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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856 Responses to OT87: Ulpian Thread

  1. Well... says:

    Hi fellow SSCers!

    Please take 5-10 minutes to complete this fun survey, made especially for you! It asks lots of random-ish questions to see if any odd/interesting patterns stand out about SSC readers. The point is to look for things that might not turn up in one of Scott’s regular surveys.

    My plan is to leave the survey up for a month or two and try and report the results back early next year.

    Scott, if you like the survey and want to signal-boost it that would be awesome.

    Thanks everyone!

    • shakeddown says:

      One of the questions has “my degree was neccessary in a strict sense for my career” and “my degree wasn’t necessary, even in a loose sense”. What’s the answer if your degree was necessary in a loose sense? What do you say if it’s an official required but not used much day-to-day?

      • Placid Platypus says:

        Similarly, on the question about adolescent career expectations, it could help to have an option for “when I was an adolescent I had no clue what I would do for a career.”

        And “severely dislike” is pretty vague.

      • Hyzenthlay says:

        Yeah, I would’ve appreciated a few more options there. My degree was not strictly necessary for my career but it is related.

        Also, for the cooking question, I wished there was another option between “I can only make a few simple things” and “I am enthusiastic about my cooking.” Maybe, “I am generally pretty competent at cooking but not enthusiastic.”

        • JayT says:

          My issue with the cooking one was that I don’t believe that I am as good as any restaurant chef, but I do believe that I am as good as _most_ restaurant chefs. So I went with the “enthusiastic” option, but I don’t feel that is quite at the level I consider myself.

          • Lasagna says:

            I didn’t think of that. I went with “enthusiastic” too, but really, if we’re talking ALL chefs rather than just hoity-toity chefs, I probably stack up OK. I know my way around a kitchen.

            Now I’m hungry, and I blame you.

          • Randy M says:

            For that one, I’d say honestly I can only cook a few meals (without looking up recipes) but those usually turn out really well. And while I like the results, generally I’d prefer to have it done for me, all other things being equal.

          • Well... says:

            That’s good feedback, thanks. I’ll make sure to be super transparent when I report the data.

          • Zorgon says:

            I went with “enthusiastic” but with the meta of “Wildly enthusiastic cook where people tell me it’s good but I have a perverse inability to accept praise in this limited domain.”

      • Well... says:


        I’m going to hit reply to your comment since it’s first, but in the interest of consolidation and not cutting and pasting my answers all over the thread I’m going to try and answer all the comments right here:

        I didn’t include absolutely every possible option in the multiple choice questions, in the interest of making the survey not quite so long. I know this means some people will find themselves sort of stuck between two options or not close to any of them. Please try to choose the one that you think fits best anyway.

        Except where the choices have some linear relationship between them, they have been randomized.

        By “Droid” I meant Android. Sorry, I should have researched that one better, I thought they were called Droids. (Clearly I live under a rock.)

        I considered linking each hat type to a picture of one but I wasn’t sure how Google Forms would handle that, so I figured if people weren’t sure they could look it up themselves.

        • Jiro says:

          I didn’t include absolutely every possible option in the multiple choice questions, in the interest of making the survey not quite so long.

          You don’t have to include “every option”, you have to include “a set of options with complete coverage”. You’re doing the equivalent of making people pick whether their car is brown or blue. Someone with a black car is going to have trouble answering the question.

          • Well... says:

            I hope none of the questions do the equivalent of that. I do understand that some of the questions might do something almost a little like that. In those cases I hope respondents will try to be flexible and forgive my failure to include a choice that maps better for them.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I suggest that future surveys include “I wish to complain about this question”, possibly as an option separate from the other answers.

            Questions that get a lot of “I wish to complain”s should be considered to be of dubious validity.

          • Well... says:

            That’s a good idea. I’ll do that next time.

          • Forge the Sky says:

            @Nancy That’s a really cool idea actually, I’ve not seen it implemented.

            Possible issue is that some people might use it just as an ‘out’ on questions they’re not sure how to answer on personal-uncertainty grounds rather that question-formulation grounds. But likely worth it, so long as clear instructions on how to properly use that function are included at the beginning of the survey.

          • Aapje says:

            @Forge the Sky

            If you still have to answer the question, that would avoid the ‘easy out’ issue.

          • Well... says:

            Yeah I think I would still implement the survey as is (with all current questions required) but add an optional single-checkbox question after each required question, saying something like “Please check this box if you had so much trouble answering the question above that you do not think your answer is accurate or reliable.”

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Possible issue is that some people might use it just as an ‘out’ on questions they’re not sure how to answer on personal-uncertainty grounds rather that question-formulation grounds.

            Why not just make the questions optional? It was obnoxious how every single question was REQUIRED YOU MUST ANSWER TO CONTINUE, I get it I get it let me finish filling in the bubbles Google before you start harassing me

          • Well... says:

            I don’t like the way Google Forms implements their surveys, and that is one of the reasons.

            Surveymonkey is much better but I think they limit the number of responses you can collect without a paid account. Qualtrics limits them even with a paid account.

    • fortybot says:

      Are the answers randomly ordered?

    • ManyCookies says:

      Wait what’s a manual transmission?

      Interesting survey, is this related to the last Open Thread topic about technology?

    • toastengineer says:

      “Did you rebel against your parents” question ought to have an “I had no parents\parents had no expectations of me” \parents were actively hostile” option.

      • Deiseach says:

        Ah, you’re taking “rebelling against parents” to include “did not live up to their expectations”? I didn’t, which is why I put down “didn’t rebel” – I took it as more of an active disagreement. Under your metric, I merely quietly failed to attain what they considered desirable, but this wasn’t planned rebelliousness, it was plain being too stupid and unable to do it.

        • Hyzenthlay says:

          I wasn’t totally sure what counted as “rebellion” either. Like, there were times when I pushed back against my parents’ wishes but eventually caved in. (I didn’t want to go to college, for instance, despite having good grades.)

          There were also times when I did stuff I knew they wouldn’t approve of (or at least would be uncomfortable with) but successfully kept it private, so it was never really an issue. I didn’t think of it as “rebelling” so much as wanting to avoid unnecessary drama.

          Still, I picked “rebelled in a few narrow and unusual ways.”

        • toastengineer says:

          I was saying “what if it was logically impossible to rebel against your parents because they just didn’t give a shit in the first place.” Or if your parents just were never involved in your life at all.

          I was thinking “rebellion” as in doing stupid things in order to assert “I am a free individual, and will not always do the things you want me to;” those actions usually being stupid because it’s assumed that your parents want you to do what’s best for you.

          Based on that definition I figured you can’t rebel against abusive parents either, since if it did, the most reasonable course of action, or just continuing to live at all would count as “rebellion.”

          It’s weird to me how most people take parents caring about their children as a given, but then again it took me a while to figure out that most people don’t consider their parents a threat.

    • quaelegit says:

      >Parents and divorce – select the statement that is most true for you. *

      My parents might be in the process of separating/divorcing, so Idk whether to put the first option (no), last option (when I was 19 or older), or wait to take this survey in a few months/years when this has been resolved 🙁

      >How rebellious were you as an adolescent? *
      Yes, finally a place where I can proudly declare how non-rebellious a teenager I was!! 😛

      >How would you rate your cooking? (Select the answer that fits best.) *
      Well I can make more than “a few simple things” (I’ve rarely had problems following even complicated recipes), but 99% of the time I’m too cheap/lazy to put in effort to make something that would impress people. So I guess the “simple things” option it is.

      >Rate your parallel parking skills: (Be honest!) (Choose 1 if you can’t drive/don’t drive.) *

      Oh man, I was SO GOOD at parallel parking in high school, but I hardly drove at all in college and now I’m merely passable.

      >Do you use a standing desk at work? (For this question, do not count cash registers, workbenches, etc. as “desks”.) *

      I would use my standing desk but I’m afraid people will catch me reading SSC >.> Does anyone else have this problem?


      This was fun! I’m only commenting with some of my responses here because they don’t fit into the survey, and I wanted to share them anyways. I don’t think that’s a problem with the survey (the real world is complicated and cannot always be reduced into a small number of answer options).

    • ahartntkn says:

      For the phone question, does “A Droid” mean an android, or a Droid specifically, which is a kind of Android phone made by Motorola? I assumed you meant androids in general, but the question is confusing, and I’ve personally never heard Android, in general, referred to as just “Droid” before.

      • fion says:

        I was also confused by this.

      • tocny says:

        “Droid” used to be a pretty common synonym for Android, just like Samsung is now-a-days. Back in Android’s early days, many of the more popular Android phones among the non-technical audience were branded as Droids, and that sort of stuck for a long time.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Looks interesting; looking forward to seeing the results.

    • Seppo says:

      Trivia: I used to be one of the people for whom cilantro tastes exactly like soap. I’m told this is supposed to be genetic, but in my case it just sort of went away at some point?

      • Ketil says:

        I was going to ask: does anybody else think Jerusalem artichoke tastes like candlewax? Or is it just me?

        But then I had to google the name, and its etymology is pretty weird. Apparently, the “Jerusalem” part is derived from Italian “girasol”, meaning sunflower (to which this native North American plant is related), and artichoke is because of the (alleged) flavor.

        For Scandinavians, the name “jordskokk” which translates to “earth”+”crowd, throng”, although vaguely appropriate, is probably derived from (a contraction of) the American name (maybe because “Jorsal” being an archaic Scandinavisism for Jerusalem?)

        (When it comes to the survey, I guess I am more enthusiastic about language than about cooking?)

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I regret that it wasn’t possible to say that I really like a number of those foods.

    • JulieK says:

      Looks interesting!

      Re hats: Is a pageboy hat, a newsboy hat? Is a hat with band, a hat with a brim? (Just curious; I already checked “other” for my snood.)

    • JulieK says:

      Should I pretend the dishwasher question is asking about the draining racks for my hand-washed dishes? (The one for plates and larger items is on top, though.)

    • TheEternallyPerplexed says:

      Some questions are dubious…
      If the throwing question aims at right/left-handedness, better ask so directly. Example why: I am severely lefty but always throw with the right arm.
      Why must the country music taste be mutually exclusive? I like Johnny Cash as well as Big and Rich.
      Do silverfishes and the occasional spider preying on them count as pet insects, if they are not actively fought against? (OK, just kidding)

      Do you correlate technology with age? In ye good ol’ days™ we dinna hae no fancy automagic, we were alway stirn’ da diesel!

      • Sabiola says:

        I also am a lefty who throws with her right arm.

      • Well... says:

        I didn’t ask “lefty” or “righty” directly because the number of people who say “Well I was naturally left-handed but they taught me to write with my right and now I do everything with my right hand,” seems like it would be way larger than the number of people who throw with the wrong hand, since throwing requires so much coordination all along the body and there’s less social taboo about which hand you throw with than with which hand you write or eat or shake hands or wipe your butt with.

        I’m actually surprised to learn there are people who throw with the wrong hand. Would you say you throw well?

        • TheEternallyPerplexed says:

          My throwing is really bad. With any of the available arms.

        • schazjmd says:

          I’m another lefty who throws (and does other strength/gross motor tasks) with the right. I bowl and bat right-handed; I fire a gun left-handed and shoot an arrow right-handed, but can also switch those without too much loss of accuracy. I write left-handed and knead bread dough right-handed. I’m unable to throw a dart properly with either hand.

          Are there still people who were forced to switch writing hands in childhood?

          • Well... says:

            Are there still people who were forced to switch writing hands in childhood?

            Yes, many of those people are still alive and I expect some read this blog.

            I don’t think preschools/kindergartens/grade schools still force left-handed kids to write right-handed, though a few out there might.

          • Dissonant Cognizance says:

            Your post describes me pretty much exactly, and here I thought I was weird.

            It was pretty much a non-issue my entire life, though, until getting a VR set. VR shooters like Onward let you set your dominant (shooting) hand, but some of them also restrict your grenade and flare throws to that hand, so I have to make do with a weak underhand lob to clear a room.

        • lvlln says:

          I’m a natural lefty who was forced to learn to write righty from fairly young. At least for me, your speculation doesn’t apply – in learning to write righty, virtually everything else followed, including throwing, eating, kicking, looking through a camera viewfinder, and wiping my butt with my right hand/leg/eye. I answered the question in the survey with “left,” because that’s my “natural” throwing arm in the sense that without intentional intervention by other humans I would have a better throw with my left arm than my right, but I haven’t been able to throw as well with my left arm as I could with my right arm for over 2 decades now.

        • JayT says:

          Many natural right handers are taught to throw lefty in the hopes of having a baseball career. About 20% of the left handed pitchers in the game are natural right handers.

          • Well... says:

            Wow, really? Where’s that stat from? I know a paleoanthropologist who would be interested in it.

          • JayT says:

            It’s behind a paywall, but this site:

            Lets you sort a ton of different stats. I used it to find out how many left handed pitchers there are in the league, and then I sorted to find out how many of those pitchers bat right handed.

            There is no reason for a natural lefty to bat righty because a left handed batter has an advantage. For example, it’s so rare for a position player to throw left and bat right that there has only been about 12 position players since 1901 to do that.
            In comparison, about 20% of left handed pitchers bat right handed.

            Obviously, this isn’t completely scientific, but adding that in with the fact that it is something that is just “known” around the game makes me believe that if anything, that 20% number might be on the low side.

          • Well... says:

            I want to dismiss it with “Maybe those pitchers bat righty just because that’s how they were taught–the people who coached them recognized them as pitchers and were careful to make sure they learned to throw really well with their natural arm, but when it came to batting they got handed off to generic (mostly right-handed) coaches who just found it easier to teach them to bat righty,” but that seems like a stretch.

            It should be easy to find out if any of those pitchers have confirmed it in interviews. Even just a few confirmations would be remarkable. Can you post a partial or full list of names of those pitchers?

            PS. What’s the rate of first basemen who throw lefty and bat righty? Seems like they also have an incentive to learn to throw lefty, although not quite as strong an incentive as a pitcher, plus people usually don’t focus on first base until later in their careers, so I could see that as a confound.

