"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

OT84: Threadictive Processing

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. New sidebar ad for Relationship Hero, a phone-in help line for social interaction related questions. Liron Shapira – whom many of you probably know from Quixey/CFAR/etc – is a co-founder, which makes me think they’re probably pretty reasonable and above-board.

2. In fact, thanks to everyone who’s emailed me about sidebar ads recently. I’m trying to walk a careful line here, where I’m neither so selective that it looks like I’m endorsing them, nor so unselective that actually bad or scammy companies make it in. If you ever feel like I’m erring on one side or the other, let me know.

3. Several good comments from last week’s thread on developmental genetics vs. evolutionary psychology. See eg Sam Reuben on how different animals implement instincts, TheRadicalModerate on the connectome, and Catherio on how across different individual animals, novel concepts seem to always get encoded in the same brain areas for some reason. Several people also brought up claims that some animals seem innately afraid of eg snakes, or innately susceptible to learning those fears, suggesting that genetics has managed to find a way to connect to the concept “snake” somehow. But it confuses me that this can be true at the same time as eg the experiment where kittens were raised in an artificial environment with no horizontal lines and weren’t able to see horizontal lines when grown up. I know there’s a difference between having a hard-coded concept and having a biased ability to learn a concept, and I know it makes sense that some hard-coded-ish concepts might need data before they “activate”, but it still seems weird to both have “snake” hard-coded enough to produce behavioral consequences, and “horizontal line” so un-hard-coded that you just might not learn it.

(also weird: trap innocent kittens in a freaky bizarro-dimension without horizontal lines and you win a Nobel, but try to give people one fricking questionnaire…)

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978 Responses to OT84: Threadictive Processing

  1. Andrew Hunter says:

    A friend asked me if I had tattoos. I told her that I didn’t and she asked why. I gave her a couple reasons, all of them true:

    – it’s not really my aesthetic

    – my cultural (WASP) background frowns on them and I don’t feel like spending weirdness points on this with my family

    – I would rather show people what I value by what I say and how I act.

    I was a bit embarrassed to admit one of the biggest reasons: I feel like making a permanent decision is a bad idea unless absolutely necessary. Paul Graham says this, implicitly, as advice to “stay upwind“, and more accurately I feel like I’ve made a number of these decisions in the past and now live with suboptimal consequences.

    Am I being stupid to be embarrassed of this reason?

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      (Though I have always sort of wanted one particular tattoo that I can’t figure out the right design for: a representation of the statement “P =? NP” (somehow indication uncertainty) that can be altered by adding ink to either state “P = NP” or “P = !NP”. And I did know someone a while ago who had a lower back tattoo of the Hopcroft-Ullman 7-tuple definition of a Turing machine…it, and her, were really awesome.)

      • anonymousskimmer says:

        a representation of the statement “P =? NP” (somehow indication uncertainty) that can be altered by adding ink to either state “P = NP” or “P = !NP”

        P [thin squiggly lines] NP

        The squiggly lines can be made into thicker straight lines, and a slash can be added to make the mathematical not-equal sign.

        P [moderately large oval] NP

        Where the oval can be filled in with an equal sign or not-equal sign. You could even have “Write answer here” above the oval. 🙂

        Am I being stupid to be embarrassed of this reason?

        No, but I wouldn’t be. Learning from mistakes is important. Why would you be embarrassed to have this reason? Perhaps answering that question would help you figure out what’s the actual reason for the embarrassment.

        *A* reason to be embarrassed would be that it is a childish thought, as every moment passes and the action or inaction within it modifies our future forever, and there’s nothing we can do about that permanence.

        That’s still no reason to spend money you’d be better off spending elsewhere, getting a tattoo that could get infected and kill you, from an artist who may slip or not be as good as their posted art makes them seem.

        You can buy hundreds of custom temporary tattoos for under $100 online to see if you really like having the design on a semi-permanent basis.

      • andrewflicker says:

        Interesting idea, anyway! I’ve been trying to design / find a good mathematical tattoo design for the last year or so, to commemorate my upcoming degree (I graduate this semester)- but I’m looking for something rather more visual (and probably more stats-oriented, as befits my general focus). No such luck yet, so perhaps I will remain un-inked, the lone among my own family and most of my friends.

        As for tattoos on others, though- it varies quite a bit. I enjoy the upper-back tattoo my wife has- it’s not huge, and makes quite a pleasing and dramatic effect with the revealed-back dresses she wears- but I’m indifferent to her calf tattoo, and have cautioned her against getting others that were a bit impulsive.

        My mother has a foot tattoo that occupies most of the top of the foot from where the ankle curve begins to an inch or so from her toes- two flowers intertwined, the favorite flowers of her deceased mother and grandmother. It’s done well, and the design complements the kind of “dressy” sandals she almost always wears. I think tattoos can be net positive when the design is well thought out, the execution pleasing, and the relevance important to the bearer.

        • Deiseach says:

          I think tattoos can be net positive when the design is well thought out, the execution pleasing, and the relevance important to the bearer.

          Indeed. There are some tattoos that are genuinely artistic, and others that make you go “Why in the name of God would you mutilate yourself like this?”

    • vaniver says:

      I was a bit embarrassed to admit one of the biggest reasons: I feel like making a permanent decision is a bad idea unless absolutely necessary.

      This seems reasonable. I tend to explain this sort of thing with “if I want the same tattoo for five years, then I’ll get it.”

    • Anatoly says:

      Not stupid, but perhaps too self-conscious. I have this reason too and wouldn’t think it too embarrassing to admit.

    • Orpheus says:

      I don’t think you need a reason not to have tattoos, you need a reason to have tattoos.

      • Matt M says:

        How old are you? I think the culture is quickly changing on this, and that the “completely non-tattooed” will soon become a minority (at least in lower/middle class America, at least)

        • Orpheus says:

          I’m 26, but yes, maybe I’m old fashioned. I don’t mind tattoos if they are really cool and unique, but for the life of me I don’t understand the chain of thought that ends with someone getting a generic tribal tattoo or a tramp stamp.

          • Well... says:

            I don’t understand the train of thought that ends with someone getting a tattoo, period, unless they’re in a gang or the military or a primitive tribe or something like that.

            At some point you have to look at an area of your body and decide you’d like it better if there was a tattoo there. That’s something I just can’t fathom.

          • Johannes D says:

            Well…, I don’t have tattoos myself and not planning to get any, but I don’t think the train of thought is much different than seeing a blank wall and deciding that you’d like it better if there was a painting hanging on it.

          • John Schilling says:

            Tattoos are more like seeing a blank wall, deciding it would look better if there was a painting on it, and then painting a mural. Or carving one bas-relief into a load-bearing wall.

            Though my brother did once paint a mural on the wall of his home, and liked it so much he tore out that section of (fortunately not load-bearing) wall and took it with him to his new home.

          • Well... says:

            Am I the only person for whom natural skin is obviously NOT equivalent to a blank wall or canvas?

            To call natural skin a blank canvas is like looking at a cliff face in which 30-100 m.y.o. strata are exposed, and seeing no difference between that and a sheet of drywall covered in white paint.

          • Aapje says:

            @Well…

            It’s only a matter of degrees…

            As you say yourself, there is a continuum in permanence, ranging from drawing on an Etch A Sketch to sculpting part of a mountain. Arguably, painting on a human is on the lower end of that spectrum, as it is pretty much guaranteed to disappear from sight when the person dies.

            Of course, from the perspective of that human it last for the entire period that they perceive (if we ignore the possibility of tattoo removal/change).

          • Well... says:

            @Aapje:

            Yes, permanence is on a continuum, but it has a definable extreme. A tattoo lasts your whole life. Even the best tattoo removal techniques today are not like putting your skin back how it would be naturally, and those procedures are prohibitively costly for most people anyway.

            Doodle on your arm with marker. The emphasis will be all on what you draw because you’ll have your same old arm back after tomorrow’s morning shower. You don’t have to think about it. But once you’re injecting ink right into the skin where it will never leave, you must also be thinking about your arm itself, and how you’d apparently rather have this drawing on it than the natural arm you were born with.

            That preference is the one I can’t wrap my mind around. (Unless, as I said, tribal callings take such precedence that it’s not really “your” arm to start with.)

            Seeing your skin as a blank canvas, meanwhile, is some kind of a blindness. Like seeing exposed rock strata as a blank wall.

          • Aapje says:

            @Well…

            It may be simply that these people don’t put much weight on potentially messing up their body a bit.

            You similarly see some people take decent risks of serious injury, which can mess them up for life. That is a lot more serious than just being a bit more ugly due to a bad tattoo.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I find tattoos a little weird and distracting, especially when someone has a zillion of them covering their arms.

            I assume tattoos are a form of conspicuous consumption that doesn’t say a tremendous amount about the people for whom it’s culturally normal.

          • Well... says:

            @Aapje:

            Mountain biking is a risk: if you are some combination of skilled and lucky you get some exercise, a thrilling experience, and you don’t get permanently hurt.

            Tattoos aren’t a risk. It’s guaranteed when you get a tattoo you will be permanently disfigured.

            So it’s not that people getting tattoos don’t realize they’re messing up their bodies, it’s that they see their bodies as standing to benefit from being messed up. The analogy would be like falling off your mountain bike on purpose because for whatever reason you’re convinced your arm ought to be broken.

          • Nornagest says:

            You’re kinda baking in your conclusion with “disfigured”, there.

          • Well... says:

            I guess “disfigured” typically carries a strongly negative connotation. But I can’t use a word as neutral as “changed” because that’s not faithful to the analogy Aapje introduced, which was about “risk” and therefore implies some potentially negative outcome.

            So, substitute whatever word you can think of that has a less negative connotation than “disfigured” but more negative than simply “changed.”

          • Aapje says:

            @Well…

            I don’t think that is appropriate. The risk is that people will come to (severely) regret getting a tattoo. Substantial numbers of people seem to never get regret and those people don’t feel that they suffered any harm. Depending on their choice of career and the location of the tattoo, they may also not see any negative consequences or may even see positive consequences.

            Furthermore, I consider a regretful tattoo a lot less serious than let’s say, a loss of a limb or permanent back pain or PTSD or …

            You seem to have a very strong visceral negative response to the aesthetics of tattoo’s, but it would be a typical mind fallacy to assume that all other people have the same.

          • Well... says:

            My antipathy to tattoos is more…Aristotlian, maybe? Apparently when it comes to the human body I value naturalness pretty high. If you need to permanently modify your body to belong to a tribe or for medical reasons, or if it gets permanently modified by accident from an injury or something like that, I think that’s not a big deal. If you need to permanently modify your body to do some job, then I guess it depends…if it’s just to fit in with the work culture that’s worse than if you’re a spy and you need it to help avoid detection. But permanently modifying your body just because you think it would look cool is an affront to that “naturalness” value, with no higher value being served.

            But yeah, obviously a tattoo isn’t as bad as losing a limb, but I think they’re kind of in two different categories.

            I have a weakly negative response to the aesthetic of tattoos; I find them visually unappealing but not repulsive. At first glance they look like skin disorders but my system 2 thinking kicks in pretty quick and calls off my “ew disease” guard dogs. My wife has a few tattoos (she had them before we started dating) and they never got in my way in any kind of “up close and personal” sense.

        • John Schilling says:

          “completely non-tattooed” will soon become a minority (at least in lower/middle class America, at least)

          Shortly after which, tattoos take up their traditional role of permanently marking someone as lower to lower-middle class and preventing them from sneaking up the social ladder to places where Their Sort doesn’t belong. But we do need to sucker as many of them as possible into getting the tattoos before we change the rules on them.

          • Matt M says:

            Shortly after which, tattoos take up their traditional role of permanently marking someone as lower to lower-middle class and preventing them from sneaking up the social ladder to places where Their Sort doesn’t belong.

            Only the non-aspirational lower get tattoos in places where they won’t be covered in typical work clothing.

            The hope-to-ascend middle get them put in places you’ll never see without a certain degree of intimacy.

          • tmk says:

            I don’t have any tattoos, nor any wish to get one, but I don’t have a need to judge people with tattoos or wish ill on them. If someone has a tattoo, that indicates their personality or cultural group is different from mine, but I’m ok with that.

          • Well... says:

            @tmk:

            Are you saying nobody with your personality type or in your cultural group has tattoos?

            Seems to me it isn’t at all about any of that stuff anymore, rather it’s indicative of one or both of the following:

            1) membership in a very all-consuming identity tribe of some sort (maybe a literal tribe, as in bushmen, or the Marines or a street gang or something)

            or

            2) a kind of body-dysmorphia-meets-selective-blindness cognitive disorder where a person sees their own body as blank and unfinished. Interestingly, it seems possible this disorder can be learned.

      • shakeddown says:

        To me, this is the most convincing reason to get a tattoo. I realize the main reason I have for not getting one is status quo bias, and on the few occasions I got temporary tattoos at a party I rather enjoyed having them for the week I did.
        I do usually associate them with lower-class, which is the other main reason I avoided them. So when I got into a conversation with a couple of coworkers (ie people in my socioeconomic class), both of whom were planning to get tattoos, I suddenly started thinking of them as a realistic option for me and rather liked the idea.
        (My third reason, laziness/thriftiness, still holds strong).

    • liskantope says:

      I’ve commented before that there should be a name for this rationale of going against whichever choice is less reversible. It seems somehow closely related to the sunk cost fallacy, in some sense a mirror image, but I’m not sure. (I use this rationale, for instance, to justify the fact that I reveal very little personal information under this handle — if I ever did, I doubt I’d receive negative consequences in the forseeable future, but once things are revealed they can’t be un-revealed.)

      FWIW I have roughly the same reasons for not wanting to get a tattoo.

      • Chalid says:

        I sometimes hear people in finance use “option value” or “optionality” in a similar way, to refer to the idea that locking in a choice has a cost – you lose the “optionality.” I don’t know if I’ve seen this spread much beyond finance circles though.

        In finance you formally learn to value having choice in the context of financial options, then generalize it to the real options of a corporation. At which point it’s natural to generalize the terminology to other things in your life.

        • Rick Hull says:

          The inherent value of options is what bugs me about the idea of “too much choice is a bad thing” from the Nudge crowd. Also, yuck.

          • Chalid says:

            Well, in the context of finance, the cost of evaluating the option (attention, cost of acquiring and processing information) is usually trivial, but when you’re looking at personal decisions that’s not necessarily the case.

          • Mary says:

            You notice how the Nudge crowd always frames it so they are the nudger, not the nudged?

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            You notice how the Nudge crowd always frames it so they are the nudger, not the nudged?

            …No? I don’t know if I qualify as being in the “Nudge crowd” but I routine nudge myself via such methods as: Beeminder commitments, not stocking chips/soda/candy in my fridge at home, putting a pullup bar in a doorway I walk through daily, setting up rituals/routines that include good choices, blocking low-value websites…

          • sierraescape says:

            Where can I find the nudge crowd?

          • shakeddown says:

            Google has a thing where they put the unhealthy kitchen snacks in the bottom drawer. It’s incredibly useful.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Google has a thing where they put the unhealthy kitchen snacks in the bottom drawer. It’s incredibly useful.

            Indeed it is, no time wasted looking through all the stuff on display for what you want, you just go to the hidden (behind frosted glass in a fridge) or hard to access place and that’s where the good stuff is. Second nature to an adventure gamer (perhaps not coincidentally, Marc Blank used to work there).

          • Deiseach says:

            Google has a thing where they put the unhealthy kitchen snacks in the bottom drawer.

            Clearly the virtuous thing to do here is get in early and scoff all the delicious tasty unhealthy treats so conveniently collected in one handy place instead of disseminated all about the kitchen. You know, to remove temptation from your fellow workers. You’re really helping them if they but knew it! 🙂

        • Gerry Quinn says:

          In Chess, the term is “committal”. You want to keep as many options open as possible – a move which does something useful but closes off a lot of options may often be seen as too committal.

        • phil says:

          I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

          • Charles F says:

            Nice, reminds me of Roses by Moonlight from Patricia C. Wrede’s Book of Enchantments, except bleaker.

      • TheRadicalModerate says:

        If you’re up for a bit of a slog, check out Causal Entropic Forces. Or, considerably less sloggy, try Wissner-Gross’s TED Talk.

      • madrocketsci says:

        Yes, the irreversibility thing was always one of my primary objections.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      I am confused why that would be embarrassing, it seems by far the most obvious reason. Getting tattoos just seems to be reducing flexibility; it seems to be a way of locking oneself into something, you know? Seems a bit contrary to keeping one’s identity small. 🙂 (I guess maybe a lot of people would not consider this obvious seeing as they see “identity” as something to be generally embraced rather than generally avoided…)

    • Deiseach says:

      No, it’s a perfectly good reason. I think most people have an experience of “Look, I did something I thought was cool a while back and now I wish I hadn’t because it was dumb, not cool”. Though granted, if the friend has tattoos herself, you may want to leave out the “it was a stupid decision” part 🙂

    • Lambert says:

      Don’t make unnecessary permanent decisions unless you want to signal that something is more important to you than the opportunity cost of making the decision.

      • James says:

        Conversely, this is one reason why a tattoo could be preferable to some temporary equivalent: its permanence lets you signal that you care about whatever it represents really hard.

        • JulieK says:

          Classic examples: your girlfriend’s name, or gang insignia. (Imagine how un-impressive those would be as temporary tattoos!)

    • Matt M says:

      The comment about cultural background is amusing to me.

      I think I’m the only person in my entire extended family with zero tattoos.

      Which is a big reason why I’ll probably never get one.

    • Brad says:

      What tattoos mean in a cultural sense is too firmly embedded in my mind for me to see how it could ever change. I had an ex with a tiny tattoo on the underside of her wrist and even that required conscious effort to ignore.

      Trying to think of an analogy that might convey it — imagine if in ten or fifteen years smoking cigarettes somehow makes a huge comeback and young people of every class and subculture are out there smoking.

      • psmith says:

        young people of every class and subculture are out there smoking.

        Incidentally, I recently went from an academic job in a big city to a semi-skilled agricultural job in a rural area for a spell, and I was astonished how many people in the second setting smoked. And most of the ones who didn’t smoke still dipped, which may be an even better analogy for the original purpose than smoking, come to think of it. I know quite a few hip young things who will smoke the occasional cigarette (if artsy) or cigar (MBAs), but I can’t say anybody in my white-collar circles dips.

        • Tarpitz says:

          I worked on a film last year with a moderately famous Hollywood actress who was ecstatic to discover that smoking on UK film sets (and in the British creative industries more generally) is still commonplace. Apparently back home she’s generally the only one, and has to skulk alone in a shameful corner. She did get busted by hotel staff having a crafty one out of her bedroom window, though…

          It’s also very common among site workers (builders, electricians, etc.), including in the TV systems maintenance job I do between gigs to pay the bills. Taken together this makes quitting and staying quit bloody difficult.

      • Yosarian2 says:

        I don’t know; I don’t have any tattoos, but these days, when I see someone with a tattoo, my natural assumption is that they’re just an artsy/ creative/ freethinker type. A lot of people I know have tattoos, including a friend of mine who’s a very down-to-earth elementary school teacher. I know on a conscious level that some people are supposed to still have a negitive connotation to tattoos, but I would be surprised at this point to actually see that in reality, except maybe for really extreme tatooing.

        • Brad says:

          I’m not sure what you are saying. I can tell you I still have a negative connotation to tattoos. I exist. My system 2 can try to resist it, but it’s still very much there.

          I couldn’t say for sure how many of us there are, but I’m not that old–just late 30s. And I didn’t have any kind of really unusual upbringing, like Amish or something.

          • Tarpitz says:

            I’m an artsy type in my early thirties, and I really dislike tattoos, conceptually and in practice. This despite the fact that many of my close friends and two of my brothers have them – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that my friends are a mix of artsy types, programmers/developers (mostly of indie video games), Magic players (less likely to be tattooed) and metalheads (even more likely to be tattooed) and my brothers are disparate flavours of upper middle class dropout.

            I’m mostly successful in keeping my feelings about tattoos a source of unmentioned mild discomfort rather than unfair judgment of their bearers.

        • Aapje says:

          @Yosarian2

          Just because most people have given up on voicing social disapproval, that doesn’t mean they no longer have negative connotations.

        • Well... says:

          @Brad:

          Me too. I’m in my early 30s.

          @Yosarian2:

          When I see someone with tattoos I find I assume that to some extent he or she is not very independent-minded and that instead he or she tends to follow trends unquestioningly.

      • madrocketsci says:

        You never know: One joke I’ve heard before is that society took a giant collective IQ hit when it stopped smoking. “Wanna know why we could land men on the moon 40 years ago, and can’t seem to get a large program to converge today? Because 40 years ago, the engineers were chain smoking at their desks, and today they have to make due with sad-coffee.” 😛

        I’ve been very interested in the nootropic scene from a distance. (Not necessarily because I think they know what they’re doing. Mostly because since developing migraines, I feel like my own ability to focus has fallen apart. I can *tell* that parts of my brain aren’t working some days (just before the world-melting pain hits) and it drives me nuts. I *know* what being smarter feels like, and that stupid chemical presences/absences can cause it and take it away.) I see no reason why nootropics aren’t possible (considering we’ve *had* several very successful examples in the past which are illegal/highly controlled substances now).

        Also: It seems like they’ve technologically solved the problem of the lung cancer and bad health effects with e-cigarettes. A lot of the reflexive opposition to e-cigarettes today has confirmed my initial impression that opposition was *always* some sort of cultural struggle and never in the main about health.

        I recall making my “social-studies” teacher annoyed back in middle school by asking why the same people who wanted to ban cigarettes and shame them out of society also wanted to legalize marijuana if preventing lung cancer was their reason for the former and freedom to take risks with their own body was reason for the latter? He hemmed and hawed and asked for volunteers from the class to “explain it to me”. One of them raised their hands and said in a thick hippy drawl: “Maaan, it’s like this. I think those dudes would like marijuana, like totally better maaan.”

        • psmith says:

          The role of tobacco in Chinese history might also be a case in point, though I’m having trouble finding data about whether the Communist party actually promoted smoking cigarettes or merely considered tobacco a preferable alternative to opium.

          It seems like they’ve technologically solved the problem of the lung cancer and bad health effects with e-cigarettes.

          Swedish snus also deserves a mention here, I think. Confident proclamations that we’ve solved the problem have a way of coming back to bite the proclaimer in the ass, but snus, like ecigs, looks pretty innocuous for now.

      • Vermillion says:

        Couple thoughts on that, I feel like nicotine is an amazing drug with a terrible delivery system, and the more those things get separated the better.

        Certainly related: a very large fraction of famous people/models/body conscious types chew on nicotine lozenges all day to speed up their metabolism and reduce hunger cravings. I don’t know if lozenges are the best vis-a-vis bioavailability but they’re a hell of a lot less noticeable than E-cigs or snuff.

        • Brad says:

          I don’t think there’s any general stigma to nicotine in any of the circles I run in, just smoking. (I guess chewing/dipping too but it doesn’t happen and so isn’t an issue.)

          If I found out someone I knew was chewing on nicotine lozenges all day, I’d think one of two things: if it was a former smoker I’d think “good for him” if it was not a former smoker I’d think “huh, that’s odd.”

          • John Schilling says:

            I think that, outside of extremely weird social circles like this one, nonsmokers chewing nicotine lozenges is simply unknown. And there can’t be a social stigma against a thing that is not known to exist. See, e.g., lesbians a century or two ago.

    • Eli says:

      That’s the same reason I don’t have any tattoos. I kinda feel like for any given thing, I should wait five or ten years and see if I still care enough about it to get a tattoo of it.

      The answer has, so far, never been yes. There are plenty of things I still care about after five years, but none that I want permanently inscribed on my body.

    • wobbler says:

      The older I get the more I want a “medical history” tattoo. I’m Type 1 Diabetic, and have got various other surgeries and implants installed as I get older. I _should_ wear a Medic-Alert bracelet or pendant or something, but wearing jewellery constantly bothers/distracts me (I find it hard to predict out, I guess), but a tattoo can’t be forgotten and saying “T1DM” on my skin is just as permanent as my diabetes anyway.

      The only thing is that I don’t know where to put it. It would need to be somewhere that paramedics/EMTs/first-aiders etc. might check if I was unconscious (neck? chest? wrist?), extensible if I get any more chronic conditions, and also be done in such a way that gets attention and belief from the viewer. But I don’t want to signal “lower-class-ness” either and have it always on display.

      Is this a stupid idea?

      • BlazingGuy says:

        I saw this question on reddit a while ago, and iirc a bunch of EMT/paramedic-types replied that basically they wouldn’t bother checking for a tattoo w/ that information. They apparently do regularly check for those medical bracelets, though.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Then maybe the best idea is a tattoo that looks like a medical bracelet.

          • Aapje says:

            I think that the normal way to check for such a bracelet would be:
            1. Does the person wear a bracelet?
            2. Does it look like a medical bracelet?

            Tattoos don’t look like bracelets in the first place, in the same way that wall paper with flowers on them looks different from flowers in a vase. It’s common that people block out such ‘background’ clutter.

    • Randy M says:

      I told her that I didn’t and she asked why.

      Someone asking “why don’t you have a tattoo” (given that tattoos take some effort and expense to get) seems like they are feeling that, just because you don’t have a tattoo, you are judging them as foolish for doing so. This is not a valid assumption on their part.

      I mean, in my case it’s absolutely true, but still not a valid assumption.

    • madrocketsci says:

      My reasons were always a little similar: 1) I didn’t think they were attractive (though some of the images could be on their own as a desktop background or something, not on my skin!)
      2) If I wanted something like that, why not use something non-permanent (markers, some sort of wash-out or paint-thinnable surface dye)? Don’t make irreversible decisions unless absolutely necessary. Non-reversibility is how you get entropy, hence the root of all evil :-P.

  2. anonymousskimmer says:

    But it confuses me that this can be true at the same time as eg the experiment where kittens were raised in an artificial environment with no horizontal lines and weren’t able to see horizontal lines when grown up.

    If people were raised since birth exposed to optical illusions (especially those with physical form), would they fail to see the illusion and instead see the reality?

    (Ducking out of the visible open thread before it gets too verbose)

    Edit to add: These both being true (if true) just indicates that snake shape (innate) versus horizontal lines (learned) are differentially encoded. It seems plausible that the horizontal lines would be a topological (landscape oriented/personal movement oriented) coding, while the snake shape would be something which moves (and thus demands reactive response) coding.

    It also seems plausible that few particular shapes are hardcoded unless absolutely necessary. Lines aren’t typically found in nature outside of slate (and similar rock) deposits. Do the blind geometers have an easy time dealing with lines?

    (really ducking out of the visible open thread now)

  3. Betty and I are hosting another meetup. Sunday September 24th, starting at 2:00, running through dinner time.

    3806 Williams Rd, San Jose, CA 95117.

  4. Anatoly says:

    Do we know that relationship advice is something that benefits a lot from expertise?

    Suppose someone has a problem with an existing or potential relationship. Maybe almost all such problems are such that good advice will be given by random well-socialized people (e.g. /r/Relationship_Advice, though that’s self-selected and not quite random). Or maybe almost all such problems are such that an expert who’s unusually socially adept, who’s done it a thousand times etc. will probably give a much better advice. Do we know one way or the other?

    (I’m not trying to dismiss the newly linked sidebar advertiser, for all I know they’re really valuable. I can also think of more reasons to go with a paid service: assured response, quality of attention etc. I’m only wondering about the likely quality of the advice from a random intelligent socialized person vs a relationship expert).

    • onyomi says:

      The weird thing about relationships in my experience is that while I’m confident one can get “better” at them through learning (that is, it’s not all “are you naturally suave or agreeable,” but also “are you willing to examine how you date or act in a relationship to do better”), my experience is that relationship advice is also the last advice anyone ever takes (yes, I think getting people to take advice they don’t want to hear is probably hard in any area, but seems especially hard in relationships).

      It’s just such an emotionally fraught area, that even if you can see exactly what your awkward friend is doing wrong and envision a simple fix for him, it’s nevertheless extremely unlikely he will actually attempt, much less succeed at implementing, the seemingly simple “fix.” And then of course there’s the whole “why can’t my friend see that he/she is terrible for him??” situation where your friend will always choose the object of infatuation over even an old friend (even if you’re not making ultimatums but simply advising against the dictates of his/her libido).

      Of course, I am not a professional relationship advice giver, so for all I know there exist helpful tips that are easier to absorb and/or strategies for getting people to absorb them. But boy does it seem hard.

    • Yosarian2 says:

      One problem is that while over time I think people can learn to get better at managing their own relationships, that the things you learn tend to be very idiosyncratic to your own personality and complex details of your own learned social behaviors, many of which you likely no longer notice.

      In fact, getting advice from someone who is *much* more socially skilled and charming then you are might be risky, they may be able to get away with stuff you can’t.

      I think relationship advice can be useful just as a way to get out of your own head and get another view on things. Sometimes just the act of putting things into words next so you can ask about them is helpful already. But take any advice with a grain of salt and try to adapt it to your own style if you can.

      • Brad says:

        I have a friend going through some marital difficulties and I’ve been talking though some of it with him. Mostly I just listen. I noticed that sometimes he credits me with an idea that he had in a prior conversation:”It was like you were saying last week she reacts to X in Y fashion. That was a really good point.” Well of course he thinks it was a good point, it was his!

    • Well... says:

      Do we know that relationship advice is something that benefits a lot from expertise?

      The consistently best relationship advice I get is from my mom, who I wouldn’t call an expert.

    • moscanarius says:

      Related to this, I also wonder how good can anyone be in guiding people they have never seen, who are interacting with other people they don’t know, who live in environments possibly quite different from the adviser’s, and who suffer from problems as old as humanity that have hundreds of possible causes. I mean, of course the issues are common enough for there to be some generic advice to be given, but then… isn’t it what we already get everywhere? And haven’t the people who would need such help already gotten the failed generic advice?

      Also, there definitely seems to be some self-selection bias that recruits the smartest, most socially adept, most likeable people of any group into these adviser positions, which makes me wonder how much they can actually understand the nature of our untermensch problems and use the knowledge to give meaningful advice. It’s not just relationship counseling; I get this vibe also from those “everyone can about investing” market gurus and those revolutionary teaching methods that work wonderfully when employed by the charismatic developer, but not by anyone else.

  5. Jack V says:

    Huh. I had a lot of thoughts similar to the horizontal line thing and the snake thing, and to me it doesn’t seem surprising.

    It’s clear the brain can be primed to recognise all sorts of weirdly specific stuff (snakes, red dots on mothers, insects-counting-to-two, horizontal-lines, etc, etc, etc).

    It’s also clear there’s lots of things the brain only learns when exposed to, and sometimes only in formative stages (eg. children raised without tonal languages, children raised without language at all, children raised without adults to copy, etc).

    So it sounds like, the brain is grown in a way which can already recognise, or is especially designed to recognise, weirdly specific stuff. But some of them already exist, and some of them need some extra connections to be formed by practice, and can fail to develop if they don’t get it. And sometimes, it’s important the region works immediately (eg. spotting mother, avoiding predators) because the child benefits much more from getting it right first time, and if not, they may survive.

    And sometimes, there are some connections which are only filled in later. And it wouldn’t take much for the brain to grow with them already in place, but there’s no pressure to do so since either (a) the flexibility of recognising slightly different horizontals in different circumstances is useful or (b) MOST offspring have exposure to language, horizontals, etc, and the exceptions are generally doomed anyway, so having that improvement never really makes a difference.

    • Sam Reuben says:

      Excellent explanation of the facts. Innate tendencies to certain behaviors and associations are justified if and only if the cost to having to learn those tendencies the old-fashioned way is prohibitively high. Many sexual practices fall under this category, but some do not. High-danger predator situations often fall under this category, because the price for a misstep in learning is death. Situations where the learning can happen smoothly with a lot of correction time are not critical, and so even when they seem absurd, the learning doesn’t happen.

    • ilkarnal says:

      Right. That taking away the training stimulus entirely results in all the functionality being lost, does not imply that all the functionality came from the training. Lots of stuff needs to happen, you can have a chain that’s 99.9% complete and completely nonfunctional, and the last little weld needs to be done for it to work. That doesn’t mean the whole chain was made by the weld or by welding.

  6. Argos says:

    What’s the point of being an voracious reader if you are going to forget of what you read?

    Setting aside fiction books, I’d bet that most people read non fiction books primarily because of the information they hope to get from them. Obviously it’s important to readers that a book should be well written, but if “The better Angels of our Nature” had been written with entirely made up facts (basically a mockumentary in book form), far fewer people would have consumed it. However, if you read the actual book, the final result after a month is very similar: You learned very little about the world.

    Last week an article adressing this topic was posted on HackerNews (a forum for programmers) whose point was basically that “Yes, you are going to forget most of the facts you read but you read it for the way it changes your perspective on the world”. In the discussion everybody agreed with that argument, and the one person who expressed doubt in the usefulness of reading was downvoted to oblivion.

    To me, this seems like the classical case where the obvious conclusion (i.e reading non fiction books the way most people read them is a bad use of your time) is the correct one, but extremely unpopular because agreeing with it would invalidate a huge chunk of our past and our values.

    The argument for why reading books is actually worth your time was already made by Paul Graham in one of his essays:

    “What use is it to read all these books if I remember so little from them? […] Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.

    The place to look for what I learned from Villehardouin’s chronicle [of the medieval crusades] is not what I remember from it, but my mental models of the crusades, Venice, medieval culture, siege warfare, and so on. Which doesn’t mean I couldn’t have read more attentively, but at least the harvest of reading is not so miserably small as it might seem.”

    This seems reasonable enough, but the comparison with a compiled program is very apt because it also reveals two important problems:

    Sure, you have used some facts to synthesize a particular map of a particular territory, but if you forget those facts you are unable to build a map for a differnt territory ( reuse some part of the program for another purpose). For example, one of the reasons Pinker cites for the decline in violence is the rise of the modern nation
    state with the monopoly on the use of force. You may only remember that the world has gotten better but not why, and if you were thinking about the benefits of anarchism, you would not be able to include the effect of the modern nation state in that consideration. Seeing that creativity is to a large part the ability to link not obviously related things together, this really bothers me.

    More importantly, if all you essentially remember is the conclusion or the compiled program, how are you going to change it?

    Somebody comes along and claims that the world is getting worse (climate change, increased political polarization, more divorces, more depression). An ideal critical reader would evaluate those facts in the context of what he already knows, and either throw out the argument (“the increased polarization is only a local minimum, we haven’t had a civil war in decades”) or synthesize a new model (Most aspects are getting better, but some are not). However, I can’t do that if I don’t recall the building stones of my models!
    Essentially and sadly, it seems that my model of the world is thus basically a mix of how often repeated, how recent and how convincing a particular conclusion was.

    Edit: Graham’s essay: http://www.paulgraham.com/know.html

    • Nick says:

      I wondered about this for a while a few years back because I regularly ran into situations where I’d read, say, a fairly persuasive philosophical argument for something, but six months down the road when I get into an discussion about a related topic I couldn’t remember the argument itself, and didn’t necessarily have a citation on hand. With an unsympathetic interlocutor, this is at best a little embarrassing (“yes, I agree with x, but no, I can’t prove it to you, sorry”) and at worst completely discrediting. I worried for a while that this meant I wasn’t taking the material as seriously I should have been—that I should have been reading more slowly and more carefully—but I already read more slowly and more carefully than most people, so this hardly seemed practical.

      So I’m sympathetic to the problem Graham writes about, but as for you, his answer gives me little comfort. For a variety of reasons, I’d much rather my model of the world be explicable, one of which you identify: being able to properly update based on new information. But more important to me, as soon as the search for truth becomes collaborative rather than solitary, my model is only as good as my selected reading.

      I eventually took on a lot of little practices to help with this. I keep a record of books I’ve read, and to a lesser extent other papers and articles. A lot of those papers and articles I keep in pdf form if I can. Sometimes, if I really want a book’s key arguments or ideas in a more accessible form, I take notes: short ones go into Mnemosyne, long ones (especially book excerpts) into Evernote. Very occasionally, I’ll go back and reread the source material. Fleeting ideas are saved on my phone and then transferred somewhere else if I think they’re worth keeping later. I have some long-term “housekeeping” on various things too: just some imperfect measures of what I think about certain topics, which I update every once in a while. I don’t timestamp those, but they’re in Google Docs, so I can see the revision history if I ever want to convert them into actual records.

      One of my other practices is to maintain an epistemic learned helplessness toward topics I think I don’t know anything about. I steered clear of the debate over group selection on one of the recent open threads, because I don’t know anything about biology (and I did the same back when a bunch of biologists were debating it in online publications a few years ago). Having an opinion of it would be less than helpful, as far as I’m concerned, polluting my model of the world with vaguer, more dubious priors than I want. Of course, as Scott points out at the time, this is a dangerous tool to use. I don’t know whether Scott would agree, but I think one shouldn’t just throw Velikovsky away forever and say he’s never worth engaging with. Maybe someday I will need a solid model of Bronze Age society and a reasonable expertise—and when I do, I’d better be willing and able to engage with Velikovsky.

      And last but not least, the actual collaborative search for truth is a great way to keep ideas fresh. By this I mean having regular discussions on topics you’re reading about. For strict recall it’s weaker than a tool like spaced repetition, of course, but it’s more fun and more intellectually rewarding.

      • John Schilling says:

        This is at best a little embarrassing (“yes, I agree with x, but no, I can’t prove it to you, sorry”) and at worst completely discrediting.

        I don’t believe this is universally true. At least within my social and professional circles, for anyone who has earned a reasonable level of status in those circles, “I believe X on the basis of my past studies but don’t have a source for it at the moment” is a moderately convincing argument and one that usually does not result in demands for explicit sourcing.

        I would have thought this ability to be one of the advantages of creating a high-trust society.

        • Nick says:

          It’s not universally true, but that’s why I added the caveat “with an unsympathetic interlocutor.” I can do it when I’m with my friends, and sometimes I can get away with it in other circumstances, but it has bitten me before. So I consider having citations more at hand to just be erring on the safe side here (and with the added benefit that it makes for a stronger argument).

          I think you’re probably right it’s one of the advantages of a high-trust society, but that doesn’t mean the high trust is always on display.

    • Matt M says:

      Not really your point, but I’ve found one simple way to combat forgetting about stuff you read is to force yourself to write something about it immediately afterwards. A quick summary or a mini-review or whatever.

      Not only do you keep these, and have them around to refer back to if you’re ever curious, but the act of having to re-state it yourself helps further build the information in your memory.

      Turns out your fourth grade teacher who had you do book reports was on to something after all!

      • Error says:

        I’ve been doing something like this recently for other reasons. It works, but it has a side effect I don’t like. As I’m reading, I’m paying attention to what I’m reading, but I also have to pay attention to what I’m thinking about what I’m reading, so I can stick those thoughts in mental loop to write down when I’m done (typically between chapters). I find that trying to split my attention that way kills much of my enjoyment.

        • The Red Foliot says:

          I think a better way is to keep a little notepad and pen beside you so that you can jot down a few key concepts as you read, thus lessening the load on your working memory. Then, later, maybe an hour later, maybe a whole day, you can return to your main material as well as your notes and give them a cursory review and, if you are intent on the Anki cards, formulate some questions based on their content. Having assimilated the material in full and reflected on it some, you will no doubt be able to come up with more piquant questions than if you had done otherwise.

          The benefit of this process is that it splits the task of learning into stages which are suited to the funky architecture of human thought. It might seem like a more cumbersome process, as you now have multiple stages where before you had only one. But each of these stages after the first one is actually very brief, requiring little more than the small dosage of upfront effort to set yourself to it in the first place. While each later stage requires an investment you did not have to make before, the initial stage has been greatly accelerated, saving you more time overall than if you tried to juggle everything at once. As human behavior is fundamentally at odds with this superior method it may require some contrivances on your part to adhere to it, but if you successfully adhere to it you will no doubt find your ability to learn things greatly improved.

