Open Thread 97.5

This is the twice-weekly hidden open thread. As the off-weekend thread, this is culture-war-free, so please try try to avoid overly controversial topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

481 Responses to Open Thread 97.5

  1. Anatoly says:

    Think about how the Moon moves with respect to the Sun; what does the orbit look like? Most people intuitively picture a bunch of loops, like the first picture on this page. As the page goes on to explain, this isn’t at all what it looks like, and in fact the Moon’s orbit around the Sun is convex.

    One way to think about it is to take into account that the speed with which both Earth and Moon revolve around the Sun is much greater than the speed with which the Moon revolves around the Earth. So a plausible approximation is of two race cars running around a huge circular track. The outer track car will occasionally overtake the inner track car and pull into the inner track, and the other car will then take up the outer track. After a while they exchange again.

    Even so, with this mental picture it still wasn’t clear to me how the trajectory ends up convex and not even slightly curving inwards when the “weaving” happens, so I made this demonstration to convince myself.

    • CatCube says:

      I knew that the moon’s orbit didn’t have loops, but I didn’t realize it was convex. That demonstration really helps me understand why.

    • quaelegit says:

      I like your demo! Quick question: is ‘m’ the number of lunar month in one earth-year (i.e. the number of orbits the moon makes around the earth in the time that the earth makes one full rotation around the sun)? I wasn’t quite sure from the description.

      EDIT: other quick question — if a=10, b=0, R=410, and m=28.4, that moon-orbit-path is NOT convex, right? Catcube’s comment made me realize I might be misunderstanding the vocabulary.

      Coincidentally, I was just wondering about a similar question that came up in a book I started last night. The setting is a planet that is tidally locked with its star, and a moon that is tidally locked with the planet. So the planet has a permanent dark side. But does the moon? I don’t think it does necessarily, but I’m having trouble picturing the setup to figure it out.

      • Iain says:

        Tidal locking means that the planet rotates once every time it orbits the star (and, equivalently, the moon rotates once every time it orbits the planet). But there’s no reason that the speed of rotation of the planet should have any effect on the darkness of the moon. A tidally locked moon around a tidally locked planet should be the same as a tidally locked moon around any other planet: like, for example, the Moon orbiting around the Earth. Our moon does not (contra Pink Floyd) have a permanent dark side, and neither should the moon in this book.

      • Anatoly says:

        Correct on both questions – lunar month is the number of the times the moon orbits during one year, and “convex” is not the same as “no loops”, convex means that a tangent line at any point of the trajectory doesn’t intersect the trajectory “later on”. Turns out that if you work out the formula for the technical condition of convexity (as done e.g. in this beautiful short paper of >100 years ago), convexity is guaranteed if R/a > m^2 with the parameters of the demonstration. With the default parameters I used, R/a = 40, m=6, so as you increase either a or m, the convex orbit quickly stops being convex.

    • John Schilling says:

      But there’s more than just the one moon, of course.

      For moons with non-convex orbits, we need look no further than Deimos and Phobos, which will have substantial concavities at every period and so their heliocentric track is a visibly wiggly line. If you want actual loops, you’ll have to go all the way to Jupiter, whose five innermost moons (including Io) will form heliocentric loops at every revolution about Jupiter. Europa’s heliocentric track will have cusps that intermittently open into mini-loops as Jupiter’s eccentric orbit takes it farther from the sun.

  2. dlr says:

    I think this isn’t a culture war thing.

    In “CONTRA ASKELL ON MORAL OFFSETS” (08/28/17) Scott said “…distinguish between murdering your annoying neighbor vs. not donating money to save a child dying of parasitic worms in Uganda. To axiology, they’re both just one life snuffed out of the world before its time. If you forced it to draw some distinction, it would probably decide that saving the child dying of parasitic worms was more important, since they have a longer potential future lifespan.”

    I’ve got to disagree with that statement entirely. Your annoying neighbor is, statistically, far more likely to be engaged in ground breaking research & development on human life extension/regenerative medicine, or curing cancer/Alzheimer’s disease/[fill in the blank]; or working on exciting research/technological breakthroughs on material science/space exploration/solar power/[fill in the blank]. The odds are much, much lower that the child dying of parasitic worms in Uganda will ever advance human knowledge, or discover some technological breakthrough, or, more generally benefit humanity as a whole. It’s possible, but far less likely.

    First, your annoying neighbor has had vast resources poured into developing his human capital: he can not only read and write, and the odds are very high that he didn’t suffer cognitive impairment in the womb or early childhood due to nutritional deficiencies, etc. He is, on average, MORE VALUABLE to other human beings, and to humanity as a whole. Even if he isn’t at the absolute cutting edge of scientific research, he is perhaps busy changing the oil or mowing the lawn of someone who is, thereby freeing up more of their time to do research, etc.

    Uganda isn’t completely decoupled from the global economy, but its net contribution to the rest of humanity is small. And a child dying from parasitic worms in Uganda is most likely not even strongly coupled into the Ugandan economy. The odds are he lives out in the countryside somewhere, the child of subsistence farmers. Saving his life will increase (possibly) the happiness of his parents, brothers and sister, close friends and neighbors. But, well, your annoying neighbor probably has friends and relatives too, so I say on that dimension it is a wash. And on the dimension of benefiting others through productive work the annoying neighbor wins by some enormous multiple.

    So, on the whole, I’d say, the annoying neighbor’s death can’t be compensated for by donating enough to a GiveWell charity to save one life, or probably even by donating enough to save 100 or 1000 lives. Each human being’s life is (in round numbers) equally valuable to themselves, and to some close friends and relatives, but each human being is not equally valuable to the rest of humanity, or, more generally, to ‘other human beings’.

    • dlr says:

      Another way to explain my point is via charitable giving: is it better to work to bring the bottom 5% up somewhat towards the average, or to work to move the average higher for everybody? Pity urges us to help the bottom 5%, but, compare that to, say, improving old age, through breakthroughs in regenerative medicine. A person dying of old age, or in failing health is as badly off as a child who is dying. They have the same complaint. But, going forward, far more people are going to tragically, unnecessarily, die of old age, than are going to tragically, unnecessarily, die of parasitic infections.

      Solving the problem of dying of old age for everyone, for all time, costs more absolutely than solving the problem of one person dying of parasitic infections. But, the pay off is dramatically higher too.

      So, that says to me, effective altruists shouldn’t be giving to GiveWell, they should be giving to institutes doing basic scientific research, on human aging, biomedical research, regenerative medicine…

      But, I find that troubling, since, well, I’m obviously much more likely to be personally benefited by giving to an institute doing biomedical research, etc.

  3. j1000000 says:

    This terrible Austin thing had me reading the Unabomber’s Wikipedia page. This section about his participation in an abusive long-term psychological study at Harvard stuck out to me:

    As a sophomore, Kaczynski participated in a study described by author Alton Chase as a “purposely brutalizing psychological experiment”, led by Harvard psychologist Henry Murray. Subjects were told they would be debating personal philosophy with a fellow student, and were asked to write essays detailing their personal beliefs and aspirations. The essays were turned over to an anonymous attorney, who in a later session would confront and belittle the subject – making “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive” attacks – using the content of the essays as ammunition, while electrodes monitored the subject’s physiological reactions. These encounters were filmed, and subjects’ expressions of rage were later played back to them repeatedly.[20] The experiment ultimately lasted three years, with someone verbally abusing and humiliating Kaczynski each week.[21][22]

    Maybe I’m being melodramatic but, to me, that just sounds like life on the Internet now.

    • albatross11 says:

      Jeez, now I wonder if any of the other participants in that study snapped in interesting/terrifying ways.

    • outis says:

      In a letter, Kaczynski has denied that the experiment was particularly traumatic or that it had any significant effect on him. I think I saw this on Reddit, where the original fact is a semi-frequent TIL.

      • rlms says:

        Kaczynski’s lawyers commented on here once (to threaten to sue for copyright infringement), if they hung around maybe we can ask them.

      • j1000000 says:

        Yeah, didn’t mean to imply I believe that kind of straight-line narrative. It may have been some minor and insignificant part of undergraduate life to Kacyznski that he never cared about or took personally, and then when people found out about it they used hindsight to sensationalize it.

        • Well... says:

          Having read up a fair bit on Ted Kaczynski, and having read his brother David’s memoir, the sense I got was that being a subject in Murray’s experiments likely did get to TK in a major way. (I’m using TK now to differentiate Ted from David, but just using “Ted” seems odd since I don’t know the guy.)

          Remember, TK was only 16 when he got to Harvard. He grew up a very introverted kid with very few friends. He was also very sensitive; he’s the type who’d start crying if he saw an animal in distress. Not the type I’d expect to be able to have a thick skin about the kind of stuff Murray was putting him through.

          (Though on the other hand DK makes it sound like TK’s emotional sensitivity might have been reserved for animals because one time he pulled a really nasty prank on his mom that could have really hurt her and instead of feeling remorseful he just laughed and went to his room; on the other other hand TK might have had a special insensitivity to his parents, possibly owing to an incident that happened when he was an infant where he was hospitalized for a rash. That incident, however, comes off sounding like Kaczynski family lore more than an obvious cause of TK’s emotional aloofness from his parents. By way of an alternative, there was some mental illness in the family history.)

          Denying the impact of the experiments, even in personal letters to his brother who was the closest person to him in his life, also seems totally in character for TK. He was trying to be self-sufficient and low-maintenance. Admitting that you are carrying around an emotional trauma invites the idea of co-dependence with the person you’re admitting it to.

    • Aapje says:


      Sounds like Scientology 😛

  4. Well... says:

    Why is science fiction called “science fiction”? Why is it so often lumped in with fantasy? Actually what I’m really interested in is, what’s a better name for science fiction as a genre?

    The only alternative in widespread use that I know of is “speculative fiction” but that’s almost worse, since basically all fictional stories that follow an internal logic could be called speculative — they “speculate” on how some set of initial conditions might play out among certain characters.

    One of the hallmark qualities of science fiction — perhaps its defining quality? — seems to be a prominence given to the role of technology in at least the inciting events of the story, if not many of the other events in it. Usually this technology is, from the reader’s perspective, either very young or not yet invented, or even impossible (thus “speculative”), or else it is speculative from the characters’ perspective (e.g. a story about a medieval knight who acquires a machine gun).

    If I’ve identified the defining quality of science fiction, then a better name for the genre might be “technological fiction” (or tech-fi for short). If you really want to get serious, call it “speculative technological fiction” or “spec-tech-fi”!

    But I fully expect someone here will show why I’m wrong.

    • Matt M says:

      Why is it so often lumped in with fantasy?

      SciFi and Fantasy both are fictional tales about worlds which are significantly different from our own, or from human history. Magical elves and space lasers are both “speculative” in that sense. They both require the reader to engage their imagination at a higher level than that of say, a fictional story taking place in present-day New York, that is entirely plausible could have legitimately occurred.

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      The best name for science fiction is science fiction. Why? Because it’s an unambiguous call name that everyone agrees on the definition of and can easily dereference. The categories were made for man, brah.

      I think SF and fantasy both need to care a lot about fictional technology. (That term *is* correct for both laser guns and magic swords, BTW) The best description of the sort of SF that, say, certain puppies dislike, is “Stories where nothing happens, but it doesn’t happen to people of color.” Stuff like that abominable dinosaur short doesn’t care at all about fictional technologies, just its present-day and real-life social point. I’m not sure if it’s actually definitional that they care about technologies.

      I do have a strong distinction between SF and fantasy, though; not spaceships vs. dragons, and not just because of the difficulty of categorizing Pern. For me the difference is consequences: SF is work where a new technology is introduced into the world and the author attempts to consider what that would do to society. Someone or other said that the true genius of a SF author isn’t predicting the car but the traffic jam.

      Star Wars is fantasy; we have spaceships and laser guns, but no one seems to care other than how they set up a basic hero’s journey. The Hunger Games is fantasy: by book three the protagonist shoots down aircraft with her bow and arrow and no one seems to care why that’s fucking possible and they have D&D random encounters with genetically engineered monsters, but it doesn’t mean anything for how they live. Star Trek straddles the line episode to episode.

      It’s possible this definition is really just What Andrew Likes and not unambiguous, but it’s a categorization that I realized mattered a lot to me and helped explain how I think, so I’ll share it.

      • Wrong Species says:

        I don’t agree with your definition. Some fantasy authors do try to deal with the consequences of their technology; it’s just that their technology doesn’t really align with what we know about the law of physics. I think the whole thing where people say that Star Wars isn’t science fiction is really weird, because most people would put it closer to that than fantasy. The problem with the classification isn’t that it doesn’t fully deal with the consequences of technology. Star Trek does that all the time. The problem is that it mixes clear cut sci fi and fantasy aspects.

      • DavidS says:

        I agree that some great sci-fi is not predicting the car but the traffic jam (for instance Bradbury’s ‘the murderer’ which predicts social aspects of mobile phones: btw, is Bradbury’s The Sound of Thunder what you mean by ‘that abominable dinosaur short’?).

        I disagree that magic swords are (necessarily) ‘technology’. Some magic is quasi-technological (where it follows strict rules mainly) some major cases from Tolkein to Rowling are not. Tolkein’s interesting here because I think he sees Sauron’s ‘magic’ as essentially technological but Gandalf’s and the Elves’ as… art? religion? Creation?

        I’m not clear from your definition whether you see a book as sci-fi if it has all the trappings of classic fantasy except that the author has unpacked how magic e.g. influences the economy, communications etc.

        Your definition seems to demote fantasy to being ‘sci fi that has failed to think through the implications properly’: if that’s right I’m not sure it’s the best way to separate genres.

        Also on the Hunger Games, doesn’t she have basically grenades as the arrowpoints etc. by this point? My memory is that she does, and it’s more ‘why is a bow a better delivery mechanism for this than a gun’ with a large chunk of the answer being that she’s as much a propaganda weapon as anything else.

        On your definition, does the thinking about how the tech effects the world have to be visible in the book? I’m pretty sure some Pern books are basically fantasy medieval social/political/military stories with ‘yeah, we have dragons that apparently can fight this thing called Thread’ floating in the background, whereas others focus on why and how Thread and dragons exist. Are the former sci-fi by virtue of the explanations in the latter? What you say about Star Trek may imply otherwise but I read that as saying that sometimes Star Trek moves into magical thinking that is actively ‘unrealistic’.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Sauron’s magic is referred to as “deception”, but I’m not sure what that means. I need a list of his magic. The Rings really do extend life, but not in a good way. The ringwraiths really do impose fear.

          • DavidS says:

            It all comes down to his Catholic theology. The point is that Sauron (and Morgoth come to that) can’t create and can only distort what is currently there. Doesn’t mean it’s all smoke and mirrors. Just that for instance Morgoth couldn’t create Orcs from whole cloth and instead (depending on which mythology you choose, as Tolkein had different versions) had to torture and distort Elves to turn them into a parody of themselves.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            The theory of magic is kept offstage in LOTR, which is possibly a good idea.

            I have no idea in what sense there’s a truth to lembas while the Ring is a deception.

            The Augustinan theory makes sense for orcs, but not for everything Sauron made.

          • Protagoras says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz, The Augustinian theory also doesn’t make sense for a lot of the things Augustine and later Christian thinkers tried to use it for. I’m not sure Tolkien’s applications involve any extra implausibility.

      • Trofim_Lysenko says:

        I suspect Andrew is referring to to the Hugo Award-nominated(!) and Nebula Award-winning (!!) “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love”

      • Jon S says:

        I’m pretty close to agreeing with your SF/fantasy distinction. I think that SF tends to essentially be a thought experiment: some rules/technology/event is imagined, and the author explores the logical consequences (or a possible set of consequences anyway). Fantasy tends to focus more on character development or world-building, but usually doesn’t care about the foundational rules in the same amount of detail/rigor. Even if the world’s rules are fully fleshed out in a fantasy piece, the story isn’t *about* the rules, like it can be in SF.

    • John Schilling says:

      Why is science fiction called “science fiction”? Why is it so often lumped in with fantasy? Actually what I’m really interested in is, what’s a better name for science fiction as a genre?

      Because Hugo Gernsback and John Campbell said so, and there’s no alternative that is so much better as to be worth the confusion of making a switch now.

      The only alternative in widespread use that I know of is “speculative fiction” but that’s almost worse, since basically all fictional stories that follow an internal logic could be called speculative — they “speculate” on how some set of initial conditions might play out among certain characters.

      “Speculative Fiction”, or SF, is universally understood to mean fiction where the setting is speculative, as contrasted with fiction where the setting is the present or historical real world. This includes basically all of science fiction, basically all of fantasy, and very little else. The most important subdivision in SF is between speculative settings that we generally believe could exist, e.g. when we get around to inventing really good spaceships and fly off to the worlds where the cool aliens live, and speculative settings that we generally accept can’t exist, e.g. because they involve wizards and dragons in Earth’s alleged historic past. This boundary is inherently fuzzy, because “generally accept” is fuzzy, but the “could exist” side is called Science Fiction and the “can’t exist” side is called Fantasy.

      If I’ve identified the defining quality of science fiction, then a better name for the genre might be “technological fiction” (or tech-fi for short). If you really want to get serious, call it “speculative technological fiction” or “spec-tech-fi”!

      No. I don’t really want to get serious, and neither does anyone else. I just want to know where to find books of a certain general type at my local Barnes & Noble. Is there any book that you would label “spec-tech-fi” that I wouldn’t expect to see in the science fiction section? Or vice versa? The purpose of the name is not to encode in its etymology a concise and accurate definition of the term, any more than the purpose of “John Schilling” is to tell you what sort of person I am; it’s just an identifier and we almost never change those for descriptors.

      Also, if you think your proposed new descriptive name will draw a clear boundary between science fiction spec-tech-fi and fantasy, or make clear that the existing boundary is in the wrong place, then no, it won’t. It really, really won’t. Really. We’ve been trying that for at least half a century.

      • The Nybbler says:

        “Speculative Fiction”, or SF, is universally understood to mean fiction where the setting is speculative, as contrasted with fiction where the setting is the present or historical real world. This includes basically all of science fiction, basically all of fantasy, and very little else.

        Also alternative history, which if there are no fantastic elements sometimes gets lumped in with science fiction and sometimes doesn’t.

      • Eric Rall says:

        I suspect much of the reason for science fiction, fantasy, and alternate history getting lumped in together in a single category are that there’s a huge overlap between authors of those genres as well as readers of those genres. Lumping them together puts most of a given author’s works together on the shelf, and customers browsing the Science Fiction & Fantasy section of the bookstore are likely to be interested in both science fiction and fantasy titles.

        The genres are also fuzzy around the edges, and lumping them together eliminates the problem of deciding where to put a borderline work. For example, Anne McCaffery’s Pern novels feature dragons and take place in a medievalesque society, which seems to indicate Fantasy, but the backstory (mentioned in passing in the preface to the first book and explored in detail in later books) is that the world is a lost space colony which regressed in tech and societal organization, and the dragons were created with genetic engineering rather than magic. Or Harry Turtledove’s “Guns of the South”, which explores a scenario where the Confederacy won the US Civil War (classic Alternate History territory), but the Confederate victory was brought about by time travel (a core Science Fiction plot device). But put everything in one section, and you don’t have to worry about the details, and most of your customers won’t mind the genres being mixed together.

        • Nornagest says:

          Ambiguous works are easy, but I actually can’t think of that many authors that did both unambiguous fantasy and unambiguous science fiction. Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. le Guin, a few people in the Baen stable… and that’s about all.

          • Nick says:

            John C Wright does both, although I think he’s done a lot more scifi than fantasy. Steven Erikson did the Malazan series, but he’s also put out at least one traditional space opera. Stephen R Donaldson did both the Thomas Covenant series and a few scifi series. Leonard Salby’s last book ends very scifi, but I’m not sure the rest of the book even has a genre.

          • Randy M says:

            Orson Scott Card does works that are ostensibly sci-fi, but filled with fantasy trappings (Worthing Saga, Treason, Wyrms)–adventure in the midst of the ruins of a little understood past or outside civilization that functions like magic.

            He also has novels that are clearly fantasy (Hart’s Hope) and clearly sci-fi (Ender’s Game).

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Huge numbers of authors do both. Eric’s example of Turtledove wrote unambiguous fantasy and unambiguous SF. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Isaac Asimov. CS Lewis. Larry Niven. Roger Zelazny. George RR Martin.

          • John Schilling says:

            George R. “Game of Thrones” R. “because two R’s is a sign of quality fantasy” Martin has done straight science fiction, e.g. the Haviland Tuf series. Lois McVorkosigan Bujold has done two straight fantasy series. And going old school, there’s the late Poul Anderson with a great deal of both. Just off the top of my head.

          • Eric Rall says:

            A few more off the top of my head:

            Lois Bujold: “Curse of Chalion” is unambiguous fantasy, and the Vorkosigan series is unambiguous sci fi.

            David Weber: the Honor Harrington series is unambiguous sci fi, and the War Gods series is unambiguous fantasy.

            Piers Anthony: Xanth is unambiguous fantasy, and Bio of a Space Tyrant is unambiguous sci fi.

          • Cherryh and Bujold, two authors I think very highly of. Niven, possibly the best idea man in SF at the time. Poul Anderson. Probably a lot more that didn’t immediately occur to me.

          • B Beck says:

            Greg Bear did those Infinity Concerto books that were straight fantasy.

          • Protagoras says:

            Nobody’s mentioned Saberhagen yet?

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            Ah, yes, Bret Saberhagen, without whom the Royals probably don’t win the 1985 World Series. A man who should be better known.

            …you probably meant an author but Bret’s the only Saberhagen I know so :I

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Heinlein mostly wrote science fiction, but he also wrote some fantasy.

    • Civilis says:

      In addition to what the other commenters have said, I want to point out another anomaly: the existence of a sub-genre of fiction known as the techno-thriller, perhaps best identified with the works of Tom Clancy. These are generally based around the effects of somewhat plausible bleeding edge technology on current geopolitics, usually with some sort of catalyst thrown in to generate an interesting story. Despite meeting all the qualifications to be science fiction (or technological fiction), they’ve always been classed as fiction.

      My conclusion is that ‘science fiction’ is a over-broad and now inaccurately named collection of setting tropes, not a collection of story tropes. If I retell Romeo and Juliet on a space station, it’s a science-fiction setting romance story.

      • Another genre, one I have written in but don’t have a good name for, is the historical novel with made-up history and geography. Baen marketed mine as fantasy, but there was no magic, were no elves, dwarves, … . Made-up geography pretty clearly eliminates it from alternate history.

        My favorite example of the genre is The Paladin by Cherryh.

        • Randy M says:

          KJ Parker’s Engineer series fits here, too, I think. The social structures are different, as are the cultures and geography, but nothing outside of known technology or scientific laws.

        • Nick says:

          Stephenson does the made-up history and geography thing too, Qwghlm being the most prominent example. Alt-history is maybe the best description if you’re definitely setting it on earth; if you’re not, I think it’s fair to call it a no-magic fantasy setting.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m not sure I’d file Qwghlm under that. It seems more like Ruritania from The Prisoner of Zenda, or Syldavia from Tintin, or Stephenson’s own “Finux”: a pastiche of something real with enough of the serial numbers filed off to allow for artistic license, but still embedded in the real world and serving a clear real-world role.

          • John Schilling says:

            Yeah, there’s definitely a trope that I could classify as minimalist alternate history but doesn’t usually fall under the SF umbrella: A setting that is exactly like the real world except that one or two small states that aren’t found on any real map somehow formed in some part of the world that the audience knows next to nothing about anyway. Ruritania, yes, or Florin and Guilder or Genovia or Grand Fenwick, Wakanda, Kreplachistan, Qumar, examples too numerous to list. This is an extension of the standard fictional conceit of populating the otherwise-real world with characters that are e.g. Harvard professors but not found in the actual Harvard faculty directory because that would get you sued. OK, nation-states probably won’t sue you for libel, but there will still be complaining from picky fans if you go too far astray.

            If an SF writer like Neal Stephenson puts one of these in a story that also has immortal wizards and working alchemy, sure, it’s science fiction and/or fantasy. If you make it a big enough player on the world stage that the audience can’t not have noticed that geopolitics is fundamentally mucked up, it’s alternate history. If it’s a bog-standard example of the type of postage-stamp nation scattered across Eastern Europe or whatever to no significance the target audience will recognize, without being an actual nation, that’s just a fictional character writ large. You can do the same thing with fictional towns, corporations, institutions, etc, so long as they are small enough that their presence or absence doesn’t reshape the world the audience understands.

          • Jaskologist says:

            House of Cards clearly diverged from our timeline somewhere after 9/11, but it’s certainly not science fiction, and I don’t even think it’s alternate history. Intent is a big part of it: they wanted to tell a story about treachery, corruption and murder at the very highest levels of government, and that necessitated a whole lot of people running DC who don’t exist in real life. But it’s not that way because the writers wanted to ask the question “what if this other guy we made up was president instead?” the way an alternate history might ask “what if the South won?”

        • Evan Þ says:

          I haven’t heard any well-known name for that genre, but when I was talking with my sister (who’s written several unpublished works therein), she dubbed it “fantastic history.”

          I promptly distinguished it from “historical fantasy,” which is a story with fantasy elements like magic or dragons set in historical times – e.g. the Matter of France, if published today; the Matter of Britain is just a little more iffy since it also contains countries that don’t really exist.

        • Well... says:

          the historical novel with made-up history and geography

          What makes it “historical” if the history is made-up? Is it because it’s explicitly set in some year in our past, or because it features the use of technology we would recognize as being from some part of our past?

          Star Wars is set “long long ago” but there are lasers and spaceships.

          • Neither of the two examples I mentioned is located at some point in our history or some place on our world. Both are located in our world in the general sense–the same gravity, the same species of animals, one moon, … .

            What makes them feel historical is that the societies and the technology are based on historical models, just versions of those models that didn’t happen to exist. The Paladin is based on China and Japan. Harald has societies loosely modeled on early Norman England, the Roman, Byzantine, and Abbasid empires, and saga period Iceland.

            The technology in both is mostly medieval. In Harald I distinguished between pre and post chimney and mantel fireplace architecture, the latter being in more recent buildings—although I doubt many readers noticed.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Two more: Gormenghast by Peake and Swordspoint by Kushner.

          The difference between this sort of thing and alternate history is that there’s no specific point of divergence. Grand Fenwick or whatever is just plonked down in our timeline.

      • beleester says:

        Charles Stross said (paraphrasing) “a techno-thriller is a sci-fi novel after the sci-fi idea becomes true.” For example, if you wrote a story 10 years ago about digital currency, it was sci-fi. If you write a novel involving Bitcoin today, it’s a techno-thriller.

        • John Schilling says:

          I think the more appropriate border for technothrillers is ideas that could have come true last year but not made the newspapers yet. The prototypical modern technothriller is Hunt for Red October, and as far as I know we still don’t have caterpillar-drive submarines.

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah, I always saw it as something that could plausibly happen in the present-day, but would be bleeding-edge and you probably wouldn’t hear about it for some time after.

        • Well... says:

          Well, you still need the “thriller” part, right? You could write a sci-fi novel that centers around the use of Bitcoin but there’s no intrigue/lies/coverup/threats/close calls/shadowy figures/other hallmarks of thrillers.

          • Matt M says:

            Someone should write a sleazy female romance novel that prominently features Bitcoin.

          • Nick says:

            Presumably if the technology is new but doesn’t lend itself to any intrigue, lies, coverups, threats, close calls, shadowy figures, or other hallmarks of thrillers, it’s just not very interesting. I don’t think anyone ever wrote a techno-thriller about velcro or sliced bread, but Charlie Stross has actually been considering the Bitcoin one.

    • beleester says:

      It’s pretty common to distinguish between hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi, or “science fiction” vs “science fantasy,” if you prefer. Science fiction is about a technology and how it affects the world (like Asimov’s robot stories), while science fantasy is fantasy with the aesthetics of technology (Star Wars, Girl Genius, etc).

      You can also go the other way, and do a fantasy setting where magic behaves like technology (e.g., Shadowrun, where being a magic-user is a normal corporate job), but I don’t know a good name for that.

      EDIT: Consulting TVTropes turned up “dungeonpunk,” which is certainly evocative enough. Except “-punk” generally implies an aesthetic rather than a hardness of the setting – Girl Genius is steampunk but very soft.

      • Nick says:

        Magitek is more what you’re looking for, I think. As that page puts it, “When Magitek is combined with gritty realism, we get Dungeon Punk, but magitek is also common in comic fantasy.”

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Time travel is generally considered science fiction, but it’s not possible so far as we know.

      Science fiction is might be more reasonably called technology fiction, as you say, but it’s kind of late to change things.

      The label is more a matter of grouping things together that the same people tend to like.

      Back when I was reading discussions about defining science fiction in rasfw, it seemed to me that the emotional borders were between realistic fiction and science fiction/fantasy, and then there was another border between soft science fiction/fantasy and hard science fiction.

