Open Thread 101.5

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

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570 Responses to Open Thread 101.5

  1. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I’ll probably come back with an example in a culture war thread, but meanwhile, any thoughts about how people move (as they sometimes do) from an anger/revenge/dominance mindset to trying to make things better?

    As a bit of a unicorn chaser, a divorce lawyer realizes he can work towards amicable settlements. Page down to [Let No Court Put Asunder].

  2. johan_larson says:

    The USMC is changing the structure of their infantry squads.

    The old system had three 4-person fire teams and a squad leader. The new system will have three 3-person fire teams and a squad leader, assistant squad leader, and a systems operator.

    I don’t know what to make of this change. The new system is fundamentally a smaller squad (twelve people rather than thirteen), with more management/support slots (three rather than one).

    • beleester says:

      It seems like the argument centers around the new gun they’re rolling out (the M27). Instead of having one guy carrying a big heavy SAW and one guy carrying the ammo, you have everyone carrying a lighter automatic weapon, and using the space freed up to add grenadiers. So you have one less person, but more guns doing useful work at any one time, and the squad as a whole able to move faster.

      The argument against this is that the M27 is not really that big an improvement over the M4 or M16, so it seems like you’re giving up a useful capability for not much gain.

      The argument for this is basically “In practice, how often do you really need to dump 500 rounds, belt-fed, all in one go?” As I understand it, suppressive fire usually doesn’t mean just holding down the trigger, it’s more of a steady, aimed bursts kinda thing, so you can still get good results from a smaller magazine-fed weapon.

      I am curious about the choice to dedicate a role to “systems operator.” On the one hand, yes, the soldier’s greatest weapon is his radio, and as time goes on the amount of fancy tech at his beck and call is only going to increase. On the other hand, is there really that much stuff?

      PS: Terminal Lance‘s take on this is funny.

      • sfoil says:

        I am curious about the choice to dedicate a role to “systems operator.” On the one hand, yes, the soldier’s greatest weapon is his radio, and as time goes on the amount of fancy tech at his beck and call is only going to increase. On the other hand, is there really that much stuff?

        Radio complexity is climbing, but I suspect the real intent is the employment of small robots of both the ground and air sort. This is currently done at the platoon (or company) level. In my ideal world, maybe even some sort of electronic warfare capability but I doubt that’s really on the table. Basically he’s a Shadowrun Rigger.

        • bean says:

          In my ideal world, maybe even some sort of electronic warfare capability but I doubt that’s really on the table.

          I suspect it is, at least on a very basic level. Anti-IED jammers were/are quite common in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not sure how useful the sort of gear you can hang off the infantry is in war against someone with a decent tech base, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

          • sfoil says:

            I’ve used the THOR, as well as bigger vehicle-mounted jammers, but the end user never had to do anything more complicated than turn it on (and haul it). They’re not part of the standard equipment set, but maybe the Marines want to change that. Still, nothing current requires a squad-level specialist.

    • sfoil says:

      It’s pretty clearly intended to make squads more independent. The new structure mimics the HQ:fighting elements of a platoon, but at the squad level.

      Another interesting thing: apparently they want every Marine in the squad to carry an M27 automatic rifle (nb: in military jargon, an “automatic rifle” is a slightly heavier weapon than an “assault rifle”). Currently, a member of each fire team carries the M249 SAW instead of an M16. I suspect that in each three-man team, one man will have a bipod attachment (and another will have a grenade launcher), because I don’t see how the M27 could possibly provide the sort of firepower expected of the heavier M249 without one. I have never even seen an M27, but it appears to basically be an RPK.

      Presumably the USMC has some data to back up the M27, but I haven’t seen it and honestly I’m pretty skeptical. They might consider issuing a full-auto assault rifle like every other army in the world if Marines are saying they need one. The Army actually did that very recently; they managed to fuck it up, but they did it, and there’s no reason for the Marines to make the same mistake.

      • John Schilling says:

        I am quite confident that nine men with good rifles and the training to use them for suppressive as well as point-target fire, can outshoot three men with crappy light machine guns. I am less confident that the M27 is that rifle, but we’ll see. At some point, I think the USMC has to acknowledge that using the 5.56mm and/or 7.62mm NATO cartridges for ever and ever and ever is probably not the best plan, and replacing every rifle and every light machine gun in their infantry elements is maybe the opportunity they need to write off the sunk costs and move on to something better.

        I do think it’s the system operator role that is going to be really transformative. Because nine guys with even mediocre rifles and one guy with a quadcoptor saying “OK, three tangos in that ditch, stop shooting at the treeline there’s no one there, two moving into position in the blind alley at your ten…”, definitely beats three guys with crappy light machine guns spraying bullets at imaginary enemies they can’t see and an occasional real one they didn’t see until it was too late.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Don’t different elements of the US military periodically put out a competition or whatever to replace the AR-15-derived weapons, look at the results, and usually say something like “nah, maybe get some better magazines, but nah”?

          Overall, to what extent is not having better small arms a weak link? Hardly an expert, but I’ve gotten the impression that the primary weak link in the performance of the US military in the last ~15 years has been high-level decision-making by senior leadership, both military and civilian, and feeding that, the preferences of the voting public.

        • sfoil says:

          Because nine guys with even mediocre rifles and one guy with a quadcoptor saying “OK, three tangos in that ditch, stop shooting at the treeline there’s no one there, two moving into position in the blind alley at your ten…”

          Yeah, they’re way ahead with this.

          What’s so bad about 5.56 and 7.62? 5.56 might ideally be slightly bigger (e.g. the .280 originally used in SALVO) but on the other hand the low weight of the 5.56 is great. You can carry 90 5.56 rounds in place of 40 7.62 rounds. And I can’t help but notice that both the Russians and the Chinese copied the 5.56 when they had the chance. Although I have wondered about just replacing everything with a ~6.8mm round.

        • johan_larson says:

          Wasn’t the M-14 an attempt to combine a bunch of existing rifle/machine-gun roles into one? As I recall that effort wasn’t particularly successful. It produced a pretty good though heavy aimed-shot rifle, but it wasn’t much good for automatic fire.

          • John Schilling says:

            Wasn’t the M-14 an attempt to combine a bunch of existing rifle/machine-gun roles into one?

            Into one rifle, with the absolutely inviolable requirement that it fire the thirty-ought-six cartridge that was good enough for somebody’s grandpappy at the Marne and that we already had umpty-zillion of in inventory, and OK, 7.62x51mm isn’t exactly .30-06 but if you tilt your head and squint and do the metric-to-english conversion, eh, close enough.

            Just about everybody who has ever looked at a blank-slate design for a modern general-purpose infantry rifle, has come to the conclusion that something in the 6-7mm range is ideal. And “modern” in this context goes back to 1915. The US got its first official clue in 1924. The traditional full-power 7.5+mm cartridges are too heavy to carry a decent combat load, and have too much recoil for rapid fire in a handheld weapons. Anything below 6mm, loses effectiveness too rapidly at ranges much beyond 200m, where a Marine rifle squad in particular will still have to do serious fighting with its organic weapons.

            But everybody had huge sunk costs in 7.5+mm ammunition and tooling, and in nostalgia for grandpappy’s rifle and no way are our boys going to war with a toy rifle. And so, when forced by wartime necessity to change, everyone wound up with something decidedly non-optimal.

            Or, perhaps, optimized specifically for close-quarters battle. There’s something to be said for a mix of 5.56mm and 7.62mm weapons in a rifle squad. And I observe that the Marines keep having to issue upgraded variants of the “not particularly successful” M-14 to some of their riflemen,while leaving the others with CQB-optimzed M-4s. If you’re going with one weapon and one caliber for all purposes, it needs to be something heavier than 5.56mm NATO and should be something lighter than 7.62mm NATO.

            Although I have wondered about just replacing everything with a ~6.8mm round.

            Ideally a 6.8mm round that doesn’t come with the absolutely inviolable requirement of fitting through an AR-15 action, because that was good enough for someone’s grandpappy at Huế, etc.

  3. johan_larson says:

    On a recent Hacker News post about management consultants, I bitched about consultants getting a lot for very little, and received some thoughtful replies.

    To summarize, generalist management consultants can be worth their pay because they can:
    – bring a big team that you don’t need to keep on permanently
    – offer cross-company and cross-industry insights and contacts
    – surface insights from deep in the organization that aren’t making it up the hierarchy
    – make recommendations without regard to internal company politics

    • albatross11 says:

      A lot of the time, the consultant’s job is to be the little boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes. And this works because the consultant will still get paid, and doesn’t have to continue working for the powerful-in-the-company person whose dumb idea he just poked full of holes.

    • John Schilling says:

      surface insights from deep in the organization that aren’t making it up the hierarchy

      This can be vitally important. It also means that you’ve got big problems, because there’s someone you’re paying maybe $75k/year who actually knows what’s wrong and needs fixing, and you need to hire someone who bills four times that figure to explain it to you because the guy you’re already paying is afraid to speak up. And your guy is now probably upset that some outsider is pocketing all that cash for parroting his hard-earned knowledge.

      Probably your competitors all have the same problem, and you won’t bleed away too much of your workforce.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      What do executives think that they’re getting when they hire consultants? Item 3 (which was by far the most popular on HN) seems like if the executive knew that was the problem, they could solve it directly. But maybe the executive doesn’t know and gets value from 3 despite thinking that the consultants are doing something else. Item 4 is, maybe, trying to say the same thing with the implication that it isn’t fixable. But lots of people say a variant of 4, that the job of consultants is to win the political battle for the CEO, rather than for the best idea. eg, Robin Hanson, who suggests that this is the cheapest way for the CEO to buy political power.

      The numbers for item 1 aren’t plausible to me. I’m also skeptical of 2.

      • John Schilling says:

        Item 3 (which was by far the most popular on HN) seems like if the executive knew that was the problem, they could solve it directly.

        Unless the executive has already backed himself into a corner where he cannot, at least in the short term, credibly signal to his own employees that they won’t be fired for speaking truth to power.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Sure, it will take years to fix. But if people hire management consultants to paper over a problem that they are trying to fix, I’d think we’d hear a lot more stories of them bragging about eventually fixing this problem. One of the people on HN claims that Ray Dalio both brags about the lines of communication in Bridgewater and hires management consultants.

  4. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Nothing urgent, just one of those biological mysteries with no obvious answer.

    • Nornagest says:

      What’s more, he’s personally eaten raw red-blooded skinks and green-blooded skinks, and found that both tasted about the same—kind of like “bad sushi,” says Austin.

      My favorite kind of science.

    • Algirdas Vėlyvis says:

      You can have green blood too, if you’d like! Wikipedia article has a link to the (paywalled) original clinical report from 2007.

  5. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I don’t know how long it’s been, but Less Wrong has taken the giant static images off the top of the home page.

    Those images were annoying me so much that I wasn’t checking in there, and now it feels normal to check in.

    • The Pachyderminator says:

      Still has the misguided “Recommended Reading” block taking up most of the first screen, though. I prefer Greater Wrong for a lot of reasons.

  6. Vincent Soderberg says:

    I very often (but not always) have morning nausea. It most often goes away after some hours.

    I take 60 mg fluoxetine. It works well as an antidepressant, and I have thought about whether it causes nausea, but I often feel nauseous before I take it in the morning, and sometimes, when I sleep in, I don’t feel nauseous for a while even when I take fluoxetine right away after waking up. Anyway, it works very well, so if it indeed causes nausea, I prefer to not be depressed but feel nauseous.

    My sleep quality is ok I think? I’m not sure if I sleep enough, but I don’t feel like I manage to fall asleep when I go to bed earlier.

    I have some foods that I’m supposed to avoid but don’t really avoid. (such as popcorn, milk products. I successfully avoid gluten (and sugar 90% the time. I eat a lot of artificial sweeteners though). I did a fecal test to test intolerances as I had severe stomach pains in fall 2017, following the diet helped, but it later turned out to be Zoloft that caused the majority of it. I now have much fewer stomach pains, though it still appears relatively often but as very minor pain).

    I tried a pill called postage, but it doesn’t seem to help.

    It might be because my back/eyes are tense? I’m not sure though.

    Any help/suggestions on what to do? sorry for the disorderly post.

    • SamChevre says:

      When I took fluoxetine, I found that I tolerated it far better if I took it in the evening than in the morning. Taking it in the morning caused a fair bit of nausea.

      • Vincent Soderberg says:

        I asked a therapist friend if taking it in the evening, and she said no because it could mess up my sleep. i’ll ask again.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Check electrolyte levels, magnesium levels etc. A lot of pregnant women get nausea relief from magnesium supplements.

    • CatCube says:

      I’m on no medications of any variety, but also have this issue. I seem to have it much worse in cooler temperatures, and especially when I have to get up while it’s still dark out. I’ve never actually been sick, but it’s miserable getting up some days.

      Turns out searching “morning sickness” doesn’t turn up anything useful for men, though.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I got some results by searching on [morning nausea men], but nothing that seemed very definitive.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Does it start when you wake up, or after some time? And do you eat or drink either in the morning or soon before you go to bed?

      Dehydration might be a cause to look into.

      • Vincent Soderberg says:

        not sure. ill add more detail to my mood diary.

        I usually eat 1 h before bed.

        relatively sure its not dehydration

    • Vincent Soderberg says:

      short update: i asked my mom if she had any tips and it turns out she has morning naseua too (since pretty much always), so it might just be crapshoot genes.

  7. tayfie says:

    I’ve noticed for a while a large number of quiz questions in these comments.

    On some level, they make me kind of sad because so many of them are things that I know I used to know back in high school, but neglected and forgot to focus on more specialized knowledge useful to college and my career.

    Related to the first, it reminds me of my high school quiz bowl team. Wiki link for those who don’t know what that is. Those were some of my closest friends in school, if only for the reason we all had to come in an hour before first period to study trivia.

    I wanted to ask if anyone else here was ever involved in something similar, and specifically if you were ever involved in NAQT or PACE tournaments. What was your experience with it?

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      I made a similar comment a few OTs ago; I was a serious quiz bowl player in college and grad school. I much prefer quiz bowl to most other forms of quizzing.

      • tayfie says:

        That’s cool. Could you tell me what it was like for you in college? Did you go to any serious state or national tournaments? My high school team won state in our division twice and did fairly well (top quartile) at the NAQT National Tournament one year.

        The college I went to didn’t have much of a team. Everything was so different from my team in high school that I lost interest and moved on to other things.

        The difference in quality creates very different team dynamics. Low quality teams have poor group discipline and tend to be carried by one good generalist. It is frustrating to be that person because you put in a lot more work than everyone else. It is frustrating to not be that person because you don’t contribute much and often don’t know how to start. High quality teams can specialize more because they trust each other to know their respective areas.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      I competed at a high level in the UK while at school and university, but don’t want to give too many details for personal-identifiability reasons.

      We generally found those who had previously competed in the US to be scarily quick, although that was partly because many tournaments in the UK use ACF or NAQT question sets Briticised to varying degrees, so Americans have more exposure to the question format.

      I find I am better at buzzer quizzes (quiz bowl) than other formats, though I enjoy British pub quizzes both as a player and an occasional question-setter.

      • tayfie says:

        re: American speed

        With good players, educated guesses are mandatory since NAQT uses pyramidal style questions where the early clues are obscure and the last clue is almost always a race to the buzzer. You get really good at pattern-matching on multiple clues together even if you don’t know any single one of them as a fact.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Ours was called the “High-Q Team” and I was the captain. I found the name to be incredibly pretentious. “Ah, if we’re ‘High-Q’ then you must be ‘Low-Q’ ah ha ha ha!” We won all-county but lost at state. I also feel I’ve gotten dumber as I’ve gotten older.

      I also really enjoyed the Mu Alpha Theta math competitions and won first place in my state in calculus. Fun fact: It took me until about ten years after high school to figure out that “Mu Alpha Theta” spells “math.”

      • tayfie says:

        I don’t feel as if I’ve gotten “dumber” exactly, but my knowledge base has changed a lot. This was a conscious choice in some respects, but not all. In many cases, it seems like explicit knowledge of facts has been converted into implicit knowledge of models. This can be very frustrating when talking to others because implicit knowledge is much harder to explain and much harder to verify. It can be more difficult to justify why you know what you know. It’s a weird feeling that seeing those quizzes provokes and that’s what caused me to post.

    • quaelegit says:

      Various quiz-bowl analogs were a big part of my high school experience. First Certamen (Latin quiz bowl), where I specialized in Mythology. I’ve forgotten most of that. Later in hs, I got into Science/Oceans Bowl (one club did both competitions) where I specialized in Buzzing In Fast. My senior year we won our regional Science Bowl competition and got a free trip to DC!

      The teams were never close friends. We didn’t really study for science or (especially) oceans bowl, just practiced playing a lot. For Latin we spent a lot more time studying (and later teaching younger students and organizing regional events) but still didn’t really hang out socially. I really enjoyed the game and the prizes were cool, so I guess it worked out!

  8. rlms says:

    Suppose you are somehow made Prime Minister/equivalent of a European country of your choice, and your only goal in life is maximise paperclips to date Anna Kendrick win the next Eurovision song contest. Which do you choose and what do you do?

    • Aapje says:

      I pick Sweden, because they are good at winning.

      Sweden is already doing the right thing with an internal competition to pick the song they will send. I’d offer bigger prices for that internal competition.

      An alternative is to pick Russia and then create an internal competition like the Swedes have & then supplement this with FSB interventions to manipulate the televoting and the jury.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        What, you don’t think Sweden’s security services are up to the task?

      • johan_larson says:

        Why would you want to manipulate the process? The tiered tournament is supposed to select for excellence, right? That’s its job. The more you mess with it, the worse it’s going to work.

        • Aapje says:

          The tiered tournament is to select the best song for your own country with no skulduggery.

          Then in the actual Eurovision contest, you’d try to hack the voting.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Why on Earth would I want my country to win? Then I’d have to host it and that’s expensive.

      The dominant strategy seems to be trying to lose, not trying to win. Hence this year having a bunch of terrible and boring and mostly identical music; the previous strategy to lose of sending bizarre performers shifted expectations.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Is there any reason why the US doesn’t have a state vs. state version of Eurovision?

      Or America could join Eurovision. Science!

      Also, a science fiction novel based on Eurovision: Space Opera by Cat Valente. Strongly influenced by Douglas Adams, but with giddier prose. I got a number of laughs out of it, which is more than I can say for most humorous science fiction.

      Takes social justice somewhat lightly, which may indicate a good trend.

    • Orpheus says:

      1. Be The Pope.
      2. Send Gregorian Chanters to the Eurovision
      3. Order all Catholics to vote for you.
      4. Combined with the votes of people who just hate the kind of music that is usually in the Eurovision, you are guaranteed to win.
      5. Next year when you host, declare that no electronics/amplification is allowed in the competition.
      6. Repeat until the heat death of the universe.

  9. johan_larson says:

    Please welcome tonight’s contestants in a battle to the death.

    In the blue corner we have a jaguar, the biggest cat in the Americas, weighing in at 250 pounds of teeth, claws, and jungle fury. At ten years of age, after hundreds of successful kills, this cat is in the prime of its murderous life.

    In the red corner we have a Roman legionnaire, equipped with shield, short sword, spear, lorica segmentata, helmet, sandals, and tunic. At 30 years of age, he is a veteran of three campaigns, and weighs 170 lb plus the gear.

    Ladies and gentlemen, what odds do you propose for this contest?

    • hls2003 says:

      Assuming that “jaguar leaves and the Roman can never find him in the jungle and dies of ague” doesn’t count as a jaguar victory, you couldn’t give me odds on the jaguar. Assuming an arena-style fight where retreat is not an option and the legionnaire had a weapon but no armor, I’d say 5-1 in favor of the human.

      • BeefSnakStikR says:

        jaguar leaves and the Roman can never find him in the jungle and dies of ague

        Not to mention that jaguar leaves are very good camouflage in a jungle.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      How exactly will this fight be carried out between Rome and America?

      If the Roman can use his weapons to coerce people into giving him more weaponry and technology, maybe. A boat to get to America? He’ll have to take on enough other people to commandeer an entire crew, too. The odds are not good.

      On the other hand, the jaguar will only live about five more years. Unless the jaguar can somehow become patient zero for some sort of worldwide pandemic that kills the Roman, the Roman should just wait it out.

      • johan_larson says:

        No need to complicate it. The contest takes place in a small arena into which both combatants are dropped after being abducted by time-traveling snatch teams.

    • dndnrsn says:

      170lbs is pretty dang big for someone back then. Is this guy absolutely jacked, or what?

      • johan_larson says:

        I figure he’s the lean hard type, rather than obviously muscular. He might be 5′ 10″, which is on the taller side of ordinary in the frontier province he’s from, but he was definitely a big man in Rome, the one time he visited.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Given what we know of the history of average heights, that’s probably more than “taller side of ordinary” isn’t it?

          • johan_larson says:

            That’s on the taller side of ordinary in the province he is from. He is 5’10”. That might mean the average man where he is from is 5’8″. That’s rather tall for ancient Europeans, but there are precedents. The Vikings in Norway, Denmark, and Iceland were that tall. The Swedish ones were even taller.

            But, yes, this guy is a really big man in Rome itself, and he is still bigger than most in the Roman Empire as a whole.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            dndnrsn, your link seems to be about 19th century Europe, which is a pretty narrow sample on which to extrapolate to Rome.

            A modern foot is 30.5cm, so modern 5’10” is 178cm. All further feet are Roman, which is general believed to be 29.5cm. So our target is 6 Roman feet. For ordinary soldiers the statutory minimum was 5’7″ (165cm), according to this, which goes on to put the average soldier at 170. It also puts that the height of (rich tourist?) men in Pompeii at 166cm and Herculaneum at 169. So 6′ is pretty tall but not absurd. Nero managed to raise a whole legion of such men, and while restricting to Italy.

            Johan mentioned a peripheral province, which adds 2-3in, according to this. On the other hand, the link defies credibility by putting the Roman foot at only 28cm, which would make the Romans much shorter than the above. That would make the Herculaneum men 6′, which seems implausible.

          • dndnrsn says:


            I suppose it comes down to which province; for some reason I assumed we were talking about somewhere a bit closer to home. If he’s one of the tall barbarian types that Tacitus (was it Tacitus?) got so hot and bothered about, sure.

            @Douglas Knight

            Modern 5’10” isn’t absurdly tall – it’s not as though it would be absurd to imagine a soldier from a developed country today who’s 6’1″ or 6’2″. However, it does make this guy probably taller than the average Roman soldier, and bigger.

            As for when the number is from – my understanding is that with agiculture, people get shorter, and this doesn’t really change until agricultural changes in the early-mid 20th century make protein and various other nutrients more available.

            As to the actual question: whether the guy is 5’10” and 170 or 5’7″ and 150 or whatever, to what extent is the strength of the Roman soldier found in his ability to coordinate with his comrades?

    • Well... says:

      Back when I was addicted to it I remember there being a whole genre of questions like this on Quora. I’ll bet someone there has already asked this one.

      • yodelyak says:

        I may have been completely unhelpful, at great length, above.

        Perhaps this link helps to make up for it.

        That isn’t exactly a fully reputable news story. Nor was the jaguar reportedly in perfect health. But my money’s on the legionnaire.

    • Fluffy Buffalo says:

      I see that only hls2003 has actually attempted to answer the question so far.
      My guess, from looking at the closest comparison I know of: the Maasai have long used solo lion hunting as a rite of passage. Seeing how their traditional weapons are spears and short swords, and a lion weighs some 250 pounds (female) to 400 pounds (male) and is probably in the same league as the jaguar as far as pound-for-pound fighting prowess and toughness is concerned, smart money is on the dude with the steel. I’d give him a 4:1 chance of winning.

      • Nornagest says:

        The Maasai probably have better lion-fighting tactics than the Roman has jaguar-fighting tactics, though. If it’s a rite of passage for them, then they’ve been doing it for a while and probably gotten pretty good at it. The Roman probably hasn’t even seen a jaguar.

        My money would still be on the Roman, but maybe not at 4:1 odds.

        • Fluffy Buffalo says:

          That’s a good point. On the other hand, the Maasai who were sent on their lion-hunting quest were probably kids of 16 years or so, not cold-blooded veterans with a decade of experience in life-threatening situations. Also, encounters with wild animals were probably more common in ancient times than they are in our civilized world, so the Roman would probably not be entirely shocked by the sight of a big cat.
          There’s only one way to find out, though. Who’s willing to develop a time machine for us?

    • fion says:

      I think this might depend on how much experience the legionnaire had at fighting non-human animals. I think such a well armed soldier would be able to beat a big cat reliably if he knew what he was doing, but if this was the first time he’d stared down such big teeth, and if he didn’t know how to predict the pounce right then I’d put it closer to even.

    • gbdub says:

      Define “win”. I have a hard time believing the jaguar is going to manage to kill the Roman without itself sustaining mortal injury more than at very best 1 in 10 times.

      Jaguars are ambush predators – by putting them in a stand up fight in the open you’ve removed the jaguar’s most effective weapon. The jaguar’s only hope is that it can knock over the Roman, the Roman drops his weapons, and the jaguar gets in a quick chomp to the neck. Realistically what more likely happens is the jaguar pounces, gets confused when its teeth hit metal, gets stabbed or slashed, and then flees, because they aren’t going to press an attack.

      I suppose the jaguar might get lucky in a few other scenarios if it manages to slash a leg and the Roman bleeds out.

    • Randy M says:

      I’d be surprised if something quite similar hadn’t occurred several times in the actual Roman coliseum.

    • johan_larson says:

      Let’s see now, what’s going to happen?

      I would guess the human is going to shuffle forward in a fighting stance, with the shield held forward kind of low, and stabbing downward with the spear, held point-down. He should be ready to pivot or shuffle backward if the jaguar tries to get around the shield. He might lunge forward unexpectedly by taking a BIG step forward.

      The jaguar’s best move is probably to hit that shield low and hard, hoping to knock over or at least unbalance the human. The question is how to do that without getting stabbed by that spear. Does the jaguar have enough moves to use feinting or timing to avoid the stab when it comes in? Or might it be fast enough that the human misreads the pounce?

  10. KG says:

    This isn’t a thing I’m too worried about since I rarely comment on here, but I noticed when I do and get responses, I don’t get emails for “follow-up comments” or “new posts”, regardless of whether I check those boxes and despite the fact that I have a correct email.

    I don’t know if anyone else has this problem or if it’s a thing that has already been addressed and this comment is superfluous, but I figured I might as well bring it up in case it merits mention.

  11. a reader says:

    Geographic quiz:

    Name the countries and the capitals through which passes the Danube (including those touched at the border).

    I knew 8/10 countries and 3/4 capitals.

    • fion says:

      Oh, I’m gonna do badly at this.


      Fuvg, V’z ng gur frn naq V’ir bayl tbg unys gur pbhagevrf! :C

      Sbe pncvgnyf, V’z cerggl fher bs Ivraan naq V jbhyq thrff Centhr?

      EDIT: Oh wow, that river is epic! It goes in totally the other direction from what I thought! Much longer and more windy than the Rhine, which I’m much more familiar with. 🙂

      4/10, 1/4

      • FXBDM says:

        I would have expected better from a former ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

        • quaelegit says:

          He simply confused the Danube with the Oder, you see! It’s easy to do when you’ve got such a big empire, and “Donau” and “Oder” sound kinda similar, right? 😛

        • a reader says:

          Back in those times it was simpler, the Danube passed only through 6 countries and 3 capitals.

    • quaelegit says:

      I got 3/4 capitals immediately but never would have gotten the last because I forgot that gur qnahor tbrf gung sne fbhgu! (As an answer/hint to others: the capital I forgot is the one [of the four] that was most recently fought a war in Europe.)

      And of course I spoiled some of the countries by checking if my capital guesses were correct, but I still only got 7/10: Treznal, Nhfgevn, Fybinxvn, Uhatnel, Freovn, Ebznavn, Ohytnevn

      (V sbetbg Pebngvn, naq qvqa’g ernyvmr gung gur wbt abegu ntnva gbbx vg ol Zbyqbin naq Hxenvar!)

  12. johan_larson says:

    I’ve run into an issue on Twitter that may be worth some thought. Some people have established handles on multiple services (Facebook, Twritter, Twitch, …) and would be interested in using the same handle on every service, for consistency. But in some cases they can’t get their preferred handles, since someone else claimed them first. OK, sure, first come, first served. But in some cases the current holder hasn’t used the account in years. You can contact them, to be sure, and ask them to give up their account, but some of them aren’t responsive, and even when they are, the answer is usually no.

    It seems to be that yes, security of tenure is a good thing. You should be able to count on what’s yours staying yours. But on the other hand, if you’ve clearly abandoned something, others should be able to claim it somehow. There would, of course, need to be some due process around this. What’s the wise policy here?

    • Aapje says:


      One solution is to have people pay a yearly fee for using the handle, which will encourage giving up control of unused handles.