          • Error says:

            That’s a good idea that I can’t really use — I have arthritis, and it’s painful and somewhat difficult to write more than a few words at a time by hand. I’ve considered using a voice activated recorder or something, though.

    • The Red Foliot says:

      I used to be a person who didn’t read much and back then I was a sort of banalized peon. It was embarrassing. I’ve read Better Angels and I can recall all of its general points as well as a lot of its specific statistics and if I wanted to recall even more I’d use those flash card things like Anki, so I feel like I’ve definitely improved intellectually from its influence. One can definitely tell on the internet who reads a lot and who doesn’t. Those who don’t may not have lower IQs, but they seem to.

    • As far as I am concerned, there are two different kinds of non-fiction that I read:
      1) Those with a specific point of view, in which they are trying to convince you of something,
      2) Those trying to give you an overview of some type.

      “Better Angels” was the first type of book. I have read that book, and I do remember some of its specific arguments. I also have kept the book, and have paper clips on the good sections. The book wouldn’t have been worth much if I couldn’t remember the points it made. I suppose it still would have been worthwhile if I remembered some of the ideas, even if didn’t remember where I read it. There are many books of the first type that I’ve read for which I have not obtained any ideas from, but those are the poor books that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading.

      The second type of books are usually history books for me. I may not remember any particular points they made, but I have a much better feel for that historical period after reading the book. Other books of this type might be surveys of some kind of science or the like. Such books can be useful for ones education even if they don’t have any particular idea that stands out.

      I should say there is a third type of non-fiction that are worth reading just because they are fun to read. In other words, for the same reason most people read fiction. I read fiction if it has a good story. Of course the best fiction will also have interesting ideas that leave one thinking even after finishing them. But such books are rare, so I normally just look for good stories with interesting characters when I read fiction.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      I can’t recall at will most of what I read, but if somebody mentions a topic, I can usually remember a few books that I’ve read on it, cite the name and author from memory, and look those up and revisit the topic quite quickly.

      I guess I could just read tons of bibliographies and never read books, and I probably would spend more time doing that if I was employed as an academic librarian in a reasonably active library, rather than reading for recreation as I am now.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      As others have said, one solution is to actually work on retaining the concepts and facts you read. This means switching from passive reading (not much different from “reading for entertainment value only”) to actively studying the books you read, which involves taking notes and writing summaries and essays and active use of whatever is your favorite reference management tool / replacement for classical paper index cards. (For me, I’ve been experimenting with a collection of bibtex bibliography files.)
      It’s more work, yes, but on the hand, it’s also a filter: you only end up reading books you think are worth the effort.

      And if you still forget something, well, you have your summaries and notes, so relearning the important things is going to faster and easier than without them.

      Regarding the Graham’s essay, I notice that he mentions bookshelves.

      I’ve read Villehardouin’s chronicle of the Fourth Crusade at least two times, maybe three. And yet if I had to write down everything I remember from it, I doubt it would amount to much more than a page. Multiply this times several hundred, and I get an uneasy feeling when I look at my bookshelves. What use is it to read all these books if I remember so little from them?

      I like physical books, because even looking at the cover of a book (whether fact or fiction) is enormous help in remembering what the book was about. And of course, looking at the book sitting on the bookcase helps me remember that the whole book exists in first place.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Quoting Graham:

        “I’ve read Villehardouin’s chronicle of the Fourth Crusade at least two times, maybe three. And yet if I had to write down everything I remember from it, I doubt it would amount to much more than a page”

        However, I think that’s the hardest way to remember things. Graham might remember quite a bit more if he had mentions of things from the book. He could at least remember that he read something in the book and check on it.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Essentially and sadly, it seems that my model of the world is thus basically a mix of how often repeated, how recent and how convincing a particular conclusion was.

      A good lesson in humility, to be honest. Whether this works for you depends on what you want to do with your learning. Do you want to convince people? Then remembering conclusions will not work. Unsympathetic listeners will challenge you. You will look stupid and weak. If you hem and haw, you will look stupid and weaker.

      On the other hand, you can bolster your argument by….simply asserting your unsupported position more aggressively! People are weird like that. But if you signal confidence, people are more likely to believe you.

      I don’t use my knowledge for that. Or, at least I don’t when I’m reading a book about the Fourth Crusade. I read because learning about the past adds more flavor to my life. It’s fun to picture political machinations from hundreds of years ago. Or experience Venice. Or learn about German farming. Or…whatever.

      In other cases, I want to make a better-informed decision, but I only need to convince myself (and my Wife), not other people. So, if I want to buy a small-size SUV, I just need to know the Consumer Report ratings, some background on the major brands, and my feelings about the test drive. I didn’t like the Rav-4. My wife didn’t like the Venza. None of us liked whatever GM had in that range. I only need to convince myself and I only need to remember the conclusion, unless another more compelling conclusion comes along. Then I can revisit.

      As others have mentioned, actively reading the text will give you a better understanding of the book. You’ll remember more. Up to you if it’s worth the extra time.

    • Lillian says:

      It’s much, much easier to use books you’ve already read as a reference. For example i have in my possession a copy of Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall the Great Powers. It’s a little outdated, but it still has a lot of useful information in it. Now i have not actually ever properly read it, but did it skim it, and merely skimming it means that if i know that i can find some basic numbers about military expenses during the 30 Years War. Even though the only things i actually remember are “it was expensive” and “both expenses and army sizes dropped as the war dragged on”. There’s lots of other things in the book that i know are there, and i can reference in detail if needed, but otherwise only remember superficially.

      Basically, the point of reading non-fiction books is indexing. Your brain remembers roughly what’s in the books, how to find it again, and the conclusions it drew from that information. Should you ever need it in detail again, it’s not hard to look it up.

      Related to that, one of the problems i have with digital books is the lack of physicality and touch feedback makes it a lot harder to remember where in a book a given piece of information is. This somewhat ameliorated by the existence of search functions, but it’s not uncommon for me to be unable to remember the correct search terms. When transcribing stuff i’ve found that my brain will often substitute words for their synonyms within seconds. So if years after reading on it i wanted to look up the effects of altitude and speed on the range of air launched cruise missiles, it may take me hours to remember to use the word “footprint” in order to find it. (To use an example that has nothing to do with me 12 hours ago.)

  7. Deiseach says:

    New sidebar ad for Relationship Hero, a phone-in help line for social interaction related questions.

    Look, if I was able to pick up the phone and call someone to talk to them myself, I wouldn’t need social interaction advice! 🙂

    But it does sound helpful, so good luck with that one.

    Something that I just read and is annoying the heck out of me:

    The amount of money expected to be raised by an incoming sugar tax has been overestimated by almost €100 million.

    It’s expected the incoming levy on sugary drinks will yield around €40 million per year, rather than the €134 million predicted in 2014, the Sunday Business Post reports.

    The Department of Finance’s tax strategy group admit they relied on “imperfect” and “speculative approximations” in calculating that initial estimate.

    It’s also believed that soft drink manufacturers have altered their recipes to reduce sugar content and avoid the tax.

    At first blush, I was irritated that this was evidence of lying, but on second thoughts I am prepared to concede that our lot in government are so useless, they really genuinely made a mistake and got their sums wrong. In the Department of Finance, yes.

    The thing is, the sugar tax is a moral tax to deal with the obesity epidemic/crisis/apocalypse arrggh save us we are going to crushed beneath the bulk flabby mass of fat people just like in Katamari Damacy.

    Fine, just like the smoking ban which was for health reasons and most people are fairly happy with it. So why the “we’re gonna raise millions in revenue from this!” sell? Presumably in order to sugarcoat (heh) the pill to get people to accept it with less grumbling and make it look less like the nanny state.

    And either they deliberately lied in order to make the prospect as attractive as possible (if we’re getting this extra money, your taxes might go down a teeny bit) or they were so incompetent they got the figures wrong. Neither is an appealing thought, particularly with the national budget coming up soon – hey, lads in the Department, make sure ye have new batteries in the calculators when totting that up, all right?

    My main gripe, though, is the deception. This is a moral intervention disguised as neutral revenue raising. EDIT: And if the figures need to be revised downward because the “speculative approximations” were wrong, then maybe people are not drinking as much sugary drinks as estimated, and maybe that’s not the main driver of the OBESITY EPIDEMIC and maybe all this is only scare-mongering.

    Because there is a very large incentive to sugarcoat the pill there, too, for other worthy causes and inflate figures to scare people straight and because the greater good and the end justifies the means and it’s too important to let a little thing like literal adherence to the truth stand in the way (see the inflated estimations of women dying from illegal abortion when trying to get legalised abortion in the US*. Or the whole argument over the infamous ‘hockey stick’ in the climate change debates).

    I wish governments wouldn’t lie to their people on stuff like this. It only results in the public then adopting an attitude to the next scare campaign of “crying wolf” and “sky is falling”, which is not what you want when the wolf really is in the sheepfold. Better to be upfront about “yeah we’re not going to make money on this but it’s a matter of public health” (as with the smoking ban).

    *’How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In NARAL (National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws) we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always 5,000 to 10,000 a year. I confess that I knew the figures were totally false. But in the “morality” of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?’ The official figures of maternal death due to illegal abortion before abortion was legalised was 160. Dr Nathanson estimates the actual figure to be around 500 maternal deaths per year. (Bernard Nathanson, Richard Ostling. Aborting America. Pinnacle Books. New York 1979.)

    • onyomi says:

      Nothing messes up the initiative to [give more speeding tickets, raise the taxes on cigarettes, raise the taxes on sugary drinks…] for the purpose of discouraging [speeding, smoking, drinking sugary drinks…] like people actually [driving slower, smoking less, drinking fewer sugary drinks…].

      • Deiseach says:

        Agreed, there’s been the experience for years in previoius budgets of the government getting (relatively) easy revenue by taxing the “old reliables” – petrol, alcohol and cigarettes. Even in hard times, people still hang on to their vices (and need petrol for their cars) so that’s a solid source and there really isn’t that much of an expectation that “by raising the price we will discourage people from smoking”.

        That has only come in during the past few years, where there definitely has been more of a public health approach, and they’ve tackled that more by things like the smoking ban, demanding warnings on cigarette packets be even more prominent, plain packaging, banning ads, etc. in addition to hiking the prices, so when getting serious about tackling something, this shows that simply taxing it is not the only or indeed best thing you can do.

        So I do think the sugar tax was perceived maybe as “easy revenue” in the same way in addition to the pressure from outside sources over “we need to tackle obesity!”, only now they’re finding “oh dear, turns out people aren’t drinking as much fizzy sugary drinks as we thought” so they will have less revenue and still are left with having to tackle the real root causes of obesity (and we’ve argued enough on here over is it simply too much food, not enough exercise or is there more going on).

    • engleberg says:

      Politics is loyalty. Nobody wants nobody nobody sent. Pious fraud is a good loyalty test- if you were really loyal to the struggle against obesity, you would believe our claim that a sugar tax will raise zillions and turn us all into greek gods. Are you REALLY loyal? Sniff, sniff go the orthodoxy sniffers.

    • Randy M says:

      That’s a rather large percentage error, more than I would have expected from simply forgetting to consider the disincentive of the tax itself. Looks like someone moved a decimal point somewhere. Or, as you suspect, lied.

      • Deiseach says:

        I think I’d prefer lying over the all too possible possibility that our Department of Finance can’t count even using fingers and calculators 🙁

        As you say, if it were “we guesstimated €134 million, turns out to be more like €120 million” that’s an error. “We guesstimated wrong by 70%” is either deliberate porky-pies or inability to add 2+2 and get the right answer. And given that these are the guys in charge of our national finances, you see why I’d prefer “they are lying liars”?

  8. liskantope says:

    Here’s a random social interaction related question, apologies if it sounds a little weird or ridiculous as stated.

    What is the most effective choice of words to use when asking someone out? By “most effective”, I mean (1) making it unambiguous or at least strongly suggestive of interest in a date so that the person on the receiving end won’t just assume it’s no more than a friendly invitation to hang out; (2) coming across as sincere and not a cliche line the asker throws out to people they’re at least mildly attracted to every week; and (3) not coming across as too headstrong or pressuring.

    Any differences between what is best to say in writing (if this is ever advisable at all) versus what to say in person?

    I suppose a very direct “Would you like to go out on a date with me?” is probably effective in the ways I mentioned above (though it comes close to violating (2)), but (a) it seems like something that comes out of the blue and could really startle an unsuspecting object of romantic interest, leading to some very cringing awkwardness especially if said in person; and (b)… well, never mind (b), which I ascribe to my own weird hang-ups.

    Yes, I’m probably overthinking this. But evidently I’m going to have to learn this skill one way or another if I don’t want to stay single forever.

    • gloster80256 says:

      I myself have only awakened to this fairly recently, but I think this is a really crucial point:

      Asking someone out is not primarily a verbal action. You really need to go through a whole non-verbal flirting social dance first to make it work. Putting it in words should only be the bow on top of an already sealed deal – so the words themselves don’t really matter.

      (I am assuming you are a guy intending to ask a girl out.) I understand this is super difficult for an introvert to pull off (it sure is for me) but by far the most effective way to go about it is to approach the girl in a way that communicates your interest just by posture and attitude. You approach her tactfully but unambiguously signalling that you find her attractive and are romantically interested in her. Smiling, looking right into her eyes and being a touch shameless about your intentions. (It’s a deliberate test of your confidence and social skills.) She should get the message and signal back – either that she is open to your advances (smiling, turning to you, “opening up” etc.) or that she is not interested (not smiling, turning away, crossing her arms)* You then have a meaningless conversation during which this exchange of plausibly-deniable signals continues (which is the actual process of asking a girl out and what the general population calls flirting – which was a huge revelation for me) and if she still looks open by the end, you conclude with something very simple like: So – would you like to go for a drink on Friday? (Which should by now be something she’s expecting from you.)

      On the one hand, all thus mushy, purposefully ambiguous gesture-and-tone stuff is pretty difficult to read, especially early on – On the other hand, the whole process flows quite naturally and doesn’t really have any single stress point where you suddenly hit the other person in the face with a major question. And there is usually also no humiliating rejection – you either get shut down early on by her body language and you back out before outwardly committing (plausible deniability both ways!) or, if she rejects the actual question (“I sorry, but I’m really busy this Friday.”) you can just say “Perhaps some other time then.” and graciously depart. Since it was just the conclusion of an extended conversation, it doesn’t seem like such a shoot-down.

      *This description of signalling is super simplified and in a way naive – these are just the most common and cliché examples, you sort of need to learn how to read people through practice.

      • She should get the message and signal back – either that she is open to your advances (smiling, turning to you, “opening up” etc.) or that she is not interested (not smiling, turning away, crossing her arms)

        I am no longer in the dating market (thank God), but this is exactly the issue I had when I was interested in a woman. It seems I NEVER got a message back that she was interested in me, after I tried to make conversation. It might well have been that I wasn’t reading the women correctly, or just because my awkward conversations attempts made her feel awkward also. But does not getting back a positive signal mean one can never go on a date? Is there a better way than waiting for this positive response? I finally did find connections through a personal ad (pre-Internet). I do wonder if I’d still be alone if I had continued to try the conversation route.

        • liskantope says:

          That has been exactly my experience when trying to assess interest through conversation, back in the days when I had frequent social events where I would meet women. It doesn’t help that apparently I am very bad at expressing romantic interest through conversation (and it takes a bit of warming up for me to feel romantic interest towards someone I just met than it does for most people, I think).

          • Thanks for the confirmation, lisk. I brought this up because I suspect there are a lot of guys out there with this issue, so the suggestion to find women this way won’t work for them. I guess it’d be a good thing if this was less common than I thought, so maybe a confirmation is a bad thing. But based on what I have read, I think it is relatively frequent. I got around this by going directly to want ads, but it would be good if there were other ways beyond that to find women without depending on positive signals in conversation.

    • leloup says:

      liskantrop, I am not a teacher or “qualified” expert in the area of dating, but I have asked a lot of women out (around 200), been on a lot of dates (with around 100 different women), and I am happily married and have been with my current partner for about 7 years. I have pretty satisfying (and, I like to believe, mutually satisfying) friendships with both men and women. I have a change log to look back on and see the improvements in my approach over the years. I do have some advice. Based on my experience and the collected experience of acquaintances I have observed:

      (1) While tactics (such as what word you use, your timing, your posture and tone of voice) are important, they are not as important as your audience. ie: If your “date” initially likes you or is especially attracted to you, you can screw up and be forgiven. If someone isn’t into you, you have to have some kind of skillset for seduction or charm to get anywhere at all. And those skills may be useful–if you want to end up with someone who isn’t into you who you have to seduce or charm all the time.

      (2) Your social and sexual currency with any particular person has more to do with her/him than it does with your “average” sexual or social. Sure, being more suave, wealthy, connected, hench, or famous will increase the pool of people with whom you have currency, but people also have just tons of weird personal preferences, and given the size of the dating pool, some of those people probably prefer you. Sure, tactics will move people at the edges, but your best bet is someone who is solidly into you.

      So I can distill my advice down to this:

      * Ask more people out for less expensive and shorter interactions – ie: don’t plan entertainment like a play or concert for first dates, plan intimate conversation over a snack, a beverage, or some physical exercise (like a walk) where you can interact and talk.

      * Learn to watch for signs of interest, and be highly alert for people who are instantly attracted to you, emotionally or physically.

      * Invite your dates to express interest and see if they do:

      If you feel attraction, as point blank if your date would like to kiss, hold hands, talk about having babies one day, etc. Ask politely but ask. Be direct!

      Examples: “Would you like to kiss? I think we should kiss, how about you? May I hold your hand? I would like to put my arm around you, would you like that? Would you like to sit here by me and cuddle?”

      Be direct! If they are into you they will say yes or thoughtfully tell you “not yet”. If they are not into you, don’t pursue them as a romantic partner, just move them to the “probably just friends” list, smile, and move on! A clumsy request for a kiss leads to many more kisses than not requesting! Ask! Don’t be afraid of being forward–it’s called honesty! You already said you want to end up non-single, so it would literally be very weird if you went on dates and never asked them for a “next step”, like a kiss or touch. You are on a date! If you feel attraction and don’t make an invitation based on it, you are essentially lying, and for no good reason (unless you are some kind of gamesman/upmanship master, which clearly you are not!)

      * Be prepared to be opportunistic–decisively spend time, money, and emotional energy on potential partners who immediately show a lot of interest AND treat you well: neediness and selfishness are bad, look for attentiveness and generosity. If you find a date who really likes you and has a common interest, do something cool with it, and as immediately as comfortable. Awesome coffee date followed by a warm kiss? Romantic walk followed by a sincere hug? And you learned he/she has also always wanted to go to the Monterey Aquarium? See if your date wants to call in sick for work tomorrow and go on a road trip today! Don’t be afraid to quickly make plans with someone when they show interest in you. If you don’t, they will often take it as rejection.

      * Catalogue your own preferences. if you are super into a particular skin or hair color, people who are extra tall or short, extra thin or fat, people who talk a lot (or barely at all) or who have a certain type of talent, become aware of it. Don’t strictly limit yourself to those preferences in dating but DO steer your dating toward those who you have an inexplicable (or totally rational) thing for. It’s fun in dating to release your expectations and social conditioning and uncover what you actually like in real life. It’s also incredibly convenient to find someone who happens to be into whatever weird creature you are, and with whom you happen to be similarly infatuated for biological reasons. It doesn’t guarantee a good relationship (that takes work and luck) but it sure makes the whole thing more fun.

      As for your specific question, here’s my template?

      Q: “What do you like?”
      A: Oh, I love harry potter and coffee
      Q: Oh, I heard of a cool harry potter themed coffee shop and I am thinking of going there. Would you like to go with me? (Alt: That sounds like something I would like to try, would you like to go to coffee with me?)
      A: (Yes / Only as a friend / No I’m busy washing my hair and I have three boyfriends already)

      At this point you either schedule the date, schedule a friend date, or if rejected, you try to be cool. Being cool is a hard game. But usually the person will help you by offering an excuse or being direct: “Im in a relationship”, “You’re not my type”, “I’m not dating right now”… these are all ways the person is trying to avoid the awkward moment as well. They usually don’t want to make you feel bad, and more importantly they don’t want you to make them feel bad, so don’t. Sincere disappointment is fine (and even a little flattering) as long as you don’t start crying or being a stalker. Sigh if you HAVE TO and then nod and say “All right.” And then change the subject and move on.

      On a side note, if you ask someone out in a peer group (work, school, etc), this can often lead to gossip, and this can lead to a private gossip session where somebody, likely not your original intended date, mentioning that they wouldn’t mind going out with you. So after making a move of asking someone out, be alert for gossip coming back your way telling you who really wants you to ask them out, then consider asking that person out, because they are expressing interest.

      • liskantope says:

        See my general response below, but I have a specific response to the template starting “What do you like?” I’m not sure how to set up a context in which that isn’t a very awkward-sounding question that IME people don’t usually ask (I did know a guy with high-functioning autism who routinely baldly asked people in conversation “What are your hobbies?”, which was fruitful on occasion but sounded awkward to me most of the time). Did you mean that one should ask “What do you like?” after first explicitly expressing a desire to “do something” (hang out or, more explicitly, go out on a date)?

        I’m actually pretty good at figuring out what activities people are interested in and suggesting doing them; provided that I have a way of talking to them on their own, it’s easy enough to suggest doing them one-on-one. But such suggestions never seem to be recognized as wanting to go on dates, rather than just wanting a friendly get-together doing something we like in common. Hence, my query above about wanting to know the words to ask someone out in a way that won’t automatically get misinterpreted as platonic.

        • Orpheus says:

          I would replace “what do you like” with “have you read/seen any good books/movies lately?”. Feels more natural.

          • Cliff says:

            “What do you do for fun?” is the normal question

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            “What do you do for fun?” is the normal question

            I’m probably abnormal in this regard, but I’ve never liked answering open-ended questions like this…particularly if I’m talking to someone I don’t know very well, and particularly if it’s face to face rather than a medium like email where I can take some time to think about how to answer.

            Part of this is just being bad at small talk in general, so I have a hard time talking off-the-cuff, particularly about personal things. Plus I worry about how people might react to hearing about some of my weirder interests and overthink what would be appropriate to tell them, so I tend to just freeze up.

            If someone asks my opinion on a specific topic or “do you like X?” that gives me a little more to work with.

          • liskantope says:

            I actually hate receiving the question “What do you do for fun?”, mainly because I can never think of a good answer (“Well when I’m alone I blog a bit and occasionally hang out in comments sections of this blog called Slate Star Codex…”). But I agree it’s a fairly normal question to ask.

      • Orpheus says:

        If you feel attraction, as point blank if your date would like to kiss, hold hands, talk about having babies one day, etc. Ask politely but ask. Be direct

        Is this really a good idea? It seems like an excellent way to kill the mood. I think it’s better to gradually escalate the situation, and then just slowly go for what you are trying to do while giving the other party a chance to pull away if they are not into it.

        • liskantope says:

          Well, I would have thought the same, but some who are pushing the notion of “consent culture” (such as Laci Green) say it makes them “so deliciously hot”.

          • Orpheus says:

            Indeed.
            There is an old adage, which I will not repeat here,since it is somewhat harsh and offensive, that non the less holds much wisdom.
            You don’t want to date Laci Green, or anyone like Laci Green. If a person is willing to turn your first date into a battle in the culture war, you realy shouldn’t bother. If you try to hold your dates hand and they act like you are some sort of deviant, just pay the cheque and run.

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            Newsflash: Laci Green and her ilk lie a lot. When I’m charitable, I will include “to themselves” as well”.

            If you ask a straight woman for dating advice, she will give you advice for how to become like her harmless little brother or her gay best friend.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            As a consent culture person: it’s less that I am specifically aroused by “want to make out?” and more that other suggested ways of first kissing someone seem unbearably awkward.

          • rahien.din says:

            I don’t know that you can get rid of the need for nonverbal and implicit consent, even with totally explicit consent.

            If I was on a date with a girl, I wouldn’t even ask “Want to make out?” if I hadn’t received some nonverbal cue that she would. Those cues wouldn’t be meaningfully different from those that are typically taken to indicate nonverbal implicit consent.

            Even the injunction against mood-killing is largely answered by nonverbal actions, IE, there’s a sexy way and a non-sexy way to ask “Wanna make out?”

            Or if I asked “Want to make out?” and got a sort of half-hearted or nervous verbal assent, I wouldn’t feel like I could act on that explicit consent in good faith.

            I am a fan of consent, and it is surely underutilized, and it could certainly have prevented a lot of genuinely bad/harmful sexual encounters, and forthright communication is ultimately the method for solving just about any interaction problem…

            …but…

            I sometimes wonder if consent culture merely alters the burden in kind, but not in degree. I feel like its implicit purpose is regret prevention, but I don’t know that it reliably even does that.

          • Aapje says:

            @rahien.din

            Yeah, I feel that the concept of ‘affirmative consent’ often fails, because the problem is often not that people know exactly what they want, but fail to communicate those desires, but that many people are not very good at figuring out what they and/or the person they interact with truly want.

            If people shift from ‘going along’ with something they feel conflicted about to giving affirmative consent for something they feel conflicted about; how much does that really solve?

            Of course, many advocates have noticed this problem, causing them to demand ‘enthusiastic consent,’ but then you are back at the very same subjective decision about what behavior is sufficiently enthusiastic.

          • rahien.din says:

            Ideally, the goal of consent should be taking responsibility for your own sexual health and happiness, but I worry that this consent regime does the opposite.

            We’ve told people they need to perform a certain action [X], and action [X] will prevent the state in which they have performed some action they don’t want to have performed.

            But that has no answer for the situations in which they have performed [X] when they really didn’t want to – necessitating [Y], which modifies or precedes [X]. And then, naturally, [Y] ends up necessitating [Z] which modifies or precedes [Y]. But [Z] necessitates [A] in the same way, etc., etc…

            Even though these actions are implemented prospectively, the evidence of their failure state is retrospective : “I performed an action which I don’t want to have performed.”

            This sort of prospective-retrospective tension is not categorically bad. After all, it’s just the way we go about learning in general. “I’ll try such-and-such,” followed by “That worked!” or “Oh, that didn’t work.” And mostly no one gets bent out of shape. This system is not even wrong when applied generally to obtaining consent. If I as a physician obtain consent in the wrong way, I deserve some blame if the patient later regrets the treatments we undertook as a team.

            But that blame flows from the power dynamic between physician and patient. Blaming the other party for sexual regret feels like implicitly (maybe, sometimes, retroactively?) assigning them a decisive power advantage.

            I understand that men have, historically, been the more physically and societally powerful party in just about any sexual encounter, and to some degree this imbalance is still being corrected. (And yes, men are sometimes made to have sex against their will. Duly acknowledged.) But this consent regime creates a redoubt for the person who would lodge their regret with the other party, by denying their own responsibility.

            Rather than addressing that power imbalance, this system seems to rely on and perpetuate that power imbalance.

            I’m not sure how to operationalize a good system. Obviously we want to avoid scenarios in which a girl is raped – full stop! – and moreso, any such assaults followed by the injunction “You’re only saying you didn’t consent out of regret for your slutty behavior.” That’s obviously wrong, and undeniably, it happens.

            I can just see how this particular consent regime fails to address root causes.

        • Deiseach says:

          That’s definitely something you need to slide into. Asking for a kiss on the first date is pushing it a bit, unless it was a really great date and you can tell they’re into you. Getting the second date after the first one is more important – if someone responds to “let’s do this again” with “maybe some time” and a strained smile, the next step is not “so, how about a good night kiss?”

        • Odovacer says:

          Years ago when I was first dating, I got the idea that I should ask before I do something like kiss a woman*. I did it to a few women I dated, and while they all kissed me, the majority of them said it was a bit of a turn-off. That I should just go for the kiss when the moment is right.

          *I got this idea from online sources.

          • leloup says:

            Consent is one reason to ask, but I just did it because it seemed like the easiest way to invite someone to express interest. Let me clarify: I’m only talking about first times and first dates. I don’t have a consent form for my wife to fill out every time we touch. I read body language–and If I get a signal I don’t expect, I ask her what’s up.

            After a few tries, I was perfectly comfortable asking someone for a kiss on a first date, and eventually I could do it in a flirty way. Maybe it turned some girls off, maybe there were some that just wanted to be grabbed and kissed, but overall it worked really very well for me. That’s not to say I always asked: sometimes it was obvious to me, and I didn’t ask, I just tried it. But if it wasn’t obvious, I learned to ask.

            I think the “moment is right” thing works for some people, and I believe it requires social tuning. I also think that people tend to be more self-conscious about talking about sex and intimacy when they are young, and more likely to appreciate directness as they get older.

            To tell the truth, I’m sorry I didn’t ask more, earlier in my dating experience. I would have avoided a few uncomfortable kiss-rejections, and likely had fewer, better relationships–by avoiding several that lacked mutual physical attraction.

          • liskantope says:

            I also think that people tend to be more self-conscious about talking about sex and intimacy when they are young, and more likely to appreciate directness as they get older.

            It’s not all about self-consciousness at talking about stuff, though; I suspect a lot of the time people prefer to stick to euphemisms because it feels sexier or more romantic.

          • blah says:

            I think that asking for a kiss or any other escalation of physical contact comes off as pretty weird.

            The best way to do it is to read body language, and then just go for it.

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah. It may even be true that going for a kiss that was unwanted can still be LESS awkward than asking for one (even if it is wanted)

          • Kevin C. says:

            @Odovacer

            That I should just go for the kiss when the moment is right.

            And how does one figure out “when the moment is right”?

            @blah

            The best way to do it is to read body language, and then just go for it.

            And for those who to whom the subtleties of body language are effectively invisible?

          • blah says:

            @ Kevin C.
            I’m not a natural at reading body language, it took me a lot of practice to do it right. I think others can learn it as well.

            Here’s some signs that you can look for.
            1. If you’re on a date and you’re immediately next to her so that some part of your bodies are touching, and she holds eye contact with you, then she’s probably open for a kiss.
            2. If she’s willing to let you touch her hair (or even better smell her hair; lean in and smell it, don’t grab it and put it up to your nose ) she’s probably open for a kiss (apparently touching a woman’s hair is more intimate that guys typically expect).
            3. See what her reaction is to telegraphing a kiss by doing what’s called the triangle gaze: Look at her left eye and then her right eye and then her lips and then back up to her left eye forming a triangle. If she holds eye contact with you after this then she’s probably open for a kiss. If she looks away, but smiles she probably will be open for a kiss some point soon. If she looks away and looks uncomfortable (not smiling, eyes wide open etc.) she doesn’t want to kiss you.

            @ Matt M

            Yeah. It may even be true that going for a kiss that was unwanted can still be LESS awkward than asking for one (even if it is wanted)

            Agree. I watch the Bachelor/Bachelorette (all you people who have trouble reading body language and social cues in the context of dating should watch as well) and when the guys ask if they can kiss the girl: 1. It never goes over well, and 2. It’s incredibly cringeworthy.

            I’ve gone in for the kiss and gotten the cheek, and it’s not actually awkward unless you make it awkward. And honestly getting the cheek does not mean that she won’t kiss you ever; it just means she’s yet ready to kiss you yet.

          • phil says:

            @Matt M in particular, but everyone in general

            agreed, I’d also say having an error handling program in place goes a long way here

            “oh sorry, I guess I misread the mood, sorry about that, alright, have a good night”

            will reasonably gracefully get you out of a situation where she didn’t actually want to be kissed

            it’ll be awkward, but it won’t be the end of the world

            (and the rewards from capitalizing on kissing people who wanted to be kissed, will out weigh the risks of dealing with awkward situations that come out of trying to kiss people who didn’t want to be kissed) [obviously in the context of someone has already spent a significant amount of time in your presence 1 on 1, and has given the outward appearance of seeming to enjoy it]

            ———-

            not always, but in general, if you don’t make things personal, other people tend not to as well

        • Drew says:

          It seems like an excellent way to kill the mood. I think it’s better to gradually escalate the situation, and then just slowly go for what you are trying to do while giving the other party a chance to pull away if they are not into it.

          I agree about gradual escalation. Once you add that in, the whole problem dissolves.

          The way the debate is framed — especially the lack of relevant body language — makes it sound like people are suddenly leaping across a room to seize each other’s hands.

          Absent those leaps, everything’s a continuum. Jill isn’t just “taking Jack’s hand.” She’s moves closer to him. He leans in to meet her. Her hand brushes his. His slows to make the touch linger. Her fingers move to the inside of his palm. Then she holds his hand.

          The debate’s confusing because I can’t imagine a situation where sudden leaps are appropriate. But I also can’t imagine how someone would ask permission at every step along a continuum.

          • Kevin C. says:

            Except, what about those who are bad at perceiving body language, to whom that whole “continuum” of “relevant body language” is effectively invisible?

          • Matt M says:

            The debate’s confusing because I can’t imagine a situation where sudden leaps are appropriate.

            As with most problems in life, romantic comedies are to blame. Those are the venues where the woman suddenly goes from “hates your guts” to “ravish me now”

          • blah says:

            @ Kevin C.

            Like I said above I believe reading body language can be learned. There are sources out there that give comprehensive examples of positive and negative body language at each stage of an interaction. I listed a few above that can suggest whether she’s open for a kiss.

            In general you’re looking for open body language rather than closed body language. Open body language (arms not crossed, facing towards you, holds eye contact) is good and means she’s comfortable with you and how the interaction is proceeding. Closed body language (arms crossed, turned away, will not hold eye contact) means she’s uncomfortable.

            Other body language signs that she’s attracted to you are her playing with her jewelry or hair.

            Edit: It can be a lot of things to look for so if that’s overwhelming for you, I think the number one thing to look for is extended eye contact (more than a second or two).

          • Drew says:

            @Kevin C.

            @blah’s body language advice is good. I’d also recommend this book.

            But, my continuum was more about physical closeness / intimacy than body language signals. Think Zeno’s Paradox, as applied to holding hands.

            In my example, Jill wanted to hold Jack’s hand. But first, she had to stand close to him. Then their hands had to make contact. Then she had to put her hand inside his. Etc.

            The thing that people describe as a binary, (“Jill held Jack’s hand”) is really a continuum. Or, at least a series of very tiny steps.

            Move through them gradually, and the other person can just pull away whenever they don’t want to continue.

            The “permission” debate is weird because it’s not clear what people were doing before they asked. Is it: “My hand is in yours. May I close my grip?” or is it, “May I walk across this ballroom and hold your hand?” Those are both weird questions but for very different reasons.

          • Kevin C. says:

            @blah

            It can be a lot of things to look for so if that’s overwhelming for you,

            Well, I wasn’t actually thinking of myself specifically, but in my case, that is pretty much my problem with body language in general. As someone with sensory-defensive-type Sensory Processing Disorder, other people’s body language causes me sensory overload; I find eye contact so uncomfortable I almost reach Harry Dresden levels of avoiding it, and in fact, tend not to look at other people at all when conversing with them. (Yes, this is yet another way in which I am an utterly defective human being.)

          • blah says:

            @ Kevin C.

            I’ve never been diagnosed with any disorders, so I don’t know if I was dealing with the same thing as you, but eye contact used to make me extremely uncomfortable as well. I wouldn’t hold eye contact with even close friends and family members.

            Unfortunately for people like us, women usually don’t give a second thought to men who aren’t comfortable holding eye contact with them. I think this is a very primal response since holding eye contact is a behavior that demonstrates dominance, and women are naturally attracted to dominant men.

            I eventually overcame my discomfort with eye contact using exposure therapy. I would intentionally make eye contact with anyone I could on the street and hold it for as long as I could with the goal of making the other person look away first.

            I don’t know if this exercise would be feasible for you, but I would suggest that you or anyone else who has discomfort with eye contact to try it.

          • wobbler says:

            My current girlfriend gave me this advice/technique (I went with the whole “just ask” method of obtaining the first kiss, but she said that wasn’t great for her). Basically slowly, _very_slowly, during a conversation move closer and closer to her (specifically your face closer and closer to hers until your lips are almost touching anyway. And at that point she might even kiss you instead). If, at any point, she moves back to maintain distance, then stay put or back off, but if she stays still or also closes the distance, then you’re good. Again, to reiterate, VERY VERY SLOWLY, to give them chance to (perhaps even unconsciously) back off and signal “nope”.

            I like this approach as essentially you are just observing, interpreting, and managing one variable (maybe two, if you also consider velocity) thus it prevents getting overloaded with trying to infer their internal state from lots of body language signals (which is a big problem for me).

            That said, I haven’t had need to actually use this in practice with anybody other than my girlfriend, so caveat emptor.

      • James says:

        Very interesting, really good stuff, thanks. And well done for keeping a changelog! Seems like it was useful.

        Related to the point about people varying in what they’re attracted to so much that attraction depends more on their tastes than on your ‘general factor of attractiveness’ is the idea of, rather than trying to be attractive to as many people as possible, trying to be as attractive as possible to those who are attracted to you; aim to ‘optimise your marginality’. Mark Manson talks about this a bit in his book Models, where he calls it as ‘polarising’.

        • Aapje says:

          It’s like selling stuff to people. It’s better to be some people’s first choice than many people’s second choice, because you won’t get the sale if you rank 2nd, but you will if you rank 1st.

        • leloup says:

          That book sounds like it should go on my list! “optimise your marginality” is a really great description! Here’s the specific anecdote:

          * I spent the first 10 years of my serious dating trying to conform to a certain fashion stereotype. Let’s call it a clean-shaven preppy fashion stereotype. I did not especially like it, but that was the default for the culture I grew up in. It’s also not particularly flattering on me, especially as I got into my 20s and grew more muscular and hairy.

          * As I got a lot more dating experience, I noticed that the kind of women who were into me physically seemed to like scruffy! They actually preferred that I not shave for 4 days at a time. So eventually I embraced this and learned to improve the appeal of my scruffy look with careful grooming, clothing selection, and accessories.

          * As I got into my new look, three things changed:

          (1) A lot of women who previously said just barely yes now gave me a definite “no thanks”
          (2) Some women previously said “no” now said “yes”
          (3) Some women who previously said yes now said “yes, with gusto”

          Overall, my dating pool shrunk moderately. But it got MUCH deeper. By embracing rather than moderating my marginality I became more attractive to the group that could handle my details–or even really liked them. I also became more confident as a result of receiving more intensely positive and negative feedback (instead of mediocre feedback). I found it easier to deal with clear rejection over something I actively cultured.

          For example: “Sorry, you’re not my type because I’m not into beards and wooden jewelry” actually hurt a lot less than “I like you and you’re really great but I’m just not into you”. And women seemed to feel less bad about rejecting me for specific fashion choices or obviously cultured personality traits. We could both agree that they weren’t rejecting ME, they were just expressing their aesthetic preferences! They were looking for a reserved, clean shaven guy who rocks a polo shirt, loafers, and a rolex, and we could both agree I wasn’t even close to being that guy, so why would I feel rejected?

          Surprisingly, this opened up closer relationships with many women for me as well. Being aesthetically really deep in someone’s friend zone was super comfortable. Then when those women wanted to hang out with me, I didn’t feel rejected, I felt appreciated as a person (or at least as a truly desirable social accessory).

          I have several friends I would describe as pretty neuro-atypical, including one who is definitely high-functioning autistic. All of them have prospered socially by taking this advice, and trading on their weird rather then trying to cover it up. Rather than attempting to seem “normal” they looked for mates who were looking for their abnormality and often totally turned on by it. It seems like a solid strategy for many people.

          I don’t want to fall into the prescriptive trap, so let me disclaim that this may not work for you and it almost certainly doesn’t work for everyone, but it did work for me and a lot of other people who tried it.