            ETA: https://switchpitching.blogspot.com

          • lvlln says:

            That does seem like a stretch, since batting lefty is also considered an advantage like JayT said, and every batting coach knows this, which means it’s highly unlikely that a batting coach will cause someone to bat righty even if their natural motion is lefty.

            One factor, though, is that batting from the opposite side isn’t harder for everyone than batting from the proper side. In high school I had a classmate who was righty but naturally preferred to bat lefty, because when you bat lefty, you lead with your right arm, and he found that having better control and power on that leading arm was more helpful to him. That kind of phenomenon may partly explain the high amount of lefty pitchers who bat righty.

            And the difference in rates between pitchers and position players might have at least some to do with batting coaches being more likely to make lefty position players bat lefty for the advantage, but not caring so much about gaining that advantage for a pitcher and just letting them work on whatever they’re more comfortable with. Forcing a lefty position player to switch his batting from righty to lefty could be hard but be very much worth it for the offensive advantage, but with a pitcher, it’s no less difficult for far less advantage.

          • JayT says:

            I think one way to check their natural handedness would be to do an image search of ” signing autographs”, and see what hand they write with. I tried this with the 38 guys that are currently in the league, and for the ones I was able to find pictures of, the right-handed writers more than doubled the lefties, 14-6. The rest I couldn’t confirm from the pictures. I also looked at the top ten throws left/bats left pitchers in the game, and four of the top ten signed with their right hand.

            Here’s a list of all the throws left/bats right players in the league this year.

            Andrew Albers
            Antonio Bastardo
            Chad Bell
            Ty Blach
            Madison Bumgarner
            Brett Cecil
            Andrew Chafin
            Wei-Yin Chen
            Matt Dermody
            Josh Edgin
            Sam Freeman
            Amir Garrett
            Gio Gonzalez
            David Holmberg
            T.J. House
            Jack Leathersich
            Boone Logan
            Sean Manaea
            Steven Matz
            Adalberto Mejia
            Mike Minor
            Chris O’Grady
            Tyler Olson
            James Pazos
            Drew Pomeranz
            Jose Quintana
            Enny Romero
            Zac Rosscup
            Hyun-Jin Ryu
            Hector Santiago
            Tanner Scott
            Caleb Smith
            Sammy Solis
            Matt Strahm
            Tyler Webb
            Alex Wood
            Travis Wood
            Rob Zastryzny

      • S_J says:

        About right-handed vs. left-handed: I am right-handed, and right-eye-dominant.

        I have a friend who is right-handed, and left-eye-dominant.

        When I used to join him at duck-hunting, he used his shotgun as if he was left-handed.

        I assume you were just looking at basic right/left handedness.

        But I wonder how common cross-eye-dominance is in the SSC readership. I also wonder if left-handedness is over-represented or under-represented.

        • SamChevre says:

          I’m cross-eye-dominant: right-handed and left-eye-dominant. Switching from shooting a rifle right-handed to shooting left-handed made my accuracy and acquisition speed go up dramatically.

    • Deiseach says:

      The food one was a little odd; “severely dislike” but no corresponding “would eat nothing but”?

      • Well... says:

        This isn’t a dating site; I don’t care what your favorite foods are! I just need to know what not to put on the pizza when it’s ordered. 😛

        • Deiseach says:

          Yeah, but that means I sound “meh, they’re okay” about olives when, if you’re asking me “So – olives on the pizza?” it is HELL YES COVER EVERY SQUARE CENTIMETRE.

          I am the only one in my family who likes olives 🙂

          • Well... says:

            What kind of olives? The olives that go well on a pizza are not necessarily the ones you most want to shovel into your purse at the salad bar when nobody’s looking.

            PS. Why let everyone else have their fun with the olives?

          • Charles F says:

            Might be asking for a letterbomb here, but green (and red) olives are fantastic on pizza. Black olives are good too but mostly belong on special kinds of pizza.

          • All three of you are perverts. Olives taste icky.

        • Aapje says:


          But if you order two pizza’s it matters whether 50% hate olives and 50% love olives; or 50% hate pizza’s and only 5% love them.

    • Well... says:

      PS. One thing that sucks about Google Forms is if I go back and tweak the wording of a question to make it a little clearer or include an obvious choice that I forgot, and then hit “Send” to get the link to the survey, it generates a new link that’s different from the old one. I take this to mean the old link would either take a respondent to the older version of my survey that doesn’t have the latest edits, or that the old link wouldn’t work at all. So, I’m stuck with the questions as they are.

      Can anyone confirm whether this is true?

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      I nearly stopped at the height question, because the converter doesn’t have an option that outputs only inches and my frustration tolerance when doing online surveys is basically zero. Frankly, having to use the converter is already almost too much.

      I then just inputted “100”, which I guess makes me improbably tall. Though I don’t know how tall.

      • Well... says:

        100 inches would put you at 8 feet 4 inches. I’ll look for that answer and, uh, adjust it downward a bit. Sorry that was frustrating, Google Forms didn’t have a better way to do it that would produce easily parsable data.

      • sty_silver says:

        I also almost stopped at the height question because I don’t know and am not willing to put in the time to find out. In the end I just googled average height and made myself a tiny bit smaller which should be about accurate. There should definitely a “don’t know” option there.

    • JonathanD says:

      Quibble: The top rack of a dishwasher isn’t *just* for glasses, it’s also the rack where the heat is less intense. Many plastic dishes are dishwasher safe on the top rack. Mine is typically full because that’s where the kids’ plates and tupperware need to go.

      • Well... says:

        Don’t you think that’s exactly what I’m looking for??

        • Charles F says:

          I assumed it was related to the cooking question. The bottom part gets really full when I’m using a lot of pots and pans and making multi dish meals. The top part gets really full when I’m using a lot of small bowls for cereal and cups for liquid nutrition. I didn’t actually know that the top part is safer from heat.

          • JonathanD says:

            I might even be wrong about that. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen top-rack dishwasher safe on a package, or just been told that by other people. At this moment I can’t think why it is that I think I know this.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:


            I see this a lot.

          • JonathanD says:

            @Edward, Thanks!

        • JonathanD says:

          Well, yes, and I answered in accurate fashion. I’m just pointing out that it’s not full because I use too many glasses, it’s full because I have three kids and make liberal use of leftovers.

          . . . I mean, I did say it’s a quibble. 🙂

      • JayT says:

        The bottom rack isn’t just for dishes either! I don’t run my dishwasher until it is full. Sometimes that means there will be mixing bowls and small dishes on the top rack, other times it will mean the bottom is full of glasses.

        • Randy M says:

          Depends on the design of the dishwasher–if most of the spray comes from the bottom, won’t large bowls there shield others from the scouring?

          • JayT says:

            As long as you don’t cover the pillar that rises in the center, you should be ok. I’ve never seen a dishwasher that didn’t have a way to spray both the top and bottom racks independently.

          • Well... says:

            Wait, pillar? Do you have one of those dishwashers where the racks are U-shaped?

          • JayT says:

            Every dishwasher I’ve ever seen has a spray arm under each of the racks, and in the center there is a telescoping pillar that rises up by the water pressure that connects to the upper spray arm. Both the top and bottom racks have their own source of water that way. You can see it in this schematic.

          • Well... says:

            I’ve seen that design, but the last 3 or 4 dishwashers I’ve had had a different one, where there was a C-shaped tube running straight back from the bottom spinner, up the middle of the back wall, and along the top to the top spinner. Then in the middle it connected to a tube mounted to the top rack, at the other end of which was the middle spinner.

          • JayT says:

            Interesting, I haven’t seen that. Either way, putting bowls on the bottom rack won’t obstruct it.

    • sty_silver says:

      I’m curious why you included the country music question. Can you elaborate?

      • genocidebunnies says:

        I bet it has something to do with Scott’s Outgroup post, which explicitly characterized the red tribe as loving the country music and the blue as hating it.

    • Daniel Ziegler says:

      For the country music question, I wanted to put “Eh… it can be okay” but the lack of options forced me into “I hate it”.

    • Scott says:

      Always a fan of fun surveys!

      Two questions that were hard to answer. Cooking had a huge granularity gap in the middle. I’d put my cooking skills at advanced home cook, and checked ‘compute with pro chef’ even though I’m not sure I can say I can. Also, my magnetic implants didn’t fit in any of the body mod categories. 🙂

    • johnjohn says:

      I’m guessing you’re the type of guy who wears a hat

      • Well... says:

        Nope. I wear hats only if there’s a functional need (i.e. cold or sun).

        • Creutzer says:

          Nowadays that might already qualify you as “the kind of guy who wears a hat”, because the other kind of guy never wears one.

          • johnjohn says:


            Guy who’s worn a hat at any point during his adult life -> guy who wears a hat

            But mostly, I was just amused by how much thought was put into the hat question compared to some of the other questions

          • Well... says:

            I think you’re a “hat person” if you wear hats indoors, and/or wear hats for non-functional reasons.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I don’t like wearing hats because the localized pressure on my head feels unpleasant.

        If it’s cold out, I wear a scarf or a hood.

        If I lived somewhere where I needed a sun hat, I suppose I’d learn to get used to it.

    • Mark Paskowitz says:

      One minor quirk for me. I don’t currently have a car, so I said “No car”. But I’ve driven enough to have some parking skill, so i answered that rather than leave it a 1.

      Curious to see what the motivation was for some of this!

  2. bean says:

    Naval Gazing: Mine Warfare, Part 2
    Series Index
    In my last column, I discussed contact mines, but in recent years the main focus of mine warfare has become influence mines, mines set off by means other than physical contact with a ship’s hull. Influence mines are traditionally laid on the bottom, although they can be moored if the water is too deep for bottom mines to be effective.

    The first influence mine was a magnetic mine developed by the British and used in July of 1918. Magnetic mines, as the name implies, detect changes in magnetic fields caused by ships passing nearby. Early magnetic mines used simple induction coils, and could be defeated by a procedure known as degaussing or deperming, which essentially cancelled out the ship’s permanent magnetic field. This was developed by the British to counter German magnetic mines, which were mostly laid by aircraft. These magnetic mines were also easy to sweep with a magnetic signature generator towed behind the sweeper. However, the sweeper had to either be degaussed or have an inherently low magnetic signature (which usually meant a wood hull). Some aircraft were also fitted with magnetic coils and used to sweep for magnetic mines.

    Later magnetic mines used sensitive magnetometers, picking up the changes induced as a body of metal moves through the Earth’s magnetic field. This can’t be disguised by deperming, and even allows mines to detonate when the magnetic field starts to drop, allowing the mine to wait until it is somewhere near the screws instead of near the bow of the ship. This field is also harder for sweepers to simulate. The net result is a significantly more dangerous mine.

    The Germans also introduced a second type of influence fuse: the acoustic fuse, which detects sound. Through the 1970s, acoustic mines were simply fired when the sounds around them got loud enough (presumably with some protection against noises like explosions that could be heard from far away). This made sweeping relatively easy, as the sweeper just had to quietly tow a loud noise generator.

    As technology advanced, it became possible to look at factors other than raw volume, and mines began to be developed that are targeted at specific types of ships. For instance, some Soviet/Russian mines are fused to only go off if they hear an LM-2500 gas turbine, the standard unit used on US surface warships. This is a serious challenge for sweeping, requiring both knowledge of what was being listened for and the ability to duplicate it. As a result, sweeping had to be abandoned as a practical method for dealing with these mines.

    The last major type of influence mine is the pressure mine, first deployed in WW2. This is a fuse that operates by detecting the pressure drop caused by a ship passing overhead. Not only does it have to be a bottom mine, but it also has to be laid in a specific depth range. Too shallow, and it can be set off by wave action; too deep, and it can’t detect ships. However, if it is properly laid in this depth range, there is effectively no way to sweep it. Because the mine is tuned to only detect the type of pressure waves produced by ships, the best way found to sweep fields of pressure mines is to use ‘mine bumpers’: sacrificial ships packed with buoyancy material, and a crew sitting on mattresses (later replaced by remote controls). Needless to say, this is not a popular way to clear a minefield.

    The most advanced mines incorporate fuses that use multiple elements, the most common being magnetic-acoustic mines. One problem acoustic mines have is that they require significant power for their detection sensors, which means that they have a limited lifespan. To solve this, a very rudimentary magnetic fuse is used to trigger the acoustic fuse. This requires very little power while on standby, and does not need fine discrimination, as the acoustic component takes care of that. Sweeping these mines requires the right combination of signatures in the right order.

    There are even more problems with sweeping for modern mines. Many mines incorporate clocks that hold them inactive for some time after they are laid, so sweeping last night might not mean there are no active mines this morning. And you have to sweep multiple times, as many mines incorporate counters. Instead of going off on the first signature they detect, they can be set to ignore up to a certain number before going off, traditionally 15. This makes sweeping incredibly time-consuming, as a given area must be swept 16 times, even neglecting the effect of timers.

    So if modern mines are effectively unsweepable, how do we counter them? The answer is minehunting. Instead of blindly dragging devices through an area suspected of being mined, special sonars are used to detect individual mines, which are then inspected and destroyed either by divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Minehunting ROVs are a major area of research, with new models rapidly appearing. This is making the task of the minehunter easier, although it is still specialized and difficult work. Modern ROVs can be deployed from any ship with appropriate handling gear, leading to the decline of the specialist minehunting ship.
    (Post split due to spam filter weirdness. I’ll leave up the post at the new blog if anyone went there first, but stop the mirroring of comments. This is the official home.)

    • bean says:

      There are also a couple of specialized types of mines that deserve discussion. One is the rising mine. This is a mine that is anchored in deep water and has a very good sensor system. When it detects a target, it releases ballast and begins to rise towards the target, steering itself into a hit. The Soviets even introduced some rocket-propelled rising mines, which are particularly dangerous because they greatly expand the area that can be mined without using mooring chains and threaten a much larger area than a traditional mine. A related type is the CAPTOR mine, short for encapsulated torpedo. This is essentially an anti-submarine torpedo that is programmed to listen for passing targets, usually submarines, and then fire at them. When a hostile submarine is detected, the torpedo is fired at it.

