vulnerable to communications disruptions than more “primitive” opponents who can simply mass a bunch of tanks at point A and tell them “drive east until you find something to shoot.”

          • dndnrsn says:


            I’m no expert, but how many forces are there that can afford a mass of modern tanks but not modern communications equipment? Is it a doctrinal/training difference? I know that the US had a significant edge over the Soviets in the late 80s for communications technology – has that edge persisted?

          • JayT says:

            Also, where exactly are these tanks driving that they will be able to do significant damage to the US?

          • Lumifer says:

            @ JayT

            where exactly are these tanks driving

            Over dirt declared to be of great importance to the national security interests of the United States of America : -P

          • keranih says:

            Regarding US military and coordination –

            Allowing that inclination to independent action is both a positive and a negative, and that it varies along generational lines as well as across cultures –

            – (and the difference between selective Special Forces and standard issue grunts can be significant) –

            -…but multiple opponents have noted the US model improves on the Brit version significantly by pushing both knowledge of the objective and responsibility for accomplishing the mission down to the lowest ranking individual as much as possible. The US model rewards initiative and independent thinking in service of the overall objective far more than some civilian critics would admit.

            (Which is not to say that the various services are full of free spirits and bunch-quitters. Just that the combination of culture and training has made those more likely to be retained in the US military than in other nations. This is a field where a 10% advantage can be overwhelming, and almost doesn’t count.)

            We’d need a lot more – and a lot better observed – trails in order to be sure, however.

          • Gazeboist says:

            Speaking of trials – how often do, say, NATO countries have wargames between their armed forces? I know the US military does plenty of internal exercises, but I wonder how, say, the IDF would work as an “unusual opponent”.

          • bean says:

            Speaking of trials – how often do, say, NATO countries have wargames between their armed forces?

            There’s a fair bit of inter-NATO exercises, but since everyone uses more or less the same playbook, it’s not as different as you might think. However, there is the National Training Center at Fort Irwin (and a couple of others elsewhere), where the “bad guys” use what is basically Soviet doctrine.

            I know the US military does plenty of internal exercises, but I wonder how, say, the IDF would work as an “unusual opponent”.

            The IDF? Probably not that well. To be honest, they lost a lot of their luster after ODS. Before that, nobody in the west realized just how bad the Arabs were at war, which was covering up Israeli problems, particularly the fact that they are often terrible at staff work. The AF is OK, the army is so-so, and the navy is an embarrassment to the name.

          • keranih says:

            What bean said.

            The thought used to be in the West/America that the IDF was a buncha bad-ass-mofos – they had to be, to stand off all those Arab armies at once!

            Then we had actual western forces go up against Arab armies, and even worse try to *ally* with Arab armies.

            A mid-level sergeant in the US Army can commit to things on a level that takes a senior (but not quite general-level) officer to approve in a (typical) Arab army.

            The sort of red tape and uncoordination that this implies doesn’t mean that Arab soldiers are stupid or lack the ability to see opportunities to act – it means that they are handcuffed by culture against looking for and leaping upon opportunities to act.

            There are whole heaps of implications here – not the least is that American civil authority sits on top of the most innovative, powerful, and unpredictable military on the planet, and the risk of that military attempting a coup against its civilian population approaches zero.

            We are among the most blessed of mortals, and none of it of our own earning.

          • cassander says:

            @bean and Keranih

            It’s worth remembering that, for all their weaknesses, the Arab armies the Israelis went up against had a massive material advantage, including enormous quantities of then top of the line soviet gear. That advantage was basically gone by the time desert storm rolled around. The achievements of the IDF are far from unimpressive.

          • Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

            This discussion seems to take as an article of faith that initiative is a good thing. But is it?

    • bean says:

      I’m not too worried overall. Pretty much anything which touches nuclear weapons is stupidly robust, and a good chunk of modern security infrastructure came out of work done by the nuclear-industrial complex. Things like retina scans and secret-sharing. (Ross Anderson’s Security Engineering has more details.) I’m sure the pace has slackened a bit, but there are still groups dedicated to dealing with that kind of thing.
      I’ve also heard, anecdotally, that the big difference between US and Chinese cyberwar units is that ours don’t get caught nearly as often.

      • Lumifer says:

        Pretty much anything which touches nuclear weapons is stupidly robust

        I thought there was some controversy about that…

        • bean says:

          That’s not quite the same thing. SAC was of the opinion that PALs were more likely to get in the way of an intentional nuclear launch than prevent an unintentional one, so they took steps to neuter them. I’m very far from certain they were wrong about that, and if we’re worried about cyberattack, then making it easier for people to launch on their own is exactly what we should be doing.

          • Lumifer says:

            A successful attack against a nuclear weapon is not limited to being able to execute a launch. To give an example off the top of my head, if you found a way to subvert some sensors and fiddle with some engine maintenance routines, you might be able to explode an ICBM in its silo while all the launch safeties are still perfectly fine.

          • bean says:

            A successful attack against a nuclear weapon is not limited to being able to execute a launch.

            I was taking the opposite tack, and pointing out that the all-0 PAL (permissive action link) code means that a cyberattack which took down comms couldn’t stop a nuclear attack. Most potential adversaries wouldn’t want to launch, they’d want to keep us from doing so.

            To give an example off the top of my head, if you found a way to subvert some sensors and fiddle with some engine maintenance routines, you might be able to explode an ICBM in its silo while all the launch safeties are still perfectly fine.

            Yes, but if that’s possible (unlikely, as modern US ICMBs are all solid-fuel and thus don’t really have engine maintenance routines) then the PAL code doesn’t matter either way.

          • Lumifer says:

            if we’re worried about cyberattack, then making it easier for people to launch on their own is exactly what we should be doing

            Huh? Are you worried about a cyberattack or are you worried about an all-out preemptive nuclear strike which, by the way, happens to be accompanied by a cyberattack? It’s not the 1960s any more.

          • bean says:

            Huh? Are you worried about a cyberattack or are you worried about an all-out preemptive nuclear strike which, by the way, happens to be accompanied by a cyberattack? It’s not the 1960s any more.

            I’m worried about both. And the obvious weak point of the deterrent is the comms. A missile in Montana is just as disabled if the PAL code is in Washington and the comms are down as it is if someone sets off the rocket inside the silo. Yes, the first can be recovered faster than the second, but the second isn’t going to be able to disable the gravity bombs. Mitigating against the second might make the first more likely.

          • Winter Shaker says:

            You don’t know how disappointed I am to have googled the phrase ‘gravity bomb’ to find it just means an unguided bomb that just falls under gravity, rather than a sci-fi superweapon that sets off an exploding gravitational wave.

  10. jabberbonjwa says:

    Something you guys might like:

    Things anti-depressant ads oughtn’t say.

  11. Ralf says:

    > In the middle of the night in my second year of psychiatric residency, 13 years ago, I was awakened to see a prophet. … I knew, though, that if we gave him antipsychotic medication, he would realize that he was a homeless man with AIDS. Would he rather stay a prophet? Did he have the right to choose psychosis? Did I have the right to choose for him?

    • Deiseach says:

      What was the point of that article other than to make that woman feel better about herself? “No, I don’t hand out drugs like a vending machine, I think about what I’m doing, I have deep meaningful thoughts and possibly I read some R.D. Laing, or at least one of my lecturers quoted him, back when I was studying”.

      “Oooh, should I treat the homeless man with AIDS and sarcoma or would that infringe on his feelings?” Was she also debating about giving the man treatment for his cancer because after all, he saw that as well as a sign of his mission from God? I sincerely hope not.

      This is the kind of self-important article that drives me spare: (a) lightly fictionalised story about someone with problem (b) heavy-handed philosophising over this, all of it revolving around Me, Professional Whatever, and how I felt about it (c) another cherry-picked account that seems on the face of it to support my qualms but when you look at it in detail, I end up doing the conventional medical thing (d) more chin-stroking over pros and cons (e) contradictory account of someone who got better all on their ownsome! (f) conclusion with more heavy-handed philosophising, oh and by the way, of course I gave him medication, I’m a doctor: if people can get better on their own, I’m out of a job!

      Should we give medicine to people who are sick: oh, what a quandary, how can I possibly decide? Yeah, well, when Dr Irene gives it all up to live on the streets as a homeless person experiencing ecstatic meaning, then I’ll believe she has actual real doubts about is mental illness all bad.

      • Publius Varinius says:

        I was going to mumble something about this SMBC, but Deiseach’s comment summarizes my feelings about the article more accuracy.

    • JayT says:

      That was an interesting article, and it’s something I think about often. When I see people with obvious mental issues homeless on the street I often wonder what is the more humane thing to do for them. Let them live out their lives in squalor, or institutionalize them.

  12. anon says:

    Informal poll:

    Divorcing the question, to the extent you deem possible, from your opinions on important legal outcomes, do you accept legal positivism and/or a textualist/formalist theory of legal interpretation (e.g. originalism in the Constitutional context) as basically correct?

    A. Yes positivism, yes textualism, and I think these two views are inextricably linked.
    B. Yes positivism, yes textualism, but I think it’s possible to hold one view without the other.
    C. Yes positivism, no textualism, and I think I’m being inconsistent.
    D. Yes positivism, no textualism, and I think I’m being consistent.
    E. No positivism, yes textualism, and I think I’m being inconsistent.
    F. No positivism, yes textualism, and I think I’m being consistent.
    G. No positivism, no textualism, and I think these two views are inextricably linked.
    H. No positivism, no textualism, but I think it’s possible to hold one view without the other.
    Z. Refuse to answer because I disagree with some premise of the question (please specify).

    For the purposes of this survey, please disregard as an aspect of “legal positivism” the contentious ethical claim that “moral judgments, unlike statements of fact, cannot be established or defended by rational argument, evidence, or proof” (from the wiki page). Although feel free to remark if you think that this makes an important difference to your answer.

    related reading

    • Urstoff says:

      Given the wiki link, it seems that textualism and originalism are contradictory positions.

      • anon says:

        You might be right. IANAL and I was perhaps unduly influenced by the Alexander article I linked at the bottom. I thought originalists basically say the Constitution should be interpreted in a manner consistent with the meaning of the words. To the extent there is controversy over the distinction between the “authorially-intended” meaning and the so-called “public meaning” of the words, I take no position so far as the literal words on the page actually have an “ordinary meaning”. Let’s regard both as subsumed within the broader thesis — which I take to be a correct (?) definition of textualism — that “a legal text’s ordinary meaning should govern its interpretation, as opposed to inquiries into non-textual sources such as the intention of the legislature in passing the law, the problem it was intended to remedy, or substantive questions of the justice and rectitude of the law”.

        If I’m deeply misguided about whether this an interesting question after making this modification, feel free to say so. Like I said, IANAL.

      • Salem says:

        Originally (ha!), originalism was all about “original intent,” and many people (mostly non-originalists) still use it in that way. That form of originalism is contradictory to textualism.

        The most popular and influential form of originalism, however, is “original public meaning” originalism. This is a form of textualism.

        So textualism and originalism aren’t contradictory, but neither are they the same. Textualism is about where you look (in the text, as opposed to, say, legislative history). Originalism is about when you look.

        • brad says:

          In American legal philosophy there are also schools that treat statutes differently from the Constitution in terms of how they ought to be interpreted.

          Consider, for example, Scalia’s attitude towards the Congressional record as compared to his attitude towards the Federalist Papers.

    • Publius Varinius says:

      F. No positivism, yes textualism, and I think I’m being consistent.

    • Gazeboist says:

      I’ll take B: +positivism, +textualism, but they are independent. That said, I take issue with the positivist claim that legal systems are necessarily closed. I suspect that they often are open, or at least not closed in a useful sense, and the belief that they are can cause some pretty nasty problems.

      The first three items of WP’s definition, really, are what I support.

    • herbert herbertson says:

      H. Laws are written in human languages which are intrinsically linked with social norms and understandings. However, it’s perfectly possible to imagine the relevant social norms and understandings as being based exclusively on the original understanding of the text as it existed at the time it was written without regard to any subsequent evolution of either the language or the concepts to which it refers. Personally, I think the history of common law and the existence of the 9th Amendment strongly suggests that, in a Constitutional context, the original understanding of the text was not intended to be perpetually binding (thus making me some kind of perverse anti-formalist originalist textualist, I guess?), but that’s, at the very least, a tough question where reasonable minds can differ.

    • The Nybbler says:

      H. I believe positivism implies textualism but not vice-versa.

    • realrichardnixonverifiedofficial says:

      Technically B but with a lot of sympathy for A. As in, technically, yeah, you could have a natural-law textualism (“the Framers were divinely inspired and the Constitution merely spells out natural law” or “literal adherence to at least some positive laws is an absolute duty at natural law”) or a positivist prudentialism/living-constitutionalism (“there is an interpretive canon or something else that positively authorizes judges to change the correct force of constitutional provisions from what they meant when written”), but in practice these are very unattractive positions.

    • I’ll take D, but I read the links pretty quickly.

      Positivism sounds good, I think it just means you follow what the law says and don’t try to inject one’s own morals? That is, no judicial activism?

      Textualism sounds bad because it rejects original intent, and I think judges should try to follow the intent of the laws’ creators, unless the meaning is crystal clear without doing so.

      At least the way I am defining the two terms, I think they are orthogonal to each other, so they neither contradict nor complement each other.

      • cassander says:

        >, and I think judges should try to follow the intent of the laws’ creators, unless the meaning is crystal clear without doing so.

        300 legislators vote for law X, many of them for entirely different reasons. How do you divine what’s the intent from that?

        • It is my understanding that there are published documents of discussions in Congress, which helps to determine intent. Also, earlier versions of the law that were rejected gives an idea of what Congress was specifically avoiding. I think I have read in some court cases where a judge mentions that an earlier version of a particular law that was rejected clearly having provisions that the advocate before the court was stating that a particular reading of the law indicates is still there. Striking out some provision clearly shows intent of what is not included. I approve of such analysis.

          • cassander says:

            The point is that while a Congressmen might have intent, Congress does not. Members van and do vote the same way with opposite intent and there’s no honest way to decide which intent matters more, or even which was most common. All we have that everyone can agree on is the words that are written.

  13. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Wikiquote considers it well-sourced that Robert Oppenheimer believed there had been pre-modern nuclear weapons, saying “Well — yes. In modern times, of course.” to a student at Rochester University who asked if the Alamogordo bomb had been the first.

    Is he documented as saying anything else about this? “There were pre-modern people with nuclear weapons” is one heck of a fringe belief for a genius to hold.

    • Dr Dealgood says:

      He was pretty interested in Hinduism, which makes sense given that his most famous quote is from the Bhagavad Gita. And some of the Astra in Hindu mythology look like nukes if you tilt your head and squint.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        It’s indisputable that Oppenheimer believed in Hinduism*. Believing that some astras were literal nuclear weapons that Indians could manufacture when the rest of the world was in the Bronze Age would still be an extraordinary thing for a scientific genius to believe in the absence of physical evidence. The equivalent for a Christian would be, like, Georges Lemaître believing Genesis 6-8 describes a literal global flood that God had to send because humanity had been corrupted by Nephilim technology.

        *Whether we can say “he was a Hindu” is ambiguous given lack of ritual practice or a community to perform them in.

        • Dr Dealgood says:

          Well I don’t know what to tell you.

          Being a genius scientist isn’t exactly a vaccine against crazy beliefs. But by the same token usually those beliefs don’t usually show up in the man’s own field of expertise.

          If he believed that the Mahabharata accurately recounted pre-modern nuclear weapons, then presumably he thought they had the appropriate technological base to build them. Which fits with the Yuga structure I guess: if we in the Kali Yuga can build them, the kingdoms of the Dvapara Yuga would be sure to have had them.

        • Anonymous says:

          that some astras were literal nuclear weapons that Indians could manufacture when the rest of the world was in the Bronze Age would still be an extraordinary thing for a scientific genius to believe in the absence of physical evidence.

          Ridiculous, but not extraordinary at all. Look at Newton, or Erdős, or for a closer example, just look at the apparently-rational people here on this site who nevertheless believe in millenarian AI salvation or the Singularity or the simulation hypothesis or any number of similar nonsense ideas, simply because they were SF geeks first and then started caring about logic. It’s par for the course.


          Which fits with the Yuga structure I guess: if we in the Kali Yuga can build them, the kingdoms of the Dvapara Yuga would be sure to have had them.

          I think this is the correct explanation here, yeah. The other stuff seems a bit rickety and badly underpinned, but a guy who believes in Hindu mysticism and the Yugas pretty much has to draw this conclusion.

    • anon says:

      He might also have been familiar with Libyan desert glass which has some similarities with glass produced by an aerial nuclear blast over sand.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I looked into this pretty intensely a while ago, and was unable to find any really ironclad evidence he believed this. He was kind of interested in Hindu mysticism but the idea that he believed there were nukes in the Mahabharata seems to have been made up by enthusiasts who wanted to ascribe their own opinions to him.

      I may be wrong about this, I’m working off memory here.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        That sounds plausible, but just makes the sourced quote from Rochester University more cryptic.

    • onyomi says:

      There is definitely a not-too-rare strain of thought in contemporary Hinduism which looks upon Ancient India as a technological wonderland/golden age from which people fell very far.

      Some people, for example, take the pushpaka vimana to be evidence of ancient Indian air travel.

  14. Sniffnoy says:

    So, here’s an interesting psychological hypothesis I just encountered (h/t Alice Maz). You’ve likely heard before the theory that autism and schizophrenia are actually opposites, so that you could form an autistic-schizophrenic spectrum with most people in the middle. Well, here’s a pair of articles proposing, based on physiology, that perhaps this axis is actually the same as the domestication axis that’s so famous from canine experiments, with schizophrenic people being more domesticated than usual and autisic people being less domesticated.

    I am not remotely qualified to evaluate this, but I thought I’d point it out.

    • The Most Conservative says:

      So autists are unusually non-domesticated, and this makes them aggressive, whereas schizophrenics are unusually domesticated, and this makes them aggressive?

      • herbert herbertson says:

        In both cases the aggression isn’t a direct symptom of the disorder, but rather a result of the other symptoms, no?

  15. The Pachyderminator says:

    Here’s a PDF of the first two books of UNSONG that I made with LaTeX. It’s imperfect, because this is my first LaTeX project and I’m still figuring things out. In particular, I can’t for the life of me get the damn Hebrew letters to work. However, I think on the whole this is the nicest-looking PDF of those I’ve seen so far.

    The PDF is 449 pages, and the story so far is about 151,00 words.

    • BBA says:

      Have you tried XeTeX? I haven’t done serious TeX stuff in almost a decade but I recall XeTeX having better support for Unicode, newer fonts, etc. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Computer Modern, but sometimes you don’t want your document to look like a graduate school math textbook.) As the name suggests, it also supports right-to-left text like Hebrew and Arabic.

      Invoke it as xelatex instead of pdflatex.

      • Gazeboist says:

        LuaTeX is another, even more modern alternative. I believe XeTeX and LuaTeX both have better respect for command line standards than LaTeX.

        • Anonymous says:

          No, as far as command line behaviour goes, all TeX engines are horrible.

          • Gazeboist says:

            Hmm. I remember a friend telling me that luatex was at least willing to obey IO redirection. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to learn that it misbehaves in other ways, though.

    • Anatoly says:

      So, just a bit longer than “The Last of the Mohicans” and a little shorter than “Catch-22”. Damn.

      Thanks for doing this. Can you clarify about the Hebrew letters – I haven’t read UNSONG at all yet, been meaning to – are they just completely missing or replaced by something in your version? If I read UNSONG through your link only, will I miss something important? (I actually know Hebrew letters)

      • The Pachyderminator says:

        No, you won’t miss anything important. Hebrew letters are mostly just used for Interlude titles, and I just spelled out the letter names instead. At one point in the text (just one, as I recall) there are a couple Hebrew words that are missing in my version.

        However, if you’d rather read a PDF than from the website, also consider the more accomplished version posted by Anonymous below.

    • Anonymous says:

      Funny, I’ve been doing the same thing. Here’s my version. I did take some liberties: Uriel speaks in Sᴍᴀʟʟ ᴄᴀᴘꜱ instead of ALL CAPS (this was somewhat tricky, as I wasn’t sure how to capitalise some words), quote links have been fixed to point to specific posts, the use of em and en dashes has been corrected, some other nits left unfixed by Scott have been fixed (some others may have been left unfixed, as sometimes I have been scraping old versions of chapters to generate the source TeX files…)

      I used XeLaTeX and the memoir class; for Hebrew I used polyglossia, bidi and fontspec packages. I should probably thank TeX.SE for figuring out how to do interludes (even though that solution isn’t quite satisfactory to me). For quotes I used the epigraph package. Maybe I’ll publish the TeX sources some day.

      • The Pachyderminator says:

        Ooh, very nice. I appreciate that you took the time to dig up all the links.

        Strangely enough, the interludes were the one thing I didn’t have much trouble with: I simply used \chapter* instead of \chapter, and added the following line below each \chapter* command: \addcontentsline{toc}{chapter}{Interlude Title}
        That seems to provide the desired effect, if I’m not missing anything. (Here’s my version with a table of contents added.)

        (Edit: Okay, I am sort of missing something. Your method puts “Interlude [Letter]” on a separate line in the header, same as the chapter headers, where mine has to put “Interlude [Letter]” in the chapter title.)

        I’ll try messing around with XeLaTeX soon and see if I can get the Hebrew to work.

  16. R Flaum says:

    Does anyone know if there’s ever been a non-religious vocation that required celibacy? I don’t mean things like sailors being expected to be celibate on long sea voyages, but jobs that are expected to include priesthood-style lifelong celibacy. (I recognize that “non-religious” is kind of a fuzzy category here).

    • Deiseach says:

      No kind of expertise here, just throwing some art at you 🙂

      The painting The Long Engagement by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Arthur Hughes; it depicts a Church of England clergyman and his fiancée who have been waiting to marry for a long time (he can’t marry her until he has a good living that will enable him to keep a wife and family). 19th century novels tend to have a good deal of this kind of thing, A and B are in love but there is no chance of them marrying (soon, if ever) because they are too poor.

      Also, I’m going on vague memories of Kipling stories in general here, but young Englishmen in the Indian Civil Service and allied associations would be expected (a) to marry women of their own race and class (b) but not to marry while building their careers. This meant young men with no prospect of getting married early (it apparently was frowned upon by the employers for whatever reason) until they had advanced enough in their career, so this meant taking native mistresses (with all the problems of that) and prostitution, etc. One story in particular, Kidnapped, shows the attitude (or at least one attitude) of the time and place: an Englishman gets engaged to a Portuguese woman (of what is heavily inferred to be mixed-race); everyone thinks this is career suicide, as well as being completely the wrong marriage, so they arrange for him to “go on leave” which means being practically kidnapped and kept past the date of his wedding by force. The implication being, if he still tries to marry the woman, well – he knows what will happen. Kipling doesn’t indicate that he approves of the attitude he describes, but he takes it as one of the facts of life in the Raj if the British are to maintain their ascendancy over the native population:

      So Peythroppe came to his right mind again, and did much good work, and was honored by all who knew him. One of these days he will marry; but he will marry a sweet pink-and-white maiden, on the Government House List, with a little money and some influential connections, as every wise man should. And he will never, all his life, tell her what happened during the seven weeks of his shooting-tour in Rajputana.

      • Anonymous says:

        Also, I’m going on vague memories of Kipling stories in general here, but young Englishmen in the Indian Civil Service and allied associations would be expected (a) to marry women of their own race and class (b) but not to marry while building their careers.

        This also shows up as plot-relevant in the Sherlock Holmes story The Crooked Man, and I think incidentally in a couple of the others. (The plot implicitly hinges on the fact that although they’re generally understood as a settled thing, a corporal in an Indian regiment and his sweetheart aren’t married. As far as I can remember, the reason and so on isn’t explicitly alluded to; it’s just assumed to be obvious.)

        • Deiseach says:

          I had a quick read-over of the story, and it’s more that the girl’s father wants her to marry her other suitor, who is more educated, ambitious and is marked out for promotion, but she prefers another man and sticks out for him. So they’re not formally engaged because her father won’t give permission, but she would have married him eventually if the plot hadn’t happened 🙂

          Though we do get the social divisions within the Army and British society in India at the time; the officer (as he eventually becomes) started out as a mere private and was promoted from the ranks, and his wife was the daughter of an NCO as well, so they were perceived as being “lower ranks” and not quite of the same class to which they had advanced (and of course this is precisely why her father wants her to marry Barclay, because he will better himself in his career and provide her with a better life):

          It was commanded up to Monday night by James Barclay, a gallant veteran, who started as a full private, was raised to commissioned rank for his bravery at the time of the Mutiny, and so lived to command the regiment in which he had once carried a musket.