          • James says:

            I’m reluctant to hold forth too much because I haven’t had much success with dating (for complicated reasons of my own), so I feel that I should only speak on these matters with a healthy dose of epistemic humility. But I think Models is excellent, the best thing I’ve come across of its type by some margin.

            I got the phrase “optimise your marginality” from a weird singer-songwriter called Momus, who uses it on his blog somewhere to describe his career strategy in the music industry.

            The other way Mark Manson puts it is that you can’t be attractive to anyone without also being unattractive to others, so if you’re striving to minimise your unattractiveness (if you’re minimaxing, as we geeks would say) you won’t get anywhere.

    • liskantope says:

      I really appreciate the two very throrough, well-thought-out responses above me. But there is a reason I was asking a very specific question rather than just for general dating advice (although I could always use that as well and again thank you). It’s that nowadays I no longer have the luxury of getting to interact with someone face-to-face a lot first before asking them out (maybe if I’m thinking fast and feeling bold I could ask someone out at the end of the face-to-face conversation where I meet them, but thinking fast and feeling bold are not my fortes). I no longer have an established peer group, and these days my group social activities tend to be held in public places where we are together at one table the whole time. And if there’s one thing I definitively have learned from my recent years of singleness, it’s that I need to act as quickly as possible if I want any chance of starting to date a woman at all. The notion of learning how to make things happen organically has absolutely been my ideal all along, but for years that ideal failed to materialize and in this period of my life it doesn’t even seem feasible.

      So unfortunately, I need to consider how best to approach an acquaintance with this out of the blue, probably in written message, rather than at the end of a flirtatious social interaction. And when it has to come out so abruptly, rather than as the natural conclusion of a conversation, I just don’t know what to say.

      • Orpheus says:

        Isn’t “go out” the universal code for “date”? Just say “Let’s go out to dinner. Are you free on wednesday?”.

        • Hyzenthlay says:

          Isn’t “go out” the universal code for “date”? Just say “Let’s go out to dinner. Are you free on wednesday?”.

          I would agree with this. Even if you don’t use the word date, just asking, “Hey, do you want to go out for dinner sometime?” implies it.

      • Cliff says:

        Yeah I mean it’s actually not some crazy secret language you have to uncover and decode. You can just ask people. The more people you ask, the more people will say yes. And some people will say no. And you will feel bad. But so what? If you need to, buy beta blockers from India. Then you won’t be nervous or have any physiological reaction to being rejected. In time, you’ll get used to it and stop needing them.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        So I’m a little confused as to what you’re asking here — are you asking:
        A. How do I invite someone to go do something with me (without being horribly awkward), or are you asking
        B. How do I make it clear that this is intended as a date in contexts where that isn’t the default assumption (e.g. if I’m already friends with the person) (again, without being horribly awkward)?

        I am probably not the best person to answer this, but my answers FWIW:
        A. Surprisingly, literally just asking works fine here IME. It may sound horribly awkward but (unless you reveal your own nervousness) it’s unlikely to be taken that way.
        B. I haven’t had the opportunity to do this, but I believe including something along the lines of “just the two of us, like” is a good way of making that intention more explicit without being too horribly awkward.

      • Drew says:

        Maybe if I’m thinking fast and feeling bold I could ask someone out at the end of the face-to-face conversation where I meet them, but thinking fast and feeling bold are not my fortes

        Prepare a line like, “Hey, I really liked talking to you. Can I take you out for a coffee?” Use it as you’re saying goodbye. Don’t customize the event to the person.

        That line is totally sincere. You’re saying: (1) I don’t know you too well, (2) you’re attractive, (3) I liked our conversation and (4) I’d like to spend 45 minutes seeing if we’re compatible in another setting.

        If coffee goes well, then you can plan a 2nd date that’s more significant. But, at that point, you know there’s mutual (and mutually acknowledged) interest.

        This is much easier than planning a significant, personalized date for a long-time acquaintance.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      “Would you like to go out on a date with me?” is actually quite strong.

      It clearly communicates your intention, instead of hiding it in a veil of ambiguities, thereby removing one potential big problem right away. You’re asking for a date, nothing else.

      Yes, it is not original. That is fine. Originality has it’s place, but here it far more important to convey information.

      The most important moment for you is to cheerfully accept all rejections! Work on that a lot more than any original phrase craft.

      • JShots says:

        @liskantope I agree with Squirrel here, but would like to especially highlight his last point regarding rejections. If you’re not the kind of person who is great at organically feeling out a conversation on the fly, then you should probably have a plan for cheerfully accepting a rejection that will help you maintain the current status of the relationship and that doesn’t allow things to get awkward. It’s much easier than it seems and can go a long way in allaying any fear of rejection you may have in the first place.

        On a side note, based on your first post, I would suggest avoiding asking someone out in writing in almost all circumstances. If you have their phone number, call them, or at least lay a decent groundwork of texts then spring the call on them to ask them out.

        • John Schilling says:

          You should probably have a plan for cheerfully accepting a rejection that will help you maintain the current status of the relationship and that doesn’t allow things to get awkward.

          Unfortunately, things can get awkward whether you allow it or not. And “helping” is all you can do as far as maintaining the current status of the relationship. It is possible that, even if you do everything right, asking someone on a date can result in your relationship with that person becoming extremely awkward and/or outright ending.

          • Charles F says:

            What if you make a policy of asking interesting people out soon after meeting them? At the very least, it seems like it should do a good job of stopping you from missing romantic opportunities because you were worried about losing the relationship. And maybe it’s also easier to recover from a bit of awkwardness when there isn’t an established dynamic in place yet?

          • Drew says:

            I agree with @Charles F. You get awkwardness when one person cares a lot more than the other person.

            The anti-pattern is that a guy doesn’t want to get rejected. So he waits and gets to know the girl. He discovers that their interests are super-compatible. They get along amazingly. So he gathers his courage and asks.

            Romantic, right? Until you consider the girl’s perspective.

            She met a cute guy. He didn’t ask her out. So, she thought they had a platonic reltionship.

            Then she gets asked on a big date. She learns that she’s been unaware of a large part of their relationship. And she needs to re-think past interactions. Was she being flirty the whole time, without realizing?

            She might say yes, but that’s intense pressure. If she says no, the ‘platonic’ friendship gets awkward, because the guy’s interest is common knowledge.

            This doesn’t happen if you ask early. At worst, you’d get a “flattered, but no,” and then, with dating off the table, you can be platonic friends (or not).

          • liskantope says:

            @ Charles F and Drew:
            Ugh. Many paths of reasoning (including the one you give) have led me to the idea that the way to optimize is to for me (the guy) to ask as soon as possible. I want very badly for that not to be true, because my ideal situation would be exactly the opposite: gradually become close in a platonic way, give both our feelings a chance to develop, and then ask (if it doesn’t start to happen organically). A policy of initiating something romantic/sexual right away means (1) not knowing much in the way of even basic details about the person, e.g. it often takes a while to find out if someone’s even single, and in my age group most reasonably social and attractive women aren’t; (2) pressure to decide if I’m really attracted to them after a short amount of exposure; and (3) coming awfully close to the behavior I hear women (especially American feminist women) constantly complaining about where men “objectify” them by viewing them as a potential lay immediately when they just want for once to be “left alone” when they meet guys in social situations.

            But, as I implied in one of my comments above, I’ve gotten to the point where I realize that you’re right and acting pretty fast is probably the only way to go.

          • smocc says:

            @liskantope

            I get what you mean. However, I started having a lot more fun with dating when I decided to treat dating as a way to decide if I was attracted to someone, rather than an expression of decided romantic interest. I made a rule for myself that if I met a girl and thought I might be attracted to her then I had to ask her out before developing any more feelings (with my personal tastes this was not unbearably many dates).

            I don’t know why I didn’t view dating this way earlier. It makes a lot more sense this way: how are you supposed to know if you are really romantically interested in someone without spending some one-on-one time with them?

            Unfortunately, I get the sense that many people (men and women) attach much more significance to asking for a date than I did. If this mismatch between girls’ expectations and my approach created some awkwardness for them, my approach was to leave that to them, and most of the time they we wouldn’t see each other after a date or two anyway (as it would become clear that I wasn’t actually all that interested or that they weren’t).

            Caveat: when this worked for me I was in a dating environment with lots of potential dates. Might not generalize.

    • Barely matters says:

      I’m off doing field work again, so I don’t have much time for in depth replies, but I wanted to stop in and say that a lot of this advice is pretty good. Blah’s notes on Triangular gazing are spot on, and as a technique it’s somewhat of a gold standard for making a move. Leloup’s initial post on tactics and asking directly was a little strange, but his later piece on polarizing your audience is fantastic and on point.

      The key piece that people have touched on but haven’t said directly, is that awkwardness at the moment of asking someone out or going in for a kiss is mostly a matter of showing up to the game late. Most of the time I see people get hung up on a specific phase, the success or failure has already been predecided by the interaction leading up to it (In most cases it expands fractally backwards, in that those interactions are predecided by the preparations you’ve made, right back to who you are, what you look like, and your logistical situation).

      So, it’s hard for optimizers because we’re dealing with a holistic process, and looking for a magical incantation for that specific point is more or less fruitless. If you’ve done the groundwork and she is already into you, it doesn’t even matter what you say. If you haven’t and she doesn’t, it’s going to be a serious uphill battle no matter what you say.

      Final note: The phrasing itself is going to be amorphous, because smoothness is going to be determined by context, both locational and social. In terms of directness, you can go for it, but be aware of the local parlance. The trend right now is to be really vague, and people do it because it currently works. There’s nothing inherantly sexy about the phrase “Netflix and chill”, but everyone knows what it means if you suggest it. You can try to fight the flow and go direct, but at the margin it’s going to hinder you in many cases.

      • Aapje says:

        Optimizers who are fairly capable of evaluating whether the other person responds positively to their behavior don’t have it that hard. It’s the ones who naturally lack this capability who have it much harder, since they can’t learn just by doing something and seeing whether the response is positive, but they need to learn how to evaluate the responses at different stages as well.

        I think that evaluating the responses is extremely hard to learn on one’s own.

        • Barely matters says:

          True say for the most part. Being able to read responses is an integral tool, but even that gets stuck in some local maxima. For example, somewhat common failure modes are the nice guy and the clown. In the nice guy, an ‘evaluation capable optimizer’ (As I guess we’re calling it here) notices that when he does something nice, he gets a positive reaction, so he seeks to do lots of nice things. The clown is a similar case where someone realizes that he gets a positive response when he says or does something funny, so he tries to make people laugh more and more. Both of these are able to create positive individual interactions but typically fail at being able to turn them into cohesive interest.

          Both being nice and being funny are incredibly good tools, and I can’t think of many successful seductions that work without some element of tenderness and humor, but plowing ahead and optimizing for either (or both) misses other important facets, most notably the importance of creating and managing tension to create interest.

          Overall I think you’re right to a huge extent, and that being able to evaluate feedback is probably the single most important skill if you had to choose just one. And if someone doesn’t have that, man, I feel for them. They’re going to have do some serious compensation somewhere else to make up the distance. I do think it’s hard to optimize by feedback alone though because this is a complex and nonlinear endeavor, which is why having a good model of the process is invaluable.

  9. Deiseach says:

    also weird: trap innocent kittens in a freaky bizarro-dimension without horizontal lines and you win a Nobel, but try to give people one fricking questionnaire…

    Ah, but plainly they made sure the kittens signed the consent forms in pen, not pencil!

  10. gloster80256 says:

    A “policy” idea for effective altruism: Combine the functions of charities and retirement care

    Should solve: Terrible retirement home conditions and people’s unwillingness to part with money they might later desperately need for themselves

    The idea: People pledge (contract, actually) to donate, say 10% of their lifetime income to a given charity+care institution (CCI). The CCI spends some of this on malaria blankets and some on running a retirement home for its contributors to live in once they become unable to take care of themselves.

    That way the contributors know they are doing something helpful with their money while at the same time “insuring” themselves against old-age poverty (or, optionally, consequences of other disabilities as well). There will be somebody to “repay” them their altruism when they need it. The CCI is competing for contributions from healthy, fully functional adults seeking to defend their own interests which should positively align incentives as far as conditions for the elderly are concerned.

    I think this arrangement could be a way to make the 10% pledge a viable option for the middle class. It’s not just charity – it’s also an investment in a more secure old age. (There are tons of details to iron out but this is the gist.)

    • actinide meta says:

      It sounds to me like you have combined a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust and an adverse selection death spiral.

      • gloster80256 says:

        Why a death spiral?

        • actinide meta says:

          Joining your CCI is a (privately) worse deal the higher your expected income, the lower your expected retirement expenses, the lower your life expectancy, etc. So at the margin people with these properties don’t sign up, making the deal worse for everyone else, etc.

          You are hoping, I guess, that altruism and the benefits of insurance (and selective admission?) are enough to prevent this effect from spiraling to destruction. You could be right, I don’t know. But you need to defend why this combination is better than a CRAT + other a la carte products.

    • cassander says:

      At best, organizations get to do one thing well. Give an organization two or more goals that don’t have much in common and the best case scenario is that it focuses on one and ignores the others. More common is to do all of them badly. I consider this mixing harmful.

    • Eric Rall says:

      I think you just re-invented the early Catholic/Orthodox Church. Members would contribute to the church (definitely by donations and death behests, but I’m not sure when tithing became a thing), and the contributions went into a combination of alms, church operations, and supporting monasteries and convents, and the monasteries and convents at the time functioned as retirement homes as much they served what we now think of as the typical functions of monasteries/convents.

  11. b_jonas says:

    David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel won the physiology Nobel prize in 1981 for the kitten vision experiment. Do you think you would have had trouble with the IRB or other similar regulation bodies if you tried your experiment around that time?

    Update: meh, forget that. That’s not the actually important difference. The difference is doing the experiment on cats versus humans. Humans have personality rights that limit how you can use sensitive data you gather from them. It’s not filling the questionnaire itself that matters, but how you will publish the data you gather from them, whether it’s from the questionnaire or any other way. This is an especially difficult problem for patients in a psychiatric hospital, and you’ve already explained why in “Determining Consent” (“http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/04/04/determining-consent/”). Kittens don’t have personality rights, and if I raise kittens, I am allowed to publish videos of them on Youtube whether the kittens like that or not.

    • quaelegit says:

      Cats vs. humans, things have changed in the last 35 years. Also, established research scientists a) probably have staff (or grad students) to handle the paperwork and b) can probably use their reputation or connections to smooth out more problems than some random resident. Also these guys were at JHU school of medicine, where medical research is one of the main activities, so the local IRB interface is probably more practiced and on top of things.

    • quaelegit says:

      Cats vs. humans, things have changed in the last 35 years. Also, established research scientists a) probably have staff (or grad students) to handle the paperwork and b) can probably use their reputation or connections to smooth out more problems than some random resident.

      (Also these guys were at JHU school of medicine [edit: and Harvard? The point is high profile med schools], where medical research is one of the main activities, so the local IRB interface is probably more practiced and on top of things.)

  12. Murphy says:

    “I know it makes sense that some hard-coded-ish concepts might need data before they “activate”, but it still seems weird to both have “snake” hard-coded enough to produce behavioral consequences, and “horizontal line” so un-hard-coded that you just might not learn it.”

    It’s best not to stress over it.

    Biology is a series of hack-jobs.

    I find this a useful comparison:

    https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg15621085-000-creatures-from-primordial-silicon-let-darwinism-loose-in-an-electronics-lab-and-just-watch-what-it-creates-a-lean-mean-machine-that-nobody-understands-clive-davidson-reports/

    Evolve a physical circuit in a lab and it can become dependent on basically anything in the lab during evolution. Normal temperature ranges. Faint radio noise, air currents, magnetic fields from other equipment. Take it away from some of those that it happens to have developed a dependency on for something and the circuit stops working.

    Biology will take advantage of basically any implicit constraint available during evolution.
    How often does a kitten grow up without ever seeing vertical lines? probably almost never. Might as well take advantage of that for the auto-vision training system.

    If a slight built in advantage for spotting snakes which are trying to stay camouflaged can yield dividends during evolution and can be managed in some way through baby steps then a general snake recognition and avoidance system the organism may have.

  13. Shion Arita says:

    Question for biologists/neuroscientists:

    I know that for color vision the different types of photoreceptors have compounds that absorb at different wavelengths. However I don’t know how it forms a coherent color signal. How does the brain ‘know’ that the cone firing is a green one or a red one? That has to be hardwired somehow. Do the different color cones have separate networks that go to a different bundle in the optic nerve or something?

    • Lambert says:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opponent_process
      I don’t fully understand what’s going on, but it seems that a certain (ganglion?) cell is connected to various rods/cones in a certain area of the retina.
      The signals from the rods and/or cones is then processed in one of three ways:
      Brightness sums rods and all three cones.
      Redness subtracts green from red.
      Yellowness subtracts blue from a sum of red and green.
      These are the signals that go to the brain.

    • Cheese says:

      Disclaimer: It’s been a long time since I did anything visual system.

      But broadly neurodevelopment of this sort tends to rely on two processes. Hard-coded signals which are expressed dependent on environmental cues – this is how you get half of the axons from each retina crossing-over to the contralateral side of the brain at the optic chiasm, while the other half stay on the ipsilateral side. And that’s just expression of different signalling molecules during growth based on nasal vs. temporal location of the cell within the retina (i.e. the environmental cue).

      A lot of the actual signal processing in the brain is a bit different. While there’s certainly some of the above processes directing axons to broadly the correct location, there’s a hell of a lot of selective pruning as well. For example, an axon extending from a sensory organ might contact hundreds of cells within it’s local target area. This will happen for a large number of axons carrying the same ‘type’ of signal from single or multiple sensory organs. Those that activate concurrently are going to strengthen the connections or local networks which they all act on. Non-concurrent or sporadic activation is probably going to see a lot of synapses culled and those axon terminals will retract (or the neuron will just up and die if it doesn’t receive enough activation). That’s why you get stuff like the cat experiments where complete removal of a stimulus in development permanently stuffs it up in later life.

      With respect to colour differentiation i’d say it is probably going to be both. Specific signalling molecule expression in the cone -> wires to a specific RGC -> wires to a specific cell in the lateral geniculate nucleus -> might wire to multiple cells in the LGL or visual cortex dependent on it’s pattern of activation during early development. Vaguely.

  14. Linvega says:

    To me the lines vs snakes stuff makes sense.

    The chance to not ever see lines during development in nature is extremely low. Additionally, the cost of missing is usually low, so it’s perfect for learning. You miss a line, then you get hurt a bit, then you don’t miss the line anymore. So it fits that it isn’t hard-coded, and only being able to learn it early on is low-cost too due to the low likelihood of it.

    Meanwhile, not growing up with snakes around is pretty likely, and missing one is potentially deadly. So it basically needs to be hard-coded.

    Of course, this is a just-so story, but this means it’s imo not really incompatible with the theory.

  15. bean says:

    Part 4 of my ramblings on airlines
    One thing I’ve become particularly interested in of late is frequent flier/loyalty programs. These have three basic purposes from the perspective of the airlines:
    They allow the airline to differentiate what is essentially a commodity product, a trip from A to B, and turn it into something unique.
    They give customers an incentive to put all of their flights with a given airline.
    They give the airlines the ability to sell lots and lots of miles to banks, who in turn use them to incentivize customers to spend on their credit cards. The banks collect their money on interchange fees.
    We can divide the programs into two broad parts, status and points. Status is earned on an annual basis, and is designed to reward the airline’s best customers with upgrades, free checked bags, and other amenities. Most people don’t have status, and the easiest way to get basic status is through having a credit card. Points are earned by everyone, while status traditionally requires spending significant amounts of time/money with the airline.
    Miles and points are essentially an airline version of the old loyalty programs, where if you give enough business to them, they’ll give you free stuff. American started the modern programs with AAdvantage in 1981 helped by its then-ownership of the SABRE reservation system. United quickly followed, and the programs soon became standard throughout the airline industry.
    There are several types of frequent-flier program, but they can be divided into two broad categories: revenue-based and mileage-based, although recent developments are blurring the line between the two.
    Southwest has one of the simplest revenue-based programs, Rapid Rewards. They award points (instead of miles) solely based on the price and category of your ticket (more expensive Anytime and Business Select fares earn more points per dollar). These points can then be redeemed for flights at 1.4-1.8 cents per point. This is basically a straightforward travel rebate, which makes it easy to understand.
    The legacy carriers traditionally used a mileage-based program. In this, miles are awarded based upon the distance flown, usually with some multiplier for the fare code and class of service. Elite members may also get an additional multiplier to their redeemable miles (as opposed to qualifying miles, which count towards next year’s status.) Miles are then redeemed for tickets based on an award chart, which lays out the costs of various types of awards. The most common is a zone-based award chart, where, for instance, all tickets in a specific class within the continental US cost a specific amount, and tickets from CONUS to Hawaii cost a different amount, and so on for every region you can travel to/between. There are two tiers for each zone, the lowest ‘saver’ level being capacity-controlled, and the higher level (often double miles) giving last-seat availability.
    The alternative to a zone-based award chart is a distance-based award chart. These cost a set number of miles based upon what distance band the flight is in and what class you’re booking into. They usually also have saver and unlimited prices. These occasionally offer outsize value (for instance, Boston-Ireland is often in a shorter zone than other transatlantic awards, which means you can get much better prices).
    Lately, this model has been changed by the major airlines. Now, American, Delta and United all have taken mileage earning revenue-based, instead of distance-based, and significantly lowered the earning from flight. Delta has also eliminated/hidden its award chart (much to the chagrin of the frequent flier community). However, taking redemptions completely revenue-based, as in the Southwest model, has so far been a step too far for the programs. What has made the traditional frequent-flier program so successful is the possibility of outsized value, getting something amazing ‘for free’.
    The vast majority of miles today are earned through non-flying means, mostly credit card spending. This is very profitable to the airlines, to the point that some have spun off their frequent flier programs while in financial distress (most notably Air Canada, although they have just acted to bring it back in-house). During the last round of airline bankruptcies, the banks pre-purchased large blocks of miles as a backdoor way of providing emergency funding.
    Miles can be thought of as a sort of currency, with little convertibility (all programs prohibit you from selling them, although some allow redemptions as cash) and an unreliable central bank. Particularly over the past few years, as planes have filled up and airlines have found themselves making money, the award world has been under pressure. When these programs were first developed, load factors were low, and award seats were ones that would have otherwise gone empty. Today, award seats are often seats that would otherwise have been sold, which has placed great pressure on saver award availability and forced prices up, particularly as airlines continue to print more miles.
    In many ways, what I find most interesting about the frequent flier world is the people who use these programs to the full. There are lots of people who are obsessed, and search out any opportunity to earn miles and points. Particularly at the height of the recession, and before frequent-flier programs went revenue-based, some people would do ‘mileage runs’, flying back and forth across the country using the most circuitous routing possible to get miles, which they valued at more than the cost of the ticket. There have been even more extreme cases of this, the most famous of which was a man who realized that a promotion meant he could essentially buy points for about two-tenths of a cent each by buying pudding cups and sending in the bar codes. He bought over a million points worth, and then made a deal with the Salvation Army to help him remove the bar codes. In return, he donated the pudding, and the tax writeoff increased his profits even more.
    Status gives a variety of benefits. The most prominent are upgrades, free baggage, and priority boarding. It’s a reward for people who travel frequently, and most programs give a variety of levels. This is an area where legacy airlines have a big advantage over the newer carriers, although these programs have been eroding over the past few years, for the same reason as the frequent flier programs. The exact levels of status and the benefits vary by airline, and I’m not going to go into detail. There are lots of blogs which will explain this better than I can.
    I’m going to wrap this up here. I think I’ll talk about safety next time.

    • Jesse Huebsch says:

      From my perspective the utility of the status side of things is to make flying frequently suck a little less. I.e. a consolation prize for having to travel a lot. It definitely provides a lot of incentive to stay on the same alliance (and airline to an extent) as there are a lot of things status provides to make it a bit more comfortable and convenient. Kind of like everyone had in the 90’s.
      Other things like Nexus / TSA-pre, etc. help with this as well.
      For a business traveler the choice of alliance to focus on basically comes down to who uses their home airport as a hub. And if you travel a lot for business and are not in a hub city, you need a new job.

    • Garrett says:

      How does this work in a world where even business passengers are expected to fly economy and take the lowest-cost fare reasonably available? My previous job set us up with whatever flights were cheapest (subject to reasonable limitations) and my current job incentivises us to fly cheaply by providing rewards for doing so.

      • bean says:

        I think the wiggle room is in the definition of ‘reasonable’. Obviously, such policies make it harder to just fly whoever you want, but if your needs just happen to make the best carrier the one you want to fly anyway, then it depends on whoever is booking the travel.
        “I’d like a bit of buffer on my flight back in case the meeting runs late, so I don’t want a flight before 6. And I really hate the Chicago airport, so I’d really like to not connect through there. Which makes this the best flight. Why yes, I am an elite with that airline. Why do you ask?”
        Incentivizing you is just the company playing the same game the airlines are. They can probably win, although it has obvious problems with figuring out how much you save.

  16. bean says:

    I’ve mentioned in the past a desire to index the effort posts, and I’ve finally done something about it. Here is a google docs sheet I set up. So far, it’s just my own posts, because I suspect you guys would rather have me writing things than digging through the archives. Leave any nominations in the comments. My very rough criteria for nominations is that they should be approximations of blog posts on the subject (top-level, and not just comments in a discussion). Quite a few people have done very good effort posts, but I can’t remember all of them. If anyone is interested in helping/taking over maintenance of the list, let me know and I can give you edit access to that document.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      I’ll make sure to add some things to the suggestions. I’m mainly a lurker so I spend way more time reading than posting, and I skim over older OTs quite often. I’ve got the entire archives on my hard drive, so I’ll see if I can find a way to scrape the longest top-level comments and then read over them specifically.

      • bean says:

        Cool, thanks.
        One thing this brought to mind: I didn’t mention Culture War. My basic policy is that effort posts should be informative and not fighting the war, even if the topic is related to CW issues. Larry Kestenbaum’s stuff on being an elected official and running elections is totally fine. Something about why the GOP has a specific policy and can’t change (for instance, not a specific example) is also OK, so long as it’s reasonably neutral in tone. But the rule to thumb is that both sides should be able to walk away informed and not infuriated.

  17. actinide meta says:

    Research Ethics and Incentive Compatible Bandits

    Epistemic status: experimental

    In the comment thread for “Highlights from the Comments on My IRB Nightmare”, I argued that research on committed mental hospital patients is unethical because (1) there are always risks, (2) research creates a conflict of interest between doctors who have extreme levels of power over patients and their patients, and (3) committed mental hospital patients can’t consent, even if they are competent, because they are in the power of the people asking them for consent. I tried to suggest an ethical way of getting prior consent for certain types of research, but it was pretty unsatisfactory.

    Needless to say, not everyone agreed. One commenter said that my position was “pretty monstrous”. Thanks! Maybe I should make that my new handle! In any case, if you are totally convinced that there is no ethical problem (for example, because of a radical utilitarian view) you might not be interested in a solution. But I am convinced that there is a problem, and yet that research is valuable, and so I would like to find a way to do better.

    This is another attempt at a constructive solution, which I think is more practical. Feedback will be appreciated both on ethics and practicality. I don’t know if this is novel; perhaps this technique is well known to human subjects researchers; if so I would like to know that too.

    Instead of trying to get consent, I’m trying to combine a few ideas to make it ethical to perform an experiment without consent. The basic idea is that, from the perspective of each patient and their doctors, participating in the study will be the best available treatment option, so that a doctor can ethically choose it for a patient who is unable to consent.

    The researchers must not experiment on their own patients. They can be doctors, but they can’t be the subjects’ doctors. It’s OK for the researchers to have interests somewhat conflicting with the subjects’, since they do not have an extraordinary duty to them, and another party who does is responsible for the patients’ interests.

    The doctors, on the other hand, must (a) avoid conflicts of interest with their patients, and (b) act in the best interests of each patient. Again, this is particularly strongly required when the patients are being held against their will! In my view, (b) generally forbids them from randomizing. If the doctor’s priors give treatment X a better expected outcome for the patient than treatment Y, they must choose X 100% of the time (because a mixed strategy has a worse expectation). But the doctor can ethically choose a best treatment which is itself a gamble.

    So: the researchers should get all the credit for the study. The doctors, before enrolling, have to watch a propaganda video in which attractive pharma company representatives remind them that only TOTAL NAZIS would ever put scientific progress ahead of their current patient’s interests. (And we should do a totally unethical study first to make sure the video doesn’t have a perverse effect!) This minimizes conflict of interest.

    The researchers offer the study as a black box service to participating doctors, with an adaptive design using a modified incentive compatible regret minimizing bandit algorithm. For a while, the algorithm will assign all patients to the (prior) best treatment. Then, doctor by doctor, it will begin (occasionally) randomizing the treatment of patients into other arms. As the study proceeds the randomization will shift to reflect the evidence collected so far. The algorithm will ensure that from the perspective of a participating doctor, who knows the design of the study but not how many patients of other doctors have already been randomized, the expected benefit to the patient due to exploitation of evidence collected so far exceeds the cost of randomized exploration (and other risks of the study).

    In other words, the researchers know that whoever the first patient in the trial is will be (slightly) worse off in expectation than if they had not participated in the trial. But the first patient of each doctor will be better off in expectation for participating, because most doctors’ patients will come late enough in the ordering of patients for the bandit algorithm to be expected to do better than with a 100% assignment of patients based on priors. (The “average” patient in the trial will come even later and be expected to do even better).

    Each doctor knows all this, too. But they only have the option of participating in the study or not: they can’t find out, with respect to each patient, if they are so early in the ordering of patients that they would do better not to participate. So they face an unavoidable gamble, and it is ethical (indeed, ethically required!) for them to participate, given that their priors are sufficiently compatible with the assumptions in the study design.

    The researchers, of course, could give the doctor this information. But they are not (in my view) ethically required to. Indeed, they can help the “first” subject, whoever it may be, only by hurting other subjects (in expectation) more. The incomparability of utility between persons is a non issue here, because they know that subjects are being randomly assigned! And the researchers have not taken on any special duty to act in an individual patient’s interests. So I contend that the researchers do not in general act unethically by organizing a study along these lines.

    I haven’t yet tried to work out the details of a modified bandit algorithm, or how many doctors and patients are needed to make it work. The one I linked to above (which I also haven’t studied in detail) appears to assume that the subjects can’t be blinded (so that the incentive compatibility has to survive knowing that you have been told to be in an (a priori) inferior arm!) Whereas presumably most studies should be double blind. It also doesn’t account for the doctors’ repeat participation or knowledge of the study’s start date, which I think require some care. But I think the same basic approach will work.

    My intuition is that the cost isn’t totally impractical unless the priors are very sharp, and intuitively it should be impossible to do an ethical trial of a treatment which is almost certainly harmful!

    Thoughts?

    • Montfort says:

      One commenter said that my position was “pretty monstrous”. Thanks! Maybe I should make that my new handle!

      Disagree, recommend “monstrously pretty” or “petty monster” instead.

    • rahien.din says:

      Your link to the algorithm doesn’t fire correctly!

      Also, I was reminded of my favorite recent trial, ESETT. They’re using Bayesian adaptive allocation to compare three treatments of stage II of status epilepticus, in three arms which include children, adults, and the elderly. (Take my word for it that this is super badass.) I am not sure if it’s entirely applicable to your proposal, but, their trial design is blinded.

      Also, one critical part of study ethics is that we can only ask genuine questions. If we already believe that a particular treatment will work, then, we have less ethical room in running the study. If we are genuinely unsure about what will work, then that permits randomization. So if there is a genuine question and patients are allocated to the proposed treatment or to the standard of care, and they are adaptively allocated, then this seems to mitigate some of the potential ethical harm.

      Could there be adaptive crossover allocation, even? That would be even better for the patients. Say we design a study with initial 50:50 allocation, then have checkpoints at which we cross patients over from one group into the other. You’d have to design the study very carefully to avoid unblinding raters, but, it seems like a more reasonable ethical gamble.

      • actinide meta says:

        Thanks. Too late to edit, but the paper is https://arxiv.org/abs/1502.04147

        Your link brought me to a university login page. I think this may be what you were pointing to. It looks to me like a bandit algorithm (it’s annoying how different fields use different terminology for the same things) but it’s not incentive compatible:

        Adaptive randomization will focus on identifying the treatment arm offering the highest response rate, labeled tmax, using information weighting. Information is a measure of the expected reduction in variance from adding an additional patient to treatment arm T

        Basically this is optimal for the researchers. So I don’t think there is any reason to believe that an individual patient (with priors about the treatment effectiveness, but no access to study data) couldn’t do better than to participate. Of course, to the extent that the patients (a) understand this and (b) consent, that is fine with me. But in the mental inpatient context we can’t get (b).

    • b_jonas says:

      I don’t know if this particular method could work, or how widely it would be applicable, but I certainly support this line of thinking about novel methods for performing experiments. Applying science to solve ethical problems is great.

    • Garrett says:

      IRBs already review/approve research which is done on unwitting subjects. I know this from emergency medicine – a lot of such trials involve people who by their nature can’t consent at the time. So what they might do is require extensive public advertising of the trial and then provide a way (eg. a wristband) to pre-opt-out of the trial. It also requires a lot of advanced demonstration in animal models to believe that it will work and won’t be worse for the patients.

      Dealing with involuntarily-committed patients probably could get approval the same way. But you’d have to demonstrate that it was impossible to find a group of people who weren’t involuntarily-committed to test against.

    • Jiro says:

      In other words, the researchers know that whoever the first patient in the trial is will be (slightly) worse off in expectation than if they had not participated in the trial. But the first patient of each doctor will be better off in expectation for participating, because most doctors’ patients will come late enough in the ordering of patients for the bandit algorithm to be expected to do better than with a 100% assignment of patients based on priors.

      Most people’s ethics includes a certain amount of objection to willful blindness. The doctor is not permitted to do something that statistically helps patients, but harms particular patients, if the information about which patients those are is available relatively easily and he chooses to ignore it. (And that includes participating in an experiment where he knows it’s being hidden from him.)

      • actinide meta says:

        I figured that someone would object to my ethical gymnastics, but I expected the criticism to be of the researchers rather than the doctors.

        It seems your intuition rests on the information about which patients are first randomized being “readily available”. But it certainly isn’t readily available to the doctor, and even the researchers will have tied their hands to some extent. If you think the doctor should object to the study design on principle and refuse to participate, isn’t that sacrificing the welfare of the patient (who would be better off in the study) for some greater good? If a drug company acts unethically, may a physician boycott their products when they would be the best treatment for a patient unable to consent? If not, how is this different?

        • Jiro says:

          If you think the doctor should object to the study design on principle and refuse to participate, isn’t that sacrificing the welfare of the patient (who would be better off in the study) for some greater good?

          “The patient” would not be better off in the study. Some patients would be better off and some would be worse off. The ones made worse off would be treated that way intentionally, which is unethical to do. The doctor isn’t permitted to launder this unethical act by having the researcher pick which ones will be worse off and then hide the information from him so that he only has to worry about the average; letting the researcher choose is as bad as doing it himself.

          Ethics doesn’t let you use mathematical tricks to make prohibited acts permitted.

          • actinide meta says:

            You are right to be suspicious when someone claims that an ethical problem can be “solved” by some kind of shell game! But this is not a trick; IMO it really does address the fundamental reason behind the intuition that doctors should not randomize. That reason is a conflict of interests between the individual patient and the researchers. It is resolved by moving the doctor, who in this situation is forced to make decisions for the patient, from the researchers’ side of the table squarely to the patient’s side.

            I agree that a doctor who really wants to do a study may not just go find some researchers to run it, and then permissibly enroll her own patients. But this scenario is not a reason to throw out the whole scheme.

            Consider a different situation, where the patient is in fact able to consent or refuse participation, and the study is run in a similar incentive-compatible way. Do you think the patient acts against their own best interest if they participate? Do you think they even have a reason to be angry at the researchers for not offering them a better option, given that the researchers likely can’t offer a better option to patients as a group?

            If the patient would want to consent if they could, doesn’t that indicate that the doctor should do so in their place?

          • Jiro says:

            IMO it really does address the fundamental reason behind the intuition that doctors should not randomize.

            I don’t agree. The doctor is obliged to make each individual decision based on the patient’s best interest. The reason that doctors shouldn’t randomize is that the doctor would be knowingly deciding things that are not in the patient’s best interest. Just making it random doesn’t remove the element of decision-making, since the doctor chooses to use randomness. Likewise, using a researcher wouldn’t remove that element, because the doctor chooses to follow the researcher.

            If the doctor made no decision (for instance, if a treatment only worked in some percentage of cases, but it was not possible to choose only the good cases instead of randomness), it would be ethical.

            Do you think the patient acts against their own best interest if they participate?

            If the patient does that, the combination of possibilities is in his best interest, but some of the individual possibilities within the combination are not in his best interest.

            The doctor is ethically obligated to act for the patient’s best interest with respect to both combinations and components.

          • actinide meta says:

            @Jiro,

            Set aside ethics for a moment, and consider this scenario: you have a very serious acute condition. There is a known treatment A with a 50% survival rate. There is a new treatment B which so far has only a 40% survival rate, but there is very little data, and there is a 33% chance it is actually better than A. Some researchers (maybe they are unethical, I don’t know, but let’s say what they are doing is legal where you are) are running a trial C where you will be randomized between A and B with equal likelihood. Some other researchers are running a trial D with an adaptive design such that if the trial gets 1,000 subjects, the (a priori) expected number who get the treatment that is actually better is 800, and the expected number who survive is 580. The researchers’ computers might know that they have gathered a little or a lot of data so far, but they won’t tell you.

            Scenario 1: you are conscious and competent and can choose between (and consent to) A, B, C, or D. Your life is at stake, but you have every right to risk it for your own benefit or others’. What would you choose?

            Scenario 2: You will be unconscious by the time the opportunity to enroll in the studies becomes available. But your doctor has a chance to ask you, in principle, which kind of choice they should make for you if this situation arises. Is your answer different?

            I’d be interested in others’ decisions as well. Personally I would choose D in both cases: it offers me the best chance of survival and also helps treat later patients.

            I think ideally doctors should treat incompetent patients the way they would choose to be treated if they had the opportunity to decide in advance. But I can’t think of any policy that would reliably take into account patients’ views on these questions in the real world.

          • Jiro says:

            The patient is not the doctor. The patient can choose something that overall increases his chances, even if it includes human-chosen components that do not. The doctor cannot ethically do that.

            If my chance of survival was normally 50%, and a researcher were to do an experiment where he rolled some dice, killed me if he got snake eyes, and otherwise gave me a treatment with a 90% chance of success, I’d choose that experiment over the normal treatment. It would, after all, be more likely to succeed than the normal treatment. But it would be unethical for a doctor to choose it for me.

            If the doctor asked me in advance and I said that I’d choose that, then I’d be okay with that (and even then, some people would object). But he isn’t permitted to assume that I’d choose it just because it’s better for me on a probabilistic basis.

            This is sort of like ethical offsets. You can’t offset a murder by doing other good things and pushing your balance into the positive. If the doctor participates in an experiment where the researcher chooses a worse treatment some of the time, and a better treatment some of the time, the doctor is trying to use an ethical offset by claiming that the latter balances out against the former.

    • b_jonas says:

      Ok, so I thought this through. I think it won’t work. As in, it might be an interesting idea to try, but it won’t solve the original problem of how to get consent from psychiatric patients.

      Yes, you might be able to convince the doctor to try the therapy you offer, because the expected outcome is better than what he’d normally do. But the doctor isn’t allowed you to give you feedback from the actual outcome of the patient, because the doctor must keep information about the health of his patients confidential. The doctor would need consent from the patient. If the patient is incapable of giving consent, then the doctor will still treat the patient if that is important enough for their health, but he is not allowed to decide on divulging the information.

