OT87: Ulpian Thread

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. The New York Solstice celebration will be on December 9 this year, and has a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds. There will also be an associated East Coast LW Megameetup. Bay Area, Seattle, and other versions probably coming soon.

2. Frequent SSC commenter JRM has thrown his hat into the ring in a local district attorney campaign. He’s looking for “campaign donations, quality political advice, and graphic artists”. If interested, check his website or just comment here and he’ll find you.

3. Some later Dark Age comments that didn’t make it into the original highlights: Watchman on population swings, Tim O’Neill disputing the whole thesis.

4. Bean’s posts about naval warfare in SSC Open Threads have moved to their own blog, Naval Gazing.

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854 Responses to OT87: Ulpian Thread

  1. Hunter Glenn says:

    I predict that SSC and SE people will be disproportionately interested in each other’s work.

    SE is street epistemology, a conversational technique for talking about issues that people have their identities wrapped up in without “triggering” them.

    SE conversations are non-confrontational and relaxed even as you peel back how someone can know a treasured belief to be true or not. Such conversations often result in people explicitly lowering their confidence.

    There are lots of some of the best 1-2 minute examples of SE here

  2. johnWH says:

    I’m curious if anyone in this community has taken notice of the Nancy MacLean saga. I’m a libertarian with an economics background, so I’ve watched it fairly closely. For those unaware: MacLean recently published “Democracy in Chains” which alleges (among many other things) that James Buchanan, founder of public choice economics, developed public choice as a sort of esoteric attempt to defend segregation, and, later, to protect an oligarchic government by undermining democracy.

    MacLean has been criticized by almost literally every major libertarian outlet — and at least one non-libertarian outlet.

    Many of these authors have pointed out gross errors of misquotation, if not outright attempts to manipulate the truth. One striking piece of evidence is that MacLean claimed that Buchanan had a written a newspaper article on school choice for a pro-segregationist, Virginia paper. It turned out that Buchanan had actually published the article for the rival, anti-segregationist paper. It seems to be the case that MacLean had a story she wanted to tell and wasn’t going to let inconvenient truths get in the way. I know everybody is biased to some extent, but she really seems out there. Additionally, the whole project seems like a smear job. She doesn’t really seem interested in debating whether school choice is good or bad, or whether public choice presents a faithful model of government — she simply seems interested in questioning motives and assumes all along that Her Team is in the right. It’s shocking to me that this book is a finalist for the National Book Award.

    Some of her defenders have made decent counter-arguments on a few points. But on the whole, they’ve done very little to rescue MacLean’s thesis or the shoddy research she used to argue it. Most of their responses have run the gamut from paranoid screeds (“We’re under attack “by a right-wing machine”) to the typical, what you might call, John Oliver-style snark. I have seen MacLean, and several of her defenders on twitter, ask — with no intention of actually engaging the respondent — “have you read the book?” Watch her youtube interviews to get a glimpse of what I’m talking about.

    Anyway, I wanted to know if anyone in this community, especially non-libertarians, had followed this saga at all. I like to consider myself open-minded and thoughtful, but would like to get the perspective of someone who’s an outsider. Are MacLean and her defenders arguing in good faith? I feel like, for the most part, they aren’t. I feel like a lot of the libertarian critics have brought up substantive rebuttals, and MacLean and her defenders have been largely unwilling to engage them. Its really become frustrating to watch. But, I also recognize that I could be blinded by bias. So if any non-libertarians have followed all of this, I’d be interested to hear your take.

  3. bbartlog says:

    For paintings at least I am highly confident that I could sort even previously unseen works in to ‘great and enduring’ versus ‘average to good’ at far better than chance. Well, at least before 1970 or so. One interesting experience along these lines is to visit the Vatican and look at all the old paintings and frescoes on the way to seeing the Sistine Chapel. There are quite a number of good works that engender reactions like ‘very nice’ … and then you see Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgment’ and understand what the big deal is. I suppose you could argue for some kind of priming effects (there’s generally a crowd in the Chapel gawking at it) but I really don’t think that’s what’s happening here.

    • rh says:

      When I visited the Louvre 15 years ago they were renovating, and all the Titians and the other Venetian masters were temporarily displayed in a vestibule somewhere in the archeological section. So no priming effect. I had them completely to myself for an hour or so, even though thousands of tourists were filing by, deciding after a brief glance there was nothing of interest there and marching on. The rare lingerers only looked at the insignificant 19C French paintings used to fill up the empty patches of wall near the ceiling, or the English masters hung on boards in the middle of the room, and utterly ignored the Venetian masterpieces. That day I lost my faith in the objectivity of beauty.

      (Nowadays they are in the same room as the Mona Lisa and you have to fight your way through crowds to catch even a glimpse of them.)

  4. johan_larson says:

    Megan Mcardle has some interesting things to say about why school voucher programs have not improved education as much as hoped:

    The hope of school choice was that the worst-off kids could be given the same opportunities as those born with silver spoons in their mouths. But if what parents are most interested in is keeping their children away from those kids (at least in large numbers), that hope cannot be fulfilled. Improving the quality of instruction can make everyone better off; peer group, on the other hand, is a zero-sum game, where every child who improves their peer group must be counterbalanced by one who is pushed out.

    • Brad says:

      This is the kind of thing that makes me think public education should be phased out with a means test. If the upper middle class and wealthy parents are going to create de facto private schools run entirely for the benefit of their kids rather than society’s let them pay for actual private schools.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        The problem with that is that people who are being taxed for education their kids don’t use have no reason not to vote down the school budget every year.

        Look up the problems Spring Valley, NY has had. The Hasidim don’t send their kids to public school and don’t want to pay for them, while the blacks and Hispanics send their kids to public school but don’t want to vote. So the budget never passes.

        You can federalize education to try and avoid turning every district in the country into Spring Valley under your plan. But that’s just kicking the can down the road: congressmen who try to increase the school budget will get pilloried by parents who are banned from using public schools.

        • Brad says:

          That assumes sufficiently homogeneous districts where you’d have a bunch of people too rich to be entitled to free education but where there were plenty of people poor enough to get it for free. That this mostly doesn’t exist is exactly the problem.

          Under this idea many of the westchester schools, for example, would cease to exist as there’d be no one to go to them. So there’s be no budget to vote down.

          They could vote for politicians that promised to oppose state and federal school aid, but even with disproportionate voting rates, rich and near rich parents aren’t nearly a majority.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            They could vote for politicians that promised to oppose state and federal school aid, but even with disproportionate voting rates, rich and near rich parents aren’t nearly a majority.

            That depends a lot on how you define rich.

            Looking at census numbers from 2014, it looks like people with family incomes over $100,000 made up a little over 33% of voters (who reported their income). People with household incomes below $50,000, roughly the median household income, made up a little less than 30% of voters (who reported their income). So depending on where exactly you set your line, “the rich” constitute somewhere between 33-70% of the voting public.

            That’s before we consider e.g. the effects of congressional gerrymandering. Just in a pure headcount it’s not clear that the beneficiaries of your scheme would out-number the losers on election day.

      • John Schilling says:

        If the upper middle class and wealthy parents are going to create de facto private schools run entirely for the benefit of their kids rather than society’s let them pay for actual private schools.

        They already are allowed to pay for actual private schools.

        Allowing them to instead pay for elite and geographically exclusive public schools that are almost de facto has about the same end result but allows us to divert at least a fraction of their payments to education for not-rich kids and with less blatant cause to incite opposition than taxing them to pay for a school system completely divorced from the one their own children go to.

        • Brad says:

          There’s some truth tot that in some parts of the country — those where the federal courts were able to create large school districts. But in many of the parts of the country where desegregation was successfully resisted there are tiny little school districts. Some of them only consisting of a single high school. They are often extremely economically homogeneous and their primary source of funding is property taxes. Those property taxes aren’t being diverted to not-rich kids.

          Libertarians like to remind us that taxes come at the barrel of a gun. Where is the compelling interest? Where is the market failure? Where are the public goods that justify that tool? A childless couple in Scarsdale (wealthy NYC suburb micro-school district) is taxed at a rate of 3% a year of home value to pay for their wealthy neighbors’ kids to have a gold plated education. Why? Is it because there are positive externalities that wouldn’t otherwise be realized? No, those kids would be educated regardless of whether their own parents paid for it or this childless couple had to.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            A childless couple in Scarsdale (wealthy NYC suburb micro-school district) is taxed at a rate of 3% a year of home value to pay for their wealthy neighbors’ kids to have a gold plated education. Why? Is it because there are positive externalities that wouldn’t otherwise be realized?

            I don’t know shit about Scarsdale, but in the general case it could provide a incentive to have kids and preserve a community that values having the next generation running around instead of a bunch of DINKs buying up the real estate and calling DCFS every time they see unattended 5th graders playing street hockey.

          • bean says:

            Given how big of an influence school quality has on housing prices, odds are that couple is planning to have kids fairly soon, and send them to that school, or they’d move somewhere cheaper. If they decide they really like the neighborhood despite not wanting kids, then that’s their problem. If I want to live in a beachfront community despite never going to the beach, I pay higher prices anyway.

          • Brad says:

            I don’t know if you are libertarian, but if you are, do you think keeping those awful DINKs in their place is one of the very few things that the “barrel of gun” should be brought out for?

          • Gobbobobble says:


            I don’t know if you are libertarian, but if you are, do you think keeping those awful childless DINKs in their place is one of the very few things that the “barrel of gun” should be brought out for?

            I am not, though I thought I might be until I came to SSC and saw how deep that rabbit hole goes. I believe community values have, well, value and don’t equate taxes with the barrel of a gun. Local level taxes least of all. Apologies if your post was specifically looking for libertarian responses.

            FWIW I do consider free-range kids to be a community value worth fighting for (though helicopter parents are almost as much a foe on that front as the antinatalists) and would be willing to pay the premium to live in somewhere that has the sort of incentives as “even if you don’t have your own, you at least appreciate other people having kids enough to pay 3%”. Assuming that the place has the desired results, anyway, I doubt any one factor would be a gamechanger.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Libertarians like to remind us that taxes come at the barrel of a gun. Where is the compelling interest? Where is the market failure? Where are the public goods that justify that tool?

            You can certainly not make the situation more just from a Libertarian viewpoint by insisting not only the wealthy pay taxes for public schools, but that they be denied the use of them as well.

          • Brad says:

            I don’t see why not.

            Suppose we were talking about vaccines for some terribly contagious and unpleasant disease that had say a 2% failure rate. If the poor couldn’t afford the vaccination then everyone in society would be at risk of getting the disease. The poor because they were unvaccinated and the not-poor because they could be in that 2% failure rate. But if everyone was vaccinated then no one would get the disease.

            So you’d have something — vaccination — that would have private benefits, yes, but also large public benefits and that, in the case of the poor, wouldn’t be produced without a subsidy.

            For some libertarians I imagine that still wouldn’t be enough to say that taxes should pay for it, but I think there are some kinds that think it would be sufficient. On the other hand I don’t see why they would want to just give away public money to all the people that could and would buy the vaccine for themselves in the absence of any government interference. In that case, there’s no positive externalities being unlocked.

            Also, why advocate taking money with one hand to just give it back with another, given the inefficiency and meddling that government programs are supposed to inherently produce? Why not just let everyone that can afford their own vaccines go out into the free market and buy it and have as small a government program as possible, only targeting people that would otherwise fall through the cracks?

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Reading the article, I was struck by a realization: this is what High Modernism looks like today.

      “How can we improve school quality, assuming that students are spheres of uniform density?”

      The idea that policymakers were unaware of the possibility that parents would place a premium on getting their kids into schools where they aren’t likely to have their throats slit by gang members* boggles the mind. Do none of these people have kids? Are they robots? It’s hard to imagine someone responsible for making policy being that separated from day to day reality.

      *NOT HYPERBOLE! My mother taught at the highschool one town over from mine. Three of her students were murdered in her first year: two shot and one with a slit throat. That’s not the total number of students murdered that year, mind you, just the kids she was teaching. My highschool had zero murders over the time that I and my brother attended.

      • Randy M says:

        “Slit” might not be hyperbole, but surely “likely” was?
        (Agreement other than nit-picking)

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          Technically, yes, I’m sure even the worst district is still less likely to see your child brutally murdered than hit with a car. It can still be a far far higher likelihood than any reasonable parent would willingly accept.

          I mean maybe this is a sign that I’m going to be a helicopter parent but I refuse to send my future kids anywhere that can’t give me credible assurances that they’re not going to be murdered by their classmates. That’s non-negotiable.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Also, the uncomfortable reality of school vouchers is the thought process of the upper middle class parents who bought their home in the suburb in the good school zone: “wait, you mean if we do the school voucher thing, they’re going to be busing the kids from the throat-slitting school into my kids’ nice school? Ehhhhhh…” This is a hard problem.

        • cassander says:

          It’s a problem the left should be enthusiastic about solving if they wanted to be consistent. Instead they’re largely teaming up with those people to prevent change.

          • albatross11 says:

            Once I’ve spent my money to buy into a very good school district, why do I have any incentive to support vouchers?

          • cassander says:

            You don’t. But since when is the left ideologically in favor of defending the comfortable position of the rich elite against the interests of the less privileged?

          • albatross11 says:

            Whether or not it fits with the left or right in some theoretical sense, polices that would make a lot of powerful and influential people worse off (by decreasing the value of their homes) tend not to be very successful politically.

    • cassander says:

      Given that an actual voucher system* hasn’t been implemented anywhere besides New Orleans, and that the results from New Orleans are positive, but clouded by the massive population change post Katrina, Mcardle’s pronouncement is decidedly premature. We should not expect revolutionary change from a more or less pilot programs where small numbers of self selected students can leave the public school system, but impose no funding discipline on it by doing so.

      *An actual voucher system is one where the vast majority of students can get as much money as would be spent on their public education to go outside the public system, with a minimum of hassle, and the school they would have gone to losing that much funding.

    • Matt M says:

      I feel like this should be fairly obvious, given that a pretty high amount of complaints regarding what’s “wrong” with public schools center around student behavior, rather than educational quality.

      I’ve met a number of parents who cite bullying or student safety issues at public schools as their reason for home/private schooling. What does this mean, exactly, if not “get my kid away from the undesirables?”

      • albatross11 says:

        The quality of the other students is closely bound up with the quality of the education, in at least two ways:

        a. Disruptive kids make it hard for the rest of the kids to get anything out of the class.

        b. A critical mass of smart kids means you can have advanced classes, and the teacher can cover the material in a way that makes sense for the smart kids. Without that, you either get one kid wanting to take AP Chemistry or you get AP Chemistry moving at 2/3 the speed it should move, to let the slower kids keep up.

        Further, the way we usually measure school quality is by test scores of the students. That’s basically another way to measure the fraction of white/Asian kids from middle-class-and-up families.

    • The Nybbler says:

      The elephant in the room is that “school quality” and “keeping their children away from those kids (at least in large numbers)” are pretty much the same thing.

      • johan_larson says:

        I guess the question is which way peer socialization works. Is it biased upward or downward? Suppose you had a hypothetical school that was a 50-50 mixture of kids from the first and fifth socioeconomic quintiles. Assuming moderate funding, would it perform like a first, fifth or third quintile school? Or would the picture be more complicated?

        I think the hope among reformers is that such a school would perform pretty much like a fifth-quintile school because of the good examples set by the upper-tier kids. Whether it’s true or not is another matter.

        • Randy M says:

          What is the “upward” behavior? Not interrupting class, doing assignments, speaking politely, etc. What is the “downward” behavior? Speaking out of turn, fighting, not doing assignments, etc.
          The latter behaviors are going to be more noticed, take up the teacher’s time, restrict those seeking to pay attention from doing so, etc.
          A class mixed 50/50 of very “upward” and “downward” is going to have the ups performing at about the level of a smart person with a textbook on their own, and the downs enjoying slightly more of the teacher’s attentions than if the ups were replaced by more downs, so to speak.
          Unless magic happens. Which it occasionally does, but is non-trivial to replicate.

          • rlms says:

            I think that not splitting students by ability is another of those wacky US-exclusive ideas.

          • Randy M says:

            Most of what I was referring to was behavior, although bad behavior in class is likely very strongly correlated with an intellectual mismatch between the pupil and the pace.

          • rlms says:

            My experience is that bad (as in disruptive) behaviour usually implies relative lack of ability.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Suppose you had a hypothetical school that was a 50-50 mixture of kids from the first and fifth socioeconomic quintiles. Assuming moderate funding, would it perform like a first, fifth or third quintile school? Or would the picture be more complicated?

          With something that stark, the school itself would likely split (de facto or de jure), so somehow like ended up with like. The overall figures would be third quintile but it would conceal a bimodal distribution. If you somehow prevented that from happening, it’d probably perform slightly better than an all-lowest-quintile school.

          • bbartlog says:

            Taylor Allderdice HS in Pittsburgh is a bit like that (or was 20 years ago, can’t be sure what it’s it’s like these days), though not perfectly so of course; it’s a school in a largely Jewish neighborhood of the city. Gets some fraction of poor urban kids along with a big chunk of more well to do Jewish ones. To my understanding it has a great gifted program and I suspect that the school is indeed somewhat internally segregated, at least in terms of tracks with wildly different levels of academic rigor. As to the net effect on scores, I couldn’t say.

        • 天可汗 says:

          Downward. Source: went there.

          An unsurprising-in-retrospect secondary effect is that the people whose behavior wasn’t dragged downward in the usual ways tended to end up as far-right extremists.

  5. Le Maistre Chat says:

    I’m trying to organize my views on AI risk. So, Butlerian Jihad, pro and con!

    1. It is the consensus of scholars who have analyzed the issue that superhuman AI would pose an existential risk to human welfare.
    1.1 Objection! There is no evidence for the possible existence of superhuman AI. Any regulations would do more harm than good, as by definition rules against a non-existent problem can do no good.
    On the contrary, I say that our technology already includes computers that can be called superhuman at logic problems such as the game of Go. If it is also possible to build a computer with the mental processes of an animal, such processors can simply be combined.
    1.2 Objection! Said scholars have an unexamined assumption that materialism is true. AI will never happen, because rational thought requires a rational soul.
    On the contrary, I say you are failing to distinguish between reasoning about immaterial things for which an immaterial rational soul solves the Interaction Problem and the sort of reason logic circuits do, and sometimes better than us. Soulless non-persons could pose an existential threat to us, given computer brains of the sort I have explained.

    2. The superhuman AI could refrain from harming us for ethical reasons.
    2.1 Objection! What ethical reasons? There is no solution in sight to metaethics.
    Then I say, you’d better work on that Butlerian Jihad, huh?
    2.2 Objection! We could program the first superhuman AI with my solution to metaethics, meta-semantic subjectivism. I see the project of morality as a project of renormalizing intuition. We have intuitions about things that seem desirable or undesirable, intuitions about actions that are right or wrong, intuitions about how to resolve conflicting intuitions, intuitions about how to systematize specific intuitions into general principles. The disagreements rise from limited knowledge, and an AI could have logical omniscience.
    On the contrary, I say there is no way to force an AI to omnisciently renormalize subjective human moral intuitions and limit its actions in accord with that output. Either these are contingent products of mutations through the entire evolutionary process and have no power over an AI, or we are grasping with said limited knowledge at real moral facts. In this case, an AI capable of more knowledge will, ceteris paribus, understand moral realism better than us. Further I say there is no evidence that a computer can have logical omniscience.

    • Wrong Species says:

      What’s the cut-off for things computers can never do because they lack a soul?

      • Nick says:

        They can never go to heaven. 🙁

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        A lot of Catholic theology treats Heaven as “Plato’s realm of forms, with caveats X, Y and Z because Platonism isn’t strictly true.”

        In scholastic thought, the rational soul is that part of a man (gender-neutral definition, heck theoretically species-neutral definition of “rational animal”) that interacts with concepts. You and your dog both use your brains to think about a ball, but you and not your dog can think about sphere-ness. You and your dog can both think it’s unfair that you’re not getting that chicken leg, but only you or another rational soul (say your sister’s, or an angel) can think about Justice.

        One upshot is that if an AI starts grasping moral facts, the Pope and a crack team of scholars will have to do some soul-searching about it.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      On the contrary, I say there is no way to force an AI to omnisciently renormalize subjective human moral intuitions and limit its actions in accord with that output.

      Arguments that start out with “there is no way” are tricky to finish. Historically they usually require some sort of diagonalization argument, like Goedel’s proof.

      The scenario sketched in J. Storrs Hall’s Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine is roughly that AIs will be forced by circumstances to act within the constraints of our economic and political machinery, just as we are if we want to get anything done. The superiority of the tit-for-tat strategy makes no assumptions about how smart or powerful the players are. These constraints will push AIs to develop the right intuitions at least as well as they do us.

      I go back and forth about how plausible I find this picture, but I’d be inclined to give it at least 1%, which makes it a solid counterexample to “there is no way”.

  6. ManyCookies says:

    A thought on fully autonomous cars:

    Damages from car accidents cost the U.S at least 300 billion dollars a year (possibly more depending on how broadly you measure damages), according to the first website Google spat out. The liability for these accidents is almost always on the individual drivers, and so the damages are paid out of their pocket in some manner, whether directly or through their insurance.

    Now suppose the U.S universally adapts fully autonomous cars. If cars are entirely driven by manufacturer software, the manufacturer is liable for any accident caused by software error. So suddenly Tesla/Volvo/Ford are now holding all the liability that was previously diffused amongst the whole population, which would be a huge financial burden even with big safety improvements. Even if autonomous cars were 10 times safer, the manufacturers would still be staring down at least 30 billion dollars in accident claims annually. Which seems like a pretty freaking massive disincentive for autonomous car manufacturing/adaptation.

    So if I’m not completely off base here, what should/could the U.S do about this liability shift? Require an “attentive” driver vigilant for dangerous behavior and ready to override, and then blame them for any accidents? Have the government pay out claims instead of the manufacturer (a small price to pay if autonomous cars cut 270 billion dollars annually in damages)? Flip the bird at accident victims and make them pay?

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Instead of 300 billion paid to the auto insurance companies each year to cover liability, 30 billion is paid to the auto companies each year to cover liability.

      • Brad says:

        Capitalized into the price of the car, but basically this.

        Question for econometric types:
        Suppose a) car costs increase, b) insurance costs drop , and c) unreimbursed accident losses drop. Will this show up as inflation since only a and b will be reflected in the basket of goods and services but not c?

      • John Schilling says:

        Assuming that A: fully autonomous cars cause an order of magnitude fewer accidents than the normal sort and B: juries aren’t an order of magnitude more generous with TeslaVolvoFord’s money than they are with the life’s savings of Joe Blow who was maybe driving too fast but didn’t mean any harm and is only insured up to $50K.

        These are both unsubstantiated and IMO extremely dubious assumptions.

    • Well... says:

      I think that’s an interesting and not-often looked at problem with driverless cars.

      My guess is that some third parties would step in between the manufacturers and the riders:

      First, you’d have mapping, sensor-reading, and autonomous control software companies (basically, virtual “drivers”). I only say this because Ford/Volvo/Tesla are not optimized for that kind of stuff. Google, I expect, would be a key player here.

      Second, the economic model of regular cars doesn’t map to driverless cars. Personal car ownership would go down a whole lot, as even for upper-middle-class people it would make way more practical sense to just summon a driverless cab whenever you need it. (Driverless cars will be more expensive than regular cars; but getting a ride in one should be cheaper than getting a ride in a taxi.) Therefore, you’d have fewer owners who own fleets of driverless cars for profit–i.e. driverless cab companies.

      Either or both of these third parties could take up the insurance slack as part of their model. The driverless cab companies especially, since insurance is already part of the cab model.

      • Brad says:

        A bigger issue, at least at first, might be that the size of the awards in particular cases increases dramatically. I can think of at least two reasons for that: 1) juries think self driving car accidents are much more blameworthy than people driving car accidents and 2) current personal injury law awards are capped in large part by insured amounts. It is very rare for a plaintiff’s lawyer to try for more than the policy limits. When it does happen it is usually because there is a corporate defendant (e.g. UPS). Under this new system they’ll always be a corporate defendant.

      • Wrong Species says:

        Personal car ownership would go down a whole lot, as even for upper-middle-class people it would make way more practical sense to just summon a driverless cab whenever you need it.

        If I live in the suburbs, I’m going to be driving everywhere. What advantage does taking a cab everywhere have over simply owning a car?

        • The Nybbler says:

          If I live in the suburbs, I’m going to be driving everywhere. What advantage does taking a cab everywhere have over simply owning a car?

          I’m pretty sure getting rid of those icky medium-density suburbs is part of the package autonomous vehicles come with.

          • 天可汗 says:

            I think autonomous vehicles would increase suburbanization. Right now, you have to deal with the hassles of car ownership if you want to lower your housing costs and get away from the urban youths.

        • ManyCookies says:

          I don’t know if this’d make up for the disadvantages, but you would defer your time+attention spent on insurance and maintenance hassles to the cab company (though not the monetary costs).

          • Matt M says:

            Driving itself requires time/attention as well.

            My current boss ubers to work every day, despite owning a fancy luxury car, mainly because it’s a 45 minute commute each way and she can’t afford to be non-productive for 90 minutes a day. In the uber, she’s on her laptop responding to emails, drafting slides, etc.

          • ManyCookies says:

            @Matt M

            The car would be autonomous either way. Wrong’s question was whether you’d still own an autonomous car, or just hail one from a fleet as needed.

        • JayT says:

          I do think that the predictions of car ownership going away are overblown. I think that autonomous cars will lower the ownership rate, but I think most people will still want their own car for things like long distance travel, where putting up with a dirty cab is not an attractive option.

          For a couple like me and my wife, I think owning one driverless car would be likely. As it is, we have two cars, but one of them is almost never used because I use public transit. We keep it around for the random weekend that we need to go different places at the same time. If cabs were super cheap it would no longer make sense to keep that second car that gets used a couple times a month, but I think we would still want a primary car that was our own for my wife’s car commute and road trips.

    • GregS says:

      Actuary here. This is actually a hot topic right now in the industry. Nobody is quite sure how this will look in the future, but various scenarios are being considered. Recent presentation here.

      • ManyCookies says:

        Aspiring actuary here, glad I’m thinking on the same wavelength!

        I’m not clear on what the difference between their “Ride on Demand” and Car-sharing models are with autonomous vehicles. I thought their difference was who drives the vehicle (hired driver vs consumer driver), which would be the same with self-driving cars.

        • GregS says:

          Great, keep passing those actuarial exams, aspiring actuary! I’ll be here cheering you on. It’s good that you’re showing a curiosity about these things so early.
          I think you nailed the difference between car-sharing and mobility-on-demand. Car-sharing is you hop into a car and drive it yourself; mobility on demand is a driver comes and picks you up. The difference between these models obviously gets blurred in the autonomous world, like you said.
          BTW, I have a couple recent blog posts about what my job is like. Curious if you’ve had similar experience. (Or does “aspiring” mean you haven’t worked in the industry yet at all?)

          • ManyCookies says:

            Oh I haven’t worked in the industry, I suppose “aspiring actuarial assistant” would have been more accurate. I haven’t had the pleasure of dealing with any vast obstructionist bureaucracies.

  7. Nancy Lebovitz says:


    This is type 3c diabetes, which is caused by injury to the pancreas.


    “I wonder what you actually mean by type 3. Unfortunately beyond type 1 and 2 there is no standard definition.
    The link given by Sue above is to problems related to alzheimers. This has been called type 3 in some articles. A few sources also refer to double diabetes ie type 1 with insulin resistance as type 3
    More officially, the types of diabetes called ‘other’ (and listed third ) in the WHO official classifications are called type 3. They are then subdivided into several sections.
    I’ve included some of the more ‘common’ examples for each category… but only where I understand what they are, some of the conditions are very rare

    Type 3A: genetic defect in beta cells. (this includes MODY, maternally inherited diabetes and deafness))
    Type 3B: genetically related insulin resistance. (Donohue syndrome [also known as Leprechaunism])
    Type 3C: diseases of and trauma to the pancreas. (eg pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer Haemochromatosis, cystic fibrosis, pancreatectomy)
    Type 3D: caused by hormonal defects. (eg Cushing’s disease and syndrome )
    Type 3E: caused by chemicals or drugs.(eg Glucocorticoids ,β-Blockers )
    Type 3F caused by infections (Congenital rubella)
    Type 3G Uncommon forms of immune-mediated diabetes (‘Stiff man/ person’ syndrome)
    Type 3H other (Down’s syndrome)
    (type 4 is gestational)
    And sometimes on forums, partners and parents of people with diabetes are said to have type 3 :lol:”

  8. Nancy Lebovitz says:


    Erica Chenoweth argues that non-violence is more likely to succeed than violence, and also leads to better outcomes.

    • lvlln says:

      That’s a nice 10 minute talk, but it seems to be mainly a bunch of assertions. Without reading the actual paper or at least an analysis of it, it’s hard to actually be convinced of it. And even if the paper were very good, a single study isn’t ever enough to be convincing – let’s see the study replicated by at least one independent party, ideally someone motivated to disprove it.

      It sure would be nice if those conclusions were true, though. Unfortunately, even if it were true, I worry that the people interested in violent revolution also tend not to be people who are particularly concerned and good about using the most effective tools to create the changes they desire. Certainly among my peers, I observe the distinct sense that they have a visceral desire for violence, and they come up with post-hoc rationalizations why the violence they desire is also effective for creating the changes they say they desire.

  9. Shion Arita says:

    No, I don’t think I would do any better than chance. The art form I know very well is anime/animation, and have put a lot of time into critical though of it. In that medium, there is a list of the ‘good stuffs’ that people consider to be the great works. My tastes are completely uncorrelated with that, and it seems to extend to other media (literature, live action film, etc) though I have less comprehensive knowledge of those media so I can’t say so as definitively. My tastes are uncorrelated with the majority both if you take a ‘popular’ definition of good and if you take a ‘sophisticated’ good.

    I have a couple hypotheses for why that is (my tastes and what’s widely regarded as ‘good’), one of which is more charitable than the other.

    1. I’m weird, and other people are more similar to each other than they are to me, thus coherent tastes emerge but mine are isolated from that.

    2. It’s really kind of just memetics. Something is considered good, so when people see it they think it’s good too, and everyone’s opinions just kind of become everyone else’s opinions. It’s kind of just random what ends up taking off and becoming really popular or well regarded. I don’t experience this because I have an instinct to think for myself and make my own judgments.

    3. Some combination of 1 and 2.

  10. SquirrelInHell says:

    So, prompted by the recent posts about meditation (“Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha”, “Meditative States As Feedback Loops”), I went and did it. It turns out I had a ton of advantages, so my progress was super fast (I got to some respectable achievements in a few weeks of mostly exclusive effort).

    Some remarks on it are in this blog post: http://squirrelinhell.blogspot.com.es/2017/10/time-to-exit-sandbox.html
    Also here I wrote a rough model of one thing that definitely happens and seems impossible with other methods: http://bewelltuned.com/tune_your_motor_cortex

  11. WashedOut says:

    I would say enjoying the “best” art is like studying an n-dimensional object across time.

    In my view: Crime and Punishment is the greatest novel ever written, and “objectively” should end up in every serious person’s top 10 after accounting for individual tastes.

    What is it about CaP that makes this so?
    1. Timelessness of central theme – voluntary acceptance and transcendence of suffering.

    2. Structure – CaP has a fractal-like structure (or meta-structure) in that the lives of Svidrigailov, Sonya and Porfiry each represent a self-similar part of the whole of Rodya’s life and personality, and the relationship between these entities to the whole is what gives the novel a deep resonance.

    3. Literary aesthetic

    Other potential yardsticks for objective goodness of art
    -Scope for multiple interpretations/analyses to exist and be argued for (dimensionality)
    -Length of time being discussed after publishing (durability, proxy for how deeply it resonates with people)
    -Degree of influence on future thought

  12. Wrong Species says:

    Anyone want to defend the mainstream progressive position on immigration? It seems utterly incomprehensible to me. We’re allowed to have borders but if we try to enforce them that’s a bad idea? I understand not wanting to deport those brought to the country when they were young but progressives seem to have a problem with deporting those who came here as adults as well. How is that coherent?

    • lvlln says:

      So I don’t know how much my own thinking on this is similar to the thinking of the “mainstream progressive,” but as someone who identifies as progressive and who generally agrees with the mainstream progressive view, my thinking goes something like this:

      One value I have is that all people everywhere deserve equal rights and equal chance at positive life outcomes regardless of their luck of birth. I think this, or some version of this, is a fairly common value among progressives. This is one reason why we are so sensitized to notice bigotry based on things like race, sex, sexual orientation, and sexual identity.

      One thing that is just as due to luck of birth as race, sex, etc. is the place where one is born and the citizen status of their parents. It seems obviously unjust to me that someone who was randomly born not in the United States to parents who aren’t US citizens would have a different set of rights than someone who was randomly born in the US or to parents who are US citizens. Including right to enter/be/work/live/etc. in the United States (or any other country, for that matter).

      From that, it follows that no one should ever be deported. In fact, no one should ever be prevented from entering the country – this is why I’m a proponent of open borders. Now obviously dictating policy entirely based on one value is likely to lead to bad outcomes, because it’s very rare that one value is the dominant one that is more important than every other value in every context. Given the practicalities of open borders and the amount of unnecessary suffering it could cause if implemented carelessly, I don’t think going to open borders immediately or even within my lifetime is a reasonable goal, but I think it’s something to work toward as the state of things which I would consider just.

      I think progressives in general do hold the whole luck-of-birth-not-determining-life-outcomes as a very high value, higher than most non-progressives do, so on the margins, we are more likely to fight against deporting people based on their citizenry as determined by their luck of birth than non-progressives are.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        It seems obviously unjust to me that someone who was randomly born not in the United States to parents who aren’t US citizens would have a different set of rights than someone who was randomly born in the US or to parents who are US citizens.

        But does the work done by previous generations to establish and preserve the nation have any value?

        You work hard to establish a home with walls and rules and wealth for the well-being of your children. Your children are lucky to be born to you. Someone else who was not lucky enough to be born your child breaks into your home without your permission to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Is this just?

        • lvlln says:

          I wouldn’t consider such a robbery to be automatically just, unless there were other extraordinary circumstances involved. However, I would say that the state of the world such that my children have things which other children lack but desire to such an extent that they consider robbing my children to be an action that serves them well to be unjust. I’m not sure what the best way to resolve such an injustice would be; certainly robbery has all sorts of other consequences that I would consider to outweigh the benefits. I think some combination of wealth redistribution and safety nets is probably a good start, with additional steps determined through free and open discourse by people with a wide range of opinions.

          I do think the desire that people have for their children and/or the children of their countrymen to enjoy the fruits of their labor needs to be taken into account. But it also should be understood as just another impulse – a nigh universal one – that we humans have, something that we should actually figure out if it’s worth satisfying. Any method of resolving the injustice of people having unequal life outcomes entirely due to luck of birth would have to work with this near-ubiquitous human impulse, as I think attempts that fight against human nature tend to have a bad and bloody track record.

          • Evan Þ says:

            However, I would say that the state of the world such that my children have things which other children lack but desire to such an extent that they consider robbing my children to be an action that serves them well to be unjust. I’m not sure what the best way to resolve such an injustice would be

            Okay, but in the meantime, you’re working to provide your children with even more good things rather than giving away what they’ve already got to provide greater equality. Similarly, until we’ve got universal global prosperity, couldn’t “make the US even better, rather than give away its advantages to help others” be a defensible position?

          • I would say that the state of the world such that my children have things which other children lack but desire to such an extent that they consider robbing my children to be an action that serves them well to be unjust.

            By that standard, I can never justly do anything for anyone I love, given that I am not prepared to provide the same benefit to everyone else in the world.

            The problem with your whole approach is the idea of desert. You and I don’t deserve to be born at a time when humans are richer than they have ever been before. That doesn’t make it wrong. I don’t deserve to be hit by lightning, or have talents that make other people willing to pay me lots of money, or any of many other things, good or bad–that doesn’t mean that anyone has to act unjustly for those outcomes to occur.

            At your level of generality, everyone deserves the same thing–nothing. I don’t deserve to have been born a human being instead of a mouse or an ant. It isn’t clear I deserve to be a living thing instead of a rock.

            If nobody deserves anything, then the fact that one person gets more than another isn’t unjust.

            Explain to me why you, or I, deserves the sort of life we live, or for that matter the life we would live if the good things of life were evenly distributed around the globe. When a baby is born, what has he done to deserve the life he is going to live?

          • lvlln says:

            By that standard, I can never justly do anything for anyone I love, given that I am not prepared to provide the same benefit to everyone else in the world.

            Like I wrote above, like almost everyone, I hold multiple different values, and certainly the value that luck of birth shouldn’t determine life outcomes isn’t the one dominant value that beats every other value in every other case. Another value I have is prosperity of humans (for some definition of prosperity), and I recognize that a system in which individuals are motivated to create families and provide benefits for their offspring/other family members that they don’t provide for other people tends to work alright for creating human prosperity. Maybe it’s not strictly the best system, and it definitely conflicts with my sense of justice, but it’s a system that has proven not to be completely disastrous in the thousands of years humans have been around. So I don’t see anything wrong with people sticking with it – despite its conflict with my sense of justice – unless and until we have some other system which also satisfies my sense of justice and which we can be fairly confident won’t send society spiraling down a hellhole (which seems incredibly easy to do accidentally and incredibly hard to prevent on purpose).

            The problem with your whole approach is the idea of desert. You and I don’t deserve to be born at a time when humans are richer than they have ever been before. That doesn’t make it wrong. I don’t deserve to be hit by lightning, or have talents that make other people willing to pay me lots of money, or any of many other things, good or bad–that doesn’t mean that anyone has to act unjustly for those outcomes to occur.

            At your level of generality, everyone deserves the same thing–nothing. I don’t deserve to have been born a human being instead of a mouse or an ant. It isn’t clear I deserve to be a living thing instead of a rock.

            If nobody deserves anything, then the fact that one person gets more than another isn’t unjust.

            I don’t agree that the bold part follows. I think the opposite: everyone deserves everything (or at least everything required to make them as happy/satisfied as they desire). But this conflicts with what reality can provide, and attempting to create such a reality seems to historically have caused just a ton of human suffering and death for no gain. So clearly “everyone deserves everything” shouldn’t be used as a direct guide for our actions. At the same time, while I’m sympathetic to people who would argue that this actually means that we should scrap that value altogether, I still think it should act as a general guide that we negotiate with our other values to develop an actual guide we can use to direct policy.

            Getting back to the immigration issue, for example, my everyone-deserves-everything value implies fully open borders for every country in every context, including USA today. However, I think the evidence is fairly strong that if the USA opened up borders today, that would lead to a lot of increased suffering for people already in the USA and also for a sizable subset of people who will enter the USA, compared to if the USA continued its current policy. I weigh that against satisfying the everyone-deserves-everything value as well as against the reduction of suffering by people who would be granted entry under open borders but not under current policy. Which leads me to believe that we should find ways to incrementally dissolve our borders – including steps like granting amnesty and loose immigration enforcement, in order to subvert the idea of borders among the population – while carefully observing at each step what negative consequences follow. I’m sympathetic to the argument that such protections aren’t enough or can never be enough, and this will work just like a ratchet – I just don’t agree.

            Explain to me why you, or I, deserves the sort of life we live, or for that matter the life we would live if the good things of life were evenly distributed around the globe. When a baby is born, what has he done to deserve the life he is going to live?