      Some mines are converted from other weapons. Many countries use ‘destructors’, aerial general-purpose bombs equipped with a mine fusing package. These make it easy for any aircraft to lay mines, and the US has even looked at fitting some of its destructors with guidance packages. (This would, if nothing else, make them easier to get rid of after the war.) In fact, the US version, known as Quickstrike, can even be dropped on land and set to go off when it detects the magnetic or seismic signature of a passing vehicle. There are also submarine-launched mobile mines, old torpedoes converted to mines. Once they run out of fuel, they simply lay on the bottom and wait for ships to sail past.

      Mines have had a great influence in naval warfare. The Germans used an extensive aerial and submarine mining campaign against the British during WWII, which took great effort to counter. The British mining of the Danube was also a critical and often-overlooked effort. In the closing months of the Pacific war, B-29 laid mines became the leading killer of Japanese shipping, bringing their economy to a standstill. It was called Operation Starvation, and if the war had continued, it would have done just that to the Japanese.
      I’ve mentioned Wonsan and the use of mines in the Persian Gulf in a previous column, but the actual use of mines isn’t even always necessary to make a minefield; in fact,all you need is a press release. Even that isn’t strictly necessary if you can make the opponent think there’s a minefield while publicly denying it. Because of the difficulty of mine countermeasures, any suspected fields must be dealt with with extreme care. A competent mine warfare team will lay dozens of cheap dummy mines for every real mine, each of which must be dealt with, as must any random junk on the seafloor in the area. There are classified programs that attempt to discriminate between dummies and real mines (and old refrigerators), but we don’t know how effective they are. Booby traps can be used to attack ROVs or clearance divers, and most nations do not have large stocks of either.

      Though not very glamorous and not very loved, mines are undeniably effective weapons. They’ve exerted an influence on naval warfare out of all proportion to their cost since the dawn of the 20th century, and will continue to do so well into the future.

    • bean says:

      This is the end of Naval Gazing on SSC. It’s been a lot of fun writing, and I hope someone has learned something from it. I’m not sure when I’m going to officially start at the new place, as there are still some issues (well, one main issue, graphic design) to work out. I hope it’ll be about two weeks. I have a fair bit of content written up, and the effects of pictures on the posts varies between ‘good’ and ‘amazing’. Said Achmiz has worked out a way to pick up comments from here and cross-post them there, and I’ll post links here for the first few weeks at least, so the discussion can continue here. I was going to cross-post until I saw how good the pictures looked.
      Schedule is planned to be the same as here, Sunday/Wednesday, with extra posts for the first while as I move the archives over and update them. (In some cases, that may involve rewrites similar to what I did on fire control, in which case I’ll probably class them as new posts.) The first series will be on Iowa’s history, and I’m also planning to do one on Russian/Soviet ships at Said Achmiz’s request.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Yes, you were accidentally spam filtered. Fixed.

        • bean says:

          Thanks. In retrospect, I’m amazed it hasn’t happened before now. Do you happen to know if it picked a specific word? Someone on the discord bet it was the part on traps.

      • Deiseach says:

        Best of luck with the new site and if the NSA ask any sticky questions we will all deny we ever even heard of you vouch that this is all purely for research and not for nefarious purposes 🙂

        • bean says:

          They’ve known about me since long before I started here. In fact, I’ve probably gotten less alarming to them in the past year. But thanks.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Just to make sure I’m not misunderstanding: a magnetic-acoustic combo uses the magnetic fuse turns on the acoustic fuse whenever anything is nearby, the acoustic fuse sets off the mine if what that anything is has the right signature, and if not, the acoustic fuse goes back off?

      • bean says:

        Probably. This stuff is all shrouded in mystery, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some mines used more sophisticated systems to stop the sweeper from just dragging a really simple magnetic sweep past in combination with the acoustic sweep. But in principle, the idea is to use the low-power magnetic system as a way to extend the life of the high-power acoustic system.

    • Montfort says:

      And you have to sweep multiple times, as many mines incorporate counters. Instead of going off on the first signature they detect, they can be set to ignore up to a certain number before going off, traditionally 15.

      Let’s say you’re mining some area wide enough for the enemy fleet to pass abreast – if you set a counter on all the mines, is there something that would keep them from just going through once or twice, confident most of the mines would still be inactive? Or is that handled another way, e.g. mixing with mines with no counter or lower counters with the ones with higher counters? And/Or is an area where a fleet could pass without more than a few ships potentially activating the same mine too implausibly large for a typical minefield?

      • bean says:

        Or is that handled another way, e.g. mixing with mines with no counter or lower counters with the ones with higher counters?

        This. Rule of thumb, in the military in general but particularly in fields like this, if you can think of something clever to make the other guy’s job harder, then it’s already in practice. A minefield is most deadly when it’s first laid, as hopefully the other guy doesn’t know it’s there. A good proportion of the mines will have counters set at 0 or maybe 1 to 2, with a few thrown in at 15 just to make sure your sweepers stay busy. And some below that, to make sure you don’t try to sneak things through.

        And/Or is an area where a fleet could pass without more than a few ships potentially activating the same mine too implausibly large for a typical minefield?

        This, too. Usually, you want to plan mines somewhere narrow. Mining large areas gets expensive in terms of mines.

        • Garrett says:

          Out of curiosity, do you have any idea what the cost of air-delivered scrap refrigerators is?

          • bean says:

            Who is doing it and why? If you go through the normal DOD acquisition process, then it’s going to be a lot. If you just weld a couple of lugs on in the field, not so much.
            Scrap refrigerators aren’t usually deliberately placed as mine decoys. That was an example of the sort of junk that you often find on the seabed, and that gets in the way of finding mines. The actual, deliberate decoys are basically plastic/metal cases the same shape as the mine and filled with concrete.

          • John Schilling says:

            “if you can think of something clever to make the other guy’s job harder, then it’s already in practice”

            This means someone, somewhere, and probably someone we don’t like, is making actual influence mines inside scrap-refrigerator shells. But I wonder if they were clever enough to mix up the brands and models, or if we’ll figure out after losing a few ships that it’s just one particular model we need to watch for.

          • bean says:

            This means someone, somewhere, and probably someone we don’t like, is making actual influence mines inside scrap-refrigerator shells. But I wonder if they were clever enough to mix up the brands and models, or if we’ll figure out after losing a few ships that it’s just one particular model we need to watch for.

            The caveat to this is that cleverness to make the other guy’s job harder has a cost. With counters, it’s the cost of the counter itself, which is fairly low, and employment, which is a matter of brainpower. Making the mine look like debris makes the mine more expensive and harder to handle. I don’t have numbers on this, or on how hard it is to tell a real fridge from one filled with a mine, which determines the tradeoff. But it wouldn’t be totally implausible, and I’m sort of surprised I haven’t heard of anyone trying this.

          • Civilis says:

            This means someone, somewhere, and probably someone we don’t like, is making actual influence mines inside scrap-refrigerator shells. But I wonder if they were clever enough to mix up the brands and models, or if we’ll figure out after losing a few ships that it’s just one particular model we need to watch for.

            This illustrates a vital difference between active/offensive measures and reactive/defensive countermeasures. If I deploy mines disguised as junk to outwit current anti-mine defenses, the enemy has to treat any junk anywhere near my minefields as potentially hostile, regardless of how many disguised mines I deploy.

            So I deploy a small handful of the disguised mines in the first minefield the enemy comes across and he has to outfit all his minesweepers to deal with the threat, even if I never end up deploying a second minefield. In fact, if the enemy somehow finds out about my plan to use disguised mines, I may force them to adopt countermeasures without having to develop the mine in the first place…

            In any of these measure/countermeasure scenarios, you have to consider that just forcing the enemy to spend effort to counter something might end up as a net win. In fact, it’s possible to have the enemy spend effort to counter their own weapon designs: for a land mine example, see Zimmerit.

    • ninjafetus says:

      No discussion on minehunting is complete without mentioning The Marine Mammal Systems! https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Navy_Marine_Mammal_Program

      Turns out that if you can convince a dolphin that it’s fun to find mines, they’re really good at it! But then add in the chance they’ll not feel like it today, or get bored and stop, and also considering their huge logistic footprint, it makes sense they’re going to UUVs these days.

      Still, though. Minehunting dolphins!

      • bean says:

        Cut for length, unfortunately. I was trying to give a really high-level global overview, and decided not to mention them. Also, I don’t think I specified the divers had to be human…
        (OK, really, I should have mentioned that.)

      • Incurian says:

        Supposedly they’re intelligent, but I’ve never seen any evidence of it.

        • Nornagest says:

          Intelligence is having the talent to get really good at mine hunting. Wisdom is knowing that it’s probably a bad career path no matter how much fish they give you.

          • ninjafetus says:

            Actually, one time I was getting a tour at a Navy base, and the marine mammals came up as a topic. One girl went pale and asked “So, these are like… single use systems?”

            She thought they were used to blow up the mine and not just find to where it was. She was pretty relieved when the guides let her know that wasn’t the intent.

          • Nornagest says:

            Oh, I know they’re just tagging mines for later disposal and that part probably isn’t too dangerous. But even despite that, I figure being a marine mammal without thumbs in a warzone is probably not a career-enhancing decision.

          • Matt M says:

            Once the enemy knows that some dolphins are tagging mines, doesn’t it incentivize them to kill any dolphin they happen to come across?

          • bean says:

            @Matt M
            That is one of the concerns that has been raised with the program. Not so much for the USN’s dolphins (you don’t do this sort of thing when you’re not reasonably secure) as for native dolphins.

    • bean says:

      Because Scott put the link in the top post, I decided to pull the trigger on Naval Gazing slightly early. It’s still kind of crude (I have no graphic design at all), but I put up ‘A Brief History of the Battleship’. (Yes, I actually mean it this time.) Nothing new for most of you, but it has pretty pictures. I think the first proper post is going to be on Friday, in celebration of Navy Day. (Yes, it’s a holiday.)

  3. Jeremiah says:

    I’ve been thinking about the US National Debt recently. And it seems there are only two options. A catastrophic collapse or a financial singularity (i.e. post-scarcity economy, or similar). All of the other options (grow our way out of it, inflate our way out of it, decrease spending, or increase taxes) seem politically untenable or functionally impossible. I’m curious where other people fall. Do SSC readers (being who they are) expect a singularity, or does anyone out there honestly expect we’ll get things together and actually solve it without something dramatic. And yes, I would count the debt growing at the same rate or slower than GDP as solving it through growth. The debt is not catastrophic on it’s own, but a continually growing debt appears to be.

    • cassander says:

      The bigger issue isn’t the debt proper, but the unfunded liabilities. the GAO does an annual accrual accounting basis examination of US assets and liabilities, and the results are several tens of trillions on top of the existing debt. Uncle Sam has promised vastly more benefits than it will have money to pay. Eventually there’s going to be a reckoning, and the longer you put off adjusting, the more abrupt the impact will be.


      • Jeremiah says:

        I would agree that unfunded liabilities are the primary issue, but since they flow into the debt, I’m not sure that they can be disentangled. I think we’re still left with the only possible solutions being catastrophe or singularity.

        • cassander says:

          they flow into the debt eventually, because the government does its accounting on a cash basis. But we really should be considering their net present value as part of the debt today if we want to understand the scope of the problem.

    • skef says:

      You understand that if we balanced the federal budget and kept it that way for 30 years that the debt would be gone, right?

      I think the most useful numbers (which I don’t have handy) are the per-year increases in taxation needed to keep spending in roughly current proportions, and the degree to which tax rates would have to increase to support that. Obviously you can only estimate these numbers, but it’s one of the clearest ways of thinking about it.

      • cassander says:

        >You understand that if we balanced the federal budget and kept it that way for 30 years that the debt would be gone, right?

        We could also pay it off by getting bunch of goblins to spin straw into gold, and I’d say that’s at least twice as likely as congress balancing the budget for 30 years running.

        • skef says:

          Even so, given the ongoing debt servicing, I think the per-year deficits are more salient than the total at a given time.

      • You understand that if we balanced the federal budget and kept it that way for 30 years that the debt would be gone, right?

        Only if your definition of “balance the federal budget” includes repayment of principal as it comes due on the expenditure side of the budget. I might be mistaken, but I do not believe that is the way it is actually defined.

        • skef says:

          I’m pretty sure the standard federal budget includes debt service. See this for example.

          • Unless I’m missing something, what that page says is that “The federal government must make regular interest payments on the money it borrowed to finance past deficits .”

            That’s interest, not repayment of principal as it comes due. If the government simply keeps rolling over the debt, that, I believe, counts as a balanced budget. It’s unbalanced if the debt increases.

        • skef says:

          Huh, this turns out to be a question that is rather difficult to turn up a crisp answer/reference for.

          But yes, I have found several references to a link between surpluses and paying down the debt, including this document from 2000 when there were actually surpluses (and there was anticipation of the possibility of paying it down by 2012).

          On that assumption, the effect of balancing the budget would be to fix the size of the debt (given that interest payments do figure into the balance calculation). I believe that means that the dollar cost of debt service would vary (in a complex way) with varying interest rates, but the adjusted cost would gradually go down as the adjusted value of the debt decreased with inflation.

    • John Schilling says:

      There is always option three, where we slowly pay down the debt. It isn’t strictly necessary to balance the budget and/or pay the debt down to zero; so long as the debt-to-GDP ratio is flat or negative we should be OK. That said, if the only way for politicians to spend more money is to fudge the GDP numbers so they can borrow more money, Goodhart’s Law applies and so it may be advantageous to target the Schelling point of a balanced budget.

      Paying down the debt was something the United States Government was able to do as recently as the Clinton administration, so it’s not impossible. Obama-era debt will make it a bit harder, but not intractably so. Divided government probably makes it a bit easier; your choice if you want to get rid of Trump or get rid of Congressional Republicans but preferably not both. Might also be easier if a few other first-world economies precede us over that cliff, both as a warning and to drive a bunch of frightened capital into US markets for a temporary boost.