      • John Schilling says:

        Time travel is generally considered science fiction, but it’s not possible so far as we know.

        The same wormholes that give so many contemporary SF authors plausible suspension of disbelief w/re FTL travel(*), can in principle be used to construct time machines as well. There’s a strong but not formally proven conjecture that says they automatically explode if you try to do that, and there’s a meddlesome operational constraint that you can’t go back to any point prior to the creation of the time machine. Think “time elevator” rather than “time ship” So you can’t just, well, you know. Unless you find someone else’s old time portal…

        Or apply some imagination to the awesome possibilities of a time machine that is limited to the light-cone of its own creation. People have written genuinely thoughtful and hard-ish science fiction about that sort of time travel. Along with all the stuff that has all the technical rigor of Star Wars, of course. Which just brings us back to science fiction having a fuzzy border.

        * These are physically possible if the general-relativity definition of “negative energy” is the same as the quantum-mechanical definition, which it maybe is and maybe isn’t, get back to me when you have a proven theory of quantum gravity, but are in any event an engineering impracticality unless someone comes up with something very clever. So, fair game for SF authors either way.

  5. Nick says:

    On my reading list I distinguish books marked for rereading from books marked not. Out of 291 read books on the list, 99 are marked reread. I haven’t actually done much rereading, though, aside from old articles or webcomics or that sort of thing. I don’t keep track of percentage of rereads, unfortunately; I’ve got a half-finished app to track things like this better on Github I just haven’t finished….

  6. johan_larson says:

    Quiz time again.

    Name five:
    1. People from Denmark, living or dead.
    2. States of Mexico.
    3. Songs by Johnny Cash.
    4. Municipalities in California.
    5. Islands in the English Channel.
    6. Novels by Michael Connelly.
    7. Scotch distilleries.
    8. Foods served at Taco Bell.
    9. Taxonomic orders of insects.
    10. British battleships. (Bean, you’re welcome.)

    My score: 3/10. Municipalities, novels, foods.

    • Anonymous says:

      1. People from Denmark, living or dead.

      Frederick I, Christian I, Frederick II, Christian II, Frederick III… 😉

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      1. Uz, Pbcreavphf? Puevfgvna V – yvxr ng yrnfg K? Yvivat be qrnq, fb yrg’f trg fbzr Ivxvatf: Pnahgr, Unenyq Oyhrgbbgu, Zntahf gur Terng, V guvax Fjrla Sbexorneq jnf Qnavfu, gbb.
      2. Puvuhnuhn, Bnknpn, Lhpngna, Onwn Pnyvsbeavn, Wnyvfpb.
      3. V Jnyx gur Yvar, Evat bs Sver, Sbyfbz Cevfba Oyhrf, Zna va Oynpx, Pel Pel Pel…vapvqragnyyl, gur Ebpx ‘a Fbhy Zhfrhz va Zrzcuvf vf n snagnfgvp zhfrhz, juvpu V uvtuyl erpbzzraq vs lbh’er rire va gur pvgl naq ng nyy vagrerfgrq va zhfvp yvxr Pnfu be Ryivf.
      4. Fna Wbfr, Fnagn Oneonen, Puvab, Fna Oreanqvab, Orireyl Uvyyf? Abg fher vs nal bs gurfr ner npghnyyl zhavpvcnyvgvrf, V whfg gevrq gb anzr guvatf fznyyre guna gur ovt pvgvrf.
      5. Qbrf Oevgnva pbhag? Bxnl, svar, Wrefrl, Threafrl, Jvtug, Hfunag (‘Snerjryy naq nqvrh, gb lbh Fcnavfu ynqvrf…’), Zbag Fg. Zvpury. Gung jnf fhecevfvatyl qvssvphyg.
      6. Abiryf ol jub abj?
      7. -oynax fgner-
      8. Hz, gnpbf, anpubf, oheevgbf, dhrfnqvyynf, naq…punyhcnf!
      9. -fpengpurf urnq qhzoyl-
      10. Guvf vf whfg gb or boabkvbhf: Ivpgbel, Bprna, Grzrenver, Arcghar, Eblny Fbirervta…

    • The Nybbler says:

      1. Wrfcre, Uraevx, Fhfna, Xngrevan, Wna. Nyy crbcyr V’ir jbexrq jvgu. Ab? Ubj nobhg Unzyrg, Bcuryvn, Cbybavhf, Pynhqvhf, naq Tregehqr? Arire zvaq, V’yy gnxr gur mreb.

      2. Dhvagnan Ebb, Lhpngna, Onwn Pnyvsbeavn, Fbaben, Bnknpn. (5/5)

      3. Sbyfbz Cevfba Oyhrf, V Jnyx gur Yvar. (2/5)

      4. Gur pvgl bs Zbhagnva Ivrj, gur pvgl bs Phcregvab, gur pvgl bs Fhaalinyr, gur pvgl bs Fna Wbfr, gur pvgl bs Erqjbbq Pvgl (5/5)

      5. Threafrl naq Wrefrl (2/5)

      6. Jub?

      7. Tyrasvqqvpu, Tyrayvirg, Tyrazbenatvr (3/5)

      8. Gevpx dhrfgvba; abguvat freirq ng Gnpb Oryy vf sbbq.

      9. Orrgyrf, ohggresyvrf, syvrf, grezvgrf, naq nagf. (guvf pbiref svir ohg rkprcg sbe gur ohggresyl beqre, juvpu V pbhyqa’g fcryy, naq Ulzrabcgen, V pbhyqa’g trg gur yngva anzrf)

      10. Nyernql sbetbg ‘rz.

      Greevoyr, bayl tbg #2 naq #5.

      • johan_larson says:

        Give yourself a point for #1. Real people from Denmark who are not famous are acceptable. Fictional or legendary people are not.

    • Evan Þ says:

      1. Puevfgvna V, Puevfgvna VV, Unaf Puevfgvna Naqrefra, Pahg gur Terng, Unegunpnahgr. Nyfb, V vafvfg Unzyrg (nxn Nzyrgu) qbrf pbhag; ur jnf n erny uvfgbevpny crefba.

      2. Zrkvpb, Fbaben, Onwn Pnyvsbeavn Abegr, Onwn Pnyvsbeavn Fhe, Irenpehm, Puvuhnuhn

      3. Zna va Oynpx… naq V qba’g xabj nal bguref.

      4. Fna Senapvfpb, Fna Wbfr, Bnxynaq, Serzbag, Orexryrl.

      5. Wrefrl, Thearfrl, Vfyr bs Jvtug…

      6. Ab vqrn.

      7. Ab vqrn.

      8. Puvpxra fbsg gnpb, punyhcn, orna oheevgb, fcvpl puvpxra naq evpr oheevgb, pvaanzba gjvfgf

      9. Ab vqrn

      10. Cevapr bs Jnyrf, Ubbq…

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      It is a shame that my legendary wit must be rot13’d.

      1. Unzyrg, Bcuryvn, Cbybavhf, Ynregrf, Lbevpx
      2. Fvanybn, Thnqnynwnen, Bnknpn
      3. Evat bs Sver, Sbyfbz Fgngr Cevfba, Uheg (:C)
      4. Fna Senapvfpb, Ybf Natryrf, Fna Qvrtb, Fnpenzragb, Fna Wbfr, Fnagn Pehm, Zbhagnva Ivrj, Fhaalinyr, Fnagn Pynen, Phcregvab, Ybf Tngbf, Cnyb Nygb, Ybf Nygbf, Ybf Nygbf Uvyyf (<– ernyyl), Rnfg Cnyb Nygb, Zrayb Cnex, Erqjbbq Pvgl, Fna Pneybf, Oheyvatnzr, Fna Zngrb, Fbhgu Fna Senapvfpb, Qnyl Pvgl, Unys Zbba Onl, Cnpvsvpn, Bnxynaq, Orexryrl, Nynzrvqn, Cvggfohetu (<– abg gung bar), Havba Pvgl, Serzbag, Zvycvgnf, Tvyebl, Zbetna Pvgl, Ceharqnyr, Jngfbaivyyr, Fbdhry, Pncvgbyn, Fnaq Pvgl, Pnezry-ol-gur-frn, Fbyinat, Inyyrwb, Hxvnu, Sbeg Oentt, Zraqbpvab, Rherxn, Sreaqnyr, Sreaoevqtr, Yn Wbyyn, Nyunzoen, Fnagn Oneonen, Nhohea, Gehpxrr, Onxrefsvryq, Lbhagfivyyr. Gung'f jvgubhg ybbxvat nalguvat hc naq abg fcraqvat zhpu gvzr tbvat, "Bu, fuvg, jung'f gur anzr bs gur pvgl evtug urer, jul pna'g V erzrzore?" Guvf zrnaf V fhcre-jva, evtug?
      5. Gevpx dhrfgvba, gurer ner ab vfynaqf va gur Ratyvfu punaary.
      6. Gevpx dhrfgvba, Zvpunry Pbaaryyl vf gur cra anzr bs Qe. Frhff.
      7. Gevpx dhrfgvba, Fpbgpu vf whfg ibqxn cyhf fbzr gerr fnc.
      8. Gnpb, Fbsg Gnpb, Orna Oheevgb, Punyhcn jungrire gur shpx gung vf, Anpub Sevrf (<– frevbhfyl), naq V pbhyq cebonoyl pbzr hc jvgu unys n qbmra bguref ohg V'q trg qrcerffrq.
      9. Orrgyrf, Syvrf, Jrveq Ceruvfgbevp Ohtf Yvxr Fvyiresvfu, Jrveq Ceruvfgbevp Ohtf Yvxr Fnyohtf, Qentbasyvrf (lrf, V'z njner gubfr nera'g gnkbabzvp anzrf)
      10. Gur Ubbq! V tbg bar! Qbrf gur Qernqabhtug pbhag?

    • bean says:

      Municipalities and battleships. So many battleships.
      Non-turret British Battleships:
      Jneevbe, Oynpx Cevapr, Oryyrebcuba, Urephyrf, Ybeq Pylqr
      Turreted Battleships:
      Monarch, Captain, Colossus, Victoria, Inflexible
      Battleships with open barbettes:
      Eblny Fbirervta, Eriratr, Erchyfr, Pbyyvatjbbq, Oraobj
      I’m just going to stop in the 1890s.

    • 1. People from Denmark, living or dead.

      Unaf Puevfgvna Naqrefra, Fbera Xvrexrtnneq, Pnahgr gur Terng, Fjrla Sbexorneq, Unenyq Uneqenqn
      (4/5, Unenyq Uneqenqn jnf Abejrtvna)

      2. States of Mexico.


      3. Songs by Johnny Cash.

      Sbyfbz Cevfba Oyhrf, Pel, Pel, Pel, Fb Qbttbar Ybarfbzr, Thrff Guvatf Unccra Gung Jnl, Ubzr bs gur Oyhrf

      4. Municipalities in California

      Ybf Natryrf, Fna Senapvfpb, Fna Qvrtb, Fna Wbfr, Orexryrl

      5. Islands in the English Channel.

      gur Vfyr bs Jvtug, Wrefrl, Threafrl, Nyqrearl, Fnex

      6. Novels by Michael Connelly.

      never heard of him

      7. Scotch distilleries.


      8. Foods served at Taco Bell.

      Pass. They don’t operate in my country.
      (0/5. They do operate in my country, apparently, but I’ve never seen one. And of course, I should have at least realized that they probably serve gnpb.)

      9. Taxonomic orders of insects.

      Nepunrbtangun, Gulfnahen, Bqbangn, Rcurzrebcgren, Begubcgren
      (5/5. Gur Jvxvcrqvn negvpyr tvirf gur vzcerffvba gung Gulfnahen vf abj bayl haqrefgbbq nf n anzr sbe gur tenqr Nepunrbtangun + Mltragbzn, ohg phefbel tbbtyvat pbasvezf zl vzcerffvba gung znal fbheprf fgvyy pnyy Mltragbzn Gulfnahen, rira juvyr erpbtavmvat Nepunrbtangun nf n frcnengr beqre. Fb V jvyy tenag zlfrys gung cbvag, nygubhtu vg’f fyvtugyl va qbhog.)

      10. British battleships.

      UZF Qernqabhtug,

    • Nornagest says:

      States, songs, municipalities, Scotch, foods, and battleships I got unambiguously, although Scotch gave me more trouble than I was expecting it to. Battleships was a surprise; I guess I have Bean to thank for that. Insects I got the classifications right but could only remember the Latin names for two.

      WRT Taco Bell, the place only uses about a dozen ingredients, so it’d probably be just as easy to come up with a generating function. Or just throw a few fakey Spanish names at the wall and see what sticks.

    • Brad says:

      > 7. Scotch distilleries

      The nice part about this one is that they are already rot13’d.

    • Chlopodo says:

      1. Ivttb Zbegrafra, Znqf Zvxxryfba, Xvat Xahg, Unzyrg, pna’g guvax bs n 5gu
      2. Puvuhnuhn, Gnznhyvcnf, Fbaben, Pbnuhvyn, Onwn Pnyvsbeavn
      3. Tubfg Evqref va gur Fxl, Jnyx gur Yvar, Uheg, Jura gur Zna Pbzrf Nebhaq, Gur Jnyy. Fbzr bs gurfr ner pbiref.
      4. ab vqrn
      5. ab vqrn
      6. Jub?
      7. Frevbhfyl?
      8. gnpbf
      9. pbyrbcgren, yrcvqbcgren, ulzrabcgren, arbcgren, qvcgren
      10. Wrfhf bs Ehoehpx. Gura gur bgure bar.. Qenxr’f fuvc.. jung jnf vg pnyyrq? V qba’g xabj.

      3 bhg bs 10 nffhzvat V haqrefgbbq gur dhrfgvbaf evtug.

    • johan_larson says:

      Nobody here seems to know anything about Michael Connelly. He’s an American writer of police fiction, with most set in LA and featuring a detective named Harry Bosch. You may recall a recent film, “The Lincoln Lawyer”, based on another of Connelly’s characters.

      Anyway, check out “The Lincoln Lawyer” or “The Burning Room” is you like police fiction at all.

  7. Mark V Anderson says:

    I never re-read books. Why read a book a second time when there are so many books out there that I haven’t read the first time?

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I reread sometimes because I’m enough of a different person that I notice different things in books than I used to.

    • Nornagest says:

      There are a lot of works that you’re not going to fully understand on a first read. Including some of the best ones: Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gene Wolfe, to name three writers at the top of their respective genres, are all known for it.

    • Well... says:

      What Nancy Lebovitz and Nornagest said above, plus I don’t have a photographic memory.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        And another reason for rereading is simply that I enjoyed the book the first time, and it’s been a while.

    • Iain says:

      Sometimes I re-read a book before reading its sequel, if it has been a while in between.

      • Randy M says:

        The reason I stopped following Game of Thrones was the impracticality combined with necessity of doing this.

    • dodrian says:

      My bedtime book is frequently a re-read, because I know that reading it won’t upset my sleep.

      • One other reason to reread is that it’s safe. Reading a new book, especially if you are in a fragile mood, might be upsetting. Rereading a book that you know turns out in a way that doesn’t disturb you is not.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          I’m more likely to reread if I’m feeling fragile, but it’s more a matter of the comfort of familiarity rather than fear that something new might be upsetting.

          Actually, old fiction has a good-sized risk of being upsetting, since I’m more likely to notice nastiness that I didn’t register back when.

  8. MrApophenia says:

    So you guys seem like a crowd who might be able to help with this.

    I and my group of friends would very much like to play a Space Opera type strategy game, where players take on the management of interstellar empires and struggle for dominance. Preferably not a board game in the mode of Eclipse or Twilight Imperium, but something with more depth/narrative – but without diving into the really deep pool of individually modeling out the hull size and hard points of every ship in every fleet for every battle.

    The goal is for something we can do over email/Google spreadsheets/Roll20, versus at a table. In particular, we are more interested in the strategic level game than playing out tactical-scale battles between individual ships.

    So what we are looking for is a game with rules for things like colonization, technological development, how political events play out within/between empires with different types of governments and alien species, but with relatively simple resolution for fleet level combat that won’t make my eyes start bleeding trying to track it all.

    Does anything like this exist?

    • bean says:

      I might suggest using Aurora as a substrate. I did this with some friends. I handled the day-to-day management of their empires, while they designed ships (poorly) and made strategic decisions. This may or may not work, depending on if you have anyone who knows Aurora well enough to be the GM. And you’d need rules for politics separately.

      • MrApophenia says:

        All I know of Aurora is the reputation it has as nightmarishly complex and difficult to learn. But probably easier than finding an old wargame like Star Fleet Battles or Starfire and doing it all in Excel, which is what I have been looking at and then shying away from in fear.

        We did do that for a while with a rule set called Victory By Any Means, which was fun but eventually still grew beyond practical bookkeeping. Thus my hope for complex politics and culture development coupled with the simplest possible space battle rules.

        • bean says:

          If you have someone who can spare the time to learn Aurora, it could do exactly what you want. The political and cultural development would have to be done outside of it, but it does pretty good economics and it’ll take care of all of the space combat stuff without you having to learn/implement explicit rules.

          • MrApophenia says:

            Thanks! Based on my general enjoyment of space 4x, I should probably check it out regardless.

    • Orpheus says:

      Is the game being pen & paper (or Google spreadsheet & whatever) a non-negotiable requirement? Because if you are willing to go full video game, Stellaris is exactly what you want.

      • MrApophenia says:

        I think the format is less a concern than the asynchronous timing. We don’t all have time to get online at the same times to play.

        If someone came up with a turn based version of Stellaris where everyone could submit turns to be processed by the software, that would be the platonic ideal of what I am looking for.

    • Anonymous says:

      In the sort of way that the United Kingdom has a constitution, I think this exists in Traveller. I don’t know of any particular supplement on Planet/Empire/Fief management, but there totally are rules for managing investments, terraforming, resolving legal disputes, fleet combat, etc.

      • MrApophenia says:

        Traveller actually has an old supplement that I looked at very hard as a possibility. It’s called Pocket Empires, and sets out to do exactly what I am looking for here, in theory. It even has the rules for abstract/strategic level resolution of fleet battles and planetary invasions.

        Unfortunately, it replaces the tactical battle crunching with a truly staggering array of dice rolling and calculations for everything else. If someone ever built Pocket Empires as software it would be a pretty solid 4X game, but trying to run it looked a bit like taking all the underlying formulas of Stellaris and trying to run that at a table.

    • Randy M says:

      I’ve also been thinking about tabletop games with persistent faction-level 4x elements–D&D + Civilization. So any suggestions in other settings would be interesting too.
      I know older versions of D&D had rules for acquiring land and followers. Any games that basically flip that dynamic, and place the focus on the empire?

      • MrApophenia says:

        Pathfinder has rules for that, although reviews of those rules are mixed.

        There’s also Adventurer, Conqueror, King, which I haven’t read but is very well regarded. My understanding is it tries to do the old D&D (and Conan) thing where you’re an adventurer at lower levels, then eventually transition to an empire management game.

    • John Schilling says:

      Starfire exists, and has for at least thirty years in pencil-and-paper/tabletop form. It sounds about like what you are looking for except that it does assume you want to design spaceships and fight tactical space battles on a hex grid. The spaceship design system is very abstract, so that’s probably not a problem. It’s got exploring, settlement and colonization and industrialization, technology development, trade and diplomacy, etc, all in readily spreadsheetable form.

      I haven’t played it in decades, but I think you could abstract the combat system into something a spreadsheet or tractable bit of code could handle, using the standard weapons-effects tables, a few standard tactical choices, and a general assumption that the side with the fastest ships gets to set the engagement range.

      • MrApophenia says:

        I looked at Starfire, the reviews were kind of intimidating- mostly people saying the early version was a fun tactical game but the later editions became nearly impossible for new players to get into. Would be curious to hear your thoughts on if that is accurate.

        I did get to take a look at the rules for Imperial Starfire, which I think is a few editions back, and saw that the research rules were almost entirely focused on the tactical combat aspect, so I think I’d probably need to do a lot of home brewing, unless more cultural/diplomatic options came in later (or I missed them, I didn’t do a thorough read).

        • John Schilling says:

          It definitely started as a fun, simple tactical starship combat simulator that let you design your own ships. And was simple, and fun.

          It then evolved into the closest thing you could get to a pencil-and-paper 4X game, only to find that a 4X game really needs at least a few spreadsheets’ worth of computational support if it is going to be fun for anyone but the hardcore grognards. Unfortunately, the 1980s were just a bit too early for that, and yes, the learning curve is rather steep if you insist on doing it all manually or if you want to be the one to generate the spreadsheets.

          Starfire+Spreadsheets would probably be a good basis for turn-based, PBEM 4X gaming, and if you’re going to abstract out the tactical combat altogether then you probably do want to flesh out the non-tactical aspects of the tech tree and maybe the economic model. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of work for something that you can’t sell due to IP issues.

          • MrApophenia says:

            Yeah, it is still on my backup list, along with the above-mentioned Pocket Empires, for basically the same reasons.

            My current strongest candidate is a recommendation in response to the same question on r/wargames – an old SPI game from the 80s called Sword and the Stars, which based on what I have read so far seems very promising, and which is also pretty much free online now.

  9. bean says:

    Heard recently:
    “United is a Chicago-based animal euthanasia company that occasionally also functions as an airline.”
    Not that their competitors are much better. American is relentlessly mediocre and confusing, and Delta is the winner of the 2017 Corporate Hypocrisy Award, and considered the leading candidate for 2018. Ah, Southwest. (And Alaska, because Andrew will bring it up if I don’t.)

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      Only because it’s better than southwest the same way Chipotle is better than Taco Bell.

      • bean says:

        I’ll agree that they’re very good. But I’ve flown both, and Alaska doesn’t have Southwest’s culture or checked bags.

        • johan_larson says:

          Is there a structural reason why some of the smaller airlines do a better job than the majors? Did the big guys take on huge pension liabilities or something back in the glory days?

          • Matt M says:

            Bean can answer much better than I can, but I’m sure the fact that they can basically “pick their own routes” and maximize for profitability that way probably plays a huge role. Whereas the “big” airlines essentially have to be able to get you from anywhere to anywhere, as that’s what their business model promises. Southwest is still small enough to be a little choosy about where they fly.

          • bean says:

            I’d say culture, ultimately. Southwest has been very successful in cultivating an attitude of being the underdog, and getting their people to do a good job. Alaska has largely done the same. Both seem likely to have issues with flagging growth. And yes, airline unions are powerful. But SWA is unionized. Delta isn’t, but it’s not that huge of a difference. They’re the best of the big 3, but have other issues.

            Southwest is the largest domestic carrier, so it’s not a matter of raw size. But they do have a very different business model, so you’re right that they don’t feel the need to go everywhere.

          • Matt M says:

            Southwest is the largest domestic carrier

            Wait, what?

            Measured how? Do you have a source?

          • bean says:

            Wait, what?

            Measured how? Do you have a source?

            I’m finding it surprisingly difficult to get to the numbers (why does the government never update their security certificates), but in terms of domestic passenger emplanements, Southwest is #1, with American very close behind. I think they also lead available domestic seat-miles. If they aren’t #1, they’re a close second. If we ignore the longhaul international stuff, they’re definitely of a scale with the Big 3.

          • Eric Rall says:

            Southwest also standardized on a single type of airplane (Boeing 737), which has economies of scale (all their pilots and mechanics are fully up-to-speed on every plane, and they only need to stock spare parts for one type of plane), and it significantly simplifies the problem of making sure the right plane is available for each flight. Especially if a plane is unexpectedly not available at the last minute (due to mechanical problems, weather, etc), since any other plane Southwest owns and has available at the departing airport is available to be subbed in.

            Stacked on top of the corporate culture Bean talked about, this makes it possible for Southwest to turn their planes around faster for the next flight, make more efficient use of their planes and employees, and have fewer delays and cancellations.

          • Anyone know anything about Norwegian Air Shuttle? I’m flying to Belgrade to give a talk in a few weeks. The lowest Travelocity price was something over a thousand dollars. Norwegian charges about three hundred.

            Along similar lines, I flew to Iceland a while back on WOW air, and that too was amazingly inexpensive.

          • bean says:

            It’s a tiny bit more complicated, as they have both NGs and MAXs, and also -700 and -800 NGs, but pretty much. It avoids all the weirdness of having a bunch of different types of flying.
            Basically, Southwest concentrates on doing one thing, and doing it really well. That’s flying medium-size routes between medium-size and large cities with reasonably high demand. They don’t really compete on the major transcons, or on overseas routes. But they’re the best at getting you around in reasonable comfort and at a good price.
            And you get two free checked bags.

            @David Friedman
            Both are Ultra Low Cost Carriers. They make most of their money off of ancillary fees and inflight products. At least in theory. Norwegian is bleeding money, and I suspect WOW isn’t doing that much better. It’s a good thing to do if you’re willing to play their game. If you go in expecting it to be a normal airline, then you’ll be really disappointed.

    • Matt M says:

      Unpopular opinion: I have no sympathy for this. Pets do not belong in the cabins of planes. Find some other way to transport your animals.

      • bean says:

        I’m totally with you on the emotional support animal racket. It needs to be shut down, hard, and we’ve seen some encouraging signs there. The dog in the overhead bin was in a carrier and in accordance with the pet in cabin rules. And the belly of a United plane is dangerous for animals. Like 4x as dangerous as anyone else. Maybe more.

        • Matt M says:

          I don’t care. Accept 4x the danger or drive your dog wherever you’re going. No pets in the cabin. I’d ban children under 10 if I could, too. And while I’m at it, nobody is allowed to bring a carry-on that they cannot personally lift into the overhead bin, unassisted.

          • Brad says:

            If you buy or rent a private plane you can put in place whatever restrictions you like on who or what comes aboard.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            Yeah, I’m going to go with “what’s your problem” and a side of “who installed you as CEO of United?”

            The current regime of “no animals except fake service animals, which they have to take” is crazypants, but I can see very good arguments both against lots of animals in cabins (some people don’t like dogs) and for (some people very much like dogs.)

            If I could buy a second seat for my black lab, there are a number of times I would. (I’d dose her to the gills with Dramamine, much as my mother did to me when I was a dog^Wtoddler.) There are plenty of people that’d prefer not to be on that flight; there are plenty of people who would. Why not let the market decide?

          • Matt M says:

            There are plenty of people that’d prefer not to be on that flight; there are plenty of people who would. Why not let the market decide?

            In a certain sense I’d love for the market to decide. I’d probably be willing to pay a $10-20 surcharge for a “no animals on this flight, period” option. Maybe $50-100 if that applies to babies/small children.

            Of course, no such thing will ever be offered. It will simply be a free-for-all/luck of the draw situation.

            Do people normally have to purchase a second seat for their pets? If so, I have fewer objections, my impression is that the pet is treated as a carry-on, not as a passenger itself.

          • Brad says:

            FWIW I’d be happy if dogs disappeared from my city, much less planes I’m on. I don’t see why anything should be allowed to shit and piss on the sidewalk with impunity or make a ton of noise in crowded residential neighborhoods with near impunity.

            But BS support dogs aside the airlines are doing what they want to do and that’s their right.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            Normally the only dogs allowed in the cabin (except the support dog bullshit) are tiny purse dogs that stay in carriers under the seat. As an owner of an actual-size dog, I just don’t get to do it at all.

          • John Schilling says:

            What problems have you had with animals in the cabin that have lead to this view? Small children, of course, will scream and/or cry in ways that millions of years of evolution have made maximally annoying to adult human beings, so there’s an obvious source of conflict there. Cabin pets, OTOH, are almost always small, quiet, and contained. Yes, there’s the potential for abuse if someone insists on bringing their emotional support llama on your flight, but assuming we crack down on that nonsense (and not just on airlines), then I’m not seeing a problem with the sort of honest pets honestly carried on airline flights.

          • Matt M says:

            but assuming we crack down on that nonsense (and not just on airlines)

            That doesn’t strike me as especially likely. I think recent trends are largely going in the other direction, despite the occasional story of resistance.

            I haven’t personally had a bad “pets on plane” experience, although I’ve heard of some from people I know. I’m just generally annoyed with the “support animal” scam, as well as the general tendency for people to feel entitled to bring their pets wherever they please. Part of this is just personal preference as I’m not very fond of animals in general, but part of it is also a sense that these people are basically violating long-standing societal norms and yet somehow, if I express annoyance at this, I’m the entitled jerk.

          • bean says:

            That doesn’t strike me as especially likely. I think recent trends are largely going in the other direction, despite the occasional story of resistance.

            Delta and one of the others just announced restrictions on it, actually. They need 48 hours of warning and vaccination records/a vet’s note now. Which is a start. I’d prefer to treat them as a subset of service animals, but that’s unlikely.