            I think merely having consciousness makes one deserving of fulfilling every desire of that consciousness. Every moment in which a consciousness doesn’t experience all the happiness/satisfaction/pleasure it desires is a moment that’s wasted. Unfortunately, for most people, satisfying all their desires also means infringing on desires of other people, and so most people don’t get what they deserve. It may be that no one ever has and ever will get what they deserve. I still think it’s good to try to adjust the world such that more people get more of what they deserve than before (while also considering the people who will end up getting less of what they deserve due to the change).

        • Well Armed Sheep says:

          @Conrad Honcho/“but you wouldn’t let illegals take your house”

          A country is not a house or a household. The bundle that constitutes “the United States” is not the property of “the citizens of the United States” (though some of the physical parts of the bundle are privately owned by individual citizens or groups thereof and other parts are owned by various governments). What’s more, outside of this one specific argument raised by immigration restrictionists I don’t think anyone actually thinks of the United States (bundle edition) as the property of “the citizenry” (bundle edition) in the strong sense that your analogy requires.

          It is perfectly moral to resist the person robbing your house because the house and its contents are your property. It is immoral to try to prevent foreigners from entering the United States and engaging in voluntary transactions with people there, because you have no property interest in the airplane they arrive on, the lodgings they take, the business that employs them, or the roads they drive on.

          Indeed immigration restrictionism is an unjustifiable claim on *other Americans’* property and liberty of contract. The whole point is to prohibit Americans from trading local goods and services with resident non-Americans.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            And this right here is why I support, before expanding immigration rolls, first and foremost establishing that we have the right to control our borders.

          • Mark says:

            Effective personal property and freedom exists within limits established by national culture.

            So, I think you have to take a bit of a pragmatic approach – if your ideals undercut the environment that makes them practically possible, then you need to stop being so idealistic.

          • Iain says:

            So, I think you have to take a bit of a pragmatic approach – if your ideals undercut the environment that makes them practically possible, then you need to stop being so idealistic.

            Do you have any concrete examples of how “effective personal property and freedom” have been undercut by immigration?

            (I can certainly come up with ways in which they have been undercut by overzealous anti-immigration tactics.)

          • Mark says:

            Hmmmm… how about the rise in crime in Germany due to recent mass migration?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            What’s more, outside of this one specific argument raised by immigration restrictionists I don’t think anyone actually thinks of the United States (bundle edition) as the property of “the citizenry” (bundle edition) in the strong sense that your analogy requires.

            National defense? War? We say the nation (bundle edition) goes to war, not that each individual citizen who participates in combat is independently declaring war against each other individual soldier on the other side of the battlefield.

            Yes, individuals matter, but you seem to be making a case that “the nation” doesn’t exist, merely individuals, and I don’t think this corresponds to how people behave in the real world.

            It is immoral to try to prevent foreigners from entering the United States and engaging in voluntary transactions with people there, because you have no property interest in the airplane they arrive on, the lodgings they take, the business that employs them, or the roads they drive on.

            I have an interest when they gain citizenship, or when their children born on American soil have citizenship, giving them the right to vote (eventually) and thereby a share of the political dominion over me and my children.

            And a large percentage of these immigrants come from South and Central America, where people tend to vote for collectivist policies. The eventual result of your moral libertarianism will be the end of liberty.

      • PedroS says:

        I understand the appeal of the argument regarding the moral luck of one’s birth. I fear, though, that this argument proves too much: it also means that (e.g.) sparsely populated, poor countries with large mineral wealth, prime real estate, etc. have no moral defence against being over-run by settlers from (for example) wealthier, more densely-populated states. It may also mean that immigration restrictions in other countries (like Mexico vs. Guatemala, Indonesia vs. Myanmar, etc.) may eventually (once open-borders wins the West) be viewed by Western countries as basic human rights violations worthy of censure and sanctions.

        I am neither an immigration-restrictionist nor an open-borders advocate. I think that an yearly intake of 0.5-1% of the population of the target country might be a sustainable rate for many western countries, provided that enforcement were taken seriously. Social tension/xenophobic sentiment might be prevented by adjusting the ratio of yearly uptake of working/dependent immigrants so that the average anual state welfare/education/health expenditures on immigrant dependents were covered by the taxes levied on the immigrants themselves (at rates equal to those of citizens, of course). This would entail an initial entry of healthy immigrants with no dependents (or high-earning immigrants with children), followed after a few years by their children/elderly parents.
        I have no idea if such a plan would be well-received by either side, or even if it would be better (for the would-be immigrants and for the social cohesion of the target society) than the current rotten status quo. For example, I admit I pulled the 0.5-1% number out of my behind, since I have not studied this in any detail. I also have no practical experience of the advantages/disadvantages of large immigrant populations: my country is in such a long economic stagnation/crisis that hardly any immigrants want to come here, as there are hardly any new jobs appearing (and when there were immigrants coming, they mostly stayed around Lisbon, rather than in the region where I live) . But from what I gather by reading the experience in other countries, it seems to me that ignoring the practical need for enforcement of whatever system is used, leads to an increase of tensions and to the perception that no political solution is possible without destroying the ideological outgroup.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Lots of perfectly fine systems have been destroyed, leaving everyone worse off, out of a desire to make them “fair.”

          Is it unfair that people born in the US are the owners of US citizenship? Perhaps. But having clear rights is much better than having a hazy mishmash of God-knows-what. Coase would tell us that the initial allocation of resources doesn’t matter too much as long as markets can exist.

          If it really is unfair that people born in the US automatically get US citizenship, let’s explore getting rid of birthright citizenship. After all, it’s only fair. other ways of determining citizenship. (EDIT to make me sound like less of an asshole)

    • Iain says:

      We are allowed to have laws against stealing bread. We are allowed to enforce those laws. Nevertheless, if I were proposing a crackdown on people who stole a loaf of bread a decade ago to feed their families, you might look at me a bit askance.

      Most non-violent crimes have some sort of statute of limitations. We acknowledge that a crime might have occurred, but it has been long enough that dredging it back up no longer serves a valuable purpose. The mainstream progressive position is akin to a statute of limitations on illegal immigration: if you’ve been living here for long enough, and you aren’t making trouble, then uprooting you and your family does more harm than good. It helps that the crime in question has no direct victim and is done for sympathetic reasons.

      If that’s how you think about illegal immigration, then your anti-immigration efforts are going to be concentrated in two areas. First, you want to focus on catching people as they cross the border, or shortly afterwards. This maximizes deterrence: people who are thinking about jumping the border care a lot more about whether they will be caught than about whether people who have been living in America for ten years will be deported. Second, you still want to catch and deport the legitimately bad criminals.

      Conveniently, those were precisely the priorities of the Obama administration’s approach to illegal immigration.

      • Matt M says:

        Regardless of the political party in power, I have to imagine that, for purely logistical reasons, those have always been the main priorities and areas of focus.

        Maybe Obama explicitly says “ignore anyone non-violent who has been here for over 10 years” and Trump says “no, don’t ignore those people, enforce the law as written.” But I have a tough time imagining that even Trump’s enforcers are prioritizing non-violent people who have been here a long time. By the very nature of that status, those people will be harder to find, of more value to the community, etc.

        I don’t think anyone disagrees on what the priorities should be. There’s just a disagreement on what needs to be done when the authorities become aware of someone in violation of the law who is otherwise sympathetic. But is there really some sort of “cold case” task force out there looking to track down non-violent people who have fully assimilated into communities? I guess there could be, but I highly doubt it…

        • Brad says:

          There’s some evidence that ICE under Trump is going out and doing splashy raids designed to catch out non-violent people in sanctuary cities in order to make a point.

          They probably aren’t “fully assimilated” because if they were, it’d be too hard to target them, but those resources could be used to go after aliens with criminal records and aren’t.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            What’s your opinion of sanctuary cities (or sanctuary states now)? This seems dangerously close to Nullification to me.

          • Brad says:

            Just so I don’t go into a long explanation of something you already know, are you familiar with the non-commandeering doctrine?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Yes, which is why I didn’t say that it is Nullification, only “dangerously close.” Yes, state agencies can refuse to assist the Feds…should they, in this regard?

          • Brad says:

            If what the federal government asks for has a high cost, either in terms of man-hours or in terms of indirectly hurting state priorities, then the agency should absolutely say no.

            If we are going to have a federal system, we should have a federal system. That means that if the federal government wants to enforce a policy where enforcement requires a million boots on the ground across the country, then it needs to hire, train, and deploy a million boots on the ground across the country. If it doesn’t want to do that, well then it must not have been such a high priority after all.

            States have their own long list of responsibilities and priorities and fewer resources than the federal government to carry them out.

            The federal government has no business asking local police officers to deliver mail because it doesn’t feel like hiring more postal workers and “you guys are in the local community anyway”. If it does so ask, states and cities not only can, but should, say no. That’s not their job.

            If you want to have a conversation about ending the federal system of government and going to a unitary one, I’m open to that. But that’s not what we have now.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I agree with that. But in this case it seems like it’s mostly an issue of “state priorities” or state politics rather than cost. Simple reporting of people the state knows to be here illegally or transferring of individuals to federal custody seems like issues of basic state and federal law enforcement cooperation that are normal in most other regards, and if the expense is really an issue, the feds could allocate funds to reimburse state/local agencies.

          • Brad says:

            I think impact on state priorities are relevant. If a police department thinks it is going to have a lot harder of a time clearing murder and rape cases if it cooperates with ICE that’s an entirely valid thing to take into consideration when deciding whether or not to cooperate.

            In terms of “normal in most other regards” I don’t think there’s any other area that are nearly so one sided. There are federal and local task forces on drugs and gangs, for example, but in that case it is driven by overlapping interests of both sides. I can’t think of any other example where “cooperation” involves state officials doing the federal government’s bidding in an area where they have little independent interest or authority.

            And even if it was an exception to the normal cozy relationship that different law enforcement organizations have with each other I still don’t see how you get from there to “dangerously close to Nullification”.

            The few cases here or there where state and local officials are taking affirmative steps to thwart federal law enforcement are concerning. But just saying no to requests is fine. If it wasn’t fine then we wouldn’t call them requests.

            If the federal government wants to sweeten the pot, like you suggested they could, they are welcome to see if that gets them more takers.

          • bean says:

            If the local cops/government quietly went “Look, we don’t have the resources to deal with this, so we’re not going to help you if it takes us more than five minutes” I don’t think there would be a serious problem with it. Instead, they’ve chosen to declare themselves a Sanctuary City, proudly standing up for Undocumented Americans against the Federal Hordes. I think these two are pretty clearly different things, and the second one looks an awful lot like nullification to me.

          • Randy M says:

            I agree with bean that as presented, it is usually more about resisting a government oppressing minorities than not having the resources and being forced to prioritize. If California suddenly found itself awash in cash, I doubt any increased eagerness to send illegal aliens packing.

          • Brad says:

            Even if resources or relations with the community are not even a small part of the motive, I still don’t see how it is akin to nullification or massive resistance (or almost akin). Everyone acknowledges that they are perfectly entitled to do what they are doing. I haven’t seen any state or city assert the ability to nullify, though as I mentioned there have been a few troublesome cases of active thwarting of federal agents.

            If the complaint is that they spice up a perfectly legal and legitimate actions with some flamboyant rhetoric, I have to ask what you think about one Donald J. Trump.

          • bean says:

            They’re actively flouting a federal law. The manner in which they’re doing it is legal, and I’ll agree that we can’t ban it without raising a bunch of federalism concerns which we really shouldn’t, but I think it’s a bad thing, and something they should not do. And if they’re going to do it, could they at least have the good grace to pretend that they’re just doing it for resource reasons or something?
            I also think the Feds are perfectly justified in flooding said cities with INS agents, and cracking down hard on any locals who actively try to thwart them.

            If the complaint is that they spice up a perfectly legal and legitimate actions with some flamboyant rhetoric, I have to ask what you think about one Donald J. Trump.

            Didn’t vote for him, still don’t particularly like him. That’s one of the things that annoys me most, actually.

          • Brad says:

            To summarize where we agree and disagree:

            1) I think the original requests were unreasonable. They were complied with mostly because of LE-LE solidarity being placed above duty to their own polities.

            2) I think it is perfectly fine to for polities to say no. I don’t consider that to be flouting federal law.

            3) I agree that it would be perfectly fine from a federalism standpoint to flood those cities with ICE agents. But as a U.S. voter and taxpayer I think doing so is not the best use of resources or a great idea in general.

            4) I agree that it would be better to have toned down rhetoric that explicitly referenced the non commandeering doctrine rather than language which could, if not read carefully, suggest defiance of federal law.

          • bean says:


            1) I think the original requests were unreasonable. They were complied with mostly because of LE-LE solidarity being placed above duty to their own polities.

            I don’t know the ins and outs of immigration law, so I can’t speak to exactly what is being requested or complied with.

            2) I think it is perfectly fine to for polities to say no. I don’t consider that to be flouting federal law.

            My problem with this is that immigration is explicitly a federal issue. I’ll give more slack in cases where there’s at least an arguable federalism issue, but this is black and white. Federal law is pretty clear, and various jurisdictions are not complying because they don’t like the law, and doing so publicly. This is corrosive to the rule of law. It’s not nullification, exactly, but I don’t think it’s good.

          • Well Armed Sheep says:

            @Brad re: ICE raids on more or less entirely peaceable illegal immigrants of longstanding residence:

            This is very much happening, and I’ve seen it up close — specifically in a case where the government was in the process of deporting an individual who had lived peaceably in the United States since the early 1990s, was a small business owner, and had several citizen children (all about to go to, in, or graduated from college — not bad work for a person from ).

            This person had not had any meaningful contact with police or ICE before receiving a notice to appear. They sought him out. Frankly I would not be surprised if someone narc’d on him in the wake of the election.

            @ Bean:

            I can’t understand how it is “flouting Federal law” to decline to use State or local resources to enforce a federal law *for whatever reason*. Would you similarly object if Texas, as a policy matter, declined to cooperate with federal environmental investigators on (say) enforcing the EPA’s regulatory scheme for refineries? Say that Texas officials felt that the EPA scheme included overly harsh carbon emission limits, and announced that TX environmental inspectors would continue to check that the refinery wasn’t pouring arsenic into the drinking water but would not check carbon emissions. Assume further that Gov. Abbott gave a speech to that effect. Same objection? If so I guess we just don’t share the same mental model of “flouting.” Both seem perfectly fine to me and my only objection to the general practice would be object level in cases where I don’t like the policy the state is advancing.

            In sum I think the sanctuary cities issue is precisely a case of the rule of law, federalism edition, working exactly as it ought to — governments at a given level using their legal powers to advance their voters’ policy preferences when other governments attempt to take actions contrary to those preferences. Sanctuary cities would be bad for the rule of law if they started trying to arrest ICE agents for the state or local crime of “attempted deportation,” but that isn’t what they are doing.

        • Iain says:

          Take DACA as an example. Obama put the program into effect. Trump rescinded it. Under DACA, a specific subset of illegal immigrants (who came to the US as children, did not have a criminal record, and met certain educational requirements) could apply to get an official work permit and a renewable 2-year non-deportation guarantee.

          Does Trump prioritize non-violent, assimilated individuals more than actual criminals? Maybe not. Does he prioritize them more than Obama did? Absolutely.

          • Matt M says:

            And that’s fine. I guess what I’m thinking of is a sort of “zero-effort” hypothetical.

            If you pull someone over for suspicion of DUI and find out that they’re an illegal, it may be Obama policy to not care about this, and it may be Trump policy to have them deported. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that, in cases like this, Trump is “prioritizing” deporting people who are suspected of DUI.

            Random raids on taco trucks would be effort/prioritizing, so I’m fine with characterizing that as such, and it seems reasonable to me that Trump would be ordering more of those than Obama, so I think your overall point stands. I think that most Americans would agree with the left that raiding random taco trucks is generally bad policy. But I also think that most Americans would agree with the right that if the authorities, going about their regular, non-raiding business, happen to encounter someone who is an illegal, that person should probably be deported in accordance with the law.

      • Evan Þ says:

        I agree deterrence is a good thing, and a dredging up old crimes is (all else equal) a bad thing. But if we have a policy of “live here ten years and you’re OK,” coupled with really low enforcement during those ten years, wouldn’t that hugely hurt deterrence?

        If we hugely increase enforcement, and we could depend on future administrations keeping it high, I’d be okay with pardoning longstanding existing illegal immigrants. But we tried that before, and it wasn’t enforced, so I would have a really hard time trusting any future deal like this.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          If we hugely increase enforcement, and we could depend on future administrations keeping it high, I’d be okay with pardoning longstanding existing illegal immigrants. But we tried that before, and it wasn’t enforced, so I would have a really hard time trusting any future deal like this.

          I agree with that. When the Democrats have illegal immigrants speak at their national convention, and everyone’s cheering, and all the propaganda is aligned with immigration of any kind as an unalloyed good (“We’re a nation of immigrants,” “diversity is our strength”, “Give me your tired, your sick, your poor”, “no person is illegal,” “undocumented American”), combined with Jeb Bush and “illegal immigration is an act of love,” and I find it hard to believe there exists any real political will outside the Trump movement to increase enforcement beyond lip service.

          The DREAMERS can also come across as less than sympathetic (“Deport This!”). Things like shouting down Nancy Pelosi at her press conference makes it seem like I’m dealing with militants demanding obedience, and not victims asking for benevolence.

          We tried the “amnesty for enforcement” thing in the 80s and that did not work. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”

          • Iain says:

            Your doubt is at odds with the facts on the ground.

            Enforcement has been ramping up for decades. Twice as many people were deported under Bush and Obama as were deported from 1892-1997 combined. The Border Patrol’s budget doubled between 2003 and 2013. Starting under Bush and ramping up under Obama, border crossers are being fingerprinted and formally deported, putting a formal charge on their record instead of just busing them back across the border to try again. The rate of illegal immigration is at a forty-year low.

            If you are waiting for Democrats to start bashing immigrants in their stump speeches, you might be waiting a while. If you are waiting for significant action on enforcement, then you might not be paying enough attention.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            But as the article says:

            That statistic was due in large part to a change in how “deportations” are defined rather than to an increase in the number of persons deported.

            The number of people deported at or near the [U.S.-Mexico] border has gone up — primarily as a result of changing who gets counted in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s deportation statistics.

            The vast majority of those border crossers would not have been treated as formal deportations under most previous administrations. If all removals were tallied, the total sent back to Mexico each year would have been far higher under those previous administrations than it is now.

            So, no, Obama didn’t really ramp up enforcement. He and Bush (BFFs) just changed the way the statistics are tallied. Fewer people were moved from the country to out of the country under Obama.

            I’m not asking for the Democrats to “start bashing immigrants.” They could at least not:

            1) Conflate legal and illegal immigration.

            2) Present immigration of all types as an unalloyed good with no limits or challenges.

            But I don’t expect them to do #2 (heh, heh), because that’s what they actually believe. Which is why there is no political will to increase enforcement and instead statistical trickery is used (by both Bush and Obama). The GOP establishment business interests love the cheap labor and the Dems love the new voters.

            I think there are more sensible leftists on SSC, but the impression I get from progressive media and activists is that there is no such thing as too much immigration.

          • Iain says:

            How would you distinguish between people who believe there is no such thing as too much immigration, vs people who believe the optimal level of immigration is higher than the status quo?

            You may be confusing the latter with the former.

            PS: I deliberately did not claim that Obama had personally ramped up enforcement. My point was that a series of steps have been taken, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, which have significantly reduced the flow of illegal immigrants across the border. This is not compatible with the idea that there’s no political will outside of the Trump movement to increase enforcement. It has literally already happened.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            How would you distinguish between people who believe there is no such thing as too much immigration, vs people who believe the optimal level of immigration is higher than the status quo?

            I would expect them to focus their arguments on perhaps labor shortages or provide target numbers for immigration rather than make moral arguments. Once you’ve decided “diversity is our strength,” then cannot we simply add diversity to add strength? Once you’ve decided “no person is illegal,” how do you justify deporting anyone? During the campaign Bernie Sanders even suggested bringing back some people we have already deported.

            You may be confusing the latter with the former.

            I specifically distinguished the two. Are you denying that both exist?

            In this very thread lvlln says:

            From that, it follows that no one should ever be deported. In fact, no one should ever be prevented from entering the country – this is why I’m a proponent of open borders.

            These seem like moral arguments for limitless immigration and not numerical tweaking of the status quo.

            PS: I deliberately did not claim that Obama had personally ramped up enforcement. My point was that a series of steps have been taken, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, which have significantly reduced the flow of illegal immigrants across the border. This is not compatible with the idea that there’s no political will outside of the Trump movement to increase enforcement. It has literally already happened.

            If you read the politifact article you linked, they mention a few caveats (and gloss over a couple of things).

            Worth noting: There’s no direct indicator of illegal immigration. Folks don’t report in.

            But the best-available metric, Border Patrol apprehensions, reached a 44-year national low in 2015.

            Low apprehensions does not necessarily imply low attempts. It could also be explained by lack of enforcement, or better skill at entering the country.

            Experts agree that some 11 million to 12 million U.S. residents lack legal permission to live here. In July 2015, when PolitiFact Florida looked into such estimates, Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the total number of illegal immigrants had essentially held constant in recent years, because the number arriving roughly balanced the number going home or getting legal status.

            Emphasis mine. How many people are “getting legal status?” This also doesn’t count anchor babies who, by judicial fiat and not legislative action are citizens and not illegal immigrants. The rate of people coming to the nation (and staying) in ways the voting public never intended is still significant.

            Focusing only on people with illegal status while ignoring anchor babies and people who came illegally but then became legal is deceptive.

          • Evan Þ says:

            …anchor babies who, by judicial fiat and not legislative action are citizens and not illegal immigrants.

            Not by judicial fiat; by the plain text of the Fourteenth Amendment. The equivocations on who’s “subject to the jurisdiction” of the US do not convince me.

            Other than that, I completely agree with your post.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Do you mean to tell me that in 1868, when they wrote and passed the 14th amendment, one of the intentions was to make any child of an illegal immigrant a US citizen? I don’t think they did that. Why would they do that?

            And nobody thought they did that for a long, long time. Just 16 years later in 1884, in Elk v. Wilkins the Supreme Court found that the 14th amendment didn’t grant citizenship to American Indians because they owed their primary allegiance to their tribe, and not the US. Sounds an awful lot like a citizen of Mexico squeezing out a kid in California. The Mexican parents owe their allegiance to Mexico. It took until 1924 with the “Indian Citizenship Act of 1924” to make Native Americans citizens. There never was an “Illegal Alien Citizenship Act.”

            The whole “children of illegals are citizens” thing didn’t happen until 1982 when William Brennan just kind of slipped it into a footnote.

            Again, judicial fiat. No one treated children of people born illegally in the country as citizens for over 100 years after the 14th amendment was ratified.

            So, 1) the 14th Amendment didn’t make children of illegals citizens for 100 years, 2) why on earth would the people passing the 14th amendment intended to grant citizenship to freed slaves ever have intended for it to grant citizens to illegals (but not Indians!)?

            This sounds like judicial fiat to me, and not anything carefully considered by legislators or voters. From the Elk decision: “No one can become a citizen of a nation without its consent.”

            Regardless, it should be clarified by the legislature. There is no reason to grant birthright citizenship to children of illegals. If I sneak my wife into Britain and drop a kid, that kid that is American citizen and not a British subject.

          • John Schilling says:

            Do you mean to tell me that in 1868, when they wrote and passed the 14th amendment, one of the intentions was to make any child of an illegal immigrant a US citizen? I don’t think they did that. Why would they do that?

            Because they wanted to be absolutely, positively, 100% certain that none of their enemies from the late war, that they were now pretending to share a country with as partners, would ever be able to implement some clever scheme to disenfranchise or reenslave the you-know-whos. One obvious clever scheme would be to note that the slave trade was outlawed in 1808 so any slave imported after that was an “illegal immigrant” and so were their children and look, we just found documents in the county archives saying that you, Mr. Jefferson, were born to parents illegally imported in 1820 so no civil rights for you!

            No. Not that, not any of the hundred other things that some clever Klansman can think up that are sort of vaguely like that, even the ones our ancestors in their own cleverness couldn’t think up to more specifically preempt. They are all as of 1868 generically Right Out. If someone is born on American soil, there is no room for clever arguments about how the particular circumstances of that birth make them Not Really American.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I don’t like the way that anchor babies are used, but the Fourteenth Amendment is pretty clear in what it says.

            All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.

            Maybe they were giddy off of the high from defeating the South, but they had other options if they wanted to stop illegal immigrants. Like saying “born in the US prior to this amendment,” the same way that the conditions for being POTUS were laid out.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            John, then why didn’t they treat Native American as citizens? Why did that require an act of congress?

          • Well Armed Sheep says:

            @ Conrad Honcho

            “Do you mean to tell me that in 1868, when they wrote and passed the 14th amendment, one of the intentions was to make any child of an illegal immigrant a US citizen?”

            1) From the perspective of a large, large majority of existing originalists in academia, the courts, the Federalist Society, etc., intent doesn’t figure. Text, as generally and reasonably understood at the time of enactment, is what matters. Intention and expected application do not. To my knowledge, there are either very few or no “original expected application” originalists with significant intellectual followings at present. “Original public meaning” originalism is by far the dominant approach. The issue is what a reasonable person would have understood the text to mean at the time of enactment.

            1a) As a historical aside, there was not any specific intention or expected application as to the children of illegal immigrants at the time of enactment, because “illegal immigrant” was a category that did not exist. The first immigration restrictions of any note did not occur until the 1880s with the Chinese Exclusion Act. (To preempt what I imagine you will say, no, this is not evidence that the clause doesn’t apply to children of illegal immigrants any more than the fact that the framers of the Fourth Amendment did not anticipate cell phones means that there are no protections against search and seizure thereof, or that modern semiautomatic weapons are not protected by the Second Amendment).


            Re: “Elk v. Wilkins”

            It is frequently the case that the Supreme Court gets things wrong; it is especially frequently the case that the Reconstruction-era Supreme Court opinions aggressively limiting the reach of the Fourteenth Amendment are wrong.

            Elk (and modern defenses thereof) turn on some extremely dubious attempts to distinguish between “complete political sovereignty” (meaning fullscale citizenship and participation in things like voting, the draft, etc.) and “territorial sovereignty” (meaning enforcement of criminal law etc.). (The best defense of Elk/anti-birthright of which I’m aware is this John Eastman piece.) However, Elk is unpersuasive because the Constitution does not contain any basis from which to infer the existence of two meanings of the term “jurisdiction,” much less a principled basis to say that the term means several different things within the Fourteenth Amendment itself (no one thinks the equal protection clause applies only to “completely jurisdictional” persons; it is uncontroversially unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause for a state to say “we will mistreat black illegal aliens but not white ones”). Indeed, Eastman’s argument that language in the Civil Rights Act of 1865 supports the “complete jurisdiction” argument undercuts his point; to the extent Eastman’s construction of the CRA is correct, it just shows that Congress was well aware of how to enact a citizenship-granting provision that was limited to those in the “complete jurisdiction” of the United States. It did not do so when it enacted the 14A.

            Even more importantly, the “complete jurisdiction” concept doesn’t even make sense on its own terms, because by the definitions Eastman and the like use include all sorts of things like “voting” and “serving on a jury” as indicators that someone is within the complete jurisdiction of the USA. I trust that I do not need to explain why that very definition is hard to square with the universally accepted idea that the 14A bestowed citizenship on the freedmen.

            Even assuming Elk is right, the case of a Native American living on a reservation with quasi-sovereign tribal governance and where US and state law are substantially inapplicable is not even close to analogous to the case of the US-born child of an illegal immigrant living in Queens.


            “No one treated children of people born illegally in the country as citizens for over 100 years after the 14th amendment was ratified.”

            Is this even true? I casually googled and didn’t find anything either way. However, it is not at all unusual for constitutional rights to be systematically violated for decades or longer after they are enacted; the Supreme Court was still upholding seditious libel convictions for war protestors in the 19-teens.


            The vast weight of scholarly consensus *even within the set of scholars who are principled originalists* favors birthright citizenship.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I’m moderately well convinced. I will update to “when passing the 14th amendment people inadvertently stuck us with the birthright citizenship for illegals mess, which should be corrected via legislation or amendment.”

      • Wrong Species says:

        That’s a strange way to frame illegal immigration. If someone was illegally squatting on your property for 10 years, you wouldn’t say that they only broke the law that one time 10 years ago, they’ve been breaking the law the entire time.

        And the fact that you’re talking about “maximum deterrence” is also really strange. Not only is there the plenty of illegal immigrants whose locations are known, but there are sanctuary cities that explicitly forbid cops from asking about immigration status. Democrats try to push laws so that they can get licenses and other things. And they seem to be adamantly opposed to a wall. If we wanted to actually deter people, there is so much low hanging fruit we could pick.

        • skef says:

          If someone was illegally squatting on your property for 10 years, you wouldn’t say that they only broke the law that one time 10 years ago, they’ve been breaking the law the entire time.

          On the other hand, squatter’s rights are a thing in some jurisdictions, and are typically based (somehow) on the length of time squatting.

        • JonathanD says:

          I’m much less pro-immigration than most Democrats, and I’m still adamantly opposed to a wall. I think the wall is a stupid vanity project, and if we want to blow billions of dollars doing vanity make-work, I’d much rather just restart the WPA, thank you very much.

          You want to get rid of most illegal immigrants? It’s simple. Require e-Verify for any job, and set up an enforcement arm. Replay President Eisenhower’s very unfortunately named border control project. Once it becomes almost impossible to work if you’re here illegally, no one will want to be here illegally.

          It’ll jack up food prices, but I detest that our food system is predicated on kinda sorta inviting (but not really) immigrants to come to our country, denying them the protection of our labor laws, and then paying them crap while exploiting them and, for good measure, demonizing them as wrecking the country. The whole thing stinks.

    • Brad says:

      I continue to not really know what is meant by progressive. But assuming a fairly broad definition, I don’t think it is a fair characterization to say “We’re allowed to have borders but if we try to enforce them that’s a bad idea?”

      The New York Times had this article today: ICE Arrested a Man in Oregon Without a Warrant. Senators Want to Know Why.

      It doesn’t say ICE should be disbanded. It says that ICE should follow the Constitution. That there mission isn’t so important that they should be allowed to ignore the Constitutional rights and procedures that every other law enforcement agency, including those that investigate things like murder, have to follow.

      Likewise you’ll see plenty of articles that say things like ICE should be prioritizing criminal aliens rather than doing mass raids. Or articles that talk about the difficulties in fighting violent crime in areas where immigration enforcement is aggressive. Or even articles arguing that we should have an amnesty. None of that implies opposing all attempts to enforce the border or being in favor of open borders.

      Consider an analogy. Suppose a civil liberties minded conservative opposed: civil forfeiture, no-knock warrants, mandatory minimums, and thought that limited law enforcement resources ought not to be focused on non-violent low level drug offenders. Would it be fair to say that he supports drug laws but thinks that any attempt to enforce them is a bad idea?

      • Wrong Species says:

        I don’t support breaking people’s civil liberties but this obviously goes beyond that. As for resources, let’s say that we had a town that had two kinds of crimes, murder and theft. Murder is obviously worse but it’s also less common. If we had cops spending some of their resources on deterring theft, would you criticize them for not spending all their resources on murder?

        • Brad says:

          We don’t have just two crimes. We have thousands of them and there are plenty that are all but unenforced. Also you skipped over the entire part of the comment that compared a civil libertarian conservative.

          The theme of your posts in this thread is that if people don’t agree with your proposed methods for controlling immigration then they must really be for open borders. That’s bullshit. Just because someone doesn’t share the priority you put on this issue and certainly doesn’t share your views on the need or efficacy for a wall that doesn’t mean they don’t think borders should be enforced.

          This is the same fallacy of accusing everyone that doesn’t support a particular tax increase or supports a specific tax cut wanting to drown the government in a bathtub.

    • Urstoff says:

      Anyone want to defend this ridiculous strawman? Anyone?

      • Wrong Species says:

        You don’t have to be Richard Spencer to think the progressive position on immigration is bizarre. I got a couple responses saying that deporting those who have been here for X amount of years is wrong. Ok, fine. Let’s say that most progressives agree with that. But then, why are they so adamantly opposed to the wall? They say something about it increasing the deficit but that’s fishy. They usually never care about the deficit unless it’s something they already oppose and the wall would cost something like $20 billion to build it. As a one time cost, that’s basically nothing in the federal budget.

        So whenever someone gets deported that’s not some Uber criminal, there’s opposition. Any increase in border security is now under attack. They don’t explicitly say that they oppose enforcing immigration laws but they might as well.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          I think the US could handle more immigration just fine, but I’d also like to know that we are in control of that immigration rate, and in case we change our mind we can actually change it, without random yahoos vetoing it.

    • entobat says:

      Whether or not I fit the label of “progressive” probably depends on the company I keep, but on SSC I think I can play the part.

      It’s easy to villify the (varying degrees of) mainstream Democratic behavior around the immigration issue. I agree with you that Democrats are unwilling to acknowledge that immigration can ever have negative effects, that the use of the “undocumented” euphemism feels a little slimy, and some segments of the left seem to be trying to force everyone else to not used the word “illegal” either, lest they be labeled a dehumanizer.

      You are talking to people who honestly believe these things, whose central example of an illegal immigrant is someone who fled from gang violence in Mexico, would not have (or did not) get into the country legally, and who has been a perfectly cromulent (for lack of a better term) law-abiding citizen for the 10+ years they’ve been here. They have compassion for these people, and the word “illegal” has negative connotations that seem mean to them

      (As an aside, there is some confusing mumbo jumbo justification of this that argues that illegal immigration is a “civil violation”, which means we shouldn’t be saying “illegal” because it’s not a crime. But one example in the linked article of a “civil violation” is a parking violation, and I think most people would understand you if you said someone who left their car next to a fire hydrant was “parked illegally”. I chalk this one up primarily as something really strange whose mechanism I don’t understand. You can call me naive, but my best guess is that these are genuinely well-meaning people who have found a plausible-sounding argument for a conclusion they like and feel no need to actively probe whether or not it actually makes any sense. Which makes them imperfect rationalists, but not bad people.)

      Anyway, back on track. We can’t deport children of illegal immigrants born in the United States, since they themselves are citizens; even if that changed, the United States is still the only country they know, and leaving children stateless is, all else equal, kind of shitty. Deporting the parent(s) and leaving the kids with a choice–go with them, or go to foster care–is disruptive, to say the least, and certainly on the object level is worse than leaving them in the country. (Remember, the parents are upstanding in everyday life, so this family is probably a net positive for society.) On the meta level you’re probably worried that there is an obvious problem with the policy of “We’ll let you stay if you have an adorable anchor baby because we can’t do utilitarian reasoning in the presence of a sob story”, but I’m not sure that argument really holds water.

      We know from the criminal justice world that people’s behavior is elastic with respect to probability of punishment, but fairly inelastic with respect to severity. (A common argument against the death penalty is that it doesn’t seem to serve as a deterrent more than a life sentence would.) It seems likely to me that our illegal immigrants—who are fleeing a life shitty enough that they are willing to trek across a boarder, with little to their names, to a country where they are without many rights—are unlikely to be doing numerical cost-benefit calculations. They are probably not thinking in the slightest about what will happen if they are caught 20 years down the road. So I don’t think harsher punishments, at least in the range we’re considering, can be meaningfully said to provide a disincentive to illegal immigration.

      Um, also you bring up walls a lot (not in the post I’m replying to but in many of the subthreads), presumably referring to the Trump border wall. This is an issue I don’t need to play the ideological Turing test for. The objections I’m familiar with are: it would cost something like $30 billion to build, have upkeep costs in the range of billions of dollars a decade, and Mexicans can make ladders 1 foot taller faster than we can uniformly add 1 foot of height to a wall that’s 2,000 miles long. Those seem reasonable to me and I conclude that I should be opposed to the wall because it’s an impractical way of accomplishing its supposed goal. How do you respond to those objections?

      • entobat says:

        There are some minor edits / small problems with this comment that I’m aware of and would like to fix, but can’t because WordPress ate the edit button.

      • Nornagest says:

        We know from the criminal justice world that people’s behavior is elastic with respect to probability of punishment, but fairly inelastic with respect to severity.

        An even better argument is that it’s also fairly elastic w.r.t. proximity of punishment. Get imprisoned ten years from now? A lot can happen in ten years. Get imprisoned tomorrow? That’s the kind of thing that’ll make you sit up and take notice.

        Now, there might be other reasons we’d want to deport illegal immigrants who’ve been here for a while. And you could argue that there are some angles you could take to it that’re more reliable than trying to secure 1500 miles of border. But just because we can expect it to take a long time, we can expect its deterrent effect to be minimal.

      • Wrong Species says:

        It seems like the essence of your argument is pretty much that anything we do, won’t really change incentives. Illegal immigration is going to continue whether we like or not so we might as well legalize it for the people here. But people respond to incentives. That’s why illegal immigration dropped after Trump was elected. And acting like there’s nothing we can do seems to imply that we are trying right now. Sure, border security is decent but once they get in the country, we basically give up(or at least, we did until Trump). No more sanctuary cities on its own would have a tremendous effect on illegal immigration. People aren’t robots mechanically adding up probabilities but they understand that if everyone they know who crosses the border gets deported, then there isn’t really any point in trying themselves.

        As far as the wall is concerned, you really expect me to believe that Democrats actually care about the budget deficit now? $30 billion as a one time cost is nothing. A few billion every decade is a rounding error. This is not a reasonable answer.

        If anything, Democrats should be the one cheering for the border wall. Republicans have every reason not to make an amnesty deal. They made one back in the 80’s and look how illegal immigration has risen since then. But if they get a wall, they have something tangible they can hold up. Not every Republican would be happy with a wall-for-amnesty deal but it certainly would help. And what do Democrats lose in this deal? A few billion dollars in a multi trillion dollar budget? It’s one thing if there was simply a difference in values. But it doesn’t make sense using their own words. That is why I’m so perplexed.

        • Brad says:

          The wall is virtue signaling. It’s an expensive, useless project. If it gets built it will be a 2000 long monument to Trump’s ego. Why would you expect anyone to support such a project that isn’t already a Trump supporter?

          Because you could imagine a deal for it that you have no evidence is actually on the table?

          Suppose the Democrats would be open to such a deal, how in the world does it help their bargaining position to preemptively be cheering for the wall? Wouldn’t playing up how terrible an idea the wall is be exactly what you’d expect them to do in order to maximize leverage?

          • Wrong Species says:

            So basically the reason you’re against it is because of politics, not policy. It makes Trump look good so you oppose it.

            Politics aside, what makes you think a wall would be “useless”. Hungary built a wall and illegal immigration dropped 99%. Israel built a wall around Gaza and has been gradually starving them out. What possible reason is there to suspect that the wall would have zero effect on illegal immigration?

          • CatCube says:

            @Wrong Species

            The wall is a terrible idea on its face. Note that when I say this, my objections are practical, not moral. I think that border patrol agents should be following by a few hours those people who put out water points for illegals crossing the border in desert areas and slashing open the containers. I also wouldn’t have a moral problem with land mines on the border, but would object to them for the same reason that I object to the wall: obstacles without overwatch are useless.

            There is no talk of paying for all the border patrol agents required to make the wall (or a minefield!) effective. Any physical obstacle is there merely to slow an intruder down to either keep them in one place long enough for a patrol to happen by, or to make it easier for a guard to catch or kill them. You could break into a bank vault with a piece of dental floss, prisoner-cutting-his-bars style, except that eventually somebody is going to come by and see what you’re doing well before you actually take a hinge off.