      It will require the fiscal discipline to not try and fix or alleviate recessions by spending lots of government money, by whatever euphemism you care to describe the process. That may also work better with divided government.

      Or we can go with the catastrophe.

      • Deiseach says:

        From the viewpoint of an ignorant outsider, I’m going with catastrophe. Attempting to pay down the debt would be sensible, but if it’s anything like the Irish experience (when the cows all came home and the chickens came home to roost as well) it will be extremely painful, and what is your safety valve? Ireland fell back on the good old reliable “emigrate to Britain/America/Australia” to deal with the problem of “not enough jobs, too many people*” but where are your surplus population going to emigrate?

        Had it not been for the Celtic Tiger, which was a flash in the pan due to the mismanagement by the government of the time which seemed to assume that the good times would never end, I have no idea what the state of the country would be like now, and we’ve already had the post-crash austerity, and seem to be heading into a new property bubble that will end as badly as the last one.

        And that’s just balancing the books for a small economy, the idea of the cuts needed for everyone (including business bailouts) for one the size of the US economy is horrendous and would probably end up in armed rebellion.

        *This was said quite literally by a foreign affairs minister of the time pushing the necessity for people to emigrate – “We can’t all live on a small island”, where “we all” was a population of three million – not even a decent-sized city by the standard of many countries

    • Wrong Species says:

      General rule of thumb: if you think that the only options are the best possible outcome and the worst, you’re probably wrong.

      • Jeremiah says:

        I never said those were the only options. I just see a lot of intractable problems with the other options. Including the unwillingness of one party to ever raise taxes. The unwillingness of the other party to ever cut entitlements. And the fact that all of these trends are pointed in the wrong direction. And certainly lots of things have ended in a singularity (the horse poop problem) or catastrophe (the CDO problem).

        • Wrong Species says:

          What exactly do you mean by catastrophic collapse? Greece is doing badly but calling it a catastrophic collapse seems melodramatic and the US will probably never be that bad. If the current course is unsustainable, the US has to work within the financial system and raise taxes/lower spending or default and lose access to all those loans. The United States has raised taxes and cut spending before. These aren’t intractable problems.

          • Jeremiah says:

            I wouldn’t call Greece a catastrophic collapse, though I think if the US were going through the same thing it would seem pretty catastrophic. The most common path to catastrophe in this situation is hyperinflation. But I just think the whole edifice is fragile, and that there are all kinds of things which might cause a problem. We’ve already seen a low-key example of that with the debt-ceiling debates.

          • Wrong Species says:

            If you think hyperinflation is a likely outcome in the US, then you need to stop reading doomsday articles. We’re not even hitting our modest inflation target of 2% because policy makers are worried about inflation. And it’s been roughly close to 2% for about 30 years. Hyperinflation is not just something that happens. It’s a political choice.

          • cassander says:

            The US going through a greek style event would have consequences several orders of magnitude larger than the US. Not only is the US economy about 100 times the size of the greek, but the entire world hasn’t spent decades softly pegging itself to the greek economy.

          • Jeremiah says:

            I think the general tenor of the discussion has missed the question I was really interested in. I have seen very little evidence that we’re going to be able to arrest the increase in the debt by the traditional means. Growth has been stagnating, Tax revenue has been flat for decades, and there hasn’t been any significant reduction in spending in that same period. Occasionally, like around the year 2000 the stars align and we get a brief period where we’re not going deeper in debt, but beyond those rare events it just keeps getting bigger. For the moment assume that this assessment is generally correct. We can’t fix it via the traditional methods. In 50 or 100 years what happens? Which is more likely that singularity makes the whole thing moot, or that there is some unforeseen catastrophe. In the near term hyperinflation is very improbable, in 50 years things get a lot cloudier. Mostly I’m wondering if, in a community very familiar with the idea of singularity and very pro-singularity in general, are there a lot of people who don’t worry about the debt because they thing the singularity will come first? Or do they think the system will collapse first because the debt to GDP ratio will hit 1,000% and the US will have to offer 10% to get anyone to lend it money?

            Or if you think one of the traditional methods will work which do you think it is and why?

          • Between 1997 and 2008, Canada actually reduced its debt by about a hundred billion dollars, so it is possible. It then started back up.

    • Fossegrimen says:


      I’m curious if anyone here has any insights on how a permanent end to the repatriation tax would impact the whole US economy. The repatriation tax seems to be the most counter productive idea ever at first glance.

      • commenter#1 says:

        It really depends on what the corporations decide to do with their repatriated cash. Historically, they just bring the cash home to pay special dividends, do stock buybacks, and acquisitions and tend not to have any real impact on the economy.
        Since wealth and stock ownership tend to be heavily concentrated, most recipients save rather than spend the dividend or stock tender offer. And when they save they tend not to invest in the productive economy but to buy secondary exchange assets, i.e. already issued stocks and bonds. This only changes the prices of existing assets and doesn’t increase productive assets.

        • Fossegrimen says:

          Actually, I was thinking more of investments. Let’s say I’m GM and I build cars that I sell in China. I earn a profit from this that I stash in Ugland House. Once I have enough foreign cash to build the new factory I need, I can build 1 factory in Mexico, or 0.65 factory in the US after paying the repatriation tax. This seems weird.

        • And when they save they tend not to invest in the productive economy but to buy secondary exchange assets, i.e. already issued stocks and bonds. This only changes the prices of existing assets and doesn’t increase productive assets.

          They buy those assets from somebody. Unless he, for some reason, decides to decrease his total investments, total investment goes up.

          To put the point differently, increasing the amount of capital in the country tends to drive down interest rates which increases investment.

          • commenter#1 says:

            Total investment does not change. It merely changes hands:
            Corporation has $100 in cash
            Corporation gives $100 to Person A as dividend
            Person A buys Stock Z from Person B for $100
            Person B now has $100 cash.
            Total investment hasn’t changed. Just who has cash and who has other securities.

            That’s the fundamental difference between secondary financial transactions (already issued securities) and primary financial transactions (new securities). Trading only redistributes already existing assets, it doesn’t create new ones.

          • Person B now has $100 in cash. But the reason he previously had it in stock was that he wanted that amount of capital, possibly as savings for his retirement–the choice between spending and saving isn’t made at random. So he now buys $100 of some other stock, or possibly bonds, or government securities. The same logic applies to the person he bought that from. The process only stops when the money ends up in some new investment, such as buying corporate bonds or newly issued stock.

      • Brad says:

        A territorial corporate tax system is used by almost every other country in the world. It seems like a much better idea than treating companies incorporated abroad better than you treat your own companies.

        Anyway, I wouldn’t expect any kind of earth shaking differences. A lot of companies would put out large one time dividends. US tax lawyers would ramp up their knowledge of transfer pricing tax evasion methods, and inversions would no longer be very attractive.

        • Fossegrimen says:

          A corporate tax is substantially different from the repatriation tax as the latter targets income earned and taxed abroad. AFAIK the US is the only OECD country that puts a tax on “bringing money home”.

          • Brad says:

            There is no repatriation tax per se. It’s a consequence of the US corporate tax, which as I said is one of the only ones that taxes worldwide income.

            It was a relaxation of the harshness of that system, which made US companies non-competitive with foreign companies, to allowed taxes on money earned abroad to be deferred as long as it is held in the country where it was earned.

            So there was never a point where Congress introduced a repatriation tax, rather the rule in question was put into place at the behest of multinationals and was an improvement from their perspective on the status quo ante — which was just all income worldwide subject to immediate income taxes.

      • Jeremiah says:

        Planet Money just did a podcast related to this. Apparently there are some proposals for changing it.


    • Mark says:

      I’m going with financial singularity, in the sense that it will be possible to maintain the national debt indefinitely without a catastrophic collapse, and that there may be a singularity at some point.

      I also understand that this is money we owe to ourselves, but that doesn’t make it frictionless.

      In this case, shouldn’t we be more worried by private sector debt, which is larger than public?

    • Chalid says:

      From your post:

      Since 1967 the debt has grown at an average rate of 8.65%, while GDP has grown at an average rate of 2.85% during that same period.

      pretty sure you’re looking at nominal debt growth vs real GDP growth there, otherwise the debt to GDP ratio would have gone up by a factor of 1.0865^50/1.0285^50 ~ 15.5, which obviously didn’t happen.

      Quick google says debt to GDP in 1967 was 34%, today is about 104%, so the difference between debt growth rate and economic growth is more like 2.2%. I think this requires several revisions in the rest of your post, for example I’d expect that there were lots of years where economic growth outpaced debt growth, not just around the tech bubble.

      A couple other random things: the US debt is mostly not indexed to inflation, and has an average maturity of almost six years currently.

      • Jeremiah says:

        Good catch. You’re right it is probably nominal.

        As far as indexing to inflation, I was mostly talking about certain entitlements which are indexed to inflation. Also health care costs, which are a huge share of things have for a long time been over inflation. I think people would be ecstatic if health care costs grew at only the rate of inflation.

    • johan_larson says:

      Why do you consider the US national debt to be completely out of control? $60,000 per capita isn’t a catastrophic amount. It’s in the ballpark of one year’s gross income. Plenty of families have higher debt ratios, particularly if they stretched to afford a big mortgage.

      • Charles F says:

        In the end, US citizens are the ones who end up having to pay the debts, right? So what happens if we look at US households’ debts, which are already a bit worrying, then add their share of the country’s debt. I know a decent number of even highly paid people who are slowly accumulating debt, or who already bought more house than they can afford. It’s probably not valid economics, but what worries me is looking at how well individual Americans are handling their own debt, and despairing that the collective will be able to do better.

        • gph says:

          >In the end, US citizens are the ones who end up having to pay the debts, right?

          Might be more accurate to say US taxpayers, I’d think that tariffs and other taxes can be collected from entities that wouldn’t be considered US citizens. And if we go neo-colonial with it there’s ways of filling the coffers without directly taking from US citizens.

          • Charles F says:

            Fair points, but do you think the US will manage to exploit not the US somehow to the tune of $20T without it coming back to bite us for that much or more? I think we’re going to have to take care of our own mess sooner or later.

          • gph says:

            Theoretically we wouldn’t need the whole $20T, seeing as most the debt is owed to ourselves if we exploited say $1T or potentially less from the rest of the world it could feedback and grow our own economy to where paying off the rest of the debt would come easy. And there’s no saying we would want or have to pay all $20T back. In fact I would expect our economic system to not appreciate having the option to park large safe bets in solid government debt taken away or hampered.

          • Theoretically we wouldn’t need the whole $20T, seeing as most the debt is owed to ourselves

            I’m not sure why “owed to ourselves” is relevant. The debt is owed by the government, largely to private citizens. Some of it is owed to other governments who own U.S. securities, a sizable chunk by one part of the government to another.

            In order to pay it, the government has to collect taxes from some people to be paid to other people. A lot of intergovernmental debt is owed by the Treasury to the Social Security system, since the surplus of social security taxes over expenditures gets spent by the government in exchange for IOU’s. In order to eventually give that money back to the Social Security system to be paid to recipients, the government has to collect it as taxes.

            If the question is “how hard is it to pay off the debt,” how is “owed to ourselves” relevant? The government could simply reneg on the debt–but that, domestically, is equivalent to taxing away the full value of all government securities held by U.S. citizens or by the Social Security system–and the latter then goes bankrupt in the near future, when its current surplus goes to zero, instead of in 2034 when, on current estimates (assuming no relevant changes) the trust fund (those IOU’s) goes to zero.

    • Matt M says:

      I think the general “plan” is a mix of growth/inflation. Raise taxes and reduce spending are both politically untenable, because half the politicians are incapable of supporting one or the other.

      “Inflate our way out of it” would be pretty painful if we tried to do it all at once, sure, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the national debt is not one giant check for $10T that comes due all at once. It’s a series of small transactions all with different maturities, all due to different people, that come due over the span of multiple decades. So really, all you need to do is inflate the currency at the same rate as you increase the debt to keep the debt constant, or if you can keep up slightly higher inflation than you have growth in the debt, you could start to “pay it down” (in real, but not nominal terms) over time without any one shocking event of “You pay China a nominal $10T that is now only worth $1T and had to cause hyperinflation for the domestic population in order to do so and by the way, China hates you and will never buy your debt again”

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        The average maturity of government debt is 5-6 years. It was down to just over 4 years in 2009. https://www.quandl.com/data/USTREASURY/AVMAT-Average-Maturity-of-Total-Outstanding-Treasury-Marketable-Securities

        Very roughly speaking (equating mean with median for the nonce) that means that $10 trillion comes due in 6 years. Unless you get your spending under control first you are going to be quickly running backwards trying to inflate that away. And I don’t just mean “no new borrowing” but also “and enough saved up to pay off the debt holder without issuing brand new debt to pay off the old one.”

        When thinking about how well the US could pay off $10 trillion over 6 years, remember the size of the size of the US Fed Budget is $3.8 trillion a year.

        • Chalid says:

          You could crudely say that if average maturity is M, an unexpected and permanent rise in inflation of X% would reduce the real value of the national debt by M*X%. So if inflation jumped from its current ~2% to 10% we’d reduce the debt by ~50% which is a generally manageable level of both debt and inflation.

          Of course you probably can’t repeat that trick, so you’ve got to use that reprieve to get your deficits under control.

          • And everything you have refinanced while you are inflating–the other 50%–is now at an interest rate reflecting the higher expected inflation rate–say 12%. Interest payment on the debt is now higher by about $500 billion/year. Either you keep on inflating, in which case you can borrow to cover that while keeping the real value of the debt roughly constant, or you have an even harder time paying down the debt.

          • Chalid says:

            Isn’t that what I said? “permanent rise in inflation of X%”

            The nominal rate is higher but the real rate won’t necessarily be – this depends on the market. It might be higher because the market thinks you’ll further inflate; it might be lower because the market realizes your real debt burden is smaller.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Can’t edit, but here is a better graph


          3.6 trillion in debt rolls over in the next 12 months.

          5.8 trillion in debt will roll over in 12-60 months.