          Colonel Barclay had married at the time when he was a sergeant, and his wife, whose maiden name was Miss Nancy Devoy, was the daughter of a former color-sergeant in the same corps. There was, therefore, as can be imagined, some little social friction when the young couple (for they were still young) found themselves in their new surroundings. They appear, however, to have quickly adapted themselves, and Mrs. Barclay has always, I understand, been as popular with the ladies of the regiment as her husband was with his brother officers.

    • keranih says:

      Western life-long celibacy for religious sorts isn’t exactly universal – the Buddhist monks tend to be life phases, not careerists, if you follow.

      And before the American revolution (and even more before the Reformation) the idea that one could have a religious identity separate from a secular life was pretty rare. Values of all sorts were tied to ones faith.

      An example of a secular profession that expected its female members to be celibate is here.

      • Deiseach says:

        The marriage ban was in operation for a lot of jobs up until the 70s (and even later); women who were in the Civil Service or jobs like teaching and who then married were expected to leave the job because (a) now her husband would support her so she wouldn’t need to earn her own living (b) she would be a wife and mother which was a full-time job of its own and probably a touch of (c) not to be taking jobs from men in hard economic times.

        So while there wasn’t an expectation of celibacy as such (the idea was that, unless you were a crabby old maid, you’d eventually marry), a lot of female employment did involve functional celibacy: single women only.

    • Lumifer says:

      A vocation as a harem servant required life-long celibacy which was, um, guaranteed on entering the job.

      • R Flaum says:

        Oh, good point.

      • Anonymous says:

        The same goes for the somewhat more materially rewarding positions that were the higher echelons of the Imperial Chinese “civil service”.

      • keranih says:


        (And it is worth remembering that castration was not done simply to protect the merchandise, as it were, but also because they were thought to be better administrators and civil servants. Men who could have no sons had limited pressure from their own fathers to manipulate the government to support the clan, and no in-laws.)

        (Ninja’d in part by blood-red anon above.)

      • Equinimity says:

        According to a friend who had an extremely unfortunate cycling accident, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee celibacy, though it does mean your will has to leave things to someone else’s descendants.
        I’ve never inquired about details. I gather from occasional comments over the years that the testosterone injections he has now bring things back to near normal, but even without them he wasn’t completely incapacitated.

    • Why do you ask?

      Not lifelong, but female teachers used to be expected to not marry and not have children.

      A fast google search turned up answers about a celibacy requirement for female teachers (possibly all female government employees) in Germany before Weimar, but the links were to google books. I’ve heard that if you link to a section of a google book, that section is likely to be deleted from google.

      • R Flaum says:

        I was reading a fantasy story the other day in which judges were expected to remain celibate, and I was wondering if that was a realistic thing. The only celibate professions I could think of were religious ones.

        • Gazeboist says:

          Given keranih’s discussion of eunuchs in administrative positions above, it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

        • Deiseach says:

          Oh, I was forgetting the Oxford and Cambridge colleges where until the 19th century, Fellows were not allowed to marry. If they wanted to marry, they had to resign their fellowship (often, as they were Protestant clergy in training, this meant they resigned when they obtained a parish and were able to support a wife and family). This was the carry-over after the Reformation of the original purposes of the particular colleges, which had been founded for educating Catholic clergy.

          For example, the Wikipedia article on Corpus Christi, Cambridge:

          In 1882, there was a momentous change in Corpus; fellows were allowed to marry. This meant that being an academic fellow could be a lifelong career rather than a stop gap between study and becoming a country parson.

          Or New College, Oxford:

          Many fellows only lingered after taking their degrees until appointed to lucrative college parishes at which point they resigned and could get married. Until the 1860s, fellows could not marry, although Wardens had done so since 1551.

          So that’s a sort of religious/not religious requirement for celibacy to keep in the job; you didn’t have to intend to take Holy Orders but if you were a Fellow you had to be single.

          • Anonymous says:

            Fellows were not allowed to marry.

            Is it just me or is that whole system obviously superior to the current one of tenure? Obviously it can’t be used anymore even if we wanted to, though, since secularism lacks an equivalent to the country parson.

            …Hm, I guess this is how people begin thinking that eating death might be a good idea after all.

          • Lumifer says:

            secularism lacks an equivalent to the country parson.

            It does not, you just go to teach at a Boondocks County College…

    • Iain says:

      Another non-lifelong example: until 1974, officers in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were not allowed to marry until they had five years of service, enough money in a savings account to support a wife, and the approval of a commanding officer. My grandfather left the force in the 1950s to marry my grandmother, which was apparently not an uncommon occurrence.

  17. dx says:

    For scott (or any mods with enough access): regarding the EA newsletter ad on the right sidebar, I can’t see it because the “_images/ad_” part of matches ublock’s filter. Can you rename it to something that isn’t blocked? The other ads are _ad.jpg instead of ad_*.jpg

    (I could disable my adblocker here, but it’s better if it’s visible for everyone)

  18. onyomi says:

    Not entirely apolitical, but at least unrelated to the election:

    Though as the libertarian Sinologist I should probably be the one with some kind of answer to this question, I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on the Opium Wars and their implications for drug prohibition and or trade policy?

    The mainstream interpretation is that the Chinese people were devastated by the British forcing the Chinese government to allow them to sell opium there. But no one was forcing any individual person to buy or use opium, of course. The conflict was just over the right to sell it.

    This interpretation is pretty problematic for libertarians as it implies that free trade, and especially free trade in certain substances, can be devastating to a society. Is this interpretation correct in this case, or does a good libertarian have an answer to this case?

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      The drug wars in the US are a direct result of the drug trafficking treaty China insisted on as part of the negotiations after WWII. Implication is a weaker term than what it is; our laws prohibiting drugs were required by the treaty.

      Given that the US didn’t have a substantive problem with drugs (AFAIK – somebody might be able to correct me there) before the drug war, it appears pretty clear that the broader social problems are a result of prohibition, not trade.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        That sounds all wrong to me. The US banned most now-popular drugs before the war. The 1948 treaty doesn’t seem very different from the 1931 treaty. And the “war on drugs” should probably be dated to 1968. Drugs exploded in the 60s. Treaties didn’t make California ban LSD in 1966, nor the feds in 1970. Heightened enforcement was probably an excuse to lock up hippies. Or, maybe, they thought that drugs caused hippies.

        That’s not to say that the problems justified the prohibitions, but I think it’s ridiculous to argue post hoc ergo procter hoc with a lag of decades.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I had a little bit of trouble finding what treaty you were talking about, so for everyone else, it’s this one.

      • Deiseach says:

        Given that the US didn’t have a substantive problem with drugs (AFAIK – somebody might be able to correct me there) before the drug war

        Well, Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel “The Dain Curse” involves, amongst other things, a young woman addicted to morphine, so there is at least some indication – from sensational literature – that drug addiction was a thing, even if it was confined to the upper/better-off classes. Whereas the traditional 19th century novel would have had the sinister opium dens in Limehouse, American hard-boiled novels had unscrupulous doctors ‘prescribing’ all kinds of goodies to wealthy patients, as well as criminal drug suppliers – Dorothy Sayers’ 1933 “Murder Must Advertise” again involves as part of the plot, a drug ring supplying wealthy younger people. Cocaine seems to have been the drug of choice there, but I suppose you could say morphine led on to heroin. The popular idea of “reefer madness” seems to have come later and to be for a younger, lower class/poorer set who couldn’t afford/didn’t have the connections with complaisant doctors for the ‘smart set’ drugs.

        I do remember years back a television documentary on the roots of the drug problem in Britain, and I do remember that one old-style addict was rather complaining that, so long as doctors had been able to discreetly prescribe heroin to their wealthier patients, there wasn’t a problem because it wasn’t worth it for criminal gangs to get involved, but when that was stopped (in an attempt to get addicts clean or whatever), then it became profitable to supply and naturally it became a ‘mass-market’ product.

        I say “rather complaining” because I got the distinct impression he was irritated about the government sticking its nose in to make him stop his habit, which ruined his genteel addiction where he could afford to pay for discreet doctors (and presumably detox every now and again), never mind that all these poor people who wanted the same drugs as him then got criminals involved and made having a drug habit distinctly declassé 🙂

    • Dr Dealgood says:

      Not exactly a libertarian, but I don’t see why being in favor of free trade generally demands that you accept trade of every particular good.

      Even if you deny, against the evidence of our eyes, that people can have preferences which are bad for them if pursued you should still recognize that some transactions carry costs for third parties. The opium addict who turns to crime or abandons his family in service of his addiction is a menace, harming others whether through action or inaction. Internalizing that cost by raising the price of opium, even if that means outright prohibition, is eminently reasonable.

      • onyomi says:

        I guess the question from the libertarian perspective is:

        Imagine the army of Colombia is, for some reason, stronger than that of the US, and they show up with a bunch of tanks one day and say “stop prohibiting the sale of cocaine, or else!”

        In such a scenario, are the people of the US being oppressed by the government of Colombia, or is the government of Colombia saving the people of the US from the oppression of its own government?

        Related, is taxing of an undesirable like smoking ethically justifiable in a way which banning it might not be? I’ve heard that Singapore has high enough taxes on alcohol to actually make people drink less, though the idea that only the rich should be allowed to drink seems a bit unjust. Better than outright prohibition, of course.

        • Dr Dealgood says:

          I’d say that, in that case, Columbia is the one oppressing Americans. And the way that they would be oppressing us is precisely by tearing down American prohibitions which stop marginal addicts from using.

          Some portion of Americans would prefer to use cocaine and resent the prohibition. Some of those would even be responsible users. But the rest of us have a preference not to live in drug-ravaged slums, and that preference carries quite a bit more weight. Indulging the minority of addicts’ preferences would be ruinous for the preferences of the majority of non-addicts.

          Anyway, as much as I like Singapore it’s an open question as to what extent their particular legal system is contributing to social order above what you would expect for a majority Chinese country. The comparison shouldn’t be between Singapore and the US but between Singapore and Taiwan or the PRC.

        • TheAncientGeek says:

          From alibertarian perspective, the answer is surely “both”.

      • Lumifer says:

        who turns to crime or abandons his family in service of his addiction is a menace, harming others whether through action or inaction

        That’s way too general an argument which can be utilized against most everything, from video games to plain vanilla goofing off. Recall that in the USSR not being employed was a criminal offense.

        Pretty much everything you do has externalities and affects third parties. That’s not a good reason to tax and control everything. You need a threshold and your argument should explain why do you place that threshold in a particular place.

  19. Deiseach says:

    Combining the AI threat and the Jewish New Year, this article by Rabbi Lord Sacks.

  20. Corey says:

    Wikipedia requests that you have sex with the Pope, at the top of the linked page.

    • Deiseach says:

      Wikipedia requests that you have sex with the Pope, at the top of the linked page

      List of sexually active popes.

      “You can help by expanding it”.

      Very witty, Corey. There’s probably an emoticon for the expression on my face right now but I have no idea what it might be.

    • Urstoff says:

      Can you still become a priest these days if you’ve been married before? I assume you have to be childless, but could a widower or divorcee become a priest?

      • Urstoff says:

        Also, TIL that the unification of Italy occurred when Sardinia(!) conquered the peninsula.

        • Anonymous says:

          Strictly speaking, yes, it was the Kingdom of Sardinia. But in practice it was piedmont that unified Italy.

      • smocc says:

        My Catholic officemate confirms my guess that yes, you can become a priest if you have been married in the past. In fact, there are apparently eastern rite Catholic priests who do marry.

        Divorce is more complicated and the answer is probably not. If the church recognized your marriage when it was performed then even if you think you are divorced you are still married in the eyes of the church and so priesthood is out. Which marriages are recognized is tricky, but they do recognize most Protestant marriages.

        • dndnrsn says:

          It is possible to have married Catholic priests. There’s a loophole, kinda-sorta:

          Since at least the early 1950s, former Anglican, Lutheran and other clergy who join the Catholic Church have been granted exceptions to the norm of celibacy, in a practice mentioned in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus of 1967

        • Deiseach says:

          Yes, the Eastern Rite churches have married clergy (like the Eastern Orthodox, generally only monastics/celibates can become bishops). They are the ones in communion with the Pope, so they are all part of the Catholic Church 🙂

      • Nomine says:

        In the Catholic Church at least, a widower can become a priest. The church does not allow for divorce and recognizes no marriage but its own (Edit: and those of the Orthodox churches), so in their eyes there is no such thing as a divorcee.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          It accepts no marriages but its own (and Orthodox ones) as sacramental marriages, but it does recognise non-Catholic, and indeed non-Christian, marriages as valid. I don’t any Catholic theologian would claim that Muslims or Jews or whatever are literally unable to get married.

      • Steven says:

        Yes, a widower can become a Catholic priest.
        The widower doesn’t have to be childless, but any children need to be self-sufficient adults.
        A divorcee cannot, unless the marriage was annulled.
        (Divorces aren’t recognized under canon law.)
        Age may be an issue for getting accepted to the seminary.

        This appears to be pretty rare, but does happen from time to time:

      • Adam says:

        As others have mentioned, you can be a widower, but in addition you also do not need to be childless. My parish priest growing up was a widower who had a daughter. However, I don’t think they’ll let you into seminary if you are currently raising a child. He did not enter seminary until his daughter reached adulthood.

      • Anonymous says:

        Absolutely! Widowers can become priests as long as they are not over 50 (but this determination is up to the bishop). Even divorced men can become priests as long as their marriage is annulled.

  21. Anon. says:

    Keats on Hostile AI — the influence of Land is clear. From Book II of Hyperion:

    As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far
    Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chiefs;
    And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth
    In form and shape compact and beautiful,
    In will, in action free, companionship,
    And thousand other signs of purer life;
    So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
    A power more strong in beauty, born of us
    And fated to excel us, as we pass
    In glory that old Darkness: nor are we
    Thereby more conquer’d, than by us the rule
    Of shapeless Chaos. Say, doth the dull soil
    Quarrel with the proud forests it hath fed,
    And feedeth still, more comely than itself?
    Can it deny the chiefdom of green groves?
    Or shall the tree be envious of the dove
    Because it cooeth, and hath snowy wings
    To wander wherewithal and find its joys?
    We are such forest-trees, and our fair boughs
    Have bred forth, not pale solitary doves,
    But eagles golden-feather’d, who do tower
    Above us in their beauty, and must reign
    In right thereof.

  22. sinxoveretothex says:

    Scott, random question for you: do you know what happened to The Last Psychiatrist? Have you met him?

  23. Seth says:

    Deep Thought: Why aren’t kangaroos intelligent? One of the theories as to why humans are intelligent is that there’s an extended development period following birth so that permits more brain development. But kangaroos seem to implement this idea of a development period following birth even better than humans, via hanging out in the mother’s pouch. That’s much more protected than an exposed just-born human. So why aren’t they using that time for creating better kangaroo brains? Plus they already have the upright posture built-in, so they can easily apply tool-making via their forelimbs. And the pouches might let them carry stuff, which is a very big deal if you’ve made a tool.

    It seems like kangaroos should be ruling the world. Did hairless apes simply get there first?

    • This reminds me of an old sf story idea I had and do not plan to write.

      The aliens are marsupials. They know why. As the size of the brain gets bigger it becomes unable to fit through the pelvis for birth unless the pelvis gets wider, and that is prevented by the inability of females with wide pelvises to run fast enough to evade predators. This prevents evolution producing intelligence–except in marsupials, which solve the problem by getting the fetus through the pelvis while still only partly developed and finishing the process afterwards. Hence only marsupials can be intelligent.

      They are now in orbit around Earth, trying to figure out which species is responsible for the obvious signs of technology.

    • Loquat says:

      Why would a kangaroo want to spend valuable biological resources building a bigger brain? Kangaroos are basically the marsupial equivalent of cattle, herbivorous grazers that chew the cud – there are a lot of successful species in the “large herbivore” category, but none that I’m aware of has much intelligence. You don’t need a high IQ to figure out how to run from predators, and you don’t need any special tools to catch a mouthful of grass.

      Also, carrying tools in the pouch seems awfully risky when the pouch spends significant amounts of time occupied by a baby not yet developed enough to step outside. (And of course males don’t have pouches at all)

      • Seth says:

        “Cow Tools”

        Who knows what tools a kangaroo would find useful? Maybe they’d want a whistle to be able to tell other members of their family where they are, over long distances. Perhaps they’d invent the kangaroo equivalent of brass knuckles to defend themselves better against predators. Or something which makes it easier to chew up material that’s ordinarily too tough for them.

        Remember, they go around in groups. It could be that the post-fertile females are the ones which carry the group’s tools. In fact, that’s a logical progression. A few older, female, kangaroos start tool-making and carry the tools around in their pouches. The group starts to become very successful due to the tool-use. There’s a lot of pressure to carry around many tools, but not enough available unburdened females to be carriers. Some bright kangaroo starts thinking, hmm, what we need is artificial pouches. They already know what a pouch is, and about carrying stuff. They “just” need to figure out how create one which can be worn outside the body. That’s not beyond the ability of a primitive tool-user.

        Now they’re on the way to inventing some sort of clothing, and maybe a crude sort of weaving. And it keeps scaling up – the better they are at artificial-pouchmaking, the more they can collectively carry, the more they can create tools. Eventually they reach their carry-limit, and start wondering, why keep running around with all this stuff? Maybe we could basically stay in one place, and have members carry food back to that place. And now they have a complex society of kangaroos where some can do their equivalent of posting on blogs all day, err, technological research, while others go out food-gathering and bringing back the food to the settlement.

        Hmm, I think I just outlined the beginnings of a SF world. Kangaroos To The Stars …

      • Anon. says:

        there are a lot of successful species in the “large herbivore” category, but none that I’m aware of has much intelligence.

        What about elephants?

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        What about Marsupial predators?

      • Douglas Knight says:

        The smartest animals are not herbivores, but large herbivores don’t seem particularly dumb to me. I wonder if you are mislead by farm animals, which are probably bred for stupidity.

        I think herbivore whales are pretty smart. Not as smart as carnivore whales, but still.

        • Iain says:

          Technically all whales are carnivores. Some of them just hunt much smaller prey.

        • herbert herbertson says:

          The question is whether the large herbivore is large enough to escape predation as an adult. If you are, you may be able to spend calories on a big brain to enable you to win social games, as with elephants, whales, etc. If not, you’re probably better off keeping yourself lean.

    • How good are kangaroos’ hands?

    • Anonymous says:

      Why aren’t kangaroos intelligent? One of the theories as to why humans are intelligent is that there’s an extended development period following birth so that permits more brain development.

      You’ve got the causality backwards. It’s not the case that humans are intelligent because of our long postnatal development; we have a long postnatal development because it’s absolutely necessary to accomodate our intelligence.

      The exact reason we’re intelligent is still heavily disputed as far as I know (I lean towards “endurance hunting is easier the smarter you are” myself), but ultimately it’s clear that it helped us thrive in whatever the ancestral environment was, exactly. Kangaroos don’t need human-level intelligence to thrive, so by the principle of parsimony they don’t have it.

      • Seth says:

        But that’s a “just-so” story. If the scenario I outlined above worked out, the kangaroo theorists would be talking about how intelligence evolved from the virtuous cycle of carry-more/better-tools/store-food. And maybe deriding the strange hairless apes of the African plains, who obviously don’t need intelligence to just run around until prey tires and is easy pickings from exhaustion (the hairlessness for better cooling being all the evolutionary advantage they need).

        • hlynkacg says:

          It should be noted that any answer to this question is going to be a “just so story” so dismissing an answer on such grounds is pointless.

          • Seth says:

            It’s more of a rhetorical question. The idea is that we’re told major constraints against improving a species’ intelligence are head size and development time. But kangaroos don’t have any such immediate constraint there. Objectively, they’re much better engineered on that front than the biological hacks present to get that to work in humans. They could go along a path of bigger skulls and brains without any problem. They have a posture and arms that seem to cry out to heavily manipulate their environment. But it’s puzzling that they take no advantage of this. Shouldn’t evolution be trying to fill a niche? It’s unsatisfying to the puzzle to have a “just-so No”.

    • Gazeboist says:

      Don’t large brains have very high metabolic costs? If that’s the case, you’d need a pretty heavy push to get intelligence, not just an absence of barriers. As a guess, complicated social structures would seem to be a driver. These could then self-reinforce – Bob Sr dominates the social hierarchy through superior intelligence and reproduces better than his competitors; once his intelligence reaches fixation, the hierarchy gets more complicated. At that point, you’re limited not by organism-specific factors but by what sort of society the environment can support. Even if you could have a higher intelligence, the brain (at a high cost with mostly indirect benefits) would probably be the first thing to take a hit given consistently low resources during development.

      But I am a physicist making shit up about a domain where I have little knowledge, so take this with a grain of salt.

      • Loquat says:

        They do! In a typical human, the brain is maybe 2% of body mass but consumes about 20% of caloric intake, hence various theories about cooking and/or meat-eating being essential to the development of human intelligence.

  24. Skef says:

    Screw this cute-fluffy-bunnies-as antidote mindset. The sweet spot of this blog is doom projected far enough off so that intellectual bickering about it seems productive.

    One of Scott’s central positions is that the hope for humanity lies in either genetic engineering of intelligence/morality or in AI. It is also his position that AI poses enough existential risk to humanity that we should put significant effort into addressing that prospect. I find this idea dubious for reasons I won’t go into, but more relevantly I think the existential risk of genetic engineering is far greater and worth discussing.

    Suppose that we gain a solid understanding of the genetic (and if relevant epigenetic) basis of both our morality and our intelligence, as well as the technology to tinker with either in what I will loosely call “the next generation”. I argue that doing so poses two distinct kinds of existential threat to humanity:

    1) “Drift Alienation”: As things currently stand the parts of humans we can’t tinker with are the only basis of anything you can call a shared humanity. Once we gain an understanding and capacity to tinker the next generation will not share that basis, but will instead have what the current generation projects as a more ideal version of that basis. And similarly the generation after that will have what the first projection projects as an idealization of itself. Now consider the even just the fifth generation out. How likely is it to reflect any of our current values, and why? From a virtue-ethics perspective (which admittedly is not my own) we might well destroy ourselves in making the first change.

    It’s tempting to claim that such alienation is irrelevant because the result will still stand as our evolutionary future. But then why should we be bothered by AI risk? Paperclip optimization is a disturbing corner case but some sort of AI-for-AI’s sake future is more likely (even a super-intelligent paperclip optimizer is likely to recognize that its own future is important for the paperclip future). So that AI would likely eventually evolve further into something with at least more diverse values. Why specifically is the AI-far-future worse than the alienated-us far future?

    2) “Instability implosion”: Humanity has some crappy properties that sometimes result in what we at least consider to be moral disasters. We can also probably now destroy ourselves. But for the most part we have avoided events that, for example, kill off half the population. If we gain the capacity to make ourselves more intelligent and a better reflection of our current values, why also think that the changes we make will retain whatever overall stability we have now? Here is one tempting but perhaps disasterous way to tinker: give the next generation the courage of their convictions. How much hypocrisy is needed for stability and how exactly do you enshrine hypocrisy once you are aware of it and can change it?

    #1 has a future “us” that might as well be the future of a paperclip optimizer. #2 potentially has no future for anything arising out of our species or culture. Aren’t either of these well within the realm of possibility? Is at least one perhaps even likely?

    • Deiseach says:

      One of Scott’s central positions is that the hope for humanity lies in either genetic engineering of intelligence/morality or in AI.

      I kind of wish I had enough life left in front of me to see when this becomes a possibility, because I want to sit back and enjoy the hair-pulling that will ensue.