            To make a wall effective, you’d need something closer to the Inner German Border defenses, which required a very large control zone. A strip between 1/4 and 1 mile wide along the entire wall would be required.

            The only method of controlling illegal immigration is to hammer employers. Dry up the jobs, and illegal immigrants will self-deport. All this blather about a wall is feel-good politics, and we’ve got way better things to spend money on. It really isn’t “better than nothing.” It’s almost exactly as effective as nothing.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        1) Plans for the wall also include sensors.

        2) Walls work. Israel has a wall. The Saudis are building a pretty sweet wall along their northern border, and they’re worried about ISIS/Iraqi militants with tanks.

        3) The physical barrier will still exist making border crossing more difficult even after Trump is out of office and our weaselly politicians go back to ignoring illegal immigration.

        4) China’s got a wall, AND WE CAN’T LET CHINA BEAT US ON WALLS!

  13. Chris Hibbert says:

    It would be hard to distinguish Picasso’s work from his contemporaries’ because he was widely copied. That’s what made him a great artist. He was surfing just ahead of a wave of change. He wasn’t the only one, but there were several artists over that time frame, and they were exploring a boundary. They kept pushing just a little further than others had, and we can tell they were important because others followed them, and that’s the direction the art market went.

    My impression is that musical and literary greats don’t get copied in the same way. The trends and styles aren’t as obvious in those fields, and individual great efforts stand out more. But those are certainly still cases where tastes change over time, and being “good” is for 99% of artist mostly a matter of fitting in with current popluarity.

  14. kipling_sapling says:

    Just got around to reading Scott’s account of EAG2017, in which he mentions this:

    in [William MacAskill’s] closing speech, he urged the attendees to “keep EA weird”, giving examples of times when seemingly bizarre ideas won out and became accepted by the mainstream.

    Anyone have ideas of what those “seemingly bizarre ideas that won out” are? I’m really really curious.

  15. Ventrue Capital says:

    I’m running a GURPS fantasy campaign online (on Roll20.net) and I’m looking for players who are intelligent and imaginative, and obviously this site is a great place to find them. If you’re interested please check out my brief post about my game link text https://app.roll20.net/forum/post/5506273/terramar-gurps-fantasy

    • Bugmaster says:

      Aw… I’d love to join something like this, just to try out Roll20 if nothing else, but you’ve lost me at China Mieville 🙁

      • Ventrue Capital says:

        I can certainly appreciate the desire to punch Mieville in the face.

        Terramar is also a sword-and-sorcery campaign in the style of Leiber’s Nehwon stories, and a planetary romance in the style of Silverberg’s Majipoor series. Does that make a difference?

        You can come give it a try and see whether you like it, and/or like Roll20.

      • Nornagest says:

        I think this would be a great use of Mieville, actually. His settings are usually outstanding, and he’s got an unusual talent for making monsters; it’s just that his actual writing can get self-indulgent or overly political.

        • Ventrue Capital says:

          In case it’s not clear, I’m not running a game set in New Crobuzon, for the same reason I wouldn’t write a story set in it: it’s Mieville’s world.

          I’m running a game set on Terramar, which is a world of my own creation.

    • cassander says:

      GURPS is fun and all, but all roleplaying systems are equally inferior to amber diceless!

      • Ventrue Capital says:

        Because of the setting/background or because of the rules?

        • cassander says:

          The two are mutually reinforcing. the rules do an excellent job of bringing an interesting setting to life in a way that lets you do a lot of fun things.

    • RDNinja says:

      Are you looking for regular live sessions, or a PbP? I’ve been looking for a game, but I don’t think I can commit to a 3+ hour block of time. I used to do a lot of PbP games at the Paizo forums (mostly Pathfinder, naturally), and I’ve read the GURPS rules but never played it.

      I liked China Mieville’s worldbuilding, but thought he let it get in the way of his plot. So an RPG should be great!

  16. Can't think of a username says:

    (First post since mandatory registration, so I accidentally clicked on “report” instead of “reply” first, sorry about that.)

    I think Wagner is a bad example for this discussion. It’s likely that most of his works cannot be picked out of a lineup in a vacuum, but the Ring cycle operas (unlike almost anything) are built on leitmotifs, which should make it easy enough to pick them out as something different from most other music.

    Leitmotifs are a really fun device. To mention just one thing you might notice – how often do you get spoilers to the plot in the music of an opera, as opposed to in text? The Ring has a few of these. “So she does not know who the old man in her story is, but the music says this is Wotan.”

    Wagner uses this device for all it’s worth. (I am not aware of any piece of music that’s not by Wagner where leitmotifs are used just as extensively, but maybe someone can point me at one.) You should be able to notice it if you started in a vacuum.

    The same probably goes for a lot of other works that make a lot of use of rarely occurring interesting features.

  17. Skepticality says:

    Hello all. First time commenter here.

    Any thoughts on the following opinion piece in the NYT’s The Stone blog?

    Is There a ‘Rational’ Punishment for My Rapist?
    Amber Rose Carlson

    Desiring death or a natural life sentence for those who inflict traumatic violence is a rational response because whether or not my particular rapist transforms is irrelevant to whether or not I will ever have the chance to be the sort of person I might have been. His transformation is irrelevant to whether or not I will be able to live the sort of life I could have were it not for the injustice done to me. I desire a death or natural life sentence for my rapist because that is what seems appropriate given the amount of damage he wrought in my life.

    Amber Rose Carlson is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

    The above paragraph is part of a larger opinion piece and may not provide sufficient context to understand the author’s intent. So if you haven’t read the original article, I would encourage you to follow the link and read it in full, before commenting further.

    If you want still more context, the above op-ed is itself a response, in part, to an op-ed, The Irrationality of Natural Life Sentences, written by philosopher Jennifer Lackey and published in The Stone in February 2016.

    Since I’m new here, I’ll gladly welcome any feedback on the above. Thank you.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Seems like Carlson’s gesturing at the dichotomy between rehabilitative and retributive theories of punishment. Lackey’s argument on “the irrationality of natural life sentences,” which she uses as her foil, assumes that punishment is supposed to be just rehabilitative and concludes that therefore life sentences (or death sentences) are irrational because we don’t know how a criminal might change in the future. Carlson, here, realizes that she just doesn’t care about her rapist’s rehabilitation. She wants retribution: “what seems appropriate given the amount of damage he wrought in my life.”

      And I agree with her that we can’t ignore the retributive nature of punishment.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Also “removal.” A rapist in prison is removed from society and unable [1] to commit more rape, further damaging individuals and society.

        [1] for some values of “unable” given the nature of interactions between prisoners.

    • Protagoras says:

      I guess I’m on Lackey’s side, though in fairness I should probably admit that I’ve never been a victim of a traumatic crime, and to make matters worse I went to grad school with Lackey and generally got along with her. But I don’t think retribution is a good basis for punishment; Carlson even admits that it wouldn’t help her. I suppose honestly I do think Carlson’s feelings are irrational, though I wouldn’t say that to her (and neither, I expect, would Lackey). We’re all irrational, and she has perfectly understandable reasons why it would be especially difficult for her to be rational with respect to the present topic. But the understandibility of her feelings doesn’t make them an appropriate basis for policy.

      • Note that there is a third motive for punishment: Deterrence.

        • Protagoras says:

          Yes, and perhaps Lackey should have brought it up. But the evidence that someone who would not be deterred by a 10 year sentence would be deterred by a life sentence is not all that strong. On theoretical grounds, the former is already pretty life-destroying, and criminals are generally not the best at considering long-term consequences anyway. So far as I am aware, the empirical evidence supports the theory in this case.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          As I understand it the Criminology 101 reasons for state punishment of crime are:

          1) Rehabilitation (seriously but haha)

          2) Deterrence (kinda meh because criminals don’t think they’re going to get caught)

          3) Retribution

          4) Removal

          5) Revenge (but we don’t talk about this)

          I think if one is going to talk about the irrationality of certain prison sentences one needs to address each point (take #5 as a freebie though). I’m usually rather persuaded by “removal.” If you’re in jail, you cannot hurt anyone else (exceptions natch).

          • Iain says:

            1) Rehabilitation (seriously but haha)

            Don’t laugh.

            The vast majority of criminals will someday be released back into society. It is obviously in our best interest to minimize the chance that they reoffend. We are currently very bad at this:

            How do you research this? Well, some judges are harsher than others. So you look at people who had comparable histories, records, crimes, mitigating considerations, all that, but who went up in front of a different judge and got vastly varying sentences. And invariably, the longer we put people away, the more crimes they commit once they get out. This is so pronounced that actually if you look at ‘crimes committed over the four years since being sentenced’ it will be higher for people who spent two of those four years in jail – and unable to commit crimes! – than for people who spent like a month in jail.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            That’s my point though. It doesn’t seem as though rehabilitation works.

            So, we all have to talk about how what we really want is rehabilitation, and yes, that would be the ideal situation (rather, deterrence would be ideal because then nobody would commit crimes in the first place), but what do you do?

            From what I understand, depending on how you look at the stats, something like 80%-90% of people who have contact with the criminal justice system have only one contact. That is, just having the law lay hands on you and say “this is not a joke, society is serious about enforcing the law” is enough to scare them straight. Those are the people who are capable of rehabilitation. Beyond that it is not low-hanging fruit.

          • Iain says:

            Rehabilitation works better in places that take it seriously. See Denmark, for example: they have a system that is laughably lenient by American standards, but their rates of recidivism are half of American rates.

            Rates of recidivism are lower the less time you spend in jail. That’s consistent with your idea that a brush with the prison system will scare people straight, but implies that prison is anti-rehabilitative: it actively increases your chances of committing crimes. Not every criminal can be rehabilitated, but it seems pretty unlikely that there’s no low-hanging fruit there. Make it easier for prisoners to stay connected with non-criminals in the outside world. Give them more opportunities to develop useful skills, so that they have something to do once they leave. The problem is that it’s a lot easier to look tough on crime by making prison terrible than it is to actually try reducing recidivism.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I can support experiments in that regard in the American system, but I’m always wary of “this works great in Denmark” because this is not Denmark.

          • Iain says:

            Sure. I’ll agree that what works in Denmark doesn’t necessarily succeed in the US, so long as you agree that works in Denmark doesn’t necessarily fail in the US. I think we’re on similar pages here.

          • Charles F says:

            What’s the difference between retribution and revenge? They seem identical to me.

            And in some cases restoration is another component of punishment, for example when vandals are forced to clean up graffiti.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Retribution: “You robbed someone, and will go to prison for a time commensurate with the harm you’ve done to an individual and the social fabric.”

            Revenge: “…and maybe Bubba makes you his girlfriend while you’re there.”

            Revenge is sadistic and excessive. Retribution is not.

          • Controls Freak says:

            some judges are harsher than others. So you look at people who had comparable histories, records, crimes, mitigating considerations, all that, but who went up in front of a different judge and got vastly varying sentences. And invariably, the longer we put people away, the more crimes they commit once they get out.

            Note the role of the assumption here. They assume that judges are basically identical to their chosen metric of histories/records/crimes/mitigating-circumstances, and that they differ by some general ‘harshness’ parameter. If that assumption is true, then their data may tell a grim story. If, on the other hand, we think that judges might be cluing in on factors which are not captured in their chosen metric, then their data may tell a different story (that maybe the judges happened to be right).

            I just read Green/Winik, which a lot of people are relying on. The fit of everything in their OLS is Barkley/Caliendo TRBL. Basically no fit and no effect size. It reads like noise, which is not great evidence for the assumption which is required for our first hypothesis (that their model captures all the non-general-judge-harshness features).

          • Aapje says:


            That’s my point though. It doesn’t seem as though rehabilitation works.

            No, it seems like prison doesn’t rehabilitate. That’s something very different.

            My country has mental treatment facilities for some criminals, they rehabilitate very, very well, compared to prison.

            My country often sentences to (light) penal labor for less egregious offences, that also rehabilitates better than prison.

          • Iain says:

            @Controls Freak:

            I just read Green/Winik, which a lot of people are relying on. The fit of everything in their OLS is Barkley/Caliendo TRBL. Basically no fit and no effect size. It reads like noise, which is not great evidence for the assumption which is required for our first hypothesis (that their model captures all the non-general-judge-harshness features).Report

            The Open Phil report on incarceration that is cited in my first link delves into the quality of the data (starting on page 83) and finds that its conclusions largely withstand scrutiny. YMMV.

          • Controls Freak says:

            I see him acknowledging the type of assumption I’m talking about, along with some direct tests of the instruments. They see that the instruments are poor, and so they set up dummies, leading to:

            Possibly the apparent statistical problem here is pure randomness. Otherwise, either some inmates were assigned to calendars 5 and 9 in a non-arbitrary, non-quasi-experimental way; or the judges in calendars 5 and 9 “treated” their defendants in some way not captured by the incarceration and probation variables, which in turn affected recidivism.

            Hmm. That sounds familiar.

            Through multiple tests with a couple different models (no hint of multiple hypothesis corrections, mind you), they are dealing with single digit percentage effect sizes and never reach even p=0.05… ever. Given that he basically acknowledges my criticism, shows some additional evidence that I might be onto something, and never shows even minimally-accepted statistical significance, I’m not particularly swayed from my position by a guy who admits that he’s an advocate against incarceration looking at all that and saying, “…sure looks like it withstands scrutiny to me!”

      • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

        But I don’t think retribution is a good basis for punishment;

        I agree, however, I am willing to argue that retribution should be considered anyway. Because we are irrational, people will demand retribution for misdeeds regardless of it making anything better for anyone, and if the legal system will not provide it, they will take matters to their own hands with whatever means they have available. Regular people, and mobs in particular, are terrible at proportionality, so it is preferable that the courts provide it in sensible amounts, for the sake of the punished.

    • cassander says:

      It has always struck me that the most rational punishment for rape was the removal of one testical.

      • LewisT says:

        Thomas Jefferson favored a similar punishment as well.

        Whosoever shall be guilty of Rape, Polygamy, or Sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro’ the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least.


      • Andrew Hunter says:

        …I will regret asking this question, but why *one* testicle?

        • cassander says:

          to inspire you to consider your actions more carefully the next time you think about doing something that might cost you the other one….

          • PedroS says:

            But why would the rapist care if he lost another testicle? Is the operation supposed to be extremely painful, and torture-as-punishment morally acceptable? If so, why not use a suitably painful substitute?

            IF castration were deemed a proper punishment, I think it should be total castration to improve the odds of rehabilitation, since the lack of production of testosterone (while not impeding sexual intercourse) does decrease libido and aggressiveness, and hence the likelihood of a further rape.

          • cassander says:

            >But why would the rapist care if he lost another testicle?

            because if you lose two, you’ve been effectively castrated.

          • PedroS says:

            I know, but why would the lack of one testicle make the convicted rapist more likely to not re-offend than in the hypothetical situation where he had lost both testicles and therefore lost most of his libido and at least part of his agressiveness?

            And if the prospect of being castrated is such a powerful deterrent to rape, it seems to me that it should be used to deter also the first rape, not only the following ones, i.e., it would be one of the known penalties for any rape, regardless of it being (or not) the first offense

          • cassander says:

            I know, but why would the lack of one testicle make the convicted rapist more likely to not re-offend than in the hypothetical situation where he had lost both testicles and therefore lost most of his libido and at least part of his agressiveness?

            Losing one testicle isn’t good, but it’s not not castration. The effect of losing the second is much more severe. The fact of losing the one combined with the much more severe consequences from losing the other is theoretically a very strong deterrent.

        • entobat says:

          +1. It would make much more sense to remove half of the remaining testicles instead.

    • SamChevre says:

      There’s a really useful and thought-provoking piece on this topic from Mark Kleiman here and a follow-up here.

      The take-away line for me is this one:

      Retributive punishment is a public demonstration that what was done to the victim was wrong, and that the victim was worth avenging.

      • Protagoras says:

        Yeah, lots of things are done to send messages. Far too many, if you ask me, and it’s far too common for the message to be interpreted completely differently from how it was intended even if (as is too often not the case) it actually was worth sending. My prior is to reject any such public demonstration justifications absent very strong evidence that anything more than worthless status signaling is going on.

  18. Randy M says:

    Is anyone else bothered that the map has 6 locations with pointers, but the key only goes up to 4?

  19. Soy Lecithin says:

    This question reminds me of the site reverent.org where you could take quizzes testing your ability to distinguish Stephen King from James Joyce, Salieri from Mozart, Jackson Pollock paintings from bird droppings, and more.

    • Shion Arita says:


      rot13 (you should take it yourself first):
      Zna, jubn! Uvgyre, Puhepuvyy, naq Rvfraubjre jrer nyy ernyyl terng cnvagref!

      On some of the other tests I took (like artist or ape or famous furniture or cheap) I did significantly better than chance. On this one I did WORSE than chance (33%).
      I could tell which ones were by the same artist easily.

      To illustrate my uncorrolated tastes, more rot13:
      Gur neg V yvxrq gur zbfg jnf ol Uvgyre naq Rvfraubjre.

      • Iain says:

        I got 83%: everything right except for Tnhthva and the second painting by Rvfraubjre (which I agree was surprisingly good). My heuristic was that the famous painters were more likely to be doing interesting experimental things, while the unknown artists were less bold and more representational.

        (It appears that I am generally unimpressed by Tnhthva, although Wikipedia has a larger version of that particular image, and the quality of the brushwork is a little more obvious there.)

        • 天可汗 says:

          I tried rating based on quality and got worse than chance, but of course the famous artists were mostly ones I already knew I didn’t like… which I assume is the point. Tried again with the experimental/representational heuristic and got 83%.

          Rvfraubjre comes out of that looking pretty good.

          Then again, art doesn’t really try to make things that are good. We’ve all had moments of aesthetic appreciation for the propaganda of the various 20th-century totalitarian regimes and felt vaguely guilty about them afterwards, right? Or compare Speer and the Moscow Metro guys to Mies van der Rohe or any of the other Great Twits of Architecture-as-Art. Mass propaganda is more effective when it’s good, and art is more effective when it’s bad. There are more ways to be bad than to be good, but, you see, an artist must be original!

          (Abstract expressionism, which is bad, isn’t an exception here because it wasn’t mass propaganda; the reason it’s the official style of the American state at this point is that it was adopted as propaganda targeted at European intellectuals, who are bad.)

          I mention architecture because architecture has the Alexander/Eisenman debate, which I will of course quote from at length:

          PE: What we have not been able to get at yet is that it is possible to project a totally different cosmology that deals with the feelings of the self. Alternative views of the world might suggest that it is not wholeness that will evoke our truest feelings and that it is precisely the wholeness of the anthropocentric world that it might be the presence of absence, that is, the nonwhole, the fragment which might produce a condition that would more closely approximate our innate feelings today.

          Let me be more specific. Last night, you gave two examples of structural relationships that evoke feelings of wholeness — of an arcade around a court, which was too large, and of a window frame which is also too large. Le Corbusier once defined architecture as having to do with a window which is either too large or too small, but never the right size. Once it was the right size it was no longer functioning. When it is the right size, that building is merely a building. The only way in the presence of architecture that is that feeling, that need for something other, when the window was either too large or too small.

          I was reminded of this when I went to Spain this summer to see the town hall at Logrono by Rafael Moneo. He made an arcade where the columns were too thin. It was profoundly disturbing to me when I first saw photographs of the building. The columns seemed too thin for an arcade around the court of a public space. And then, when I went to see the building, I realized what he was doing. He was taking away from something that was too large, achieving an effect that expresses the separation and fragility that man feels today in relationship to the technological scale of life, to machines, and the car-dominated environment we live in. I had a feeling with that attenuated colonnade of precisely what I think you are talking about. Now, I am curious if you can admit, in your idea of wholeness, the idea of separation — wholeness for you might be separation for me. The idea that the too-small might also satisfy a feeling as well as the too-large. Because if it is only the too-large that you will admit, then we have a real problem.

          CA: I didn’t say too large, by the way, I just said large. Quite a different matter.

          PE: You said a boundary larger than the entity it surrounds. I think you said too large.

          CA: I said large in relation to the entity. Not too large.

          PE: Large, meaning larger than it needs be?

          CA: No, I didn’t mean that.

          PE: Well, could it be smaller than it needs be?

          CA: Unfortunately, I don’t know the building you just described. Your description sounds horrendous to me. Of course, without actually seeing it, I can’t tell. But if your words convey anything like what the thing is actually like, then it sounds to me that this is exactly this kind of prickly, weird place, that for some reason some group of people have chosen to go to nowadays. Now, why are they going there? Don’t ask me.

          PE: I guess what I am saying is that I believe that there is an alternate cosmology to the one which you suggest. The cosmology of the last 300 years has changed and there is now the potential for expressing those feelings that you speak of in other ways than through largeness — your boundaries — and the alternating repetition of architectural elements. You had 12 or 15 points. Precisely because I believe that the old cosmology is no longer an effective basis on which to build, I begin to want to invert your conditions — to search for their negative — to say that for every positive condition you suggest, if you could propose a negative you might more closely approximate the cosmology of today. In other words, if I could find the negative of your 12 points, we would come closer to approximating a cosmology that would deal with both of us than does the one you are proposing.

          CA : Can we just go back to the arcade for a moment? The reason Moneo’s arcade sounded prickly and strange was, when I make an arcade I have a very simple purpose, and that is to try to make it feel absolutely comfortable — physically, emotionally, practically, and absolutely. This is pretty hard to do. Much, much harder to do than most of the present generation of architects will admit to. Let’s just talk about the simple matter of making an arcade. I find in my own practical work that in order to find out what’s really comfortable, it is necessary to mock up the design at full scale. This is what I normally do. So I will take pieces of lumber, scrap material, and I’ll start mocking up. How big are the columns? What is the space between them? At what height is the ceiling above? How wide is the thing? When you actually get all those elements correct, at a certain point you begin to feel that they are in harmony.

          Of course, harmony is a product not only of yourself, but of the surroundings. In other words, what is harmonious in one place will not be in another. So, it is very, very much a question of what application creates harmony in that place. It is a simple objective matter. At least my experience tells me, that when a group of different people set out to try and find out what is harmonious, what feels most comfortable in such and such a situation, their opinions about it will tend to converge, if they are mocking up full-scale, real stuff. Of course, if they’re making sketches or throwing out ideas, they won’t agree. But if you start making the real thing, one tends to reach agreement. My only concern is to produce that kind of harmony. The things that I was talking about last night — I was doing empirical observation about — as a matter of fact, it turns out that these certain structures need to be in there to produce that harmony.

          The thing that strikes me about your friend’s building — if I understood you correctly — is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.

          PE: That is correct.

          CA: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world.

          Now, who’s speaking the language of art? “Moneo is fucking up the world” isn’t exactly the sort of thing you could engrave onto a little plaque and put in front of a building. Eisenman’s jabberwocky about alternative cosmologies, on the other hand… what a *sips glass of $500 wine, fumbles with index card containing distillation of the Cliffs notes on Foucault* deep thinker!

          To tie this into the topic of Scott’s most recent post, well, I think it’s entirely possible that this could be tied into the topic of Scott’s most recent post. Focusing on disagreements between the orthodox and the heterodox is a choice; one could just as well choose to focus on where they agree. Richard Spencer flat-out admits that he’s doing the exact same thing as his enemies. Isn’t that interesting? And isn’t it interesting that both political extremes are full of nerds?

          See, the thing about nerds is that nerd mythology, at least in the ’90s when we all grew up, revolves around resentment. The jocks (read: ‘qhqroebf’, ‘normies’, ‘bugmen’) beat you up in school, but you’re superior because you’re smart or whatever and someday they’ll all be bagging your groceries. And when you see their social skills paying off better than your pi recitation, what happens? Well, you can’t have fucked up… oh, no, you’re still superior. And you still hate everything around you, because none of it is good enough for you. So if the mythical Generic Extruded Human Product figure most resembling the townies who were mean to you in grade school believes thunder comes before lightning, you believe it comes after, and if it believes thunder comes after, you believe it comes before, in the same way that the architect who believes it’s not architecture if the columns are the right size believes that: Architecture is Art, you see, and Artists are Deep Thinkers, and Superior. You can put up a pretty good front of truly believing it most of the time! But… well, I was going to link Tom Whyman’s NYT article about how he hates his hometown because people were mean to him in grade school and also he’s better than everyone there, but the spamfilter gods are unhappy and I’m not sure if it’s that or “qhqroebf” so I won’t.

        • rlms says:

          I also got 83% and Tnhthva wrong (my other mistake was the second Puhepuvyy) based on intuition from a brief glance.

        • Iain says:

          Oops. When I said I got the second Rvfraubjre wrong, I actually meant the second Puhepuvyy. A copy-paste error of some sort, I assume.

          My guesses were exactly the same as rlms.

        • Shion Arita says:

          I see what you mean by experimental vs more representational, but I guess I liked the examples of the experimental things less than other examples of that,

          for example I really like Van Gogh, Dali, and Escher, and not so much the famous people in the example here (though I did like the Zbarg and the Erabve).

          I have a real eye for structure over things like color or brush stuff, and I strongly prefer things that correctly depict three dimensional space (which is the reason that the Zngvffr is by far my least favorite one; the grass looks vertical, the trees look like they’re nowhere in space, and the parasol looks eliptical and like a tire).

          The second Rvfraubjre really has amazing composition and mood, and very well conveys distance and scale, and both Uvgyre paintings have an excellent sense of structure and space, and I actually find the color in them to be pretty subtly experimental, kind of subtly shimmering irridescent rainbows, a lot like the background art style in the anime Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash(another link).

      • JayT says:

        50% for me, so obviously I don’t know what I’m looking at. V gubhtug gur svefg Puhepuvyy cnvagvat jnf n Trbetvn B’Xrrsr, jub vf bar bs zl crefbany snibevgrf.

        ETA: I took the furniture and ape tests, and like you did much better. The furniture I thought was especially easy. Just pick the stuff that looks more likely to break and that’s the expensive stuff!

      • PedroS says:

        I was surprised to get as high as 67%… To my eternal internet shame, I considered the first painting by Uvgyre to have been painted by a famous artist, rather than a famous non-artist

      • Nornagest says:

        83%. I missed the Pémnaar and the second Uvgyre.

        I think I was judging mostly by whether the brushwork looked sophisticated and whether the use of color was interesting to me. Except for the Zngvffr, which I recognized from an art history class I took in college.

        Oddly, the first Uvgyre looked amateurish to me but the second one looked quite good. My favorite, though, was the Erabve.

      • I also got 33%. Apparently Uvgyre’s artwork appeals to me.

      • Protagoras says:

        I don’t want to insist on this too strongly, as I don’t claim to be any kind of expert or judge of painting, but I honestly think Uvgyre’s painting is somewhat underrated, because of his subsequent career and people liking the story of his having been a loser in his younger days.

        • 天可汗 says:

          All of his associates have now been deemed utterly lacking in artistic merit, even when no one with eyes could defend this characterization — as is the case with Fcrre, who was Actually Good aside from the whole Uvgyre thing.

  20. Lasagna says:

    I think it’s likely that you’d recognize Dostoevsky as the “best”. I’m not well-versed in obscure 19th century Russian writers, so I can’t explain that particular example. But, in my youth, I was a Shakespeare buff. And I read a bunch of plays written by “moderately talented” Englishmen around the same time, as well as the older morality plays that Shakespeare and Co. kind of supplanted (yes, this is not really accurate, just roll with it).

    Anyway: you can tell the difference. There’s a reason we still read Shakespeare and not the others, even when the others are pretty good. Some writers just have a spark that stays lit across centuries.

    • Matt M says:

      I think some of this is effected by your general interests though.

      When I first read Anna Karenina, I found it to be a somewhat interesting story, but nothing particularly outstanding really. My conclusion was that Tolstoy was overhyped and overrated.

      Then when I read War and Peace, I found it to be utterly amazing and fully worthy of all of its praise and accolades. My conclusion was that Tolstoy was deserving of the accolades and I need to find more to read.

      I think the difference is that I don’t have much interest in the philosophy of farming and naturalism or marital obligations or whatever, (what Anna Karenina deals with a lot) but I do have a strong interest in the philosophy of war and pacifism (what War and Peace deals with a lot), so my ability to recognize good was much higher, so I did.

      • Lasagna says:

        I think that’s a really good point. Part of the reason nobody likes morality plays is that everyone became – and remained – more interested in fiction with the ambiguities, politics and struggles that more resembled real life.

        But is that enough to explain 400 years of uninterrupted interest in Shakespeare? I’d argue that he speaks to something so fundamental in humanity that his popularity is unlikely to wane. I’d argue the same about Tolstoy, except I’ve ONLY read War and Peace, and couldn’t get anywhere with Anna Karenina. 🙂

        • Protagoras says:

          I finished but rather disliked Anna Karenina. This thread is making me think I should read War and Peace instead of just writing off Tolstoy as wildly inferior to Dostoyevsky as I had been inclined to do until now.

        • rlms says:

          Have there been 400 years of uninterrupted interest in Shakespeare? I thought his popularity waned in the late 17th and 18th centuries. However, according to Wikipedia, that is actually a myth promulgated by 19th century writers who wanted to make their predecessors look bad.

        • Lasagna says:


          I’m actually not sure! I just assumed it was true. I read an awful lot of criticism of Shakespeare plays across the ages, as part of a course where we explored the different ways cultures, political parties, and other organizations and ideologies have attempted to “claim” Shakespeare as their own. I just assumed it was representative across the centuries to the extent possible (obviously it’s a lot easier to get a hold of a book of 1960s analyses of Shakespeare than one collecting essays from the 18th century).

          It was the best class I’ve ever taken in my life, bar none. I don’t usually get nostalgic for college or high school or my twenties or whatever – I like my life just fine now, thank you – but that just slapped me in the face.

        • Aapje says:


          I haven’t read Anna Karenina, but Tolstoy regarded it as his first true novel, in contrast to War and Peace. From what I gather, Anna Karenina has fewer parallel narratives than War and Peace, focusing much more on exposing the psychology of people in one community in great detail. In contrast, War and Peace seems much more epic, using the psychology of the characters to enliven the historical account, demonstrating the effects of the events on differently situated people (while still not ignoring their individualism).

          I personally found the focus on romance and relationships a bit too much for my liking and was very glad that the book interrupted them with philosophical and historical analyses. So my decision not to read Anna Karenina (for now) is because I strongly suspect it takes has too much of the elements from War and Peace that I enjoy in moderation.

          In general, I would suspect that most SSC’ers would like War and Peace more, due it being more systematizing.

  21. Matt M says:

    I missed the dark ages discussion, but would like to bring up the specific issue of “impressive versus morally just” when it comes to judging/rating societies or civilizations. I’m curious as to what everyone’s thoughts are. Obviously it seems like taking one extreme or another is probably bad (a civilization may be incredibly impressive but highly oppressive and immoral, and a completely moral civilization may be so unimpressive that nobody even realizes they’re around, and leaves no real historical evidence).

    This dichotomy often comes up today in discussions on “American exceptionalism” (i.e. the belief that the U.S. is the greatest nation on Earth by a significant margin). I used to be a standard neocon who basically believed this. I think the premise relies almost entirely on the “impressive” side of the scale; whereas, the critics of American exceptionalism almost always point to racism, imperialism, slavery, war, etc. To the extent that you ask them “Well fine, if America isn’t the best, who is?” you’re likely to get an answer like Sweden or Switzerland, someplace with generally high living standards, high GDP per capita, and generally known for being inoffensive and not involved in major military or colonial efforts (at least, not anytime recently).

    I also think this has a profound influence on the behaviors of ambitious politicians. Our most famous and respected Presidents are ones who do big, flashy, impressive things. Wars, massive new entitlement programs, what have you. Presidents with uneventful terms, even if they presided over times of peace and prosperity, are often forgotten or even considered to be poor performers because they didn’t “accomplish” anything. This results in a bias for action that may or may not actually be to the benefit of the nation (I would argue not, but that’s just my opinion)

    So, what do you guys think? What’s better, to be big and impressive, or to be inoffensive and withdrawn? If you had to select a “greatest country on Earth” what would you pick and why?

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I’m not sure, but I think I would start with listing “countries that planted their flag on the moon” and whittle it down from there.

    • SamChevre says:

      13. Now when Jephtha was dead, Ibzan took the government, being of the tribe of Judah, and of the city of Bethlehem. He had sixty children, thirty of them sons, and the rest daughters; all whom he left alive behind him, giving the daughters in marriage to husbands, and taking wives for his sons. He did nothing in the seven years of his administration that was worth recording, or deserved a memorial. So he died an old man, and was buried in his own country.

      14. When Ibzan was dead after this manner, neither did Helon, who succeeded him in the government, and kept it ten years, do any thing remarkable: he was of the tribe of Zebulon.

      15. Abdon also, the son of Hilel, of the tribe of Ephraim, and born at the city Pyrathon, was ordained their supreme governor after Helon. He is only recorded to have been happy in his children; for the public affairs were then so peaceable, and in such security, that neither did he perform any glorious action. He had forty sons, and by them left thirty grandchildren; and he marched in state with these seventy, who were all very skillful in riding horses; and he left them all alive after him. He died an old man, and obtained a magnificent burial in Pyrathon.

      Every time I read this (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 5, 7:13-15) I think this was probably the best 30 years for the average farmer anyone could remember or dream of.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Sweden has the “Law of Jante” which automatically disqualifies it from being the greatest anything.

      I think if you count impressiveness at all, you’ve only got two contenders, the US and China. If you count moral justice, the US may not be at the top but it’s in a pretty good position. The US, contrary to anything Ta-Nehisi Coates may have said, is not currently engaged in slavery. We have only bare remnants of an empire that never really got started. Racism we have, but some sort of similar prejudice seem common in the other “good” countries as well. We’re still tops on freedom of speech and probably freedom of religion. And aside from Switzerland we don’t seem to be particularly worse on wars than our European competition. So I stick with the US.

      • Aapje says:

        @The Nybbler

        You are just looking at the negatives of the Calvinist mindset. The Dutch managed to be a major world power for some time in part by a lack of dynastic ambitions and
        other rivalries.

        • cassander says:

          the weakness of their neighbors during the period of their greatness had considerably more to with the dutch empire than lack of dynastic ambition.

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        I briefly considered other possible candidates – Russia is very impressive, France’s culture, while fading, I think merits consideration – but in the end I settled on the US and China as the only plausible candidates, with the addition, though, of Great Britain.

        Consider in terms of impressiveness: There’s the countless jokes about the number of countries Britain has invaded or occupied (cf. that video of all the national stereotypes playing Risk that went around last week, also the stand-up bit that Britain has beaten every single other country in the world at least one war), “the Sun never sets,” the centuries-long predominance of the Royal Navy, the dominion of London over most of the world’s markets, and the existence of English as the modern lingua franca, all achieved by a comparatively tiny island nation off the coast of a backwater peninsula of Eurasia.

        You’ve also got the aphorism “the best way to achieve good government is being colonized by the British for a while,” and the former imperial/Commonwealth countries are all among the most powerful and prosperous nations around the world.

        in terms of morality, Britain can boast of the suppression of the slave trade, standing up to fascism and communism alongside the US, as well as against Napoleonic tyranny. They can claim limited government via the Magna Carta, and piggyback most of the US’s achievements as well, since what are we but the recalcitrant offspring of Britain?

        I know, I know, there’s counterarguments to all of these, and I’m not sure I would pick Britain over the US or China. But I think they at least deserve to be in the conversation.

      • johan_larson says:

        Are we adjusting for size? If we are not, “the greatest” pretty much has to be a large country because they just get more done. If we are, then high-performing small countries like Switzerland and Singapore might come up on top.

  22. Lasagna says:

    A recent Current Affairs article (More Evidence That Extreme Wealth is Totally Indefensible) argues that, about a certain threshold, it’s impossible to justify your wealth – that there simply isn’t anything valuable or moral to spend your cash on. It sets the bar around $1 million a year, with the implication that that is VERY fair, and the number is probably much lower.

    I was curious if the SSC population making around that amount would agree with this. Remove the moral condemnation – for the wealthy among us, could you lose, say, half your income and feel perfectly comfortable?

    What I’m wondering is how far up the income ladder you need to go before people stop saying “yeah, I’m doing all right, but it’s the people one tick above me that REALLY don’t need their money”. Do you feel you can justify your expenditures and lifestyle? Is Current Affairs just doing the “everyone who makes more than me is an asshole” thing?

    I’m trying to analyze my own feelings on it. My wife and I make about $350,000 a year total. We’re rich by any reasonable definition of the word. We just bought a house in the suburbs of NYC, we’re paying down student debt, max out our 401K contributions, have a little left over to put in savings. We’re careful with our money, we don’t carry any credit card debt, and we don’t ever worry that we won’t be able to pay a bill.

    I’m finally feeling comfortable with where I’m at. I’ve been broke, but never poor (meaning I’ve had my electricity shut off for non-payment (enough times that it makes me tired just thinking about it), and been threatened with eviction when I couldn’t make my rent – broke – but, if I had ever been in serious trouble, my family could and would have helped me out – not poor). So great, things are way improved. I could pay more in taxes and be comfortable.

    But if I lost my job and was unable to find a new one at anywhere near my salary, I think we’d be in bad shape. There are no inheritances coming, it’s nice that we have 401Ks but even raiding those would only go so far, we’re saving a little money but we are in no shape at all to pay for college for the kids. And so: “sure, we’re doing fine, but it’s the people making $100K MORE than us who are extravagantly wealthy, since they could live our perfectly nice lifestyle and STILL bank $100,000 a year.” It makes me laugh at myself.

    Thoughts from anyone? Particularly people making good money?

    • Matt M says:

      This is interesting for me because about a year ago, post-MBA, I went from earning ~35k a year to earning well over 100k a year. When I was first presented with that offer, I felt like it was more money than I could ever possibly need. I figured I’d up my standard of living a little bit, maybe to the 50-60k range, and then have a good 50-60k of savings left over.

      Instead, I’ve probably only “saved” about 20k, and maybe used another 10-15k or so to pay down some low-interest debt (a pre-existing mortgage on a cheap property I bought in my formerly poor life).

      My “living expenses” probably actually went up more to the 70-80 range, despite being single and in a relatively low cost environment. I decided to splurge for a very nice apartment, because I spend a lot of time at home. I bought a new car because “I’m the sort of person who can afford to buy new cars now”. I started forcing myself to buy more expensive clothing, because I assume it’s more expensive for a reason and people like me need to have the good stuff, etc.

      In terms of being able to “go back” I do feel like I could, because I do still feel very much out of place at fancy clothing stores and expensive restaurants. I could move back home into my cheap house and eat at taco bell and buy clothes from JC Penny in my 50k lifestyle and be fine, I think. But I don’t really want to do that. But man, people do adjust their standards and adjust pretty quick. I certainly couldn’t continue to exist at this level of professional work with these same colleagues and the same lifestyle on less than say, 90k per year.

      And I think this is what trips people up. When your income changes, your lifestyle usually changes too. And often in ways you can’t help. If you’re making six figures and you show up to the office in a beat up 90s Toyota Camry, you’re going to get some funny looks. If you care about fitting in, you need to adjust your lifestyle accordingly. So people who make 50k and say “I have a perfectly fine life, I don’t see why anyone would need 200k” are not incorrect necessarily, in the sense that it IS possible to have a perfectly fine life with 50k. But they are incorrect in the sense that it’s not really possible for an investment banker to have a perfectly fine life with 50k. It’s not the same life but with different incomes. These two people lead entirely different lives that have entirely different requirements.