          The United States is very unready to “inflate away the debt.” The entire US Federal Budget is just a little bit larger than the amount of debt coming due in the next 365 days. There is no plan to just pay that off as it comes due; the plan is to issue new T-Bills.

          If the US were capable of getting by without borrowing, it would be easy to inflate away the debt. But if the US were capable of getting by without borrowing, there wouldn’t be a need to inflate away the debt.

          • Mark says:

            Isn’t quantitative easing basically replacing interest bearing debt with non-interest bearing money.

            If the government were running a “let’s get all the money” business (which it isn’t but never-mind) you could say that money held by the private sector was a liability, a liability in the sense that it makes it easier for the private sector to extinguish its tax liabilities, and harder for the government to get all of the money.

            So, the government (as money grubber) can replace interest bearing liabilities with non interest bearing liabilities at will. If people want to save, and they are forced to save in zero interest instruments (cash) rather than interest earning instruments (government debt) wouldn’t that result in less inflation?

          • Chalid says:

            But inflation doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to roll over the debt, merely that when we do roll it over, the nominal interest rate will be higher.

    • Lee Wang says:

      No. A sovereign government issuing its own fiat currency is NEVER at risk of defaulting.
      There is a fundamental difference between a household budget and the government budget.

      See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_Monetary_Theory

      Or any of Bill Mitchells & Randal Wray’s writing.

      • JonathanD says:

        Aren’t we at risk of defaulting because a substantial (and possibly growing) percent of both our voting populace and our political class think it would be a good idea?

      • John Schilling says:

        The original post didn’t say anything about the government defaulting; it referred instead to “catastrophic collapse”. You are of course correct that the government never needs to default, but only because it can and almost certainly will arrange for the catastrophic collapse to come in some other form. One which leaves the government piously proclaiming that they paid all their bills and debts and hinting vaguely that maybe it was the banksters that were somehow responsible.

        • Mark says:

          In practice, hyperinflation has always been caused by destruction of productive capacity rather than excessive government spending.

          (Except perhaps the continental currency? Might be more reflective of the government’s inability to tax.)

          • cassander says:

            the US in the 1970s. Post WW1 Germany. Argentina currently. And those are just the examples I can think of, off the top of my head, in the 20th century, of hyperinflation not caused by any destruction of productive capacity.

          • John Schilling says:

            US/1970s was just the ordinary sort of inflation, quite a bit shy of hyperinflation. Argentina I think usually isn’t counted, but you may perhaps reasonably argue that the usual definition is a bit strict.

            Weimar Germany is absolutely a case of catastrophic hyperinflation, while Germany’s factories, farms, and mines were still conspicuously undestroyed. Perhaps not operating at peak efficiency, but that tends to happen when you pay your workers in toilet paper.

          • Mark says:

            I think that hyper-inflation only took off in Germany after the shut down of the Ruhr?

            It seems to me like you can get high, double digit inflation without anything too disastrous happening, but that super-duper hyper inflation requires some sort of productive collapse, or represents a government incapable of raising taxation – something like that.

            It emerges from a breakdown of normal process.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Hyperinflation has nothing to do with productive capacity and everything to do with monetary policy. You can’t have hyperinflation on a gold standard. The link between wars and inflation comes from increased military spending and governments printing money to pay for it.

          • Mark says:

            Isn’t it a bit of both – you would expect a reduction in supply to be inflationary – perhaps hyperinflation normally results from the combination of an initial inflationary shock with the ability (and perhaps necessity) to print money.

            In time of war the government might end up increasing money supply at a rate greater than supply can increase, and inflation results.
            But why would a government with relatively good control, nothing major going wrong, choose to print money up to an inflation rate of 5000%?

            It makes more sense to me that normally, there is some sort of supply shock, inflation results, the government is unable or unwilling to raise taxes, and then gets into a hyper-inflationary spiral.
            Perhaps the Confederate States are a counter-example to this in that they reigned-in hyper-inflation during 1864, before succumbing once again to total collapse.

          • Chalid says:

            List of hyperinflations.

            You have two major causes that account for the vast majority of the list. One is the collapse of the Soviet Union – many of the countries that were left behind had hyperinflationary episodes and I think you could generalize this to saying that very new countries or governments are prone to hyperinflations. The other major event was World War II and its aftermath. Of the rest, lots are associated with other wars. Few are just due to bad policy in a non-young country without a war, and none are just due to bad policy in a country whose debts were in its own currency.

            That list uses the conventional definition of 50%/month. There’s an unfortunate tendency for people to use “hyperinflation” as a way of saying “inflation that’s higher than I’m used to,” and that can certainly be due to bad policy; on the other hand significantly higher inflation than the US has isn’t necessarily even bad. I’m not convinced that sustained 10% inflation would be worse than what we have now.

          • JayT says:

            Venezuela is a non-young country that has it’s own currency and bad policies, but no war and they’ve had hyperinflation. Last December they had an inflation rate of 800%.

          • Chalid says:

            Venezuela’s *debts* are not in its own currency.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Inflation comes from money supply and velocity. When high inflation persists, expectations increase which increases velocity which increases inflation. It’s runaway feedback. Of course, central banks have various methods to rein in inflation but the higher it is, the more drastic measures are needed. Usually, it’s countries that have really high levels of debt that manage to get themselves there in the first place so it usually happens because they are more willing to accept high inflation but aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to keep it under control until it’s too late.

        • Lee Wang says:

          ‘ Aren’t we at risk of defaulting because a substantial (and possibly growing) percent of both our voting populace and our political class think it would be a good idea?’
          Yes. Of course if the government decides to do so they can. But they never HAVE too, which is the difference. This has happened several times.

          People have called for a catastrophic collapse due to government debt since forever. But it has never happened. In fact the US government debt is very low compared to that of Japan which is 249 % of GDP. Yet Japan’s interest rates are extremely low. This should tell you something.

          This stuff is all rather counterintuitive. So let me ask you a question that will hopefully elucidate things.
          Suppose tomorrow the government attains a very large budget deficit. What will happen to the interest rate paid on government debt? Will it go up or down? Think about it for a second.

          Mainstream economics will tell you that it will go up. A large budget deficit is evidence that the government is having trouble maintaining a balanced budget and may not be able to pay off its debts. Rational lenders will decide to ask for higher interest rates on government debt.

          It's completely wrong. The interest rate on government debt will go down. If today the government has a large positive budget deficit, it is adding money to the system. This will cause banks to have excess reserves that day. the overnight interest rates of banks will fall. To maintain their target interest rate, the Federal Reserve will engage in open market operations and sell government debt. How do they do this? They simply produce money from thin air.
          As the overnight interest rate is low this puts downward pressure on the interest paid on government debt.

          For a better understanding I strongly recommend this three part series: http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=332

          EDIT: I wanted to hide the text not put it in code. How do I do this?

          • If today the government has a large positive budget deficit, it is adding money to the system.

            Are you confusing money with debt? The government can have a large budget deficit without printing any money at all, financed by borrowing. T-bills are not currency.

        • John Schilling says:

          In fact the US government debt is very low compared to that of Japan which is 249 % of GDP. Yet Japan’s interest rates are extremely low. This should tell you something.

          This would be the Japan whose economy is dominated by a “lost decade” that is now well into its third decade? Some of us can still remember when conventional wisdom was that Japan’s dynamic, efficient, booming economy was going to rule the world, with the once-mighty United States of America reduced to a wholly-owned subsidiary of a cabal of keiretsu. Looking at what economic reality actually had in store for Japan, and during exactly the period that Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio went from ~50% to ~250%, I don’t think you want to be using Japan to make your case for “debt-to-GDP is no problem; borrow all you want!”

          • Lee Wang says:

            @John Schilling
            The size of the optimal budget deficit (which may be ofc also be a budget surplus) is determined need of the private sector for saving and excess production capacity (i.e. inflationary and deflationary pressures).

            If we ignore the foreign sector for simplicity the government budget deficit EQUALS the saving of the private sector. This is simply an accounting identity but it useful to think about it for a moment. Said differently, ignoring the foreign sector for simplicity again, if there is no budget deficit (we have the balanced budget that politicians seem to want so much) it is IMPOSSIBLE for the private sector to save – on average. This is a little weird and one of the effects of having an endogenous currency system [which means that currency behaves differently from other goods].

            This means that if a population has a higher savings desire the resulting government budget deficit has to be larger; the Japanese really really like saving their money. We can see that the Japanese government budget deficit is still not large enough by the continuous deflationary episodes the country is experiencing, which is very bad for growth.

            In fact Japan is a poster child for why MMT is such an important and revolutionary theory. Mainstream economics will tell you that its government interest rates should be high; yet they are the lowest in the world.

            A quote from the wikipedia page on National Debt of Japan:
            Betting against Japanese government bonds has become known as the “widowmaker trade” due to their price resilience despite fundamentals to the contrary.[10]

            One can hypothesise – and I do- that if it (and/or other East Asian nations) would follow a better economic policy(i.e. larger budget deficits in line with higher savings preferences) the Japanese GDP would rise in line with IQ predictions [as well as Japanese American income] and surpassing the GDP per capita of the West as it did briefly the 90’s. [well modulo aging and immigration which impact this simplistic calculation; also natural resources (Japan famously has very little)]

            Are you confusing money with debt? The government can have a large budget deficit without printing any money at all, financed by borrowing. T-bills are not currency.
            No. Whenever the current US government is ‘taking out a loan’ it is in fact printing money, through a ridiculously convoluted system called the Federal Reserve system. The government doesn’t finance its budget deficit.

            How does that work? Suppose the government runs a budget deficit on a particular day; i.e. it is spending more money then it taxes away. I should interject here that this money is not coming from anywhere, there is no ‘government savings account’; it is simply magicked into existence.
            Alright, what happens next? This new money is held for the most part in banks; at the end of the day they will hence end up with excess reserves. This will push the interbank short term interest rates down. Now the Central Bank (i.e. the Fed) has a target interest rate. To prevent the interest rate from going to zero it will try to drain the bank reserves; it does so by selling government debt obligations. Conversely if the interbank interest rate is too high it will start buying government debt obligations. It should be mentioned that in this situation the Central Bank produces this money out of thin air (i.e. printing).

            In all cases there is no such thing as ‘financing’ a budget deficit, a government has no financial constraints (which is not too say it has no real constraints or policy constraints), and what you think of as ‘ borrowing’ money from the private sector actually involves printing money.

            I understand that this all a bit of an upside down story, and very counterintuitive. Which is why I strongly suggest reading the links on Deficit Spending: http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=352 and http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=381 .

            Also, it should be said that although MMT seems to sound rather leftist it is ofc policy neutral. In particular, it is fully compatible with a libertarian concept of minimal government.

          • bbartlog says:

            This is, relatively speaking, nonsense. You seem to both want to assert that

            A) interest rates are constrained or rather set by private sector saving versus public sector borrowing, but also
            B) public sector borrowing is actually a result of money being created by central banks

            There’s also a certain comedy value in seeing someone try to lecture David Friedman on economics. But let’s leave that aside.

            In this case, your assertion A) is apparently false. Private sector savings was only about $1T annually in 2010, for example, while the governments of the world created multiple trillions in new debt. Had there been an actual constraint in operation here such that new government debt had to be financed by private sector saving, interest rates most certainly would have risen dramatically.

            Moreover, while there may be contexts in which it makes sense to talk about ‘average private sector savings’, it doesn’t really make sense in terms of analyzing ROI on savings. Because in addition to government debt, you can buy stocks or other private sector investments. Of course these also show up as a private sector debt and so indeed contribute nothing to ‘average private sector savings’, but they represent an additional outlet for savings demand and so would affect the interest rate on government bonds – at least in a world where these were not being set by central banks.

            Basically, it seems to me that you’re right about the mechanisms by which government currently finances its debt, but then you want to bring in some kind of supply and demand arguments about interest rates which would only have applied before about 1975 or so.

          • Lee Wang says:


            This is, relatively speaking, nonsense. You seem to both want to assert that

            A) interest rates are constrained or rather set by private sector saving versus public sector borrowing, but also
            B) public sector borrowing is actually a result of money being created by central banks

            There’s also a certain comedy value in seeing someone try to lecture David Friedman on economics. But let’s leave that aside.

            There are several different things at play here. There are two different interest rates: the interbank short term interest rate (that’s the interest paid on short term loans between banks) and the interest rate paid on government debt.
            The Interbank short term loans interest rates naively seem to be independent of any government meddling, but that’s misleading. If the government has a budget deficit on a particular day it is adding money to the system. This will create excess reserves. Banks will try to loan out as much of their money as they can so this will drive down the interbank short term interest rate, potentially all the way to zero. The Central Bank tries to maintain a certain interest rate; to do so it will sell government debt to drain the excess reserves. [Once again all this money creation is done by simply changing some number in a computer]

            Ofc all these individual decisions are made by private actors and do not involve any government interference. But in the aggregate their actions are strongly determined by government policy.

            In this case, your assertion A) is apparently false. Private sector savings was only about $1T annually in 2010, for example, while the governments of the world created multiple trillions in new debt. Had there been an actual constraint in operation here such that new government debt had to be financed by private sector saving, interest rates most certainly would have risen dramatically.

            I don’t know what you mean by assertion A. Do you mean
            A) interest rates are constrained or rather set by private sector saving versus public sector borrowing,
            because the rest of your question does not seem to refer to this. Perhaps you mean the claim that private saving is government borrowing. This is simply an accounting identity. I have already spent over two hours writing comments today so let me just quote from Bill Mitchell:

            In an accounting sense, that would be true for a closed economy. The sectoral balances are much simpler in that case.

            So total expenditure would be:

            GDP = C + I + G

            which says that total national income (GDP) is the sum of total final consumption spending (C), total private investment (I), and total government spending (G).

            National income (GDP) can be used for:

            GDP = C + S + T

            which says that GDP (income) ultimately comes back to households who consume (C), save (S) or pay taxes (T) with it once all the distributions are made.