      So we’ll genetically engineer more moral humans, eh? What kind of morals? Who decides? Because bunnies, we’ve seen in our very own life-times the progression from “A is a horrible unnatural perversion -> A is a normal part of nature, look at the other animal species where A happens -> A is a basic human right!”. What other “everyone agrees this is immoral/moral” is going to get over-turned? Suppose the vegans want our gengineered new humans to be repulsed by the very thought of corpse-eating – are we going to add that in (or snip that out, depending on what may be involved)?

      a better reflection of our current values

      “Current” being the pertinent word here. Are we going to wipe out transphobia? What about polyphobia? (Insert your pet cause here; I’d like to do away with “You actually LIKE Brutalist architecture?”) Do we know or can we visualise what the morality of fifty years on from our time is going to be like? Will our descendants curse us for hardwiring them to have opinion P instead of being free to choose opinion Q?

      Oh yes, this is going to be fun, fun, fun. Too bad I’ll be mouldering in my grave and it’s you young’uns who’ll have to deal with the fallout, unintended consequences, and ramping the Culture War up to ninety the brave new world that will result 🙂

      • Skef says:

        I suspect the sort of targeted examples you raise here may be beyond the capability of any genetic tinkering in the time-frame I’m thinking of. Specific values like these are almost certainly partly cultural, and the idea of affecting just those and not vast swaths of other attitudes at the generic level implies a completely different genetic basis.

        Virtues are probably a better model. Courage, honesty, self-sacrifice can all be traded off one another to some extent, and their basis in emotional (“affective”) states may leave some room for tinkering. I would say that trends in such traits sometimes run in families independent of culture.

        But I think my worry about “current” is different from yours. The arguments you see in Plato and Aristotle about what makes a good person are at least resemble similar arguments you might see today. I suspect that’s because the general human mix of traits we have not yet tinkered with — good and bad — suggest a certain relative ideal. But I very much doubt that a generation that reflects our ideal would see itself as an ideal or that we would its ideal as better rather than worse. That is, I think the debate itself may be entirely different. Our continuity as a species up until now is grounded in not being able to tinker, and pulling up those stakes could easily cause future generations to drift in wildly different and possibly self-destructive directions, even if each step is seen by the collective that makes it as an improvement.

        You’re thinking of one or another side of the current disagreements getting an upper hand (or just the anger at that thought). I see the sides of the debate becoming entirely alien over the span of a few generations, with the potential loss of most of what either side in the current debates considers valuable.

        • Deiseach says:

          What are the genes for “honesty”? Where are they located? How do we fiddle around with them?

          I’m not at all sure there are such easy, simple fixes. Merely making people more intelligent is not going to make them more virtuous. It’d be lovely to think that really smart people would be nicer, but there’s no reason to think really smart people wouldn’t decide “There’s a world of suckers out there who are dumber than I am, and I’m going to take them for every cent they’ve got”.

          What do our examples of really smart people that we can point to as having existed or existing do? They tend to go into mathematics, not “how to make the world a better place, how to govern people in a better way, how to improve the public morals” and so on. Really smart people may not give a fig for how the rest of us sink or swim, as long as we don’t interfere with whatever course of study or action interests them.

          And I do think trying to engineer morality (of whatever stripe) is going to become a tussle between competing interests. We have never agreed on one universal code of morality and I don’t think we ever will (even something as simple as “don’t kill” – so, does that apply to a guy with a knife coming towards me? what about if I’m pregnant and the pregnancy will kill me? okay, what about if it will interfere with my education?)

          I agree with you about the cultural basis for a lot of morality, which is why I’m arguing that we’ve seen cultural attitudes – and hence what is considered moral or immoral – change over time, even over a short timescale as in a human life. So assuming that “smarter people are better people” is assuming a heck of a lot. What the smarter people may decide is desirable or undesirable may differ quite a bit from what we think they should decide. What is to prevent the new 140 (and increasing) IQ standard humans deciding “Look, compared to us, the 100 IQ humans are handicapped in the struggle of life and can’t compete with us and will only fall further and further behind; why shouldn’t we re-introduce a form of slavery so that we will take care of their needs and they can serve us as necessary? We’ll be very kind and caring masters, don’t worry, and they’ll be much better off with us making the decisions for them that they would only make badly because of their inferior intelligence!”

          • Taking pleasure in other people’s pain might well have a genetic basis.

          • Skef says:

            I’m saying that a propensity for honesty is probably towards the upper bound of what can be tinkered with some independence, as opposed to something like feelings about this or that specific subject that would be far above.

          • “What do our examples of really smart people that we can point to as having existed or existing do? They tend to go into mathematics, not “how to make the world a better place, how to govern people in a better way, how to improve the public morals” and so on. ”

            You might be interested in the case of Eugene Volokh. He got his bachelor’s degree from UCLA at fifteen. A year earlier, he was earning $480 a week as a programmer for 20th Century Fox.

            He is currently a law professor and, with his brother and others, runs a very popular legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.

            I think that fits with concern with how to make the world a better place, along with some of the rest of your list.

        • Honesty is an interesting one. I believe that lying is an important tool for self-protection against clueless or vicious superiors. Using genetic engineering to get rid of lying might not be a great idea, though (if it’s possible) a distaste for lying might be useful.

          I see some possibilities for fiction– lying is elimiated, but the compulsively honest young are still subject to bosses who don’t want to know what their employees are thinking, but who can’t resist the temptation ask direct questions.

        • Lumifer says:

          Loyalty is the worrisome virtue.

      • “are we going to add that in ”

        What you mean we?

        You seem to be assuming that genetic change will be done by some official body, possibly the U.N., which decides in advance what changes should be made. That does not strike me as likely or desirable.

        Vegans will want their children to be modified to be repulsed by meat, supposing that’s an option. Other people will want their children to be beautiful, or strong, or smart, or disease resistant, or slow aging, or some combination of whatever traits are achievable and seen as desirable.

        You might consider that we have been doing this for a very long time at the individual level via mate choice. Also, in some past societies, by selective infanticide.

        • Deiseach says:

          I don’t mean “we” as some kind of government body; I do think it’s likely private clinics (as with the three-parent baby in Mexico recently) will offer services to everyone.

          But you tell me: do you really think some earnest group of concerned citizens is going to be happy if unenlightened bigots decide to, say, have the “gay gene” (yes, I know it doesn’t exist, but pretend with me) snipped out of their offspring’s genome? Or that vegans won’t agitate, for the sake of the planet and global warming and animal suffering, to have non-meat eating tweaks for every new baby? A former president of my country is calling for people to go vegetarian or vegan.

          Or how about we get rid of all those nasty traits while we’re improving our species: who wouldn’t want to be open to new experience and get rid of anxiety?

          So we (as a society) may end up messing around with something we think we understand, but we won’t know until the engineered children are born and grow up – and if we’ve damaged them or changed them in ways not intended, it will be too late to go “Oops, sorry!” then.

          • Anonymous says:

            Yeah, the advantage of the old style of evolution is that fewer people have to die whenever something goes badly wrong, instead of “everybody” each time.

          • You seem to be still assuming that one decision maker decides for everyone what genetic modifications to have, even if it is done in multiple clinics. Why? That isn’t the way we observe other decisions being made. Cars are not all designed to a standard template. Or houses. Or clothes. Or food.

          • Acedia says:


            I think Deiseach’s prediction is that many groups will attempt to decide for everyone what genetic modifications will be permitted, or mandatory. And some of those groups will be powerful.

          • Lumifer says:

            @ David Friedman

            Cars are not all designed to a standard template.

            They mostly are, it’s just that the template is called “safety standards”.

            I agree with Deiseach that if genetic engineering of human babies will become widespread, government will most definitely insert itself into the process. I expect a large list of forbidden modifications and a small list of mandatory ones. I hope they don’t become inverses of each other.

          • blueblimp says:

            Don’t current medical interventions require consent from parents, a physician, and the government? I’d expect genetic modification to be subject to similar conditions, and in that case it doesn’t sound threatening.

            I suppose it’s possible that some modifications would become viewed as necessary for the well-being of people around you, like vaccinations are today. For example, maybe some kind of reduction in the risk of criminal behavior. But unless there are no negative side effects (unlikely), it’s hard to imagine it being made mandatory, unless society changes drastically from how it is today.

            Also, a big practical problem with mandatory modifications is that IVF is too onerous to impose on a couple that wasn’t going to do it anyway.

          • Deiseach says:

            Don’t current medical interventions require consent from parents, a physician, and the government?

            In the “three parent” case, the parents went to Mexico precisely because it was illegal in the USA but Mexico (from what I can gather, nothing slanderous intended) will let anybody run a clinic for any reason so long as the business makes money for the economy (see the laetrile clinics):

            Zhang’s team used this approach to create five embryos, only one of which developed normally. This embryo was implanted in the mother and the child was born nine months later. “It’s exciting news,” says Bert Smeets at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The team will describe the findings at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s Scientific Congress in Salt Lake City in October.

            Neither method has been approved in the US, so Zhang went to Mexico instead, where he says “there are no rules”. He is adamant that he made the right choice. “To save lives is the ethical thing to do,” he says.

            The team seems to have taken an ethical approach with their technique, says Sian Harding, who reviewed the ethics of the UK procedure. The team avoided destroying embryos, and used a male embryo, so that the resulting child wouldn’t pass on any inherited mitochondrial DNA. “It’s as good as or better than what we’ll do in the UK,” says Harding.

            So you can get around regulations if you’re sufficiently determined and messianic, and I think people will genuinely feel they are doing this genetic engineering of improved humans for The Greater Good.

          • Deiseach says:

            Professor Friedman, there will presumably be some regulations or ethical guidelines over what kinds of modifications are being done; we’re talking about large-scale genetic engineering to produce better humans and not merely IVF or genetic counselling to avoid hereditary disease.

            If everyone who can afford it is getting a better baby, and if these better babies are being touted as ‘the future of humanity’ because they’ll be smarter and wiser and more ethical and will be the technocrats, thought leaders and actual world leaders of tomorrow, I’m quite sure interested parties will want to oversee the process.

            And I’m also sure that lobbying and pressure groups will try and have their special interests represented. Why wouldn’t animal rights and vegan groups push for “why force your child to be a carnivore? why make them eat dead animals when a simple adjustment will make them happier, healthier vegetarians – and the effect of mass population food preferences changing will reduce animal suffering, reduce wastage, reduce global warming due to unsustainable farming practices”.

            Not saying it will be mandatory, but while you’re having your smarter, healthier, outgoing, athletic, compassionate, empathic child designed, why not have the option of ethical food preferences as well? If you’re tweaking the tastebuds not to like sugar and fats as much as normal humans (for sake of health), why not tweak about meat as well?

            And what if the new improved humans, even if they’re not engineered to be preferential vegetarians, decide that veganism is the only ethical and practical diet based on rational and scientific grounds? When they are a significant minority, maybe they’ll push for further genetic engineering to include editing out meat-eating. As time goes by, maybe the improved humans will set mandatory standards.

            We don’t know, is what I’m saying. If we think that our improved humans are going to be more ethical and more intelligent than we are (that is, after all, why we’re pinning our hopes on genetic engineering), we can’t say that their ethics will line up with ours. Perhaps the enlightened new humans will be so horrified by animal slaughter for food, they will consider leaving their offspring unmodified for veganism the equivalent of leaving in a “gene for slave-owning”.

            Human history has shown the kinds of things people do in the name of the greater good or for the betterment of mankind or an improved world, and often we wade through oceans of blood trying to get there. Messing around with the genome, not to remove disease but to get some kind of unspecified but optimistic ‘better person’, can go wrong in all kinds of ways. And I think that there are two main areas of danger:

            (1) The physical repercussions of “okay, we didn’t mean that to happen” because as we’re discovering, intelligence (for one) is not a simple matter of “yeah, it’s coded for by these genes located on these chromosomes”. We’ll think we have snipped out or edited in a better version of what is originally there but we won’t know until the child is born and old enough to be tested, by which point it’ll be too late to make changes if we’ve got (say) a much smarter child but one who is suffering from a raft of sensory processing disorders.

            (2) The cultural and social tendency that “anything that is not forbidden is mandatory”. Do you really think national governments won’t be interested in “so we can make smarter, stronger citizens”? Do you really think lobby groups won’t be tussling over “let’s remove the genes for prejudice and bigotry”? And as we’ve seen, one victory in “we only want tolerance” never stops there, it moves on to the next step and gets ever more finely grained in oppression finding, be that microaggressions or institutional racism. “Prejudice and bigotry” could be interpreted to mean “species bigotry”, so for the sake of animal rights and to prevent animal suffering, saying humans should be permitted to eat meat is like saying humans should be permitted to be cannibals – the easiest and most wide-scale change is not to leave it up to personal choice but to make it easier by preferentially editing in veganism or something.

            Yes, that sounds like YA dystopia or SF, but if we’re seriously discussing “let’s hang on long enough for AI or genetic engineering to build us a better future society”, what are we already sounding like?

          • anon says:

            @Deisach, I think it’s really amusing how “YA” and “dystopian” became so closely linked as descriptors for novels in such a short period of time. I wonder how long their association will last.

          • Anonymous says:

            Jo Walton argues that Heinlein’s 50s juveniles were already dystopian.

          • John Schilling says:

            Professor Friedman, there will presumably be some regulations or ethical guidelines over what kinds of modifications are being done;

            Perhaps 195 different sets of regulations? And the Cayman Islands are a perfectly nice place to spend a (second, third, fourth) honeymoon…

          • Jiro says:

            Those Heinlein universes are not dystopian; they are about recently contemporary Earthlings, with a thin coat of paint added to make them about the future. They are influenced by American pioneers, the Great Depression, and World War II. Of course you’ll get settlers on colony planets, poor farmers, and rationing.

            Also, “dystopia” is not the same as “generally bad world”. A world doesn’t become a dystopia because it is poor.

          • “there will presumably be some regulations or ethical guidelines over what kinds of modifications are being done”

            Many countries will have such regulations and guidelines but unless we have a world government there will be lots of different countries with different regulations and guidelines and probably some with none, or at least none enforced.

            Many people will push their ideas of what choices parents should make, but different people will push different ideas and different parents will be convinced by different ideas.

            Your view of the situation reminds me of the sort of sf story in which a whole planet is imagined as a single city, with none of the diversity one gets in real planet sized societies.

            There are two different technologies being imagined in this discussion. The one I raised is very old–selective breeding. Have institutions in which it is common for couples, perhaps mostly infertile couples, to produce children whose sires (perhaps also dams, but that’s a little harder) are from high up on the distribution of some desired characteristics. A tenth of a percent of one generation fathers ten percent of the next, substantially changing the shape of the distribution.

            A different possibility is genetic engineering, actually modifying the genetics of cells to add new characteristics. That’s much harder and raises a bunch of interesting questions. But unless only one lab figures out how to do it and that lab manages to keep it a secret, you will again get lots of different visions of what people ought to be.

          • This may be too cynical, but I think that if genetic engineering is left up to parents, there will be a lot of children who look like the celebrities from their parents’ generation.

            This isn’t existential doom. In fact, it’s pretty harmless as such things go, it’s just really undignified.

        • TheWorst says:

          This is a good point, and brings in a lot of Moloch-oriented options. Say there’s a gene that makes people less intelligent, but also less likely to take pleasure in someone else’s pain. Not everyone would probably want it removed, but…

          • houseboatonstyxb says:

            Say there’s a gene that makes people less intelligent, but also less likely to take pleasure in someone else’s pain.

            I’m not sure it would make much difference in what actually goes on in cultures like ours. If the treatment took away schadenfreude and defensive emotional reactions*, the same actions might be done for practical reasons, but without the emotional enjoyment of the other’s pain per se.

            * Such as, a child in Red Tribe culture being forced to act like he enjoys the family’s hunting trips, and trying to develop that reaction rather than being freaked out.

          • TheWorst says:

            No, I mean a gene that makes people less intelligent, and also less prone to sadism, and a treatment that removes that gene.

            Intelligence is pretty damn useful. A lot of parents want to give their kids as many advantages as they can. Parents more concerned about human values would say no to the treatment, but if there are tradeoffs like that one, and competition… not everyone will. “This treatment will reduce your kid’s chances of being a monster, but also its chances of success” seems like it’s offering the kind of choice that’s best not offered.

    • Rebel with an Uncaused Cause says:

      I think that value drift is a much larger problem in AI than it is in genetic engineering. This is because AI has the potential to go through many “generations” very quickly, without interaction from outside agents, and based off of a questionable and untried base code. Humans, on the other hand, have generations much more slowly, must have multiple agents in each generation and can be influenced culturally, and are working off a genetic code that we know has historically produced humans that generally align with our values system.

      I think that most of the behaviors we’re interested in that are labelled “moral” can be described as “pro-social”; i.e., don’t kill other people, steal their things, or needlessly upset them by violating their boundaries. These behaviors are all things I’d expect to see in successive human generations even with genetic engineering, because losing these values is a bad mutation; it makes the owner of the genes less likely to pass them on. Humans are robustly programmed for pro-social behavior, and I suspect that genetic modifications that significantly damage the “pro-social” module will also damage the host to the point that those changes will not be passed on.

      It’s possible we make a more sociopaths this way, people who emulate human morality in public but don’t when they’re unlikely to get caught, and it’s true that sociopaths are more likely to create moral disasters. I have no idea how likely we are to program ourselves into sociopathy in practice; I’d imagine we’d weed out all but the best actors among the sociopaths, at which point we’ll still have a humanity that claims to value morality but in practice frequently perpetrates horrors, which doesn’t sound that different from today.

      • Skef says:

        But AI drift is only a risk to humanity to the extent it is an existential risk to us. Our tinkering with the next generation not only poses an existential risk but also what could be called a “constitutive risk”.

        The pro-social take is interesting. One way that AI risk has been posed is in terms of programming what might be called pro-social values into an AI that becomes super-intelligent and effectively imprisons humanity in order to “protect” it. That example raises the question of whether we could effectively do that to ourselves. We make the next generation more pro-social (in our eyes), they do it to the following generation, and eventually we (or “they”) wind up socially imprisoned by their own values, according to which any level of risk might be “immoral”.

        “Pro” is only unequivocally good if more of the thing in question doesn’t wind up being terrible.

        • Rebel with an Uncaused Cause says:

          I think imprisonment is a sliding scale for a benevolent AI, not a distinct pair of states. A benevolent AI will take all sorts of steps to ensure humanity’s safety; each of these steps comes with a corresponding set of restrictions on what we can do, or of what choices we’re aware we have.

          I’m not sure what you mean by imprisoning ourselves. Your example suggests you mean we breed ourselves for risk aversion in the name of morality, but risk aversion is a strategy; if we collectively feel that morality is a terminal value and that risk aversion is the best way to accomplish it, we’d move towards that now, rather than breeding it in. I agree that if we bred extreme risk aversion into the human race, that would likely be a problem, but I think one that would be easy enough to correct since it’s identifiable relatively early, while there’s hopefully still unmodified humans to ‘reset’ to (prioritize for breeding so that the next generation has a ‘clean’ set of genes instead of the flawed modified ones).

          As I mentioned to Deiseach below, it’s not clear to me that we can identify distinct ‘morality’ genes and turn them off selectively; adding on to that, I think that pro-social tendencies will tend to win out over genetic engineering in the long run, in part because the bulk of society currently subscribes to current morality and so new humans are strongly incentivized to follow it (it’s harder to get a mate if you have an alien morality), and partly because our pro-social tendencies represent the product of all social evolution; if there were an evolutionary advantage to a species (not an individual; it’s pretty clear that lone defectors can profit) for deviating significantly from the core set of social values (respecting property, not killing, etc.), it would likely have already made an appearance.

      • Deiseach says:

        I agree with the point about AI being able to change itself more quickly, but the problem with the genetic engineering is that we will think we know what the hell we’re doing, and then when the first generation grows up and we find all these odd little gaps – well, it’ll be too damn late to go “Whoops, didn’t mean for that to happen!” when they’re the successors to their parents and are continuing to mess around with genetic engineering their children etc.

        Because it’s so slow, it may take time for us to notice really big problems because it’ll be a combination over time and huge populations of small things all accumulating. With AI, at least you can notice if at ten o’clock last night it was running research to cure cancer and at eight o’clock the next morning it is now pronouncing itself Emperor of The Indies.

        • Rebel with an Uncaused Cause says:

          Upthread, you said

          What are the genes for “honesty”? Where are they located? How do we fiddle around with them?

          I share your skepticism that we’ll be able to tweak targeted moral switches in a genome. I think that the bulk of (if not all) moral behavior is either deeply integrated in the genome (my impression is that pro-social behavior and altruism appear even in relatively unintelligent animals), or is passed primarily by culture. The component that is passed by culture is unlikely to be affected by designer genes. If remaining component of human morality is as deeply integrated as I suspect, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to turn off one part without turning off the whole thing. Because of this, I envision the problems that we create through genetic engineering mostly being large, obvious ones, such as accidentally turning off the whole moral software and getting sociopaths. I agree that this will still likely take longer than AI, since AI generations are likely to be so much faster than human ones.

    • Two McMillion says:

      C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man discusses this issue.

    • raj says:

      Now consider the even just the fifth generation out. How likely is it to reflect any of our current values, and why?

      The future is for the young to choose.

      Specifically, I am confident they won’t be paperclip optimizers. My meta-ethical framework is very elastic, as long as they are pursuing physical dominion of the universe (conceptual and physical) I will be on board.

      Also, the bulk of values held by humans today are uninteresting and transient. Physical comfort, tasty food, social status. To the extent that we actually have deeply held values that are threatened (love, curosity, friendship; and not just things we signal about to acquire the former) I am optimistic enough to believe that they will be maintained or replaced with something better. Not a certainty, but a worthy risk. Also an inevitability.

      Immanentize the eschaton, I say.

    • Brad (The Other One) says:

      This seems related enough to an argument about/for objective morality I had in mind recently. I’ll keep it brief:

      Imagine a device that when used, makes you smarter, more charismatic, healthier, wealthier, etc; and these benefits are carried unto one’s immediate friends and family. However, it changes your ethical preferences in such a manner that ethical choices you find repugnant now are now appealing to you and vice versa. Further, the machine alters your ethical preferences in such a way that the effects, at least to one’s immediate family and friends are minimal (although you will almost certainly change you charities of choice and voting patterns.)

      In other words, you’re not going to hate your parents or kill your spouse, but if you’re egalitarian, well, maybe you’re a strong complementarian now. A pro-lifer becomes a pro-choicer; someone who values truth on it’s merits now feels ignorance is bliss; and so on and so forth.

      Are you comfortable using this machine? And aside from arguments from A: fear of self-harm or harm of loved ones, or B: the fear of loss of identity (“it’s not me anymore!”), which I really consider a subset of A… is there any reason not to use this machine?

      • Dr Dealgood says:

        Well it would be somewhat self-defeating wouldn’t it? If you’re the kind of person who thinks using the device is ethical, it would reverse that and make you regret having done it.

        That said, yeah I’d go for it. Seems like it’s all upside.

        • Deiseach says:

          Nothing is all upside. Think of something you consider important now; if the machine made you change your mind on it, would you agree (so you don’t really think it’s important, or you’re willing to sacrifice principle for personal advantage) or not?

          Maybe one of those small ethical changes results in the breakup of your relationship or marriage; before, you and your partner agreed on whatever (be that vegetarianism or target shooting), now you have a different opinion (so you start/stop eating meat or you want to sell all your gun collection and won’t let them keep their guns either).

          Maybe it gets you in trouble at work: before, you were rainbow-flag waving diversity champion, but today you are refusing to sign the “protect women’s choice” petition – that’s not going to make you very popular and may even get you complained to HR.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            Hello, I am a helpful demon! Let me in and I will hollow your brain out and live in your skin! I will be smarter and generally more successful than you, and I’ll sorta kinda pretend to be you, so it’s all good! Whaddaya say, partner!

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Hello, I am a helpful demon! Let me in and I will hollow your brain out and live in your skin! I will be smarter and generally more successful than you, and I’ll sorta kinda pretend to be you, so it’s all good! Whaddaya say, partner!

            Reminds me of the Whispering Earring, especially this comment.

          • Brad (The Other One) says:


            Pfff, the materialistic worldview insists already that I’m constantly being replaced by a helpful demon who pretends to be me anyways, ala ship of Theseus. Not a sufficient counter-argument.


            Reminds me of this.

          • TheWorst says:

            Hello, I am a helpful demon! Let me in and I will hollow your brain out and live in your skin! I will be smarter and generally more successful than you, and I’ll sorta kinda pretend to be you, so it’s all good! Whaddaya say, partner!

            A long time ago, I had an extended moment of existential horror at seeing that this is what growing up is.