      There are about three ways a doctor could get permission for sharing the health information when the patient is incapable of that. One is to find the relatives or caregivers of the patient and get consent from them. This is often hard, and, in any case, your proposal doesn’t help it. The second is if the patient have given consent earlier, before he was institutionalized or incapable of giving consent. People often give permission about their health data when they buy voluntary health insurance. I do that too when I travel, so that if I break my skull during skiing and am on an operating table unconscious and my friends call my insurance company, the insurance company is allowed to help in a meaningful way and notify my relatives. If you could convince big insurance companies to include suitable clauses about scientific research in their contracts, and could convince the government that such a clause should be enforcable, then you’ve won. The third is emergency situations when sharing the health data clearly and immediately helps other patients. This can be the case for a recently deceased patient if transplanting their organs can save other people. This will rarely apply for your research, unless you’re an established famous research group doing something really revolutionary such as testing a revolutionary rabies treatment, and you only have one human patient to experiment on every few years.

      • actinide meta says:

        This is a very interesting objection.

        The study could be designed to preserve patients’ privacy (even from the researchers) to, for example, a differential privacy standard (which basically bounds the likelihood ratio an arbitrarily knowledgeable attacker can get from the released data). Given sufficiently strong protection of the patient’s individual data, and a situation where consent is impossible, I think it could be morally permissible for a doctor to agree to report it in exchange for beneficial treatment for that patient. This (hopefully small) harm to the patient falls in the same moral category as any other risk or harm of treatment. But whether it meets existing legal requirements is a very different question! I’m not remotely qualified to look for a loophole in the existing network of laws and contracts around PHI.

        Another approach would be to get consent from the patients to use their outcome data later, when they are competent and uncoerced. Of course, you will lose some people, and since that process isn’t random it will cost you evidential quality. Perhaps worse, it slows down the collection of evidence and hence the adaptive randomization, which reduces the benefit to patients, requiring you to randomize less to maintain incentive compatibility, etc.

        • b_jonas says:

          Yes, you can design a good study that preserves the privacy of individual patients. But it’s also very easy to design a bad study that seems to preserve the privacy of individual patients. This can happen not only by malice, but simply by incompetence, because the researchers don’t have the required knowledge. A study on fifty or a hundred patients with evaluation of the evidence at intermediate steps is pretty hard to anonymize, it’s not like when you’re data mining ten million shopping records from Tesco to find out whether people often buy coffee and diaper together. And it would be completely impossible to expect that the doctor should evaluate the claim that the study is properly designed for protecting the data of the patients. If there’s anything that needs strong supervision by a hypothetical competent IRB, it’s not giving a double-blind choice of vitamin C or sugar pills to the patients, because the psychiatric doctor can tell just fine how safe that is, but claims about how well the cryptographic protocols of a study is designed.

          • actinide meta says:

            I 100% agree that you would need new institutions to implement this successfully in reality. My first idea would be a company that offers both the adaptive randomization and privacy respecting data analysis as a service, standing between the researchers and doctors. Ideally their software would be very hard to misuse (it would make differential privacy guarantees as a basic constraint of operation, for example, so that a bad study design couldn’t break them). The company could get process and technology reviewed by real experts, and also stand behind its guarantees with real liability. Of course risks can never be decreased to zero, but I think they could be made commensurate with the benefits for patients. Then the idea is you could do lots of studies without having to repeat all those costs. You would probably have to prove some things about the analysis in each study, to the extent that it isn’t boilerplate, but such proofs could be checked mechanically in one way or another.

            Of course, it’s possible that when you add up the amortized expense of creating this tech, and the decreased power of the study due to incentive compatibility, and decreased power due to privacy constraints, that research is still too expensive.

    • Murphy says:

      One commenter said that my position was “pretty monstrous”.

      It’s traditional that when you put things in quotes it actually be a quote. Not an invention.

      You were proposing basically entirely outlawing research into preventing harm to vulnerable groups, thereby utterly fucking them over long term.

      Which I described as a “kind of monstrous definition of “the right thing to do”.”

      Caring for patients is important but in every other sector when it comes into conflict with actually caring for patients people manage to find reasonable compromises. Except research because science is evil.

      If we treated everything like we treat research nobody would ever be able to train as a medical students because inevitably some portion of patients that junior doctors deals with end up with worse care than if they had a senior doctor caring for them. They are objectively harmed no matter how much oversight the juniors are under, things slip through. The welfare of patients today is being pragmatically traded for the long term welfare of future patients because if we didn’t allow this we’d run out of senior doctors to actually care for patients. (assume senior doctors never miss anything ever if you object to this characterization and juniors don’t make more mistakes)

      I think the system you outline is trying for ethics through obscurity with each doctor treated as like an island. Do you never have team decisions where one doctor disagrees with the groups decision but applies the care plan decided on anyway? Typically you run research when you can get a reasonable number of people to agree that the intervention being tested as a good chance of being better than standard care with the intention of improving the evidence base for that. You’re implicitly assuming that research is always harmful.

      It’s fairly rare to actually need to randomize without consent between 2 interventions where you genuinely have no idea which is better. For that to be ethical I suggest you need a team willing to admit they genuinely don’t know which is better and for the team members to be willing to implement care plans as planned by the team.

      • actinide meta says:

        I apologize for misquoting you! It was an error of memory, not an intentional paraphrase.

        Someone may be guilty of treating science as “uniquely evil” but it isn’t me. I think that situations where someone is stripped of autonomy are uniquely dangerous, and that people do a really bad job with conflicts of interest, and that it is very important to minimize them. You keep raising other situations which you think are comparable in various dimensions and saying that they are treated with less care, and I keep saying that that also sounds less than ideal, but that I’m focusing at the moment on a particular problem. I’m not sure how better to respond.

        I don’t understand how a team changes the picture; you can certainly read “care team” everywhere I wrote “doctor” in my proposal. Either way, I feel the people exercising power over and making decisions for a committed patient should have as few conflicts of interest as possible. I think the researchers (for a given study) should have no institutional connection to the (participating) care team at all.

        Edit: my proposal has two parts, the separation between researchers and caregivers, and the use of incentive compatible study design. You seem to feel strongly that the first is unnecessary (because doctors will make good enough decisions for patients despite this conflict?). Do you see any value in the second- in designing a study do that it is in the interest of an individual patient to participate?

        • Murphy says:

          A team is an example of where an individual doctor may not personally believe that a treatment they’re administering is optimal but the doctor somehow still administers it without being an unethical monster.

          I keep pointing to examples of roughly morally equivalent problems that are considered solved through pragmatic compromise, the point is “here’s a way an almost identical gordian knot dealt with. Just do it roughly that way for this problem as well” but you seem to be looking for some kind of unattainable platonic ideal because you reject those as imperfect.

          This kind of mentality is super common in medicine and is pretty much the reason why almost everything is shit. You hit the exact same search for a platonic ideal whenever you try to get medics to stop doing things the shit way and do things a slightly better way. Will they use 256 bit encrypted email to communicate? no, technically someone could randomly guess the 256 bit key so until there’s a platonic ideal they’ll continue with the grandfathered-in system. they recognise it’s shit but won’t improve it until there’s a platonic ideal. plaintext faxes.

          What you want isn’t possible. If you wrap things up in layers of black boxes and veils of ignorance then you still don’t reach the platonic ideal you seem to be looking for. Willful strategic ignorance doesn’t solve it.

          I sort of get what you’re trying to get by having the researchers as separate people with less duty to the patients but you can achieve the same thing with a high level administrator making global choices as with many grandfathered systems in medicine or high level teams of medics with responsibility for and duty to the whole population of patients dictating to lower level medics.

          A small dose of Utilitarianism isn’t some evil monster. There’s already systems that accept small levels of harm to individual patients for the population as a whole. Whenever a doctor does the right thing and avoids prescribing antibiotics for the patient who almost certainly doesn’t really need them and will probably be fine without them they’re trading a tiny risk for that individual patient for risks to the population as a whole.

          cut through the gordian knot using the same reasoning and that allows you to do that.

          • Jiro says:

            A team is an example of where an individual doctor may not personally believe that a treatment they’re administering is optimal but the doctor somehow still administers it without being an unethical monster.

            The doctor is permitted to do things that he believes are not optimal, but were chosen by other doctors who are also obliged to choose optimally. This is different from doing things that are chosen by others with no such obligation. Basically, the chain has to end with someone with the obligation.

            (The doctor has some lesser obligation even when doing this–he needs to ensure that the other doctor’s decisions are within accepted practice–but it is lesser.)

          • Murphy says:

            The top of the chain can also account for the effect on other patients.

            It may not be optimal for an individual violent patient to be on promethazine but if there’s a dozen patients on the ward and that patient is disrupting their care a team who’s members have responsibility for all the patients on that ward can choose to do so factoring in the effects on others.

            It may not be optimal for a particular patient to be cared for by a fresh faced new doctor rather than to a senior doctor but the supply of future senior doctors relies upon it being done sooner or later with pragmatic attempts to minimize harm applied.

            When comparing multiple treatments, all within the bounds of accepted practice but where individual doctors differ in opinion that model seems to fit quite well unless you’re throwing the pragmatism used in every other area of medicine under the bus. As per usual.

  18. HFARationalist says:

    Are genocides really worse than other massacres with the same death count?

    I don’t think so. To me a human death is a human death. You just don’t want to die.

    • HFARationalist says:

      Another idea: It doesn’t matter whether someone was shot by a regime or they starved to death because the regime did not care or was unable to help.

      A human death is a human death. Being shot is as bad as getting hit by a car if the amount of pain is the same.

      • Incurian says:

        It doesn’t matter whether someone was shot by a regime or they starved to death because the regime did not care or was unable to help.

        You are responsible for all deaths you may have hypothetically prevented.

      • Murphy says:

        Incurian covered this but had you dedicated all your savings to effective charity how many lives could you have saved? Are you morally equivalent to a serial killer who has that many victims?

    • rahien.din says:

      A human death is a human death, sure. But humans are motivated to protect their cultures as well, and that is reasonable. With genocide, massacre is not the end per se, massacre is the means to the end of attacking a culture.

      Compare to picking leaves. If I pick 1,000 leaves off of 1,000 trees, I have caused the harm of damaging leaves. If I pick 1,000 leaves off a single tree, then in addition to the harm of damaging leaves, I have caused the harm of endangering that particular tree.

      The only way to maintain your claim is to assert that cultures themselves aren’t worth protecting.

      • HFARationalist says:

        I’m exactly claiming that cultures are not as valuable as lives of individual humans. All but one cultures disappearing from the world without anyone dying because of it is less bad compared to one more human dying.

        The relationship between humans and tribes/cultures is similar to the relationship between wolves and wolfpacks, not the relationship between cells and multicellular organisms or the relationship between leaves and trees. A multicellular organism if seen as a society is a tyrannical one worse than North Korea due to programmed cell deaths and other mechanisms through which an organism kills its own cells regularly. Not even North Korea regularly kill almost all its people at 65 or something. Similarly a tree is an organism while a leaf is not.

        • rahien.din says:

          This is a very weird claim.

          Maybe a different analogy is to the notes in a song. One wrong note is bad, maybe even jarring to hear. One wrong note in each of 100 songs is pretty bad music, but 100 wrong notes in a single song is worse because the song itself is significantly degraded. Worse, what if some asshat decides to play wrong notes on purpose in a particular song – musical genocide? If we eliminated music, there would be no such thing as wrong notes, nor musical genocide. But we wouldn’t have music, either.

          One could similarly claim that “Music is not worth musical genocide!” But that is just allowing malefactors to use a thing’s worth as evidence of its worthlessness. It’s reversed stupidity.

          ETA: The above example is an analogy. An analogy works because it isn’t a perfect match to the exact situation but if you pay attention to it, a common principle becomes elucidated.

          • HFARationalist says:

            Sorry but this analogy does not work because notes and music aren’t sentient beings and hence do not have rights at all.

            Edited: I believe the issue here is about individual rights and group rights. I believe there is no such thing as group rights and humanity is just a collection of humans without humans being obliged to serve group interests. Groups may be beneficial because they are beneficial to individual humans in the sense of memetic diversity but that’s it. Groups still don’t inherently deserve to exist more than a pen does. They are both useful but they don’t have rights.

          • Aapje says:

            @HFARationalist

            Aside from group rights there is also the issue of robustness. Monocultures are less robust to disruption or mass delusions.

            So one of your flaws is that you are making a static analysis, rather than incorporating time. A single culture has more chance to make major mistakes, ranging from not being willing to do research into certain life-saving or improving technology to mass murder, so by preventing a monoculture you are actually also saving lives on average over the possible future outcomes.

          • rahien.din says:

            Groups don’t inherently deserve to exist

            In some important sense, group membership is a defining feature of our species on the population level*.

            Returning to your wolfpacks : wolves as a species tend to form packs. Canine animals that do not tend to form packs are not meaningfully classifiable as wolves. Primate species that do not form cultures are not meaningfully classifiable as human.

            This is not merely some quirk. The group pays rent. Wolves use their packs to protect and train their young, to do more hunting as a unit than could be done individually, to find mates. If you took a pack of wolves and forcibly and permanently separated them, each individual wolf would probably not do as well or be as healthy. These orphaned wolves would probably do their darndest to reform a new pack. And yes, sometimes a wolf will endanger its own life in service of the pack’s success.

            While there could be discussion as to whether a single wolf ought to endanger its own life for the pack’s success, it seems undeniable that it is in wolves’ best interest, as a species, that they continue to be able to form packs. The tendency to form packs is worth protecting. Defending this species-wide tendency necessitates defending the group via each individual’s actions.

            It is just as natual for the human species. We are culture-forming beings. We seek those of like mind and temperament and carve out a little place inside those persons’ heads. Case in point : just as everyone else here, you are actively pursuing inclusion in this particular culture. That’s worth protecting. Our cultures pay rent. You wouldn’t keep coming back if they didn’t.

            It should be noted : out of fairness to us both, I’m arguing as though what you describe as “culture” is distinct from what you consider “theism” and what you consider “sex.” Those are entirely separate discussions.

            * IE, this is not to say that one is only human to the degree that they see value in group membership. Clearly that is not the case.

          • While there could be discussion as to whether a single wolf ought to endanger its own life for the pack’s success, it seems undeniable that it is in wolves’ best interest, as a species, that they continue to be able to form packs.

            I don’t think the interest of the species is relevant to whether the behavior will exist. A wolf pack consists of a mated pair and their offspring of the previous few years, with sometimes a few unrelated members. So behavior that provides a benefit to the pack large relative to the cost to the individual is in the interest of the individual’s genes, which is what is relevant to whether it is selected for.

          • hlynkacg says:

            I don’t think the interest of the species is relevant to whether the behavior will exist.

            Why not?

            We covered this in the Ants and Ritual Combat thread. A species that carries a trait that causes it’s members to cooperate or sacrifice for each other will, over time, outcompete those that don’t.

          • rahien.din says:

            David Friedman,

            A gene (or suite of genes, or what have you) that drives pack-forming behavior will be selected for even if wolfpacks are by-default assembled from non-kin wolves.

            Edit: thinking the same thing

          • HFARationalist says:

            @hlynkacg

            I agree. However I still advocate for absolute individualism because evolutionary success and personal success are not identical. I only care about the latter but not the former.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            Edited: I believe the issue here is about individual rights and group rights. I believe there is no such thing as group rights and humanity is just a collection of humans without humans being obliged to serve group interests. Groups may be beneficial because they are beneficial to individual humans in the sense of memetic diversity but that’s it.

            Seconded.

            The idea that cultures themselves have rights, to me, is like claiming that a corporation or a brand should have the same rights as a person: it’s just inherently inane and contradictory. A brand–or a culture–is just a collection of ideas that only exist in the heads of individual people.

            I mean, yes, to acknowledge the obvious, some cultures have good and beneficial ideas, and if you destroy that culture you will be robbing future humans of the benefits, even if the benefits are something intangible like potential pleasure and meaning or a sense of community. That’s certainly worth factoring in from a utilitarian perspective.

            But the focus there should still be on how it impacts actual beings. A culture does not possess any value apart from how it benefits the humans who embrace it. It is only worth as much as what it gives to those people.

            I think that much of the horror and senseless cruelty throughout history has been the direct result of enshrining culture/religion/group identity and treating it as more important than flesh-and-blood humans. If you see humans as mere leaves and the “tree” as what matters, you will be a lot more likely to sacrifice those people and see it as no great loss.

            To elaborate on this position:

            There are certain things–thoughts, emotions, subjective experiences, pain, pleasure, love, fear, etc–that define conscious existence. These things are only experienced, and can ever only be experienced, by individual beings. Not groups. And these experiences and perceptions that make up consciousness are the source of all value. Value itself only makes sense from the perspective of a being with these conscious experiences. If group identity has value, that value only exists within the subjective conscious experiences of its members.

            If there were such a thing as a true collective consciousness, the rules would be different, but as far as I know the existence of such a thing has never been demonstrated. You can’t ask a group for its perspective, you can only aggregate the perspectives of its members.

            Given that subjective, individual conscious experiences are the basis of all value and the source of all value, enshrining the object of that value over the source–the very thing which gives it context and meaning–seems really backwards to me.

          • bbartlog says:

            “To every man upon this earth
            Death cometh soon or late.
            And how can man die better
            Than facing fearful odds,
            For the ashes of his fathers,
            And the temples of his Gods.”

            Not exactly an argument against HFARationalist; I expect he would have considered the culture this came from evil. But it does suggest that some people (and not just self-identified fascists) value their culture, itself, very highly indeed.

          • Iain says:

            We covered this in the Ants and Ritual Combat thread. A species that carries a trait that causes it’s members to cooperate or sacrifice for each other will, over time, outcompete those that don’t.

            We also covered the response to this claim: natural selection occurs on genes, not on species. A gene that causes its carriers to cooperate with or make sacrifices for other carriers of the gene will, over time, out-compete alleles of that gene. The easiest way to find other carriers of the gene is by looking at your relatives. Kin-group selection, like we see in a pack of wolves, is therefore advantageous — but because wolves-with-a-pack-gene out-compete wolves-with-no-pack-gene, not because they out-compete bears.

            A gene that drives pack-forming behaviour in unrelated wolves will be selected for to the precise degree that it causes more copies of itself to be present in the next generation. That is what it means to be selected for. If a single wolf in a pack of non-kin wolves has a de novo mutation causing it to sacrifice itself for the good of the pack, then that gene will die off along with the altruistic wolf.

            I recommend against looking to natural selection as a source of moral truth.

          • Civilis says:

            HFARationalist: I believe the issue here is about individual rights and group rights. I believe there is no such thing as group rights and humanity is just a collection of humans without humans being obliged to serve group interests. Groups may be beneficial because they are beneficial to individual humans in the sense of memetic diversity but that’s it.

            Hyzenthlay: I mean, yes, to acknowledge the obvious, some cultures have good and beneficial ideas, and if you destroy that culture you will be robbing future humans of the benefits, even if the benefits are something intangible like potential pleasure and meaning or a sense of community. That’s certainly worth factoring in from a utilitarian perspective.

            The idea that I should respect your individual rights as equal to my own is a cultural idea, and doesn’t work unless all the members of a group have that same idea. Thinking that other people’s ideas and lives have value is an idea that in itself has value, and without it, the whole thing falls apart.

            The idea that an individual human life has value necessarily has more value than an individual human life. If you chop down that cultural value, what are you left with?

          • I expect he would have considered the culture this came from evil.

            Do you mean early Republican Rome or Victorian England?

          • rahien.din says:

            HFARationalist : I still advocate for absolute individualism because evolutionary success and personal success are not identical. I only care about personal success.

            Hyzenthlay : the focus there should still be on how it impacts actual beings. A culture does not possess any value apart from how it benefits the humans who embrace it.

            Well of course.

            Groups provide solutions that are inaccessible to the individual, through force multiplication, strategic/tactical fertility, and enhanced resilience. Absolute atomic acultural individualism is not highest-utility situation for most* individuals.

            Cultures solve coordination problems by allowing individuals to appeal to an arbitrary entity. This could take the form of direct and explicit appeal to culture, or more indirectly, norms and enacted shared beliefs that guide behaviors.

            Buying in to a system that solves coordination problems requires that you be willing to lose some battles, or to compromise, in order to preserve a system that is overall beneficial to you, as an individual. This is the political/individual cost of a culture. Moreover, rather than a price it is a subscription. You can not go out and buy some culture when you need it, you must subscribe to it ahead of time. But this is also what makes a culture atomic.

            In this sense, cultures are the atomic units of humanity. One can not abolish culture. One can only change the resolution of culture. The resolution of culture could range from perfectly fine (1 culture : 1 person) to perfectly coarse (1 culture : all persons). Some of a culture’s resolution will be determined by the types and magnitudes of the problems it faces.

            Inter-cultural conflict is not solved by increasing cultural resolution. Conflict between atomic units of humanity is a coordination problem, and coordination problems are solved by culture. Therefore, inter-cultural conflict is a deficiency of a broader culture, rather than a result of cultures.

            To abrogate culture is not to abolish inter-cultural conflict – to abrogate culture is merely to change the resolution of inter-cultural conflict.

            David Friedman, Iain,

            I recommend against looking to natural selection as a source of moral truth.

            You’re really overstating my case.

            The point is (as above) that the group does not exist as a distinct entity. Grouping (or, [Sustain the group]) is an action that is available to the individual, and it is an action that almost every human does and/or wants to do.

            * Some persons can only tolerate a culture of a very limited extent or a certain fine resolution. That’s okay. It’s also still culture.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            The idea that I should respect your individual rights as equal to my own is a cultural idea, and doesn’t work unless all the members of a group have that same idea.

            Like I said, there are ideas that have value; obviously I want to live in a society where people have human rights that are protected, and I want that idea to endure. But the concept of rights is valuable not simply because it’s part of a culture, but because of its benefits to the members of that culture.

            I’m arguing against the position that a culture–any culture–is valuable in and of itself. Preserving an idea or a value like “protecting individual rights” is not the end goal, it is a means to an end, and the end is bettering the lives of sentient beings. The concept of “individual rights” is not a god to be worshipped or sacrificed to or something that needs to be preserved for its own sake. It is a tool.

            If I happen to be born in a culture that I find abhorrent (or just unfulfilling), there’s no reason I should feel obligated to preserve it or embrace its traditions simply because it’s “my culture.” Nor should anyone.

            @rahien.din

            In this sense, cultures are the atomic units of humanity. One can not abolish culture.

            I more or less agree with all this; I’m not arguing the idea that humans are social creatures who benefit from working together and coordinating, and there are situations where swearing loyalty to a group can be useful for achieving one’s own goals. But people should feel free to change cultures when they’re not working for the intended purpose, or to borrow elements or ideas from other cultures, or create new cultures, etc. Again, cultures do have value to the people who embrace them, they just don’t have intrinsic value.

            I don’t think I’m arguing against a strawman here, because there do seem to be a lot of people who see “preserving the culture” as the end goal, rather than a strategy.

          • rahien.din says:

            Hyzenthlay,

            there do seem to be a lot of people who see “preserving the culture” as the end goal, rather than a strategy.

            Sure. I guess I am trying frame culture as an individual’s action, rather than an action of some entity that is abstracted from the individual.

            For instance, you can adequately simulate flocking behavior with three simple rules for any single autonomous bird : avoid bumping into other birds, make your heading similar to that of nearby birds, and in general steer toward the center of mass of nearby birds. It is not sufficient to say that flocking occurs despite autonomy – in fact, autonomy is necessary for flocking.

            In this way, I think that culture formation is an autonomous action of the individual. Even the act of culture preservation is a sort of second-order formation of culture.

            (Making my defense of culture preservation a third-order formation of culture?)

          • hlynkacg says:

            A gene that drives pack-forming behaviour in unrelated wolves will be selected for to the precise degree that it causes more copies of itself to be present in the next generation.

            Right, and because pack forming behavior is correlated with pups surviving to adulthood we see exactly that.

            Sacrificing one’s self for the pack may not be in the individuals interest, but it is in the gene’s interest so long as at least one other individual in the pack carries that gene.

          • so long as at least one other individual in the pack carries that gene.

            You have to be sacrificing your life in order to keep the entire pack from being killed, or some probabilistic equivalent, for that to hold.

            The issue is whether altruistic behavior towards the pack depends on relationship, and you are conceding that it does. Since packs consist mostly of closely related members–a mated pair and their offspring–that condition is met.

        • Cliff says:

          First of all, many people would give their lives to preserve their culture. Second, culture is much MORE important than one person’s life, as other people rightly recognize. Culture is extremely powerful, and can affect the lives of millions or billions of people in very important ways. Everybody dies. Culture does not have to. You are saying you would rather the culture of ISIS take over the entire world than one person die. Stopping ISIS is not worth the sacrifice of even one human life?

          • HFARationalist says:

            I disagree. Cultures are just ornaments to me. Why shall anyone die to save them? Any culture that tries to get its members to die to save itself instead of its members is an evil culture.

            Your example of ISIS does not apply because ISIS murders and rapes people. That is sufficient to justify attacks on ISIS.

          • Brad says:

            Cultures are just ornaments to me.

            Do you expect these kind of statements to to convince anyone of anything?

            “I like the color green.”

          • HFARationalist says:

            @Brad Sure. I agree that it is a poor argument. However how are cultures supposed to be worth more than human lives? I think ideas like that can lead to atrocities. When people are sufficiently individualistic there can be no genocides because group identities wouldn’t even exist. For example nobody would care enough to start another Holocaust because staying at home and petting cats is more fun than going out and killing people. (Well I know that hypothetical mind is still horrible but nobody will die in genocides if people don’t even care enough about groups to kill members of other groups).

          • Aapje says:

            @HFARationalist

            No offense, but you don’t understand humans and you don’t understand cultures.

            Humans cannot be purely individualistic. That is simply not how we/they are designed. And that is for good reason, because we actually need to work together to achieve something beyond living in a cave and whacking animals on their head (actually, even that requires some cooperation). Nature is cruel. It’s not a paradise where you can wish for something and it drops out of the sky. People work together through shared set of goals, agreed rules, etc; which we call culture. If you look at history you can see that cultures vary wildly in how well they achieve good things and avoid bad things.

            People have defended good cultures in the past (for instance by defending them from the Nazi’s), because they knew that doing so would save many lives and much suffering. The tribalism and culture that you decry is actually a major reason why people were able to prevent others from doing bad things. As you said so yourself, you have a tendency to extremism. You tend to classify things as universally good or bad, which is nonsense, because most things are good and bad. Until you fix your perception to realize this, you cannot make accurate assessments.

            PS. If the only thing people would do is pet cats, they’d have no food, no housing, no medicine, no transportation beyond their own locomotion, etc. All the things that you take for granted in your little fantasy are not the things that you can take for granted. I think that you don’t realize how privileged you are for having all these things and how much people hard to cooperate to bring you the things that make your life so much better than mr. Caveman.

          • Mary says:

            Second, culture is much MORE important than one person’s life,

            Which would logically entail the right to use violence, including lethal, to prevent members of a culture from leaving it if said departure would be destructive of the culture.

            To which I say, “No.”

          • shakeddown says:

            @Mary It wouldn’t, unless you could believe that one or a few acts of violence would make the difference between long-term survival of the culture and its destruction. In the typical case, violence to protect the culture is repeated and ongoing, and thus several orders of magnitude more than this.

          • Mary says:

            . When people are sufficiently individualistic there can be no genocides because group identities wouldn’t even exist

            So what? Were you not taking the position that genocides are not uniquely evil, and indeed no more evil than a mass murder that is not group-based?

          • HFARationalist says:

            @Mary

            Which would logically entail the right to use violence, including lethal, to prevent members of a culture from leaving it if said departure would be destructive of the culture.

            To which I say, “No.”

            I strongly agree with you. Forcing people to remain in the culture of their parents is cruel.

          • Mary says:

            you could believe that one or a few acts of violence would make the difference between long-term survival of the culture and its destruction.

            People could believe it. What’s more, they might even be right. If you acted immediately at the first sign, the example would do a lot to discourage even trying.

            But that’s not immensely important because


            In the typical case, violence to protect the culture is repeated and ongoing, and thus several orders of magnitude more than this.

            is not a valid objection. The claim I disputed was that culture is much MORE important than a person’s life. If one person’s life has to be sacrificed every year, how is nothing more than the price to be paid for preserving something MUCH MORE important than that life?

          • shakeddown says:

            (a) because “one life per year” is hundreds of lives over the typical lifespan of a culture, which is immensely more than one life.
            (b) because a culture that has to kill people to exist is probably a bad culture that shouldn’t exist (what can be destroyed by the truth should be). Saying “the value of a typical culture is comparable to or greater than one human life” is a much weaker statement than saying that about the value of a culture willing to murder people to keep itself alive.

            But to change the question to friendlier terms, what would you say is the dollar value of the existence of a typically nice, non-mudery culture?

          • Mary says:

            (a) because “one life per year” is hundreds of lives over the typical lifespan of a culture, which is immensely more than one life.

            “Immensely”? What is the exactly delineation between “MUCH MORE” and “immensely more” and why is the hundreds of lives the greater? Especially since it’s also preserving the culture for centuries.

            (b) because a culture that has to kill people to exist is probably a bad culture that shouldn’t exist

            Take it up with Cliff. He was the one saying culture was much MORE important than human life, without any provisos.

          • Nick says:

            The claim I disputed was that culture is much MORE important than a person’s life. If one person’s life has to be sacrificed every year, how is nothing more than the price to be paid for preserving something MUCH MORE important than that life?

            We’re getting into Omelas territory now.

          • A gene (or suite of genes, or what have you) that drives pack-forming behavior

            The issue is a gene that drives altruistic behavior within the pack, that makes an individual wolf willing to reduce his reproductive success in order to increase that of his packmates.

        • Murphy says:

          You’re treating it as a taboo tradeoff treating lives as sacred but culture as something material and non-sacred.

          Your valuation of culture appears to be at odds with the value placed on it by many of the individuals involved. People willingly die to protect their cultures and values. They often willingly choose suffering over their progney losing their culture. You’d trade something you don’t value very much at all to save their lives but what you want to trade is worth a hell of a lot more to them than it is to you.

          Ask a priest if they’d choose every member of their faith losing their religion or their own life. Ask an elderly poet if they’d perfer an extra couple of years of life or every record of their work, every hint of their effect on the world being erased. I’m betting many wouldn’t choose their own lives.

          And if they value some things more highly than their own lives what right have you to tell them they’re wrong?

          “And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?”

          • Charles F says:

            Ask an elderly poet if they’d perfer an extra couple of years of life or every record of their work, every hint of their effect on the world being erased. I’m betting many wouldn’t choose their own lives.

            Oh man, now you’ve got me remembering Beethoven’s Last Night… and there’s something in my eye.

        • Mr Mind says:

          I’m exactly claiming that cultures are not as valuable as lives of individual humans.

          That would still not carry out your argument. Even if thousands of cultures don’t compare with the value of a single human life, to say that a genocide of x people is not different from a mass murdering of the same amount of people you pose that cultures have exactly zero value.
          Indeed:

          genocide(x) = mass murdering (x)
          mass murdering (x) + culture annihilation = mass murdering (x)
          culture annihilation = 0

          if utility is additive.

          But while it is debatable how much comparative value a culture has, it is obviously not zero, if it were only for the coordination value of its members.

    • MNH says:

      I’m not informed enough to know if these dynamics actually have played out in historical genocides, but I can imagine a couple ways in which a genocide would be worse. First, it could erase a culture as well as the human lives, costing humanity whatever good ideas that culture may have contained. Second, it likely is more damaging to the fabric of society, since it will amplify whatever divides were used to target people for genocide (e.g. if a genocide was perpetrated on the basis of race, I imagine it would be quite bad for race relations).

      • actinide meta says:

        Conversely, killing lots of people who are not related leads to more grieving families.

        Genocide and mass murder are both really really awful, and you should not do either. Why are we trying to decide which is worse? Are we just making a list, like “Genocide is my third least favorite kind of atrocity?”

        • HFARationalist says:

          ^To me they are equally bad based on body counts. Genocides aren’t inherently worse than other forms of human-killing so we should simply call them what they are, mass murders. Murder is the most evil event that can ever happen to an individual and mass murder by definition is the worst event that can ever happen to humanity.

          • Cliff says:

            So to you, killing everyone in your family is actually better than killing 100 random people? There is no value to diversity and you have no problem with extinguishing entire types of people, or races/ethnicities, forever?

          • HFARationalist says:

            @Cliff To me it is not because I don’t want to die. However to the public killing a family is indeed less bad compared to killing a thousand people.

            There is some value behind good forms of diversity but diversity is not more important than human lives. I support diversity for good groups, good ideas and good cultures. Hence ISIS, Nazis, snake-handling Christian fundamentalists, cannibals etc do not deserve to be protected even though their existence does make the world more diverse.

          • Mary says:

            I support diversity for good groups, good ideas and good cultures. Hence ISIS, Nazis, snake-handling Christian fundamentalists, cannibals etc do not deserve to be protected even though their existence does make the world more diverse

            Your list makes it hard to take you seriously. Including people who have done you, and will do you, no harm by existing doesn’t raise confidence in your criteria for “good.”

          • HFARationalist says:

            @Mary Cannibals, ISIS and Nazis are or were deadly to others. Snake-handling fundamentalist Christians are deadly to themselves. I support diversity but not diversity without minimum standards. One minimum standard should be: “Do not murder people or cause people including yourselves to die.”

          • Mary says:

            So you would abolish motorcycling? Climbing cliffs? Eating junk food?
            How high a percentage chance does it take before you decide that you get to abolish an activity? Do you have numbers that show that snake-handling is significantly more dangerous than motorcycling, cliff-climbing, and junk-food eating?

          • shakeddown says:

            I would absolutely abolish loud motorcycles. Those things cause significant harm to hundreds of innocent bystanders every time they’re taken for a ride. You don’t have the right to walk around throwing garbage on the street, and extreme noise pollution should be similarly illegal.

    • Nick says:

      Since you never responded to me last time you suggested this, here’s my argument again:

      If you care about the truth, you should value having a diversity of identities and cultures. Assimilation reduces our ability to effectively search ideaspace, which reduces our ability to find truth. So something is lost by forced assimilation.

      • HFARationalist says:

        I agree with you on that. A diversity of good cultures is better than just having one culture. However a culture is still not worth the life of just one human being.

        • Nick says:

          If you’re saying that a diversity of cultures has value, then, if we take genocide here to mean the destruction of a culture, that means that genocide is worse than a massacre of the same number of people. So the following claim is false:

          Genocides aren’t inherently worse than other forms of human-killing so we should simply call them what they are, mass murders.

          (emphasis mine)

          That argument doesn’t affect your modified claim, but consider the following: the pursuit of truth requires greater risks than that of ordinary human living. Therefore, the pursuit of truth is overwhelmingly likely to cost the lives of human beings, and indeed has. Moreover, privileging the pursuit of truth over reducing risks to human life is overwhelmingly likely to cost lives. So it’s not clear under your absolute approach how we are to pursue truth at all.

          These are really mean arguments, but I consider your approach seriously wrongheaded, and I want you to understand here the importance of trade-offs.

          • HFARationalist says:

            I concede that I was wrong and agree with you here. However not all cultures have the same value. I will introduce another thread titled “Diversity and minimum standards” to explain this claim. The basic idea here is that a diverse group of good cultures should exist but bad cultures such as the culture of ISIS should not. This can correct the issue with current ideas of diversity that protect bad ideas and bad cultures. Diversity should be about people with good ideas respecting and learning from each other’s ideas, not people with good ideas tolerating bad ideas.

      • Mary says:

        Assimilation reduces our ability to effectively search ideaspace, which reduces our ability to find truth

        On the other hand, it makes it easier to preserve the truth once found. Life is full of trade-offs.

        • Nick says:

          Granted. But we shouldn’t overvalue an incidental benefit like that; the truth can and will grow from humble beginnings. Parable of the mustard seed and all that.

          • Mary says:

            You’re overvaluing an incidental benefit with the search of ideaspace. Especially since it also means that the search will indulge in a LOT of wasted effort.

          • Nick says:

            I’ve thought about this for a bit. I think you’re right in our case, since we’re both Catholics, and much is known to us, and considering many alternative positions is only incidentally beneficial, and with a lot of wasted effort. But that’s not the case for HFARationalist, so he is still susceptible to the argument.

    • Well... says:

      False equivalence. A genocide and a massacre with the same death count actually happen on different scales.

      They say there’s 195 countries in the world today. If 10 delegates from each country were attending a convention and the convention hall was blown up so that everyone there died, that would be about 2000 deaths. Tragic and horrifying, but their countries would recuperate and continue on.

      If instead you took everyone in a people-group with 2000 people and killed them all off, that people-group would not recuperate and carry on. The next day that people-group would be lost to history.

      • HFARationalist says:

        To me they are almost the same except for the fact that humanity lost a group, its ideas and genes. To claim otherwise you have to believe that groups themselves are sometimes worth more than human lives which I consider absurd.

        We can argue that the Holocaust is evil without resorting to the idea of group rights. The Holocaust is very evil because so many humans died in it. That’s it. I can further claim that murdering an Ashkenazi Jew is slightly worse than murdering someone else due to the high average IQ of Ashkenazis. Hence the Holocaust was not just a horrible mass murder but also some dysgenic event.

        • Well... says:

          To claim otherwise you have to believe that groups themselves are sometimes worth more than human lives which I consider absurd.

          Just curious: what do you think of “uploading” in the futurist/transhumanist sense? Is it desirable?

          If you think positively of “uploading”, you must think that the “software” (the mind, personality, etc.) running on the “hardware” (the brain, gut bacteria, etc.) of a human is especially valuable, more than just the body of that human. Maybe you even think that the hardware only has worth so long as it is required for the software to run.

          Well, constructs like people-groups and their cultures are software running on human hardware. They do in fact have their own value. That value might not be more than that of the human lives running it (genocide would not be permissible even in a scenario where you could “upload” that people-group’s identity, language, culture, cuisine, etc.), but it does have its own value which cannot be discounted.

          • HFARationalist says:

            I agree that uploading is a good idea if individual identities can be uploaded. Groups on the other hand, are just softwares that run in individuals. Hence they aren’t as worthy as the individuals themselves.

            I do agree that groups do have values. However they are vastly overrated. A group is only good if it benefits its members and maybe non-members as well due to its existence. So eventually everything only matters at the level of individuals. Groups are just tools to reach goals of individuals.

            However only good groups deserve to exist. The Nazi Party for example was an evil group. So does ISIS. Evil groups also have values but their values are negative.

          • Well... says:

            Should losing sports teams be dismantled? Have you ever lived in a city where a local sports team consistently loses but the fans are devoted anyway?

          • HFARationalist says:

            @Well.. Sports teams that regularly lose probably shouldn’t be disbanded. However sports teams that commit crimes should.

            I do believe that it makes a lot of sense for members of weak tribes to attempt to jump ships instead of being loyal to their tribes simply because the tribal membership is imposed on them by their families though.

          • Well... says:

            You said:

            A group is only good if it benefits its members and maybe non-members as well due to its existence.

            And that’s my point. Having a group identity is something most people value deeply, even if they don’t come from a group that’s made any big contributions or anything like that.

            However only good groups deserve to exist.

            I’m not sure your definition of evil groups works. I can envision a good group with negative values (e.g. the Amish), and an evil group with positive values (e.g. some sort of suicide cult).

          • HFARationalist says:

            @Well.. I personally believe that weak, dysfunctional groups indeed should disband. Had I been a member of a poor and dysfunctional ethnic group I would try to pass as something else.