      Another solution is to require (free) reregistration periodically, like the old copyright laws did.

      • johan_larson says:

        I wonder what portion of active Twitter users would be willing to pay even a nominal fee to use the service. 10 percent? 20?

      • fion says:

        Your second solution sounds pretty good. I agree with johan_larson that the first one would put off a great many people, however small the fee was.

        • Well... says:

          Is that a bad thing? I wonder if maybe the default of everything on the internet shouldn’t have been “free with ads”.

          • drunkfish says:

            It’s strictly a bad thing from the perspective of a service trying to maximize how many users it attracts, which is the relevant context.

          • Well... says:

            But if (e.g.) Twitter required a paid subscription it wouldn’t be so dependent upon maximizing the number of users, the way they are with the free-with-ads model.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            This works for some things, but for social media it’s an issue.

            Why did Google + never take off over Facebook? Because everyone was already on Facebook, and they couldn’t convince a critical mass of people that G+ was better enough to make the switch. And even if an individual prefers G+, they won’t be able to use it effectively if the people they want to interact with are still on Facebook.

            For social media, user count isn’t just how many revenue sources (in the form of users interacting with your monetization source) you get, it’s also tied to how useful those revenue sources find the site. If you charge for Twitter, every user that leaves because they don’t want to pay also reduces the quality of the Twitter experience for everyone else.

          • WashedOut says:


            If you charge for Twitter, every user that leaves because they don’t want to pay also reduces the quality of the Twitter experience for everyone else.

            If you start charging for twitter, the people that leave (i.e. refuse to pay) are the ones who value their ability to tweet at an amount less than the asking subscription price. Given the amount of no-effort noise on twitter, it would seem that this would more likely increase the quality of the service for other users rather than diminish it.

            Are you suggesting that the remaining users would suffer a reduced experience because they can no longer tweet back and forth with price-sensitive people? If so, wouldn’t the existence of such committed tweet-partnerships prevent such people from opting out in the first place?

          • John Schilling says:

            If you start charging for twitter, the people that leave (i.e. refuse to pay) are the ones who value their ability to tweet at an amount less than the asking subscription price.

            If you start charging for twitter, the people that leave are the ones working from the heuristic, “If someone tries to charge me money for something that is traditionally supposed to be free, they’re probably trying to rip me off and I should be angry and I should go away rather than try to evaluate the details of their probable ripoff, because ripoff artists can put a lot more thought into that sort of thing than I can”.

            This heuristic has been burned into the psyche of most of humanity by the collective efforts of ripoff artists since before the dawn of history. Its strength is only weakly correlated with the value one places on the supposed-to-be-free thing; the more one values a thing, the more that is at risk if one is ripped off.

            The idea that it is the noise that will leave and the signal that will stay, is wishful thinking. The people who put that “noise” there, did it for a reason. They value it. They may well value it more than the people who create what you would call “signal” value their work.

            And for that matter, the value of signal in the twittersphere is multiplied from about nil to something vaguely useful only by the ultimate of zero-effort tweets: the simple retweet. Are people going to pay for the privilege of boosting someone else’s signal?

      • drunkfish says:

        A downside to both of these is revealed by issues with website registration. A pretty common way to rip people off is for bots (I assume) to scour web hosts for sites about to expire, and snatch them up when they do expire. They then ransom the domain names back to people/companies who rely on them, pocketing an unpleasant fee from someone who wasn’t diligent enough about retaining their domain.

        Sure, this requires an oversight on the part of the domain holder (or handle holder for twitter), but it’s a pretty sucky situation, and the fact that it would likely be widespread could easily outweigh the benefits from people being able to homogenize their handles across social media sites.

    • tayfie says:

      What I would be interested in and would answer @drunkfish’s objection to the namesquatting problem, is that a person should be able to take a name from another user *only* if they are a better* contributor.

      When one user wants to bump another, look at the activity for the last couple months.

      * Where “better” is a site dependent definition that is a proxy of utility provided to other users on the site.

      • Aapje says:

        That encourages conformity and other bubble-generating behavior though.

        • tayfie says:

          How so?

          It encourages sucking up to decision makers, but those incentives were already there.

          • Evan Þ says:

            The incentives are already there, but the last thing we need is for them to be so greatly accentuated.

          • tayfie says:


            The incentives are there and people already push for worse than giving your username to someone else. This is negligible increase compared to powers like shadowbans. It could be worth the usability increase of better usernames.

      • johan_larson says:

        I’m opposed to letting others claim your handle unless you have clearly abandoned it. I’d be open to argument about what “clearly abandoned” means, but the notion that someone can grab your stuff when you using it but using it poorly sounds like a recipe for endless arguments and opportunities to take offense.

        • tayfie says:

          “your stuff”

          I do not agree with the connotation that usernames on a website or service are the property of that user. What matters is that people who are looking for that account can find it. To that end, a user that is more likely to be searched should be easier to find. Why should the first person or bot to jump on a name be the one that gets it? “Not abandoned” is a mighty low threshold for keeping a username.

          All “arguments” would eventually be settled with “root access to the database”.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Why should the first person or bot to jump on a name be the one that gets it?

            Consistency. Making it simpler for other users to remember. Making a simple rule that people can’t lawyer.

          • Aapje says:


            Your own name is ‘owned’ by you and a username is very similar to that. So it makes sense that people feel entitled to keep their username, even if it technically doesn’t belong to them.

            I would argue that in general, people feel entitled to more than they technically have a right to and that violating this implicit trust has consequences.

          • tayfie says:


            That brand of “consistency” becomes a problem quickly.

            It becomes hard to remember you were talking to Evan3847 because every shorter variant of “Evan” was already taken and the majority of the accounts are basically unused.


            Nonsense. Your name is how your social group knows you. No one gets to pick their name when they are born. No one gets to pick their nickname among their group of friends. You can negotiate this to some extent, but trying to compel others to call you a certain way leads to silliness.

            A person’s name “belongs” to them in that it uniquely describes them, not that they have ownership over it. As long as that property holds, the implicit trust holds also.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @tayfie, in practice, how often do a half-dozen Evans show up in a single conversation? In my experience, consistency’s a greater boon.

          • johan_larson says:

            I do not agree with the connotation that usernames on a website or service are the property of that user. What matters is that people who are looking for that account can find it.

            What ultimately matters is money, and if you’re running a communications or publishing site or service, a big part of making money is user satisfaction. Unhappy users bitch to their friends, driving them away from your service rather than pulling them in. Really unhappy users leave. So the question is what policy on reuse of handles will generate the most user satisfaction.

            One of the things that users want is access to cool, interesting, and meaningful handles. And these tend to be something of a limited resource, which means it makes sense to adopt a policy that makes sure they are put to good use. The question is what policy that might be.

            One significant constraint on doing so is user expectations. In other contexts, things like handles are difficult or impossible to take from the original holder. I can’t force you to change your name, no matter how silly I think your given name of Maximilian Q. Fatbottom-Woo is. I can’t take your phone number from you, no matter how much I covet your TEN-INCH number. If you own your home, I can’t take your street address from you, and even if you rent, you almost certainly have a lease, meaning forcing you out is a six-month process on average.

            These precedents shape user expectations, and while you have a lot of freedom to set policy, you can be sure that if you do so against user expectations, you are going to have a lot of unhappy users. And you almost certainly don’t want that.

            So what to do? Adopt a policy that on the one hand makes it possible to reclaim handles, somehow, but make sure it conforms to user expectations that are shaped by how handle-like things are treated in other contexts. And since those contexts make it difficult or impossible to force others out, the bar should be pretty darn high for doing so with handles.

            All “arguments” would eventually be settled with “root access to the database”.

            Right. And all political power flows from the barrel of a gun. But that’s not particularly useful advice to a Toronto city councilman.

          • in practice, how often do a half-dozen Evans show up in a single conversation?

            I can’t speak to Evans, but the faculty of my law school was up to four Davids, which could lead to confusion in faculty meetings.

          • Nick says:

            In college about half the people I knew were named Nick. It got pretty confusing.

            My favorite was a time I was having lunch with a Nick, and called to him when he got distracted, and someone at the table to my left and one at the salad bar to my right both turned too. Another was my freshman calc class, which had three Nicks out of about a dozen students.

  13. poignardazur says:

    I am still looking for an adversarial collaborator on the subject of Net Neutrality. Willingness to spend tens of hours researching required.

    More details and contact info here.

  14. Le Maistre Chat says:

    …I’m a little bit upset that you thought I was referencing something else. Damn MCU, crushing worthier fanda beneath its heels… :p

    EDIT: Whoops, replied to the wrong post

    Nah, it’s fine. We can have a new top-level comment for Marvel movie criticism. 🙂
    I don’t have anything negative to say about a media juggernaut based on IP rent-seeking that wouldn’t be CW, though.

    • Kestrellius says:

      Well, the MCU isn’t bad; it’s just no Cosmere.

      • quaelegit says:

        Well, we all have our favorites. (How much would I get mocked for mentioning the 1632-verse here?)

        I happen to agree with you based on my limited experience of the two universes (Guardians of the Galaxy and Mistborn, respectively), but they also play to my biases so much that I wouldn’t care to try an analyze them objectively. For example, I tend to greatly prefer reading books to watching movies 😛

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Reading books is superior to watching movies.
          I agree with Wagner that visual media should be based on traditional stories.
          Either state power should never be used to prevent people from making stories, or an author’s moral right to copyright their work should be lifetime, legally void if assigned to a corporation, and non-transferable. Rent-seeking from stories is abominable and people should fight back by giving increased attention to traditional stories.

          That said, I still watch the Marvel movies. 😛

        • albatross11 says:

          Most of the 1632 books are entertaining to read. They can be rather uneven, though, since they’re now being written by a whole bunch of different writers, and since their underlying plots incorporate a huge backstory filled in by fanfic. But I’ve generally found them worthwhile–they’re not Great Literature, but the whole universe is interesting and the way Flint has incorporated the fanfic community is quite cool. It makes me wonder if this will catch on as a way to build a bigger fictional universe than one person can manage. (Like having a few teenaged girls decide to sell off their Barbie dolls to European royalty and end up becoming wealthy and moderately prominent figures in the world, who then get incorporated into bigger stories later on.)

          • quaelegit says:

            Absolutely agreed on the quality. The writing ranges from passable to cringeworth but even most of the really bad ones are fun reads. And considering the emphasis Flint et al. put on incorporating new and amateur writers (and the fanfic community to draw from is probalby more interested in the history/tech/stories than the craft of writing per se) I think the average quality is respectable.

            The reason I mention it is that despite the issues (writing quality and others) I absolutely adore this series — the characters, the world, and the book themselves (even when they’re kinda dumb — I can forgive that, except for The Gallileo Affair). They are my most frequent re-read (I’ve read multiple books 4~5 times, which is a lot considering I only discovered the series in 2015).

            And as you point out, the fan community has been a huge benefit in terms of adding many different perspectives and influencing the history of that world. It would be cool to see more fiction-universes do this, but there are a couple factors that make 1632 particularly successful. I get the impression that Flint is very good at collaborating with other writers, and he and a few others have put a lot of work into coordinating and managing shared resources such as the official time-line and characters lists that help new/fan writers integrate their stories into the existing universe. (Also the alternate history genre probably makes it easier to keep things cohesive because everyone is drawing on the same real history.) I would love to see more people trying this though!

        • SamChevre says:

          I certainly wouldn’t mock you: I enjoy the 1632 universe and own 75% of the books.

          I like the balance between big figures making obviously-consequential decisions, and completely random crap turning out to be really important. (The Ram Rebellion is my favorite of the books.)

          • quaelegit says:

            Agreed, Virginia DeMarce is my favorite author to come out of the 1632 project. I love how she manages to mix big political stories with the smaller but just as interesting events of ordinary families.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Speaking of Marvel movies, my new favorite typo/autocorrect is people excited about Infinity War and “every hero fighting against thanks.”
      The apotheosis of ingratitude?

  15. quaelegit says:

    Ah I remember why I logged in! Southwest questions! A few points:

    1) In earlier discussions of air safety, bean and John Schilling have said that the air pressure masks are useless or worse. Last OT, bean said “The only case where the pilots (who have separate oxygen systems) couldn’t get the plane down to an altitude capable of supporting human life before anyone died of hypoxia is if they were flying over the Himalayas.” SO, is this a case where they were actually helpful? I saw that the plane had an issue as elevation of 20,000 ft, which is a bigger distance than cruising altitude to landing in the Himalayas. (But are there other factors at work such as air pressure?)

    2) It’s been a terrible spring for SWA. Bean said the engine incident is tied to an engine that’s had problems in the past. But the other two incidents sound more like maintenance problems to me, which would be on Southwest (admittedly everything I know about airplane safety I’ve read on SSC). Does anyone know why they are having problems now? (That is, what changed, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of SWA having frequent maintenance problems before — am I wrong about that?)

    • quaelegit says:

      Wait, scratch point 1. I misread bean’s quoted statement. This is in fact another example of the normal case where the pilots COULD get the plane to a safe altitude without anyone dyinig.

    • gbdub says:

      Southwest flies a large fleet of one model of aircraft. Their planes have a high utilization rate and fly a lot of short routes – that’s relevant because for a lot of things, take off and landing cycles are a better indicator of “age” than calendar date or even operating hours, and SWA racks them up the fastest. So basically, if there’s a previously unrecognized flaw in a Boeing 737 or any of its parts, it’s most likely to pop up first on a plane in SWA service. Pretty sure the engine failure (due to fatigue cracking of a fan blade) falls into this category.

      As for masks, I think the main thing they do is buy the pilots time and options – an inflight emergency is an instant, massive increase in the flight crew’s work load, and anything you can do to spread that out is probably helpful. Masks move “get lower so the passengers don’t pass out” from an immediate priority to something you can worry about a few minutes from now after you’ve made sure you can still fly the plane. If nothing else, supplemental O2 probably helps the subset of passengers with breathing problems or whomstart panic breathing.

      • bean says:

        Their planes have a high utilization rate and fly a lot of short routes – that’s relevant because for a lot of things, take off and landing cycles are a better indicator of “age” than calendar date or even operating hours, and SWA racks them up the fastest. So basically, if there’s a previously unrecognized flaw in a Boeing 737 or any of its parts, it’s most likely to pop up first on a plane in SWA service. Pretty sure the engine failure (due to fatigue cracking of a fan blade) falls into this category.

        Southwest’s utilization is high, but their cycles per hour is pretty typical for the 737. Some of this is because they have about 10% of the fleet, but everyone who isn’t flying somewhere like Hawaii flies pretty similar profiles, and there are apparently engine issues with CFM-56s in Hawaii. (The Aloha 737 that lost its roof is still in IIRC the top 10 737s ever by flight cycles, even though it had a tiny number of hours.)

    • bean says:

      It’s been a terrible spring for SWA. Bean said the engine incident is tied to an engine that’s had problems in the past. But the other two incidents sound more like maintenance problems to me, which would be on Southwest (admittedly everything I know about airplane safety I’ve read on SSC). Does anyone know why they are having problems now? (That is, what changed, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of SWA having frequent maintenance problems before — am I wrong about that?)

      It’s been less bad than you’d think. The window and pressurization incidents are pretty run-of-the-mill stuff that made the news because of the fatality. Keep in mind that Southwest operates something like 4,000 flights a day. Diversions are a weekly matter. A lot are due to non-mechanical reasons, but I’d guess it’s a 1-sigma bad month linked to a passenger fatality, not a serious problem except for the engine shop.
      Southwest’s maintenance has a good reputation, and they were pleasant to work with. I never visited them in person, but I don’t know of any reason they would have suddenly collapsed.

      • quaelegit says:

        Ok, thanks for explaining! “Rather ordinary maintenance problems getting press because of a passenger death” is exactly the sort of reporting bias I was wondering whether I was missing.

        As a Southwest fan I’m glad to hear they also have a good maintenance reputation 😛

        • bean says:

          As a Southwest fan I’m glad to hear they also have a good maintenance reputation 😛

          I should probably clarify this. All airlines except Allegiant have good reputations in this context. Their fatality numbers are near as makes no difference to 0. Delta’s operational numbers are better, but there’s a lot of reasons for that, and maintenance is only a part of it.
          And it varies even within airline. I visited two different facilities from a major US carrier for different projects. One of them was rather difficult to deal with, and made me ill-disposed to said carrier for a year or so. Then I visited the other, which was fantastic. They went to the top of my legacy carrier list until I flew with them a few months later, and realized that the second facility was an anomaly, and that most of the staff reminded me of the first one. But I’ll still fly them if the price and schedule line up.

  16. Kestrellius says:

    My father and his wife recently went on a scuba-diving trip to Belize. When they returned, they said that the apparent happiness of the people there was striking compared to Americans, and in sharp contrast to the area’s extreme poverty.

    I’ve heard similar things in the past about the populations of third-world countries — that they’re calmer, happier, less stressed. My father posited that maybe it’s not that poverty makes them happier, but that their relaxed attitude results in less wealth production. I’ve also seen the theory that it’s climate-related, that warm weather (presumably specific types of warm weather) cause greater happiness. I find that one sort of amusing in its similarities to early versions of environmental determinism.

    So, what do we think is going on here? Are people in third-world countries legitimately happier than those in more advanced ones? Is it all third-world countries, or just a specific subset? (Presumably people living in horrible war-torn dictatorships are not especially happy.) Is it all first-worlders who are comparatively unhappy, just Americans, or something else?

    And if so, why? Have we seriously managed to somehow accidentally Moloch ourselves into a miserable existence with far more effort than it would have taken to establish some sort of idyllic hippie shepherd paradise? Personally, I am very, very, very resistant to any suggestion that technology is making us unhappy, or that existence as a hunter-gatherer is in any way desirable — but maybe I’m just wrong about that. And granted, suboptimal use of technology resulting in bad outcomes doesn’t invalidate the technology itself — I’m just wary of anything that looks like it might give Luddites ammunition.

    On the other hand, it’s not as though modern third-worlders are uncontaminated examples of pre-technology civilizations; they do have advanced tech, just not as much of it. For example, I’d guess they have at least some access to modern medicine; their child mortality rate is higher than America’s — and America’s is apparently pretty bad itself — but still far lower than I’d expect of a genuinely primitive society.

    Cursory research didn’t turn up a whole lot, probably because happiness is hard to measure. I got about what I expected — Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Switzerland, and Canada are near the top. Actually, looking at it again…it seems mostly in line with what you’d think the happiness distribution would be, and doesn’t support the happy-third-world idea much at all. Doesn’t necessarily indicate much, though.

    One idea I’ve been nursing for a while is that the US, though kind of a messy and miserable place in some ways, is sort of a cultural and technological factory — that at least some of the problems we have are the semi-necessary costs of producing ideas and tech (as well as military power, depending on your view of American foreign policy) that the rest of the world can use in ways that aren’t so rough around the edges. I don’t know if there’s any evidence for that, or even how I’d go about trying to find it — but it’s a thought.

    Anyway. This has been a lot of unsubstantiated speculation, but I wanted to get my thoughts on the table before asking others for their opinions on the matter. Is there some consensus or recognition of this phenomenon that I just haven’t come across yet? Does anyone have data or anecdata on the relative happiness of people in poorer countries? Any ideas about why this is the case, if it’s true?

    • albatross11 says:

      I wonder if there’s some generational version of the hedonic treadmill going on there. If my parents lived in a mud hut and outdoor plumbing, and I’ve got electric lights and a refrigerator and a nice watertight house, I feel like things are going well because I’m better off than they are. By contrast, if my parents lived in a mansion and had chaufers for their limos, and I merely live in a McMansion and drive a Tesla, I feel like a failure?

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      My first thought was that maybe it’s possible for a culture to work on making it easy for people to be happy. We’ve got a culture with a lot of focus on physical comfort, and while we’re uneven about it, clothes have been getting more comfortable for decades and comfortable indoor temperatures are a big deal.


      Part of aiming at happiness would be rewards for being a pleasure to be around, I think, but rather little in the way of punishment for not quite getting it right. There would be singing and dancing with some degree of polish, but basically at a skill level that just about anyone can achieve rather than a stars and audience.

      • onyomi says:

        I think that one of the problems with rapid technological and/or social change is that cultures need time to adapt. I think cultures probably tend towards happy-making traditions, rituals, customs, and institutions, but each change to the social environment requires adjustment.

        To avoid cultural changes for culture war reasons, let’s just consider the example of the smart phone. I’m pretty sure smart phones are currently a net negative for world mental health, despite all the genuinely useful and entertaining features they offer. Over time, culture will probably develop smart phone “antibodies” (as it is currently working to develop “plentiful delicious food” antibodies)–that is, mores, habits, virtues, etc. about how to use them responsibly. But by that time we’ll be adjusting to cybernetic implants…

    • freemantle says:

      I’ve spent non-trivial time in Vanuatu, which is definitely third world and has the happiest people I’ve ever met (and this is consistent with many happiness indices I see around the place). I don’t have a solid hypothesis as to why, but the most striking thing about being there is that when you meet someone new, the first thing they ask you is about your family. Without fail. No one will ever ask about your job. This seems significant and happiness-related in some way.

      I now live in the US, and I find people to be borderline obsessed with talking about their jobs, and also somewhat unhappy.

    • Well... says:

      the apparent happiness of the people there

      What does that mean?

      I consider myself a basically very happy person. During those few times a year (mainly in winter) when I’m not happy (stretches of about 2-20 days when I feel dark and gloomy and, at the extreme, ever-so-slightly suicidal) it’s still punctuated by many happy moments, and the rest of the time I feel different from people around me for being depressed, not more like them.

      Could “happy person” or “depressed person”, etc., to some extent be a role we play, something we learn by emulating people who made an impression on us?

    • drunkfish says:

      Important confounder to consider is they probably spent their time in touristy areas, where part of being profitable is seeming happy. I’d believe that national wealth and happiness don’t correlate in an obvious way, but I’m not sure a vacation to Belize is a good way to gather those data.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      Maybe it’s genetic.

      Maybe it’s number of children.

      Maybe living in conditions (especially social) that are closer to our ancestral environment does make us happier.

    • Aapje says:


      Self-reported happiness generally seems higher in certain European countries than in third world countries, so a factor may be that some cultures encourage expressing happiness (and discourage displays of unhappiness) much more than others, without that reflecting how people feel about themselves.

      • sty_silver says:

        Self-reported happiness generally seems higher in certain European countries than in third world countries

        What is your source for that claim?

        • Aapje says:

          What do the data say about happiness in Africa? By and large, people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not appear to be particularly happy (Figure 1). The median level of happiness-with-life in the 34 Sub-Saharan African countries for which there are data amounts to 4.4, significantly lower than the happiness levels in South America (6.7), the Eurozone countries (7.1) and the United States and Canada (7.6). Given that the African continent generally has higher poverty rates than all of these other blocs, it does not appear from Figure 1 that poor people are happier. Within the Eurozone for instance, the countries with the lowest happiness levels (Portugal, Slovakia and Estonia) are also the ones with the lowest GNI per capita.

          The data that is used for this is also available for Belize, which has a self-reported average happiness of 6.6. This is below the EU average and way below the Nordics.

          Caveat: this data asks people about their “overall quality of his life-as-a-whole.” It may be possible that people answer this materialistically, based on a belief that material wealth should make them happy (and the lack of it, sad), while their real happiness is not dependent on material wealth, but more on other factors. Ultimately, I don’t think that there is an objective way to measure happiness.

          • sty_silver says:

            This seems to be a pretty big mess.

            Are the poor in Africa really happier? In recent years economists started focusing on happiness and its measurement, a field long considered too trivial to pay much attention to. Recent research on the topic gives conflicting, and sometimes surprising, results. In 2012, an Ipsos poll measuring the degree of happiness in 24 countries found that self-reported levels of happiness were higher in poor and middle-income countries than in rich ones, seemingly confirming popular beliefs. In contrast, the first World Happiness Report, also published in 2012, finds that the rich countries in Scandinavia are the happiest on earth, while four poor Sub-Saharan African countries are at the bottom of the list. The Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, pioneered by the Kingdom of Bhutan, comes up with a number of surprises of its own: the GNH is highest among the young and the unemployed (and also-perhaps less surprising-among the unmarried), which seems at odds with today’s television images of the streets of Madrid and Athens

            But later the same article reports the opposite findings. So is the data just inconsistent? I’d throw in the towel at this point and conclude that single studies aren’t strong evidence.

            I also definitely think that your caveat is important. I would not be surprised if asking about ‘overall quality of life’ and ‘happiness’ leads to widely different answers.

            I admit that my priors say people in developed countries are less happy so claiming that studies aren’t conclusive is convenient for me, but it nonetheless seems to be the case. I think my mind could be changed my a solid meta-analysis.

            Ultimately, I don’t think that there is an objective way to measure happiness.

            I’d say there probably is an objective way to measure happiness but we definitely don’t have access to it. I think we just have to rely on self-reporting and, even if we had conistent results on that, reserve whatever prior that people are systematically mistaken or dishonest about their happiness.

          • Aapje says:

            The Worldbank article explains that the Ipsos poll seems to suffer from unrepresentative data, while the data that the article uses itself is far more extensive:

            Similarly, the Ipsos poll included only one country from Africa south of the Sahara, and probably the least representative one: South Africa.

            The Ipsos poll also has very crude ratings, as people are asked whether they are very happy, rather happy, not very happy or not happy at all. Such crudeness has issues.

            For example, the claim by Ipsos that poor countries are happier seems based only on those who answer that they are ‘very happy,’ ignoring the other categories. So in their analysis, a rather happy person counts as just as unhappy as a person who answers that they are not happy at all.

            It seems to me that this benefits unequal societies where a relatively large elite is very happy, few people are rather happy and many are unhappy; over more equal ones where the average happiness is higher, but fewer people are ecstatic.

            I’d say there probably is an objective way to measure happiness but we definitely don’t have access to it.

            There is not even an objective way to define it. It can be possible to measure a specific definition of happiness, but then the choice to use that definition would be subjective.

            For example, let’s say that you manage to measure emotions. Is it happiness to have high emotional peaks? Then a drug user with high peaks may seem most happy. Or is it more an average? But do people prefer an anhedonic stable level of emotions over having more fluctuations, but a lower average? I have my doubts.

          • sty_silver says:

            There is not even an objective way to define it. It can be possible to measure a specific definition of happiness, but then the choice to use that definition would be subjective.

            I think there is an objective way to define the net sum of experience of any given person at any given moment. Maybe not ‘happiness’ in particular. But I can’t tell you how that definition looks like.

            The Worldbank article explains that the Ipsos poll seems to suffer from unrepresentative data, while the data that the article uses itself is far more extensive:

            Ok, but then I’m just relying on a claim about who did it right. Say I verify that the flaws you mentioned are real and discredit the first study, that still doesn’t prove that the study claiming rich countries are happier isn’t flawed. And even that wouldn’t prove that there aren’t other more credible studies claiming the opposite.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            IIRC Thinking Fast And Slow also addressed surveys that tried to follow people and measure how many hours out of their average day they were happy or unhappy. These tended to get different results from spot estimates of overall happiness. I think it was that within the US, the former kind of study found a satiation point where increasing wealth had zero effect on happiness, whereas the latter didn’t.

    • sty_silver says:

      Ignoring the objection in the above thread for this post, my intuition is that this…

      Have we seriously managed to somehow accidentally Moloch ourselves into a miserable existence with far more effort than it would have taken to establish some sort of idyllic hippie shepherd paradise?

      … is in fact the case. My current belief is that bureaucracy and signaling generally makes people unappy, and there is tons and tons of that in western countries. A special case of this is having a job that doesn’t feel like it is useful. On the other hand, I have never been to a poor country, but I’ve heard from people who have been that they seem happier and I don’t have any particular reason to doubt that.

      But even if all of this and more is true — say hunter-gatherer tribes were the happiest people who ever lived and from there it went steadily downhill (which I definitely don’t believe) — I don’t that has any implication on policy. If you have the choice you should definitely live in a richer country, because you can do way more good from there. And if you want to do good from a rich country, there are far more pressing problems than happiness of other people in it.

      I also honesty don’t believe that happiness of people in this paritcular, very short time stretch, with this particular situation on earth and this particular level of technology is meaningful data about anything. I definitely don’t think you can draw any conclusions about the long-term impact of technology on happiness from it.

      • A special case of this is having a job that doesn’t feel like it is useful.

        On the other hand … . A friend who had lived in a third world country, I think India, described the problem with buying food in the market. The first time you bought lentils (I think her example) from a merchant they were all lentils. But you had to keep checking, because once the merchant had you as a customer he would try to cheat by adding pebbles to increase the weight he was charging for.

        By her account that was normal–a low trust pattern where people were routinely trying to cheat each other and trying to keep from being cheated. Did that merchant feel as though that part of his job was useful?

    • Wander says:

      I feel like omnipresent mobile internet access might have a really extreme impact on external happiness in the west that would be lacking elsewhere.