            Equating these two perspectives we get:

            C + S + T = GDP = C + I + G

            So after simplification (but obeying the equation) we get the sectoral balances view of the national accounts:

            (I – S) + (G – T) = 0

            That is, the two balances have to sum to zero.


            (G – T) = (S – I)

            The sectoral balances in this case are:

            The Budget Deficit (G – T) – positive if in deficit, negative if in surplus.
            The private domestic balance (S – I) – positive if in surplus, negative if in deficit.
            It is clear that for any income (GDP) level, the deficit has to be equal to the excess of saving over investment in the private sector.

            This is from http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=10384 which has a longer discussion. Note that this expression only holds for a closed economy, there is a slightly more complicated expression if you include the foreign sector:

            (G – T) = (S – I) – (X – M)
            where X is total exports and M is total imports and (X – M) is net exports.

            which is also discussed in the link above.

            I should add a small remark to my last comment to David Friedman.
            When I said that when the government spends money on a particular day it is simply magicked into existence this is strictly speaking not true. Technically the government will go through ‘debt monetization’, i.e. it will force the Fed to buy government debt. This is just an accounting trick, the net effect is the same: the Fed i.e. (the extended government sector) produces money out of thin air.
            Perhaps it is then also easier to understand why a sovereign government has no solvability risk: suppose nobody in the world wanted to buy government debt, perhaps out of some mistaken macroeconomic model; would this mean that the federal government would have to default? No, it just ‘sells’ obligations to the Fed.
            In the mean time short term interest rates have fallen to zero; any bank with excess reserves can earn a premium by buying government debt.

            Finally about lecturing. I am trying to explain a highly nontrivial&technical subject; an introductionary textbook on modern monetary theory (i.e. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Modern-Monetary-Theory-Practice-Introductory/dp/1530338794) goes to almost 400 pages, and I cannot claim to be a complete expert on the subject.

            A good way to check that you understand the claims that MMT [which doesn’t necessitate believing them!] is trying to answer the Weekend Quizzes by Bilbo Mitchell. I still find it difficult to get a full score on them.
            See http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?cat=12

      • cassander says:

        Asserting facts not in evidence. The UK basically defaulted in the 70s, and were only spared the ignominy of formal default by getting a massive IMF loan. This was despite their debt being issued in pounds. The reason they did was because the economic consequences of printing your way out of debt are largely similar to that of defaulting. With a default, you pay back promised dollars with cents. When you print your way out you pay back dollars with dollars that are only worth cents. Either way, a lot of people get back a lot less than they were expecting.

        • Mark says:

          Yaaah… wasn’t the IMF loan more to do with wanting to maintain the exchange rate between pound and dollar rather than a default on Sterling denominated debt?

          I think you’re wrong when you say that the IMF loan (in dollars) was put in place to prevent a formal default on sterling denominated debt.

          • cassander says:

            >Yaaah… wasn’t the IMF loan more to do with wanting to maintain the exchange rate between pound and dollar rather than a default on Sterling denominated debt?

            Those are, effectively, the same thing. If the value of the sterling collapses, you’re paying people back in pounds worth pence, the effect of which is the same as paying back pence on pounds.

          • Mark says:

            So, the British government in 1976 borrowed money in order to reduce inflation and increase their liabilities.

          • cassander says:

            >So, the British government in 1976 borrowed money in order to reduce inflation and increase their liabilities.

            Yes, which, according to you, should never be necessary, and might not even be possible.

          • Mark says:

            I’m not sure that it is possible – presumably the effect of buying sterling with dollars will be reversed once you have to sell sterling to repay the dollars.

            You’re relying on fortuitous outside circumstances (confidence, perhaps) making this into a profitable trade – the act itself is a wash.

            But, anyway – your claim is this:

            “It is wrong to say that governments can never default because the British government defaulted through inflation on its debt in the 1970s. It had to borrow money in dollars in order to prevent a devaluation of the pound that would have led to higher inflation and further default through inflation.”

            I think the IMF stuff actually tells us nothing and isn’t evidence of anything you want to show, here. The question of whether this was an effective policy is irrelevant to the question of whether debt can be inflated away, which in turn is probably irrelevant to the question of whether a government can “default” on fiat currency debt.

          • cassander says:

            You’re missing the point, mark. You’re making a distinction without difference. inflating away your debt has the same effects as defaulting. pointing out that you can do the former to avoid the latter isn’t technically false, but it’s meaningless.

          • Mark says:

            Hmmmm… what I’m trying to say is that your argument above would be better if you deleted the line about the IMF.

            I’m not really interested in the discussion of whether there is a meaningful distinction between formal default and inflating away debt – I’m more interested in what actually happened in 1970s Britain. Did they inflate away the debt? Interest rates were pretty high.
            And the government were actually desperate not to inflate away the debt? I normally imagine that it’s claimed to be a conscious, insidious, policy.

          • Lee Wang says:


            >So, the British government in 1976 borrowed money in order to reduce inflation and increase their liabilities.

            Yes, which, according to you, should never be necessary, and might not even be possible.
            Of course it is possible. The government can self-impose all kinds of rules as it does.

            Indeed, it is not necessary, there is no reason for the government ever to take on debt. Government debt is a ridiculous subsidy for its holders since the government debt has no risk. A more rational system would abolish the federal reserve and dynamically set the budget deficit using printing and taxes. The Fed is an absurd subsidy for banks.

            Alas we are not in such a world. Now borrowing money will of course offset demand and thereby free up productive capacity lowering inflation etc. But there is no reason to do this through government debt. It is much more logical to do it directly through taxes. This will eliminate the subsidy that government debt holders are effectively getting as well as the kind of preference treatment large banks get (in forms of very low interest loans from the Fed).

            P.S. I can’t seem to reply to cassander.. there is no reply button.

          • Aapje says:

            @Lee Wang

            government debt has no risk

            This is not true. This comment and your other comment are only true within certain bounds, but you are treating it as a truth that is valid for any amount of government debt.

            Amusingly, you make the same mistake with your PS, not realizing the possibility that the rules may change at a certain commenting depth (which they do, limiting the nesting).

            PS. There is also no way to hide part of a comment, as you desired in your other comment.

          • cassander says:

            @Lee Wang says:

            Of course it is possible. The government can self-impose all kinds of rules as it does.

            I shouldn’t have said impossible, I should have said pointless.

            Indeed, it is not necessary, there is no reason for the government ever to take on debt. Government debt is a ridiculous subsidy for its holders since the government debt has no risk.

            Tell that to the people who bought austro-hunragian empire bonds in 1913, Confederate bonds in 1861, or Argentine government bonds a couple years ago. Government debt is not zero risk, it is very low risk, usually. Sometime not. And if you feel otherwise, then you should be scooping up greek bonds as fast as you can.

          • Lee Wang says:

            How am I supposed to carry on a conversation if nesting doesn’t work?
            @Aapje @ Cassander

            Greek government bonds exactly prove the point. Debt denonminated in a FOREIGN currency (the Euro in this case) mean that the Greek Government is no longer sovereign government issuing its own money.

            Now from the point of view of a private investor of course any investment has a certain risk. But the interest rate of government bonds (if as I always assume that the government in question is sovereign, has no foreign denominated debts, has free floating currency exchanges and issues its own fiat money etc etc) is not determined by the risk that you might naively think.
            For instance, as I detailed above budget deficits have a DOWNWARD pressure on interest rates. By enlarging the budget deficit ANY interest rate can be achieved. This interest rate on government debt hence is not really a good estimate of the risk (even though ofc investors are at risk; as they always are, but in this case the interest rate is not a valid proxy).

            From the POV of the government there is no reason they should pay an interest rate: they could simply print the money (as they automatically do through the Central Bank) and tax to keep aggregate demand low.

            As stated, there is ofc a need to lower aggregate demand, however it is much more logical to that through taxes then through government borrowing, since the latter will have strong redistributive effects particularly towards banks.

          • Aapje says:

            @Lee Wang

            How am I supposed to carry on a conversation if nesting doesn’t work?

            By addressing the person you want to reply to.

            From the POV of the government there is no reason they should pay an interest rate: they could simply print the money (as they automatically do through the Central Bank) and tax to keep aggregate demand low.

            The currency doesn’t exist in isolation though. If you print a lot of dollars, its value goes down compared to the renminbi, which means that the buying power of a given salary that is paid in dollars goes down. So then imported goods will cost more in dollars and people will pay fewer renminbis for exported goods.

            So you get trade inflation, which then logically results in other forms of inflation.

            The greater the gap between inflation and the interest rate, the worse it is to own dollars or get paid a fixed salary in dollars. So increasingly, people will then desert the dollar.

            So you can only print money proportionately to how much other nations print money.

          • Lee Wang says:

            By addressing the person you want to reply to.

            Ah ok. Thanks.

            The currency doesn’t exist in isolation though. If you print a lot of dollars, its value goes down compared to the renminbi, which means that the buying power of a given salary that is paid in dollars goes down. So then imported goods will cost more in dollars and people will pay fewer renminbis for exported goods.

            So you get trade inflation, which then logically results in other forms of inflation.

            The greater the gap between inflation and the interest rate, the worse it is to own dollars or get paid a fixed salary in dollars. So increasingly, people will then desert the dollar.

            So you can only print money proportionately to how much other nations print money.
            There are two things to note here. The first is that as I explained in my answer to David Friedman’s comment, ‘ borrowing’ money [i.e. issuing government debt] actually involves printing money as well. Ofc one should manage demand; if there is too much aggregate demand – i.e. the productive capacity is hit then there will be inflation. Right now this is done by inflation targeting by the Fed but in principle this can be done by dynamically adjusting taxes. This is a far better system; there is no difference on total spending power in the economy, so there will be no more inflation than there is now.
            The only difference is that there is no redistributive effects due to the interest paid on government bonds plus the fact that banks right now can somehow borrow at almost no interest rate from the Fed.

            The second thing to say, but this is completely unrelated to MMT, is that the scenario you are sketching makes no difference in real terms: yes individual dollars will be worth less with inflation if you would arbitrarily print say twice as many dollars but there are also more dollars, the net effect is zero.
            Ofc there are more complicated effects (i.e. high inflation imposes a cost on the use of currrency as a unit of exchange, it means the prizes have to be continually revised, and it also hurts the dollar as a storage of value). Let me again emphasise that MMT has nothing to do with randomly printing a bazillion dollars and somehow ignoring inflation. It is rather a detailed description of the monetary system that we have now.

      • A sovereign government issuing its own fiat currency is NEVER at risk of defaulting.

        Only because inflating away the debt isn’t classified as defaulting even if, in real terms, it is.

      • TentativeQuestioning says:

        They can’t technically default, but they can lose the faith and credibility of others in their ability to do things, which is the much more important point.

        I agree with MMT though. I also agree with all of this guy’s (seeming) critiques of it: http://www.businessinsider.com/weekender-the-trouble-with-modern-monetary-theory-mmt-2011-1

        Perhaps MMT has a good response to this, but my rebuttal would be that 1. a strong, (quasi)governmental entity 2. should be able to print money 3. and have the explicit purpose of not printing too much money (determined with good theory and measurements) and also putting that money to good use, not just paying off the government’s debts (unless that would actually stimulate the economy!). I.e., subsidising good businesses, increasing funding for particularly productive government programs, and/or just giving money to final consumers (either universally, or picking and choosing by productivity measures). 4. At the same time, central banks should restrict lending correspondingly- e.g. raising the reserve ratio.

        I’d really like to know what you or others think of this. I’ve basically just read about MMT in the last hour, but I’ve been thinking about something related to it for quite a long time.

        • Lee Wang says:

          This is not at really what MMT is saying and is mostly a restatement of orthodox economic thought.

          • TentativeQuestioning says:

            Looking at this after having some sleep, you’re right!

            The important thing I left out though is that by “print money” I don’t mean “make it easier for banks to make loans” but “create positive, debt-free balances”.

            Does that change anything?

    • TentativeQuestioning says:

      I’d say I can’t predict the future, but there’s a certain path I would like to see the US follow, if I’m not wrong about my beliefs.

      I’m mostly going with an MMT-ish idea here- I posted a related (and sort of copied) comment further down the thread- but basically, the two important assumptions are that

      1. The private sector saves, on net, and needs a certain amount of saving to function properly.
      2. The Fed can create and inject into the economy positive balances of money (i.e. debt-free) to meet this need, by putting it where the money would be most productive.

      I would propose that the Fed (or something like it) print this money and have the explicit purpose of not printing too much money and also putting that money to good use, not just paying off the government’s debts. I.e., subsidising good businesses, increasing funding for particularly productive government programs, and/or just giving money to final consumers (either universally- a UBI- or by selecting out people who would just spend on the money on e.g. coke and hookers, or more subtly would just inflate markets without productivity growth). At the same time, central banks should restrict lending correspondingly to contain bad lending- e.g. raising the reserve ratio.

      I would further posit that because the Fed today does not print money, but just tweaks lending, the need of the private sector to save is met today by just by lending. But this requires increasing growth in lending, since loans can’t be saved forever; they have to be paid back. This lending, spurred on by the Fed (because what else can it do?), eventually leads to bubbles, which pop, and lead to recessions. The US government takes on the debt, since it can in fact (sort of) save loans forever, or at least a lot longer than businesses can.

      So printing and injecting just-enough money would put a stop to that, and reduce the severity of the business cycle. The government still borrows, but it doesn’t have to be a lender of last resort anymore. Nor does it necessarily get rid of a lot of other problems- but it might alleviate them.

      I have no idea (and would like to hear from others!) if this is a credible idea, but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time ever since I read about Social Credit economics.

      Something like highly automated decentralized post-industrial communism (like in the fiction book Walkaway) might be a singularity solution to the problem, although it might also imply at the same time the (gradual) collapse (or at least radical alteration) of the US government. It would be nice if that happened but it would depend on the presence and growth of good decentralized production assets, and the desire in people to use them. Plus us surviving to that point.

  4. OptimalSolver says:

    The latest proposed solution to the Fermi Paradox: Aliens are hibernating until computation becomes more physically efficient in a trillion years or so.