      • skef says:

        But this way of looking at things supports CA’s point, right? In that if the drivers mostly have to do with fitting in with peers, and taxation schemes will generally have the same effect on “peers” in this sense, the remaining issue is just loss aversion at the point of change.

        • Matt M says:

          I’m probably not explaining this very well. It’s largely about fitting in with peers, but not exclusively. As I said, I could go back to my former life with my former peers and be fine. But if given the choice between “fit in with 50k peers” and “fit in with 150k peers” guess which one I’m going to choose?

          You may think there’s little difference between a top of the line, fully loaded Honda and an entry level Acura, but I’d say that there is.

          Even if we could use the tax code to force every Acura owner to switch down to a fully loaded Honda, I’m not sure the right premise there is “well it’s fine because their peers have less too.” Especially if that then puts them equal with the previous fully-loaded Honda owners.

          • skef says:

            But if you had jumped up from $35K to, say, $80K, and your peers were making proportionally less (WRT their experience and differences in responsibility), you would just have scaled up to that level, right?

          • Matt M says:


            But I think my point is that as you go up, expectations also scale up. And the expectations are also relative. I don’t really know exactly what clothes I need to buy, but I know I need to not shop at the same place I shopped when I made 50k. And if I ever make 1m someday, I won’t be able to shop at the place I shop now, etc.

            If you use the tax code to take my extra money and bring me back to 50k, but the current 50k people are left alone, I’m going to feel like I was made significantly poorer.

            And I don’t think that magically stops at some level like 1M. I think it scales almost indefinitely. You can pick any arbitrary point you want, but if you take “people who earn X” and suddenly make them equivalent to “people who earn X – Y” then they’re going to be annoyed, they’re going to feel poorer, and they’re going to lack any proper incentive to work to develop the additive value of Y.

          • Eli says:

            I think the basic problem here isn’t so much your nice car, it’s that you own two pieces of real-estate while most of the rest of us are stuck renting forever. And you bought one of them just to feel nice.

          • Nornagest says:

            If only there were some way we could create more houses to meet demand.

          • Eli says:

            If only real-estate was treated as a durable consumer good rather than an investment.

          • Controls Freak says:

            If only real-estate was treated as a durable consumer good rather than an investment.

            You know that you can just, uh, do that, right?

          • psmith says:

            If only real-estate was treated as a durable consumer good rather than an investment.

            Part of the real estate consumption bundle is the number and quality of your neighbors. And the utility of the bundle isn’t necessarily increasing in the number of neighbors.

          • Matt M says:

            I think the basic problem here isn’t so much your nice car, it’s that you own two pieces of real-estate while most of the rest of us are stuck renting forever. And you bought one of them just to feel nice.

            If this is directed at me, I probably explained poorly.

            I only own one piece of real estate, and it’s cheap, back in my hometown, and at the time I bought it, I did so primarily to save money (I could afford the down payment and the mortgage is cheaper than rent).

            Then I had to move, and still had a bit of savings, so I had no real need to sell the house, so I held on to it and rented it out. The nice place I have in my new city is a rented apartment. I could probably buy here too, but I don’t really want to fork over another down payment just yet.

      • Chalid says:

        I strongly suspect you don’t actually need to spend all that money to fit in, and that other people don’t actually care that much about the clothes you wear or exactly how much you paid for your apartment.

        I’ve worked at an investment bank and at a couple hedge funds, and gotten along just fine with off-the-rack stuff clothes from Macy’s or JC Penney or Amazon for probably under a couple hundred dollars a year. (Admittedly I don’t have a sales job.) And no one from work will know about your apartment unless you invite them over, which you won’t, unless maybe they’re a close friend. No one at work has to know if you eat at Taco Bell every other night.

        These things do maybe make a small difference in office socializing but they’re far outweighed by other factors.

        • Aqua says:

          It really depends on the person. I agree with you though. It also really depends on what kind of things the person like to spend on.

          My income has grown 4x but my clothes have mostly not changed. However, vacations have definitely become more expensive. Eating habits have changed as well.

    • Charles F says:

      I’m making pretty good money after spending a lot of my life poor. I could lose half (or three quarters) of my income, keep my lifestyle, and save a generally-considered-respectable percentage of the new income. I don’t know whether that points to a problem with me, but I don’t see a problem with the people from the article and their ilk.

      It’s been fashionable to hate on the wealthy for as long as I can remember. “Richer” (noun) was actually an insult at my elementary school; we weren’t very imaginative. And throughout college people bragged lamented (over fancy sushi) about how much ramen and free pizza they ate. And maybe it’s just contrariness on my part, but I’ve never quite been able to commit to that sentiment. (Though I was happy to exploit my financial situation for status points, I’m not that principled)

      I can certainly cringe at people making double the median household income complaining about how hard it is to make ends meet. But I can remind myself that golden handcuffs or lifestyle expansion or what have you is a real thing. And I can’t see any reasonable moral requirement for not taking more money in a voluntary ethical transaction. So the idea that having a high income is unethical seems insane to me.

    • Charles F says:

      The question I’d like to ask the writers at CA:
      (relates to this, which was linked from the first article)

      I’m a bit of an ascetic. It’s not really for any purpose in particular, I just am. I live on very little by first world standards and donate a fair amount (15% to EA causes plus ~5% to other ones) by first world standards. This all doesn’t make that much of a dent, and so I’m saving a lot. When, in not very many years, I hit one million dollars saved, how ashamed should I be?

      I don’t make *that* much, I’m paid at the low end for my field+qualifications. I could shop at whole foods, not share a living space, get a car, and burn through my income without doing anything out of the ordinary. I could retire and rely on social security and medicare. I could never put away more than a few tens of thousands and nobody would ever suspect a thing was wrong. And I would be morally in the clear. I’d have added 100k’s of miles worth of car emissions, climate control byproducts, discarded electronics, and more to the world, but at least I wouldn’t be rich.

      I wish they had at least mentioned the possibility that things are getting better faster than compound interest is working so we could have an empirical disagreement. But I don’t think opportunity cost is the core of their argument.

      Wealth is potential. If you have millions in the bank, your impact hasn’t been determined yet and it’s too early to pass judgement.

      • Matt M says:

        When, in not very many years, I hit one million dollars saved, how ashamed should I be?

        You’d probably be in the clear, because while culturally we do occasionally rail against “millionaires,” in practical value, we mostly tax/punish/hate incomes rather than asset holdings.

        And given how much of this is a status game, and a backlash against status games, I’d venture to say that you’d probably sneak by, under the logic that the type of person who lives frugally enough to slowly build up a $1M savings account is probably not the type of person who, once there, whittles it all away on flashy and/or frivolous things.

        If you’re just a normal person in most ways except you retire 10 years earlier than is normal for your profession, I don’t think anyone will really notice, or bother, to hate you for it.

    • John Schilling says:

      It sets the bar around $1 million a year, with the implication that that is VERY fair, and the number is probably much lower.

      I’m not sure I could put all my nieces and nephews through college on a million a year, at least not if they all get in to top private universities. Though if it were a guaranteed million a year, I could presumably borrow against future earnings to pay the bills during the years they are all more or less simultaneously in school.

      Current Affairs completely misses the point, when they ask only about the personal consumption spending of rich people. They do in passing mention charity as well, but only in the sense of making gratuitous donations to organized charitable institutions. Nothing about helping your extended family, or your local community. No allowance for starting businesses that will provide thousands of people with jobs and millions with better goods and services. Nothing about, say, expanding human civilization to Mars. If you’ve got money, according to Current Affairs, the only things to do with it are to spend it on necessities or frivolities for your immediate nuclear family or give it away to strangers.

      What avenue is there for a person who might want to do good works or great deeds in their own name and on their own responsibility? None that I can see, in the brave new world of Current Affairs. And who or what does that leave for, well, everything we think ought to get done that isn’t the necessary or tolerably luxurious operation of a single-family household?

      • Matt M says:

        What avenue is there for a person who might want to do good works or great deeds in their own name and on their own responsibility?

        If you instituted a marginal 100% tax rate on all my earnings in excess of what I earn today, but with the benefit (as discussed above) that I get to pick the charity it goes to, I’d still be plenty motivated to increase my earnings.

        I’d love to earn more money for EA causes, or for say, the Mises Institute. That money wouldn’t be quite as value to me as cold, hard, spent-however-you-want, cash. But it would probably be a hell of a lot closer to cash than it is to “taxes to the government.”

        Like, the fatal flaw in all of this is an assumption that rich people actually believe taxes are used for good and just and awesome things – things just as good as the private charities they might choose to donate to. Even the “taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society” crowd probably doesn’t fully feel that way. Almost everyone can find at least one government policy that they find morally objectionable that their taxes are used to fund.

    • balrog says:

      I wouldn’t mind having STOL jet plane so I could get home (as in birthtown) friday after work and go back directly to work on monday. And I’m sure that costs well over 1M$.

      Also how do I unreport you? It was accident, honestly.

      • Nornagest says:

        I wouldn’t worry about the report if I were you. Scott doesn’t generally do anything about them unless the comment’s really egregious.

    • Our income is less than that, but we have substantial assets, including a house. I think we could manage on half our current income, certainly on three-quarters, without giving up anything of much importance to us.

      One use of additional income is to spend it on things other than consumption, such as subsidizing organizations you approve of (in our case most notably the Institute for Justice).

    • Lillian says:

      That article made me laugh. He seriously can’t imagine spending $45 on lunch? With the right caviar, wine, and cigar you can easily have a $450 lunch. Higher if you add the amortised cost of the yatch/private villa and attractive arm candy. Higher still if you decide to cultivate a drug problem. The ceiling on decadence is really, really high, and it amuses me that he seems unable to picture it.

      You do get some pretty large diminishing returns at the high end of the scale, though. A $50 dessert is a lot better than a $5 one, but not ten times better. It can easily be two or three times as good though, and if you’re rich enough to not feel the difference in your wallet, paying ten times more to get double the quality is completely rational. However this isn’t alway the case, for example many people can’t even tell the difference betweem $50 wine and $5000 wine, let alone derive any extra enjoyment from the wine itself. On the other hand there is a psychological pleasure from consuming exclusive high status things, and from being able to afford them and share them with your peers.

      There is also a unique joy to be had in being the most decadent person around, in evoking awe and disgust at your sheer profligacy. Personally, if i could afford it i’d be drinking water melted from ancient ice cores. Simply because it’s ludricously expensive and nobody else is doing it.

      • Nornagest says:

        Late-bottled vintage mineral water.

      • Eli says:

        Poe’s Law: I cannot tell the difference between your comment, and a Marxist’s parody of a rich person.

        • Lillian says:

          It’s quite sincere, though i’m not a rich person. Both my parents were salaried engineers, so i was middle class growing up. It’s just that i’ve always had very expensive tastes even during childhood. That became a problem as my parents did not like to tell me to mind the budget, but my tendency to gravitate to the top of the price range at every venue made it necessary. In fact it was so consistent they thought i was doing it on purpose, but no i just like exotic and elaborate, which tends to mean higher priced. That said my maternal grandmother is rich enough to have won an Epsom Derby, so i did experience wealth when visiting her, but it was not my every day.

          It’s probably a personality trait rather than a result of personal circumstances, since my sister shared my childhood but lacks my predilections. Also i’ve been maximum SNAP benefits poor and it did little to alter my preferences, nor did it give me greater appreciation for the simpler things in life. Fortunately a taste for luxury is not a compulsion to indulge in it, so while my means are still quite modest, i have no debt and remain solvent, though barely. Still it would be lovely to at least be able to afford a moderate dissociative-taking habit.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Like all such articles, it makes me marvel at the happy coincidence by which the upper middle classes of the present-day industrialized world have stumbled on the one correct level of material consumption, the golden mean between “impossible to justify” and “desperate”. I detect the hand of Providence in it.

      • vjl110 says:

        I used to work with a group of hunter-gatherer/pastoralists living on the margins in rural southern Africa. I was constantly asked why I did not have any children even though I was married, approaching my 30s (and fabulously wealthy by their standards).

        The obvious answer to me was that I did not have enough of a financial foundation to support children in the manner I felt was appropriate…. as you can imagine, explaining this to people who were giddy to re-purpose most of my campsite refuse was incredibly awkward.

        • Matt M says:

          Yep. All perspective. A woman I work with (who makes over 150k/yr and her boyfriend is in medical school) once loudly declared she “couldn’t understand how anyone could afford to have three kids”

          • JayT says:

            Perspective, and cost of living. If you make $150K/year and live in San Francisco, daycare would take almost half your take home pay. When you already have rent taking half your income, then it becomes quite the question how people can do it.

          • Matt M says:

            Sure. But this wasn’t *in* San Francisco, it was in Houston. Where there are tens of thousands of families with 3+ children managing to survive on less than a third of her salary.

          • Lasagna says:


            I’m not so sure about the cost of living argument.

            I steered clear of this in my original post because I didn’t want to complicate my question, but “cost of living” can get a little dubious when you’re on the upper end of income.

            Like I said, my wife and I make a lot of money, no matter what standard you apply. We’re not in the 1%, but it’s close. But there still was no way we could afford to stay in Manhattan after we started having kids.

            But the argument that “we’re not rich for Manhattanites” seems like weak sauce – same with San Francisco. I’m not sure that, once you’re making $150,000, adding “but I live in X, so it isn’t as much as it seems” holds much water. Unless it’s impossible to keep making that much money AND move somewhere cheaper, it’s a non-starter. Sure, my commute is an hour and a half now, where before it was 15 minutes. Boo-hoo.

            Weirdly – or maybe not so weirdly – I hear this argument advanced a LOT by people on the Left, and almost never by conservatives. Young people spending astronomical sums to rent tiny apartments in fashionable areas of Brooklyn are convinced – really, really convinced – that they’re slumming it. Maybe move to White Plains? It’s a perfectly nice city.

          • Randy M says:

            Sure, my commute is an hour and a half now, where before it was 15 minutes. Boo-hoo.

            Honestly, losing 2.5 hours of every day does seem like a big deal, and one not simple to put a price tag on.

            That aside, I think it’s more a matter of priorities than possibilities. Cost of living in so cal isn’t Manhattan levels but it isn’t cheap, and we manage to have a family of five get by on one salary.

          • rlms says:

            “Honestly, losing 2.5 hours of every day does seem like a big deal, and one not simple to put a price tag on.”
            But if you do try to put a price tag on it by considering it equivalent to 2.5 hours fewer doing a $150,000/year job, it works out to be pretty expensive.

          • JayT says:

            Well, unless you’re willing to have a 3+ hour daily commute or live in a dangerous neighborhood, it really isn’t possible to move to a cheap place and still work in San Francisco.

            Also, as was said, unless you consider your time to be worthless, then I think the cost of living argument is still valid. I could keep my current job and move to Tracy, but I’d be spending three hours a day in a car and another hour and a half in a train. Not only would that mean more money spent on childcare, but it would also be a terrible waste of my time. I actually can do overtime even though I’m salaried, so losing those four hours of commute time would be hundreds of dollars lost.

            Ultimately, there really isn’t a White Planes equivalent (reasonably priced, close to the city) in the Bay Area.

          • Matt M says:

            At 150k/yr, working 60 hour weeks (not adjusting for vacation or whatever), you’re making about $50/hr. 2.5 hrs per day is basically an opportunity cost of $125 per day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, that’s about 30k per year.

          • Brad says:

            Are these dangerous neighborhoods dangerous as compared to the “hunter-gatherer/pastoralists living on the margins in rural southern Africa” lifestyle? If not, then we are back to perspective and not cost of living.

          • JayT says:

            Dangerous in that the white people I’ve known to try and live there have to deal with rocks thrown through their windows, spray painted cars, and muggings, I’m going to say it’s below a standard of living that is reasonably expected. Also now that I look at it, even most of those neighborhoods have gentrified to a point that they are more expensive than a place like White Plains, so it doesn’t really even matter.

          • Brad says:

            It seems like you are dodging the question with “below a standard of living that is reasonably expected”. It’s one thing to talk about cost of living when someone points out that you are in the 95th percentile for american households or whatever. You can say well no, that doesn’t go as far in SF as it does in Kansas City. Fine there’s some merit to that.

            But this conversation started with vjl110 talking about hunter-gatherer/pastoralists living on the margins in rural Africa wondering why he didn’t have kids.

            Saying “well actually I’m poorer than them because I have a higher cost of living so I can’t afford children while they can” doesn’t even pass the straight face test. You are far far richer than them and no kind of CoL argument is going to change that. You just have a different *perspective* about what is an appropriate upbringing for a child. Which is exactly what Matt M said in the first place and you disagreed with.

            In a larger sense if you think the cost of living is so so much better in Kansas City than SF, why not move there? Sure you won’t make $150k, but you can make $60-70k and by your own argument that’s worth more.

          • Charles F says:

            In a larger sense if you think the cost of living is so so much better in Kansas City than SF, why not move there?

            Living in SF is better than living in Kansas City. Accepting a higher cost for something better is pretty normal.

          • Nornagest says:

            Living in SF is better than living in Kansas City.

            …as long as you don’t mind the congestion, the crowds, the politics, the crime, the inability to find parking, the decaying infrastructure, the homeless people hassling you every few blocks, the ever-present threat of an earthquake collapsing the 1920s tenement you’re living in, and the rich smell of human feces in the BART escalators.

            The best burritos I’ve ever had are from Valencia Street, but I’m not sure they’re worth it.

          • Brad says:

            Living in SF is better than living in Kansas City. Accepting a higher cost for something better is pretty normal.

            In that case you aren’t comparing apples to apples and it doesn’t make sense to say that SF has a higher cost of living with respect to housing than KC. Cost of living adjustments are for the same goods in different markets.

          • Lasagna says:

            After reading the comments that followed, I think my cost of living example was a lousy one. You all are absolutely right that the cost to me of a greatly extended commute is meaningful (I would note, though, that I have a much bigger piece of property, a house instead of an apartment, at a far lower cost, in a community that better suits our needs, so obviously that needs to be factored in). But yeah, my commute was a terrible example.

            What I was trying to drive at, which was the question raised in the original CA article, is: when does it stop? I want to live in NYC and live a certain lifestyle and not the suburbs, so it’s moral and necessary for me to make and keep $350,000 a year. I want to raise a family in NYC and not the suburbs, so it’s moral and necessary for me to make and keep $600,000 a year. I want to raise a family on Central Park West and not the rest of NYC, so it’s moral and necessary for me to make and keep $1.25 million a year. I want to raise a family on Central Part West in John Lennon’s old apartment and not on the rest of the street, so it’s moral and necessary for me to make and keep $15 million a year.

            I’m not trying to make a judgment on this, exactly, because I really haven’t decided myself, but these are the questions raised by CA – at some point, maybe, while you’d like to live in The Dakota, it’s absolutely unnecessary and wasteful, and maybe, morally, unjustifiable.

            I’m not sure I’m convincing myself, here. And I’m not sure that I like that this argument isn’t entirely convincing.

          • JayT says:

            Brad, I agree that in relation to the hunter/gatherers it doesn’t account for it, but that’s not what I was responding to. I was just talking about the woman that makes $150K/year and doesn’t feel like she could afford three kids. If both parents have to work to make that $150K, then I don’t really see how people can live in the Bay Area with three kids unless they have a source of free daycare or some non-standard living arrangement. If you have an average two bedroom rental and pay average childcare costs it would leave you about $16,000 take home to cover every other cost. You wouldn’t be poor on a global scale, but certainly wouldn’t feel rich.

            As for SF versus KC, if I had three children I probably would seriously consider moving somewhere like that. I’m well over $150K, but even then I wouldn’t be able to live very comfortably here with three children.

          • Charles F says:

            Cost of living adjustments are for the same goods in different markets.

            Yes, a small set of goods we count as necessities. I’m not really sure where you’re going with this, the answer still seems to obviously be “willing to pay a higher cost for better living” except in the form of paying more for similar necessities in exchange for free access to other things that you can’t just buy anywhere.

            And anyway, “you could move to some other place and raise three kids on $70k” is a weird objection to “It’s hard to raise three kids in SF on $150k”

          • Brad says:

            @Charles F
            The thread is moving pretty fast, and there are a couple of different conversation strands going.

            One point I wanted to make was that “cost of living” as it is usually defined maybe isn’t a useful concept to begin with, or is only useful in some narrow circumstances.

            If someone were to tell me that “$150k in SF is equivalent to $90k in Kansas City” I would expect that to mean that if you offered 1 million people the choice of a job in SF that paid $150k or a job in KC that paid $100k it’d be about 50/50 for picking either.

            You could use some basket of goods and services method to come up with those numbers, but if whatever numbers you came up with didn’t eventually have that property then I’d think it wasn’t really true that “$150k in SF is equivalent to $100k in Kansas City”.

          • Charles F says:

            If someone were to tell me that “$150k in SF is equivalent to $90k in Kansas City” I would expect that to mean that if you offered 1 million people the choice of a job in SF that paid $150k or a job in KC that paid $100k it’d be about 50/50 for picking either.

            That’s nothing like what I expect from a cost of living number. Financially, things might be evenly split (depending on how you feel about going to the expensive city to build up savings, then moving someplace cheaper) but it only applies to costs, not the many and varied things people are looking for in a place to live. You look at the cost of living to see how much extra you’ll be saving/paying, decide if the city’s unique benefits/drawbacks are worth that sum to you, and make your decision.

            In the long run over a large population, people might move between cities until the split approaches 50/50 accounting for cost of living, but that doesn’t mean one person who really likes surfing shouldn’t let that influence their choice between SF and Kansas City. You’re never going to find a metric independent of the person that tells them what salaries should make the choice a coin toss. But you can give people a general idea of how much their options will cost them.

            ETA: I completely misread you and then said the same thing as you as if I was disagreeing. Sorry about that. (But since you were asking it of a specific person, I still think the obvious answer applies)

          • But yeah, my commute was a terrible example.

            I’ve never been in a situation with that sort of a long commute. Seeing the description makes me wonder if there isn’t some sort of car pooling or similar solution. Having to drive more than two hours a day five days a week would be a pain. Spending the same amount of time in a car with someone else driving would be a minor nuisance. I could be working. I could be browsing SSC using my cell phone for an internet connection. I could be reading a good book.

            How difficult in your situation would it be to arrange with three other people–more if one of you has a minivan–to share the trip? For your employer to arrange, as some Silicon Valley employers do, a bus taking employees from some less expensive location an our plus out of SF to work and back?

          • Brad says:

            My post at 2:51 pm says $90k in one place and $100k in another for what is supposed to be the same number. That was a typo.

          • Lasagna says:

            @David Friedman

            My commute is by train. 🙂 Mostly. 20 minute walk to the train, 40 minute train ride, 30 minute walk to work.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            For the record, I live in Kansas City and think it’s the greatest place to live in the world. We often laugh at coasters who can’t imagine living here.

      • Paul:

        Do you have any objection to my quoting your “happy coincidence” comment on my web page? With or without your name attached?

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          No objection whatsoever, and thanks for the compliment. (My highest ambition is to someday come up with an aphorism good enough to get circulated far and wide, variously misattributed to either Mark Twain or Winston Churchill. I seem to have been aiming more for Twain with this one.)

          • Matt M says:

            I think George Carlin is the modern equivalent of this. People attribute all kinds of clever sayings to him that he never actually said.

    • Kir says:

      Is Current Affairs just doing the “everyone who makes more than me is an asshole” thing?


      Any attempt to “justify” wealth has to deal with the question “by what standard?” The article’s whole point is that taking a larger percentage from this family is simply not enough, we must ALSO apply some form of wealth cap to achieve “justice”.

      If the standard is some silly Marxist trope, then the question turns to “given the percentage of the world population still living in abject poverty, how do you justify YOUR spending, CA reporter (who thinks $45 is an absurdly expensive lunch)?” Unless you have a real answer, I find the moral posturing around “generosity with other people’s money” nauseating.

    • The Nybbler says:

      We’re at roughly your income range (total comp; much is equity and varies considerably) and also in the NYC suburbs, but no kids. Which means despite house expenses (and we’ve significantly remodeled) and one really nice car, we have only mortgage debt and also a considerable amount of savings. There’s lots of things, however, I could spend more on if I had more. I think a helicopter commute runs something like $400/day, for instance, so there’s $100,000 in potential spending (and NJ Transit leaves me tempted). We take vacations but could spend a LOT more on them. We don’t have a beach house, not even in NJ never mind Hawaii. My wife’s an artist; we could run a vanity gallery and burn a LOT of money that way (except she’d never go for it). One of us could acquire a drug habit, or a gambling one. Or we could always get a boat; no limit on money-burning there.

      And I expect Phil Murphy (the next governor of NJ) will have all sorts of new ideas on how to spend our money, meaning my goal of getting out of the game and retiring at my present lifestyle will remain unreachable.

    • Bugmaster says:

      …that there simply isn’t anything valuable or moral to spend your cash on. It sets the bar around $1 million a year…

      Every time I hear an opinion like this, my mind simply boggles. It takes me some time to even comprehend the mindset of a person who could say stuff like this.

      Firstly, $1M/year is barely enough to buy financial freedom. I’ve never made that much and I never will, but if I somehow won the lottery (repeatedly), then perhaps $1M/year would be sufficient for me to stop working permanently (at least, to stop working on things that I don’t enjoy doing). Considering taxes, future medical expenses and unforeseen emergencies, $1M/year might suffice — but just barely.

      So far, we’re talking about simply living as a free person, but there are also plenty of things you can buy that will cost more than $1M. And I’m not just talking about material goods, like yachts and such.

      For example, consider politics. Would you like to affect the policies of your city ? It would cost you about $1M (depending on the city, of course, large cities would take a lot more). How about county ? State ? You’d need way more than $1M, and you’d several orders of magnitude more if you wanted to play with the big boys on the global scale (like e.g. the Koch brothers, George Soros, or whomever else).

      But maybe politics is not your thing. Ok, how about scientific research ? $1M is barely enough to get in the door. If you want to launch rockets into space, build weird underground vacuum tunnels, or even just develop a network of electric vehicle charging stations, you’d need several orders of magnitude more money, once again. And if you wanted to launch a mission to Mars, or even the Moon, you’d need trillions of dollars; realistically, no single person is ever likely to amass that much money.

      If neither politics nor science are your thing, then what is ? Maybe it’s medicine ? Well, Bill Gates is well on his way toward eradicating a single relatively simple disease, but he’s nowhere near done, and it cost him way, way more than $1M. That wouldn’t even be enough to build one decent hospital.

      Maybe you don’t care about other people, and you just want to go on adventures or something ? Even then, it would cost you way more than $1M to just potter around on Earth; if you wanted to play around in space (the final frontier ™), you’d need more money just to get your foot in the door.

      I could keep going like this forever. The space of possibilities is… well, not infinite, technically, but extremely large. If all you can think about is, “yes but how many yachts does one man need”, then your imagination has got to be weaker than that of a pigeon.

      • Montfort says:

        Firstly, $1M/year is barely enough to buy financial freedom. I’ve never made that much and I never will, but if I somehow won the lottery (repeatedly), then perhaps $1M/year would be sufficient for me to stop working permanently (at least, to stop working on things that I don’t enjoy doing). Considering taxes, future medical expenses and unforeseen emergencies, $1M/year might suffice — but just barely.

        Then you currently expect to run out of money sometime before you die?

        • Bugmaster says:

          Right now it’s a very real possibility for me, yes. As I get older, my medical expenses will get much higher, and my earning potential will shrink; I don’t think 401K and other retirement planning are sufficient to bridge the gap — especially considering the very real possibility that things like Medicare or Social Security will shrink or even totally disappear by the time I need them. But if I was making $1M/year, I might be able to leverage it to get enough passive income so that I could afford to retire much earlier, and have some independent financial security.

          • Aqua says:

            Perspectives are so funny. I would stop working for a salary if I had 1 million total.
            It’s plenty to live of off on intvestment income alone at that point in Canada, and I’d plan to work on personal projects that could in theory bring in more money later. But I would feel extremely comfortable quoting my job once I hit 1mil

  23. yossarian says:

    I’d say that it’s all a random process – for example, Dostoyevsky’s books weren’t considered so great and deep in his own times. Like, if Dostoyevsky was writing Harry Potter fanfics, it wouldn’t be HPMOR, it would be your average “Hermione has changed a lot over the summer. For example, her boobs have definitely grown a couple of sizes” kind of fanfic. But, Dostoyevsky wrote enough books that lasted long enough to be taugh in schools, therefore classic.

  24. Iain says:

    This old Overcoming Bias post seems relevant here.

    A study divided thousands of participants into eight groups and let them download music by bands they’d never heard of. Each participant got to see how often various songs had been downloaded by the other members of their group. At the end of the experiment, the most popular songs in each group varied significantly.

  25. SamChevre says:

    I would think yes, they would be distinguishable.

    I’ve read enough Victorian/Edwardian novels to have some sense for the more ephemeral of them. I think that a random thoughtful reader, presented with The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Crossing, would be able to guess easily that one would still be read in 100 years, and the other not.

    Some books are fun to read; some have a something more that shapes the way you think about and articulate the world.

    • At a slight variant on the question, suppose you were presented with multiple works by the same author, only a few, perhaps only one, of which ended up being famous. That would eliminate a good deal of the variance due to differing tastes.

      I did a version of this experiment not long ago, reading through all of the poems by a few famous poets in search of ones I could use for a book I’m putting together of short works of literature with interesting economic insights. I was struck by what a small proportion seemed worth reading.

      Also by how much better Kipling is than most others, by that measure. I haven’t counted, but my guess is that I like at least half of his poems.

  26. Sniffnoy says:

    Scott, the links at the beginning are pretty messed up; would you mind fixing them? Thank you!

    (Also, the links about JRM are confusing because you have the two of them completely running into one another so that the underlines aren’t separate, making it look like one link; you might want to fix that too.)

  27. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    Does anyone know a good resource for learning about the concept of paraterraforming or “worldhouse”? It seems like a really cool concept which fits a hard-SF work I’m sketching, but it’s really hard finding actual numbers on e.g. dome height.

    The basic idea is to create domed colonies on planets / moons without atmosphere, using the air pressure to inflate the dome like a big balloon. Depending on the materials used in constructing the dome it can act as a greenhouse and extend the “habitable zone” of a star to allow for more distant colonies than is normally possible. And as the demand for livable space increases the dome can be expanded until, eventually, it will cover most or all of the surface. The tension cables which hold the dome down also seem like they should be able to pull double duty as the bases of space elevators, although that’s just me riffing on the concept without any real numbers.

    I tried to track down the original papers but they’re not available to my institution (they’re focused on biomedical science so terraforming is a low priority) and aren’t up on research gate. Everything I’ve found is pop science writing that doesn’t deal with the concept in depth.

    • balrog says:

      I vaguely remember seeing lots of stuff on terraforming Mars on MIT website, including whole schematics of nuclear reactors and how to best utilize 12 people crew for one-way missions. Maybe there is something there.

      Alternativly, worldbuilding @ stackexchange should be of help.

  28. Jacob says:

    In your example, chance would be 20%. My guess would be me/random-person would guess with about 50% success. Better than chance, but not by an enormous amount. This is based on my idea that the famous works are famous at least partially due to the quality of the works themselves rather than pure randomness. The reason it’s 50% and not 100% is because randomness plays a big role.

  29. rlms says:

    I think you could do an experiment on this fairly easily using poetry.

  30. Thegnskald says:

    Has anybody else come to the conclusion that the Internet has effectively eaten government?

    • Walter says:

      I think it ate culture, and gov was already digesting in culture’s stomach.

    • John Schilling says:

      I don’t (watch helplessly as my employer) send ~half my money to the federal, state, and local internet every year. And, per the crossthread discussion on such matters, I don’t think the internet has much effect on where that money goes afterwards. At most, the internet has maybe “taken over” the sort of mostly-inconsequential fluff that elected officials do so that you will notice them and remember to vote for them; not the stuff the government does that is actually important.

    • toastengineer says:

      I dunno; that article (I think it was linked to from here?) about how Something Awful culture has basically eaten the left was pretty convincing.

      • Protagoras says:

        Does anybody still follow Something Awful? It used to be a big deal, but I lost interest and haven’t really heard much about it from other people recently either.

        • toastengineer says:

          Oh yeah, SA is exactly as massive as it’s ever been. I hung around there for a while ‘cos of the Let’s Play community but the place as a whole is just kinda depressing.

  31. Eli says:

    Anyone knows someone who needs a decently trained software engineer – Rails, embedded C, Linux applications, whatever – for consulting, contract work, or permanent work?

    ‘Cuz I got laid off again last week.

  32. Deiseach says:

    Do you think you have better than chance odds of guessing “correctly”? (And you can repeat this thought experiment for any form of art.)

    No, because years back I came across a little book from 1900 or so which did exactly this – listed out the “Future Greats” of the Irish writers at the time. Out of them all, I think only Yeats and Synge and Wilde, as well as a few more obscure names, were the ones that I’d heard of, and Wilde was treated as “well he’s already hugely popular, we can’t say if this will last”. Of all the other up-and-coming poets, novelists, and playwrights marked with a chance for greatness, the vast majority of them had sunk into obscurity.

    If you hang around second-hand bookshops, you see this in action. Volumes of the stars of yesteryear who had best-sellers and financially successful careers as well as critical acclaim, and today they’re “Who? Never heard of him/her!” Buy an old book of an author you do know, and read the list at the back of all the other forthcoming novels by other writers put out by their publisher which plainly, at the time the book was published, were deemed sure sellers but today are long-forgotten.

    I don’t know if it’s greatness that makes something last – I think that is evident in some cases – or do we say that if it has lasted, it must be great?

    • Bellum Gallicum says:

      I would somewhat disagree, it isn’t easy to tell at the time but looking back on an era even without context the great visual art stands out.

      In Europe you can wander around the vast museums and I feel that after a few hours the masters stand out. Something about their creativity and wonder at the universe seems to stand out.

      But these are two slightly different questions depending whether your are predicting forward or blindly looking back.

  33. Mark says:

    Whatever happened to robes?

    Robes are clearly the best kind of clothing. When did they go out of fashion? When will they come back?

    • Well... says:


      Also those giant hoodies that are popular in the ‘hood are kinda like robes.

    • dodrian says:

      I’m predicting robes coming back into fashion later this week, peaking next Tuesday. I know I’ll be wearing robes!

    • Calvin says:

      I still wear them a few times every year (as part of my profession as a lawyer). Alas the more competent you become the more things settle rather than go to court.

      • Montfort says:

        On the off chance you work somewhere that also does wigs – a lot of the photos I find online for lawyers’ and judges’ wigs look more like wig-styled caps. Would a more realistic-looking wig be less fashionable? And if so, how much less? I understand the hairstyle and color are fixed by convention, I just mean one that looks more like real hair.

    • Protagoras says:

      I’m not enough of a fashion trendsetter to risk going it alone, but I really think professors should return to teaching in academic robes.

    • John Schilling says:

      Robes are not at all the best kind of clothing if you are riding a bicycle. Or, more importantly, a horse. Classical civilization wasn’t terribly big on horses; Greece mostly isn’t good horse country, Italy is a bit better but the Romans never really went for “horse culture” in a big way.

      The folks who conquered Rome, did. For the next fifteen hundred years or so, at least among middle- to upper-class males, the horse was either a vital utilitarian tool or a major status symbol, and nobody was going to go around signalling their not-horse-riding status by wearing clothes you couldn’t ride a horse in. There were and still are exceptions, e.g. kings, judges, clergymen, but these were all signaling the sort of extreme status where they don’t need to ride a horse anywhere because everybody comes to them. Or e.g. Scotsmen and their kilts, but Scotland is very much not horse country. Mostly, if you weren’t wearing trousers, people had to wonder, “Is he a king, or is he some schmuck who can’t afford a horse”, so if you can’t pull off “maybe he’s a king” you’re probably best to wear trousers.

      Also, Beau Brummel was a cavalry officer, and we’re still letting him decide how men will dress in any vaguely formal setting.

        • John Schilling says:

          Most of those are wearing trousers under something that looks as much like a long coat or cloak as a robe. And if we’re arguing the fuzzy definitional border of the coat/cloak/robe we wear over our horse-riding trousers, I think the battle for the sartorial supremacy of the robe has been pretty much lost.

      • Deiseach says:

        There were and still are exceptions, e.g. kings, judges, clergymen, but these were all signaling the sort of extreme status where they don’t need to ride a horse anywhere because everybody comes to them.

        Palfreys? Or donkeys? For clergymen who needed to get places but were too high status to walk there like a peasant? I’m going on vague memories of Chaucer here so don’t take me too seriously. I also kinda half-remember that when Thomas Aquinas ran off to join the Dominicans, he walked (because they were a mendicant order at first anyway).

        But yeah, there’s certainly something in Dante about high-level clergy and their fancy robes so that when they’re on horseback and the robes cover everything you can’t tell which is the horse and which the bishop:

        Now our modern shepherds call for one on this side,
        one on that, to support them, they are so bloated,
        and one to go before, one to boost them from behind.
        Their fur-lined mantles hang upon their horses’ flanks
        so that two beasts go underneath one skin.

      • Nornagest says:

        I don’t know when robes came in for kings, but for quite a long time the norm for royal courts in central and western Europe was to travel more or less constantly, partly to build relationships with the king’s subjects (who might otherwise be tempted to independence by geographical separation) and partly to spread the court’s economic burden over a wider area. One might also suspect a show of status, being as you had to plan around the king and his followers showing up and eating all your food once every few years.

        This may or may not have involved physically riding a horse, though.

  34. Machine Interface says:

    Someone should be able to pick the work considered the greatest among a selection of unknown work if:
    1) They are reasonably familiar with the cultural metrics by which this work is considered great
    2) That metric is sufficiently self-consistent that several different people using it can arrive independently at the same conclusion

    If you pick an islander from an uncontacted tribe, and have them listen to 5 music pieces in major scale, and 5 in minor scale, in random order, and ask them to pick which ones express sadness, their guess should be no better than chance, because in spite of how much we take it for granted, the idea that “minor scale = sad” is an entirely arbitrary western trope, that is not reflected in other musical traditions.

    If you do the same task with a random westerner, even when with close to zero musical culture, they should be able to correctly pick the “sad” pieces, because of how entranched the minor=sad trope is in the western zeitgest, to the point that even people with no interest in music are exposed to it from birth.

    Data point: I really don’t like modern south Korean cinema. I’ve seen supposed masterpieces like “Memories of Murder”, and much less well regarded shlock films like “I Saw the Devil”, and I’m honnestly not sure what objective criterias can explain that the former gets much more praised than the latter. To them both, within the same genre, I largely prefer a Chinese film called “Black Coal, Thin Ice”, which I’ve seen fans of “Memories of Murder” condemn as dull and bland.

    Many other experiences like that strongly push me to believe that “greatness”, or indeed the very notion of “art”, are purely rationalizations of the arbitrary and parochial preferences of different groups of people. Sure, there’s some common evolutionary ground to a lot of these preferences, but for any rule you would derive based on this criteria, you can find many exceptions (not everyone likes big breasts), and that’s before you add in layers upon layers of largely accidental cultural norms, peer pressure, founder effects, signalling and counter signalling, and so on.

    • 1soru1 says:

      Maybe the problem is in using abstract adjectives like ‘greatness’, when more specific words like ‘novelliness’, ‘symphonicality’ or ‘south-korean-schlockicity’ are actually at the limit of what can be usefully judged.

      Certainly, Shakespeare is highly Shakespearean.