  10. fr8train_ssc says:

    Anyone heard of (or is paying attention to) ‘To The Stars Academy’? Apparently some higher level DoD and Intelligence community personnel are working on declassifying/releasing military footage of UFO sightings.

    The rationalist in me sees this as a dual campaign: The Air Force has been hurting for personnel and perhaps the goal of so many spooks involved in this is to inspire more people to get involved. Simultaneously, it also seems like a test program for psy-ops from the US Intel Community. If Russia has been ramping up their own propaganda machine against us, it would make sense for the US to test what would be effective in swaying public interest over UFOs, and then apply it to other interests.

    • MrApophenia says:

      Is there a possibility it’s exactly what it seems like? The idea that UFOs are real (in the sense that they are an actual phenomenon of some kind, not that they are necessarily aliens) and the government mostly ignores them due to bureaucratic inertia seems way more plausible than an elaborate cover up conspiracy.

      • fr8train_ssc says:

        I had initially considered your suggestion, but did some research on UFOs and previous government psy-ops and cover-ups. Mirage Men by Mark Pilkington would be a good place to start if you’re interested in this kind of stuff. One of the key points in the book is that a very similar project happened in the 80s where Paul Bennewitz, a prominent private citizen in the UFO community, was fed misinformation under the auspices of government agent Richard Doty in a similar arrangement. This fueled my skepticism that the program is just an attempt to overcome bureaucratic interia.

        On the other hand, I don’t discredit that as not being an aim. As I mentioned before, the Air Force is hurting for recruitment. It’s possible that the US Intel and Military community might be seeing these UFOs and based on other intelligence see them as an actual threat to air superiority missions (e.g. China or Russia have an SR-71 equivalent or better recon craft, or possibly one that is fighter capable) Publicly disclosing this information as-is could have undesired diplomatic and intelligence consequences (either tipping off those agencies that they may be compromised, or hurting relations with the country with an accusation) The individuals involved may have seen those incidents as a ‘Bin Laden determined to Strike in US’ warning, and are trying to be proactive in such a way that balances what I’ve mentioned above, while expediting recruitment and research goals to counter such a possible threat.

        • Nornagest says:

          e.g. China or Russia have an SR-71 equivalent or better recon craft, or possibly one that is fighter capable

          Worth thinking about. The objects are supposed to be about 45 feet long, which is much too small for a manned SR-71 equivalent but about the right size for a high-performance drone. Their reported behavior’s harder to square with this theory, though; the WaPo article has them “descend[ing] from altitudes higher than 60,000 feet at supersonic speeds, only to suddenly stop and hover as low as 50 feet above the ocean”. Very hard to build something that can do that, and it would take compromises that make no sense for either a recon or an air superiority role. Unless China’s discovered cavorite or something, but that would surprise me about as much as aliens would.

          They don’t look much like conventional aircraft, from what we can see, but the video’s not very good.

          • John Schilling says:

            Very hard to build something that can do that, and it would take compromises that make no sense for either a recon or an air superiority role.

            It would also make no sense to operate such an aircraft anywhere this side of Siberia or the Gobi desert, until the balloon goes up on World War III or until the secret leaks out by other means.

            The SR-71, at least briefly, provided intelligence that could not be reasonably obtained by other means and revealed no truly revolutionary secrets. This would fit neither of those criteria.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Something I’ve always toyed with – not with any evidence or anything – is the idea that the UFO stuff, including the seemingly-clumsy coverup attempts, was the USAF covering up aircraft testing. First, plant the idea that, no, it wasn’t some nifty new plane, it was something weird doing impossible stuff, second, get a few guys to go around pretending to be slightly off guys claiming to be government agents and telling people to drop it, and so on. Kind of in the same way that if you’re covering up a big thing you did wrong, it’s better to cover it up by pretending you did a smaller thing wrong.

      Of course, the final bit of the plan is to have some random guy claim this is what happened on the internet. After all, who believes random people on the internet? Clearly a plant.

      • Sfoil says:

        Someone once told me a story that in the 1940s the Air Force deliberately had a pilot put on a gorilla mask while flying an experimental jet and do flybys of civilian aviators. The resulting report to the public was along the lines of “I saw this incredibly fast and maneuverable aircraft…no visible means of propulsion…being flown by a gorilla; he waved at me”. I don’t know if it’s true but the tactics involved are certainly plausible.

        The 1947 “Roswell Incident” was pretty obviously an experimental aircraft crash, in hindsight.

        • Matt M says:

          This also seems like the type of thing that would be super fun to do for an eccentric billionaire.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I’m honestly disappointed that super-rich people don’t do more weird stuff like this. Like, come on, a yacht? Where’s your sense of fun?

        • bean says:

          Roswell was a radar calibration target for a secret project, actually. That’s why they covered parts of it up. IIRC, they were attaching radar reflectors to weather balloons to get data on something or other at high altitude. One crashed, and left debris associated with the reflector.

  11. BBA says:

    Sportsball query.

    I’ve noticed that a surprising number of popular sports either originated in the UK (golf, cricket, almost any sport called “football”) or reached their current forms there (tennis, boxing, horse racing). Of those that weren’t, many are from elsewhere in the Anglosphere – basketball is American and ice hockey is Canadian. There are notable exceptions – Asian martial arts, obviously, but also auto racing is French – but in general the hegemony of English-speaking countries is quite strong. Reasons are probably the usual: Britain was the most powerful country when sports started getting organized, then America was, etc.

    So I’m wondering: what are the most popular sports that are obscure to unknown in the Anglosphere? (This is distinct from the question of what’s the most popular sport in non-English-speaking countries, which is soccer, duh.) My best guesses: wushu, which hasn’t spread from China as much as karate and taekwondo have from Japan and Korea respectively, and team handball, popular in much of continental Europe but not, to my knowledge, anywhere that speaks English.

    This is as much about linguistic/cultural barriers as it is about sportsball, I realize.

    (There’s the separate question of at what point a rule variant becomes a separate sport. I would argue that American and Canadian football are fundamentally the same sport, despite significant differences in the rules, but they’re distinct from rugby, even though they started out as local rugby variants. Does that make them British, because rugby is British? I want to say no. Likewise, there’s a sport called baseball they play in some parts of England and Wales, which is clearly related to the one we play here, probably the original source of it. They play differently enough that I call them distinct.)

    • smocc says:

      Sepak takraw comes to mind. You can find it on TV in Southeast Asia, though I don’t have any objective measure for how popular it is.

      Basically everybody in India has played or seen kabbadi, and it has a televised national league now. It probably counts as pretty widely known just by virtue of there being a lot of Indians. No sport in India has yet to compete with the popularity of cricket in India, though.

      By numbers it’s almost certainly something Chinese, of course.

    • Nornagest says:

      Fencing has influence from all over, but in terms of making it a sport the French have led the way — even in America, most fencers use the rules and standards of the FIE (Fédération Internationale d’Escrime). And most of those that don’t are practicing some form of classical fencing.

      Skiing is Nordic and Alpine, though with substantial American influence. (Snowboarding however is American.)

    • rlms says:

      Men’s field hockey isn’t super obscure in the Anglosphere but my impression is that it’s relatively more popular outside of it. Badminton seems to be a lot more popular in Asia and Denmark: “between 1977 and 2001, the three possible medals were awarded to players from only 5 countries: China, Denmark, Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia.“.

      • gbdub says:

        Both field hockey and badminton were invented in the Anglosphere. Tennis came from a French handball game, but reached current form in England.

        • rlms says:

          They might have been invented in the Anglosphere but AFAIK are now relatively unpopular there. Another example may be roller hockey.

        • BBA says:

          This is what “real” tennis looks like, the sport as it was before the current “lawn” tennis rules were developed in 19th century England. Aside from the walls being in play (the equivalent to the service box is the left slope) there’s also weird rules like if you hit the ball into a certain part of the spectators’ gallery you can win the point, even on the second bounce.

          Once it was the “sport of kings” but now there are fewer than 50 remaining real tennis courts worldwide, and I think you can see why.

    • gbdub says:

      Wrestling and gymnastics probably count as non-Anglosphere.

      Lacrosse was from Native Americans and formalized by the French.

      That’s all I can think of offhand that hasn’t already been mentioned.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Developed in Italy, played in many countries.

    • fr8train_ssc says:

      For someone with a Prinny in their pic, I’m surprised you did not bring up… Bo-Taoshi

  12. WashedOut says:

    What are some albums that you think are under-appreciated? Why?

    I nominate Silverchair’s Diorama. Band formerly typecast as grunge puts together some of the most creative rock songs of the modern era (arguably). Masterful arrangements, lyrics that intrigue and bemuse, and a sonic landscape that seamlessly travels from swirling orchestral baroque-pop to crushing stoner dirge without batting an eyelid. Endlessly listenable. For fans of Kyuss, Bowie, Mars Volta, My Bloody Valentine….pretty much anyone.

    Although it won an ARIA in 2002 for best rock album – mainly in the wake of popularity of its more radio-friendly single – the album as a whole has passed most of Australian rock fans by, and went practically unnoticed internationally (from what I can gather).

    • Well... says:

      I thought Silverchair had already diversified their sound considerably by Neon Ballroom, integrating string arrangements and electronic/synth elements and so forth.

      Anyway, we’ve sort of covered this a bit before but I think some of the issue revolves around how you define “under-appreciated.” That said…

      I’ve never heard Helmet played on the radio and somehow made it almost 20 years pretty immersed in rock music without hearing about them from any of my bandmates or friends along the way before Pandora played them for me in 2012 (!!). I found out their sound was basically mimicked by a lot of famous bands (Tool, System of a Down, Chevelle, Deftones, etc. — oh yeah, and Silverchair!) and less famous but still highly regarded bands (Snapcase, a bunch of others). Helmet’s albums Meantime or Betty deserve much more recognition than I’m aware they’ve gotten. For the past several years I’ve seen Helmet almost every time they tour through my state, and they can only book fairly small venues where it’s not too hard to shoulder your way through the maybe 100-200 people there (tops) and stand up near the stage.

      If appreciated is the same as influential then Helmet is not under-appreciated, but if it’s possible to be both influential AND under-appreciated, Helmet is the epitome of this. Heck, a ton of bands mimic the sound of bands that were just mimicking Helmet, often without knowing who Helmet is. I offer my own experience (pre-2012) as an example of how that could happen.

    • Well... says:

      Pearl Jam’s biggest hits came from Ten and Vs., but I was one of those weirdos who for the longest time only owned one Pearl Jam album and it was No Code.

      Now, while I appreciate them greatly, I’m not a Pearl Jam fan. Deep down there’s something about them that turns me off…it’s like their music is fundamentally sissy or pretentious or something? It’s hard for me to pinpoint the reason. But I do think all the elements of good music are there, and on paper they should be one of my favorite bands (excluding their annoying political elements at least). So in practice, it means I usually enjoy listening to their music but some part of me keeps a distance from it.

      Anyway, I went most of my life hearing Pearl Jam’s radio singles (“Jeremy”, “Even Flow”, “Daughter”, etc.) and then, because I owned it, all of No Code, which even my “grunge enthusiast” friends hadn’t listened to. I thought No Code was a hidden gem of an album. It was profound, unconventional, eclectic, and yet groovy and coherent. It was (along with albums like Badmotorfinger, Siamese Dream, and Ritual De Lo Habitual — oh yeah, and Frogstomp!) part of the soundtrack to so many of my teenage summers.

      In my opinion “In My Tree” is the best song off No Code. All the other songs are solid, except “Mankind” and “I’m Open” which I consider skippable.

    • Well... says:

      I’m surprised this thread hasn’t gotten more replies. I had to restrain myself to post just two.

  13. Anon. says:

    Alastair Reynolds recently put out a new Revelation Space novel, Elysium Fire. Has anyone read it yet?

    • John Schilling says:

      I have. It’s not what you’d expect from a Revelation Space novel, but it’s not bad. It is a sequel to 2007’s “The Prefect”, which I barely remembered because while it wasn’t bad it didn’t really seem to fit in the Revelation Space concept either. Now that he’s fleshing out that part of the backstory, it kind of does and I’m interested to see where he goes with it.

      But it does have weaknesses, in part due to being apparently the middle book in a trilogy. And since there was a decade between publication of the first and second books…

      Basically, it’s a police procedural set a century or two before “Revelation Space” et seq, when the Rust Belt was still the Glitter Band and so peacefully, boringly utopian that it hardly seems like there’s room for any drama. Except that we know the Glitter Band is destined to fall. But we still don’t know how. And since the book needs to serve as a standalone novel as well as part of a trilogy, we end up knowing more than I really want about the serial killer who is the Prefect’s nominal opponent for this story. I would have preferred something less conventional, and the big-picture stuff closer to front and center, but OK. I’d also have preferred a bit less of the author holding back from the audience information that is obviously known and important to the characters, but that’s almost inevitable with mystery plots.

      Bottom line, if you liked “The Prefect”, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t, maybe wait until the trilogy is complete and then find a review of the whole thing.

  14. johan_larson says:

    I’m seeing some signs of a meme going around, namely the idea that parents can’t do all that much beyond the basics to help their children succeed. Here is an article in Slate:

    Bryan Caplan draws heavily on this idea in his book, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.”

    It seems to me the obvious counter to these notions is “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Ethnic groups that are disproportionately successful are well known to practice high-investment parenting, spending a lot of time and effort in giving their children good starts in life.

    Has anyone dug into the research behind these claims?

    • Well... says:

      Ethnic groups that are disproportionately successful are well known to practice high-investment parenting, spending a lot of time and effort in giving their children good starts in life.

      To help tease apart genetic vs. environmental effects, it would be good to look at a distinct ethnic group that’s bifurcated, where one faction practices “tiger parenting” while the other faction practices something more like the “free-range” thing.

      Jews aren’t exactly bifurcated, but I’d guess there are enough Jewish families doing different enough parenting styles that it might be possible to find a large sample of Jewish tiger moms and a large sample of Jewish free-range moms to do a reasonably rigorous longitudinal study. I wonder if anyone already has, given the academic interest in the disproportionate levels of Jewish achievement.

      • johan_larson says:

        I wonder if this has anything to do with the notion that meritocracy ends at graduation:

        But it is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that so many Asian graduates of elite universities find that meritocracy as they have understood it comes to an abrupt end after graduation. If between 15 and 20 percent of every Ivy League class is Asian, and if the Ivy Leagues are incubators for the country’s leaders, it would stand to reason that Asians would make up some corresponding portion of the leadership class.
        … And yet the numbers tell a different story.

        If, hypothetically, high-investment parenting helped in scholastic achievement (including in college) but did not help in later life, that would explain this phenomenon.

        • Matt M says:

          Certainly a plausible theory.

          One additional pillar of support – parents may not be correct in where the most “investment” is needed. “High-investment parenting” may stress scholastic achievement more than it deserves – thus creating children who have been maximized to get good grades, but lack the other skills needed to have a successful long-term career.

          • johan_larson says:

            Tyler and Madison, we’ve decided you should skip AP Physics and Bio, and instead take “Boozing & Schmoozing” and “Pop Culture for $100, Alex”. Also, play more video games and spend more time on verbal sparring with miscreants in online forums.

          • Matt M says:

            Your first half yes, that kind of stuff is legitimately helpful in the workplace.

            The second half, no.

        • Brad says:

          I have no reason to believe this has any connection to Asians specifically, but I have heard anecdotally from several successful people my age (late 30s) that a surprising number of new college graduates, even or especially from top schools, have failed to adapt to the workplace. Specifically many seem to want extremely structured assignments rather than figuring out what needs to be done and doing it.

        • John Schilling says:

          If, hypothetically, high-investment parenting helped in scholastic achievement (including in college) but did not help in later life, that would explain this phenomenon.

          If the stereotypical Asian Tiger Mom parenting style is narrowly optimized for academic performance, one would expect employers to appropriately and correctly discount the resulting academic signals.

      • To help tease apart genetic vs. environmental effects

        You also have to separate different environmental effects. The advantage might come from the culture of the successful groups, not “spending a lot of time and effort in giving their children good starts in life.”

        • Education Hero says:

          You would also need to control for SES as a confounding factor, since there is likely a correlation between SES and parenting style

          You are probably more likely to have tiger moms in families that can afford to have a mother who works less or not at all, and family SES also impacts life outcomes.

        • rlms says:

          Culture affecting things would still be evidence against Caplan’s claim.

    • tayfie says:

      The book that comes to mind when talking about how much parents matter is “The Nurture Assumption” by Judith Rich Harris. I am not a psychologist, and have never read the book, but from what I know it tackles exactly this area. It discusses genetic and environmental effects, and proposes that even when only looking at environmental effects, peer group matters more than parenting.

      It was published in 1998, so the meme isn’t exactly new.

      • Harris is looking mostly at personality. Her conclusion is that it is mainly determined by peer group not family. I don’t remember if she discusses other outcomes that would effect eventual success or failure, such as how much you know when you graduate from high school or what university you can get into.

    • johan_larson says:

      I’ve had another look at “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.” A lot of the research Caplan relies on comes from studies comparing twins that have been adopted and reared apart. The problem with using such studies is that adoptive parents today are very carefully selected. You’re not going to find drug addicts and unemployed people among these parents. And that means the studies are only comparing the effects of home environments in a narrow range.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      I have a hard believing the strong case for this. Yes, genetics will have a significant effect, but that doesn’t mean environment isn’t important. I’ve seen to many kids that are the unfortunate result of the parents bad parenting. It is true that most kids do eventually become normal people even if they were spoiled brats or treated like lawn furniture as kids, but I find it hard to believe that having unfortunate childhoods doesn’t affect the same people as adults. Even if personality is 75% genetic, that still leaves 25% on the table, which is pretty significant. It does seem like this meta-study indicates environmental factors as ranging from 25% to 50%, although I do have some difficulty understanding the meaning of some these social science statistics.

      My wife and I adopted two kids, and I think they turned out pretty darned good, and also they have many of their parents’ personalities. I also see tremendous differences between my fully grown nieces and nephews, and many of the differences seem to be attributable to which of my siblings raised them. None of these kids were neglected as children, so that isn’t the reason, but some are much more successful in their lives than others.

      I think I need to read some books about this issue to get a better understanding. Do any of you have recommendations of books that have good scientific citations on the average (and variation) of environmental factors effects on kids’ upbringing? I haven’t read Caplan’s book, because I was concerned he was too biased to give a good account, but I may reconsider if he has good citations. Also I see the book suggested The Nurture Assumption. Any others?

      • The Nurture Assumption isn’t arguing that environment doesn’t matter. It’s arguing that, in most cases, the environment that is chiefly responsible for adult personality is the peer group rather than the family.

      • yodelyak says:

        I enjoyed “The Triple Package” on the subject of what specific things parents do that are most helpful. It basically comes down to kids who get an attitude with three components:

        1) “Superiority”: success is definitely possible, because there is no one with a definitive advantage over them (this often takes the form of a kind of self-serving ethnic or cultural “ism”… e.g. “chosen people” or just “our family have big brains–there’s nothing anyone else can do that you can’t, if you set your mind to it”.
        2) “Insecurity”: success is definitely not assured. Many will try somewhat hard, and still fail. Failure is unacceptable, so you better work extremely hard.
        3) “Impulse control.”

        I think it’s true that the larger social environment is very damn important, maybe more important than one’s own parents (although one’s own parents choose one’s social environment, so the confounds there are deep).

        This is a quote from a NYTimes article about how even black men raised in rich neighborhoods usually fall behind similarly rich white men from the same neighborhoods. “The few neighborhoods that met this standard were in areas that showed less discrimination in surveys and tests of racial bias. They mostly had low poverty rates. And, intriguingly, these pockets — including parts of the Maryland suburbs of Washington, and corners of Queens and the Bronx — were the places where many lower-income black children had fathers at home. Poor black boys did well in such places, whether their own fathers were present or no.”

  15. AKL says:

    The last open thread included a discussion of GoodRx, which grew to a more general discussion about the wildly confusing US prescription drug market. This comment is meant to be a high level overview of the US drug delivery and payment ecosystem with an eye towards answering two questions. (1) What is going on such that the pharmacy can tell me a prescription is $800, but in 5 minutes I can download a coupon for a 95% discount? (2) What is GoodRx’s business model?

    Throughout I will lean heavily on Exhibit 1 in the good old AMCP Guide to Pharmaceutical Payment Methods ( I will heavily gloss over many of the details, and will focus on traditional pill and tablet drugs, not specialty drugs like infusions or gene therapies.

    The key stakeholders are manufacturers (Pfizer, Merck, etc.), distributors (pharmacies, hospitals, clinics), pharmacy benefit managers (Express Scripts, OptumRx, CVS/Caremark), payers (insurance companies, government agencies, occasionally individuals), and patients.

    Also important are the group of private companies that maintain benchmark price lists. These price lists are meant to reflect the true cost of a drug at various points in the supply chain. Of course the lists are hugely flawed. There is an alphabet soup of pricing benchmarks: AWP, ASP, WAC, etc. etc. etc.

    Flow of Drugs
    The flow of physical drugs is actually pretty simple. Once a pill rolls off the assembly line, it is purchased by a wholesaler. The wholesaler pays the drug company a price based on one of the independently published price benchmarks. That published price might be wildly divergent from the actual “real” cost of the drug and, ultimately, from the “net price” realized by the manufacturer at the end of the day. This discrepancy is resolved further down the supply chain. For now, you can think of this benchmark price estimate as reflecting the crazy $800 price tag that no one ever actually pays.

    Next, the pill is purchased from the wholesaler by a distributor. The distributor pays the wholesaler a small markup on the benchmark price (that the wholesaler already paid to the manufacturer).

    Finally, the pill is given by the distributor to the patient. The cascade of interlocking payments this triggers is the tricky part, and requires some more background.

    In most cases, the direct cost for a drug is born by an insurance company. In other cases, the direct cost is born by an employer (called a prescription drug carve-out) or government agency (e.g. Medicaid, Veteran’s Affairs, others). The dynamic described below is materially identical for each of these payer types, so I won’t distinguish between them. I’ll just refer to “insurance companies.”

    Insurance companies of course don’t want to pay the wildly inflated $800 dollar benchmark price, so they attempt to negotiate a lower price with the manufacturers. Rather than negotiating directly with manufacturers, however, insurance companies partner with a Pharmacy Benefit Manager (PBM). The PBM in turn negotiates directly with drug manufacturers on behalf of all of the PBM’s clients. By banding together under the direction of a single PBM, multiple insurance companies can increase their negotiating leverage.*

    The PBM might approach Pfizer, saying, “the $800 you’re asking for Lipitor is crazy. If you don’t give our patients at least a 75% discount, we won’t cover it for them. And since we represent 100M patients, that’s a third of the country to whom you can’t sell your drugs. But… if you give us a 90% discount, we’ll cover your drug AND we’ll refuse to Crestor and Zocor – that means that you’ll have a monopoly on one third of the country. We made the same offer to Astra Zeneca and Merck, so you have to act fast if you don’t want to get locked out.”

    Ultimately, the PBM will negotiate a rebate that will be paid by the manufacturer to the insurance companies that have partnered with that PBM. For example, Pfizer might negotiate a 90% rebate on Lipitor’s benchmark price with the PBM Express Scripts.

    How it comes together at the point of sale
    To fill a prescription, you show the pharmacy your health insurance card. The card tells the pharmacy who to bill for the cost of your prescription. If you don’t have a card, the pharmacy will bill you. Remember the cost the pharmacy paid to the wholesaler? The bill is a small markup on THAT amount.

    Suppose you have health insurance from United Healthcare. When you fill a prescription for Lipitor at Costco, two things happen. (1) Costco sends bill to United Healthcare for the twice-marked-up benchmark price of Lipitor ($800) and (2) Costco sends off a note to both United Healthcare and Pfizer saying “one more Lipitor prescription paid for by United Healthcare.”

    Every quarter, Pfizer will send a giant rebate check to United Healthcare. The size of the check is based on the rebate that United’s PBM negotiated. If that rebate amount was 90%, the benchmark price of Lipitor is $800, and 1 million United Healthcare patients filled a prescription for Lipitor this quarter, the check would be for 720 million dollars. By all accounts these rebate payments are some of the largest actual cash transactions that exist… anywhere.

    What about my copay?
    Your copay falls outside this system. It’s a fee charged to you by your insurance company (and actually, part of the markup on the benchmark price charged by the pharmacy is for the hassle of collecting this token payment on behalf of your insurance company). The primary reason your insurance company charges a copay is actually NOT to directly increase revenue. Instead, it is to incentivize you to use drugs that are cheaper for the insurance company. For example, if your insurance company has negotiated a 90% rebate on Lipitor but a 99% rebate on Crestor, it may offer you Crestor at no cost, but charge a $50 copay for Lipitor. This may be true even if the cost of Lipitor is less than $50.

    So how come I can use a coupon to get a huge discount even without insurance?
    The coupon you download from GoodRx tells the pharmacy, in effect, “this is a patient of [insurance company].” This triggers three actions from the pharmacy. (1) send a full price bill to [insurance company], (2) send a note to [insurance company] and [manufacturer] saying “one more prescription of Lipitor,” and (3) collect a payment on behalf of [insurance company].

    So suppose you are cited a “no-coupon” price of $800 and a “coupon” price of $50. This probably means that the negotiated rebate between the manufacturer and [insurance company] is 95%. Net of rebates, the insurance company pays $40 to the manufacturer, and you pay $50 to the insurance company. Some portion of that $10 profit goes to GoodRx for facilitating the transaction. The insurance company doesn’t care that you’re not “really” a member – they’re making additional money doing literally no work and bearing no risk.

    Incidentally, because rebate negotiations are closely held trade secrets, an insurance company could NOT offer these types of coupons independent of an intermediary like GoodRx. If you knew which insurance company was “behind” a coupon, you could come close to calculating the rebates they had (confidentially) negotiated with the manufacturer. For that reason, the ID numbers on GoodRx coupons will never identify the underlying insurance company, only GoodRx.

    *This is related to the policy dispute over whether “Medicare can negotiate prescription drug prices.” Currently by law the government is prohibited from negotiating rebates directly with manufacturers on behalf of all Medicare patients. Since Medicare covers basically every elderly American, the government would have HUGE negotiating leverage to demand lower prices. This law is purely a sop to the pharmaceutical industry and serves no broader public policy goal.

    • Matt M says:

      One question I have that I’m not sure was addressed here. The way you describe it, the pharmacy itself seems to be the middleman, who carries no real risk, and whose only job is to facilitate the transfer between the manufacturer, the insurance company, and you.

      But I think one of the major sources of confusion is that different pharmacies advertise wildly different prices for different drugs. I’ve heard of pills costing $20 at Wal-Mart, but $500 at CostCo, for example. But if ultimately, the pricing is worked out between manufacturer and insurer, why should this be the case? Shouldn’t every pharmacy price about the same?

      • AKL says:

        I believe manufacturers and pharmacies (and manufacturers-wholesalers and wholesalers-pharmacies) also negotiate various rebating / discounting arrangements, but I’m less familiar with that side of the industry than the manufacturer / PBM / insurance company relationships.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        Pharmacies definitely matter. They, for instance, drove the switch to generics in the US. Generics have a higher profit margin for dispensing pharmacies. They also drive the switch to 90-Day Prescriptions, because it is less costly for them fill a drug only 4 times per year as opposed to 12 times a year.

        Pharmacies bargain with PBMs over how much of a discount they will get below Average Wholesale Price (AWP) or whatever else. The pharmacies in turn purchase drugs from drug companies. But there’s probably a big distinction between brand and generic drugs. I rarely hear about Walgreen’s negotiating with Gilelad for a discount on Sovaldi, whereas the negotiations with ESI or Caremark (2 big PBMs) are practically earth-shaking. Regardless, pharmacies make more money on generic fills, and, to my understanding, make little to nothing on brand name drugs.

        The negotiations between PBMs and Pharmacies can be pretty important. It leads to things like Walgreens getting shut out of the ESI network. I believe Anthem was the biggest ESI client at the time, so if you had Anthem insurance, you could not get a drug filled at Walgreens.

        However, pharmacy as a whole is moving in 3 directions that do not benefit traditional pharmacies:

        1. Mail-Order. Mail-order pharmacies are dominated by PBMs running their own pharmacies. Pretty sure United Health has its own, especially after they bought out Catamaran, which was a big mail-order.
        2. Closed networks. Some of you may have received notices from your employer stating that there is now a preferred pharmacy, and you effectively cannot get drugs from a competing pharmacy. My family had to shift from Walgreen’s to CVS after years of going to WAG because my mom’s health insurance had an exclusive deal with CVS.
        3. Specialty drugs. These are extremely expensive drugs, and their negotiations tend to look a like what AKL just described.

        Walgreens is a big player in mail order and specialty just because it is so big. It is big enough to get a piece of the action from the PBMs. Most pharmacies are not.

        Note that America’s largest pharmacy, CVS, is already owned by Caremark. Target pharmacies are all CVS, so they are all Caremark.