    Conversely, is there a name for a prior that penalizes hypotheses based on how exciting humans would find them? To take the Fermi Paradox as an example, we reduce the probability of proposed solutions in direct proportion to how much they make us say “holy shit!”


    It’s extremely hard to progress from single cell organisms to technological civilization (boring!)

    Humans are being kept in a planetary zoo until such a time we’ve advanced enough to join the galactic community (holy shit!)

    A slumbering ancient race awakes every few eons to wipe out any civilizations showing signs of technological progress (holy fucking shit!!!)

    The third hypothesis, ranking highest in HSF (holy shit factor), would thus be deemed the least probable under this prior.

    The prior is far from perfect, though. Some confirmed phenomena such as quantum mechanics have high HSF, and what people find exciting is rather subjective.

    • Jeremiah says:

      I think the hibernation theory is certainly incompatible with the Dark Forest theory. It’s hard to imagine that you could sit out the game for that long if it’s as brutal as Liu Cixin suggests.

      My own explanation for Fermi’s Paradox is both way out there, but also hopelessly retrograde. For the curious it can be found here.

    • Incurian says:

      Possibly “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” which I think is just a corollary of Bayes’ Theorem.
      Put another way, going “holy shit” is another way of saying “that’s surprising” which is another way of saying “my prior for this is really low.”

    • Wrong Species says:

      The zoo hypothesis has to be, on its own, up there with the least likely possibilities. The “slumbering race” hypothesis is a little weird but it makes sense. But the Fermi Paradox posits that there should be plenty of intelligent aliens. So with all these races and time, there’s not a single record of an event that can be plausibly considered an alien? How do they possibly keep all alien life from reaching Earth and why would they put that much effort in to doing so? The only way to make the argument work is if there were some great filter limiting the number of species capable of intelligence, in which case the Great Filter is doing most of the intellectual work.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      I read an article yesterday, about how the two existing very different photosynthesis setups share a common ancestor. If photosynthesis happened only once, its another candidate for a decent filter that reduces the likelihood of intelligent life.

    • Deiseach says:

      So this hypothesis suggests when a civilisation achieves The Singularity, instead of all the uploaded intelligences now living in a paradise of infinite possibility, they are all powered down until the far, far future when it’s cold enough for fast computation? Billions of years of nothing much, if at all, happening as your transhuman mind idles?

      Remind me again why this is better than meatspace? 🙂

      • hlynkacg says:

        The hibernation theory reminds me of this xkcd. In the mean time those of us in meat-space pinky promise not to harvest your computronium substrate for use in the heat shields of our spacecraft. 😉

      • holomanga says:

        Because you can have infinite possibility, or you can have 10^30 times more possibility than that.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Why, exactly, do people think the Fermi Paradox needs a solution?

      It is a formula that substitutes in variables for unknowns, and then claims there is no way the values could be low enough for there not to be intelligent life all over the universe. That second part does all of the work without any evidence.

      We have zero idea what the values should be, and they hide all the complexity of the question.

      • 1soru1 says:

        The Fermi paradox needs a solution in the sense that at least one of the unknown variables needs to have a really really low value to make up for the astronomical number of stars you start with. It’s no particularly profound paradox, just standard proof by contradiction.

        Inhabitable planets are now known to be common, so ‘biogenisis is really really rare’ is perhaps the most likely solution. If false, we are probably only decades from finding that out, via finding life elsewhere in the solar system, or perhaps spectroscopy via space telescopes.

        And that’s where the exotic answers will start to look a lot more plausible.

        • Nornagest says:

          My money’s on complex life of some sort, either eukaryotic or multicellular. We have rocks showing evidence of microscopic organisms from very early in our planet’s history, early enough that abiogenesis must have happened during the “lava-covered meteor-blasted hellscape” period or else very soon after (although strata from that period are very sparse). But that life stayed very simple for quite a long time, with eukaryotes emerging around 2000 mya (soon after the oxygen catastrophe, though) and multicellular life around 1500. Took a while for land animals to show up, too.

          It’s circumstantial evidence for sure, but with only one data point so far I think the smart money for the hard parts of evolution lies where it took the longest for us.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Lava-covered meteor-blasted hellscapes can produce simple cells, but you need an O2-rich atmosphere and lack of ice to attract the Old Ones who produce multicellular life.

    • John Schilling says:

      Any solution to the Fermi Paradox that assumes there are lots of aliens and they are all independently doing the same thing because it is Obviously the Best Thing To Do, deserves ridicule and mockery to be assessed as extremely improbable. Humans alone have come up with more incompatible Obviously The Best Things To Do than I can count, and are busy either doing all of them simultaneously or conspicuously fighting each other over which one to do first, and the diversity of Human+Alien objectives and strategies will necessarily be greater than that of humanity alone. And if the argument is that spacefaring aliens will all be doing the same thing because only wise and enlightened races can do space travel and the wise and enlightened at least will agree on what is best, meh, again I suggest checking out humanity.

      Independently-evolved intelligent life is vanishingly rare in this universe, or intelligent life in this universe has been quietly subjugated by a single entity that chooses not to act visibly, or it is nigh impossible for intelligent life to act in a manner visible across cosmic distances. Pick one.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        Yes, but.

        I’ve made this argument myself, many times, but the way you phrase it seemed strikingly parallel to the opposite argument concerning superhuman AI — that though we cannot predict what its final goals might be, we can be fairly confident about lots of its instrumental goals.

        If it looked like getting to the stars was pretty easy, something we might do in the next hundred years, then the variance we see today in human culture would make your argument pretty compelling. But what if it takes us a thousand years (four or five times as long in an industrial civilization than we have had so far)? Is it out of the question to suppose that we might learn enough about ourselves to actually see the One Best Way? And might it be hard enough that there’s really only one way to do it, perhaps involving species self-modification to enable more unity and single-mindedness, and species that don’t go this route don’t make it to the stars? (“Protectors have precious little free will.”)

        OK, probably not. Still, the comparison is enough to make me glad you struck “ridicule and mockery”; I can live with “assessed as extremely improbable”.

        Edited: I know the Tom Lehrer song, but I’m not sure I see its relevance.

      • Eponymous says:

        It’s true that claims in the class “All alien species will do X” are vanishingly unlikely to be correct. But there are *many many* hypotheses of the sort “our regionally dominant superpower has chosen not to reveal itself to us for reason X”.

        • John Schilling says:

          But it isn’t just the regionally dominant superpower that may or may not chose to reveal itself to us, it is any power in the observable universe that might chose to send messages to emergent races in another power’s “territory”, and any power that might want to build visible megastructures for its own purposes. Also, you have to assume that the regional dominance of galactic superpowers is never established or challenged by high-energy warfare.

          • Eponymous says:

            Are our detection capabilities such that we would be likely to observe megastructures or interplanetary warfare if such existed? My impression is that they are not.

            Also, we have only been observing our neighborhood quite recently.

            But your amendment regarding communication is granted.

            Altogether I think there are two reasonable possibilities: that intelligent life is very rare, or that our local power chooses to prevent contact.

          • John Schilling says:

            Dyson shells are detectable across substantial interstellar distances, and galaxies with a substantial fraction of Dyson shells are visible pretty much across the visible universe. The most recent systematic search I know of seems to have ruled out Dyson shells within ~1200 light-years; that was done with the 1983-vintage IRAS space telescope. More modern instruments would have longer detection ranges but AFIK nobody has yet done a whole-sky Dyson shell search with any of theme. But it appears that Dyson shells or other K-II civilizations are at best extremely rare in our Galaxy.

            These guys seem to have searched the universe for Dysonized galaxies or other K-III civilizations and come up blank.

            I haven’t yet seen anyone try to calculate the detection distance for a war waged with e.g. Nicoll-Dyson beams, but it is necessarily at least as much as the detection distance for a plain Dyson shell and probably far greater. By the same token, I’m pretty sure that a K-II civilization can beam “You’re in a zoo! Here’s what They don’t want you to know!” public-service announcements to potentially life-bearing worlds across a large fraction of the universe out of the petty-cash drawer of their energy budget, and even a paltry K-I should be able to spam their own galaxy, but I haven’t done the math on that.

          • Eponymous says:

            Huh. Well that’s rather depressing. Updating away from local solutions to the paradox.

  5. wearsshoes says:

    Scott, thanks for bumping the NYC Solstice Kickstarter! We are raising funds from now through October 30th. (Same link as above.)

    A couple details about the Kickstarter: In previous years, Solstice has been mostly underwritten by a few generous individuals; we’re trying to produce a more sustainable base of donations for this year’s event. Right now, our sustainable ticket price is about $30, which we’ve found seems steep to newcomers. Our long-term path to sustainability at a lower price point involves getting more yearly attendance, so we want to continue to provide discounted access for the general public and people with tight finances. So. Our hope is for you to donate this year the amount that you’d be happy to donate each year, to ensure the NYC Solstice continues to thrive.

    $15 – Newcomer / Affordable option: If you’re new, or you’re not sure how much Solstice is worth to you, or finances are tight, you’re welcome to come with a donation of $15.
    $35 – Sponsorship option: You attend Solstice, and you contribute a bit towards subsidizing others using the newcomer/affordable option.
    $25 Volunteering Option – If you’re willing to put in roughly 3 hours of work (enough to do a shopping-spree for the afterparty, or show up early to set up, or help run the ticketstand, help clean up, etc)
    $50 and higher – Higher levels of sponsorship for those who are able.

    For anyone thinking about attending, we are jointly holding the East Coast Rationalist Megameetup, which will be a mass sleepover and gathering in NYC spanning that entire weekend from December 8th to 10th. Register here ($125), more details below.

    Since we’ll have a whole bunch of people from the rationalist community all in town for the same weekend, it’d be awesome if we could spend that weekend hanging out together, learning from each other and doing ingroup things. Because many of us will need a place to stay anyway, we can rent a big house on Airbnb together and use that as the central gathering place, like at Highgarden in 2014. This way we’ll have more flexibility to do things than if we all have to wander around looking for a public space.

    Besides Solstice and the afterparty, the big activity will be an unconference on Saturday afternoon. We’ll also have a ritual lab, games, meals together, and whatever other activities you want to run! There’ll also be plenty of room for unstructured socializing, of course.

    This is all going to cost up to $100 per person for the Airbnb rental, plus $25 per person for food (including at least Saturday lunch and dinner and Sunday breakfast) and other expenses. (The exact Airbnb location hasn’t been determined determined yet, because we don’t know how many participants there’ll be, but $100 per person will be the upper limit on price.)

    To gauge interest, registration is open from now until November 9. You’ll be asked to authorize a PayPal payment of $125. It works like Kickstarter; you won’t be charged until November 9, and only if there’s enough interest to move forward. You’ll also only be charged your share of what the rental actually ends up costing, plus the additional $25. For this, you’ll get to sleep in the Airbnb house Friday through Sunday nights (or whatever subset of those you can make it), have three meals with us, and hang out with a bunch of nice/cool/awesome ingroup people throughout the weekend. (Solstice tickets are not part of this deal; those are sold separately through the Solstice Kickstarter.)

    If this sounds like a good thing that you want to see happen and be part of, then register before October 30th!

    • Taymon A. Beal says:

      Thanks for linking this, Scott! Unfortunately there is a missing > which is making it appear wrong.

  6. 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 from X+Y. You don’t see X+X+X = 1000000X, or X+X+X=-X or X+X+X=iX – and almost all possible ways of combining price are even further from X+X+X = 3X than that. Odd that.

          • Charles F says:

            Life hack: try buying two cords of wood from the first guy and bartering a cord of wood for a case of beer with the second.

          • 1soru1 says:

            @Montfort: only if you have the social arrangement of a single universal arithmetic-based currency. If you buy on store credit, or the beer seller is south of the border, or you are using a company credit card you won’t be able to justify buying alcohol with, arithmetic axioms will not in fact apply.

          • Doesntliketocomment says:

            Peter, you seem to be hung up on this idea that A is at the root of everything B, which I don’t think anyone is arguing against. The issue is that every A goes through many layers of B that accrete until the A is rarely the prime mover. An artichoke might be a plant which requires definable conditions to grow, but the cost of the artichoke is set by society in a thousand ways; Everything from what fertilizers you can use to whether you can own slaves to harvest your artichoke comes out in the final price. Most importantly, were you to determine the cost of an artichoke, in terms of cultivation, harvest, and transport, should be the same as an apple it will get you nowhere with the cashier at the store. In the end society will determine if and how you can use this knowledge.

          • Peter says:

            “Peter, you seem to be hung up on this idea that A is at the root of everything B, which I don’t think anyone is arguing against. ”

            Except dodrian was doing just that.

            “The issue is that every A goes through many layers of B that accrete until the A is rarely the prime mover.”

            The original comment was “physical reality hidden under so many layers it’s practically irrelevant”. This is a long way from “rarely the prime mover”. Furthermore, for each of those layers of B – how many layers of A are behind (directly or indirectly) each layer of B.

            Sure, there are lots of factors that go into the price of an artichoke; you mention the availability of fertilizers, that’s physical reality.

            “the cost of the artichoke is set by society in a thousand ways”

            I suppose the key question is the freedom or otherwise of society to set the price otherwise; in particular, to set the price otherwise without compromising too much on other values that we have. If we wanted artichokes to cost 1p, well, there could be silly price controls coupled with massive subsidies, we could even reform the currency, collect in all of the old pounds and reissue one new pound for even 100 old ones… but we don’t want artichokes to cost 1p that badly. Realistically, not gonna happen. You could think of nonsocial physical reality as creating a menu of possibilities, and our values as choosing from the menu; but it’s like a selection of set menus, rather than a-la-carte, we can’t vary one thing while keeping everything else the same, we have fewer degrees of freedom than that. People make their decisions mostly based on things other than what they want the price of artichokes to be, and thus the price of artichokes arises; and were nonsocial physical reality to be different (eg if there were to be a virulent strain of artichoke blight this year), the price of artichokes would probably be different (again, assuming we don’t have a perversely strong and specific desire for stable artichoke prices at any cost).