  35. Well... says:

    I wonder if anyone has done this experiment, but with wine. Oh wait…

    • John Schilling says:

      You can’t do this experiment with wine because if there were a Bach or a Beethoven or a Mozart of wine, or a Shakespeare or a Tolstoy, their finite output would be too expensive for most people to ever experience or to be used in this sort of experiment. Wine-tasting is mostly about sorting out third-rate product from fourth-rate, or thereabouts, the sort of thing where if there were a musical or literary equivalent almost nobody would ever bother with it.

      • pdbarnlsey says:

        That depends on what your unit of analysis for “the same wine” is. It’s obviously in the interests of those who produce “the best wine” to define that as narrowly as possible, and to tie the land as closely as possible to uncopyable real estate (terroir) rather than fermentation, aging or viticulture.

        But it’s not wholly unreasonable to suggest that “the best wine” is, say, “chablis” rather than “the 2002 Domaine William Fevre” in the same way as we venerate “Shakespeare” rather than “Act 2, scene 3 of Hamlet”.

  36. liskantope says:

    It’s the start of flu season again, and I remember that at this time a year ago I posted on an SSC open thread asking any doctors in the room if they could confirm the general medical wisdom about the importance of getting a flu vaccine against the commonly-heard objections. If I remember right, I only got a couple of responses, but they strongly confirmed the general medical view that flu vaccines are highly beneficial.

    I bring this up again mainly to comment that in my experience, among all scientific/medical issues that very sensible, scientifically-educated, pro-science people take views on, the question of how worthwhile flu vaccines are seems to be the one where they most often dismiss what appears to be scientific consensus. From these same people who stand steadfastly against teaching creationism in public schools and think that the “vaccines cause autism” myth is despicable, I frequently hear the view that yeah the flu sucks but “I get it every year anyway”, and the vaccine only covers a couple of strains of the flu (there are many more; you could still catch one of the others!), and the vaccine might temporarily make you more sick than the expected amount of sickness it saves you from. The cornerstone of this position seems to be a commonly-held view of the flu as equivalent to a bad cold, or a cold plus a fever — by that definition they get the flu about every year or two regardless. They get annoyed if I try to insist on a model of the flu as something that brings your life to a grinding halt for a significant period of time, that keeps you almost flat on your back for a good week and still keeps you sick for another, that makes you feel so yucky you don’t want to move for days on end, that involves stomach symptoms as well as much more bodily aching than one gets on average from a fever. And yet that’s the description I’ve gotten from every single doctor I’ve heard describe the flu. To quote from Tumblr user hotelconcierge (who I believe has a medical degree):

    Have you ever had the flu? I mean a legit influenza, not some poser rhinovirus. To say that it is unpleasant does not do it justice. There’s an ache that cripples every myocyte, a nausea that permeates every molecule, a fatigue that saps you of the desire to eat or move or think. The symptoms are so bad that even though rationally you know that you’ll be better in a week, part of you doesn’t believe this, part of you thinks that one week is an impossibly long time, and so you find yourself thinking “I want to die,” not really meaning it, of course, but unable to help the feeling that literally anything would be better than existing in the material plane.

    Don’t know where I’m going with this, I just find it curious that seeming misconceptions on this particular issue seem to have permeated culture so strongly that even many of the most scientifically-inclined apparently believe them, and I am one of my only friends (who form a very scienc-y crowd) who gets a flu shot every year.

    • Rosemary7391 says:

      I get the impression that flu is a much bigger problem in some places than others.

      Here, the NHS give flu vaccines to certain more vulnerable groups; I’m not in one of them. I’ve never (to my knowledge) had a flu shot; nor have I had flu. Additionally, only one person I know has come down with the flu, and he got swine flu rather than annual flu. (And no, they don’t get the vaccine either, so I really think it is lack of exposure rather than my benefiting from herd immunity.) If either of those things change I’ll consider going and spending the £10 or so on it, but for now I see it as a rather boring way to separate myself from £10 and half an hour for very minimal gain – especially as it’s a yearly thing rather than giving the 10 yearly/lifetime protection that many other vaccines do.

      How much of a problem is flu in your area? Not just the area statistics, but among the people you see and might well catch the flu from?

      • liskantope says:

        The observation I made above applies to three very different geographic regions I’ve lived in over the past decade. Unfortunately, I have no idea how high the incidence of influenza is in my current area.

        It’s hard for me to assess how often people around me seem to get the flu because of the disconnect over definitions that I mentioned above. Certainly I hear a number of people every year saying they got the flu, but a lot of the time they seem to be following the flu = cold + fever definition (and a lot of them never get flu shots because they feel they’re pointless and the flu isn’t really that big a deal anyway). From time to time I know young and otherwise healthy people who get so sick they’re basically confined to bed for some days, but I couldn’t put a number on how frequent that is in my area.

    • Fossegrimen says:

      I don’t have a medical degree but would like to note that there is a massive variation in peoples immune systems so that the actual individual symptoms may range from a mild sniffle to death from the same virus.

      • Charles F says:

        (Also no medical degree here)
        This is important. And even for the same person, different years and strains can have very different effects. I’ve gotten real flu twice that I know of, and neither was as bad as the OP’s quote, but one let me keep doing stuff normally, and the other made me stay mostly in bed for a day or two.

        I do think that personally, I’d rather risk getting the flu than get a flu shot, but since I interact with other people and go out in public during flu season, I don’t feel comfortable making that choice for everybody I might spread the flu to.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m the reverse in that as I so very rarely get the real flu, I tend not to go for the flu shot as I’m more concerned about side-effects.

        That being said, the year I got the swine flu it really did knock me back on my heels. Spent a week in bed literally too weak to raise my arms.

    • Bellum Gallicum says:

      The flu shot last year was for the wrong strain. They are guessing when they pick that, I got the pig flu that was going around last year and it destroyed me and a couple of my buddies for 48 hours but getting a flu shot for a different strain in the fall wouldn’t have helped a bit,

      Scientists in the media in my childhood also told me, Viruses weren’t alive, we were going to run out of oil and metal, Fat was bad for me, people who divided americans based on race were racists, i would need to go to college to amount to anything, and doctors were here to help

      while my own life I feel has shown me that
      Viruses are alive, oil is cheaper than ever, Fat is delicious snacking is bad for me, nearly everyone is xenophobic, and college is a scam, and doctors main goal in life seems to be enjoying wine dinners where sexy Pharma reps get them to use their drug or device and then giving me sub par treatments for $1000 an hour

      So you might be pro science but I’m pro skepticism and scientific method,

      Which this is a side point but in all the social science stuff they never bring up Feynman’s point which is that s single study shows nothing but what to isolate for in the next study. This is how you now sociology is a collection of “just so” stories they never even try to isolate and self replicate

      • Deiseach says:

        So what you need to do is go to college to become a doctor so sexy pharma reps will buy you wine dinners 🙂

      • Nornagest says:

        “Viruses are alive” is a definitional issue, like “Pluto is a planet”. Our understanding of viruses hasn’t changed, but our use of language might.

        • Bellum Gallicum says:

          That’s interesting I thought they said that because they thought DNA was a requirement for life? and then they realized DNA was a strategy not a requirement?

          but I’m wrong I’d love to learn from someone who knows 🙂

          and fat, college, doctorate and race mean exactly the same as they did when I was child but boy have peoples opinions changed on those subjects

    • yossarian says:

      I’ve had flu a couple of times, and I still think that it’s really not worth it to get flu shots – in fact, I would rather get the flu, and get a paid medical leave.

    • Randy M says:

      Either I don’t get the flu nearly as often as every year or two, or the flu isn’t as bad as all that.
      I acknowledge this may change in twenty years as I age.

    • liskantope says:

      To clarify, I’m not trying to imply that if the current scientific consensus is pro-flu-vaccine then it must be right. As far as I know, it’s entirely possible that pharmaceutical companies have pushed the medical establishment somewhat into advertising flu shots with an exaggerated notion of their benefits. I mainly just find it interesting that within what we might call the pro-conventional-science wing of the Blue Tribe (as opposed to, say, the New Age spiritualism wing), this is the one topic on which members seem to disregard consensus in favor of a vaguer cultural understanding of how the flu works (which may turn out to be correct in part).

      On the other hand, in graduate school I did know a number of super pro-scienc-y* people who disagreed with the conventional wisdom of the benefits of consuming dairy, particularly milk, yet I expect that many or most doctors still agree with the notion that milk is an important part of one’s diet, especially in childhood. Some of these people I knew were quite passionate about nutrition, though, and even read up on original scientific research, so I’m slightly inclined to believe them over what the medical establishment says. (Unfortunately I’m not awesome like they are and don’t have it in me to do my own research — outside of very few specific subjects, I tend to arrive at tentative conclusions on scientific matters by judging the credibility of those I see who do have strong opinions.)

      * I love how the word “scienc-y” doesn’t fail the spell check, btw.

      • Aapje says:

        Nutritional research is quite hard, for a number of reasons, so any nutritional studies that don’t have a claim like ‘eating X will make you sick if you have condition Y’ should be treated with high levels of skepticism. But the same is true for whatever evidence your friends are using.

        European and African peoples have been consuming milk for ages and the main health challenges that we have today, heart disease, obesity and such, are way more recent than that. The list of milk consumption by country also doesn’t seem to correlate with the health of the populace.

        In general, I think that people have a strong tendency to blame a food product/component and/or see a food item as some magic potion, while reality is much more complex (and a major factor is lifestyle).

        • Nornagest says:

          You mean superfoods won’t allow me to fly and shoot heat beams from my eyes?

          Well, shoot.

        • liskantope says:

          In general, I think that people have a strong tendency to blame a food product/component and/or see a food item as some magic potion, while reality is much more complex

          I completely agree but think this generalizes to most realms of empirical knowledge, not just dietary science. There is a tendency among many to try to discover mechanisms (the simpler the better) that significantly affect lives and allow them some control, even when the truth is probably that human bodies/behavior is way more complicated than they want to give it credit for and the expected degree of change from pushing any particular lever is imperceptible. This is a fault of even those people who preach “don’t believe in things just because they are comforting” but don’t realize that their own faith in being able to find ways to so easily control their own environment also comes from an instinct to seek comfort. I’ve been meaning to write a lot more about this, actually.

          • Aapje says:


            I agree that the core issue is that people often want more control than science can supply them with. Plenty of simple levers do exist. For example, ingest more than three mg/kg body weight of cyanide and you’ll probably die. Ingest a small amount as is present in some foods and the cyanide gets turned into vitamin B12.

            However, what many people are looking for is a way to stay lean and/or feel better, for which there is not a simple lever.

            I think that humans have a need to feel in control beyond their actual capability to be in control and that they fill this gap with various delusions. People who are delusional like this often are quite successful, while those who (accurately) feel powerless seem to often fall into depression and lethargy. So the delusion may be healthy.

  37. Seppo says:

    Who are some people other than Scott who (1) write out their ideas about how things work and (2) make well-calibrated probabilistic forecasts about those things?
    (And is there some secret catchphrase I can Google to find them?)

    I’m thinking mostly of “things” in the vein of political/economic/social issues, but good forecasting on any subject might be interesting.

  38. Aapje says:

    I recently watched the movie The Confession, a 1970’s French movie. It’s really interesting because it is a critique of the Stalinist persecutions, but from a pro-communist perspective. And not defensively communist, where the virtues of proper communism are extensively expounded upon, but axiomatically communist. So the virtues of communism are taken as a given and the film-maker merely seeks to denounce the wrong kind of communism. Libertarians and social-democrats commonly argue this way, denouncing the excesses of government/free market respectively, taking the validity of capitalism as a given. However, I think that this is pretty rare for communism. I think that this movie could probably only have been made in the 70’s French milieu, having a sufficiently big left-wing audience that was sympathetic to communism, yet aware of and willing to openly address communist excesses. After that I think that the label communism got tainted too much due to all the excesses that were made public.

  39. Wrong Species says:

    Let’s imagine that Germany won the Battle of Jutland back in WW1. How likely is it that this leads to the end of the British blockade and how would it happen?

    • John Schilling says:

      The British blockade was enforced by small warships – mostly converted merchantmen with a few guns and a radio, I believe – operating on the periphery of the North Sea. Any time they saw a ship that looked like it might be headed to or from Germany they did the “papers, please” bit and then maybe put a prize crew on board to take the ship back to Britain for a more formal investigation. And if they saw e.g. a squadron of German battlecruisers instead, they would run away as fast as they could while getting on the radio and report, “We’ve got a spot of trouble here with X German battlecruisers; would the Home Fleet be so kind as to dispatch 2X British battlecruisers to sink them, please?”

      With the blockade zone being closer to Rosyth than Kiel, and the Home Fleet having substantially more battlecruisers (and battleships, and other sorts of cruisers, etc) as the Germans, this was pretty clearly a losing proposition for Berlin, so they rarely sent warships to challenge the blockade. But if we posit a Jutland that leaves Germany with material superiority, the equation changes. The blockade zone is still closer to Rosyth than Kiel, but the Germans can at least occasionally have their High Seas Fleet spend a week or so out in the North Sea. In that week, any British gunboat or armed merchant cruiser that tries to enforce the blockade is likely to get sunk, along with any proper British warship sent out to protect it. Radio plus long stern chases means each side ultimately brings whatever level of force it needs to win the fight, up to everything they’ve got – and if everything you’ve got is no longer enough, you lose.

      Since the Germans don’t have to give advance warning as to which weeks are safe for Britain to enforce the blockade, the British will likely decide fairly quickly to not bother trying to enforce a North Sea blockade. They could still do commerce-raiding on the high seas against German merchantmen; the German navy could not likely provide full coverage in e.g. the mid-Atlantic and the British Empire has plenty of secure bases for the Royal Navy to use. But that sort of diffuse raiding is precisely the sort of thing that didn’t manage to starve England into submission in either World War, and Germany was relatively less dependent on maritime trade.

      • bean says:

        Actually, one quibble. The British had good odds of figuring out when the Germans were and weren’t at sea, due to Room 40 and their much better information-handling apparatus. It certainly wouldn’t be as strong as the blockade they had, and I’d have to do more research on the legal aspects of the problem, which might have killed everything. But I wouldn’t rule them totally out. They might even be able to take advantage of the High Seas Fleet sending out detachments and turn the tables. No guarantees, though.

      • Wrong Species says:

        Interesting. I always assumed that Germany was militarily doomed after the First Battle of the Marne but you make it sound like they still had a plausible chance of victory. I guess the German navy was better than I thought.

        • Protagoras says:

          Not really; it would have taken absolutely extraordinary luck for Jutland to produce the total German victory being imagined here. The discussion is just taking that incredible unlikelyhood as a given and investigating what would have happened then.

          • Wrong Species says:

            But wasn’t part of the reason Britain won because they intercepted German plans? What if that didn’t happen?

          • Protagoras says:

            The battle happened because the British tried to lay a trap for the Germans, and it kind of worked, but due to various factors not quite as well as they hoped. If the British had had poorer information about German movements, they wouldn’t have tried to set up the trap the way they did, and likely there wouldn’t have been a major battle (the British were being pretty cautious, for good reason). I suppose if you reverse things and have the Germans successfully intercepting British intelligence instead of vice versa, that would increase the chance of the Germans successfully carrying out a trap themselves, but that would be a pretty big change. The British were much better at signal analysis than the Germans thoughout both world wars.

          • bean says:

            The British mishandling of their SIGINT might have cost them an outright victory. For various reasons (see the Jutland series), Jellicoe was distrustful of it, and didn’t believe them when they told him where the German fleet was headed during the night. Protagoras is right otherwise.

    • bean says:

      Missed this last night. Sorry. John’s right as far as he goes. The blockade was all Armed Merchant Cruisers after several armored cruisers met sticky ends in the early weeks of the war while on blockade duty.
      The big difference is probably what happens WRT the US. The British blockade was not popular on the other side of the Atlantic, but they managed to make it look legal, and had enough muscle to back it up. If the legal cover falls apart, the US starts sending ships to Germany, and the UK can’t really afford to raid them, or they start losing US trade, too. Breaking the blockade changes the economic situation significantly in Germany. They have extra margin to play with, and with the US probably staying neutral (no need for unrestricted submarine warfare, probably no Zimmerman Telegram), the outcome of the war is in serious doubt.

    • Eric Rall says:

      As I understand it, the big threat to the UK was German commerce raiding of merchant traffic into and out of the Thames estuary. They couldn’t do this historically because raiding in dribs and draps would be suicide, and raiding in force would trigger a major fleet engagement in which the British would have a significant advantage. But that changes if Germany somehow sinks a big chunk of the British fleet at Jutland.

      Sea distances would actually work in Germany’s advantage here: the sea distance from Wilhelmshaven to London is 368 nautical miles, vs 423 NM from Rosyth to London or 543 NM from Scapa Flow. Cruisers and destroyers could raid the estuary pretty much full-time, and if the British fleet sortied to stop them, the German fleet could beat them there if Zeppelins or U-Boats loitering outside Rosyth and Scapa Flow spotted the fleet and radioed back to Wilhelmshaven. It’s the same situation John Schilling describes in terms of disrupting the blockade, but here with Germany having the advantage in terms of sea distances. At least unless Britain moved their fleet closer to London: they very well might, but presumably there was a good reason for basing the fleet out of Rosyth and Scapa Flow instead of somewhere like Hull, Tillbury, or Portsmouth.

      • bean says:

        The problem was that an attack on the Thames is basically in invitation for the British to trap the Germans. They may have been able to avoid battle on the way in, but the British would be astride their line of retreat, no question. That said, the other issue is coastal defenses. Coming in that close makes you a prime target for destroyers and submarines, and there may have been coastal guns. Can’t remember right now.

        • Eric Rall says:

          I don’t recall details, but I remember German raids on the Thames estuary being discussed in Massie’s “Dreadnought” and “Castles of Steel” as being near the top of the British list of fears if they lost clear naval superiority. I got the impression that the worry was raiding the approaches to London, Tillbury, etc, not necessarily getting in close to the ports themselves. Although that seems like it would still leave British merchant ships the option of hugging the coast under the protection of coastal defenses (like the Germans did in occupied Norway during WW2).

          It could also be that the British fears were unreasonable. I remember fear of a German invasion of Britain being at the top of the worry list, and I don’t think that would have been plausible short of Alien Space Bats showing up and turning the entire Grand Fleet into a big pile of paperclips.

          • bean says:

            Fighting the Great War at Sea (my standard for this stuff) doesn’t go into that. I’ll have to check Massie later. There was concern about raids on coastal shipping, which was necessary to supply London itself, and a fair bit of action between destroyers based in Belgium and the Harwich Force, as well as U-boats.

            I remember fear of a German invasion of Britain being at the top of the worry list, and I don’t think that would have been plausible short of Alien Space Bats showing up and turning the entire Grand Fleet into a big pile of paperclips.

            There were a couple of issues. The British got their sea surveillance act together just in time for the war, and only barely. There was an invasion exercise sometime around 1910 that ‘got troops ashore’ before it was discovered. The other thing was that nobody knew how hard modern amphibious warfare would be, so the idea of just throwing a bunch of troops ashore seemed plausible.

          • Eric Rall says:

            The concern about raids on coastal shipping sounds like that might be the same thing Massie was taking about.

          • Eric Rall says:

            I just checked Castles of Steel. There’s several mentions of Germany trying to lay mines on the approaches to the Thames or Britain trying to guard against that, but the only mention of fears of a raid in force against the Thames Estuary is on page 684 (end of Chapter 12):

            After this day in August 1916, the British Admiralty and Commander-in-Chief agreed that only in exceptional circumstances — a threat of invasion or an attack on the Thames or the Straits of Dover — should the British battle fleet be deployed south of the latitude of Horns Reef.

            Either the bit I was thinking of was in Dreadnought (which I only have as an audiobook), or I’m misremembering.

        • Eric Rall says:

          Eyeballing distances on Google Maps, the mouth of the outermost part of the estuary (roughly from Walgate to Clacton-on-Sea) looks like about 25 miles. I don’t know the exact effective range of coast defense guns at the time, but it seems like that would be right on the edge of where the Germans might be able to park a fleet right at the mouth of the estuary and be clear of shore guns.

          The lines of retreat don’t look good, though. With good scouting, they could probably avoid getting trapped in the estuary itself, but there’s a bigger funnel between Britain and the Low Countries where they’d need to get around the British Fleet to retreat. Yeah, it’d be pretty dumb of them to try it unless they were confident of winning a full fleet-on-fleet battle.

          Also looking at the map, some of the Channel Ports look more vulnerable than the Thames Estuary. Calais and Boulonge look safe, but the Channel gets pretty wide around Dunkirk, and having to limit shipping through Dunkirk would hurt BEF logisistics pretty badly.

          • bean says:

            Coastal defense guns at the time would be more effective than naval gunfire (our old friend fire control again), but I think effective range would be 10-15 miles. I just ran a search for ‘Thames’ in Fighting the Great War, so I don’t have details on the rest of the channel, but I recall protecting Dunkirk being of some concern, although it was more against U-boats than big ships.
            The other thing of interest was the moving of the 3rd Battle Squadron south after the bombardment of Yarmouth and Lowestoft. This was 8 King Edward VII-class pre-dreads, plus Dreadnought. Enough to make a raid on the area with big ships dangerous, if not enough to win the battle.
            I suspect the answer here may lie with our friend, the naval mine. The water in that area is pretty shallow, which makes it good for mines and bad for battleships.

  40. JRM says:

    Thanks to Scott for the shout-out.

    You can also find me at http://www.facebook.com/mayne4da. Regular updates at the non-FB page are going to come soon – the main page is currently in placeholder status, mostly up early because the donation system works on it. The election’s in June 2018 and I need 25,000 votes to win.

    The district attorney race is not about civilization-destroying AI, or even curing malaria. It’s rather more pedestrian good-government concerns. I’ve talked about criminal law ( here on more occasions than just that. You can also find my old comments on lesswrong under jr[lastname] about various law things.

    I’m a better prosecutor than a politician. I’m not including my full name here, but if you Google it, you can find lots of things I’ve been involved with. It’s very frustrating to face the unnecessary troubles that the office has. Some of them are petty and misguided (we can now scan two million pages a day at a cost of $120K, but as you might expect we have not a need to scan that much paper in a year, much less a day.) Some of the other troubles are rather less petty but even more misguided. “Boring competence for a change,” I am told, is not a good political slogan.

    I know this is outside the bailiwick of the usual topics, and this is really just about good government. I’d like to bring out my “Elect SSC-friendly Dude And Send Him A Big Pile of Money,” Flag, but there’s still malaria, and it’s hard to prioritize an election outside your field of expertise in a locality that is not yours over mosquito nets/eradication efforts. I mean, I am doing that (charitable contributions will be similar to other years, but are going to local charities with events, plus big pile of money into the campaign which could go to other things.) But I have extra, inside knowledge, and I am reasonably confident this is the right thing to do. (I am very, very confident I would improve the criminal justice system in a significant way locally and in a smaller way outside my county if elected.)

    Anyway, if any of you want to talk about the campaign or about criminal law education which does not apply to a live, actual case (I can’t give legal advice, just education) feel free to email me at the campaign email of jr [lastname] 4da at gmail. I’d love to talk to any SSC’ers, even those just curious about stuff.

    And again, thanks, Scott!

    • Evan Þ says:

      The district attorney race is not about civilization-destroying AI…

      Oh, so when the AI starts destroying civilization, you’re not going to bother trying to prosecute it?

      (Grin. Seriously, here’s to competence, boring or not.)

      • toastengineer says:

        There’s a story idea: The superhuman AI will stop persecuting humanity, but only if we can convince it to convict itself of a crime.

        And then the twist at the end is that it sweeps aside all our protestations of murder and enslavement, but we nail it for jaywalking.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      ” “Boring competence for a change,” I am told, is not a good political slogan.”

      It sounds like a good political slogan to me.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I don’t know. I won Senior Class Treasurer in high school with the slogans “I can count” and “I’m for things that are good and against things that are bad.”

      Good luck!

  41. Alejandro says:

    PSA for all Worm fans: The sequel (or rather, the interlude sequence that is prelude to the sequel) has begun this week.

  42. toastengineer says:

    I’ve been waiting for the controversy-allowed thread to bring this up:

    What did you folks think of Doki Doki Literature Club?

    In all seriousness, it left a pretty strong impression, especially considering it’s a deconstruction of a genre I’ve never looked at. Didn’t go far enough with the meta-stuff though.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Seeing as I’m not one of the fellow kids, can you explain to this old fogey what Doki Doki Literature Club even is, or why it’s notable ? I’ve looked it up on Wikipedia, and apparently it’s a visual novel, but what’s so special about it ?

      • Calvin says:

        It’s a “meta” game which deconstructs aspects of the Visual Novel genre of video games and deals with mature themes like depression and self harm. It draws you in by being almost sickeningly tropey before becoming meta. It also has you playing around with the game files and breaks the forth wall on occasion.

        It’s mostly notable because it is recent and got viral with many popular streamers playing it. It was also created by a single person over the span of 2 years (with some outside help in the art and sound department) who himself is a notable member of many gaming communities.

    • Jugemu says:

      I’ve downloaded it, but have been slightly afraid to play it with all those warnings…

      • toastengineer says:

        I’d say if you couldn’t handle the Thamiel scenes from Unsong you probably can’t handle this either. The author is pretty good at drawing horrific things in such a way that they kinda stick in your mind.

  43. pipsterate says:

    I think there is some objectivity in how we rank great works of literature. Or, if it’s not literally objectivity, then it’s at least consistent subjectivity, not just pure signaling/groupthink/priming/etc.

    The reason I think that is because I’ve read multiple works by certain “great” authors, and I’ve found some of the books much better than others. My first exposure to Tolstoy was How Much Land Does A Man Need? which I did not enjoy, and I walked away thinking that Tolstoy was tremendously overrated. I was pretty open at that time about believing that Tolstoy was inferior to most pulp fantasy novelists, which definitely isn’t something I would have ever admitted if I were mainly interested in signaling my sophistication or conforming to society’s tastes.

    Later I read Anna Karenina, which I liked much more, and I revised my opinion of Tolstoy’s skills, deciding that he actually was one of the greatest writers of all time. So there must have been something I genuinely liked about that book, which wasn’t present in the story I read earlier, and it couldn’t have been the author’s name, since that was the same for both. I can therefore be confident that my fondness for Anna Karenina is at least partially genuine.

    Similarly, I enjoyed Notes from the Underground much more than I enjoyed The Brothers Karamazov. If reputation were clouding my judgment, I probably would have liked them equally, or liked The Brothers Karamazov more, since it’s the more famous and the longer of the two. (I’d still rate Karamazov very highly, though.)

    However, I do agree that the author’s name influences things significantly. If I’d grown up in an alternate universe where Turgenev was considered better than Dostoevsky, I think there’s a greater than 50% chance I’d agree with that. Or to use your island thought experiment, it’s certainly possible, though unlikely, that I would have rated Home of the Gentry or some other less notable Russian novel higher than The Brothers Karamazov.

    (But I don’t think I would ever rank either of them lower than My Immortal.)

    If you used thousands of books, then I really doubt that the majority of people would rank The Brothers Karamazov in first place, but I do think that, on average, it would be higher than most books. If you used five books, then I’m pretty sure it would be on average in the top two or three, if it weren’t in first place. It doesn’t really matter to me if it wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice. I think a high average rating would still indicate some objective quality.

    When it comes to classical music, my rankings would be different from the mainstream ideas about who the supposedly greatest composers were. I’d consider Mahler and Dvořák better than Wagner and Beethoven, because I’ve listened to a lot of classical music blind and only later learned who the composers were, after making my own independent judgments. So if your island test were repeated with records instead of books, then I’m absolutely certain I’d have failed.

    So to summarize this rambling post: I try to examine my own tastes as objectively as possible, and I’d say that in some cases I honestly do think society’s conception of greatness is correct, and in some cases I don’t. Therefore I believe there is probably some mixture of objective characteristics and traditional reputation that determines a work’s current popularity. I am entirely sure that purely independent judgments wouldn’t 100% match the official concepts of what the greatest books or songs are, but I believe there would be significant correlation, and I think that still points to something objective, even if it’s not nearly as objective as you’d hope.

    What these objective characteristics are would be very hard to define, though.

    • Naclador says:

      I would like to refer the reader to the Roger Scruton film “Why beauty matters” published by the BBC, which convinced me that there really IS such a thing as “objective beauty”, although I do not believe there is ever going to be a concise definition of it.

      • pipsterate says:

        I’m not sure how convincing I found it, personally. It was difficult to tell exactly what he meant most of the time. He seemed to be conflating many different concepts while not providing enough evidence or logic to prove most of them.

        I agreed with some of it, but I’m not sure if I agree with much more than I would have already agreed with before seeing the video.

        I’m particularly doubtful about the link between beauty and tradition. Cathedrals and marble statues are nice, but isn’t there also a certain beauty in the skyscraper, or in the car, or in the highly aesthetic modern art of Jack Storms or Yayoi Kusama? I don’t think the modern world is without its own charms, and I don’t think modern art is always an oxymoron.

        • andrewflicker says:

          Just wanted to mention that I checked out Yayoi’s Infinity Room in Phoenix last year, and found it remarkable. One of the better modern art installations I’ve experienced, and I was a regular visitor to SFMOMA (and am married to an art history grad student).

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Thanks for the My Immortal link. I think it’s literally the only time a wikipedia article has made me laugh out loud.

  44. nydwracu says:

    …But the qualities that make something worthy of canonization aren’t necessarily the same qualities that make something good. It’s hard to argue that the first bands of the various musical subgenres are near the top quality-wise within that subgenre, but they’re shared cultural context for everyone in the subgenre and they can be taken as aesthetic reference points and so on. Sometimes it’s more important to have a shared cultural context than to pick the best available things. (Did you see the game?)

    (edit machine broke sorry)

    • Civilis says:

      My apologies in advance, I have several related arguments to make here.

      Most of the works that established a genre inspired the works that came after them, and those later works owe a lot to the work that inspired them. In addition, the passage of time has fundamentally changed certain media.

      Music and visual art are simple, because we’re generally comparing apples to apples. Most of the examples we’re looking at are more complex. Is a Broadway run of Hamilton better than a high-school theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet? Someone going in blind is highly likely to take the professional production. Yet what we’re trying to rate is the underlying script, which is only a part.

      If I was to take all the top movies in IMDB, take a large group of people that had not seen any of them, and have them each rate a random sample of the movies, I’d expect the newer movies to do a lot better, just due to the higher production quality, especially if the newer movies are shown first. And yet I can’t rate Last Man Standing higher than Yojimbo because I know which was the original.

      The greats are great because they inspired imitators. Some of those imitators became great in and of themselves, and inspired their own imitators. The problem with the blind sample in the original article is that the lack of context makes it hard to find the original from the copies. The fact that certain music or art changed music in its entirety is worth noting and celebrating.

  45. nydwracu says:

    Data point: When I was young, I read most of my dad’s SF collection. The only books I liked enough to remember were Lem’s Cyberiad and a few collections of short stories by Asimov. I think I knew Asimov was well-regarded even then, but I’d never heard of Lem before.

    Another data point: I once went on a college trip that included a concert in a church. I got bored and fell asleep after a while, and managed to wake up once I heard something I liked. So I checked the program and found out that I’d slept through most of the Bach and woken up for Penderecki.

    • Bugmaster says:

      That doesn’t make Penderecki necessarily better, just louder 🙂

      • 天可汗 says:

        true, that doesn’t make everything written before 1850 or so skull-shatteringly boring tinkle-tinkle music for twits in wigs to drink expensive vinegar to on the veranda*, but that doesn’t mean it’s not

        * I don’t know what a veranda is

  46. ssc account says:

    I read comments on here a couple years ago that were highly skeptical of SpaceX’s business plan of reducing costs by reusing rockets. Someone noted that they worked for a company that, in some way or another, reduced inefficiencies in rocket launches by a couple % and somehow profited off of that minor increase in inefficiency. That person doubted that SpaceX’s plan was viable.

    SpaceX is now offering huge discounts for customers that are willing to launch on their used rockets and they have successfully done so multiple times, with zero failures (I think) at this point. They did this even against the odds of competing against the United Launch Alliance. The company is privately held, but believed to be profitable.

    I hope the original person that made these comments still posts here and has a better memory than me so they can provide an update. Either way, I’d love to hear comments on SpaceX and their plan to lower costs by reusing rockets.

  47. Douglas Knight says:

    I’m walking around, looking at the ceiling [of the Sistine Chapel] for a while. Then my eye came down a little bit and I saw some big, framed pictures, and I thought, “Gee! I never knew about these!”

    Unfortunately I’d left my guidebook at the hotel, but I thought to myself, “I know why these panels aren’t famous; they aren’t any good.” But then I looked at another one, and I said, “Wow! That’s a good one.” I looked at the others. “That’s good too, so is that one, but that one’s lousy.” I had never heard of these panels, but I decided that they were all good except for two.

    I went into a place called the Sala de Raphael—the Raphael Room—and I noticed the same phenomenon. I thought to myself, “Raphael is irregular. He doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes he’s very good. Sometimes it’s just junk.”

    When I got back to my hotel, I looked at the guidebook. In the part about the Sistine Chapel: “Below the paintings by Michelangelo there are fourteen panels by Botticelli, Perugino”—all these great artists—”and two by So-and-so, which are of no significance.” This was a terrific excitement to me, that I also could tell the difference between a beautiful work of art and one that’s not, without being able to define it. As a scientist you always think you know what you’re doing, so you tend to distrust the artist who says, “It’s great,” or “It’s no good,” and then is not able to explain to you why, as Jerry did with those drawings I took him. But here I was, sunk: I could do it too!

    In the Raphael Room the secret turned out to be that only some of the paintings were made by the great master; the rest were made by students. I had liked the ones by Raphael. This was a big jab for my self-confidence in my ability to appreciate art. — Richard Feynman

    Although Lolita may still be a shocking novel to several aging non-readers, the exact circumstances of its troubled publication and reception may not be familiar to younger readers. After four American publishers refused it, Madame Ergaz, of Bureau Litteraire Clairouin, Paris, submitted Lolita to Maurice GirodiasOlympia Press in Paris. Although Girodias must be credited with the publication of several estimable if controversial works by writers such as Jean Genet, his main fare was the infamous Travellers Companion series, the green-backed books once so familiar and dear to the eagle-eyed inspectors of the U.S. Customs. But Nabokov did not know this and, because of one of Girodias’ previous publishing ventures, the “Éditions du Chêne,” thought him a publisher of “fine editions.” Cast in two volumes and bound in the requisite green, Lolita was quietly published in Paris in September 1955.

    Because it seemed to confirm the judgment of those nervous American publishers, the Girodias imprimatur became one more obstacle for Lolita to overcome, though the problem of its alleged pornography indeed seems remote today, and was definitively settled in France not long after its publication. I was Nabokov’s student at Cornell in 1953-1954, at a time when most undergraduates did not know he was a writer. Drafted into the army a year later, I was sent overseas to France. On my first pass to Paris I naturally went browsing in a Left Bank bookstore. An array of Olympia Press books, daringly displayed above the counter, seemed most inviting — and there, between copies of Until She Screams and The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe I found Lolita. Although I thought I knew all of Nabokov’s works in English (and had searched through out-of-print stores to buy each of them), this title was new to me; and its context and format were more than surprising, even if in those innocent pre-Grove Press days the semi-literate wags on fraternity row had dubbed Nabokov’s Literature 311-312 lecture course “Dirty Lit” because of such readings as Ulysses and Madame Bovary (the keenest campus wits invariably dropped the B when mentioning the latter). I brought Lolita back to my base, which was situated out in the woods. Passes were hard to get and new Olympia titles were always in demand in the barracks. The appearance of a new girl in town thus caused a minor clamor. “Hey, lemme read your dirty book, man!” insisted “Stockade Clyde” Carr, who had justly earned his sobriquet, and to whose request I acceded at once. “Read it aloud, Stockade,” someone called, and skipping the Foreword, Stockade Clyde began to make his remedial way through the opening paragraph. “’Lo … lira, light … of my life, fire of my … loins. My sin, my soul … Lo-lee-ta: The … tip of the … tongue … taking … a trip …’ — Damn!” yelled Stockade, throwing the book against the wall, “It’s God-damn Litachure!!” Thus the Instant Pornography Test, known in psychological-testing circles as the “IPT.” Although infallible, it has never to my knowledge been used in any court case. — Alfred Appel, Jr

  48. Le Maistre Chat says:

    So, I think the AI risk/Friendly AI thing is literally religious. Not in the sense that Scott has criticized saying, but quite literally. Marxism may look like a religion if you squint, with a belief in a perfect future world, pilgrimages to Lenin’s tomb, etc. Isn’t the tightest definition of “religion” “belief sets that make our relationship to superhuman entities central”? Singulatarians seem to believe that how the coming superhuman AI will act is objectively the most important issue in the lives of people today.
    This doesn’t falsify their central truth claim. However, just how do we know that the set of all superhuman beings whose actions matter to us both don’t exist yet and definitely will in the future? There are a TON of philosophical priors there to defend.

    • 天可汗 says:

      Isn’t the tightest definition of “religion” “belief sets that make our relationship to superhuman entities central”?

      No. The last time I talked to a religious studies professor, she said the consensus in the field is that there really isn’t any good way to define religion. And it’s not hard to see why.

      In practice, “religion” seems to be “something that’s formally incompatible with an Abrahamic faith”. You can be both a Harry Potter fan and a Christian — maybe a clueless or bad Christian, if the paranoid evangelicals are right — but you can’t be both a Muslim and a Christian, or a Wiccan and a Christian, or a Hindu and a Christian.

      Religions are probably bundles of things that are formally separable, and are bundled together in our culture in accordance with the interests of Christian missionaries. Take ritual: religions have rituals, but is the rave subculture a religion? It has rituals! But it doesn’t have a canon. Is the Harry Potter fandom a religion? They quote from their canon the way olde-timey politicians quoted the Bible… but they don’t have rituals. If you’ve read Anathem, are the Hylaean avout a religion? Well, there are Matarrhites…

      On the other hand, people have been trying to build a Religion of Science for long enough that there’s probably a good reason it doesn’t stick. Maybe there are important qualities that the uniting narrative/myth of the religion has to have in order for it to stick.

      • Jiro says:

        Is a beanbag chair a chair? It’s used for sitting on, but it doesn’t have legs! Is a dollhouse’s chair or a chair in a museum a chair? It has legs but nobody sits on it!

        It isn’t clear that there’s difficulty defining religion specifically here, rather than difficulty defining things in general.

        • 天可汗 says:

          Well, yes. I wasted several years of my life paying lots of money to pretend to learn analytic philosophy in order to get a piece of paper saying I’m allowed to work jobs that pay above the poverty line, and analytic philosophy is *about* the difficulty of defining things in general.

      • Bugmaster says:

        One way to describe “religion” could be something like, “a belief system that requires one to dedicate a sizable percentage of one’s life to something for which there exists very little evidence”. This dedication can take many forms, both explicit (e.g. participation in elaborate rituals) and implicit (e.g. forming one’s ethical beliefs based on words in a holy book).

        Thus, Christianity is a religion, but so is Buddhism; while Buddhists do not believe in an explicit god (well, that depends on the flavor of Buddhism, but still), they still believe in things like karma. D&D, on the other hand, is not a religion; while dragons don’t exist, D&D players dedicate time to hanging out with each other, and not to any actual dragons. Nor do D&D players use D&D as a basis for the rest of their belief systems (well… surely some do, but most don’t).