        The #3 biggest pharmacy was Rite-Aid, which was just bought out by #2 Walgreens.

        After that are Wal-Mart and Kroger, and I have no idea how active they are in the sector. These are not primarily pharmacies, so the pharmacy department might just be a traffic-driver for their stores, rather than the primary profit center like for CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens.

        • Loquat says:

          In the Medicare market, Walmart specifically has a deal with Humana to be the only preferred pharmacy for their flagship prescription drug plan, the Humana Walmart plan, which is both cheap and quite popular, but I’m not sure how much money Walmart actually makes from it – especially since any mail orders go through Humana’s own mail pharmacy instead of Walmart.

          CVS/Caremark could get interesting going forward – they already had their own Medicare drug plan, Silverscript, which has also been pretty popular, but they’re also buying Aetna (unless the government interferes), so presumably they expect to be making more money from the insurance/PBM side of things and less from pharmacy sales going forwards.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Doesn’t the rebate go to the PBM, not the insurance company?

      • AKL says:

        Yes. The PBM then passes through a portion of the rebate to the insurance company. That dynamic is subject to a separate negotiation between the PBM and insurance company. So while large insurance companies may have the leverage to grab a larger share of the rebate, smaller insurance companies may not even have the leverage to force the PBM to disclose the rebate size.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          So the insurance company hires the PBM to negotiate for them and the rebate is a bribe by the drug company for the PBM to betray the insurance company?

          • AKL says:

            Yup it’s a mess. The large insurance companies have each either acquired or built a PBM business, or are in the process of doing so (BCBS / Prime Therapeutics, Anthem / IngenioRx, United / Optum, Aetna / CVS).

            I’m not sure I agree with the bribe characterization though. I think there are a lot of perverse incentives, but to my knowledge PBMs really are incentivized to negotiate bigger rebates and manufacturers really are incentivized to keep them smaller.

    • johan_larson says:

      Post of the week, no question.

    • bean says:

      Wow. Thanks for that. I love seeing something complicated reduced to an understandable chunk like this.

      And then there’s just the flat-out weird, like Modafinil. Costco has it for about $1/pill, which is like half the GoodRx price anywhere else. I’m currently planning to get a membership just to get to their mail-order pharmacy, because, in their infinite wisdom, the nearest one is 2 hours away. (For professional reasons, I don’t want to go grey-market.)

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        How did you get a prescription? Several doctors refused to write one for me.

        • bean says:

          I asked for it. My current doctor is pretty accommodating, and it helps that in Oklahoma, it meant I bothered him a lot less. You can only get a 30-day script for Schedule II ADD meds here. It was for a long-diagnosed case of ADD, replacing Concerta, which probably helped.

      • Eric Rall says:

        ExpressScripts home delivery pharmacy also sells Modafinil. With my insurance at least, their price is about the same as Costco’s.

        Also, if your dosage is 100mg/day, ask your doctor to write you a prescription for half a 200mg pill a day instead of a whole 100mg pill per day. For some eggless reason, many meds (including modafinil) seem to cost about the same per pill regardless of the size of the pill, so getting large pills and cutting them in half will save you about 50%.

        • bean says:

          This all came about because I took the HSA this year without realizing that it meant I had to cover everything up to my deductible on prescriptions, too. Also, ExpressScripts declined to let me use their pharmacy. Today, in fact. So Costco it is. And I’m probably going to keep doing that next year, because 90-day supply+no trouble with insurance for the same money? Done.

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      Unclear: how much does Costco get paid (cash) and how much do they pay (cash) to whom for one nominally-$800 prescription in the above process?

      • AKL says:

        Here’s my understanding, with the caveat that the supply chain dynamics are adjacent to my actual deep knowledge.

        Costco pays a wholesaler a markup on the benchmark “list price” for the drug OR a lower price negotiated between Costco and the wholesaler. Iff Costco has negotiated a lower price with the wholesaler, the wholesaler will issue to the drug manufacturer a bill called a chargeback. Per the chargeback, the manufacturer will reimburse the wholesaler for the difference between what the wholesaler originally paid, and what they in turn were paid by Costco. (Of course just from a cash flow perspective it would seem like wholesalers would not want to negotiate discounted rates while distributers would, even if it all nets out the same in the end… but I’m at the limits of my knowledge here).

        Costco gets paid by the patient’s insurance company’s PBM. Basically. It’s more complicated than that because there is some degree of automatic reconciliation of the payment flows. For instance, if the PBM “owes” Costco $800 for the drug but Costco collected a $1 copayment from the patient, Costco will send a bill for $799, rather than a bill for $800 and a check for $1. Similarly, I believe there is some degree of automatic reconciliation of rebates but I don’t know the mechanics there (this is relevant to Eric Rall’s comment about implicit lending and inventory management below).

        So unfortunately as near as I can tell, the answer to your question is “it depends.” If you’re really interested in this stuff, the link I posted above (though dense) does a really good job of laying out the details. Start with Exhibit 1 and then cmd-f specific terms as needed.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          So I can shed some light on this. The vast majority of transactions between private PBMs and pharmacies are done via online adjudication. The pharmacy submits a claim over the intertubez to the insurance company, and the insurance company either accepts or rejects the claim. This is how the pharmacy knows if you are getting a refill too soon: that’s coming from the INSURANCE, not the Pharmacy. So if you got a fill from CVS yesterday and try to get it from Walgreen’s today, it’ll reject.

          It also generates rejects based on harmful drug interactions or possible overdoses, that the pharmacy can override.

          When the claim is accepted, the PBM returns an adjudicated amount and a patient co-pay amount.So your $800 drug might have a $50 co-pay, so the PBM will return $750, and the pharmacy will collect $50 from the patient.

          The PBM remits payment within 14 days (legally required by Medicare, and the majority of business since Medicare Part D is YYYYUUUGGGEEE) or 30-45 days (typical private insurance).

          The pharmacy then has to review everything returned by the PBM and see whether this agrees with the contracted rates. Like, when I was in the game, we just loaded whatever the PBM said. So if the PBM said “This 1,000 ML of insulin is only $50,” we loaded $50 in the system. No check on the front-end. The check is on the back-end, when there was a retrospective and someone determined that 1,000 ML of insulin should’ve actually been paid $10,000, not $50.

          Separate rebates are then handled separately, usually on a quarterly or annual basis. These checks are typically handled separately from the normal pharmaceutical line of business, IIRC. You wouldn’t add it on to the pharmacy check because it’d totally fuck up matching the payment to the 835 file.

    • Eric Rall says:

      The rebate system sounds like it would really screw up the economics of inventories in the supply chain. E.g. Costco has $800 tied up in the bottle of Liptor they’re waiting to sell for what will actually be around $80, so the capital costs of holding inventory are about 10x what they would be without the rebate system. This means that Costco is going to hold shorter inventories than they would otherwise or charge a higher markup on the post-rebate price in order to cover their inventory costs (or most likely both to a lesser extent).

      It also looks like an enormous short-term loan to the manufacturers from everyone downstream of them. In your example, Pfizer effectively borrowed $720 million from their distributor for 1.5 months (assuming the rebate check covers a continuous flow of sales over the previous three months, and that all horses are identical and spherical). And the distributor sold the note to Costco, and Costco in turn sold the note to United Healthcare. If Pfizer invests the money in short-term treasury bills at 1.5%, they’ll make something like $1.3 million on that alone.

      • AKL says:

        As I laid it out above, this is definitely true. I glossed over a bunch of nitty gritty details in the original post because (a) I don’t have a perfect understanding of some of the nuances and (b) the post was long enough already. The simplifications imply some the weirdness you note above, but I don’t believe they misstate the high level dynamics of the $50 vs. $800 question.

        I believe the most relevant simplification is that there is a fair amount of automated reconciliation built into the system (if you ever need to fall asleep, review the ANSI specs for pharmacy data systems… this is not unrelated to the fact that it’s basically impossible for doctors to know whether a particular drug is covered for a particular patient). So e.g. rebate payments may in some cases be made directly from a manufacturer to a pharmacy rather than passing through the PBM and insurance company.

        In many cases manufacturers are receiving de facto short term loans, but this dynamic is known in advance so is “baked in” to rebate negotiations.

        I’m sure that there are “solutions” built in to address some of the worst incentives distorting inventory management, but I’m equally sure they’re glue-and-toothpicks on a rotting foundation, not an actual sensible system. The whole network is a kludge on a kludge.

        • johan_larson says:

          No manufacturer has adopted the radical solution of one price, no discounts?

          • Aapje says:

            That’s not in their interest, is it?

          • johan_larson says:

            That’s not in their interest, is it?

            Department stores used to sell things for one price during the season, and then clear unsold inventory at the end of the season with deep-discount sales. Walmart found it could do better by having one lowish price all season and practicing careful inventory control.

            Similarly, pharmaceutical companies right now sell drugs at high nominal prices, but negotiate charge-back discounts with virtually everyone. A pharmaceutical company might be able to do better by negotiating only the wholesale price, and not allowing charge-back discounts.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            No manufacturer has adopted the radical solution of one price, no discounts?

            IIRC, manufacturers are required by Federal law to offer discount rebates to Medicare and Medicaid (somewhere in the 20%-45% range?). That’s as a rebate off of the standard price they allegedly receive, whatever that is. Given such a requirement from such a large customer, for firms to stay in business their official standard price naturally needs to be padded enough to make up for this caliber of discount. Then, since the official standard price is now full of padding, they need to find arcane ways to give nearly everybody else a similar sort of discount to make the net actual post-rebate price sane again.

            If the federal government were willing to forego the illusion of getting a special just-between-us custom discount, I imagine many other buyers would be too. But alas, apparently it is just too tempting for congresscritters to tell their constituents they “fought to stop the evil drug companies from overcharging medicare”.

          • AKL says:

            I’m not sure this is quite right.

            Medicaid is government funded and covers prescription drugs for 60M people (mostly at / near the poverty line or disabled). Manufacturers can charge different prices to different insurance companies / PBMs, but by law, Medicaid pays the lowest of those negotiated prices. Compared to almost every other insurance scheme, Medicaid is really aggressive with mandated price controls (more similar to some European models). This aggressive use of statutory price limits is why (a) Medicaid is cheaper (per unit of care) than other forms of insurance, (b) many doctors don’t want to accept Medicaid patients, and (c) individuals with Medicaid tend to really like their insurance (compared to e.g. people buying private on the exchanges).

            So for Medicaid, it’s not that there is a mandatory discount amount, it’s the government saying “we get the best price you were willing to give anyone else.”

            The Medicare drug benefit is government funded, but entirely privately managed. It covers about 43M mostly elderly Americans. I -believe- that there is no material difference between the drug pricing mechanism for Medicare vs. employer-sponsored insurance plans. That is, the administering insurance companies will each (via a PBM) attempt to negotiate discounts with individual manufacturers. Back under W. Bush when the prescription drug bill was passed, it was actually a big point of controversy that the government was prohibited from engaging in these negotiations on behalf of the entire Medicare program (and still is).

            There are some (“some”) ancillary regulations around payment terms that affect Medicare and not commercial plans, but I don’t think they materially alter what I described above.

          • Glen Raphael says:


            Compared to almost every other insurance scheme, Medicaid is really aggressive with mandated price controls (more similar to some European models). This aggressive use of statutory price limits is why (a) Medicaid is cheaper (per unit of care) than other forms of insurance, (b) many doctors don’t want to accept Medicaid patients, and (c) individuals with Medicaid tend to really like their insurance

            You really don’t see a connection between Medicaid being really aggressive with mandated price controls and pricing being screwed up for the rest of the market?

            In the 1980s there were formularies which later morphed into PDLs. Each state has a limited Preferred Drug List – a list of drugs that can be fully reimbursed. To get on and stay on the list, manufactures have to offer the government substantial rebates. How do regulators know the rebate is sufficiently substantial? Why, it’s a huge discount off the list price! How is it possible to offer huge discounts off the list price without losing money? Answer: The list price gradually becomes a fictional/aspirational rate that (almost) nobody actually pays. Thus the current confusopoly.

          • AKL says:


            I don’t see Medicaid reimbursement rates as distortionary or problematic. I probably erred in using the phrase “price controls” to describe the situation. Price controls would be the government setting a maximum price that manufacturers could charge third parties in transactions with no government involvement. This is not occurring.

            Instead, this situation is a simple negotiation. The government wants to buy drugs, but is only willing to do so at a particular price. If the price exceeds that level, the government doesn’t buy. That’s no different that any other free market economic transaction. Indeed, this is precisely identical to the negotiations between manufacturers and private insurance companies / PBMs.

            If the government were to prohibit a manufacturer from selling to third parties above a certain price, I agree that would be distortionary (in transactions where the government is not actually paying the bill). But again, that is not the case. Manufacturers are free to set any price(s) they want, with or without negotiation, and prospective buyers (including the government) are all free to buy at that price, decline to buy, or negotiate further.

            Medicaid is able to negotiate better prices because (a) more people = greater leverage and more importantly (b) it has historically been more politically feasible to drive a hard bargain for Medicaid than Medicare (see notes on lobbying about Medicare price negotiations in the nytimes article you linked).

            I also disagree that state Medicaid P&T committees are basing PDL decisions on the % rebate off list price. For markets with multiple options, I think the reality is that drugs will be added to PDL to the extent that they are the lowest price among comparable options. Net of all rebates, if Lipitor costs $10 and Crestor and Zocor are both $20 then Lipitor will be added to the PDL regardless of what the % rebate is. For markets with limited options, P&T committees quite clearly (implicitly) use a QALY / DALY approach. This is exactly what happened when Sovaldi launched (one of a kind, miracle cure for fatal hepatitis C). State Medicaid programs and Gilead essentially could NOT reach an acceptable negotiated price, so Medicaid programs bought the bare minimum. Most hepC patients on Medicaid did not receive Sovaldi even though it was a cure for their fatal disease. Only the most advanced cases were covered, all others had to wait for new drugs to come on the market (with lower negotiated rates).

          • Glen Raphael says:


            I probably erred in using the phrase “price controls” to describe the situation. Price controls would be the government setting a maximum price that manufacturers could charge third parties in transactions with no government involvement. This is not occurring.

            Yes, setting a maximum price manufacturers can charge third parties would be a price control, but setting a minimum price manufacturers can charge third parties is also a price control, is it not?

            It seems to me the rule that firms aren’t allowed to charge less than the Medicaid-negotiated price is distortionary, as is the rule that hospital reimbursements are a percentage discount off of the usual and customary fee. These sort of rules prevent prices charged to third parties for goods and services from freely adjusting to market conditions.

            Now, one might claim that if a single private firm controlled 40% of the market they, too, could negotiate we-get-the-best-price contract restrictions…except that private firms generally don’t try that sort of thing and the few that do fall afoul of antitrust laws. The state has enough clout (including the ability to impose criminal sanctions) to make that kind of rule stick and broaden its applicability; private actors generally do not.

            BTW, having Medicare drive a hard bargain has downsides – the less profitable providing services is, the fewer people will be willing to provide those services. Remember when everybody got mad at Walmart because it drives a hard bargain with its suppliers? This is like that, only more so. We would really like American hospitals and drug firms to stay in business and accept Medicare patients; driving too much of a hard bargain would put those at risk.

          • AKL says:


            I don’t think I disagree with you on the underlying facts, I think we just have different intuitions about their implications.

            So e.g. your point about the coercive power of government vs. a private firm is well taken. Likewise the idea that any sufficiently powerful agent negotiating a “best price” agreement would impact external, third party negotiations.

            Despite that, I see the government role in drug price negotiations as materially similar to private negotiations, but who’s to say my intuition is more reliable than yours. In theory there could be compelling empirical data to inform my position here, but my mind boggles at the idea of designing a study (I think it’s quite clearly impossible given the complexity here). Even identifying the right questions to ask is hard.

            Also well taken is your point about profitability and incentives for innovation. My strong intuition here is that we are (on a society wide basis) dramatically over-invested in “cutting edge” healthcare and pharmaceutical research, but reasonable people can definitely disagree. That’s probably too big a topic to dig into on a dead thread…

            I think ultimately we have different priors about the merits of collective (government) action in basically any domain, and it’s hard to imagine either of us could make the other budge on those bedrock implicit assumptions.

          • Glen Raphael says:


            My strong intuition here is that we are (on a society wide basis) dramatically over-invested in “cutting edge” healthcare and pharmaceutical research, but reasonable people can definitely disagree.

            I agree with your strong intuition there – I’m positive we spend way too much on medicine in general and “cutting edge” medicine in particular. Including “cutting edge” drugs. But I don’t know how to get the incentives right on that, or how to make the right tradeoff between spending on drugs versus spending on everything else – didn’t early studies of Medicare Part D claim that spending more on drugs saved money, because expensive drugs were a substitute for more-expensive procedures? Regardless, so long as most customers are spending Other Peoples’ Money – either the government’s or an insurance firm’s – we might be stuck with the current terrible equilibrium.

            Hang on, is your claim that having Medicare bargain harder is a roundabout way to reduce how much medicine people consume? If so, I might have to change my position! 🙂

            (I still like Hanson’s take on all this: cut medicine in half.)

  16. Anonymous says:

    So. It seems the first fatality of AI-driven cars is here.

    • John Schilling says:

      Pedestrian fatality, and with a human safety driver at least nominally at the wheel. So I’m going to bet that either the “safety driver” was not paying attention, or this was something freakish (possibly involving pedestrian misbehavior) that no vehicular intelligence whether natural or artificial could reasonably have prevented.

      But it will be interesting to watch unfold, in both technological and social terms.

      • Matt M says:

        (possibly involving pedestrian misbehavior

        I’d be willing to bet just about anything that the pedestrian is mostly or entirely at fault.

        Which Uber cannot possibly say publicly, you know, for PR reasons.

        This whole situation sucks. Will probably set the technology back several years while government regulators overreact and demand ZERO FATALITIES EVER before authorizing anymore tests.

        • johan_larson says:

          This whole situation sucks. Will probably set the technology back several years while government regulators overreact and demand ZERO FATALITIES EVER before authorizing anymore tests.

          I wonder. It seems to me that between the auto industry heavyweights (like Ford), deep-pocketed tech companies (like Google), and high-flying startups (like Uber) there should be plenty of room to woo regulators or twist their arms. And worst case, companies of this size can shop around for a favourable regulatory environment for whatever testing they need to do.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I’m not so sure. Our society has a strong status quo bias. Tens of thousands of people die every year in car crashes but we’re going to hear about it every single time it happens with self driving cars for a while. With enough outrage, there’s only so much that lobbying can do.

          • Chalid says:

            I think I’d bet against a massive overreaction, too (keeping in mind that the correct level of reaction is not necessarily zero.) I would definitely bet against what Matt M said (a significant amount of time where nobody is authorized to test anything).

            Soon everyone will have an opportunity to update their priors!

          • Chalid says:

            tens of thousands of people die every year in car crashes but we’re going to hear about it every single time it happens with self driving cars for a while

            it’s true that we aren’t inundated with tens of thousands of news stories about regular car crashes, but everyone is thoroughly exposed to the idea that cars are very dangerous. People hear about car crashes in their community and see them on their daily commutes. And probably anyone who’s done any significant amount of driving can think of a few times when they saw a human driver do something extremely dangerous.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’m not so sure. Our society has a strong status quo bias. Tens of thousands of people die every year in car crashes but we’re going to hear about it every single time it happens with self driving cars for a while.

            Tens of thousands of people die every year in car crashes because we drive literally trillions of vehicle-miles per year. Fatalities average roughly one per hundred million vehicle-miles.

            All of the self-driving cars on all of the public roads on planet Earth, have maybe reached ten million miles driven. There shouldn’t have been any fatalities yet. And every fatality that does occur will, for some time to come, be as legitimately newsworthy as e.g. some human driver plowing into a crowd and killing ten pedestrians in one go.

            Most humans will have an understandable pro-human bias, so the toasters are going to have to up their game by about two orders of magnitude before they get a pass on this sort of thing. One data point isn’t statistically significant, but it is alarming. A second fatality before the industry has racked up another 10 million miles, would establish with p<0.05 that self-driving cars are at least five times more deadly than the human-driven version, and then you do have problems testing on public roads.

            How to avoid that, while continuing useful technology development, is an interestingly hard problem.

        • Evan Þ says:

          I would normally say that, but it’s been known for years that self-driving cars have a problem detecting and reacting to cyclists.

          And now a self-driving car kills a cyclist. It’s not conclusive yet, but I’m suspecting the known problem.

        • lvlln says:

          I’d be willing to bet just about anything that the pedestrian is mostly or entirely at fault.

          Which Uber cannot possibly say publicly, you know, for PR reasons.

          Fortunately for Uber, it seems that the police chief of where the accident took place said something like that: “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.”

          Still hard to say exactly how this will play out, but I’m hopeful it won’t cause that great a hurdle for the technology. I’ve generally been very pleasantly surprised at the lack of panicky overreaction about the safety of self-driving cars – I’ve certainly seen a lot more fear of overreaction than the overreaction itself.

          • Matt M says:

            At a news conference, Tempe police said it appears that she may have been homeless.

            Shocker! All of my close calls with pedestrians have been homeless people who simply cross in the middle of the street whenever they want with zero regard for traffic.

    • johnjohn says:

      It’s not surprising that it’s Uber who got the first kill.

      Their approach to AI driving has been pretty reckless from the get-go.
      They don’t have the expertise nor the data the other big players have available.
      They see their own survival as a company as being entirely based on them getting AI driven cars on the road as quick as possible.
      The “Move fast and break things” start-up culture mindset is a terrible way to approach driving cars.

      In comparison, I doubt we’ll see a google car kill anyone anytime soon. They’re way more concerned about doing it safely than doing it quickly

      Uber “doing it wrong” isnt’ exactly new:

      Just before the city’s Department of Motor Vehicles threatened Uber with legal action over the missing permit, a video of an Uber self-driving vehicle running a red light in San Francisco had been uploaded to YouTube

      • Matt M says:

        I have a friend who is very anti-Uber and seems to legitimately believe that Uber may have intentionally engineered this to set the entire industry back, because they know they’re behind and won’t win and as soon as someone else figures this out they’re toast as a company.

        • johnjohn says:

          That’s some of the best tinfoil-hattery I’ve seen in a while

          I’m generally not anti-uber, I’ve defended Uber as a company in the past.
          Especially back when the media tried to paint it as a rapist drivers paradise
          (how in the world would Uber, the company that lets you rate, and keep detailed GPS logs of, every single driver and trip you’ve ever had. be better for drivers who wants to rape women, than driving a cab where absolutely nothing gets tracked?)

          But their approach to testing their AI cars is pretty disturbing.

      • John Schilling says:

        The “Move fast and break things” start-up culture mindset is a terrible way to approach driving cars.

        Among other things, but yes, that was a terrible, terrible choice of words in so many contexts. Exceptionally and literally so here.

  17. Well... says:

    Not counting kids books or Calvin and Hobbes collections…

    I reread “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and its sequel “Lila” once every few years, and always pull something new out of it.

    I’ve read “Heart of Darkness” a few times, and am sure I’ll read it again. Same goes for “The Art of War.”

    Back when I was researching the history of drug prohibition I developed a note-taking system after I’d already read a handful of books without taking notes (stupid, I know), so I went back and reread them so I could take notes.

    I’m currently reading a library book that I plan to purchase so I can go back and make notes directly in the margins, although I might buy the book before I finish the library copy. Depends on my budget.

    Then there are a few other books that I go back and read parts of from time to time, or scan through for certain passages, even if I’ve already read them through. The Bible is one example that jumps to mind.

  18. Lapsed Pacifist says:

    Can we organize these threads so that a reader doesn’t have to wade through five pages of ROT13 gibberish to get to the conversations?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Use the “hide” button.

      • Matt M says:

        Takes some time an effort. Not sure how easy it would be to program, but a “hide all comments that contain rot13” would be used by me.

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          Tricky to come up with a script able to tell that “Cu’atyhv ztyj’ansu Pguhyuh E’ylru jtnu’anty sugnta” is rot13 while “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” is not.

          • The Nybbler says:

            The approach I’d try is to find digraphs (perhaps also trigraphs) that do not occur or are very uncommon in English but common in rot13’d English. If it misclassifies the occasionally R’lyehian, so be it.

    • Well... says:

      This makes me wonder, how easy is it for other people to visually avoid text they don’t want to read, for reasons typically associated with ROT13?

      I find I can do it pretty easily, and that when I fail the costs are almost always incredibly low anyway, so ROT13 is a big waste for me.

      Where ROT13 is NOT used, usually the topic set at the beginning can serve as a warning, but sometimes a random phrase or word from the anti-targeted text suffices.

      • Fossegrimen says:

        I am incapable of not reading text that is in my field of vision. If I’m driving, reading a book in the passenger seat is dangerous.

        • Well... says:

          I’d guess that puts you in a very small minority.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Can mark me down as a second data point for “automatically reads anything and everything”

          • Well... says:

            I’m assuming you didn’t mean that you compulsively read every word of text on the page…

            You can’t read everything simultaneously. If you start reading from the top-level threads, you can see when each thread might induce responses that contain something you don’t want to read. At that point you can collapse the thread.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Ah, I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t realize the thread was about rot13 specifically. The more interesting line of conversation, IMO, was

            This makes me wonder, how easy is it for other people to visually avoid text they don’t want to read […]

            I am incapable of not reading text that is in my field of vision. If I’m driving, reading a book in the passenger seat is dangerous.

            I can suppress the impulse, it’s not like it’s a DSM-grade compulsion. And, sure, it gets overloaded by having too much text to read all at once. But in a low-stimulus environment my attention generally snaps to whatever words are in view – frequently reading over and over again if nothing new comes into view or I actively focus on something else. So things like passenger books, billboards, and printed clothing (particularly women’s shirts but men aren’t much into weird idle staring either) require some small hazard-avoidance effort.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      I’ve been translating so much rot13 lately that I can read it almost as easily as normal text now. We need a new cipher.

      • John Schilling says:

        rot26 should be twice as hard to crack, deliberately or otherwise, as rot13. If that fails, we can always go to rot52.

        • albatross11 says:

          The best thing about rot26 and rot52 is that there’s a trick that lets you make the implementation extremely efficient.

          • rahien.din says:

            rot104 improves on rot52’s security without sacrificing efficiency or fidelity.

          • Iain says:

            Rot13 is yesterday’s cipher. Rot104 is today’s cipher. In today’s fast-paced world, being merely up to date means falling behind.

            Gentlemen, I present to you the cipher of the future, a decade ahead of its time. I give you: Rot2028.

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          Well, sure. It’s like adding another rotor to Enigma.

    • rahien.din says:

      Wouldn’t you have to wade through five pages of non-ROT13 text that still doesn’t interest you? Sheesh!

      • Randy M says:

        No, if it were in plain text I might actually learn some trivia, but I’m not going to bother copy-pasting every persons rot13-ed attempt.

        Call it a trivial inconvenience if you like, but the gap between interesting enough to follow the conversation and interesting enough to copy, new-tab-etc. is pretty big for me.

        • Well... says:

          Another ROT13 use case failure. Had nobody ROT13ed their discussion, Randy M, though he was not interested in the quiz, might have found something of interest in the replies.

          • Randy M says:

            Well…. okay then. I was suggesting that perhaps there were other readers in a similar position. Forgive me if I implied you had to stop the cipher games on my own account.

          • Well... says:

            I am one of those readers who’s in a similar position. I often find interesting stuff to read and sometimes respond to in comments even when I wasn’t interested in the OP. Your comment made me realize this was one more reason ROT13 sucks.

          • Randy M says:

            Failure of tone, perhaps. I read your response as implying a disingenuous special pleading.
            If people care about avoiding spoilers, fine, keep the rot13ten norm. I’m just pointing out that I don’t, in the case that users are assuming everyone does when perhaps very few or no one does, then everyone can save themselves the trouble.

          • Well... says:

            Maybe the SSC peanut gallery should have this out sometime: what is a spoiler exactly, and why does it spoil?

          • quaelegit says:

            The spoilers discussion has occurred on SSC before in the context of books (and maybe other media) discussions, and both Randy M’s camp and in Fossegrimen’s camp contain a decent number of commenters (though I wouldn’t be confident to guess relative size of the two camps).

            Maybe, as per tayfie’s suggestion, a spoiler-hiding tag like Reddit has would do best towards satisfying both camps. Although I at least find rot13 easier and more reliable than the reddit spoiler markup (I might be in the minority though).

          • Nick says:

            A reddit-style spoiler tag is easier for those reading the thread. How easy is it to use, though? When I browse reddit I pretty regularly see people screw up the tag, or ask how it’s supposed to be done.

          • Matt M says:

            Surely it’s no harder to use a spoiler tag than it is to use rot13…

          • quaelegit says:

            I screw up the Reddit spoiler tag more than half the time, but I don’t know if I’m an outlier in that. [Edit: Also, I find rot13 much easier to use.]