          • HFARationalist says:

            @Well.. I personally believe that weak, dysfunctional ethnic groups indeed should disband. Had I been a member of a poor and dysfunctional ethnic group I would try to pass as something else. Well I have no idea how life as a member of a poor group without any glorious history, scientific achievements or other achievements to brag about is like. As I said before I can’t try to be in the shoes of Papuans or Tanzanians. I just can’t. Not everyone in STEM are from the richest backgrounds. However almost all of us come from one historically prestigious group or another. I don’t know what it means to be in a team that has not tasted victory. I don’t know how it feels to be dominated by a cognitively superior ethnic or racial group.

            Suicidal cults are of course evil. The Amish isn’t that much of a problem but they should not be allowed power over their kids.

          • The Amish isn’t that much of a problem but they should not be allowed power over their kids.

            What sort of power should they not be allowed? Amish parents have only the same power over their kids as other parents. The rules of the congregation only apply to the kids after, as young adults, they have chosen to join the church.

            Do you mean “parents whose life style I disapprove of should not be allowed to bring up their kids in that life style”?

          • HFARationalist says:

            @DavidFriedman I’m in fact completely against parenting. The very existence of parents and kids makes it impossible to have true egalitarianism in a society because there is always a class of dependent humans called children. However I don’t think we have any less bad alternative to this monarchist institution called parenting either. Hence at the very least we should have some minimum standards of child rights which includes the right to be educated. In an Amish society children can not go to school after the eighth grade for no reason other than the fact that they have Amish parents. Hence I believe Amish parenting is particularly problematic.

            In my utopia there should only be adult transhumans. There would no longer be children because children aren’t independent and have to be under the control of others and I don’t want such control to take place.

          • In an Amish society children can not go to school after the eighth grade for no reason other than the fact that they have Amish parents. Hence I believe Amish parenting is particularly problematic.

            After eighth grade, Amish education consists of learning how to run a farm or a household. Do you have any evidence that the result is to produce people less able to deal with life than the result of the standard K-12 approach?

            As some evidence to the contrary, I point out that essentially all Amish are fluently bilingual and that Amish have been reasonably successful as small business entrepreneurs. On average, about ten percent of each generation chooses not to join the church when they become adults, about ninety percent choose to join.

          • HFARationalist says:

            @DavidFriedman Assuming that your claims are correct I believe the Amish are fine if they can somehow avoid hereditary diseases caused by a small gene pool.

            Other groups are actually problems. For example the cultures of the criminal underclass is obviously unhealthy, so are the cultures of fundamentalist groups that are violent, reject medicine or try to prevent children from leaving.

          • Well... says:

            @DavidFriedman:

            On average, about ten percent of each generation chooses not to join the church when they become adults

            I forget where I saw this (statistically it was likely something Donald Kraybill wrote) but I believe Amish attrition rates have actually been decreasing over the past several decades. So, whatever they’ve been doing, it’s become more and more appealing compared to the “English” way of living.

        • Iain says:

          To me they are almost the same except for the fact that humanity lost a group, its ideas and genes. To claim otherwise you have to believe that groups themselves are sometimes worth more than human lives which I consider absurd.

          This does not follow.

          You do not have to believe that groups are worth more than humans to think a genocide is particularly bad. You just have to think that they have a value higher than zero. (Intellectual diversity is just one reason to ascribe non-zero value to groups.) Unless you are willing to claim that groups have literally zero value, it is trivially true that killing one thousand people and wiping out an entire group is worse than killing one thousand people.

          • HFARationalist says:

            I agree. I should have rephrased my question better. However I believe groups are still currently way overrated.

          • Mary says:

            You are arguing from results. But genocide is defined by intent.

            Also, wiping out an entire group is not the only thing that can characterize killing a thousand people to make it worse. A value higher than zero is not enough to make it much more special than all other things that could make it worse.

    • yossarian says:

      Just to be more accurate, I would remind that genocide and mass murder are not neccessarily overlapping actions – genocide means the destruction of people, so if for example you castrate every single adult member of Whateverwhoho people and carry away their children and raise them in widely separated families of your people so they don’t retain their cultural values and have little chance to get together and interbreed or piece together their culture – that would still be genocide against Whateverwhoho people, though technically no murder is neccessary. And in this case I kinda doubt that genocide would be always a bad thing – bad most of the times, but, you know, there are some freaking sick cultures out there that could do with a good bit of destroying. For a non-stereotypical example, let’s take cultures that practice female circumcision – I somehow really doubt that all of their pretty little cultural values taken together are worth more than a single chopped off clitorus, plus, if you think that their memetic/genetic makeup does have anything worth preserving – well, there are always books and sperm banks.

      • HFARationalist says:

        ^I don’t consider non-lethal actions genocides. Without killing people we shouldn’t use this term.

        • yossarian says:

          Well, the UN definition does say:

          In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
          Killing members of the group;
          Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
          Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
          Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
          Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

          • HFARationalist says:

            I know. However it is a stupid definition. Genocides are harmful mainly because many humans are murdered when they take place. Hence to make “genocide” a useful concept we have to exclude these non-lethal cases not remotely as evil as killing many people.

            Otherwise I can also claim that there is an autistic genocide going on because the society is trying to abort autistic babies and cure autism. What about this one?

            Every individual is a part of a group that contains themselves. Does that mean that any murder or forced sterilization is by definition also a genocide?

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            Otherwise I can also claim that there is an autistic genocide going on because the society is trying to abort autistic babies and cure autism. What about this one?

            A lot of people do make this claim.

            It’s not one I agree with though.

          • Genocides are harmful mainly because many humans are murdered when they take place. Hence to make “genocide” a useful concept we have to exclude these non-lethal cases not remotely as evil as killing many people.

            Why isn’t non-lethal destruction of culture genocide? Does culture have value?

            Otherwise I can also claim that there is an autistic genocide going on because the society is trying to abort autistic babies and cure autism. What about this one?

            Where is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”?

            Every individual is a part of a group that contains themselves. Does that mean that any murder or forced sterilization is by definition also a genocide?

            Intent to destroy?

          • Civilis says:

            Otherwise I can also claim that there is an autistic genocide going on because the society is trying to abort autistic babies and cure autism. What about this one?

            Is ‘autism’ a culture? For a more contentious example, how about ‘deafness’?

            The thing about eliminating a culture without murder is that there’s no way to deliberately do so for any large culture without violation of human rights on a scale that makes it an evil comparable to mass murder. Small cultures die out all the time naturally.

            Some further thoughts:

            If I could wave a magic wand and make all the French suddenly English, thus non-lethally genociding the French culture, what would the moral implications be? (Well, I know the Quebecois would be incredibly confused…) Would it be any different from a magic wand that replaced someone’s personality?

            I also think you’re not thinking over the idea of culture having value. While I enjoy tacos, I wouldn’t kill anyone to save the idea of a taco. On the other hand, ideas like individual liberties or human rights are also cultural values, and those ideas are more valuable than a human life because without them human lives are only valuable based on their worth to the group.

          • yossarian says:

            Otherwise I can also claim that there is an autistic genocide going on because the society is trying to abort autistic babies and cure autism. What about this one?

            Yeah, there is. So what?

          • HFARationalist says:

            @yossarian Then how are we supposed to stop it?

          • yossarian says:

            @HFARationalist:
            Why should we?

          • HFARationalist says:

            @yossarian Because autism is a useful trait humanity should preserve.

          • yossarian says:

            @HFARationalist:
            1) Unlike other genocides, it’s voluntary. We shouldn’t force people to carry a useful trait or give it to their children. Plus, I wouldn’t exactly call low-functioning autism a useful trait.
            2) Egg/sperm banks and genome sequencing.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            The huge quality-of-life problem seems to be sensory processing disorders.

            Would it be a bad thing if they could be eliminated?

    • Charles F says:

      This is the sort of post I would like to see less of. This same thing has come up at least once and I think several times in threads you participated in, and we’ve heard and responded to some of your ideas on the subject. If you want to try to summarize some of the points that have been made and why you disagree with them, or try to find a root cause of the disagreement and discuss that, fantastic. But just taking the basic high level question and asking it again, resetting any progress that might have been made, seems like a waste to me.

      • HFARationalist says:

        Last time when I asked a new open thread soon appeared which caused the discussion to be halted.

        I believe my disagreement with others on the issues of children and collectivism is in fact one problem, namely the problem of whether someone accepts absolute individualism or not. Most humans are collectivist in a way I do not understand and constantly need socializing. On the other hand the same does not apply to me or many other autists. Not all autists are absolute individualists. However absolute individualism to the point of rejecting all relationships for the sake of socializing is probably strongly correlated with autism. Just like a cat does not understand dogs nor do I understand non-autists. I understand and support cooperation. However I don’t understand people hanging out just for the sake of hanging out. I do talk with people but there is always an asocial motive behind every single social activity I participate in.

        • Looking at it from a practical selfish point of view, can you see that establishing friendly relationships is beneficial? Someone who values your happiness is less likely to take an opportunity to cheat you for his benefit. Having such people exist thus increases your opportunities for beneficial cooperation.

          • HFARationalist says:

            I agree. This makes sense to me. However how are we supposed to know that people actually value your happiness instead of just pretending to do so? I’m personally on good terms with many people. However I don’t expect people to actually care about me at all.

          • andrewflicker says:

            If someone pretends consistently enough, it often comes to the same end.

          • how are we supposed to know that people actually value your happiness instead of just pretending to do so?

            Good question. The answer is that most people are very poor liars.

            A human being gives a continual monolog on the contents of his mind in voice tones, gestures, facial expression, and the like. In order to be a successful con man, someone who persuades others that he has values very different from his actual values, he has to run two processes simultaneously, one with his real values to figure out what he should do, one with his fake values to figure out how he should pretend to react, and he has to do it in real time. Doing that successfully isn’t impossible, there are successful con men, but it’s hard, making them rare.

            Here is an old piece of mine discussing the general issue of which this is an example.

        • Nornagest says:

          Wanting to socialize is not collectivist. It doesn’t give precedence to groups over individuals or define them as the fundamental units of society, and it definitely doesn’t imply economic collectivism. Most people — including most of the autistic-spectrum people I know, which is quite a few — just happen to enjoy spending time with others, and devote time to it accordingly.

          Because of that, when you categorically reject social pursuits, you aren’t making some kind of brave stand for individuality. You are declaring all those individual preferences illegitimate. That’s the opposite of individualism.

    • Mary says:

      The term “genocide” was defined politically, to have a term that meant “things the Nazis did that the Communists didn’t.”

      And note that one can wipe out a group and its culture without triggering a genocide — witness that Holomodor is not considered one.

      (I will pass lightly over the way you can legally “commit genocide” without killing anyone, by removing the children from a culture to be raised in another, because sane people here and everywhere ignore it.)

      • rlms says:

        “witness that Holomodor is not considered one.”
        Sez who? Googling “list of genocides” brings it up as the first result.

        • Mary says:

          It does not fit the legal definition because no one has produced the smoking gun — say, a letter that says the Ukrainians were targeted as Ukrainians.

          Which is exactly the sort of shenanigans that went into the definition. Would the Holomodor suddenly become worse if the letter was found?

          • Aapje says:

            @Mary

            The legal definition of genocide doesn’t involve a requirement that it (always) is to be considered worse than other mass murders. That many people consider genocides worse than non-genocide mass murder is because they have a different definition from the legal one. When there are different definitions, you can’t declare one incorrect unless it is inconsistent with the definitional framework it is a part of, which I’m not convinced is true for the legal definition of genocide.

          • It does not fit the legal definition because

            It is recognised as genocide or a crime against humanity by a number of bodies including the EU and UN.

      • The term “genocide” was defined politically, to have a term that meant “things the Nazis did that the Communists didn’t.”

        So how did it get applied to, or instance, the Armenian genocide?

    • I mostly agree with HFA here. I am currently reading a book about the Holocaust. The 6 million Jews killed was pretty terrible, but the 70 to 80 million deaths in total from WWII were a much bigger deal.

      This is important because those trying to minimize deaths should work harder on minimizing wartime deaths in general, than on racial hatred deaths. This assumes that it takes the same effort to minimize war deaths in general than racial hatred deaths. And of course we should try to minimize all deaths, but we should prioritize our efforts based on total deaths, not on the reason for the deaths.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      Why this question is worth consideration? What moral or ethical dilemmas pondering it would help to solve?

      • @nimin. I think it is an important question. After WWII, people made comments about “Never Again” in relation to the Holocaust. And yet a large multiple of those killed in the Holocaust died as soldiers. And in fact, even when only civilians are considered, multiples of the Holocaust died in the war. If you know that a genocide is occurring, is it the ethical thing to do to stop the government that is doing it, even if more deaths will occur as a result of the intervention than the genocide itself? I don’t think that was even an option in WWII to stop the Holocaust before it happened, but the meme I see out there seems to make it a moral imperative.

        When they had the mass killings in Rwanda, which some called a genocide, I heard many placing much guilt on the large powers for not stopping it. And yet we have seen in the last few decades that almost every intervention that the US or other powers do seem to cost more lives than they save in the long run. I think many might argue this point, but I think everyone would agree that it is certainly often the case that intervention costs more lives than it saves. IF the powers regularly intervened in conflicts that might lead to genocide, I presume we would have fewer genocides, but I suspect more people overall would be killed. I don’t know the details of what the large powers knew when in the case of Rwanda, but I strongly suspect that there wasn’t a clear point where it was clear that the great powers could have saved hundreds of thousands of Tutsi lives, especially without a lot of ancilliary bloodshed. Those that push the guilt about avoiding genocides never seem to make the calculus of how many have die to do this.

        I think that killing 100,000 people to save 50,000, even if those 50,000 constituted 100% of some culture, is a very bad thing. I think it is important for people to decide this for themselves.

        • Matt M says:

          What is the risk of a genocide actually succeeding in modern times?

          Hitler didn’t even come close to wiping out all the Jews. He didn’t even come particularly close to wiping out all the Jews in Europe. AFAIK Rwanda didn’t either.

          With how populations are interspersed globally, there seems to be virtually no chance something like this could succeed, unless you’re trying to wipe out some remote tribe in the Amazon with like less than 100k total population.

          • BlindKungFuMaster says:

            I’m gearing up to start a blog at some point in the future and one of my first posts will be about how Crispr might facilitate the invention of ethnically targeting bioweapons.

            Basically the idea is that you create a virus that spreads like the flu or a common cold but contains the Crispr mechanism. If the host has a certain target sequence in its genome, it crisprs the sequence of a deadly virus (e.g. rabies) into its place, which would kill the host 3-4 weeks later.

            My tentative title is “Genocide in the 21st century”, which makes it a pretty good fit to your question.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Tibet?

          • Matt M says:

            Not only are they not ALL dead, their most famous and prominent member jets around the world giving speeches about not being dead (or something, I’ve never actually listened to one)

    • Yes, for the same reason that wounding with intent to kill is worse than wounding.

    • Civilis says:

      Are genocides really worse than other massacres with the same death count?

      There’s an inherent difference between genocide and regular mass murder. Genocide (at least deliberate genocide) includes an inherent ‘my intention is to eliminate an entire group, regardless of how many there are’. It’s the inherent open-ended nature of the desire to genocide a population that makes it worse than a comparable random mass-murder. The Holocaust isn’t just ~6 million Jews murdered (plus however many million Romani / slavs / other so-called undesirables, which may also count as attempted genocides), it’s also effectively attempted murder of every other Jew then in existence and their descendants. X murders + Y attempted murders is worse than X murders.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        Concur with Civilis and TheAncientGeek. One of the key differences is motive. It’s key even from a consequentialist perspective of “number of bodies” because we know that if the intent was genocide, then we can expect a large number of bodies later than if it’s a one-off mass killing.

        This holds up for me even if I tweak the scenario in various ways. Consider: any genocide is likely to look merely like a mass killing at first. If a bomb goes off in a city and the evidence suggests it did so because the bomb maker set it off by accident, then I might infer that the bomb maker is only dangerous because he makes bombs, not because he’s seeking someone in particular (maybe he’s a pyromaniac of some sort). Institutionalization should be sufficient. If, OTOH, the bomb goes off in a predominantly $ethnic neighborhood, I might infer the killing is ethnically motivated, and I would make a more serious search for confederates of the bomber.

        Naturally, the mere fact of a bomb going off is ample cause to inspect motive very closely; I’m supposing the evidence above is collected after such investigation.

        A war almost always looks like a mass killing, but the motives are often well-known, and often aren’t ethnically motivated. Many are some sort of perceived self-defense. If so, we tend to let the killers go.

        In both cases, we’re assessing the likelihood that the killers will kill more, based partially on their motivation. Therefore, motivation matters.

        • I do think that the Geneva convention that results in rules for war is a good thing. I also thank the the Nuremberg trials after WWII were more a good thing than a bad thing. In both cases, it is seen as bad if you kill more people in war than is “necessary” to achieve the military objectives. War is a terrible thing no matter how you slice it. But by enforcing rules on war, we mitigate the evil to some degree.

          But even you create these rules to minimize “unnecessary” suffering, that doesn’t mean the normal suffering of war is any less evil. It is just more difficult to end that suffering. I think if we had a choice between ending a genocide and ending a traditional war, I think the calculus for the decision should be based on suffering and death avoided in each case, without extra weighting given to a genocide.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            Blind “Minimize the number of deaths above all else” heuristics give an automatic Win Condition button to anyone willing to use violence to get their way.

            This is a very, very bad idea.

          • AnarchyDice says:

            Technically it is only a win condition if a group is threatening fewer individuals than it has members, otherwise the path to minimal deaths is right through their own wakes.

          • hlynkacg says:

            Negative. A world where North Korea nukes Guam and the US does nothing is going to have fewer deaths than a world where the US goes to war over it.

            Blind “Minimize the number of deaths above all else” heuristics effectively prohibit larger groups from playing tit-for-tat.

          • AnarchyDice says:

            That depends on in what sense it is blind. I assumed it was blind in that it pursued its ends of minimized casualties without regard to other goals, not that it was blind in the sense of lacking foresight or attempt to predict the outcomes of actions of other actors. Wouldn’t the heuristic assassinate NK leadership & missile technicians before they could launch? If that’s not possible, wouldn’t it be able to look ahead and see that if it didn’t have a credible MAD threat, then many more people would die in future hostilities following an attack on GUAM that wasn’t responded to?

          • John Schilling says:

            Blind “Minimize the number of deaths above all else” heuristics lead to absolute anti-natalism. Deaths = Births, no more, no less.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            @John Schilling

            Fair enough, perhaps my response was poorly phrased. I think the core point about the advantage naively adding up the totals of dead (or even dead and wounded) concedes to would-be bad actors stands.

            @Anarchydice

            the path to minimal deaths is right through their own wakes.

            Only if their own wakes can be achieved with zero casualties and collateral damage for anyone else. That is pretty much impossible in the real world and likely to remain so for the forseeable future.

          • John Schilling says:

            I think the core point about the advantage naively adding up the totals of dead (or even dead and wounded) concedes to would-be bad actors stands.

            Agreed. Which brings us back to Horatius by way of MacAuley: Everybody gets one true death; what kind of death do you want? If the answer is simply “one postponed as long as possible, no matter the cost”, that cost is going to be damned high and paid to the simply damnable.

          • At a very large tangent off the reference to “Horatius at the Bridge.” I’ve been reading stuff on early Roman history in the process of editing a article of mine. Current historians are very skeptical of the accounts of early history in late Republican and Imperial sources.

            Among other things, some of them believe that Lars Porsena in fact conquered Rome and ruled it for a while.

    • nhnifong says:

      Putting equal value on any human death is just a way to avoid a painful and somewhat infeasible question of valuation – How valuable is each person’s remaining life to each other person? How much will someone value the remaining years of their life, and how much will all the other people who will ever live value the remaining years of someone’s life?

      Most of the time, you can assume someone values their own life at infinity, (but there are plenty of exceptions, such as people in severe pain) and most of the time you can assume that only the friends and family place any value on the remaining years of life of a particular person (with plenty of exceptions, such as famous artists)

      Though getting the details right is infeasible, I think it’s possible to approximate the relative values of a person’s life with something like (number of social connections) * (quality adjusted remaining life years). If I were a military general I wouldn’t authorize a genocide on such an approximation. and I doubt that even with a much more accurate model I would ever authorize one. I suspect the only way the world benefits from killing people is to have a short list of wanted criminals and terrorists.

      • Most of the time, you can assume someone values their own life at infinity

        People do not act as if they valued their own lives at infinity. If they did, they would be unwilling to take any act that had some chance of getting them killed.

      • HFARationalist says:

        If we adopt your idea then my life have little value even though I do math and sometimes write programs. I believe this makes no sense. The value of a human shouldn’t be too dependent on their social connections.

        • nhnifong says:

          Will you make a lasting impact on the field of math? Will anyone use your programs? Does anyone want to pay you to do math or write programs or are they hoping that you are doing so now because you will ultimately join the labor force? Will either of those things change in the remaining years of your life? if not, then it’s still fair to say you’re not highly valued by other people. The value of your life is basically capped at the value you yourself assign to it, unless you use yourself to serve others.

          Does that still not seem to fit with your intuitive sense of human life value?

      • Though getting the details right is infeasible, I think it’s possible to approximate the relative values of a person’s life with something like (number of social connections)

        Using this calculus would mean that genocides are BETTER than an equivalent number of miscellaneous killings. When you kill an entire culture, most of the people’s social connections would be to those that are also killed. I presume you are trying to minimize the deaths of those with social connections because of the pain it causes to those still alive? One could probably maximize the quantity of killings while minimizing pain to those still living by liquidating an entire social group.

  19. HaltingProblem says:

    Novel concepts being encoded in the same brain areas is a great way to reconcile learning everything from scratch with instinct. Instincts just basically have to encode spatial connections, like the connectome comment mentions, but all the complex stuff is done by learning.

    But how do you make everything end up in the right location without hard-coding? My hypothesis is it’s conceptually a hash table where all humans share a hash function. In computer science a hash is a deterministic procedure that takes a bunch of data and outputs a location (simplifying a bit). A hash table is a data structure where you can put a bunch of things in locations based on hashing a “key” (with some logic for resolving collisions). For example looking up people by username. There’s also functions which have the property that inputs similar inputs lead to similar output locations, meaning you can be slightly off and still get close. Hash functions are normally simple, genetics could hard-code a hash function for organizing concepts that’s the same among all humans. This is only needed during learning, once something has a location you can just connect things directly, like “fax” to “fax machine”.

    But the problem becomes, how would a hash function for placing concepts extract a “key” for novel concepts like “fax machine” without pre-determined structures of “words” or “fax” anything like that. How do you decide what to hash? One possibility is a tree that starts with very basic concepts, maybe the first few levels are pre-populated by genetics with things like “object” and “time”, but concepts can be organized under each other, and a deterministic procedure is used to decide the hash function for organizing each node’s children.

    Another simpler possibility is that the “key” is just the locations of the N most (salient connected concepts / firing neurons) at the time of learning. With maybe some basic concept locations hard-coded to make sure the process gets going the same way in everyone. This would correctly predict that monkeys learning shapes would hash to similar locations, with the key being (shape, some visual edge detection concept, …). It would also predict that if you raised a monkey in a dark box and then lit up one of the shapes on the wall as the first shape it ever saw, before eventually exposing it to the rest of life, that shape would end up in a different location than normal. Although if you were to test it you’d want to do something like that with the highest level concepts possible to avoid any genetic hard-coding.

    Anyway it’s probably more complicated than that, but that’s just a hypothesis that points at how it might be possible to arrange for concepts to end up at the same place in everyone’s brain. It would make a lot of sense from an evolutionary standpoint since it would be relatively simple to set up and would provide a huge advantage in hard-coding further instincts. It’s also interesting in that it’s reasonably testable with animal experiments.

    • actinide meta says:

      The causal relationship could go the other way. If you have a totally hard coded brain circuit, laid down in 3d using signaling gradients and gene expression, to detect snakes, it will be in the same place every time. Then when more “blank slate” neural mechanisms are learning to detect things that at some level of abstraction are like snakes or parts of snakes, it might naturally “choose” to put those detectors near the homologous parts of the instinct, so it can more readily reuse information from the instinct. Enough instincts could then result in consistent placement of practically all high level features in brains with vaguely similar environments and identical instincts.

      On the other hand, a system where instincts can somehow be defined in terms of learned concepts does sound very useful, and brains have clearly been under strong selection pressures to have instincts for a long time. So the question is whether it is possible. If I had to engineer such a system on short notice, I think I would just encode some examples. If someone can catch kittens who have never seen snakes dreaming about them, that would support that theory!

      • HaltingProblem says:

        The experiment where monkeys had the novel shapes of an engineered game encoded in the same brain locations in different monkeys can’t easily be explained by hard-coded positions. Before I heard about that experiment I totally would have thought that positions of important concepts were hard-coded exactly like you said, but reading about that experiment suggested my hash-table hypothesis.

        • actinide meta says:

          I guess the novel shapes would be encoded in locations “near” previously learned features that are useful in discriminating them, which would (already) be near instinctive features that are “similar”. I guess this is a little like your hash table hypothesis if you consider “weighted average” to be a hash function.

          Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually think the brain is likely to be(gin as) a blob of undifferentiated blank-slate Bayesium surrounding a small number of hard coded “instinctive networks”. Nature doesn’t do anything that simply. But it’s an interesting model, and I do think it could predict a fair amount of consistency in where (even novel) things are encoded.

  20. ParryHotter says:

    Can someone please explain to me what Scott means when he uses the phrase “the least convenient possible world”? I came across it in Archipelago And Atomic Communitarianism and don’t understand what it’s meant to convey.

    TIA.

    • rahien.din says:

      I think it comes from Less Wrong. It’s a way of keeping yourself from evading the point of a question by means of contingencies.

      IE:

      Chorus : Great green gobs of grimy, greasy gopher guts
      Singer : …and I forgot my fork!
      Chorus, evoking LCPW : But you got your strawwww!

      ETA: yesssssss

    • Nick says:

      Scott wrote a post on it on LessWrong under his old pseudonym Yvain. Check that out; if it’s still not making sense, just reply and someone’ll try to clarify.

      ETA: Gahhh, ninja’d.

    • Montfort says:

      For others’ reference, the phrase in the article links here.

      As I understand it, Scott says to consider “the least convenient possible world” to get people (including himself) to try to consider the “heart” of a hypothetical. Similar or identical to “don’t fight the hypothetical.” It’s tempting to respond to a hard choice, e.g. a trolley problem, with an answer that avoids the question at hand – “pushing the man wouldn’t stop the trolley anyway,” and the phrase is supposed to help avoid that reflex.

      edit: super-ninja’d. Oh well.

  21. OptimalSolver says:

    People who use female pronouns as default, especially in extremely counterintuitive contexts, could you describe the precise reaction you’re trying to elicit in your audience?

    I find it completely derails my train of thought, as I now have to process this bit of social signalling, rather than the topic at hand.

    Another commenter here said of this practice:

    It’s like if someone stopped in the middle of a conversation to do a “Haha, got your nose!” trick and then kept going like nothing happened.

    • Well... says:

      Yeah, that drives me nuts. Steven Pinker even talked about it in his IQ2 interview about good writing.

      I use male pronouns by default. Partly because it seems to me like the best alternative in terms of clear communication, partly because it signals that I’m old-fashioned and don’t care about political correctness while conveniently not eliciting that “haha got your nose” thing in most people.

      I will use female pronouns if the generic person in question is typically a female or doing a feminine activity (nurses, for instance). Every once in a while I’ll use “he or she” if there’s ample room, if the context really is very gender-neutral, and if it still flows. Also if I don’t have to keep coming back to the “he or she” over and over again.

      • Brad says:

        I will use female pronouns if the generic person in question is typically a female or doing a feminine activity (nurses, for instance).

        Consistently using he for an abstract lawyer or doctor but she for a nurse or schoolteacher seems far worse than just using he for everything. You don’t even have prescriptivism to fall back on.

      • shakeddown says:

        I also do this. I think the weak form of gender rolls helps make hypothetical people more human (a doctor who’s a “he” is a person. A “they” doctor is closer to an abstraction). And I don’t think the downside’s too bad – the occasional woman doctor reading an anonymous doctor as “he” can just picture a male doctor she works with.

        Edit: Also, Chesterton’s fence – it seems like the main reason to use “she” is “because if society worked the way I think it should work, we would use ‘she’ more often”.

      • Toby Bartels says:

        I don’t see how using male pronouns to signal that you’re old-fashioned and don’t care about political correctness is any less “haha got your nose” than using female pronouns to signal that you’re up-to-date and care about fighting the kyriarchy. For me, I guess that the reaction is smaller, because your method is more common, but it’s still pretty rare among contemporary writing (at least what I read), so I definitely notice it.

        • Well... says:

          …while conveniently not eliciting that “haha got your nose” thing in most people.

          If it’s “haha got your nose” to you, then you might have already been turned by the body snatchers!

    • BBA says:

      “He or she” is awkward. Male by default is sexist. Female by default is obnoxious “look at how feminist I am, you sexist pig” signaling. Singular “they” usually works until you run into grammatical abominations like “themself.” (Side note: I’m much more accepting of singular “they” for an abstract, unspecified person than for a specific person. I don’t know why.) Other usages like Spivak neutral pronouns and “one” have their own problems.

      I find myself writing examples in plural or second-person just to avoid the issue. It leaves me wishing there was an Academy of the English Language that could abolish gendered pronouns and settle the issue for good, like they did for Swedish.

      • Toby Bartels says:

        What did they do for Swedish?

        • BBA says:

          There is now an official gender-neutral pronoun recognized by the Swedish Academy. I expect that within a few decades’ time the gendered pronouns will have fallen into disuse, seen as at best archaisms like “thou” in English and at worst bigoted.

          • It will be interesting to see if that works.

            An example where the equivalent did work, without official endorsement, is the spread of “Ms” to refer to a woman without specifying her marital status.

          • John Nerst says:

            That’s not at all a good example, as use of it is quite politicized. It’s more haha-got-your-nose for most people than anything used in English.

            It’s a shame really, it’d would be a good thing to have if it hadn’t been grabbed by culture-war tentacles in about 15 seconds.

            (And people don’t care much about the Academy.)

          • BBA says:

            I’d read that it was controversial at the time, but figured it was too useful to stay politicized for too long. Most people just don’t care one way or the other. But it could also just be a flash in the pan, I don’t know. My guess is that Cthulhu will be swimming leftward soon enough. (I don’t speak Swedish, although my dad spent a year in Göteborg as a child.)

            I mention the Academy simply because they’re authoritative in a way that groups doing the same thing in English (the OED, Merriam-Webster, the AP style guide, etc.) aren’t, and that other language regulators have been able to pull off comprehensive spelling reforms where in English we’re still stuck with “-ough” and its 20 different pronunciations. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can make a fundamental change without grassroots support, but again, I don’t think most people care enough.

          • John Nerst says:

            It’s still new. You’re likely right that it will become normal eventually, which is fine really, it’s just a problem at the stage where it’s still a kind of shibboleth.

            The academy’s official dictionary is supposed to follow practice and not dictate it, so it’s endorsement is really just an indication that it’s use is established. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother people (like my mother) of course.

            Honestly AFAIK the big newspapers were more important for spelling reform in the early 20th century than the academy, but I’m no expert.

          • Lillian says:

            You know, i’ve always used Ms the same way i use Mr and Mrs, as abbreviations of Miss, Mister, and Missus. The way i understood it is that you use Ms/Miss when addressing a woman by her father’s name, and Mrs/Missus when addressing her by her husband’s. You abbreviate in common polite usage, and write the whole word when wanting to be extra formal. It’s simple, straightforward, and nobody has ever seen fit to correct me on it.

            So for a long time i thought that was the intended usage. It’s still how i continue to use it, and as far as i can tell that’s how my peers use it too (they’re mostly Millenials, couple of young Gen-Xers). It wasn’t until a few years ago, when i read an article on the subject, that i became aware there was even supposed to be a difference. The whole notion just seemed completely bizarre, as it is totally outside my experience.

      • veeloxtrox says:

        I might be sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong but I am interested in your response.

        If Male by default is sexist, isn’t female by default also sexist?

        • BBA says:

          All things being equal, it would be, but all things aren’t equal.

          • veeloxtrox says:

            Thank you for your response.

            I want to give you a more exact question to answer in hopes that I can better understand your reasoning. Also, I am trying to be charitable in how I phrase this question. If I am uncharitable or you think I am miss characterizing your position feel free to rephrase my question and answer that one instead.

            What things/issues are so unequal that using female by default is not sexist but using male by default is?

          • BBA says:

            I respectfully decline to answer. I’ve said all I wish to say about this topic.

          • AnonYEmous says:

            are you sure? Because I actually have an elaborate theory on why male default > female default (assuming that one of these defaults is necessary, which the theory argues for but probably not that well), and I would love to test it out on you.

      • powerfuller says:

        @BBA

        I think “they” works fine for abstractions but not specific persons because most of the time the abstract person is notionally plural, though grammatically singular. In “If anybody wants ice cream, they can go to the cafeteria.” “anybody” could mean me, you, multiple people, nobody, etc., but with a specific individual, the plural nature of “they” gets confusing. “Chris broke their phone.” Whose phone did Chris break? “Officer, I was attacked, but they got away,” how many people should the cop be looking for?

        Unfortunately, it seems there’s no way to get the abstract singular “they” without people using it to refer to specific persons as well. I dislike the singular “they” because I think the information gained regarding gender is more than offset by the information loss or confusion regarding number. It generally makes English less capable of clear, concise communication. To that point, the singular “they” invites grammatical laziness — I see it used constantly for situations where there is a singular person of know male/female status, like it’s just the all-purpose pronoun now. “The designated hitter got to their base.” With apologies to women, there are no female MLB players; it’s better to say “his.” Also, I know it’s an affect issue that explains why not, but if “they” is supple enough to become both singular and plural, why not “he” or “she” being supple enough to refer to both sexes or one (as “he” traditionally was), or “it” being supple enough to refer to both persons and objects? I understand why “it” is not a live option, but it’s silly to treat “they” as the only possible morally correct choice (an opinion I sometimes hear).

      • liskantope says:

        I’m a long-time fan of singular “they”, as it’s IMO not a perfect solution, but better than any other one I can imagine for now. I’ve been trying to support it simply by using “they”, “them”, “their”, and yes, “themself” (which doesn’t sound that bad to me, now that I’m getting used to writing it) wherever I can.

    • Loke says:

      I don’t do this, but I think the intention (for some people) is to acclimate people to it so that female-as-default comes to seem “normal” (just as normal as male-as-default).

    • Eli says:

      If I have to make up an Alice and/or Bob kind of situation, I try to choose randomly which gender I’m going to use, or use “they”.

      • Said Achmiz says:

        A good approach is the one used in many pen-and-paper RPG sourcebooks (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, etc.):

        Instead of talking about some generic person, always talk about a specific person, who has a gender (and a name, etc.). In particular, when talking about character abilities, character classes, examples of gameplay, etc., refer not to a hypothetical generic character, but rather to one of several “iconic” characters, created for this purpose. (There are several such characters, one for every character class—thus 11 in the 3e version of the Player’s Handbook—of whom about half are male, half female. Thus if you want to talk about a monk attacking an orc with kung-fu powers, it’s “she”, because the iconic monk is Ember [female], whereas if you’re explaining how a sorcerer’s spells work, it’s “he”, because the iconic sorcerer is Hennet [male].)

        • Mwncsc says:

          I immediately thought of my D&D and Pathfinder materials because it is there that I find the use of the female pronouns most jarring. I have played other RPGs with women, but none of my regular D&D/Pathfinder/GURPS players are women and none of their characters have ever been women. Moreover, while I have female friends who enjoy RPGs, none of them are even the slightest bit interested in something like these games (that is, fantasy setting and heavy on game mechanics).

          I understand the effort to make the games more open to women, but I can’t help but notice the discrepancy with my experience. While fully half of the “iconic” characters are female, women at my table are purely notional.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            I notice no discrepancy between the books and my experience- my D&D group is pretty much gender-balanced. I have played in other less-balanced groups in the past, but I certainly don’t find women playing D&D unusual (in part because I was brought back into it by a female colleague).

            We have had people playing opposite-gender characters, including in one case a couple where the gender of their characters was swapped from their actual gender (the characters were not in a relationship in-game). Occasionally this results in people accidentally referring to a character by the pronouns they would use for that character’s player.

        • Nick says:

          I understand the effort to make the games more open to women, but I can’t help but notice the discrepancy with my experience. While fully half of the “iconic” characters are female, women at my table are purely notional.

          I don’t know how well that generalizes. When my gaming club ran RPGs, we had 2-4 dedicated female players. Still outnumbered by the guys, but when it was a smaller group (say, four to six players) the ratio was even, or nearly so.

          I think the biggest difference I noticed was experience. Many of our players have played pen and paper RPGs before, some of them for years, and every one of our DMs has been male. The female players are generally less experienced; I’m sure there’s a lot of potential reasons why, but I don’t know which one’s true.

          • Mwncsc says:

            I haven’t been able to find any good data on player demographics. The only thing I could find was this now antique survey from 2000.

            I think the biggest difference is in level of engagement. None of the women in my social circle are willing to unironically participate in a traditional fantasy or sci-fi setting and none of them have an interest in poring over and memorizing rules. As a consequence, we are a pretty stereotypical group of white men.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        On a slight tangent, I know a married couple whose names are actually Alice and Bob. I don’t know if they send each other encrypted messages.

    • Philosophisticat says:

      I generally use “they”, though in academic papers when I make up characters or refer to an arbitrary representative of a view (“the empiricist…”) I sometimes mix it up. This can be pretty useful sometimes just for presentational purposes (it’s easy for the reader to keep track of, e.g. “the empiricist” and “the rationalist” if one gets a male pronoun and the other a female one) but the broader aim, in part, is to normalize it to the point where it doesn’t seem counterintuitive in the ways you describe. This is the same kind of complaint that people used to (and still do, sometimes) give about e.g. shows or books that had gay characters, and I think the desired endpoint is similar. I’m not sure how you can fix your reaction, but I’d aim to have trains of thought that take more to derail than mildly counterintuitive pronoun use.

      • skef says:

        The thing I hate about “they” in this use is that it doesn’t even specifically pick out a person. Anaphoric reference is already trickily ambiguous as it is.

    • Incurian says:

      I find it completely derails my train of thought, as I now have to process this bit of social signalling, rather than the topic at hand.

      This only serves to highlight your privilege.

    • Yosarian2 says:

      When you’re talking about a generic person in a role often thought of as male, (say, an an engineering student or a doctor or something) and you use “she” early in the conversation, what you’re doing is getting the person you’re talking to to imagine the person as female. People may find that surprising or it may derail their train of thought for a moment, especially if they were already imagining this hypothetical person as male, but if they encounter that more often conversationally they may be less surprised when they encounter a female in real life who’s interested in engineering or whatever, which is probably a good thing.

      It’s not really about social signaling, at least not primarily, it’s more about trying to get away from the idea that the default person is male, especially in certain roles.

      • Well... says:

        How many conversations do you think it would take a person who is initially derailed by that to finally have a conversation where it isn’t derailing?

    • sty_silver says:

      I use female by default. Since most people use male, it seems like a good counter balance.

      • AnonYEmous says:

        so a question to you and all of the other people in this thread

        what does this actually accomplish?

        • Deiseach says:

          I’m old enough that I’m most used to “he” as generic default pronoun, and I did find it very jarring when “she” began to be used. I’m more accustomed to it now, but I do still find it makes me think of the Generic Example Human in whatever instance is being quoted (e.g. Sally The Geologist) in a much more gendered way than generic “he” (i.e. if you talk about “a geologist will find her degree lets her apply for a range of jobs like…” then I will have a mental image of Sally The Geologist that I won’t have a corresponding image for “a geologist and his degree”).

          The most irritating thing, the one that does knock me out of the smooth flow of reading and taking in information, is where there’s a switch between “he” and “she” between paragraphs, e.g. paragraph one talks about a zoologist in “he” terms, paragraph two switches to “she”, three switches back, etc. I find that confusing (are we talking about two different people, or are you just trying to signal “hey any little girls reading this, you too can be a zoologist just like your brother!”)