  17. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Review of The Case Against Education

    I have a theory, since it was brought up that Prussia and Korea became more prosperous after mandating education.

    Aside from the possibility that general knowledge of the three Rs is really important, maybe child labor is so bad for people that pretty much warehousing kids so they aren’t working full time is a net gain.

    • albatross11 says:


      That’s a nice idea–it seems plausible. Especially if you think of child labor not as just having kids work, but as having kids of (say) 9 years old entering the workforce for good. Letting the kids have a few more years to grow up and learn what’s what seems like it could plausibly lead to a bunch of better outcomes.

      Another way you can imagine this working is by enabling a kind of society-wide sorting function. Before universal schooling, even one-in-a-million geniuses were likely to end up working as bricklayers or blacksmiths because that was what their parents were, and that was the environment in which they grew up. After universal schooling, I suspect there was a lot more sense that the really bright kids should do something more demanding–ending up eventually with going to college and acquiring even more high-end skills and training. At the endpoint of that, we have our current society, where we’ve done our best to vacuum up as many smart kids as possible and send them off to college, with both good and bad results.

    • quanta413 says:

      I have a theory, since it was brought up that Prussia and Korea became more prosperous after mandating education.

      Although causation may run both ways, I find it unclear whether there is a significant causal effect. South Korean economic growth rates were just as high in the 1960s as later (higher actually since the country was less developed) even though literacy rates kept going up over time. After the end of the Japanese occupation and the Korean war, it’s not surprising that a few years later growth skyrocketed.

      You need some educated populace to have a modern economy, but most people use little of their education.

      But maybe the benefit of mass education is to help create and sort that significant minority. A sorting engine of inequality and improved organizational capability that grows the whole economy/keeps it from shrinking.

    • dndnrsn says:

      How did Prussia become more prosperous – was it before, or after, the unification of Germany? Because – this is a half-formed idea – in many ways the Germans are better at scholarship than war; the Prussian success in training officers (especially staff officers) could be seen as turning education into military success. From the late 19th century through the world wars, Prussian and then German officers (again, especially staff officers) just tended to be a bit more competent than their equivalents, doctrine tended to be a little better (on the land, at least), and this created a sort of amplifying effect.

    • Anon. says:

      wrt Prussia the data we have shows the exact opposite. A replication of ‘Education and catch-up in the Industrial Revolution’

      European economic history provides essentially no support for the view that education of the general population has a positive causal effect on economic growth

      the evidence shows that education of the general population had, if anything, a negative causal impact on industrialisation in Prussia.

      Beware reverse causality when talking about growth and education!

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Well, there’s child labor, and then there’s child labor. We already let teenagers at certain ages work a bit. I see them waiting tables or busing tables all the time, or lifeguarding at the community pool. I’m pretty sure a fair few work as office admins, too.

      Working as an apprentice to a roofer or other tradesman seems fine depending on what tasks they are performing and what risks they are exposed to. Hell, there’s no reason they can’t mow lawns or spread some rocksalt before a winter storm.

      I am in general agreement with some of the author’s keypoints, and this also keeps me from signing on to Caplan’s hypothesis: radically reducing education spending is a radical idea and requires more large-scale experimental data to really back it up. It’s the opposite direction of where we and every other developed nation has been moving for the last, what, 150 years?

      I am somewhat less sympathetic to the analogy between scientific research and training. Yes, a lot of basic research looks totally pointless, but it might have GREAT value down the line. We should fund it. Training individual workers seems like a different thing because we’re not looking for 50-60 years pay-off periods. We need workers to be productive, and we need them to be productive really, really fast, like within 12 months for standard corporate jobs. Also it’s really, really, really, REALLY insulting that my parents and my in-laws are both working into their 70s, and so much of their money was sunk into teaching myself and my wife that Green means the American Dream in the Great Gatsby. Especially since my job is literally yelling at people and telling them that they owe money, which is a job that has been with us since the Sumerians.

      Yeah, the more I think about that, the more pissed I get. So what if the supercollider money isn’t “spent on other things”? Lowering my tax burden is good in and of itself. Slightly culture-warry, but kind of central to the point of the piece.

      From a personal perspective, I take a Caplan perspective. I’ve seen a bunch of people take on massive debt to get pointless MBA degrees and wind up in exactly the same position as me. But I’m even MORE cynical than Caplan. If I got into Northwestern of U of C business school, Caplan might recommend it for signalling value! But, no, it has to compliment my existing career and earnings profile, which it does not, because I am in my early 30s and am still staff, which means my career is basically destined to be staff, and you’d be a fool to burn six-figures on a pipe dream of “moving up” (especially since I have a house and want kids).

      The last paragraph in the piece is culture-warry but entirely wrong-headed, IMO.

  18. Well... says:

    This is continuing off a discussion I was left unfulfilled by in the most recent Links post. It’s about vegetarianism so it might be CW, in which case just politely let me know and I’ll leave a comment along the lines of “Oops, CW, please do not respond to this OP.” Hopefully our gracious host deems it to be merely a contentious topic, not a CW one.

    The more I learn about it, the more I am floored by the sophistication of plants and fungi: their sensory abilities, their unique kinds of intelligence, their capability for communication and self-defense, their ability to actively adapt to changing circumstances, etc. And it turns out that on the cellular level fungi have more in common with animals than plants, for whatever that’s worth.

    The vegetarians/vegans (I’ll use “VVs” for brevity) I’ve talked to apparently discount this, and derive their morality-based dietary restrictions* from a belief that animals are sole possessors of “subjective experiences”/”consciousness”.

    VVs acknowledge that plants and fungi can do things that “look like” communication, sensing, reacting to their environments, etc. but VVs apparently do not believe species in these kingdoms are capable of “subjective experiences” or “consciousness”.

    I’m trying to figure out why not. And, why do VVs believe that, e.g., sea anemones (which are animals and therefore off-limits to VVs) possess subjective experiences and consciousness? Fungi and most plants seem at least as sophisticated — both in physical structure and action capabilities — as sea anemones, so what gives?

    *Some vegans/vegetarians abstain from meat ostensibly for other reasons such as religion, health, cost, or plain old distaste. I’m not talking about those people.

    • fion says:

      I accept that I’m not the target audience but I want to respond anyway. I basically agree with you. I’m a vegetarian, but I’m all for other people eating mussels and insects and so on. The main thing in my opinion is laying off the big mammals and birds.

      • Well... says:

        The idea is that if it’s OK to eat the simplest kinds of animals, then it must be OK to eat the next-simplest, and so on. Where’s the line between big mammals/birds and others, and why is it there?

        • drunkfish says:

          Not the same person, but for me the goal is a vague sort of suffering minimization subject to the constraint that it doesn’t consume/end my life. I’d believe an argument that suffering is created when a mushroom is killed, but I can’t imagine (and doubt you’re asserting) that that suffering is comparable to a cow being slaughtered

          I plan to continue to eat. Left to choose between soy beans and chickens, it seems obvious to me which one generates more suffering. I’m definitely interested in your thoughts if you disagree with me.

          Edit since I’ve read some of your responses to others saying similar things: I don’t have an exact line, I occasionally eat insects but have mixed feelings about it. I have no interest in shellfish for strictly flavor reasons but would probably feel similarly. Do I need an exact line though? I see a few fairly distinct groups: things with central nervous systems, things with distributed nervous systems, and things without nervous systems. To me that seems likely to correlate with “ability to suffer”, so I try to select from the latter group(s). Should I worry about the difference in suffering between a soybean and a mushroom? Maybe, I’ve honestly never considered it before. Still, I think it’s pretty clear that replacing all vertebrates with beans is a significant step, and it’s definitely one I’m comfortable with taking even without a perfectly rigorous “line”.

          • Well... says:

            I agree that killing a chicken probably causes more suffering than picking a head of lettuce or a mushroom — but I’m very uncertain of it.

            The system of organs a plant or fungus uses to sense, respond, adapt, communicate, etc. might not technically be a nervous system, but it seems to work enough like one to give me pause. Then consider the methods and scale of modern industrial agriculture, and the ways in which we consume plants and fungi. If plants and fungi can experience at least their own kind of suffering, fear, or intense sense of un-rightness, they surely experience more of it at our hands, quantitatively, than animals do.

            My position is that any time we eat we are likely causing a lot of pain/suffering/etc., no matter what is consumed (with some exceptions like fruit). It seems dismissive to assume otherwise simply because what we’re eating lacks a nervous system similar to ours.

          • drunkfish says:


            If your stance is “We don’t know for sure how much plants suffer and should probably try to figure that out”, I’m totally on board. If your stance is “we don’t know for sure how much plants suffer, so we shouldn’t worry about food-related suffering at all and should just continue to eat animals”, then I think that’s ridiculous.

            I have, as I think does essentially every human ever, an extremely strong prior on “animals have more potential to suffer than plants”. That doesn’t mean it’s true for sure, but given that we have to decide on actions to take, we should listen to it until we see incredibly strong evidence to the contrary. Using the fact that plants can chemically signal eachother to wash your hands of the suffering involved in factory farming animals feels incredibly disingenuous.

            I guess I’m wondering what point you’re trying to make. Are you trying to say “vegetarians should consider this issue that they don’t seem to”? Because I agree with that. It seems though that you’re trying to say “we have incomplete information so vegetarianism isn’t logical”, which is totally incoherent and seems to me like you trying to rationalize not wanting to be a vegetarian.

          • Enkidum says:

            @drunkfish +1

          • Well... says:

            I’ve stated my position a few times. I’ll quote myself:

            To eat and survive, we must always kill, with the possibility that what we kill is something that can fear and suffer and scream out in pain in some way. I think that’s an important and horrible and awesome thing to confront and come to terms with, but I see moral vegetarianism as a kind of rug under which to sweep it instead.

          • If your stance is “We don’t know for sure how much plants suffer and should probably try to figure that out”, I’m totally on board. If your stance is “we don’t know for sure how much plants suffer, so we shouldn’t worry about food-related suffering at all and should just continue to eat animals”, then I think that’s ridiculous.

            You could take the fact that you’re contemplating whether plants might be morally relevant beings as a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that the morally relevant beings are precisely those that have the capacity to suffer.

        • fion says:

          Yeah, I agree with drunkfish. I don’t see any need for a line. I don’t believe that some acts are “good” and others are “evil”, I think there are pros and cons to every act that we need to try to weigh up.

          I mean, I guess inevitably a line will be in there somewhere, but only because there has to be a point when the good and the bad cancel out. There wouldn’t be anything particularly definable about the line, and we don’t necessarily need to know exactly where it is if we’re able to stay well away from it anyway.

        • Enkidum says:

          Where’s the line between big mammals/birds and others, and why is it there?

          This seems to me to be exactly the same kind of question as asking for the “line” between a child and an adult, or being a number of disparate grains of sand and a heap. (There’s an obvious CW analogue in the abortion debate as well.)

          We’re making categorical distinctions in a continuous space. There are always going to be grey areas when we do this. I think most people would agree that there is meaningful consciousness/intelligence/capacity for suffering at the level of big mammals, and that there isn’t at the level of fungi. Somewhere in between, things are going to get messy, and arbitrary. This is true of literally every question of moral importance that I’m aware of.

          • fion says:

            What I wanted to say but better said. 🙂

          • Enkidum says:

            Thanks, I think you were clear enough :).

          • Well... says:


            I agree except that I don’t think it’s so clear about plants and fungi being “way down there” in terms of experiential capacity. They might be, or they might have quite advanced capacity for suffering (in their own way).

            The point of this isn’t to move toward some new diet or persuade people away from their existing ones, it’s to inspire epistemic and therefore moral humility. There can be many good reasons to only eat vegetables and fungi (or to eat meat but not horses, dogs, and monkeys, etc.), but it’s not safe to assert that you’re morally purer for it.

            What set me off in the Links thread was someone calling vegetarianism a “compassionate” diet. When I eat vegetables I feel like I’m doing something about as compassionate as when I eat meat. It doesn’t stop me, but I feel very close to that act, to that violence.

          • rlms says:

            Are you confident that dead people don’t have the capacity to suffer? If so, you could always eat them.

          • Well... says:


            I am confident that dead people don’t have the capacity to suffer, just as I am confident that dead plants and fungi don’t have that capacity either. Dead cows don’t suffer, but VVs still won’t eat them even when they’re dead!

          • rlms says:

            Morality-VVs generally don’t eat cows that have been killed for meat, but I think we would usually eat ones that had died naturally (and not been bred for that purpose and had very unpleasant lives).

          • noddingin says:

            Morality-VVs generally don’t eat cows that have been killed for meat, but I think we would usually eat ones that had died naturally

            In falling from a cliff, preferably into a snowbank?

    • rlms says:

      Have you asked the VVs you know whether they think eating sea anemones is wrong, given that they are about as sophisticated as plants (I’m assuming this is true)? I think most VVs probably wouldn’t say it is. I don’t eat meat for mostly vaguely moral reasons but do eat fish/seafood in general out of habit. So although I do eat both e.g. salmon and bivalves, I think the former is a lot more morally dubious and the latter is perfectly fine.

      There are also VVs (e.g. many EA ones) who take a different perspective: they think eating meat is wrong because factory farmed animals typically have unpleasant lives rather than because killing animals is bad. I imagine there are some who would be happy to eat animals that had been killed after long and pleasant lives, and others who lean that way but don’t quite think that because of the general culture of vegetarianism/it is easier to draw a clear line against eating meat in general.

      • Well... says:

        although I do eat both e.g. salmon and bivalves, I think the former is a lot more morally dubious and the latter is perfectly fine.

        Why? Somewhere you’ve drawn a line, and I don’t see exactly why.

        As for factory farming, I said in the Links post that the way we breed, farm, and consume plants makes the meat industrial complex look like a nature preserve.

        If one’s reasoning is “the moral line is arbitrary but I go along with it because it’s convenience since that’s where everyone else draws it too” then that is at least intellectually honest. I’ve never seen anyone say that though.

        • yodelyak says:

          although I do eat both e.g. salmon and bivalves, I think the former is a lot more morally dubious and the latter is perfectly fine.

          Why? Somewhere you’ve drawn a line, and I don’t see exactly why.

          If I don’t put the line in express terms for you, does that mean it doesn’t exist? Of course not. If you act like it doesn’t exist until I perfectly demarcate it for you, does that mean you are being deliberately dense, or should I charitably ascribe it to benign obtuseness? If you can’t see moral distinctions, at what point am I justified in considering you a moral cripple and just telling you to take my word for it the way I would consider a color-blind person blind and, after a point, not worth explaining colors to, but rather require them to take things on authority?

          Do you see a difference between human children and rocks? Perhaps you see a large set of such differences, and a subset of those differences are of a sort such that it seems intuitive that children would be deserving of more moral weight than rocks? If so, maybe try making a list of such moral differences between children and rocks, and then when you’ve got a big list, see if some of the differences apply more-or-less equally to children and salmon, but distinguish between children/salmon on the one hand and bivalves/plants/rocks on the other. It’s one thing to disagree about how much moral weight to give which traits… people add “but one of them is a cancer researcher/ballet dancer/Van Gogh” to make novel formations of the trolley problem all the time. It’s another thing to present as though you can’t imagine any distinction at all between plants and animals.

          Surely you can see and name something that children and salmon have in common, and which seems like the sort of thing that deserves some moral weight, and which bivalves do not have?

          • Well... says:

            Why? Somewhere you’ve drawn a line, and I don’t see exactly why.

            If I don’t put the line in express terms for you, does that mean it doesn’t exist? Of course not.

            My “why” there was about why the line was drawn where it was, not about why it was drawn at all.

            Anyway, you’re talking about bivalves not having something that deserves moral weight. Yet vegetarians and vegans don’t eat bivalves.

          • yodelyak says:

            @Well… Okay, if you are asking *only* for a defense of people who feel morally compelled to minimize suffering by way of not eating bivalves… yeah, I am not sure if I even know of any such person, but I wouldn’t really understand that either.

            Put another way, I am not aware of a good reason why eating actual bivalves is more morally suspect than eating bivalve meat replicated in a star trek-type replicator, such that no bivalves were killed/harmed in the creation of the bivalve meat. Both seem about as morally neutral as “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” Caring about lab-grown, neuron-free meat feels to me like someone who hears a trolley problem and asks: How does the trolley feel about it?

            The reason I’d been stridently dismissive in my other comments, above and below, is because your specific words–including in your original post–made it seem like you were arguing that there wasn’t an understandable basis for being vegetarian generally rather than being a meat eater generally, or no basis for being vegan (the central feature of which is eating no dairy/eggs) rather than daily paying for and consuming dairy and eggs. I felt if you tabooed the words “consciousness” or “subjective experience” and just *tried* you could quite easily think of plenty of good reasons for not killing and eating horses/dogs/chickens/etc/etc/et-friggin-cetera that don’t equally apply to not “killing” and eating [parts of] mushrooms. A really salient example of you looking like you thought vegetarians are generally “what color is the trolley” level of morally vapid was that you didn’t concede to @rlms that the distinction between salmon and bivalves is pretty apparent. Not eating bivalves is hardly the central or defining feature of being either vegetarian or vegan, so if what you want to do is persuade more people who are the sort of vegetarians/vegans who do not currently eat bivalves to become the sort of vegetarians/vegans who do eat bivalves… I’m sorry to have intruded, that seems like a fine topic, although weirdly niche, but carry on. But maybe, just maybe, make it clearer that you respect the arguments for vegetarianism generally, you just think bivalves shouldn’t be thought of as animals for purposes of vegetarian eating habits.

            If what you want to do is discuss the weird way discussions of “consciousness” or “subjective experience” often weirdly convince people to do strange things like assume the whole world, even desks and rocks and bivalves, have subjective experiences, and indeed that subjective experiences are all there are (panpsychism), or that one’s own subjective experiences are all there are (solipsism)… well, that’s a fun conversation. In my experience some people do get weirdly dogmatic in their metaphysics, to the point of denying much of apparent reality after spending too much time loosely philosophizing about consciousness / subjectivity. Doubtless some such weirdo metaphysicians are vegetarians or vegans, but they’re noncentral examples, so if you want to argue about consciousness/subjective experience as a basis for ethics, maybe leave vegans/vegetarians out of it and just jump straight to talking about consciousness or subjective experience.

            (I mean, granted if we start as solipsists (or panpsychists), it’s indeed easier to say that all eating is equally not killing (or equally killing), and therefore harder to argue that vegetarianism makes sense. And perhaps some small subset of vegetarians, including ones you’ve talked to, have bifurcated the world into “insensate” and “sensate” and that’s all… which is weird, and might mean they have to not eat Roombas… okay, that is kind of an interesting topic. If you care to re-center some future thread, maybe this comment was helpful if pointing at what you meant to talk about?)

          • Well... says:

            If most VVs eat bivalves, that’s news to me.

            In my comment to rims I didn’t reject that there is a distinction (or many distinctions!) between salmon and bivalves, I asked what the distinction was, because while I can think of many ways in which the two are different, I still think they are both animals and as far as I know most VVs would therefore not eat either.

            I.e. VVs actually do NOT draw a line between salmon and bivalves, but between animals and species in the plant and fungal kingdoms.

          • Surely you can see and name something that children and salmon have in common, and which seems like the sort of thing that deserves some moral weight, and which bivalves do not have?

            I can’t. It seems like you are overestimating how self-evident this is. But I can only speak for myself.

          • albatross11 says:

            A backbone?

          • yodelyak says:

            @thehousecarpenter & @albatross11 Backbones is a good one, but I think that understates the gulf between bivalves and salmon.

            Not being a very good vegetarian advocate, I’m likely to get things wrong if I try to put exact terms around just how little bivalves have of the equipment most vertebrates have, and which is likely important for sensation. My sense is that lobsters have considerably more indicia of experiencing something like pain than bivalves… and lobsters are also invertebrates.

          • Protagoras says:

            Requiring a backbone seems to particularly underrate the cephalopods, many of which seem to be considerably more intelligent than fish.

    • Dacyn says:

      I don’t know whether fungi have subjective experiences, but as far as I know nothing we do to them is even remotely comparable to factory farming.

      • Well... says:

        A sizeable portion (maybe more than half?) of the mushrooms consumed in the US actually come from one small town in PA. I doubt that kind of output is possible without some serious industrialization.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Yep, it’s factory farming for fungi.

          I’ve been through there a few times. Smells like you’d expect.

        • Dacyn says:

          Interesting. But what evidence do we have that this actually causes pain to the fungi? For animal factory farming there are all kinds of abusive practices people point to. I mean, maybe analogous things happen with fungi but I haven’t heard of it.

          To be honest my main epistemological method here is just copying other people’s beliefs, I haven’t researched this stuff myself.

          • Well... says:

            It seems to me the cruelty we associate with industrial agriculture is in large part due to the unnaturalness of it when considering how the species might live and die in its natural environment (or the environment of its ancestors, since basically everything we eat has been domesticated to the point where it is unrecognizable from its undomesticated counterpart and wouldn’t survive in the wild anyway).

            So if plants and fungi can experience some kind of pain/suffering/fear/etc. (I am very uncertain they cannot) then the industry around how we breed, raise, harvest, and consume them is surely cruel.

          • Dacyn says:

            That’s a very abstract argument, I think the suffering experienced by animals in factory farms can be understood very concretely. I’m not saying I’m confident that the way we treat fungi is OK, but it seems like the evidence that it’s not OK is much weaker than the evidence that the way we treat animals is not OK. So it seems reasonable to eat fungi instead of animals, to try to reduce the chance you are causing unnecessary suffering.

          • Well... says:

            That’s a fair way to put it. VVs seem to typically make statements about the moral status of their diet with far more undue confidence than that.

          • Dacyn says:

            Well, to be clear I would still assign >99% chance that animal factory farming causes significant suffering, but maybe ~1% chance that fungi factory farming does so. (If you combine the physiological differences between them with the lack of reports on the awfulness of fungi farming.) But yeah, there’s no way to be sure about something like that.

            Edit: Maybe I am being overconfident, Lukeprog assigns only 95% probability to chimpanzees being conscious.

    • yodelyak says:

      Unless you are the BFG and can hear the screams of plants, it just seems weird that you would ask this question in earnest.

      their sensory abilities, their unique kinds of intelligence, their capability for communication and self-defense, their ability to actively adapt to changing circumstances, etc.

      You seem to be saying that you don’t understand how a dog or a horse or a monkey could be a better target of one’s compassion or empathy than a mushroom. That’s not really worth a response, it seems to me. As in, either you didn’t really try, or you are missing something that language can’t give you, any more than a flightless bird will be served by watching the flights of other birds. But, others have been nice to me and given me responses when I was asking questions that seemed clueless, so here goes.

      A dog can have lived subjective experiences such that, if the dog knew how to speak, it could eventually (perhaps with help from a therapist) find the words to describe its own past sensations/energy level/behaviors as “characterized by learned helplessness and re-traumatization.” Likewise a horse. It makes sense to talk about dogs who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, or horses who have trust issues after being in abusive relationships, or monkeys that are so distressed from loneliness they are engaging in self-harm. So it’s not that surprising that mistreating dogs/horses/monkeys is something we, uh, frown on–and something where “mistreating” doesn’t require detailed explanation for us all to know what it is we mean when talking about “mistreatment” of dogs or horses.

      That doesn’t follow for plants / fungi. Does it “hurt” a mushroom to cut it in half? What about merely to wash it? What about merely to step on the ground above the subterranean part of the whole fairy ring of fairy-ring-type mushrooms? What about merely to smell like rotting leaves in the presence of a mushroom without sufficient metabolic inputs (can a mushroom “experience” starvation)? If you imagine teaching a mushroom to use language to describe its experiences, what parts of the mushroom will the mushroom view as “me” and what parts as “my parents / my family / my community”? Can the mushroom carry a grudge? Is there a way in which it makes sense to think of a mushroom engaging in self-harm? We have no good basis to know how to use the word “pain” for mushrooms (or bivalves, if I am correct in thinking of them as neural-net-free), but we have a pretty good basis for applying the word to dogs and horses and chickens and fish and many other animals. Ditto, for mammals and birds at least, we have good guesses for how to use “suffering” and “learned helplessness” and “trauma.” For at least some bonding animals, we can use “friendship” and “trust” and “shame” as any youtube video about the interspecies friendships can show you. For at least some smarter animals, the rudiments of language and music and dance are variously present.

      The Arrogant Worms have a humorous song “Carrot Juice Constitutes Murder.” There’d be no joke if the obvious difference between on the one hand, carrots, and on the other hand, dogs, wasn’t, uh, obvious.

      • Well... says:

        You seem to be drawing a line at animals whose lived experiences we can relate to, in the sense of being an individual, a member of a generation with recognizable parents, of being capable of experiencing trauma, or friendship or trust, or emotions, etc. in a way we would recognize.

        I don’t have a problem with that. It’s basically why most meat-eaters (in most of the world anyway), including me, don’t eat dogs, horses, etc. I just don’t think the line is as un-blurry as you are making it seem, and I don’t think it always lies where you think it does.

        Our inability to conceive of how something as alien to us as a fungus experiences life does not mean its experience is discountable. To eat and survive, we must always kill*, with the possibility that what we kill is something that can fear and suffer and scream out in pain in some way. I think that’s an important and horrible and awesome thing to confront and come to terms with, but I see moral vegetarianism as a kind of rug under which to sweep it instead.

        *Unless you’re one of those Jainists who only eat fallen fruit, but I don’t know if they really “survive” that way.

        • yodelyak says:

          I haven’t told you where the line(s) are for me, or how blurry I think the line(s) are. For all you know I support cannibalism if proper rites are observed. What I’m saying is that either you are very much extremely neuro-atypical, or having an odd day, or you already know the answer to your question, and are just here to thump people whose answer is different than yours because you enjoy telling people whose circle of concern is bigger than yours that they must be hypocritical or unable to feed themselves.

          Quite possibly, they eat better than you do, and are not hypocritical. Who is the supposed VV who you are arguing with? Above you strain credulity by acting as though there’s no plausible distinction between bivalves and salmon. (I am not here to defend breatharians or extreme Jainists, and you didn’t start by picking on them, so don’t change the subject.)

          The distinction between fish (which flinch in pain, and have eyes and beating hearts and can navigate physical barriers in ways that make them appear intelligent enough to form mental models with something resembling “anticipation” and consequently seem capable of anticipating future pain, although that’s a stretch) and dogs (for whom the capacity to suffer in anticipation of future pain is manifest) is clear. The distinction between fish and rocks is no less clear. What is it about fungi that you think robs you of any ability to distinguish between them and fish?

          Anyway, going to dash, so won’t be here to respond. Hope it wasn’t all wasted effort. —

          • Well... says:

            You’ve implied that you won’t be around to reply to this but I don’t know if that also means you won’t be around to read this either. If so then I guess it’s my wasted effort, not yours…

            Also, I’ll step over this weird ad hominem stuff you’re saying about my neurotypicality. But I do want to point out that it’s ad hominem and not a good look and that the internet would be a better place without it.

            Of course there are many plausible distinctions between bivalves and salmon. (But who cares? VVs will not eat either of those types of animals!)

            It’s not a question of whether there are distinctions but of which distinctions and how sure we ought to be about them. In VVs I see a lot of reverence and certainty about certain distinctions that upon a closer look seem to me arbitrary and hard to be that certain about. They’re not wrong to make distinctions; we all do.

          • yodelyak says:


            I didn’t mean to be ad hominem with the neuro-atypical / odd day comment. I really did think you had intended what I took as you having said that you couldn’t see a difference between salmonids and bivalves. I thought the whole point of your thread was to ask what principle it was vegetarians could possibly be invoking for vegetarianism, of any kind, to make any sense. That is really an unusual thing for a person to think–agree or disagree, most people aren’t that confused that vegetarians even exist, I would have thought–and I didn’t know how to point at how unusual what you were saying seemed, short of by pointing at how odd the mind would be (or how odd a day a normal mind would be having, on the day) that it couldn’t see even a potentially good reason for vegetarianism, nor even a potentially morally relevant difference between salmon and bivalves. Again, that seemed to me like the expressly desired reading you wanted me to take of what you’d written. Please note I didn’t call you an idiot or other dismissive names, I said you were making a claim that seemed atypical in a way I didn’t have any good explanation for–I felt I was at the limit of my ability for being polite while still communicating at all. It turns out the explanation was that the read I made of what you’d written wasn’t what you intended. Now that I see you didn’t mean to endorse that bivalves and salmon are moral equivalents… I just think we’ve all clearly been pretty sloppy and wish I’d stayed out of this thread altogether if I didn’t have time to be more patient and nicer.

            I think the problem here was a noncentral example mystery wrapped in a noncentral example secret and thrown to the bottom of the what-do-we-mean-by-“conscious”-anyway ocean.