            One thing nice about rot13 is that you can tell if you did it wrong before posting — when you paste into the SSC reply box you can immediately tell if it’s rot13-ified or plaintext. So you don’t have to worry about accidentally posting plaintext. (Although since both Reddit and SSC allow editing this is may be less of a concern. And I’m trying to get in the habit of proofreading after posting anyways to help with grammar errors…)

          • Well... says:

            But have we yet established that it’s necessary?

            It might actually be a very small number of SSCers who both…

            A) care about spoilers (here referring broadly to things like story plot details, quiz and puzzle answers, etc.)


            B) are unable or unwilling to collapse or quickly scroll past comments containing spoilers without reading them.

            And of those, it might be an even smaller number who care enough to demand everyone else encrypt their writing!

            The encryption carries costs, such as inconvenience to commenters, inconvenience to readers, and loss of content to people like me and Randy M who sometimes like to browse through comments for something interesting to talk about even if we aren’t interested in the top-level thread.

    • a reader says:

      Sorry for the inconvenience – I didn’t realize that it isn’t a good idea to put a quiz as the first comment in an open thread 🙁

      But if you hide my comment (the first one), all the long replies to it in rot13 will be hidden with it.

    • tayfie says:

      Really, the whole reason people are using rot13 is as a spoiler hiding mechanism. Implementing spoiler hiding would prevent people from ever needing rot13.

    • Aapje says:

      Can we hide meta-threads that complain about ROT13?


      • rahien.din says:

        Proposed rule : meta-threads complaining about ROT13 are required to be posted in ROT39

  19. christianschwalbach says:

    I am seeking out examples from SSC readers/commenters work and life experiences in observation of the success levels of individuals that have high intellect/creativity, but low emotional stability or depressive tendencies. If examples come to mind, please expound on the work context (conformity requirements, nature of the job, creativity level required,etc…), and why that individual was able to maintain success in the field, or allowed to remain in place, if that were the case?

    • Aftagley says:

      This person is a family member of mine, highly creative and very intelligent but incredibly low emotional stability.

      She is currently 5 years working for the same company as a journalist in the news section of a certain famously clickbaity internet company. She’s incredibly happy with this company and how they’ve treated her; from the outside it looks like the factors about this company that have helped her the most are a generous medical plan that covers psychiatry and counseling married to an internal culture that’s pretty supportive of mental issues and a willingness from her managers to accept nontraditional behavior from employees as long as productivity stays high.

  20. christianschwalbach says:

    I cant quite quantify the level of my re-reads, however, situationally, I am inclined to re-read a book if enough time or change has passed between my first read and the present. There are many books I read before I was, say 19, that I would find valuable re-visiting as a more mature and life-experienced adult, but there are other works that I would rather investigate for the first time, at this point. As far as re-reading a difficult book to gain a better understanding or comprehension of the work, I rarely do that, as I will then turn to reviews, synopsis, sometimes even You Tube to enhance my understanding. This is common with some works of Philosophy I have exposed myself to. My exception to re-visiting dense or complicated works is if what I did read was compelling enough to drag me back in after a break, sometimes I re-read, and sometimes I continue where I stopped. This is where I will attempt to obtain full copies of a work, either online/e-read, or in print.

  21. Aftagley says:

    Totally didn’t realize that Harkaway had a new book out, thanks for the heads up. Yep, his stuff sometimes falls into the Neal Stephenson “difficult for the sake of being difficult” trap but I tend to find it overall being pretty worthwhile.

    I haven’t read anything by Pears, so other than asking for a recommendation on which of his works is worth starting with, I don’t think I’ve got the frame of reference you’re looking for. My personal pick for rereading when I want something completely breezy and light is going through Peter Mayle, but I could easily see an argument for that being just a bit too breezy.

    As for rereading, it’s a growing percentage and unless I’m actively deciding to challenge myself probably averages around 50%. There’s just nothing I hate more than reading a book I don’t enjoy, and limiting my selection only to books I know I’ll enjoy, but don’t fully remember eliminates the possibility of disappointment.

    • Vermillion says:

      I loved An Instance of The Fingerpost so I’ll give Dream a look once I finish rereading The Reverse of the Medal.

      I definitely reread a lot more when I was a younger man with narrower interests, and a very large library. I think the Aubrey/Maturin series is what I go to most often, since I know I’ll enjoy them and conveniently have the entire series loaded on my kindle. I would dearly love to have a handsome set of hardbacks on a shelf where I could gaze upon them fondly. Rereading this particular series is a pretty widely shared pleasure it turns out.

      I’ve reread a couple sci-fi/fantasy novels I remembered loving 20 years ago with mixed results.

  22. Clocknight says:

    Just a quick question (sorry if this isn’t the place).

    How hard it is to learn General Relativity by yourself?

    This question came up when I was discussing certain topics with some friends. What intrigued me was one them mentioning that the subject is extremely hard to learn even as a physics student, which I initially doubted. But I know nothing of college physics, so my judgement is worthless.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Orpheus says:

      How much math do you know?

      • Clocknight says:

        Just high school math (Brazillian high school math to be specific). Looking to teach myself calculus before entering college though.

        But I’m not talking about me. I just curious about the difficulty of the topic really. My friend really emphasized GR being extremely difficult. That statement struck to me as odd.

        • Orpheus says:

          Well, basically what everyone else said. If you want to learn general relativity properly, it would require learning about 2-3 years worth of math.

    • Eltargrim says:

      Never took the GR course myself. The hardest course I took in my undergrad is Quantum Physics 3, which is a 4th year course and generally recognized as being very difficult. My friends who were in both the GR course and the quantum course said that they were similarly difficult.

      My understanding is that learning GR qualitatively isn’t all that hard, in the same way that an intuitive understanding of SR can be gained without much math. However, learning GR quantitatively requires decently advanced calculus and linear algebra. If you’re competent at teaching yourself math, GR shouldn’t be too hard comparatively, though it would certainly help to go over electrodynamics, classical dynamics, and special relativity first. In what may not be a coincidence, all three of those subjects were prerequisites for the GR class at my alma mater.

      • For what it’s worth, I have a doctorate in theoretical physics (from a long time ago) and never took a course in general relativity. I probably had all of the relevant mathematics, can’t say how difficult it would have been.

    • Björn says:

      There are basically two ways of learning General Relativity, the physics way and the mathematics way. If you choose the physics way, you start with classical mechanics and electro dynamics and from that you build up mathematical concepts and physical intuition. When you get to quantum physics or general relativity, the mathematical concepts become more complicated/abstract/general, while your physical intuition has to come to terms with the weird things that play a role in physical “paradoxa”. On that way, you will apply mathematics that you will not fully understand, with the motivation that experiments show that those mathematics are reasonable. I think if do not have a university environment in the background, learning how to use the mathematical concepts right would be the hardest part.

      The mathematical way would be to learn the mathematical vocabulary first, which would mean at least getting very solid knowledge about linear algebra and a whole 2-years course about analysis (1 dimensional “classical” analysis, multi dimensional analysis, integration theory, theory of manifolds). Then you could learn how to apply those tools to both classical mechanics and general relativity, and you would see that you would have the right mathematical language for it. I think here the difficulty learning by yourself would be that you need many people to discuss the mathematical concepts with, otherwise your mathematical understanding will be quite “dead” and not flexible. And you will have to find good books about all the mathematical topics and then do the exercises in them.

      I wouldn’t say that learning General Relativity is hard per se, the problem is just that getting all the prerequisites for it and then learning General Relativity is at least half a physics/maths bachelor, and as we drop anything that is not important for General Relativity, you will have to understand everything or you will get stuck.

    • Elephant says:

      (Background: I have a Ph.D. in Physics.) I took general relativity in graduate school, and found it the least physics-ish of all the standard topics, which might explain why it is seen as difficult. Most advanced topics in physics involve a lot of math, and so just because of that are difficult if you don’t have the mathematical background, either because you’re new, or because you can’t understand it. However, in most areas of physics, even things like field theory, the subject involves a combination of physical “intuition” and math. (The intuition is also physics — things you’ve learned previously about how forces, fields, materials, entropy, etc. behave.) In GR, there’s very little of this physics, and a lot of math. So, half of one’s usual toolkit is missing. This is challenging to deal with. Plus, personally, I found it very boring for this reason — it’s a little bit of physics that’s summarized on day 1, and then many weeks of math. The physics is, for me, the fun part.

    • Anatoly says:

      With most physical theories, including quantum mechanics and special relativity, you only need B.Sc.-level math to get a basic level of technical understanding (of course it’s always possible to go deeper with harder math). With general relativity, you need M.Sc.-level math for the same – curved manifolds and tensor fields. To a professional mathematician, this is all still very simple math. But if you want to learn it on your own, there’s a large difference.

      You can learn calculus or linear algebra on your own to the level you need for basic mechanics, electricity, special relativity, quantum mechanics. But I’d advise against trying to learn M.Sc.-level math on your own if you haven’t studied any college-level math in a formal setting.

  23. Vincent Soderberg says:

    has anyone here seen the film take your pills on netflix? Any thoughts/reviews?

  24. CatCube says:

    Is there anybody else who can’t wait for a new post on the frontpage so when they pop in when they have a few minutes at work there’s not a giant pot leaf on their monitor?

    • Anatoly says:

      There’s a giant pot leaf on the frontpage? *goes to look*

      Man, my brain is really way too good at tuning things out. I probably noticed the picture once when the thread was posted, and never since then.

    • tmk says:

      Yes, I blocked that image in my ad blocker a few days ago. I do wish Scott would avoid using mildly NSFW images for no good reason.

      • Well... says:

        Especially since “dope” (in my understanding anyway) is most commonly applied as a nickname to opiates, not to marijuana. A little pile of brown powder would have been both a more accurate and innocuous image.

        Heck, Scott could have called it “Doping thread” instead of “Dopen thread”, and just posted an image of a bunch of cyclists. (Or, I guess, curlers? Or baseball players…or basically any serious athletes.)

      • The Nybbler says:

        A pot leaf is NSFW somewhere still? Wow. The only thing I have to worry about (aside from porn) is some culture-war related stuff.

        • Matt M says:

          Eh, there are shades of NSFW.

          Looking at a picture of a pot leaf won’t get you instantly fired, but it’s probably something you’d prefer not be seen by any manager who might be walking by at any particular moment.

          • Chalid says:

            Or a *client*. It really could be a disaster in some contexts.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Yeah, wouldn’t mean anything here. Helps that the NJ governor is currently pushing a pot legalization initiative, so anyone seeing that would probably assume a news article of some sort. (link contains image of pot plant)

            Edit: Here’s one with the exact same image.

        • CatCube says:

          US Government for me. Since I’m now a civilian, I don’t have to piss in a cup on a regular basis*, but I think they technically could make me do it with good reason and it’d be career-affecting. Plus, I think my manager might be even more conservative than me, and I’d while I don’t think he’d give me job-affecting grief over it I respect him too much to have him think I’m a pothead. Finally, even if there was no formal repercussions, being “that guy” isn’t something I’d relish over this, especially since I don’t even like being around other people who’re smoking pot. @Matt M pretty much has the right of it.

          “Culture war” stuff has got about zero chance of getting me in trouble, unless you’re talking actual WN/Nazi stuff.

          * Edit to add: I don’t actually use marijuana (or anything else, for that matter), so I’m not worried about the results of taking a drug test, but it’d be embarrassing to have others think I might need one.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Well, NSFW does not map entirely to “illegal.” It’d also be NSFW if there were bottles of beer on the front. Our office restricts alcohol websites. 🙁

        • ilikekittycat says:

          A depressing part of watching the internet develop in the 2000s is how NWS/NSFW initially meant for sure you are gonna see penetration or a jihadi beheading video if you clicked the link, but now you regularly see it used for a bikini girl or someone posting mild pictures of an injury or a cannabis leaf. You’d think absolutely mindboggling numbers of Americans were employed in primary schools or churches

          • Randy M says:

            What’s the relevant term? “Hostile work environment?”
            Most likely it’s unfounded paranoia, but it’s not entirely baseless.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            It seems everyone else knows what NSFW means. Could someone spell it out?

          • CatCube says:

            @Mark V Anderson

            “Not Safe For Work” It’s a way to mark a link with content that might get you into trouble at work. (Generally assuming the median office environment.)

          • Montfort says:


            “New South F**king Wales!” is my preferred interpretation.

  25. keranih says:

    What is a thing that you don’t mind wasting/discarding freely?

    and on the flip side: What do you wish you took better care to conserve/use frugally?

    • The Nybbler says:

      What is a thing that you don’t mind wasting/discarding freely?

      Water. Note I live on the East Coast and there’s nothing like a drought here; quite the opposite.

      and on the flip side: What do you wish you took better care to conserve/use frugally?

      Time is the flip answer. More seriously, there’s nothing I merely wish I took better care to conserve; if I wanted to, I would. I’d like to use less gas and electric (without discomfort), but it would require considerable difficulty and capital expense (new HVAC and ductwork, insulation) that would never pay off financially.

    • christianschwalbach says:

      Water…and…water. Its all dependent on the geographical location and the relative level of water scarcity in the geographical region.

  26. Anatoly says:

    This puzzle is not very difficult to solve with pen and paper, but try doing without, and coming up with a short intuitive solution (there’s a number of different ways to present one) . It comes from “Problems for kids from 5 to 15” by the late Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold.

    Two old ladies started on the road from A to B and from B to A, respectively, and both started at sunrise. They are travelling the same road. They met up at noon, but didn’t stop; instead, each continued at the same speed as before. The first reached B at 4pm, while the second got to A at 9pm. What hour was sunrise that day?

    • The Nybbler says:

      I’ll make the assumption that the ladies were traveling at constant speeds. I’ll call them by their destinations.

      Jr xabj gur O ynql gbbx sbhe ubhef gb gnxr gur fnzr gevc gung gur N ynql gbbx orgjrra fhaevfr naq abba.
      Pnyy K gur gvzr orgjrra fhaevfr naq abba: Ofc gvzrf sbhe = Nfc gvzrf K

      Jr xabj gur N ynql gbbx avar ubhef gb znxr gur fnzr gevc gur O ynql gbbx orgjrra fhaevfr naq abba.
      Nfc gvzrf avar = Ofc gvzrf K

      Jr pna frr sebz guvf gung gur engvb bs gurve fcrrqf zhfg or guerr-unyirf. (O ynql vf snfgre).

      Jr nyfb xabj gung gur gbgny gvzr bire gur fnzr qvfgnapr qvssref ol 5 ubhef. Yrg g or O’f gvzr. g cyhf 5 = guerr-unyirf g

      Guvf tvirf hf gra ubhe gbgny gvzr sbe O, sbe n fhaevfr gvzr bs fvk nz. V pna qb gur zngu va zl urnq ohg V qba’g frr na vaghvgvir jnl bs fnlvat “Bu, boivbhfyl avar bire sbhe vf gur fdhner bs gur fcrrq engvb”, abe gur frpbaq cneg.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Astronomical noon or civil noon? Given the weird things countries have done with time zones, the problem is woefully underspecified even before you ask if there’s a time zone boundary involved, or if the “noon,” “4pm,” and “9pm” are on the same day.

    • entobat says:

      Yrg L gur nzbhag bs gvzr ryncfrq orgjrra fhaevfr naq abba. Gur gvzr cebsvyrf bs gur gjb gevcf ybbx yvxr


      v.r. bar ynql jnyxf sbe L ubhef, zrrgf gur bgure ng abba (*), naq gura jnyxf sbhe zber; gur bgure ynql jnyxf (sebz gur bgure qverpgvba) sbe L ubhef, zrrgf gur bgure ng abba, naq jnyxf sbe avar zber. Gur engvb bs gurve fcrrqf vf abj obgu L bire avar naq sbhe bire L, fb L vf gur trbzrgevp zrna bs gur gjb, v.r. fvk. Fhaevfr jnf gurersber ng fvk nz.

    • Rob K says:

      Here’s a way that seems intuitive to me.
      Yrg’f anzr gurz nsgre gurve qrfgvangvbaf – fb gur bar tbvat snfgre vf O.

      G vf gur nzbhag bs gvzr gurl geniryrq orsber zrrgvat.

      Yrg’f qrsvar n havg fhpu gung N’f fcrrq vf bar havg/ue.

      Abj jr pna frr gung O geniryrq 9 havgf va G ubhef, naq G havgf va 4 ubhef. Fb O’f fcrrq = avar/G = G/sbhe. Fb G fdhnerq = guvegl-fvk, G=fvk, gurl fgnegrq ng fvk NZ.

  27. Telminha says:

    I just posted this on the previous open thread (97.25), but I’m not sure if David Friedman or anyone else checks older threads, so I’m reposting it here. The theme was favorite poems. Please, feel free to add yours, if you wish. There were excellent suggestions on the original post.

    “These are my favorites, including prose poetry. My impression is that the first four are liked even by those who are not fond of poetry. I had some of them framed to decorate the walls:

    If by Rudyard Kipling.

    Desiderata by Max Ehrmann.

    Invictus By William Ernest Henley.

    The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

    The Ladder of St. Augustine by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (What an interesting name he had!)

    I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth.

    Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

    On Children and On Marriage by Kahlil Gibran. I think that the first would be a good gift for new parents.

    “Song of Myself,” section 48, and “O Me! O Life!,” both by Walt Whitman.

    Alone by Edgar Allan Poe. Over a century later an (internet?) poet called Michael Anderson wrote an answer to Poe’s poem. He finishes with:

    “Singing the same song at a different tone,
    In thoughts, destined to die, unknown.
    Born unto a world not of our own,
    We walked together, walking alone.”

    This last gives me a felling of sadness. I think of all the lovely people (that were born somehow “disconnected” from this world) that I will never meet because they were from a different era, or because of language/economic barriers. But we still walk together, walking alone, right?

    Be drunk by Charles Baudelaire. (I would skip the wine.)

    The Old Stoic by Emily Brontë.

    To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick — as a reminder to seize the day.

    De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of things) by Lucretius.

    Love is a fire that burns unseen by Portuguese poet Luís de Camões.

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson; but because Nietzsche says that “hope, in reality, is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man,” I have to juxtapose it with A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad.

    By the way, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is also one of my favorites. Thank you for posting this; I’ll add all the other poems shared here to my reading list.

    “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.”

    — Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass”

    • Telminha says:

      You are correct. Thank you for catching that. Unfortunately, I can’t edit it now. That poem is in More Poems — VI.

      From poem LXII you mentioned; I really like this:

      From the Therefore, since the world has still
      Much good, but much less good than ill,
      And while the sun and moon endure
      Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
      I’d face it as a wise man would,
      And train for ill and not for good.

    • Philosophisticat says:

      This is Just to Say

      I have eaten
      the plums
      that were in
      the icebox

      and which
      you were probably
      for breakfast

      Forgive me
      they were delicious
      so sweet
      and so cold

      • Telminha says:

        They say he felt guilty for eating the plums. Do you think he did? I do not think so.

        I have a little book – Poems by Cats – that is sitting on the coffee table. I try not to be cynical, but I don’t believe it was really written by cats. Since you are a cat, please allow me to share this with you:

        Meow meow meow
        Meow meow MEOW!
        Why aren’t you laughing?
        I must have told the joke wrong.

        • powerfuller says:

          Makes me think of those dogs covering the Beatles.

          If you like cat poems, are you a fan Christopher Smart or Thomas Gray?

          • Telminha says:

            I wasn’t familiar with the Beatle Barkers album. How interesting and funny. Now, this song came to mind.

            I haven’t read Gray or Smart before. I learned English as an adult, and it was only in the last years, that I’ve been able to read poetry in English. I have a lot to catch up on!

            I enjoyed reading both the poems. I think I prefer For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. The Wikipedia article on Jubilate Agno is interesting: “Smart believes that nature, like his cat, is always praising God, but needs a poet in order to bring out that voice.” Also, something about horns.

            From the poem, I liked this:
            “God tells him he’s a good Cat. For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.”

            I enjoy poetry and other books “by” and about cats and dogs. They make good gifts for people who are sad. Who wouldn’t smile, at least a bit, at the thought of a little cat that types a poem, or paints? BTW, do you know who else types? Cows, but they rather negotiate better life conditions than write poetry.

    • Orpheus says:

      I really like W.B. Yeats, particularly his earlier stuff, particularly particularly The Two Trees.
      I also love Donne’s Batter my heart, three-person’d God.

    • schazjmd says:

      We Are the Music-Makers, Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy

      And Yeat’s The Second Coming.

      • Yeats yes. The versification of the other one feels mechanical.

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        The Second Coming is worth knowing just for recognizing all the references to it in popular culture, quite apart from its considerable aesthetic merits.

        Same argument applies to Casablanca and Hamlet.

    • Walter says:

      I like Robert Service a lot. Here is a good one of his.


    • FF says:

      I really recommend anything from Giacomo Leopardi, Giuseppe Ungaretti (especially on WWI), the early Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo.

      I never checked the English translation, but read them in Italian, if possible.

    • Nornagest says:

      Partially reposted from previous thread:

      “In the Neolithic Age”, Kipling.

      “An Arundel Tomb”, Philip Larkin.

      “The Conqueror Worm”, Poe.

      “Against Entropy”, John M. Ford. (Bonus round: Ford’s Shakespeare pastiche here.)

      • Tarpitz says:

        So per Poe, God plays Lands?


        • Nornagest says:

          I haven’t played Magic in probably twenty years, but that looks like a singularly annoying deck.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            It’s Legacy, so the power level of what it has to fight is high enough that it’s not that big a deal. The games go on pretty long while they grind you out, but it’s not really worse than Storm taking a 5-minute turn that you can’t really interact with in any way (assuming they already baited your Force).

            It’s probably the closest thing to a control deck we’ll get in Legacy since Miracles was deemed too powerful.

      • James says:

        Can’t work out whether I like or hate The Conqueror Worm. But the story it’s embedded in is one of my favourites. The woman in it is just my type.

    • rahien.din says:

      My favorites are Heaney, Dubie, and Pinsky. There are more of each of these, but I’m away from my books at the moment.

      Seamus Heaney : “Grotus and Coventina” “Terminus” “Personal Helicon” “The Salmon Fisher to the Salmon” “Digging” “Limbo” “The Harvest Bow”

      Norman Dubie’s book Groom Falconer is one of my absolute favorites. “Victory” “Accident” “Union Ushers at the Norcross Farm”

      Robert Pinsky : “Samurai Song” “The Refinery”

      Other random ones I have saved :

      Philip Levine : “They Feed They Lion”

      Yeats : “Sailing to Byzantium”

      Spencer Reece : “ICU”

    • Telminha says:

      I’ve made a list of all poems, works, and poets mentioned here. Some are in my favorites already. Thank you. “The Two Trees” is particularly good.

      Another favorite — Bluebird by Charles Bukowski. Warning: contains one strong word. Here’s a beautiful narrated version.

    • James says:

      Sonnet 12 (‘When I do count the clock that tells the time…’) Probably several other of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but this is the one that springs to mind. I can’t explain why, but I find “violet past prime” one of the strangest, most beautiful phrases in the language.

      Lots of Christina Rosetti. I like her sonnets a lot, and surprisingly many of her religious poems.

      Poe’s one of my favourites, but I don’t like the Poe poem you mentioned! The ones I like have this particular musicality to them, kind of unlike anything else in the language. Ulalume, Annabel Lee (nice easy one), To Helen, The Sleeper.

      Les Bijoux (Jewels) by Baudelaire. Very sexy. Don’t know the Baudelaire you mentioned. Will check it.

      At the moment I’m working my way through Swinburne’s first volume of Poems and Ballads. Like Deiseach observed last time, a profligate mixture of great and dross. The man needs a harsher editor.

    • Telminha says:

      Edit: the last quote is from “Dead Poets Society”, which is followed by one of Whitman’s poems. Apologies.

  28. Chris says:

    I think I’ve figured out that most of my social problems (both professional and personal) can be reduced to this: I don’t know what to do when I want to talk to someone but don’t have anything of substance to say. What do you do in this situation?

    • I am not good at dealing with this situation either, but here are my two main strategies:

      * Ask them about themselves (general getting-to-know-you questions are suitable for new contacts, for more established contacts you can use questions about what they’ve been up to or thinking about lately)
      * Given some interest they have, find something related to that interest—an article in the media, or a question you have about it, something like that—and start a conversation about that.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Ask them about themselves, pick something from their answer that you’re interested in, and ask some questions about that. Alternatively, pick something from their answer that you also do to some extent, and tell a short story that relates. Repeat till conversation naturally flows.

    • christhenottopher says:

      This is one of the main benefits of keeping up with media, it gives a ready low-substance thing to talk about that can entertain both sides. Also good is just asking about things the other person has done recently (any recent vacations? Interesting things they did on the job? Scandalous gossip?).

      • Matt M says:

        I swear, sports were invented for the primary purpose of giving men something to engage in small-talk about.

      • George Stigler has an essay in defense of specialization, along with the comment that defending specialization is almost as unpopular as defending racial prejudice. After making his argument, he considers the question of what, in a world of specialists, people with different specialties are to talk about. His solution is that there should be one extra specialty that everyone shares. In the old days it was servants. More recently, sports.

        • Randy M says:

          How is “servants” a specialty? Is that, “knowing the duties of various types of servants”? Discussing the foibles of one’s own servants?

          • Matt M says:

            I would imagine it’s mostly gossiping/complaining about your own servants. Uber drivers kinda fill that niche today. Or maybe baristas.

          • JulieK says:

            Mrs. Price took her weekly walk on the ramparts every fine Sunday throughout the year, always going directly after morning service and staying till dinner time. It was her public place; there she met her acquaintance, heard a little news, talked over the badness of the Portsmouth servants, and wound up her spirits for the six days ensuing.

            (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park)

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      FORM. Family, Occupation, Recreation, Motivation. The Motivation part is the important one, because it’s the open-ended “why” question you tack on after the opening questions.

      “Where is your family from? Oh, why did you move here?”

      “What do you do for a living? Oh, why did you want to do that?”

      “What do you like to do for fun? Oh, what got you interested in that?”

      If you run through all these things and can’t get the person to give you anything more than one-word answers and shrugs then the problem isn’t you, it’s them.

      • christianschwalbach says:

        I don’t know about you, but in some circles, asking about Job/Occupation can be semi-taboo. I prefer to ask about hobbies and interests myself, but because its more compelling, but asking about jobs can lead to either pontificating by those that feel they were put on earth to do their careers, and rejection by those that would rather avoid job related discussion on off hours. This may be more of a cultural thing, but when it comes to asking about jobs, I just allow the topic to rise organically. Of course , this could all simply be a reaction to people constantly asking me about what I do for work, and either being job hunting themselves (of which they should be transparent of), or simply being unimaginative in questioning.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          I really hate it when people ask me what I do for fun. It just seems too intrusive to me. Maybe it is partly because what I do for fun, which is things like reading and writing, makes me sound like a fuddy duddy. I do wonder how much of an outlier I am in this. I am usually very interested in what others do as an occupation, but I realize that some people consider THAT an imposition.

          Maybe we are back to Matt’s suggestion that we talk about sports. I don’t particularly enjoy such conversation, but it may be necessary to fit in.

          • I would think reading and writing would be a perfectly reasonable response. “Reading” gets the conversation to a discussion of what you have read recently that you liked, what the other person likes, … . Talking about your writing feels a bit pushy, unless the other person asks.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Avoid asking too many questions: small talk is not a job interview, people don”t like to be probed.

        Talk about the FORM topics from your perspective, and wait for the other person to do the same. E.g.

        “The other day the kids did X at school”

        “Yesterday at work X happened” (stay positive, don’t complain, avoid the technicalities of your job, focus on the social aspects)

        “Did you see [movie/show/game]? It was awesome/awful!”

        Depending on your familiarity with the other person and the local cultural norms, there can be a fifth topic, possibly the most important one: Gossip.
        Talk about mutual acquaintances. Again, avoid asking direct questions in order to avoid coming across as intrusive, be the one to provide details.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          On the other other hand, people love talking about themselves.

          There is no “right” answer. I could just as easily make a scenario where after the event your chat partner complains to her friends “and he wouldn’t shut up about his kids, pointless crap at that happened at his office, giving me movie reviews as if I care, ugh!”