            Most importantly, were you to determine the cost of an artichoke, in terms of cultivation, harvest, and transport, should be the same as an apple it will get you nowhere with the cashier at the store.

            Maybe not. Then again, if I can know that, maybe someone else can know that, and use that information to know that they can undercut the existing artichoke-sellers and take their market share.

          • PedroS says:

            On the other hand, if you make an app to record the number of times where a lethal outcome (ie. the most important decisions one can take, literally) depends on physical reality (A) or social reality (B), I am willing to guess that A will win handily. Any society where B wins is not a society worth living in.
            As we move towards less clear-cut outcomes (e.g health outcomes, or other measures which depend on the coordinated action of people over the physical substratum of reality, i.e. economics) , the ratio will start moving towards B, but I think you can only get to the level of zero decisons of type A if you discount the multiple non-trivial actions that every one of us does every day to avoid getting killed by the brute facts of physical reality (like washing our hands with soap, taking vaccinations, living in places where sewage does not drain into drinking water, etc.), and I do think that discounting those may be a case of petitio principi.

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          As long as the Sons of Martha are on the job, the rest of us can lead exactly such a charmed life.

        • Deiseach says:

          That struck me too. Yes, there’s a way you can describe how someone who is disadvantaged/living in poverty is affected by the social reality when it comes to accessing solutions to their physical problems (that’s where the whole “structural racism” thing does meet the road), but in general you do need to have the luxury of being able to count on “I have a roof over my head and can pay my bills and have money left over” to be “yeah well the physical reality is so far down the bottom of this pyramid it’s irrelevant”.

          • John Nerst says:

            I don’t think anyone sane would literally say that physical reality is irrelevant, it’s just that typical pomo-style theory acts as if it was – because they tend do deal with that aspect of reality and not others. Note how much our ideas of how things are are influenced by media and pop culture rather than direct experience. I don’t live in the US, for instance, so my idea of what a high school is like is entirely constructed out of pop cultural tropes. Doesn’t mean that those tropes in turn aren’t influenced by reality, but that’s the half postmodernism tends to not talk about.

            It makes a bit of sense if you don’t take it as a complete model (which would be quite ironic).

          • Peffern says:


            Can I ask what your model of an American high school is like?

          • John Nerst says:

            Nerds vs. Jocks. Cheerleaders. Jackets with big letters on them. Football super important for some reason. Bullying and gossiping like everybody is 13. Severe cliquishness and rigid popularity hierarchy. Almost everybody is good-looking, rich and white.

            Not a real model, but that’s certainly how it’s portrayed.

          • Aapje says:

            Also, people dunked into toilets!

            (Does this actually happen?)

          • Nornagest says:

            I never heard of it happening in high school. I did hear of it happening in junior high, rarely, but it’s worth bearing in mind that I and everyone I knew were thirteen at the time, and thirteen-year-olds will lie to you about the most inane shit, for fun or to make themselves look more important or just to see what’ll happen.

            That’s not to say there wasn’t bullying. There was definitely bullying. Just not the highly stereotyped Eighties-movie kind.

        • Doesntliketocomment says:

          You scoff, but when you look at the people who are most at the mercy of the physical world you see them enmeshed in beliefs that are far from what you would call “objective reality”. Meanwhile our best determinations of what is “real” are made by people as isolated from hunger, disease, and conflict as possible.

          • Peter says:

            How do you think those layers of insulation get built and maintained?

          • Doesntliketocomment says:

            Via layers of incredibly complex and widely shared social constructs.

          • Peter says:

            You’re just kicking up dust here.

            I mean, yes, there’s quite a lot that mediates the various factors that create our insulation from pain and death, you could call the packages that contain those factors “social constructs”, substantial parts of those packages are unarguably social organisation, the thing wouldn’t work without that social organisation.

            But how is it that all of those packages work?

          • Doesntliketocomment says:

            I feel we are missing on a basic level. I’m not arguing against physical reality, we are physical creatures made of chemicals after all, and that physical reality sets a number of bounds on us that is not possible to overcome. I cannot jump to the moon, whatever society thinks. Don’t think I don’t believe in the physical world.

            What I am saying is that the physical world produces the roughest boundaries for our actions as people. I could be nearly anywhere on earth tomorrow, it is physically possible for me to be transported to almost any spot on the globe. However, in fact I will wake up in one of a very few locations, and the reasons behind this are social. Most human behavior is like this, a series of choices between socially accepted outcomes using socially proscribed methods.

          • Aapje says:


            I think that the physical world produces far stronger constraints than you think. We don’t build cars because we see them as art, we build them because they are the best way to achieve certain transportation goals within the constraints of the physical world and our engineering expertise. We shape the cars as they are, because of aerodynamics, our need to look where we are going, etc. The variations in car design that are due to social constructs are fairly minimal (like the shape of headlights & grille) and extremely inconsequential compared to design features caused by physical restrictions.

            The danger of too easily arguing that an outcome is due to arbitrary social choices is that you can ignore natural constraints that do exist*. Furthermore, human sociology is fundamentally reducible to the physical realities of our brains, so even that explanation is not final, but demands to be deconstructed.

            * This is also a possible error mode of religion, where people can stop following the causal chain of events and declare that ‘God made this happen.’

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I’m not sure I’m being fair, but from what I’ve read of post-modernism (bits and pieces, nothing extensive) it seems to me that post-modernists think they can understand social reality by riffing from their subconscious. There’s no serious effort to find out what other people are thinking.

      • LukeReeshus says:

        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.

        I’m late to the thread but I just had to say, thanks for writing this. I could never quite put my finger on why I find postmodernism so irreducibly nonsensical. This explains it. At least it does for me, because it ties into a fact about humanity I’ve noticed ever since I started taking the physical world seriously: most people don’t. That is, most people are utterly bound up in social interactions and only think about the physical world when they have to—when driving a car, moving an object, etc. And even then, they’re not really thinking about it; they’re just doing their best to deal with it, so they can get back to what’s really important. For them, the physical world is a hindrance, not the basis of their reality.

        So, allow me to tie some stuff together. I think that style of thought, which obsesses over the social world to the exclusion of the physical, constitutes a large portion of the psychological basis for religion. For me, a charitable definition of religion would be people projecting their human concerns onto the inhuman Cosmos. Of course, this sentiment directly contradicts and conflicts with our modern conception of Nature as mechanical and indifferent to human affairs. (“When I look at the stars / I know full well / that for all they care / I can go to Hell.”)

        So, by this conception, resurgent, traditional religion is the premodern reaction to modern science, while postmodernism is, well, the postmodern reaction to it. And, while they have their differences, they certainly seem to operate on much the same psychology, at least in regards to science. Both love to hurl epithets like “scientism” and “reductionist” at anyone trying to link the physical and the social worlds.* Both consider any emphasis on humanity’s evolutionary history—a thoroughly physical process—to be intellectually boorish. “We come from God,” say the religious. “We come from the stories we tell about ourselves,” say the postmodernists. “We sure as heck don’t come from Nature,” they both say. (Of course, the average religious moderate / postmodernist won’t deny the staggering evidence of our natural history; they’ll just pretend it’s irrelevant.)

        So, in regards to modernism, they’re two peas in a pod. Does that make sense?

        *Illuminating link: this exchange between Steven Pinker and one Leon Wieseltier.

        • John Nerst says:

          Thanks. I think you’re right, and it’s this thinking that made me believe that fundamental, poorly understood differences in how we perceive the world lies behind a lot of disagreements. And it gets a lot worse because nobody talks about it.

          It took me years to understand what pomo-types were actually saying, and perhaps even longer to figure out what religious people were saying (probably because it was harder to understand that I didn’t actually understand).

          None of the instruction I’ve had on postmodernist or constructionist thinking, whether in writing or in person, had ever stated those basic assumptions up front or seemingly understood that this would have helped. I’ve spent a fair amount of time googling phrases like “poststructuralism for materialists” with poor results. I had to figure it out, and afterwards the material I had to read when studying the sociology of scientific knowledge did make a lot more sense (I wrote an article on that a while ago).

          At least it does for me, because it ties into a fact about humanity I’ve noticed ever since I started taking the physical world seriously: most people don’t. That is, most people are utterly bound up in social interactions and only think about the physical world when they have to—when driving a car, moving an object, etc. And even then, they’re not really thinking about it; they’re just doing their best to deal with it, so they can get back to what’s really important. For them, the physical world is a hindrance, not the basis of their reality.

          I’ll be stealing that quote, if you don’t mind.

          • Peter says:

            That’s a superb article. One thing that’s clear is that by working with various postmodernist/SSK/etc. stuff that to a certain extent it can be deciphered, you learn some of the conventions on interpretation and it’s like an image coming into focus… sort of. There’s still a lot that if you’re charitable looks still enciphered and if your iron determination to be charitable in the face of repeated and severe insults wavers even slightly looks like offensive nonsense… then you learn to decipher a bit more, and so on.

            From the article:

            I do think that academics teaching students about these things could act more responsibly. Disseminating ideas that serve to undermine the notions of objectivity, truth and science[13] without adding some serious safety precautions is not unlike handing out free bottles of sulphuric acid on the street.

            To which I add: have your read Bruno Latour’s Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern – there is some very encouraging soul-searching that goes on in that piece.

          • John Nerst says:

            I haven’t, but I will now.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Thank you– that’s an excellent essay.

            One more thing about social shaping and science– what science studies is shaped by what people think is worth studying. I don’t *think* you mentioned this.

          • John Nerst says:

            It’s long enough as it is, but yes, that’s a very big deal.

          • Peffern says:

            It seems, and John Nerst’s linked article addresses this, is that there’s a fair amount of (possibly unintentional) motte-and-bailey going on with regards to ideas like “reality,” “construction,” “social,” etc.

            I had an altercation with a humanities professor over a statement I made in frustratiom, which was something like “Problems have solutioms, God dammit.”

            M&B was probably a big part, in retrospect.

          • Art Vandelay says:


            Although there may be some element of truth when Latour says he wants to refocus his line of attack, I think that what you see as his soul-searching is predominantly a playful, mischievous rhetorical device in service of the true aims of that piece which are to critique critical theory and push his own brand process philosophy.

        • Nick says:

          I don’t think traditional religion and postmodernism are nearly as similar as you make them out to be. Physical reality vs. social reality is a false dichotomy: traditional religion’s distinctive claims, like “God exists” or “angels exist” or “humans have souls” are not claims about social reality, even if they’re nonphysical—they’re (traditionally) metaphysical claims. Both might result in a rejection of reductionism, but it’s for very different reasons and with very different consequences, provided, I grant you, that people get away from simply anthropomorphizing God or supposing that the universe has feelings or something.

        • lvlln says:

          Your insight into postmodernism reminds me of what I went through recently after reading this article on contrasting premodernism & postmodernism with modernity. Very long, but was very illuminating to me.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      Many claims about postmodernism that treat it as a singly entity are preposterous. There’s some connections and shared themes, but more I read about it, less it feels fair to dump it as a single thing called “pomo” and throw it into a rubbish bin.

      The “defence of pomo” pdf felt making the exactly same mistake, except it replaced “throw it into a rubbish bin” with vague defense “don’t dismiss it, postmodernism is very useful mode of looking at the world”.

  7. Atlas says:

    A thought experiment, and a more general question I’d like to hear folks’ thoughts on:

    Suppose you/a random intelligent person of taste had never heard of a writer considered to be one of the greatest ever. In this case, let’s say Fyodor Dostoevsky, who Jordan Peterson in a conversation with Sam Harris cited as an example of a fiction writer whose work was so awe-inspiring and brilliant that it self-evidently contains important truths.

    Now suppose you were put on a desert island and given The Brothers Karamazov, in addition to 4 other novels with similar length and themes by 19th century Russian writers who are now completely forgotten and/or regarded as at most moderately talented by critics. Imagine that you were asked which novel was a great, enduring, timeless, etc. work of art. Do you think you have better than chance odds of guessing “correctly”? (And you can repeat this thought experiment for any form of art.)

    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.

    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? Or is the only way for people to agree that a work of art is great, and then people search for greatness in whichever works that they already “know” are great?

    I’m not entirely sure what the implications of this are—I think obviously one can still personally enjoy art in its various forms. 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?

    • 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.

      • Atlas 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.

        Fair enough; I don’t see any obvious way to actually test this. However, I think that as long as one expects to be at least non-trivially below perfect selection, it does cast real doubt on the alleged objectivity of great works of art. If people in an aesthetic vacuum near perfectly chose the “great” work of art every time, I would concede that there is some important objective difference. However, if it was even, say, 65/35 odds to choose the “correct” answer, I would say that this shows that wholly subjective judgments likely play an important role in choosing which works of art are “great”.

        Also, since extremism in thought experiment is no vice, I realize that I really should have scaled the thought experiment up: imagine having to choose one great novel out of 200 or 5,000 or 100,000 novels. Would you still be confident that you’d do much better than chance at selecting the “great” one?

        I think this is a fair change to the thought experiment, because I think in an analogous thought experiment for something with more objective measurements scale wouldn’t matter. For example, if you had to develop a theory of gravity that would predict whether apples fall up or down, or a theory of probability to maximize your odds of choosing the car in the Monty Hall problem, it wouldn’t matter whether you had to test it 10 or 1000 or 10,000 times—you’d still be totally confident, once you developed the right theory, that it would make accurate predictions.

        Whereas I think that if you scale up the aesthetic equivalent I proposed, it would likely reduce the “accuracy” of one’s predictions. It would perhaps seem “unfair” to have to try to consistently choose the one great novel out of, say, 75 choices. But I think this proves the point—if objective metrics could separate great and not-great art, you would still expect to have a high degree of predictive accuracy even with a huge number of choices. (Which maybe you do expect you would have, but I find rather unlikely.)

        • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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)

    • Incurian says:

      It’s all Greek to me.

    • Wayside says:

      Have you read any lesser 19th-century Russian writers?

    • 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.

    • 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.)

    • 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

    • 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

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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”.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • rlms says:

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

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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

    • 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.

    • 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.)

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. Alejandro says:

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

  20. 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!

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.)