            I.e., a) vegetarians who are vegetarians because of a principle that cares specially about bivalves are a noncentral example of vegetarians; b) vegetarians who do not eat bivalves because they haven’t noticed the way bivalves are animals but are not conscious are committing the noncentral example fallacy by applying a principle “don’t eat animals [because animals are conscious]” to noncentral animals that, unlike most animals, are not conscious; c) vegetarians who have weird levels of investment in unusual metaphysical notions of subjective experience or consciousness are noncentral examples of vegetarians, and there’s no sense talking of them as vegetarians, we should just talk about their weird metaphysical notions separately, not least because d) the typical vegetarian, like the typical member of the public, probably doesn’t use “consciousness” or “subjective experience” in a very consistent way anyway, because these are among the most amorphous terms ever and we use them colloquially about a dozen different ways.

            I plan to just take a big step back–I don’t really see how anything I’m saying here could be very helpful to whatever conversation it is you are trying to have, and after swearing off this thread once already, I find I’m back and have spent too much time all over again, and still said nothing useful.

            The only dog I have in this fight is that I know lots of vegetarians who I think are cool, principled, and worthy of emulation in the sober and careful attitude they have about not causing pain without a good reason, so I don’t like seeing vegetarians knocked about for no reason. We could all be so lucky that the rest of the world (including me) learns from the vegetarians / vegans in our midst. So, that’s not really a very helpful thought, probably–you already knew that people who liked vegetarians and would stick up for them exist.

            Maybe the helpful comment here is to point at “proves too much” and suggest that whatever it is you want to prove about vegetarian’s logic, it shouldn’t *also* work to prove that we should all be willing to eat dogs or horses, unless you are planning to argue that as well.

          • Well... says:

            I didn’t think sea anemones were that noncentral because I’m pretty sure if sea anemones were eaten (and for all I know some are, but you used the better example of bivalves which I had originally avoided simply because bivalves are at least capable of locomotion), VVs would abstain from eating them because they are animals and not plants or fungi.

            It’s true though that sea anemones and bivalves are both not what we’d typically think of as animals. But they work exactly because they are extreme examples, meant to test a principle.

            BTW for the record I did list a bunch of other reasons why someone might not eat meat. I even think moral reasons are OK, I just think the moral reasons usually given are intellectually dishonest and meant to absolve the VV of the moral culpability we all have as living things that must consume (and likely cause pain/suffering/etc. to) other living things in order to survive.

        • noddingin says:

          To eat and survive, we must always kill* …. *Unless you’re one of those Jainists who only eat fallen fruit

          Picking fruit does not kill the tree.

          • albatross11 says:

            Intuitively, you could also decide that you care more about suffering of things that are more like you and so that you identify with. I wouldn’t be willing to eat a Neanderthal (if any still existed), even if that wouldn’t technically be cannibalism. I’m willing to eat cows even though they surely have some kind of experience of suffering I’d recognize as such, but I’m in some sense less comfortable eating cows than fish, and less comfortable eating fish than spinach.

            Fruit is easy–the plant is basically *bribing* you to eat it and crap out the seeds somewhere. But is it possible to live on only fruit? (If you’re just worried about animal deaths, you could also have eggs and milk, right?)

          • Aapje says:


            Picking fruit does not kill the tree.

            If you eat fallen fruit, you will end up killing/eating insects.

          • Well... says:

            I feel the same way as albatross11. BTW, I think it’s possible to survive only on fruit…certain fruits, maybe. Someone once told me that bananas are a nutritionally complete food. But I’ve heard that to survive only on fruit you have to basically eat ALL the time, and you’re going to wake up famished every day.


            If you’re arguing that eating fruit kills insects because it deprives them of food, that’s a whole different debate, maybe a debate about whether the energy contained in food is zero sum and means that we always deprive others of food whenever we eat. I am not trying to have that debate!

          • Aapje says:


            No, the insects will be inside the fruit that you will eat and you won’t always notice.

          • Well... says:

            Oh, gotcha. Yeah, I guess fallen fruit has a much higher probability of containing free protein insects.

        • Enkidum says:

          It seems to me the cruelty we associate with industrial agriculture is in large part due to the unnaturalness of it

          Speaking as a former vegan and someone with a lot of VV friends, I have never heard this argument. The cruelty is due to capacity for suffering and the infliction of suffering. A pet lives in an extremely unnatural situation, but this is not considered “cruel”, even by those like Peter Singer who advocate against pets.

          Our inability to conceive of how something as alien to us as a fungus experiences life does not mean its experience is discountable. To eat and survive, we must always kill*, with the possibility that what we kill is something that can fear and suffer and scream out in pain in some way. I think that’s an important and horrible and awesome thing to confront and come to terms with, but I see moral vegetarianism as a kind of rug under which to sweep it instead.

          I think we have very good reasons to think that fungi do not have the capacity for suffering. I think that we have very good reasons to think that all mammals do. Drawing a line between animal and non-animal, as VVs do, is a conservative position that guarantees that everything you do eat is something that does not have the capacity for suffering (sorry, I’ve read about plant sensation as well and I don’t see how you can possibly think it applies here). There may be some things you don’t eat that, strictly speaking, might have no capacity for suffering (e.g. bivalves), but that’s no great loss.

          • Well... says:

            The cruelty is due to capacity for suffering and the infliction of suffering.

            In my experience only a small minority of VVs say we shouldn’t be allowed to hunt, and I’ve never seen one say we should prevent predators of other species from hunting their prey, even though hunting inflicts suffering on the hunted. That’s why the critical emphasis on the industrial livestock industry always struck me as having a lot to do with its unnaturalness, even if nobody explicitly made that argument.

            Drawing a line between animal and non-animal, as VVs do, is a conservative position that guarantees that everything you do eat is something that does not have the capacity for suffering

            If that’s what one believes, then it’s at least an intellectually honest position. You’re the first person I’ve ever seen say it explicitly.

            (sorry, I’ve read about plant sensation as well and I don’t see how you can possibly think it applies here)

            I said I don’t think it can be so easily discounted, but I accept that as an irreducible difference of opinion where we can agree to disagree.

      • albatross11 says:

        This feels like the kind of argument where you point out that there’s no absolutely clear line between, say, yelling at prisoners and breaking them on the wheel, or used-car-salesman type deceptive sales tactics and Madoff-level financial fraud. And use that to justify robbing all your investors blind while your torturers break your helpless prisoners on the wheel.

        I’m not quite sure what the term for this style of argument is….

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          It resembles a slippery slope argument, but usually sliding down the slippery slope is presented as a problem. In this case, there’s a risk that sliding down the slippery slope is the hoped-for policy.

        • Well... says:

          You’re talking about a slippery slope, but that isn’t really what I’m doing. The crux of my argument is what I said immediately above:

          “To eat and survive, we must always kill, with the possibility that what we kill is something that can fear and suffer and scream out in pain in some way. I think that’s an important and horrible and awesome thing to confront and come to terms with, but I see moral vegetarianism as a kind of rug under which to sweep it instead.”

          Or to analogize, even though there is indeed a big difference between the used car salesman and the Madoff-fraudster, all people pursuing business dealings are engaging in some kind of manipulation that potentially takes money from people who would have been better off not having engaged in the trade. Calling yourself a Non-Madoff and forswearing pyramid schemes doesn’t absolve you of that.

        • Jiro says:

          Asking someone how they delineate between prohibited action X and permitted action Y is often necessary to prevent the dividing line from being subject to a motte/bailey where the person’s stated reason is easy to defend, but doesn’t describe very well how he actually behaves, and the reason that he actually uses is harder to defend.

      • BeefSnakStikR says:

        The Arrogant Worms have a humorous song “Carrot Juice Constitutes Murder.” There’d be no joke if the obvious difference between on the one hand, carrots, and on the other hand, dogs, wasn’t, uh, obvious.

        Decades ago people thought it was obviously fine when carrots were played by parsnips in orangeface, but that doesn’t make it right.

    • Wrong Species says:

      VVs acknowledge that plants and fungi can do things that “look like” communication, sensing, reacting to their environments, etc. but VVs apparently do not believe species in these kingdoms are capable of “subjective experiences” or “consciousness”.

      Do you think roombas are conscious as well?

      I’m not sure what the point of this conversation is since you don’t really care about plant experience so much as using this as a gotcha against vegetarians. I’m pretty sure you even admitted that the last time you brought it up.

      • Well... says:

        I’m not arguing that plants and fungi definitely have consciousness, I just don’t think it’s obvious that they don’t, and see the possibility of it as totally plausible given what they can do and how they’re built, more and more about which we’re learning all the time. (The same cannot be said of Roombas.)

        I’m not sure what the point of this conversation is since you don’t really care about plant experience so much as using this as a gotcha against vegetarians. I’m pretty sure you even admitted that the last time you brought it up.

        It’s something I don’t really see how they could have reasoned past. Maybe that’s what a “gotcha” is, but I don’t mean to bring it up to make anyone look silly. If there’s something I’ve missed I want to know.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Why doesn’t it apply to roombas? They communicate, sense and react to the environment. The same could be said of self driving cars. If for whatever reason you don’t think those apply, tell me what capabilities an AI could do that would signal it having consciousness.

          Your question isn’t motivated by any concerns with philosophy of mind questions. I’m betting your views on AI consciousness don’t line up at all with what you thinking vegetarians should believe about plants. And I doubt you’ve ever seriously considered plants as being conscious. The purpose of your argument isn’t to debate the ethics of interacting with plants. Your question has one purpose, which is to discredit vegetarianism. Either make arguments in good faith or don’t make them at all. In this thread alone, you already have three different people making the claim that you are acting in bad faith. Maybe you should pay attention to that.

          • Dacyn says:

            Just for the record, I am a vegetarian and I don’t understand why people think that Well… is arguing in bad faith, I haven’t seen any evidence of that and the things people are calling evidence strike me as just typical mind fallacy.

          • Chalid says:

            Agreed with Dacyn.

          • Well... says:

            I will draw a line and say that pain/suffering/fear/etc. only can be experienced by organic living things. I.e. things that evolved over billions of years/were created by God.

            We are not God. We created Roombas out of inorganic materials, and they remain inorganic and non-living even in Roomba form. A hyper-sophisticated Roomba that was basically Data from Star Trek would still be inorganic and non-living. The conclusion reached in TNG season 2 episode 9, where Picard said “aren’t we all just robots basically?” to prove that Data was a person with rights, is incorrect.

            Anyway, there is no controversy over whether it’s morally OK to eat a Roomba.

          • quanta413 says:

            I don’t think I’m going to trust all of you around my Roomba now…

            Seriously, don’t eat my Roomba.

          • Well... says:

            If you’re a Roomba owner your trust may have already been violated.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I will draw a line and say that pain/suffering/fear/etc. only can be experienced by organic living things.

            Why is being organic a necessary condition to having consciousness? Does carbon have special consciousness-making properties? If those properties you mentioned earlier(sensing, communicating) aren’t enough to establish consciousness, then what makes you think plants have consciousness?

          • rlms says:

            You should read Brian Tomasik’s thoughts on consciousness if you haven’t already.

          • Well... says:

            @Wrong SPecies:

            See the next line I wrote after the one you quoted.


            I think I have/sounds familiar, but I’m not sure.

          • Wrong Species says:


            That doesn’t answer my question so I’ll repeat myself: if sensing and communication don’t indicate consciousness in machines, then why do you think we should take seriously the idea of plants being conscious? What is your true basis for believing that?

          • Well... says:

            Because we’re not God. We can’t create living things out of non-living materials. And I believe that being a living thing is a prerequisite for having consciousness (not sure if “consciousness” is the best term, but I take your meaning).

          • Wrong Species says:

            Let’s just assume that is all true. Sensing and communicating is clearly not proof of consciousness. So what it is it about plants that make you think they are conscious?

          • John Schilling says:

            Because we’re not God. We can’t create living things out of non-living materials.


          • rlms says:

            And I believe that being a living thing is a prerequisite for having consciousness (not sure if “consciousness” is the best term, but I take your meaning).

            Standard Philosophical Thought Experiment #476:
            Suppose we take a normal conscious human, and replace one of her neurons with a man-made gadget that does the same thing. Is she still conscious? Assuming you say yes, replace the rest of them one by one. Eventually al of her neurons will be “non-living”. Does that make her non-conscious?

          • Well... says:

            Let’s take it even further, since being alive isn’t only something that happens in the brain: suppose you replaced every last cell in a person’s body, one by one, with synthetic ones that fully replicated the functions of the originals. Do you still have a living person?

            I don’t know.

            Maybe it would be impossible because after some critical number of cell-swaps you’d die? There was a guy in France who lived a fairly normal life with only like 10% of his brain. But maybe there could never be a guy who lived similarly with only 9% of his brain.

          • Skivverus says:

            The main issue with that thought experiment is if the answer isn’t “yes”, but merely “probably”, it’s no longer repeatable.

            There’s also the issue of “how do you know that what’s saying ‘yes’ is still the person”: by the criterion of the thought experiment, you would expect a response of ‘yes’ regardless of the (lack of) internal experience.

      • Chalid says:

        We can’t be sure that Roombas aren’t a little bit conscious too, or everything else for that matter. We don’t know any reason that there’d be a threshold level of complexity below which consciousness should drop to zero.

        Panexperientialism is a perfectly respectable philosophy and I find it the most appealing of the alternatives.

    • hydro says:

      Firstly, I don’t object to eating sea anemones or bivalves, and no one I know who is not a Jainist does either. I think vegetarians who are vegetarian for suffering-reduction reasons and vegetarians who refuse to eat bivalves are groups with fairly little overlap. (If this means I’m not the target of your question, sorry.)

      Secondly, I currently am okay with eating fungi because I think it is very unlikely that they suffer. Your comment has made me update toward being more uncertain about that, and I’ll probably do some cursory googling at least. But the following would be my reasoning prior to that.

      The only thing that I know is capable of subjective experiences is myself. Things that are extremely like me (e.g. other humans) I would say are also extremely likely to have similar subjective experiences. The less like me things get, the more uncertain I am. I think there are more empirical ways of testing a thing’s ability to suffer, e.g. reaction to pain stimuli, what the nervous system looks like, etc., but none of those are actually the existence of subjective experiences, and my judgments are less of a “this thing is obviously suffering” than “I think it’s likely enough that this thing could suffer that I will avoid causing it possible suffering”.

      I’ll admit I’m no biologist, and am perhaps assuming more similarity between fungi and plants than is warranted, but based on my current estimation of what sorts of system can experience suffering, and what sorts of systems fungi are, they seemed dissimilar* enough to be unlikely to suffer. And therefore I eat them.

      *Dissimilar is gesturing at a more vague thing here – not solely how different they were, but different in ways that are probably important, and also different in particular directions.

      • Well... says:

        Before this thread, I’d never heard of vegetarians eating bivalves.

        The only thing that I know is capable of subjective experiences is myself. Things that are extremely like me (e.g. other humans) I would say are also extremely likely to have similar subjective experiences. The less like me things get, the more uncertain I am.

        I agree with this and consider it intellectually honest. I just don’t consider it obvious that there’s a big drop-off in likeliness of capability for subjective experiences once you get outside (or near the edges, let’s say) of the animal kingdom. And the more I learn about plants and fungi, the more I wonder whether the drop-off away from me on the plot implied above doesn’t have a lot of bumps and plateaus and jagged spikes in it.

    • caethan says:

      One obvious distinction is that there is a fair bit of vegetable food that is literally made to be eaten: nectar and fruit. Fruits are made as seed-dispersion devices, with some tempting flesh around them to get animals to eat them and distribute the seeds within, embedded in nutritious animal poop. Nectar is bait for soliciting animals to distribute their pollen and inseminate other flowers. Maybe we should all just be eating fruit and honey.

      As far as I know, there’s no animals that have made having other creatures eat part of them an actual part of their life strategy.

      Then there’s seeds, grains, and nuts. When I eat dried beans, I’m quite confident there’s no sensing at all going on, even if it would put out a sprout under the right conditions.

      • fion says:

        I suppose milk is the closest thing to an animal equivalent of nectar and fruit.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        As far as I know, there’s no animals that have made having other creatures eat part of them an actual part of their life strategy.

        Aren’t there flukes that infect rats and make them behave in such a way as to get themselves eaten by cats? Also, male praying mantises and some spiders that routinely get eaten after mating? Also lizards with detachable, re-growing tails, so that if a predator bites the tail, they just shed it, sacrificing a bit of themselves to escape being eaten entirely?

        I guess none of those are exactly an example analogous to fruit, but they’re the closest I can think of.

        • moonfirestorm says:

          Looked up praying mantises, and it only seems to happen in certain situations, with the male often taking steps to minimize his risk of getting eaten. It seems to be “this is just an unfortunate part of having kids”, where they’re trying to avoid it whenever possible. Definitely doesn’t seem fruit-analogous.

          Similarly, lizards are just deploying a novel defense mechanism: if lizards never got eaten, the lizard life cycle would proceed without any interruption.

          The parasite case is interesting though (and they do exist: one example is Toxoplasma gondii, which has been mentioned on this site a few times). It’s not really quite the same, because the main goal of the predator is eating the host, and getting eaten doesn’t play a role in the host’s life cycle, but it works if you consider the parasite’s

          So all we have to do is bioengineer a parasite that infests major food animals, needs to be eaten by a human as part of its life cycle, and has comparable moral worth to the animal it infests. Then have it co-evolve with a growing culture of vegetarianism, letting the parasite come up with effective moral strategies to present its host as something we want to eat. Simple solution.

  19. Zad says:

    I just wrote a post on the utility of nutritional epidemiology (the studies that the media often covers)

  20. Andrew Hunter says:

    Has anyone noticed the open threads loading much more slowly lately? I also get a sense that they’re running some sort of fairly expensive Javascript–my browser seems to choke on them a bit.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Not that, but when I reload, it takes several tries to get the chronological list to actually go to the new post.

    • rahien.din says:

      I’ve noticed that too.

    • Well... says:

      If by “lately” you mean for the past half-year or so, then yes. I thought I noticed them taking longer to load once the number of comments got up past about 300 and so it was therefore a quantity-of-data issue, but I might have noticed wrong.

  21. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Does the fine-tuning of physical constants preclude biochemistry arising in possible world’s where fast interstellar travel would be possible?
    I feel like there’s a philosophical insight hiding in the fact that we are quarantined from any other planets with sapient life, but I don’t know if it’s entailed by physics or an “Out of the Silent Planet” situation. 😀

    • The easy way to get fast interstellar travel is to put stars closer together. Any reason why intelligent life couldn’t evolve on the planets of stars in a relatively dense cluster?

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        One wonders about dense clusters implying more vulnerability to novae, etc. There’s also potential correlations with the neighborhood quality–are dense star clusters more likely to arise in “dangerous” areas (near stellar core black holes?) I have no idea.

        More generally, fast is also a matter of perspective: assuming we build some reasonably cee-fractional ships, going to Alpha Centauri in 40 years would be tedious but not that big a deal for the Noldor, no?

        • albatross11 says:

          It seems like the stars being “too far apart” for interstellar travel is very dependent on the lifespan and living requirements of the species in question. If it had somehow happened that Earth had evolved sentient Redwood trees with 2000-3000 year lifespans, getting to Alpha Centauri wouldn’t seem so daunting.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Sentient redwoods in space! That would be so cool.

            How do we make it work? Perhaps they are from low-gravity planets. Perhaps they have to send out saplings.

            Trees with hands? Trees with symbiotes with hands?

            Niven: stage trees.

          • Nornagest says:

            I hear hexapodia is the key insight.

          • albatross11 says:

            “In today’s episode of Ents In Space….”

          • Randy M says:

            Speaker for the Dead has sentient alien trees, though they don’t ever actually board spaceships.

          • Kestrellius says:


            I have sapient spacefaring trees in some of my back-burner projects! They’re called the Weqr. I guess they’re not exactly sapient trees so much as sapient forests; basically each tree is a very simple processor, and they transmit information by changing color — they have color-sensors that developed from photosynthesis equipment. So they’re way, way less efficient than humans in terms of processing power — you need a pretty big forest to get something as powerful as a human brain, and they think really slowly. However, they have a pretty big advantage in that they can transmit information to each other in a very accurate way, and there’s no real upper limit on how many nodes they can attach to one “brain” — so if they can cover a whole planet in trees, they get a very very powerful forestmind indeed. It would take a long time for a thought to propagate from a tree on one side of the planet to a tree on the other, but because the inter-tree communication isn’t very lossy, there’s not much internal conflict or miscommunication to speak of. It’d be like if individual humans could communicate just as easily and accurately as individual neurons.

            The initial species of trees that started doing this discovered how to start communicating with other species as well, and then how to engineer new types of plants for specific purposes. Eventually they figured out how to make giant rocket-trees.

            Of course, it’s questionable how “sapient” or “sentient” they really are, since they think so differently. They don’t have many sensory organs other than their photosensors, so their ability to feel things like pain is limited. They’re definitely conscious, though — of course, I’m working with a panpsychic model in which consciousness is an innate property of information (i.e., everything), but consciousness isn’t very interesting or useful unless it’s attached to things like sense organs and memory systems.

            So, for example, a stick lying on the beach is conscious, but all it’s conscious of is “I am a stick”.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Kestrellius: In a language where English “a stick” translates as “Groot”?

          • Aapje says:

            @Le Maistre Chat

            ‘Groot’ is Dutch for big. The superhero belong to the species Flora colossus. Colossus means big as well, of course.

            The Dutch word for stick is ‘tak.’

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Sapient trees?! More like sappy ents, am I right?!

            I’ll show myself out.

        • Nornagest says:

          Open clusters arise in star-forming regions. All the stars in an open cluster form about the same time, and the cluster’s loosely bound and relatively short-lived: typically a few hundred million years. That’s not likely long enough for intelligent life to evolve. Supernovae would be more frequent earlier on, but life would be correspondingly less likely.

          Globular clusters are much denser and usually much older. That means few supernovae, but they have low metallicity, which makes them relatively less likely to host large planetary systems. Orbital disruption might also be a problem because close encounters between stars are so much more likely.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            When this universe is much older, won’t globular clusters be as metal-rich as the disk the Solar planets formed from? If one was writing philosophical SF, maybe there’s a moral arc to the universe where only far in the future will sapient organisms be altruistic enough to be trusted with the consequences of interstellar travel. 😛

          • Nornagest says:

            Probably, yeah. Westerlund 1 is thought to be evolving into a globular cluster, and its stars are relatively high-metallicity. Wouldn’t look for intelligent life there, though: it’s only about five million years old, and besides it’s full of the type of massive, short-lived stars that are very interesting to astronomers but have a bad habit of exploding.

            It’s just that they’re rare and last a long time, so most of the ones around right now are old and metal-poor.

    • skef says:

      In the actual world this becomes a question about the lower limits on metabolism (given that the relevant conception of “fast” is presumably a subjective one). Cold reduces the per-time-unit effects of entropy enough that a very slow-living organism seems possible. And mental activity could presumably lag other bodily activity by one or two orders of magnitude, and even be variable.

      Of course, intelligent organisms with very different metabolic rates may not have much to relate to one another.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Cool answers, you guys. So clearly it’s not even physically necessary in this world for every star system with sapient organisms to be quarantined, let alone possible worlds. Rather it’s something about us, and hypothetical other fast-metabolism creatures living around stars of average or lower density.

    • fion says:

      In my opinion the fun answer to your question is to increase the speed of light. Unfortunately I don’t think this works very well. In order to make light go faster you need to make the ratio of the strength of electricity to magnetism larger. Probably the easiest way to imagine it would be to make the magnetic strength weaker and keep electricity the same. That means no electric motors, no electromagnets, pretty much no permanent magnets. It doesn’t change astrophysics too much (apart from making it simpler).

      So do you think you can build interstellar rockets without all that stuff? If so you might be onto a winner.

      But there’s probably other problems I’ve not thought of. (Like maybe it makes the strength of gravity weaker???)

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        If everything in the world was the same except c, which was 1000x as large, that would not affect in any way our interstellar travel, given that we can’t begin to approach c as it is.

        • fion says:

          True. I guess I’m hand-waving some advanced technology to change that, but perhaps that isn’t fair.

          • albatross11 says:

            The difference is, if c were 1000x higher, then you could expect that some advanced future technology might be able to make interstellar travel as routine as, say, sailing across the Atlantic was in 1800. You could have interstellar empires held together by the threat that space marines would land on your planet if you tried to rebel, sometime in the lifetime of the rebels rather than several generations later. With the current value of c relative to the distances between stars in this part of the galaxy, you have to either assume FTL travel of some kind, or give up on that kind of story entirely and think about what you get without it. (Stuff like _A Deepness in the Sky_ and _Shipstar_ are what you get with that assumption. You can have the Qeng Ho, but probably not the United Federation of Planets or the Galactic Empire.)

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            My thinking was that we live in a universe where it’s not viable to build a starship that can go help or hurt sapient organisms orbiting other stars. Why, if it could have been otherwise?
            C.S. Lewis treated the vast distances in space as a moral quarantine, though he muddied the issue by writing old timey SF where Venus and Mars were inhabited. “interstellar empires held together by the threat that space marines would land on your planet if you tried to rebel” would just be a special case of being so bad we need to be quarantined. But given the insights in this thread about lifespan, there could be something like sapient redwoods not subject to the laws that apply to us…

          • albatross11 says:

            Someone with good enough technology could probably build interstellar traveling robots that sterilized any likely emerging technological civilizations by, say, nudging some big rocks to slam into their home planet before they’ve gotten decent space technology. That’s way worse than Hessian Mercenaries from Space putting down your attempt to rerun the American Revolution on some faraway solar system, but the laws of the universe don’t seem to make it impractical.

            But yeah, it’s interesting to think about what this looks like when you’ve got sapient redwoods. From their perspective, a trip from here to alpha centauri at .1c is kinda long, but nothing really unreasonable. And so they can have the threat of space marines or space Hessian mercenaries holding their interstellar empire together–if you rebel, why, it’ll only be a century or so until retaliation arrives.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:


            Someone with good enough technology could probably build interstellar traveling robots that sterilized any likely emerging technological civilizations by, say, nudging some big rocks to slam into their home planet before they’ve gotten decent space technology. That’s way worse than Hessian Mercenaries from Space putting down your attempt to rerun the American Revolution on some faraway solar system, but the laws of the universe don’t seem to make it impractical.

            That’s the kicker, isn’t it? Hurling 0.1c kinetic kill robots at an inhabited planet in another star system isn’t inconceivably advanced, while sending someone to visit them for good or ill requires, at minimum, 2x the energy.

          • albatross11 says:

            ISTR that you can use a magsail to slow down at least most of the way. So you can probably send killer robots or care packages, but it’s hard to do anything within current human lifespans.

            It’s not just retribution for seceding, either. Why does anyone on Earth care if there’s a rebellion on the colony at Alpha Centauri, 40+ years away by an extremely expensive one-shot spaceship that can take a handful of colonists in coldsleep or a little bit of cargo? It’s hard to see those expensive one-shot spaceships carrying, say, tribute or assistance or trade that would make interstellar war worthwhile. If we’re 40 years super-expensive travel from each other, then declaring our allegiance to the same king or something doesn’t really matter much. Nor is there much aid coming in case of an emergency–if a plague starts wiping out the colonists, the nearest help from the empire is 40 years away.

      • Aron Wall says:

        It’s not very meaningful to talk about changes in the speed of light, because this quantity has units of length / time, so its numerical value depends on the choice of measurement system. This makes it very unclear what you would be holding fixed as you make this change, since you’d have to be comparing it to other quantities involving length and time.

        It’s usually better to discuss what would happen if you changed dimensionless constants, such as the fine-structure constant.

        In my own work, I usually just use the convention c = 1.

        • albatross11 says:

          We’re really talking about the relationship between the distance between stars and the universe’s speed limit. As long as it’s not possible even in principle to get from here to Alpha Centauri in less than four years, no matter how good our technology gets, that puts some limits on what kind of stories we can imagine for the future. For this discussion, I think multiplying c by 10 equals shrinking the scale of the map of nearby stars by a factor of 10.

        • fion says:

          In my own work, I usually just use the convention c = 1.

          Me too, but there’s no physical significance in doing that; it’s just convenience. I think it is meaningful to talk about changes in the product of the permitivity and permeability of free space, though, since this changes the relative strengths of electricity and magnetism.

    • Kestrellius says:

      No, in a language in which “a stick” translates as “not fire“.

      …I’m a little bit upset that you thought I was referencing something else. Damn MCU, crushing worthier fanda beneath its heels… :p

      EDIT: Whoops, replied to the wrong post. Meant to reply to Le Maistre Chat above.

    • yodelyak says:

      For fun, I took a run at making express what I think you are pointing at with an “Out of the Silent Planet” situation (a CS Lewis book not all readers here will know).

      The philosophical insight might be a corollary to Philosophisticat’s rule upthread… Rule: “A good rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t interact with people in ways they wouldn’t be willing to interact with you if they knew your reasons.” Corollary: “You shouldn’t interact with people, at all, if their reasons for interaction are evil or abhorrent.”

      So, one simple reason a planet might find itself quarantined and ignored is that the planet itself has no particular value, and the life on the planet is considered evil or immoral.