    • ilikekittycat says:

      Have you read or listened to Chuck Klosterman? Here’s an example of things he would use to start conversations:

      Just having an insane premise, that you know how to memorize and repeat, doesn’t touch on sensitive issues, but still asks questions that seem thoughtful (and get the person to reveal a lot of their world view in how they consider/answer it) is a big help, and gets them to ramble off any number of other tangents you can go off on

      The Edge Questions they ask of scientists each year are similarly constructed, though much less fun. The trick is to get a person thinking and talking deeply and honestly, but without having them think about politics or religion or the other things that make people feel vulnerable about revealing their true preferences. None of the particular examples I’ve listed are magic bullets, and a lot of people find Klosterman’s style intolerable, but once you know the “form” of that sort of conversation starter, you can come up with an infinite variety of similar questions of your own making, authentic to your own voice. Polling people’s intuitions/philosophies about stuff, without seeming like a professor, because people love hashing out their opinion when they don’t think its a vital cognitive effort that they risk social sanction over being incorrect about

      Also, argue counterintuitives. If someone says A is better because of B, and you can make a good inverse/converse argument, argue that actually, A has been taking us even further away from B and we don’t even realize it. A lot of people working in letters today have careers just because they know how to do an interesting inversion. (Don’t turn it into debate club, though, keep things light and topical)

      • Aftagley says:

        The Edge Questions they ask of scientists each year are similarly constructed, though much less fun.

        I hadn’t heard about this before, and give the Wikipedia page a perusal. Is it just me, or has the quality of these questions drastically decreased over the past few years? I mean, it started with “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” and “What’s your most dangerous idea” in 2005/6 and the last two years have been “What do you think the most interesting recent new is” and “What scientific term of concept out to be more widely known?” in 2016/17 respectively. I’m actually kind even MORE nervous about starting conversations now if an organization devoted to thinking up one interesting question a year could only think up 8 or so before running out of good ideas.

        Also, argue counterintuitives. If someone says A is better because of B, and you can make a good inverse/converse argument, argue that actually, A has been taking us even further away from B and we don’t even realize it. A lot of people working in letters today have careers just because they know how to do an interesting inversion. (Don’t turn it into debate club, though, keep things light and topical)

        I understand the overall structure of the argument you’re presenting, but don’t quite get how that would be a fun conversation; every example I immediately jump to seems like it would get bogged down in politics and personal preference. Would you mind providing an example?

    • Lapsed Pacifist says:

      Talk about the reason that you wanted to talk with them.

      “Hi, I’m LP. I’m new at LastName FirmName, and I see that you know a few of my colleagues…”

      “Hi! I’m LP. I noticed that you’re wearing some colors that I really like, and I just wanted to compliment you.”

      “Hi! I hope I’m not being rude, but I’m new to the area, and I was wondering if I could buy your drink and ask some questions about the neighborhood? I’m LP, nice to meet you…”

      • Matt M says:

        Talk about the reason that you wanted to talk with them.

        Hi, I’m Matt. I was compelled, for various reasons, to attend this social event, and I’ve heard that simply standing here and saying nothing comes across as creepy and weird, so let’s attempt some entirely pointless conversation for the sake of keeping up appearances, shall we?

        • christianschwalbach says:

          If thats the case, then you arent really genuinely interested in the conversation are ya? So perhaps its best left alone

        • phil says:

          Depending on delivery, in a lot of circumstances, that would get a good laugh

        • cassander says:

          change that to “Hi, I’m Matt. I was compelled, for various reasons, to attend this social event, and I’ve heard that simply standing here and saying nothing is a bit off putting, so how about that local sports team?” and that’s not a bad opening line to total strangers.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Force it with some bullcrap until it becomes natural.

      Honestly, it’s almost like fishing: cast and dangle some hooks until something finally grabs.

      However, I will caution that most of the time when I am talking with someone, I come away from the conversation without any idea of what was said. I might file away 2 or 3 tidbits of information, but most of it just vanishes into the void.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      “Some weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

      Pro tip: this works regardless of the weather. For bonus points, customize to the current weather.

      I’ve got a neighbor with whom I frequently bring this up.

    • YehoshuaK says:

      What do I do when I’m with someone with whom I don’t have anything specific to discuss?

      If appropriate, I ask him what topic in the Talmud he’s been learning recently, and we talk about that. Just a day or two ago I had a lively hour-long discussion this way.

      If the above doesn’t seem likely to go anywhere, I open a book. Books are wonderful, magical things. Paper and glue and squiggles of ink, and I’m in touch with the greatest minds of mankind throughout history.

      I should probably note that social events are not really my thing.

  29. aNeopuritan says:

    For those of you who read much non-fiction and little fiction, what fiction do you recommend for someone doing the same? (For me, it’d be HPMOR, DMPOR, Digger, and Schlock Mercenary, especially books 10-16.)

  30. Hence says:

    “Doing science using published p-values is like trying to paint a picture using salad tongs.”
    (Andrew Gelman)

    Your favorite site about the hazards of significance testing has improved. Thank you to those who commented a few weeks ago, as it made me think of ways to make it more useful. The changes in the main page should be noticeable.

    Especially if you are involved with research in biological or social sciences, do check it out. Start with the quotes page, then the home.

    PS: Not sure if I file this under hilarious, creative or tragic. Probably all three:
    Big alphabetically-sorted list, compiled from peer-reviewed articles, of desperate semantic contortions that people use to justify their result “didn’t quite reach but was highly suggestive of being leaning in the direction of cautiously approaching the usually accepted notions of statistical significance”.
    (or here)

    So those people are not only chasing an arbitrary delusion, they’re also not straightforward about not having reached it.

    • Tamar says:

      Hey, I’m a PhD student in the biological sciences (tumor biology/neuroscience). I just did my thesis proposal. I have my main project set up and in progress (among other things, it involves behavioral testing of mice). If I don’t want to contribute to the perpetuation of significance testing, what do you recommend I do and how do you recommend I discuss it with my PIs, especially considering that the main structure of this part of the project was in development before I ever joined this lab?

      • Hence says:

        Tamar, hi. Glad to hear you read and thought about it.

        There’s no universal answer to your question. It depends on your and their values, and the specifics of your situation, and your and their temperaments, and your relationship with them, and how you all deal with conflict, and how you think you’d react if they dismissed your objections, etc.

        But let me ask: have you read the first letter on the site, and the links there? The second letter has a comment that may also be helpful given that you mentioned neuroscience.

        • Tamar says:

          I’ve read the first letter, I suppose. It contains circular references (‘you know what you can do’ links to a list of things that starts with ‘read this letter’ …), which doesn’t work in its favor. Most of it is an appeal to my personal ethics based on presupposing I’ve been basically convinced. It seems that the most concrete suggestion it has for me is ‘Don’t use significance testing in your research. Don’t passively allow your co-authors to use them. Refuse to have your name in articles that do. And don’t use the word “significant” when you mean “relevant”.’ There’s really no more specific advice relevant to my needs, and no great suggestions for accessible alternatives and resources. The open letter you mention also seems irrelevant to my needs – possibly because the neuroscience work I do is completely unrelated. Also possibly because I don’t understand the point the open letters at all. It feels like you chose a few papers where it feels clever to write an open letter about your positions on statistics and put it on your website. Maybe I’m missing some context. Anyway, so far as I can see, your current suggestions for me include the following: Ask to have my name removed from a paper about to be submitted in which p values are used (I’m listed as second author). And not to use ‘significant’ when I mean ‘relevant’, which I already don’t do (and in fact has been emphasized to myself and my colleagues several times in statistics courses and journal clubs).

          May I ask what, if any, research experience you have, or any firsthand knowledge you have of a researcher who’s dealt with transitioning from NHST to other modes of statistical analysis and interpretation? Not to say you can’t come to some firm conclusions about it if you don’t have one or both of the above, but it might be helpful for me to know where you’re coming from and what your background is when it comes to offering me advice and perspective on these matters.

          • Hence says:

            A few points:

            I’ve read the first letter, I suppose.

            “I suppose”? Have you read it or haven’t you? This reads like “whatever”.

            No “appeal to your personal ethics”. I have no idea what your personal ethics are. How could I? I point out, as I and others see it, what NHST is and some of its consequences. It’s your job to reach conclusions and see how they fit your personal ethics. Hence why I wrote “it depends on your values plus a list of other things”. Only you can know about your personal values and weigh what you care about.

            removed from a paper about to be submitted in which p values are used

            My suggestions (which you follow or not as you see fit) are about NHST. NHST is not the same as p-values. Don’t substitute one for the other.

            Read Gigerenzer & Marewski 2015. Read the FAQ.

            The open letter you mention also seems irrelevant to my needs – possibly because the neuroscience work I do is completely unrelated.

            I had no idea what neuroscience you do. How could I? But it could be related, so I took the time to suggest it. You seem annoyed that it didn’t “fit your needs”.

            You like concrete suggestions, so here’s one: “It happened that the letter you mentioned is not relevant to my work, but thank you for sending me a suggestion that you thought could be helpful”.

            When faced with similar situations, test this approach versus the other and see how the outcomes differ.

            Good luck.

    • rahien.din says:

      With every iteration of your website, I have become more convinced that you just aren’t taking this problem seriously.

      p-values can be hacked. p-values can be misinterpreted or misunderstood. People aren’t straightforward about how they’re using p-values.

      This is not a valid move. All of that is true for confidence intervals, for Bayes factors, for effect sizes, etc. You will never find a metric for which this is not true. Including these objections only weakens your position for those who would examine it seriously.

      Cumming shows p‑values dancing all over the place in this simulated replication video

      I’m glad you added this because it needs to be addressed. Cumming is performing sleight-of-hand.

      His p-values dance – but so do his confidence intervals. And the categorical interpretation of the p-values consistently corresponds to the categorical interpretation of the confidence intervals. If you pay attention to what is in plain sight, Cumming has conclusively demonstrated that p-values are a good shorthand for whether confidence intervals discriminate.

      But that is uncontroversial, because a good statistician knows that already! From Stern 2016 :

      A significance test of a hypothesized value for μ will produce a p-value less than a given threshold (say α) when a 100(1 – α)% confidence interval for μ excludes the hypothesized value. Thus a series of significance tests computing p-values for various hypothesized values of the parameter in question can provide the same information as a confidence interval and a single confidence interval tells us which values of the parameter would be found plausible in a series of significance tests.

      I agree with Stern. It is noteworthy that many other critics of significance testing and p values actually encourage the use of confidence intervals – noteworthy because it reveals that they are ignorant of how p-values relate to confidence intervals.

      A bunch of stuff can be used to test significance. It can be done with intervals. Or Bayes factors.

      We have addressed how p-values are not different from confidence intervals. But, confidence intervals and Bayesian methods are not so different from each other, nor is either one all that different from p-values. Continuing from Stern 2016, emphasis mine :

      [I]n the simple setting considered here the t confidence interval corresponds to a Bayesian posterior interval for a diffuse (sometimes called noninformative) choice of the prior distribution of the model parameters which means that the desired probabilistic interpretation is realistic in that case. In large samples the t-interval is approximately the same as a Bayesian posterior interval regardless of the prior distribution which again justifies the probabilistic interpretation.

      …The primary source of controversy surrounding Bayesian methods for some researchers is a
      concern about how the prior distribution is specified.

      To summarize, the main hurdle to using Bayes methods, unsurprisingly, is in properly estimating the prior distribution. But confidence intervals correspond to Bayesian posterior intervals, with no need to specify the prior distribution – this is a clear advantage for confidence intervals. And, as above, p-values function as binarized confidence interval tests.

      Therefore : effectively, p-values function as binarized Bayesian posterior interval tests with no need to specify the prior distribution. To me, this is a strong argument for their continued utilization.

      • alef says:

        But modern research essentially never provides a series of significance tests (or p-values) against an array of possible values; if p-values or signifcance tests are used we get a test against one null (usually 0), which as Stern rightly says ‘promotes a “binary” view of statistical inference that is not generally helpful.’ (An understatement, but he then goes on to enumerate some of the usual pitfalls.) Confidence intervals do not encourage the same thoroughly broken view of scientific inquiry.

        You can believe this (I do, many people do, Stern clearly does in to a mild degree) while thoroughly understanding the theoretical link between the two tools (and finding it fairly irrelevant to the question of how science as actually practiced today.) Maybe we are stupid or wrong for some other reason, but if so the error is not as simple as the plain ‘ignorance’ you accuse us of.

      • Hence says:

        With every iteration of your website, I have become more convinced that you just aren’t taking this problem seriously.

        Or you misread something. Let’s see which.

        This is not a valid move.

        I’m arguing primarily against NHST, for reasons that transcend the specifics of p-values. The reason I also attack p-values is because they are by far the most usual metric used to perform NHST, and they happen to be widely misunderstood. Even if people just calculated p = 0.03 without any mention to significance, all those misconceptions would still exist.

        You will never find a metric for which this is not true.

        All metrics are not equally problematic in all situations. They are also not interchangeable.

        For example, p-values carry no information about effect sizes. See Goodman 2008 page 3.

        Including these objections only weakens your position for those who would examine it seriously.

        How exactly?

        The main issue is NHST, (mostly) because of dichotomization and the habit of nil-null. This transcends p-values.

        And clarifying p-values’ problems do not imply that I’m accepting all alternatives as great. This doesn’t logically follow.

        I’m glad you added this because it needs to be addressed. Cumming is performing sleight-of-hand. His p-values dance – but so do his confidence intervals. And the categorical interpretation of the p-values consistently corresponds to the categorical interpretation of the confidence intervals. If you pay attention to what is in plain sight, Cumming has conclusively demonstrated that p-values are a good shorthand for whether confidence intervals discriminate.

        His point in the video is that this volatility is expected. This is important, because people have an illusion that the p they found in one experiment is very stable. It isn’t. Once removed this illusion, the person questions whether significant (0.04) versus nonsignificant (0.30) makes any sense. It doesn’t. This is an issue.

        It’s not a sleight-of-hand to show a not well-known property of P.

        Therefore : effectively, p-values function as binarized Bayesian posterior interval tests with no need to specify the prior distribution. To me, this is a strong argument for their continued utilization.

        Quoting your own Stern 2016:

        “It is this extreme “binary” view that in my opinion has done the most damage to science. It is problematic in many ways.”

        “Perhaps the biggest problem with p-values though is that the most common way in which they are used, a p-value is calculated and then compared to a threshold to determine significance, promotes a “binary” view of statistical inference that is not generally helpful.”

        We have addressed how p-values are not different from confidence intervals.
        I agree with Stern. It is noteworthy that many other critics of significance testing and p values actually encourage the use of confidence intervals – noteworthy because it reveals that they are ignorant of how p-values relate to confidence intervals.

        And yet, this is what the same Stern says in the same paper:

        “It is noteworthy that many other critics of significance testing and p-values actually encourage the use of confidence intervals. I too believe that confidence intervals are valuable for a number of reasons.

        “Most important for me though is the simple fact that confidence intervals provide a range of values of the population parameter that are compatible with the data. The range informs us about the magnitude of sampling variability (essentially providing information about sample size that is lacking in p-values) and it also encourages a focus on plausible values of the effect rather than focusing on proving/disproving a single hypothesis about the population parameter.”

        Not clear to me why you adopted the first part of Stern’s sentence but changed the second part to an opposite conclusion – all while saying you agree with him.

        Stern gives advantages of CI over p-values. He also says binarization is dangerous.

        So, are you still in agreement with the good statistician, Rahien?

        • rahien.din says:

          clarifying p-values’ problems do not imply that I’m accepting all alternatives as great.

          All metrics are not equally problematic in all situations. They are also not interchangeable.

          Including these objections only weakens your position for those who would examine it seriously.

          How exactly?

          You never seriously discuss the advantages and disadvantages of alternatives, and you fail even to apply those objections to other metrics or discuss the degree to which they apply to those metrics. When directly challenged, you dismiss the question off-hand – motte-and-bailey. This weakens your position because it demonstrates that you haven’t seriously examined this controversy, you’ve only compiled a bunch of pithy papers that agree with you.

          Furthermore, you haven’t seriously addressed Stern 2016’s claims regarding the correspondence between p-values, confidence intervals, and Bayesian methods.

          And when someone genuinely asks what you would recommend, you give a big complicated shrug.

          I call bullshit.

          [this won’t be a quotation for me for some reason] His point in the video is that this volatility is expected. … It’s not a sleight-of-hand to show a not well-known property of P.[/]
          It is not a property of p. The volatility has nothing to do with p-values or the identically-volatile confidence intervals. Its source is the way he consciously chooses to sample those particular distributions. Cumming could make a video called “Dance of the Bayes Factors” which would exhibit the same volatility, as long as he continued to under-sample.

          But he says it’s the p-values’ fault, and you fell for it. You have previously decried that people attach so much faith to p-values that they fail to consider experimental design, but you attached so much disdain to p-values that you failed to consider experimental design. This is reversed stupidity.

          Not clear to me why you adopted the first part of Stern’s sentence but changed the second part to an opposite conclusion – all while saying you agree with him.

          My interpretation of that sentence is clarified by his other thoughts throughout the paper : p-values correspond to confidence intervals applied to questions, and the decision to ban the p-value and all other traces of significance testing is a misguided and extreme reaction. I agree.

          Stern gives advantages of CI over p-values.

          I haven’t argued in favor of p-values against confidence intervals, nor do I desire to, nor am I logically required to in responding to your extreme positions, nor would it even make sense given what we know about these metrics.

          binarization is dangerous

          This is what it comes down to, for me. Much of the rest is just distractors. Now to some of my genuine questions.

          It’s all well and good to say “Well don’t use the p-value, just see if the intervals overlap!” but those are essentially the same thing, and that’s still taking a continuous distribution and arbitrarily forcing it to be discrete. You have serious objections to the very idea of thresholding, but how would you operationalize that? Can you show me how “Abandon NHST” does not equate either to “Embrace an insoluble halting problem” or “Everyone invents their own personal thresholds”?

          I’ll give you my personal perspective : I have to interpret the literature in order to make choices and recommendations. I can not give my patient some weighted average of diagnoses or treatments. My surgical colleagues can not perform a weighted distribution of surgeries. Life is discrete, and so must be our decisions. What do you propose?

          This may be addressed in some of your citations. If so, feel free to point me there and I’ll read.

          • Hence says:

            Your reaction to my question about the misquote is interesting.

            p-values are not the posterior probability and CIs are not the posterior interval. Correspondence of Stern is correct under a specific class of priors only.

            I have weeks ago addressed your CI question and referred you to sources. See the FAQ. Sources there include the paper on false objections, which you dismissed as “straw objections”. Also McShane & Gelman 2017 – who, you inferred, from the abstract alone, “misunderstand how research is conducted”, and then you proceeded to say how it should be done. Then you say Cumming is doing sleight-of-hand, suggesting it’s intentional to deceive.

            You ask what I propose. I propose you actually read those papers. I also propose you avoid hasty conclusions about how much other people know or what their intentions are.

            Good luck.

    • gbdub says:

      For recovering rotary wing aircraft (or otherwise vertical landing), do carriers like America do the usual fixed-wing carrier thing and sail at close to full speed into the wind, or do they just go fast enough for seakeeping while keeping the landing target slow moving? Or something else?

      • bean says:

        I don’t know offhand, but some research shows that they do consider wind. It looks like they usually need to keep the wind coming from the bow, and below about 30 kts. I’m not sure what they do in cases where the wind is above that value. Maybe they go downwind and recover over the bow. Apparently, helicopters do prefer wind speeds of 15-30 kts over hover and high speed, so that’s kind of the target. Hlynkacg will know more if he’s still around, and I have a book at home which probably has more information.

        • gbdub says:

          Well, what did they do when you were onboard? 😉

          I wonder if they do try to keep the landing in the Effective Translational Lift regime, which would be right in the 15-30 knot ballpark. Might make the landing a bit easier by keeping the sink rate constant during approach (normally helicopter pilots need to add power and collective to avoid dropping faster when they slow out of ETL, and this can make it harder to stay straight / hold forward momentum).

          • bean says:

            Well, what did they do when you were onboard? 😉

            I was in the hangar deck, so I couldn’t feel the wind, and rather too busy taking pictures to pay attention to whatever other cues I might have had.

            I wonder if they do try to keep the landing in the Effective Translational Lift regime, which would be right in the 15-30 knot ballpark. Might make the landing a bit easier by keeping the sink rate constant during approach (normally helicopter pilots need to add power and collective to avoid dropping faster when they slow out of ETL, and this can make it harder to stay straight / hold forward momentum).

            The NATOPS I had didn’t say ETL, but it’s pretty clear that was what it was talking about.

      • Aftagley says:

        I can’t speak towards carriers, but I’ve driven other types of ships during Helo recovery ops. Yes, they want the wind around 20kts just off the bow. We always recovered them with the wind off the port bow, but that’s more preference/specific ship design than anything else.

        As for when the wind is above 30kts, the simple answer for us was, we really tried not to do helo ops when the wind was forecasted to get that high, because at that point you have to start worrying about sea state. The limiting condition on landing helos is frequently how much you’re pitching and rolling and, depending on fetch, in 30+kts of wind you can really start getting tossed around.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      Interesting, I didn’t know that you could still fire Iowa’s 5-inch guns!

      When is the last time the main battery was fired?

      • bean says:

        I’ve heard that it was fired once for a SEAL event after the ship arrived in LA, but I wasn’t there, and I wouldn’t be shocked if that was a rumor. And I really doubt it was a full-strength blank. Otherwise, 1990. It’s just mount 56, and only blanks. Something about not blowing away Queen Mary. Totally unreasonable, I know, but we manage.

    • bean says:

      My brother (who is a graphic designer) and I were talking yesterday about the possibility of putting Naval Gazing in print, and came up with the idea of reissuing the Jutland series as a sort of magazine/booklet. I’d write a new column or two, go over the old stuff and update it, and most importantly, he’d do maps for it. We expect the result to be $10-15, at least within the US. (I know very little about international mail.) Is there any interest in this? (If this goes through, I still plan to repost the original Jutland columns in late May/early June, with less editing and no maps.)

      • John Schilling says:

        I’d be interested. For general interest, I think you’re going to need lots of photos as well as maps, and that gets into the availability of good public-domain or easily-licensed photos. Probably more of an issue for the WWII stuff; Jutland predates Steamboat Willie :-)

        • bean says:

          Oh, I was planning pictures, too. And all of the pictures I use are public domain. In a lot of ways, WWI is harder because there are fewer pictures on wikimedia and the like.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Assuming that shipping isn’t madness (presumably, it would not be too large to just stuff in a properly-sized envelope?), certainly.

  31. mrjeremyfade says:

    This is going to be a long post on my experience with the recent tax reform.

    I work in finance for a small global company and needed to understand how the tax reform legislation would affect us. I read the all high status financial press, but the information provided was very low quality for my needs. I found that one big 4 firm and two law firms had good quality material online that gave me the information I needed to have productive discussions with our accounting firm and make informed decisions for our company.

    Between my research online and the need to explain things to the boss, owners and other stakeholders, I began to see one of the biggest impacts of the tax reform was the destruction of tax shelters used by many US tech companies. Now, here is a claim, I am less certain about: some firms have been and will be net losers by their use of creative tax strategies in the past. I expected to see this idea expressed more widely or at least investigated.

    SSC introduced me to the concept of Gell-Mann amnesia. I’ve felt this very keenly during the discussions of tax reform in the media and in business reporting generally since then. This feeling that a salient point has been missed is part of my motivation for this post. Also, the effort posts by ADBG, being welcomed, even if possibly strange to a mostly STEM group, have inspired me.

    This is not about whether the tax reform was good or bad. It’s about what it means to a good chunk of the corporate world, mainly, but not entirely tech companies.

    Imagine a thousand tall towers all collapsing simultaneously. Imagine the noise, the pain, the horror of incomprehension, seeing dimly through the dust, ears ringing. That’s what was felt by a subset of tax lawyers, CFOs, CEOs and accounting firms all around the world. The US tax reform did have an impact on individuals, sure, but It was also about blowing up an enormous edifice of tax avoidance. There may not be many of us, but I feel this has been largely overlooked in the media.

    For many years, companies have been placing their IP, booking their sales and paying themselves transfer prices to low tax jurisdictions to avoid US taxes. And yet all this was and is illegal unless:
    1) There was a real underlying business purpose to it.
    2) The business purpose was not merely to reduce taxes.
    Sometimes only the thinnest veneer of business purpose was invoked. Then you would get a law firm to write an Opinion Letter which said what you were doing was legal because reasons and you could rely on this Opinion Letter to stay out of jail. Nevertheless, setting up the correct legal framework to avoid taxes was expensive. (A few years ago someone quoted me a price of about $2million to set up something like that for where I worked. I never did it though.)

    And now none of this tax strategy works. It’s all over.

    US corporate tax at 35% was among the highest in the world, even though effective rates were lower due to tax strategies. The high rate encouraged tax avoidance strategies, that for many companies was borderline (ref. the trouble Caterpillar is in now), and also had significant costs. This incentivized spending that had no real productive purpose. And it encouraged inversions, i.e. moving corporate headquarters out of the US into another tax jurisdiction.
    The US also had a weird worldwide system where all a company’s income was taxed together. However, if a foreign subsidiary of a US company kept their profits, those profits were not taxed. The rules here were complex. To highly simplify, if a company kept their foreign profits overseas they would not pay US tax on those profits. The dominant tax avoidance strategy used by US companies involved creating profits in foreign subsidiaries, creatively.

    The thing is, these shelters often don’t last forever. Major tax reforms don’t happen often, but they do clear out many abusive shelters.

    As a historical example, do you recall seeing video of buildings in Grand Cayman where there are literally thousands of companies registered there? That was the great tax evasion effort of a couple generations ago. Then the application of the rules 1) & 2) destroyed that tax strategy. Corporations could not point to an underlying business reason to have their investment portfolios domiciled in Grand Cayman as opposed to anywhere else. There have been many other geographically based tax avoidance strategies that were eventually blown up by European or US regulators, e.g. Jersey Islands, Malta, Cyprus. And others.

    Caterpillar put a formal sales office in Geneva. Many others created profits in Ireland where they had a 12% tax to domicile their IP. Other countries were used as well. These countries had a lower tax rate than the US 35% and as long as they didn’t repatriate profits technically, they had no US tax, even though the US was, in theory taxing all profits worldwide at 35%. These companies’ foreign subsidiaries creatively created foreign profits could then be deposited in a US bank, which could be used as collateral for the parent company. Eventually, this tax avoidance strategy started to become embarrassing to US authorities.

    Do I sound cynical? I used to work for Very Big Corporation that exploited tax differences in how derivatives were treated between jurisdictions. As a hypothetical example, let’s say you set up an FX interest rate swap between subsidiaries in two different jurisdictions that treat hedge swaps differently upon termination. Then wait. And wait. Interest rates or FX rates will change. The swap, which was entered into at a zero value, i.e. market rate, will have changed in value. Later, you can terminate the swap or the underlying instrument being hedged and get tax benefits from differential treatment. It’s really complicated, but, If you do this on a scale of billions of notional value….. I worked at one VBC that did this to reduce tax and save on the time value of money without hurting reported profits at all and at another VBC that did something similar to inflate reported profits.

    OK. That was a tangent. This is still going on. These strategies can be durable and legal because different jurisdictions can have long lasting, legitimate interests in treating financial instruments differently. It’s just you have to be a VBC to take advantage of it.

    Back to US corporate tax. A lot of companies were able to get their effective tax rates down into the low teens. Using the embarrassing strategy I described. The CBO estimated the average marginal rate was 18.6%, others have estimated more like 27%, the truth is nobody really knows.

    With the recent tax reform the corporate rate was reduced to 21% from 35%. Kinda average for the developed world, but fabulous for domestic companies that didn’t have good tax strategies available to them.

    With the recent tax reform companies have to pay tax, 15.5% on all the profits they previously sheltered from US tax (8% if you invested in real property). That’s why you see stories of companies like Apple paying $38 billion dollars in tax from prior profits of foreign subsidiaries.

    And the expensive tax shelters they set up have to keep running. They can’t just shut them down because of 1) and 2) above. If they did just shut them down, it would be close to an admission of guilt for tax fraud. I find this both weird and sort of beautiful.

    There has been some bad journalism about this, even in the high status financial press.

    Several stories about corporate quarterly earnings calls have featured CEOs explaining that their effective tax rates are going UP, even though the tax rate was lowered, because specific shelters don’t work anymore. Then a journalist asks something like, “so will you shut down the operation in Ireland?” The CEO responds, “No, Ireland is an important part of our business.” The stories never note that the CEO has to say that or the CEO would be almost admitting to fraud.

    Eventually, the tax strategies that are now an expensive waste, can be unwound. You have to let enough time go by to let them get “old and cold.” After a couple/three years a company can simply be assumed to be changing business strategy.

    • Matt M says:

      And the expensive tax shelters they set up have to keep running. They can’t just shut them down because of 1) and 2) above. If they did just shut them down, it would be close to an admission of guilt for tax fraud. I find this both weird and sort of beautiful.

      Do you consider it likely that the government would spend time/resources “retroactively” going after people who are “admitting to” committing fraud under the old rules, but that wouldn’t be fraud under the new ones?

      Obviously no company is going to take that chance, but it still strikes me as somewhat unlikely.

      • mrjeremyfade says:

        Do you consider it likely that the government would spend time/resources “retroactively” going after people who are “admitting to” committing fraud under the old rules, but that wouldn’t be fraud under the new ones?