        Admittedly, my definition is a bit flawed, since any devout Christian would tell you that the amount of evidence for his God is utterly overwhelming; and so would a devout Singularitarian…

        • Jiro says:

          I don’t think the devout Christian example is a problem for this. There isn’t *actually* an overwhelming amount of evidence for his god. If you’re wrong about some of the things the definition refers to, of course you’ll be wrong about applying the definition itself.

          The definition isn’t “if I think there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence” so the fact that someone thinks that (but is mistaken) is irrelevant.

      • Jaskologist says:

        I think you give short shrift to syncretism. Platonism can be a religion in some of its incarnations, but Christian Platonists are still a thing (some were really really important!).

        That’s why I prefer my definition of religions as all being theodicies:
        1. What is wrong with the world?
        2. What are we to do about it?

        If it answers those questions, it’s a religion. Some religions are more inter-compatible than others.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        “In practice, “religion” seems to be “something that’s formally incompatible with an Abrahamic faith””

        That doesn’t work either. “Religion” is commonly used of the Abrahamic faiths, taken one at a time.

        • Montfort says:

          But isn’t it formally incompatible to hold multiple Abrahamic faiths at once?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            You’re right– I missed the “an” in “an Abrahamic faith”.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Messianic Jews say no.

          • Montfort says:

            @Evan, yeah, that seems relevant. I wonder what more central Jews and Christians have to say about that.

            (I also feel obliged to point out 天可汗’s idea can survive (I assume) by saying it’s incompatible with Islam, my question is a little different).

    • Wrong Species says:

      Isn’t the tightest definition of “religion” “belief sets that make our relationship to superhuman entities central”?

      So when you watch alien invasion movies do you think that the characters strategizing a resistance plan counts as a religious act?

      Whatever you call AI risk groups, trying to define your way in to winning an argument doesn’t actually change anything.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        No, because very few alien invasion stories portray superhuman aliens. They have better technology, but are functionally human or even subhuman (look at how the invaders in The Avengers are coded as dangerous enemies because… they roar like beasts).

        Though cargo cults represent an edge case, as cult rites worshiping Prince Philip would generally be defined as religious acts despite it being an objective fact that he’s ontologically human with no causal relation to Britain’s cargo.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Then we could make the aliens superhuman. It doesn’t make our resistance group a religion.

          What exactly do you think this definition game is going to accomplish? Let’s say that that AI risk proponents accept your non-standard definition of religion. Do you think their beliefs are going to fall apart now? Since they apparently accept a religion now, are they now more willing to believe Christianity? They would just tell you that your religion is based on an invisible being that we can’t detect who communicates only in the most indirect methods indistinguishable from noise while their “religion” is based on increasing the technology we already have. You haven’t changed any facts in the slightest and no one is going to change their mind because of your word games. You’re just smuggling in assumptions typical of standard religions(the emotional reaction you mentioned below) in to this new “religion”.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Least realistic part of TNG: the complete lack of any cults dedicated to Q-worship.

          • Matt M says:

            Well presumably, if Q wanted cults to worship them, such cults would exist. Right?

          • John Schilling says:

            I think Jasklogist’s point is that the cults would exist whether Q wanted them or not. The manufacturers of Cargo wanted no Cultish worship, and yet…

          • Wrong Species says:

            For all we know, there are groups of Q worshippers we don’t know about yet. But most warp capable civilizations have had plenty of encounters with beings above their technological level. Q isn’t really special, just another being that we don’t understand yet.

          • Deiseach says:

            To worship the Q, you’d have to know of the existence of the Q, and they seem not to bother interacting much on the mortal plane (aside from Q himself and those two Q who decide to become mortal as mentioned in one episode). I imagine Starfleet probably has not made it common knowledge that the Q exist because that would be more trouble than it’s worth.

            And we don’t know that there aren’t Q-worshipping cults; even if we don’t see them in the Federation, they might worship the Q as gods under different names (Q seems to like pretending to be a god to annoy Picard, and other Q who had interactions with other species would certainly appear as near to gods as makes no difference). Take Quetzalcoatl for instance – a deity with a name starting with Q? Very suspicious!

          • Matt M says:

            I think Jasklogist’s point is that the cults would exist whether Q wanted them or not.

            Maybe we’re playing semantics here, but the way I see it, nothing can possibly exist unless Q wants it to.

          • Matt M says:

            I imagine Starfleet probably has not made it common knowledge that the Q exist because that would be more trouble than it’s worth.

            IIRC, Sisko seemed to be aware of Q and of Picard’s various encounters with him. Maybe he just had high enough level clearance and the general public is still not allowed to know…

          • Wrong Species says:

            @Matt M

            Janeway mentioned that all Captains are briefed on Q. It seems unlikely that Starfleet would find it necessary to have a gag order on Q. He probably is known to people outside Starfleet.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Sisko and Janeway both seem to know who Q is before ever encountering him, which makes it common knowledge for at least Commanders on up.

            Q is an all-powerful being who transcends space and time, has knowledge far beyond our own, and is as uninhibited as the gods of old polytheism. How did humans react to those guys again?

            Q is extremely active in interfering with humanity. When we first met him, he was threatening to confine humanity to their tiny corner of the galaxy. When humanity displeased him later he very nearly erased the entire species from history. He has demonstrated a willingness to give humans Q-powers if they please him, and even expressed interest in joining Starfleet. Piss him off and he’ll introduce you to the Borg; abase yourself before him and he might save you from them.

            Starfleet should have multiple departments dedicated purely to currying favor with the Q.

          • Matt M says:

            Starfleet should have multiple departments dedicated purely to currying favor with the Q.

            I always figured he’d end up involved in the dominion wars somehow. Instead they relied on some other incomprehensible yet powerful/important aliens to bail them out!

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Matt M, are we sure those’re different aliens, and not the Q playing another of their games?

          • Matt M says:

            Heh. To be more specific, I was always anticipating an episode where the federation is all excited – they’ve had a secret lobbying effort with the Q going on for a long time, and finally they’ve convinced them to intervene on the side of the alpha quadrant against the dominion… only to find out the dominion somehow anticipated them and were immune to Q-powers. The ultimate “oh shit we’re really screwed now” moment.

    • hnau says:

      If your definition is correct, then several traditions generally identified as “religions” (Buddhism, possibly Confucianism) are not religions.

      I suspect the use of “literally” here is not very helpful. The claims that Scott has criticized point to similarities (belief structure, practice, etc.) with various known religions. Your claim points to a slightly different, but no more central, kind of similarity.

      The core problem is still lack of clarity in what we care about. Why does it matter whether something “is a religion”? Political status? Academic study? Cultural sensitivity? Burden of proof in an online argument? Based on the answer to that question, we can look at attributes of “religion” that are actually relevant.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        I disagree about Buddhism. Buddhism teaches that there are countless gods and none of them can save anyone from dukkha, even themselves. Buddha Nature is a… thing greater than the devas/gods that you have to achieve to escape dukkha. There are even Boddhisattvas who have such compassion for how hard that is to achieve as a monk that they offer chanting devotees rebirth in a Pure Land to practice monasticism with minimal difficulty.
        Confucianism, sure. Pay the traditional gods respect, but human relationships are central to us.

        I only find this interesting for burden of proof and political reasons. Singularitans should make their claims about the setting of superhuman beings on the same playing field as everyone else.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Another reason for defining religion is that it sets a limit on what should be considered sacred values. For example, which holidays are important enough for people to get days off for them?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think you’re wrong for some of the reasons mentioned above, but what would be the implication if you were right? Should we build cathedrals? Dress in robes? What changes?

      • Bugmaster says:

        Personally, I’ve always thought that the best thing to do if one finds oneself in a religion, is to leave the religion. Although robes would definitely be my second choice 🙂

        • 天可汗 says:

          Ah, but singularitarianism isn’t a religion — you can be a singularitarian and a follower of an Abrahamic religion. Especially if it’s Mormonism.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        I think building cathedrals of Robotology is way down the list of best practices. 🙂
        I think each AI risk believer should reconsider their unexamined priors. You actually put it best when Chesterton said “there have been tyrannical angels since the days of Noah.” By just what epistemology can one know “the set of all superhuman intelligences is not empty, but all its members exist in the future”? The problems being glossed over here are as big as the Problem of Induction and the ontological status of the future.
        If that claim can’t be proved, each of us has to consider not just Robotology, but mainstream religion, like Hindu or Catholicism.

        People like Eliezer Yudkowsky are wagering that “Friendly AI” not only can, but is the only entity that can, save them from death. If AI risk is real, actual AI developers acting on this emotional investment will be dangerous. Stefan Parner, for one, makes a strong argument (based on Meno’s Paradox) that, unless moral realism is true, morals cannot be reasoned out. They’re not going to hard code “maximize the subjective utility of all humans while ignoring your own” into logic gates.

        • Eli says:

          Stefan Parner, for one, makes a strong argument (based on Meno’s Paradox) that, unless moral realism is true, morals cannot be reasoned out. They’re not going to hard code “maximize the subjective utility of all humans while ignoring your own” into logic gates.

          Yo, could you link me to that paper? This sounds like a particularly nice way to formalize/argue my intuition of, “moral realism or GTFOjust stop talking about morality.”

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Sure. The URL is link text
            The paper is about moral realism from an evolutionary perspective. Warning: while his arguments on strong against “program a friendly AI”, it has some weaknesses like glossing over the Interaction Problem when claiming that thinking is done with brains and advanced brains are increasingly able to detect moral facts.

        • Nick says:

          The problems being glossed over here are as big as the Problem of Induction and the ontological status of the future.
          If that claim can’t be proved, each of us has to consider not just Robotology, but mainstream religion, like Hindu or Catholicism.

          Objections of this form always frustrate me—how do you know these problems are being glossed over? How do you know they think that claim can’t be proved? Eliezer for one has spent a lot of time giving arguments for why and under what assumptions we can expect superhuman intelligences in the future; do you have a problem with any specific thing he’s said, or are you just taking issue with a summary, or a particular thesis, which necessarily aren’t
          themselves the arguments?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Note that I haven’t Read The Sequences, because they have a word count similar to the Old Testament and I haven’t been given a reason in summary form why it’s worth it. Were it possible, I’d like to search them for references to issues like “problem of induction” and “A-theory”, but it’s an acknowledged issue even among his supporters (see lukeprog, below) that EY is an autodidact who doesn’t find philosophy interesting and uses his own terms.

            The specific points I have problems with are his assumption that he’s solved metaethics, which is so far from clear Robin Hanson has no idea what said solution is, and also the FOOM argument. He seems to argue that, even if instantiated in a computer with no network connections and no robot body, an AGI will upgrade itself to superhuman levels and trick a human handler into giving it access to external resources, thereby taking over the world.

          • Nornagest says:

            Mostly they’re just repackaged 101-level cognitive science and statistics, with a bit of analytic philosophy. (In particular, reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow will get you about halfway there — Eliezer even reuses a lot of Kahneman’s favorite examples.) Eliezer’s got a writing style that’s very engaging to a certain personality type, but outside of the AI angle there’s not a whole lot of original content there.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Nornagest: Ah, I own a copy of that. 🙂

          • Nick says:

            Le Maistre Chat,

            Yeah, the length of the Sequences makes them pretty impenetrable, but reading them is still a better introduction than most other things—although as Nornagest suggests, if you have Thinking Fast as Slow as you prefer that, by all means! I own a copy too, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Gary Drescher’s Good and Real is probably the other half of the Sequences; if you google that, you’ll find a copy of the pdf on gwern’s site, which is where I nabbed it.

            Importantly, though, neither of these gets you arguments for Yudkowsky’s FOOM beliefs. That part will have to be found in his own oeuvre.

      • skef says:

        Look at it this way: If they’re coming anyway, are they more likely to react well to cathedrals in their honor, or decades of research on how to control and contain them?

        We should really think about whether A.I. risk research is an existential threat to the human race …

      • Ilya Shpitser says:

        I think the implication would be a concrete call to action to be less like a religion, like ceasing to have unnecessary quasi-religious rituals, or “popes.”

    • Mr Mind says:

      The set of superhuman agents is already non-empty: the most recent example is Alpha Go Zero, which has surpassed human ability in the game of go in the span of few hours, without any external input. Read that sentence again.
      The dangerous confusion that is often made in the area of AI risk is anthropomorphizing: the underlying belief that AI will be dangerous / beneficial only when it will acquire a human-compatible level of intelligence. It is true that agents operating today are operating in a domain that is very narrow and thus very controllable, but in those narrow domains they are already singularitarian: they have surpassed the ability of humans to predict their developement. In the case of Zero, for example, there is great excitement because the AI is creating strategies that nobody, in the multi-millenarian history of the game, has thought of pursuing.
      For the AI to be relevant, it only needs to have a context that is only wide enough to escape the gates of human supervision.

      • rlms says:

        Are cars superhuman agents because they can run much faster than us?

        • actinide meta says:

          In this sense, they are easily controlled superhuman agents, like AlphaGo.

          I think that to be a serious large scale threat to humans, an AI will probably have to be very broadly intelligent, though not necessarily human-like in any way. To “escape and defeat us,” it would have to be really good at predicting human actions, engineering, strategy, and more, and some of those domains “reflect” others in a way that board games don’t.

          But there’s a chance that the domain of improving AI architectures could turn out to be narrow enough that a so-called “narrow superintelligence” like AlphaGo can totally dominate us in it, and that the resulting improvement could be rapid enough to produce very broadly intelligent agents surprisingly quickly. I don’t think the technology tree is likely to work out that way, but I can’t rule it out. And architecture search is an active research area, so as far as I know there’s a tiny but nonzero chance that this could happen any time! (If architecture search is “narrow” enough, AND current research is closing in on the right approach to architecture search AND current hardware is good enough to run a sufficiently powerful architecture search AND current hardware is good enough to be broadly superintelligent running the right architecture)

          I could barely imagine a similar “narrow” AI breakthrough in a domain like microbiology or “nanotechnology” that kills us all without ever producing a particularly intelligent agent. But frankly this seems more like a (small) risk of those fields than of AI.

      • Shion Arita says:

        Go is a particularly special case because the problem itself is already well defined and there are no ‘more things in heaven and earth’: the map IS the territory.

        That’s not true for a lot of other things, and those problems I think are the hard ones that require ‘real’ intelligence.

        Also, computers have long been superhuman at chess. Hell, since the 40s they’ve been superhuman at something as simple as adding numbers.

        For me the kind of thing that will tell me ‘AI is really coming down the pipe’ is when it can, starting from no knowledge at all, learn to do the following faster than a human:

        look at a monkey’s fist knot with a video camera (it has to deduce the structure from what it ‘sees with its eyes’, no hardcoding of 3d coordinates or anything). Then, with actual physical string that it manipulates with robot arms, learn how to tie a monkey fist knot.

        • johnjohn says:

          What do you mean by “starting with no knowledge at all”?

          • Shion Arita says:

            Like you don’t tell it anything about 3 dimensional space, or what a rope is or what a knot is; the primitives it’s starting from are only what data it gets from its senses.

          • johnjohn says:

            So it’s starting at a handicap compared to any human being that’s ever lived?

            I honestly think you could create something like that now, if you were allowed to teach/train a neural network what a knot is

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          I’d be impressed if a computer program invented a game that a lot of people like, and this includes offering a sufficiently small number of new games that people are willing to try them out.

  49. Betty Cook says:

    One piece of data with regard to music: many years ago, one of the music history professors at my college had got hold of a bunch of pieces of music that were important for understanding the early development of the symphony, and he put together a scratch orchestra to get them recorded. These were things that hadn’t been played since not long after they were written. Playing through them as part of the scratch orchestra, I could see why they hadn’t been played since then: compared to Mozart and Hayden, they were deadly dull.

    • Evan Þ says:

      I heard a similar story from my music teacher: the pieces sounded great the first couple times they played them, but after practicing them over and over for a week or so, they got rather boring.

      • Bugmaster says:

        FWIW, I feel that way about most music…

        • quaelegit says:

          Yeah. I was SO SICK of Vivaldi in middle and highschool that I would turn off the radio if a piece of his was on. Now I usually really enjoy his work when I hear it (usually, I’ll hear something Baroque and think, “wow, I really like this Baroque style”, and then I’ll learn it was Vivaldi). Conclusion: I was sick of middle school orchestra renditions of Vivaldi 😛

          (Around that time I had to play Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 Mvt. 1 for three different orchestras in the same year. I still won’t listen to that one.)

  50. Lillian says:

    So i recently realised that i probably don’t get deontology, since my natural understanding of morality is inherently consequentialist, and always has been. This seems to have lead to my smuggling consequentialist logic into my understanding of deontological ethics.

    For example, my view of Christian morality is a combination of “follow these rules for a prosperous society” and “follow these rules to avoid the wrath of God”. Both of those are appeals to consequences, the rules are being justified by their outcomes, which seems very consequentialist to me, and yet Christian morality is supposedly not so.

    Another example is the categorical imperative. The way i understand it is that it judges behaviours by the results of their being universalized. If the results are bad, then a rule against that behaviour must be enforced, to prevent those negative results. Given the appeal to consequences this also seems consequentialist, and yet the categorical imperative is a classic example of example of deontology.

    So, how exactly does deontology work if not through appeal to consequences? Because i’m not seeing it.

    • Philosophisticat says:

      Christian morality does not think that you ought to follow the commandments merely to avoid the wrath of God – you may incur the wrath of God by violating them, but you have independent reasons to follow the commandments – namely that violating the commandments is wrong. Even if God fell asleep and you could murder without suffering his wrath, it would be wrong to murder. Ditto for the prosperous society.

      The categorical imperative also does not judge behavior by the goodness of the consequences of rules being universalized – that would be a rule consequentialist view. It judges the rules based on whether they could be rationally willed to be universal law without contradiction, where having bad consequences does not mean you can’t rationally will it. There are questions about how to understand the conditions of rationally willing without contradiction and whether the resulting view is plausible, but there are ways of spelling it out besides “you can’t rationally will it if and only if the consequences are bad”.

      Another formulation of the categorical imperative says that you must never use people as a mere means, even to achieve good ends. If I push you off a bridge in order to stop a trolley and save five other people, I have acted wrongly. Not because one person dying is a worse consequence than five people dying, but because it fails to properly respect the autonomy of the agent and treats them like a tool without their consent.

      It may help to consider various agent-relative reasons many people accept. Most people think that we have reasons not to break promises which do not stem from the badness of the consequences of breaking that promise. We think it would be wrong to break a promise to your daughter even if the overall consequences are slightly better than those of keeping it. We think that it would be wrong to break a promise to your daughter even if by doing so you prevent two other people from breaking promises to their daughters. These are cases that consequentialists have trouble with, since they can’t easily be captured by reference to the goodness of the consequences. Any view on which you have a basic moral reason to keep a promise or not to violate contracts or not to aggress against others is non-consequentialist.

      Ditto for special obligations to family members.

      I’m not sure exactly what you are asking with “how does deontology work?” but hopefully that helps.

      • Lillian says:

        Okay, so i was right that i was smuggling consequentialist logic into my understanding. It seems the reason for it is that the notion that actions can be inherently wrong just does not compute for me. As i see it, the quality of right or wrong can only be evaluated according to the consequence field stemming from the available actions, not the actions themselves. Doing otherwise seems as nonsensical as judging chess moves without considering the state of the board.

        Agent-relative reasons are not necessarily non-consequential. If one of your axioms is that family is inherently worth more than strangers, then on consequentialist grounds you will keep your promise to your daughter even at the cost of disappointing other children. The question of whether it’s right or wrong to lie need not enter into it, and indeed is meaningless without reference to current circumstances and your goals as a moral actor.

        Oh and thank you for explaining the categorical imperative, but i really don’t think i’m getting it. Why is it wrong to treat people as means? It makes sense if it’s because doing so reliably results in bad outcomes, but you already said that’s rule consequentialism. To use your same example: The reason it’s wrong to push the fat man is that you’re running a very high risk of causing six deaths in order to maybe prevent five. You are also eroding social trust, normalising reckless action in dangerous situations, and potentially making it easier to justify murder, all with attendant undesirable outcomes. It’s hard to comprehend how one arrives at a moral judgement without those considerations.

        • Philosophisticat says:

          This isn’t the right way to look at it. Consequentialists do think that some actions are inherently wrong – in particular actions of the type “failing to maximize the value of consequences” are inherently wrong.

          Regarding agent-relative reasons – it’s important to give a definition of consequentialism which does not simply trivially make every view consequentialist. After all, the fact that you violated the categorical imperative (or indeed any putative moral demand whatsoever) is in some respect a consequence of your action – but we do not want to count every view as consequentialist in virtue of that alone. I think the most illuminating way to distinguish views like Kant’s from paradigmatic consequentialist views like utilitiarianism is that paradigmatically consequentialist views have an agent-neutral ranking of worlds in terms of their goodness which explains the rightness of actions. If you’re interested in this issue, you can look at Controls Freak’s paper below or my own favorite, Mark Schroeder’s “Teleology, Agent-Relative Value, and Good”: http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~maschroe/research/Schroeder_Agent-Relative_Teleology.pdf

          I think you’re not appreciating the symmetric position that consequentialists and nonconsequentialists are in with respect to explaining the wrongness of actions. The nonconsequentialist can likewise ask “why is it wrong to fail to maximize the good? It makes sense if it’s because doing so treats people as a means/violates God’s commands/whatever, but…” Consequences do not have some magical buck-stopping power in explanation unless you’re already deeply committed to consequentialism, and assuming that would be question-begging.

          • Lillian says:

            Hey i just wanted to apolozize for not continuing this thread. It seemed like it was going places, but i’ve been hospitalised and my brain is all foggy from drugs. I just cannot continue, I hope you understand.

    • Mark says:

      I think that there is always a consequentialist element to any ethical system – in the case of deontology the consequence is that it upsets your carefully crafted system. You haven’t adhered to the system, and your internal life is in turmoil.

      You could say that “consequentialists” are more concerned about real world impacts, and that deontologists are more concerned about keeping actions in line with a narrative, but the “real world” of consequentialists is also a narrative, so I think you can probably view both as the same sort of thing on a meta-ethical level.

    • Deiseach says:

      “follow these rules to avoid the wrath of God”

      Is the lowest level. “Follow these rules because they are right” is the level you are supposed to aim for. Then Socrates comes along and asks “Is it good because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is good?” and annoys people enough to want to slip him some hemlock.

      There’s a quick rundown of the Act of Contrition here which gives a very simplified form of the reasoning.

      From the Catechism on Contrition:

      1451 Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.”

      1452 When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.

      1453 The contrition called “imperfect” (or “attrition”) is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.

      So very crudely – consequentalism = attrition, deontology = perfect (when it comes to contrition).

    • Walter says:

      Basically yuck fields.

      Why don’t you rape people? It isn’t because you might get punished, or because you want status as a not-rapist. It is because that is not a thing you do. Deontology stops one step down from instincts.

      Trying to get at the reasons behind it is reading the wrong API. This isn’t a high level language, it is assembly language.

      • Lillian says:

        What i meant is how it works as a rational philosophy. Yuck fields are not a thing i have a lot of respect for as a basis for morality. Axioms yes, those cannot help but be arbitrary, but once those are established everything else should proceed logically. Though i suppose the axiom could be that everything that feels wrong is wrong, but my own axioms say that axiom is moronic. Only a person living an uncomplicated life in a safe bubble could possibly hold to it. The real world regularly forces you into circumstances where there is no feel good outcome, and yuck fields are a liability. They can be frustratingly intractable for anything short of a clear and present dager to life and limb.

    • IrishDude says:

      For example, my view of Christian morality is a combination of “follow these rules for a prosperous society” and “follow these rules to avoid the wrath of God”. Both of those are appeals to consequences, the rules are being justified by their outcomes, which seems very consequentialist to me, and yet Christian morality is supposedly not so.

      Why is a prosperous society good? Why is the wrath of God bad? It seems to me that using consequences to guide morality at some point requires calling consequence X good or bad without reference to the consequences of consequence X. Kind of like how mathematical proofs are eventually traced back to axioms that are just accepted as truth.

      • Lillian says:

        Well yes, axioms are essentially arbitrary and predetermined. This is an issue with every moral system, there is no objective means through which to judge axioms that does not appeal to other axioms.You can create the illusion of objective criticism by basing it on axioms the audience shares, but an illusion is all it is. The one i like best is judging moral systems by how well they accomplish their stated goals, since people seem willing to accept it as a valid measure in principle. Less so in practice, but it gets your foot in the door.

    • Controls Freak says:

      I don’t have time at the moment for a full reply, but I’d like to recommend my favorite paper on trying to distinguish consequentialism from deontology.

  51. hlynkacg says:

    Satellite locates Gates of Hell on Arabian Peninsula.

    Archaeologists claim to have found artificial stone structures in western Arabian desert by studying satellite imagery. The structures were built on ancient lava domes and are estimated to be over 9,000 years old. Several appear to have been covered over by lava flows suggesting that the domes were active when these structures were built.

  52. keranih says:

    So this got posted this week: Why you don’t know anyone in the military. Which is related to Scott’s post about different worlds.

    Part of me had the immediate reaction of what do you mean “we”, white man? – but then I’ve always been of that vaguely caste-like demographic and professional group who knew people in uniform. It’s weird, to me, to consider that there are many, many people in my own country who aren’t of that group.

    Relatedly – in a conversation about Fandom with a friend, and mentioning fanfic and the craziness of being engaged in that world – the people who aren’t into fic would be astounded at the number of people who are; the people who *are* into fic, would be astounded at the number of people who are not.

    And I’m also thinking of Selena and how apparently in 1995 half of the southwest US was paralyzed with grief while the other half was like, who?

    It’s not to be expected, that people of different values and backgrounds would like the same things. I am not wanting a mandated list of what cultural opinions are acceptable. I am invested in an American nation with *something* to hold the various sorts of people together.

    I have sympathy for those who see….emmm….current liberal/leftist radical thought as the rightful heirs of the promise of the Founding Fathers. I also question if in their struggle to bring about a perfect union, they are willing to break the imperfect union that must, temporally, pre-date the perfect one.

    • cassander says:

      Knowing people in the military? That’s easy, I live in DC and work in defense. Knowing people who don’t have college degrees? that’s a lot tricker. I suspect the same is true for many here.

      • 天可汗 says:

        My high school friend group drew heavily on the military-family demographic, and most of my meatspace friends nowadays don’t have a degree.

        The end result of this is that I never quite fit in anywhere. So I don’t recommend it, nor do I have a problem with living in bubbles. But assuming your bubble is superior to all the other bubbles in the world — the typical nerd problem — is, um, a problem.

        Especially when the supposed superiority of your bubble fails to deliver materially. Clearly, your bubble should rule, seeing as how it’s the best and all… but people in other bubbles have power too! This is a cosmic injustice! Those mouth-breathing, galaxy-brained nerd-jocks in the other bubbles just want people like them to rule, when every right-thinking person knows that the world should be ruled by people who grind the expensive, time-consuming, and unrewarding prestige signals of your bubble like WoW addicts grind whatever the hell it is they grind.

        I see that a lot these days.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          My impression is that thinking your bubble is superior to the rest of the world is a common human problem, not a specifically nerd problem.

      • keranih says:

        Knowing people who don’t have college degrees? that’s a lot tricker. I suspect the same is true for many here.

        Hmmmm. Thinking on how one meets people, and maybe about suggestions for meeting people w/o college degrees(*), I’m also thinking about the implications that one *should* meet people from other spheres, and about how “some of my best friends are rednecks/coalminers/migrant farm workers!” would come across.

        I think it is best to have lived a life that exposes one to a great many sorts of people. I’m not so sure about how good it is to *plan* your life so that you meet a great many sorts of people, so that you will be the sort of person who can say that you know people from a lot of spheres. There seems to be a bit of a Pharisee in the temple making prayers to himself at work, there.

        (*) join a church, bowling league, or knitting group. Switch bars to the local VFW. Join a dojo or boxing gym, particularly one that has cops in the group. Volunteer to tutor at the local elementary or library (the staff will be college educated, but the parents of the students frequently aren’t.)

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        I mean when you say that you don’t know people without college degrees that’s only half true. You know plenty of people without college degrees: they’re people who you see and work with every day. You just don’t talk to them.

        A good chunk of the plumbers, electricians, HVAC, etc. doing maintenance in your building, mostly the older guys, don’t have degrees. Same goes for pretty much the entire janitorial staff. I’m not sure about security and doormen, they might have degrees in criminal justice or something, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them didn’t.

        There’s a sort of awkwardness when it comes to talking to blue collar coworkers. America is unwilling to admit that class exists so we don’t have social scripts for how to talk to people above or below us in the social hierarchy. But they’re right there if you ever want to say hi to them.

        • JayT says:

          If you don’t talk to them, I don’t see how it’s only half true to say you don’t know them. Obviously, he knows people without degrees exist and that he interacts with them, but he doesn’t have a personal relationship with them.

          Though, I will say that I find it hard to believe that someone wouldn’t know a single person without a college degree. Putting aside all blue collar people I know, I still know quite a few people in the tech industry that never bothered finishing their degrees because they were able to get work without it. Maybe that is a uniquely tech phenomena.

    • And I’m also thinking of Selena and how apparently in 1995 half of the southwest US was paralyzed with grief while the other half was like, who?

      Cough, mumble, never got the Princess Di thing here.

    • Well... says:

      I know several people in the military. I know several people without college degrees (including my dad, my brother, and several of my in-laws).

    • bean says:

      Interesting. The one thing I immediately notice is the low numbers for North Dakota. I’m going to suggest that the number of 18-24 year olds is very much inflated by the fracking boom up there, and they’re not going into the military because they came to North Dakota to work. The native numbers may be depressed as well, due to a surplus of high-paying jobs that require the same sort of people as the military wants (hard work, long hours, not college-educated).

    • Brad says:

      I don’t know if vets and the reserve count, but if they do I know several. I just got back from a family wedding where the groom was a vet that was in Iraq. As for why no active duty people, that’s a function of age (late 30s) and location (not near any major base).

    • Bellum Gallicum says:

      I was quite surprised when I learned that only 2% of the US population serves in the Military because almost half of my town had. I think this is one of the things people don’t understand is that the law enforcement and military communities are geographically linked.

      Lots of prison guards, cops, and Marines but I think I might have been the only person in my class to attend an out of state college.

      the after election maps showed the old saw “all politics is local” and american culture might be moving back in that direction.

    • As a politico in one of the most highly educated counties in the nation, it is true, I don’t often come into contact with active duty military personnel. But I know a lot of military veterans, in part because so many of them are active in politics here.

  53. QuoQuoQuo2 says:

    The bigger question I’m getting at here is: are there any objective metrics by which we can judge a work of art’s quality?

    I think this is actually somewhat orthogonal to your “can people pick out great works of art in a lineup?” question, but I’ll address them both.

    So, obviously, this is a question that people have been interested in for a very long time. In the contemporary analytic philosophy literature, the affirmative answer for this question, the thesis that artistic works really do instantiate properties such as goodness or badness, is called “aesthetic realism”. From my own admittedly limited reading, most of the arguments advanced by contemporary philosophers for aesthetic realism tend to be rather indirect, and rarely are any “proofs by construction” attempted. One might argue, for instance, that Tolstoy’s War and Peace is so much more obviously arresting, erudite, and valuable than a ten year old’s English class assignment, that it would be foolish to say that the difference between them is merely a matter of opinion. You can see why philosophers would be reluctant to get into more specifics than that though. You can imagine a philosopher of art laying down his precise guidelines for what constitutes a good painting, what colors should be used, what size it should be, etc, and the whole thing would start to sound silly rather quickly.

    You might say that I try to take a middle ground between the full realist and naive relativist positions. I don’t believe that there are objective properties of beauty and ugliness “out there” in the world that our art could possibly conform to. Such things simply don’t fit into a physicalist picture of reality. But I also think that saying “meh it’s all relative just do what you want” sort of misses the point, given how frequently people pass aesthetic judgments on works and how they seem to be able to produce cogent arguments to support their judgements. Also, we have the empirical fact that some works entertain and engage more people than other works, and some works endure through history while others are forgotten. Surely, there are probably qualities of the works themselves that go at least some of the way towards explaining these facts?

    If we’re to make sense of the idea of artistic quality, I think we should view the rules of artistic judgment as akin to the rules of a game like Chess. There’s no Platonic “form of Chess” out there and it would be silly to call yourself a “Chess realist”. The rules are a completely arbitrary human invention. And yet, we can objectively measure how well people are able to conform the rules, and actually executing the best possible moves within the constraints of the rules is quite challenging. Art obviously differs from Chess, however, in the sense that the rules of much more vague, and it seems that not everyone is always playing the same game at the same time.

    So what might some of these “rules of the art game” be? As a kind of artist myself (writer), I have some opinions on the matter, purely derived from my own experience of trying to do art and simply observing what seems good to me and what doesn’t. A lot of art, at least of the narrative type, revolves around trying to control your audience’s emotional and conceptual reactions to your work – you’re trying to control what associations certain elements trigger in their minds, what they think they know and what they can infer about the work, etc. If you can’t control your audience’s mental state, then you can’t reliably create those intense and surprising moments that draw them into your work. For example, in the story I’m working on now, character A has an argument with character B, but then A has to send an email to B shortly thereafter in order to advance the plot. But A just had an argument with B and probably isn’t in much of a mood to talk to him right now. How should I get A to email B? Well, one thing that would mesh nicely with certain other elements in the story would be to have A undergo a relatively stressful (to him) event that he feels anxiety over, and he decides to email B to express his worries (A doesn’t have many other friends to talk to, you see). But then that might make people decide “oh, A is freaking out over something trivial, he seems kinda weird”, perhaps even going so far as to label A as having an anxiety disorder, which wouldn’t be very optimal, since a key part of the story later on is that the reader is supposed to question whether A is entirely sane, and the force of those scenes would be lost if the reader simply decided early on that A is insane. But at the same time, it really is an important part of A’s personality that he gets excessively anxious over trivial events, so I want to gently relay that information without making it seem overwhelmingly important. The more elements you add to a story, the more you have to think about these interlocking webs of associations, and exactly what information you’re imparting to the reader at any given time.

    Similar to the experiences that mathematicians report, I often struggle with these problems for certain periods of time without much progress, until a solution finally comes to me in a flash of inspiration, which I take as further evidence that I am expending cognitive effort on these problems and that I’m holding my solutions to an at least semi-objective standard. So this might be a guide to at least one way of trying to objectively evaluate a work’s quality; you examine a work to see how many problems the artist solved while designing it, and how difficult the problems were, and decide whether his solutions were adequate or not. Unfortunately, I think there’s been very little written about what a “taxonomy of artistic problems” would look like, and even less written about how to analyze the works of others in these terms. Also, as I said before, the example I gave above is relatively specific to narrative works. I don’t know what sorts of things painters and poets usually trouble themselves over. Musicians seem to have their own very peculiar and deep history of problems relating to music theory.

    I of course don’t mean to imply that I’ve given a full theory for evaluating works of art here. In particular, I’ve said nothing about many other features of art that I think are important, including a work’s emotional impact, social function, pedagogical potential, historical importance, etc. I just hope this is something worth thinking about is all.

    I personally would conjecture that even most educated people with “sophisticated” tastes—the people who would sing the praises of Dostoevsky, Wagner and Picasso to the Heavens if asked—would not have better than chance odds of picking the works of Dostoevsky, Wagner and Picasso out of a line up in an “aesthetic vacuum” where they hadn’t already been told by other people how great these artists are.

    Probably. I suspect (without much evidence) that a lot of what we consider the “canon” right now is deeply contingent and not really based on any standard at all. Not the standard of analyzing a work’s formal qualities, not the standard of seeing which work has had the greatest influence on other artists, or anything else. That doesn’t imply that assembling a more sensible canon isn’t possible, only that you shouldn’t feel obligated to take the current canon too seriously.

    However, I think there’s also obviously a sense in which people differentiate “art that I personally enjoy consuming, regardless of what other people think about it” and “art that I consume because it signals that my tastes are sophisticated, and even if I don’t personally enjoy it I will still publicly agree that it’s ‘great’”. Does this difference need to exist?

    Probably not. If you want to be an artist, then it seems worth it to do some theorizing about what makes art good and engaging, but even then, I think the best tests for a work’s quality will probably come down to empirically measurable properties – how much people enjoy it and how much influence it has on other artists. And if you’re just deciding what art you personally should consume, then it’s just like… do whatever you want, man. Ultimately, I think people take art too seriously and try to intellectualize it too much. There’s a fantastic essay by Susan Sontag [1] about this. I also recommend Literature Against Philosophy by Mark Edmundson [2].

    The only place where I think a good/good for you distinction might need to exist is if there’s a particular work that’s not very fun to actually experience, but nonetheless has interesting conceptual features that have inspired a large number of other artists.

    That got kind of long. Let me know if you have any questions about what I wrote here or if you want me to clarify anything.

    [1] http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/sontag-againstinterpretation.html

    [2] https://www.amazon.com/Literature-against-Philosophy-Plato-Derrida/dp/0521485320

    • Bugmaster says:

      I don’t believe that there are objective properties of beauty and ugliness “out there” in the world that our art could possibly conform to. Such things simply don’t fit into a physicalist picture of reality.

      Well, we are all humans; our genes are all pretty much the same, and we inhabit the same physical reality. Thus, our minds are also pretty similar, which means that we’re going to have similar standards of beauty vs. ugliness. Culture plays a role, of course — we’re not identical, just similar — but that’s different from saying that aesthetic standards are purely arbitrary. In a very real way, they do exist out there in the world, just as we ourselves do.

  54. Andrew Hunter says:

    Who’s read The Golden Oecumene trilogy (The Golden Age/Phoenix Exultant/Golden Transcendence) by John C. Wright? Do y’all like it? Despite the unique…weirdness…of the author, it’s one of my favorite book series, and I routinely re-read large sections. One of the best expressions of a post-singularity world, even if I don’t buy the realism.

    • Robert Liguori says:

      I have, and I recommend it. There are some rather twee bits, and I also have trouble with several of the “Why didn’t they just…” bits, but it is epic and grand and no matter what else can be said about him, Wright can indeed weave a yarn when he is of a mind to.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        I agree that the writing oscillates between twee and purple, but in a sort of adorable way. It’s overdone, sure, but it’s also just fascinating, and typically serves a (strange) purpose or three.

        I particularly like how pretty much everything that happens is clearly a simulated metaphor for a more direct communication, that we see as overwrought speeches because that’s how our protagonists choose to see. But the interplay between this and the other character’s (and other neuroform’s) chosen interpretations is fascinating.

        An example for those who haven’t read it: the end of the first book is a long hearing in something between court and Parliament. It is held in computer space owned by one character who loves the aesthetics of Victorian England…so everyone interprets their own appearance through that mirror, in different ways to show their own preferences. The mass-minds who argue for conformity and egalitarianism dress themselves as masses of working-class Brits; the irrational Warlocks act as various shamans or fakirs from non-European cultures (nevertheless well established in the Victorian mind); the nihilists are syphilitic and the rich cultured ones are finely dressed ladies or Virginia planters.

        All then have a fifty-page argument about various post-modern choices, the power of strong AI, and .

        I have to say, this hits a lot of my favorite things.

    • Sfoil says:

      I’ve read it and consider it to be clearly one of the best SF novels/series of the last twenty years, at least. I’ve read quite a bit of Wright’s other writing and I’m certain that some of the unrealistic aspects of the Oecumene were deliberate choices to create a better story, mostly making the main characters basically baseline humans.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        I think I agree that baselines show up mostly because it makes for a better story.