          I was very grumpy about singular they, but it’s better than the “he/she” business so I’m a lot more reconciled to it and use it by preference where I think I need to show some sensitivity in order not to get derailed onto “that’s sexist language!” distractions in a discussion (though I do still go “themselves” rather than “themself” because the second may be more correct in this context but it’s counter to all usage I’m accustomed to).

          • quaelegit says:

            Maybe they’re talking about Sandy the gender fluid zoologist?

          • Well... says:

            @quaelegit:

            Maybe Ricky the Writer is talking about Sandy the gender fluid zoologist.

            FTFY.

          • Deiseach says:

            Then Sandy is problematic because xe is reinforcing the binary standard that there are only the two, male and female, genders and thus they need to educate themself and get over their transphobia.

        • sty_silver says:

          It gives me a few units of happiness while doing it.

          I don’t really think it accomplishes much beyond that. But it has zero cost, so it really doesn’t have to.

          Maybe I should care more that some people find it jarring but… eh, others will like it.

          • AnonYEmous says:

            why does it give you units of happiness?

          • sty_silver says:

            It’s probably because I’m weirdly biased towards femininity in general (don’t really know why.) For example, I strongly prefer female to male vocals in music, and tend to have a more favorable gut reaction to women than men, all other things equal.

            I don’t believe I act on that in any significant way, though.

    • Polycarp says:

      When I do this (lecturing in a university) I am signaling that I don’t care if the generic pronoun is he or she. Let it be she if you want. (Students and colleagues who know me at all know that I would be ok with using he.) Using it in extremely counterintuitive contexts is especially good as far as I am concerned. It makes clear that I am using it as a generic pronoun. (I admit that I have recently been experimenting with using “they.” I don’t much like the feel of the subject/verb number mismatch however.)

      • Winter Shaker says:

        I don’t much like the feel of the subject/verb number mismatch…

        That at least has already happened once in English, with the second person, and the language has got used to it long before any of us were born. Indeed if someone were talking to thee as a singular person, and if thou wert to hear the true singular forms of the verbs, thou wouldst find it at least as jarring as hearing the plural forms of the verbs for a singular third person.

    • Itai Bar-Natan says:

      As someone who occasionally uses female pronouns for generic characters, I agree with Loke and Philosophisticat above: The effect of this is should be to make people who aren’t used to this become more to this (and no effect on the people who are used to it). I can testify as a reader that it works: While I still find female pronouns more surprising than male pronouns, I’ve seen them so often that I think of them more as dialect difference in some academic writing than as someone making a point.

    • eyeballfrog says:

      I’ve come around to the idea of singular they as an “unspecified pronoun”*: a pronoun whose antecedent is an unspecified person. It seems to have consistent usage (it’s the usage that singular they proponents say goes back to Chaucer), and as a descriptive grammar Nazi I have to go with that. Using singular they for a specified person is still right out. It’s an extremely recent invention that sees no use outside certain small circles.

      That said, if you must use he or she as an unspecified pronoun, usage clearly points to he. As such, I too find using she in that role very jarring. I even find it a little jarring when it’s used for a second unspecified person, even though I do recognize the immense practicality of doing so.

      *I’d call it an indefinite pronoun but that term’s already taken.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      I don’t, but I think that using female pronouns regardless of the context–especially if you and your audience are largely female and/or progressive– can become second nature quite quickly, even if it’s not explicitly agreed upon. People just start doing it occasionally.

      The ability of people to pick up even more arbitrary social norms as a second nature is severely underrated. I don’t speak a word of French, but all through third grade, we had to ask to go to the washroom in French. Three years later, in grade six, I still sometimes caught myself asking to go to the washroom in French.

    • dodrian says:

      I try and use ‘they’ as much as possible.

      To those who object to ‘they’, Dinosaur Comics has you covered (also see the prior and subsequent comics).

      • James says:

        It isn’t always plural, but it is sometimes plural, which is enough to introduce an ambiguity which one might want to avoid.

        I tend to use it and I think it’s the best option, but it’s not quite perfect.

        The ‘thon’ comic (previous to your link) is cute. I’d forgotten how much I like Dinosaur Comics when it’s on form.

        • dodrian says:

          To me ‘it’ sounds dehumanizing. ‘They’ is at least primarily used as a personal pronoun.

          You’re right that ‘they’ can introduce ambiguity, which is never good (I would probably revert to ‘he’ or ‘she’ [probably ‘he’] in that case). I like the new gender pronouns (xe, ze) even less though, and as awesome as ‘thon’ sounds I dislike it for the same reasons (it’s distracting and impedes communication).

          At least we’re in a better situation than Spanish, where the third person pronouns are also gendered (ellas means ‘they (female)’, ellos can technically mean ‘they (male)’ or ‘they (gender neutral)’, but the latter is increasingly being rejected in the same way that the gender neutral definitions of ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ are.

          • Winter Shaker says:

            At least we’re in a better situation than Spanish

            Or indeed German, where they equivalents of ‘they’ and ‘she’ (but not the equivalent of ‘he’) are both ‘sie’.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            In Spanish you can just not use a pronoun at all. You still have to choose a ‘gender’ for your verbs and adjectives, though.

        • James says:

          Nailed it. (Especially the last panel.) And his Toothpaste For Dinner/Natalie Dee isn’t bad, either. But he can’t quite get Achewood.

          (My prodigious knowledge of 2007-era webcomics is coming out of the attic for one last showing-off.)

    • Saint Fiasco says:

      Using defaults would only come up when discussing a general situation in an abstract way.

      The writer may have been imagining a woman when they were imagining the situation they are describing. In that case there is no specific reaction that the writer wants to elicit, they are just being self-centered.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I do find the female generic somewhat jarring. I use they, and perhaps i will go to themselve as less jarring than themself.

      I do think the generic male implies that men are more typical than women, and I think that’s a bad idea.

      Sometimes I hear about a person doing something that could be done by both men and women (for example, being a Shakespeare scholar) and then feel jolted when the person turns out to be a woman.

      Or be jolted when something (like being a nurse) which is typically done by women is done by a man.

      I really want people to not have preconceptions about that sort of thing, and I hope that the singular they makes at least a little contribution.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I find that if someone uses male to refer to all humans, especially if it’s contemporary writing, my nose has been gotten.

        There are no neutral choices which just blend into the background. If someone had said to me in 1970 that third person pronouns were going to become a hot political issue, I would have assumed satire.

        Still, if you assume that male really includes female, “Man is an animal which nurses his young” would be a completely unexceptionable sentence, but it’s actually weird.

        • lvlln says:

          I was always taught that “man” was gender neutral or male depending on context in a way that other male words like male pronouns could not. So “man is an animal which nurses their young” sounds completely unexceptional to me, though “man is an animal which nurses his young” does, because “their” matches the gender-neutral context of “man” being used to describe the entire type of animal rather than just the male gender of that animal.

          Likewise, I find using “man-to-man” as a type of defense in ultimate Frisbee to make equal sense regardless of whether it’s men’s, women’s, or mixed teams playing. Easier to say than “person-to-person.”

          But I don’t think this type of exception extends to words other than “man.” “Guy,” maybe, but I’ve always thought the connection between “guy” and “male” was fairly loose compared to the connection between “guy” and “person.”

          • Iain says:

            “Man is an animal which nurses their young” sounds terrible to me. Gender-neutral man in the same sentence as singular they gives me whiplash.

            I would much rather write “Humans are animals that nurse their young”.

          • Charles F says:

            “Man is an animal which nurses its young” sounds right to me. Using “their” there is very jarring.

            @Iain’s version also sounds okay except for the that/which confusion. Though given a choice, I’ll mostly go with a singular rather than a plural for an abstract entity.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            @Iain’s version also sounds okay except for the that/which confusion.

            Sorry: What do you mean by “that/which confusion”? Iain has used the correct word here. (Not all animals nurse their young.) So I must not understand what you mean.

          • Charles F says:

            @Doctor Mist
            In the general case, “that” basically provides a tighter coupling between things than “which”. If you use “that”, the next bit is important/required, whereas if you use “which”, the next bit is adding useful information, but not vital.

            In this particular case, I read “an animal that nurses its young” as saying nursing is a sufficient condition for an animal to be a human, and “an animal which nurses its young” as saying nursing is a necessary condition.

          • beleester says:

            I think “its” is correct, but not because of the gender of “man.” It’s because the antecedent for the pronoun is “animal”, not “man.” Man is an animal. What kind of animal? An animal which nurses its young.

          • Nick says:

            Charles,

            Unless I misunderstand your distinction, it’s not one seen in actual usage. If all you mean is the restrictive/non-restrictive clause distinction, that’s not in operation here, because (some) restrictive clauses may use either “that” or “which” while only non-restrictive clauses are limited to “which.” See Geoffrey Pullum.

          • Charles F says:

            @Nick
            I wasn’t referring to the restrictive/non-restrictive rule, or probably any other explicit, written convention. But I think the general principle of “that” linking concepts more closely is observed informally. And probably inconsistently. But I maintain that its usage there makes the sentence sound off to me.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            @Charles F
            Hmm, I’ll have to watch for this. I can’t say the pattern you describe sounds very familiar to me, and certainly not common enough to characterize Iain’s phrasing as “that/which confusion”. But language use is often subtle, and perhaps I will notice this going forward, now that I’ve been alerted to it.

            Thanks.

        • Deiseach says:

          I think the usual phrasing in such a case is “Man is an animal which nurses its young”.

  22. sty_silver says:

    What is the best site where you can pay to balance out a certain amount of flight miles, to make your flights CO² neutral?

    The person who asked me said they know these three: atmosfair.de, myclimate.org und goclimate.de.

  23. Atlas says:

    Random philosophy query:

    I think most people would disagree with philosopher David Benatar’s anti-natalist view that life is so full of suffering that for most people it’s a net negative, so therefore people should have fewer kids. After extensively researching the topic listening to an episode of Very Bad Wizards about the subject, I was left undecided on whether Benatar is right or not, but with a new question for people who disagree with this view.

    Namely, if you disagree with anti-natalism…why don’t you support natalism? If you think that life is generally a net positive, so Benatar is wrong to say that we shouldn’t have kids, on what grounds aside from personal convenience can you avoid an at least vague obligation to create lots of life?

    I vaguely understand that this is something called the Repugnant Conclusion (which totally sounds like the name of a terrible band), and I did some more extensive research a cursory Google search and glanced over the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on it, which had some arguments against the conclusion that seemed unconvincing (even to the entry’s authors) at a glance. But I’m very curious to hear what folks here think about this, even though I’ll likely end up doing still more extensive research Google searching about it on my own.

    • blacktrance says:

      Namely, if you disagree with anti-natalism…why don’t you support natalism? If you think that life is generally a net positive, so Benatar is wrong to say that we shouldn’t have kids, on what grounds aside from personal convenience can you avoid an at least vague obligation to create lots of life?

      Among other reasons, because I accept the person-affecting view. Even if life is good on average, no one benefits from being created, because the counterfactual is them not existing and therefore nothing being good or bad for them. So the creation of lives worth living isn’t good on its own.

      • Atlas says:

        Interesting, but, at least playing Devil’s advocate, I’m not sure I’m convinced, because I don’t see a rigorous reason why hypothetical future people shouldn’t count as persons of some sort.

        Like, would you agree that it would be unethical to create a person that would just be excruciatingly tortured in a prison every day, and wants nothing more than to commit suicide and not exist, but is kept alive by his captors indefinitely? (Note that I’m not asking whether the torture and detainment themselves are unethical, but whether the very creation of a mind that you know with high confidence will experience that suffering is unethical, even if you are not perpetrating the suffering yourself.)

        Or, because extremism in thought experiment is no vice, consider that case, but multiplied by a factor of 100 million: creating 100 million people who you know with confidence will suffer so much that they would rather not exist/have existed.

        Because that seems obviously seriously unethical to me, but I don’t see how the person-affecting view would consider that to be wrong (not just the torture, but the creation), because if you didn’t create this person they would never have existed so we allegedly don’t have to take into account their interests. According to Wiki, this view states:

        Similarly something can be good only if it is good for someone.

        But I think it would be/is good not to create people who would genuinely much rather not have been born, even though that isn’t “good for someone” by this view.

        I want to tack on a sentence like “and thus, it would be good to create people who would be happy to have been born”, but I guess one might hypothetically accept that logic and still reject the logic of creating new life. But it seems to me that this case shows that we can still have important ethical relationships of some sort with hypothetical future minds, and from that it would seem that very strong natalist logic follows.

        • blacktrance says:

          One way to think about it is that if you create someone and they experience suffering, that’s bad for them, but if you don’t create someone who’d have a good life, they can’t experience the absence as bad. If you create tortured person X, X’s life is bad for the then-existing X, but if you don’t create blissful person Y, there wouldn’t be a then-existing Y to miss out on anything. Someone’s life might be so bad that they might wish that they hadn’t existed, but no one can wish for existence if their life would be good.
          So hypothetical people’s interests matter, but existence and non-existence are asymmetric: the former can’t be in anyone’s interest, but the latter can be.

          • Joe says:

            Your argument can be trivially reversed: if you create someone and they experience happiness, that’s good for them, but if you don’t create someone who’d have a bad life, they can’t experience the absence as good. If you create blissful person X, X’s life is good for the then-existing X, but if you don’t create tortured person Y, there wouldn’t be a then-existing Y to be spared from anything. Someone’s life might be so good that they might be grateful that they exist, but no one can be grateful for non-existence if their life would be bad.

            Basically, you’re assuming that “wish for non-existence” is a thing people can do, but “be grateful for existence” isn’t.

          • blacktrance says:

            The quality of someone’s life matters if and only if they’d exist. So tortured person Y’s bad life is a reason not to create them, but blissful person X’s good life isn’t a reason to create them. Y can’t experience the absence as good, but they don’t need to – if you’d create them, their life would matter, and it wouldn’t be worth living, so it’d be wrong to create them. In contrast, if you don’t create X, their life doesn’t matter, so its quality is irrelevant.

            Someone might be grateful for existence, but if they didn’t exist, there’d be no one to miss out.

          • Joe says:

            Again, flipped:

            Blissful person Y’s good life is a reason to create them, but tortured person X’s bad life isn’t a reason not to create them. Y can’t experience the absence as bad, but they don’t need to – if you’d create them, their life would matter, and it would be worth living, so it’d be right to create them. In contrast, if you don’t create X, their life doesn’t matter, so its quality is irrelevant.

            Someone might wish for non-existence, but if they didn’t exist, there’d be no one to benefit.

            I don’t think you are giving any reason to see your claims here as more valid than mine. Again, it seems you’re assuming that someone wishing they hadn’t been born is significant and should be taken into account, but someone being grateful they were born isn’t and shouldn’t be. But these are the same thing: opinions expressed on the fact of having come into existence. I can’t see any difference between them that would mean a negative opinion counts while a positive opinion doesn’t.

          • blacktrance says:

            The flipped argument for creating Blissful doesn’t work: to put it in different words, “Blissful should be created if their life matters” and “Blissful’s life would matter iff they’d be created” doesn’t imply “Blissful should be created”, because if they weren’t created, their life wouldn’t matter, so its quality wouldn’t be a reason to create them.

            For Sufferer, “Sufferer shouldn’t be created if their life matters” and “Sufferer’s life would matter iff they’d be created” does imply “Sufferer shouldn’t be created”, because either their life matters (so they shouldn’t be created) or it doesn’t (so they don’t exist anyway).

            As for gratitude vs regret for having been born, my point is that the two aren’t symmetrical. The hypothetical counterpart to regret would be a nonexistent person wishing they’d have been born – but obviously no one like that exists.

          • Philosophisticat says:

            I’m also for the person-affecting response. The asymmetry is rooted in the fact that it’s prima facie wrong to do something against which someone has a complaint, but not prima facie wrong not to do something for which someone would have gratitude. This is highly intuitive. So yes, you can construct backwards arguments using person-affecting premises in something like the way Joe does, but the premises are not equally plausible.

            I’m tempted to think that “not acting in such a way that someone has a legitimate complaint against how you affect them” is the core of morality.

          • Philosophisticat says:

            To put it another way: in order to do something wrong, someone has to have been wronged. There is no parallel principle like “in order to do something permissible, someone has to have been permissibled”. I’m inclined to take it as symmetrically true that someone who exists and has a good life has been benefited by existence and that someone who exists and has a terrible life has been harmed by existence. But only in the case where you create someone is there a candidate for wronging.

          • Joe says:

            @blacktrance

            The reason each case looks different is because you’re using a different model in each.

            [concerning Blissful] if they weren’t created, their life wouldn’t matter, so its quality wouldn’t be a reason to create them.

            Here, you’re looking forwards, evaluating the effect that adding a happy individual will have on the morally relevant entities that currently exist, i.e. the people already alive. Since creating a new happy individual in a moment’s time won’t bring any happiness increase to the individuals here now, you categorise creating this new individual as neutral.

            [concerning Sufferer] either their life matters (so they shouldn’t be created) or it doesn’t (so they don’t exist anyway).

            But here, you’re looking backwards: examining the individuals that exist now and their happiness levels, and using this to judge whether it was good to create them. Before, you asked about a hypothetical future individual; now you ask about current individuals, explicitly excluding those who don’t exist as irrelevant. So we look at those individuals who are already alive and suffering, and ask “should they have been brought into existence?”; this obviously resolves to “no”, and so their creation is categorised as bad.

          • blacktrance says:

            It’s the same model. Let’s say in world-state w1, only currently existing people exist, but we can move to w2 by creating Blissful or Sufferer. If we choose to stay in w1, neither Blissful nor Sufferer matters, since they wouldn’t exist, so Blissful’s happiness isn’t a reason to create them. If we preliminarily choose to move to w2, Sufferer’s suffering becomes relevant, giving us a reason not to create them. Blissful and Sufferer are relevant to the choice of w2 with Blissful or w2 with Sufferer, but they don’t matter for the initial choice between w1 and w2.

          • Joe says:

            So, when we just assume we’re in w1, no hypothetical lives are relevant. When we contemplate moving to w2[Sufferer], we now include Sufferer in our calculations; since this w2 contains more suffering than w1 we shouldn’t move to it.

            But when we contemplate a move to w2[Blissful], we don’t now include Blissful in our calculations. This even though the condition that made us consider Sufferer, i.e. the preliminary choice to move to a world where they exist, holds now too.

            How is this the same model?

          • blacktrance says:

            In w2, Sufferer or Blissful would matter. If we’d create Sufferer, they’d matter, and their life would be of a quality such that we shouldn’t create them, which is a reason not to move to w2[Sufferer]. If we stay in w1, we don’t create Blissful, so they don’t matter, and the fact that they’d matter in w2[Blissful] is irrelevant. If we create Sufferer, in w2 they’d have a complaint against existing, but we don’t create Blissful, in w1 they couldn’t have any complaints since they wouldn’t exist.

          • Iain says:

            I think the underlying confusion here is that you’re working in different moral systems: Joe is implicitly utilitarian, and blacktrance is implicitly deontological.

            From a deontological perspective, the question is (as Philosophisticat put it above) whether anybody with moral standing has a legitimate complaint against you. If you create Sufferer, then Sufferer has a complaint against you; if you do not create Blissful, then there is nobody with standing to complain.

            From a utilitarian perspective, the question is which world maximizes utility: not creating a life with +X utility may be just as bad as creating a life with -X utility. That depends, though, on how you believe utility should be measured and aggregated across people. This is far from the only situation where utilitarianism leads to counter-intuitive results when dealing with people who don’t yet exist.

          • blacktrance says:

            My position isn’t implicitly deontological – how to count the utility of nonexistent or hypothetical people is an open question within utilitarianism. “Maximize everyone’s utility” is underspecified when it’s not clear who’s included in “everyone”. Increasing utility is supposed to increase well-being, but we’re not really increasing well-being by creating happy people – we’re just creating new receptacles of utility that happen to be filled well. Those kinds of concerns are why total utilitarianism isn’t the only kind of utilitarianism.

          • Iain says:

            @blacktrance:

            If we create Sufferer, in w2 they’d have a complaint against existing, but we don’t create Blissful, in w1 they couldn’t have any complaints since they wouldn’t exist.

            I am comfortable categorizing arguments like this as deontological.

            (For what it’s worth, I agree strongly with your side of the argument.)

    • eyeballfrog says:

      I think one should distinguish between a disagreement with Benatar due to difference in kind vs difference in degree. That is, one might disagree with Benatar due to believing that life, in itself, is good, and any amount of suffering cannot outweigh that. Alternatively, one might disagree that most people have a net negative life. I think this second statement is almost certainly true. Not as sure about the former.

      • Atlas says:

        Right, and I would guess that most people would disagree with Benatar on the grounds in the second statement. I think some people might claim to disagree for religiously motivated reasons on the grounds in the first statement, but faced with enough suffering would abandon their convictions.

        • Joe says:

          Something to note is that if you buy the ‘asymmetry’ argument that blacktrance makes above, this implies full antinatalism, i.e. “all births are bad and we should end life permanently”.

          The reason for this is simple. The asymmetry argument claims that creating good new lives is neutral while creating bad new lives is bad. Say you’re creating a life that has a 99.9999% chance of being extremely happy and fulfilling, which would count as 0 utility points, i.e. neutral. The life has a 0.0001% chance of being slightly worse than nonexistence, which would count as -1 utility points, i.e. bad. The expected utility of this life is therefore -0.000001, which is negative, so we shouldn’t create this life.

          Since you will never have 100% certainty that a life you create will be happy, the asymmetry argument implies you should never create any life, no matter how confident you are that it will be happy.

          • blacktrance says:

            The asymmetry argument claims that creating good new lives is neutral while creating bad new lives is bad.

            Neutral/bad for the person being created, but there are effects on other people as well. In your scenario, if you get more than 0.000001 utility out of the new life’s existence, that outweighs the disutility from the chance of their life being negative, so you should create that life.

            So the asymmetry doesn’t necessarily imply full antinatalism, only that you’re not doing someone a favor by creating them.

    • Aapje says:

      @Atlas

      Creating new people has positive and negative effects on already existing people. I consider any philosophy that merely considers the well-being of the additionally created person to be highly simplistic.

      My own opinion is basically that for a bunch of reasons (cultural, environmental, social, scientific, etc), there are diminishing returns, so the optimum number of people is more than zero and less than infinity. My analysis is that we have surpassed that number and the demographic projection puts us further and further away from that optimum every day. So seeking to reduce the number of children is a positive thing to do.

      • Atlas says:

        Creating new people has positive and negative effects on already existing people. I consider any philosophy that merely considers the well-being of the additionally created person to be highly simplistic.

        Sure, but I think literally no one holds that belief. I think most people only believe (except for some people in the case of abortion!) that actually existing people’s interests matter.

        My own opinion is basically that for a bunch of reasons (cultural, environmental, social, scientific, etc), there are diminishing returns, so the optimum number of people is more than zero and less than infinity. My analysis is that we have surpassed that number and the demographic projection puts us further and further away from that optimum every day. So seeking to reduce the number of children is a positive thing to do.

        I have some thoughts about overpopulation, but I think that this is a separate empirical question, orthogonal to the novel moral question of whether hypothetically existing people have any moral value. (I infer from your comment that you think they do, which is actually quite a big leap, even though you seem to support anti-natalism for pragmatic empirical reasons.)

        • Nick says:

          I think most people only believe (except for some people in the case of abortion!) that actually existing people’s interests matter.

          But plenty of people think that environmental damage is wrong, even if no one presently alive will live to see the consequences, and often even justify thinking so it on the grounds that it places disproportionate harm on future generations. See also similar arguments about runaway government spending.

        • Aapje says:

          @Atlas

          I have some thoughts about overpopulation, but I think that this is a separate empirical question, orthogonal to the novel moral question of whether hypothetically existing people have any moral value.

          Let’s say that you had 1000 people on this earth, then I think that the lives of those 1000 and then descendants would probably get better if you have 1 more person.

          I think that in any situation like the current, those kinds of considerations dwarf the moral value of the single additional individual.

        • Mary says:

          Do most people believe that they can burn up all the earth’s resources? After all, the future people who might need them don’t exist. (Yet.)

      • My analysis is that we have surpassed that number

        What is your basis for that conclusion? I looked at the question as best I could in a piece I published a very long time ago, and concluded that, at the then current population level, I could not sign the net effect on others of one more person.

        At the time, the conventional wisdom was the the effect was obviously negative. People holding that view made predictions which turned out to be false. The extreme case was Paul Ehrlich’s claim that there would be mass famine in the seventies, that it was already too late to stop it, and the only question was which hundreds of millions of people would die, which would be saved. That wasn’t a consensus of those worried about population but it was a position that they took seriously, and Ehrlich has never conceded that he was in any serious sense mistaken. The weaker claim that population growth would have substantial bad effects for people in poor countries was very widely accepted.

        Since then, the rate of extreme poverty has dropped sharply, calorie consumption in the third world has trended generally up–the opposite of what was predicted. People can, of course, claim that the prediction was correct, the timing just a bit off–that the terrible effects are still in the future. But we cannot observe the future, and so far as what we can observe, the predictions were strikingly contradicted by what actually happened.

        I suggest that that ought to be a reason for you to be more skeptical than you seem to be about similar claims made with similar arguments by people now.

        • Aapje says:

          @DavidFriedman

          I don’t consider the ability of the world to feed X billion people a good reason to have X billion people. Concerns about the ability to support a certain number of people are asymmetric, as they can be a reason to limit growth, but a higher carrying capacity is not a reason to increase growth unless one favors having more humans merely for the sake of having more humans. I don’t.

          It seems like a basic truth that the more people we have, the worse the natural resource to people ratio becomes. Another truth is that the more people we have, the better we are at using resources efficiently, although this is not necessarily a linear model. It’s almost certain that we at a minimum have diminishing returns. If we have one model that declines linearly and another that increases with diminishing returns, they would normally intersect at an optimum where the diminished increase for that new person is less than the downsides of having this additional person.

          So far, large numbers of people have not been able to employ their talents to anywhere close to their maximum. Nevertheless, my perception is that even the relatively limited number of people who get this opportunity are already facing substantially diminished returns. For example:
          – Crop yield growth rate is declining.
          – My perception is that real scientific advancement is plateauing (although we manage to waste incredible sums on bad science).
          – The same for R & D in the private sector.
          – People can only watch so many movies, TV series, read so many books, etc. My perception is that the level of production of these is so high and so diverse, that increases in overall production of these have very limited benefits.
          – Etc, etc

          That part of my analysis is very subjective, of course & has large error bars.

          My assumption if we were to wave a magic wand to fix the size of the world population as it is now and focus on improving the well-being of and opportunities for the existing people, we would have see far more diminished returns. For example, the West is now about 1B people, who don’t all get to fully participate, but then again there are those outside the West who do. So lets guesstimate that 2B people get the opportunities that would be feasible for all 8B people that we will soon have. So if we could give all those people decent opportunities, we would have 4 times the population that actually participate and thus cause ever increasing diminished returns. So if I’m correct that we are close to or over the optimum, we would then probably want to seek to gradually and naturally reduce the population by 1/4th to 2B. If I’m 100% wrong and the real optimum is 4B, we’d still want to reduce the population by half. If I’m 200% wrong, it would still have been a good idea to listen to me and stop the growth of the population at 8B, rather than let it grow beyond that. If I’m 400% wrong, we could still choose to take measures to stimulate population growth later. Even if a larger population size is better in the long term, it can still be preferable to first focus on improving the well-being for actually existing people.

          PS. It seems to me that one of the main reason why China, India, Africa and such have been doing better is better policies (like adopting better agricultural practices, moving to a more capitalist economy, etc), not due to population increases. In fact, population growth rates of China, India and Africa have declined just as their economies have really started growing, so the correlation is negative.

          • It seems like a basic truth that the more people we have, the worse the natural resource to people ratio becomes.

            Julian Simon, who was the one notable holdout to the population orthodoxy of fifty years ago, titled one of his books “The Ultimate Resource.” He meant people.

            If you look at different countries, ratio of natural resources to people doesn’t seem to have much connection with how well off people are. A crude measure is population per square mile. The countries for which it is high are almost all well off–I think the only exception is Bangladesh, and its density is less than a sixth that of Singapore.

            There is no guarantee that more people will mean more scientific research, more great literature and music, but, ceteris paribus, that’s the right way to guess.

            As an economist, I tend to think of the problem in terms of the question of whether individuals acting in their own self-interest will give us too much or too little population growth. From that standpoint, the effect on resources per capita doesn’t count as long as the resources are owned. A baby isn’t born with a deed to his per capita share of the Earth’s resources clutched in his fist. To get some, either he has to produce things of value to others to trade for them or his parents have to, so in either case he or they is bearing that cost, not the general public.

            Unowned resources do count–the individual who pollutes the air imposes that cost on others. But the individual who pays taxes to reduce the national debt, or to fund medical research, or for any other government activity whose cost doesn’t increase with population, is providing benefits for which he is not compensated. Similarly for the individual who produces ideas or information that cannot be completely privatized.

            As I think I mentioned, a very long time ago I tried to calculate the net externality from one more person and concluded that I could not sign the sum. I see no reason to change that conclusion.

          • Randy M says:

            If you look at different countries, ratio of natural resources to people doesn’t seem to have much connection with how well off people are. A crude measure is population per square mile. The countries for which it is high are almost all well off–I think the only exception is Bangladesh, and its density is less than a sixth that of Singapore.

            Is this linear, or are you just making a binary distinction? I’d be interested to see the graph.

          • bean says:

            If you look at different countries, ratio of natural resources to people doesn’t seem to have much connection with how well off people are. A crude measure is population per square mile. The countries for which it is high are almost all well off–I think the only exception is Bangladesh, and its density is less than a sixth that of Singapore.

            The counterpoint to this (I’m playing devil’s advocate, not really disagreeing) is that it’s fairly obvious that all of the really high-ranking places on that list (Singapore, Monaco, Macau, Hong Kong) are basically cities that are legally separated from their hinterlands. Since cities work, they are obviously not the correct unit to use for this investigation, and if we look on a regional level, Bangladesh is the first that’s clearly a proper region, and it’s very poor.
            The counter-counterpoint to this is Japan.

          • Nornagest says:

            If you look at Wikipedia’s list of nations by population density and filter out anything below 5000 km^2, the top ten are Bangladesh, Taiwan, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, South Korea, Rwanda, the Netherlands, Burundi, Haiti, and India. That’s a pretty mixed bag, development-wise.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Trade allows people to take natural resources from elsewhere, if they have something that the person with those resources values sufficiently (which doesn’t have to be (entirely) natural resources, but can even be intellectual property or time-shifted resources in the form of debt). So dense areas can exploit more natural resources than they have (or cities could not exist). However, that solution ultimately fails at the global level, since there is a distinct lack of aliens to trade with and/or a realistic ability to take resources from other celestial bodies.

            A baby isn’t born with a deed to his per capita share of the Earth’s resources clutched in his fist.

            Humans nevertheless consume a large number of resources during their life, in a way that is unsustainable if we stick to current technology. So we are driving towards a cliff already as it is.

            Now, I know that your ideology is that humanity will come up with solutions. However, the (free) market actually only guarantees incentives, not outcomes. As we see in economics, we are far enough away from a theoretical optimal free market so that incentives are not necessarily true at all times. In fact, they seem to commonly be wrong (hence: boom/bust cycles). What we’ve seen as we globalized the economy and made so much interdependent is that these busts can have domino-like effects (hence government interventions where those who created the problems are not properly punished, creating more incentive to act badly).

            I think that the same basic problem exists for natural resources, albeit on a longer timescale. Now, the more people we have, the more quickly we run out of resources. The more entrenched technology we have when the bust happens that still depends on delusions about resource availability from the boom, the higher our demand on potential replacement technology (making less of it viable if it depends on natural resources that replenish at a certain set rate). Etc. Basically, we fly closer to the sun the more people we have and are more likely to end up with a major problem to which we cannot find a solution. If we just keep expanding the population, we are like Icarus who kept flying higher until the sun melted his wings.

            Basically, my argument is that buffers are important for dynamic systems. In the animal kingdom it is common for population to rise and fall in boom/bust cycles. Most people consider mass deaths bad. Fortunately, humans have the ability to avoid this by not just depending on short term incentives like animals (mostly) do.

            There is no guarantee that more people will mean more scientific research, more great literature and music, but, ceteris paribus, that’s the right way to guess.

            I said this in the comment you replied to already, actually, but my point is that the benefits of even more great literature and music diminish with quantity. To give a simplified example: If you have 10 books total and write an 11th, it’s likely that a substantial part of the population was not well served by those 10 books. If you have already have 100,000 books, it’s likely that very few people consider that book very much more enjoyable than the (for them) second best book from those 100,000.

            I would argue that with modern storage & reproduction ability, we are actually building up a large catalog over time as well, so the incremental value of each new work doesn’t merely diminish by the level of production, but it tends to diminishes over time. For example, people are still listening to original recordings by The Beatles and are still reading Shakespeare (and much more than when it was written, actually).

            As I think I mentioned, a very long time ago I tried to calculate the net externality from one more person and concluded that I could not sign the sum. I see no reason to change that conclusion.

            My error bars are so large that I accept the possibility that the net externality is still positive, but I think that it is more likely than not that it isn’t.

            Anyway, are you willing to agree that there is likely to be a level of population where net externality becomes negative? If so, the only thing we disagree on is various subjective assessments, as well as our risk tolerance.

    • Joe says:

      My answer is that I do support natalism.

      Some claim there’s an important distinction between people who currently exist and new people, so that it can be good to improve current people’s lives without also being good to create new lives. The most fundamental problem I see with this is that the distinction appears to be bogus. That is, if we want to say things like “sleeping people still count as currently existing”, and “if a person is clinically dead but can still be brought back to life and saved, they of course should be”, and “you are still the same person even if there’s a gap in your memory after a night of heavy drinking” and “you’ll still be the same person in fifty years in spite of all the ways your mind will have changed”… Then we have basically exhausted all the principled differences between currently existing people and new people, and any distinction we continue to make is based on irrelevant details.

      I vaguely understand that this is something called the Repugnant Conclusion …

      What puzzles me is how many utilitarian folks seem unwilling to accept the counterintuitive conclusion of this thought experiment in particular. I don’t think most do this with other similarly weird hypotheticals, do they? Like the “organ transplant” scenario, where a surgeon has the opportunity to kill a random individual and use their organs to save five people. There are all sorts of reasons why this scenario would never work like this, but assuming it did I think the usual utilitarian stance is that yes, the surgeon really should kill the one to save the five.

      Seems to me the “repugnant conclusion” scenario should work the same way. It’s an intentionally-absurd hypothetical, effectively asking “what if a genie gave you access to unlimited free resources, but you can only use them to create new people and not to better the lives of existing people, even when doing so would be much more cost-effective in terms of utils/dollar, because the genie says so”. If we take it as given that we’re inside this crazy scenario, it doesn’t seem implausible to me for the right answer to be “yes, we should spend these free resources on the only avenue of utility-creation arbitrarily left open to us”.

      • rahien.din says:

        If I may incite such a digression:

        Yes, the surgeon really should kill the one to save the five.

        This question gets around a lot but it’s very badly conceived. It simultaneously stipulates that humans are mere organ receptacles and poses its central question as though humans are not mere organ receptacles. It’s a bullshit question*.

        And, even if we accept that it really does outline a genuine utilitarian ethical principle, following that principle leads to ugly scenarios.

        Imagine if a surgeon has seven patients. Patients A, B, C, D, and E have immediate needs for, respectively, a liver, a kidney, a kidney, lungs, and a heart. Patient F has multi-organ disease, most of all their acute heart failure, but if they would get a new heart immediately, it is expected that all their organs would fully recover to the degree that they could be transplanted. Patient G is a homeless, unidentifiable drifter who is not actively dying, and who has a functioning heart, but whose liver, kidneys, and lungs are not healthy enough to transplant.

        Assuming we harvest patient G’s heart, who gets the heart?
        – Pure utilitarian : if patient F gets the heart and the rest of their organs recover, they could be surreptitiously killed for their liver, two kidneys, and lungs. Patients A, B, C, and D would live, while patients E, F, and G would die. So we should kill patient G to save patient F, and then kill patient F to save patients A, B, C, and D, while patient E is allowed to languish.
        – Anybody else : if Patient E or patient F gets the heart, they will live, but everyone else will die, and that’s too bad. We only have to pick between patients E and F.

        * IE, the answer to the 1-for-5 surgical scenario is : Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55, the 327 didn’t come out till ’62. And it wasn’t offered in the Bel Air with a four-barrel carb till ’64. However, in 1964, the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top-dead-center.

        Edit : clarity

        • Deiseach says:

          Pure utilitarian : if patient F gets the heart and the rest of their organs recover, they could be surreptitiously killed for their liver, two kidneys, and lungs. Patients A, B, C, and D would live, while patients E, F, and G would die. So we should kill patient G to save patient F, and then kill patient F to save patients A, B, C, and D, while patient E is allowed to languish.

          As long as we’re going the Dr Victor Frankenstein Organ Transplantation Protocol, couldn’t we re-donate the heart from F to E? We’re killing G anyway, and if we’re also knocking off F for spare parts once their organs recover, can’t we re-use the heart? If E survives long enough, that is; if they need a heart, they might not survive the waiting period for F’s organs to recover but that goes for the liver and lungs patients as well.

          Is there any limit on how many times an organ can be recycled between people, or is it “you can only transplant it from donor to recipient and not from one recipient to another”?

          I agree it’s a bullshit question; push it to its limits and we could say we should then kill E to harvest organs for more patients, kill D to harvest his organs, etc etc etc until we end up killing all our original five patients as well as G.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            Is there any limit on how many times an organ can be recycled between people, or is it “you can only transplant it from donor to recipient and not from one recipient to another”?

            It does sometimes happen, though it is more difficult than transplanting an organ that has not been previously transplanted because of scar tissue.

          • Aapje says:

            Also, many transplanted organs tend to last for something like 12-15 years on average, I think. So it’s unlikely that the organ would be worth re-transplanting unless the recipient gets hit by a bus shorty after getting the transplant.

          • Deiseach says:

            So it’s unlikely that the organ would be worth re-transplanting unless the recipient gets hit by a bus shorty after getting the transplant.

            We’re assuming both that F will live long enough for their organs to recover and that this will be a short enough period that A, B, C, D and E won’t die in the meantime while waiting for their transplants. So if we guesstimate anything from six months to a year until F is killed by the surgeon for spare parts has a completely unforeseen and rare tragic fatal reaction to the medication they are on, then the heart should be in good enough nick to whip it out and give it to E while we’re stripping F down for kidneys, liver and lights (insert ghoulish chuckle here).

      • Philosophisticat says:

        Many (in my experience, most) utilitarians do in fact give the bullet biting response to the repugnant conclusion.

        To the extent that they’re not, it may be because they think it’s plausible that there might be a version of the view that has the advantages of their view without being committed to that, in a way that is not true of the organ transplant case. Utilitarians are generally not committing themselves to massively counterintuitive claims just for the hell of it.

    • rahien.din says:

      If you think that life is generally a net positive, on what grounds aside from personal convenience can you avoid an at least vague obligation to create lots of life?

      The central claim of anti-natalism is “There is an ethical impediment to procreation.” The opposite of that claim is “There is no ethical impediment to procreation.” Absence of an impediment is not a directive.

      Ultimately, then, it comes down to the most basic reason of why we procreate at all : we have children to love them. That’s the directive. Have a kid if you will love it.

      Thereafter lie all sorts of utilitarian questions. I’m willing to accept that there may be situations in which it is relatively unethical to procreate. But any and all of those are subservient to that basic question of if you will love the child.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      Just because one action is necessarily bad doesn’t mean the opposite is (1) necessarily good or (2) has only one quantifiable opposite.