        That’s a good point, and if the conditions specified in your question are satisfied, I’m not sure.

        Large corporate tax, at least this was true a couple decades ago, are always in something of a perpetual audit with many years open. So, unless things have changed a lot, they are still doing a lot of return audits under the old rules and will for years.

      • Deiseach says:

        Apple is an odd one, because the EU has ruled that it owes Ireland something like €15 billion in taxes.

        Windfall for us, right? Except our government did all it could to go “No, no, they don’t owe us money and we don’t want it!”

        And I think the whole reasoning there was (a) if we accept this we have to jack up our tax rates to harmonise with the rest of Europe and the government doesn’t want to do this because (b) if we accept this we’re afraid no multinationals will come and invest with/in us and that’s because for all the yap about attracting high-tech industry, what we’re really doing is providing a tax shelter and not developing actual industries.

        I’m not sure if that’s so or not, I know there’s a huge amount of infrastructure being built and supposedly real plants providing real jobs – though mostly in the high-tech knowledge work, not the first wave of these kind of jobs which was ‘build factories to assemble components and employ manual labour’ – but the reluctance of the government to take what you would imagine is free money has struck a lot of people.

        • christianschwalbach says:

          You mean there are people that believed Ireland actually had a native Tech industry? Oy vey

          • Mark Atwood says:

            Ireland does have a tech industry.
            FAANG, IBM, Oracle, Red Hat, and others all have real software development centers in Ireland, paying real people real money to write real software that generates real revenue from real customers.

            I have worked with and managed swdevs from Ireland and from the rest of the EU who work in Dublin, and they do good work. And I have worked with more than a few people who got their start doing swdev in living in Ireland, who then later moved to (Berlin | Bay Area | Boston).

            For whatever reason, there are not a lot of startups out of Dublin, I don’t know why. Cultural, legal, whatever. But if the swdev satellites in Dublin can remain operational for another few decades, there are going to be Irish citizens starting startup tech companies. Then only question will be: will they start their company in Dublin, or will they start it in Berlin, or will they start it in the US?

          • poipoipoi says:

            Based on my three weeks in an AWS office:

            1) The Ireland offices, small as they were, solved a very real business problem of “Our US devs need to sleep, and Ireland is 8 hours time difference off the West Coast and 9 off Australia”. IE: The sun may set on the British Empire, but it never sets on the English language.

            Now admittedly, the night shift portion of the dev team is very, very small. OTOH, the population of Ireland is literally 1% of the USA and it’s not that small.

            And you know, as long as you have a highly trained and motivated night shift team (because no one wants to wake up the manager at 2AM), you might as well convert a few of them to devs at some point.

            2) And all that would be great, except that we employed exactly zero actual Irish people because Spaniards and Poles and Italians and Greeks were cheaper.

          • nameless1 says:

            For what it worths, I saw mostly Irish[1] managers at Lufthansa Technik Shannon, but it could be an exception because Lufthansa did not start this plant, they bought the local Shannon Aerospace company and turned it into this. Due to the EU free movement of labor rules it is entirely possible that Oracle or Google is filling up their offices with Spanish or Italian young people who are grateful to dodge the high youth unemployment of their country, which means the company could be relocated to somewhere else if the tax rates change.

            [1] i.e. speaking English with an Irish accent

          • Alsadius says:

            Ireland has a native tech industry in the same way that San Fran does. It’s not like all the techies were born there, but the tech business likes the local climate, and so they move in. One climate may be weather while the other is tax, but it has the same effect.

          • gph says:


            I don’t think that’s really true about SF. Silicon Valley during the 70s and 80s was very much a local development based around Stanford and the semiconductor businesses started there by local entrepreneurs. Wozniak was born in San Jose, Jobs was born in SF. There is no equivalent to that in Ireland that I know of.

            I’m not saying there isn’t a tech scene in Ireland now, but it never would have happened without the favorable tax environment that enticed tech companies to open up shop there. The same is not true of SF/Silicon Valley at all.

        • Thomas Jørgensen says:

          No, they are kow-towing to big business to preserve their reputation of being business friendly, because while their objections have no merit, publicly going “Ohh, windfall” would burn a lot of good will.

          The commission has an ironclad case that Ireland was illegally not collecting its stated 12 % rate and is obligated to do so retroactively. I have no idea what the private opinion of the politicians of Ireland is, it depends how complete their capture is, but even if they did regard this as manna from heaven, they would probably still make these noises.

          Note that the commission is not saying Ireland has to raise its rate. It is merely stating that if the Irish rate is 12 percent, 12 percent is what should be collected.

        • Worley says:

          Even if the actual business purposes of Ireland subsidiaries are imaginary, a certain amount of the overhead work of maintaining an Irish tax shelter is going to have to be done in Ireland, and the population/economy of Ireland is not enormous, so it could be significant boost to the economy.

          OTOH, I’ve talked to someone who worked at an Irish tech subsidiary in the earliest days of this strategy, when the Irish government was careful to not enforce the rules. He worked for a Very Big North American Company, which shipped North America-made gear to Ireland. He and his crew would go down to the airport, open the crates, put “Made in Ireland” stickers on the boxes containing the individual products, seal up the crates and forward them to various places in the EU. “The only part of the product that was made in Ireland was the sticker on the box saying ‘Made in Ireland’!”

      • Trofim_Lysenko says:

        Do you consider it likely that the government would spend time/resources “retroactively” going after people who are “admitting to” committing fraud under the old rules, but that wouldn’t be fraud under the new ones?

        Probably not, but it would still be an incredibly dumb thing to do, because you’ve just handed any government official, agency, or politician who has a beef with you between now and the expiration of the statute of limitations (if any) gold-plated leverage with which to bring you to heel whenever they so choose.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        Do you consider it likely that the government would spend time/resources “retroactively” going after people who are “admitting to” committing fraud under the old rules, but that wouldn’t be fraud under the new ones?

        Definitely! All audits are based on previous years. All activity up to Dec 31, 2017 was based on the old rules. The rule has been (and still is) that any activity that was done solely for tax reasons is considered a fraud and the IRS can treat the transaction as if it didn’t happen. So if a CEO admits they created an Ireland corp only for tax reasons, the IRS can then tax their earnings at 35% up to Dec 31, 2017. And in fact can tax them at 21% after that date, so it matters even going forward.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          What if the company admits that the tax law change made the decision no longer viable?

    • bean says:

      Interesting. Thanks for doing this.

      • mrjeremyfade says:

        Thank you!

        • yodelyak says:

          Echoing Bean’s comment with my own thank-you.

          My experience (as a fellow with an econ background but who lives in a blue-team areas) was that talking to people, right or left, offered no argument that this was a positive-sum change to the tax code except (on the right) a ‘trickle-down’ argument that the taxes were too damn high, this would cause growth. For me, that argument (lower is better, standing alone) was kind of a non-starter, because my concerns were with inversions and avoidance and so on, not with the overall rate.

          Since I already knew that VBCs effectively were paying a different, lower tax rate than everyone else–low teens, maybe, or even lower–and I thought this bill only worked to further lower that, well, I thought it didn’t make any damn sense. Frankly it made the change seem like a big foxes-and-hen-houses ransacking, rather than a leveling of the playing field to reduce value destroying inversions and let small and middle-size companies face the same tax rates as big ones. Over all, the tax change had seemed so depressingly awful that it just added to a feeling of despair that folks in Congress would go for it without wrath from their constituents. I mean, the national political situation does feel kind of despairing even without a very-high-dollar proof that Congress is a rubber stamp. So, in addition to being interesting, this is something important and reassuring that never got through to me (who reads only a smattering of high-status financial press). Thank you!

    • The Nybbler says:

      I don’t think shutting down the tax shelters is really an admission of guilt. They don’t need much more of a fig leaf to shut them down than they did to set them up. If the shelters are new they’re “something we tried and didn’t work out”. If they’re not new, they’re “old and cold” already. That doesn’t mean companies won’t be somewhat conservative about it, since no executive wants to go to jail.

      • Matt M says:

        This is my thought as well. If they were able to figure out some creative justification for why they had to do tons of business in Ireland, presumably they can just as easily figure out some creative explanation for why they don’t need to anymore!

        • mrjeremyfade says:

          That’s funny. It makes me think some people are trying to figure it out right now!

          We’ll have to see if I’m right that the tax strategies cannot be removed quickly. I may have been over confident about that.

        • Deiseach says:

          I think the usual justification is “English-speaking country midway between US and Europe, can handle European arm of our transactions” 🙂

          • Matt M says:

            “And then, after a few years of trying and failing to understand those ridiculous accents, we’ve concluded that they don’t actually speak English after all!”

          • Deiseach says:

            Being fair, Apple are investing in infrastructure – they are trying to build data centres here and seem to have built one already in Denmark – so it’s more than just using an Irish HQ to park profits, but it’s also fair to say that in the earlier years a lot of companies seemed to have a Dublin office and not much else going on 🙂

      • Chalid says:

        Yeah, they’ll gradually unwind over the next couple years.

    • Chalid says:

      Do you have any idea to what extent is lower tax avoidance behavior due to the elimination of shelters/loopholes versus due to the lower headline rate making existing loopholes less worthwhile?

      Do you have any idea (even a Fermi estimate) as to the quantitative scale of the shift in behavior?

      • mrjeremyfade says:

        I really don’t have a quantitative estimate as to behavior change. Today, I had a real life conversation with someone who says it could be big, but doesn’t have to be. I got the impression people are still thinking through the implications.

        I still have many questions, but I’m probably done with serious investigation, because I got the answers I needed. For example, I’m interested in a couple of things, but more from a lay perspective:
        1) What happens to inversions? Will some Corporate HQs come back? Or new companies move to the US?
        2) What will be the impact on reported revenue over time?

        Your first point about the reduction of rates is the really key thing I’m guessing.
        But what is driving the marginal tax rate UP at so many companies? Is it only the 15.5% penalty?

        • Your first point about the reduction of rates is the really key thing I’m guessing.
          But what is driving the marginal tax rate UP at so many companies?

          The marginal tax rate presumably counts only money actually paid in taxes, not the cost of evading taxes. So if a company that was paying a marginal tax rate of (say) 19% has the option of paying a rate of 20% without any costly contortions to take advantage of loopholes, doing so may pay.

          Also, what the company wants to minimize is average tax rate (costs of evasion this time included). The new rules might make possible a new strategy with a higher marginal rate but a lower average rate.

        • Chalid says:

          My impression was that the 15.5% tax can’t discriminate between “sheltered” income and income that really was intended to stay abroad forever. In the second case the company faces real additional costs. But I have no expertise in this, it’s just my impression from financial media.

          • mrjeremyfade says:

            Yes, this is true, the 15.5% is a real penalty as in your first case. And the financial media is an unreliable guide. The subject is too complex.
            Quarterly earnings calls are all the real information we have at this point.

    • Mark V Anderson says:


      As your examples show, this is mostly a change in international tax rules, which did change quite a bit. So most of these techniques are for companies that have a large presence outside of the US.

      I am a bit confused by your comments that putting IP overseas will have no benefit under the new rules, but from what I have seen I don’t get that. As I recall, when I read the rules, aren’t overseas corps’ income totally immune from US taxes, just as previously. But now even dividends from these corps don’t have tax, so subpart F is not even a risk anymore. These are pretty complicated new rules on the international side, so maybe I missed something.

      I am a tax accountant at a large US corporation. Thankfully I now work with transaction taxes, so I won’t have to deal with these changes.

      • mrjeremyfade says:

        When I said, “it’s all over” that was a bit of hyperbole I better retract and qualify.

        You and someone IRL pointed out that you can still do it, it’s just not as worthwhile to take the risks given the narrower or even zero differential.

        “Furthermore you dummy”, said my friend today, there are asset sales to consider, when gains/loss apportionment issues arise, jurisdiction matters. Apparently, this is an area with more ramifications than I have engaged with.

        Do you have an opinion about changes in rates having a subtle influence on internal transfer prices over time?

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          Well I think some of these jurisdictions (Bermuda?) have 0% income tax, so that’s still a pretty big differential if you have a lot of IP costs. I think some European countries even have zero tax on royalty income, or small rates at least?

          I never really considered the tax rate changes on transfer prices, but I suppose it should somewhat decrease the costs attributable to the US, since the costs of doing business there is lower? But really transfer pricing is usually determined by looking at comparable third party sales instead of by calculating correct margins on a micro basis, so I presume the tax rate won’t have an explicit effect.

          • Aapje says:

            I think some European countries even have zero tax on royalty income, or small rates at least?

            The issue is more that there are ‘tax rulings’ that set the rates very low for one multinational. Supposedly, many of these rates are sub-1% (McDonalds may have paid €16m of tax on royalties worth €3.7bn, which is .4%).

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        Thankfully I now work with transaction taxes

        My bane. I feel bad for the guys who have to do reporting on this stuff, especially if they have to do sales tax billed to final consumers. A lot of states don’t have any harmonized sales tax rates and you end up getting vastly different amounts within each state.

        Stacking privilege taxes is a nightmare, particularly since each state collects differently, which changes how we bill it. I’m still trying to knock someone’s head to see how the process was determined (and therefore see if there’s a more efficient way of doing said process).

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          Well I mostly work on Canadian transaction taxes. Canada has only 13 tax jurisdictions compared to the 10,000 of the US, but Canada is complicated in different ways. For one thing it has tax at both the Federal and provincial level, which have different rules on taxability (most jurisdictions within states at least follow the tax rules of the state). Even worse are three provinces that charge sales taxes, that go along with the VAT tax of the Federal jurisdiction. My firm tries to make the taxing system very automatic, so on the purchase side we use three different systems of SAP, Sabrix and LCR Dixon all trying to work together to decide the tax rules, and then also VIM software for the AP process. All those different software packages actively dislike each other and try to mess up the process and blame the other software. My life mostly consists of trying to figure out which software caused the problem and then getting the applicable developer to fix it. For sales, we only use two software systems, so it isn’t quite as chaotic.

          • nameless1 says:

            > so on the purchase side we use three different systems of SAP, Sabrix and LCR Dixon all trying to work together to decide the tax rules

            Jeebus. And I thought EU rules are difficult, thinking mostly about triangulation, that is, I am in country A, I have a subsidiary in B who sells a product to a company in C whose headoffice is in D and my vendor that has a factory in E and a headoffice in F is directly shipping from E to C and just WTF will us all three write on the invoices and even where we send them. (If you are curious: unless we are tax registered in E we are not allowed to do this transaction because VAT follows the goods, if we are, we get an invoice with country E’s VAT in E and then issue an EU invoice tax free to C, and if the customer is only tax registered in D and not C they are welcome to go eff themselves.)

            But we don’t use three different software to decide it. To be fair a one table development, linking all combinations in SAP could do it but mostly we decide it a case by case basis.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      I’ve been doing some reading to understand how tax treatments are going to change, but I just can’t quite arrive at a good understanding here.

      I am guessing that you’re mostly referring to the following summary by Investopedia?

      The law alters the treatment of intangible property that is held abroad. It does not define “intangibles,” but the term probably refers to intellectual property such as patents, trademarks and copyrights (Nike Inc. (NKE), for example, houses its Swoosh trademark in an untaxed Dutch subsidiary). When the foreign tax rate on foreign earnings in excess of a 10% standard rate of return are below 13.125%, the law taxes these excess returns at 21%, after a 50% deduction and a deduction worth 37.5% of FDII (see below). This excess income, which the law assumes to be derived from intangible assets, is called global intangible low-taxed income (GILTI). Credits can offset up to 80% of GILTI liability.

      Read more: Trump’s Tax Reform Plan | Investopedia
      Follow us: Investopedia on Facebook

      Foreign-derived intangible income (FDII) refers to income from the export of intangibles held domestically, which will be taxed at a 13.125% effective rate, rising to 16.406% after 2025. The European Union has accused the U.S. of subsidizing exports through this preferential rate, a violation of World Trade Organization rules.

      Read more: Trump’s Tax Reform Plan | Investopedia
      Follow us: Investopedia on Facebook

      I’m really confused about how this would work out in practice. Like, how does one determine income from an IP held internationally? Is this Nike hosting the Swoosh in the Netherlands, and then essentially firms in Malaysia or whatever pay a licensing fee to the Dutch company? I find it hard to understand…it also seems like Nike could alter a transfer payment by saying the Dutch company now is now offering “marketing services” instead of a licensing fee on the Swoosh, but I guess that would change the tax treatment in the Netherlands and then erodes the tax advantages, and….

      Yep, this is an area I do not understand all too well. Apparently this is a game that is played by everyone, but only a few companies are all-in on?

      Six percent of Fortune 500 companies account for over 60 percent of the profits reported offshore for tax purposes. These 30 companies with the most money offshore – out of the 287 that report offshore profits – collectively book $1.2 trillion overseas for tax purposes.

      And apparently they need to operate lots and lots of tax havens?

      The 30 companies with the most money officially booked offshore for tax purposes collectively operate 1,357 tax haven subsidiaries.

      Using the quarter call lingo, I’m wondering if you can provide some more color.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        I’m really confused about how this would work out in practice. Like, how does one determine income from an IP held internationally? Is this Nike hosting the Swoosh in the Netherlands, and then essentially firms in Malaysia or whatever pay a licensing fee to the Dutch company? I find it hard to understand…it also seems like Nike could alter a transfer payment by saying the Dutch company now is now offering “marketing services” instead of a licensing fee on the Swoosh, but I guess that would change the tax treatment in the Netherlands and then erodes the tax advantages, and….

        I don’t know that I’m an expert in this, but I mostly understand this part. The Dutch sub holds the Swoosh, and Nike has derive the value of this trademark in creating sales to the customer. I suspect the best way to do this is compare the market price of Nikes to sales of generic sneakers of a similar quality. The excess price of Nikes would be the trademark value. My suggested method may not work at all, but somehow Nike values the trademark royalty of the Swoosh, and the Dutch sub charges this royalty for every sale of Nike shoes. This way Nike gets more expenses for all of its selling affiliates and more income for the untaxed Dutch affiliate. Good tax planning there. But every country of these selling affiliates have the right to audit this royalty percentage, so Nike needs to have a good rationale to make it credible. (This royalty fee is part of what is termed transfer pricing)

        The Dutch affiliate could also charge marketing services, but they need to justify this too. And this doesn’t sound like good tax planning, because these services would probably be based on actual people doing something in the Netherlands, and I don’t think there would be zero income on this activity. I don’t know NL’s usual tax rate, but I haven’t heard it is particularly small.

      • mrjeremyfade says:

        Regarding the weakening of sheltering IP in other countries. There are several attacks on this in the new law:
        1. Lowering rate
        2. GILTI which takes away some of the benefit of zero tax or low tax IP domiciles.
        3. Favorable tax treatment of US IP income earned overseas. Not sure how this will work out in the long run since the EU has claimed this to be an unfair subsidy.
        4. Attribution of revenue to production. This reads like it was specifically written to block Caterpillar’s tax strategy, but applies to everyone.
        5. Limitations on intangible transfers. This gives the IRS authority to work out future limitations, so we don’t know how this will turn out. But it seems the IRS will have some power to deal with a variety of abuses.
        6. For large companies there is a corporate minimum tax. Not exactly like the AMT.
        A lot of low tax shelters will just not be economically viable anymore.

        A good source is I like it, because they end up saying everything twice, text and then side by side analysis of text.

        And apparently they need to operate lots and lots of tax havens?

        This comment tickled a few memories. Back in my VBC days we had probably a good 1,000 legal entities. There was an entire group dedicated to documenting quarterly meetings and doing compliance needed to keep the entities functional. 90% of them were idle though. When I needed an entity for a unique debt issuance we were doing, they did a search and gave me one.

        Having lots of these companies complicated management accounting. Parent companies would charge subs for booked capital and then get an allocated credit for risk capital. The company had double leverage so of course these systems never worked properly.

        • Brad says:

          > 5. Limitations on intangible transfers. This gives the IRS authority to work out future limitations, so we don’t know how this will turn out. But it seems the IRS will have some power to deal with a variety of abuses.

          As I understand one of the worst abuses was attributing a very low value to the IP at the time of transfer to the foreign subsidiary by using a valuation that didn’t take into account the near certain future revenue flows.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      What encouraged inversions was not the US rate, but the fact that it taxed worldwide income. Since the new system lacks the repatriation delay on worldwide income, it encourages inversions more than before.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        No no I don’t think this is right. Again, this is complicated, and I read the rules a month or two ago, but I think there are no taxes at all for future repatriations. The 8% and 15.5% is a one-time tax on the previously untaxed overseas earnings held on Dec 31, 2017. I think I’ve read that the change in the tax law is supposed to be a change to a territorial system, so that future dividends are tax free. I think the one-time tax is supposed to be kind of a phase-in, maybe so those who previously repatriated most of their earnings don’t feel ripped off by this change?

        And the 35% tax rate in the US was definitely was part of the reason for inversions, just not all of it.

        It is my impression that the new tax law has essentially ended all inversions in the future. We’ll see if I am wrong.

        By the way, the new “territorial” tax is only partially so. All worldwide income of US individuals and corporations are still subject to tax — it is only dividends that are now excluded. I would like to see the whole worldwide income scheme of the US to be repealed. It just doesn’t seem fair to me that the US taxes income earned outside of the US.

        • mrjeremyfade says:

          By the way, the new “territorial” tax is only partially so. All worldwide income of US individuals and corporations are still subject to tax — it is only dividends that are now excluded. I would like to see the whole worldwide income scheme of the US to be repealed. It just doesn’t seem fair to me that the US taxes income earned outside of the US.

          Definitely not territorial in principle.

          For a lot of companies (where I sit now)it will be territorial in effect, due to both lower and preferential US rates. When you don’t use a subsidiary to operate overseas you either avoid local tax through double tax treaties or you pay local tax or withholding taxes if you don’t want the expense of filing overseas. The withholding taxes are still dollar for dollar creditable against US tax.

          For our subsidiaries we can dividend to the US tax free, but lost the FTC for taxes paid locally. Actually, this makes tax more difficult for me to manage. I can’t trade a tax here versus there in the same way I’ve been doing for years. It’s no longer one big bucket. At least for us. There is quite a bit of thinking and planning to do and I worry about starting with one approach that won’t really be allowed by implementation, or be struck down later, or even that I may miss something important.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Aren’t wholly-owned subsidiaries considered US companies?

          • mrjeremyfade says:

            Aren’t wholly-owned subsidiaries considered US companies?

            They certainly could be. I didn’t specify, but I was referring to foreign subsidiaries, that is a foreign corporation wholly or partially owned by a US company.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Aren’t subsidiaries necessarily considered US corporations subject to US taxation solely due to being wholly owned by a US corporation?

          • mrjeremyfade says:

            Aren’t subsidiaries necessarily considered US corporations subject to US taxation solely due to being wholly owned by a US corporation?

            I’m not sure what you are asking. Can you say a little more?

            In the new law CFC (controlled foreign corporations[by a US company]]) are the ones subject to GILTI (a fun acronym to pronounce) in a manner similar to subpart F income.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Aren’t subsidiaries necessarily considered US corporations subject to US taxation solely due to being wholly owned by a US corporation?

            mrj — I think Doug is pretty clear here. But the answer is clearly “no.” US corporations have to disclose these subsidiaries’ income as part of their tax returns, but the only income of these wholly owned foreign subs that is taxable is what is called subpart F income (under the old tax law, that is). Most of the earnings from overseas that are often called “deferred earnings” and not taxed in the US are from wholly owned subs or almost wholly owned subs, and 100% wholly owned has no particularly tax result (again old law, I need to get out of the habit of using current tense)

    • vrostovtsev says:

      – What does ‘effort posts by ADBG’ refer to? Can you link those?
      – Thank you for this post, very interesting.

  32. a reader says:

    Frustrated by my weak performance at johan_larson’s trivia quizes, I made one myself, about a few things I happened to know:

    Name 5:
    1. Countries that didn’t exist (as distinct, independent) in 1989
    2. Roman emperors
    3. Novels by Honore de Balzac
    4. Famous scientists who were religious
    5. Famous writers and poets who were gay or bisexual
    6. Famous life-long virgins (but not monks or catholic priests or saints)
    7. Extincted species related to humans (more closely than the chimps)
    8. Romance (Latin-descended) languages
    9. 5 of the 10 Commandments
    10. Eusocial animals (animals that live in large groups where only 1 female, the queen, reproduces, and the other sterile females work for her and her descendants).

    Later edit: now I realize that I remember only 3 examples of religious scientists (Cnfpny, Yrvoavgm, Zraqry), so I managed to fail at my own quiz!

    Even later edit: At 4, we can include scientists whose religiosity was more or less “heretical” – so I can add Arjgba, Freirghf, Tvbeqnab Oehab.

    • SteveReilly says:

      6. My list of virgins is made up entirely of nineteenth century writers. I think they all fit the bill: Yrjvf Pneebyy, Rqjneq Yrne, Avxbynv Tbtby, Gubznf Pneylyr, Wbua Ehfxva

    • The Nybbler says:

      1. Ehffvn, Hxenvar, Olrybehffvn, Yngivn, Rfgbavn. Nyfb Purpualn, Cnarz, Bprnavn, gur Pnyvsbeavn Erchoyvp, gur Pbasrqrengr Fgngrf bs Nzrevpn… V zrna, gnxvat vagb nppbhag cnfg, shgher, naq svpgvbany fgngrf (cyhf nal V znxr hc ba gur fcbg), gurer’f n YBG.

      2. Pnrfne Nhthfghf, Areb, Whfgvavna, Pnyvthyn, Pbafgnagvar.

      3. 0

      4. Arjgba, Rvafgrva, Ybeq Xryiva, Znkjryy, Xrcyre. Qnejva vf na rqtr pnfr.

      5. Gnxvat gur 0 gb nibvq phygher jneevat 🙂

      6. Arjgba vf nyy V pna trg

      7. Ubzb syberfvrafvf, Ubzb unovyvf, Ubzb rerpghf, Nhfgenybcvguvphf Ebohfghf, Ubzb tenpvyvf. Yrsg bhg Arnaqregunyf orpnhfr gurl’er fbzrgvzrf pbafvqrerq n fhofcrpvrf.

      8. Vgnyvna, Serapu, Fcnavfu, Pngnyna, Cbeghthrfr.

      9. Gubh funyg abg xvyy, gubh funyg abg fgrny, gubh funyy abg orne snyfr jvgarff ntnvafg gul arvtuobe, ubabe gur fnoongu qnl naq xrrc vg ubyl, gubh funyy abg pbirg gul arvtuobef jvsr, nff be uvf bgure fghss. Nyfb qba’g pbzzvg nqhygrel, lbh’er fhccbfrq gb ubabe lbhe zbgure naq sngure, ab znxvat vqbyf, naq lbh’q ORGGRE abg unir nal tbqf orsber gur bar jub nhguberq pbzznaqzragf. Zvffrq bar.

      10. Znal orr fcrpvrf vapyhqvat gur ubarlorr, znal nag fcrpvrf, znal jnfc fcrpvrf, grezvgrf. Znlor ncuvqf? Nccneragyl lrf, ohg V guvax V bayl gubhtug bs gurz orpnhfr bs gurve nag nffbpvngvbaf.

    • 1. Countries that didn’t exist (as distinct, independent) in 1989
      Xnmnxufgna, Xletlmfgna, Hmorxvfgna, Gnwvxvfgna, Ghexzravfgna

      2. Roman emperors
      Nhthfghf, Gvorevhf, Pnyvthyn, Pynhqvhf, Areb

      3. Novels by Honore de Balzac

      4. Famous scientists who were religious
      Arjgba, Yrvoavm, Qrfpnegrf, Cnfpny, Uhltraf
      (5/5, Uhltraf nccrnef gb unir ng yrnfg oryvrirq va n “znxre” sebz phefbel erfrnepu)

      5. Famous writers and poets who were gay or bisexual
      Bfpne Jvyqr,

      6. Famous life-long virgins (but not monks or catholic priests or saints)

      7. Extincted species related to humans (more closely than the chimps)

      Fnurynaguebchf gpunqrafvf, Neqvcvgurphf enzvqhf, Nhfgenybcvgurphf nsnerafvf, Ubzb unovyvf, Ubzb rerpghf
      (4.5/5, Fnurynaguebchf zvtug unir orra n pbzzba naprfgbe bs puvzcf naq uhznaf be zber pybfryl eryngrq gb puvzcf)

      8. Romance (Latin-descended) languages

      Cbeghtrfr, Fcnavfu, Pngnyna, Bppvgna, Serapu

      9. 5 of the 10 Commandments

      Gubh funyg abg xvyy, gubh funyg abg fgrny, gubh funyg abg pbzzvg nqhygrel, ubabhe gul sngure naq zbgure, gubh funyg abg gnxr gur Ybeq’f anzr va inva

      10. Eusocial animals (animals that live in large groups where only 1 female, the queen, reproduces, and the other sterile females work for her and her descendants).