            Then the demon hollowed out my brain. The good news is that I no longer feel that existential horror.

      • Jiro says:

        I believe my current ethical preferences are correct. It follows that I believe this device will cause me to have, and act on, incorrect preferences. I don’t want to have or act on incorrect preferences.

        I think this is a disguised blissful ignorance question. Once I use the device, I will believe things that are wrong, but I won’t know they are wrong and will be happy with such beliefs. Because I don’t like blissful ignorance, I don’t want to be put in the state “I am wrong, but I’m happy because I don’t know I’m wrong”.

        • TheAncientGeek says:

          I believe my current ethical preferences are correct. It follows that I believe this device will cause me to have, and act on, incorrect preferences. I don’t want to have or act on incorrect preferences.

          That argument is a bit simplistic, since people do things that are known to change ones values, such as getting educated, getting married and getting older.

        • Brad (The Other One) says:

          I believe my current ethical preferences are correct.

          What does that mean? That they’re adaptive or useful to you, for your goals, in this current situation? Or that they’re right in a different, or broader sense?

        • Jiro says:

          That argument is a bit simplistic, since people do things that are known to change ones values, such as getting educated, getting married and getting older.

          Those involve changing instrumental values without changing terminal values.

          “Ethical preferences” here is a vague term. If the device changed my preferences by telling me truthfully that gasoline is sentient on Wednesdays, I might suddenly decide that it is unethical to drive on Wednesdays. I would not object to having my ethical preferences changed in that way (and it would only be changing my instrumental values, not my terminal values.)

      • Anonymous says:

        I’d use it twice.

        • Dr Dealgood says:

          Wow, now I just feel dumb…

          • God Damn John Jay says:

            You would think you would push it twice, but after pressing it once, the new version of you won’t follow through.

        • Deiseach says:

          Does it work twice? Otherwise, you could keep using it multiple times to keep getting smarter, richer, healthier and so on. I think there must be some limit. Or maybe if you use it, it permanently changes your beliefs so that using it again won’t alter them back to what they were.

          If there’s a loophole, I’d be interested to hear. If you can use the machine as many times as you like, flipping back and forth between ethical preferences, then possibly there is a reduced downside (I think eventually you’d be so confused or so tired of always changing your mind, you’d abandon any ethical system and just go with whatever new idea the machine implants this time). If it’s a “one use only” machine, I think you’d have to consider very carefully if it was worth it.

          And again, how do you stop people from using it coercively? “Uncle Joe has these outrageously bigoted ideas, if I zap him with this, he’ll not only be on the right side of history, he’ll be smarter, healthier and wealthier as well! How can that be wrong?”

          • Brad (The Other One) says:

            The idea was more that to the extent someone “doesn’t believe in objective morality”, the only conceivable reason to avoid using the machine is fear of harm or loss of identity – both of which amount to self-interest.

            My feeling is, for a person who A: who believes in accordance with materialism that our identity is is illusory and moral are not objective (which is to say, there is no magical platonic morals fairy out there) and B: does not believe the machine will result in harm to one’s self or social circle (let’s say there’s a record of prior users who all turned out pretty well, if somewhat eccentric) – there is no legitimate reason to not use the machine. The only reason to refuse to use it at this point is because the person offered implicitly believes in objective morality (even if they don’t put it that way) and that the ethical preferences they hold are currently standing in alignment with it.

        • Brad (The Other One) says:

          Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.


          • Deiseach says:

            Wouldn’t the red pill and the blue pill cancel each other out, though, so it’s pointless to take them both? Unless you take the red pill first and then, if you don’t like the nature of reality as it has been revealed to you, you take the blue pill and go back to your false reality.

          • Publius Varinius says:

            @Deiseach: It’s about not taking orders from anyone. Also, a crippling combination of curiosity and wantonness.

            Mind-changing too: I’ll now consider doing this if I ever find myself in an analogous situation.

        • Beliefs can have more than one opposite. It’s very unlikely that you’ll ever get back to all of your current beliefs.

          • Kind of Anonymous says:

            The machine will make you smarter and more effective, but will machine translate your core values into Chinese and back.

        • Anonymous says:

          Evil Gandhi.

      • Lumifer says:

        Obviously you just need to use it twice or, even better, an even number of times.

      • DrBeat says:

        Knowing all of my opinions and preferences are artificially induced by an outside agent would make me unable to use that intelligence for any purpose other than killing myself.

        To get around that, you would have to say the machine would completely change my personality to the degree that it would kill me already anyway. “Would you agree to be killed by a machine so it can make another person whose goals and ideas are anathema to yours”? No. The answer to that is no.

        • Anonymous says:

          But you left out the part where you not only have to spend a full (enhanced) lifetime not merely helplessly watching the anathema act, but voluntarily and cheerfully being complicit in those acts! That’s the best part!

        • TheAncientGeek says:

          Knowing all of my opinions and preferences are artificially induced by an outside agent would make me unable to use that intelligence for any purpose other than killing myself.

          Assuming you retain or develop a preference for autonomy.

        • Brad (The Other One) says:

          Knowing all of my opinions and preferences are artificially induced by an outside agent would make me unable to use that intelligence for any purpose other than killing myself.

          Our preferences already are induced by forces beyond our control, like the culture where we were born and raised, our genetic predisposition, our parent’s dispositions, our socio-economic status, and so on. Why is this machine so different?

          To get around that, you would have to say the machine would completely change my personality to the degree that it would kill me already anyway. “Would you agree to be killed by a machine so it can make another person whose goals and ideas are anathema to yours”? No. The answer to that is no.

          Let me ask a follow up:

          Same situation, machine makes you double-plus-good at smarts, health, wealth, the whole jazz. But instead of messing with your morals, it messes with your food preferences. Let’s say, in your case specifically, it alters your favorite ice cream flavor. It’s now pistachio. (If it already was that, fine, it’s strawberry.)

          Would you use it then? If so, how do you negotiate the line where preferences are changed, yet you are still you, or they are changed and you are not you (or “killed”)?

          • Deiseach says:

            If so, how do you negotiate the line where preferences are changed, yet you are still you, or they are changed and you are not you (or “killed”)?

            I think people have a scale of importance for preferences; a favourite ice cream flavour is low down in importance, so someone persuading you to try a different one which then becomes your new favourite is not nearly as big a change as (let’s bite the bullet and go for controversy) trying to change your sexuality via conversion therapy.

            “I used to like chocolate but now I like pistachio” would, I imagine, be seen as much less life-altering and much more of a trivial alteration to your set of values and preferences than “I used to believe in choice, now I’m campaigning to have abortion criminalised”.

          • DrBeat says:

            Our preferences already are induced by forces beyond our control, like the culture where we were born and raised, our genetic predisposition, our parent’s dispositions, our socio-economic status, and so on. Why is this machine so different?

            “People die all the time, from falling off ladders, getting cancer, having their heart stop beating for no discernible reason, and so on. Why should shooting someone in the face be any different?”

            Same situation, machine makes you double-plus-good at smarts, health, wealth, the whole jazz. But instead of messing with your morals, it messes with your food preferences. Let’s say, in your case specifically, it alters your favorite ice cream flavor. It’s now pistachio. (If it already was that, fine, it’s strawberry.)

            Would you use it then? If so, how do you negotiate the line where preferences are changed, yet you are still you, or they are changed and you are not you (or “killed”)?

            1: Favorite ice cream flavor is not central to identity, because it is not derived from everything about how you see and experience and think about the world, and changing it does not require the change of everything about how you see and experience and think about the world.

            2: No, I wouldn’t use it, if the machine forcibly altered my preference for ice cream (instead of, say, introducing some other change that was purely an efficiency-increase that had the side effect of making an ice cream taste better, like “more accurate taste buds” or something). I would not trust anyone or anything capable of doing that to limit themselves to only doing that, nor would I trust anyone who was okay with doing that with their assurances that it only did that and had no other effect. If I had somehow verified that really was the only change, requiring me to place no trust whatsoever in an external agent offering the service of the machine (who would have a one hundred percent chance to be lying to me), I would never eat ice cream again.

      • Aevylmar says:

        I wouldn’t use it, because I think my beliefs are correct, and I expect the beliefs I’d change to would be wrong, and this would be Bad.

        However, I would suggest scientific testing to see if it could be used in prisons, though only for willing volunteers who would be willing to accept a lower sentence in return for mental modification that would (probably) make them a less violent person.

      • Alex says:

        I think you’ll have to be clearer what the device does. You describe a device that potentially could change one’s strong preference to not murder random people to a preference of murdering random people and the example you give is pro-choice vs. pro-life?!

        Sorry, but that seems to be an incredibly low stakes example. I mean I do get the people have strong opinions on the pro-x issue and I do get that on one end of the spectrum this opinion is that the other end basically advocates murder BUT both ends are somewhat approved by society as a whole in a way that random murder certainly is not.

        The idea was more that to the extent someone “doesn’t believe in objective morality”, the only conceivable reason to avoid using the machine is fear of harm or loss of identity – both of which amount to self-interest.

        There is a lot of fun to be had with people claiming to do or not do X on the basis of moral principle Y because usually it is easy to find some Z that also follows from Y but is of less interest to the person in question. So if nothing else, this teaches us that people are terrible in stating their own moral principles.

        This is the extent to which I “don’t believe in objective morality”. However I think murder is wrong. I just accept that I cannot state a principle for why I think that it is so. Will I still believe murder is wrong after using the device? Will I believe murder is a great thing and everybody should do it?

        • Brad (The Other One) says:

          >I think you’ll have to be clearer what the device does.

          I think I was pretty vague because I was more interested in how people justify ethical beliefs, and as you’ve noted, people are bad at that.

          That said, doesn’t that simply suggest we can really see a person’s ethical beliefs, regardless of what they say, by seeing what they do?

          >This is the extent to which I “don’t believe in objective morality”. However I think murder is wrong. I just accept that I cannot state a principle for why I think that it is so. Will I still believe murder is wrong after using the device? Will I believe murder is a great thing and everybody should do it?

          Basically, when people aren’t appealing to a universalized principle to justify their ethical stance, they, (in my experience), seem to present their ethical choices as preferences. Commonly, they’ll say “Of course I don’t rape or murder – I don’t want to! But if this is a mere preference then it stands to reason that we may analogize it to other preferences. Of course, our preferences are not totally alienated from our well-being (which is to say: self interest); the person who does not have a preference for eating feces will likely be healthier than the person who does (and acts on it), for example. Regardless, if I can imagine you having a strong preference for spicy food, we can imagine you without that strong preference.

          So if the argument is that a person has a preference that rape or murder or wrong, and they hold this preference because they are contrary to their flourishing as human beings (i.e. having more children, suffering less pain, enjoying more pleasures), that’s only circumstantially true. A strong preference towards rich foods is adaptive in scarcity, but in our modern culture, full of food, it is maladative, contributing to obesity and disease. Likewise, we can easily imagine circumstances where doing atrocities is adaptive – the viking raider who rapes will certainly have more children then the raider who does not. The soldier predisposed to hate an enemy will fire at a critical moment whereas one predisposed to be kind to strangers may not, and be killed himself.

          So, permit me to change my hypothetical: Let’s say the machine makes you more successful and wealthier specifically by altering your ethical preferences to what is maximally adaptive to your current culture – even if this results in squicky beliefs or behavior. To put it simply, would you use the machine if it, say, turned you into a hardcore neoconservative (and presently you would find that reprehensible)? By contrast, if you are of such disposition, would you use the machine if it would turn you extremely leftist? (note: I have no idea if either of these are more adaptive or not. This is all hypothetical.)

          • Alex says:

            So, permit me to change my hypothetical: Let’s say the machine makes you more successful and wealthier specifically by altering your ethical preferences to what is maximally adaptive to your current culture – even if this results in squicky beliefs or behavior. To put it simply, would you use the machine if it, say, turned you into a hardcore neoconservative (and presently you would find that reprehensible)? By contrast, if you are of such disposition, would you use the machine if it would turn you extremely leftist? (note: I have no idea if either of these are more adaptive or not. This is all hypothetical.)

            My personal answer is that I would do it in a heartbeat.

          • Deiseach says:

            Let’s say the machine makes you more successful and wealthier specifically by altering your ethical preferences to what is maximally adaptive to your current culture – even if this results in squicky beliefs or behavior.

            What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, yet lose his soul?

            And yes, some smart alecks answer “He gets the whole world!” 🙂

          • Alex says:

            The deal is not “loosing your soul”, the deal, as I understand it, is getting your soul replaced without knowing that you ever had a different one.

          • hlynkacg says:

            @ Alex,

            If someone were to break into a museum and replace a famous masterpiece with a forgery would you consider that a crime?

          • Alex says:


            If this is supposed to be an analogy I think it is an off one.

            What happens here is that I privately own a painting and agree, for a price, that it will be swapped. Part of the deal is that I will forget that I ever had a different painting and that my friends and familly, the only people who ever get so see the painting, will never notice.

            Such a deal I would not consider a crime.

    • Aegeus says:

      One pretty big thing I think that stands in the way of both of these: Not everyone will switch to the new genes at once. It’ll be a few children, then a few more, and so on until the technology eventually becomes cheap enough for anyone to do it. And even then there will still be a lot of ordinary humans being born, because people like to have sex. So Humanity 2.0 is going to coexist with Humanity 1.0 for many generations before they stand a chance of replacing us, and that suggests that we’ll have plenty of time to notice if there are any horrifying glitches or behaviors we would consider “inhuman” or “unstable.”

  25. TMB says:

    Does anyone know of any good examples of books/movies where there is a twist in the frame story somehow related to the stories being told.

    Like, the guy telling the story is actually the guy in the story and he is here to kill you.

    Or, thank-you for those interesting stories, now I will eat you, oh no, that thing that happened in that story you told means I can’t eat you.

    I feel like the old horror anthologies often tried this, but the twists never really made much sense.

    • pku says:

      Ubj V zrg lbhe zbgure nethnoyl pbhagf: vg frrzf jrveq gung ur xrrcf gnyxvat nobhg uvf lbhatre qnlf naq abg oevatvat hc gur npghny zbgure hagvy gur ynfg svir zvahgrf, ohg va gur raq vg gheaf bhg vg’f orpnhfr fur’f qrnq naq ur’f gelvat gb trg bire gung.

      Also, Scott had this a while ago.

      Edited to use ROT13, just in case that was still a spoiler for someone.

      • pku says:

        Also also, the futurama star trek episode. “And then what happened?” “And then you started this stupid court-martial! We’re still fighting Melllvar!”

    • God Damn John Jay says:

      Gut wrenching example of this was the movie (rot13ed because it is a huge twist) Ngbarzrag (Not as extreme as the example you gave)

    • Aegeus says:

      Well, One Thousand and One Nights is probably the ur-example. “Oh, you want to hear more of this story? I suppose you’ll have to put off executing me for another night.”

      The Usual Suspects is probably the most famous example in film. Without spoiling too much, Verbal turns out to have been fabricating most of the story in order to lead the detectives to a false conclusion.

      Video Game example: Alpha Protocol has the framing device of Mike telling his story to an interrogator, and periodically it’ll jump back to the interrogation room to ask a few more questions (where you can lie or conceal important details, if you want). And in the grand finale, we finally explain how Mike got into that interrogation room, and he calls in all those favors he’s accumulated in the story to help him break out and bring down the villains.

      TVTropes probably has more examples, this sort of thing would fall under Unreliable Narrator, Direct Line to the Author, or Literary Agent Hypothesis.

    • Odoacer says:

      Gur Guvatf Gurl Pneevrq

      Vg’f frzv-nhgbovbtencuvpny nobhg gur nhgube’f rkcrevraprf va gur Ivrganz Jne.

      • keranih says:

        I disagree with this assessment. I don’t think TTTC fits in this group (although it is an exceptional group of stories.)

        • Odoacer says:

          It’s been years since I’ve read it, but there is a “twist in the frame story somehow related to the stories being told.” It’s not fantastical, but there is a twist with the narrator.

          Gur nhgube erirnyf gung frireny riragf qvq abg npghnyyl unccra, ohg engure gur fgbevrf, juvyr fbzr cnegf ner svpgvbany, pbairl gur zrffntr orggre guna fgenvtug ercbegvat bs jung rknpgyl unccrarq.

    • BBA says:

      I was a bit disappointed that Ubhfr bs Yrnirf didn’t really do this despite hinting in that direction.

      The Neverending Story has the opposite of this – the outer story leaks into the inner story.

    • Deiseach says:

      Agatha Christie’s 1926 novel, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, is an early example of the ‘twist in the narration’ and was very famous for this.

      As a side-note, Edmund Wilson does not seem to have liked genre fiction at all; I already knew he put the boot into “The Lord of the Rings” but I see by the Wikipedia article he didn’t even bother reading the Christie novel when using it as the title of an article (first of three columns) criticising mystery novels as a whole, and he considered Lovecraft hackwork (well, fair enough, it does depend if you have any tolerance for the pulp tradition). He must have had an unhappy time seeing horror and fantasy and crime novels hitting the best seller lists and staying there while gem-like literary slim volumes got nowhere 🙂

    • keranih says:

      Life of Pi?

    • Unnatural Philosopher says:

      Fbcuvrf Jbeyq is a quite well known example. It’s a bit on the YA side of things if I remember correctly, and filled with explanations of philosophy, so the twist has some grounding in the overall theme.

    • mobile says:

      Gur Zbafgre ng gur Raq bs Guvf Obbx

      shame on Amazon for putting a big spoiler right in the product description

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight surely counts, in which n zna vairfgvtngrf uvf abiryvfg oebgure’f qrngu, ohg gheaf bhg gb or n punenpgre va uvf oebgure’f abiry.

      David Foster Wallace has a short story called “Oblivion” which seems to be narrated by a man with a snoring problem (along with other irritating personality flaws), but is actually narrated by his wife dreaming of him narrating.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        not to mention every other Nabokov book

        • BeefSnakStikR says:

          Actually, I think Nabokov more often writes novels in which the narrator is plainly an author (eg. Kinbote editing Pale Fire, Van in Ada, and Humbert Humbert writing a diary).

          In other words, the twist is in the narrator being unreliable about the details–not that the narrator withholds or misses that there is an author with special power over the plot.

          The only other Nabokov reveal I know of that’s similar to the one in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is in Bend Sinister.

          Though I don’t know his work that thoroughly so I may be missing some obvious examples.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Pale Fire is so crazy it should go in any category like this. In particular, TMB’s example of the narrator of the frame story being a character in interior stories definitely applies. Lolita has a frame story that is mildly misleading.

    • Skivverus says:

      Small videogame example that comes to mind would be The Company of Myself. On the book front, the zombie/journalism-themed trilogy “Newsflesh” might also be of interest.

      • Incurian says:

        Also: Bioshock Infinite.

        • arbitrary_greay says:

          And the original Bioshock, as well.
          Braid is another famous game example.
          As per the horror genre, so do the Amnesia games.

          On the non-game side, Zhang Yimou’s film Hero. The Silence from Doctor Who.
          Most any Unreliable Narrator story, where they first pretend it’s not Unreliable Narrator. So any “oh it was a hallucination” stories, like A Beautiful Mind, or Fight Club. Most Satoshi Kon films, but especially Paranoia Agent.
          And speaking of which, isn’t the “it was all a dream/simulation/gaslighting” twist apply? A few Person of Interest episodes would apply, as would the reveals in Paprika and Inception of when it’s revealed we’re no longer in the “real world.” And then you’ve got Oldboy.

          Most of the heist genre also uses this as its bread and butter. We see just enough of the thieves’ POV to be on their side, but during the actual heist, we switch to the victim/defender/law enforcement’s POV, seeing the events that might derail the heist, increasing the tension. Then, just as all seems to be lost, the real thieves’ POV reveals to us new information that lets them get out of this pinch. Think all of the Soderbergh Ocean’s movies. Most episodes of Leverage. The Sting.
          Magic-heist movie Now You See Me pulls this to an egregiously bad level.

    • James says:

      The Princess Bride does that a bit. The narrator is very involved.

    • bluto says:

      Would the original Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire qualify as game examples?

      • Skivverus says:

        I’d say sure, those count.

        I might be annoyed at the Ideological Turing Test failures in those games (basically, confusing the D&D law/chaos and good/evil axes), but aside from that I think they’re pretty well crafted.

    • Amanda says:

      n tbq va ehvaf might be considered like that.

  26. pku says:

    Random link: The price range for hiring a hitman:

    Key Quotes:
    “According to bureau press releases, recent quoted fees have ranged from $25,000 to kill a spouse to $600 to kill a girlfriend. And a drug dealer in New Orleans tried to pay for a contract killing in crack.”

    “At the low end, a teenager once offered him “seven Atari computer games, three dollar bills, and $2.30 in nickels and dimes” to take out a romantic rival.”

    Also, apparently the FBI guy in charge of investigating this is named Gary Johnson. I feel like there’s a joke here somewhere but I can’t think of anything (and also, no politics).

  27. Rock Lobster says:

    The other day my boss, in his capacity as a representative of my company, exhorted us to take advantage of the company’s educational reimbursement policy (up to the high single-digits thousands of dollars per year), adding that the course(s) doesn’t have to be directly work-related and doesn’t have to count towards a degree. My interpretation of that last bit is that while a finance or business class would be great and a general academic class would be fine, a cooking class would be pushing it and get you a funny look.

    I think I’ll take them up on this but I’d be very interested in suggestions, and I also don’t know quite how to go about signing up for a standalone class as a non-student. Do NYU and Columbia have a Course Catalog for Random Shlubs?

    To give some context, I work in finance and am NY-based. I have a Bachelor’s in math and economics. I’m open to doing a part-time MBA but am hesitant for a number of reasons I won’t go into unless asked. Other than that I’m not really sure where to even begin. I took a couple German courses a few years back with a friend which was pretty cool. I’m interested in lots of different things so I could get interested in stuff in science, history, the fine arts and art history, business/economics/finance, really anything. I could maybe do computer programming, but I know next to nothing about that and would also be concerned about giving off an “I’m moving to California to work in tech” vibe to my company.

    Thanks in advance for any advice. Happy to answer any relevant questions. Also happy new year to those who are celebrating.

    • pku says:

      An algorithms or a complexity/decidability course would be really interesting, if you haven’t seen that. Those were two of my favourite undergrad classes (and the only non-math classes I took).

    • dndnrsn says:

      A lot of universities have a “continuing education” department or something similar. NYU calls theirs the “School of Professional Studies”. Columbia does the same.

    • keranih says:

      (Which new year is it? Jewish, right?)

      I would be abusing the bejabers out of this policy – but in tech/voc training courses, or in language. Anything to do with machinery/systems.

      • Dr Dealgood says:

        Yup, Jewish.

        Not as fun as the Chinese New Year but at least you get to eat a lot of apples.

        • Challah is a very pleasant sort of bread.

        • Conveniently enough, our Swaar apple tree has been providing a surplus for the past several weeks. I now have two good recipes for apple cobbler (one of them called something else). The Swaar is tapering off but the Calville Blanc is just coming ripe. The subject of apple butter has been raised.

          And tonight our daughter in law to be brought over Challah she had baked with the assistance of my granddaughter. We sent them home with some of our apples.

    • Chalid says:

      Do you have to use the reimbursement for a formal academic course? Using the reimbursements to go to a few work-related conferences could be useful and fun, and, unlike the academic courses, will get you free food and booze and not require you to do homework. If you don’t know of any conferences, ask your boss for recommendations.

      Alternately, if you don’t want an MBA, maybe you could consider starting on a CFA instead?

      There’s also the direct skills upgrade types of courses – e.g. if you use Excel for four hours a day then taking a course in Excel skills might be very valuable, if not necessarily fun or intellectually stimulating.

      • Rock Lobster says:

        Thanks for the reply.

        I actually already go to work-related conferences pretty regularly as part of my job, and I’m already reimbursed for them. But I do appreciate outside-the-box thinking!

        Re: the CFA, I already have that. Rock Lobster, CFA, at your service. My company paid for it.

        An Excel course or seminar is a good idea. I’ll have to keep that in my back pocket. Along those lines I was thinking of a modeling course to bone up on that.

    • Odoacer says:

      Tangential question:

      Do you have to pay this back if you leave before X years?

      • Rock Lobster says:

        Short answer: no.

        If I leave before completion, then I’m not sure but I wouldn’t bet on getting paid.