        One of the things I don’t understand is why everyone in the story has very different ethos than Wright himself, despite the book reading much like a author tract.

        • Sfoil says:

          The “author tract” is in favor of libertarianism. Showing groups and individuals with radically different ideas — not to mention physiology — getting along through voluntary cooperation (or shunning) under an interplanetary government that literally only employs one law enforcement officer is a pretty good advertisement.

          On a more meta level, Wright is certainly one of the better working SF writers when it comes to characterization — his characters have distinctive voices and motivations and if two of them were very similar he wouldn’t put them in the same story.

    • Leonhart says:

      Those books came up every so often on Less Wrong back in the day, if you’re interested. Devil’s Offers quotes a big chunk of it, and there was a brief exchange in the comments on 31 Laws of Fun between EY and (someone claiming to be) Wright.

    • Deiseach says:

      I have, and before anyone gets into the “oh his weird religious stuff”, this was written way before he converted to Catholicism. I don’t agree with all of it (it’s a bit more on the libertarian side than I care for) but it is HUGE EPIC in scale, it has sufficient Big Dumb Objects to keep me happy, the whole idea of LIVING INSIDE (or near as dammit) THE SUN!!!! is amazeballs (as I believe the youth nowadays say) and Atkins! Who can fail to love and admire Atkins?

      But it certainly has AI, copies of human personalities (ems) with legal rights, and all kinds of split-off, rejoined, hidden, partial and more other sorts of personalities and entities (human, transhuman, computer, you name it) than you can shake a stick at.

      • Nick says:

        I have, and before anyone gets into the “oh his weird religious stuff”, this was written way before he converted to Catholicism.

        I don’t have a problem with Wright’s Catholicism (for obvious reasons), but he did as far as I could tell go off the deep end at some point, after which I stopped subscribing to his blog and largely ignore him now. I’m still planning to get back to his Count to Infinity series (I’ve read the first two books), I’m just waiting for it to be finished.

        Wright is intelligent and lucid, but he has an unfortunate and frustrating tendency to dress up his ideas in such ornate prose that it’s impossible to engage directly with his argument. I’m convinced at this point that it’s not affectation, it’s just how he thinks. Still makes for wonderful essays when he’s on track, but when he’s not….

        • Deiseach says:

          I don’t mind the ornate prose; mostly he does it well (agreed, sometimes it falls flat). What I can’t read is someone like Stephen Baxter, who has great ideas but whose prose is on the level of cold, unsugared tapioca (and I like tapioca, but this bland flat “NASA ground control reading out telemetry” style turns me off).

          From the Wikipedia article on Baxter:

          Character development tends to take second place to the depiction of advanced theories and ideas, such as the true nature of the Great Attractor, naked singularities and the great battle between Baryonic and Dark Matter lifeforms.

          Quite 🙂

          I absolutely agree that the following is very much an acquired taste but dog my cats if it doesn’t make my heart sing:

          “In many vessels great and small they will starfare in the train of the great ship Argosy from here to Iota Draconis, one hundred lightyears hence, the star the Swans call Eldsich, where the antiquarian world called Torment broods, farthest of all inhabited earths, is ruled by Hierophants and Wraiths, Cats and Chimerae, Foxes and Rosicrucians and other races long extinct on older worlds.

          “From there yet onward to Cor Caroli ten more lightyears, they will starfare, which men call Alpha Canum Venaticorum (which Swans in sorrowing song defiantly yet call by the forbidden and ancient name The Heart of Charles the Martyred King). The fleets and flotillas of all forms and races shall greet the Vindicatrix of Mankind, and escort her strange ship across the final light-century, the one hundred lightyear radius of the Empyrean of Man.

          And I do find the likes of the following funny:

          Montrose said, “Damn! I need a priest. I reckon I should do some confessing.”

          “Eh? And all this time I had you pegged as a confirmed skeptic, Menelaus Montrose.”

          “Well, my religion was more like, shut up and shoot straight, but I am beginning to think that is theologically insufficient for my spiritual needs.

          And Mickey the Witch is a fantastic character:

          “There is a group that calls itself the Sacerdotal Order, which is under the protection of the Fifth Humans. They say they are the heirs of the Old, Strong religion, and the successors to Saint Peter, but their doctrines have grown confused and corrupt with time. They say Peter holds the Keys to Heaven and Hell. My people taught that Peter lives with the souls of dead children called the Lost Boys, and he never grows old and never completed the journey to the after life, but dwells in the great star Canopus, the second brightest star to the right of Sirius, the Dog-Star. The tiny and bright spirit who dwells with him shines her light and rings her bell, and calls the lost and wandering ghosts to her. She died, sacrificing her life saving Peter, but is resurrected when the innocent clap their hands, for their faith brings the dead to life again. You can see from where these Sacerdotes derive their ideas and myths: all is but a hold-over from the pagan roots of yore.”

          “Hm. Could be a different Peter. In any case, I feel pretty bad that I let a doubt about her come to trouble me, and let it grow stronger as she got closer.”

          • Nick says:

            Oh, I enjoy it in his books, actually! It’s his essays that drive me up the wall.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            From the West Wing:

            Abbey: Don’t you wanna kill him when he says things like that?
            Amy: My problem is I wanna jump him when he says things like that.
            Abbey: Where’d you get your mouth?
            Amy: Brown, then Yale Law School.

            I mean, I don’t want to sleep with John C. Wright, what with neither of us being into dudes, but while I can see that speeches like the above aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, they’re damn sure mine.

  55. Wayside says:

    Have you read any lesser 19th-century Russian writers?

  56. Incurian says:

    It’s all Greek to me.

  57. mrolympia2007 says:

    Hi Scott. Have you ever done any post about OCD? Having this disorder, I’m very interested in the science behind it and, since I love your posts, I would really enjoy reading about it in SSC.

    Have you ever heard about this study? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28636705
    I found it very interesting, if OCD is indeed a product of brain inflammation there could be a lot of possible treatments people never thought about. Most anti-inflammatory drugs can’t pass the blood–brain barrier, but some stuff like minocycline, low dose naldextrone or even liquid aspirin(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IP1867B) could possibly help.

    If this is indeed the explanation for OCD it could explain another weird phenomenon. Some people people describe obsessive-like symptoms when taking the anti-psychotic paliperidone, this drug is antagonistic to the 5-HT2A receptor and as this study shows https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3788795/ this receptor seems to be involved in anti-inflammatory processes. Paliperidone may be inducing inflammation in otherwise healthy individuals and OCD would be just another inflammatory disease. This could also explain other inflammatory side effects of paliperidone.

    I hope you read my ideas, OCD is a very interesting topic and a very shitty condition.

  58. OptimalSolver says:

    It would be fun to revisit apparently universal human experiences that you are missing out on.

    Examples include people with aphantasia not realizing that mental visualization is an actual thing, not just a metaphor, people with synesthesia not realizing that it’s unusual to hear colors, face-blind people not realizing they have a disability, etc.

    • wearsshoes says:

      I frequently experience musical ear syndrome while falling asleep, especially when sleep deprived. It can be a song I know, someone’s voice, an unidentifiable musical composition or just sort of random sounds. Usually it’s pleasant, and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with mental illness. Doesn’t seem to be linked to hearing loss, as reported for some people – while I am congenitally deaf in one ear, I always perceive the music as if it were coming through my able ear.

    • Machine Interface says:

      I’ve recently been called a liar for claiming that I do not hear a voice in my head when I read a text, nor do I when I’m thinking of something — the words in my head exists entirely as abstraction with no associated sound or visual.

      • Charles F says:

        In the future, you might direct anybody calling you a liar to some speed reading tutorials. Strategies to stop subvocalizing are usually part of step one. So it might convince them that it’s perfectly possible not to hear anything.

        (I’ve found it’s also possible to think wordlessly, but I’ve never really found a reason to bother doing that other than the curiosity of experiencing a thought all at once instead of {whatever the word is for the alternative where you experience it from beginning to end linearly})

        • John Nerst says:

          Re: your ETA

          I’ve been meaning to ask people about this… is it normal to have all your thoughts in words? Mine aren’t. They come in abstract structures and I need to stop and think hard about how to put things into words as soon as anything gets remotely complicated. And often it doesn’t come out right. Is this not the standard?

          If it isn’t, I wonder if it affects your philosophical views (as per the postmodernism discussion above).

          • Charles F says:

            It is not standard for me. I think in words and don’t know the whole thought until I hear it all the way to the end. Trying to know the end before I get there initially just distracted me and disrupted my thoughts, but with some practice I got to the point where I could think short, then longer and longer thoughts abstractly, though it’s still not natural or something I do regularly.

            For the things I normally think hard for — math, programming, and writing — I do much better letting my thoughts unfold naturally. I can’t see a tough (but tractable) proof/program all at once, but more often than not if I start at the beginning, my mind will follow the right paths. And with writing I can get the problem you describe with having a good abstract thought but then struggling to put it into words. (And actually, this sometimes happens anyway in a sort of frustrating way in my thoughts where I know that I was going towards something abstract and interesting, but it gets automatically resolved into words and seems to become more mundane.)

            My hypothesis is that people with more abstract/holistic thoughts would be better at drawing, have more trouble with math as it’s taught in schools. Not sure about any philosophical preferences.

          • Deiseach says:

            Oh, who knows what normal is? My thoughts are all in words, which means they divaricate down some odd paths at times as a particular word leads me on to another thought and at the end I’ve wandered far afield from the starting point.

            If I’m concentrating on doing something, it’s a lot more focused and indeed step-by-step. I need to be concentrating, though; general rambling about “doing housework” type things means I stop and start halfway through tasks as I get reminded about something else I need to do, unless I deliberately make myself “no, finish this now, then start that”.

          • quanta413 says:

            My thoughts about a lot of things are mostly in words or perhaps stories for some topics: morality, politics, history, literature etc.

            But for other things my thoughts have more of a visual, geometric quality. One probably typical case of nonverbal thought is math related things. I don’t think in words when I do algebra or sometimes even when I make fermi estimates. I might translate internal thought into internal words sometimes to clarify thoughts to myself, but they don’t start that way and I can often go pretty far in the abstract mode even if I’m trying to model a concrete question in my head.

            Maybe a less typical case (although I wouldn’t be surprised if it was totally normal) is thoughts I have that are mixed up with… feelings? I don’t have a terribly good way to describe this, but it’s can still be action-directed thought yet instinctive and nonverbal without seeming internally abstract in the same sense as when I’m in math mode.

          • Shion Arita says:

            It’s like that for me. My thoughts often come in instantaneous often irreducibly complex bursts, that if I’m communicating I have to think very hard about how to put into words.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I think almost entirely in words, but if I’m improvising, a few notes ahead sometimes come into my mind and I chose whether to play them.

            On the other hand, there’s some non-verbal things about how I judge whether my words are satisfactory. Is there a typo? Is a joke funny? Is an argument sound?

            Peter Ralston talks about noticing thoughts as they’re appearing and before they’ve been put into words.

    • There are quite a lot things other people do that seem to me like a waste of time–watching football games, for example, or getting drunk. Surely the same, with different things, is true for many others. It would be interesting to see if some of that is explainable by disabilities we don’t know we have.

      One I now know I do have I learned from 23andMe. One of their “take this test to give us information about what correlates with which genes” tests was on the ability to see a picture of part of a face and tell what emotion was being expressed. I ended up better than random, but at something like the tenth percentile of people taking the test.

      Which may explain some things.

  59. actinide meta says:

    Mechanism design: Fiscal Anarchy

    Imagine as a baseline a relatively “minarchist” state: it has very strong constitutional protections for individual liberty and consequently very little regulation, but it collects taxes and spends them on some combination of public goods, redistribution, and pork. (I don’t believe this is an ideal set of institutions, but it’s the simplest background to paint this idea on.)

    “Fiscal anarchy” is a simple but radical tax reform: a full tax credit for charitable donations, capped at reducing your tax liability to zero. In effect, every year you calculate how much tax you owe, and then you can pay it to any charitable organization, as long as the money doesn’t directly or indirectly come back to you. The state gets to be the default option, to keep back taxes it collects from people who don’t follow the rules, and otherwise has to ask for donations like any other charity.

    This seems to have a number of striking advantages:

    It reduces deadweight loss. Under an ordinary income tax regime, if you have a marginal tax rate of 50%, each additional dollar of income gives you fifty cents for yourself, and fifty cents for a grab bag of causes determined democratically, some of which you care about, some of which you don’t care about, and some of which you actively oppose. Half of the time, the allocation gets determined by the natural enemies of everything good and decent, The Other Team. Under fiscal anarchy, the same dollar of income and marginal tax rate gives you fifty cents for yourself and fifty cents for the most important cause in the world. Which situation is more motivating? Furthermore, charities have an incentive to reward donors with private but intangible goods like status and gratitude, which under fiscal anarchy further increase the incentive to earn.

    It reduces the barriers to entry for providing a public good. Under fiscal anarchy, an entrepreneur with a new idea for providing some public good can usually “start small,” convincing just a small set of donors to fund a small scale project, gathering evidence of effectiveness, and then scaling up. Innovation is easier than it is for states.

    It reduces the barriers to failure for providing a public good. Even the biggest fans of government have to notice that once a state program is established, public choice incentives ensure that it will basically never die, no matter how ineffective or counterproductive or obsolete it turns out to be. Whereas organizations funded by donations have to keep convincing donors of their value, year after year. So “creative destruction” works better.

    It can better provide global public goods. Individual donors can fund the “Stop Global Warming” or “Stop the Killer Asteroid” projects even though they will also benefit people who live far away from them. States will fight over which states have to pay.

    It reduces toxoplasma. There is less to fight over politically, and therefore less reasons to fear and hate your neighbors. Hating people who don’t donate to your favorite charity is just not as fun, because there aren’t always two perfectly matched teams.

    It mitigates the problem of rational ignorance. I think that for most people, donating to charity feels mostly like spending their own money and will better motivate them to inform themselves than voting does. Each person can focus their giving in a single area and mostly needs to inform themselves about that area, which is not an option for voters or even legislators. I think that an unequal income distribution likely further helps, since those giving more money have more motivation for, and perhaps on average are more capable of, informing themselves. Finally, the market is incentivized to make such information cheaper.

    It reduces pork. Less money flows through the government (and to some extent the remaining government is subjected to more market discipline), so traditional rent seeking methods don’t work as well. Maybe I’m not creative enough, but I don’t think new forms of corruption can make up the difference. Charities can try to hand money back to donors under the table in various ways, but that’s tax evasion and the state is well incentivized to fight that. Charities can try to trick donors (and operate for the private benefit of their management), but donors and the state are incentivized to fight that.

    It reduces coercion. Forcing you to give away a certain amount of money is strictly less coercive than forcing you to give that money to a particular organization. Even if the exact same total amount was collected and spent in the exact same way at the end of the day, I think people would be freer in an important way.

    It “sees less like a state”. Under fiscal anarchy, a diverse and competitive set of public goods providers at multiple scales have less need to crush the world flat and square it off so that they can deal with it in standardized ways and mitigate their own principal agent problems. A more nuanced balance can be struck between the opportunities for corruption and oppression created by discretion and the harm created by standardization.

    It can be adopted incrementally. A state wishing to adopt this scheme gradually can simply start with a low limit on the percentage that the tax credit can reduce your tax liability, and gradually increase it to 100%. And even if the scheme was adopted overnight, donors could be convinced to continue giving money to “legacy” government organizations until new institutions are sufficiently mature to pick up the slack.

    I also have an idea for a variation on anarcho-capitalism which is capable of enforcing a scheme like this one without a geographical monopoly on force (but the margin of this comment is too small to contain it). This technology would make an anarcho-capitalist society able to provide public goods more efficiently than existing states. This completely solves the second biggest problem with existing ancap ideas (the biggest, of course, being the lack of institutional experience).

    Some disadvantages:

    States may substitute more harmful policies. Fiscal anarchy removes some power from a legislature. If the legislature retains strong powers in other dimensions, it may use those powers to try to accomplish goals that it previously would have spent money to accomplish, and wind up doing more harm than before. For example, if under fiscal anarchy a government can no longer raise enough money to pay for an unpopular foreign war, so it resorts to military slavery instead, that is hardly a net win for liberty. So I am afraid that fiscal anarchy is only a clear win when the powers of government have already been sufficiently limited in other dimensions. This is a real pity, because otherwise it would be a practical and incremental kind of reform.

    Maybe people would make even worse allocation decisions than governments. I can’t logically rule this out. I haven’t really tried to study how people allocate charitable giving now (and I’m not sure it’s a good guide, because of course the situation would be very different).

    Charities may burn too much money on advertising. But I don’t know why this would be more than the money spent on lobbying. And donors seem, if anything, irrationally hostile to charities spending money on anything other than “the cause.”

    Egalitarians won’t like it that the rich get both increased status rewards (from their greatly increased charitable giving) and increased influence over fiscal “policy”. But let’s face it, the rich already control policy. And as a consolation prize, the same effects that reduce deadweight losses also reduce political opposition to taxation, and all the advantages above contribute to being able to do redistribution better.

    The name sounds bad. I mean, I like it, but I suppose it sounds like it’s been named by its opponents. Maybe someone can suggest a more marketable name.

    This idea seems too simple to be original, but at the very least it seems to be underappreciated (since I haven’t, that I know of, heard of it). I would appreciate thoughtful feedback.

    • pdbarnlsey says:

      There’s a lot in there, but the problem that leapt out at me is the attempt to reduce pork barrelling. If I can earmark my taxation for locally beneficial public goods (improved roads, theatre, schools, statues) then I earn a much higher return on my donations than if my money is sent to nationally beneficial public goods.

      Even if you exclude “charities” which are just providing goods and services to individual families from the law, which is doable, a lot of jobs currently done by charitable organisations generate some direct benefits for donors (over and above the joy of giving). Depending on your assumptions about the size of bequest motivations, you end up with a series of non-cooperative equilibria where everyone donates exclusively (or at least excessively) to local charities. You either need to carve this stuff out of the sector or have a backstop tax requirement to fund policies with a wider geographical scope.

      More generally: charitable giving is currently highly expressive in nature. Lots of stuff done by government, including “red tape” is necessary and valuable, but not the sort of thing donors get a warm inner glow from supporting. There’s only so much we can spend on curing cancer…

      • actinide meta says:

        I’m assuming that giving to charities that *materially* economically benefit you is not eligible for the credit. As far as I can boil down six billion pages of tax regulations – I’m not a tax attorney – the IRS’s current position on the equivalent issue today is that anything over 2% of the contribution OR over $50 is material. Maybe in a world where it’s a tax credit instead of a deduction there’s a zero tolerance policy instead and you have to calculate some upper bound on your possible personal benefit and subtract it from the credit.

        I think that most people have enough altruistic and status motivation for charitable giving to overwhelm the tiny amounts of direct economic benefit they get from, say, building roads in their own town, which would benefit at least several hundred to several thousand people.

        I’m less sure about the question of “boring but important” causes, which I think fits under my heading of “maybe people would make even worse decisions.” One hope would be “local knowledge”: that people who interact with the boring problem know about its importance and are you would go to them for funding. And if there are lots of boring problems that only affect the poor, who don’t have much money to give, that seems like an interesting problem that you could get money from some rich people to solve…

        • pdbarnlsey says:

          It’s hard to write a benefit test which captures nonrival/non-excludable benefits which are nonetheless tied to geography. If I devote my sponsorship to the Houston symphony I, as a Houstonian, don’t necessarily get a measurable material benefit, but I do get a disproportionate share of the effective value of my contribution, relative to non-Texans.

          I think the more general problem is that determining the optimal destination for the marginal dollar of altruistic expenditure is relatively easy compared to working out an entire spending allocation from scratch. The technocratic decision on how much to subsidise primary vs secondary health care benefits from hundreds of man hours spent considering it, and there are thousands of those decision embodied in the baseline spending arrangements you get to tweak when you donate your own money. Rebuilding that without a vehicle for collective action and decision making (which is basically what you’re hoping to do away with) requires massive efforts on the parts of individuals, even if they’re intelligent and altruistic. God help you if they’re not.

          • actinide meta says:

            I think the more general problem is that determining the optimal destination for the marginal dollar of altruistic expenditure is relatively easy compared to working out an entire spending allocation from scratch.

            Fortunately, I think donors are making the former decision, not the latter. Each person’s spending doesn’t have to be a whole budget; they just send their dollars where they think they are most needed at the margin. I grant you, the first year would probably be very confusing (will the fire department get enough money? too much?), which is one reason I suggested phasing the system in!

    • Orual says:

      It’s certainly an interesting thought experiment. I wonder at how the government manages to stay financially solvent though, because frankly I think there’s a lot of boring stuff the government does which costs quite a bit of money and I think it will be even harder to get public funding for boring but practical things in this system than it currently is because most people who are giving to charity are not Effective Altruists (and even EA people sometimes have a bit of an issue chasing sexy causes to the potential neglect of those whose benefits are more understood and reliable but uninteresting).

      Also, how does government debt and a national bank work in this system? In my understanding, part of the reason those currently work is because of how reliable tax income is, meaning that the government defaulting on debt is extremely unlikely. If people can allocate all of that potential income differently each year, that seems likely to play havoc with the fundamental financial backing of the economy. Over time people would be able to predict government revenue, but the uncertainty bars seem like they’d inevitably be a lot farther apart than is currently the case and that changes the risk calculations on a lot of things we currently take for granted. Perhaps the problems of this are reduced if the system is adopted gradually, but I feel like it’s a major worry.

      I want to reiterate my concerns about the choices people are likely to make with their tax allocation. What this system does is effectively set the national budget by direct democracy. There are reasons every democratic government uses a representative republican-style system, because it reduces the chance that a bunch of people decide to allocate a bunch of money to the “fuck the gypsies” program or something similar and are able to effectively make that happen. The loss of efficiency is often considered to be a worthwhile trade for decreased vulnerability to demagoguery and tyranny of the majority. I think a prerequisite for this system is a functioning democratic society with a decent level of education and overall high trust because such societies are more likely to be capable of sustaining democracy without training wheels.

      • actinide meta says:

        I don’t know how such a government could borrow. I suppose there is some equivalent process that involves letting people out of future taxes in exchange for money now? Maybe since some commenters upthread think that government borrowing will lead to inevitable catastrophe, making it harder wouldn’t be all bad?

        I think that fiscal anarchy is much less dangerous than direct democracy because it’s hard to harm people with money. It’s also the case, for what it’s worth, that the fiscal decisions are made disproportionately by high earners, who probably in most societies are on average smarter, more educated, and more financially prudent.

      • If people can allocate all of that potential income differently each year, that seems likely to play havoc with the fundamental financial backing of the economy.

        Why would you think of either government debt or a central bank as “the fundamental financial backing of the economy?”

    • This is not that far from the way in which Islamic taxation works and has worked for well over a thousand years. The religiously required tax must go to a list of categories of purposes–supporting scholars, helping travelers, helping the poor, subsidizing fighters for Islam, … . According to some scholars it must be evenly divided among the items on the list, according to others the donor can decide the division. The taxpayer may choose to give the money to the government to distribute for him, he may choose to hand it out himself to recipients of his choice (but not his own relatives), he may choose to give it to a middle man who distributes if for him, keeping one share for himself.

      • actinide meta says:

        Very interesting! Are there sophisticated intermediary organizations, or is it limited to an individual middleman?

        • I don’t know. In modern Iran, as I understand it, the usual pattern is that someone chooses which of the top level clerics he will accept as his guide on disputable issues in Islamic law (which includes what we would call morality) and then directs his koranic tax payments to that cleric, who presumably has some sort of an organization to hand them out. The description I have seen of the Sunni version sounds as though one is choosing an individual as middleman (or allocating it yourself or giving it to the government to allocate), but I don’t know that middleman is really a sophisticated organization or not.

    • jonathanpaulson says:


      1) This seems to encourage rampant tax evasion. Right now, I only make $(marginal tax rate) per $1 I donate to charity, so it’s tough to make some illegal kickback scheme pay. If that changes to $1 per $1, it’s easy. Also, seems like the IRS will be gutted under this proposal (who wants to use their taxes to pay for the taxman?)

      2) Why wouldn’t legislators just vote for taxes to go to the government? Hard to believe this system is stable.

      3) I’m worried the resulting distribution of money would be much worse than what we have now. In particular, I’m worried redistribution would be much lower and “boring” public goods like basic research would be (more) underfunded. It doesn’t seem like there is a strong mechanism pushing resources to be allocated in a socially optimal way (like the central planning of governments or the price mechanism of markets).

      • actinide meta says:

        1. I suggested that the government gets to keep the proceeds of tax enforcement, so the IRS will be well funded. If you don’t like that, it’s probably easy to privatize tax enforcement.

        More interestingly, you’re suggesting that today a charity has to kick back a rather high percentage of donations to attract donors who are completely selfish, whereas such donors would seek out the “best deal” on kickbacks under fiscal anarchy, even if that best deal was a much smaller percentage. This is a good point, and convinces me that this scheme does create some extra requirements for tax enforcement.

        2. It could be constitutional, or just really popular.

        3. Each person sends their money to something they think is underfunded. In aggregate this “should” add up to something similar to the average of what people think is the best allocation. There are a million reasons why it won’t really be socially optimal, but… have you looked at how the sausage is made now? Can you explain to me how voters, legislators and lobbyists work together to determine what is “socially optimal”?

    • John Schilling says:

      So, approximately nobody decides to earmark their tax/charity money to pay the pensions of retired Department of Transportation workers, and they all starve. Well, not literally starve, but they go on some sort of welfare program which was an inefficient and degrading way to keep people from starving even before it had to rejigger itself to appeal to virtue-signalling donors; their standard of living goes way down, they get pissed off, their colleagues in the DoT get pissed off, and the nation’s transportation systems stop working even though the DoT’s operations budget is fully funded by people who understand the importance of a well-functioning Department of Transportation.

      Meanwhile, all the navy’s ships sink after hitting mines in the first week of our next war, because it’s hard enough getting defensive mine wafare properly funded when the budget is set by admirals and secretaries who are paid to listen to people like bean telling them that yes, battleships are cool, but mines are important. We had the discussion not long ago about all the web sites that you should never ever trust on defense-related information and how, sorry, we really can’t recommend any good ones, right? Your defense budget is now set according to what looks coolest on the bad ones.

      Rational ignorance is going to be a dealbreaker for this one. It is not in anybody’s interest, except a professional bureaucrat, to go through a list of thousands of items and allocate resources to all of them. If it isn’t in the top twenty, it gets nothing. If it doesn’t make us feel, or better still look, virtuous, it gets nothing. And while individual idiosyncrasy means we each have a different top twenty, the people who pay attention to DoT pensions are mostly DoT pensioners who if they could cover their pensions out of their taxes wouldn’t need the pensions in the first place. And bean and hlynkacg and I can’t singlehandedly finance the navy’s mine warfare program.

      • actinide meta says:

        Clearly pensions in this world are liabilities of some private financial institution, or they’re just defined contribution. I mean, charitable organizations now have employees and they don’t all wind up destitute.

        Nothing requires the Navy to fundraise separately for its mine laying program. It can make decisions at that level of detail bureaucratically as long as it can keep its donors happy overall. Apple’s shareholders don’t organize their supply chain, and Red Cross donors don’t plan their purchases of supplies.

        Now, if we’re going to have two or more navies that compete, they’ll do war games together with a neutral arbiter to help donors find out which one is better when there isn’t a war on. Actually, that sounds awesome, although I suppose you’ll complain about opsec.

        In short, I claim that 300 million people have more aggregate attention span for these decisions than Congress, and that bureaucrats can still do their thing as they do in private organizations today. Rational ignorance is still a problem compared to private goods, but it should be less of a problem rather than more.

        • Evan Þ says:

          But that just raises another issue: who decides at what level people get to earmark their contributions? How come people can earmark for “The Navy” and nothing more precise, but people can go further down than “The Department of Health and Human Services”?

          And if people can go more precise than “The Navy,” that raises the same issues – everyone wants to fund awesome battleships; the Everything Else Fund goes wanting.

          • actinide meta says:

            I imagine that this would work like it does for charities today. Generally donors can highly earmark funds if they want, especially if they are big donors. But money is fungible and the charity probably gets enough general donations to shuffle things around and basically do what it wants. If there’s so much tension between what the charity’s management wants to do and what donors want to pay for that this becomes a huge problem, the charity needs to do some work to convince people of the benefits of its broader mission, or fail and be replaced by an organization that can.

          • bean says:

            I imagine that this would work like it does for charities today. Generally donors can highly earmark funds if they want, especially if they are big donors. But money is fungible and the charity probably gets enough general donations to shuffle things around and basically do what it wants.

            Have you ever been involved with a nonprofit? I can only assume not, given that you seem to be ignorant of how much of an influence fundraising has on operations. It’s a really big deal, and I can’t see the Navy being immune to these pressures if we go to your funding model.

          • actinide meta says:

            I 100% believe that the military would make some marginal decisions to appeal to donors, and spend time and energy on fundraising. I also believe that the military spends time and energy and makes bad decisions today to please a different set of terrible incentives in Congress. I don’t believe that the problem would be that every contribution to the “Support Our Troops!” fund would be earmarked for some specific flashy weapon system. Not everyone in the country is a weapons nerd, and if the military wanted to raise money without permitting any form of earmarking at all, it could still raise enough money to defend the country.

            (Yes, I’ve been close enough to the management of one charitable organization to have some totally anecdotal experience, and it was consistent with what I’m saying: fundraising is a big deal; “earmarking” is more or less an annoyance, which is tolerated because you collect more money that way. Some organizations may have more tension between the values of their funders and operators!).

          • bean says:

            I 100% believe that the military would make some marginal decisions to appeal to donors, and spend time and energy on fundraising. I also believe that the military spends time and energy and makes bad decisions today to please a different set of terrible incentives in Congress.

            I’m certainly not discounting the effects of having to pander to Congress. But how much is it? I’d guess it’s a single-digit percentage of the DoD budget in terms of how much better we could do if we didn’t have to make sure everyone’s district got something. Do that, and most congresspeople will vote for the bill when it comes out of committee. And the relevant committees have people whose job it is to sit down and go through the boring details about how much we’re going to spend on mine warfare and making computers that integrate all of our sensor data and on making sure that we know how to sustain troops in lower Whereveristan.

            Not everyone in the country is a weapons nerd, and if the military wanted to raise money without permitting any form of earmarking at all, it could still raise enough money to defend the country.

            This is not what you originally proposed, but it also fails to solve the problem. The concern isn’t just ‘the Navy won’t get mine warfare equipment because nobody will earmark for that’, although that is a problem. The problem is also ‘the Navy budget is down 10% this year because the Air Force ran better ads’. OK, so we solve this by having one pool marked ‘military’. Oh, wait. This time, the entire military lost out to HHS because there aren’t obvious security threats, and photogenic poor children make better ad copy than weapons. Maybe we could solve this by having one department which gets all the money for the entire government and then finding people to study the problems carefully and allocate the budget that way….

          • actinide meta says:

            The reason the government can’t pool everything is because they would raise less money that way. In practice, my guess is that they would be willing to accept relatively detailed earmarks from sufficiently large donors, but make it easier to contribute to, and focus fundraising efforts on, relatively large pools. I think there are more people who “want a strong Navy” than people who have extremely strong opinions about the details of defense spending, but it would be worth collecting some extra money from the latter. Refusing any contributions below the level of “military” is a pretty obviously suboptimal strategy that I pointed out as a lower bound on how well they can do. None of this is a change to the proposal, just speculation about what the equilibrium would be.

            I feel like my intuition on how this would effect things like military spending is almost the opposite of yours: I think that without added competition, it will effectively boil down to almost total discretion for the “professionals,” for better or for worse. There’s a widespread desire in the US to have a strong military. One percent of America’s military spending would be a hell of an “advertising” budget. If you need to highlight specific weapons systems in your PR, you can pick and choose the coolest ones rather than try to justify every detail. If a few rich nerds want to give you lots of money for specific nerd things, just take it unless it’s a complete waste. Most people, unlike most members of congress, wouldn’t actually have an axe to grind. As long as the military can avoid major corruption scandals where people suspect the money is going to some private purpose, it would be able to raise a decent amount of money.

            To the extent that there’s competition (between military services, or between a government social program and private charities targeting the same problem), there’s a risk that too much money gets burned on advertising or some form of pandering. But people already fight this in various ways — if anything, they seem irrationally focused on the “efficiency” of charities over their “effectiveness” — and there’s also an opportunity for the good kind of market discipline: comparing the effectiveness of different approaches to a problem and shifting resources to the better ones. The advantages of competition tend to outweigh the disadvantages.

            There would in fact be nothing stopping some people from just continuing to pay their taxes to the legislature, or contributing their money to an Effective Taxation Fund that pays experts to make detailed funding decisions. I think it likely works better for most people to “vote” their values, a basic retrospective evaluation of an organization’s effectiveness at achieving those values, any particularly strong “local knowledge” they think they have, and the organization’s relative “underfundedness”, when they allocate funds. And maybe I’m being naive, but I think that is very roughly how people would do it, even without being able to articulate it.

            (Also, I don’t have the domain knowledge to argue constructively about this claim, but if it’s really true that US military spending is within 10% of a militarily optimal allocation, that would seem like a complete miracle to me.)

          • bean says:

            In practice, my guess is that they would be willing to accept relatively detailed earmarks from sufficiently large donors, but make it easier to contribute to, and focus fundraising efforts on, relatively large pools. I think there are more people who “want a strong Navy” than people who have extremely strong opinions about the details of defense spending, but it would be worth collecting some extra money from the latter.

            There are lots of people who feel strongly that the A-10 is a vital component of our defense infrastructure. A good place to start might be getting them to put their money where their mouths are on keeping it around.

            I feel like my intuition on how this would effect things like military spending is almost the opposite of yours: I think that without added competition, it will effectively boil down to almost total discretion for the “professionals,” for better or for worse.

            So people who care about the military are willing to trust the professionals when they say that they know what they’re doing? Hmm. I must have hallucinated the entire controversy around the F-35. Seriously, second-guessing military leadership is like the leading pastime among the defense press.

            To the extent that there’s competition (between military services, or between a government social program and private charities targeting the same problem), there’s a risk that too much money gets burned on advertising or some form of pandering. But people already fight this in various ways — if anything, they seem irrationally focused on the “efficiency” of charities over their “effectiveness” — and there’s also an opportunity for the good kind of market discipline: comparing the effectiveness of different approaches to a problem and shifting resources to the better ones. The advantages of competition tend to outweigh the disadvantages.

            EA is a minority of charitable giving. Effective Taxpaying is likely to be, too. Not to mention that the effectiveness reports are both classified and impossible to understand without 10 years of background.

            (Also, I don’t have the domain knowledge to argue constructively about this claim, but if it’s really true that US military spending is within 10% of a militarily optimal allocation, that would seem like a complete miracle to me.)

            That’s not quite what I said. What I said was that the cost imposed by district pork was less than 10%. That’s my estimate for what it takes to get the random congresspeople to shut up and vote for what the Armed Services Committee has decided on. The Committee is a very different problem, even assuming ‘militarily optimal allocation’ is a meaningful term.

        • bean says:

          Nothing requires the Navy to fundraise separately for its mine laying program. It can make decisions at that level of detail bureaucratically as long as it can keep its donors happy overall.

          The problem is that the donors are mostly idiots. There are lots of people who think we should reactivate the battleships. They’re wrong, but I can only reach so many of them. So the Navy is forced to pander to them. I cannot count how many ‘here are old weapons we should have kept’ articles floating around. All of them are terrible. There’s a reason the weapons are gone, but most of the donors don’t know that.
          At very best, you’ve just given every department a bunch of what is essentially advertising overhead. “We’re going to reactivate a battleship because we think it will bring in more in revenue than it costs.” Even though it’s a total waste of money. Not to mention the need to spend money on actual advertisements for “donate to us!”. And if you have multiple navies, it gets worse. Leaving aside the obvious problems of finding a neutral arbiter and such, “we’ll win in the future because we’re building [technobabble], look at the pretty CGI of the new weapon” is not something we should discount. Leave it to the professionals.

          In short, I claim that 300 million people have more aggregate attention span for these decisions than Congress, and that bureaucrats can still do their thing as they do in private organizations today.

          The concern is not just “aggregate attention span”, the concern is attention span x money. For every “Effective Taxpayer” you’re going to have dozens who donate to whatever can make itself look most appealing on TV. EA makes a good point that most charity is ineffective, and charity today has the saving grace of being done by people who want to do it. This plan forces people to do charity. This is not a recipe for good decisions.

          • Matt M says:

            There are lots of people who think we should reactivate the battleships. They’re wrong, but I can only reach so many of them. So the Navy is forced to pander to them.

            Perhaps you’re a little too “in the weeds” on this one. My guess is the Navy would get most of its donations from blue collar non-experts. You appeal to these guys with fundraising materials showing awesome-looking battleships, and then you make it somewhat difficult to donate to anything but the “general fund”, and they generally trust you to use the money in the best way, rather than thinking they know best and saying “BATTLESHIPS ONLY WITH MY $100”

            Maybe battleship bloggers would be a tougher nut to crack, but I don’t feel like that’s a hugely important issue here.

            It’d be interesting to look at studies of large, well-known, widely-scoped charities (the red cross, united way, etc.) and see what % of donations are targeted versus to the general fund, and how that breaks down by income, donation size, expertise level, etc.

          • bean says:

            It’d be interesting to look at studies of large, well-known, widely-scoped charities (the red cross, united way, etc.) and see what % of donations are targeted versus to the general fund, and how that breaks down by income, donation size, expertise level, etc.

            My problem with that analogy is that donations to those are voluntary. You can give to the Red Cross, if you want it to do Red Cross things, or you can spend time and effort to figure out something more specific you want it to do. Or you can keep the money in your own pocket. This also means that advertising is at least slightly positive-sum, in that you’re getting people to give you money who otherwise would keep it for themselves.
            Under the proposed scheme, you can’t keep the money yourself. Either you decide where it goes, or someone else decides for you. Why shouldn’t I give it all to my church? Or send a bit to the battleship, and the rest to the church? Basically, you’re giving people a huge signalling opportunity, without the cost of giving away their own money that charity currently carries.
            In a lot of ways, this is an anti-market solution, because you’re putting the decision in the hands of people who have no skin at all in the game. The Foundation for Curing Cute Children will do very well. The public sanitation department, not so much. After all, I (in this hypothetical a normal person) get fuzzies if I send it to the FCCC, but nothing for sending it to the PSD. And also nothing if I just send it to the general fund.

          • Matt M says:

            his also means that advertising is at least slightly positive-sum, in that you’re getting people to give you money who otherwise would keep it for themselves.
            Under the proposed scheme, you can’t keep the money yourself.

            I’m not seeing the relevance here. Functionally, I don’t perceive a major difference between “you keep the money yourself” or “you donate the money to your next highest preferred charitable cause.” Your list of ordinal preferences may go:

            Charity A
            Charity B
            Keep yourself
            Charity C
            Charity D

            Advertising efforts may change the relative position of the charities to each other, and government may come along and, through the use of force, eliminate “keep yourself” as an option, but that doesn’t change the advertising dynamics of how the charities must compete with each other.

            Why shouldn’t I give it all to my church?