      Imagine we discovered a planet where the remaining plant/animal species exist in a sparse ecology at the top of which is an apex animal with a sphinx body of concrete and aluminum. Let’s give these sphinxes an omni-capable digestive tract and the life cycle of a bedbug, with mindful devotion of all metabolic energy to such activities as penis fencing and traumatic insemination. To the extent we thought we’d be able to do so undetected, we might, out of morbid curiosity, visit or make a study remotely. But to the extent we thought visiting would involve interaction with these sphinxes, where those who interacted with us were doing so by choice because the interaction furthered their own values (that is, at least some subset of them would find interaction with us furthered their devotion of energy to granite cocks and demonic industries), we might find the mere thought of furthering the values of any of them so abhorrent we’d simply remain invisible to them, because gross.

      We might not even want to make a study, because gross.

  22. Douglas Knight says:

    Let’s say there is a controversial position X and I want to disseminate a bunch of arguments against X. (I think it is relevant to this question that it is a bunch of arguments, not just one.) I could write an article “A bunch of rebuttals to X.” But that would probably only be read by people who already oppose X. How effective would it be to write an article about these arguments deceitfully claiming that the author supports X? One strategy would be to write an article like “Know the enemy: common attacks on X.” But another strategy would be to use the more enticing headline: “Rebuttals to common attacks on X.” How big is the cost of not actually including rebuttals in the article with that headline? This is where quantity is relevant: I think it would be easier to get away with not including rebuttals if there are lots of arguments, so that people get the impression of reading a substantive article, even though each individual item is so short that it should be obvious that it skipped the step of rebuttal.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I think people will notice, so you’ll get your arguments out there but your deceptiveness will be obvious. If you want to be super-sneaky, write strong counterarguments with weak rebuttals. Make sure they’re weak in a way that X-believers will notice.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I think most spread of articles is individual to individual, so if they notice, they won’t spread it. I suppose I could imagine that if bubbles were not too bad, that it could be spread by anti-X people and the headline could trick pro-X people to read it, but relying on a limited population to spread doesn’t sound effective.

        Maybe issue rebuttals to the first two items and leave them off of the rest?

    • J Mann says:

      If you’re willing to be dishonest, I think you might have a little luck with a conversion story about “How, I, a Long Time Proponent of X with a Lot of Markers for Pro-X Credibility, Gradually Became Convinced of Not X.” But there are a fair number of those as well, so people might be innoculated and tune you out anyway.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Do you think that those stories are honest? Do you think that people tune them out because they don’t believe them?

        • J Mann says:

          I think some are honest. I think CS Lewis converted to Christianity, and I think Will Shetterly honestly became disillusioned with a lot of social justice for the reasons he claims.

          On the other hand, when someone calls in to Dianne Rehm and opens as “as a former republican, I left the party because . . .” I assume it’s about an 80% chance it’s false.

          I think if you tend to tune out contrary arguments, you’re somewhat less likely to tune out a conversion story, but still likely to tune it out, and for the same reasons.

    • aristides says:

      Long-con that works on tribal issues. Start a blog dedicated to the supporting the tribe that most commonly supports X. After writing several articles, let drop in a minor paragraph “though I support these causes of this tribe, I do disagree with X.” If you did it right people will be interested that someone of their own tribe that they agree with on so many issues disagrees with them on X, and will mention it in the comments. Personally, I always enjoy reading someone I agree with largely disagree with me on one issue. If not, you can always create a sock puppet. Then, you write an article responding to that comment that rebutts cause X. Two added benefits, by starting the blog you may start understanding the other tribe better, plus you rebuttal article can be written genuinely.

    • Well... says:

      Others’ responses seem to assume that nobody who supports X would be interested in your anti-X arguments even if you put it in front of them. I don’t think that’s true, especially since you want to put it in front of the subset of X-supporters who are most open to being persuaded.

      I think the major puzzle is figuring out how to put it in front of them in a place where they’ll actually see it for long enough to engage with it.

    • At a recent libertarian event I did something rather like the honest version of what your tactic pretends to be. My talk was on bad libertarian arguments. I explained what was wrong with them and then what arguments I thought libertarians should use.

      In one case (market failure) I was offering what I thought was a good argument for the libertarian position to replace a bad argument. In the other (the NAP) I was offering reasons to think the usual argument was wrong but not providing a strong substitute for it.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I get the sense that most people don’t care about most issues and just go with what the people around them seem to care about. I suspect that there’s evidence for this but I don’t care enough to look for it.

      Assuming for the sake of argument that that’s true, then you’re going to get the most bang for your buck by directing honest arguments against X towards the loudest voices on the pro-X side rather than towards their followers. If you can control the head, the body will follow.

      This suggests using arguments that are appealing to their leadership even if they’re unconvincing to the majority of the pro-X movement . That might mean appealing to values or interests which the leadership has but the rank-and-file don’t, or presenting evidence in such a way that the leadership understands it even if it goes over the heads of the rank-and-file. It also suggests presenting arguments in different locations and contexts than the majority of the public discussion.

    • albatross11 says:

      I don’t know if this is an intentional instance of what you’re talking about, but there’s a bit in Ben Franklin’s autobiography where he describes being converted to Deism by reading a book of arguments against Deism by various pastors.

      • Part of what persuaded me that Alger Hiss was guilty was reading a book by a prominent English legal figure arguing that he was innocent. The central argument was that such a respectable person couldn’t possibly be a communist agent, which I found unpersuasive.

        • onyomi says:

          In my experience, reading a bunch of really weak arguments in favor of x has a decent chance of convincing me of not-x, in some cases maybe even better than direct arguments for not-x, especially if I’m emotionally inclined to believe x, and especially if I keep seeing the same bad arguments from multiple sources, leading me to believe there don’t exist better ones (if the scenes they chose for a preview of a comedy film aren’t funny, for example, you can be pretty sure the whole movie isn’t funny, since if they had funnier scenes they would have picked some for the trailer).

          If this is true of many or most people, a possibly effective strategy to discredit x would be to work really hard to disseminate and meme bad arguments for x (crowding out better ones), possibly also while sockpuppeting a socially unappealing proponent of x, therefore increasing the probability that real x proponents feel embarrassed to be associated with the position.

          The difficult part would be making an argument funny or catchy enough to go viral somehow, yet also bad enough that most people will see what’s wrong with it.

          • albatross11 says:

            Yeah, this is one of those places where logic does’t work the same way as human brains, for good and bad reasons.

            Logically, P ->Q, ~P tells you nothing about Q. So “If respectable people can’t be Soviet agents then Hiss is innocent, but respectable people *can* be Soviet agents” doesn’t mean Hiss is guilty, just that this isn’t an argument that tells us whether Hiss is innocent or guilty.

          • Yeah, this is one of those places where logic does’t work the same way as human brains, for good and bad reasons.

            I think Onyomi has already answered that.

            The fact that there is a weak argument that Hiss is innocent is not evidence that he is guilty. The fact that the best argument an intelligent proponent of the claim that Hiss is innocent can come up with is a weak one is evidence that there are no strong arguments that he is innocent which is Bayesian evidence that he is guilty, since the probability of there being strong arguments for his innocence conditional on his being innocent is higher than the probability conditional on his being guilty.

          • @Atlas:

            I have a number of blog posts commenting on Nordhaus; you might find them of interest.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          What seemed like weak arguments against the Iraq war pushed me to be in favor of it.

          The arguments seemed to be “A good outcome is not possible” and my reaction was “what about WW2?”.

          I was missing a lot of nuance, notably the difference between conquest of an established nation vs. nation-building in a place where national unity was very shaky.

          Perhaps the most important difference was that the world wars made people (including the relevant governments) *serious* about getting the aftermath of the war right. 9/11 simply wasn’t in the same class as the world wars.

          I have never been so glad to lack political influence.

          I’m not sure if there’s a way to guarantee that your arguments aren’t weak in ways that push people against agreeing with you.

          A favor, if people can manage it. Could you refrain from just telling me I was wrong to be in favor of the Iraq war? I know I was wrong.

          • cassander says:

            Perhaps the most important difference was that the world wars made people (including the relevant governments) *serious* about getting the aftermath of the war right. 9/11 simply wasn’t in the same class as the world wars.

            Some of them were serious, sure, but many of their ideas were crazy verging on genocidal and even those that weren’t weren’t were almost all discarded between 1945 and 1950 or so radically altered that they looked very little like what had been planned.

            And the Iraq war planning very much was shaped by the desire to get the aftermath of the war right. They made wrong decisions, but they didn’t come out of a place of “everything will work itself out”.

          • bean says:

            And the Iraq war planning very much was shaped by the desire to get the aftermath of the war right. They made wrong decisions, but they didn’t come out of a place of “everything will work itself out”.

            I’m not so sure of that. I’ve read a couple books by people who were on the ground in the initial invasion, and the impression I get is of people having no idea what they were doing, units getting shuffled around on a daily basis, and the Shia turned lose to wreak vengeance on the “bad guys”. There may have been a plan at high level, but it wasn’t implemented well.
            That said, yes, the planning for the postwar world in WWII was not particularly close to what actually happened.

          • Aapje says:

            When Bremer dissolved the Iraqi army, I immediately wrote off the reconstruction effort as a failure. It was so utterly dumb.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Bernstein, IIRC, had a book about the reconstruction, and there was a guy in charge of it who talked regularly with Bush ahead of time, and that guy was on his way to Iraq after Iraq surrendered, but Bremer dissolved the army and that guy was all “WTF” and Bush wouldn’t return his calls.

          • albatross11 says:

            I know a guy who spent a fair bit of time in Iraq as a contractor, who had a unique (to me) take on things. He thought that the military people there had been top-notch, but that the civilian and diplomatic people there largely had been second-raters. And the result was that the military people and their approach tended to drive things (they were the motivated and competent ones), whereas the diplomatic and civilian types were mostly ineffectual.

            I don’t know how well this describes what happened, but it seems at least somewhat plausible.

            The other thing that strikes me is that both Iraq and Syria were being run by dictatorships whose power came largely from the existing ethnic/religious hatreds. That seems like it’s almost guaranteed to come apart in a horrible way once the dictatorship is knocked over.

          • albatross11 says:


            The allies got things largely right in the handling of the WW2 postwar. On the other hand, they got things horribly wrong in the handling of the WW1 postwar. So it’s not so clear to me that the right model is “we’ll get the postwar right if we care enough,” rather than “we’ll get the postwar right if the stars align just right and we have a perfect set of circumstances and a really good set of leaders in the right places.”

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @albatross: When the stars align just right, the winners’s pleasant dreams of what the status quo post-bellum will be blessed by Cthulhu with coming true?
            I’d believe it.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            I supported the Iraq War back then too, and I still kinda feel like I was epistemically let down a bit.

            Nobody’s willing to say in general that the developing world is a shitshow we don’t know how to fix. (Okay, William Easterly is, but he’s sort of a lone voice in the wilderness on this). The left in particular is happy, in other contexts, to say “people aren’t flourishing? The only possible explanation is that some power is oppressing them.”

            So I figured that if we removed the Baathists oppressing the Iraqis, and invested in infrastructure and elections and education and whatnot, we’d have a successful country and a big humanitarian win.

            tl;dr the correct arguments against the Iraq war relied on premises people don’t like to state in isolation.

          • johan_larson says:

            I supported the Iraq War back then too, and I still kinda feel like I was epistemically let down a bit.

            So I figured that if we removed the Baathists oppressing the Iraqis, and invested in infrastructure and elections and education and whatnot, we’d have a successful country and a big humanitarian win.

            That was pretty much my thinking too. Take down the madcap dictator, and the result just HAS to be better, right? Sigh. What a letdown.

            I still think the Iraqis, or maybe the Iraqi leadership, deserves a slice of the blame for the shitshow that followed. If they had been able to agree on any sort of system for governing the country and keeping key institutions functional, I expect things would have gone better. And the Americans would have gone along with virtually anything if the Iraqi representatives stood behind it, at least eventually.

          • Aapje says:

            Many people like their good vs evil narratives, especially for competing fargroups. Furthermore, it is easy to project your own beliefs on those who are not in power. Of course they love democracy, will work with the other side if they get power instead of desiring to oppress them, are in favor of women’s rights, love gays, etc, etc.

            This tends to result in disappointment when (perhaps with assistance) the opposition gain power and they behave very similar to the people they replaced.

          • cassander says:


            I’m not so sure of that. I’ve read a couple books by people who were on the ground in the initial invasion, and the impression I get is of people having no idea what they were doing, units getting shuffled around on a daily basis, and the Shia turned lose to wreak vengeance on the “bad guys”. There may have been a plan at high level, but it wasn’t implemented well.

            That’s not wrong, because the pre-war planning was designed around minimizing the post-war US footprint. The idea was that any hint that the US would be occupying the country was sure to provoke some sort of insurgency, so we had to get in and get out as quickly as possible, basically make it like a giant re-run of granada. It didn’t work out, of course, and there was chaos on the ground, but that’s because most US forces were more concerned with preparing to leave than keeping order. This obviously suited the ideological predispositions of several senior administration officials, but the same message was communicated by numerous allies, both arabic and not.

            @ADifferentAnonymous says:

            So I figured that if we removed the Baathists oppressing the Iraqis, and invested in infrastructure and elections and education and whatnot, we’d have a successful country and a big humanitarian win


            Arguably, after many years, we got that. Oppression isn’t the only thing that was wrong with developing countries, and usually it isn’t even the biggest thing, but Iraq wasn’t exactly a typical country. Saddam Hussein definitely was their biggest problem, and there was no way to get rid of him without some sort of war. It took a lot longer and cost a lot more than it should have, but Iraq is definitely way better off today than in was in 2003, even after the whole ISIS debacle.

          • Nobody’s willing to say in general that the developing world is a shitshow we don’t know how to fix.

            A famous, if unfashionable, comment on the issue.

          • dndnrsn says:

            As someone who studied religion, I of course agree with Bacevich that the postwar reconstruction of Iraq didn’t pay enough attention to the Sunni-Shia divide.

          • albatross11 says:


            I have seen the argument in several places that major TV networks had a de facto policy of not giving airtime to any serious antiwar people. My perception at the time was that US mainstream media was extremely blinkered on pretty much all war-on-terror issues for several years after 9/11, and I remember seeing way better arguments against the Iraq war online than on TV.

            So it’s at least possible that one reason you saw only weak arguments against the war was because strong ones weren’t made readily available.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I quit doing television a long time before that.

            As I recall, the arguments that affected me were from Jim Henley.

            I don’t know whether NPR wasn’t doing anti-war arguments, or I was letting them slip by.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            @Cassander: “Iraq is definitely way better off today than in was in 2003, even after the whole ISIS debacle.” What leads you to conclude this?

            @DavidFriedman: That source seems to be arguing that fixing the developing world is really hard but that just means you have to try even harder. Bush was more guilty of following that advice than of flouting it.

          • John Schilling says:

            Count me among the people who supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the assumption that the Army would be allowed to and would in fact conduct a competent occupation. This was I think a reasonable belief at the time; the political infighting that would bollix the whole thing was not externally visible and went beyond the norm for US military and even diplomatic operations. There is no reason other than internal politics that Iraq should not have been at least as well-managed under the Americans in 2010 as it was by e.g. the British in 1920.

            I would also have supported both wars, probably even more so, as punitive expeditions with a minimal postwar presence. But there was never going to be popular or international support for that plan, so everything hinged on doing the occupation right.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @John Schilling

            What would the reasoning for a punitive expedition against Iraq in 2003 have been? The rationale for one against Afghanistan would have been clear.

            Overall, I get the impression that the US’ bad decisions came out of a “worst of both worlds” place – desire to behave like an imperial power, desire not to behave like an imperial power, end result behaving like an incompetent imperial power.

          • cassander says:

            @ADifferentAnonymous says:

            “Iraq is definitely way better off today than in was in 2003, even after the whole ISIS debacle.” What leads you to conclude this?

            GDP per capita is way up, despite oil prices only going up a little relative to 2003. You no long have tens of thousands dying per year while saddam used oil for food money to buy palaces and weapons, to say nothing of the lesser terrors that the regime inflicted.


            What would the reasoning for a punitive expedition against Iraq in 2003 have been? The rationale for one against Afghanistan would have been clear.

            It wasn’t a punitive expedition. As detailed by Woodward and others, after September 11th Bush went to his administration and said that he wanted a solution to the terrorism problem, something more than shooting million dollar missiles at 5 dollar tents. The only people who had an answer were the neo-conish members of the administration who said that terrorism came from dysfunctional societies, and if you reformed them, and had them inspire other countries by example, you could solve the terrorism problem. Iraq was picked as a country ripe for reform, for obvious reasons.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            My perspective: I missed the initial invasion, but was part of OIF2 from November 2003 to November 2004 (I was deployed a bit longer than that, but that’s how long we were actually -in- Iraq), starting around Samarra for the first few months, then spending the rest of the deployment in Nineveh province (Brigade HQ in Mosul, our unit securing Tal Afar and covering Bi’aj, Sinjar, and so on out to the Syrian border).

            As an E-4 in an NCO slot my perspective was obviously limited and ground level, and I was 22 at the time, but I went in sincerely believing that ousting Saddam was the right thing to do. I still believe that, but I didn’t realize until a good chunk of the way through the deployment how many mistakes we had made. That said, my perspective was that we almost managed to pull things out, and could have stuck the landing if we’d been willing to commit fully for a few more years…

            The fact that obviously we (as a country, not just our political leaders) were and are NOT willing to do so, has left me against any future ambitious plans of occupation and reconstruction. We handicapped ourselves going in trying to do the post-invasion wrap-up cheap, quick, and easy, because that was the only way anyone was willing to buy into the project at post-WWII Germany/Japan levels. We then were unwilling to commit to going the distance when our initial miscalculation became clear. Our allies were never super enthused about joining us. And there were serious cultural obstacles both at the regional and national level that we failed to adequately account for when it came to both rebuilding a modern military and police force and to helping to construct a democratic successor government.

            Put all that together, and I think the conclusion is that no matter how much I might still believe in that sort of mission, we are not ready to undertake it, nor are we likely to be at any point in the future, and half-assing it may well end up being worse than not doing anything at all. I am uncertain whether Cassander’s statement about Iraq post-ISIS is true because I sort of disengaged for my own mental and emotional health a few years ago, but even if it IS true I attribute that more to good luck and good people in Iraq than to our efforts from 2008-2018.

          • Lillian says:

            One of my friends is a former Marine who went in with the initial invasion. He’s said to me that the shift from invasion to occupation was both obvious and jarrring because all of the sudden they went from having a clear plan, to clearly having no plan. He was just a Corporal so it’s not like he had a high level view of things, but it was pretty obvious to him that nobody knew what the hell they were doing because he kept getting unhelpfully vague orders like, “Keep this neighbourhood quiet.” When he asked for clarification all he got was, “Just keep it quiet, okay?” which made it evident his officers didn’t any more of a clue what to do than he did.

            He had originally been planning on re-enlisting in order to see the whole thing through, but he realized the occupation was going to be an aimless clusterfuck he couldn’t wait to get out. It is his opinion that the White House just had zero interest in working out the nation building side of the war. They figured that once they deposed Saddam Hussein and got all their victory photo ops in, the details would sort themselves out, and they really, really did not want to hear otherwise. If i recall correctly, he said that the Pentagon did draw up a number of plans for the occupation, but the White House wouldn’t even look at them, let alone approve them. Since the Pentagon takes the whole civilian leadership thing seriously, this meant they implemented none of them and instead left it up to the people on the ground to figure it out for themselves.

          • John Schilling says:

            What would the reasoning for a punitive expedition against Iraq in 2003 have been?

            Failure to comply with UNSCR 1441 (the one about verifiably dismantling its chemical/biological weapons programs). Plus assorted lesser offenses that we could otherwise afford to have overlooked, plus a national need to not look like we were letting that sort of thing slide.

            That Iraq later turned out not to have any chemical or biological weapons, is as relevant as the fact that the crazy guy waving a gun around next to your children’s playground turns out not to have any bullets. Not knowable until it’s too late, and a violation of the terms of the restraining order in any event. Saddam Hussein went out of his way to play games with UNSCOM and UNMOVIC in a way calculated to cause people to believe he might nerve-gas them if they pissed him off, and that’s not a thing you get to bluff about.

            Well, not after the first few times you nerve-gas your neighbors, at least.

          • Lillian says:

            Perhaps i misremember, but i was under the impression that, while the CIA disagreed, the UN inspectors did conclude that Iraq’s WMD programs were all smoke and mirrors and had said as much.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            That isn’t quite accurate. Iraq was in material breach of 1441. They still had large quantities of weapons that were unaccounted for.

            Also, the Iraq Survey Group suggested that even Iraqi generals thought they had weapons of mass destruction. They learned in the first day of the war that they did NOT have WMDs, and were quite disappointed they could not gas the Americans. I’d suggest John’s characterization of Saddam’s behavior is accurate: trying to fool everyone into thinking that maybe he had weapons so he could try to intimidate them.

            Here’s the Hans Blix transcript if you are interested, I wouldn’t quite call this a ringing endorsement of Iraq, even if it’s NOT a call for war.

          • John Schilling says:

            A firm declarative statement from the UN? Dream on.

            TL,DR: 4,898 words of Hans Blix dissembling, hedging, and evading on the eve of the war, describing the many discrepancies between Iraq’s claims and their findings, the active efforts by the Iraqi government to stop them from finding anything more, and always concluding that he doesn’t know whether Iraq has any chemical weapons or not but wants to keep looking.

            Between 1991 and 2001, pretty much every interested observer on every side concluded that Iraq probably had a barely-covert chemical and/or biological weapons program. Between 2001 and 2003, most parties shaded their observations towards either “definitely!” or “…but we can’t prove anything”, depending on how their politics aligned with those of Bush the Younger. Nobody with a serious reputation in the arms control or nonproliferation world was going on record saying “No WMDs, just smoke and mirrors” in the prewar period, because that way risked humiliations galore in the near future.

            After the war, everyone on team “but we can’t prove anything” recast that as a giant “I told you so!”, and mostly no one called them on it.

            ETA: Ninja’d by ADBG. And in my own area of expertise. I think a temporary promotion to ADAG is in order.

          • Aapje says:

            @John Schilling

            I don’t see many discrepancies. Blix argued that Iraq ought to have better and/or more documentation of what WMDs were produced in the past, but has no evidence that they are actually withholding information.

            He demands that Iraq produces a list of all bunkers, which seems like overreach to me.

            Blix also notes that he has gotten false tips from ‘intelligence authorities.’

            Ultimately, I think that any such effort is going to encounter lazy, reluctant and/or resistant bureaucrats, even if the leadership wants to cooperate. You can thus always find a ‘smoking gun’ if you have zero tolerance. However, acting that way makes the entire disarmament thing a farce, since you are making war inevitable.

            After the war, everyone on team “but we can’t prove anything” recast that as a giant “I told you so!”, and mostly no one called them on it.

            My position at the time and as far as I recall the position of many/most who opposed the war was that Blix was making progress and should be allowed to continue, not that it was already proven that there were no WMDs.

          • John Schilling says:

            I don’t see many discrepancies. Blix argued that Iraq ought to have better and/or more documentation of what WMDs were produced in the past, but has no evidence that they are actually withholding information.

            “Iraq has declared that it only produced VX on a pilot scale, just a few tons, and that the quality was poor and the product unstable.

            Consequently, it was said that the agent was never weaponized.

            Iraq said that the small quantity of [the] agent remaining after the Gulf War was unilaterally destroyed in the summer of 1991.

            UNMOVIC, however, has information that conflicts with this account. There are indications that Iraq had worked on the problem of purity and stabilization and that more had been achieved than has been declared. Indeed, even one of the documents provided by Iraq indicates that the purity of the agent, at least in laboratory production, was higher than declared.

            There are also indications that the agent was weaponized.”

            So there are “indications” of Iraq withholding information regarding VX production scale, VX purity, and VX weaponization. And flat-out lying about some of those. “Indication” is a weasel-word for “evidence”, but where Blix could discuss the nature and strength of that evidence, he blathers on and says almost nothing of consequence. Hedging his bets so that whatever is found in Iraq, he can say “I told you so!”

            Blix made himself useless to the point of irrelevance.

          • cassander says:

            @Trofim_Lysenko and Lillian

            There was definitely an immense amount of confusion in 2003-4, which is why things got so bad from 2005-7, when it looked like iraq might spiral down into the sort of disaster we’re currently witnessing in syria. That didn’t happen thanks to a fortunate confluence of factors that led to the US pulling iraq out of that fire by 2009-10.

            As to the idea that there were lots of plans for occupation that were ignored, not really. the pentagon plans for lots of things, planning for things is a large part of its job, but there was no one at any senior level pushing them prior to 2003, and when the army did get serious about counterinsurgency in 2006 and 07, it was done under petraeus and his coindenistas, who were very much a minority faction within the US military and who definitely weren’t in charge in 2003.

            Trofim_Lysenko I’d definitely agree that in the last 10 years, US policy towards iraq has not been good and that it’s a minor miracle that things didn’t fall apart more completely. But that there would be an Iraq that could fall apart was something that was far from obvious in 2006 or 7.

          • Aapje says:

            @John Schilling

            I live in the real world, not Utopia & I commonly see leaders say things that are incorrect. In quite a few cases, this seems to be miscommunication, wishful thinking or other well-intentioned stupidity, rather than malice.

            There is also the issue that perceptions can differ. Perhaps Iraq had fluctuating purity of VX and they reported the purity that they could reliably make to Blix. Then if they also had a few batches that were higher grade, they could have weaponized and tested this on a small scale.

            I can then see how the Iraqi leadership would still call this a pilot program and would focus on what they can produce in quantity, while Blix, who was concerned with finding even fairly small amounts, would focus on the maximum purity.

            Fact remains that the war was sold with lies that Iraq had production facilities, large quantities of fresh WMDs and such; none of which was found. You accuse the critics of war of changing their claims after the invasion, but you ignore that the advocates did that much more clearly and more extensively.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Given that “he can’t be a communist! He’s respectable!” failed pretty spectacularly in several other cases… I can’t imagine why anyone would think that’s a good argument. Did this book predate the Cambridge spy ring?

          • I’m pretty sure the book was Jowitt, William (The Earl Jowitt), The Strange Case of Alger Hiss. That was published in 1953.

            Maclean and Burgess vanished in 1951 but the fact that they had gone to the Soviet Union did not become public until 1956. In 1955 Philby

            was named in the press as chief suspect for “the Third Man” and he called a press conference to deny the allegation. That same year, Philby was ruled out as a suspect when British Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan cleared him of all charges.


            So Jowitt in 1953 did not know of the Cambridge five, may or may not have viewed the vanishing of Maclean and Burgess as evidence that they had been spies. He was a British labor politician, so may have viewed both suspicions of Maclean and Burgess and the case against Hiss as right wing propaganda.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Moldbug’s open letter made me more progressive. Not really by being weak, though–I felt like it had useful insights about what the essence of progressivism is and what the alternatives are, from which I drew different conclusion than the author.

        • cassander says:

          I’d be curious if you could elaborate on that. I don’t think the open letter is his best work, but I’m curious about your response.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            It was longer than it had to be and told me to read a bunch of stuff I definitely wasn’t going to read, but the Big Idea I came away with is that might-makes-right (AKA ‘uti possidetis’) is essentially the default state of humanity, and progressivism* is the grand project of trying to bring world outcomes in line with moral ideals rather than let them be dictated solely by the distribution of power.

            (Haven’t read any other Moldbug so I can’t say how it compares)

            *And I mean this term broadly in this context–(central examples of) socialists, populists, and libertarians are all included.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I think that is a very dangerous heuristic. (I’m not sure what Franklin meant, but David’s heuristic is very dangerous.) If an individual gives lousy arguments, that probably means that he doesn’t have good arguments, that he don’t hold his beliefs because of those arguments, but because of social pressure. But that doesn’t explain how society reached its beliefs to impose its social pressure. In particular, the scientific establishment does a really lousy job of debunking fringe people, even crackpots. They’re just making a show of social power and I’d rather that they didn’t, that they either engaged or ignored, but I try not to let such arguments sway me towards the crackpot. And it would be a better use of my time to read their positive account of their position than the debunking.

        This is mainly an issue of the mainstream attacking the fringe. The mainstream has the, shall we say, privilege of being ignorant of the fringe, while the fringe has forced exposure to the mainstream. But even with mainstream vs mainstream arguments, people often promote their side by producing social cues that the other side is already fringe.

        On a slightly different note, Ada Palmer paraphrases William of Ockham:

        Please, guys, stop writing proofs of the existence of God! Everyone believes in Him already anyway. If you keep writing these proofs, and then somebody proves your proof wrong by pointing out an error in your logic, reading the disproof might make people who didn’t doubt the existence of God start to doubt Him because they would start to think the evidence for His Existence doesn’t hold up!