    • Deiseach says:

      Do NYU and Columbia have a Course Catalog for Random Shlubs?

      Don’t know about those particular fine institutions but generally it’s called “Adult and Continuing Education” (sometimes “Life-long Learning”) and most colleges will have some kind of curriculum for it, as well as work-related (block-release) courses.

      Time Out has the answer to your question, though it’s from 2013.

      • My university has adult education courses. I know because I taught one.

        More fun than ordinary teaching, because everyone is there to learn what is being taught, not to fulfill a qualification for a degree. That’s also true of teaching at Pennsic, which I also enjoy.

    • raj says:

      There’s also the American opportunity and the lifetime learning tax credits. Anyone can get ~2k a year in tax credit (i.e. not just a deduction) for higher learning. But unfortunately they phase out at 80k and 55k MAGI respectively.

  28. It seems reasonably likely to me that an AI could find that its built-in goals are incoherent and/or contradictory. After all, the goals were developed by entities that weren’t as smart as the AI.

    Is there any way to plan or predict for what the AI would do then?

  29. Tyrant Overlord Killidia says:

    Did you know that meerkats are the most violent mammals?

  30. Sun Wu says:

    Technological determinism is the belief that 1) technology is by far the predominant influence on society and that 2) technological evolution advances on its own, even without the input of man. I’m not a technological determinist because I think (1) is overstated and (2) is simply not true (or at least, with some reservations, it will continue to not be true until the Singularity).

    BUT, there is an example often used by technological determinists that I find persuasive: the stirrup, and how it led inevitably to the rise of feudalism. Wikipedia provides more on that.

    My question to y’all is this: if you think feudalism was a bad thing, and you grant for now that the invention of the stirrup is what allowed feudalism to come about, and you could somehow go back in time and prevent the stirrup from being invented, would you do it?

    Follow-up: Choose some emerging technology you believe is (intentionally or otherwise) going to lead our society in a bad direction. Would you be willing to take action to prevent that technology from being released or widely adopted? Would you attempt to alter its design somehow? What would you do?

    • keranih says:

      Any time people start serious discussions about feudalism and European Middle Ages history, I have to fight down the temptation to randomly quote Monty Python.

      I don’t agree that feudalism flowed from the stirrup as a necessary or sufficient causal element. (Morrillo is persuasive.) If we’d seen the same among the Mongols, or if we had not seen other similar structures among Africans and MesoAmericans, the argument would carry more weight.

      In answer to your question, I don’t think feudalism was a bad enough thing to justify doing away with such a useful tool. Stirrups allowed smaller, weaker people to mount larger animals, and more than just soldiers/warriors rode horses. Everything’s a trade off.

      As for tech that I think has been of less good use…*chews lip* Most of the ones that I would name link heavily to Forbidden Fruit for today. But hey, this! We should not have gone with the QWERTY keyboard layout, and instead should have stuck with Dvorak’s or a similar pattern.

      • Sun Wu says:

        Is there a particular societal problem you think is being caused by the widespread adoption of the QWERTY keyboard, or are you just saying it isn’t as good at the thing it’s intended for as was a competing technology that lost out? (Sorta the VHS/Betamax debate all over again.)

        • keranih says:

          Well, while not a huge barrier, the QWERT version is harder to learn to use, and so makes it more difficult for people to communicate with keyboards.

          And I really really dislike the “hamper people so our tech can function” hacks that show up from time to time. I feel like this is a problem, not a solution.

          Other people may be able to identify problems they (and I!) feel are more significant.

          • Sun Wu says:

            And I really really dislike the “hamper people so our tech can function” hacks that show up from time to time.

            You’re referring to slowing down the typist so that the typewriter doesn’t jam? What would be your preferred solution? Wasn’t the typewriter itself a major leap toward exactly what you implied you wanted: people communicating with keyboards?

            Anyway, I’m curious about those “Forbidden Fruit” technologies you mentioned. What did you have in mind?

          • dndnrsn says:

            I learned to type QWERTY, but my brother could never get the hang of it, and learned to hunt-and-peck his way through typing class (evidently if you were able to type enough words per minute they didn’t care how, despite teaching touch-typing). On the other hand, maybe he still wouldn’t have learned with Dvorak or whatever. It’s not like we have a control group. Interesting, though, that they tried (and failed) to teach him touch-typing. Our parents, both professional class, went through school at a time when I guess it was assumed that anybody going on to professional work would have someone else typing for them.

            @Sun Wu:

            I believe “Forbidden Fruit” is a reference to the fact that no politics and such in this OT.

          • keranih says:

            @dndnrsn has it right. The most obvious examples are an invite to Tribal Warfare.

            I think David Friedman has a good point about the Amish. The dominant human culture in the Dune novels had made the same decision re: AI. (IMO the Star Wars clone wars were a subpar reference to this.)

          • Sun Wu says:

            As far as I can tell, politics are not banned from this OT, and I really can’t figure out what technology you think might be wicked but think you can’t talk about because it would require you to talk politics. Some kind of contraception maybe? Blink once for yes, twice for no…

            Seriously, I can’t see any way this has to be a political discussion, even if politics was banned.

            Re. Dune–never read it, but I did hear about that particular aspect of it somewhere and found it interesting. Neal Stephenson casually coined a brilliant concept in Seveneves and then didn’t do much with it, even though I think it’s interesting enough to have been its own book: “amistics”, which is something like “the study of why cultures/people choose to adopt or reject certain technologies”.

          • keranih says:

            @Sun Wu –

            Not banned banned, just not something I want to get into here. And oh, yes, it would devolve into politics almost instantly. (Most things that can influence human society will. The stirrup discussion would, except that the flex point on that one is so far back in history.)

            interesting enough to have been its own book

            Absolutely. Even at the level of SFF plots which run the gamit from “we must invent/must rediscover this new/old tech to save the world!” to “we must prevent Bob from using this new/old tech to destroy the world” the concept is a very fertile field.

      • If you haven’t read The Fable of the Keys, you probably should. It debunks the conventional account of the great superiority of the Dvorak keyboard, most of which seems to have originated as PR by Dvorak.

        Something like twenty years ago I asked Paul David if he was going to publish a rebuttal, something he had not gotten around to doing. So far as I know he still hasn’t.

        • my shoulders hurt says:

          Speaking of Dvorak being overrated, how good study of ergonomics is anyway?
          Are ergonomic keyboards, chairs and tables just placebo, or there’s something in it?

        • keranih says:

          Huh. Had not read that one. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • Silverlock says:

      It’s one thing to stop something from being invented, by killing the inventor or whatever. It’s something else entirely to keep it from being invented, if it is very useful, anyway. If something — particularly something relatively simple, requiring no exotic materials or the like — provides a significant advantage, then it is very likely to be invented in any place where the conditions allow. (I imagine this is what the technological determinists are talking about.)

      • Sun Wu says:

        That’s a big If though. Think of all the conditions, which include not just the raw materials, but the underlying knowledge/technology, an individual or group of individuals innovative enough to put them together the right way, and the right ambient social conditions for the thing to become widely adopted!

        I would guess that if you could somehow have a God’s-eye view of a timeline of all the potentialities in which humans invent and widely adopt some piece of technology, with each potential instance represented by a dot, the timeline would not have a lot of dots on it for any given technology. There might occasionally be two or three dots clustered together in time and space, but then none again for a long time. So, if the goal really was to prevent the technology being invented, the time-traveller/teleporter’s job would not actually be that difficult.

        Just because something can be easily made and provides an advantage doesn’t mean people will use it. Look at the fork!

      • Douglas Knight says:

        The stirrup seems very low-tech. It seems like it could have been invented a thousand years earlier. If there is any invention that seems bottlenecked by the actual invention, rather than some kind of technical or social prerequisites, the stirrup is it. (Wikipedia says that the solid-tree saddle is a technical prerequisite, but there is still a 500 year gap.)

        • Jiro says:

          Something a lot like Dungeons and Dragons could have been invented in the 1930’s.

          • Gazeboist says:

            D&D was rooted in high-leisure military simulation hobbiests and their systems for boardless miniature combat games. It seems unlikely that such a thing would have developed in the absence of high wealth and leisure like what existed in the 1950s. Those simulators were a pretty small group (and not focused on simulation as an entertainment or leisure activity) up until the rise of Avalon Hill and companies like it, which followed on WWII.

          • Jiro says:

            I was under the impression that the 1930’s were the first time period when people had enough leisure time to make modern leisure activities possible.

            I’d think that if they had enough leisure time to read pulp magazines (and they couldn’t *all* be read on the subway) they had enough time to play roleplaying games.

            Wikipedia describes a wargame in 1940 (although mass production of miniatures didn’t start until the 1950’s) and paperbacks starting in 1935. The current version of Monopoly was published 1935. And there certainly was enough of a movie industry to show that people had enough time to see them.

          • Lumifer says:

            @ Gazeboist

            Judging by Victorian England literature, there were a lot of bored (“high-leisure”) lords and ladies with some interest in military simulations.

          • John Schilling says:

            Naval miniatures wargaming was fairly big in the 1930s, and really going back to Victorian England – “Jane’s Fighting Ships”, now a hideously expensive professional reference work, was originally a sourcebook for naval wargamers.

            Naval warfare in the Dreadnaught era doesn’t really translate well to more general roleplaying, but I don’t think there was anything fundamental to the 1930s vs 1970s that said “In this decade it shall be respectable to simulate great naval battles rather than cavalry skirmishes” or vice versa.

            There were a couple of fairly explicit steps through Tolkien on the path from medieval miniatures wargaming to fantasy roleplaying, but 1930s sword-and-sorcery (Robert Howard et al) could probably have filled in for that part.

          • Gazeboist says:

            And indeed they did – early D&D drew from Tolkien and pulp fairly equally. Many early D&D spells and magical effects (things notably absent from Tolkien) are dead on copies of pulp magic, and of course the whole system of spell slots and levels and memorization came from the writings of Jack Vance in the late 40s and early 50s.

            My guess is that the 70s were favored over the 30s for RPG development because the influences needed time to come together.

    • Deiseach says:

      Okay. The stirrup. You couldn’t have picked a less contentious example? 🙂

      People have strong opinions on this. keranih gives a good breakdown of the pros and cons. Mainly, the con example is “Well the Romans didn’t have stirrups and they managed just fine”. I think the remnants of Roman empire had a way bigger influence than stirrups on the emergence of feudalism.

      Did societies which developed stirrups – like the Parthians – develop into feudal societies? (As to whether or not the Parthians had stirrups, if you’re going to be shooting from horseback and so not have the reins in your hands, you need something to place your feet into for control of the animal and less chance of falling out of the saddle, so I say if the Parthians didn’t, they had something enough like it to count).

      This is one of those questions where someone takes their hobby-horse (ha!) and makes it into the Big Reason Why. Stirrups on their own aren’t enough; technology and culture and social change and politics and bad harvests and moving westwards under the pressure of invading tribes and taking on the mantle of Rome and the simple onward march of time changing institutions and a handful of other things ’caused’ feudalism. There isn’t one simple Big Reason Why.

    • 1. The Amish are one society that takes this line of argument seriously. They agree not to use those technologies that they believe subvert their social system.

      2. I don’t think feudalism was a bad thing, given that the alternative was something like what preceded and followed. Centralized states look good to us because they pull resources in to the capital where they can be used to build big buildings that make impressive ruins or fund artists and such.

      In response to the conventional idea that the fall of the Roman Empire was followed by a dark age of misery, I like to point at the estimated pattern of European population. Peaks about 300 A.D., declines thereafter. About 600, with the Empire barely cold in its grave, it starts back up, passes the Roman peak about 800, keeps going up and up until the 14th century. We don’t have good measures of standard of living back then, but I think population growth rate provides at least a rough proxy.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I could equally well point to the reconstruction of the population that says the opposite. Reconstruction of calories per person are a lot more accurate than reconstructions of population. And they are a better proxy for standard of living in this period.

        • My source is the Penguin Atlas of World Population History. Not current, so it’s possible estimates have changed.

          What is your source for the opposite pattern? And where is there a source for calories per capita over the past two thousand years or so?

      • Sun Wu says:

        This question occurred to me as an indirect result of thinking about the Amish. I’ve been wondering for a long time about whether it would be feasible for technology designers to have something like an ordnung for themselves.

      • Gazeboist says:

        The decline you point to follows the beginning of the collapse of the Roman empire, especially in the West. The empire broke up and reformed in the 3rd century, then in the 4th split again under the Tetrarchy (which created the Eastern and Western empires). The split didn’t become final until late in the 4th century, and the Western Empire didn’t completely fall until nearly the 6th, but the writing was on the wall.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Interestingly, I had a prof who was extremely anti-technological-determinist, arguing that (at least historically) inventing technology is the easy part and the real bottleneck is the economy reaching a stage that actually justifies the investments necessary for the tech. (Yeah, it was an econ prof).

      Key examples are the Cistercians, whose monasteries employed water power for cloth processing and grain milling, and the Venetian arsenal, which used an assembly-line process for ships and other features of modern factories, both in the Middle Ages, well before the Industrial Revolution. The idea is that these innovations didn’t spread because for the most part they weren’t useful yet; Cistercian automation was subsidized out of a spiritual desire for self-sufficiency but was not actually profitable, and the Venetian Arsenal’s organization only made sense at a scale that pretty much no one else was operating at.

      I don’t know enough to say if it’s true, but it’s a good antithesis to your thesis.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        The Aresnale is a good example. I don’t think that the Cistercians are a good example. Maybe if you narrowly consider water power it was a bad investment and wasn’t copied for that reason. But they developed an awful lot and a lot of it was copied.

        And even in the case of water power, it is also easy to imagine that the reason they were the only ones using it is that people who wanted it commissioned new monasteries, because that was where you got the necessary know-how.

      • Deiseach says:

        Wait wait wait – how did your professor explain how people milled grain outside of monasteries, if waterwheel technology wasn’t spread? Sorry, that’s a mistaken idea he gave you, if I’m understanding you right.

        For goodness’ sakes, there’s plenty of folksongs about millers and drownings, because mills were using water power (mill races, mill ponds, waterwheels) for grinding grain. Monasteries like the Cistercians were innovative (especially the Cistercians, who were noted for taking poor land or land in difficult areas and cultivating it to a high degree of improvement) but if he gave you the impression that such innovations never ‘trickled down’ to secular society, he was in the wrong.

    • Stefan Drinic says:

      The stirrup leading to the rise of feudalism seems.. Spurious, at best. Zhou China had a feudal state a good few centuries before its invention; the Japanese developed such a state a number of centuries after they already had them.

      As David Friedman notes, stirrups aren’t a prerequisite to society developing in poor ways, so I would rather not be the one to keep it from being invented somehow. The ancient history of most anywhere shows humans are nasty to each other in plenty of ways before its invention.

      I can’t really think of any technologies that are on net completely wicked enough that I’d like for them to never have been invented, though.. High fructose corn syrup may be one, I guess? Tobacco usage? There may be some more low-hanging fruit around, but that seems to defeat the point of your dilemma a little.

    • abstemious says:

      I’m opposed to cars. I don’t like driving and I don’t like city layouts that require driving to get around. Given the option, I would cheerfully go back in time and pass a high tax on the use of cars for personal transit. Trucks transporting goods would still be fine. Taxi services, also fine. Living out in the suburbs and driving to work: no.

      I understand that, before cars, people used horses, which were in many ways worse. But I don’t think horses enabled suburbs in the same way that cars did. Horses also don’t run people over as much.

      • keranih says:

        I think you give too much credit to the car – according to this this article horse-drawn cars allowed for commuting/mass transit long before autos were a thing.

        Living out in the suburbs and driving to work: no.

        This seems to mean that you would be okay with living out in the suburbs and taking a train in – is this so?

        Also, what do you think of motorcycles and scooters?

        And what is your solution for mothers with children, older people, and people with physical disabilities who can’t walk so far?

        • abstemious says:

          I would be fine with people living far away and commuting via train. I don’t think that would lead to suburbs. I think it would lead to dense housing and commercial areas surrounding each train station.

          I don’t know much about horse-drawn carriages or motorcycles. I think all our cities should be walkable and have good public transit. We should regulate personal transit in a way that makes that happen.

          My solution for people who can’t walk far is that they keep doing whatever they were doing before cars were invented.

          • keranih says:

            My solution for people who can’t walk far is that they keep doing whatever they were doing before cars were invented.

            You mean, be housebound and/or impoverished?

            I would be fine with people living far away and commuting via train. I don’t think that would lead to suburbs. I think it would lead to dense housing and commercial areas surrounding each train station.

            You might want to look further into the city of London, and the situation there. (Also Paris, Tokyo, and other major regions.)

            One of the most interesting comments I heard about London is that it “really isn’t worth it to get friendly with people who don’t ride the same transit route as you, because you’ll never ever meet outside of work.”

          • Publius Varinius says:

            really isn’t worth it to get friendly with people who don’t ride the same transit route as you, because you’ll never ever meet outside of work.

            This accurately summarizes my experience with London as well, but I’m fairly sure it describes Londoner attitude instead of the realities of commuting.

            That said, the evidence contradicts @abstemious’s position e.g. take a look at the dense housing and commercial areas surrounding some rail-heavy European suburbs’ train stations: 1, 2, 3, 4.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            What’s so awful about suburbs? Theyre not all soulless.

      • nimim. k.m. says:

        The suburbs as we know them were still caused by political decisions, and different governments made different decisions regarding urban planning and mass transit and so on.

        The city layouts and suburbs in US and Europe look very different, and there’s a lot of variation in European countries, too.

      • Tibor says:

        Isn’t it better to move to a smaller town if it bothers you? It can actually be quite big, say 300 thousand people. Those places are more concentrated and it doesn’t take ages to get from one part of town to the other while there are enough people for even quite nice hobbies and activities. I’ve never been to the US though, I’m judging based on cities in Europe (where only a few monsters like Paris and London have a population of several million anyway)

        • JayT says:

          Most small towns in the US require owning a car if you ever want to go more than a small distance from your house. If you want to go carless, it’s much easier in the bigger cities.

      • That’s kind of funny, because I think of the automobile as the greatest invention of the industrial revolution. It has allowed the masses to be independent, and has greatly increased flexibility in transportation for commuting and moving between cities, which is very good for a dynamic economy. Also, 100 years ago, how many people had never traveled more than 50 miles from their birthplace? 50% maybe? Maybe almost no one today, with the resulting increase in sophistication of the population. Uh oh, I might see some politics here; maybe I shouldn’t have brought this up.

    • abstemious says:

      I’m also opposed to alcohol, tobacco, and spectator sports. The former two have clear negative effects on society; the last one just really annoys me, enough that I want to believe it has negative effects but I don’t really have any evidence.

      I would love to go back in time and distract or kidnap the inventors of these things, but it wouldn’t work, someone else would invent something similar instead. So again I’ll imagine that I could just apply heavy taxes. (How heavy? I’d keep increasing the tax until black market sales started to be an important thing, and then I’d decrease the tax a little.) It’s interesting to imagine going back in time to do this, but honestly applying the tax in the present would work about as well.

      • I’ve played with the notion that (American) football is the thing that will take America down. It’s a supernormal stimulus which leads to overspending on stadiums, despising academic subjects, and brain injuries for a noticeable proportion of men.

        This is based partly on a notion that the big mistake could be something you don’t see coming– look at China pulling back from exploring the western hemisphere.

      • Dan T. says:

        The federal government needs a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Spectator Sports.

    • abstemious says:

      If you insist on emerging technologies, I’d start by banning superpacs. But that’s really stretching the definition of “technology”.

    • Zombielicious says:

      Re: technologies that shouldn’t have been invented, I’d vote for various new forms electronic superstimulus. Originally I thought of social media notifications and upvotes (including our own little “[+] N comments since” piece of javascript), but slot machines and video game achievements are just as good, among other examples. The broader issue might be dark arts and manipulative UX design (see for instance) – the abusive Psych 101 tactics of F2P games are a good example as well.

      Whatever positive value they create, I dare you to find a more seemingly innocuous, ubiquitous part of our lives that has cost more life-years of productivity for less value provided. In general, a large portion of the web seems to be evolving towards the worst behavior of casinos, and should probably be viewed and treated similarly.

      • sweeneyrod says:

        “Originally I thought of social media notifications and upvotes (including our own little “[+] N comments since” piece of javascript.”

        I think JavaScript in general also fits the bill.

        • CatCube says:

          I don’t know if it’s as funny to actual programmers, rather than just this layman, but I liked James Mickens’ take on JavaScript.

          The first log entry says that the browser executed a downloaded file as JavaScript, even though the MIME type of the file was text/html. Here’s a life tip: when you’re confused about what something is, DON’T EXECUTE IT TO DISCOVER MORE CLUES.

          • Lumifer says:

            Meh. Rants were much better in the olden days. Sample:

            Date: Wed 4 Mar 92 02:53:53 PST
            X-Windows: Boy, Is my Butt Sore
            From: Jamie Zawinski []
            To: UNIX-HATERS
            Subject: X: or, How I Learned to Stop Worring and Love the Bomb

            Don't ever believe the installation instructions of an X server extension. Just don't, it's an utter waste of time. You may be thinking to your self, "I'll just install this piece of code and recompile my X server and then X will be JUST a LITTLE BIT less MORONIC; it'll be EASY. I'll have worked around another STUPID MISDESIGN, and I'll be WINNING." Ha! Consider whether chewing on glass might have more of a payoff than what you're about to go through.

            After four hours of pain, including such loveliness as a dozen directories in which you have to make a symlink called "X11" pointing at wherever the real X includes are, because the automatically-generated makefiles are coming out with stuff like:
            instead of
            or, even better,
            and then having to hand-hack these automatically-generated makefiles anyway because some random preprocessor symbols weren't defined and are causing spurious "don't know how to make" errors, and then realizing that makedepend, which you don't really care about running anyway, is getting errors because the extension's installation script made symlinks to directories instead of copies, and .. doesn't WORK with symlinks, and and and ...
            You'll finally realize that the only way to compile anything that's a basic part of X is to go to the top of the tree, five levels higher than the executable that you actually want to generate, and say "make Everything". Then come back an hour later when it's done making the MAKEFILES to see if there were any actual COMPILATION problems.

            And then you'll find yourself asking questions like, "why is it compiling that? I didn't change that, what's it DOING?"

            And don't forget that you HAVE to compile ALL of PEX, even though none of it actually gets linked in to any executables that you'll ever run. This is for your OWN GOOD!

            And then you'll realize what you did wrong, of course, you'll realize what you should have done ALL ALONG:

            $(RM) -rf $(TOP)
            But BE CAREFUL! That second line can't begin with a tab.

          • Thatwasademo says:

            It’s significantly less funny to me, at least, and probably anyone else with programming experience because of, among other things,the part where he rags on JavaScript for “typeof NaN” returning Number and “NaN != NaN” returning True. These are both entirely correct implementations of the relevant IEEE standard and I am sick and tired of people dragging them out as reasons JavaScript, in particular and as opposed to any other language that uses IEEE floating point numbers, sucks.

    • abstemious says:

      Oh, here’s another: “social-deception” games, in which somebody’s a traitor but they lie about it and you have to figure out who. Mafia, Werewolf, The Resistance, Avalon, Murder In Hong Kong, Battlestar Galactica, most recently Secret Hitler. People keep bringing this stuff to board games groups and saying “hey, this game takes ten people, so everyone in the group can play at once!” I don’t want to sit at a table with nine people taking turns bullshitting at me, and if everyone else is doing it it becomes hard to find people to play a real game with me.

      I can’t think of a way to stop this sort of thing from spreading. I’d like it if people universally recognized that social-deception games are different from board games, in the same way that they recognize that Candyland and Monopoly aren’t real board games; I’d like it if people started their own “social-deception games” meetups and stayed out of board games events. But there’s no good way to cause a cultural change like that.

      But this is just me being cranky. Feel free to ignore. 🙂

      • DavidS says:

        I think Monopoly is a bad boardgame rather than not a boardgame. And Battlestar Galactica is clearly a boardgame. Things like Werewolf you can definitely argue are a different sort of thing, but Battlestar has loads of boardgame characteristics as well as social deception characteristics. It’s by no means JUST about people sitting round lying to each other.

        I think that in many ways, Battlestar is closer to the classic image of a boardgame than pure coops like Pandemic: at least you can have winners and losers!