      Nagf, jnfcf, orrf, grezvgrf, anxrq zbyr-engf

    • Evan Þ says:

      1) Is it cheating if I include countries that perished long before 1989, like the Pbasrqrengr Fgngrf bs Nzrevpn? Even if not, I’ll name Revgern, Pebngvn, Fybiravn, gur Pmrpu Erchoyvp, Fybinxvn. (V jbhyq’ir cvpxrq Yvguhnavn, ohg gurl fgvyy unq na rzonffl erpbtavmrq ol gur HF, be Hxenvar, ohg gurl unq n Havgrq Angvbaf frng gunaxf gb fbzr terng yboolvat ol Fgnyva.)

      2) Nhthfghf, Nhthfghf, Nhthfghf, Nhthfghf, naq Nhthfghf. Ol gur rglzbybtvpny zrnavat bs “Rzcrebe,” V pbhyq nyfb anzr nal ahzore bs Erchoyvpna trarenyf. Ohg bxnl… Nhthfghf, Gvorevhf, Pnyvthyn, Pynhqvhf, Areb, Tnyon, Bgub.

      4) Pbcreavphf, Tnyvyrb, Arjgba, Zraqry, Pevpx.

      8) Vgnyvna, Serapu, Fcnavfu, Cbeghthrfr, Ebznavna

      9) Gubh funyg unir ab bgure tbqf orsber Zr; gubh funyg abg znxr nal vqby; gubh funyg abg hfr gur anzr bs gur YBEQ gul Tbq va inva; erzrzore gur Fnoongu qnl gb xrrc vg ubyl; ubabe gul sngure naq gul zbgure.

      10) Orrf, nagf, jnfcf, zber nagf, zber nagf.

    • christhenottopher says:

      1. Pmrpubfybinxvn, Fbatunv, Tunmavq Rzcver, Nentba, Fpbgynaq
      2. Whyvna, Znephf Nheryvhf, Unqevna, Nheryvna, Pynhqvhf
      3. Pass
      4. Zraqry, Arjgba, Pbcreavphf, Xrcyre, Oenur
      5. Bfpne Jvyqr, Jnyg Juvgzna, Serqqvr Zrephel (vs fbat ylevpf pbhag)
      6. Pass
      7. Ubzb Rerpghf, Ubzb Unovyvf, Ubzb Arnaqregunyrafvf, Nhfgenybcvgurphf, Ubzb syberfvrafvf
      8. Serapu, Fcnavfu, Ebznafpu, Vgnyvna, Ebznavna
      9. Ab tenira vzntrf, ab bgure tbq orsber zr, funyg abg zheqre, pbirg gurl arvtuobe’f cebcregl, pbirg gul arvtuobe’f jvsr
      10. Nagf, jnfcf, orrf, grezvgrf

      6/10 is better than my normal performance, I must have more interests in common with you than the normal poster.

    • a reader says:

      You people are amazing – and surprising!

      Not only almost everybody knows 5 Roman emperors, but two people, thehousecarpenter and Evan Þ, enumerate all first emperors in their order – and Evan Þ lists first 7 emperors, the last 2 ruling for a very short time (in the “year of the 4 emperors”) that I’m really surprised that anyone else knows about them.

      Also most of you know 5 species related to humans on their complete latin names. And the names of 5 Romance languages (I would have expected this to be hard for Americans).

      But instead, none of you knew even a single novel by Balzac! Why? Is Balzac that unpopular in America?

      @SteveReilly: two from your list are suspected of pedophile tendencies – but maybe they were still virgins and never physically molested little girls and were content to photograph or paint them (I hope).

      • christhenottopher says:

        I can’t speak for sure for other Americans, but while I’ve heard of Balzac (insofar as I know he exists and wrote novels), I’ve never even heard the name of one of his books. Given that Americans rarely learn languages other than English (I can name romance languages but at best I can have short, simple conversations in Spanish), we tend to focus a lot more on authors who wrote directly in English. So I would guess most Americans could come up with names of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novels, Balzac will give you only blank stares.

        • Matt M says:

          we tend to focus a lot more on authors who wrote directly in English

          I’m not sure this is entirely fair. Americans could come up with plenty of names of works by, say, Hugo, Dumas, Tolstoy, Goethe, etc…

          • christhenottopher says:

            Well…I’ve got two for Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables), one for Dumas (The Three Musketeers), two for Tolstoy (The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment), and one for Goethe (Faust), and I’m decently well educated in the liberal arts (including a masters). Hugo and Dumas are known because Disney made movies of their works, Tolstoy because educated Christians like him, and I doubt most Americans could name even one Goethe work. In secondary school, I can’t remember a single book besides Don Quixote I read that was not originally written in English. It’s not that Americans don’t know any non-English works, it’s just there’s a huge bias towards English language books.

          • SteveReilly says:

            Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. Tolstoy was Anna Karenina and War and Peace.

            It’s probably fair that Americans focus on writers who wrote in English, but about as much as it’s true for other English speaking countries. And for the rest of the world, it seems to be the native language plus English language authors are the main focus. So I don’t think the US is too much of an outlier here.

          • christhenottopher says:

            Argh! See how bad I am with non-English authors?

            But yes I do expect that most languages will focus on their own native tongue first, but I’m only talking about America since I don’t have nearly enough experience to talk about places like the UK or Australia.

          • Protagoras says:

            No Sorrows of Young Werther for Goethe? I found that far too unpleasant to ever forget. And yes, shame on Chris for confusing Tolstoy with Dostoyevsky. Sure, they’re both ultra-Christian 19th century Russian novelists, but Tolstoy is so annoying, and Dostoyevsky isn’t. Hard to get a more dramatic and obvious difference than that.

      • SteveReilly says:

        I can name 2: ybfg vyyhfvba naq crer tbvebg. Also I think he had a collection of novels (maybe including the ones I mentioned?) called gur uhzna pbzrql. And maybe I’d know one or two more if I really thought about it. But not sure.

      • The Nybbler says:

        There’s at least five famous Roman Emperors (the ones I listed among them). The catch in that question is avoiding naming the non-Emperor whose nephew was the first. And I think Roman Empire history is probably more popular here than average (mine is probably too filtered through fiction for my own good).

        Species related to man: I think H.E. and A.R. are fairly well known, H.F. (which I admit I had to look up the spelling for) has been in the news fairly recently. H.H. is fairly well known plus appears in Larry Niven’s work. And H.G. was a guess, based on vague memory and knowing the opposite of the “R” in A.R.

        There’s four super-easy to get Romance languages, so it’s just a matter of coming up with one more. The one I picked, again, has been in the news.

        • Protagoras says:

          Does posthumous elevation not count? Because the “first” Emperor you mention certainly presented himself as the rightful heir of the alleged non-Emperor you mention. I don’t recall him being as formal about it as Cao Pi was when Cao Pi declared Cao Cao posthumous Emperor of China, but the “first” Emperor of Rome did a lot of making things up as he went along. He did seem to be trying for the same effect. So it is, perhaps, a borderline case.

          • Evan Þ says:

            He presented himself as the heir to his’s private estate, client relations, private army, and position as power-behind-the-Senate, yes. But the title *Imperator* as meaning something other than commander of an individual army, along with the idea of putting some provinces in the Emperor’s hands and others in the Senate’s, was a later development. I think that’s the best point at which to say the Empire started, though you can make arguments for anywhere from Sulla through Nerva.

          • DavidS says:

            I was always really unclear on the basis for the official dividing line for who counted as Emperor, given I believe Imperator was used for succesful generals earlier (including the ‘actually not an emperor’ guy) and that the main ‘title’ used early on was Princeps and then Dominus(?) later.

          • Protagoras says:

            And of course the name of the actually not an emperor guy was added to the names of the emperors as a title. The whole title thing was in flux, especially early on when there was a pretense that they weren’t returning to monarchy and so an avoidance of titles associated with the early kings. That the “dictator for life” title claimed by the not an emperor was not claimed officially by the “first” emperor or any of his successors does not seem automatically sufficient to establish that it was a different position from the one which was subsequently known by a variety of other names.

          • Lillian says:

            The reason we count the Dictator for Life’s nephew as the first Emperor but no the man himself is because the nephew drastically reorganized the government of the Republic and also took for himself the title Princeps for the first time. This is why the first half of the Roman Empire is called the Principate. Notably every leader of Rome after the first Princeps was himself a Princeps, whereas when Dictator for Life died government first reverted to the normal twin Consulship, and then became the Second Triumvirate. The line of Emperors thus does not start until after the collapse of the Triumvirate and the nephew’s victory in the subsequent civil war.

            (Also not naming the men involved is getting a little ridiculous now.)

        • Winter Shaker says:

          There’s four super-easy to get Romance languages

          There are five Romance languages that are the official language of a country from whose name the name of the language derives (apart from possibly some micro-nations), and the least obvious of those is [Ebznavna]. Has the [Ebznavna] language been in the news lately? Or does [Pngnyna] eclipse it in obviousness?

          • The Nybbler says:

            I think [Ebznavna] isn’t obvious to Americans, and to those who do these sorts of puzzles it smells of a trick, although it’s not. It’s [Pngnyna] which has been in the news.

          • vV_Vv says:

            How is [Ebznavna] the least obvious, when it has [Ebzna] right in the name?

          • Winter Shaker says:

            How is [Ebznavna] the least obvious, when it has [Ebzna] right in the name?

            I know, right? I guess it’s just a much less internationally well-known country than any of [Senapr, Vgnyl, Fcnva, Cbeghtny], plus people assume it’s Slavic because most of its neighbours are.

            Also, in my earlier comment, I forgot [Zbyqbina], but I gather it’s a contentious issue whether that counts as a separate language anyway.

          • a reader says:

            How is [Ebznavna] the least obvious, when it has [Ebzna] right in the name?

            I am [Ebznavna] and I expected my language to be less known than the other 4 who are official languages of Western European countries, but I didn’t imagine it can be less known than those that aren’t main languages of any (internationally recognized) country.

            Also, in my earlier comment, I forgot [Zbyqbina], but I gather it’s a contentious issue whether that counts as a separate language anyway.

            [Zbyqbina] is actually [Ebznavna] – the standard language (as used in books, press and on tv) in [Zbyqbin] is the same as in [Ebznavn], only some (not all) people there prefer to call it [Zbyqbina] for political reasons.

            Until recently I wondered if maybe it is the same situation with [Pngnyna] and [Fcnavfu], but now, after I learned some [Fcnavfu] (with Duolingo), it became clear to me that they are really different – [Pngnyna] seems somewhere between [Fcnavfu] and [Serapu].

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        I know the history of the Roman Empire via learning about each individual reign, or dynasties for turbulent times (lookin’ at you, Third Century. Constantine’s civil war is also wretchedly complicated). Sometimes it’s a little arbitrary who I include in my list, but I think I’ve got all the major players. I like Roman history, and it was easiest to understand the Empire by understanding the Emperor.

        Chinese history is different, though – I can only name a few major players like Gaozu, Wudi, or Wang Mang. Individual Sons of Heaven seem to matter less than the dynasty, so I understand Chinese history more through the lens of dynasties.

        But yeah I can’t name a single de Balzac novel, nor do I know gay/bi writers (I’d guess Oscar Wilde and maybe Byron? But hell, I dunno. Never much cared).

    • achenx says:

      Can do countries, emperors, languages, Commandments all pretty easily.

      I have no idea who Honore de Balzac is.

      Religious scientists… I guess so, but isn’t “almost anyone from before about 1900” an answer? Or should this be “especially religious in some way”?

      Gay writers.. nope.

      Virgins.. a couple, maybe.

      Human species.. I think I can get 3.

      Eusocial animals.. a couple.

    • SteveReilly says:

      For the gay or bisexual writers I’ll go with Znepry Cebhfg,Naqer Tvqr, Tber Ivqny, Bfpne Jvyqr, Jnyg Juvgzna. Naq sbe n bahf 6gu V’yy guebj va Funxrfcrner, whfg orpnhfr V qba’g xabj.

    • christianschwalbach says:

      Via Rot13:
      1. Fbhgu Fhqna, Xbfbib, Treznal (Havsvrq),
      2. Unqevna, Genwna, Pbzzbqhf, Pynhqvhf, Areb
      3. …
      4. Tertbe Zraqry, Vffnp Arjgba, Cgbyrzl, Nyoreg Fpujrvgmre,
      5. Jnyg Juvgzna, Puevfgbcure Vfurejbbq, Uneg Penar, Bfpne Jvyqr, J.U. Nhqra
      6. Grfyn…
      7. Ubzb Rerpghf, Arnaqreguny, Ubzb Unovyvf, Nhfgebybcvguvphf,
      8.Serapu, Fcnavfu, Ebznavna, Cbeghthrfr, Bppvgna, Ebznafu
      9.Gubh funyg abg xvyy, gubh funyg abg chg bgure tbqf orsber zr, qba’g pbirg arvtuobe, ubabe gul sngure naq zbgure,ab vqbyngel
      10.Anxrq zbyr engf…

      I did decent. Lifelong Virgins question is always going to be speculative, and the Religious scientist one is somewhat speculative also. As for the rest, I did decent.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      Ooooh, these are tricky.

      1. Rnfl ynl-hc va gur sbezre Fbivrgf: Orynehf, Hxenvar, Xunmnxfgna, gur Onygvpf: Rfgbavn, Yvguhnavn, Yngivn. Va erprag lrnef, Xbfbib naq Fbhgu Fhqna.
      2. V’ir npghnyyl zrzbevmrq gur jubyr qnza yvfg sebz Nhthfghf qbja gb Pbafgnagvar KV, fb yrg’f qb gur Oneenpxf rzcrebef: Znkvzvahf Guenk, Tbeqvna V & VV, Chcvrahf & Onyovahf, Tbeqvna VVV, Cuvyvc gur Neno. Pbhagvat gur wbvag rzcrebef nf bar ervta. Gur Pevfvf bs gur Guveq Praghel vf gur uneqrfg cneg bs gur yvfg, sbe fher.
      3. Abcr, fbeel. :/
      4. V xabj ybgf bs snzbhf fpvragvfgf jub jrer cbffvoyl be rira cebonoyl eryvtvbhf, ohg V’z abg pbasvqrag rabhtu gb iragher n thrff urer.
      5. Abe urer
      6. V unir ab vqrn.
      7. Yrg’f frr…Ubzb rerpghf, Ubzb unovyvf, hz, Arnaqregunyf? V’z gnccrq bhg. 3/5, fbeel.
      8. Serapu, Fcnavfu, Cbeghtrfr, Vgnyvna, Ebznavna, Pngnyna. Cebonoyl fbzr bgure zvabe barf ohg gubfr ner gur ovt ‘haf.
      9. Gubh funyg unir ab bgure tbqf orsber zr, gubh funyg abg jbefuvc tenira vzntrf, gubh funyg abg gnxr gur anzr bs gur Ybeq gul Tbq va inva, gubh funyg ubabe gur Fnoongu, gubh funyg ubabe gul zbgure naq sngure, gubh funyg abg xvyy, gubh funyg abg fgrny, gubh funyg abg pbzzvg nqhygrel, gubh funyg abg orne snyfr jvgarff, gubh funyg abg pbirg. Ubj lbh fyvpr hc gur Gra inevrf, ohg gung’f gur yvfg V yrnearq.
      10. Hu, inevbhf fcrpvrf bs nagf naq orrf? Fb yrg’f tb jvgu pnecragre nagf, sver nagf, ubarlorrf, jnfcf, naq, hu, oynpx nagf? V bayl xabj gur nagf sebz bar bs gur cerivbhf dhvmmrf.

      Only 5/10 for me, unless I screwed up somewhere and then my score is even lower.

    • S_J says:

      In ROT13:

      1. Are we speaking of nations that formerly existed as sub-units of another nation in 1989? I nominate Pmrpu Erchoyvp, Freovn, Obfavn, Hxenvar, Xnmnxufgna.

      2. Let’s see… If I knew the history of the Eastern Roman Empire (especially post-4th-Century), I could name a lot of those and ask whether they counted. In the meantime, I’ll stick to the ones I can remember from the time before the split of Eastern and Western Empires. In what I think are rough historical order, I can name at least 10.
      Nhthfghf, Gvorevhf, Areb, Pynhqvhf, Pnyvthyn. Nyfb Irfcnfvna, Gvghf, Genwna, Znephf Nheryvhf, Pbzzbqhf, Qvbpyrgvba, naq Pbafgnagvar.

      3. I cannot remember any novels by Balzac. In my mind, he counts as “author I feel like I should know something about”, but not one I’m likely to find in a University Literature class for non-humanities majors.

      4. For scientists who were/are religious, I nominate Vfnnp Arjgba. He wrote as much about his own interpretation of the apocalyptic books of the Bible as he did about the mathematical/physical ideas that are named after him. (Also, he probably belongs in item 6 below.) Among scientists who spent large parts of their lives in a religious order, I nominate Pbcreavphf, and Zraqry. If pressed, I’m sure I could find others.

      5. I can’t name any.

      6. I’ll repeat the first name from number 4 above. But that’s more impression than solid history. I’m not sure I can name many others.

      7. One would be Ubzb Unovyhf, and whichever species the Yhpl skeleton belonged to. I ought to be able to name more.

      8. How many such languages are there? There aren’t more than six or so. I can name Serapu, Fcnavfu, Cbeghtrfr, Ebznavna, Vgnyvna after a little thought.

      9. I can name all ten. Somewhere along the way, I learned that Judaism orders and separates the ten statements of the Decalogue slightly differently than Christianity. So some might say I’ve only got nine. V nz gur Ybeq lbhe Tbq; Ab bgure tbqf orsber zr; Ab tenira vzntrf; Ubabe gur Fnoongu; Ubabe lbhe sngure naq zbgure; Ab Zheqre; Ab Snyfr Jvgarff; Ab Gursg; Ab Nqhygrel; Ab Pbirgvat.

      10. Eusocial animals…I can think of two. Ubarlorrf, nagf.

      It looks like I got 1, 2, 8, 9. More than necessary for items 2 and 9.

      Partial on 4, 10. Possibly got two answers for 7, definitely only one answer for 6.

      • Nick says:

        Why did you ROT13 just the names? Isn’t having to copy and paste those one at a time and out of context much more annoying than just pasting the whole comment?

      • Nornagest says:

        How many such languages are there? There aren’t more than six or so.

        Many, but most of them are minor regional languages — there are lots of places where the local dialect bears about the same relationship to the standard language as Portuguese does to Spanish. Wikipedia lists 35: some of those are debatable depending on where you draw the line of mutual intelligibility, but there’s at least 15 or 20 by any standard.

        • Chlopodo says:

 lists 80.

        • S_J says:

          I find that information to be interesting.

          An aside: in my professional life, I have to handle projects that distinguish between national-level variants of languages. Generally, we ignore intra-country variants for the purpose of showing translated text on the screen.

          Among Romance languages, we cover two variants of Spanish, two variants of Portuguese, and two variants of French. However, we cover only one variant of Italian, and we probably also cover one variant of Romanian.

          Where we have two variants of Romance languages, they are typically European-region-vs-former-Colonial-region.

          Amusingly, English has three or four such variants, depending on which former-Colonies are considered necessary as separate translation projects.

          • Among Romance languages, we cover two variants of Spanish

            If you mean Castilian and Catalan, you might not want to put it that way in Catalonia.

          • CatCube says:


            I’d have guessed Spain Spanish and Mexican Spanish.

          • S_J says:

            @DavidFriedman, @CatCube,

            CatCube is correct.

            However, it’s the software-internal labeling that distinguishes Spanish-in-Spain from Spanish-in-Mexico. The customer-visible stuff doesn’t show that distinction.

            (Also, the software uses configuration rules to choose languages to show; thus a unit cannot e configured to show multiple variants of Spanish…or multiple variants of French, English, etc.)

          • Aapje says:

            Interestingly, dialects can be more distinct than officially separate languages. For example, these seem to be very similar:

            German Standard German
            Austrian Standard German
            Swiss Standard German

            While Low German, which is generally considered a dialect, is far different.

          • quaelegit says:

            @S_J — it sounds like you are working with commercial software, which would focus on the “standard” languages with large audiences. (It’s probably not worth adding a Romansh option because there less than 100k speakers and any Romansh speaker using your software can probably also work in standard German, Italian, and/or English.)

            In other cases (Such as linguists studying the region, people living in the region who have to deal with regional variation/dialects/languages), people may interested in variation and development in different speech communities, no matter how small. So they will have a more fine-grained answer to the questions “how many languages” than commercial lists.

            [Aside following up on Aajpe’s post: Low German itself seems to be an umbrella term for a lot of regional languages, but I’m no expert and it definitely depends on context.]

            And pretty soon this gets into a “whats the line between language and dialect” argument which is always messy and political, but at least in the case of Romance languages there’s a consensus on labeling at least a few dozen varieties as separate languages as Nornagest says.

    • vV_Vv says:

      1. Ehffvna Srqrengvba, Hxenvar, Yngivn, Rfgbavn, Yvguhnavn

      2. Nhthfghf, Qvbpyrgvna, Pbafgnagvar, Genwna, Areb

      3. A/N

      4. Avpbynhf Pbcreavphf, Tnyvyrb Tnyvyrv, Vfnnp Arjgba, Tbggsevrq Yrvoavm, Tertbe Zraqry. Nf sbe yvivat fpvragvfgf, V pna erzrzore bar: Eboreg Nhznaa

      5. Fnccub bs Yrfobf (boivbhfyl), Bfpne Jvyqr

      6. Vfnnp Arjgba, Cnhy Reqőf

      7. Nhfgenybcvgurphf, U. Retnfgre, U. Rerpghf, U. Unovyvf, U. Arnaqregunyrafvf

      8. Fcnavfu, Cbeghthrfr, Vgnyvna, Serapu, Ebznavna

      9. Ab bgure tbqf, ab oynfcurzl, ab snyfr jvgarffrf, ab zheqre, ab nqhygrel

      10. Pynqrf: nagf, grezvgrf, orrf, fcrpvrf: anxrq zbyr engf

    • Nornagest says:

      1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10. I’m not sure I can name even one novel by Balzac, though, and famous lifelong virgins just isn’t something I pay attention to. I could maybe do it, but only by cheating — listing famous people who died in childhood, for example.

      WRT emperors, I can name the Julio-Claudians in order, but I think I’d have trouble coming up with five from later Roman history.

    • vV_Vv says:

      [Arjgba] was not publicly heretical.

    • 1. Countries that didn’t exist (as distinct, independent) in 1989
      Fbhgu Fhqna, Pbasrqrengr Fgngr bs Nzrevpn, Fpbgynaq, Trbetvn, Nguraf (vapyhqvat gur erfg bs Nggvpn)
      Nyfb Tbaqbe, Ebuna, Aneavn, Gur Pnybezrar Rzcver, …
      2. Roman emperors
      Nhthfghf, Pynhqvhf, Areb, Unqevna, Pbafgnagvar
      3. Novels by Honore de Balzac
      4. Famous scientists who were religious
      Arjgba, Cnfpny, Nyoreghf Zntahf, Nivpraan, Pbcreavphf
      5. Famous writers and poets who were gay or bisexual
      G.R. Ynjerapr, Jnyg Juvgzna, Rqan Fg Ivaprag Zvyynl, Znel Eranhyg, Whyvhf Pnrfne
      6. Famous life-long virgins (but not monks or catholic priests or saints)
      Wnar Nhfgra, Gubznf Punggregba, Dhrra Ryvmnorgu, Gubznf Pneylyr (vs lbh oryvrir Senax Uneevf, abg n irel eryvnoyr fbhepr)
      7. Extincted species related to humans (more closely than the chimps)
      Arnaqregunyf, Qravfvinaf, Crxvat Zna, Wnin Zna, “Yhpl” (ynfg guerr ner fvatyr zrzoref–V qba’g xabj vs gurer ner anzrf sbe gurve fcrpvrf)
      8. Romance (Latin-descended) languages
      Serapu, Vgnyvna, Fcnavfu, Cbeghthrfr, Ebznavna
      9. 5 of the 10 Commandments
      Qb abg Xvyy. Qb abg fgrny. Qb abg sbeavpngr. Xrrc gur Fnoongu. Unir ab bgure tbq orsber zr.
      10. Eusocial animals (animals that live in large groups where only 1 female, the queen, reproduces, and the other sterile females work for her and her descendants).
      Ubarlorrf. Grezvgrf. Jnfcf? Nagf? (Gur ynfg guerr ner tebhcf bs fcrpvrf)

      Some of these are trivially easy, others I can’t get. Presumably people differ a good deal in which of those are easy for them.

    • Machine Interface says:

      Let’s see:

      1. Very easy one: Pebngvn, Fybiravn, Obfavn, Zbagrarteb, Znprqbavn, Freovn, Pmrpu Erchoyvp, Fybinxvn, Fbhgu Fhqna, Revgern (V guvax?), Rnfg Gvzbe, Hxenvar, Orynehf, Rfgbavn, Yvguhnavn, Yngivn, Trbetvn, Nezravn, Nmreonvwna…

      2. Easy one (but don’t ask me which is which): Nhthfghf, Areb, Pnyvthyn, Qvbpyrgvna, Pbafgnagvar, Whfgvavna, Whyvhf Arcbf…

      3. Three for sure, other two might be misremembered and actually from Zola: Vyyhfvbaf Creqhrf, Fcyraqrhef rg Zvfèerf qrf Pbhegvfnarf, Yn Crnh qr Punteva, Anan, Nh Obaurhe qrf Bterf

      4. This one is a crapshoot: Zraqry, Arjgba, Pbcreavphf, Xrcyre, Berfzr

      5. Don’t really keep track of those: Bfpne Jvyqr, Fncub…

      6. Same as 5: Arjgba, G.R. Ynjerapr (fbzrgvzrf qrfpevorq nf tnl naq be n crqbcuvyr, ohg gung frrzf gb or ynetryl ncbpelcuny)…

      7. Thing I’m good here: Arnaqreguny, Unovyvf, Nhfgenybcvgrphf, Nagrprffbe, Retnfgre

      8. Another easy one: Serapu, Vgnyvna, Cbeghthrfr, Fcnavfu, Ebznavna, Pngnyna, Bppvgna, Fneqvavna, Senapb-Cebiraçny, Ebznafu, Irargvna, Sevhyna, Ynqva, Fvpvyvna, Abeznaq, Jnyybba, Nebznavna, Qnyzngvna & Zbmnenovp(vs jr pbhag rkgvapg ynathntrf), Cvrzbagrfr, Ebzntaby, Yvthevna, Ynqvab…

      9. Not a Christian: Lbh funyy abg xvyy, lbh funyy abg pbirg lbhe arvtuobhe’f jvsr, lbh funyy unir ab bgure tbq, ubabe lbhe sngure naq sngure…

      10. 4 for sure: nagf, orrf, grezvgrf, anxrq zbyr engf… znlor fbzr fcrpvrf bs jnfcf?

    • aaeiou90 says:

      1. Easy. Xnmnxufgna, Ghexzravfgna, Hmorxvfgna, Gnqwvxvfgna, Xletlmfgna.
      2. Bpgnivna, Gvorevhf, Pnyvthyn, Pynhqvhf, Areb
      3. 0
      4. 4: Ny Xujnermzv, Voa Fvan, Pbcreavphf, Zraqry
      5. 3: Fnccub, Cyngb, Tnvhf Whyvhf Pnrfne
      6. 0
      7. Nhfgenybcvgurphf frqvon, Nhfgenybcvgurphf nsnerafvf, Nhfgenybcvgurphf nsevpnahf, Cnenaguebchf ebohfghf, Cnenaguebchf obvfrv
      8. Cbeghthrfr, Fcnavfu, Serapu, Vgnyvna, Ebznavna
      9. Qb abg fgrny. Qb abg xvyy. Qb abg sbeavpngr. Qb abg perngr vqbyf be jbefuvc gurz. Ubabe lbhe sngure naq lbhe zbgure.
      10. Ubarl orr, Ohzoyrorr, Ubhfr jnfc, Cunenbu’f nag, Yrnsphggre nag.

    • azhdahak says:

      1. Cnynh, Fbhgu Fhqna, Znapuhevn, Anzvovn, gur Bggbzna Rzcver
      2. Znephf Nheryvhf, Nhthfghf, Ryntnonyhf, Whyvna gur Ncbfgngr, Pbafgnagvar
      4. Zraqry, Arjgba, Xahgu (qbrf PF pbhag nf n fpvrapr?), Grvyuneq qr Puneqva, Xvepure
      7. Arnaqreguny, Qravfbina, roh tbtb, nsnerafvf,
      8. Bppvgna, Nebznavna, Ynqvab, Necvgna, Ebznafpu
      9. Zbabgurvfz, ab zheqre, ab tenira vzntrf, fnoongu, ab snyfr jvgarff