        Does anyone know where Ockham says this?
        (Before I looked this up, I thought that the claim was that prolific proof-writing (good or bad) would make people believe that atheists are out there.)

    • fion says:

      Needs more obfuscation. Try “Some Problems with the Complaints about the Counter-Arguments to the Rebuttals of the Common Attacks on X.”

  23. FXBDM says:

    The reading recommendations around here seem mostly focused on SF and fantasy. How about crime and detective authors you enjoy? I have been reading through the Bosch novels by Michael Connelly and novels by Dennis Lehane. Do you have any suggestions in that line?

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      The Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child.

      • dark orchid says:

        I read one of those once and wasn’t too impressed – for my taste the violence was too in-your-face, the detail too graphic.

        Robert Galbraith is more my kind of author, there’s still some blood and gore but the story felt more developed to me.

      • phisheep says:

        I really enjoy these, even though I’m not usually a blood’n’guts violence chap. In particular: they have a really strong sense of place; the baddies are (almost always) interesting little local conspiracies rather than (as in Baldacci for instance) global world-threatening and suspension-of-disbelief-threatening mega-conspiracies; and Reacher himself has more charm than he would perhaps admit.

        The major downside for me, given the strong sense of place, is the metastable sense of direction – Child is very precise about directions and goes to considerable lengths to make sure you can visualise the world map, but among all the East/West Left/Right there’s always a crucial nearside/offside or driver’s door/passenger door, which some chapters later for a UK reader like me leads to the world suddenly not making sense. It’s a phenomenon I have not come across in any other writer’s work, and I now read Lee Child with a pencil and paper to hand, except for the second half of one book that is set in the UK.

        I do like the way he echoes earlier writers. The Visitor is a reworking of an Agatha Christie classic, even down to one of the characters who has no other reason for being there; and there are faint echoes of Dick Francis throughout (for example the road trip at the beginning of Without Fail closely echoes that in whatever Francis’s book about the veterinary surgery was called).

        Also, a series where the first book (Killing Floor) really is a good place to start.

    • dodrian says:

      I don’t usually read crime and detective, but will recommend the Sci-fi noir crossover trilogyThe Last Policeman by Ben Winters. In interviews he’s talked about being much more influenced by detective authors than sci-fi ones. His alternative history novel Underground Airlines about a detective tracking runaway slaves is also very good.

      Unfortunately no matter how hard I try I struggle to read outside of the sci-fi genre.

    • J Mann says:

      Donald Westlake (Dortmunder is funny; Parker is noir; all are great) and Elmore Leonard are some of my favorite writers ever.

    • The Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout are good.

      Laurie King has written a series of Sherlock Holmes books that are actually very good–in some respects better than the originals. The first is The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

      I enjoyed the Leslie Charteris Saint books, which are crime thrillers. The author is obviously a fan of GKC, which might add interest for some here. They are older than the others, although the series was continued, with other writers but some role for Charteris, as “The Saint on TV.”

      • hls2003 says:

        Seconding Stout’s Nero Wolfe books. Don’t be fooled by the title, the real main character is Archie Goodwin, one of the truly great fictional narrators.

      • Jiro says:

        What little I’ve heard about the Beekeper’s Apprentice series makes it sound like it’s based around a Mary Sue: a non-canon character introduced into canon who becomes romantically attached to the main character and is as good as him at the things he was known for in the original work.

        • B Beck says:

          That’s about right.
          I read, I think, two of those and wasn’t really drawn in. I might give them another chance at some point, but they’re down the list a bit.

    • wb says:

      Wodehouse is not usually considered a crime writer, but most of his stories are theft capers, such as the novels Leave it to Psmith and Uncle Fred in the Springtime. His best stories, Uncle Fred Flits By and The Fiery Wooing of Mordred are about other crimes.

    • SamChevre says:

      My wife really likes, and I like enough to have read most of, the Brother Cadfael series that begins with A Morbid Taste for Bones, and the Lord Peter Wimsey series that begins with Whose Body?.

      In both cases, those are enjoyable detective stories, but not the author’s best work. My wife would say that “Ellis Peters”/Edith Pargeter’s best work is The Heaven Tree trilogy. I would say Dorothy Sayers best work is The Mind of the Maker, which is worth reading just for the first 2 paragraphs. (Online here).

      Anybody can enact that murder shall not be punishable by death; nobody can enact that the swallowing of a tumblerful of prussic acid shall not be punishable by death. In the former case, the connection between the two events is legal-that is, arbitrary;…

      • Evan Þ says:

        FWIW, I really like the Peter Wimsey series, but I think Whose Body is one of the worse books – probably because it was Sayers’ first mystery. I’d recommend starting with the much better second book, Clouds of Witness; or even with Strong Poison (and then doubling back to read the previous if you want to).

      • achenx says:

        I enjoyed the Cadfael mysteries as well. I didn’t realize the author had written other books under her real name. The Heaven Tree trilogy sounds interesting, I will have to check that out.

      • I’m also a Sayers fan. And I agree that the first book is not the best.

    • B Beck says:

      The Gideon Oliver (forensic anthropologist) books by Aaron Elkins are a lot of fun.

      Actually, anything by Aaron Elkins. I don’t think I’ve read anything from him that I haven’t enjoyed.

    • US says:

      +1 for Friedman’s Stout recommendation (I read 51 books by Stout just last year, probably(?) as a result of Friedman recommending the author in a previous thread of this nature). I however found Charteris completely unreadable (I read one book and then decided not to read any more stuff by that author as a result of the experience).

      Dorothy Sayers is mentioned above; I read 4 of her books a few years ago and then concluded that they were nothing special and I haven’t read any more of her books since then.

      Have you read Agatha Christie’s books? She’s in my opinion a much better mystery writer than is Sayers. Many of those books are really excellent, and she wrote a lot of books. Wodehouse, mentioned by wb, is a different sort of beast, but you could arguably push at least some of the books into this sort of genre if you made an effort; for example all the books which include the lovable Molloys, who are crooks who repeatedly fail to sell fake oil stock to naive rich people or commit a burglary or whatever, have some crime or other as an important plot point. Wodehouse is light comedy, but if someone needs to convince you that his stuff also includes ‘crime books’ in order to get you to try him out, I’ll be first in line to try to do so; Wodehouse is amazing.

      Dick Francis may also be an option; I really loved some of those books, and liked the rest – per wiki, ‘All his novels deal with crime in the horse-racing world, some of the criminals being outwardly respectable figures. The stories are narrated by one of the key players, often a jockey, but sometimes a trainer, an owner, a bookie, or someone in a different profession, peripherally linked to racing.’ The Syd Halley books definitely qualify as both ‘crime and detective’ and they’re quite good.

      • I agree on Dick Francis.

        I gather they were actually co-authored by his wife, a fact Francis only made public after her death. The first one after that read to me like the first draft of a Dick Francis novel–not sure about any later ones.

        Dick Francis also died, and the series is being continued by their son. The one I read wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t as good as the earlier books.

        • US says:

          I don’t envy the son – those are some big shoes to fill..

          I think you may also have been involved in my decision to read Francis as well, so I’m not surprised (I’m reasonably sure you were one of the guys who recommended him in the same thread that caused me to check out Rex Stout)..

          Thank you (and others reading along here, you’re highly unlikely to be the only one reading along here who contributed), by the way, for those recommendations in the past – I have spent many enjoyable hours in the company of some of those authors mentioned back then.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          I’ve only read a few Dick Francis novels, but they seemed unusually kind to middle-aged women for books written in the 60s or so. It made sense to me that he wrote them with his wife.

      • quaelegit says:

        +1 Agatha Christie

        If you only read one, go with And Then There Were None. Other general favorites include Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (this last one might be less impressive if you are more familiar with the genre, but it was one of the first 10 mystery books I read and it absolutely blew my mind).

        • phisheep says:

          I agree if you’re only going to read one. As an introduction to reading more I probably wouldn’t start with the top three though. Maybe something like Crooked House (Agatha’s own favourite IIRC), or After the Funeral, or the intriguing Towards Zero for starters. And I have a particular soft spot for the relatively unsung Endless Night.

          But don’t whatever you do start with any of the Tommy and Tuppence books, or any of the last four where she’d started to lose the plot a bit.

          • US says:

            Definitely agree about the observations in the second paragraph above, and I’d have added to that list The Mystery of the Blue Train – which is probably one of the worst books I’ve ever read to the end.

            Most of her books are decent to great, but a few of them are frankly books to be avoided.

        • b_jonas says:

          Those are definitely the more famous ones (those and Curtain, but that one is recommended to readers who have read other Poirot stories). My personal favorite, however, is Five Little Pigs.

      • phisheep says:

        A particular pleasure of the Dick Francis books is the way each is built around a particular walk of life: there’s the accountant one, the wine-trader one, the journalist one, the photographer one, the import-export one, the arbitrageur one, the painter one, the forger one, the taxi-driver one …

        I rather like to imagine Dick or Mary Francis pottering up to some random person to find out about their job and grilling them for all the telling little details.

        • The early ones are, I think, all about the racing world. My interpretation of the later ones is that once Dick Francis was a famous novelist as well as a famous retired athlete his circle of friends expanded to include competent people with a wide variety of backgrounds, and he mined them for the later novels. There is always some tie to horse racing, but that becomes more a trademark than a theme.

          • phisheep says:

            The racing world is always there of course, but even the very first book has another occupation as a theme (I think it was Dead Cert and I think it was the radio-controlled taxi business, though I might be a book or two adrift).

    • dick says:

      I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler’s novels. They are well written and funny, with reasonably good mystery elements, and very grounded and evocative in the sense that after reading them, you feel like you might be able to find your way around in the back alleys of WW2-era Los Angeles.

      Also, if you’re in to mysteries you might enjoy his short nonfiction essay on the genre, “The Simple Art of Murder.” It’s widely available online, e.g. Worth reading in full, but the idea that most struck me is applicable to other types of genre fiction as well:

      The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does. … And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is really not very different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a shade grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious. But it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things.

      • US says:

        Ah, yes, +1 for Chandler as well.

      • Björn says:

        Chandler is wonderful. His style is masterful, far beyond anything else I have seen in crime writing. His greatest book is “The long goodbye”, but if you want to understand what’s really going on in “The big Lebowski”, you have to read “The big sleep”. Only criticism I have with Chandler is that the actual cases are often quite convoluted (which is parodied in “The big Lebowski”).

        • quaelegit says:

          My dad says of The Big Sleep: The question isn’t whether you can understand the plot, the question is whether there actually is a plot to be understood in that tangle.

          I absolutely loved the opening of The Big Sleep when I got the preview on Kindle, but I didn’t buy the book because it was expensive. I should though!

          I’ve also read the first third of The Long Goodbye — it was also really good and I mean to finish it!

          • dick says:

            My dad says of The Big Sleep: The question isn’t whether you can understand the plot, the question is whether there actually is a plot to be understood in that tangle.

            Without giving anything away, there’s a part midway through The Big Sleep in which a minor character is killed, and the book never really makes it clear by whom. Apparently, when the book was being filmed, the director, Howard Hawks, got in to an argument with the writers (or, according to some versions of the story, bet $1000 against Humphrey Bogart) over who had done the murder, and sent a telegram to Chandler to find out who was right. Chandler replied, “Damned if I know.”

    • Perico says:

      If you don’t mind reading comic books, Ed Brubaker is an excellent writer of crime stories. His best series in that genre are probably Criminal and the Fade Out. He’s also made a lot of crime-adjacent stuff if you are willing to branch into other genres, such as Fatale (noir lovecraftian fantasy) and Gotham Central (police drama with Batman cameos).

    • hls2003 says:

      Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books are quick reads and fun for variations-on-a-theme.

      John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels are pretty good, although they decline a bit after the first two in my opinion.

      G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Knew Too Much.

      • I also enjoyed Buchan’s novels. One of them was an influence on my first novel. Part of the theme of both is that the objective is not to defeat the antagonist but to convert him.

        Aside from being a successful thriller writer, Buchan was also Governor-general of Canada.

    • J Mann says:

      The Easy Rawlins mysteries, by Walter Mosley, are very good. Working class African American noir, moving through the 50s through the 70s IIRC.

      John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport “Prey” novels are fun – a wish fulfillment genius self made millionaire handsome tough guy jock detective who is not as much like Batman as that makes him solve gets in battles of wits, usually against serial killers. The stories switch viewpoints between Davenport and the killers, with occasional detours to victims and other cops to keep tensions high. His “Kidd and Luann” heist books are more fun but apparently much harder to write, so there are only a few.

      • albatross11 says:

        +1 on the Easy Rawlins stories.

        I read Jane Austen’s novels a couple decades ago, and I definitely brought an SF-reader’s toolkit to the whole thing. The whole set of stories takes place in this weird foreign world and you’re partly trying to integrate the rules of the world (women can be smart and powerful, but must appear to be kind-of useless; men whose money came from doing something (business or war) are lower-status than those whose money was inherited, etc.)

        • J Mann says:

          If you like SF and Austen, definitely read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which is like a much nastier Austen with more plot.

    • rlms says:

      It seems like there are fewer Sayers fans here than I would’ve expected (I’ve not actually read any myself but the people I know who have seem kind of SSCy).

      If you like Agatha Christie, you might well also like Ngaio Marsh. Also, A. A. Milne (of Winnie-the-Pooh) wrote a Golden Age detective novel called The Red House Mystery that Raymond Chandler apparently disliked.

      • US says:

        Just thought I should let you know that I just bought a Marsh novel which I certainly would not have bought if not for your comment. I hope I’ll like her stuff, but either way thanks for the recommendation! (I liked The Red House Mystery as well – as I put it in my review on goodreads, ‘if Milne had chosen to go down that path he might have become a quite decent mystery writer’).

    • S_J says:

      Last time I read lots of detective fiction, I really enjoyed P.D. James.

      James did a long series of detective novels, with Adam Dalgliesh as the main character. She also did a spin-off or two, with a private detective agency.

      And she even wrote a fan-fic of Jane Austen titled Death Comes To Pemberly, with some characters from Pride and Prejudice and a murder investigated with the Justice System of early-1800s England.

      Her work is generally pretty good. She also has a good literary style, and is good at making the characters/situations believable. The resolution of mystery doesn’t ruin the story on a re-read.

    • littskad says:

      The Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald (the first is The Deep Blue Good-By) are good. They’re about a “salvage consultant” who lives on a houseboat near Miami.

    • Ryan Holbrook says:

      The New York Review of Books has been putting out a series of overlooked classics. They’ve had some good crime novels.

      Black Wings Has my Angel by Elliot Chaze is a wonderful noir novel. Great with Angelo Badalamenti in the background.

      Fatale and The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette have the feel of a Melville movie, cool and detached.

      The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes was also good.

      They’ve put out a few others, I believe, but those are the ones I’ve read.

    • tayfie says:

      Hijacking for my own selfish purposes:

      I have read practically no detective stories besides Sherlock Holmes. What’s the basic stuff that everyone should read?

      • littskad says:

        For early stuff, there’s Poe’s stories about Auguste Dupin. Wilkie Collins crime novels (such as “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone”). Gaston Leroux’s “The Mystery of the Yellow Room” and Israel Zangwill’s “The Big Bow Mystery” are two of the most famous “locked-room” mysteries.

        After Conan Doyle, there’s Agatha Christie, of course. Some of her important contemporaries include Dorothy Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey); Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles); Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe); Georges Simenon (Jules Maigret); S. S. Van Dine (Philo Vance); Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe); John Dickson Carr (Gideon Fell); Graham Greene (various); Erle Stanley Garnder (Perry Mason); G. K. Chesterton (Father Brown); Josephine Tey (Inspector Alan Grant); Ellery Queen (Ellery Queen); Christianna Brand (Inspector Cockrill); Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer); Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn)

        A bit later there’s P. D. James (Adam Dalgliesh); Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael); John Le Carre (George Smiley); Tony Hillerman (Leaphorn and Chee); John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee); Robert B. Parker (Spenser)

        I much less familiar with the truly modern stuff.

        • Glen Raphael says:

          Sue Grafton (of the Kinsey Millhone “Alphabet series”) had a really clever solution to the problem of main characters getting implausibly old. The first book (“A is for Alibi”) was set in the same year it was published (1982) but from then on her character aged mere months for each year the author aged. So as the series continued the books were set further and further in the past relative to their modern-day reader.

          Are there any other clever solutions to this problem besides just being really vague about the character age or being really vague about the current year?

          On the flip side, have any detective authors done the reverse and made their characters plausibly age and develop gradually over decades while remaining in the present day to readers?

          • Evan Þ says:

            Dorothy Sayers made her Lord Peter Wimsey plausibly age over fourteen years from his 1923 introduction in Whose Body to a marriage and honeymoon in the 1937 Busman’s Honeymoon (having married Harriet, whom he’d been pursuing since the 1931 Strong Poison, to great character development for them both.) She then continued with a couple epistolary short stories in 1940 showing Lord Peter happily married and involved in war work.

    • phisheep says:

      I love Agatha Christie and Dick Francis, but they’ve been done to death already.

      So let me put in a plug for Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths series – I picked up Love Story with Murders in a charity shop on a whim, and immediately I had finished it grabbed the rest of the series so far off Amazon.

      An unusual and delightful detective, bonkers plots, and an off-the-wall sense of humour that had me chuckling all the way through.

    • phisheep says:

      Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels are a delight. Not uniformly great, but I’d challenge you to read Money, Money, Money and not be overwhelmed by the audacity of it.

    • Tarpitz says:

      John Le Carre’s stuff, while technically mostly espionage- rather than crime-based, has a lot in common with detective stories (A Murder of Quality actually is a detective story, but that’s an exception) and is very good indeed. The best books are The Spy who came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley’s People and The Constant Gardener, but I really do recommend starting at the beginning of the George Smiley novels with Call for the Dead. Smiley is a fantastic character, and I would argue a closer cousin of Holmes or Morse than of Bond or his ilk.

  24. ContrarianSystem says:

    I was denied boarding to my flight to Iceland because my US passport expires in 45 days and Iceland requires 90 days of margin. This seems both arbitrary and preventable (at least in part because I gave WOW AIR my passport expiration date when checking in online prior to arriving at the airport, and they still gave me a boarding pass and let me purchase a nonrefundable checked bag for $75). They’ve offered to refund taxes and fees only. Admittedly this is partially my fault, but since a software solution could prevent this in part or in whole for others, and since WOW AIR actually makes more money by denying some people boarding (lower fuel costs + airline habit of overbook flights by 1-2% anyway), it seems like willful ignorance on the part of the company.

    Their customer support is outsourced to India and has zero power. Anyone aware of a superior arbitration process? Or clever ways to improve the system here?

    I’m rerouting my vacation to Austin for a week so if you have recommendations post them here!

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      File a dispute with your credit card company; you have a lot of power here (more if you used a nice credit card.)

    • b_jonas says:

      > my US passport expires in 45 days and Iceland requires 90 days of margin

      Interesting. Do they require this for all passports? “” says there is no such margin expected, but perhaps that only applies to passports from the EEA. That webpage does not give authoritive rules or any sort of guarantee that their information is complete, but it’s usually reliable.

      • moonfirestorm says:


        “Huh, why did he bother ROT13-ing a link?”

  25. Chalid says:

    What are some books that aren’t science fiction/fantasy, but are especially appealing to fans of SFF?

    • J Mann says:

      1) In fiction, I’d guess genre fans like surprise and plot, so maybe something like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

      2) In non-fiction, maybe stuff about medieval history or science? I really enjoyed Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King, which tells the story of the Sun King’s court through the women he was involved with.

      • Nornagest says:

        I enjoyed The Secret History, so that’s one data point for you.

        I’d also suggest Jorge Luis Borges. He’s litfic for nerds, and particularly for the type of nerd that enjoys reading Douglas Hofstadter or Martin Gardner.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Seconding Jorge Luis Borges. He really packs sense of wonder into short stories. Plus he’s like the only litfic author to influence Dungeons & Dragons.

        • J Mann says:

          Oooh – Arturo Perez-Reverte, who reads kind of like Eco light. Also Eco.

          • Nornagest says:

            Arturo Perez-Reverte is The Club Dumas and The Fencing Master, right? Yeah, he’s good. Eco is, too.

          • Nick says:

            Eco and Borges are good. I have yet to get to The Secret History or Perez-Reverte, though both are on my list.

          • quaelegit says:

            People who like Eco, which books do you recommend? I just finished The Name of the Rose and wasn’t particularly impressed (although I’m intending to re-read with a Latin dictionary on hand to actually practice translating). I suspect most of the philosophical points went over my head, re-reading might help with that too…

          • hls2003 says:

            Re: Eco, in my opinion Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum are his two best. I actively disliked Island of the Day Before and when I tried Prague Cemetery he had disappeared so far up his own arse that someone probably filed a missing person report. He’s now off my must-read list for further books.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Not a particular Umberto Eco fan but yes definitely read Foucault’s Pendulum.

          • quaelegit says:

            @hls2003 and @Sniffnoy — Thanks for the recs! I’ve added Foucalt’s pendulum to my list.

          • Nornagest says:

            Depends on taste, but my favorite is The Name of the Rose. Foucault’s Pendulum spends a lot of time teetering on the border of incomprehensible, which is deliberate (it’s a book about conspiracy-theory logic) but makes it a lot less readable.

        • Ryan Holbrook says:

          Borges co-edited The Book of Fantasy, which has a lot of stories of the lit-fantasy type. All of those authors would be interesting to follow-up on. There are some real gems in that list!

          You could also check out literary fiction by SF authors; Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and J.G. Ballard have all written good novels of this sort. On the fantasy side, you could try Dumas, Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper; their historical novels have the same kind of romantic and adventurous feel as The Lord of the Rings, for instance.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’ve occasionally thought that The Count of Monte Cristo is a superhero — or, arguably, supervillain — story.

      • Halikaarn says:

        The Secret History is great. So is The Goldfinch.

    • Iain says:

      Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series.

    • James C says:

      I find you can scratch the same kind of itch with some good popular history books.

      • quaelegit says:

        Yes! Some internet favorite authors are Erik Larson and Bill Bryson (I read In the Garden of Beasts by EL and loved it).

    • J Mann says:

      Now that I think about recommending books to genre fans, I can’t resist quoting Nick Mamatas out of context.

      Novels are long stories, you see, that depict a “slice of life” featuring a middle-class protagonist. Psychological realism is prized in novels. Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” Further, many long fictions are called novels even though they are really adventures, and these ersatz novels may take place in a fantastical setting and often depict wild criminal behaviors and simplified versions of international intrigues instead of middle-class quandaries. Sometimes there are pirates, but only so that a female character may swoon at their well-developed abdominal muscles. That’s a novel.

    • Lillian says:

      In my experience historical fiction is in general is very appealing to fans of SFF. There’s a very real sense in which the past is a fantasy setting, since while the physical rules are the same, the people and culture can be very different from ours. Unfortunately i don’t have much in the way of specific recommendations since most of the historical fiction i’ve read and liked was in Spanish.

      There is one, however, by an American author that i can highly recommend: The Macedonian, by Nicholas Guild. It’s an account of the life of Phillip II of Macedon from his birth to his marriage to his first wife the Illyrian princess Audata. It’s a gripping and exciting tale, with politics, war, romance, scheming, murder, betrayal, and random events interpreted as divine omens. All the fun stuff.

      • For historical fiction, Mary Renault’s novels set in ancient Greece are good.

      • Nornagest says:

        Gene Wolfe is primarily an SF/F author, but his Latro books (Soldier of the Mist, Soldier of Arete, Soldier of Sidon) are closer to historical fiction. He uses an unusual take, though: they’re set in the Classical world (the first two in Greece, the third in Egypt) but don’t use any of the classical language that’s made its way into English for placenames, etc., instead opting for simple (and sometimes deliberately incorrect) English translations. Sparta is “Rope”, Corinth is “Hill”, etc. It has the effect of resetting some of our preconceptions about the setting.

      • ausmax says:

        I’ll second the historical fiction recommendation and add a specific recommendation for James Clavell. It’s all good, but I’d particularly recommend Shogun. It even has a lot of the worldbuilding that I enjoy about Sci fi and Fantasy, but the world that is being built just happens to be Feudal Japan.

        To piggy back on this, I haven’t found anything in the historical fiction genre that tickles my fancy quite as much as Clavell. Anyone have any recommendations there?

        • Tarpitz says:

          Bernard Cornwell, best known for the Sharpe series (about a British army officer in the Napoleonic Wars) writes a pretty good yarn in general, and in perfectly acceptable prose, but is most notable as the undisputed master of the battle scene. In that particular regard, I don’t know of anyone else who comes close.

          If that tickles your fancy, I recommend starting with Sharpe’s Rifles, chronologically the first book set in the Peninsula campaign, and treating the India/Copenhagen books as the prequels they are. Other series include Starbuck (American Civil War), Warlord (Arthurian Britain), The Grail Quest (Hundred Years War) and the Saxon stories (9th Century Britain) if any of those settings are more appealing.

          Fair warning: Cornwell isn’t George Martin (though he is pretty clearly an important influence on him) but… these are definitely worlds in which characters you like can die painfully and graphically.

          • ausmax says:

            Thanks. I’ve actually read a couple books in the Saxon series and they’re entertaining. Definitely agree about the battle scene parts; I haven’t really read anything of that quality before. I’ll definitely check out the Sharpe’s rifles series.

          • John Schilling says:

            these are definitely worlds in which characters you like can die painfully and graphically

            However, they are not required to do so, even if they do happen to be played by Sean Bean. Cornwell, alas, appears to have precious little influence in that critical area.

          • Tarpitz says:

            I think possibly Sharpe uses up so much not-dying that Sean Bean doesn’t have any left for anyone else…

          • johan_larson says:

            Up next, “Killing Sean Bean”, a film consisting of nothing but Sean Bean’s death scenes, apparently excerpts from 20 different films across a variety of genres. But none of those films actually exist.

    • tayfie says:

      I think you could probably split this up because it will be different for science fiction and fantasy.

      This goes all the way back to the difference between Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Verne loved technical detail and getting the facts right. He was hard science fiction. Wells used technology as a plot device to tell an interesting story. His books were fantasy in all but name.

      I expect science fiction people will like more actual history and nonfiction. Fantasy people will like myths, legends, and epics.

  26. Odovacer says:

    I don’t know how controversial this is but the Supreme Court struck down federal law prohibiting sports gambling

    The Supreme Court has struck down a federal law that bars gambling on football, basketball, baseball and other sports in most states, giving states the go-ahead to legalize betting on sports.

    The Supreme Court on Monday struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA). The 1992 law barred state-authorized sports gambling with some exceptions. It made Nevada the only state where a person could wager on the results of a single game.

    I don’t know how this will affect Vegas, but it could be interesting to see the developments.

    • BBA says:

      I think the court got this one right, though [usual interminable argument about federalism redacted until 101.75].

      As of right now, it’s legal for casinos and racetracks in New Jersey to offer sports betting and it’s completely unregulated. This was set up to get around the law struck down today, which banned a state from “authorizing” bookies, under the theory that just making state law silent on the matter was not an authorization. Turns out this contortion wasn’t necessary and I expect NJ to pass another law bringing the sports books under the authority of the gaming commission before the end of the session.

      I don’t think the big Vegas companies are too worried about it, since they’ve all expanded to other states as gambling has been legalized. Las Vegas itself just got major league sports for the first time, indicating a rapid collapse of their formerly strict anti-gambling stance.

      Still, when I read about Britain, where there are legal bookies in every town and betting is an integral part of sports culture, I find it totally foreign and I can’t imagine something like that ever happening here.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Haven’t read the decision, but some of the reporting says it’s a Tenth Amendment decision? That’s an amendment we hadn’t heard from in a long time. A long time.

      Unlike BBA I don’t think federalism is too controversial, so I’ll say I definitely don’t think it’s right to have the Federal Government essentially making state-level law by saying that gambling is prohibited in some states but not others. Since I haven’t read the decision I don’t know if that figured in to it or not.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Any chance this legalizes prediction markets?

      • hls2003 says:

        Not directly from this opinion, no. This opinion hinges primarily on the Supreme Court’s anti-commandeering precedents – the federal government could itself outlaw sports gambling (at least in interstate commerce; see Thomas concurrence for alternative view on intrastate gambling) but cannot command states to do so.

        As I understand it – not my area of specialty – the biggest problem with prediction markets is the federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which prohibits most interstate financial transactions involving gambling, including especially internet gambling. That, far more directly than PASPA, keeps the lid on prediction markets.

        To the extent it unleashes a wave of regularized state-regulated gambling, it wouldn’t shock me if regularizing sports gambling (without the Apocalypse occurring) would also lead to calls for lifting the sanctions on gambling funds generally. So it is probably a positive step in the direction culturally, if not legally.

        • j1000000 says:

          Couldn’t you at least have intra-state prediction markets?

          A prediction market in a single state probably would not be large enough to be anywhere near efficiency, but in Vegas sportsbooks watch each other’s lines and adjust accordingly. So even if multiple states had isolated prediction markets, I’d think it could lead to decent results.