      • DrBeat says:

        Battlestar Galactica has so much going on it doesn’t deserve to be put in the same category as “social deception” games like Mafia/Werewolf and The Resistance. Those games, not much is happening other than lying and figuring out who is lying; BSG gives you lots of mechanical crunch to both interact with and derive information from. Not to mention that the Cylons should probably be revealed shortly after Sleeper phase hits, so about let’s say 30-40% of the game has no deception at all and is team vs team. And it doesn’t accommodate ten people like social deception games either.

        Yes, I’m biased because I think BSG is the best board game ever. But also, have you considered the fact that BSG is the best board game ever?

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      Nobody is mentioning the cotton gin, the thing that made slavery profitable?

      Oh wait. I forget. US history books make a big deal about the cotton gin and who invented it, but never explain its importance to US history. Short version: Slavery was on its way out when it was invented, because slaves weren’t productive enough to offset their costs – slaves were luxury goods, rather than capital goods. The cotton gin changed this situation by making cotton a viable crop, and since cotton required relatively intensive but low-skilled labor, the long decline of slavery as an institution in the US abruptly reversed.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        All textbooks say that. But it doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would a labor-saving device increase the demand for labor? It sure seems like that’s what happened, but can you give a more precise explanation of why it happened?

        • John Schilling says:

          Between grits, swill, and wear and tear on the whips and chains, slave labor costs one cent hour. It takes a hundred man-hours of labor to produce a bale of textile-quality cotton, entirely by hand. High-grade linen, equivalent to cotton for almost all purposes, sells for seventy-five cents a bale. Demand for cotton-picking slaves is limited to niche markets. Enter the cotton gin, and it now takes twenty-five man-hours of labor to produce one bale of good cotton. The price of linen is unchanged. Do the math.

          Numbers made up out of whole cloth, but relatively correct.

          • Anonymous says:

            Speaking of linen, a secondary tragedy of the cotton gin was the ruination of all books and paper. Back when linen was used instead, the rag and bone man would collect linen rags, and then the paper mills would use that rag linen to make nice, sturdy paper that lasts effectively forever without yellowing, and which doesn’t crease permanently.

            Once linen fell out of wide use as a textile, paper had to be made from evil, stenchful wood pulp, population of the hive has fallen dramatically and we are all doomed to piss hell.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Yes, if cotton were previously a niche luxury, it would make sense, but it wasn’t. Cotton-picking slaves were niche, but cotton wasn’t. India made large quantities with gin-less labor. If slave cotton couldn’t compete with Indian cotton before, why after?

          • Aevylmar says:

            Let me give you what I understand as the standard explanation, numbers pulled out of thin air.

            Let’s say it takes ten acres of land and ten man-hours of unskilled labor to produce a bale of cotton, which sells for a dollar a bale.

            The equation, then, is 10A + 10L = $1. Measured in terms of labor, L = 10¢-A.

            We now invent the cotton gin, and it takes ten acres of land and two man-hours of unskilled labor to produce a bale of cotton, which sells for a dollar a bale.

            So, 10A+2L=$1, or, measured in the value of labor, L = ¢50-5A. Which, assuming that the land costs less than ten cents an acre-hour, is a rise in the value of labor.

            At this point, economics tells you that, unless the demand for cotton skyrockets at the same rate as the supply, production will increase to absorb the higher profits they’re making, the price will drop (since the plantation-owners aren’t a monopoly, but are bidding against each other), demand will rise (because people are willing to buy more at a lower price), and the value of both of the inputs will rise (because they can produce more, as we saw above.) This will end with the price-per-bale of cotton lower and the price-per-hour of labor and the price-per-acre of land both higher.

            The thing about the American South, though, is that land was really cheap – they’d just taken over Texas, which was largely inhabited except by people they didn’t like, and they still had lots of colonization of the interior of the Deep South to do – and so the main effect was that labor rose in value, and slaves went from “we might as well just pay them the market value of their work, it saves on overseers” to “you mean we don’t have to pay them, only buy them food? Sold!” to tragic effect.

          • John Schilling says:

            India made large quantities with gin-less labor

            There’s large quantities and then there’s large quantities. In 1850, India produced 102,000 metric tons of cotton, down from a peak of about 200,000 tons (mostly for domestic consumption). The United States in 1850 produced 647,000 metric tons of cotton.

            Looking specifically at the British market, in the pre-cotton-gin year of 1790, Great Britain imported 13,000 metric tons of (mostly Indian) cotton; in 1850 that had gone to over 240,000 metric tons – of which about 13,000 metric tons was imported from India. The inflation-adjusted price of the cheapest grade of cotton yarn in England declined from 36 pence per lb in 1790 to 10 pence/lb in 1820; I can’t find anything beyond that.

            Data from Broadberry and Gupta, among other sources, and I can’t guarantee I didn’t botch a unit conversion in there somewhere.

            From the European perspective, it looks like imported handmade Indian cotton was a niche luxury good produced in “large” quantities, whereas slave-picked and ginned American cotton was produced in LARGE quantities as a cheap substitute for linen (but not displacing hand-made Indian cotton on the luxury market).

          • Douglas Knight says:

            If Indian cotton exports didn’t increase, that suggests the answer to the question of why they couldn’t compete with slave cotton was that they didn’t adopt the cotton gin. But that just leaves the question of why they didn’t.

            The protectionist Calico Acts c1700 suggest that Indian cotton was competitive with linen. Maybe they were actually about cheap dying in India, not the raw material. It sounds to me that patterned cloth grew from a niche to a staple, but that was driven by the price of patterning, not raw materials. And I think this promoted cotton because it was easier to pattern, as opposed to solid dye. I don’t know how much of the technology was cotton-specific. In particular, Broadberry and Gupta say that the cost of raw cotton rose from 1770 to 1790. Probably demand was for cotton was rising before the gin (although maybe it was the war). Indeed, that’s what B&G claim about the century long increase in cotton prices.

            Yes, in Table 9, B&G say that the cost of cheap yarn fell 36 to 11 from 1790 to 1820. The cost of yarn fell from twice the cost of cotton in 1780 to 5/4 in 1830. (But in 1820, it was cheaper than raw cotton, so I may be doing something wrong.) So improvements in spinning were more important. And the price of cloth fell more slowly, suggesting that it was dominated by other factors, but I don’t know how much a piece of cloth weighs.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Aevylmar, the usual story is that when land is cheap, agricultural slaves are viable. Your last paragraph seems to hint at that. But then where does cotton come in? Why wasn’t slavery viable before? There was maybe 150 years of rapid growth of the slave population before that. I’m not sure if Orphan Wilde is claiming that was all malinvestment, or if something changed. I think that a more plausible claim is that as the east filled up with free men, slaves were not viable there, but were still viable in the west. This suggests that it would get squeezed in the long run, but not too soon.

          • “But then where does cotton come in? Why wasn’t slavery viable before?”

            The argument I’m aware of from economic historians is that there are some crops well suited to gang labor, everyone doing the same thing together, which makes it relatively inexpensive to monitor and enforce the work of slaves. The two big ones were cotton and sugar cane.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            That is a lot more sensible. Wikipedia claims that tobacco was also on a gang system, so this doesn’t particularly help with the claim that slave tobacco was failing, but it also likely that there is variation in productivity across gang systems. Whether this is relevant to the cotton gin depends on whether the work eliminated by the gin was suited to the gang system.

        • Devilbunny says:

          Different varieties of cotton. Some kinds of cotton have seeds that are not closely attached to the surrounding fibers, so manual extraction (or extraction with a simple press) is adequate. Other varieties have seeds that are very closely adherent to the surrounding fibers. The latter variety is the only kind that will grow in a large part of the South.

          You don’t need a cotton gin to profitably process the long-staple varieties with loose seeds. But if you want to grow upland, short-staple cotton, you have to have an enormous workforce to process the fibers. Once you have a cotton gin, however, that workforce shrinks immensely, and the amount of land where cotton can profitably be cultivated increases immensely.

          The productivity increase in fiber processing induced a huge increase in demand for labor in cultivating and harvesting the raw product.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Thanks, that’s probably why production shifted from India to America, and why India didn’t adopt the cotton gin.

      • keranih says:

        Nobody is mentioning the cotton gin, the thing that made slavery profitable?

        At least one other person didn’t mention it on purpose. 🙂

        (For the record, I’m not het up about you mentioning it, because it’s a good example of a tech that came along at a bad time. But I’m still not going there.)

    • Aevylmar says:

      I think that if we make large-scale changes to the past, there’s a high chance of preventing the industrial revolution and keeping everyone poor and comparatively miserable until we’re destroyed by asteroids, so I wouldn’t go back and prevent the invention of the stirrup even if I shared those beliefs. (Which I don’t, but that’s a different topic.)

      My follow-up… AI. Nanotech. Whatever the new frontier in explosives is. This is the dream time, right now. I don’t have the knowledge or experience to try to prevent changes to it – I think that the right way to alter the world for the better is probably just donating money to mosquito nets like a boring person – but anything with a significant chance of blowing up the world, I would rather not see invented, even if the possible benefits are incredibly high.

      (This isn’t to say that people working on AI or nanotech are bad people, or doing bad things – most of the talk I hear about AI is “how do we stop it from blowing up the world,” and it’s a good thing that the people talking about AI are talking about that – but I’d still push the Luddite Button and end development on AI forever if I was the World Science Czar.)

    • cassander says:

      > you think feudalism was a bad thing, and you grant for now that the invention of the stirrup is what allowed feudalism to come about, and you could somehow go back in time and prevent the stirrup from being invented, would you do it

      A much more reliable solution is to go back a little bit before the invention of the stirrup and start handing out matchlocks. There’s no reason you can’t make guns with roman level technology, they didn’t because no one had lucked into figuring out gunpowder yet. Give a few of the empires of late antiquity guns, and 1000 years of horse people stomping all over settled people whenever they got unified never happens.

      • keranih says:

        Give a few of the empires of late antiquity guns, and 1000 years of horse people stomping all over settled people whenever they got unified never happens.

        I’m not following. What’s the difference between bows/javelins and smoothbores that horsemen are a threat with one and not with the other?

        • cassander says:

          Bows and javelins take a constant training to keep physical strength and proficiency up, guns do not. horse tribes can make javelins and bows in large numbers, they struggle to make guns.

          There is a long literature on how much guns revolutionized warfare, but pretty much everyone agrees that they increased the capital intensity of war (how much is highly contentious), and that gunpowder helped drive the formation of larger, more powerful states with powerful militaries (again, how much is debated). Both of these factors gave settled peoples significant advantages over unsettled. The later magnified their traditional advantage of organization, the former undid the barbarian’s main advantage, the enormous share of their population (relative to settled peoples) that were trained to arms.

          • keranih says:

            Hmmm. Compelling, but not yet persuasive.

            (I’d really like 40+ earth-type planets and 10,000 years to do a proper study.)

            Gunpowder was known in the west (and mid east) by the 1200’s, but cavalry remained a decisive component of military action well into the 1800’s, as did the effect of horse peoples. I absolutely grant the comparative superiority of smithies (and I suspected you would make this point) but it’s not as though anvils and bellows were unknown to the Mongols. Plus, until we get to the industrial revolution, and the supportive infrastructure, sheer logistics mean that the supply of gunpowder and guns would run out eventually. Space has always been on the side of the horse tribes.

            If you said that the era of the horsetribe superiority would be two thirds of what it was, or halved, I’d have a hard time arguing persuasively against that.

            (for those with a deeper interest in the field, War Horse: A History of the Military Horse and Rider by Louis DiMarco is a very readable, well illustrated volume on the use of mounted troops in war.)

          • cassander says:

            >Gunpowder was known in the west (and mid east) by the 1200’s,

            the critical date here is the development of serious gunpowder artillery in the west in the late 14th/early 15th century.

            >but cavalry remained a decisive component of military action well into the 1800’s, as did the effect of horse peoples.

            On that, I would very much disagree. First, cavalry made good use of gunpowder weapons in the early modern period to stay relevant in the face of increasing firepower on the battlefield. Second, while cavalry was an essential component of a good army it certainly did not dominate the battlefield. Cavalry was extremely potent in certain circumstances, but they were still expensive to equip and maintain and of limited potency against an enemy well drilled enough to employ the proper techniques to resist them.

            >but it’s not as though anvils and bellows were unknown to the Mongols.

            you can’t make cannon on an anvil, they had to be cast. And even if you could, horse people couldn’t exactly haul slow moving siege trains around with them and still retain the traditional mobility of horse people.

            >Plus, until we get to the industrial revolution, and the supportive infrastructure, sheer logistics mean that the supply of gunpowder and guns would run out eventually. Space has always been on the side of the horse tribes.

            the conquest of horse people (or perhaps more accurately, any land of theirs you wanted) was a different, and more difficult, problem than defense of densely settled areas against them.

            >for those with a deeper interest in the field, War Horse: A History of the Military Horse and Rider by Louis DiMarco is a very readable, well illustrated volume on the use of mounted troops in war.)

            that looks like a very interesting book.

    • sweeneyrod says:

      A technology that I think did lead our (meaning British) society in a bad direction was Newton’s calculus notation. It is less clear than Leibniz’s, and its adoption by British mathematicians was arguably one of the main reasons none of the great 18th and 19th century mathematicians were British — the candidates were handicapped by their notation.

  31. Pablo says:

    Does anyone have a good suggestion for books about the solar system or about particular planets and/or their moon systems? I’m looking for something aimed at laymen but not too dumbed down/’pop science’, if you know what I mean.

    • How to Live on Mars by Robert Zubrin is a bit applied (and speculative), but there’s plenty of planetary science included. Sections with heavy science content are explicitly marked and listed in the table of contents iirc.

    • Zombielicious says:

      This is an audiobook, but for introductory general astronomy, I’ve enjoyed James Kaler’s TMS Astronomy lecture series, which comes in two parts – (1) Earth, Sky, and Planets and (2) Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe. Astronomy moves pretty fast so it’s a bit old now (2003), e.g. nothing about the new gravitational wave or Kepler exoplanet discoveries, but I haven’t found anything better yet either. A big advantage is that he’s very descriptive and doesn’t rely on accompanying materials, so they’re good for listening to in the car, unlike most competing lectures on Youtube, OCW, etc.

  32. Deiseach says:

    Looking for something nice to link, since I’ve been as snarly as anyone in the Topics Not Discussed On Here posts, but the news is so damn depressing today – well, Manchester United were denied a victory today thanks to a last-minute equaliser from an ex-Liverpool player, Joe Allen! That’s good news! 🙂

    I wish to make my gratitude to Jose Mourinho for taking on the United gig publicly known. Now I can feel good about wishing them misfortune once again, after the days of Louis van Gaal when schadenfreude was too uncomfortable to indulge in (it really did feel like kicking away a blind cripple’s crutch from under him). It’s also worth seeing the faces Zlatan pulls when clod-hopping peasants somehow manage to beat* a team for which he is playing, but I don’t particularly dislike him 🙂

    *All right, they drew, but it counts as beating United if United don’t win, right?

    • keranih says:

      Sort of related?

      I graduated from a uni with a Serious Sports Rivalry with another college. My brand-new-to-me boss is from this other college, and enjoys the rivalry, and the sports, and the camradre of talking about both. (The current job is in an entirely different – but still sports mad! – state. I played some team sports, but I am not a Sports Person.

      I am fully willing to do the monkey dance and put up my college sports flag and at least check the news to see when “my” team is playing, and if they won last time, but I know for sure that there will be times this year when I will have neither the energy nor the time to spare reading up on this. And I’m not about to start memorizing sports stats. Or player names. Or the rules to any sport I don’t actually have an interest in (*).

      I’m not at all upset over my boss’s (mild) sports enthusiasm, I’m just concerned that I’d lead him (and the other sports nuts at the office) into thinking that I care deeply about this, when really, if I’m not playing, I could care less. It costs me very little to put forth a little effort to research the games, etc, but I don’t want to set up expectations that this is at all important to me.

      So, D, as an enthusiast, how does this strike you? If I just put up my banner and keep the chit chat to that space before meetings, am I setting myself up for having to turn down multiple invitations to bowl game gatherings?

      (*) Horse racing, dog sledding, long distance running, some martial arts and rugby. And soccer if Argentina is playing.

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh, I’m not much of an enthusiast either; by comparison with the proper fans, I’m a Filthy Casual. But Liverpool (for a combination of circumstances) are my team, which is odd as my mother (who was the sports fan in the family) supported Manchester United (and got my younger brother into them as well) 🙂

        Liverpool kind of have a glorious future behind them. They were in the position that Ferguson’s United were, of winning all around them and being unbeatable. Gradually that eroded and United took over, and Fergie wasn’t the most emollient of characters. Add in North-Western local rivalry (more for those who actually live in Britain), and that set them up as the Hated Rivals. Chelsea, for the younger generation, took over that mantle (particularly under The Special One) but I’m the generation for whom the “enemy” is United 🙂

        It’s always been more fun than serious following on my part, and I have no in-depth knowledge of any kind about the team and the game, but Heysel was bad. Really, really bad. I was in front of the telly waiting to watch the match because it was the final and – yeah. That was the time I deliberately stopped following my team, because if people were dying over a bloody game of football, I was not going to sweep that under the carpet. I came back to them eventually, though, and the renaissance under Klopp (we’re always having renaissances, by the way) is looking exciting so far!

        • AlphaGamma says:

          I am amused by how many more people in Ireland seem to support teams in the English league (particularly the two you mention) than teams in Ireland.

          I just discovered that the top division of the League of Ireland is now a summer competition. I don’t know whether that’s to avoid competition from the English League or from Gaelic football.

      • ChillyWilly says:

        In my experience, most True Sports Fans don’t care if you half-ass it, as long as you don’t try to steer the conversation away from sports. I watch football with my friends every Sunday, and they never mind that I fall asleep midway through the third game, but it would be appalling for me to ask to change the channel. I suggest being honest about not being much of a fan and, when in doubt, asking questions to get through any sports conversation.

  33. I had forgotten about Flight 800 until I read the Ron Unz article linked in my name. I don’t know how to evaluate it. Does anyone have an opinion? My instinct is to dismiss it but I haven’t gotten there yet. Selected quotations:

    The outline of facts is hardly complicated. Soon after taking off from New York’s JFK Airport on July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 suddenly exploded in the air just off Long Island. So enormous a loss of life naturally produced an immediate scrambling of numerous federal agencies to investigate the cause, and with widespread fears of terrorism, the FBI launched the largest, most complex investigation in its entire history, deploying some 500 field agents to the area. The investigators soon gathered a copious quantity of seemingly consistent evidence.

    Large numbers of local witnesses were immediately interviewed by the swarm of federal agents, with 278 of them reporting that they saw a streak of light, much like a missile, shoot up into the sky in the direction of the aircraft just before the huge explosion.

    Almost immediately after the disaster, a bidding-war allegedly broke out between the national television networks for an amateur home-video showing a missile striking and destroying TWA 800, with the tape eventually being sold for more than $50,000 and briefly broadcast on the MSNBC cable news channel before reportedly being seized as evidence by FBI agents.

    After more than a year of detailed research, the government investigation finally concluded that no missile could possibly have been involved, with all the eyewitnesses having been misled by what amounted to an optical illusion caused by the explosion of the aircraft. That explosion itself had been entirely spontaneous, probably caused by a random spark igniting one of the gas tanks. Given the controversy in the case, the CIA helpfully produced a computer animation showing the official reconstruction of the events, which was endlessly broadcast by our news media to explain the disaster to the public. The simulation showed the jetliner spontaneously exploding in mid-air, with no external cause, and just to further clarify matters, the CIA animators also inserted an explanatory message in large text: “There Was No Missile.” The New York Times, and nearly all our other mainstream media repeatedly echoed this same simple conclusion in all their stories and headlines.

    • CatCube says:

      My (non-expert) understanding is that the biggest weakness of the missile theory is that missiles just aren’t that subtle. The comparison I saw on a TV show a number of years ago went something like: “If it was a missile, you wouldn’t do what [missile conspiracy theorists] are doing, staring at thumbnail sized pieces of aircraft, sucking their teeth, and saying, ‘this could show evidence of a missile strike!’ We’d all be standing in front of the partially-assembled wreckage of the plane and going, ‘yeah, this was a missile.'”

      The other parts of it fall down where there isn’t a plausible ship in the area that had no missiles unaccounted for, and that there’s no way to hide a missile launch from the entire crew. If it was a terrorist with a MANPAD, I can’t think of any reason for the government to cover it up. (Leaving aside the difficulty of covering up a missile attack from the first paragraph.)

      • Ron Unz Article says:

        From what I can tell by the article, the conspiracy theories are not based on analyzing tiny pieces of wreckage, but on the fact (is it a fact?) that the wreckage and other evidence was secreted away and tampered with by the government.

        The article repeats some allegations of this kind but not with many details (“the tape was briefly broadcast on MSNBC before reportedly being confiscated by the FBI”). At least, not details that are easy to verify in a few minutes on google.

        There are citations, but they are not very focused. “So-and-so amasses overwhelming evidence in his book”, but I haven’t heard of so-and-so, and Unz does not indicate a page number.

        • anon says:

          After reading Unz’s article I bought the book by Cashill, but I haven’t finished it yet (it’s not especially well written). The main evidence for the missile theory seems to be a large amount of eyewitness testimony. As someone said above, missiles aren’t subtle and hundreds of people who saw the plane blow up — including some particularly reliable witnesses with military and/or aviation experience — specifically stated that they saw a streak approaching the plane before it exploded. There are indications that the FBI and CIA — who (unusually) took over the investigation from NTSB — were not exactly on the level in how they handled these witness accounts and incorporated them into their findings.

          I don’t know much about the physical evidence recovered from the wreckage. We’ll see when I get to that part of the book.

          I find the missile theory basically plausible. If a naval exercise accidentally resulted in hundred of civilian deaths, there would be plenty of motivation to try to cover it up. I doubt I’ll ever be firmly convinced either that the theory is true or that it is false.

          • John Schilling says:

            If a naval exercise accidentally resulted in hundred of civilian deaths, there would be plenty of motivation to try to cover it up.

            You mean like this? Because that doesn’t look much like a coverup to me. And that was halfway around the world, with no eyewitnesses other than the US Navy.

            Yeah, yeah, hundreds of eyewitnesses say they saw a missile. There are always of eyewitnesses who think they saw a missile. Or a second gunman, or whatever. Eyewitness testimony as to something that was unexpected, over in seconds, and not important until after the fact, is basically worthless. We know this. Stop spreading bullshit conspiracy theories concocted by the ignorant fools who don’t understand this.

          • anon says:

            FWIW, John, I don’t believe the Warren Commission about the JFK assassination either.

            I don’t believe eyewitness testimony is something that one should base a murder conviction on. But I don’t believe it contains zero information content either.

            I also don’t think it’s bad to spread conspiracy theories, because I don’t think “conspiracy theory” deserves the negative connotation it has received. Governments, by and large, haven’t been particularly trustworthy institutions. I don’t see any harm in trying to suss out government deceptions.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            I’m as suspicious of government as anyone, but I’m also skeptical of massive cover-ups as an explanation. They are typically not at all practical, and should be applied significant complexity penalties.

            Why were hundreds of people staring at this random plane? Before it blew up, there would have been basically no reason to be looking at it.

            Why has no one come forward, even after all this time?

          • Salem says:

            I dunno.

            Consider the recent Turkish coup. Until recently, it would have been a discreditable “conspiracy theory” to claim that there was a widespread, secret, well-covered-up plot in the Turkish government to overthrow democracy. Turkey is a modern country, things like that just don’t happen any more. Indeed, the fact that Erdogan was willing to entertain such a conspiracy theory is one of the justifications used to denounce him as a backwards authoritarian.

            But it turns out that the conspiracy theory was true. Unless, I suppose, you’re a loonie who thinks Erdogan set up the whole thing… so it’s a conspiracy theory either way.

            Sure, a lot of conspiracy theories are dumb, relying on crazy and implausible stories. But just as often, serious claims get damned as conspiracy theories, because even accepting them as plausible would mean substantially changing one’s view of the world… and the central ideology of the “church of the savvy” is that they are never surprised.

          • dndnrsn says:


            Given that the current Turkish republic has seen 2 coups, 2 “memorandums” (which appear to be the Turkish equivalent of a pronunciamento), and one alleged coup – there is a Wikipedia disambiguation page for “Turkish coup d’etat” – how would it be outlandish to anyone with basic historical knowledge that the military might pull a coup attempt?