      You shouldn’t starve your children, but that doesn’t mean that you should necessarily (1) overfeed them or (2a) feed them every single thing that they ask for, (2b) feed them every single thing you have on hand, (2c) feed them anything you can get your hards on, or (2d) feed them food grown on a toxic waste site.

      Similarly, you shouldn’t prevent your children from being born, but that doesn’t mean you should necessarily (1) have as many children as you can, (2a) have as many healthy children as your wife can give birth to (2b) have as many children as your husband can impregnate you with, (2c) have as many children as you can with multiple partners, (2d) have as many children and raise them yourself, (2e) have as many children as you can but put them up for adoption, (2f) have as many children as you can and have them raised in an orphanage…etc

      Basically, ensuring the presence of something you value involves way more discerning thought than ensuring the absence of something that you’re against. Those various positions, right or wrong, aren’t going to rally under “pro-natalism” ’cause there’s too many of them.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think the anti-natalist view as it gets expressed in practice is “nobody should have any more kids ever for any reason” (because humans evil oppressors of Mother Gaia blah blah blah better we die off and liberate the rest of the species on this planet) and natalism in practice is the default normal view of general humanity: “you can have kids if you like”.

      So it’s not so much about “ooh the suffering humanity” as it is “humans are icky”, or at least that is the general impression I get. I mean, if it was about suffering, then anti-natalists should all commit suicide to be consistent (if we’re trying to construct ‘gotcha!’ arguments along the lines of “So if you’re not an anti-natalist, doesn’t that mean you should be in favour of compulsory reproduction for everyone? Gotcha!”).

      One is an absolute command that depends on compulsion: “NO PROCREATION”, the other is acknowledgement of a freedom but with nothing mandatory: “If you want to, you have the right”.

      Everyone has the right to marry (we’ve had court cases, referenda and law changes over that) but no-one is compelled to marry (see the Free Love movement which worked to overturn this attitude about “you must marry if you want sex”).

    • Sam Reuben says:

      I’m just going to chime in with my usual anti-gnostic spiel, but try to put a bit of a different twist on it.

      Why on Earth are we trying to solve this problem, out of anything available, first? Epistemically speaking, the outcomes of having children are really, really complicated. You have to calculate their own lives (not easy), then the effects they have on the people around them, and then the effects that those people will then have on the people around them, and so on and so forth until we give up! What’s at issue here is literally the value of a human life, which is not a trivial question at all. We’d be better off starting off small and working our way up.

      First, let’s start by dispelling the absurdity that life is so full of suffering for most people. This is clearly a mistaken argument, because it uses the average to prove something about the particular. Let’s say that sure, the average human’s life is truly bad (pretending that he has the philosophical wherewithal to define suffering as only being those experiences which are bad for the human, rather than badness as being only those experiences in which the human suffers). That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some humans whose lives are good, or some subsections of the population whose lives are good on average. Those people clearly, by his logic, ought to live, so if you’re in a good-outcome part of the population, you’re ethically required to have as many kids as possible! But really, a better idea would be to just examine one’s own life to decide whether to have children. If one’s life is, on the balance, good (or heading in that direction), then have kids and try to set them up the same way. If not, then don’t. That’s a much more consistent and reasonable imperative, and it’s one that a lot of people end up having. People who have children despite knowing that the children will likely have bad lives are either trying to use the children as a means to an end, like saving a marriage, or are just having the children by accident. The people who plan to have children thoughtfully, as an end in and of themselves, are already doing so with the idea in mind that the children will live good lives. The only way to convince that crowd otherwise is to try and trick them into thinking that their own lives were bad, which can’t possibly be ethical.

      As for the utilitarian styling of the argument: this is just a question about statistics and human support loads. The only thing that needs to be kept in mind, here, is that population shocks are bad. Massive increases in population are generally hard to sustain, and decreases in population are the same. Both cause a ton of damage. The question here, then, isn’t “should we have kids?” but “how many kids should we have?” It’s just a question about how many kids the average family should have in order to keep the population stable and headed in the right direction. If more can be sustained, then the average should be a little above replacement rate. If not so many can, then the average should be a little below. That’s it. (In situations where the population needs to drop massively, you’re already screwed, and we need to talk about disaster management instead.)

      Another massive question, it’s worth mentioning, is how much you value your culture. By “culture” I’m not talking about national culture, or anything on that massive scale, but the particular culture which characterizes you and the people you would consider your community. If communities are groups of humans, then cultures are groups of beliefs, and I would be comfortable saying that beliefs can be seriously good or bad, and that the good ones are worth spreading for the benefit of all. Children aren’t the only way to propagate one’s culture, but they are a fairly good way. If someone wishes for their culture to live on, then children are a solid piece of that puzzle. Other ways are, of course, to just talk to people and spread the word. That’s what goes on in the culture of SSC and the rationalists: people spread the word, and spread the culture that way. That’s an excellent solution as well.

      So, where does this put me on natalism? Easy: you should have exactly as many children as you expect that you can support a genuinely good life for while still living a good life yourself (bird in the hand is better than two in the bush), adjusted with respect to population pressure demands. For me, this is probably going to be between one and three, seeing how the first one or two go. Beyond three, I’m not sure I can give the kind of attention and care they deserve, and so I put the limit there. If, for the sake of argument, I was in a pre-medicine society, with the associated high mortality, I would adjust the number of children far higher so that population pressure could be responded to, and lean more heavily on the community (grandparents, for example) to help care for the children. If I was in a country with runaway population growth, I would adopt and try to spread my culture that way. In all cases, I try to spread my culture and ideas through conversation and influence, and for those who feel like they couldn’t raise children well while having a good life themselves, I encourage that means of branching out.

      (It’s very much worth noting, incidentally, that runaway population growth arguments have a particular flaw in their execution. The situation, generally, is that some subgroup of some population has very high growth rate, while others have lower or negative growth rate. The arguments almost without exception exhort members of the low-growth subgroups to lower their rates to bring down the average, rather than targeting the high-rate groups. There are arguments that talk about the high-rate groups, but they tend to take the view that those high-rate groups need to be forced to lower their growth if it’s at all possible. Both of these seem rather abhorrent: on the one hand, targeting the exact wrong population, and on the other, using coercion to lower population growth, which when taken to its extreme becomes genocide. I would be interested in exploring paths through which the high-rate groups can be convinced to lower population, which will handle runaway population in the most proper sense. Another idle consideration: the reason that intellectual groups have such low reproductive growth rates and yet still have their numbers increasing is that intellectualism is great at propagating through discussion and argument to members of non-intellectual cultural groups. That’s pretty reassuring, I think.)

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Thanks. Those extremely abstract utilitarian arguments ignore natural feedback, and also have a stink of “I should get to be in charge of large numbers of people. No really, it’s not me, it’s just logic.”

    • Kevin C. says:

      on what grounds aside from personal convenience can you avoid an at least vague obligation to create lots of life?

      Related, what about those who do feel such an obligation, but generally lack the means to meet it?

      (And as a tangential aside, I learned recently that some Hindu texts, in enumerating seven “hells” (Naraka) set aside one specifically for the childless, for their failure to repay the pitr-runa (also pitri-runa or pitru-runa), the “debt to fathers/ancestors“.)

    • onyomi says:

      This actually does bother me. If it didn’t conflict with other values like respecting partners’ wishes or not having a giant family by age 25, I would probably not use contraception, and still have some qualms about it more generally (of course, there’s also the issue that disease prevention doubles as contraception).

    • Vamair says:

      Namely, if you disagree with anti-natalism…why don’t you support natalism?

      If you believe that life is a net good, you’re probably going to support whatever policy that allows humanity to spawn more well-off people during its whole history. And that does mean both supporting giving enough births to let the number of humans stay stable and recover if harmed, but not as many as to deplete natural resources too much and create an existential hazard.
      You can also care terminally about biosphere itself, even without any humans or sentience in it. I kinda do, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.

      • onyomi says:

        but not as many as to deplete natural resources too much and create an existential hazard.

        Julian Simon’s “Ultimate Resource” is basically human ingenuity. That is, the most important resource for ensuring the future of humanity, and that which is most lacking, is humanity itself (well, especially smart, creative, entrepreneurial humans…).

        • Aapje says:

          @onyomi

          But how is that a problem of having too few humans, rather than having many humans with too little opportunity (and/or ability)?

    • Creutzer says:

      David Benatar’s anti-natalist view that life is so full of suffering that for most people it’s a net negative, so therefore people should have fewer kids.

      No, that’s not his argument. His argument is that the presence of bad and the absence of good are not equivalent: a world in which nobody lives is better than a world in which there is only one person and that person suffers, but a world in which only one person exists and is happy is not better than a world in which nobody lives. Phrase differently: creating a person who will have an unhappy life is bad, but creating a person who will have a happy life is just neutral.

      His argument is that if you take this seriously, then world a is better than world b whenever fewer people with net-negative lives are created in world a, no matter how many people with net-positive lives are created in world a compared to world b. Basically, no number of happy lives can counterbalance a sad life. So you shouldn’t risk creating a sad life. His argument in no way relies on it being the case that most people actually don’t have lives worth living.

      It’s true that he does argue that people overestimate the positivity of life, but as far as I can tell that’s not a part of his central argument. I’ve always thought he probably does it to get people in the right frame of mind to accept the asymmetric premise as compelling.

      • onyomi says:

        Phrase differently: creating a person who will have an unhappy life is bad, but creating a person who will have a happy life is just neutral.

        Why should it be asymmetrical like this?

        • hlynkacg says:

          To justify anti-natalism.

          • Creutzer says:

            On the one hand, yes, and Benatar does seem to be a bit of a philosophical troll at times.

            On the other hand, I think it’s warranted to not be quite so flippant. The second half is just the person-affecting view, which you need to avoid the repugnant conclusion. But then surely you have an intuition that creating a person who will live out a long life in conscious torture is wrong? Why give up that intuition only to preserve symmetry? What’s so great about the symmetry (except that probably everyone who reads SSC has a strong aesthetic preference for it)?

            I don’t remember whether that’s how he argues it himself, but it’s my attempt at a steelman.

          • onyomi says:

            But I don’t have to give up my intuition that giving birth to someone I expect to be tortured for their whole life is wrong to preserve symmetry. My intuition is that giving birth to someone I expect to be miserable is bad and giving birth to someone I expect to be happy is good. That’s symmetrical.

            The idea that giving birth to someone you expect to be miserable is bad but giving birth to someone you expect to be happy is merely neutral is asymmetrical and seems more prima facie in need of justification than my symmetrical intuitions.

          • hlynkacg says:

            I feel like flippancy is warranted.

            As onyomi pointed out, it’s Benatar who’s intuitions that are asymmetrical and in need of justification.

          • Creutzer says:

            My intuition is that giving birth to someone I expect to be miserable is bad and giving birth to someone I expect to be happy is good. That’s symmetrical.

            Yes, but it arguably also gives you the repugnant conclusion unless you happen to set the threshold for “happy enough to be worth creating” in just the right place for it to be convenient for you. Most people agree the repugnant conclusion is worth avoiding. I think something got lost in your reading of my attempted steelman. The idea is that you can have two of three things: avoid repugnant conclusion, symmetry, and immorality of creating unhappy people. Benatar chooses to sacrifice symmetry.

          • onyomi says:

            @Creutzer

            I think I understand your steelman better now, but two points:

            I think the sort of symmetry sacrifice I make here makes more sense (happiness and sadness are commensurate on some level, but not at a 1:1 ratio).

            Second, I don’t think saying contraception is immoral is really that repugnant a conclusion, though it sure is inconvenient. Of course, the much stronger conclusion that everyone of reproductive age is obligated to be having sex as much as physically possible all the time so long as they guess their potential offspring might have net-happy lives is a repugnant one, but I don’t think it requires us accepting that creating happy lives is morally neutral to avoid.

            Something being morally good doesn’t obligate everyone to do it to their utmost all the time. That is supererogatory.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            but it arguably also gives you the repugnant conclusion

            You get the repugnant conclusion only if you assume utilitarianism is correct, yes? Are we taking that as given?

        • RobJ says:

          At least phrased in a moral sense it is intuitive to me that we have more responsibility to avoid increasing suffering than to increase happiness. It would follow that creating new positive lives isn’t perfectly symmetrical with creating new negative ones.

          I’m not sure it’s relevant, but I feel that instinct within myself, too. I am much more concerned about avoiding ruining my life than trying to maximize it’s happiness. I’d guess there is quite a bit of individual variation in that feeling, though.

          • onyomi says:

            It could be that a moment of agony is more bad than a moment of ecstasy but that enough ecstasy can still cancel out a little agony.

            That is, I think if I imagined having a child who was happy 50% of the time and unhappy 50% of the time, I’d have qualms about bringing that child into the world. But if I imagine said child will spend 5% of his life in worry, pain, or discomfort and 95% in relaxed comfort or happiness, then that sounds like a life worth having.

      • Mr Mind says:

        but a world in which only one person exists and is happy is not better than a world in which nobody lives.

        This is intuitively very wrong to me. Go figure.

  24. mustacheion says:

    I am an amateur programmer who has gotten into machine learning recently and I believe I might have found some techniques which make training fully connected deep (> 10 layers) feed-forward neural networks easier and faster. I would like to talk with someone more experienced in this field than I am to help me determine whether I have actually found something useful, or am just making a mistake somehow. A few exchanges in this forum, or a five minute phone call is probably enough of your time to make this clear. I would prefer to speak with somebody professionally or academically involved in machine learning. So is there anybody out there who either is such a person or is willing to introduce me to such a person?

    One caveat: we can discuss my results and I am happy to give out publicly my trained neural networks to prove that my results are true, but at the moment I am going to keep my techniques private.

    I have only been doing this for about two months; so far I have only focused on the MNIST classification problem. My best result to date is an 18-layer net that scored 98.3% accuracy. This accuracy is good compared to most fully-connected MNIST solutions, poor compared to state of the art convolutional nets. But keep in mind that my net took only about five hours to train in a poorly optimized python program and I am missing very important techniques like algorithmic expansion of the training data simply because I haven’t had time to code that yet. I am staying away from convolutional nets at the moment only because the goal of my project is to see if I can solve the difficulties with training deep fully-connected nets. I have every expectation that convolutional nets are better suited to real world applications, and I fully expect that my techniques will apply to training convolutional nets also. I just haven’t gotten there yet.

    • actinide meta says:

      I’m not the expert you want to talk to. But it occurs to me that, since CNNs are (thought to be) better for the problem you are studying, the solutions you are comparing your work to may not really reflect the state of the art (other researchers may not have bothered to push fully connected networks to their limits for this problem). You might want to try your technique on an actively studied problem whose best known solution is fully connected, to get a better idea of whether you are doing better than existing techinques can do.

      • mustacheion says:

        I absolutely will be doing that, eventually. But it would be great to get some feedback now to help me decide whether to keep pushing my own approach or to change gears and just study what other people are doing.

    • Ivy says:

      I could be considered an expert (have published in major ML conferences). What sort of feedback are you looking for? I think it would be hard to provide meaningful feedback without understanding the technique – an accuracy number alone isn’t enough to judge that the approach is worth exploring, unless it’s a state-of-the-art result on a major dataset.

      • mustacheion says:

        The accuracy I am getting is important only insofar as it proves that I am actually obtaining a neural network that works. What I am looking for is understanding the extent to which researchers have solved the unstable gradient problem in fully connected networks. Can ML researchers actually train deep (>10 layer) fully-connected nets in reasonable amounts of time? From what I have read online the answer seems to be no. But of course as an outsider, I don’t really trust my ability to actually understand what the state-of-the-art actually is. Clearly they can train much deeper CNNs, but I am interested in the fully-connected case. I have finally cleaned up my work and have it presentable, so in a few hours I can post my 12 layer fully-connected MNIST classifier on Github.

        • mustacheion says:

          Ok, I believe I have my Github repository setup:Link
          If anyone has any problems getting this to work, please let me know.

        • Ivy says:

          I don’t actually know any applications where >10 layer fully connected nets are state-of-the-art, maybe try the /r/MachineLearning hivemind?

          Off the top of my head, ResNets should definitely let you train very deep fully-connected nets. Batch or layer normalization speed up training a lot, though I haven’t seen results on specifically deep fully-connected nets.

          If your approach beats ResNets and batch/layer normalization across a couple datasets that seems like a significant result.

          • mustacheion says:

            The link you provided about ResNets seems, as far as I was able to tell, about convolutional nets. Though that technique might work for fully-connected nets also, it wasn’t obvious to me from reading it that the researchers even tried that approach.

            But we are clearly not on the same page here, so let me provide some context. I am a physicist by trade, and about a month ago I decided to pick up a machine learning textbook, just to see what it was about. Despite not having coded seriously in several years, and having never even used python, I started going through the examples, learning as I went. As I was reading, I came upon a section about why deep nets are hard to train and thought, “oh, I have an idea, maybe I could do this to help solve that problem.” So I played around with various modifications to the net I coded as I was going through the examples in the book. And several modifications later, I seem to have solved the problem. It is completely unreasonable to expect that I could match state-of-the-art performance on my poorly optimized python code that I copied from a textbook. That isn’t what I am trying to do.

            Convolutional nets are clearly obviously a really great approach to machine learning. CNNs are so successful that probably no serious researcher in the past twenty years has bothered wasting their time on boring fully-connected nets. That is great, and I will definitely dive into that field next. But at the moment, I am not trying to do that. I am trying to see if there is another way to solve this problem that was already solved in the 90’s. Solving an already solved problem certainly isn’t very flashy or exciting. But coming up with different solution to a solved problem might still be of mild interest to some researchers. It might provide some more general insight into neural networks, and it might even generalize to modern CNNs and help make small progress there.

            So what am I trying to decide right now? I am trying to decide whether I should pat myself on the back and move on, or whether I should keep pursuing this idea. There is a tiny but nonzero chance that I managed to blindly stumble into discovering a piece of low-hanging fruit that was missed by researchers in the 90’s and hasn’t been found by anybody since then because they haven’t even been looking in this tree. If that is the case, it seems like the next step for me should be to connect with a research group and collaborate on a not-very-interesting-but-still-non-trivial paper. Otherwise, I should stop here, add this project to my portfolio of work that I am building to make myself look more employable, and move onto studying more trendy topics in machine learning. That is what I am leaning on your advice to try and decide.

          • Ivy says:

            Thanks for the clarification. The issue I guess is that there have been many ways to improve neural net training invented since the 90’s, and the critical piece of information I’m missing is how your technique overlaps with and/or compares to those.

            If your technique beats the state-of-art on some dataset, that’s clearly a publishable result. It might be fairly easy to do this – just find a recent ML paper that released their code, swap out their training algorithm for yours, and see if that improves their metrics.

            Even without state-of-the-art results on real datasets, your technique might be so original and interesting that it’s worth pursuing further. But to judge that you’d need to get an expert to actually look at the technique. I’d suggest posting the outline on /r/MachineLearning and asking if anyone’s seen related papers.

    • Tiberius says:

      Hi mustacheion,

      I am currently a researcher in machine learning and would be interested in hearing about your idea. I am not an expert but I have seen a reasonable amount of publications and I train neural networks myself, though mostly of the convolutional kind.
      There are a number of ways people have tried to solve the vanishing or exploding gradient problem, the most important I know of are the residual networks, normalization layers and Long-Short-Term-Memories.

      I don’t think any new method will break into the community without cracking any records at least for some scenarios (Either more accuracy, less training data, less training steps, smaller model size, better generalisation …). There are just too many new ideas proposed and no one has time to check them all.

      you can contact me by email at: tiberius101 (weird a-symbol) protonmail (:/2) com

    • willachandler says:

      For comedic illumination, try searching for the phrases “machine learning” and “graduate student descent”. 🙂

      More concretely, Anne Greenbaum’s monograph Iterative Methods for Solving Linear Systems (SIAM 1997) provides an accessible introduction to a vast mathematical literature whose methods the AI/ML community is perennially rediscovering.

      The point is that there is no easy, simple, or quick way to assess whether a given AI/ML method is mathematically novel. In particular, it commonly happens that the details of a AI/ML implementation are novel; far less commonly those details are grounded in a genuinely novel and generally applicable mathematical insight, and only very occasionally can new mathematical insights be expressed as theorems rigorously proved.

      For up-to-the-minute news and insights regarding these matters, Sanjeev Arora, Moritz Hardt, and Nisheeth Vishnoi host a marvelously informative weblog Off the Convex Path.

  25. Telminha says:

    I suspect that I might be autistic. I’m a woman, and I’ve heard that autism symptoms are different in women.
    I’ve taken a few tests online (I’m aware that they should not be used to make a diagnosis), but they all say that I probably am.
    I do not want to pay for an official diagnosis. I’ve been in therapy before (CBT) for something (un)related (depression and anxiety), and regret not having explored this issue.
    How do I know?

    I don’t smile much. I was looking at my pictures the other day, and I’m always serious in them, even when I was a child.
    People ask me why I don’t smile in pictures. I think I’ll look like an ax murderer, to be honest. Smiling doesn’t feel natural. I’ll laugh if someone tickles me or say something very random – “Only consume apples that really speak to you.”

    I’m shy and feel very anxious when I know I will have to interact with other people. When I do, I spend some time rehearsing in my head what I’ll say next, and due to that, I often miss what the other person has said;

    I have a difficult time starting a conversation and keeping the pace. It feels like jumping rope, and I never know when to enter it. There are always a few awkward interruptions. Perhaps this is more of a cultural thing? I’m from Brazil;

    If I have an activity on Friday, for example, I start to stress out days before; wishing and hoping that it will be canceled or trying to make up excuses. “My cat died.” I don’t have a cat;

    I don’t understand sarcasm very well;

    I’m uncomfortable with looking people in the eyes. I remember one day when I tried for more than a few seconds with someone I liked. I became extremely nervous and felt as if I had lost my legs;

    I don’t like bright lights. I replaced some of the regular light bulbs with orange ones;

    I like the texture of certain things: rubbing the corner of a broken fingernail or a few strands of hair;

    I’m afraid of driving. I’m only comfortable going to places I already know or have checked on the map – many times. I avoid freeways like the plague. I can’t understand the fluidity of driving. It feels like dancing to me.
    I have a hard time changing lanes because I don’t seem to understand distance. My reflexes are very slow;

    I like poetry and obscure, ancient philosophies;

    I like routine;

    I avoid the news as they make me sad. I seem to absorb other people’s suffering in a way that it makes me very depressed and paralyzed;

    When I go for a walk, I like to observe the houses and the trees and other things along the way. The color of the houses, the brightness of the day, and the way the leaves move with the wind, for example, gives me the impression that the day is either sad or happy. If it’s sad, I avoid that path from then on. I don’t know if that makes sense.

    I apologize if this question is out of place. It probably belongs in the bin of poor quality questions.

    • MNH says:

      I have a female friend with Aspergers who told me that people with it often experience some degree of synesthesia (and she herself does). What you say about walking sounds like it might be that to me.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      Too me you sound more like a very sensitive, socially anxious person than autistic.

      I suspect that social anxiety skews autism tests, because they usually don’t specifically ask: “if social interaction were always as easy and effortless as it is with lifelong friends, would you rather take a watch apart than meet people”.

      That being said, autism is part of a spectrum over the whole population. You’ll be on there somewhere. Maybe you’re in the 97th percentile and an official diagnosis will say you aren’t autistic. Maybe you’re in the 99th percentile and and the diagnosis says you are. Will that distinction be helpful?

    • Aapje says:

      @Telminha

      Some questions that autistic women seem to answer different than average people:

      Do you feel that you have a male brain?

      Do you engage in repetitive acts, especially when under stress? For example, do you engage in hand flapping, rocking, excessive or hard blinking, pacing, head banging, repeating noises or words, snapping fingers, and/or spinning objects?

      Do you have fixations/obsessions, where you like to do the same thing a lot for a period?

      Did you have real girlfriends when you were 10-15 years old?

      Have you ever had a boyfriend?

      Here is something to read that might be helpful. And more.

      And since you like poetry, here is poetry about Asperger’s.

      PS. I consider myself a person who is more similar to autistic people than the average person, but too neurotypical for it to be useful to classify myself as a true autistic person. So I agree with BlindKungFuMaster that you may not want to make a binary choice between autistic and neurotypical.

      • Telminha says:

        I don’t know how to answer the first question because it’s very difficult for me to imagine being anyone else, either a man or a woman.

        Yes, pacing, rocking, hair twirling. If I could, I’d replace all the chairs in my house with rocking chairs.

        I do, but some don’t last more than a couple of weeks. Mountain dulcimer being the last one.

        Not really. My best friend at that age was a boy and he was gay.

        Yes, my first date was at age 21. Then, married my second boyfriend.

        Thank you for the links. The book looks interesting and I added to my reading list. I also enjoyed reading some of the poems. I particularly liked The Mask of Me.

        • Aapje says:

          My first question was not about gender dysphoria (having a mismatch between self-identity and the body), but more about being more things-oriented vs more people oriented, which is strongly gender related. Women who are very things-oriented can feel disconnected from other women and instead understand men better, which they can interpret as having a male brain. I don’t think this requires imagining to be someone else. That you had a male best friend and no real female friends is consistent with this.

          Given your additional answers as well as your earlier statements, I see a lot of things that are very consistent with Asperger’s, but also evidence that you are quite high functioning (but then again, that may be a trait of women with Asperger’s). For example, only a quarter of people diagnosed with Asperger’s can drive on their own and very few women with Asperger seem to be able to date/marry.

          It seems quite hard to diagnose and study high functioning women with autism. I hope you can find information that helps you, but I suggest keeping your expectations low.

          • Telminha says:

            Apologies. I understand now. I do believe I have more common interests with men. I have never personally met another woman who was fond of philosophy, for example.

            I’d say most people who know me would doubt I’m on the spectrum. Most of my struggles, I kept hidden from the ones I know. I observe people interacting with each other since I was young, and practiced being social. It’s not a natural thing for me, but I try.

            I ordered the book you recommended. Thank you again.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      “Perhaps this is more of a cultural thing? I’m from Brazil.” – it can’t possibly be a *Brazilian* culture problem, because the vast majority of the 207 million (amount just overtaken by Pakistan, BTW) doesn’t suffer from that problem; if anything, from the opposite, “huehuehuehs”. “Autism” is the simplest explanation considering your other informations, but it might actually be worth considering whether your familiarity with Western culture contributed to hesitation about, um … talking a lot, about, let’s say, random stuff. Lastly, some would say “don’t be afraid of awkward silence”, including our host.

      ” trying to make up excuses.” – confirming the utility of the advice “only invite people you met recently to things you’d do alone anyway”.

      Did you meet Stoicism through CBT, or before?

      • Telminha says:

        I discovered Stoicism first. Then I learned about Albert Ellis and how he was directly influenced by the Stoics, and wanted to try CBT. It did not help me much. I had more success just by reading books on Stoicism and practicing the exercises.

    • Sam Reuben says:

      I’d be willing to guess that you are, in fact, on the autistic spectrum. There are a lot of people who are, and who exhibit the same general traits as you do. Note that I use “autistic spectrum,” rather than “autism.” Autism isn’t an on-off sort of deal; different people exhibit autistic traits in different magnitudes. You have a bunch of the characteristics, and as such, you are likely on the spectrum. (Actually, the diagnosis is even easier: do you post in the SSC comments? If so, you are probably somewhere on the spectrum. Things like this don’t draw the interest of most people. Another big tell is the texture-sensitivity. This is far more common in people who are on the spectrum.)

      So what is there to learn from this? Well, not a whole lot, to be honest. You already know all of those personal characteristics of yourself with or without the moniker of autism. If there are other characteristics common among those with autism, that doesn’t mean you have to try to exhibit them. The Delphic imperative is “know thyself,” and in order to list these things, you must already be doing that.

      What you can learn is that other people do not act in the same way, and learn how to bridge the gap between how they interact with the world and how you interact with the world to facilitate smooth and easy social contact. That’s a long and complicated process, but you have the tools needed to get started.

      A piece of advice you might find helpful: conversation, like everything else, is a trained skill. It takes practice to get good at it. You will embarrass yourself, as with practicing anything, and you’ll do it in public – but most people don’t really care about it, seeing as they’re too self-centered, and the ones who do care are not good practice partners in the first place. There’s seven billion people on the planet. There will always be someone else to talk to, so it doesn’t matter if you mess anything up while talking to someone. With practice, these things become easier. Most people get the basic practice done when they are very young, when it’s accepted that you’re supposed to embarrass yourself, and badly. People on the autistic spectrum tend to have less interest and talent in social affairs, and spend their time alone, meaning their basic practice comes later. That’s fine. Everyone’s different, and finding your own path is normal.

      I hope this answers the implicit questions in your post. I interpreted this as not so much being “do I have autism” as being “how should I live in accordance with the fact that I have autism,” and tried to touch on that instead.

    • willachandler says:

      Five books, by four authors, whose youthful female protagonists may speak to high-IQ, socially challenged, depressives of all genders and ages, are first, Robert Heinlein’s stoicism-grounded novels Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958) and Podkayne of Mars (1962, both books are written for young adults); second, Yannick Grannec’s The Goddess of Small Victories (2014, a novelization of the marriage of Adele Porkert to Kurt Godel), third, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (2017, regarding the psychological perils of excessive introspection), and fourth, Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink (2017, reflections upon philosophical, romantic, and physical desires, in Spinoza’s era and ours).

      Blessedly, these authors leaven their narratives with plenty of comedy. E.g., in Grannec’s The Goddess of Small Victories we read:

      My name is Kurt Gödel. And you are Fräulein Adele. Am I right?”

      “Almost right, but then you can’t know everything!”

      “That remains to be seen.”

      Aye, SSC lassies and laddies, this passage gracefully reminds the reader that even the most ardent logic-lovers can “meet cute”! 🙂

      • I think highly of Podkayne, but in what sense is it stoicism grounded?

        Who do you think is the protagonist?

        • willachandler says:

          Are there any Heinlein juvenile protagonists who don’t embody — by the end of the story if not always at the beginning — the sober stoic virtues that Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius commend? Specifically, the four cardinal stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance?

          No such non-stoic Heinlein protagonists occur to (my) mind … the contrast with comically unrepentant delinquents like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer is striking.

          As for “who’s a protagonist”, Clark and Poddy both are, eh?

          • I think Clark is. Podkayne is the viewpoint character.

            And Clark does not demonstrate justice–he’s a psychopath who may be turning into a human being, due in part to the influence of his sister. That’s the point both of his uncle’s comment at the end and of the final bit about the fairy.

          • willachandler says:

            That older stoic role-models (Poddy, Baslim, Sergeant Zim) inspire and instruct neophytes (Clark, Thorby, Johnny Rico) is an ubiquitous theme in Heinlein’s young-adult novels … and in Kipling’s Kim too, whose stoic moral themes — and even the chief plot lines — are deftly echoed by Heinlein in Citizen of the Galaxy.

            Hence, to the (unknown) extent that Heinlein consciously wrote by recipe(s), “stoic mentoring” plainly is a much-used ingredient.

            Whereas in Mark Twain’s largely mentor-free narrative universes, characters like Huck and Tom and Pudd’nhead Wilson mostly have to figure things out for themselves … generally to comedic effect! 🙂

          • Podkayne isn’t mentoring her brother–he views her with affectionate contempt. She is influencing him by example, which is a very different thing.

          • willachandler says:

            Lol … yes indeed, Poddy and her uncle (Mars Senator Tom Fries) both appreciate the utter futility of arguing with self-absorbed high-IQ individuals like Clark! 🙂

            As Alexander Pope put it:

            Some people will never learn anything, for this reason, because they understand everything too soon.

            Garrison Keillor explains how this works:

            In looking down on things, we give up ever understanding them.

            Perhaps we can all learn from Podkayne and her uncle, that over the long haul, personal examples can be more convincing than abstract reasons.

            After all, aren’t personal examples and actions, rather than arguments and abstract reasons, the means by which Double Star’s self-absorbed high-IQ actor Lawrence Smith evolves into the empathic progressive John Joseph Bonforte?

        • hlynkacg says:

          Stop feeding the troll.

  26. hlynkacg says:

    Naval Gazing Guest Post: The Origins of Naval Aviation
    Series Index

    As discussed previously in this series, locating and tracking the enemy has always been one of the more significant challenges of Naval warfare. From the biremes and triremes of ancient antiquity to the turn of the 20th century the primary sensor system of any warship was the Mark 1 Mod 0 Eyeball. Effective sensor range was largely a function of atmospheric conditions (weather) and height above the water *1.  To this end almost every ship designed prior to the modern era included a dedicated lookout platform called a “top” at or near the ship’s highest point (typically the mainmast of a sailing vessel) *2. For the vast bulk of history the range at which an enemy could be detected had always been many times greater than the range at which an enemy could be engaged. To illustrate, a typical vessel of the Napoleonic era had a top-height between 100 and 200 ft which equates to a horizon range between 11 and 16 nautical miles. Meanwhile, the effective range of artillery in that age (including the cannon that comprised a warship’s broadside/primary armament) was typically less than one nautical mile. This changed at the close of the 19th century. With the advent of steam power and heavy naval rifles, horizon to horizon combat became a genuine possibility, and the ability to detect and track targets beyond the horizon became a necessity.

    Aircraft were seen as an obvious solution to this problem. Observation balloons had been used to great effect on both sides of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war and a balloon at 3,000 ft could theoretically quadruple the range at which a vessel could be spotted from 16 nm to 64 nm. However two significant advances were required before Naval aviation could be of practical use, powered flight, and radio transmitter/receivers light enough to be carried aloft without the need for an extension cord *3. The British Royal Navy became the first to formally embrace airpower in 1908 with the commissioning of HMA(His Majesty’s Airship) Hermione, a rigid hulled airship based on Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s LZ-4 and built at the Vickers Naval Works in Barrow-in-Furness. Nicknamed the Mayfly (she may fly, she may not) she was never flown operationally but the lessons learned in her design and construction proved invaluable. By the start of World War I in 1914 airships were in regular service with the navies of England, France, Germany, and Italy, as scouts and commerce raiders. However their delicacy and limited endurance prevented them from operating far from shore.

    Meanwhile on the far side of the Atlantic Orville and Wilbur Wright had demonstrated the feasibility of heavier than air flight in 1903 and by 1909 had developed thier experimental Flyer into a practical two-seat biplane with a 95 nautical mile range and 35 knot cruising speed. The Wright Model B was the first aircraft to enter mass production, and the first to be made available for sale to the public. It’s design was emulated *4 and improved upon by numerous inventors including fellow bicycle mechanic Glen Curtiss.

    An avid motorcycle builder and racer Curtiss immediately set about adding a more powerful engine and experimenting with various landing gear configurations (all Wright Brothers’ designs had used skids up to this point) including pontoons for landing on water and the first example of the 2 -1 tricycle suspension used by almost all modern aircraft *5. In 1910 Curtiss met Captain Washington Chambers, who’d been tasked by the Secretary of the Navy to investigate potential uses for aviation and together they made arrangements to test the feasibility of operating from ships. On November 14, 1910, pilot Eugene Ely launched himself from the deck of the USS Birmingham (CL-2) not into the waters of Chesapeake Bay as everyone expected but into Naval aviation history. Two months later, on January 18, 1911, Ely successfully landed on a custom 120 ft long platform built on the fantail of the USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) using a Curtiss-designed tailhook to catch a series of ropes weighted with sand-bags and strung across the deck to arrest his momentum. After lunch with the ship’s captain and interviews with the press, the deck was cleared and Ely took off, returning to shore. The success of the Pennsylvania demonstration convinced the US Navy to allocate $25,000 *6 to Curtiss for the purchase of 3 airplanes further development and company and prompted Curtiss to establish the first formal training camp for pilots and aircraft mechanics on the north shore of Coronado Island in San Diego bay.

    The first nation to use an aircraft in naval warfare wasn’t actually a nation at the time. In May of 1913 a group of Mexican revolutionaries traveled to Los Angeles to purchase an airplane. They had it shipped in crates to the border town of Naco where it was reassembled and christened “Sonora”. Armed with homemade pipe-bombs and a .30 cal rifle Pilot Gustavo Salinas Camiña and Mechanic/Bombardier Theodore Madariaga set out in Sonora to break the Federalist blockade of Guyamas. Finding the Gunboat Guerrero (Warrior) anchored in the harbor the two men pressed the attack, dropping their bombs and firing on any sailors who showed themselves above deck. Several officers on the Guerrero’s bridge attempted to return fire with their sidearms but their shots had no effect. While the Sonora’s attack dealt little or no damage to the Guerrero herself, they did inflict several casualties among her crew and forced the remainder to take shelter below decks leaving her primary battery unmanned. Unable to effectively fight back (anti-aircraft guns having yet to be invented) the Federalist Navy was eventually forced to abandon the harbor and withdraw beyond the range of the Revolutionary Air Force effectively ending the blockade.

    While the navies of both Britain and Japan both took note of the Mexican Revolutionaries’ success, and responded by sending representatives to the US to be trained by Curtiss, the US Navy seems to have taken the opposite lesson. The fact that the Guerrero, a mere gunboat, took no significant damage would be cited, for years to come, as “proof” that airplanes posed no threat to armored vessels. (It would take a World War and an insubordinate general to disabuse them of this notion) As a result naval aviation in the US stagnated as Britain surged ahead.

    In spring of 1912 the British pre-dreadnought HMS Hibernia was fitted with a 100-foot long platform above her forward 12-inch turret and Lieutenant Charles Samson, became the first man to take-off from a ship while underway. Participating in a series of exercises off of the coast of Sheerness, the performance of the Hibernia and her air detachment convinced the admiralty that while airplanes were undoubtedly the future, the makeshift platforms, and the limits they imposed on a ship’s primary armament made operating them from a conventional warship impractical. As such, a new class of ship dedicated to carrying aircraft needed to be developed. The first ship to carry the designation “Aircraft Carrier” was commissioned in 1914 as the HMS Ark Royal *7. Built on a merchant’s hull she lacked the full length flight deck that we associate with carriers today and as such would be more accurately described as a “Seaplane Carrier”. Instead of taking off and landing conventionally, her complement of 9 seaplanes was launched from a platform (later a catapult) on the bow and were recovered by landing on the water alongside and being lifted aboard by crane.

    By the outbreak of World War One in July of 1914 the Royal Navy had the largest air force in the world with six rigid-hull airships and over ninety airplanes. Though their primary mission remained reconnaissance, the Admiralty encouraged experimentation and when it was discovered that the new Short Folding Seaplanes *8  had sufficient lift to (barely) carry the same Whitehead torpedoes used by Royal Navy destroyers and patrol boats they immediately ordered the development of dedicated attack aircraft to “carry the fight to the enemy”. The first two prototype torpedo bombers were embarked upon the converted tramp steamer HMS Ben-my-Chree and dispatched to the Aegean sea to take part in the Gallipoli campaign where Flight Commander (and Future Air Marshal of the RAF) Charles Edmonds would become the first pilot to successfully sink an enemy ship in combat. [Bean: The first aircraft torpedo to kill an enemy ship unaided was actually launched while the airplane was landed on the water.]  The Japanese, in partnership with the British, would follow suit one month later using their own aircraft to attack the German-held port of Tsingtao (Qingdao) China. The concept of strike warfare had been born.

    I have more but I’m running late, and the war itself along with Billy Mitchell’s efforts to convince the US military to embrace airpower really warrant their own post.