          • hls2003 says:

            Whether the UIGEA statutory text already covers it I would have to research. If it did, my best guess is that a majority of the Court would uphold Congressional power under the Commerce Clause to regulate the exchange of money even for intrastate gambling.

          • BBA says:

            There already is legal intrastate gambling over the internet, or those ads I see during Jeopardy wouldn’t bother with the “MUST BE NJ RESIDENT” disclaimers.

  27. caryatis says:

    I’m looking for reading on friendship–not so much social skills advice, but ethical. How do you thread the needle between not contacting people at all and exploiting them for one’s own benefit? Or what kind of exploitation is acceptable?

    • Aapje says:

      I would argue that both contacting and not contacting people can cause harm. If you are dealing with other people who are shy, fearful, have low executive function, etc; then approaching them can help them (greatly), while they would miss out on having their needs met if you refuse to contact them.

      On the other hand, you have people who are bad at saying no, articulating their needs, etc; who can end up being exploiting when asked for things.

      So I would argue that there is a middle ground that is optimal. Furthermore, one should try to adapt to the specific person that one is dealing with, in so far that their needs are somewhat clear.

      PS. Note that your question suggests that you have high anxiety and are prone to err on the side of not contacting people often enough.

    • Philosophisticat says:

      A good rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t interact with people in ways they wouldn’t be willing to interact with you if they knew your reasons.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      The kind of person who asks this question isn’t the kind of person who exploits their friends.

      Don’t worry about it too much. Make sure that your friends are comfortable saying no to you and just live your life.

    • caryatis says:

      I should clarify the question. It’s really about enabling. Say Alice and Bob have a risky hobby. Does Alice have a duty as Bob’s friend to avoid engaging in the hobby on the grounds that it is bad for him? Or, assuming that they both sincerely want to engage in and freely consent to the risky activity, does that make it okay? As a matter of friendship, and setting aside other potential problems with the activity.

      Examples: they like to gamble, but Alice knows Bob can’t afford it. They like to eat pizza, but it makes Bob sick. They like to have unprotected sex. They like to drink and drive, but Bob will get fired if he gets another DUI.

      • The Nybbler says:

        I’d say if the risk is high enough and especially if the risk is higher for Bob than for Alice, Alice should avoid engaging in the hobby with Bob. If both Alice and Bob work at a place which will fire them for smoking pot, she shouldn’t smoke pot with him. The duty to avoid this becomes much greater if Alice won’t be fired but Bob will. This applies in your gambling case if Alice can afford it but Bob can’t. But if the consequences of losing at gambling at the stakes they play are nothing more than they’re going to have cheap dates for the next month, there’s no real duty to avoid.

        I think there’s a blurry line between acting too paternalistically towards a friend and refusing to assist in their destruction.

    • Lillian says:

      Other people are beings with agency who are fully capable of determining for themselves whether or not they are deriving sufficient value from their relationship with you. If they feel exploited they will usually let you know. Not necessarily explicitly, but through the myriad subtle and indirect ways that people communicate their needs to each other. If you have a problem reading these signals, then that can be an issue, but not an insurmountable one, just let make it known that you have trouble with subtlety and need others to be more direct about communicating their wants and needs.

  28. bean says:

    Naval Gazing looks at the super-drradnoughts this weekend.

  29. fion says:

    I have a question about altruism. I’d be interested if any EAs would care to give their opinion, although the question is not about Effective Altruism exactly.

    Do you give money to homeless people in the street?

    The police and the homeless shelters say no, don’t give money to people in the streets; if you want to make a difference give it to the shelters. (This, by the way, has a response that that’s what they *would* say, and some people give arguments that you shouldn’t always give it to the shelters.)

    I suspect the EA answer is also no, because there are much more impactful things you can do with your money. In other words, don’t give it to the homeless people, nor to the shelters, but give it to the Against Malaria Foundation (for example).

    But I’ve also heard an argument that a big part of it isn’t just about the material things they can do with the money but about the feeling of being seen, respected and treated as a human. People who’ve been homeless say it’s an incredibly demoralising and humiliating experience being ignored by 99.9% of the people you see. And while I can send money to people far away from me, I can’t give human kindness to the people far away from me, whereas I can give it to homeless people in my city. I don’t think you can really say “no, I won’t give you money, but I will smile at you and say “have a nice day”” because then I think the latter bit will seem insincere.

    I’m not really comfortable with that argument because it’s so hard (impossible?) to quantify, but a lot of people with direct experience of this say it’s super-important and I’m inclined to trust them.

    (There’s another answer which is, “don’t give money to homeless people if you’re by yourself, but if you’re with people, do give because it makes you look like a kind person”. I suspect this is what a lot of people do, and I think a lot of homeless people realise this and will deliberately approach groups or couples rather than solo people.)

    Interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Anonymous says:

      Do you give money to homeless people in the street?

      I cannot determine if a given beggar is homeless or not. I don’t give to beggars as a general rule. (Street performers are another thing – they aren’t begging, they’re doing something for money.)

      If conditions in my country were such that these people were starving, I might reconsider, but given that you have to actively try or suffer some kind of bizarre accident (like being stuck in a chimney) to starve to death here, I feel no particular compulsion to feed them. Non-homeless people throw away gigantic amounts of food, and as far as I’m concerned, if I were homeless, I would prefer to eat out of garbage bins than to beg. (Not that I expect that I would be homeless for very long; long-term homeless seem to be that way due to instrinsic mental issues, rather than plain material misfortune. I recall a program that lifted one homeless guy out of homelessness, got him a job, etc, but he ended up on the streets again, because it was too much of a hassle for him to stay “homed”.)

      And this is before any concerns that I’d be actually giving money to some organized crime syndicate that happens to run a begging ring.

      • fion says:

        Good point. I should have said “beggars” rather than “homeless people”.

        Thanks for your reply. I’m surprised you say you’d rather eat out of garbage bins than beg. Eating out of garbage bins sounds incredibly unpleasant to me.

        • metacelsus says:

          Well, begging may be even more incredibly unpleasant.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          I’ve read about dumpster diving– a lot of good food gets thrown out by stores because of expiration dates.

        • Anonymous says:

          Well, I’m not the least prideful man alive. Eating garbage in private ranks less unpleasant than publicly begging.

    • AKL says:

      When someone asks me for money, I usually look at them and say “sorry” (as in, “no, sorry”) rather than ignoring them. Sometimes when I’m walking my dog, someone who’s begging will say “oooh what a nice dog” or something. I’ll typically stop and invite them to say hi to the dog for a few seconds just like I do when a college student or whoever does the same thing. Obviously, sometimes I’m in a rush and don’t stop.

      Though I never thought about it this way before, I tend to treat homeless people asking for money or attention about 25% better than I treat the kids standing outside the subway shilling for greenpeace or whatever, probably because (a) basic human decency probably makes a bigger difference for the homeless and (b) the homeless people near where I live tend to be WAY less aggressive than the kids hired by nonprofits and consequently WAY less annoying.

      Total side note, I felt like I understood the complaint from women about receiving unwanted attention in bars or wherever a lot better when someone compared the guys in that scenario to those greenpeace volunteers.

      • fion says:

        Just “sorry”? I (and I expect quite a few other people) often find myself lying: “sorry, I’ve not got anything on me.” I think I worry that just saying “sorry” (a) might still sound quite dismissive and almost ignoring and (b) it feels like it implies “sorry, but I have better things to do with my money than give it to you,” which may be true (especially if you’re into EA) but is a bit harsh.

        Yeah, I’m quite happy to ignore the chuggers. They’re not desperate, even if they’re raising money for desperate people. Although I have to confess that I’ve never found them particularly aggressive or annoying. Perhaps I’ve been lucky.

        • Aapje says:

          Giving an extensive explanation for a refusal to give anything is also a form of rudeness, especially since it prevents the beggar from pursuing other opportunities. I’m not sure what level of curtness beggars prefer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they favor brevity.

          • fion says:

            Hmm… not sure I buy that. We’re basically talking about a second here. Maybe a second and a half. I think any possible increases in politeness and respect will outweigh a second of not-being-able-to-ask-other-people.

            Of course, you did say “extensive”… Just to be clear, I don’t advocate going “Well, you know it’s a funny thing. You see, I normally carry change on Tuesdays because I like to hit the arcade later, but today I didn’t have breakfast because I slept in after some friends spent the evening at my place (oh, boy, what a night. Kevin got through eight beers and was making silly noises with his cheeks like this…) but anyway, yeah, so I had to buy a meal deal from Boots on the way to work, which didn’t use up *all* my change, but I do need to get a bus tonight and they only take exact change, so I’m sorry, but I can’t give you anything. Would you like this soggy pancake instead?”

    • fion says:

      Related question: Some of my friends carry socks or oranges or a flapjack or whatever and if somebody approaches them for money they instead give them the socks, an orange or flapjack. I sometimes worry that this seems a little condescending. What do you think?

      • Aapje says:

        I think it depends on how you offer it.

        “I don’t have change on me, but I do have these socks, oranges, flapjacks on, want one/them?” seems not condescending at all.

        “You are probably going to buy drugs, I’ll give you this instead” is condescending.

        Then you have things in between, like: “I’ll buy you a sandwich.” The latter works especially well if the beggar explicitly asked for money to buy food. Of course, you are probably taking him literally where he was actually lying.

        • biffchalupa says:

          To your last point, I once responded to being approached asking for “money for a meal” by saying I was on my way to Panera Bread or something myself, come along and get a meal (a genuine offer, it was one of my first experiences with a beggar as an adult and I guess I was feeling charitable). He took no more than 3 paces with me in the direction of the restaurant, asked me what time it was and then said he had to be somewhere and rushed off.

      • toastengineer says:

        I know a flapjack is a oat cookie thing in other countries but I like the image of someone being approached by a beggar and pulling a soggy pancake out of his pocket and giving it to the guy.

      • onyomi says:

        To my (American, Southern) mind “flapjack” means “pancake,” so this produced a pretty funny image before Googling.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I live in New York City and so most of the panhandlers and beggars I run into are professionals. Once you get a daily routine you start to notice the panhandlers have routes and territories which don’t match up with their sob stories. The guy who “just needs a metro card swipe to see [his] wife in the hospital” will still “need a metro card swipe to see [his] wife in the hospital” tomorrow no matter how much money anyone gives him today.

      Giving to professional panhandlers is worse than useless. Not only are you not doing anything to alleviate suffering but you’re actually increasing suffering in the world by encouraging these guys to harass other people. Even if you’re just paying them attention and not actually giving them money it’s still encouraging them. Effective altruism for homeless in NYC would probably be buying then a one way bus ticket to somewhere warm with a low cost of living.

      • fion says:

        The counter-argument I’ve heard to this is that even if they’re lying, they’re probably kinda desperate. I don’t really think anybody would choose such lies if they had any other options.

        So I guess I disagree that you’re not alleviating suffering. You’re still helping somebody less fortunate than yourself; just not much less so. And I think the suffering caused by asking somebody for change is negligible, so the suffering caused by encouraging people who do so is negligible too.

        • The Nybbler says:

          I don’t really think anybody would choose such lies if they had any other options.

          I think you’re typical-minding. Begging is easier than an honest living for these confidence artists.

          And I think the suffering caused by asking somebody for change is negligible,

          No, it isn’t. In Times Square, it’s so crowded that the suffering caused by them just laying claim to a patch of sidewalk isn’t negligible.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          It’s really not a negligible cost when you consider just how many people one panhandler can hassle at a time.

          These guys will deliberately block the flow of foot traffic at rush hour to ensure that as many people pass them as possible. Another popular choice is to quietly board a subway car at rush hour and, as soon as the doors close, loudly begin begging for money from their captive audience.

          Even if each individual person is only irritated or frightened for fifteen minutes or so, with so many people that can become weeks of irritation and fear per panhandler per day. It’s a substantial cost especially given the paultry amount of money they’re pulling down.

          • fion says:

            Huh. That’s totally different to my experience. I wonder if it’s just different in different cities. (For one thing my city is like 4% the size of NYC…)

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I’ve seen very little of that sort of thing from panhandlers in Philadelphia.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Philadelphia doesn’t have anything like the foot traffic Midtown or Downtown Manhattan does. Nor the ubiquitousness of subway use. And when the panhandlers start becoming a nuisance in the wealthier parts of Philadelphia (e.g. Rittenhouse square), you get a crackdown.

            This is 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, a block from Times Square proper. During rush hour, that sidewalk will be overflowing with people. The panhandler you see with his cardboard sign (as I recall it says something like “might as well be invisible”, which is nonsense because if he was invisible he’d be trampled to paste) will still be there. And there’s another one about every other block between there and Penn Station.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Most of the beggars in Chicago are not quite this assertive. I think I’ve only seen one of the regulars once deliberately block traffic. The “begging on a train” thing happens occasionally, but I haven’t seen it in a while (probably because I don’t take the CTA anymore).

            There generally are out of the way and are just kind of annoying. “HELP THE HOMELESS!”

        • MB says:

          “The counter-argument I’ve heard to this is that even if they’re lying, they’re probably kinda desperate”.
          A counter-counter-argument could be that by giving alms one is not helping them get rid of the root cause of their despair, whatever that is.
          If they are desperate because of the begging lifestyle, giving them alms might make them even more ashamed of themselves, less likely to become productive members of society in the future, and closing off their other potential better options.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Wondering if there are authoritative sources on this? My experience in NYC is that people with sob stories on trains are usually one-off (and I do have a regular commute). People in fixed locations with signs are often the same day-to-day, but they also usually don’t insinuate that giving them money will achieve any long-term results.

        • caethan says:

          My experience with the sob stories on trains in SF is that they literally never happened during commute hours. Every time I took the train in to the city on the weekend, though…

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            I commute at slightly off-peak hours, and get plenty of sob stories. I imagine it doesn’t happen at true rush hour, for the simple reason that you have to be able to walk around the car to collect money.

      • Well... says:

        I knew a professional panhandler in Astoria from the summer I spent working there in 2006. Apparently he has a Wikipedia page now.

        [ETA:] Hadn’t been to the link in about a year and went back and read it now. Interesting that whoever wrote/edited it went out of their way to point out he was white.

      • quaelegit says:

        When I was in NYC last month there were two different askers on the subway who, after giving their sob-story and asking for money, then explicitly said that water or food (if in unopened packages) would also be appreciated and offered to show documents proving which homeless shelter they were staying at.

        Maybe they’re trying to distinguish themselves from the professionals? Or they are professionals just getting better at pretending not to be? I wouldn’t know how to tell.

        • The Nybbler says:

          They’re professionals pretending not to be. Multiple askers with the same patter is a tipoff already.

          • quaelegit says:

            Except for the “providing proof of living in a homeless shelter” part I don’t think they were the same (though I don’t remember the details, and I was trying to ignore them).

            On the other hand, I’ve had three people come up to me in Dallas asking for money to pay for gas to visit their wife/mother in the hospital. Two of these were a few minutes apart at the same gas station… so I’d say these are definitely invented/recycled.

    • sty_silver says:

      I’d say no (as in I don’t and I don’t think you should); the argument of feelings is valid but not sufficient.

    • J Mann says:

      I play it by ear.

      Sometimes I say no, sorry, and try to mentally commit $10 to a worker training program or something like that, and then make the donation periodically.

      Sometimes I give money, on the theory that it’s not much opportunity cost to me and I hope it improves their life. (Although it does encourage begging, I realize).

      If I’m leaving a restaurant with leftover food that’s managable, like pizza, I’ll offer it to someone.

      On a trip to San Antonio, there were so many panhandlers that I really started feeling guilty, so I bought a bunch of McDonald’s gift cards and gave out those.

    • CatCube says:

      For the most part, I’ll at least try to acknowledge the person asking, though I’ll usually refuse. I used to be more willing to give when I first moved to Portland, but if I gave loose change to everybody who asked, I’d be on the street myself. This is actually one of the things I really, really hate about living in a city. When I’m in a rural area, if somebody needs help I usually 1) know what their situation is 2) can do something to help longer term, and 3) there aren’t so Goddamn many people begging you daily that you basically have to stop helping out of both financial and psychological health.

      That being said, if I do help, I don’t do any of the “Are you going to use it to buy drugs?” or “I’ll give you food instead.” If you’re going to give them something, don’t try to control them with it. Are you worried that they’re going to use it to buy drugs? They probably are. But even if you buy them a sandwich, they can still convert the sandwich to cash by selling it to another homeless person that they know is more hard-up for food. Fretting about how they’re going to use it is pointless. If you’re going to give them a gift, then just give them a gift. I’m sure we’ve all had relatives that try to control you with the gifts they give, and I doubt it’s less infuriating when strangers are trying to do it. If you can’t handle the thought of them using the money badly, then just say “sorry” and move on. There’s no problem at all with not giving panhandlers money.

      • fion says:

        This seems very reasonable. I recently made the mistake of offering to go with somebody to buy two £5 bus tickets for him and his mum. I realised afterwards that I should have either given it to him or not, but walking with him to the bus station was just stupid.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I give a little money to beggars sometimes. My feeling is that organizations which run homeless shelters which are so bad that homeless people don’t want to be in them don’t deserve my money.

      Any demographic observations? I think I’m seeing more white beggars in center city Philadelphia than I used to.

      • The Nybbler says:

        NYC definitely has a mix. On the streets around Times Square it’s mostly but not entirely men, black and white (not as many Asian or Hispanic). The subway beggars are more mixed gender; here you have kids running the candy-selling scam, various men with down-on-their luck stories, and women with different down on their luck stories. Some of them have been running the same story for years. You also see women begging with babies or young children (which the more cynical of us suspect are rented). And there’s one particular woman who sets up in a wheelchair in various places in the Penn Station 8th Avenue Subway stop and calls out “can you spare any change please”. She, too, has been doing this for years if not decades.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          In what sense is candy-selling a scam?

          I don’t think I’ve ever seen a beggar capitalize on religion, even though major religions are strongly in favor of charity to the poor. Does anyone see beggars who use bible verses and such/

          • massivefocusedinaction says:

            I believe the scam is they claim they are fundraising for a charitable goal, while there is no charitable goal (and they’re organized and led by adults who take the profits).

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I think some of them are just selling candy.

          • The Nybbler says:

            They claim to be candy-selling for some cause or another but it’s really just (occasionally stolen) candy being sold for a high markup.

            Sometimes the street beggars have a bible quote or reference on their cardboard sign.

    • Chalid says:

      How about giving to people who claim to temporarily need money? e.g. the decently dressed, articulate person who says they lost their wallet and “just need $20 for a cab ride home” or similar. My personal policy is to never give any money to anyone, but I’m curious if some people give to these people and not the homeless, or vice versa.

      Some of these people say that they’ll take your contact info and repay you later… anyone ever tried this? Do you actually get repaid?

      • J Mann says:

        I don’t like a hard luck story, because it makes me feel like a sucker. If one of you happens to be a veteran who has their car impounded and just needs another $35 to get it, or a teen who is stuck in Seattle and needs money for the Bremerton ferry to get home and can’t call her parents, then I apologize in advance.

      • fion says:

        Yeah, I think I once heard about a study that said people are more likely to give money to people who look well-off than people who don’t. It suggested that you’re more able to think “it could have been me”.

        I would be inclined not to help such people, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a situation like that.

        • Tarpitz says:

          It has been me. About ten years ago, when I still lived in London, I was pickpocketed on Oxford Street at the end of a night out, about 2.30 or 3am I should think. I was… tipsy, but not hammered, but for whatever reason I concluded that the rational approach to the problem of how to get home to Ealing (a western suburb, for those unfamiliar) was to try to sell the approximately half a pack of Marlboro Reds I had left in my pocket for £2.30, which was I believe the price of a bus ticket at the time, to anyone I came across, explaining the reason for my need, while walking in the direction of Ealing in case it came to that. After rather a lot of failed attempts, I was given the money by one of a group of large, besuited black men who were lounging against a tint-windowed BMW illegally parked near Lancaster Gate, all wearing sunglasses despite the notably sunless hour. He observed that I “seemed pretty genuine,” and didn’t want the cigarettes.

          Given that I am white and unmistakeably upper-middle class, I would say I pretty clearly had more in common with most of the people I’d previously spoken to, so it’s not just about similarity breeding empathy.

      • helloo says:

        I’ve lent (and borrowed) cell phones to people to make calls but that’s about it.

        Those stories are somewhat more believable, but even then I would probably go to the police (to both report the loss and ask if they can hail a cab for me). Not sure how feasible it is especially in a foreign location though.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        I’ve done it. I don’t endorse the decision, but when someone presses the right “someone like you needs help” buttons well enough I find it hard to refuse. I’ve never given contact info for repayment.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        At one point I actually needed $5 on the street for super bougie reasons: on a bike commute from SF to Mountain View, I had been dropped hard by the pack somewhere in Redwood City, and lost the route entirely…at which point my cell phone died. I hadn’t brought my wallet, so had no way to get to work. I made my way to the local Caltrain station, and asked very nicely for someone to buy me a ticket to MTV, promising to pay the guy back. (I can’t remember if he gave me contact info or just waved me off.)

        I would have been dressed in spandex bike gear (a Google jersey, even) and carrying what looked like but wasn’t an expensive road bike, so pretty clearly not homeless. The first guy I asked gave me the cash, which is some evidence people are fine with this sort of thing; would you have given me money?

    • Wrong Species says:

      I moved to an area that has more homeless people recently but not enough that it’s entrenched like NYC. I always feel extremely guilty when I see them so I started the habit of carrying one dollar bills whenever I go out. It alleviates my guilt without breaking the bank.

      • The Nybbler says:

        If you subsidize something you get more of it.

        • Wrong Species says:

          To an extent. I’m pretty sure the only people who are begging are the ones who are really poor. If people stopped giving money to beggars then that would stop begging but their lives wouldn’t be any better.

          At the end of the day, my dollar alone isn’t changing anyone’s incentives. So I can either keep it for myself or give it away. By giving it away, I give it to someone who probably needs it more than I do while alleviating my guilt. Why not do it?

          • hls2003 says:

            This is a good point. Regardless of whether they’re plagued by bad luck, mental illness, addiction, poverty, or just plain bad choices, there’s virtually no question that a beggar is in worse straits than I am, in some way. Money may not make it better, but it’s very unlikely it’s any more virtuous for me to waste the money than they.

            I’m reminded of a (possibly apocryphal) story about C.S. Lewis: He and a friend were approached by a street beggar, to whom Lewis gave a fiver. His friend objected “You know he’ll only spend it on drink.” Lewis answered, “Yes, but that’s all I was going to do with it anyway.”

            I mean, at some point that principle runs out of juice and you have to care for your family and your real charitable endeavors and whatnot; but for a couple bucks, it’s hard to argue.

          • albatross11 says:

            There’s a Copenhagen thing going on here where you feel guilty because you have to look the beggar in the face and say “no,” whereas you were able to go enjoy your cheeseburger and fries with a clear conscience with the knowledge that there were homeless hungry people in the world whom you could give the money / food to with some effort.

    • rahien.din says:

      I’ve also heard an argument that a big part of it isn’t just about the material things they can do with the money but about the feeling of being seen, respected and treated as a human. People who’ve been homeless say it’s an incredibly demoralising and humiliating experience being ignored by 99.9% of the people you see.

      I think our society imposes reasonable boundaries on when /where/how a person can expect to request and receive this recognition.

      Consider, the person who has relationship problems. If they describe these in detail to their therapist during a therapy session, it’s an appropriate timing and venue, and the therapist would be wrong to ignore them. If they notice their therapist at Applebee’s after hours, and want to talk about their problems, it’s inappropriate. If they stand on a street corner and describe their problems to any random stranger who walks by, it’s crazy.

      If the random strangers ignore them and hurry by, yes, the crazy person will feel ignored and dehumanized, and we can empathize with their genuine and understandable hurt. But that doesn’t mean that the random strangers have done anything wrong.

      I also encounter this situation in my practice. Sometimes a patient will want to ask me about a medical problem related to general medicine, or to some other subspecialty. It’s the same kind of thing – wrong venue, wrong provider. I always tell them to ask the person who knows what they’re doing, rather than me. I hope they don’t feel ignored – but come on, why are you asking the neurologist about your rash/poop/eardrums/bipolar?

      So, I don’t give money to random homeless people. I feel like I don’t know how to help them, so I don’t even know if I’m helping them. If I give them some money, I feel like I am implicitly reinforcing a system whereby persons such as myself have to accept a role for which they are unqualified, to the exclusion of those people who are qualified, and ultimately to the detriment of those who need help.

    • hls2003 says:

      I have lived in several large cities and part of that is simply learning to ignore the panhandling. You can’t give to everyone, nor should you; setting up a regular charitable routine is much superior by any measure.

      But I do still occasionally give to street beggars when I encounter them. To some degree, this is based on their behavior – I never give to anyone aggressive, and I never give to anyone with a “just need bus fare”-style con. For the rest, it’s largely random. I sort of hate to admit it, but it’s almost a selfish thing for me sometimes. If I find myself particularly reluctant to give because I’m feeling particularly attached to my money that is mine and how dare someone ask for what’s mine – I am more likely to give something, to try to break that attachment and remind myself that money is not that important. But if I actually have no money, or am honestly in a hurry, or just have seen half a dozen beggars that morning, I generally don’t feel any obligation to whichever beggar next approaches. It’s probably not great to instrumentalize beggars that way as a sort of motivation-training or virtue play, but if I’m being honest, that’s what it often becomes.

      • Randy M says:

        It’s probably not great to instrumentalize beggars that way as a sort of motivation-training or virtue play, but if I’m being honest, that’s what it often becomes.

        You are worried that you only give to beggars when you are worried about not being good enough… I think you are being too recursive. Keep it at level one, and feel good that you managed to overcome your own (justified to at least some extent) selfishness, and someone in need got their bus/burger/booze money.

        • hls2003 says:

          I suppose one could also view it through a “London congestion tax” lens. By taxing more to drive during peak times, the tax ostensibly helps create a better commute for those willing to pay for it. For the price of a few bucks, potentially one can create a more pleasant walking commute by bribing the beggars to say pleasant things like “God bless” and “thank you” instead of muttered curses.

      • onyomi says:

        It’s probably not great to instrumentalize beggars that way as a sort of motivation-training or virtue play, but if I’m being honest, that’s what it often becomes.

        Isn’t there some sort of very explicit medieval tradition of this? Almost like, giving alms to the poor is a surefire way to get brownie points with God, so having some poor people around to give alms to is like a positive utility for the givers, who would do the giving in a ritualistic manner.

        • hls2003 says:

          Medieval celebrations of Maundy Thursday traditionally involved beggars brought in to receive alms from the monarch. Sort of continued in modern England with “Maundy money” from the Queen.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      As a general point, successful panhandlers are going to be more energetic and intelligent than most panhandlers.

    • Aron Wall says:

      If you wish to help and have a little time, in most areas I think the best strategy is to refuse to give cash but instead offer to buy them a meal (or any other nearby material good besides drugs/alcohol). This includes things like bus tickets for transportation but only if they are willing to walk to a nearby machine with you.

      This has several advantages:

      – the professionals will refuse because they’ll get less money if they waste time taking you to a restaurant.
      – because it takes longer, you can have an extended conversation with them to show human concern and support.
      – you know that you are buying something that meets a genuine human need.

      I don’t understand the person above who worried that the homeless guy would just sell the sandwich to another homeless guy for cash. If that happens, aren’t you still feeding a needy person?

      • fion says:

        So do you disagree with the idea that buying something for them is condescending? Or do you just think your advantages outweigh that? I certainly agree that all your advantages are significant.

        • Aron Wall says:

          I’m not sure I understand the objection.

          Once you’re begging, there’s a certain irreducible element of awkwardness involved anyway, and this doesn’t significantly add to it (unless they insist on cash only and I end up refusing them). I let them pick whatever kind of food they want, and if they actually want anything they usually seem pretty grateful.

          It’s definitely not condescending if you need to eat too and you sit down to eat with them. Got at least one genuine friend that way in grad school, although we fell out of touch since he doesn’t have a phone number.

          BTW, I’m actually far more likely to give if I’m alone than in a group, because it’s awkward to slow down or bother the group. I feel a little guilty about this though.

          • fion says:

            Ok, that’s interesting.

            Personally I don’t think the “getting something for them when I’m getting something for me anyway” would work for me because I don’t tend to buy food when I’m out-and-about, but I’ll bear your points in mind.

      • CatCube says:

        I’m not worried about him selling the sandwich. I just used that as an example of why trying to demand that they use the money you’re giving them for a very specific purpose is likely a fool’s errand–everything can be converted to money at some rate of exchange. Even if you make them go with you to buy a bus pass, unless you literally wait with them to get on the bus, they can still sell the pass for some fraction of the face value to convert it to money–and there, you may just be providing a discount to a well-off traveler.