            If, a year ago, you told me “the US military is planning to seize power!” I would say “OK, give me some proof, because I don’t believe you”. If they said the Turkish military was, my answer would be “oh, again?”

          • John Schilling says:

            Until recently, it would have been a discreditable “conspiracy theory” to claim that there was a widespread, secret, well-covered-up plot in the Turkish government to overthrow democracy. Turkey is a modern country, things like that just don’t happen any more.

            Actually, Turkey is a country where things like that happen frequently enough to have their own Wikipedia category page. And I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been a time in living memory where going to the Turkish police with eyewitness testimony to a conspiracy to overthrow the government wouldn’t have resulted in at least a cursory investigation.

            Difference is, if there had been an investigation in Turkey in say June of 2016, it might have found evidence of a coup plot in progress. There was an investigation into the destruction of TWA 800, and it found no evidence of a missile.

          • CatCube says:


            If a naval exercise accidentally resulted in hundred of civilian deaths, there would be plenty of motivation to try to cover it up.

            I’m not sure why the FBI would cover up for the Navy. Hell, I’m not sure the Army would cover up for the Navy! Stop thinking of the federal government as some monolith that people working for it feel they owe allegiance to.

          • anon says:

            @Cat Cube: without endorsing it, I’d say Cashill’s theory is something along the lines of

            * Navy would be embarassed by the revelation, so fine with covering it up.
            * President was running for re-election, and thought it would be politically damaging.
            * FBI/CIA were being “good soldiers” following POTUS’s instruction (or subtle suggestion?) to make the missile story go away.
            * NTSB were railroaded by the FBI and their own (politically appointed) leadership.

            I’d prefer not to go down too far down this road because of the soft ban on politics in this thread. But the point is that I am *not* making the fallacious assumption that the federal government acts as a monolith. For the story to hold together, the actions of all the actors listed above must be explained. Whether you think the motivations above are plausible explanations now depends upon priors about competence, honesty, etc. within various government bodies.

          • Ron Unz Article says:

            Alex asks, “why has no one come forward, even after all this time?”

            I don’t take it for granted that, if it was a missile, then hundreds of people would know about it, let alone have evidence for it. Is all relevant information about the kinds of missiles used by the Navy in 1995 available on Wikipedia? I guess I don’t believe that.

            That is also a possible answer to the question “why would the CIA aid in a cover up for a Navy mistake, especially if a hundred sailors knew about it?” Maybe there are other kinds of mistakes, Navy or otherwise, that the CIA would be more interested covering up.

          • bean says:

            Is all relevant information about the kinds of missiles used by the Navy in 1995 available on Wikipedia?

            Define ‘all relevant information’. Did the Navy have missiles capable of shooting down TWA 800? Absolutely. Does Wikipedia have a full list of them by serial number and disposal? Absolutely not.
            I’m pretty sure that any sailors on a vessel which fired the missile would know a missile had been fired at the right place and time. The chances of none of them leaking the name of the ship in question is zero. I’ll note that the wiki pages don’t mention any specific ship.

          • Ron Unz Article says:

            I have not studied it otherwise, but from what I’ve read here I believe that the standard protocols for firing missiles on a ship are not very discreet. But why does that mean that the Navy, or any other organization, does not have more discreet means to fire a missile, and could not have fired one accidentally that way?

            Also, I do not know what it would mean in practice for a sailor to “come forward.” Are you imagining dozens of New York journalists calling up all of their sources and trying to work out which ships were around at the time, who was on them, how many missiles were on them and whether any of them were fired? If a sailor left an anonymous tip about it, would it be pursued, when less anonymous and more senior people were telling a different story?

            One of the reasons I am interested in this story is because I’m skeptical about how robust the mechanism for “the truth to come out eventually” is. Watergate is the most famous example of a conspiracy being uncovered. But since Deep Throat was revealed my take on it is that it didn’t come to light because of knowledgable sources in low places, or because of virtuous whistle-blowers wanting the truth told in the press. Unz’s story is an order of magnitude more paranoid than that, I admit it.

          • Incurian says:

            I’m not sure why the FBI would cover up for the Navy. Hell, I’m not sure the Army would cover up for the Navy! Stop thinking of the federal government as some monolith that people working for it feel they owe allegiance to.

            I agree with this. Unless the deed was carried out by a small, dedicated cabal, it’s extremely unlikely everyone involved would keep their mouths shut – and in the military, for any given event there are likely to be LOTS of people involved.

          • keranih says:

            I’m not sure why the FBI would cover up for the Navy. Hell, I’m not sure the Army would cover up for the Navy!

            I think it depends if the Army covering for the Navy would make the AF look bad.

            (The question would the Army consider covering for the AF if doing so would make the Navy look bad is a *lot* easier to answer.)

          • bean says:

            I have not studied it otherwise, but from what I’ve read here I believe that the standard protocols for firing missiles on a ship are not very discreet. But why does that mean that the Navy, or any other organization, does not have more discreet means to fire a missile, and could not have fired one accidentally that way?

            To answer the first part of your question, you need to make sure that there’s nobody standing near the missiles when you launch one, to avoid roasting them with the exhaust. Also, a naval SAM launch isn’t exactly discreet. Look at the links John and I provided for examples. So you’d certainly alert anyone topside, and they’d tell the rest of the crew.
            To answer the second part of the question, both possible candidates (Standard and Sea Sparrow) are semi-active homing. Unlike MANPADS, they aren’t fire and forget. So to accidentally kill the airliner, they’d have to not only fire the missile accidentally, but also track it as a target by accident. Yes, this has happened before, but that was an entirely different type of accident from the one in question. I’m aware that some people attribute it to a weapons test gone wrong, but when doing weapons tests the military tends to use instrumented ranges and make very sure that there are no civilians around. I’m not aware of any ranges off of New York, and I can’t think of any reason for the military to disregard procedure here.
            Edit: Astronautix has most Standard tests taking place at Barking Sands or Point Mugu (both notable for not being near New York) or White Sands (notable for being in New Mexico, a state that has no coastline). There were a few tests in the Atlantic off of South Carolina in 1995, but they were of an ABM warhead that would leave very obvious signs of impact (as well as having a target which looked nothing like a 747). My copy of the Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems confirms that early testing is done at White Sands.

          • hlynkacg says:

            …from what I’ve read here I believe that the standard protocols for firing missiles on a ship are not very discreet. But why does that mean that the Navy, or any other organization, does not have more discreet means to fire a missile

            It does not matter whether the protocols are discreet, the act of firing one isn’t. You see missiles are Loud. Even a dinky little man-pad puts out somewhere around 130+ decibels when measured from 10ft away. A SM-3 or Sea-Sparrow of the sort that a US Naval vessel might launch is going to make a low-flying jet seem positively noiseless. At the very least the crew would notice that the deck is shaking and their ears are wringing.

          • bean says:

            Unfortunately, not even my fascination with naval weapons can stretch to providing charts of noise on missile firing.

            A SM-3 or Sea-Sparrow of the sort that a US Naval vessel might launch is going to make a low-flying jet seem positively noiseless.

            Nitpicking, but the SM-3 is the ABM variant, and not at all what you’d use against a jet. Also, it didn’t make its first successful test flight until September 24, 1999.

          • hlynkacg says:

            Nitpicking, but the SM-3 is the ABM variant, and not at all what you’d use against a jet.

            Well I haven’t had the opportunity to see a RIM-66 launch first hand, but I have seen a few Sea-Sparrows and heard an SM-3. Even below decks and wearing ear-plugs that thing was loud.

          • John Schilling says:

            The SM3 uses the same booster rocket as the later models of the SM2, which is the Navy’s standard missile for shooting down aircraft at high altitudes and the usual suspect in “the Navy did it!” TWA 800 conspiracy theories. If hlynkacg says you can hear that from below decks and with hearing protection, that’s a minimum of three hundred earwitnesses to a “secret” and highly atypical missile shot at the approximate time and place of an airliner “mysteriously” exploding.

            If that happens and there isn’t a Navy press release to that effect before the ship reaches port, there will be resignations and phone calls to the New York Times shortly thereafter.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            “I don’t take it for granted that, if it was a missile, then hundreds of people would know about it, let alone have evidence for it. Is all relevant information about the kinds of missiles used by the Navy in 1995 available on Wikipedia? I guess I don’t believe that.”

            I based this question on the assertion, made and seemingly substantiated in this thread, that most of the sailors on the ship would have known about it. Perhaps some other people, as well; how did hundreds of people see the “streak” in the sky, but no one saw a missile leave the ship? The waters around Long Island are very heavily trafficked by personal and commercial craft, particularly during the summer. Unless the ship was much further out to sea, someone should have seen something.

          • Salem says:

            This thread is a fine example of what I mean.

            Turkey hadn’t had a coup in 20 years. Everyone thought those days were long gone. When Erdogan spoke out against the Deep State and put the generals on trial, he was accused of paranoia and/or demagoguery. For example, here’s the New Yorker in 2012:

            Edelman [US ambassador to Turkey] said that he was struck more by the level of paranoia within Erdoğan’s government than by any movement within the military. “I never received any reports that the military was going to overthrow Erdoğan,” he told me, “but I certainly had a lot of people around Erdoğan telling me that they were afraid there was going to be a coup.”

            Throughout the same article, it refers to the Deep State only in the past tense, as something that was – a “Kemalist museum.”

            Then a coup really does happen.

            But no-one says “Oh, wow, I was wrong.” Instead, now, Turkey has always been coup-prone, there never was a 20-year lull. But, interestingly, the people who warned about these dangers before… aren’t vindicated. No-one says “Erdogan was right all along” (even though that’s what the facts show) – he remains an authoritarian strongman. No-one says “The people who opposed EU accession for Turkey were right” – they remain racist, Islamophobic ignorami. The good people silently change their minds, then act like nothing happened.

            And then the people downstream of the opinion formers follow suit. No, dndnrsn, you weren’t predicting a coup d’etat in Turkey. No, John Schilling, if you’d gone to the police with your evidence on 14 July 2016, they would not have investigated – the police were the most Gulenist part of the Turkish state. It’s maddening.

          • Lumifer says:

            @ Salem

            The coup attempt in Turkey was… very inept.

            I have strong suspicions that the plotters were infiltrated and that the plans were known to Erdogan who deliberately let them make the attempt (or even encouraged them) to trigger the Stalinist purges which we now see in all their glory.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I wasn’t predicting a Turkish coup, but Turkey’s history makes coups hardly unlikely. I don’t follow “opinion makers”; my knowledge of Turkey is largely historically based and kind of out of date to tell you the truth. History shows that Turkey is prone to coups. That it had been 20 years without a coup? So? Turkey had gone 17 years without a for-sure coup earlier (allegedly there was a secret one in 1993). In 1997 were people saying “oh, there hasn’t been a coup since 1980, those days are over”?

            If I was an opinion writer who called Erdogan a paranoid 5 years ago, that would be another thing.

        • CatCube says:

          @Ron Unz article

          If it was a fact that the government made extraordinary effort to conceal the wreckage, it’s a surprise to me. I know that the wreckage was partially assembled to help the investigation, and that this part of the investigation was contracted out to the forensic engineering firm of Wiss, Janney, Elstner. I remember that because their recruiter brought it up at a job fair I was attending in about 2000.

          Maybe they brought their contractors into the con as part of the contract, but I think they’d avoid spreading the investigation further if that type of coverup is what they were after.

      • bean says:

        A MANPAD wouldn’t be able to reach that altitude, except when fired straight up. Even if it had, it would almost certainly have hit an engine, not the center fuel tank. There were several contemporary examples of 737s suffering fuel tank fires on the ground under similar circumstances.

        • CatCube says:

          I actually thought that it was too high for a MANPAD, myself, and had put that into the comment. However, not knowing a whole lot about missile system capabilities, I checked Wikipedia. They can apparently go a lot higher than I thought, with the Stinger apparently possible up to 20,000 feet. That, of course, doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t take training for that altitude, or that maybe that’s a theoretical capability that isn’t really possible in practice. Regardless, not being able to gainsay it, I deleted that part of the comment.

          • gbdub says:

            Would you even be able to see a MANPAD? My understanding is that most anti-aircraft missiles have motors that burn out very quickly, and actually spend most of their flight coasting – in other words, a small missile at its extreme effective range would not be a “streak heading toward the plane” – if you could see it at all, it would be a fast moving dot, with maybe an exhaust trail petering out well below it.

          • bean says:


            They can apparently go a lot higher than I thought, with the Stinger apparently possible up to 20,000 feet.

            I don’t see that in the wiki article, and I really doubt it. Max range is about 5 miles (~25,000 ft), so 20,000 ft altitude is unlikely. Most sources I’ve seen indicate that MANPADS top out around 10,000 ft, although I’m not 100% certain if that’s practical altitude or actual maximum altitude.

            Would you even be able to see a MANPAD?

            Probably not. They’re designed to be hard to see.

          • CatCube says:

            I misrecalled–it was in the MANPADs article, which stated typical ranges, but was notably silent on how slant range capability will translate to altitude. It did state that “… so aircraft flying at 6,100 metres (20,000 ft) or higher are relatively safe.[6] However, the FIM-92 Stinger (1996 version) has a range of 26,000 feet (7,900 m).”

            Which does seem high to me. But while I’m comfortable going “that doesn’t seem right,” in areas where I have expertise, I didn’t feel like weakening the argument that the missile theory is pretty silly by allowing quibbling over system capabilities. Especially since it’s still fairly silly, even if you allow for the sake of argument that a MANPAD system could do it. Given that, I figured that attacking the part that I’m sure about was the best COA. (I.e., that if it was a terrorist in a boat, why cover it up? is still true, even if a terrorist in a boat couldn’t do it.)

          • Lumifer says:

            @ gdbub

            The AA missiles are not ballistic, they have to maneuver to intercept so while the first stage which gets it up to speed probably burns out pretty quickly, they need an operating second stage to be able to hit anything.

          • bean says:

            I checked my copy of the 2001 Worldwide Equipment Guide, and it was mixed on max altitude. The SA-7 and SA-14 listed max altitudes about the same as max ranges. The SA-16 and SA-18 were considerably lower. The SA-16 had the most detailed numbers, with 2,500 m max receding and 2,000 m max approaching, both, IIRC, below the altitude that TWA 800 was at when it blew up. Max range is listed as about twice that. I’d tend to take this over a claim that an SA-7 is useful up to 4,500 m.
            Note also that there’s got to be considerable confusion between kinematic and seeker ranges. I’m not sure which is which.

            The guidance is done through fins, so it’s very possible for the missile to continue to maneuver after burnout. I haven’t managed to find more details on the exact motors used, but it does look like at least some MANPADS use sustainer motors.

          • gbdub says:

            Lumifer – I don’t think that’s true, most AA missiles use aerodynamic fins to maneuver and could (and usually do) therefore intercept while coasting. Also longer range missiles do have a semi-ballistic flight path in midcourse where they loft themselves to increase range.

            In any case it sounds like many anti-aircraft missiles are specifically designed to be low observable visually (for obvious reasons).

          • anon says:

            At location 1040 in the kindle edition, Cashill reports

            Mayer [from NTSB] then showed the results of a missile visibility test, one undertaken not to determine if a missile struct TWA 800 — “We’ve known for a long time it wasn’t” — but to show what witnesses at those distances might have seen. … Although positioned as far as sixteen miles from the launch site, “all of the observers”, the NTSB acknowledged, “easily detected” the shoulder-fired missiles used in the test.[Cashill cites p. 255 of this source.]

            … “The rocket motor of the missile would be visible and it would look like a light ascending rapidly for about eight seconds,” said Mayer. [Witness] Wire used the word “zigzag” to describe the motion of the ascending object. [Witness] Delgado used “squiggly.” The missile in the video [of the test] confirmed their observations. It squiggled and zigzagged… Both witnesses and many others noted that the missile seemed to disappear at the peak of its ascent. Unwittingly, Mayer explained why: “Then the motor would burn out and the light would disappear for as much as seven seconds.” The missile used in the test was of the shoulder launch variety. A larger missile would have been more visible still.

            I’ve inserted edits in brackets for clarity, and elided some of Cashill’s more annoying editorializations.

          • bean says:

            According to wiki, the SA-7’s sustainer motor burns out 2.5 seconds after launch. Even assuming instant acceleration, that puts it at a range of 1250 m, significantly less than the generally credited range of ~4 km. I can’t find similar numbers for Stinger, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it burned out significantly before impact, too.

          • Incurian says:

            Regarding the visibility..

            Here is a video (albeit in daylight). Don’t watch this if you don’t want to see a helicopter being shot down by a stinger.

            Here is a day/night comparison against drones. Unfortunately the night shoot is filmed with night vision, but even so the missile seems pretty hard to see.

          • Lumifer says:

            Good point about using fins. I still think that being able to do powered maneuvers on terminal approach to a possibly jinking target would be a very valuable characteristic. But maybe too heavy/complex for shoulder-launched missiles…

          • bean says:

            Vectored thrust maneuvering is a feature of, for instance, modern short-range AAMs (AIM-9X). It’s useful for a couple of purposes, but does set limits on the maximum range of the missile. I’m not aware of any MANPADS that use it, and the most common ones (Stinger, SA-7, SA-14) definitely don’t.

        • John Schilling says:

          The FIM-92 Stinger has a service ceiling given as either 12,500 feet or 4,000 meters (~13,000 feet) depending on the source. Any larger figure you see cited is likely a seeker range or a slant range, in either case not representing the missile’s kinematic capability to engage targets on a near-vertical trajectory. The missile uses a single-stage, dual-thrust smokeless solid rocket motor and aerodynamic flight controls. The motor will probably burn out shortly before reaching the service ceiling, but even while it is burning it will not be visual to casual eyewitnesses many kilometers distant. It is unlikely to catastrophically destroy a Boeing 747 even on a direct hit, and anyone who proposed to try such a thing and had the vaguest notion how to do so would as an early step in the process position themselves close enough to an airport to engage departing airliners at <10,000 feet altitude.

          TWA Flight 800 was not destroyed by an FIM-92 Stinger missile. It was also not destroyed by an RIM-67 Standard missile, but I think that discussion is one subthread over.

          • bean says:

            Ah, but you don’t deny it was an RIM-66 Standard! Clearly, you’re part of the conspiracy, particularly as the RIM-66 was more common at the time!

            (For those who don’t follow naval SAMs obsessively, the RIM-66 and RIM-67 are closely related, but the -66 is the medium-range version, and the -67 the long-range one. I think an RIM-7 Sea Sparrow would also have worked, although the launch platform would have had to be in just the right place. All three are radar-guided, which makes them significantly more likely to hit the fuel tank compared to IR-guided MANPADS.)

  34. Dr Dealgood says:

    Since the politics has gotten a bit unbearable lately, I figured an article about tardigrade genetics might make for a nice reprieve.

    SSCience μThread

    Extremotolerant tardigrade genome and improved radiotolerance of human cultured cells by tardigrade-unique protein

    This article has a few really good points to it, so I’ll get to my two favorites right off the bat:

    Firstly, it deals with the (frankly, idiotic) idea that water bears are “gene thieves” with a large percentage of their genome coming from cross-kingdom horizontal gene transfer. Constructing a tardigrade genome which isn’t contaminated shows that, no, they’re not actually that weird.

    Secondly, it finds some tardigrade-unique genes including one (dsup) which does a rather impressive job of protecting DNA from ionizing radiation in HEK cells. I know that most of the posthumanist folks on here are on the AI/EM/robots side of things. But as someone who always liked the Omar more, it brings a tear to my eye to see people expressing extremophile damage suppression genes in human-derived cell lines.

    • keranih says:

      Huh. Water bears are a little cute, if you like them like that.

      Firstly, it deals with the (frankly, idiotic) idea that water bears are “gene thieves” with a large percentage of their genome coming from cross-kingdom horizontal gene transfer.

      Unpack that bit, if you have a mo. Why is it idiotic to have thought this? (Idiotic to not assume contamination is the more likely cause, sure, but why is this idea that outlandish?)

      (I am still a bit fuzzy on why the HeLa cell lines aren’t technically a separate species…so the ‘explain to idiots’ version, pls.)

      • Dr Dealgood says:


        Horizontal gene transfer definitely happens, and it can even happen between kingdoms on rare occasions. Baker’s yeast have some bacterial DNA, viruses facilitate a bit of gene transfer, and entire organelles like mitochondria and chloroplasts are suspected to derive from endosymbiosis. In the first lab I worked in we were looking at a protein in which a key domain seemed to have jumped from bacteriophage viruses to early eukaryotes.

        But it’s not super common, at least not in eukaryotes. If you have a multicellular organism like a water bear and see nearly a sixth of it’s genome coming from fungi plants and bacteria then how exactly is all of that supposed to have happened? You either come to the obvious conclusion, that the data is faulty, or posit some novel mechanism for them to be taking up and integrating tons and tons of foreign DNA.

        It’s really just about employing Occam’s razor. It’s not as though it’s impossible for it to have turned out that way, but if you come to that conclusion you’re missing the obvious mundane explanation.

        (As for HeLa not being a different species, that has more to do with how cancer cells operate than anything to do with HGT. Aneuploidy, as well as large deletions and duplications within chromosomes, is pretty common in a lot of cancer cell lines. So when you hear “HeLa has n chromosomes instead of 23 pairs” that’s not really a big difference from a lot of cancer lines. The fact that it’s particularly resilient for a cell line doesn’t make it another species either.)

  35. The original Mr. X says:

    If you could go back in time and have a conversation with one historical figure, who would it be?

    • keranih says:

      Joan of Arc.

      I’d ask her about, oh, about what the King’s court was like, compared to her hometown, and compared to army camps, and which she felt more comfortable in. About the different people in her armies, and if she ever got the chance to talk with any of them. And about her horses – did she even *like* horses? Or were they just a way to get from point A to B faster and less exhausted?

      Stuff like that. I imagine there would be a line, and other people would have already asked ever so many questions about the religion/God talking to her stuff.

    • John Schilling says:

      I thought we weren’t talking politics here :-)

      But to answer the question, Jesus of Nazareth. Preferably over a meal of bread, fish, and wine.

      • Tibor says:

        So you’d want Jesus to cook?

        • keranih says:

          …you’d always have plenty of seconds?

        • John Schilling says:

          So you’d want Jesus to cook?

          Christianity is associated with traditional gender roles in which the Man fills the pantry and the Woman cooks (except barbecue, because some things are sacred). My cultural tradition says Martha did most of the cooking, so we’ll have to invite her too.

          I’ll do the dishes. The wine had better be heavenly.

          • dndnrsn says:

            John 2:9-10:

            When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

            This would corroborate your expectation. Additionally, drinking tips from the Bible!

          • Deiseach says:

            Christianity is associated with traditional gender roles in which the Man fills the pantry and the Woman cooks (except barbecue, because some things are sacred).

            Does grilling fish count as “barbecue”? 🙂

            John 21:9-13

            9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.

          • John Schilling says:

            Well, I can’t argue with your choice of biblical sources. But I think you are introducing heresy there, the false Weberian doctrine that anything cooked over a flame outdoors constitutes “barbecue”. True Barbecue is slow-cooked; if you catch fish in the morning and eat them for breakfast, that’s one of the lesser culinary sacraments.

          • keranih says:


            Barbecue is of pig. Not any other animal.

            (You are right on the slow cooking.)

          • John Schilling says:

            Barbecue is of pig. Not any other animal

            Only to those of the narrowminded Carolina Orthodox creed. I follow the Catholic tradition of the Great State of Texas which is open to the slow cooking of any species of meat or fowl. Fish, I think, requires a dispensation from the local bishop.

            For those of you trying to follow along at home, we have a map.

          • keranih says:

            Bloody heathen texicans, who’d stoop to slopping raw tomato juice on a boiled possum in the half-shell and pass it off as barbecue.

            You can’t just heave a hunk of random critter over slow heat and call that barbecue.

          • Lumifer says:

            Never seen a barbecued (as opposed to grilled) fish. Now smoked is an entirely different matter…

    • Sun Wu says:

      Robert E. Lee.

    • pku says:

      I’d go for having a beer with Tolkien before he got big. Or maybe Alexander Hamilton, because apparently the guy just never shut up.
      I worry that hanging out with someone who was a famous General/Leader like, say, George Washington, would go something like “You have any reports about British movements? No? Well then I gotta run do some generaling”.
      That said, I also like the Joan of Arc idea.