            Maybe you should. AFAIK, mormon tithing still counts as “charity” in our statistics. And probably does some fair amount of good. And probably also benefits the people who do it in some vaguely material way. That said, it would also be interesting to study “how many people donate to one charity vs many” or “how much do mormons give to charity if you exclude tithing relative to secular people” or what have you. The interesting part is that it’s the EA people who would probably say “giving more to one charity (the right ones, of course) is better than giving a lot of small amounts to diffuse causes”

            The foundation for Curing Cute Children will do very well. The sewer department, not so much.

            A lack of sanitation would almost certainly harm the goals of curing cute children. Therefore, if good sewers didn’t exist, the foundation for curing cute children would probably create a sewer department, and anyone donating to its general fund (which I suspect would be most people) would end up giving to sewers specifically.

            Like, at this point, it’s common knowledge that donations to the red cross general fund aren’t earmarked to the latest natural disaster sweeping the news cycle. And after every disaster all the cool people on Facebook start yelling “DON’T DONATE TO THE RED CROSS, THEY’LL JUST SIT ON THE MONEY FOR SOME FUTURE DISASTER RATHER THAN HELPING THE PEOPLE YOU WANT TO HELP RIGHT NOW.”

            And yet, I suspect, donations to the red cross general fund still happen. A whole lot of them. And they happen more frequently in the wake of highly visible natural disasters.

          • bean says:

            I’m not seeing the relevance here. Functionally, I don’t perceive a major difference between “you keep the money yourself” or “you donate the money to your next highest preferred charitable cause.” Your list of ordinal preferences may go:

            Charity A
            Charity B
            Keep yourself
            Charity C
            Charity D

            Advertising efforts may change the relative position of the charities to each other, and government may come along and, through the use of force, eliminate “keep yourself” as an option, but that doesn’t change the advertising dynamics of how the charities must compete with each other.

            I don’t make sure Charity A is fully funded before moving down the list, though. I think the model of charities selling good feelings to people is the right one to use. I’m interested in buying so much good feelings (this could be warm fuzzies from helping cute children, or internal virtue points from giving to EA causes), and then I stop. The point is that we’re looking at handing everyone a big chunk of money, bigger than their current charity budget, and telling them to go wild. So we’ve essentially capped charity+government at what government currently gets, I guess plus 20-30% of what charity gets when we factor in tax deductions today.

            And yet, I suspect, donations to the red cross general fund still happen. A whole lot of them. And they happen more frequently in the wake of highly visible natural disasters.

            I’m not saying that those kind of donations would totally go away. But you still have the problem that people are going to be incentivized to buy as many utils as possible (in whatever form that takes for them personally) with someone else’s money. I doubt that’s going to take the form of Effective Taxpaying very often.

          • actinide meta says:

            So we’ve essentially capped charity+government at what government currently gets, I guess plus 20-30% of what charity gets when we factor in tax deductions today.

            I think people would still donate more than the minimum. Hansonially speaking, from the perspective of signaling your generosity, maxing out the credit is now the ante – even totally selfish people do that.

            Of course tax rates could also be different, in either direction.

            But you still have the problem that people are going to be incentivized to buy as many utils as possible (in whatever form that takes for them personally) with someone else’s money. I doubt that’s going to take the form of Effective Taxpaying very often.

            OK, but have you considered the incentives of a legislator in an equally harsh light?

          • I think people would still donate more than the minimum. Hansonially speaking, from the perspective of signaling your generosity, maxing out the credit is now the ante – even totally selfish people do that.

            Adam Smith describes a city (I think) somewhere that taxed self-reported income, or possibly wealth. And people didn’t report it as tiny because they wanted the status.

            As should be obvious that’s by memory, so I may have it in part wrong.

          • Aapje says:


            That sounds highly unlikely given the amount of effort people go to, to pay less in taxes.

            So I’d like some actual evidence before I give your claim any credibility.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            Things have changed a lot since Adam Smith’s time, I find it entirely plausible that such a city could’ve existed back then, though now it would be considered fiscally unsound on top of extremely unseemly to flaunt one’s wealth like that.

          • JayT says:

            I think if what you reported was public knowledge then you would probably see a lot of people overpaying on their actual earnings. If it is secret, then I imagine you would have a bunch of CEOs making minimum wage.

        • John Schilling says:

          Clearly pensions in this world are liabilities of some private financial institution, or they’re just defined contribution. I mean, charitable organizations now have employees and they don’t all wind up destitute.

          That’s not how government pensions work now, and there’s reasons they work that way now. So you’ve got a huge “can’t get there from here” problem up front, followed by figuring out what it is you’ve lost when you gave up on the entire idea of government pensions.

          In short, I claim that 300 million people have more aggregate attention span for these decisions than Congress.

          What do I care about aggregate attention span? Three hundred million people thinking about something for fifteen minutes each, will miss things that one guy working on the problem for a week would have caught. They will miss these things even if they ask the expert for his advice, because he can’t fit what they need to know into less than half an hour’s talking points and their eyes will glaze over halfway through.

      • bean says:

        This. We live in a country where Kim Kardashian makes $50 million/year for doing whatever it is she does, and you want to put those people in charge of budget allocation? No. Just no.

    • Chalid says:

      In the US, it seems like Financial Anarchy leads to a world where religious organizations receive half the taxes.

      • Rosemary7391 says:

        I think that there would be a lot of fighting about what counts as a charity for this. Also, there would have to be a non zero limit on the tax money going to the state – who else will keep the list of charities straight?

        With regard to religious organizations specifically – some people will see that as no different to funding a private club, whereas others will see it as funding a bunch of folk who give up their time to run soup kitchens, homeless shelters etc etc… The reality will depend on the particular subgroup in question.

        How does volunteer time fit into this actually? I’ve often thought it would be nice if we could give time as well as money in taxes; just impractical at the moment. Charities are much more set up for volunteer labour though.

    • fion says:

      Worth pointing out that the ways in which a charity benefit you are really hard to define, identify and enforce.

      Am I allowed to give all my ‘taxes’ to my kids’ school? Or to my community centre? Or to organisations that fund things that I happen to enjoy?

      Maybe this is the point that someone else raised about “which organisations get to call themselves charities” and maybe it’s me saying that I think people would make *much* worse allocation decisions than governments.

      Also, all this money flowing into charities will change incentives. Charities will become very lucrative organisations to be part of.

    • dodrian says:

      It reduces toxoplasma. There is less to fight over politically

      This assertion is somewhat cheating, as the existence of ‘Fiscal Anarchy’, or whatever you want to call it, means that you’ve already bypassed the political fight. There are some people who are very reasonably against the idea of charity instead of state welfare, and would still be so even if charity was mandated.

    • 1soru1 says:

      One practical problem with this is budgets seem likely to swing about wildly. NASA is not going to get far if this FY it has x billion to go to the moon, then next year y billion to go to mars. Governments would be forever hiring then firing teachers and doctors.

      I guess you could have make the tax commitments multiyear, and then have a Kickstarter-like mechanism for programs: ‘we can do _this_ if we get _this_ much money pledged’.

      – for n dollars we will hire some diplomats who will complain to the UN if we get invaded

      – for n+z dollars we will add a 12th carrier battle group

    • gerhuyy says:

      In effect, every year you calculate how much tax you owe, and then you can pay it to any charitable organization, as long as the money doesn’t directly or indirectly come back to you.

      Indirect benefit is practically the sole goal of taxes. When my taxes fund schools, my business benifits from better workers. When my taxes funds roads, I benefit from being able to get around easier, and from workers and customers being able to travel to my business. The problem is that businesses would rather fund things that are as directly beneficial as possible. They would prefer funding roads over schools, since schools could take ten years to pay off, and the eventual workers might move to another city and never work for you.

      That is not to say businesses benefit *less* from money spent on schools than on roads, they merely suffer a tragedy of the commons. Let’s say I want educated workers, and I value them at a certain price. I might spend that money building schools and paying teachers. However, I wouldn’t recoup my losses, since most of my students would go work for other companies. It would be preferable to find educated workers, perhaps in another city that does spend money on education, and offer them a highly competitive salary to work for me. Since all businesses would think like this, none would spend on education, and none would feel the benefit of educated workers. (One possible resolution is to offer education to people on the condition that they must work for you afterwards. This is not a very anarchistic solution, as it makes you a slave to this company, and furthermore does not constitute charity. The end product of such a system is libertarianism).

      Countries face a similar problem, as individuals who recieve education grants from their government can go work in another country. However the effect is in general less pronouced, because a worker will benefit the country equally if he moves between cities within it. This means that spending on indirect benefits, which for a business wouldn’t be possible while remaining competitive, is possible for a country.

      The goal, it should be clear, is not to distribute money based on the degree to which the benefit is indirect. The goal is to distribute money in order to maximize benefit. Individuals will by default spend on things that directly benefit themselves, and so we need not account for these things. The government needs to spend on things that indirectly benefit the populace, but not because it indirectly benefits them. If we tried to classify charities based on the degree to which their benefits are indirect, and only allow taxes to the least direct of these, then businesses would still choose to spend money on the most direct benefit they could. This is not because these charities are the most beneficial, but merely because this is what businesses are incentivized to do in a free market. I do not believe a free market system can stop this.

      • actinide meta says:

        The problem is that businesses would rather fund things that are as directly beneficial as possible. They would prefer funding roads over schools, since schools could take ten years to pay off, and the eventual workers might move to another city and never work for you.

        I don’t understand what work “businesses” is doing here, but once a charity benefits a significant number of people, the amount of your own contribution that you effectively get back in benefits, whether direct or indirect or delayed or instantaneous, is really small. Really small benefits are easily swamped by other motivations, like altruism (or wanting to look good, or…), or by a tiny tweak to this policy intended to neutralize the behavior of hypothetical extremely selfish actors. If there’s something that drives people to spend more on “local” causes, it can’t be the personal benefit to them.

        When people *vote*, they are a little bit more likely to vote in their own economic interests, because although the effect of their vote is small, they might think of their vote as potentially determining the effect of a much bigger allocation decision which would materially affect them. But as far as I know the evidence is that people mostly do not vote their economic interests, and this is “rational”: because of the infinitesimal chance that your vote will be the swing vote, you might as well vote for the thing that makes you feel better about yourself, whatever that may be.

    • Xenosisters says:

      This concept is very similar to participatory budgeting, which is probably a more marketable name. In participatory budgeting schemes that have been tried, instead of each individual deciding where their taxes go, a community votes on their spending priorities, then elects delegates to write proposals based on those priorities, and then there is a referendum to determine which proposals get funded. There was a study on municipalities with participatory budgeting in Brazil.

    • bbartlog says:

      I will raise this as a possible objection: people don’t necessarily know what’s needed. By way of example, my mother worked for a few years doing fundraising for an inner-city hospital. Donations that were earmarked to care for babies and new mothers were highly popular. A few other things like cancer treatment got a bit of love as well. But there were plenty of things like dialysis that got no specific donations at all, and would have had to rely on some small portion of the money that was donated without restrictions.
      Of course it it possible to defend the state of affairs that would result – if people want great care for newborns and moms and basically don’t mind if indigent old people just quietly lay down and die, maybe that’s what we should give them. But in general I think the public really *doesn’t know* enough of the details in these cases to make good decisions, and under your tax scheme we would see underfunding for necessary but boring programs.

  60. pdbarnlsey says:

    Converting an IOS app to IOS 11

    I’m not sure if this belongs here or in a classifieds thread, but let’s see:

    My mother is a recently retired education academic specialising in reading acquisition. A few years back she produced an IOS app based on her findings to help expose young children to phonics. It’s a freemium model, with a fair amount of content available on the free version, and it’s never made more than a trickle of revenue from paid sales, but it’s been downloaded a lot.

    I understand that, with the move to IOS 11, it will no longer work in its current form, and my Mother has no interest in paying someone to update it, given that it currently only produces a few tens of dollars a year in revenue. I view this as mildly sad, since it seems like a decent attempt at a fairly valuable task, and I imagine the free version is, at least, buying a lot of parents a precious few minutes of slightly-educational peace.

    I am wondering what would be involved in updating it to IOS 11 compatibility, and whether there is anyone here who would be interested in undertaking the task.

    My mother is happy to offer 50% of future revenues (which will otherwise be zero), but, honestly, that’s a small enough amount of money that it might not be worth the administrative hassle of setting up the transfer.

    Is this a feasible plan, or should I just let the app die?

    • actinide meta says:

      How many free downloads does it have? Do you have an engineering cost estimate for the iOS 11 port? Would your mother be willing to open source the app and make the full version free if others did (or paid for) the port?

      • pdbarnlsey says:

        I’d need to check the free download figures – ten of thousands, maybe?

        I have no idea about the engineering costs, that’s part of what I’m hoping to get a sense of. I would classify it as a “simple app”, but that’s based on little to no knowledge of it’s inner workings or of app design. If anyone is interested in eyeballing it, the app is “Profs’ Phonics” (there are multiple Profs, so the apostrophe placement is correct)

        She might be able to be talked into sacrificing all future revenue in return for a conversion. That’s a good suggestion, though ideally I’d like to see her continue to get something for her work, it’s possible I’m being unfair to the putative coder/the world.

        • actinide meta says:

          If the reason it doesn’t work on iOS 11 is just that it was built for 32 bit instead of 64 bit, it might be really easy to update. But this is not a convenient project for me to take on at this moment: I don’t actually have a working OS X machine.

          The reason I ask about open sourcing it is that it the private value may already be zero, whereas depending on the numbers it might have significant consumer surplus as a free thing. And there’s a chance other people might continue to update, improve on it or build on it later.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            Yes, my understanding is that it simply stopped working because of the move to 32 bit architecture. If that’s easy to fix then I would think this would be easy to fix too.

            I think most of the value from doing the conversion would accrue to third parties, and that’s fine. You may also be right that making it entirely free would generate significantly more, since the paywall seems to have reduced collective surplus, but it’s not necessarily my IP to give away…

          • Aqua says:

            This seems like it has potential, be careful not to sell yourself too short.

            I have an app with <10k downloads and it makes at least $10 per day through advertising (though it is a game so it's a bit different)

            Edit: ah I guess you can’t really advertise to kids. Not really sure what your monitization options are then. Sounds like there’s not much of a market.

          • Aapje says:

            I guess you can’t really advertise to kids.

            Why not? Lots of money gets spend on kids and quite a few advertisers want kids to ask the parents for their product.

          • Aqua says:

            Just not sure about the legal aspects, there’s definitely nuance.

            From wiki: “In the United Kingdom, Greece, Denmark, and Belgium advertising to children is restricted. In Norway and Quebec advertising to children under the age of 12 is illegal.”

            Assuming it is fair game in the main countries that have downloaded this app, I’d look into implementing admob or similar. That should help it generate some revenue.

    • Fossegrimen says:

      If you are willing to ship the code to my handle at icloud dot com, I’ll do a 10-minute appraisal of the actual work involved and post the result here.

      • pdbarnlsey says:

        That’s a kind offer, thank you. I’ll need to hunt the code down, so your response may end up being in a later open thread, which I assume doesn’t bother you too much.

  61. pdbarnlsey says:

    I haven’t studied the humanities since high school, but whenever I’m exposed to Shakespeare I’m consistently shocked at how obviously great his work is. In first year of university I encountered a strikingly beautiful turn of phrase in a judgement, and later discovered that it was a Shakespeare quote.

    That’s not quite your “in an aesthetic vacuum” test, since I’d read half a dozen plays and studied three of four formally by that point, but it’s close enough that I’m comfortable defending Shakespeare according to that standard, which I think is the right test for whether art is objectively good.

    More generally, I think a lot of stuff from the artistic canon probably holds up to the application of time and effort. Visual art, which I’m formally uneducated in, mostly looks beautiful and/or impressive when you stare at celebrated examples of it, though there are probably quite a few “emperor’s new clothes” examples floating around as well. I think Rodin, or Henry Moore, are noticeably better sculptors than a talented dabbler, but I might well be fooled by the work of the third or thirtieth best sculptor in a given genre. If I devoted more effort to systematising my knowledge of sculpture I’d improve that discernment, and only some of that would be my getting indoctrinated into that aesthetic assumptions of the field.

    Fine wine, and fine food generally, is an area where this gets debated a lot. People can learn to imperfectly but repeatably identify “good” wine in blind tastings, but how much of what they learn is just adopting an arbitrary aesthetic hierarchy, and how much of it would survive the need to reestablish all the assumed knowledge from scratch?

    My personal view is that the answer’s not “none of it” – there are fairly objective differences in wine quality – but neither is it “all of it” – some of what we praise a wine for is determined by free-standing founding assumptions about what “good wine” means. And I suspect the ratio is a little better for most other forms of art.

    • Evan Þ says:

      My first thoughts upon reading a play by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Marlow’s Faust) were “Wow, this can barely hold a candle to Shakespeare!”

      I probably would’ve been inclined to agree with you even before then, but that solidified my position.

      • quaelegit says:

        Wow. And Marlowe is usually considered “also one of the greats” — I’ve seen people claim “he would be better regarded than Shakespeare if he hadn’t died so young”. (NOT saying this is my opinion, AFAIK I haven’t read any Marlowe, but I have seen the claim.)

      • Mark says:

        It takes a while for writers to find their voice.

        Does early Shakespeare hold a candle to Shakespeare?

        I quite liked that speech by the moor at the end of Titus Andronicus, but I think it’s generally considered to be one of his weakest plays.

      • spkaca says:

        Agreed. Ben Jonson too – his best work is sort of meh next to Shakespeare.

        • JonathanD says:

          @spkaca, a possibly interesting point: According to the book I’m currently reading, after they’d both died, Ben Johnson spent about a century and a half being considered the greater figure, before the pendulum of taste returned to Shakespeare and rendered him the greatest English author.

    • johan_larson says:

      …whenever I’m exposed to Shakespeare I’m consistently shocked at how obviously great his work is.

      Yet even there, tastes differ. I was forced to study five of his plays in school, and for various reasons I have watched another two or three filmed or live performances. And he just consistently fails to impress me. It’s all sort of meh.

      It’s a bit strange that there can be such a range of opinion, isn’t it? Two thoughtful and educated fellows would not disagree to such an extent about whether something is heavy or blue, but they are right now disagreeing about whether the most celebrated playwright in English is even any good.

      It seems to me this sort of disagreements condemns the study of aesthetics to hopeless vagueness. If it is honest, it has to be a matter with tendencies, correlations, and gradients, rather than clear measures and judgements of quality.

      • There is good poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, but if I were judging him by the sonnets alone I would not rank him as an important poet. Millay, to take one example, writes what I see as much better ones.

      • pdbarnlsey says:

        Two thoughtful and educated fellows would not disagree to such an extent

        This would appear to beg the question.

        (I kid, I kid. But I do kinda feel you’re at least a bit wrong not to at least respect some objective aspects of the quality of Shakespeare’s work, even if it’s not for you. I feel much the same about mid-period Taylor Swift, for what it’s worth)

  62. Bugmaster says:

    One big problem with literary fiction, IMO, is that it requires the reader to be intimately familiar with the cultural context of society, as it existed at the time and place where the book was written. This makes the book increasingly inaccessible to future generations, since in order to comprehend it one must study history. On the plus side, this process can be quite rewarding, since the dedicated reader is virtually guaranteed to actually learn something.

    Science Fiction and Fantasy sidestep this problem by inventing fictional societies. True, they still allude to the contemporary social issues of the day, but it’s still possibly to enjoy those books without taking a 4-year course on e.g. pre-Revolutionary Russian history. This makes genre books much more accessible, although admittedly less educational.

    • quaelegit says:

      Well it’s true you need to learn a lot to enjoy the book in the same way its original audience did, but there’s nothing to stop you from enjoying it in a new way. I mean, usually it’s easier to get the current people to enjoy an adaption/reboot/retelling, but some people still read and enjoy the original. I genuinely enjoyed some of the Canterbury tales I read in my high school Brit Lit class, even though I don’t know much about 13th century England. (We only read 3~4, and I didn’t like all of them, but I did really like at least one, don’t remember which unfortunately.)

      Edit: or maybe a better example is John Donne. (Well, I know quite a bit more about Early Modern England, but man I love Donne’s poetry.)

      • Bugmaster says:

        I’m not too familiar with John Donne, but personally I’ve found the Canterbury Tales totally impossible to even understand without at least a short history lesson. Shakespeare is hit or miss; for example, the major points of e.g. The Tempest are relatively easy to understand; but once you get down into the topical humor and the political commentary (which feels like 75% of his plays, to be honest), you’d better learn what all the allusions mean, or you’ll miss out on most of the content. I think that most of classical Russian literature is the same.

      • I found Tom Sawyer pretty incomprehensible as a young kid.

        • Evan Þ says:

          How young? I read it around age ten or eleven or so, and really liked it.

          Huck Finn was really hard to understand then, though.

  63. Protagoras says:

    Yes, I think I would have considerably better than chance odds of selecting The Brothers Karamazov over random works by lesser 19th century Russian novelists. I am not confident I would choose a Picasso at better than chance out of a selection of his contemporaries, but then I do not pretend to be as sophisticated in assessing paintings as in assessing novels. I don’t know that your bigger questions can be reasonably answered in a comment, but apparently we disagree about the answer to the narrower question.

    • quaelegit says:

      Seems to me like if you have a selection of 10,000 Russian novels a lot of them would count as “great”. No idea if that would be twenty, two hundred, or two thousand, but a lot more than one. (Ok probably not 2k).

      And why do we need to be able determine “greatness” to a granularity of 1 in 75? I can see why society/a group of people would find an objective measure of “greatness” useful at a level of “some of these 75 things are really good, and some aren’t”, but I don’t see why the “good” group has to reduce to 1 (and the same 1 for every person). Going from Sturgeons law, I guess 10% is a decent portion, but since people experience “Different Worlds” (referencing Scott’s post) I also don’t see why everyone’s 10% would or should overlap completely.

    • I don’t see any obvious way to actually test this.

      Take some literature that the experimental subject is entirely unfamiliar with–for many people that could Chinese or Portuguese or Icelandic–but many of whose works have been translated into the subject’s language. See if he can pick out the ones viewed, by people who are familiar with the literature, as great.

      You could even do it for works in the subject’s own culture, provided you first eliminated any great works he had read and altered the titles of great works he had not read so he wouldn’t recognize them. My guess is that I haven’t read and wouldn’t recognize a fair fraction of what are considered great English language novels.

      Even easier for poetry, given how few people actually know much beyond a few standard works.

      • quaelegit says:

        That might be a fair test of a work’s standalone quality, but I don’t think that’s what matters to most people — they care about how great a work is in its cultural context. Who cares if “relatively unknown classic Chinese novel X” is objectively better than “Romance in the Three Kingdoms” to someone ignorant of Chinese literature? Since Romance has so much culture built around it that increases it’s enjoyment beyond the book itself. [Edit: I’m assuming this is the case for Romance. A specific example from my experience — I got a definite thrill from recognizing famous lines when I read his plays in high school that had nothing to do with the plays’ objective quality.]

        Well, an outsider who is unaware of Chinese culture would care about this test, but then we’re getting into “greatest books for which audience” and down the rabbit whole of “everything is relative”…

        …argh, I feel like I’m not making this point well. I think QuoQuoQuo2 might be making my point better but I need to re-read their post.

      • Alethenous says:

        How well something comes across in translation may not map very well to the quality of the original work; the actual Aeneid is noticeably better than the best translations of the Aeneid.

      • kaakitwitaasota says:

        Take some literature that the experimental subject is entirely unfamiliar with–for many people that could Chinese or Portuguese or Icelandic

        I’d rank The Maias as my personal favorite novel, and I’d say it’s absolutely one of the 19th century’s greats. But then again, I speak Portuguese.

        (There’s an excellent translation into English by Margaret Jull Costa. If you’re looking for good Christmas-break reading, you could certainly do worse).

      • JayT says:

        It would seem to me that using paintings would be the easiest way to test this. For one, a person can decide fairly quickly whether or not they think it is a masterpiece, and secondly there is a whole lot of great (as well as mediocre) art filling up museums that most people wouldn’t recognize, so it would be fairly easy to come up with a sample set.

        Poetry and music would probably be fairly easy as well, except that most people today don’t even like the best offerings of poetry or classical music. The problem with books is that it would be very hard to find sample subjects willing to read multiple thousand page novels that aren’t known to be good.

  64. Alethenous says:

    Did anyone read that “postmodernism for rationalists” PDF on Scott’s Tumblr?

    I tried very hard to be charitable, and it feels ridiculously arrogant to dismiss a whole huge intellectual movement in one fell swoop, but… I ain’t buying it.

    • pdbarnlsey says:

      A lot of postmodernism boils down to the perfectly-reasonable observation that “this is all very complicated”.

      While that’s almost-always true, it’s a pretty slender threat from which to hang an academic movement. I’ve yet to be all that persuaded by the kinds of extra things that get bolted-on in order to make “it’s complicated” into an academic career. Often it just seems like saying “it’s complicated” in much longer and more obscurantist ways.

      • cassander says:

        I’m not sure it’s a slender thread at all. It gives you huge licence to tear down other academics, especially dead ones that can no longer defend themselves. After all, your dissertation can’t just read “Yep, we’re still pretty sure that X was right about everything.”

      • wearsshoes says:

        Heterodox viewpoint: I view the good parts of postmodernism/critical theory as a sort of philosophical vanguard. You can’t prove anything by pomo methods, but nevertheless you can gain a lot of distinct insights, some of which hopefully make their way down to the more substantial fields of study.

        I have this distinction between the terms “cutting edge” and “bleeding edge.” Cutting edge is being at the front of an established field of inquiry, making intellectual advances in the context of a well defined methodological structure. Bleeding edge is the part immediately beyond the cutting edge – the weird zone in which currently unknowable things are coalescing into problems that can actually be solved. Extending the metaphor, the cutting edge is sharp and accurate, the bleeding edge is messy as hell.

        The ability to tear down anything, including everything your colleagues say, is useful here, because the freedom to pick and choose theoretical foundations allows you to describe aspects of phenomena which seem inconsistent. Consider as an analogy mathematicians using novel axioms or non-well-founded set theories to derive surprising results.

        I think that in this space which is currently not particularly amenable to scientific resolutions, postmodernist notions like unknowability and irreducibility have some intellectual advantage, whereas elsewhere they might just be obscurantist. Being able to grapple with questions that are not well formed and bring them into academic discourse is really useful.

        For example, in one class we read about how the data structure of a proposed GPS-linked digital archive interacted with indigenous Karrabing epistemologies and notions of access to knowledge, asking the reader to question what social relations are implicitly and explicitly embedded into data structures. (Povinelli, Elizabeth A. Geontologies: A requiem to late liberalism. Duke University Press, 2016.) Also, compare this to qntm’s analysis of marriage databases and Obergefell v. Hodges. Frankly I find Povinelli’s writing insufferable in comparison to qntm, but it also covers a much broader range of postulations.

        Or consider from another class Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” which asks us to reimagine the author not as an individual, but as a function in social discourse about literature. (Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?.” Contributions in Philosophy 83 (2001): 9-22.) This is entirely about the map and not the territory – it’s about the attributes assigned to an abstract author and not about a person who writes books. This chance in conception allows us to rederive other conclusions: for example, the notion of intellectual property relies on the author as a means by which preceding ideas within a discourse are transformed into works of literature. Man, I wish this stuff was easier to describe, and instead I’m using a mix of rationalist, critical, and mathematical vocabularies and hopefully this makes sense to someone.

        To be fair, there is the tendency of postmodernists to fall into the whole “this is due entirely to patriarchy/colonialism/capitalism, and the only possible solution is revolution” deadend. That’s not super useful even to a leftist like me, nor is the slowness at which the liberal arts get on board with scientific consensus, which seems to me an artifact of pre-digital scholarship.


      • Deiseach says:

        I think Post-Modernism is, as it says, a reaction to Modernism, which means that it’s fighting battles long over in some areas, and isn’t quite aware that it is now the status quo that has to be challenged.

        What the new rebel on the block is, I have no idea; post-post-modernism seems like too jokey a notion. But that there is some new academic movement/fad out there is a certainty.

        • Aapje says:

          What the new rebel on the block is, I have no idea

          Doing science properly aka fixing the replication crisis?

          • TentativeQuestioning says:

            Or (from a completely different angle) maybe something like Reconstructivism?

          • Aapje says:


            This ideology involves recombining or recontextualizing the ideas arrived at by the philosophy of deconstruction, in which an existing system or medium is broken into its smallest meaningful elements and in which these elements are used to build a new system or medium free from the strictures of the original.

            Sounds like revolution to me.

            This is a really bad idea, if only for the simple reason that we cannot predict how well the reconstructed system will work. The idea that we can casually shift between systems is also false, as is evident when people try to turn countries into a Western-style secular democratic nation state. This didn’t work out very well in Russia, Iraq, Turkey, etc. As such, strongly favoring evolution over revolution seems the rational course of action.

            I also don’t think that a government that is designed like the governmental equivalent of this will function very well.

        • John Nerst says:

          There are several terms like that but “metamodernism” is my favorite. It’s hard to find a good canonical explanation but this is pretty ok.

    • John Nerst says:

      Disclaimer: not an expert, just an enthusiast. Salt to taste.

      It was OK, but when I saw the title I expected something more. It was a standard introduction to postmodernism, with the same shortcomings they usually have. Not one unusually well suited to rationalists.

      The thing is, most rationalists are science-minded, systematizing types. And as such, they tend to take “reality” to mean physical reality. The world is a physical place.

      The postmodernist doesn’t see it that way. “Social reality” is considered to be what we actually live in, with physical reality hidden under so many layers it’s practically irrelevant. This is kind of a basic assumption, and if you don’t buy that it’s all going to be unconvincing.

      The presentation does contain a good example: when Nietzsche says that God is dead he isn’t talking about a fact of physical reality but that a whole system of social reality, a set of mutually reinforcing narratives, institutions and traditions has broken down.

      Postmodernism is the idea that there is not one correct social reality. Not one correct story to tell about life, society and everything (note the human-centeredness, it’s about everything in humans’ lives, not in the universe). No objective morality, no inexorable progress etc. It’s story-focused, which is something that needs to be made very clear, because rationalists tend not to be. (I.e “science is only one of many valid systerms of knowledge” doesn’t so much mean that everything is as true, but that science doesn’t have greater rights to write the stories our social world is running on.)

      If premodernism takes social reality (morality, institutions, practices, etc.) for granted, modernism thinks we can make it right through rationality and ingenuity (high modernist rectangle aesthetics is a manifestation of this). Postmodernism thinks there is no such right thing. That doesn’t mean everything is equally good but pm tends to waffle on this because it’s primary purpose is direction-pushing criticism of premodernism and modernism.

      It’s about maps, basically, and much of pm is just the application of “the map is not the territory” over and over again. In this way, pm is quite compatible with rationality and lots of LW writing and many of Scott’s posts picking apart concepts and demonstrating the arbitrariness of narratives (not to mention the critiques of scientific practice) is very pomo-like.

      While TMINTT is a big deal in science, it’s an enormous, world-shattering deal in the humanities. And I think that many humanists tend to think it’s an equally world-shattering deal for the sciences and wonder how scientists can be so native as to think they can actually find something out.

      Ironically, I think postmodernism would look a lot stronger if it applied it’s criticisms to itself and recognized that it’s a limited perspective too, applicable to some things but less so to others. Pm has a lot to say about pop culture, values etc. It has somewhat useful things to say about the sciences, and as the harder the science and the closer we get to the territory, the less a system of though dealing only with maps has to say.

      As a result postmodernism glosses over the territory, throws an “of course it’s practically beneficial to trust science” off occasionally while being seemingly uninterested in talking about why. That’s ok, everything can’t be about everything. When aiming towards rationalists and the science-minded, it’s extra important to be open about that: “this is mostly, and centrally, about things that aren’t central in your worldview”.

      Apologies if this is incoherent, I have no time to edit, on my way to work.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        What a charmed life you’d need to have for physical reality to be under so many layers of social reality that it’s practically irrelevant to you. No having to grow your own food, no concern about access to clean water, no genetic diseases shortening your life and causing an atypically high need for medical intervention…

        • John Nerst says:

          Would you say it’s an unfair description of the postmodernist mindset?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            No, I would say it’s fair!

          • John Nerst says:

            Regardless of how fair it is and how reasonable it is to think that way, I’ve found that what they say makes a lot more sense if interpreted against that background.

            It also helps to consider that the map-territory relation goes both ways. Our maps are influenced by reality, obviously, and science tries to make that influence as direct as possible. The humanities have tried the same, historically, but found out that they can’t get the same results as physics. It’s too complicated, and maps are as a result a choice.

            (Lots of pomo writing seems to be restatements of this in different contexts and with lots of wordplay to illustrate that meaning isn’t fixed and verbal statements therefore not definitively attached to reality.)

            That puts focus on the other part of the relation: how maps influence reality (Scott joked about this in Unsong, a highly postmodern book). They do simply because ideas affect human actions, and human actions reshape the world. Think of postmodernism and related ideas as focusing only on that part of the relation and basically acting like the other doesn’t exist, and it does make sense.

            Combining “maps are choices” with “maps affect reality” naturally leads to the conclusion that knowledge has political dimensions and claims of objectivity therefore means a push for political power. Again, this has extremely varied applicability, and it’s easy to go overboard with it if you have an ax to grind.

          • Peter says:

            I read Unsong, and various of Scott’s other writings, as being (among other things[1]) a satire on the idea of the world being made of words, a way of pointing out how silly the idea is.

            [1] E.g. A lot of stuff to do with The Comet King is about EA, and could work just as well in a world not made of words.

          • John Nerst says:

            Oh I agree. I was thinking mostly about a particular joke where a town first appeared on a map and as a result later became founded.

            The book is postmodern in other ways (playing with narrative conventions, mixing styles and elements, etc).

          • Peter says:

            One thing: when people use postmodern as an adjective it’s not always clear whether they’re referring to postmodernism or postmodernity; as I understand it, the former purports to understand the latter. By my reckoning, Unsong might be “postmodern” in the “of postmodernity” sense, but not in the “embodying postmodernism” sense.

            Of course, various sorts of people could say “there’s no postmodernity, only postmodernity” (or vice versa) but just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean people won’t try to talk about it. See also: “Dark Ages”.

          • John Nerst says:

            True, I meant “of postmodernity” when talking about Unsong.

        • 1soru1 says:

          Use a smartphone app to record an average day. Press button A every time you have to make a high level mental decision based on physical reality or math. Press button B for the same based on social construction.

          For example, ‘how fast can my car stop?’ is A, ‘what is the speed limit?’ is B, just routinely driving without thinking about it is neither (because obviously, every time you move your limbs you are kind of doing physics, but not really). ‘what is the growing season for artichokes?’ is A, ‘which supermarket selss them cheapest?’ is B.

          Predictions: B >> A. In modern society, outside certain specialist (and mostly high status) jobs, A will rarely be non-zero. The thing is, nevertheless a society that set speed limits in contradiction with how long it took cars to stop would have a problem.

          • Peter says:

            Thing about artichokes: there’s a large amount of behind-the-scenes infrastructure that makes not worrying about the growing season on artichokes possible for the average consumer in a supermarket. “Which supermarket sells them cheapest”, well, there are a variety of factors which will affect the price of artichokes, including the efficiency of growing, storing and distributing the things, and different supermarkets will be plumbed into different parts of the infrastructure.

            Of course, if supermarket A has cheaper artichokes than supermarket B, it’s not straighforwardly obvious whether this is because A has better trucks or more aggressive negotiators, or whether A is using artichokes as a loss-leader, and B is using the artichokes as a profit-maker and something else as their loss-leader.

            Routinely driving without thinking; people only get to be able to routinely drive without thinking because they’ve practised, practise comes in with obedience to the speed limits, the speed limits exist because cars take a while to stop, and hit harder when they’re going faster. So in a sense, all three things are about A.

            Hey, wait, you say. Aren’t speed limits kinda variable from country to country, and that variation doesn’t necessarily reflect variation in the slipperiness of roads, quality of break pads, response time of ambulances etc.? Indeed. The chain from unarguably-brute-physical-reality[1] is long and indirect, and furthermore often quite tangled and elastic, so on the margin a lot of the differences we see might not be due to differences in brute-physical-reality, but due to unarguably-social things. The further you extrapolate from that margin, the more ridiculous the consequences of any “all is social” assumption will be.

            [1] Of course, people like me also think that thought is ultimately physical too, I typically roll my eyes at phrases such as “historical materialism”, the thoughts in everyone else’s heads that mean I can exchange my cash for goods and services are physical, but hey…

          • dodrian says:

            the speed limits exist because cars take a while to stop, and hit harder when they’re going faster. So in a sense, all three things are about A.

            Of course, the reason why we set speed limits [hopefully] based on sound principles of stopping distances etc is because we want to protect people and communities from being hit by poor drivers. It’s because we place value on peoples’ lives, and to a lesser but significant extent, on property as well. Which brings us back to B.

          • Peter says:

            Well of course. But whichever way, A is a critical part of the chain, and can’t be ignored, and no amount of additional B can dilute it out of existence. Sure, there can be a division of labour where some people look at A and some look only at B, or someone looks at A while learning and B when proficient, but still, someone looks at A.

            Ah, you might say, but if B is at the beginning of the chain, surely it can be uprooted, surely we can eliminate the need to think about A. But that would be changing the subject…

          • Montfort says:

            Press button A every time you have to make a high level mental decision based on physical reality or math… outside certain specialist (and mostly high status) jobs, A will rarely be non-zero

            I would also predict B>A. But as for A = 0:
            “How long until my next appointment? Do I have enough time to do X beforehand?”
            “How much would it cost to buy X and Y?”
            “Which of these is cheapest per volume?”
            “Do I have enough X to bake Y for 3 people?”
            “Do I have enough food for the rest of the week, or should I buy more groceries?”
            “Is this change correct?”

            “Am I sober/awake/well enough to drive?” – arguable, since obviously many people decide based on social reality, but it’s real reality that determines how likely you are to survive your decision. I guess, in light of that, it’s not totally clear to me what you mean by “hav[ing] to” make a decision on one basis or another.

          • Getting back to the important part, the cheap place to buy artichokes is Costco.

          • 1soru1 says:

            What’s interesting about the list above is that about half of them are real inherent constraints, and half of them are a result of a societal decision to use mathematics for a particular thing, typically because it is already taught in school. Which, in turn, is a decision you can go back in history and say ‘this person made it on such and such a day as part of a deal between such and such a political factions’.

            For example, there is no inherent reason for the price of X + Y to be equal to the price of X plus the price of Y. In fact, commonly X + X + X = 2X.

            You could perhaps define modernism as ‘the social convention of using reality as a justification for social conventions’.

          • Montfort says:

            For example, there is no inherent reason for the price of X + Y to be equal to the price of X plus the price of Y. In fact, commonly X + X + X = 2X.

            I see your point for a single seller, but if I’m buying a cord of wood from one guy, and pint of beer from another guy across town, that pretty much has to cost the sum of the individual prices.

          • Peter says:

            Prices: “no inherent reason for the price of X + Y to be equal to the price of X plus the price of Y. In fact, commonly X + X + X = 2X.”

            On the one hand, BOGOF (EDIT: oops, no, not BOGOF, 3-for-2. Silly me.) exists. On the other hand, BOGOF is what they call a “special offer”, an exception to the normal rules. In particular, you can’t stack your BOGOF: (X+X+X)+(X+X+X)+(X+X+X) != 4X.
            There are strong reasons for the price of X + Y to be equal to the price of X plus the price of Y, occasionally overridden by stronger reasons for the price to be somewhat otherwise. Even then, the price isn’t usually too far f