        I view it as giving money to a beggar is a gift, and if you’re going to give somebody a gift, just give them a gift. That is, don’t try to attach strings to it or try to determine what they need. If you can’t handle the thought of them spending the money on something stupid, then don’t give it to them at all. You’re not legally or morally required to give it, after all.

        • Aron Wall says:

          I think I am morally obliged to give (when the person appears to be in genuine physical need and the gift is likely to help with that need). I’d like to give my gifts in the way that maximizes the expectation value of benefit.

          It’s true that cash is better if you trust them to spend the money on what’s best for them, but if that were true they probably wouldn’t be on the streets. I’d be happy to buy a homeless guy a drink if I knew he didn’t have an alcohol problem, but I can’t know that if it’s our first interaction. (I’m willing to revise these judgements based on observation of the person.)

          I’m not trying to reduce the risk of them spending the money on something I don’t approve of to zero. I’m just trying to improve the odds.

          The bus pass might end up going to a well-to-do stranger, and there some discretion may be in order. But I have difficulty imagining myself buying a discounted sandwich from a homeless guy unless I was pretty desperate myself!

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I feel the obligation, too. I’ve gone around this cycle many times, first thinking that I’m just making it worse, then to giving them the agency, and back to making-it-worse, then etc etc etc. I forget where I am right now. I’ve recently given a few times so it’s fresh in my mind and I can’t help but think I’ve made it worse. It’s easy to say that’s their own choice, and it is, but I want to make the world better, not make the world worse.

    • rlms says:

      I sometimes give money to people who have a good pitch — those who are persistent enough that giving money is significantly easier than not, but not too persistent or threatening enough that I have significantly negative feelings towards them; or some novel approach like outright saying “I’m an alcoholic. Please give me some money for beer.”. If I have spare food on me I will usually offer that.

      Do things like The Big Issue (newspaper sold by homeless people) exist in other countries? Do people buy them?

      • fion says:

        Sorry, I got mixed up in your punctuation. Do you mean that somebody with a novel approach like saying “I’m an alcoholic…” would make you more likely to give? That’s interesting if I’ve understood you right.

        Obviously the Big Issue exists in my country cos I’m from the same country as you. I don’t buy it, mostly because I have absolutely no interest in it. I’m also not quite sure on the pros and cons. I think I’ve heard that of the £1 you pay, 50p goes to Big Issue and 50p goes to the seller, which is obviously a lower rate of “charity” than giving somebody £1. But on the other hand, they’re working, perhaps they’re learning skills that will help get them back on their feet etc. and perhaps we should encourage that?

    • quaelegit says:

      Usually I usually don’t give anyone money and then proceed to feel bad about it for a while. I am aware this is suboptimal.

      I wouldn’t mind giving people a bit of money (yeah maybe they’ll just spend it on drugs but maybe they won’t, and I doubt a buck or two will make much difference there). However:

      * I don’t want to reach into my bag to get my wallet while they (and potentially other passengers on the train or people passing by) are watching. I hate being noticed in public, and that would seem to encourage it. Plus I’m afraid the asker will see how much money I have in my wallet (if I happen to have a lot of cash) and accost me for being stingy (which is true, but I don’t want the confrontation).

      * I don’t want to draw an askers attention moreso than I already have. I HATE talking to people in public, even when they aren’t asking for things.

      * Also, I keep hearing that it’s good to acknowledge people to show them respect (as fion mentions in the top post) — but by doing so aren’t I inviting THEM to interact with me? And It’s probably irrational, but I fear I’m encouraging an asker to be more aggressive once I’ve acknowledged their existence.

      I mean, I already had enough people yelling at me on BART with becoming the focus of more peoples’ attention…


      Related anecdote: on my last day in Berkeley, I decided to finally give something — I think I gave six bucks to a woman with kids a block away from the BART station. I was admonished for it by both my mom (who was there) and my dad (who wasn’t). I guess the kids were a warning sign, but it seems like everything is a warning sign.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Not giving and then feeling bad is at least cheaper than giving and then feeling bad.

      • Dacyn says:

        Are you inviting them to interact with you? It all depend on how you acknowledge them. I usually just nod and/or wave at them or, if they explicitly ask for money, just say “sorry”, in either case just keeping on walking wherever I’m going without either slowing down or hurrying up. I guess it helps that I don’t feel guilty about not giving them money (as others have mentioned, money does better elsewhere) so I can feel comfortable looking them in the eye. I guess it also helps that the beggars are pretty passive where I live.

      • Michael_druggan says:

        > I doubt a buck or two will make much difference there

        This is not good reasoning, no single drop considers itself responsible for the flood and all that. People have a tendency to discount the effects when they can’t construct a compelling narrative but the actual marginal effect is not likely to be zero.

      • fion says:

        Regarding the reaching into your bag, you could always keep a few coins in your pocket. I quite often do this. I’ll have coins in my pocket and if I decide to give somebody something I’ll reach in, feel for a fifty pence and give that to them. For all they know that’s all I have on me. Somebody else mentioned carrying a bunch of dollar bills.

        Regarding your reluctance to interact with people, that’s fair enough. I share that (possibly a little less so than you). Maybe a good compromise would be to say no when you’re on the train but when you’re on the street, give them something from your pre-prepared pocket cash and say “here you go. Have a nice day.” or something before continuing walking. It seems very unlikely that such an interaction would lead to more unwanted interaction, since they’ve got what they asked you for and you have space to move away from them.

        • quaelegit says:

          That’s a really good idea! I don’t have a good place in my usual bag, but my traveling bag has lots of small outer pockets I’m not using. This might also be a good way to work on my social anxiety (I’ve been letting myself get worse lately…)

    • Acedia says:

      I’ve never been bothered by the possibility that the guy might spend it on booze or drugs instead of food. I’m giving him the money to reduce his suffering in some way. If he feels alcohol would achieve that better than food then so be it.

      • Jiro says:

        Most people believe that the homeless deserve food and shelter, not that they deserve utility, so the fact that drugs provide him with more utility than food or shelter doesn’t matter. People here are weird.

        I wpuld also ask: If the homeless guy actually said he wanted your money for booze, would you give him any? And would you recommend that other people who want to help the homeless give him money for booze on the grounds that it is help? What if society had wireheading and he wanted to save up the money for a wireheading operation?

    • Jiro says:

      The feeling of being respected as a human doesn’t provide infinite utility. It is plausible that saving someone from malaria can provide more utility than respecting someone as a human.

      Note: I am not an EA.

    • JonathanD says:

      When I can manage it, I carry dollar coins, usually two. If someone asks, they get one, and I try to look the person in the eye and tell them good luck when I give it. Unfortunately, I’m the only person in the country who likes dollar coins, so they aren’t always easy to get.

      If I don’t have that sort of cash and they’re asking for food, I’ll usually offer to buy a meal (not always, but often). I’m rarely taken up on this but it does happen.

      Once I was approached outside of Walgreens by a guy who needed to “raise money for my little girl’s medication.” As I happen to have two little girls, I offered to buy it and turned around to go back in the store. The guy followed me almost all the way to the pharmacy counter before he lost his nerve. I gave him the buck.

      For reference, not EA. I give most of my charity to my church, with smaller monthly draws to a few other causes and the occasional one off.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Oh, that reminds me of the time the guy wanted money for diapers, and my wife asked “what size?” and he said “N” and she sent me to the trunk of the car to get the box of N diapers that our kid had outgrown.

        This would be a more entertaining story if I told you I saw him throw them away, or that I saw his baby, but the story ends there.

  30. ana53294 says:

    [This comment contains blasphemy and swearwords, so avoid if offended.]
    I always wondered about the cultural differences in swearing. I am not that familiar with the English vernacular, but I think I can find some differences with the languages I am familiar with. In particular, English swearing seems to be very sexual in nature, not really blasphemous (the strongest English blasphemy I know is “OMG” and “Wrfhf”). Spanish swearing is also sexual “dhr gr qra cbe phyb”, but much more scatological, and very blasphemous (various combinations of “Zr pntb ra …” Qvbf, yn ubfgvn, yn Ivetra, gh chgn znqer). This translates as “I poop on” … everything holy, basically.
    Russian swearing does not seem to be blasphemous or scatological.
    So the common thing in all swearing I am familiar with is the mention of the genitalia, and various types of sexual behaviour, as well as references to your mother’s purity.
    But I wonder about the blasphemy. My theory is that in Russia, it dissapeared during the Soviet era, because the church and religion lost its power, and so swearing related to that also dissapeared. The strongest russian swearing I know is “OMG”. I don’t know if there are words I am unfamiliar with, but it seems like there are documental references that there were more blasphemous words in the Russian language, that may have dissapeared.
    Now, it seems interesting to me that the country most famous for all kinds of cruel religious prosecution has the most blasphemy. Spain has basically been under a very Catholic regime until the 70s, and it has a very long history with the Inquisition. Is it in fact the strength of the church that fomented the growth of blasphemy, as a protest against the strength of the church? But the anglo-saxon world has some very strong religions too, that have organised witch hunts and killings for religious purposes. So why is English blasphemy so comparatively mild?
    This is all purely my intuition. I have no explanation about the scatological part, I have no idea why Spanish vernacular is so scatological.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      An extra data point is that apparently French Canadian swearing is almost exclusively religious- it’s known as sacre– for instance, Gnoneanx if we are rot13ing profanities. In my experience, while they do use sexual swear-words as well, they are considered milder.

      • FXBDM says:

        Confirmed. Quebec was also a very religious society up to the 1960s.

      • ana53294 says:

        Is/was the Catholic church very powerful in Quebec?
        Although France is catholic, it is my understanding that the church is not very powerful there. They seem to enforce the “no religion in public schools” quite fiercely, and maintain the separation of church and state.
        The Catholic church still has a lot of power in Spain. There is a religion class taught in all spanish state schools, where the teachers are hired by the church, but their salary is paid by the state (whereas the other teachers are hired directly by the government, and thus can be fired by the government). Parents can opt out of this, and an ethics class is given instead; however, in small towns, that can lead to the poor kid’s exclusion, where you have 1 kid in ethics class and 15 kids in religion class.
        0.7% of taxes can also be paid to the Catholic church (by marking x on the approppriate box). This money goes to pay priests, etc.
        So even though Spain is quite secular now, it still has a very powerful church, and it was very powerful until very recently.

        • johan_larson says:

          Is/was the Catholic church very powerful in Quebec?

          It was. It isn’t any more. During the move in the 60s and 70s, the church came to be seen as a collaborator in the old way of doing things, whereby the Francophone were the majority in the province, but everything of consequence was decided by Anglophones. The church, in this view, was part of what was keeping the Quebequois down. So there has been a lot of backlash.

          • Obelix says:

            The reason why the Catholic church lost much of its importance in Quebec over the last 50 years isn’t only that the Church became seen as traitorous (although I suppose that’s one part of it), but also due to the move to being a modern, liberal, urban society instead of a rural traditionalist society. Quebec society today is strongly anti-religious, and the argument for this definitely is that conservative religion is oppressive (and patriarchal) and at odds with the values of a progressive liberal society.

            One question that has some currency in Quebec now is what to do with all the disused religious buildings. There are a lot of churches in Quebec, but since very few people attend church anymore, many Catholic dioceses have had to sell them in order to save funds. But these churches are part of our architectural and historical heritage, so many people believe they should be preserved, even though they may need to be converted to another use. I have seen, for example, restaurants operating in former Catholic churches.

          • FXBDM says:

            Obelix: you wouldn’t be in Sherbrooke by any chance?

          • AlphaGamma says:

            @Obelix on disused churches: I currently live in Maastricht, which also has a lot of disused churches- though some of them became disused after the French Revolution and never came back into use, as they were associated with monasteries which were destroyed and there was no need for them to become parish churches.

            For instance, the former Dominican church, after being put to various uses including a warehouse and a pound for abandoned bicycles, became a bookstore in 2003.

          • Obelix says:

            FXBDM: I used to live in Sherbrooke, but not anymore. But I was indeed thinking of a former church in Sherbrooke (on King Street) that’s been converted to a restaurant, if that’s why you’re asking. (Though I never actually ate there.)

          • FXBDM says:

            Obelix: that’s the one I had in mind as well

      • Gobbobobble says:

        apparently French Canadian swearing is almost exclusively religious- it’s known as sacre– for instance, Gnoneanx if we are rot13ing profanities


      • Obelix says:

        Not exclusively, some Canadian French profanities are also sex or bodily function-related. Also, since Quebec today is a very secular society, a good number of young people would not even be aware of the literal religious meaning of swear words.

    • Gadzooks! Oddsbokikins! English swearing was theological at one time. The main survivors are “bloody”, from By Our Lady, and “blimey” form “May God Blind Me”.

      • It’s not clear that your account of “bloody” is correct. Googling, I found:

        Mid 17th century: from bloody. The use of bloody to add emphasis to an expression is of uncertain origin, but is thought to have a connection with the ‘bloods’ (aristocratic rowdies) of the late 17th and early 18th centuries; hence the phrase bloody drunk (= as drunk as a blood) meant ‘very drunk indeed’. After the mid 18th century until quite recently bloody used as a swear word was regarded as unprintable, probably from the mistaken belief that it implied a blasphemous reference to the blood of Christ, or that the word was an alteration of ‘by Our Lady’; hence a widespread caution in using the term even in phrases, such as bloody battle, merely referring to bloodshed.

        The Wiki article is less confident about the origin of the term, but again does not support the “By our lady” derivation.

        • Watchman says:

          I always assumed it was a reference to periods, being another point in English’s sexual-scatalogical spectrum of swear words. It beats having to find a tenuous suggestion that fails to explain widespread usage.

      • Ryan Holbrook says:

        The OED gives this theory:

        However, the adjective is attested a century before the adverb as an intensifier (sense A. 8), which would appear to suggest the following different course of development.

        The collocation bloody whore in quot. c1540 at sense A. 8a(a) may echo use of this phrase with reference to the Whore of Babylon (where literal bloodshed is clearly alluded to: compare Revelation 17:6, 18:24), although there is no implication of literal bloodshed in the use in this quot. (see also quot. 1545 at sense A. 4a). In many cases in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, especially where the adjective modifies a derogatory word for a person (e.g. bloody villain, bloody murderer, bloody thief, etc.), it is unclear whether bloody refers to real blood, bloodshed, or bloodthirstiness, or is an intensifier. It seems likely that the intensifying uses of bloody arose from semantic bleaching in formations of this type. Compare, with similar semantic development, Middle French sanglant covered with blood (c1100 in Old French), hateful, despicable, (as an extreme intensifier and pejorative) accursed, damned (both mid 14th cent.; also 15th cent. in various imprecatory formulae).


        c1540 in J. H. Forbes Liber Officialis Sancti Andree (1845) 139 Sayand and allegand ȝow ane commown bluidy huir.

    • Aapje says:

      In Dutch, a lot of swearing involves disease, like ‘cancer-sufferer’ or ‘tbc-sufferer’.

      The most common blasphemic swear is ‘goddamn’, but it’s popularity seems to have decreased with the decrease in religiosity.

      Using genitalia is also common. A peculiar distinction is that references to the male genitalia are generally used to pejoratively refer to a person (‘dick’, ‘glans’), while female genitalia is usually used to swear at the situation in general or a thing. However, there are exceptions like ‘cunt mongoloid’.

      Scat also exist, but is not too common. One can say (the literal translation of) ‘I have the shits of you.’

    • Anonymous says:

      Polish swearwords tend to be slightly bent towards the sexual – kurwa (whore), chuj (dick), jebać/pierdolić (to fuck), cholera (the eponymous disease), gówno (shit).

    • The Pachyderminator says:

      I think English-language swearing is much more frequently blasphemous than this lets on. Variations on “God,” “Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” etc., are very common among those who don’t have strong religious objections to such language.

      • ana53294 says:

        Well, I know that there is blasphemy in English (as far as I am aware, just mentioning God in vain is blasphemous). But it just seems to me that compared to the Spanish level, it is quite more respectful. In Spanish language speaking countries, Jesus is a commonly used name, and something you say when somebody sneezes (whereas in most other christian countries, they do not name kids Jesus).
        Also, in Spanish, you don’t just mention God, you actively disrespect him. The expression that is frequently used is “I sh*t on ***”, or any other holy thing, really. Or they say “I will give you the host” which means “I will hit you”. It just seems to me that these expressions are very strong, and once I learnt other languages do not have such expressions, I wondered how a country as religious as Spain was until recently.
        Until the 70s or so, kids frequently weren’t named by the parents, but by the priest. Let’s say you want to name your child, who was born the day of the Virgin of the Pillar (the 12th of October). If it is a girl, she would be named Pilar (this can be combined with a name prefered by the parents), and if it is a boy, the parents name is combined with Maria (Juan Maria, Jose Maria, etc). You could not give your child a non biblical name.
        So how come in a country with such a powerful church, you get so many expressions that undermine that power by going against one of the Ten commandments? My guess is that it may be the strength of the church itself that probably creates a lot of resentment and is expressed in the language. In the English speaking world, there was more diversity since the times of Henry VIII, so you could probably choose to change your religion, whereas in Spain, that wasn’t really an option.

        • Iain says:

          The power of vulgarity is that it crosses lines of polite acceptance. It’s not surprising that cultures with powerful social norms around religion end up with a religious slant to their swearing. Violating social norms is the entire point.

  31. johan_larson says:

    Has anyone else watched the new YouTube series Cobra Kai? I just finished the first season, and came away impressed.

    The series returns to Daniel and Johnny, the protagonist and antagonist of the original Karate Kid movie. It’s thirty years later; Daniel is a successful car dealer and Johnny is a drunken handyman. They meet again under less than ideal circumstances, and both revive their karate training after many years away from the art. Johnny restarts the defunct Cobra Kai karate school, and Daniel, like his now-dead mentor Mr. Miyagi, takes a single student under his wing. And of course their proteges meet in the final episode in the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Championship.

    What impressed me most is that the writers found a way to make Johnny someone we could empathize with. He was the villain of the original movie; but he’s not the villain here. And the writers managed this without making Johnnie a particularly nice man. He takes a few steps toward getting his life in order over the course of the series, true, but he still sees life in harsh terms, and acts accordingly. Cobra Kai is still about striking first, striking hard, and acting without mercy.

    All in all, I enjoyed the series, and recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in martial arts. Season 2 has been confirmed.

    • J Mann says:

      Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll check it out!

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      I have never seen the original Karate Kid movie(s) nor do I have any nostalgia (though I know the basic idea of the plot.) Will I find this series interesting?

      • johan_larson says:

        I’m not sure. A lot will depend on what you make of the Johnny character, and his efforts to turn his life around.

        The first two episodes are available free on YouTube. Give them a try. If by the end of them you don’t care about Johnny, you won’t like the rest of the series.

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          As it happens I have Red (it is pitched as “comes with Google’s music service!” and the reverse is also true) so there’s no cost other than my time; I may check it out though I have a long queue as it is.

    • massivefocusedinaction says:

      From a certain point of view Johnny was empathetic in the original, too.

    • Shion Arita says:

      Saw the original Karate Kid back in the day, remember pretty much just enough about it to get what this is about.

      Watched first 2 eps after learning of its existence from this post. What I find most interesting about it is that a big running theme is a generation clash (albeit a slightly caricatured one). What also interests me is that the clash is between people who are a little older than me and people a little younger than me. It’s been quite a while since I was a teen, but it’ll be a while still until I’ll be considered middle-aged. What’s funny to me is that the result is my context is a bit of a fusion of Johnny/Danny’s and of the kids. So it actually is particularly amusing to me.

    • smocc says:

      Watched the first two episodes last night on this recommendation and watching some trailers. I am now strongly considering signing up to watch the rest.

      I was impressed by how committed the show seems to doing difficult but interesting characterization. It would have been very easy to have Danny have become an adult bully and pile the pathos on Johnny until we love him, but they have resisted that route. Danny seems to still be fundamentally mature and well-intentioned, while Johnny is still fundamentally an immature, self-centered jerk. More impressively, they seem to be doing a good job making Johnny a compelling protagonist despite not being very likeable. Conflict between two sympathetic characters, neither of whom are entirely wrong is a very difficult story to tell, but it looks like they’re trying and that’s promising.

      Adding the (impressively complex!) network of teenaged characters looks like it will allow them to align our sympathies with Johnny or Danny without turning either of them into a villain. Very clever.

  32. A1987dM says:

    please try try to avoid overly controversial topics

    [emphasis added]


  33. Aapje says:

    I found an interesting and relatively new paper called ‘Personality and field of study choice in university.’ It tests for the correlation between Big 5 personality traits (and verbal/math skills) and study choice. The testing was done on 14 year old Dutch kids (first year students of Dutch ‘high school’). This was then checked against the study choice at age 19 of those who went to university (in the Dutch system, you pick a ‘major’ right away).

    Table 7 on page 10 is particularly interesting. We see that Extraversion drives people towards law & business/economics and away from STEM. Agreeableness seems to drive people to social sciences. Conscientiousness towards medical studies and away from social sciences. Emotional stability towards STEM and away from the humanities. Openness to experience to the humanities and law, but away from medical studies.

    As far as ability goes, math ability drives people strongly towards STEM and more weakly away from the humanities. Verbal ability has the opposite effect: drives people strongly towards the humanities and more weakly away from STEM and business/economics. Information processing ability drives people towards STEM and medical studies.

    They also checked the impact of gender, which has the strongest effects, perhaps because it functions as a proxy for thing- vs people-orientation.

    PS. Note that some medical studies restrict access by weighted lottery, which probably changes the population who chooses these studies, compared to other study choices that are not as restricted.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Aside from emotional stability, those results seem entirely expected. How do 19 year olds choose a major? Is there some steering, e.g., of less conscientiousness students away from medical school?

      • Aapje says:

        How do 19 year olds choose a major?

        We have to, in The Netherlands, so we just do. There is a lot of fretting over it. There are also tests that you can do that give suggestions.

        One in six students do switch, though, so I could perhaps also answer your question with “poorly.”

        Is there some steering, e.g., of less conscientiousness students away from medical school?

        Many medical studies have a numerus clausus. The cohort in the study could encounter both a weighed lottery (where people with better grades have a better chance and/or guaranteed spot) or a selection procedure. Both methods can be assumed to increase the IQ of the students compared to free access & conscientiousness is correlated with a higher IQ. So, yes.

        A numerus clausus may also plausibly result in people with certain traits to not even try & the selection procedures may prefer more conscientiousness students. However, I don’t have any hard evidence for this.

        Another possible factor is that medical studies have a heavy study load. This may attract students with higher conscientiousness and/or drive people with low conscientiousness away.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          For me, the best way of figuring out what major I wanted was to pick the wrong one. I redeclared quickly enough. I should have picked the wrong one much sooner than I did.

      • Garrett says:

        I suspect that it’s partly being willing to memorize lots of disjoint information and to regurgitate it on demand. Most of medicine is related. Most of the nomenclature isn’t.
        My current favorite is the cephalic vein which is due to an uncorrected mistranslation from hundreds of years ago.

        Way too many famous-people’s names used for things. And sometimes the same person is famous for different and semi-unrelated things.

        Mocking all of electrical engineering for doing the work backwards is fun, but that’s only one issue. Medicine is chock-full of haphazard stuff that you need to memorize and regurgitate on demand. I think high conscientiousness increases the likelihood that someone will do the required studying.

        • Aapje says:

          But isn’t the same true for law as well? The paper shows neither a higher level of conscientiousness or information processing ability for law students.

          • Creutzer says:

            I think the relevant body of knowledge has more structure to it in law than in medicine, and while law has lots of technical terms, they aren’t quite so completely arbitrary. Or sometimes they may be arbitrary, but still easier to remember, because you’re struck by how this normal word suddenly, bizarrely, means this and that in a technical context.

    • Nornagest says:

      Conscientiousness […] away from social sciences.

      Most of these results are pretty intuitive, but this one’s surprising. Wonder what’s going on here?

      • Aapje says:

        The paper has no explanation. It does note that conscientiousness seems to be fairly strongly correlated with academic success, so this suggests that the social sciences may be particularly easy.

      • Education Hero says:

        I would guess that conscientious students are more likely to avoid majors with a low return on investment.

        • Aapje says:

          I would expect men to be far more likely to avoid majors with a low return on investment. Conscientiousness increases conformity, so I would expect conscientious people to follow their gender role more strongly.

          This would then not give the pattern that you’d expect.

      • tayfie says:

        Agreeableness seems to drive people to social sciences. Conscientiousness towards medical studies and away from social sciences.

        Taken together, this sounds like a certain cadre that is particularly strong in the social sciences and should not be discussed in a CW-free thread.

        We also may be seeing an effect where agreeable people are drawn to the social sciences more because that’s where the other agreeable people are rather than anything about the topic itself. It could even be that the personalities already dominating a subject have a filtering effect by choosing their successors.

        • Aapje says:

          I’d expect people-oriented persons to be more drawn to medical and social sciences, as they seem the most people-oriented of sciences.

          We know that people- vs thing-orientation is the main gender difference and we see that women are drawn to the medical and social sciences. This study suggests that people-oriented persons are more agreeable. We see high agreeableness for the medical and social sciences.

          The outlier here seems to be the humanities, which also attracts women strongly, but which is low in agreeableness. Of course, the correlation between agreeableness and (the female) gender is not that large, but this still suggests that the humanities repel the agreeable to some extent, resulting in not having the expected correlation.

          PS. Note that agreeableness seems to increase salaries in people-oriented jobs, so there may also be a financial incentive for agreeable people to choose people-oriented studies.

    • tayfie says:

      Emotional stability towards STEM and away from humanities

      That surprises me, as many STEM people I knew tended to be rather stressed and neurotic, and humanities people more well-adjusted.

      It could be that the subject itself is at play. STEM was stress-inducing by being very difficult such that only some people could handle it.

      It could be that emotionally stable people are more practical and less impulsive, and are more likely to pick something with good job prospects over their interests.

      It could be the humanities people were more socially adroit and better at hiding their neurosis.

  34. Levantine says:

    please try try to avoid overly controversial topic

    Here is a good opportunity to clarify the difference between overly controversial topics and controversial topics that are not overly so. It’s a genuine query, as I have made mistakes about this in the past.

    Some examples would presumably help:

    * might one post a geopolitical analysis regarding the ‘Iran Deal’ that actually defends the withdrawal from it from an ~ anti-imperialist perspective

    * might one post the Patterson-Gimlin film and welcome comments

    • pontifex says:

      The “anti-imperialist” thing smells like culture war. Probably better to wait.

      Is the Patterson-Gimlin film about Bigfoot? I doubt that would be controversial.

    • Aapje says:

      One of the issues is that some topics can be addressed in more and less controversial ways. A dispassionate analysis of the pros and cons of withdrawal from the Iran deal is a lot less controversial than when you debate the motives of those who are for or against, for example.

      The topic starter can only do so much to frame a question in a way that makes it less likely to generate heat.

      And no, Bigfoot is not CW material.

    • dodrian says:

      “Culture war” is like pornography, I’ll know it when I see it.

      It refers to topics that tend to encourage people to draw up lines based on broad-stroke politics. Topics whose discussions usually generate more heat than light. A good, though imperfect, test would be “if I knew someone’s opinion on this topic, would I be able to predict with >75% certainty who they voted for last election?” Perhaps a better test would be “if I expressed disagreement with this person on this topic, would they assume I voted differently from them last election?”

      Given that only 1 in 4 open threads directly prohibit culture war, it’s generally best to err on the side of caution.

      • Incurian says:

        it’s generally best to err on the side of caution.

        FWIW, I agree with this.

      • Jiro says:

        People on SSC have political opinions different from the general public. I doubt, for instance, that there’s a 75% chance that someone who opposes gun control here also voted for Trump. Or even that someone who thinks that Damore was wronged voted for Trump.

        • albatross11 says:


          More generally, I think if you get a community of people who think deeply about any issues, they’re unlikely to happen to settle down to the current US political consensus views/coalitions. Those views are at least as much a result of unthinking social forces as they are any kind of product of rational thought.

          • dodrian says:

            That’s kind of my point though. “result of unthinking social forces” is pretty much exactly what makes something culture war, and while some people’s views on SSC may be more nuanced and better argued than generally on the internet, the same topics very often lead to the same arguments rehashed and rehashed, with other topics being pulled in as a result.

            I think Scott is trying to cultivate a more thoughtful community by discouraging those types of discussions on occasion (only 1/4 of open threads) to ensure that other types of discussions have more space to flourish.

      • EchoChaos says:

        There are also topics that are culture-war-ish in the real world, but uncorrelated with political affiliation, like vaccinating your kids.

        Here it would almost certainly be a near-circlejerk agreement to vaccinate, but out there it’s culture war.

        • albatross11 says:

          ISTM that the practical definition of culture war topics is topics that have a high risk of mindkilling participants in the discussion.

    • eighty-six twenty-three says:

      If we’re going to have an argument about where the line should be between “culture war” and “not culture war”, I think we should have the argument in a thread that allows discussion of culture war topics.