    • sweeneyrod says:

      I think Begum Samru would be very interesting. She was an Indian bastard mercenary warlord who died so rich her inheritance is still being settled today. Despite only being four-and-a-half feet tall, she led her troops into battle, and was so feared that “the superstitious spread the word that she was a witch who could destroy her enemies just by throwing her cloak towards them”. She is also the only ever Catholic Indian ruler.

      • keranih says:

        So, obviously, I have to give the Flashman novels a try.

        • This one appears to be by someone other than Fraser.

        • sweeneyrod says:

          I didn’t actually find out about her through that, rather by going through Wikipedia from Muhammad Ali Jinnah (founder of Pakistan) -> early British Asian MPs -> David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre -> his step-great-grandmother, Begum Samru.

        • houseboatonstyxb says:

          @ keranih
          So, obviously, I have to give the Flashman novels a try.

          I bet you won’t like them. I tried a couple, hated them.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            how come? I’ve heard them recommended frequently, never taken the plunge. Would be interested in a contrary view.

          • keranih says:

            Well, that does it, then. MUST try them.

            (Willing to take suggestions on which one to read first. I’m usually heavily invested in chronological order, but many writers get much better by the middle of the series, and The Graveyard Game is still the best thing Kage Baker wrote in that whole series.)

          • I found the early Flashman novels somewhat wearing because he is such an unpleasant person. But he mellows later on, only being nasty to people when it benefits him.

            They are a wonderful tour through the relevant history. I particularly like the footnotes, which come in two forms:

            1. Unbelievable although this incident seems, it is confirmed by (real sources a, b, and c).

            2. For this incident, the only source is Flashman.

    • Urstoff says:

      Assuming the language barrier isn’t an issue, then Socrates, to see whether his philosophy actually matches that reconstructed from early Plato.

    • Not exactly conversations, but I’d like to give Bach a synthesiser, Lovecraft a pair of Cthulhu slippers and a bunch of money, and John Campbell a copy of A Deepness in the Sky so that I can ask him which parts he thinks are fictional.

      • FacelessCraven says:

        This answer fills me with legitimate joy.

      • Pablo says:

        I heard an interview the composer Phillip Glass a while ago where he talked a lot about studying Bach intensively during his musical training and also about working on developing his synthesizer technique (as many habits acquired in playing the piano don’t necessarily work for synthesizer) back when he was one of, like, four guys who were playing the synthesizer on a regular basis. It was interesting if you are into that sort of thing and I think it was on Fresh Air.

      • Anonymous says:

        Sorry for being an ignorant, but which John Campbell is this? I’m sure it’s obvious once one’s in the know, but I’m not (and googling didn’t help, because it turns out there are about 200 notable John Campbells).

    • Gazeboist says:

      It’d be cool to talk calculus with Archimedes. Getting Boltzmann some antidepressants* also seems like a good idea.

      * I’d suggest therapy, but this is only one conversation.

    • Jiro says:

      May we assume that the historical figure answers all questions truthfully and fully, or are we required to convince the historical figure to answer the questions?

      • FacelessCraven says:

        I guess we’ve all thought about which historical figures we’d most like to have lunch with. What you never think to ask yourself is: why would any of those people want to have lunch with you?
        -Tim Kreider

        • It would be fun to talk with GKC. Perhaps I could convince him that his criticism of Darwinian evolution was based on not understanding it.

          • Pablo says:

            What did Chesterton have to say about evolution? I haven’t read anything of his other than The Man Who Was Thursday.

          • The Everlasting Man is a simultaneous critique of evolution and comparative religion. Both halves of the argument are fun, being by Chesterton, but I think it’s pretty clear that he did not understand what the theory of evolution by variation and selection was. He writes as if “evolution” simply means “gradual change” rather than a specific mechanism.

            There’s lots more of GKC worth reading. I like his poetry. His essays are great.

          • Anonymous says:

            I’d choose GKC too, but talking to him about evolution seems like a waste of time. In Science and Religion he (very sensibly, I think) remarks that while he doesn’t believe in it, it would make no real difference to him if he did — if a man can have faith in the face of death, there’s no real reason that anything else should dislodge him.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            He writes as if “evolution” simply means “gradual change” rather than a specific mechanism.

            Wasn’t that before the Darwinian-Mendelian synthesis, though? Admittedly my history of the theory of evolution is a little vague, but I was under the impression that before this synthesis, the mechanisms behind evolution were a bit mysterious.

          • “but I was under the impression that before this synthesis, the mechanisms behind evolution were a bit mysterious.”

            Darwin didn’t know the mechanics of heredity. He conjectured that it involved blood, Galton did an experiment with rabbits that showed it didn’t, Darwin’s response was that it was only a conjecture.

            But the mechanism of evolution doesn’t depend on the mechanics of heredity, merely on the existence of inherited characteristics and random variation.

          • Aevylmar says:

            I’d disagree with you. The argument he’s actually making about evolution in the Everlasting Man is that while we may have evidence of physical evolution, we have no evidence of mental evolution; humanity, in the important sense, as a storyteller and artist, seems to have popped out of nowhere, appearing as a storyteller and artist just as talented as any today, if less experienced. This is why he starts it with the man in the cave.

          • He makes that argument, although I’m not sure how convincing it is–what evidence would we expect to have of evolution of the mind a hundred thousand years ago?

            But he shows no evidence of understanding the mechanism of evolution. As best I could tell, he thought the theory was simply that living things gradually changed through time.

        • The Nybbler says:

          I would like to tell Herostratus that we still remember him, just to see his reaction. That answers Kreider’s objection.

        • Lumifer says:

          why would any of those people want to have lunch with you?

          Since they are historical figures, “I’m from the future!” is an excellent answer.

          In fact, I’m not even sure you’d be able to stick any of your questions into the flood of inquiries coming from them.

        • Alethenous says:

          I think any probably-historically-important figure alive today (Elon Musk? Stephen Hawking?) would jump at the chance to have lunch with a random person from 200 years in the future.

          • John Schilling says:

            I thought Hawking was a random person from 200 years in the future, with a hotwired time machine and a Physics 101 text.

    • Anonymous says:

      Riemann. The entirety of the conversation would be “Riemann, you motherfucker! Get a better housekeeper! AAAAAHHHHHH”

      • Urstoff says:

        Or Fermat and just stand there, arms crossed, saying “Really? Come on, really?”

        • Loquat says:

          What if the answer turned out to be the 17th-century equivalent of “lol, trolled”?

          • Urstoff says:

            Pepe’s Last Theorem

          • Lumifer says:

            Speaking of, what is the 17th-century equivalent of “lol, trolled”? I am quite sure this practice wasn’t invented recently.

          • Anonymous says:

            Speaking of, what is the 17th-century equivalent of “lol, trolled”?

            It was implicit. Roughly “making it dawn on you as you read that you are being mercilessly fucked with”, e.g. Tristram Shandy, which if it were written today would consist of the single word “TROLOLOL”.

            They had a different assumption of education on the part of the reader back in those days.

          • Lumifer says:

            Snafu, unfortunately, is a recent acronym (Situation Normal All Fucked Up).

            But the Bard of Avon surely came up with the appropriate expression for the occasion, he must have.

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            …When pressed upon the matter, Mr Newton pleaded that he was not, at that moment, at leisure to provide the demanded Proofs; but assuring me that he would presently be delivering a publick Lecture which would shew, to the satisfaction of anyone, the truth of his claim over Mr Leibniz, he gave me the address of a hall which (he said) he had hired for the purpose. Repairing thither at the appointed date and time, I was much surprised to find Mr Newton nowhere in sight, and the stage held instead by a popular Balladeer, who sang a ditty assuring his paramour that he was never gonna give her up.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Cerebral Paul Z – *Silent, Seething Glower of Rage*

          • keranih says:

            I love this entire thread, and all of you.

            Just sayin’.

          • hlynkacg says:

            @ Cerebral Paul Z.
            Ok I literally just lost it, I burst into full on belly laughs, everyone in the room is staring at me, and I’m not sure if I can explain the joke.

      • pku says:

        Or Galois. Just “Dude, calm the hell down.”

  36. keranih says:

    So, I won’t go so far as puppies and kittens, like D wanted, but…

    What critter do you find most interesting/fascinating? (Can be a species or group or family or specific individual.)

    I have been on a recent reading-up kick about the Tsavo Lions. Phillip Caputo wrote an interesting book on the modern day strain – Ghosts of Tsavo.

    • Dr Dealgood says:

      Good timing!

      I’ve always been enamored of the tardigrade, as my post below shows.

    • pku says:

      Manatees. They get a bad rep but they are strangely adorable.

      • Pablo says:

        Whenever I hear about manatees, my mind goes back to a Dr Katz episode involving sea cows.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        You might appreciate this site:

        • Sun Wu says:


          It’s interesting how whenever something is framed as “calming,” the intended audience is always clearly female. And the content always seems to imply that the audience members’ lives are fraught with social dysfunction. And in this case, that the way to address social dysfunction is to have sympathetic things said to you with a sassy gay male stereotype’s tone and word choice…

          …over picture of manatees, which seem more ghastly and otherworldly the more I look at them.

          Diving into that a bit more, I think when people say manatees are “adorable,” they mean “cute,” and cuteness is pretty closely related to “helpless.” To me, it’s a bit off-target though because while manatees do look “safe” (rounded edges everywhere) and appear unable to do much besides slowly graze on kelp or whatever, they are also big and powerful, and they look kinda grotesque, almost freakish.

          I admire manatees–mostly for being a very unique sea mammal–and would like to see them preserved, but I wouldn’t say they’re particularly adorable or calming.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Sun Wu – “Diving into that a bit more, I think when people say manatees are “adorable,” they mean “cute,” and cuteness is pretty closely related to “helpless.” To me, it’s a bit off-target though because while manatees do look “safe” (rounded edges everywhere) and appear unable to do much besides slowly graze on kelp or whatever, they are also big and powerful, and they look kinda grotesque, almost freakish.”

            It’s definately the rounded edges thing, and also the whiskers, and the tiny little black eyes. I don’t know where you’re getting “big” or “powerful” from; they look like a cross between a cow and a marshmallow. Cows also are pretty powerful, but people don’t have much trouble thinking of them as cute either, eh?

            “cute” usually means “small”, but I’d say for their size manatees are about as cute as you can get.

          • Sun Wu says:

            I don’t know…I wouldn’t want to be whacked upside the head by one of those big tail paddles. “Powerful” is a product of mass.

          • Gazeboist says:

            And lever arm! (though that flipper is probably about half a meter long)

      • onyomi says:

        The animal you’d never expect to be related to the manatee and the elephant, but somehow is, I guess due to its adorable little vampire, tusks, the hyrax.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      The trio of immensely helpful creatures that gets an inordinately bad rap: snakes, spiders and bats.

      • keranih says:

        [warning, link goes to pic of large spider]

        Golden Orb spiders are one of the most beautiful things on the planet.

        Not crazy about walking into the webs in the morning before coffee, but they are nice to look at when you see them first.

      • Dr Dealgood says:

        Yeah, I love spiders because I hate flies. Crushing spiders is nuts and I don’t understand it at all. Having a handful of spiders around saves you so much hassle.

        As for bats, I think they’re cute but can’t they carry rabies? Bats and raccoons are dangerous to have around for that reason.

        • Deiseach says:

          It’s considered unlucky (brings rain) to kill spiders in Ireland, but then again we don’t have any that are the size of the one in the link.

          • Anonymous says:

            Whoever came up with that one was brilliant. “Don’t step on that spider, it’ll bring rain.” Next day it rains, because of course it does, it’s Ireland. “See, I told you not to step on that spider!”

          • caethan says:

            Sounds like a foolproof method to solve droughts. Just export Irish spiders.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Bats (not all species, but many) keep mosquitoes and other insects in check. There are usually only one or two confirmed cases of human rabies per year in the US, so I’m not seeing the reason to hate on bats particularly. It’s good to be aware that bats can carry rabies, so as to treat a bat bite with appropriate caution, but otherwise not really a big deal.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            there’s a summer camp I volunteer at. One of the rules is that if a bat gets anywhere near the kids, you have to catch and kill it if you can so it can be tested for rabies.

          • keranih says:

            Bats are a major maintance resivior for rabies, and should be considered possibly infected if found within a home. There have been multiple cases of cryptic rabies which were bat associated without any indication of a bat bite. (Note that this isn’t targeted at vampire bats – the insect eaters transmit the disease as well.)

            Current advice is that if a bat is found in a room with a sleeping person, to treat the bat as rabies suspect.

            The lower rate of human rabies in the USA is due to several factors – stray animal control, animal vaccination, rabies vaccination via baits of wildlife, and the huge number of post-exposure treatments given in the USA. At this time, the domestic animal most likely to be rabid is a stray cat, and the human cases lately have all been bat-associated.

            I like bats. Where I walk in the evenings there are a number of bats, swooping and eating skeeters. Go bats!

          • Rob K says:

            @keranih So I had an interesting experience with this a few years ago. The basics:

            My wife and I woke up and there was a bat in our room. This was rather startling, but I managed to trap it against the wall in a colander, slide some posterboard under, and transport it outside.

            A few days later, someone pointed out to us that this is considered a rabies exposure risk, and we might want to do something about that. So we went to our respective doctors.

            My wife’s doctor gave her the immunoglobins and the vaccine shot. My doctor was Canadian trained, and gave me only the vaccine shot.

            In the short term, this resulted in me freaking myself out a bit over the next month every time I felt funny swallowing (the rabies symptom that my subconscious apparently chose to latch onto). Over the longer term, it led me to look up why the doctor had done as he did.

            Apparently Canada did a study where they did a phone poll to determine the minimum incidence of “bat in bedroom” incidents where the person wasn’t aware of having been bitten, and came up with an estimate for the frequency of these. They then compared that to the incidence of rabies cases not attributable to a specific, non-“bat in bedroom” event. What they found was that there were so few of these relative to the instance of bats being in bedrooms that there was actually greater risk of allergic reaction to the shot than of getting rabies, even setting aside the (high) cost of the immunoglobin shots.

            tl;dr: If you get bitten by a bat, get a rabies shot. But if you’re just near a bat, even while sleeping, Canada is skeptical that getting the shot is necessary or even net beneficial.

          • Publius Varinius says:

            @Rob K: As a fellow person who had to get rabies shots, it’s *immunoglobulin.

          • keranih says:

            @ Rob K –

            I’m not about to get into an internet debate about what a licensed physician should have done – *but* this is WHO’s guidelines, and these two papers are probably what your Canadian doc was referencing.

            So, yes, the data suggests that the risk from cryptic bat contact is not terribly high…and I agree that the side effects of the RIG injections can be very severe (*) (and the standard vaccine isn’t exactly benign, either.)

            The number crunching is…well. I love me some good number crunching for medical treatment, but it is so very rare to see it in the pure form, uncontaminated by politics.

            (*) To be sure, the worst reactions come from the cut-rate stuff produced by nationalized labs in India and surrounding regions, which are completely not FDA approved. But they’re loosing hundreds (used to be thousands) of people to rabies annually, so I understand the cost cutting impulse.

        • Corey says:

          Bats are very good at evading humans. As a teen I lived in a 100-year-old farmhouse that had an attic full of bats, and occasionally one would get into my room, I’d hear it flying in an orbit around the ceiling. I would swat into its flight path with a tennis racket and the bat would often successfully dodge the racket. With enough persistence, eventually I could connect and stun the bat, then toss it outside to be dispatched by the family cat.

          To be fair, rabid bats might not be so good about avoiding humans.

        • Polycarp says:

          We had a bat in the house recently. I made a point of catching it because our youngest cat tangled with it, almost certainly getting bitten in the process. It turned out that the bat was rabid. Our animals had all had their shots (though the fearless kitten got a booster), and the two humans that were in the house at the time went through the battery of shots (which is not as bad as it used to be but is still a pain in the ass both figuratively and literally). The theory was that anyone in the house might have been bitten while they were sleeping.

          • Cord Shirt says:

            Read about this case a while back–they tried the Milwaukee Protocol but it didn’t succeed for him:

            Jones may have been bitten by a rabid bat about a month before he was admitted to hospital, when he woke from a nap to find a bat in his bedroom. He was reportedly not aware at the time that he had been bitten but bat experts say that’s not unusual because the animals have small but very sharp teeth.

            Keranih linked to an article about multiple similar cases. So yeah. If a rabid bat’s been in the room with a sleeping person, get the shots.

          • Dan T. says:

            …while if it’s a radioactive bat, you might get superpowers, but you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a good superhero name given that “Batman” would get you sued for trademark infringement.

          • Adam says:

            Replying to Cord Shirt.

            Zach Jones lived down the street from me. He and I were in the same grade and went to the same high school. The year following his death, a large swath of forest near the high school was cut down to make room for a new housing development, and bats infested the high school. Everyone I know from high school is scared of bats now.

            It was incredibly sad, and it still unnerves me to think about. As I recall he first showed symptoms when he had hallucinations of gunshots on the bus ride home.

          • Gazeboist says:

            @Dan T:

            Batman – DC superhero themed around fear, who uses acrobatics to fight crime.

            Daredevil – Marvel superhero who uses echolocation to fight crime.

        • IrishDude says:

          I don’t crush spiders, except black widows, but I do have a relocation program for ones that create webs in inconvenient spots.

    • Pablo says:

      I’ve had a somewhat longstanding (since about the age of 4) but vague fascination with warthogs. One of the earliest dreams I recall having was about a warthog from a picture book I had as a child.

    • Deiseach says:

      Snakes, which is odd because Ireland famously has no native species of snakes*. But I’ve never found them creepy or spooky or whatever negative traits are associated with them. Granted, if I lived in a country with venomous reptiles (not looking in your direction, Australia), I’d probably have a different opinion, but me and Indiana Jones are on opposite sides of the snake question here 🙂

      *We’re supposed to have a native species of lizard but I’ve never in my life seen one, heard of anyone seeing one, or ever heard it mentioned. So I’m going to guess it’s restricted to places like the extreme south-west or something.

    • Vermillion says:

      I’ve always been delighted by the Wombat and how they can crush skulls with their butts.

    • Silverlock says:

      Tamarins. The Golden Lion Tamarin has an amazingly beautiful coat, and they are in general just fascinating to watch, anyway.

    • Sandy says:

      The Western lowlands gorilla. It is the most majestic and dignified of all God’s creatures.

    • onyomi says:

      I think possums are cute.

      I can’t understand why rats get such a bad rap. They are just larger, smarter mice with naked tails. Then again, I’ve never understand the “scream and stand on a chair” reaction to a mouse either. It’s just a cute little mammal! If you like gerbils you are not allowed to have that reaction to a mouse or a rat, in my book.

      • onyomi says:

        Related to supposed “pests,” is the raccoon a trash panda, or is the panda just a luxury raccoon?

        • Dr Dealgood says:

          Trash panda, definitely.

          Raccoons really are pests though. Those freaking thumbs make them so much of a hassle to deal with. You’d get sick of them too after the first few times you have to clean up your garbage and recycling that they pulled all over your yard.

          Other “fun” raccoon anecdotes include them sneaking down the chimney and eating your dog’s food like a reverse Santa Claus, getting into fights with your cats, and dying near your house in places which are hard to access thus leaving horrible smells.

          • onyomi says:

            Well they are definitely a nuisance, but I still find them to be cute.

            Also, I have to have a certain admiration for animals clever enough to do things like the reverse Santa Claus.

    • Urstoff says:

      Trichoplax, because it can be considered to be the simplest multi-cellular organism:

      In contrast, my daughter is obsessed with zebras for no discernible reason.

      • It seems really weird that it’s the only representative of its phylum. Why aren’t there variants?

        Is it just that later(?) creatures have pretty much crowded it out of the world, so that there’s just one remaining? On the other hand, it’s in widespread habitats, I would have thought there’d be adaptation.

        • pku says:

          Could be its evolutionary advantage is its simplicity, which outwieghs regional adaptation?
          (I’m shooting from the hip here, I don’t know much biology).

        • Unaussprechlichen says:

          Well, there’s not much variation one can have in formless blobs.
          My guess is that there are actually a lot of cryptospecies, probably as divergent on genetic level as classes are in more high-organized phylia, but nobody has done enough genetic work to discern them. Which is weird because it sounds like perfect model organism.

          • Trichoplax is rare and hard to see, so it’s hard to study.

            On the other hand: “Trichoplax has been collected, among other places, in the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean, off Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, Japan, Vietnam, Brazil, and Papua New Guinea, and on the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia.” (wikipedia)

            If they were checked carefully and they’ve all basically got the same genes, this is weird.

    • I don’t have a strong preference in general, but I did have a brief fit of being fascinated by monitor lizards– they’re so alert-looking, and they practically swagger when they walk.

    • nelshoy says:

      Parasitid wasps are so perversely fascinating! Did you know that instead of venom they inject their own immuno-compromising viruses into their prey?

    • Incurian says:


    • DrBeat says:

      Corvids. I find it interesting to think of how they see the world, because they’re some of the only animals intelligent enough to have a worldview.

      I want a crow to be my friend, because I feel like it could actually befriend me in a meaningful sense.

      • keranih says:

        One of the reasons I have looked into getting certified for wildlife rehab is to be able to keep a non-releasable crow or three. They are really cool birds.

    • Loquat says:

      I really like the Orchid Mantis. The flower-petal-shaped structures on their hind legs are particularly delightful.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      Wolverines! Incredibly tough and strong, especially for their size. There’s a whole documentary one them available on youtube:

    • ChillyWilly says:

      The walrus. Of all God’s creatures, the walrus is the most pleased with what he is.

  37. keranih says:

    For what it’s worth, I support a general limited consensus that we not talk tribes or politics in this thread, and instead go back to the last four threads to do that.

    Not for all OTs, just this one. I’m going to try to do that myself.

    • pku says:

      +1 to this (though I wish it applied to all open threads, or at least the even-numbered (well, half-numbered, I guess) ones).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Good plan.

      I have one more (mostly humorous) election-related post and then I’ll shut up about it too until after November 8th.

      • Sun Wu says:

        I’m not clear on the status of this OT then. Are politics banned in this thread or not?

        If they are, you should edit the body text to reflect that because a lot of people might not read your comment.

        • Gazeboist says:

          “It is advised that politics be avoided”, I think. A soft ban, if you will.

          • Sun Wu says:

            Scott’s endorsement of a ban–soft or otherwise–on politics in this OT, so far as I can tell, springs from his calling it a “good plan” in a comment a few layers up that not everyone will see. If he made other more forceful comments to that effect they must be buried elsewhere on this page.

            Yes, I’m still confused about whether politics is actually banned in any sense from this OT, but now my confusion is being overtaken by my astonishment at how scores of SSC commenters seem to be sharing the same delusion (or hallucination?) about it. No ban was mentioned, and yet I’m seeing lots of people avoid politics and refer to a ban on it.

            I remember hearing about an experiment someone did once where they had a doctor’s waiting room full of actors, except for one test subject who was ushered into the waiting room. The actors would stand up every time a bell went off, and eventually the test subject, not wanting to seem out of place, was standing up at the bell too. Gradually, one by one, the actors were replaced by new test subjects, until the waiting room was full of test subjects, all standing up at the ring of a bell just because that’s what they’d seen everyone else do.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Sun Wu – it’s not an official ban unless Scott says so. Think of it more like the Christmas Truce.

            It seems like such an obviously good idea to a lot of the regulars that we’re just going with it.

          • Gazeboist says:

            @FacelessCraven indeed. That is my understanding of what a soft ban is, and what I meant by it. Anything Scott says in his official capacity as Moderator of Ye Blog would be a hard ban; I didn’t interpret such to be happening.

          • Deiseach says:

            Sun Wu, it’s not a ban as such, it’s just that we’re all sick and tired of talking about The Damn Thing after two whole posts and comment threads worth of pulling and dragging about it.

            I’d rather discuss anything else, even someone’s recommendations for contemporary jazz, for a while (until we all get the taste out of our mouths).

          • Incurian says:

            But then how will we get the taste of contemporary jazz out of our mouths?

          • keranih says:

            That’s what God made hard cider for.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Sun Wu

            It’s either a true consensus or the Abilene Paradox in action.

          • Deiseach says:

            In the words of Jackson Jeffery Jackson – “Tune??!!??? This is jazz!”