    Footnotes:
    *1 Maximum spotting range in nautical miles/minutes of latitude is roughly equal to 1.17 multiplied by the square root of the lookout’s elevation in feet above the water. (Warning: equation not valid on celestial bodies other than Earth)
    *2 The term “crow’s nest” refers specifically to an enclosed top. These were more typical of whalers and exploratory vessels than dedicated fighting ships.
    *3 The German Navy experimented with towing gliders behind fast cruisers and stringing a telephone cable up the tow rope in 1901 but somehow this failed to catch on.  
    *4 Disputes with Curtiss over the similarity of his Reims Racer to the Model B lead to the infamous Wright Brothers patent war.
    *5 Two large wheels that support the bulk of the aircraft’s weight and absorb the force of landing with a smaller “castor” wheel at the nose or tail for balance.  
    *6 Approx. 6 million dollars today
    *7 Aircraft Carriers named Ark Royal are to the Royal Navy as Starships named Enterprise are to Starfleet. Every time one goes down they build another.
    *8 Named for the company that built them, Short Brothers of Sunderland, rather than their length.

    • bean says:

      Thanks for getting this together, and good job. I wasn’t familiar with the Guerrero.

    • Aapje says:

      Why didn’t the navy just start by craning a seaplane into and out of the water? That seems to me a more logical way to start integrating planes with ships (because of low cost and because it is easy to adapt a ship for it).

      How could that first aircraft torpedo be fired while the plane was landed on the water? Wouldn’t the ship have shred the plane with her guns? Unless the target was a merchant.

      Could you please use a different way to include the footnote references? I keep doing calculations, so modern aircraft *5 is 5 planes, $25,000 *6 is $150,000, etc. Perhaps (1) is better.

      • bean says:

        Why didn’t the navy just start by craning a seaplane into and out of the water? That seems to me a more logical way to start integrating planes with ships (because of low cost and because it is easy to adapt a ship for it).

        Launching straight off the ship is a lot faster, and it’s easier on the plane. In bad weather, recovering seaplanes was very difficult. Launching is even more difficult, because you’re having to drag the floats through the water and power them into the air. With the engines of the time, that was actually quite difficult. And since planes took off fairly quickly on land, with some good use of wind, it was easy enough to just fly them off.

        How could that first aircraft torpedo be fired while the plane was landed on the water? Wouldn’t the ship have shred the plane with her guns? Unless the target was a merchant.

        It was indeed a merchie.

        • hlynkacg says:

          It was indeed a merchie.

          There seems to be some disagreement on this, I’ve seen sources label it as a freighter, tug boat, and Turkish coast guard vessel. The Mediterranean squadron’s official dispatches list it as a Turkish Navy supply/troop ship which is what I went with.

      • hlynkacg says:

        Why didn’t the navy just start by craning a seaplane into and out of the water?

        Good question; Short Answer, it was easier. Launching a seaplane is generally deicer affair than landing one in a given sea state, and airflow over the wings from the ship’s forward motion is effectively “free lift” as far as the plane is concerned. Further more craning was both time consuming required the ship to slow to a crawl where as launching from the bow was as simple as opening the throttle and hanging on for dear life.

        How could that first aircraft torpedo be fired while the plane was landed on the water? Wouldn’t the ship have shred the plane with her guns? Unless the target was a merchant.

        Details are a bit scant in this regard, according to the after action report Edmonds’ wingman had been forced to set down due to damage and they were taxiing together on the surface when a Turkish troop ship approached them. They turned towards the Turks and released thier torpedoes, before attempting to flee. The torpedoes struck thier target and the damaged aircraft, now significantly lighter, was able to get airborne and escape to friendly territory.

        Something to keep in mind is that light caliber weapons, machine guns, etc… were not yet standard naval armament at the time. I suspect the attack was successful in large part because it was unexpected.

        Could you please use a different way to include the footnote references?

        Noted.

        Edit:

        Ninja’d by bean

        • John Schilling says:

          Further more craning was both time consuming required the ship to slow to a crawl where as launching from the bow was as simple as opening the throttle and hanging on for dear life.

          Also, a floatplane can taxi at say twenty knots alongside a ship steaming at twenty knots, and be safely lifted out of the water. The reverse procedure isn’t nearly as safe to do at speed, so if you’re trying to provide scouting services for a battle fleet you really don’t want the version that requires you to ever slow to a crawl.

    • spkaca says:

      Minor correction. Short Brothers was a Belfast firm; the Sunderland was its most famous product, a mighty WW2 U-boat hunter.

      • hlynkacg says:

        *checks notes*

        You’re right, looks like I got a wire crossed between the Sunderland Boatworks, and Short Sunderland (the flying boat). Mea Culpa.

    • dodrian says:

      Since this hasn’t generated much discussion, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to your next post!

  27. Oleg S. says:

    I’m trying to make a short sociological survey, and am trying to use Amazon Mechanical Turk, but unfortunately it has limitations – the requester has to live in US or in a very short list of countries. Does anyone know an alternative or way around this limitation or alternative platforms?

  28. Telminha says:

    I posted a question here two or three times, but it disappeared every time. Was it deleted by a moderator?

    • bean says:

      You probably ran into the filter. There are certain banned words, intended to avoid topics that tend to cause problems. They can be worked around, if you’re clever. I think the comments post (see top bar) has at least a partial list.

      • Telminha says:

        Thank you for your replay. I believe you are right.
        I went to the Comment page and checked the censored words and terms. I did not use any of the listed ones. My question did not contain slurs or any offensive words and it was not related to politics or culture war, but I certainly did something wrong. I’ll never know.

        • Brad says:

          The other possibility is the spam filter. It has a rather overactive imagination. If you had several links that’s the likely culprit.

          • Matt M says:

            Yes, and even a single link simply copy-pasted into the message (rather than using the link function) can get you in trouble as well.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      None of your posts have been deleted. One got caught in the spam filter, sorry. I’ve approved it and it should be showing now.

    • Deiseach says:

      Spam Filter Monster hungry. Needs moar delicious comments to devour.

      (That’s the most likely explanation. Too many/wrong kind of links also gets you in trouble with the Spam Filter Gods).

  29. SUT says:

    What is the gene that makes women find tall men attractive?

    Obviously women instinctually sense that a taller man is more likely to win a fight, and that they were well nourished in upbringing. So its not a preferencr gene for a concrete trait like height, but a gene for the abstract concept of dominance. The way a gene for breast preference works is similiar but is slightly more subtle…

    Breasts, like high heels are an encumberance to athletic performance. Although men usually prefer shorter women, high heels, which make women taller, are perceived as sexy because it shows the woman is encumbering herself with impractical footwear. Mirror neuron type thoughts tell men this woman is signalling she needs a provider and defender. And likewise, where a muscular chest that you can pound on is a primitive signal of dominance, a display of large amounts of fatty (not muscular) and highly sensitive tissue is a sign that the woman will not be defiant of challenging.

    Not all large breasts are attractive either; saggy is worse than nothing at all. The key for provocative display is to push them up, in imitation of a younger, fresher woman.

    To summarize: brains will pattern match breasts as a sign of potential submission and (in the right form) as not being attached to a family yet. These abstract concepts are one of the archetypes that men are programmed to look for – “the maiden” in Jung’s system. The genes act at this abstract level, and the cognition and perception end up classifying breasts as fitting these concepts

  30. SUT says:

    What is the gene that makes women find tall men attractive?

    Obviously women instinctually sense that a taller man is more likely to win a fight, and that they were well nourished in upbringing. So its not a preferencr gene for a concrete trait like height, but a gene for the abstract concept of dominance. The way a gene for breast preference works is similiar but is slightly more subtle…

    Breasts, like high heels are an encumberance to athletic performance. Although men usually prefer shorter women, high heels, which make women taller, are perceived as attractive because it shows the woman is encumbering herself with impractical footwear. Mirror neuron type thoughts tell men this woman is signalling she needs a provider and defender. And likewise, where a muscular chest that you can pound on is a primitive signal of dominance, a display of large amounts of fatty (not muscular) and highly sensitive tissue is a sign that the woman will not be defiant of challenging.

    Not all large breasts are attractive either; saggy is worse than nothing at all. The key for provocative display is to push them up, in imitation of a younger, fresher woman.

    To summarize: brains will pattern match breasts as a sign of potential submission and (in the right form) as not being attached to a family yet. These abstract concepts are one of the archetypes that men are programmed to look for – “the maiden” in Jung’s system. The genes act at this abstract level, and the cognition and perception end up classifying breasts as fitting these concepts.

    • keranih says:

      Ummm. I think this is not correct on a couple of assumptions.

      A woman in heels is not sexy because she’s awkward, but because the imbalance forces a shift in the hips & pelvis, increasing the arc and rearward thrust of the butt.

      Also, the amount of tissue on breasts that is sensitive isn’t really related to the size of the breasts.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think you have this all pretty much backwards. Coding in signalling for preference for submission over dominance may work (we seem to have a lot of work on that in hierarchical rankings in packs/troupes and how males battle each other for mating privileges, also work on signalling surrender and submission so that the victor need not kill or seriously injure the losing challenger) but in sexual terms? That’s very tangled because then it would be just as easy to signal “losing male who signals submission is also signalling sexual receptivity” and probably somenone somewhere has done work on this (but I’m not really going to wade through furry porn).

      As for high heels, they started out as (1) unisex and practical; things like chopines to get your feet out of the mud. I’ve also seen something somewhere about butchers wearing them to keep their feet out of the blood when slaughtering animals but I have no idea how much of a ‘just-so’ story that was (2) indicators of high social status because being able to afford fancy shoes meant wealth and position; this was most prevalent with men wearing high heels – see Louis XIV because heels also make you seem taller and appearing tall is, as you have noted, associated with health and dominance etc. As a status symbol, noble women also aspired to them and over time high heels became, for whatever reason, associated with women solely.

      High heels extend the leg, make you look taller, as keranih says they throw the alignment of the spine and pelvis off so you get emphasis on the buttocks and the curve of the lower back and with a heck of a lot of socialisation they become associated with “this is sexy” (possibly because (a) the association in Venice of courtesans with wearing high heels and (b) the same reason stockings and garter belts are “sexy lingerie” even though these are really clothing styles that went out in the 50s and 60s with the introduction of tights/panty hose and discarding the girdle).

      EDIT: And shapely legs were, in the days of close-fitting hose, stockings, breeches and pantaloons, considered attractive on men – to the point of caricature at times 🙂

      Sure, I see that what you posit is along the same lines as the assumed rationale for foot-binding in China – that it made women helpless as in they literally could not run away – but I really don’t know how strong that line of reasoning is, when allowing for the bias in feminist readings of “it is all the fault of the evil patriarchy that wants to literally as well as figuratively restrict and tie down women’s power”.

      • SUT says:

        The heels example is simply meant to be an analogy, surely there’s no gene for shoe preference, right? Which is part of my larger point: there is a way to make a genotype – men – to have a very specific prefernce without the modern explanation of social conditioning.

        I would avoid the whole four centuries of garment history in understanding what gives Gender-X the tingles. Fantasy artists can come up with an elf or martian outfit that arouses without any real history for these societies. On the other hand, why we wear certain clothes in formal social settings I’m sure does trace back to butchers guilds and French kings. But what I wanted to examine is primitive emotions, as divorced from cultural happenstance as possible. And yes, that gets down to our lizard brain where the feminists *do* have a point about male sexual avarice.

        Based on the reality of our time and place, our Cognition asks “so what does that imply?” about anything we perceive. For your example of Mr. Tight Pants, I suspect his contemporary would say he doesn’t spend all day working or worrying about his business, he is a man of leisure (and maybe passion!). For a modern woman, who is free to wear whatever she wants, aggressive heels imply she doesn not spend all day worrying about career and chores, she is a woman of leisure and maybe passion.

        Then to tie that analogy back to biomechanics, which is more timeless than fashion, and which we are optimized to perceive differences that causes advantages/disadvantages, you might see how certain anatomies will become preferred simply as an artifact of upstream abstract mate-personality preferences.

        • Deiseach says:

          You’re trying to have it both ways now: your original argument was “women wear certain clothing items because these are considered sexually attractive because they signal submission”, and you were the one who brought high heels into the discussion.

          It’s pointed out that these were unisex and so knock back your point to needing to explain why wearing these does not then signal male submissiveness/sexual availability, and you jump off that horse and onto a different horse to talk about bio-mechanics.

          Great. But that still leaves “so why doesn’t this signal attractiveness in men?” for your proposition, which you still haven’t answered. It’s a bit chicken-and-egg to say “biomechanics reflect mate-personality preference and these clothing/shoe items mimic/effect those biomechanics”.

          If what you want to argue is “men want submissive women”, go ahead, but leave fashion as proof out of it. Argue it from biomechanics or what you will, but make an argument from it. Right now, you sound more like you’re talking about your personal kink (and hey, submissive women make your motor run? You go! That’s fine, but don’t make it a universal rule of all human evolutionary history).

          EDIT: Your argument is that mate-personality preference indicates male prefer submissive females. Okay. You then used the example of high heels as a way women – by restricting their ability to run away – signal submission and lack of aggression. Yet then when you acknowledge that this is culturally and chronologically dependent – “avoid the whole four centuries garment history in understanding what gives Gender-X the tingles” – you must therefore back up your assertion that this preference has an evo-psych explanation, and defaulting once again to “For a modern woman, who is free to wear whatever she wants, aggressive heels imply she doesn not spend all day worrying about career and chores” doesn’t explain that – what did women do in the 12th century to attract men if they weren’t wearing stilettos, and if your only response to that is that there were no hard-thrusting career women in the 12th century, all women were naturally meek, mild and came pre-packaged as submissive, I suggest you take another look at what you are saying.

          • SUT says:

            This topic is obviously a minefield and I rather regret walking into it when the actual substance could have been stated in a far less X-rated way. G-version:

            I don’t think house cats have a gene that gives them preferences for jumping in cardboard boxes. I think they have genes which create circuits in the brain that release comfort endorphins when their bodies are squeezed into tightly enclosed spaces. Perception and cognition recognize a new box in the house as a possible way the cat could achieve this pleasurable mental state. Thus cats seem to be curious and playful around boxes as they seek to asses and satisfy a very simple genetically programmed concept: enclose yourself.

            This is not meant to be theory of everything for cat behavior, human sexuality or fashion, just a sketch of how to go from genetics -> seemingly complex and remarkable behavior.

            I will say I have enjoyed the vigorous debate and challenges. A final for the record: the type of cognition I was thinking of was operating at the level seen in the animation here: http://www.atm.damtp.cam.ac.uk/people/mem/reith.htm(yes, safe for work).

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Men aren’t put off by women who dance well in heels. They don’t mind seeing women fight in high heels.

      While high heels actually limit movement and add risk, I don’t see any reason to think that’s what men like about seeing women in high heels.

      • Aapje says:

        I would say that’s it’s generally off-putting when a woman is unable to walk with heels and stumbles/falls all over the place. So I’d say that men probably like it despite limiting movement, not because of it.

  31. Sniffnoy says:

    Has there been a decrease in gambling over the past, say, 100 years or so?

    • Matt M says:

      I have no studies or data or anything (which is probably what you want).

      My guess would be no, but that we have, largely, shifted from “traditional” forms of gambling (underground card games, cock fights, etc.) to more subtle things that are sometimes not even called gambling at all (fantasy sports, short-term stock trading, etc.)

      • actinide meta says:

        Recently people have figured out that you can take money from roughly the same people without actually having to pay out winnings, by using similar stochastic reward schedules but having the rewards be entirely virtual. See F2P gaming. My guess is it has grown at the expense of the kind of gambling where you could theoretically come out ahead, on the grounds that there’s only so much money in the hands of suitable victims, but I haven’t researched the question.

    • BBA says:

      100 years ago was probably a low point for gambling. Nearly all forms of gambling were banned practically everywhere. There was the casino at Monte Carlo, and in some areas betting on horse races, but I think that’s it, and it being the middle of the Great War those weren’t particularly accessible. Illegal gambling might have been common, but I can’t imagine mob-run underground lotteries being more common than the ones selling tickets on every street corner today.

    • skef says:

      If derivatives count, then no.

  32. johan_larson says:

    Let’s talk about secrets. Governments sometimes have them, and they (the secrets) can be very big indeed. “We can read many German encrypted transmissions,” was a big secret for the UK government to be sitting on back in the day. So was, “We have a working atomic bomb,” for the Americans.

    So, what secrets might various governments be sitting on today?

    For example, it is possible that the Canadian government somehow intervened behind the scenes to make the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence juuust barely land on the side of Stay.

    • shakeddown says:

      Seems unlikely. (1) IIRC the referendum was judged to be too poorly worded to count as a legal precedent, so not enough motivation. (2) If they were intervening, they could have plausibly gotten a bigger margin, which would have been much better for their goals. (3) If the Canadian government had the ability to do that, you’d think the American government could manipulate votes against Trump.

      • johan_larson says:

        If the referendum for separation had passed, even by a narrow margin, the Canadian government would have been in an uncomfortable place. Negotiate, and end up with a Canada in three pieces. Refuse to negotiate, and face a storm of legitimate protest, and probably eventually a francophone IRA (the FLQ II). And either way, watch the resulting economic uncertainty dry up investments and send the dollar into a tailspin until the issue is resolved one way or another.

    • The Nybbler says:

      It’s suspected NSA can break one or more common encryption schemes. The existence of highly-placed HUMINT assets (up to and including “Trump is working for the Russians”) is always a possibility. On the very unlikely side, the existence of a quantum communicator, allowing bugs to be useful in underground installations. Slightly more likely, stealth drone technology capable of undetectable close surveillance of secure areas. Rather more likely, backdoors in various pieces of commercial equipment ranging from phones to cars to industrial robots.

    • shakeddown says:

      The one piece of evidence I have for this is the time someone in IDF intelligence training told me “I just found out something really cool, on the order of “we have a nuclear bomb”, but unrelated to nukes”. I have no idea what he found out, but this makes the idea of government secrets plausible. Especially since he was just in general-ish intelligence, ad the really cool stuff would require a lot more clearance.

    • ManyCookies says:

      Tangentially related question: Suppose the US government somehow develops a very reliable nuclear defense program (>90% success), one they can keep secret if they so choose. What would be some of the considerations for keeping it secret or going public?

      • AnonYEmous says:

        a successful nuclear defense allows for a successful nuclear offence

        which then invites an all-out attack

      • Going public may provide opponents with information they need to copy the defensive system. Or give them an incentive to improve their offensive systems.

      • Aapje says:

        Making it public would probably cause opponents to find workarounds.

        Making it public allows you to test it better than if you have to keep it a secret. I consider it quite unlikely that a defense program that involves shooting down the ICMBs could be made to work without the kind of testing that Russia would notice. Even with open testing, the US couldn’t make SDI work.

        • Lillian says:

          We’ve been able to reliably shoot down ICBMs since the early 60s, we just did not make much use of it due to a combination of the ABM Treaty and defeatism in Congress. (The treaty allowed for one anti-ballistic missile site per side, the Russian one is still operational, ours didn’t last a year.) The entire point of SDI was to come up with missile defence systems that got around the ABM Treaty, that’s what we couldn’t make work. Conventional anti-ballistic missile defence, on the other hand, work just fine. That’s the entire reason why the ABM Treaty existed in the first place, people were worried that the proliferation of such systems would upset the balance of terror and lead to war. In my opinion they were wrong, i think defusing mutually-assured destruction via robust ABM defences would have made the Cold War less tense.

          • publiusvarinius says:

            We’ve never been able to reliably shoot down ICBMs. The 1960s-1970s ABM systems had a success rate of ~53%, which is neither impressive nor reliable. It was clear by the early 1990s that the more modern Arrow system can’t do much better than that: Arrow-3 might, but it’s very new and untested. The kinetic weapons that came out of the Clinton-Bush program have pretty bad issues too: as of 2010, they could not even reliably find warheads. But even if all the tests were successful, sending solitary target missiles into the air and successfully intercepting them is not a good test of how we would handle 5, 10 or 100 enemy missiles and decoys launched at the same time, designed by an enemy with appropriate countermeasures, engineered to confuse our missile defense.

          • bean says:

            The 1960s-1970s ABM systems had a success rate of ~53%, which is neither impressive nor reliable.

            Nike-Zeus did a lot better than that. Also, shooting down 50% of incoming ICBMs is a really, really big deal from a strategic standpoint.

            It was clear by the early 1990s that the more modern Arrow system can’t do much better than that: Arrow-3 might, but it’s very new and untested.

            Given that Arrow wasn’t tested all-up until 1998, this is somewhat incredible.

            The kinetic weapons that came out of the Clinton-Bush program have pretty bad issues too: as of 2010, they could not even reliably find warheads.

            Ted Postol is a dishonest nutjob, and citing him is unlikely to make me take you seriously. For the most obvious example of his dishonesty, look at his analysis of Iron Dome, where he claimed it didn’t work at all. Oddly enough, everyone (including the people protected by it) disagrees with him.

            But even if all the tests were successful, sending solitary target missiles into the air and successfully intercepting them is not a good test of how we would handle 5, 10 or 100 enemy missiles and decoys launched at the same time, designed by an enemy with appropriate countermeasures, engineered to confuse our missile defense.

            In other words, even if parts start working, you can just move the goalposts and continue to argue that it doesn’t work. Got it.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I do not see how NIKE-ZEUS can be scaled to stop thousands of nuclear warheads plus penetration-aids. Even if you can stop 90% of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, that’s 200+ warheads in the multiple-megaton range hitting you.

            That’s leaving aside their 90,000+ tactical nuclear weapons and 300 some-odd divisions.

          • bean says:

            I do not see how NIKE-ZEUS can be scaled to stop thousands of nuclear warheads plus penetration-aids. Even if you can stop 90% of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, that’s 200+ warheads in the multiple-megaton range hitting you.

            Yes, but look at the other side. Nuclear warheads are less destructive than you think, and there are more targets than you expect. I’m genuinely worried that the current US arsenal isn’t enough, and since the 60s, we’ve basically replaced megatonnage with kilotonnage and accuracy. So 200-300 warheads just isn’t enough to take out the US as a fighting force. It would hurt us terribly, certainly enough to stop us from a preemptive attack just because we can, but enough would be left that the Soviets wouldn’t risk trying to start the war either.

            That’s leaving aside their 90,000+ tactical nuclear weapons and 300 some-odd divisions.

            Not going to reach the US homeland. Sorry about Western Europe, but they can’t win the war with those, and they know it. And because they know it, they won’t try.

          • John Schilling says:

            Here in 2017, we can shoot down ICBMs maybe half the time. When we know they are coming, and if they come one at a time making no real attempt to avoid being shot down. That is very much not “reliable” in the explicitly-defined sense that is being used here.

            The idea that we had a 90% efficient ICBM defense capability in the 1960s, that was scrapped because of the treasonous ABM treaty, is straight-up Cold War jingoism. We did not then and do not now know how to shoot down ICBMs more than half the time, and not even that if an enemy as clever as us puts as much effort into having its ICBMs not shot down as we do into shooting them down.

            And the bit where we could then and can now at least get to 50%, that came as a result of extensive testing of the sort highly visible to anyone with decent satellites. If we ever do manage to develop a reliable defense against ICBMs, that is going to come from more testing, not less. So the bit where we have a reliable secret ICBM defense system, whether because we applied our Mighty Rocket Scientist Brains to the problem in isolation or because we dusted off the Sooper Sekrit ABM Plans from the 1960s, is complete bullshit.

            That’s me talking as a card-carrying rocket scientist. If we don’t get to test it, repeatedly, in the field, it won’t work reliably when you need it.

          • publiusvarinius says:

            @bean: Nike Zeus certainly never did better. The fact that Arrow project won’t do better was evident in the early 1990s because the Arrow project has been going on for 5+ years then, and so the engineers knew that they don’t have designs that do better. The first launch carried out as part of the project happened in March 1991.

            It’s not like Postol is the only critic of GMD anyway: Philip Coyle, who was assistant secretary of defense when GMD was born, largely agrees with him on the system’s technical capabilities.

            In other words, even if parts start working, you can just move the goalposts and continue to argue that it doesn’t work. Got it.

            The question was about a hypothetical 90% reliable missile defense system developed by the United States. A 90% success rate in taking out a single missile does not translate to 90% reliability in a missile defense scenario.

          • bean says:

            Nike-Zeus did not do better.

            Sources? My list has 13 test against ICBM targets, with 1 failure, 3 partial successes, and 9 successes. That’s a lot better than 53%. Maybe you have a more comprehensive list, which doesn’t bring down the success rate by simply including a lot of earlier tests when we would expect it to be more likely to fail.

            The fact that Arrow won’t do better was evident in the 1990s because the engineers knew that they won’t be able to design something that does better.

            You’re begging the question. What made it impossible for the engineers of Arrow to do better than Nike-Zeus?
            (You edited after I wrote this, so I will leave this, but also respond to the clarification)

            The fact that Arrow project won’t do better was evident in the early 1990s because the Arrow project has been going on for 5+ years then, and so the engineers knew that they won’t have designs that do better.

            Still no sources, and this still doesn’t make sense. The whole reason we test is that we can’t know how well things work without it. Saying that they knew they couldn’t do better prior to testing is rather incredible.

            It’s not like Postol is the only critic of GMD anyway: Philip Coyle, who was assistant secretary of defense when GMD was born, largely agrees with him on the system’s technical capabilities.

            You’re not going to convince me by simply pointing to one other expert. Postol is by far the leading technical critic of BMD, and he’s an idiot. My priors are set accordingly.

            The question was about a hypothetical 90% reliable missile defense system developed by the United States. A 90% success rate of taking out a single missile does not translate to 90% reliability in realistic missile defense scenarios.

            You’re right. It’s higher than that, because we can fire multiple missiles at each incoming.
            Sarcasm aside, I’m aware of the system integration issues, but this kind of systems integration dates back to the 50s, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. The main difference between BMD and AEGIS is that the targets are faster and higher, and that doesn’t seem a reason to assume that AEGIS will work, but BMD integration is impossible. Should we do more testing? Absolutely. But the show-stopping issues were worked out in the 70s.

          • publiusvarinius says:

            @bean:

            My priors are set accordingly.

            An ICBM is a piece of metal with no strong heat or radio signature, smaller than a Boeing 737, tumbling as it falls from space. Even the much easier problem of intercepting a rocket as it touches the ground is quite difficult, even when the rocket is designed to be easily tracked, and uses aerodynamic guidance to help you intercept it (cf. Falcon 9). Set your priors accordingly.

            The whole reason we test is that we can’t know how well things work without it.

            The Nike Zeus carried a nuclear warhead, while the Arrow carries a conventional explosive, and kinetic weapons are, well… kinetic. Accuracy has to be 2+ orders of magnitude better for the new conventional weapons to match the Nike Zeus, much less surpass it. The IAF knew that Arrow was unlikely achieve a leakage rate lower than 20 percent due to technological reasons (see page 541 in this paper).

            You’re right. It’s higher than that, because we can fire multiple missiles at each incoming.

            Good snark, but anti-ballistic missiles are ten times as expensive as ballistic missiles, not counting the much more expensive ground equipment (early warning, tracking radars, etc.) required for anti-ballistic missiles. Achieving parity with enemy missiles is expensive enough. Again, this does not take into account the fact that there will be decoys, countermeasures and other low-priority targets (e.g. SCUDs) that will confuse tracking during a larger-scale missile attack.

            Sources?

            Since I have cited an academic paper and alluded to reasonably authoritative opinions of domain experts, while you have given no sources at all, the ball’s in your court. Find experts who claim that reliably shooting down ICBMs is a solved problem, and we’ll continue the conversation.

          • bean says:

            An ICBM is a piece of metal with no particular heat or radio signature, smaller than a Boeing 737, tumbling as it falls from space. Even the much easier problem of intercepting a rocket as it touches the ground is quite difficult, even when the rocket is designed to be easily tracked, and uses aerodynamic guidance to help you intercept it (cf. Falcon 9). Set your priors accordingly.

            The two are very different problems. The issue is not predicting where the Falcon 9 lands. That’s trivial. The problem is getting it to a specific point slowly enough to not damage anything and without running out of fuel. And as for ICBMs being hard to detect, you clearly have no idea how well modern radars work. SBX has been described as being able to track a baseball over California while it’s off Virginia. And ‘no particular heat signature’ is just silly. It’s a recently burned-out solid rocket. Yes, it’s going to be hot.
            (The RVs may not be, but you’re clearly talking about the entire missile. The fact that you cannot tell them apart does not fill me with confidence in your understanding of the issue.)

            The Nike Zeus carried a nuclear warhead, while the Arrow carries a conventional explosive, and kinetic weapons are, well… kinetic. Accuracy has to be more than 2 orders of magnitude better for the new conventional weapons to match the Nike Zeus, much less surpass it.

            A fair point, but apparently some classified fraction of Nike-Zeus hits were skin-to-skin. And we’ve been doing ~50% with hit-to-kill today.

            The IAF knew that Arrow was unlikely achieve a leakage rate lower than 20 percent due to technological reasons (see page 541 in this paper).

            I unfortunately don’t have access to that, but I’ll take your word for it. But I’m not sure it supports your overall point. Getting rid of 80% of missiles seems like a big improvement over 0%, even if they have nuclear warheads. (Also, 80%>50%).

            Good snark, but anti-ballistic missiles are ten times as expensive as ballistic missiles, not counting the much more expensive ground equipment (early warning, tracking radars, etc.) required for anti-ballistic missiles.

            This is true for Iron Dome, and might be true if we take startup costs for ABMs and flyaway costs for conventional TBMs. But it’s absurd for ICBMs vs production ABMs. Both missiles are of broadly similar performance. I’d generally expect the smaller one to be cheaper. But it has a harder job. So I’ll give you interceptor-missile cost parity in general. But the ICBM is toting a nuclear warhead, which is really expensive. Also, because it’s not the 1960s and we can’t assume our enemy has as much money as we do, the cost of failure becomes very relevant. Even if the cost ratio overall is 10-1, protecting ourselves is still cheaper than rebuilding San Diego.
            As for the cost of the rest of the system, we have a lot of it already. What we don’t can be bought for money that isn’t totally outrageous so far as the defense budget goes. Particularly because of how much we’ve already spent developing the hardware. (And the ground equipment for ICBMs done properly is hardly trivial, either.)
            I’m not saying that the program is well-managed. It’s not, and they really need to bring some fresh blood into MDA. But if we deploy it on a large scale, the cost will plunge.

            Achieving parity with enemy missiles is expensive enough. Again, this does not take into account the fact that there will be decoys, countermeasures and other low-priority targets (e.g. SCUDs) etc. in the air during a larger-scale missile attack.

            Wait. What are we defending, and what is the attack profile? If I’m shooting down ICBMs, then SCUDs are literally not on my radar. I’ve heard a bunch of different things on countermeasures, but modern sensors are incredibly impressive (seriously, some of the NCTR stuff is like witchcraft), so I suspect that countermeasures are harder than they look. For that matter, look how much effort the British had to go to with Chevaline, and that was to defeat 70s-era Soviet ECCM. We’ve come a long way since then. In that era, automatic detection of radar targets was cutting-edge. I believe the first automatic radar video processing system went to sea in 1975. (Not sure about land deployment.) They were counting engine fan blades on airplanes in the 90s. Who knows what they have now.

            Since I have cited an academic paper and alluded to reasonably authoritative opinions of domain experts, while you have given no sources at all, the ball’s in your court.

            No sources at all? Like the one about the list of Nike-Zeus tests?
            I’ve done a bunch of work on this in the past, but it’s been a while. I don’t have all of my sources to hand.

            Find experts who claim that reliably shooting down ICBMs is a solved problem, and we’ll continue the conversation.

            I never said it was a completely solved problem. I said it was a solvable problem, and that even if we don’t credit it with any better performance than you do, it’s still strategically useful.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            So say North Korea sends, I dunno, 3 nukes at the continental US (assume that this is within NK’s capability). US ABM systems handily dispatch them. How drastically does this shake up geopolitics? On top of the whole “holy shit someone tried to use a nuke” effects, that is.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Dunno Bean, scaling up Nike basically means creating thousands of Nikes. A saturation attack by the Soviet Union is going to cause a lot of problems and a 90% kill rate seems utterly impossible.

            The USSR can also choose to ignore any arms limitation agreements and massively expand their strategic arsenal, if they so choose. So, while in the real world, the USSR was only pointing 2400 weapons at us, they can actually be pointing 3k-10k warheads at us in an alternate world scenario.

            I understand 200 nukes isn’t enough to “lose” a nuclear war. I mean we’re literally talking mega-deaths, so who cares…but it’s not what people think of as a perfect defense.

            Your 90% effective defense also means, if you launch a successful first strike, you massively reduce damage you take. So….it encourages the OTHER side to attack first, since they are in a “use it or lose it” scenario in the vast majority of scenarios.

            Also, if we’re talking 1960s technology, any nation is going to be capable of fielding nuclear-tipped ABMs, and it really does just become another escalation in the arms race. It’s not like body armor or tank armor stopped anything from escalating.

            In the real world, I suspect the Chinese nuclear modernization is due in no small part to the deployment of US ABM systems. And it’s not a trivial modernization. They are going from single-warhead liquid-fueled missiles to MIRV’d solid-state weapons that can be rail-mounted.

          • bean says:

            Dunno Bean, scaling up Nike basically means creating thousands of Nikes. A saturation attack by the Soviet Union is going to cause a lot of problems and a 90% kill rate seems utterly impossible.

            The 90% kill rate wasn’t my number. It was a hypothetical concerning government secrets from someone else. It’s high, but not implausible, particularly when you get into multiple layers.

            The USSR can also choose to ignore any arms limitation agreements and massively expand their strategic arsenal, if they so choose. So, while in the real world, the USSR was only pointing 2400 weapons at us, they can actually be pointing 3k-10k warheads at us in an alternate world scenario.

            I’m not so sure of this. Up through the 70s, there was very little slack in their strategic arsenal. It was as big as they could make it.

            I understand 200 nukes isn’t enough to “lose” a nuclear war. I mean we’re literally talking mega-deaths, so who cares…but it’s not what people think of as a perfect defense.

            Why does the defense have to be perfect, unless you’re planning to start a war? I’m not, so I have little problem with 90% during a mass attack. It also provides excellent protection in case of accidents, or if someone with only a few weapons pushes the button. (See Korea, North)

            Your 90% effective defense also means, if you launch a successful first strike, you massively reduce damage you take. So….it encourages the OTHER side to attack first, since they are in a “use it or lose it” scenario in the vast majority of scenarios.

            I’ve never really bought this logic. The other guy is still fully dead. I’m merely badly wounded. The US had massive superiority, better than any ABM system could provide, up until the early 60s. And we didn’t push the button.

            In the real world, I suspect the Chinese nuclear modernization is due in no small part to the deployment of US ABM systems. And it’s not a trivial modernization. They are going from single-warhead liquid-fueled missiles to MIRV’d solid-state weapons that can be rail-mounted.

            Yes, that’s significant, but I’m not sure why it’s of huge concern. Assuming that MIRV actually complicates BMD (an assumption I’ve seen challenged and need to research more), they’re just catching up with where we were in the 60s. If anything, I’d describe it as a case where our complacency allowed them to continue to use obsolete systems long after they should have stopped.

          • Lillian says:

            @John Schilling: For the purposes of this sub-thread, nobody is claiming we had magical secret 90% effective ABM in the 60s. The claim i made is that we had reliable ABM in the 60s, to which i was referring to Nike-Zeus, whose capabilities are publicly available. We just never invested into as much as we could have, and only briefly deployed its descendant Spartan in the 70s, so we never worked out all the kinks in the system. Like you said, we needed more testing, but we didn’t get more testing because we gave up on it. Now we’re stuck trying to solve kinetic-kill BMD for some stupid reason, when we know it works if you use nuclear warheads.

            Also, the Safeguard system, which used a combination of Spartan for mid-course and Sprint for terminal interception, had an 86% success rate in testing during the early 70s. So you know, it’s not 90% under war conditions, but it’s still something. (http://www.alternatewars.com/BBOW/Weapons/US_ABM.htm)

            @Everyone: Since bean only alluded to it, i want to illustrate the important concept of virtual attrition. To do that consider the following toy scenario. The attacker has an ICBM that has a 90% chance of destroying its target, so if he wants to be 90% sure that his strike will destroy that target, he need only point one missile at it. Now suppose the defender puts up a 50% effective ABM system to defend it. In order to be 90% sure that the target is destroyed, the attacker now needs to aim 4 missiles at it. The defender’s ABM has successfully defended three other targets without firing a shot.

            To use a more real example, the mere existence the A-35 ABM around Moscow became a real problem for the British. The Royal Navy had 4 Resolution-class SSBNs, of which one would be drydocked and useless at any given time. The remaining three had 16 Poseidon SLBMs with MRVs, allowing them to hit 48 targets with three warheads each. However with the activation of the A-35 BMD system around Moscow made the British doubt the effectiveness of their deterrent. So they instituted the Chevaline program, which required taking out one of the warheads in each missile to fit the decoy package, and then aiming everything at Moscow just be sure. Forget about whether the Soviet BMD even worked, just its mere existence successfully neutralized 98% of the British arsenal.

            @publiusvarinius: Where did you get the notion that the defensive missiles are ten times more expensive than offensive ones? That doesn’t make any sense. The flyaway cost of Minuteman-III is $4.8 million in 1977 dollars, flyaway cost of Spartan is $3 million in 1969 dollars, which adjusting for inflation gives us 1-1 cost equivalence. That’s not including the physics packages (3 for Minuteman, 1 for Spartan), the cost of the hardened missile silo (another half million early 60s dollars for Minuteman) or the cost of launch and guidance infrastructure (very expensive for both).

            Minuteman cost: http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Weapons/Mmiii.html
            Spartan cost: http://www.astronautix.com/s/spartanabm.html
            ICBM silo cost: https://www.minutemanmissile.com/lfconstruction.html

          • bean says:

            @Lillian
            I think we share another forum. If you don’t have an account, shoot me an email at battleshipbean @ gmail and I’ll get you in.

          • Lillian says:

            @bean: If you mean Stuart’s place, i’m already a member, i just don’t post there any more.

          • bean says:

            @Lillian
            I figured you probably had one, but I didn’t recognize your handle, so I thought I’d offer.

          • John Schilling says:

            Now we’re stuck trying to solve kinetic-kill BMD for some stupid reason, when we know it works if you use nuclear warheads.

            We “know” this, how, exactly? Last time I checked, the number of ICBMs we successfully shot down with nuclear-warhead ABMs was a whopping big zero.

            We’ve flown ABMs somewhere in the vicinity of ICBMs and said, “we totally would have blown that up if we had a real nuclear warhead”. Big. Fucking. Deal. How many target ships did we send Mark 14 torpedoes under, saying “we totally would have blown that up if we had a real magnetic warhead”? Or the Germans with the G7a? And it’s not just the proximity fuze; nuclear weapons effects against hardened targets are remarkably difficult to assess without realistic testing. Testing every part of a weapon except the part that actually kills the enemy, and saying “we’d totally kill the enemy if this were a real fight”, is a classic noob move in weapons development and a recipe for catastrophically embarassing failure.

            So that’s the #1 “stupid reason” we don’t use nuclear-tipped ABMs – we can’t test the most critically important parts of the system. If we can’t test it, it won’t work.

            #2: Conventional ABM requires very precise guidance in azimuth or elevation, but you can ignore ranging during the terminal engagement – just keep nulling the angle rates until you hit something. Az/El data is easy to come by, from any active, semi-active, or passive sensor, and those sensors are now adequately precise for hit-to-kill in their COTS implementations. Ranging of a small target closing at 10+ km/s is not a trivial problem, and it’s a completely different problem that requires a completely different sensor to acquire and engage the target in a millisecond or so. Screw that up, and your nuclear warhead detonates too soon or not at all.

            #3: A nuclear-tipped ABM is first and foremost a nuclear missile, and it is one whose performance makes for a very good first-strike offensive weapon – particularly if you forward-deploy it. That’s a nasty diplomatic problem even with conventional warheads; make it nuclear, and the enemy will treat it as an offensive threat. So will nations that aren’t your enemy, yet.

            #4: Even if you don’t